How much does it matter who dies from Covid-19?

In this latest Bloomberg column, I am referring in particular to the ages of the victims.  The subtext of course is that many of the herd immunity theorists repeat (again and again) that most of the victims are quite old, which is indeed correct.  Here is one excerpt:

By contrast [to 9/11], about 3,500 Americans die each year in fires. To repeat: That is each year. Yet Americans have not responded to deaths by fire as they did to 9/11, nor has a major public discussion ensued.

To be clear, the U.S. probably should do more to limit the number of fire deaths. But they do not threaten the nation and constitutional order in the way that terrorist attacks do. How people die is crucial in helping a nation and society scale its response and frame the debate over what to do.

Covid-19 is obviously more like 9/11 than it is like the annual toll of fire deaths. It commands the headlines every day, has created a global economic depression, is reshaping global politics and the balance of power, causes extreme stress for millions and has significantly harmed America’s global reputation. Yes, there have been some anxiety-driven overreactions, but it is inevitable that humans will respond dramatically to a major worldwide pandemic.

To be sure, the number of U.S. victims is high — 220,000 and counting, plus some number of excess deaths from broader causes. But the event itself is so cataclysmic that “downgrading” those deaths by saying many of the victims were elderly doesn’t make a big difference in terms of formulating an optimal response.

And to close:

Pandemics have been civilization-altering events since the beginning of human history, and they still are — especially if we do not respond properly. The need to get the response right, not the relative worth of the young to that of the old, is the main thing that we should be obsessing about.

Recommended.

Should government improve the quality of its software?

From a GitHub repository:

This GitHub repository is a back up of my FAERSFix scripts.

The FDA Adverse Effect Reporting System is a horrifically dysfunctional quagmire of shockingly bad data. The data is not just bad for severe epistemological reasons, it is also poorly organized and riddled with flagrant absurd errors.

These scripts smooth over the very messy process of acquiring and basic debugging of the data. At the end of the process a user can arrive at a local repository of the FAERS data that is sane enough to begin to think about some kind of sensible analysis. To understand the disastrous state of the original source data, see the source code of the scripts which is designed to be a readable self-documenting manual demonstrating how to correct this mess.

Since the FDA’s gremlins never rest, these scripts will become obsolete. If you would like to contribute updates or fixes, feel free to send me a patch or a pull request. Good luck!

I thank Chris E. for the pointer.

Clubhouse

I’ve tried it a few times, and I think it will become “a thing.”  You can read about it here, though it is time someone did a more current article.  It is the best forum invented to date for mid-size, friendly, intellectual chats.  Broadly speaking imagine a Zoom call, with competing topic-named rooms, the video turned off, and better queuing and calling upon people procedures.  It doesn’t seem to induce fatigue the way Zoom calls do.  The software has a fluidity and ease of use that I hardly ever see, as usually I hate new apps that people tell me to try.

I don’t know that it will ever be “my thing,” mostly because I can read so quickly, which raises my opportunity cost of consumption.  (Though you can read with it on in the background — is it ever the case that no one in the audience is listening?  Would that even matter?)  In any case, I suspect it will take some real mind-share away from Twitter and Facebook, and now is the time for you to start learning about it.

So far it is invite-only, though I assume it will be opening up more broadly.  Furthermore, an invitation is not so difficult to get.  Arguably there is a problem with who gets invited or deplatformed, though so far this seems to bother the (non-participating) people on Twitter more than it disturbs anyone performing on Clubhouse itself.

It is much more Tiebout-like than Zoom, so someday this also may be an incredible data source on what leads to useful conversations, which are the best governance rules, and so on.

Stagnation is the real risk

The accelerated economic growth also accelerated our path along the inverted-U shape of risk. Faster growth means people are richer sooner, so they value life more sooner, so society shifts resources to safety sooner—and ultimately we will begin the decline in risk sooner. As a result, the overall probability of an existential catastrophe—the area under the risk curve—declines!

…The model also suggests a broader insight. Making people richer doesn’t improve their well-being, but it can also change what they value. In this case, people value life more as they grow richer, and valuing life more leads them to care more about reducing existential risk.

That is from a very useful essay by Leopold Aschenbrenner.  It is from the newly appeared second issue of Works in Progress, an excellent on-line journal.  And here is Samuel Hughes defending pastiche.

Tuesday assorted links

1. ” We estimate that inventors’ human capital is 5–10 times more important than firm capabilities for explaining the variance in inventor output.

2. Markets in everything: breathable bacon mask edition.

3. Some Chinese discuss Black Lives Matter, and related issues.

4. New Yorker Eugene Scalia profile, just turn the negatives into positives.  If you find that stricture appalling, ask yourself a simple question: what is your plan to increase the quantity of capital invested per worker?  Is it better than his plan?

5. Male students are dropping college at much higher rates.

6. State-level data show the Phillips Curve to be flat.  And the new relevant data set for state-level inflation rates, important stuff many more papers will be written from this.

7. WaPo covers Fast Grants, and other changes in the speed of scientific advance.

*Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton*

That is the new book by Nicholas McDowell, and it is one of my favorite non-fiction works this year.  Milton is today more relevant than he has been in a long time, excerpt:

Milton’s political development is shaped by his evolving understanding of the ways in which ‘tyranny’ — defined initially in ecclesiastical and clerical terms but which grows to encompass political organization — retards the intellectual and cultural progress of a nation.  This understanding was shaped not only by historical experience of the unprecedented political turbulence of mid-seventeenth-century Britain, but by the interaction between that experience and his intellectula life.  Milton’s period of intensive and almost entirely orthodox reading in political and religious history in the mid-1630s, the record of some of which survives in the notebook that was rediscovered in 1874, revealed to him how clerical censorship and heresy-hunting had suppressed intellectual and literary life in other countries.  Milton regarded the cultural decline of Italy under the Counter-Reformation and Inquisition from the glory days of Dante and Petrarch, two of his pre-eminent post-classical models of the poetic career, as the starkest instance of this process.  His tour of Italy in 1638-9 confirmed the lessons of his reading: that in nations where ‘this kind of inquisition tyrannizes,’ as he put it in Areopagitica, learning is brought into a ‘servil condition’ and the ‘glory ‘ of ‘wits’ is ‘dampt.’

Recommended!  Every page is enjoyable, and you can profit from this book no matter your prior knowledge of Milton may be.  A sure thing for the year end’s “best of” list.

You can pre-order here.

What our new Chinese overlords desire for us

Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is a top 10 album this week — more than four decades after its release — thanks to a viral TikTok video that’s had everyone vibing along to “Dreams.” Rumours now ranks seventh on the Billboard 200 chart, the publication announced last night, the album’s first appearance in the top 10 since 1978, a year after it debuted.

Rumours’ newfound popularity is thanks to a viral video from Nathan Apodaca, who goes by 420doggface208 on TikTok, that shows him skateboarding down a road and sipping cran-raspberry juice straight from the jug, while “Dreams” plays over top. It’s been viewed more than 60 million times since being posted at the end of September, and it’s even inspired both Mick Fleetwood and Stevie Nicks to sign up for TikTok over the past two weeks. Fleetwood recreated the viral video himself, while Nicks posted a video of herself lacing up roller skates and singing along. They have a combined 35 million views.

Here is the full story, via Fernand Pajot.

Monday assorted links

1. Beyond photogenic feminism.

2. Do women do worse on multiple choice questions? a. yes  b. no  c. maybe.  Take your pick.

3. How to charge for antibodies (WSJ).  And some not unrelated data on cost.

4. Ultranauts (NYT).

5. Arnold Kling on gossip.

6. Data on expressed willingness to trade off civil liberties for pandemic protection.

7. “Moreover, we show that neither policy nor rates of voluntary social distancing explain a meaningful share of geographic variation. The most important predictors of which [U.S.] cities were hardest hit by the pandemic are exogenous characteristics such as population and density.”  Link here.

The AstroZeneca saga, according to one source

This seems unconfirmed, and do note some sources in the story do not believe this account, but here goes:

AstraZeneca, whose Phase 3 coronavirus vaccine clinical trial has been on hold for more than a month, did not get critical safety data to the US Food and Drug Administration until last week, according to a source familiar with the trial.

The FDA is considering whether to allow AstraZeneca to restart its trial after a participant became ill. At issue is whether the illness was a fluke, or if it may have been related to the vaccine.

The source said the root of the delay is that the participant was in the United Kingdom, and the European Medicines Agency and the FDA store data differently.

“They had to convert data from one format to another format. It’s like taking stuff off a PC and putting it onto an Apple. They had to spend a lot of hours to get what they wanted,” the source said.

On Friday, a federal official hinted there might be some word this week on the trial’s future.

Or maybe they just fooled CNN with it?

Otherwise, good thing we are kept safe from such dangerous data formats!  Would it really not be better to move to reciprocal recognition procedures?  Not to mention a unified data format, or perhaps some FDA methods to read data produced for the EU?

For the pointer I thank Jackson Stone.

Less than reviews

My Octopus Teacher, a Netflix special.  Overly sentimental for commercial reasons, and is there any film that so shoehorns a series of encounters into an overly crude narrative?  Nonetheless the footage of the octopus and her environment (yes her) is amazing and I definitely recommend this one.

Teheran, an Israeli TV show on Apple Plus.  From the writer of Fauda, it concerns Israeli agents working in Teheran, under precarious circumstances of course.  Not deep, and at times implausible in plot, but very high production values and agitated in the good sense of that term.  I am glad it is only eight episodes.

Gimme Some Truth, two-CD collection of earlier songs by John Lennon, remastered by his son Sean.  Good, classic selections, but this remaster is the greatest sonic crime I have heard in centuries, indeed millennia.  The album Plastic Ono Band, for instance, had one of the most special sounds of the LP era, somehow both spare and “wall of sound” at the same time, but now it just plods and thuds and the space surrounding it sounds empty.  How could Yoko Ono have let this one get through?  I won’t even give you the link.

Seven Samurai, by Kurosawa.  Ran is his peak achievement, then perhaps Ikiru (also one of the best movies about bureaucracy), and the much underrated late Kurosawa movies.  But this one is actually a drag,  Hollywood Westerns have improved on the plot, and the three hours of artificial face-mugging wears thin pretty quickly.

Yi Yi, 2000 Taiwanese movie directed by Edward Yang.  Rented out a theater to see this one again, Alex T. came too.  Not regretted, to say the least, one of the better movies.  But given the length and the methods of dramatic construction, I do not recommend that you watch it at home.  Just get a small (masked) group together, as indeed we did.

From the AstraZeneca comments

Transverse Myletitis has a background incidence of 4/million in the US. Currently there are 2 cases reported out of 18,000 people who have already been administered the vaccine. Of those two, one was diagnosed with concurrent MS (another neurodegenerative autoimmune condition known to cause TM and whose population has a 2000% relative risk increase in developing TM depending on criteria used) and one has not had details released.

With 18,000 data points, a “1%” risk would require there to be 178 missed cases. Odds of that are astronomically low. Much more likely, if there were any real correlation (which again seems rather unlikely) we are looking at something 80+) and would STILL result in fewer deaths than waiting. If the choice were this or letting Covid become endemic with just an influenza fatality rate, this would again be the more ethical choice. Economically 1.1 million being totally disabled would be somewhere around $3 trillion, which again would be vastly cheaper than ending transmission through current social policies. In terms of raw lives lost, a 1% incidence would easily be less than letting Covid run.

People say we need more numbers, but funny enough their doom and gloom scenarios invariably involve scenarios that are necessarily imply that all the trial data to date is spurious and/or that even if true are less deadly than waiting.

And note that this argument has no justification for pausing the trial. With 2 data points, 1 of which is almost certainly spurious for the general population, the solution is to keep administering it.

Reality is that regulators and drug companies are simply not doing a cost benefit calculation that weights the currently dying at all in the US. I am hoping that the drug companies are being amoral profit seekers and are hoping to just browbeat the FDA once the Brits get things settled and the US policy scene (one way or the other) stops being about Mr. Trump.

That is from MR commentator Sure.  And also from him:

The other thing to remember is that a lot of pharma’s actual business is not as much discovery of new entities, rather they buy up rights to a lot of those and then take somebody else’s work through the years long process of approval. For big pharma much of their comparative advantage is in navigating an expensive, byzantine approval process. Take that away and they might face far more competition from smaller firms and potentially foreign firms that can manage the new landscape better.

Lastly, pharma lives in fear of the regulators while trying to suborn them. Going against them FDA bureaucrats (who are unlikely to want to de facto kill their own jobs) risks one of them grinding an axe and slow walking a blockbuster approval or fast walking a biosimilar approval. Either of those actions will easily change the net profit for a pharma firm by more than they could possibly make off a Covid vaccine.

Currently, faster has very little upside for them. They have pre-commitment so they are going to get paid even if they are slow. There are dozen odd vaccines coming down the pike and one, maybe two, will take the lion’s share of the market once the immediate crisis is over. They are mostly doing this to win goodwill and being the guy whose vaccine kills 2,000 people is bad if your competitors kill only 5. From a public health perspective, we would be better with the less safe vaccine a month sooner than the safer vaccine a month later (and ideally we would get both and swap promptly). For the pharma firms, the calculus just goes towards being as slow as the rest of pack and being ungodly thorough.

Perhaps things will improve in a few weeks’ time.

Sunday assorted links

1. Redux of my early August piece on why you should moralize less about national coronavirus performance (now ungated).

2. Jet Suit assault teams.

3. Local experimentation with the Chinese vaccine seems to be proceeding very well.

4. The progress of Africa’s largest dam, and the international relations problems it is causing.

5. Can they build a Netflix TV series around a woman chess player?  The article has other interesting features.

6. Good signs for Covid lung damage recovery (NYT).  Not the final word, but you will note I have not been pushing the “long-term damage” line here at MR.  Just as I have not been pushing the Vitamin D thing, weak theory in my view and it gets pulled out of the hat with empirical correlations for all sorts of maladies.

And yet the American trial remains suspended

Those nasty, reckless Brits:

The NHS is preparing to introduce a coronavirus vaccine soon after Christmas. Trials have shown it will cut infections and save lives, Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer, has privately revealed.

He told MPs last week that stage three trials of the vaccine created at Oxford University and being manufactured by AstraZeneca mean a mass rollout is on the horizon as early as December. Thousands of NHS staff are to undergo training to administer a vaccine before the end of the year.

The government changed the law this weekend to expand the number of health professionals able to inoculate the public. The regulations will enable pharmacists, dentists, midwives and paramedics to administer jabs.

C’mon U.S. public health authorities, let’s get on this one and demand a resumption of the suspended AstraZeneca trial.  You are advocates of science, right?  You don’t actually want to make Donald Trump correct, do you?  (Maybe that one will work.)

You don’t have to make it the vaccine, as the Brits seem to be doing, you just have to resume the trial, as the even more reckless Japanese did weeks ago.  How about it?

Here is the article from Times of London (gated, but a cheap and worthwhile subscription for foreigners), via Linda Yueh.

Solve for the China equilibrium

Chinese government officials are warning their American counterparts they may detain U.S. nationals in China in response to the Justice Department’s prosecution of Chinese military-affiliated scholars, according to people familiar with the matter.

The Chinese officials have issued the warnings to U.S. government representatives repeatedly and through multiple channels, the people said, including through the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

The Chinese message, the people said, has been blunt: The U.S. should drop prosecutions of the Chinese scholars in American courts, or Americans in China might find themselves in violation of Chinese law.

Here is more from the WSJ.  Three to four years ago I used to explain to friends and family that I needed to visit China as much as possible very quickly, because soon enough my opportunities would be over.  And it seems that now — even without the Covid factor — we have reached that point.

Is concentration eroding labor’s share of national income?

Here is a new piece from Joe Kennedy, here are his summary points:

Despite the persistent claims that increased market power has hurt workers, the scholarly evidence is weak, while the macroeconomic data is strong and clear in showing that this is not the principal cause.

Labor’s share of income has declined slightly over the past two decades, but not principally because capital’s share of income has increased.

Most of the decline is offset by an increase in rental income—what renters pay and what the imputed rent homeowners pay for their house. This increase is due to restricted housing markets, not growing employer power in product or labor markets.

Antitrust policy is not causing the drop in labor share, so changing it is not the solution. For issues such as employer collusion over wages or excessive use of noncompete agreements, antitrust authorities already have power to act.

Stringent antitrust policy would do little to raise the labor share of income, but it could very well reduce investment and productivity growth. The better way to help workers is with pro-growth, pro-innovation policies that boost productivity.

This probable untruth received a big boost about three years ago, in part through mood affiliation.  Perhaps other data will yet rescue it, but for now I am watching to see how long it will take to die away.  Ten years perhaps?