Month: June 2020

Thursday assorted links

1. Can this be true? “The researchers found that several of the foster fathers were high-profile academics.”  It gets worse.

2. “Tannehill also stated during the mask discussion that since June 1, four different urgent care clinics in Oxford had reported a total of 162 positive COVID-19 cases from University of Mississippi students who do not live in Lafayette County.”  From fraternity events it seems.

3. Colours of currency map.

4. Is performative entrepreneurship behind the Great Stagnation?  And are academics complicit in this?

5. Physical encounters now seem to matter less for virus transmission.  That said, in New Jersey 12 percent of nursing home residents have died of Covid-19.

6. Rules for the NBA bubble (NYT).

7. Tenino, Washington prints its own currency.

8. New Marc Andreessen interview, excellent, lots of fresh material, contains lessons about updating as well.  By Sriram Krishnan, would get its own blog post if it would let me do “Control C” on the excerpts.

FDA Allows Pooled Tests and a Call for Prizes

The FDA has announced they will no longer forbid pooled testing:

In order to preserve testing resources, many developers are interested in performing their testing using a technique of “pooling” samples. This technique allows a lab to mix several samples together in a “batch” or pooled sample and then test the pooled sample with a diagnostic test. For example, four samples may be tested together, using only the resources needed for a single test. If the pooled sample is negative, it can be deduced that all patients were negative. If the pooled sample comes back positive, then each sample needs to be tested individually to find out which was positive.

…Today, the FDA is taking another step forward by updating templates for test developers that outline the validation expectations for these testing options to help facilitate the preparation, submission, and authorization under an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA).

This is good and will increase the effective number of tests by at least a factor of 2-3 and perhaps more.

In other news, Representative Beyer (D-VA), Representative Gonzalez (R-OH) and Paul Romer have an op-ed calling for more prizes for testing:

Offering a federal prize solves a critical part of that problem: laboratories lack the incentive and the funds for research and development of a rapid diagnostic test that will, in the best-case scenario, be rendered virtually unnecessary in a year.

…We believe in the ability of the American scientific community and economy to respond to the challenge presented by the coronavirus. Congress just has to give them the incentive.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) have already begun a similar strategy with their $1.4 billion “shark tank,” awarding speedy regulatory approval to five companies that can produce these tests. Expanding the concept to academic labs through a National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST)-sponsored competition has the added benefit ultimately funding more groundbreaking research once the prize money has been awarded.

This is all good but frustrating. I made the case for prizes in Grand Innovation Prizes for Pandemics in March and Tyler and I have been pushing for pooled testing since late March. We were by no means the first to promote these ideas. I am grateful things are happening and relative to normal procedure I know this is fast but in pandemic time it is molasses slow.

Coronavirus travel markets in everything

As tourism slowly resumes around the world, many nations are still reluctant to open their borders fully – with Cambodia imposing perhaps the toughest entry requirements of any country.

The south-east Asian country is popular with backpackers, and most renowned for the Unesco-listed temple complex at Angkor Wat.

According to the latest Foreign Office bulletin on Cambodia, foreign travellers must pay a $3,000 (£2,400) deposit for “Covid-19 service charges” at the airport upon arrival.

What appears to be the first “coronavirus deposit” can be paid in cash or by credit card.

The FCO says: “Once deductions for services have been made, the remainder of the deposit will be returned.” But those deductions may be steep – especially if another passenger on the same flight happens to test positive for coronavirus.

So far, so good, perhaps you are keen to go.  But here is the downside of the experience:

But if one passenger on their flight tests positive for coronavirus, everyone on the same flight is quarantined in government-approved accommodation for two weeks, at a cost of $1,176 including meals, laundry and “sanitary services”. They must also pay another $100 for a second Covid-19 test. This totals a further £1,021.

If the traveller happens to be the coronavirus-positive patient, they will have to take up to four tests at another $100 (£80) each, as well as $3,150 (£2,500) for treatment at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital in the capital, Phnom Penh.


…Cambodia also imposes a requirement for $50,000 (£40,000) of travel insurance cover for medical treatment.

If the unfortunate arrival passes away, the Foreign Office warns: “The cremation service charge is $1,500 [£1,200].”

Here is the full article, via Shaffin Shariff.

Which figures from 1968/1969 look good in retrospect?

Andrew writes to me:

I just wanted to propose a question for your blog, which I’ve read since it launched. Given how the current atmosphere seems a bit like 1968, I was curious who you think comes out of 1968 looking good (or bad) in retrospect. I’m particularly interested in people at universities (my own case), but I’d be curious in general.

A former professor of mine (George Kateb) claimed that my generation (born 1970) was embarrassed by the sixties and I guess particularly by the more radical parts. That’s my impression as well and I assumed that the more radical parts of the sixties and the intellectuals who went along with them would come out looking the worst in retrospect. Is this right? Whose position at the time looks most “correct” today?

It is tough, if only because so many people from both parties then were bad on the Vietnam War issue.  Here are a few who, in my judgment, came out of the era looking good, in no particular order:

1. Kareem-Abdul Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor), Billie Jean-King, and Curt Flood.

2. Bob Dylan: pro-civil rights and anti-war, and for all of his phases he never went in for the bad, crazy stuff.

3. Paul McCartney: universalist, anti-war, neoliberal integrationist, and the saner part of the Beatles.  Some minus points on the drugs front, however.

4. Julian Bond.  And a variety of other civil rights leaders, but MLK not living long enough to “fit” the question as stated.

5. Harry Edwards (who?).

6. Seán Lemass (who?)  Elsewhere across the waters there is Raymond Aron.

7. Marshall McLuhan

9. Lucille Ball

9. Gene Roddenberry and the rest of Star Trek, including the script writers.

10. Thomas Pynchon: So many others look bad, at least he knew not to say too much or to hang around for too long.

11. Ayn Rand.  With qualifications on a number of fronts, but yes.  She was in fact good on the major issues of those years.

12. These people from the Bay Area.  They are not public figures, but still they deserve mention.

Who else?

Notes: Marxists, Maoists, and advocates of violence are not going to win.  There were plenty of excellent economists back then, but most had a different focus than commenting on the major events of those years, and if memory serves (please correct me if I am wrong) Milton Friedman’s very meritorious anti-draft work came slightly later.  I would have to reread the major feminist book authors to pick the best one, but I do mean for at least one to be on the list, I am simply not sure at the moment which one.  Ralph Nader too?  The astronauts?  They knew to keep their mouths shut once they were finished.

My Conversation with Rachel Harmon

Rachel Harmon is a Professor at University of Virginia Law School, and an expert on policing.  Here is the audio and transcript, and here is part of the CWT summary:

She joined Tyler to discuss the best ideas for improving policing, including why good data on policing is so hard to come by, why body cams are not a panacea, the benefits and costs of consolidating police departments, why more female cops won’t necessarily reduce the use of force, how federal programs can sometimes misfire, where changing police selection criteria would and wouldn’t help, whether some policing could be replaced by social workers, the sobering frequency of sexual assaults by police, how a national accreditation system might improve police conduct, what reformers can learn from Camden and elsewhere, and more. They close by discussing the future of law schools, what she learned clerking under Guido Calabresi and Stephen Breyer, why she’s drawn to kickboxing and triathlons, and what two things she looks for in a young legal scholar.

And here is one bit:

COWEN: Should we impose higher educational standards on police forces?

HARMON: There’s mixed evidence on that. Slightly older police officers tend to be better in certain respects, at least, and education is often associated with age. But, again, I don’t think that we can select our way out of problems in policing.

COWEN: But why can’t we? Because different individuals — they behave so differently. They think so differently. Why is it that there’s no change in selection criteria that would get the police to be more the way we want them to be, whatever that might be?

HARMON: I think we could do some things. We could screen out people who have committed misconduct in the past, for example, by decertifying them at the state level and therefore discouraging departments that can’t or don’t care very much about quality of their officers from hiring those officers.

It’s not that we can’t select against problems in policing at all. Sometimes we know that an officer’s problematic, and still he’ll wander around from department to department. I think we should set minimum age standards that are above 18, which many states have as a minimum age standard.

But in terms of education or other more subtle factors, I think the effects can often be subtle, and when we look at what creates problems in policing, departments create officers. The officers don’t preexist a department, really, so what you’re really looking at is the culture of the department, the incentive structures, the supervision, discipline. You can make good officers with imperfect people.

Recommended, interesting throughout, and yes we discuss San Francisco and Singapore too.

Comparative Institutional Failure

The common element to our twin crises is that many of the government agencies we thought were keeping us safe and secure—the CDC, the FDA, the Police–have either failed or, worse, have been revealed to be active creators of danger and insecurity. Alex Tabarrok.

Derek Thompson writing at The Atlantic uses my quote as a jumping off point for a good piece on the failure of American institutions. He does a good job of covering the failures of the CDC, the FDA and the police but most interestingly asks why the FED has acted very differently.

While too many American police are escalating encounters like it’s 1990, and the FDA is slow-playing regulatory approval as if these are normal times, and the CDC is somehow still using fax machines, the Federal Reserve has junked old shibboleths about inflation and deficit spending and embraced a policy that might have scandalized mainstream economists in the 1990s. Rejecting the status-quo bias that plagues so many institutions, this 106-year-old is still changing with the world.

Why haven’t other American institutions done the same? Perhaps America’s dependency on old leadership makes our institutions exquisitely responsive to the anxieties and illusions of old Americans. Perhaps the nature of large bureaucracies is to become lost in the labyrinth of mission-creeping path dependency. Perhaps years of political polarization and right-wing anti-science, anti-expertise sentiments have wrung all of the fast-twitch smarts out of the government. Or perhaps we should just blame Trump, that sub-institutional creature summoned from the bilious id of an electorate that lost faith in elites when elites lost their grip on reality.

Whatever the true cause for our failure, when I look at the twin catastrophes of this annus horribilis, the plague and the police protests, what strikes me is that America’s safekeeping institutions have forgotten how to properly see the threats of the 21st century and move quickly to respond to them. Those who deny history may be doomed to repeat it. But those who deny the present are just doomed.

I see three reasons why the FED may have been different. First, the FED is one of the most independent agencies which may help to explain its faster and more adaptive behavior ala Garett Jones’s 10% Less Democracy. Second, and relatedly, the FED pulls a lot of leadership and staff from academia. That gives FED staff an affiliation goal and clique outside of politics which creates mental independence as well as political independence. Third, the FED was also tested in the last crisis and experience with crises helps as we have also seen in Asia tested by H1N1, SARS and MERS more than the US was.

I am not sure which, if any, of these explanations is the most important but I do think that we have a lot more to learn from comparative institutional analysis not just within the US but across countries as well.

*Forms of Contention: Influence and the African American Sonnet Tradition*

That is the new, excellent, and timely book by Hollis Robbins, the title is descriptive, here is one excerpt:

“If We Must Die” calls for resistance to violence in an environment of violence. The power of [Claude] McKay’s sonnet—Shakespearean and yet with modern diction—is the tension between the measured lines and rhyme, the poetic phrases and the brutal words, the combination of enjambments and exclamation points in the octave, and the more deliberate and determined pace of the sestet. “If We Must Die” is a defiant call to action. The rage of the poem is made more potent by the tension of the sonnet form straining to contain it.

The book argues for the centrality of sonnet writing to African American poetry, and that the African American tradition was not simply parasitic on European models.  A “sestet,” by the way, is the last six lines of a sonnet, but not a good Scrabble word because you have to waste two “s’s” to play it.

The impact of Protestant Evangelism on economic outcomes

From Gharad Bryan, James J. Choi, and Dean Karlan:

We study the causal impact of religiosity through a randomized evaluation of an evangelical Protestant Christian values and theology education program delivered to thousands of ultra-poor Filipino households. Six months after the program ended, treated households have higher religiosity and income; no statistically significant differences in total labor supply, consumption, food security, or life satisfaction; and lower perceived relative economic status. Exploratory analysis suggests that the income treatment effect may operate through increasing grit. Thirty months after the program ended, significant differences in the intensity of religiosity disappear, but those in the treatment group are less likely to be Catholic and more likely to be Protestant, and there is some mixed evidence that their consumption and perceived relative economic status are higher. We conclude that this church-based program may represent a method of increasing noncognitive skills and reducing poverty among adults in developing countries.

From the QJE.

Database of 1,100 superspreading events

It is about time someone put this together, here are some summary conclusions:

  • Nearly all SSEs in the database — more than 97% — took place indoors
  • The great majority of SSEs happened during flu season in that location
  • The vast majority took place in settings where people were essentially confined together, indoors, for a prolonged period (for example, nursing homes, prisons, cruise ships, worker housing)
  • Processing plants where temperatures are kept very low (especially meat processing plants) seem particularly vulnerable to SSEs

Here is the full material by Koen Swinkels, via Balaji.

Tuesday assorted links

1.Cultural tightness as a predictor of Covid-19 outcomes?

2. Advice for ambitious teenagers.

3. New look at the Drake Equation: 26 intelligent, communicating civilizations in our galaxy?  Speculative, if anything ever was.

4. Ninja bombs?  And Ross Douthat on police reform (NYT).  And confessions of a former cop.  Think of the latter as an attempt to model the behavior of the police.

5. Mondegreen.

The normative dynamic properties of UBI

While a majority of adults (primarily older non-college workers) would vote in favor of introducing UBI, all future generations (operating behind the veil of ignorance) would prefer to live in an economy without UBI. The expense of the latter leads to lower skill formation and education, requiring even higher tax rates over time.

Here is much more from Diego Daruich and Raquel Fernández.

Bloody Well Pay Them

The United States is one of the few countries in the world where plasma donors are paid and it is responsible for 70% of the global supply of plasma. If you add in the other countries that allow donors to be paid, including Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Czechia, the paid-donor countries account for nearly 90% of the total supply.

Countries that follow the WHOs guidance to rely exclusively on voluntary, unpaid donors all have shortages of plasma (hmmm…what’s the WHOs track record like?) So what do these countries do? Import plasma from the paid-donor countries. The United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and some Canadian provinces, for example, prohibit paid donors and they import a majority of their plasma from paid donor countries. (See chart at right).

As Nobel prize winner Al Roth puts it, in his gentle way:

I find confusing the position of some countries that compensating domestic plasma donors is immoral, but filling the resulting shortage by purchasing plasma from the US is ok.

The UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada can afford their moral hypocrisy but their decision to forbid paid-donors reduces the world supply of plasma driving up the price and harming people in poorer countries.

I have cribbed from an excellent new report by Peter Jaworski, Bloody Well Pay Them: The Case for Voluntary Remunerated Plasma Collections.

Previous MR posts on plasma.

Why non-distanced social and commercial interactions have resumed so quickly

People have solved for the equilibrium.

First, the socially-distanced goods, such as food delivery, are starting to rise in price.  The non-distanced goods have been falling in relative price, and so now people are moving along their demand curves and engaging in less distancing.

Second, the longer the pandemic will run, the harder it is to use intertemporal substitution as a “make up.”  “I won’t go to a bar for two months, but then I’ll go a lot to make up for it” is a plausible story to tell oneself.  “I won’t go to a bar for a year and then I’ll go a lot…” is harder to swallow and act upon.  It starts to become a habit, and at some point you can’t drink enough to make up for what you have lost.  And so people are more inclined to go to the bar right now.

Most importantly, peer effects are remarkably strong.  Most people are not willing to accept a small additional risk of death to say eat in a particular restaurant.  But they are willing to accept a small additional risk of death to live life as other people are living life.

So once enough people are not respecting social distancing, most of the others will follow.

Some wag on Twitter said we can no longer use the expression “to avoid like the plague,” because apparently people do not take so much care to avoid the plague.

Implications of Heterogeneous SIR Models for Analyses of COVID-19

This paper provides a quick survey of results on the classic SIR model and variants allowing for heterogeneity in contact rates. It notes that calibrating the classic model to data generated by a heterogeneous model can lead to forecasts that are biased in several ways and to understatement of the forecast uncertainty. Among the biases are that we may underestimate how quickly herd immunity might be reached, underestimate differences across regions, and have biased estimates of the impact of endogenous and policy-driven social distancing.

That is the abstract of a new paper by Glenn Ellison, recommended.