Sunday assorted links

Yes, Testing Works

I’d shout it from the rooftops but my voice has become hoarse.

WBUR: In August, more than 100 New England colleges launched a massive experiment: What happens if you bring students back to petri dish campuses in the midst of a pandemic, but put huge energy into prevention culture and testing them once or twice a week?

The colleges partnered with the Broad Institute, a research giant that pivoted to mass coronavirus testing, in hopes the proposition could work well enough to salvage at least a partially on-campus fall.

As many students head home or settle back into their childhood bedrooms, the interim results of the experiment are now clear. The data show “that asymptomatic testing does work,” says Dr. Paula Johnson, president of Wellesley College and a leader of the group that put together the partnership. “And it works in terms of identifying cases quickly, paired with aggressive contact tracing. You identify a case, you identify the contacts. You pull them out of the system. And that really helps to prevent the spread.”

Toward a short history of Operation Warp Speed

Link here, do read the whole thread.  So which of you is going to write the definitive book on this?  That is a serious question.

Voting Rights, Deindustrialization, and Republican Ascendancy in the South

Here is a new paper from Gavin Wright:

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 revolutionized politics in the American South. These changes also had economic consequences, generating gains for white as well as Black southerners. Contrary to the widespread belief that the region turned Republican in direct response to the Civil Rights Revolution, expanded voting rights led to twenty-five years of competitive two-party politics, featuring strong biracial coalitions in the Democratic Party. These coalitions remained competitive in most states until the Republican Revolution of the 1990s. This abrupt rightward shift had many causes, but critical for southern voters were the trade liberalization measures of 1994, specifically NAFTA and the phase-out of the Multi-Fiber Arrangement which had protected the textiles and apparel industries for decades. The consequences of Republican state regimes have been severe, including intensified racial polarization, loss of support for public schools and higher education, and harsh policies toward low-income populations.

The last sentence strikes me as misleading and inappropriate (in multiple ways), but still the research is of very real interest. Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Saturday assorted links

1. Greenstone and Nath on cost-effective carbon abatement.

2. William Bolcom remembers Boulez.

3. Robin Hanson on pandemic spending and prevention; see also my comment #2 in the list.

4. Can the British turn moon dust into oxygen?

5. NHS to trial blood test to detect more than 50 forms of cancer.  You know the scientific resurgence of the British (or should I say the English?) is a remarkable and much underreported story.  Start with the Anglosphere and mix in a few top universities and the revenue-rich creative cluster of southeast England…  There is much we can learn from this episode, and it is more important than say continuing to debate Brexit.

6. The Novavax vaccine.  Nita Patel (guess where she is from? Try for the state) gets special praise and “Her all-female crew is an essential part of Novavax’s lab team.”

Amazing Amazon

NYTimes: Amazon added 427,300 employees between January and October, pushing its work force to more than 1.2 million people globally, up more than 50 percent from a year ago. Its number of workers now approaches the entire population of Dallas.

…The scale of hiring is even larger than it may seem because the numbers do not account for employee churn, nor do they include the 100,000 temporary workers who have been recruited for the holiday shopping season. They also do not include what internal documents show as roughly 500,000 delivery drivers, who are contractors and not direct Amazon employees.

Such rapid growth is unrivaled in the history of corporate America….The closest comparisons are the hiring that entire industries carried out in wartime, such as shipbuilding during the early years of World War II or home building after soldiers returned, economists and corporate historians said.

Comparing Amazon’s surge in hiring to that which occurred in wartime is a good reminder that the government failed to create a surge in contract tracers despite the fact that contract tracing saves lives.

I applaud Amazon’s ability to respond to crisis/opportunity. I do, however, worry a little about this but not too much since it’s obviously false.

To grow so much, Amazon also needs to think long term, Ms. Williams said. As a result, she said, the company was already working with preschools to establish the foundation of tech education, so that “as our hiring demand unfolds over the next 10 years, that pipeline is there and ready.”

Misaligned incentives for incarceration in the United States

The incarceration rate has increased substantially in the United States between the 1980s and the 2000s. In this paper, I explore an institutional explanation for this growth: the fact that costs of incarceration are not fully internalized. Typically, prison is paid for at the state level, but county employees (such as judges, prosecutors or probation officers) determine time spent in custody. I exploit a natural experiment that shifted the cost burden of juvenile incarceration from state to counties, keeping overall costs and responsibilities unchanged. This resulted in a stark drop in incarceration, and no increase in arrests, suggesting an over-use of prison when costs are not internalized. The large magnitude of the change suggests that misaligned incentives in criminal justice may be a significant contributor to the current levels of incarceration in the United States.

That is from the opening of a new JPubEc piece by Aurélie Ouss, via the excellent Samir Varma.

Why we should be optimistic about various vaccines

I’ve been a long-time reader of your blog, and I have enjoyed your analyses of how the pandemic could play out in the US.

I saw that you gave some space to Arnold Kling’s pessimistic take on the vaccines. I’m a volunteer in the J&J Phase 3 vaccine trial, and my experience of the trial design makes me more optimistic about the vaccines than even the headline numbers in the so-far announced trials would suggest. I think the trial set-ups particularly for J&J have some biases that would lead to understated effectiveness results:

First, these trials are effectively unblinded. The placebos are saline solution in J&J, AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna. Per the Phase 2 results for J&J, >60% of participants had significant side effects, with flu-like symptoms the most common; I believe other vaccine trials had similarly intense side effects. When I got a shot, I was nearly bedridden for 24 hours; it felt as if I had the flu, and the effect was far more pronounced than for any other vaccine I’ve had. If I got the placebo, I need a psychotherapist. Though I plan to remain generally responsible and not take too many incremental risks, given I’m only mostly sure I got a vaccine that is still unproven, I’m sure my assumption that I’ve been vaccinated will influence my behavior, and the behavior of anyone else who has had significant side effects from their injection too.

Second, upcoming trials are likely going to suffer from a “too much COVID effect” on an absolute basis, and relative to prior trials in particular. J&J counts any infection more than 14 days after injection toward its efficacy calculation. If full immunity takes longer (and my understanding is that antibodies build after infections for 3+ weeks in many cases), then there will be people out there getting infected before the vaccine has taken full effect. That wasn’t particularly likely to happen in the summer when there were fewer cases overall. This is particularly going to affect 1-shot vaccines, as other trials have their effectiveness measured only after the second dose (but I could still imagine this dynamic having some impact, if full immunity builds gradually after the second dose).

Anyway, hope this is of some interest. I found it encouraging to conclude that study bias could understate, not overstate, the effectiveness of vaccines.

That is from my email, identity of the author is redacted.

Friday assorted links

1. The EU drug regulator also does not have its act together. The Japanese, with vaccines, are being more cautious yet.

2. DuPont and Biden (WSJ).

3. “Sweden has reported 397 Covid deaths in the past nine days, more than either Norway or Finland — each with about half the population — have announced during the entire pandemic. Such figures led the normally cautious and measured state broadcaster SVT to declare that Sweden’s strategy looked increasingly like “a failure”.”  FT linkAnd: “Remarkably, there were fewer (2.6) deaths/100K per day from *all causes* in SD [South Dakota] in Nov 2019 than are dying each day now just from COVID.”

4. Ed Lazear obituary (NYT).  It is sad how they had to add in a “he had some left-wing views too,” so the readers have the liberty to feel sad about him dying.  I would call that an underperformance of an obituary.

5. Rolf.  Which kinds of political views are correlated with which kinds of academic priorities?

6. “There may even be a phenomenon like Dunning-Kruger at work, where the most conventional-minded people are confident that they’re independent-minded, while the genuinely independent-minded worry they might not be independent-minded enough.”  Paul Graham.

7. Stripe and carbon removal (Atlantic).

SCOTUS, houses of worship, and the pandemic

The Supreme Court has sided with religious institutions (NYT) against some of the pandemic restrictions of state and local governments:

The opinion said the state had treated secular businesses more favorably than houses of worship.

“The list of ‘essential’ businesses includes things such as acupuncture facilities, camp grounds, garages, as well as many whose services are not limited to those that can be regarded as essential, such as all plants manufacturing chemicals and microelectronics and all transportation facilities,” the opinion said.

Here is also WaPo coverage.  And:

“We may not shelter in place when the Constitution is under attack,” Justice Gorsuch wrote. “Things never go well when we do.”

While I am not myself religious, I regard religious services as essential parts of our society and also in the longer run for our economy (birth rates, if nothing else).  More generally, I am struck by how many intelligent people no longer seem to attach much weight to religious liberty, by no means starting with the various anti-Church moves during the Obama administration, but certainly emphasized there.  (Even centrist Democrats are often clueless about the traumatic effects here, one of the biggest gaps in their understanding of American politics.)  So I am happy to see push back in the opposite direction, siding with the rights of religious institutions.  On top of all other considerations, those institutions are also (usually) bastions of non-Woke sentiments, which makes protecting them all the more important.

You will note that the decision does not strike down all restrictions on church services, but rather rejects a particular set of restrictions, leaving many broader issues open (to varying degrees for the different justices, if I understand correctly).

You might think “this decision is killing people,” but I wonder if that is true on net.  If you do believe various pandemic restrictions are the way forward at this point (only modestly in my view), you will want to restrict more than just churches.  If religious people see that the rights of churches will be protected to some reasonable degree, they might be more willing to support other restrictions.  So even if you are very pro-restriction, I hardly view this decision as an obvious consequentialist disaster.  We are not banning Thanksgiving travel either, right?

And if we do not turn government and also federal funds and tax exemptions into a battering ram against religious autonomy, we will reap a lot of other practical, life and death benefits from that decision over time, including a healthier American discourse.

That all said, if I were running a church likely I would cancel all in-person services beyond very limited numbers.

Addendum: If in 2016 you vowed to “respect Trump voters,” supporting this decision would be one good place to start.  It might do a good deal to limit polarization and improve the other decisions we make.

Bryan Caplan on the cost of Covid

Here is Bryan’s post, here is one bit:

Taking quality of life into account, how many life-years has the reaction to COVID destroyed?…

Upshot: The total cost of all COVID prevention has very likely exceeded the total benefit of all COVID prevention.

I don’t agree with Bryan’s numbers, but the more important point is one of logic.  The higher the costs of reaction to Covid, the stronger the case for subsidizing vaccines, therapeutics, and other corrective measures.  Would you accept this Bryan?  You have numerous posts about risk overreaction, but not one (if I recall correctly) calling for such subsidies.  Furthermore we just did some of those subsidies, through Operation Warp Speed, and they worked and they will fix the relevant incentives and lead to a resumption of normal life.  So the “subsidies will prove counterproductive” argument doesn’t seem strong here.  The subsidies are the (much) quicker path back to what you desire.

A second question is whether moral suasion — “don’t overreact to Covid!” — is likely to prove effective.  As I’ve already linked to, risk explains mobility reductions far more than do lockdown policies.  Or consider Sweden, which had a relatively non-panicky Covid messaging, no matter what you think of their substantive policies.  Sweden didn’t do any better on the gdp front, and the country had pretty typical adverse mobility reactions.  (NB: These are the data that you don’t see the “overreaction” critics engage with — at all.  And there is more where this came from.)

How about Brazil? While they did some local lockdowns, they have a denialist president, a weak overall response, and a population used to a high degree of risk.  The country still saw a gdp plunge and lots of collateral damage.  You might ponder this graph, causality is tricky and the “at what margin” question is trickier yet, but it certainly does not support what Bryan is claiming about the relevant trade-offs.

I keep on hearing this point again and again, about overreaction.  What kinds of reaction are you expecting or viewing as feasible and attainable?  If overreacting is indeed a public bad, why think you can talk people down out of it?  How much do you think you can talk them out of it?  What if someone suggested that we try to talk people out of their irrational voting patterns, as analyzed by Bryan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter?  How sanguine would he be about that enterprise?  I believe he instead stressed changes in relative prices.

And this is the huge flaw behind so much of the discourse about the “costs of lockdowns” — they can cite the stupidity of closing the parks in March, yes, but they don’t and indeed can’t tell you how most of those costs were to be avoided, given how the public reacts to risk.

If we instead look to the relevant changes in relative prices, that means subsidies for vaccines and tests, most of all through advance market commitments, but not only.  And a full-scale commitment to implementing testing and masks and therapeutics.

The more you push home points about overreaction, the more you ought to favor these subsidies.  Libertarians out there, do you?  This chicken has come home to roost, so please fess up and give the right answer here.  Do you favor these subsidies, not just murmured into your closet at night but in plain black and white for the world to read?  Moral suasion against risk overreaction is a red herring, fine enough for cutting back on one part of the problem by maybe a few percentage points, but serving mainly to distract from the very real economic questions at hand and the need to admit that one’s libertarian ideology doesn’t fit around this problem as nicely as one might wish.

This was a thing, yes it was, that was then, this is now

Initially founded in 1962, the Anti-Digit Dialing League quickly became the premiere sensible dialing association organization in the United States of America. Nearly 60 years later, the problems this country’s phone network faces are direr than ever. While we continue to espouse the use of 2L+5N dialing over all-number calling whenever possible, our primary aim today is to publicly oppose the proliferation of 10-digit dialing, which is fast becoming a public nuisance and dialing nightmare for ordinary people everywhere in this country.

Circa 1962-64 (those were the days), here is the web site.  Web site?  Wait, it still is a thing!:

Although 771 is scheduled to be overlaid on D.C.’s 202 area code in 2021, forcing residents of our nation’s capitol to dial 10 digits forevermore, the A.D.D.L. objected to the use of an overlay as a matter of principle. According to NANPA, splits are unlawful when the majority of the area code is in the same rate center (as is D.C.) (see pg. 12 of Sept. 1 Community Hearing Transcript). That doesn’t mean overlays are inevitable in other areas, though. Overlays continue to remain a public nuisance, and although splits have not been commonplace since 2006, we will continue to urge the use of splits over overlays whenever possible, because splits better serve the public interest, a finding which is well supported by empirical data.

Don’t let them tell you money illusion is not a problem.  Via Anecdotal.

Best movies of 2020

I categorize them on the basis of when I watch them, so there is always some slippage at the beginning and the end of the year, all the more for foreign films, which can come to the U.S. as much as a year or two later than their original release dates.  Of course this year was very different and there was hardly anything wonderful from Hollywood.  Here is the list, as usual in the order I saw them:

Monos, Spanish-language, Lord of the Flies-type elements.

The Guilty, Danish police story, mainly talk, limited settings, really good.

Just 6.5, Iranian war on drugs movie, brutal at times, culturally fascinating.

The Wedding Plan, a few years older, a Rama Burshtein movie, imagine an Israeli woman setting out to get married by a particular date no matter what.

Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy.  I think you need to have a preexisting connection to Mexico and Mexican food to enjoy it.  I do.

Graduation, 2016 Romanian movie about trying to cheat on your kid’s exam.  Excellent.

An American Pickle, Straussian critique of the Woke.

Tenet, if only to see a blockbuster again.

Cuties, yes it was really good, even if sometimes uncomfortably exploitative in its treatment of the source material, namely dancing young teen girls.

My Octopus Teacher, god-awful sentimental and storified, but everyone loved it.

The Two Faces of a Bamileke Woman, set in Cameroon, about cross-cultural differences.

Chez Jolie Coiffure, set in a Brussels hair salon, women from Cameroon and DRC talk to each other, from the same director as Two Faces of a Bamileke Woman, they make a nice set piece and are both quite short.

The Wild Goose Lake, set in Wuhan, a kind of Chinese noir, you have to already like Chinese cinema for this one.

Usually I put this list out later in the year, but what is the point of waiting?