Month: March 2020

Wednesday assorted links

My Conversation with John McWhorter

This one was done with an associated public event, ah the good ol’ days!  Here is the audio and transcript, here is the summary:

Who can you ask about the Great American Songbook, the finer Jell-O flavors, and peculiar languages like Saramaccan all while expecting the same kind of fast, thoughtful, and energetic response? Listeners of Lexicon Valley might hazard a guess: John McWhorter. A prominent academic linguist, he’s also highly regarded for his podcast and popular writings across countless books and articles where often displays a deep knowledge in topics beyond his academic training.

John joined Tyler to discuss why he thinks that colloquial Indonesian should be the world’s universal language, the barbaric circumstances that gave rise to Creole languages, the reason Mandarin won’t overtake English as the lingua franca, how the Vikings shaped modern English, the racial politics of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, the decline of American regional accents, why Shakespeare needs an English translation, Harold Arlen vs. Andrew Lloyd Webber, whether reparations for African-Americans is a good idea, how living in Jackson Heights shapes his worldview, what he learned from his mother and father, why good linguistics students enjoy both Russian and Chinese, and more.


COWEN: Let’s say I interview a job candidate using Skype or Zoom rather than face-to-face, how is that different linguistically? How should I adjust? What should I expect that’s different?

MCWHORTER: You mean if they’re not actually there in the room?

COWEN: Right, but I see them on the screen.

MCWHORTER: I think that’s fine.

COWEN: You think it’s just as good?

MCWHORTER: It helps bring the world together. Do I need to be in the room with the person, watching what they do with their legs, getting a vague sense of whatever their redolence happens to be?

COWEN: All of these people have showed up, right?

MCWHORTER: Yeah. To tell you the truth, all of that to me is a distraction. I would rather just hear their voice. Frankly, I despise Skype. You’re sitting there, you look bad, and it always cuts out. Yet your whole life these days is about “You wanna Skype?” And I’m thinking, “Yeah, it’s going to cut out, and we’re both going to look bad.”

But I would rather just hear the person. Maybe that’s because I’m kind of linguist-centric.


COWEN: Here’s a very basic question. Let’s say immersion is not possible. How should an adult study a foreign language?

MCWHORTER: It’s hard. Sleep with somebody, frankly.


Four puzzling coronavirus facts

1. Why are we not seeing more problems in Iran if so many people have it?

2. Why is nowhere in the world (with the possible exception of Iran) currently as bad as Northern Italy?

3. Why did Singapore’s containment strategy work, in such a high-density location?  Their program is mostly symptom/temperature checking-based, but supposedly a lot of transmission happens before any fever manifested.

4. Why isn’t China seeing a second wave?  There aren’t nearly enough infections for herd immunity to be reducing R0.

Is climate really the main/significant source of heterogeneity here?  Or is it that Italians (and Iranians?) kiss each other when they greet and then hold long “street conferences”?

What is the proper fiscal response to the coronavirus?

A number of you have been asking me this question, and unfortunately I still do not know.  Here is why:

1. I still am not sure how much we want to keep people on the job, as opposed to keeping them away from the workplace (but still being paid?).

2. I am not sure if this will be a rapid, bounce-back recovery, or a tortuous supply-bottlenecked, high risk premium non-recovery.  It matters a good deal for our policy choices and also for their timing.

3. Will aggregate supply or aggregate demand end up being the binding constraint, after the two have interacted for a while?  Or is that the wrong framework altogether?

3b. Can you build tunnels and bridges with quarantined workers?

4. I see a good chance that the coronavirus will affect regions of the country differently, with climate, temperature, humidity, and population density being possible factors.  (Where are the overloaded hospitals in Jakarta?  Surely at this point it is not just a data collection issue.)  So where exactly should the aid and the fiscal stimulus go?  And for what exactly?  It seems we will know much more soon, but we don’t know it yet.

5. Do you want to give people cash if they will just go out and spend it on entertainment or in large, crowded stores?  Is that what you are hoping they will do?  To what extent do we want the “transmitting sectors” to be contracting right now?  Does it do much good to send consumers money they will spend on Amazon or pizza deliveries, two sectors that may do fine or even prosper during the tough times?

I do not think we should bail out shale oil producers or cruise lines.  Presumably we wish to support businesses with an income gap for coronavirus reasons, but what exactly should we do?  I am puzzled by the degree of certainty people seem to exhibit about this issue.  I am not arguing we should do nothing, but simply noting I am not yet sure what to recommend.  My intuition is to opt for well-targeted federal aid for the most heavily affected regions — Washington state, the Bay Area, and parts of New York — and then take another bite at the apple soon as the numbers develop.

In the meantime, let’s do everything we can on the public health front.  Much of that will end up being fiscal policy as well.

Totally false thoughts about the coronavirus (overheard on the street)

“Yes, Trump’s poor coronavirus response is inexcusable. But let’s get real people, the Dem candidates have been holding mass rallies and only today did Bernie and Biden cancel them.  Are they so ahead of the curve?”

“Reductions in air pollution due to COVID-19 in China have probably saved more lives than have so far been lost to the virus.”

“Thank god for the automatic social distancing effects of NIMBY.”

“If you want to get ratioed, try suggesting that climate change will help all the more.”

“In part we should be happy to hear there are so many cases in Iran, because the country still seems to be holding together.”

The pattern I see developing in the West: either do nothing or cancel everything. People seem unable to accept the only solution that works: go on with life while being controlled

How big a hit will the U.S. economy take?: two scenarios

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one pastiche:

First, consider the relatively optimistic view: Covid-19 will have affects akin to what economists call a seasonal business cycle — which is to say, it will be over quickly and without much lasting damage.

…in this scenario there is also a rapid path back to recovery. At some point the terror of Covid-19 will lift, just as cases in many parts of China now seem to be declining. Once public health conditions improve, retail, entertainment and services can gear back up. Both production and purchasing power will bounce back, similar to how they normally do after the first-quarter doldrums.


But there is a much more worrying scenario. Rather than drawing an analogy with temporary seasonal cycles, an alternative model draws a parallel with cascading disruptions. Have you ever tried building a sand pile and noticed that, at some point, adding a few more handfuls of sand causes a kind of avalanche, leaving just an amorphous heap?

This less sanguine option might look like this: The Chinese economic slowdown leads to a permanent loss of momentum and a global recession. At the same time, with Lombardy closed down, the Italian government defaults, but the European Union is unable to resolve the matter (and the associated bank failures) in a timely and resolute manner. Governments vacillate between policies that make it easier for people to stay at home to limit the spread of the disease and policies designed to get them back in the workplace.

The U.S. would be caught up in the general loss of confidence, as well as the contagion from European banks. But that is only the beginning. As schools close to limit the spread of Covid-19, single parents would have to stay home, and the resulting production bottlenecks would plague the U.S. economy. Maybe New York City would have to cut back on the number of subway trains it runs, and much of the city’s economy would grind to a halt. Supply chain problems from China would persist, hitting everything from medicines to the ordinary goods found in a Walmart.

The problems of missing goods in the supply chain, workplace absenteeism, family health emergencies, and investor uncertainty would compound each other. Any individual act of spending or production, rather than jump-starting further economic activity, would run up against another bottleneck and fade to insignificance. The confidence boost would fail to materialize. Untangling this mess of problems is much harder than just getting people to go back out to dinner and the movies again, and could take years. Traditional demand-side stimulation from the Fed or from the fiscal side would not itself reverse the stagnation.


Tuesday assorted links

1. Further evidence for the importance of female role models: “We find that, among high-ability female students, being assigned a female professor leads to substantial increases in the probability of working in a STEM occupation and the probability of receiving a STEM master’s degree.”

2. Which Conversations with Tyler guest is your intellectual doppelgänger?  A fun test you can take.

3. “According to the researchers, consumers notice no difference when a quarter of the milk butter in a cake is replaced with larva fat. However, they report an unusual taste when it gets to fifty-fifty and say they would not want to buy the cake.”  Link here.

4. Krugman reviews Piketty (NYT).

5. Kevin Drum’s simple theory of DT’s optimism about the coronavirus.  And the economics of mandated sick pay.  And “Detroit to restore water service to unpaid homes to allow people to wash their hands to avoid coronavirus.

The Lasting Effects of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic

[I’ve never put a trigger warning on a post before but given the current situation the information here is potential upsetting to anyone expecting a child. I do not think that the current pandemic will be as bad as the 1918. I am also hopeful that the weather will work in our favor and that, as Tyler argued, America will start to work. Do also read my post, What Worked in 1918-1919 for a more positive message.]

The 1918 influenza pandemic struck the United States with most ferocity in October of 1918 and then over the next four months killed more people than all the US combat deaths of the 20th century. The sudden nature of the pandemic meant that children born just months apart experienced very different conditions in utero. In particular, children born in 1919 were much more exposed to influenza in utero than children born in 1918 or 1920. The sudden differential to the 1918 flu lets Douglas Almond test for long-term effects in Is the 1918 Influenza Pandemic Over?

Almond finds large effects many decades after exposure.

Fetal health is found to affect nearly every socioeconomic outcome recorded in the 1960, 1970, and 1980 Censuses. Men and women show large and discontinuous reductions in educational attainment if they had been in utero during the pandemic. The children of infected mothers were up to 15 percent less likely to graduate from high school. Wages of men were 5–9 percent lower because of infection. Socioeconomic status…was substantially reduced, and the likelihood of being poor rose as much as 15 percent compared with other cohorts. Public entitlement spending was also increased.

At right, for example, are male disability rates in 1980, i.e. for males around the age of 60, by year and quarter of birth. Cohorts born between January and September of 1919 “were in utero at the height of the pandemic and are estimated to have 20 percent higher disability rates at age 61…”.

Figure 3 at right shows average years of schooling in 1960; once again the decline is clear for those born in 1918 and note that not all pregnant women contracted influenza so the actual effects of influenza exposure are larger, about a 5 month decline in education, mostly coming through lower graduate rates.

Higher disability and lower education translate into greater government payments as show in the final figure below. Almond labels these welfare payments which might be slightly misleading–these are Social Security Disability payments in 1970. Here’s Almond:

Average payments to women and nonwhites in 1970 are plotted in figure 8. The average welfare payment was 12 percent higher for both women and nonwhites born in 1919, or approximately one-third higher for children of mothers who contracted influenza. When we focus on quarter of birth, it is apparent that these increased payments are generated by high payments to those born between April and June of 1919.

Note that men and women who were especially disabled could have died before 1970 and so these are lower bounds on the disability impact.

Fetal exposure seems to be the key as Almond tests for and rejects other possibilities. The 1918 kids, for example, seem about the same as the 1920 kids so it’s not that the flu killed off the weak kids in 1918.

Almond was interested in the 1918 pandemic not simply as a historical episode but to make the case that infant health and infant health programs have high benefit to cost ratios, a still relevant lesson.

Hat tip: Wojtek Kopczuk.

Solve for the reporting equilibrium?

The district governments of the metropolis that comprises Wuhan — the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in China — have announced plans to give cash rewards to local residential areas that have successfully curbed the spread of COVID-19.

The incentive rules stipulate that regions and large facilities, such as rural villages and apartment complexes, will receive up to 500,000 yuan ($72,000) for reporting no new cases of infection. Per the Beijing News (in Chinese), the policies were in line with a high-level initiative launched by the Wuhan municipal government on March 1 that mandates every resident to be thoroughly examined.

Here is more, via Slow Thinker.

What I’ve been reading

1. Nicholas Hewitt, Wicked City: The Many Cultures of Marseille.  Every city should have a good book about it, and now Marseille does.  I would say you have to already know the city, however, to appreciate this one.

2. Peter Johnson, Quarantined: Life and Death at William Head Station, 1872-1959.  British Columbia had a quarantine station that late, and this is its story.  Leprosy, smallpox, and meningitis are a few of the drivers of the narrative.  It continues to startle me how much pandemics and quarantines are a kind of lost history, though they are extremely prominent in 19th century fiction.

3. Steven Levy, Facebook: The Inside Story.  Probably the best history of the company were are going to get, at least for the earlier years of the company.  Even the jabs at the company seem perfunctory, for the most part this is quite objective as a treatment.

4. Katie Roiphe, The Power Notebooks.  Power, sex, dating, and romance, but surprisingly substantive.  Much of it is written in paragraph-long segments, and willing to be politically incorrect.  “Rebecca West: “Since men don’t love us nearly as much as we love them that leaves them a lot more spare vitality to be wonderful with.”

5. Sean Masaki Flynn, The Cure That Works: How to have the World’s Best Healthcare — at a Quarter of the Price.  A look at how to translate ideas from Singapore’s health care system into the United States.  It overreaches, but still a useful overview and analysis.

6. Paul R. Josephson, New Atlantis Revisited: Akademgorodok, The Siberian City of Science.  Imagine the Soviets trying to build a “city of science,” and meeting problem after problem.  Yet “Marchuk acknowledged that in a number of fields researchers had contributed to…the speeding up of scientific technological progress.  The physicists built synchroton radiation sources with broad applications; the biologists tacked plant and animal husbandry with vigor; the mathematicians, computer specialists, and economists were engaged in modeling and management systems.”

America is historically slow to mobilize, but eventually quite effective

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, and Pearl Harbor, terrorism risk, and the financial crisis stand among the notable examples.  Here is one excerpt:

It is no accident that America is so often so slow out of the starting gate. The federal government is large and complex, and the American people do not always elect the most intellectual or science-minded of leaders. Federalism means American politics has many moving parts, and the government tends to work closely with the private sector, heightening coordination problems and slowing response times. For all America’s reputation as the land of laissez-faire, it is in fact highly bureaucratized, with the health-care sector an especially bad offender.


As time passes, the number of discrete decision points in the U.S. system goes from being a drawback to a strength. For instance, it turns out that the University of Washington had been developing an effective testing kit several months ago, for fear that Covid-19 would spread widely. Washington State is now in the testing lead, and virologists there are working very hard to collect and interpret data, setting an example for others. Commercial companies such as Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp are now developing tests as well, with further interest likely to follow. American institutions are some of the most productive and flexible in the world, at least once they are allowed to operate.

America also has one of the strongest traditions of civil society and volunteerism, and those resources too will be mobilized to help fight the coronavirus as appropriate. The Gates Foundation will soon fund free home-testing kits, initially in the Seattle area.

There is much more at the link.  Of course it is indeed time we got our act together, starting at the very top but by no means limited to that position.

Monday assorted links

The FDA and Coronavirus

The failure of the FDA/CDC to adequately prepare for coronavirus, despite weeks of advance notice from China is one of the most shocking and serious examples of government failure that I have seen in my lifetime. After being prevented from doing so, private laboratories are now allowed to offer coronavirus tests and Bill and Melinda Gates’s Foundation is working on an at home swab and test.

But what happens when people get sick? What drugs will patients be allowed to try given that there is no standard treatment available? One experimental antiviral, Remdesivir, was given to the first US patient who was on a downward spiral but seemed to recover after receiving the drug. Gilead, the manufacturer says:

Remdesivir is not yet licensed or approved anywhere globally and has not been demonstrated to be safe or effective for any use. At the request of treating physicians, and with the support of local regulatory agencies, who have weighed the risks and benefits of providing an experimental drug with no data in 2019-nCoV, Gilead has provided remdesivir for use in a small number of patients with 2019-nCoV for emergency treatment in the absence of any approved treatment options.

If Gilead is willing to supply, should patients have a right to try? This seems like a good case for the dual tracking approach proposed by Bartley Madden–let patients try unapproved drugs but collect all information in a public database for analysis. Clinical trials for Remdesivir and other potential drugs are currently underway in China.

Chloroquine, might also be useful against Covid-19. Chloroquine was approved long ago to treat malaria and physicians are allowed to prescribe old drugs for new uses. New uses for old drugs are discovered all the time and they do not have to go through long and costly FDA approval procedures before being prescribed for the new uses. Since chloroquine has never been tested for efficacy against coronovirus, allowing physicians to prescribe it is similar to allowing physicians to prescribe an unapproved drug like Remdesivir. The difference in how new drugs and old drugs for new uses are treated is something of a regulatory anomaly but a fortunate one as I argue in my paper on off-label prescribing.

I suspect that my arguments for less FDA regulation will be relatively well received during the current climate of fear. Bear in mind, however, that for the patient who is dying it’s always an emergency.

Hat tip: Balaji Srinivasan, who really would make a great FDA commissioner.

Anne Enright is honest about books

How have your reading tastes changed over time?

I was a book-a-day child, a pretentious teenager. I read hugely in my 20s and 30s — all the good stuff, nothing very odd or esoteric. As I started getting published, I read my contemporaries in a way that was not entirely pure. Then, after I had children, I stopped. It is possible more books were written than read by me, in the years when they were small. I don’t think I am a recreational reader. I am always looking for something and I am not sure what it is. These days, I am increasingly restless. I throw books aside. I blame the internet. I blame the chair. I yearn for books not published yesterday or next week. I stick to nonfiction. And then suddenly, I can’t leave a book out of my hand. This happened most recently with “Where Reasons End,” by Yiyun Li.

Here is the full interview (NYT).