Month: June 2020

Question about the Census and Census data

From an anonymous reader:

You consume more economic research and data than anyone I can think of and you always ask great questions, so I wanted to ask: Do you have any experience working with census data and any thoughts about the kind of data, timeliness of data, etc, that you think is lacking from government?

…Crises like the pandemic can force governments to make some changes…I think Census has a “no turning back” sense about knowing they need to try some innovative things (like the pulse survey), so I’d be happy to hear about any thoughts you have on economic data and surveys. Is there any low hanging fruit? Is there something that frustrates the hell out of many researchers? Are there moonshots in data or data-linkage that the census could attempt that you think could be valuable?

Please do leave your suggestions in the comments…

The culture that is 2020

An abandoned cinema is the macaques’ headquarters. Nearby, a shop owner displays stuffed tiger and crocodile toys to try to scare off the monkeys, who regularly snatch spray-paint cans from his store.


Residents in Lopburi, Thailand, are hiding behind barricaded indoors as rival monkey gang fights create no-go zones for humans. The ancient Thai city has been overrun by a growing population of monkeys super-charged on junk food – as locals try to placate the macaques with snacks. The monkeys usually enjoy a steady supply of bananas from tourists, who have dwindled amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Pointing to the overhead netting covering her terrace, Kuljira Taechawattanawanna said: “We live in a cage but the monkeys live outside.”

“Their excrement is everywhere, the smell is unbearable especially when it rains,” she says from her home in the 13th-century city.

Here is the full story.  But hey…cheer up!

For the pointer I thank Shaffin Shariff.

Wednesday assorted links

A Burning

A Burning, the debut novel by Megha Majumdar, received a very unusual stellar review by James Wood in the New Yorker:

Majumdar marshals a much smaller cast of speakers than Faulkner did, and her spare plot moves with arrowlike determination. It begins with a crime, continues with a false charge and imprisonment, and ends with a trial. The book has some of the elements of a thriller or a police procedural, but one shouldn’t mistake its extraordinary directness and openness to life with the formulaic accelerations of genre: Majumdar’s novel is compelling, yet its compulsions have to do with an immersive present rather than with a skidding sequence. Her characters start telling us about their lives, and those lives are suddenly palpable, vital, voiced. I can’t remember when I last read a novel that so quickly dismantled the ordinary skepticism that attends the reading of made-up stories. Early Naipaul comes to mind as a precursor, and perhaps Akhil Sharma’s stupendously vivid novel “Family Life.” Sharma has spoken of how he avoided using “sticky” words—words involving touch and taste and smell—so as to enable a natural velocity; Majumdar finds her own way of achieving the effect.

“A Burning” is about the fateful interactions of three principal characters, who take turns sharing their narratives. At its center is a young Muslim woman named Jivan, who lives in the slums of Kolkata, and who witnesses a terrorist incident that tips her life into turmoil. A halted train at a nearby station is firebombed, and the ensuing inferno kills more than a hundred people. At home, Jivan makes the mistake of posting a politically risky question on Facebook—“If the police didn’t help ordinary people like you and me, if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean that the government is also a terrorist?”—which attracts official attention. The police come for her in the middle of the night.

…There are two people whose testimony could save Jivan, and much of the novel turns on their capacity and their willingness to offer it. One is an aspiring actress named Lovely, who also lives in the slum. Lovely—the name she took at eighteen—is a so-called hijra, a designation that affords intersex and transgender people a recognized status, but a perilously ambiguous and marginal one.

…The third protagonist, a physical-education teacher called PT Sir, knew Jivan when she was one of the “charity students” at S. D. Gosh Girls’ School.

I agree, A Burning is very good. I will add only two points. I wrote about the hijra of India when I was living in Mumbai and that post is well worth reading for background. Second, most of the reviews, especially the annoying NYTimes review by Parul Sehgal (compare Wood and Sehgal on Lovely’s voice, Wood is right and obviously so if you are not blinded by political correctness) focus on the Indian setting and contemporary Indian politics. That’s a natural, if superficial, vantage point. What impressed me more was the less obvious commentary on social media which is very relevant to the US. How does the pressure and potential of being seen by many others alter our choices? There are multiple mobs in A Burning; two of the mobs, one virtual, the other not, result in the brutal murders of innocent people, a third mob launches a star.

Cheer up

I know that quite a few of you are distressed about recent events, although perhaps you do not agree entirely which are the good and bad developments.

From my vantage point, both American politics and economics look much better than they did a month ago.  To be sure that is relative but nonetheless this should be cheering you up.  China and India have sought to deescalate their conflict. Most of Europe continues to reopen without a surge in cases, and American death rates still are falling.  The advantages of police reform are much overstated, but still I think we will get something modestly better than the status quo.

The worst news, as far as I can tell, is how poorly Pakistan is doing against Covid-19, relative to some initial expectations.  If that is what has got you down, by all means continue. But how many of you can say that?

Otherwise, probably your feelings are irrational, and thus you should not be so down.

Except about that of course.

What’s the smart way to use spare Covid testing capacity?

I have a question for you and/or your MR readers: what’s the smart way to use spare Covid testing capacity?

With the virus (currently) receding in many places fewer and fewer people are getting symptoms and seeking tests.

Even without a second wave in the next few months, we’ll need testing capacity again for the next flu season, when we’ll need to distinguish between flu patients and Covid patients.

How should we use spare testing capacity in the meantime? Increase random testing? Weekly tests for everyone in a single city? Weekly tests for everyone in particular economic sectors?

I would be grateful for your thoughts on this.

That is from O.L.  My intuition (and I stress this is not a scientific answer in any way) is to test people who take elevators every day, to get a better sense of how risky elevators are.  And then test systematically in other situations and professions to learn more about transmission mechanisms, for instance the subway when relevant, supermarket clerks, and so on.  Test to generate better risk data.  What do you all think?

*Porcelain: A History from the Heart of Europe*

By Suzanne Marchand, this a tale of commerce, creativity, mercantilism, nation-building, globalization, industrial organization, and much more.  And this book actually delivers on all of those fronts. Short excerpt:

In accordance with mercantile practices, porcelain makers first sought to pay their bills by increasing sales abroad.  The two markets most hotly pursued at midcentury were the Ottomans and the Russians, both big consumers of hot beverages but lacking functional tableware factories.

Yes it’s that kind of book.  And this:

This focus on porcelain and material goods generally is not an approach familiar to most historians of Germany, who, for understandable reasons, typically feel obliged to treat more serious, often political, subjects.

Recommended, you can pre-order it here.

Correlates with Covid-19 death rates

We correlate county-level COVID-19 death rates with key variables using both linear regression and negative binomial mixed models, although we focus on linear regression models. We include four sets of variables: socio-economic variables, county-level health variables, modes of commuting, and climate and pollution patterns. Our analysis studies daily death rates from April 4, 2020 to May 27, 2020. We estimate correlation patterns both across states, as well as within states. For both models, we find higher shares of African American residents in the county are correlated with higher death rates. However, when we restrict ourselves to correlation patterns within a given state, the statistical significance of the correlation of death rates with the share of African Americans, while remaining positive, wanes. We find similar results for the share of elderly in the county. We find that higher amounts of commuting via public transportation, relative to telecommuting, is correlated with higher death rates. The correlation between driving into work, relative to telecommuting, and death rates is also positive across both models, but statistically significant only when we look across states and counties. We also find that a higher share of people not working, and thus not commuting either because they are elderly, children or unemployed, is correlated with higher death rates. Counties with higher home values, higher summer temperatures, and lower winter temperatures have higher death rates. Contrary to past work, we do not find a correlation between pollution and death rates. Also importantly, we do not find that death rates are correlated with obesity rates, ICU beds per capita, or poverty rates. Finally, our model that looks within states yields estimates of how a given state’s death rate compares to other states after controlling for the variables included in our model; this may be interpreted as a measure of how states are doing relative to others. We find that death rates in the Northeast are substantially higher compared to other states, even when we control for the four sets of variables above. Death rates are also statistically significantly higher in Michigan, Louisiana, Iowa, Indiana, and Colorado. California’s death rate is the lowest across all states.

That is from a new NBER working paper by Christopher R. Knittel and Bora Ozaltun.

Monday assorted links

Racial disparities in Covid-19 outcomes

This note seeks the socioeconomic roots of racial disparities in COVID-19 mortality, using county-level mortality, economic, and demographic data from 3,140 counties. For all minorities, the minority’s population share is strongly correlated with total COVID-19 deaths. For Hispanic/Latino and Asian minorities those correlations are fragile, and largely disappear when we control for education, occupation, and commuting patterns. For African Americans and First Nations populations, the correlations are very robust. Surprisingly, for these two groups the racial disparity does not seem to be due to differences in income, poverty rates, education, occupational mix, or even access to healthcare insurance. A significant portion of the disparity can, however, be sourced to the use of public transit.

That is from a new NBER working paper by John McLaren.

Claims about American economic growth

From Naomi R. Lamoreaux and John Joseph Wallis:

Before the middle of the nineteenth century most laws enacted in the United States were special bills that granted favors to specific individuals, groups, or localities. This fundamentally inegalitarian system provided political elites with important tools that they could use to reward supporters, and as a result, they were only willing to modify it under very special circumstances. In the early 1840s, however, a major fiscal crisis forced a number of states to default on their bonded debt, unleashing a political earthquake that swept this system away. Starting with Indiana in 1851, states revised their constitutions to ban the most common types of special legislation and, at the same time, mandate that all laws be general in their application. These provisions dramatically changed the way government and the economy worked and interacted, giving rise to the modern regulatory state, interest-group politics, and a more dynamic form of capitalism.

Here is the NBER working paper, titled “Economic Crisis, General Laws, and the Mid-Nineteenth-Century Transformation of American Political Economy,” via Ilya Novak.