COVID-19: The Lack of Historical Precedent and an Uncertain Future

By Ekaterina Fedorova

So I think we can all agree 2020 is a wild ride so far. Over my past three years at Cal, just about every semester (or at least every Fall semester) has had at least some sort of educational disruption: in Fall 2017 Milo Yiannopoulos came to speak, in Fall 2018 campus closed when air quality index in the bay area became one of the most hazardous in the world, Fall 2019 PG&E ruled most of the bay area with an iron fist, but this semester, to use my favorite zoomer slang, hits different. Every single day there’s a new development either on the UC Berkeley-specific or national/international stage and, at the risk of sounding a bit dramatic, it’s as if every moment is going to be the answer to some future history or public health exam about how a pandemic should be handled. That being said, I find myself also wanting to be cautious in adopting this mentality, after all, in some ways, aren’t we always living what will one day be history?

The virus is novel, but the pattern is old. As we encroach on nature, and expand toward eight billion, the pattern will continue to repeat itself. It is the plague of our success as a species

Kyle Harper, Time

The phrase “historical precedent” and other similar ones have been used quite liberally when it comes to reporting on both the actual spread and social/financial consequences of COVID-19. In a highlight of the CDC’s response on their website, the CDC refers to the U.S. government’s steps in regards to travel as “unprecedented” and the World Health Organization (WHO) recently put out a news release titled, “WHO, UN Foundation and partners launch first-of-its-kind COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund”. On the other hand, about the virus itself, Kyle Harper says in a Time article, “The virus is novel, but the pattern is old. As we encroach on nature, and expand toward eight billion, the pattern will continue to repeat itself. It is the plague of our success as a species.” But either way, the thing is, I’m a 20 year-old living in a 2020 world. Literally everything lacks a historical precedent yet is somehow a part of some larger human pattern. I mean, in the grand scheme of things, I may as well have been born yesterday. Don’t get me wrong I’m not trying to call fake news on any experts describing this situation as a “historical precedent” because, in a spoiler for the rest of the article, I do believe them, but being the pedantic person I am, there are just a lot of clarifications I would like to have. 

Exactly which aspects of the response are on a scale never-before-seen?

Are both government and social/private responses approximately equal in their lack of precedence?

What about the virus itself, it is of course a “novel coronavirus”, but to what extent is its spread and fatality rate novel in layman’s terms?

And finally: just how unprecedented will the long-term consequences be?

When it comes to a single article, a meaningful answer to all these questions is not exactly the length of a blog post, but especially as the first 3 questions are those that are most likely to determine how the last one will play out, the rest of this article will focus on the currently predicted consequences why exactly, as the title suggests, this historically unprecedented global crisis has created a deeply uncertain future.

For any reasons, it is that last and most unanswerable question in which I am most interested. Back in highschool, before I even knew too much about what a recession or a financial crisis was, I used to think, well at least I should be graduating university just when the U.S. is “recovered”  from recession. Honestly, I didn’t totally understand what that meant, but I knew that recession meant it would be harder to find work and get into a career upon graduation. At least that’s what all the adults in my life talked about. Now, from the obviously all-knowing perspective I have as a third year university student, I’m definitely still concerned about it. There is so much research about the effect of the 2008 recession on graduates (much of which is still ongoing) that I don’t even know what to cite here. The negative effects of the 2008 recession are so distinct I have been in multiple classes which has at least mentioned some of these statistics. And even if you’re someone who wants to argue that it is character-building it has to be agreed upon that it’s by no means a “fun time”. I guess it might seem a bit silly that I’m explaining the negative effects of a recession, but in 2008 I was a grand total of 8 years old and for the subsequent 4 years that followed, I wasn’t too interested in the financial state of the world for the obvious reasons. So although I was alive for that time, it’s not exactly something I can claim to have truly experienced.

At this point, this feels much worse than 2008. Lehman Brothers was quite bad, but it was the culmination of a sequence of things that had happened over 14 months. This hit all at once.

Jason Furman, former Obama Economic Policy Advisor

Anyway, the punchline to all of this 2008 sucked build-up is that unfortunately, it seems most experts foresee a serious and lasting economic crisis at the world’s doorstep. In the words of Jason Furman, former Obama economic policy advisor and professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, “At this point, this feels much worse than 2008. Lehman Brothers was quite bad, but it was the culmination of a sequence of things that had happened over 14 months. This hit all at once.” You could say this is where the lack of historical precedence comes in. A recession is not a novel concept by any means, but in this case it’s important to recognize that the reason for the crisis itself is arguably quite unprecedented. Essentially, a major problem with COVID-19 and any such future pandemic is that in order to social distance and follow through with all these efforts to “lower the curve” decreased demand across a huge variety of industries naturally follows. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t social distance of course, it’s of utmost importance in limiting the impact of the virus, but a lasting fall in spending such as this one signals some pretty serious things for the future.

In any early economics course we learn that humans can be inherently irrational and that’s where a lot of the rather simplistic models taught in an Econ 101 textbook break down because they of course assume that people are–by that model’s definition–rational. However this kind of early economics course analysis fails to acknowledge that there is no reason that the model itself cannot be flawed. Perhaps people are acting “rationally” (whatever that really means), but the natural limitations that come with any model limit us from seeing a particular action as rational (as a side note, this is actually what I find to be the great fun of data-driven economic analysis and many say this is the direction the field is moving toward). Something that strikes me as interesting about COVID-19 and its impending financial crisis is that so many of the real problems are going to be caused by generally “rational” behaviors. 

I’m not saying that hoarding toilet paper or panic buying is the most rational choice, but according to experts, generally socially isolating and staying away from social gatherings definitely is. At the same time, doing that is objectively bad for business. This kind of dichotomy is very meaningful. In the crises past, former President Bush famously recommended people “to go shopping more” and following World War II in the 1950s being a consumer was seen as patriotic. Meanwhile this Sunday, the LA mayor ordered all bars, nightclubs, and dine-in restaurants to close. Going on social media even prominent celebrities are encouraging their followers to stay home. Sure, in 2020 this is not necessarily the opposite of shopping because the internet exists, but this is definitely quite the departure from boldly declaring that participating in consumerism is American. This difference is not just an interesting little thing to note, but a deeply important thing to keep in mind when thinking about how the government can help the economy recover in the wake of this virus. 

Why? Well quite simply, the very concept of the need to self-isolate has its own very unique slew of problems that will need to be addressed.

Credit: Ekaterina Fedorova

One already heavily discussed issue is that ability to self-isolate and continue to work (and by extension spend) is naturally not a privilege extended to all industries in an equal manner. Plus it doesn’t help that the U.S. has a woefully unregulated paid-leave system. As a Berkeley student studying statistics and economics it’s easy for me to fall into the trap of selection bias: almost all of my friends will likely have jobs that can go online in the future and even now, its at least not impossible for university learning to be online. But that is not the case for the real majority of U.S. workers! For some workers in the biggest industries that cannot do the same work online (such as Retail, Construction, and Leisure and Hospitality) not coming into work can mean struggling to pay rent, let alone having any discretionary income to participate meaningfully in the economy once the worst is over and self-isolation is no longer as necessary.  

On top of that, the “unprecedented” travel restrictions which are meant to preserve public health of course do quite the opposite for economic viability of the industry. I mention this not because it is my intent to say that these are unnecessary (it is quite the opposite), but because all of these factors and more, when aggregated present their own new problems and much needed creative solutions. It is not enough now to encourage consumer spending against the interest of public health but rather the government must take an active step in funding important programs that will help those most at risk due to health or financial reasons. Funding public health and instating programs like paid-leave, and significantly more will be absolutely necessary to not only help the U.S. recover in the future, but to help those most affected now get through this extremely tumultuous time. 


A personal note from me, our UWEB VP of Administration and Publication:

Last week, UC Berkeley announced that all classes will be made online for the remainder of the semester. As a result of this, UWEB will not be holding any of the events we had on our calendar from this point forward. That being said, my committee and I will continue to post regularly on this blog and I will continue to send out newsletters. We will be taking a brief hiatus for Spring Break next week but it’s back to our regularly scheduled programming Tuesday March 31st. 

Thank you so much to everyone who has engaged with our content over the past school year and supported the creation of this website. We hope that you will continue to read and enjoy our articles even with the end of the traditional class structure.

Stay safe and hope to see you soon!

Ekaterina Fedorova

UWEB VP Administration and Publication

Romance is so capitalist

By Ekaterina Fedorova

Sometime ago I had a quintessentially edgy(™) conversation with some friends because apparently non-Valentine’s Day ads don’t exist this month. It went a bit like this:

A friend, facetiously: Capitalism is SO romantic 

Me, leaning into it: ROMANCE is so capitalist 

What did either of us mean by that? It’s unclear. Regardless, no one loves being the cold, romance (and late-stage capitalism)-hating friend more than me, but every once in a while I like being a data-backed, cold, romance-hating friend so I thought, “well surely nothing is less romantic than researching romance to back up my hate for romance,” and thus the idea for this article was conceived. 

However, therein lies the problem, if I’m totally honest, the reason I like to throw shade on Valentine’s day and other forms of the commercialization of relationships (particularly romantic ones) is because I don’t completely get it. Not necessarily the commercialization part, I can understand that there’s tons of money in leveraging human emotions, but the relationships part. In highschool I used to spend my time being an annoying asshole to my friends in relationships asking questions like, “But why do you need to be in a ‘relationship’?” or “Why do you need to define it specifically from friendship?” and in particular “Why bother having a girl/boy friend when you know you’ll just break up?” I probably wouldn’t directly ask those questions anymore, but I do still ask myself. 

It’s not as if I don’t understand friendship. I have a great many amazing friends and love them a lot, but that’s maybe exactly why I have difficulty understanding the existence of romantic partners. Other than the physical aspects of a romantic relationship, which of course are not even a part of everyone’s idea of a romantic relationship, what exactly is this distinction between platonic and romantic relationships? Is the difference one in the goal of the relationship? If it is, why? Traditionally, (read: in the traditions I am most familiar with) one might answer the biggest difference is that one becomes a marriage and the other, no matter how long term, doesn’t get any official title other than “friendship”. That’s crazy. That means there is a word to distinguish between someone’s wife and someone’s friend, but there isn’t a nearly as easy way to quickly distinguish between someone’s friend of 20 years and someone’s friend from last semester. Surely if there is this kind of distinction in language surrounding romantic and platonic relationships there must be some important, even inherent difference.

At this point, you might stop and think, “well there is definitely some sort of difference, but it’s complicated and why should it be so important to put it into words when I can feel it?” To that, I have no answer. I just like to waste my time chasing pointless and unanswerable questions. I’m cool with that and if you’re still reading I’m operating on the assumption that you’re cool with it too. Plus maybe it isn’t actually unsolvable because even just a quick google search provides A LOT of research. 

Nope!

In a complete plot twist, having a large amount of hits on google in no way indicates that something is “solved”. Although there is no shortage of very interesting, mainly psychological, studies about friendship, romance, and other such relationships, even those with results indicating something significant have their limitations. A study from the University of Florence (Ponti, Guarnieri, Smorti, & Tani, 2010) which seeks to create measurements of friendship and romantic relationship qualities interestingly uses the same 5 dimensions (Conflict, Companionship, Help, Security, and Closeness) for both measurements and achieves results that indicate their 2 proposed measurements could be generalized. However, they use these same 5 dimensions with the major qualification that they choose to exclude love and sexuality in order to only compare the similar dimensions of romantic and platonic relationships. That’s not super helpful in trying to determine differences. Additionally, the potential existence of such measurements creates further questions: How generalizable can any such measurement be? What kinds of limitations would it have across cultures, nationalities, sexualities, etc?

A different study done in the U.S. (Campbell, Nelson, Parker, & Johnston, 2018) examined the differences in core themes between friendship and romantic chemistry. Survey participants wrote in brief phrases and words associated with the 2 proposed types of chemistry while researchers categorized these responses into themes. According to the study, the appearance of core themes important to the 2 types of relationships were similar, but the frequency of certain themes were very different between friendship and romantic chemistry. The theme of “Reciprocal Candor” was the most frequently cited theme in both proposed types of chemistries, but the themes of “Attraction” and “Love” were more frequently indicated in romantic chemistry while possessing “Similarities” was a core theme found more often in participants’ responses about friendship chemistry. But to what extent can these results be reasonably interpreted? As common sense might indicate, results like these might point to there being some inherent difference between at least initial romantic and friendship chemistry, but in the end such a study is really more exploratory than anything else, something noted in the paper itself.

One thing you come across very often if you end up falling into such a literature review are phrases like “scarcity of research available” and “lack of empirical studies” and “hope to inspire further research” and so on and so on. And, particularly in this case, these phrases aren’t playing around. After reading a variety of studies, not all of which I’ve discussed because this single article can’t be as long as a study itself, I have more questions than I wanted to ask in the beginning! But I guess in the end, it is what it is. It’s perfectly understandable why there aren’t clear answers when these are such confusing questions to do with human emotions and interpersonal connections. If anything, it would be deeply suspicious if someone were to say they fully understood our weird ideas about how we should and do interact with each other.

Nonetheless, just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s good. Personally, I’d argue that the fact that a “romantic relationship” is so ill-defined is something that aids in the commercialization of romance (particularly on Valentine’s Day). We don’t have a Friendship Day where we are marketed a short specific list of things that are the “normal” thing to gift your best friend. Somehow maybe we are more understanding about the individuality of friendships. Romance is confusing and a shortlist of gifts established maybe by tradition but definitely supported by huge industries is less confusing. Thus our understanding (or lack thereof) of romance and its own commercialization go hand-in-hand. Then again, that’s just me being the annoying cold, romance-hating friend I am. One could just as easily argue that chocolates and flowers are objectively nice plus no one is forcing anyone to buy those things. It’s not as if romantic partners can’t have a nice day AND purchase some pink and red Dove chocolates. The commercialization of romance is no less confusing than romance itself.

And it is at this point that we’ve now come full circle and I once again have too many questions, no answers, and am left with just my own cynicism. But, hey, such is life. If, during the month of February when humanity’s interesting (and clearly unexplained) penchant to create a strong distinction between romance and friendship is at its most commercialized, I get to be edgy and say “Romance is so capitalist.” I’m pretty content.

Citations:

Ponti, L., Guarnieri, S., Smorti, A., & Tani, F. (2010). A Measure for the Study of Friendship and Romantic Relationship Quality from Adolescence to Early-Adulthood. The Open Psychology Journal. 3. 10.2174/1874350101003010076. 

Campbell, K., Nelson, J., Parker, M. L., & Johnston, S. (2018). Interpersonal Chemistry in Friendships and Romantic Relationships. Interpersona: An International Journal on Personal Relationships, 12(1), 34-50. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.5964/ijpr.v12i1.289

A Love Letter to [non-programming] Language Learning

By Ekaterina Fedorova

It’s that spookiest time of the year, course enrollment! Choosing classes is never easy, not only is it important to consider personal factors such as how many units to take, in which professors’ classes to enroll, and which subjects you find particularly interesting, but, at least in a huge public university like Berkeley, you can’t just get into any classes you want. Especially as a freshman or sophomore with those late enrollment times. There is, however, one major exception and that is language classes.

Berkeley language classes (maybe only between STEM majors) are such underappreciated course options. Not only are they smaller in class size, more personable, and a great way to meet like-minded friends, but they are also (most often) not necessary to phase I. The first language class I ever took at Cal was German 1 in the fall semester of my Sophomore year. Honestly, I have no idea why. I knew nothing about Germany (or other German-speaking regions, in fact I didn’t know what countries other than Germany spoke German), had no plans to study there, and really just wanted a fun “interest class”. Much like my choices this semester, it was a bit of an impulsive decision. To my surprise, it very quickly became my favorite class of that semester and having just enrolled in German 4 for Spring 2020, I am so glad I randomly decided to take German 1 over a year ago. Do I really think German will directly help me in the future? I mean, probably not, but, hey, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Having come to Cal from a very small high school, I had no idea what it was like to be in such huge classes. As a third year Econ/Stat major, the smallest major-related class I’ve been in is over 60 people, and that’s well below the average. Meanwhile, by the time I was graduating high school, the smallest class I had ever been in was a grand total of 5 people. At the time, I didn’t realize what a privilege it was to have the option to be in such small classes. Or rather, I realized it, but didn’t quite fully appreciate it. Of course, this isn’t a new view point. This university has a 2,000 person CS class and frankly, that’s insane. Feeling overwhelmed by being anonymous in a lecture of hundreds is the unfortunate reality of being at a large public university, but it doesn’t have to always be like this! In the past, I’ve heard a lot of people say class sizes get better as you get into upper-division courses for your major. I’m sure this is the case for others but at least in Economics and Statistics that hasn’t exactly been my experience. And this is exactly where my love for the Berkeley language program comes in.

Full disclosure, I can only truly speak for the German and Russian heritage speakers programs, but generally I’ve found language classes to be an amazing break from the classic huge lecture hall experience. I don’t want any of these recommendations to be the reason someone overextends themselves and takes on a language when they really do not have the time, but if you are in the market for another class, I cannot highly enough recommend that you try learning a new language. Having the chance to learn in a smaller group setting and see the same people every day in my language classes is really the best part of my day. A semester ago, at the end of German 2, when I was Phase II enrolling in German 3, I spoke with my German instructor to make sure she was indeed teaching the class into which I was enrolling. Immediately, she said yes and that she was really excited to know that she would have me in her class again the following semester. That’s not a sentence I’ve heard since high school! I feel a bit sad at just how happy that simple statement made me because in an ideal world I could be in a lot more classes where professors can genuinely say these things, but regardless, to be in a small enough classroom setting that even without having to go to every single office hour it’s possible to still be known by the course instructor is really great.

And of course, as I assume I don’t need to say, learning a new language is worth it just for the general benefits. Knowing another language is never going to hurt your job prospects and is a great way to extend interests you may already have into a more international context. I don’t currently have plans to work in a type of job that specifically requires or even highly recommends any multilingualism (unless you count programming languages), but languages are fun… so why not? Sometimes I feel there is this huge pressure to monetize my time and my hobbies. Sure, being able to speak a language is definitely not ridiculously far from being monetizable, but nonetheless, I find myself thinking what if I took a different class in which I have no interest but is Econ or Stat related. In those moments I remind myself: Utility[German 3] > Utility[Stat 15X].

Why I dropped my major-related machine learning class to learn bass guitar

By: Ekaterina Fedorova

Recently, as I’m sure many Berkeley students can relate, I haven’t been LOVING the classes I need to take to actually graduate from this place. Or rather maybe it would be better to say they don’t love me. Either way, my relationship with my majors is questionable at best. After all, more than two years ago freshman me committed to Cal and decided, before setting a single foot on campus, to be a double Econ and Stat major. While I don’t consider myself at a point where I specifically regret this choice, I definitely have been feeling the diminishing utility with every additional class. Nonetheless, despite taking note of (albeit maybe not fully accepting) this feeling and having a particularly rough Spring semester, I very questionably decided to do the most and take a 23 unit Fall semester.

I would strongly advocate against trying this.

Seriously, unit caps exist for a reason.

Or at least these are things I should have told myself in week 1. Now obviously the title of this article is past tense so last week, the day of the drop deadline, I did drop a class. At this point, you might be wondering, why do I care? Why am I reading about this random person’s life? While I can’t answer that question for you, over the past few weeks I’ve had the best time meeting many new club members and if any of you feel at all similarly, you might also have a difficult time letting yourself pursue interests or classes that aren’t—by some messed up definition—productive. So, if anyone reading needs to hear it: please remember that spending time doing things outside your major and outside the realm of things potentially monetizable is absolutely just as important as whatever you might consider “real” work. For a long time (and still now, to be honest) I’ve had a really difficult time letting myself do fun activities. Sure, plenty of classes are both fun and material-heavy but being an econ/stat major doesn’t mean the only hobbies I can have are doing linear regressions. Being at Cal, sometimes I feel like I need to fill every single hour of my day with some sort of work. If I sleep for more than 6 hours, I feel guilty because, hey, I could have gotten some more reading done! Needless to say, that’s a deeply unhealthy mindset. As I’m sure most UWEB members do not need to hear again, many things in life have diminishing returns. And while it may be a conclusion I’ve come to from anecdotal evidence, I’d say it’s important to find the balance of schoolwork, “real” work, and outside interests that works for you. For me, deciding to learn how to play bass has been the best decision I could have made this semester and unsurprisingly it’s a lot more fun than stat problem sets.

The reality is that life is pretty long. From time to time (in the short-term) problem sets, essays, and other deadlines may take over your life, but as long as climate change doesn’t doom us all much earlier, don’t let a misrepresentation of productivity keep you from learning to play bass.

Disclaimer: I by no means actually have my life together and am not qualified to give real advice.