Wednesday assorted links

1. Vitalik Buterin fellowships in existential safety.

2. I wanted to send this article to someone, yet no one is really an appropriate recipient, so I am putting it here (NYT).

3. Chess problem of attacking Queens is solved.

4. Memorial to a Swedish life.  Very good (and sad).

5. The rise of the biohacker (FT, the framing is excessively negative, but an interesting piece nonetheless).

6. Yes taxes really do matter (Mankiw).

7. New (free Kindle) book: The Essential UCLA School of Economics.

My Conversation with Amia Srinivasan

I am pleased to have had the chance to do this, as in my view she is one of the thinkers today who has a) super smarts, b) breadth and depth of reading, and c) breadth and depth of thinking.  That combination is rare!  That said, I don’t quite agree with her on everything, so this exchange had more disagreements than perhaps what you are used to sampling from CWT.

Here is the transcript and audio.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

Amia joined Tyler to discuss the importance of context in her vision of feminism, what social conservatives are right about, why she’s skeptical about extrapolating from the experience of women in Nordic countries, the feminist critique of the role of consent in sex, whether disabled individuals should be given sex vouchers, how to address falling fertility rates, what women learned about egalitarianism during the pandemic, why progress requires regress, her thoughts on Susan Sontag, the stroke of fate that stopped her from pursuing a law degree, the “profound dialectic” in Walt Whitman’s poetry, how Hinduism has shaped her metaphysics, how Bernard Williams and Derek Parfit influenced her, the anarchic strain in her philosophy, why she calls herself a socialist, her next book on genealogy, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

SRINIVASAN: No, it really wouldn’t. Part of why I find this whole discourse problematic is because I think we should be suspicious when we find ourselves attracted to data — very, very thin and weak data — that seem to justify beliefs that have held great currency in lots of societies throughout history, in a way that is conducive to the oppression of large segments of the population, in this particular case women.

I also think one error that is consistently made in this discourse, in this kind of conversation about what’s innate or what’s natural, is to think about what’s natural in terms of what’s necessary. This is a point that Shulamith Firestone made a very long time ago, but that very few people register, which is that — and it was actually made again to me recently by a philosopher of biology, which is, “Look what’s natural isn’t what’s necessary.”

It’s extraordinary. It’s not even like what’s natural offers a good equilibrium point. Think about how much time you and I spend sitting around. Completely unnatural for humans to sit around, yet we’re in this equilibrium point where vast majority of humans just sit around all day.

So, I think there’s a separate question about what humans — as essentially social, cultured, acculturating creatures — what our world should look like. And that’s distinct from the question of what natural predispositions we might have. It’s not unrelated, but I don’t think any of us think we should just be forming societies that simply allow us to express our most “natural orientations.”

COWEN: Should women’s chess, as a segregated activity, continue to exist? We don’t segregate chess tournaments by race or by anything — sometimes by age — but anything other than gender. Yet women’s chess is a whole separate thing. Should that be offensive to us? Or is that great?

Recommended, engaging throughout.  And again, here is Amia Srinivasan’s new and (in the UK, just published yesterday in the U.S.) bestselling book The Right to Sex: Feminism in the 21st Century.

One Billion Vaccinations in a Month!

The news on world vaccinations is good. As of late September of 2021 we have vaccinated 3.43 billion people (2.51 billion people with 2 doses). Even more impressive over the last 30 days the world vaccinated one billion people. That is a tremendous achievement. There are about 7.9 billion people in the world so 44% of the world has had at least one dose and nearly a third of the world population has  had two doses. We are on track to fully vaccinate 70% of all adults in 2021 and most of the world that wants a dose by early 2022. Judging by the US, demand will be more of a constraint than supply as we hit ~60% of the world population.

The NYTimes on the FDA and Rapid Tests

In July of 2020 I wrote in Frequent, Fast, and Cheap is Better than Sensitive:

A number of firms have developed cheap, paper-strip tests for coronavirus that report results at-home in about 15 minutes but they have yet to be approved for use by the FDA because the FDA appears to be demanding that all tests reach accuracy levels similar to the PCR test. This is another deadly FDA mistake.

…The PCR tests can discover virus at significantly lower concentration levels than the cheap tests but that extra sensitivity doesn’t matter much in practice. Why not? First, at the lowest levels that the PCR test can detect, the person tested probably isn’t infectious. The cheap test is better at telling whether you are infectious than whether you are infected but the former is what we need to know to open schools and workplaces.

It’s great that other people including the NYTimes are now understanding the problem. Here is the excellent David Leonhardt in Where are the Tests?

Other experts are also criticizing the Biden administration for its failure to expand rapid testing. Even as President Biden has followed a Covid policy much better aligned with scientific evidence than Donald Trump’s, Biden has not broken through some of the bureaucratic rigidity that has hampered the U.S. virus response.

In the case of rapid tests, the F.D.A. has loosened its rules somewhat over the past year, allowing the sale of some antigen tests (which often cost about $12 each). But drugstores, Amazon and other sellers have now largely run out of them. I tried to buy rapid tests this weekend and couldn’t find any.

The F.D.A.’s process for approving rapid tests is “onerous” and “inappropriate,” Daniel Oran and Dr. Eric Topol of Scripps Research wrote in Stat News.

For the most part, the F.D.A. still uses the same cumbersome process for approving Covid tests that it uses for high-tech medical devices. To survive that process, the rapid tests must demonstrate that they are nearly as sensitive as P.C.R. tests, which they are not.

But rapid tests do not need to be so sensitive to be effective, experts point out. P.C.R. tests often identify small amounts of the Covid virus in people who had been infected weeks earlier and are no longer contagious. Rapid tests can miss these cases while still identifying about 98 percent of cases in which a person is infectious, according to Dr. Michael Mina, a Harvard epidemiologist who has been advocating for more testing

Identifying anywhere close to 98 percent of infectious cases would sharply curb Covid’s spread. An analysis in the journal Science Advances found that test frequency matters more for reducing Covid cases than test sensitivity.

As I said on twitter what makes the FDA’s failure to approve more rapid antigen tests especially galling is that some of the tests being sold cheaply in Europe are American tests just ones not approved in the United States. If it’s good enough for the Germans it’s good enough for me!

How economists use gdp to think

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  Here is one bit:

An appreciation of GDP helps keep things in perspective. Say there is some social or economic trend you dislike or think dangerous. One inclination would be to try to visualize that trend as a share of GDP. Most things are a pretty small fraction of GDP, reflecting the scope and the robustness of the U.S. economy. In one sense America is a vast and sprawling system of shopping malls, restaurants, factories, coffee shops, construction sites, art galleries, and much, much more.

So even if the social or economic trend you find disturbing is in fact a bad thing, America — as defined by its GDP — will proceed unperturbed. People who get annoyed at small changes in America tend not to appreciate the true magnitude of America’s GDP. This also works the other way: The latest positive trend may also take a long time to truly affect GDP.

And more concretely:

The GDP comparison is especially apt for large changes which will cost a noticeable percentage of GDP. Consider climate change. The instinct of the economist is to try to pin down exactly what these costs are as a percentage of global and national GDP.

One recent estimate suggests that climate change is likely to destroy about 10% of global welfare (a GDP effect plus an amenities effect) by the year 2200. To the economist, that is a truly significant quantity of resources. Furthermore, the distribution of those losses may be unfair — and just how unfair is more easily judged if one has a sense of the magnitudes involved.

The upshot is that, all of a sudden, it is pretty easy to see that a system of carbon pricing and R&D subsidies is very likely to more than pay for itself, at least if the policies are executed with reasonable competence.

Climate change is a difficult topic to study and predict, and I am far from sure that percentage estimate is the right number. Nonetheless, it is an important step in mapping some structure onto the problem. As an economist, I am skeptical of analysis that doesn’t try to produce any number at all. Once you understand the size and scope of GDP, you understand that any list of climate disasters that destroyed 10% of GDP would be a very long list of disasters.

I was struck by a recent 10-country study showing the fears of young people about climate change. Four in 10 are afraid to have children. Almost half said that fears about climate change caused them stress and anxiety in their daily lives.

Economics also helps to put these worries in perspective. If the costs of climate change are 10% of global welfare, that is roughly equal to a few years of (non-pandemic) global economic growth. The world economy plausibly can be expected to grow about 3% a year. These kinds of simple points are missing from most climate change debates, again noting the need for better estimates of the actual forthcoming costs.

Overall thinking in terms of gdp I consider to be relatively scarce.

Claims about columns

Like I said, I never wanted to be a columnist, but no one did when I started back in 2000. Sure, there were columnists around then, some of whom still write for the Guardian (Jonathan FreedlandMartin KettlePolly Toynbee), some of whom sadly don’t (Martin WollacottHugo Young). But column-writing was seen as something of a private members’ club: elitist, dusty and distant. Back then, young journalists wanted the fun, scrappy jobs: investigative reporter, music reviewer, features writer. But ever since the rise of blogging culture in the 2000s, when anyone with an Apple PowerBook (RIP) could knock out a column, pretty much every aspiring journalist I’ve met has told me they want to be a columnist. Stating your opinion online has become the definitive way of saying who you are, so of course more people want columns. Yet, here’s a funny thing: I can’t recall a single day – and there were thousands – that I spent sitting at my desk writing a column. I can, however, recall going to the Oscars to cover them, or the weekend I spent with Judy Blume to interview her. Columns pump up the ego, but going out and finding stories is a lot more fun.

That is from Hadley Freeman at The Guardian, who it seems is quitting…as a columnist but not as a writer.  I also would stress the role of social media in this.  Everyone can have an opinion about a column, so this makes the Opinion section far more central to a newspaper, and not necessarily for the better.

Tuesday assorted links

1. Comprehensive look at why the labor share of income is declining.

2. “Our results indicate that higher education liberalizes moral concerns for most students, but it also departs from the standard liberal profile by promoting moral absolutism rather than relativism. These effects are strongest for individuals majoring in the humanities, arts, or social sciences, and for students pursuing graduate studies.”  Link here.

3. New evidence of continuing vaccine effectiveness.  And the very good sense of Ross Douthat on Covid (NYT).

4. Learning through Substack.

5. Valerio Olgiati, architect (and Kanye West).

6. Balding on submarines and Evergrande.

7. Democrats’ agenda continuing to shrink.

The Kids Are Also Polarized

Adolescents used to identify with a party but polarization was muted by a general warmth towards authority figures. Today, however, the warmth is gone and adolescents are as polarized as adults which has implications for future polarization and generalized distrust. New paper by Iyengar and Tyler (note the data is pre-pandemic):

We have shown that the onset of partisan polarization occurs early in the life cycle with very little change thereafter. Today, high levels of in-group favoritism and out-group distrust are in place well before early adulthood. In fact, our 2019 results suggest that the learning curve for polarization plateaus by the age of 11. This is very unlike the developmental pattern that held in the 1970s and 1980s, when early childhood was characterized by blanket positivity toward authority figures and partisanship gradually intruded into the political attitudes of adolescents before peaking in adulthood.

When we considered the antecedents of children’s trust in the parties, our findings confirm the earlier literature documenting the primacy of the family as an agent of socialization (Jennings and Niemi 1968; Jennings, Stoker, and Bowers 2009; Tedin 1974). Polarized parents seem to transmit not only their partisanship, but also their animus toward opponents. It is striking that the least polarized youth respondents in 2019 are those who have not adopted their parental partisan loyalty.

In closing, our findings have important implications for the study of political socialization. Fifty years ago, political socialization was thought to play a stabilizing role important to the perpetuation of democratic norms and institutions. In particular, children’s adoption of uncritical attitudes toward authority figures helped to legitimize the entire democratic regime. Indeed, researchers cited this functional” role of socialization in justifying the study of political attitudes in childhood (Kinder and Sears 1985; van Deth, Abendschön, and Vollmar 2011).

In the current era, it seems questionable whether the early acquisition of out-party animus fosters democratic norms and civic attitudes. Extreme polarization is now associated with rampant misinformation (Peterson and Iyengar 2021), and, as indicated by the events that occurred in the aftermath of the 2020 election, with willingness to reject the outcome of free and fair electoral procedures. The question for future research is how to transmit party attachments, as occurred in the pre-polarization era, without the accompanying distrust and disdain for political opponents.

Hat tip: John Hobein

Intergenerational mobility with race and measurement error

A large body of evidence finds that relative mobility in the US has declined over the past 150 years. However, long-run mobility estimates are usually based on white samples and therefore do not account for the limited opportunities available for non-white families. Moreover, historical data measure the father’s status with error, which biases estimates toward greater mobility. Using linked census data from 1850-1940, I show that accounting for race and measurement error can double estimates of intergenerational persistence. Updated estimates imply that there is greater equality of opportunity today than in the past, mostly because opportunity was never that equal.

That is a new NBER working paper by Zachary Ward, big if true!  Via the excellent Samir Varma.

More on Ireland during World War II

A few more points:

1. Since both Germany and Britain maintained embassies in Dublin, Ireland became renowned during the war as “one of the whispering-galleries of Europe and a natural centre of for intrigue and spying of every kind.”

2. Fuel was so scarce that private motoring virtually ceased by 1943, and even public transport was problematic.

3. The War threw Ireland back into a state of almost complete cultural isolation.

4. In some odd ways the existence of Northern Ireland as ruled by Britain increased the autonomy of the rest of Ireland, which otherwise might have been commandeered for naval bases and the like, and might have been drawn into the conflict as well.

5. Ireland did receive Marshall Plan aid after the War, and this began what turned into a long-running process of integrating the Irish economy with the other economies of Western Europe.

That is all from E.S.L. Lyons, Ireland Since the Famine.  This book is difficult to read for two reasons.  First, the print is too small.  Second, the author wastes no time regurgitating “the usual” from all the others book on Irish history.  On a given page, most of what is on that page one learns, and thus the book is slow to read.  Which is a sign of a very good book, though do note it is quite the time commitment.  One of the more essential books on Irish history.

Here is my earlier post on Ireland and WWII.

From the comments, on boosters and Covid policy

My first reaction upon hearing that boosters were rejected was to ask the same thing: would these same “experts” say that, because the vaccines are still effective without boosters, vaccinated persons don’t need to wear masks and can resume normal life? Of course not. They use the criterion “prevents hospitalization” for evaluating boosters (2a) but switch back to “prevents infection” when the question is masks and other restrictions. What about those that are willing to accept the tiny risk of side effects to prevent infection so that they can get back to fully normal life? The Science (TM) tells us that one can’t transmit the virus if one is never infected to begin with.

Also, one of the No votes on boosters said that he feared approval would effectively turn boosters into a mandate and change the definition of fully vaccinated. So, it appears that the overzealousness to demand vaccine mandates has actually contributed to fewer people getting access to (booster) vaccines, thus paradoxically contributing to spread. A vivid illustration of the problem with, “That which is not mandatory should be prohibited.”

The biggest problem with public health professionals continues to be (1) elevation of their own normative value judgements — namely that NPIs are no big deal no matter how long they last — which have nothing to do with scientific expertise, (2) leading them to “shade” their interpretation of data to promote their preferred behavioral outcome rather than answering positive (non-normative) questions with positive scientific statements, (3) thus undermining the credibility of public health institutions (FDA, CDC) and leading to things like vaccine hesitancy.

That is from BC.

Monday assorted links

1. Deportees.

2. How truthful is GPT-3?

3. “James, what inspired you to put your vaccination record on your T-shirt?”

4. Ezra Klein on the supply side (NYT).

5. “Academic freedom no longer includes freedom to be a generalist.” (NYT)

6. Sexual harassment is reported more selectively during recessions.

7. And sanity about the minimum wage.  The Jeffrey P. Clemens tweet storm is useful as a summary.  Theory and empirics are reunited, and no it ain’t monopsony (as if you didn’t know that already).

MRU Around the World

Here’s a message I received from Amol Shaila Suresh:

Hi Prof. Alex,

Last year, I started preparing for entrance exams of India’s premiere universities for masters in economics. I am an ‘engineering’ undergrad, turned to development sector. When I decided to do masters in economics, I had a huge 6 years educational gap and was amateur to the field. Mrs. Ashwini Kulkarni (whom you visited in Nashik, India to understand onion market) recommended me to check out “Marginal Revolution University” website for econ videos.

Following her advice, I completed micro and macro courses on mru.org and only then touched other reference books (be it Mankiw, Blanchard, Varian, Debraj, etc.) MRU videos helped me immensely in grasping basic economics concepts and made my preparation so smooth that I scored highly in many university entrance exams. Being from non-econ background with 6 years education gap & that too self-study, it was quite a satisfying performance.

Yesterday, South Asian University in New Delhi declared its result and I am at #13 on the merit list across India. It has been a dream to crack the SAU entrance and study development economics there. And I made it!

Sir, I am writing this whole story in detail to convey how huge this has been for me. I can not thank you and Prof. Cowen more. I referred to plenty of resources on the internet, but MRU as starter was exceptional and saviour for me! Without MRU, I may have struggled and who knows I could have given up to the subject which was alien to me.

Thank you sooooo much sir!

Look forward to meeting you in person in your next India trip! 🙂

Congratulations Amol! Everyone at MRU is thrilled to have helped. We love stories like this.

Here is our Principles of Micro class and Principles of Macro and for instructors here is more information on our textbook, Modern Principles of Economics.

Addendum: Here’s the post about my trip to the Lasalgaon Onion Market which apparently had ripple effects.

Learning to live with Woke

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, or maybe try this link, note it is 3x the usual length and not easily excerpted.  Nonetheless here is one bit:

Note that it is not necessary to approve of all U.S. cultural exports to view the spread of wokeism as a net positive for the world. I do not like either Big Macs or Marvel movies, for instance. But at the end of the day I think American culture is a healthy, democratizing, liberating influence, so I want to extend it.

As the motivational speakers like to say, Winners win! And woke is right now one of America’s global winners. Part of what makes America great, and could help to make the rest of the world greater yet, is accepting a certain amount of semi-stupid, least-common-denominator culture.

And:

It drives conservatives and libertarians crazy that woke ideas often have more purchase in the private sector than in the public sector. Private universities, for example, seem “more woke” than public universities.

Still, you read it here first (or maybe not): The halls of power in Washington just aren’t that woke! They are nothing like Twitter or Google or Yale University.

Yes, many woke opponents cite the role of government and the fear of lawsuits as forces driving woke behavior and corporate attachment to wokeism. And surely they have a point. Yet in much of the corporate and nonprofit world, wokeism is not merely a reflexive defense against lawsuits. It is embraced with enthusiasm.

Wokeism has passed a market test that has been going on for decades.

And in sum:

The arguments have been so fully joined because they are about how to define success, which is the fundamental American ideology. I believe such debates are not only healthy but also necessary. I also believe that the ideology of success will endure, though it may take less familiar forms over time. In some ways wokeism is what a feminized, globalized version of 21st century U.S. triumphalism looks like.

You don’t have to like that. But you may have to get used to it.

Recommended, do read the whole thing.

More on US vs. UK television shows

From Alex Griffiths:

In a recent article you wrote about the historic difference between British and American panel shows and I wanted to share my theory.

I think that there are two factors at play in the difference between British and American panel shows. 1. Market size, 2. Culture. 3. What is funny in US vs. UK.

1. Historically the small number of domestic television stations that the British television market could make profitable (until very recently 5 at most) meant that unlike in America there was limited choice and further the talent pool of people working on the programmes was also small and so the people making the programmes had both the ability due to being smaller to be relatively nimble to changes in culture and also had little choice but to watch the selection they were picking and so had an incentive to make the programming interesting to watch.

By contrast in America with its comparable size it was easier to fund lots of movies for different audiences but when it comes to television it was more difficult for major networks to necessarily change direction (a TV schedule is zero sum whereas you can simply add new films to a cinema selection) and additionally in American TV you could easily hate what you do and still watch something else on a different channel.

2. Combined with this is a different attitude towards comedy and television culture. In America TV seems to be more “working class” as a medium and aimed more at making people feel good- e.g Friends, Rosanne, Cheers, and even Frasier that most British of American TV is aimed at laughs as Frasier has already made it, whereas in the UK television has been more middle class orientated and about betterment and self improvement even if done with a comic twist. Almost every top British show ever made is about people trying to go upwards economically, politically or socially, e.g. Blackadder, Only Fools and Horses, Fawley Towers, Yes Minister, Porridge.

3. An example of the difference between British and American comedy which I found quite a good summary (I can’t remember who said it), imagines a comedy sketch where a musician is playing a guitar badly and a man comes up and smashes it over the musician’s head. The contention is that an American comic would want to be the one smashing the guitar whereas a British comic would want to be the one getting hit with the guitar. America, the ultimate immigrant nation goes for obvious and broad comedy so everyone can understand whereas the British, comparably more dominated by class distinctions and still a lot more culturally homogeneous, goes for the joke about subverting the norm which of necessity requires an understanding about norms in a society.

I just want to finally add that whilst historically I would say that British panel shows have been better than American ones I think the Internet and its rise in a wider selection of shows, as well as a shift towards just raw viewership numbers as the dominant motivator for television programmes, has meant that there has been a decline in the quality of British television programming and that with every passing year it seems more and more like the US market which is sad but I’m not sure reversible without a UK television subscription service which can afford to raise its ambitions.