Month: May 2020

The general lesson still has yet to sink in

Apple Store’s Temperature Checks May Violate EU Privacy Rules, Says German Data Protection Office

Of course they do.  And yes, I know that is a small thing, and furthermore temperature checks may not even be effective.

The general point is this: you cannot over the longer run have a society based on such inflexible rules of adjustment.  For decades it may seem possible, due to underlying stasis, but eventually the truth will be revealed.  No single anecdote will be so convincing, and it will take a long time for the failures to pile up.  And in the meantime this will breed disrespect for the more valuable laws.

What I’ve been reading

1. Jordan Mechner, The Making of Prince of Persia: Journals 1985-1993.  A memoir and game development journal from a game developer.  The content is foreign to me, but this is one of the most beautiful and artistic books I ever have seen and I suspect some of you will find the narrative gripping.  A product of Stripe Press — “Ideas for Progress.”

2. Jeffrey D. Sachs, The Ages of Globalization: Geography, Technology, and Institutions.  This book is a series of lectures, based on Sachs’s earlier work on economic geography and development, yet somehow with a vaguely Yuval Harari sort of glow.  Some parts are a good introduction to the earlier work of Sachs, other parts are pitched a bit too low or too generally.  It is strange to see chapter subheadings such as “Thalassocracy and Tellurocracy.”  As an economist, I still maintain that Sachs is considerably underrated.

3. Susanna Clarke, Piranesi.  Yes this is a work of fiction.  Clarke of course wrote Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, a very long novel that I have read twice, an odd mix of fantasy, science, magic, and Enlightenment esotericism, the only novel I know with fascinating footnotes.  I was thrilled to receive this one, and on p.51 I am still excited.

4. Mieko Kawakami, Breasts and Eggs.  The hot new novel from Japan, it comes with a Murakami rave endorsement.  To me it seems like “ordinary feminism” (not that there’s anything wrong with that), and so far it is a bore.  If it doesn’t get better soon, I’ll write it off as a “mood affiliation text,” not that there’s anything wrong with that.  It probably makes most sense read in a very specific cultural context.

5. Douglas Boin, Alaric the Goth: An Outsider’s History of the Fall of Rome is a fun look at one part of ancient history through alternative eyes.  I always wonder what to trust about this era other than primary sources, and if you can’t understand them or grasp them intelligibly maybe that is itself the correct inference, namely that we have no idea what the **** went on back then.  Still, as imaginary reconstructions go, this is one that ought to be done and now it is.

6. Ryan Patrick Hanley, Our Great Purpose: Adam Smith on Living a Better Life.  Smith as a practical moral philosopher, this short volume pulls out the side of Smith closest to Montaigne and the Stoics.  You can ponder Smithian sentences such as “The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life, seems to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another.”

7. Sonia Jaffe, Robert Minton, Casey B. Mulligan, Kevin M. Murphy, Chicago Price Theory.  A very good intermediate micro text, patterned after how Econ 301 is taught at Chicago.  Apparently in the current Coasean equilibrum, this book ends up published by Princeton University Press.  Get the picture?

From a legal perspective there is Ron Harris, Going the Distance: Eurasian Trade and the Rise of the Business Corporation, 1400-1700.

Why aren’t we talking about forcible quarantine more?

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

There has been surprisingly little debate in America about one strategy often cited as crucial for preventing and controlling the spread of Covid-19: coercive isolation and quarantine, even for mild cases. China, Singapore and South Korea separate people from their families if they test positive, typically sending them to dorms, makeshift hospitals or hotels. Vietnam and Hong Kong have gone further, sometimes isolating the close contacts of patients.

I am here to tell you that those practices are wrong, at least for the U.S. They are a form of detainment without due process, contrary to the spirit of the Constitution and, more important, to American notions of individual rights. Yes, those who test positive should have greater options for self-isolation than they currently do. But if a family wishes to stick together and care for each other, it is not the province of the government to tell them otherwise.

What I observe is people citing those other countries as successes, wishing to “score points,” but without either affirming or denying their willingness to engage in coercive quarantine.  Here is another bit:

Furthermore, all tests have false positives, not just medically but administratively (who else has experienced the government making mistakes on your tax returns?). Fortunately, current Covid-19 tests do not have a high rate of false positives. But even a 1% net false positive rate would mean — in a world where all Americans get tested — that more than 1 million innocent, non-sick Americans are forcibly detained and exposed to further Covid-19 risk.

And this:

Coercive containment was tried during one recent pandemic — in Castro’s Cuba, from 1986 to 1994, for those with HIV-AIDS. It is not generally a policy that is endorsed in polite society, and not because everyone is such an expert in Cuban public health data and epidemiological calculations. People oppose the policy because it was morally wrong.

And what about uncertainty? Is it really a safe bet that America’s quarantine policy would be executed successfully and save many lives? What if scientists are on the verge of discovering a cure or treatment that will lower the Covid-19 death rate significantly? Individual rights also protect society from the possibly disastrous consequences of its own ignorance.

Here are a few points that did not fit into the column:

1. I am not opposed to all small number, limited duration quarantine procedures, such as say holding Typhoid Mary out of socializing.  This same point also means that a society that starts coercive quarantine very early might be able to stamp out the virus by coercing relatively small numbers of people.  (It is not yet clear that the supposed successes have achieved this, by the way.)  That is very different from the “mass dragnet” to be directed against American society under current proposals.

2. I am familiar with the broad outlines of American quarantine law and past practice.  I don’t see that history as necessarily authorizing how a current proposal would have to operate, and on such a scale.  In any case, I am saying that such coercive quarantines would be wrong, not that they would be illegal.  I believe it is a genuinely open question how current courts would rule on these matters.

3. From my perch from a distance, it seems to me that Human Challenge Trials for vaccines are more controversial than is mass forced quarantine.  I could be wrong, and I would gladly pursue any leads on the current debate you might have for me.  Who are the philosophers or biomedical ethicists or legal scholars who have spoken out against such policies?

Wednesday assorted links

1. Sentences to ponder: “He’s in London with his girlfriend, in the apartment the Batman folks rented for him…’I went for a run around the park today,’ he says. ‘I’m so terrified of being, like, arrested. You’re allowed to run around here. But the terror I feel from it is quite extreme.’…I was so obsessed with watching Christopher Hitchens debates.”

2. The man feeding a remote Alaska town with a Costco card and a ship.

3. The Cal State system — which covers about 500,000 people — seems to be opting for a virtual Fall semester.

4. “We find that talking about white privilege causes a major reduction in support for a politician.

5. Leisure-enhancing technological change.

6. How are bookstores doing? (NYT)

7. Henry on what the public really wants.

8. Calgary Zoo to ship giant pandas back to China early due to difficulty getting bamboo during pandemic.

9. “However, from May 15th, nationals of the Faroe Islands and Greenland will be able to visit [Iceland] without going into quarantine.

10. John Gray ponders the apocalypse.

A simple question about space aliens

If you thought non-hostile but highly disruptive aliens would arrive within the next ten years, which of your decisions would change? Should change?

Should you save more or less? Long or short crypto?  Contribute less to Wikipedia pages and other public-minded ventures?

What else?  To be clear, I’m not interested in debating space aliens here, I want to hear about optimal responses, taking the aliens as a given.

By the way, will a Tom Cruise movie actually be shot in outer space?

“Our regulatory state is failing us”

A number of commentators suggest that the real problem is President Trump, rich people overly concerned with tax cuts, a Republican Party with a deregulatory ideology, and so on.

Instead I have been repeating insistently that “our regulatory state is failing us.”  The FDA and CDC, for instance, have through their regulations made it harder for testing and also widespread mask supply to get off the ground.

I don’t see how you can blame (supposed) deregulatory fervor for the presence of too many regulations, as we have been observing in these instances.

I do think you can blame President Trump, along multiple dimensions, for a poor response to the pandemic, see my grades here.  (If there were a separate risk communication grade, Trump would get an F minus for that.)  Nonetheless a regulatory state cannot be said to work well if it requires such extraordinary attention from a sitting president.

It can be the case that both Trump and the permanent bureaucracy are at fault.  If something takes a long time to get done for reasons relating to preexisting rules, regulations, and laws, usually the current president is not directly at fault for that particular problem.  Was it only Trump’s fault, for instance, that the permits to build a mask factory can take months to acquire?  Or that the HHS did not respond to inquiries about gearing up mask production in Texas?  Or that a law had to be changed to allow industrial companies to sell quality masks to hospitals?  Or that so many a-legal or extra-legal activities (e.g., rich people arranging deliveries by plane, etc.) had to occur to sneak masks into this country?  That the trade barriers on masks persisted for so long? (And yes likely the Trump administration is at fault for de facto toughening restrictions on masks from China.)

It is fine to say “the buck stops here,” and to criticize Trump for not having erected processes to be more aware of these problems and to dissolve them more quickly.  I would agree with some of those criticisms, while noting the Trump administration also has tried to ease many of the regulations hampering adjustment.

This is more something on the horizon, but how do these apples make you feel?  Comforted?  The fault of plutocratic Republicans most of all?

And in both cases, vials and stoppers, a vaccine manufacturer cannot just switch to a slightly different product or another brand. They typically have to run manufacturing changes by FDA first, which could make quick supplier changes to curb shortages a difficult prospect.

The FDA can decide how flexible it will be about this type of change, says Sklamberg. The agency said in a December 2017 draft guidance that companies could note some changes in their annual reports rather than waiting for approval, but it has not finalized the policy.

The ability to switch products could be crucial as the entire world readies for a possible vaccine and vies to secure their supplies.

If you wish, consider a simple question.  When the CDC pooh-poohed masks early on, or botched their testing kit thereby delaying U.S. testing by weeks or maybe months, did the permanent staff of the CDC rise up and rebel and leak howling protests to the media, realizing that thousands of lives were at stake?  That is surely what would happen if say the current FDA announced it was going to approve thalidomide.

Those are still cases of our regulatory state failing us.

Tuesday assorted links

1. Why mass testing is harder for the United States.

2. Coronavirus hairdo in Kenya.

3. Ross Douthat is back from paternal leave (NYT).

4. Norway will not proceed with the RCT for school reopening.

5. How much of the world will end up with the Swedish strategy?

6. What are the macro benefits of large cities?, by Salim Furth.

7. What keeps stablecoins stable?

8. The third quarter of quarantine.

*The WEIRDest People in the World*

That is the new 655 pp. book by Joseph Henrich, due out September 8, and yes it is “an event.”  The subtitle is “How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous,” and that is indeed one of the very most important questions in all of social science.

“WEIRD” of course refers to “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.”  And is it not weird that we (some of us, at least) are WEIRD?

Here is an excerpt from the opening segment:

Let’s close by returning to the core questions of this book:

1. How can we explain the global psychological variation highlighted above?

2. Why are WEIRD societies particularly unusual, so often occupying the extreme ends of global distributions of psychology and behavior?

3. What role did these psychological differences play in the Industrial Revolution and the global expansion of Europe during the last few centuries?

If you are wondering how this material might differ from Henrich’s previous output, there is above all much more on marriage customs and monogamy, for instance:

…I’ll make the case that monogamous marriage norms — which push upstream against our polygynous biases and the strong preferences of elite men — create a range of social and psychological effects that give the societies that possess them a big edge in competition against other groups.

Obviously recommended, and you will be hearing more about this both from me and from others.  You can pre-order here.

Germany R estimate of the day

Germany is being closely watched worldwide as the most successful large European country in curbing the spread of the virus, partly thanks to massive testing, which has prompted a partial reopening of the economy. Merkel has frequently said the reproduction rate of the new coronavirus must be held below 1 to prevent the health system from being overwhelmed.

But the Robert Koch Institute for public health said the rate hovered above this critical threshold for the third consecutive day with an estimated value of 1.07 on Monday, after 1.13 on Sunday.

That Germany does not have its R below one is, in a nutshell, why short-run measurements of coronavirus responses are not very reliable.  And why “we need to lock down until full testing is up and running” is not necessarily convincing.  Here is the full story.

Some reflections on GRE scores

The evidence indicates that GRE scores predict graduate school success, general intelligence, and also that SAT scores predict later success in science.  Here is further evidence, and here is yet further evidence.

You don’t have to think that “high GRE score fields” are better than “low GRE score fields.”  Many of my friends, for instance, think string theory is intellectually bankrupt, despite many of its proponents being very, very smart.  I don’t have an opinion on string theory per se, but my friends might be right, and in any case I would rather read books from cultural studies, a lower GRE score field.

If you wish to understand the relative strengths and pathologies of theoretical physics and cultural studies, you cannot do that without knowing that the former is a relatively high GRE score field (or the equivalent) and that the latter is a relatively low GRE score field (or the equivalent).

There are many top economists on Twitter, most of them Democrats, who would never ever utter a word about GRE scores in a blog post or on Twitter.  Yet when on an admissions committee, they will ruthlessly enforce the strictest standards for math GRE scores without hesitation.  Not only in top ten programs, but in top thirty programs and even further down the line in many cases.  It is very, very hard to get into a top or even second-tier economics program without an absolutely stellar math GRE score, and yes that is enforced by the same humans who won’t talk about the issue.

Just in case you didn’t know that.

Personally, I feel it has gone too far in that direction, and economics has overinvested in one very particular kind of intelligence (I would myself put greater stress on the old GRE subject test scores for economics, thus selecting for those with an initial interest in the economy rather than in mathematics).

When I did graduate admissions for George Mason University, I very consciously moved away from an emphasis on GRE scores, and for the better.  My first goal was simply to take in more students, and a more diverse group of students, and in fact many of the later top performers were originally “marginal” students by GRE standards.  Looking back, many of our top GRE-scoring students have not done better than the peers, though they have done fine.  For GMU these admission criteria are (in my view) more like the Rosen-Roback model than anything else, though I would readily grant Harvard and MIT are not in the same position.

If you are afraid to talk about GRE scores, you are afraid to talk about reality.

The new economics of higher education

That is my new Bloomberg column, written for a special feature and thus 2x the normal length.  Here is one excerpt:

The decisions of American families also will choke off out-of-state tuition revenue. Note that about three-quarters of America’s higher education sector, by enrollment, is state schools. The out-of-state tuition rate is the real cash cow of American higher education, and sometimes it can approach three times the in-state rate. Schools’ reliance on out-of-state revenue is going to take a big hit, as it was premised on a degree of individual geographic mobility that simply does not exist right now and may not be restored anytime soon.

I suspect many parents will, whether it is rational or not, prefer to keep their children closer to home.

The most vulnerable state schools will be those in underpopulated states and far from population centers. The University of Vermont, with about three-quarters out-of-state students, ought to worry…

Another problem will be the plummeting enrollment of foreign students, who typically are paying out-of-state tuition rates…

The University of Rochester, with about 27% foreign students, will find this adjustment especially difficult.

There is much more at the link, recommended.  One theme is that upper tier schools will stay in business, but by relaxing admissions standards and by cannibalizing students from lower-tier schools (I am curious to see how those students do in their newly found “promotions”).

p.s. Average is Over

p.p.s. “free college” is a really bad idea, worse than before.  State schools cannot at the moment survive the complete loss of tuition revenue.

Monday assorted links

1. Photos from Belarus, interesting in their own right but all the more so now.

2. More comments on the models.

3. The lockdown culture that is Ontario: “19-year-old charged after Mercedes clocked doing 308 km/h.”

4. Two million chickens to be killed because there aren’t enough workers to kill them.

5. Covid-19 has largely spared the baseball world (model this).

6. An argument that all will be well soon enough.  Not my view, but happy to pass along this perspective from Lars Christensen.

Human Challenge Trials

What if we develop a vaccine for COVID-19 but can’t find enough patients to run a randomized clinical trial? It sounds absurd, but this problem has happened in the past. Ebola was identified in 1976, and candidate vaccines were proven safe and effective in mice and primates in 2004 and 2005, respectively. But no human vaccine was produced [at that time] because it was extremely difficult, bordering on impossible, to trial an Ebola vaccine. The problem? Ebola is so deadly that people take precautionary measures long before a vaccine can be tested.

A few pieces have been written about human challenge trials, clinical trials in which healthy people are infected with a disease in order to see if a treatment or vaccine works, but most of them focus on the ethical issues. I don’t think there are serious ethical issues so writing at The National Interest I focus on why challenge trials are useful statistically and why they may even be necessary.

Even health care workers, however, have a low enough infection rate that you either need many months to determine if there is a significant effect, or you need large populations. In Italy, about 6,000 doctors were infected over two months, out of a population of about 241,000 Italian doctors. This is a monthly infection rate of 1.2 percent. If the vaccine is 50 percent effective, then to detect this within a month, you need a sample size of 7,776 people equally divided between a vaccinated group and a non-vaccinated group. You could run the test in a smaller sample of 1,322 but then the trial would take six months. A more effective vaccine would make detecting an effect easier, but flu vaccines work at 40 to 60 percent effectiveness, so an assumption of 50 percent is not unreasonable.

But will Italian doctors still be getting infected at a rate of 1.2 percent per month when a vaccine becomes available for trial in six months or a year? We hope not. The hope is that social distancing and the use of personal protective equipment will have greatly lowered the infection rate. A low infection rate is great, unless you want to properly test a vaccine.

…The virtue of a challenge trial is that the results would be available very quickly, within a few weeks, and using only a small population. If the vaccine is 50 percent effective, for example, then we would need around 100 volunteers or perhaps even fewer depending on how many people exposed to the virus in laboratory conditions contract the disease.

By advancing a vaccine by many months, a challenge trial could save many thousands of lives and spare the world the huge economic costs of the lockdowns and social distancing that we will be using to combat the virus.

Challenge trials, however, don’t solve all problems. In particular, to limit the risk we would want to restrict the patients in a challenge trial to be young and healthy. But that raises a problem of external validity. We also want the vaccine to be safe and effective in less healthy and elderly people which requires secondary challenge trials or field testing in that population. Nevertheless, as Athey, Kremer, Synder and myself argue in our NYTimes op-ed, the high risk of vaccine failure means that we would like 15-20 vaccine candidates and challenge trials could help us whittle this number down to the best two to three substantially speeding up the vaccine discovery process.

One more point is worth bearing in mind.

[A]n ordinary vaccine trial is not without risk—a vaccine could backfire and make the disease worse—so exposing fifty or so volunteers to the virus in a challenge trial must be balanced against exposing thousands to a potentially dangerous vaccine in an ordinary clinical trial.

Thus, the total risk may be lower with a combination of challenge trials and longer, larger field trials.

Challenge trials have a long history in medicine and their statistical advantages make them powerful and even necessary. As The Guardian notes:

Scientists, however, increasingly agree that such trials should be considered, and the WHO is the latest body to indicate conditional support for the idea.

“There’s this emerging consensus among everyone who has thought about this seriously,” said Prof Nir Eyal, the director of Rutgers University’s Center for Population-Level Bioethics in the US.

Charles Town, West Virginia

It is only about 70 minutes drive from Fairfax, VA, and yet so few go and visit — why might that be?  This town is full of charm, old buildings, Civil War history, and there is a plaque to Martin R. Delany in the town center.

West Virginia is in the process of reopening (note the obscenity), but barber shops require appointments and take only one person at a time.  The restaurants seem to be doing curbside only, as in Virginia, and what would you want to eat there anyway?  Population density in town is low, and it feels quite safe to walk around because you don’t have to switch sides of the street to avoid people.  You just have to walk at a constant pace.

In one store they will sell you toilet paper and masks.  But the guy takes his mask off to sell you the masks, because he feels he needs to explain and justify the prices for the masks.

The gdp per capita of West Virginia is, surprisingly to many people, equal to about that of France.  Charles Town is by no means run down, and either the center of town or the outskirts appear to be somewhat wealthier than most parts of Western Europe.

Here are eleven classic dishes you might try in West Virginia.

And there is still an opera house in town, and it was staging Sondheim’s Into the Woods until Covid came along.

What sports I’ve been watching

Game 2, Celtics vs. Bulls, 1986, the one where Michael Jordan scored 63 points.  Watching it over a number of days on the exercise bike, I was struck by the following:

1. The Chicago Bulls, to a remarkable degree, decided to run their offense through Orlando Woolridge, and not for the better.

2. The camera did not follow MJ around obsessively, nor do the announcers seem to realize how great he will become — this was his second season, and he spent much of it injured and not playing.  And he was not yet able to make his teammates better (see #1).

3. One announcer remarks that Charles Oakley is not big and strong enough to play center.  Admittedly Robert Parrish was taller, but Oakley was one of the strongest men ever to play in the NBA.

4. The game comes across as remarkably slow, and the Celtics as molasses slow and bad at defense.  A swarming contemporary defense would shut down Kevin McHale.  Ainge and Dennis Johnson are heralded as one of the best backcourts ever, but I believe Damian Lillard or a few other current peers would cut them to ribbons.  Note that the Celtics were 40-1 at home that season, still a record, so they were a remarkable team for their time.

5. Michael Jordan scores most of his points on shots — the long 2 — that coaches strongly discourage players from taking these days because of their low expected value.

6. Few of them look good taking a three-pointer.

7. MJ aside, Bill Walton is the one who comes across as the world-class player on the court, despite his age of 33, a long history of foot and other injuries, and limited mobility.

8. 63 points is a lot, but the Bulls lost the game and Jordan was far from his later peak.  It is nonetheless striking how much better was his conditioning than that of any other player on the court, and that is why he was able to score so much in the fourth quarter and take over the game.