Month: June 2020

What I’ve been reading

1. Jon Elster, France Before 1789: The Unraveling of an Absolutist Regime.  A useful historical introduction to the period, but most notable for taking canons of good social science explanation seriously throughout each step of the analysis.  For one thing, it helps you realize how few people do that, but at the same time you wonder how much restating events in terms of social science mechanisms actually helps historical explanation.  A smart book and very well-informed book in any case.

2. Paul Preston, A People Betrayed: A History of Corruption, Political Incompetence and Social Division in Modern Spain.  A highly detailed but also analytical account of how Spanish political economy became so screwed up.  Runs from the 1830s up through the financial crisis, and focuses why Spain was backward in nation-building.  Maybe too detailed for some but I believe there is no other book like it.

3. Henry M. Cowles, The Scientific Method: An Evolution of Thinking from Darwin to Dewey.  Argue that the true scientific method did not develop until the mid-to late 19th century.  A good book, although perhaps more for historians of ideas than students of science per se.

John Anthony McGuckin, The Eastern Orthodox Church: A New History is both a good introduction and deep enough for those well-read in this area.

There is also Paul Matzko, The Radio Right: How a Band of Broadcasters Took on the Federal Government and Built and Modern Conservative Movement.  I don’t listen to (non-satellite) radio, but some of you should find this interesting.

New York algebra fact of the day

Take here in New York, where in 2016 the passing rate for the Regents Examination in Algebra I test was 72 percent. Unfortunately, this (relatively) higher rate of success does not indicate some sort of revolutionary pedagogy on the part of New York state educators. As the New York Post complained in 2017, passing rates were so high in large measure because the cutoff for passing was absurdly low — so low that students needed only to answer 31.4 percent of the questions correctly to pass the 2017 exam.

That is from Freddie deBoer, who has returned to writing, and who argues lower standards and higher graduation rates are a good thing, all matters considered.

And here is another education result of note: “We estimate a dynamic model of schooling on two cohorts of the NLSY and find that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the effects of real (as opposed to relative) family income on education have practically vanished between the early 1980’s and the early 2000’s.”

Sunday assorted links

1. Unpacking current Covid trends.

2. Which foreigners has New Zealand let in and not let in?

3. “I document that societies whose ancestors jointly practiced irrigation agriculture historically have stronger collectivist norms today.

4. Why contact tracing is not going well in New York City (NYT).

5. “Bill Pagel, 78, owns both of Bob Dylan’s childhood homes as well as his highchair. He explains it like this: “End-stage collecting is when you start collecting houses right before you’re committed.””  Tweet link here.

It’s a Good Summer to Explore America at Random

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

With my summer trips abroad canceled, I decided to be resourceful about travel. Having lived in Northern Virginia for 30 years, I asked myself a simple question: Which local trip have I still not done?

Earlier in the summer I thought I might spend time in scenic Maine, but too many of my friends from the Northeast and mid-Atlantic seemed to be planning the same. I decided a more adventurous course of action would be to get in the car with my daughter Yana and spend a three-day weekend on the road.

The column is not easily excerpted, but here is one bit:

Lunch was in Morgantown, West Virginia, but rather than visit the university, we stopped for excellent Jamaican food with jerk chicken, oxtail and plantains — better than the equivalent in the D.C. area. A tip: If you’re ever looking for great food in obscure locales, don’t just google “best restaurants Morgantown WV,” as that will yield too many mainstream options. Pick a cuisine you don’t expect them to have, and Google something like “best Haitian restaurant Morgantown WV.” Whether a Haitian restaurant comes up (it didn’t), you’ll get a more interesting selection of “best” picks. In this case we learned that a town of 30,000 people has several Caribbean restaurants, highly rated ones at that.

Five states in one day (VA, WV, MD, PA, OH) was great fun.  In my view, every excellent trip has one stop or locale at its emotional and narrative heart, and for this trip is was the Native American Earthworks in Marietta, southern Ohio.

Saturday assorted links

1. The zero dollar budget movie that topped the box office.

2. Fanta Traore at Fortune covers black economists.  Good to see the recognition, but how about Virgil Storr (my colleague, recently promoted, thousands of citations)?

3. Werner Herzog interview.

4. George Akerlof essay on the biases in economics.

5. Geoguessr, a new game, an automated version of the old Andrew Sullivan, “view out your window” where is this photo.  And what the queen bees really are saying.

6. The success story of Nigerian-Americans.

7. “Median age of COVID-19 patients in Florida was 37 last week, compared to the 60s months ago.

8. Are the ambidextrous less authoritarian? (speculative)

Get BARDA More Money!

The NYTimes headline is Coronavirus Attacks the Lungs. A Federal Agency Just Halted Funding for New Lung Treatments and they do try their best to make this a scandal:

When the coronavirus kills, it attacks the lungs, filling them with fluid and robbing the body of oxygen. In chest X-rays, clear lungs turn white, a sign of how dangerously sick patients are.

But earlier this month, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, a federal health agency, abruptly notified companies and researchers that it was halting funding for treatments for this severe form of Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.

The new policy highlights how staunchly the Trump administration has placed its bet on vaccines as the way to return American society and the economy to normal in a presidential election year. BARDA has pledged more than $2.2 billion in deals with five vaccine manufacturers for the coronavirus, compared with about $359 million toward potential Covid-19 treatments.

I think diverting funding from lung treatments to vaccines is the right thing to do. Note that we are not talking about reducing spending on patients. BARDA, as the name suggests, funds advanced research and development. Thus, the administration is diverting funding from advanced research and development for lung treatments to vaccines. What’s better a vaccine that prevents a lung treatment from ever being needed or a lung treatment? A billion dollars spent on vaccines looks a lot more productive right now than a billion dollars spent on investigating new lung treatments.

The real scandal is how little we are spending on advanced research for vaccines–$2.2 billion is a pittance, less than a day’s worth of economic loss caused by COVID. Given their limited budget, BARDA is making good investments. Congress, however, has not allocated enough money to BARDA, one of the few agencies that had the foresight to do the right things, such as investing in emergency vaccine capacity, even before the pandemic hit. Congress’s failure to fund BARDA is why the administration is scraping the bottom of the barrel to get them all the funding they can.

We should go big, really big, on vaccines. But when I talk with people in Congress, I tell them that a big plan is ideal but if we can’t do that then at least GET BARDA MORE MONEY!

Addendum: The fact that BARDA can’t get enough funding from Congress in a pandemic is a good example of why we need a Pandemic Trust Fund.

Big tech and universal telecommuting

It has gone great so far, but I don’t think it is socially optimal to be doing this forever.  Here is my latest Bloomberg column on that topic, 2x the usual length, excerpt:

If Twitter, Facebook and other tech companies shift toward everyone working from home, it will mean less reliance on esprit de corps and morale to ensure performance, and more management using direct financial incentives and project- and output-based monitoring. Virtual tools can help organize teams, but they simply can’t replicate the intellectual frisson of “gathering the smart people” together, and this could damage performance and innovation.

And:

There is some evidence that when employees work at a distance, they don’t put in extra hours or extend themselves for the benefit of co-workers. That probably means a better work-life balance for many people, but perhaps also inferior performance from a lot of companies over the longer haul.

This move away from workplace morale as a motivator will help self-starter employees, but it may not be good for tech labor overall. In essence, without a local workplace ethos, it is easier to commoditize labor, view workers as interchangeable and fire people. The distinction between protected full-time employees and outsourced, freelance and contract workers weakens. A company can make the offer of, “If you hand in your project, we pay you,” to virtually any worker around the world, many of whom might accept lower wages for remote roles.

Bringing new workers on board is an especially difficult problem for this model.  In the short run, of course, that is a minor concern but over time it grows.

I’m so American, I can’t even tell if this British speech is parody

Here is the story, the speech appears in a box in the corner:

Brexiteer Tory MP has urged the government to let his dogs keep their freedom of movement rights after Britain leaves the EU.

Bob Stewart, the MP for Beckenham, said his “French-speaking” hounds crossed the Channel regularly on their EU “pet passports”.

Millions of Britons are set to lose the ability to live and work freely on the continent at the end of the year as a result of the UK’s departure from the bloc.

I am an advocate of canine cosmopolitanism, rather than canine nationalism.  Is everyone?

Speaking in French, Mr Gove added: “We always defend the rights of dogs.”

Is that true?  Under the previous pre-Brexit regime, a pet passport was sufficient.  But now:

Under the worst case-scenario of a no-deal Brexit, taking a pet to the EU will likely require a four-month advanced process that includes microchipping, a rabies vaccination, a blood test and a three-month wait to travel after the blood test.

Developing…

Our regulatory state is failing us

The Transportation Security Administration withheld N-95 masks from staff and exhibited “gross mismanagement” in its response to the Coronavirus crisis – leaving employees and travelers vulnerable during the most urgent days of the pandemic, a senior TSA official alleges in a new whistleblower complaint.

On Thursday evening the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency that handles whistleblower complaints, said they had found “substantial likelihood of wrongdoing” in the complaint and ordered the Department of Homeland Security to open an investigation…

TSA Federal Security Director Jay Brainard is an official in charge of transportation security in the state of Kansas, and has been with the TSA since the agency’s inception in 2003.

He told NPR that the leadership of his agency failed to protect its staff from the pandemic, and as a result, allowed TSA employees to be “a significant carrier” for the spread of the Coronavirus to airport travelers.

Here is the full NPR story.

Friday assorted links

Juneteenth: Celebrate Freedom!

I have long favored a new national holiday so I am delighted that VA has recognized Juneteenth and I look forward to this being a national holiday. Juneteenth is a good bookend to July 4, a second day of independence that helped to fulfill the promise of the first. The National Museum of African American History and Culture notes:

Although the Emancipation Proclamation officially took effect on January 1, 1863, freedom did not immediately come for all enslaved people because Confederate-controlled states refused to implement it. Freedom finally came nationally on June 19, 1865, when some 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas. The army announced that the more than 250,000 enslaved people in the state were free by executive decree. This day came to be known as “Juneteenth” by the newly freed people in Texas.

The museum has an excellent online exhibit and tour.

That was then, this is now

About 55 percent of British servicemen [in World War II] were married.

Furthermore, by mid-1943, British military units were dealing with almost one hundred cases of “family anxiety” a day, with about two-thirds of those being infidelity issues, summing yearly to about 7.5 percent of the married British servicemen in North Africa and the Middle East at that time.

That is from Daniel Todman’s Britain’s War 1942-1947, a book I already have reviewed positively.  Reading further, it remains excellent and interesting on every page, is still grossly under-reviewed by MSM, and would make the top five or even top three non-fiction books of the year list since I have started blogging.

The course of Covid-19 in the United States

Via Amihai Glazer.  And if you wish to verify, here is another (non-smoothed) presentation of the data.

In terms of the delta this picture is not as bad as what you sometimes hear, though data on cases are far worse, with a very long and indeed continuing plateau. And since deaths lag cases by a few weeks, you still might see reason to be alarmed.  Nonetheless, the trend we can see is one of improvement, at least for a little over two months.

Do note it is better for everyone if you think the death rate is still rising!