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Schrödinger’s inflation

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There’s a lot of debate about whether the current burst of inflation is transitory or permanent. I worry, however, that many people misinterpret the question, thinking it’s about the nature of the inflation itself. Sort of like asking their friend whether an animal that they saw walking in the distance is a dog or a coyote.

But the transitory inflation question is not like that at all. The question is not whether this current bout of inflation is transitory or permanent, the question is whether the inflation surge will be transitory or permanent. No one asks whether that animal walking in the distance will be a dog or a coyote—they assume that that reality has already been established.

NGDP growth has been running at a bit below 4% over the past couple of years. That’s about right. If NGDP growth runs at about 4% over the next 3 or 4 years (as it should) then the inflation will be transitory. If it runs at 7% or 8% over the next few years then the inflation will be permanent, or at least relatively persistent. It’s that simple. (During 1971-81, NGDP growth averaged 11%. God help us if that occurs again.)

It is the Fed that will determine the rate of NGDP growth over the next few years, not housing shortages or labor shortages or supply chain disruptions, etc. The Fed will decide whether the inflation is transitory or permanent.

The current surge in inflation is like Schrödinger’s cat; it’s neither transitory or permanent until the FOMC meets and chooses a policy path for NGDP over the next 3 or 4 years. Let’s hope they choose wisely.

PS. Of course I’m a “many worlds” guy, so I’m going to claim that my prediction (and what is my prediction?) is correct in at least one universe. 🙂

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freeAgent
1 day ago
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Los Angeles, CA
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Dune Is an Epic Love Letter to Classic Science Fiction

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For Hollywood, it is a golden age of intellectual property, which is to say it is a golden age of adaptation. Seemingly every beloved genre story from the last century has been optioned and auctioned, put into development, and often produced with lavish budgets and production in hopes that this old favorite will become the next Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, or, if one is really dreaming big—and who in Hollywood isn't?—Star Wars or Marvel Cinematic Universe. Hollywood's hit-makers have dug deep into the post-war canon of beloved adolescent fantasies: If someone in America was ever obsessed with a story as a 12-year-old, it's probably being made into a movie or TV show right now. 

If there is something missing from this bounty of adaptable IP, it's classic science fiction. Although there have been scattered attempts to adapt the Golden Age masters—Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Frederick Pohl, Arthur C. Clarke—and their many literary successors in the half century since Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, few of these efforts have made much impact. (Remember Will Smith's I, Robot? That's what I thought.) 

This has been a disappointment to me, personally. For as much as I love Batman and Han Solo and black-and-white zombie comics and am genuinely thrilled to finally see Iron Man cross paths with Spider-Man on the big screen, I grew up reading classic and contemporary science fiction—which meant I grew up imagining worlds and stories that have largely been absent from the movies. 

Part of the problem is that these sci-fi stories tend to be challenging to adapt: They operate at a level of scale and socio-scientific complexity that is difficult to fit into the demands of a mainstream feature-film format, or even a prestige TV series. Classic sci-fi is thinky, intricate, idiosyncratic, and sprawling in a way that so far has largely resisted successful big-screen treatment. The best of it is almost too big for the big screen. 

Case in point: Frank Herbert's Dune. The 1965 novel was a trippy, anti-colonialist, Middle Eastern-philic, 188,000-word saga of economics, politics, and pre-contemprary environmentalism, in which extended sequences revolved around board-room like discussions of supply chain logistics, industrial production, and obscure imperial rivalries between corporation-like families with long fictional histories. Also, there were psychics, witches, skyscraper-sized sandworms with Sarlaac-like orifices, and spice melange, a natural resource that powered interstellar space travel, extended life, and expanded your mind. It was Lawrence of Arabia, but in a psychokinetic future-verse of giant mouth-monsters where oil was also LSD. How in the hell do you put all that on screen? 

In the 1970s, director Alejandro Jodorowsky, a noted purveyor of hippie-friendly cinematic psychedelia, worked up an adaptation that never got made. Later in the decade, some of Herbert's ideas found their way into George Lucas's Star Wars films, but in a more conventional, pulpy package. (The wonky trade disputes would have to wait for his prequels.)

In the 1980s, David Lynch, the weirdo dreamwizard behind Eraserhead, brought the book to the screen in an occasionally interesting, largely incoherent, frequently cheap-looking film that mostly served to reinforce how difficult the project was. 

Now, 35 years later, Dune is back on the big screen courtesy of director Denis Villeneuve's big-budget adaptation, which, after a nearly year-long delay, is finally in theaters. 

And so it is with a combination of joy and relief that I want to tell you: Villeneuve's Dune is the real deal. It is a love letter to a science fiction classic, and, in a way, to all the classics of science fiction. It is a no-compromises future-fantasy epic that operates at a scale I've never quite seen before. I've already bought tickets to see it again. 

Villeneuve has brought big ideas and colossal imagery to sci-fi cinema before, with both Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, but his Dune is something vaster still. More than anything, Villeneuve captures the heart-stopping vastness of Herbert's vision, the grand magnificence of it all, from the carrier ships to the ornithopters to the toothy mondo-sandworms. Like everyone in Hollywood, Villeneuve dreamed big, but not in the sense of how many spinoffs and prequels he could generate. There's a sheer enormity of presence captured on screen that's simply incredible to behold. 

Working with screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, Villeneuve does make some alterations to the story, condensing expository sequences and streamlining subplots. But the movie's narrative is fundamentally faithful to the book; even the dialogue is often drawn directly from its pages. This is Villeneuve's movie, but it's fully Herbert's Dune. 

Contrast that with the other major sci-fi adaptation currently rolling out to viewers, Foundation, on Apple TV+, based on Isaac Asimov's sci-fi classic. Like Dune, it's a complex tale of imperial intrigue, planetary culture-clash, and conflict between science, religion, and the state, and like Dune, it often looks stunning, albeit notably smaller in scope. 

But unlike Villeneuve's Dune, Foundation seems unable or unwilling to translate its source material directly. It doesn't even really try to put Asimov's book on screen.

Instead, it transforms Asimov's talky, thinky tales of political maneuvering and clever logical victories into a more conventional action epic that borrows a few names and narrative elements but owes little else to the source material. The 10-episode first season still has several episodes to go, so perhaps it will right itself eventually. But I'm not holding out hope. It plays like an adaptation of a classic Golden Age science fiction story that is embarrassed by all the elements that made it a Golden Age classic and so has decided to turn it into something else. 

Villeneuve's Dune, on the other hand, has no such shame about its source material. On the contrary, it comes across expressly designed to show new and seasoned viewers what's great about Herbert's novel rather than try and force it to be something it isn't. 

If the new Dune has a major shortcoming, it's that it only covers the first 60 percent or so of the book's story, leaving an unsatisfying non-conclusion. A sequel may be in the works, but its production will depend on this movie's performance—a dicey proposition any time, but especially during a pandemic that has severely depressed box office returns. 

I hope we get another chapter. Dune deserves to be finished. But even if this is all we ever get, I'll gladly take it. Denis Villeneuve's Dune is half a masterpiece in a long-neglected genre, and half a science fiction masterpiece is far better than nothing at all. 

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freeAgent
1 day ago
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I watched it tonight and really enjoyed the movie, but it's not a complete story. Hopefully there are sequels in the works.
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A Few Thoughts on Yale Law School

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I won't go into all the details (one of many articles on this incident here), but the Yale Law School administration attempted to blackmail and intimidate one of their students over a party invitation he sent out, the main complaint seeming to be the party was sponsored by a right of center legal group (Federalist Society).  The audio, if you have time, is outrageous.  It is a good thing the student recorded it, because I am not sure many people would have believed the b-movie authoritarian dialog coming from the Yale executives.

I had two reactions I don't see written very many places:

  1. The law profession strikes me as a particularly confrontational profession, and with the exception of perhaps law enforcement and first responders, one in which it is almost impossible to shelter oneself from a wide variety of craziness.  So how is Yale Law possibly doing its job to train the next generation's best and brightest attorneys when they actively support the kind of mental and emotional fragility that led to the complaints?  If we take the complainers at their word, they are hiding under their bed because they got an email party invitation sponsored by a group they don't agree with.
  2. Top attorneys frequently find themselves in high stakes negotiations where their opponents try to bluff and bully them.   On this dimension, the student who refused to be blackmailed by Yale appears to be the best prospective attorney of the bunch.  I would certainly hire him.

Of course, a more likely explanation for the over-reactions among a very small number of students to the email is that Progressives have discovered that feigning more extreme fragility than that of a fainting woman in a Victorian novel is a useful tool for exercising power because university authorities (and increasingly a broader range of authorities) will act as the useful idiots who can be manipulated by such claims.

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freeAgent
1 day ago
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Google's New Indoor Nest Cam Is a Stylish Upgrade With an Annoying App

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Google’s refreshed indoor Nest Cam is one of the nicest security cameras you can buy. The $100 wired camera comes in four colors and replaces the plain black version that’s been on the market since 2015. That original Nest indoor camera is basically an homage to the brand’s Drop camera past, while this new indoor…

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freeAgent
4 days ago
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Google has turned Nest into an absolute mess. I went all-in on Nest stuff a few years ago in 2018 and have come to regret that decision.
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Chicago Standoff

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On State Street, that great street,
I just want to say…
They do things that they never
Do on Broadway
” – Frank Sinatra

This is not a piece about Covid-19, vaccines, or vaccine mandates. It is a piece about power. At issue is whether authorities in the United States have the power to mandate that certain citizens take the Covid-19 vaccines. The answer, quite obviously, depends on which authorities are claiming that power and which citizens are resisting it.

In South by Southwest, we concluded that the vaccine mandate efforts in the airline industry would fail, and that this didn’t bode well for the mandate movement nationally:

Given that fact set, we speculate the Southwest incident is almost certainly related to vaccine mandates.  We further suspect this marks the beginning of the end of zero tolerance policies by corporations on the vaccine issue. It just won’t work. In the battle between capital and labor, labor currently has the upper hand. If labor refuses to get vaccinated, there can be no mandates.

Since that piece published, subsequent events have supported our conclusion. Meanwhile, there’s a rather more consequential brawl playing out in Chicago, the outcome of which we predict will decide the issue conclusively. Mayor Lori Lightfoot is locked in a dramatic fight over the city’s vaccine policy with the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, the union which represents Chicago police officers. Union boss John Catanzara, Jr., himself apparently fully vaccinated, has ordered his officers not to comply with various aspects of Lightfoot’s policies, beginning with a deadline for officers to report their current vaccine status to the city by midnight last Friday.

I grew up in a union household. I have vivid memories of how cool I thought it was that my father sometimes got to take a baseball bat to work. Too young to be fully in the loop, I did my best to eavesdrop on my father’s conversations with his friends. I picked up, in vague terms, that it had something to do with wild cats and scabs, and that the baseball bats were meant to cure the issue, although I was naive enough to not figure out how.

Anyway, back to Chicago.

For her part, Lightfoot has taken a hard line. Here’s how WTTW reported it on Friday:

“That effort is threatened by the union’s call for officers to refuse to tell city officials whether they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by midnight Friday, Lightfoot said. Those who are not can avoid discipline by agreeing to be tested twice a week, on their own time and at their own expense, until Dec. 31.

‘That’s what at stake — the legitimacy of local policing,’ Lightfoot said.

Officers who refuse to get vaccinated should leave the Chicago Police Department, Lightfoot said.

‘We’re not having that,” Lightfoot said. “If that’s the police department they want to be in, they should walk to another police department. It is an honor to be a Chicago Police officer.’”

Calling on officers to obey or quit seems like a bold move, especially for a mayor that already has a strained relationship with her police force. It is hard to imagine how she walks back those statements.

Similarly, Catanzara is hardening his position. For his version of events, we turn to Patch.com:

Saying the mayor's office has refused to bargain in good faith, John Catanzara, head of Chicago Lodge 7 of the Fraternal Order of Police, or FOP, said the union planned to file a class action lawsuit if city officials follow through on a promise to place police officers into "no-paid" status for refusing to participate in the city's vaccination portal.

‘All I can tell you is, if, [as] we suspect, the numbers are true, and we get a large number of our members to stand firm on their beliefs, that this is an overreach, and they're not going to provide the information in the portal or submit to testing, then it's safe to say that the city of Chicago will have a police force at 50 percent or less for this weekend coming up,’ Catanzara said Tuesday in a video message.

The case has predictably made its way to the courts, with both sides suing each other. Separately, there was already a concurrent move to have Catanzara fired for disparaging remarks he made about Muslims on his Facebook page in 2016, which follows previous efforts to fire him for administrative misconduct. Mix in rising city crime rates, local outrage over police shootings, and Lightfoot’s sinking approval numbers and it is easy to see how this standoff could spark a powder keg.

All of this comes amidst the backdrop of stalled vaccination efforts in Illinois, a theme which is common throughout the country. Our trusty Bloomberg terminal has an incredible wealth of data on all manner of Covid-19 statistics. Pulling up the data for Illinois, the slowing pace of adults getting fully vaccinated is familiar. There’s a stubbornly high number of Americans who simply won’t ever get the vaccine, carrots and sticks notwithstanding.

Power is a deeply fascinating thing to observe and ponder, and you can expect that we’ll continue to write about it with regularity. Technically, I suspect Mayor Lightfoot has the law on her side. Exercising this power while circumventing a catastrophic showdown with the police is an entirely separate matter. The unfortunate victims of my father’s bat probably had the law on their side too, but in union fights it’s the reality on the ground matters most. 

The reality of the Friday deadline came and went, and the weekend saw continued escalation. On Sunday evening, just as a union meeting was adjourning, the city issued a memo warning officers that they now face disciplinary action (emphasis added):

A Department member, civilian or sworn, who disobeys a direct order by a supervisor to comply with the City of Chicago's Vaccination Police issued 8 October 2021 will become the subject of a disciplinary investigation that could result in a penalty up to and including separation from the Chicago Police Department. Furthermore, sworn members who retire while under disciplinary investigations may be denied retirement credentials.

The threat to revoke the pensions of officers – earned over decades – who decide to retire in lieu of submitting to the mandate is a significant escalation, one that is sure to trigger a nuclear response from the union. According to Catanzara, some 40% of the current police force are eligible to simply walk away from the job with full pension. Predictably, the union posted a fiery response to their Facebook page, calling the mayor a tyrant:

Will the vaccinated cops hold the line for the ones that refuse? Knowing unions as I do, I can’t imagine they will fold. It won’t take too many nights with no cops on the beat for the city to realize who holds the cards in this standoff. Will Lightfoot follow through on her threat to put as many as half of Chicago’s police on “no paid” status, or to pull retiree pensions? Given her previous comments on the matter, what’s her realistic alternative?

We predict things are going to get ugly in the Windy City. The fate of vaccine mandates hangs in the balance. Stay tuned…

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freeAgent
4 days ago
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Taking away pensions from officers who choose to quit in order to avoid complying with the vaccine mandate is a step too far. Sure, get rid of them. However, it is not fair to deny them earned benefits.
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What is Xi trying to hide?

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The New Yorker has a very good article on the origins of Covid. They don’t take a definitive stand on the question, but along the way make some important points:

Before the pandemic, President Xi Jinping promoted wildlife farms as a means of poverty alleviation, and the industry, which was largely unregulated, employed more than fourteen million people. “There’s this incredible network of people involved in farming and raising animals and trying out new ideas,” Daszak told me last year. “It’s entrepreneurial, it’s chaotic, it’s the sort of farms that are half falling apart, with mixed species in them.” The W.H.O. report stated that some wild-meat suppliers to Wuhan were located in south China, where horseshoe bats that host sars-like coronaviruses primarily reside. Perhaps that is where the virus crossed from bats to animals, and those sickened animals were brought to Wuhan, where they were sold in Huanan and the city’s three other known live-animal markets. . . .

From one perspective, proving the virus has a natural origin is even worse for China. If wildlife farms were responsible for the pandemic, that would implicate the policies of President Xi Jinping. If there was a lab leak, just one, or a few, scientists are culpable of an accident. Either way, it is likely that the Chinese government prefers a storm of swirling theories, within which they can continue to push their own: that U.S. soldiers brought the virus to Wuhan in October, 2019, during the World Military Games, or that the American government manufactured the virus in Fort Detrick, Maryland. Or they can blame imported frozen food. The conspiracy theories branch out from there, in their own kind of evolutionary tree.

I’ve made the same point. The animal market theory should be worse for China’s reputation than a lab leak. Do you think Xi Jinping is more worried about the cause of Covid being his grand plan to develop an animal wildlife industry employing 14 million people that threatens to create repeated global pandemics, or more worried about a lab leak from an obscure Chinese scientist doing research funded by the US government? I don’t think people are looking at this from the Chinese point of view.

Or perhaps Xi doesn’t know the source of Covid and is engaged in a cover-up because he’d be embarrassed by either a wild animal market or a lab leak source for Covid. He just wants to confuse the issue with crazy theories of a US origin.

In the end, human beings are probably to blame either way:

Still, humans have changed the equation. Calling viruses zoonotic obscures the role we play in their evolution, whether in the wilderness, a wet market, or a lab. What is an ecological niche when humans have their hands in everything? 

PS. WaPo has an interesting piece on the discovery of a huge cave system with horseshoe bats in Hubei province, with wild animal farms nearby:

A reporter observed human traffic into Enshi caves, including domestic tourism, spelunking and villagers replacing a drinking water pump inside a cave. Defunct wildlife farms sat as close as one mile from the entrances.

But the Chinese government is covering this up:

Beijing has been less than eager to find answers in Hubei, as it touts its own theory that the virus may have originated overseas. One foreign scientist who worked for years with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, said the institute’s field research in bat caves has been suspended since the pandemic began. . . .

A person with knowledge of the Wuhan market supply chains, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his contacts, told The Post that live animals sold at markets in Wuhan were sourced from Hubei, particularly Enshi and Xianning prefectures, as well as from Hunan and Jiangxi provinces.

Chinese authorities have deflected questions about the presence of live wild animals at Wuhan markets before the outbreak. A Scientific Reports study in June that catalogued illegal sales of live wildlife at the markets has not been covered by China’s state-run media. The two Chinese authors did not respond to requests for comment about what they knew about those supply chains.

Why was the evidence from the crime scene destroyed? What is Xi trying to hide?

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freeAgent
7 days ago
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I assume that Xi doesn't *want* to know the origin of the virus. That way it's easier to shift and avoid any blame that might come from having that knowledge. Without knowing the cause, it's much easier to deflect and throw up your hands, essentially calling COVID-19 an act of God.
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