Month: August 2020

*Finntopia: What We Can Learn From the World’s Happiest Country*

That is the new book by Danny Dorling and Annika Koljonen, and I opened randomly to a page and saw a chart for Total Fertility Rate in Finland, 1900-2018.  The numbers keep on falling off a table, without even the promise of an asymptote toward the end of the series:

Both supporters and critics of the Finntopia can cite those numbers.

The book has a few pages on immigration policy, but no serious discussion of how scalable the Finnish model might be.  Surely that matters for judging a utopia?

And that is my review, of both the book and the country.

Some doubts about medical ethics, and maybe that Russian vaccine is underrated

Most major questions in ethics are unsettled, though of course I have my own views, as do many other people.  I take that unsettledness as a fairly fundamental truth, I have been studying these matters for decades, and I even have several published articles in the top-ranked journal Ethics.

Now, if you take a whole group of people, give them medical licenses, teach them all more or less the same thing in graduate school, but not much other philosophy, and call it “medical ethics“…you have not actually gone much further.  Arguably you have retrogressed.

So when I hear people appeal to “medical ethics,” my intellectual warning bells go off.  To be sure, often I agree with those people, if only because I think contemporary American institutions often are not very flexible or able to execute effectively on innovations.  For instance, I didn’t think America could make a go at Robin Hanson’s variolation proposal, and so I opposed it.  “Medical ethics” seems to give the same instruction, though with less of a concrete institutional argument.

Still, the Lieutenant Colombo in me is bothered.  What about other nations?  Should we ever wish that they serve themselves up as medical ethics-violating guinea pigs, for the greater global good?

Medical ethics usually says no, or tries to avoid grappling with that question too directly.  But I wonder.

How about that Russian vaccine they will be trying in October?

To be clear, I won’t personally try it, and I don’t want the FDA to approve it for use in the United States.  But am I rooting for the Russians to try it this fall?  You betcha.  (Am I sure that is the correct ethical view?  No!  But I know the critics should not be sure either.)  I am happy to revise my views as further information comes in, but I see a good chance that  the attempt improves expected global welfare, and I think that is very often (but not always) a standard with strong and indeed decisive relevance.  And all the new results on cross-immunities imply that some pretty simple vaccines can have at least partial effectiveness.

Why exactly is “medical ethics” so sure this Russian vaccine is wrong other than that it violates “medical ethics”?  All relevant scenarios involve risk to millions of innocents, and I have not heard that Russians will be forced to take the vaccine.  The global benefits could be considerable, and I do note that the Russian vaccine scenario is the one that potentially spends down the reputational capital of various medical establishments.

Trying a not yet fully tested vaccine still seems wrong to many medical ethicists, even if the volunteers are compensated so they are better off in ex ante terms, as in some versions of Human Challenge Trials, an idea that (seemingly) has been elevated from “violating medical ethics” to a mere “problematic.”  Medical ethics claims priority over the ex ante Pareto principle, but I say we are back to the unsettled ethics questions on that one, but if anything with the truth leaning against medical ethics.

I find it especially strange when “medical ethics” is cited — often without further argumentation or explanation — on Twitter and other forms of social media as a kind of moral authority.  It then seems especially glaringly obvious that the moral consensus was never there in the first place, and that there is a gross and indeed now embarrassing unawareness of that underlying social fact.  It feels like citing Kant to the raccoon trying to claw through your roof.

I think medical ethics would not like this critique of medical ethics.  Yet I will be watching the Russian vaccine experiment closely.

Addendum: There is also biomedical ethics, but that would require a blog post of its own.  It is much more closely integrated with standard ethical philosophy, though it does not resolve any of the fundamental philosophical uncertainties.

Do beliefs cause the great stagnation to persist?

The Great Recession was a deep downturn with long-lasting effects on credit, employment, and output. While narratives about its causes abound, the persistence of gross domestic product below precrisis trends remains puzzling. We propose a simple persistence mechanism that can be quantified and combined with existing models. Our key premise is that agents do not know the true distribution of shocks but use data to estimate it nonparametrically. Then, transitory events, especially extreme ones, generate persistent changes in beliefs and macro outcomes. Embedding this mechanism in a neoclassical model, we find that it endogenously generates persistent drops in economic activity after tail events.

That is from a new piece by

Tuesday assorted links

1. “Agriculture, generally believed to have formed the basis of the Judaean economy, could not alone have financed Hezekiah’s expenditure at the close of the 8th and the beginning of the 7th century BCE.

2. Is R doomed to converge to roughly one?

3. Supply chain resilience.

4. Rent prices in major U.S. cities are plummeting.

5. The economics of SPACs.  And Lawfare on TikTok.

6. Coleman Hughes on Thomas Sowell, with biographical anecdotes too.

7. “On Monday, American swimming gold medalist Katie Ledecky shared a video showing her swim the length of a pool with a full glass of chocolate milk on her head, never spilling a drop.

How the workday is changing post-lockdown

Using de- identified, aggregated meeting and email meta-data from 3,143,270 users, we find, compared to pre- pandemic levels, increases in the number of meetings per person (+12.9 percent) and the number of attendees per meeting (+13.5 percent), but decreases in the average length of meetings (-20.1 percent). Collectively, the net effect is that people spent less time in meetings per day (-11.5 percent) in the post- lockdown period. We also find significant and durable increases in length of the average workday (+8.2 percent, or +48.5 minutes), along with short-term increases in email activity.

That is drawn from data from Europe, North America, and the Middle East, in this new NBER paper by Evan DeFilippis, Stephen Michael Impink, Madison Singell, Jeffrey T. Polzer, and Raffaella Sadun.

Why do some states have such low unemployment rates?

That is for June, Kentucky is at 4.3 percent but West Virginia at 10.4?  Here are the underlying BLS data.  Here is some description of Kentucky in June.  Note that Kentucky cases are now rising rapidly.  Here is the case pattern for Idaho.  The three states with the highest unemployment rates — New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts — have been moving toward relative safety after some very tough times early on.  One interpretation of these numbers is that serious lockdowns were necessary to stem the virus, but those lockdowns caused high unemployment.  More plausible to me is the view that a high initial virus burden led to high unemployment — consumers were scared — but also superior case and death results later on.

Via Nick Clerkin.

Monday assorted links

1. “Sociable weavers work together to construct large nests in southern Africa, often in acacia trees. The nests can weigh as much as 1 ton and house up to 200 birds in individual chambers. Their cooperative behaviors also include chick rearing and defense against snakes and falcons.”  Link here.

2. Why so much regional inequality in Britain (The Economist).

3. Both of these supposed Gauguins look like fakes to me.

4. Shruti on Indian Matchmaking (Bloomberg).

5. A sort of funny tweet stream about cross-national comparisons of corporate tax laws.

6. New and positive results on deworming.

7. “Zombie cicadas” infected with mind-controlling fungus return to West Virginia.

Nursing home networks and Covid-19

We construct network measures of nursing home connectedness and estimate that nursing homes have, on average, connections with 15 other facilities. Controlling for demographic and other factors, a home’s staff-network connections and its centrality within the greater network strongly predict COVID-19 cases. Traditional federal regulatory metrics of nursing home quality are unimportant in predicting outbreaks, consistent with recent research. Results suggest that eliminating staff linkages between nursing homes could reduce COVID-19 infections in nursing homes by 44 percent.

That is from a new NBER working paper by M. Keith Chen, Judith A. Chevalier, and Elisa F. Long, and I am going to nominate this as one of the very best and most important papers of the year.

The Great Psychometric test continues (U.K. fact of the day)

And the results ain’t always pretty:

The number of high-risk drinkers nearly doubled in lockdown and was worst in groups of higher social class, a government report shows.

Here is the (gated) Telegraph article.  Part of the mechanism of course may be that the “groups of higher social class” have not experienced the most severe income hits.  But I wonder if there is not more at work here.  These same “groups of higher social class” are also those who went around to parties to be feted, traveled the world, gave talks at conferences, “did deals,” dominated meetings and grabbed the good seat, and through various other means received big in-person ego boosts in pre-Covid times.  Now those ego boosts are gone, and…what do they do?  Some of them do very fine things indeed.

*Missing: The Need for Closure after the Great War*

That is the new and excellent book by Richard Van Emden, and it covers how the British bureaucracy handled the reporting and identification of soldier corpses during and after the First World War.  Here is the author’s summary:

Here is the story of the army’s hunt for legions of missing men.  How were they sought?  How many were found and identified and what were the implications for families when that search was wound down?  tens of thousands of British people felt compelled to visit France and Belgium to see where their loved ones died; here we will explore what happened to the battlefields of Northern France and Belgium in the immediate post-war years…In telling the story of Britain’s military cemeteries on the western Front, this book will look at their design and horticulture, and examine the extraordinary lengths to which the gardeners of the Imperial War Graves Commission went to create an Eden for their dead comrades.

It turns out the British Army searched for remains for about three years, and after that the efforts pretty much dwindled to zero.  I also enjoyed reading about how these efforts, and the building of on-the-site graveyards, intersected with French and Belgium law and property rights.  And this:

An important question had been posed: to whom did the dead belong?  Did families own them?  Or did the bodies of servicemen and women remain in passive, eternal servitude to the army and, by extension, the government?  They were, after all, in military service and under military law when they died.  Did death release a body from continued service only to be automatically re-enlisted into the ritual of state-organised and state-controlled remembrance?

Among its other virtues, this book is also an interesting look at some of the efficiency properties of the earlier 20th bureaucracies.  The fact that they didn’t have the ability to make things too complicated often was a great virtue.

Recommended, you can order the book here.

Sunday assorted links

1. New results on income inequality and the equity premium.  The premium should fall with the rise of the super-wealthy, because those people care less about a given level of risk.

2. Those new service sector jobs.

3. Fox in Berlin assembles impressive shoe collection.

4. “More than 50 years ago, the Serum Institute began as a shed on the family’s thoroughbred horse farm…Horses are still everywhere.”  (NYT)

5. Cuban (!) paper, small n, but interferon seems to be working.

6. How vaccine progress happened so quickly.

CEO stress, aging, and death

We show that increased job demands due to takeover threats and industry crises have significant adverse consequences for managers’ long-term health. Using hand-collected data on the dates of birth and death for more than 1,600 CEOs of large, publicly listed U.S. firms, we estimate that CEOs’ lifespan increases by around two years when insulated from market discipline via anti-takeover laws. CEOs also stay on the job longer, with no evidence of a compensating differential in the form of lower pay. In a second analysis, we find diminished longevity arising from increases in job demands caused by industry-wide downturns during a CEO’s tenure. Finally, we utilize machine-learning age-estimation methods to detect visible signs of aging in pictures of CEOs. We estimate that exposure to a distress shock during the Great Recession increases CEOs’ apparent age by roughly one year over the next decade.

Here is the full paper by Mark Borgschulte, Marius Guenzel, Canyao Liu, and Ulrike Malmendier.

Unbundling the Police in Kentucky

In Why Are the Police in Charge of Road Safety? I argued for unbundling the police:

Don’t use a hammer if you don’t need to pound a nail…the police have no expertise in dealing with the mentally ill or with the homeless–jobs like that should be farmed out to other agencies. Notice that we have lots of other safety issues that are not handled by the police. Restaurant inspectors, for example, do over a million restaurant inspectors annually but they don’t investigate murder or drug charges and they are not armed. Perhaps not coincidentally, restaurant inspectors are not often accused of inspector brutality, “Your honor, I swear I thought he was reaching for a knife….”.

A small experiment was started several years ago in Alexandria, Kentucky.

Faced with a tight budget and rising demands on its 17 officer police department, the City of Alexandria in Campbell County tried something different. Instead of hiring an additional officer and taking on the added expenses of equipping that officer, the police chief at the time hired a social worker to respond in tandem with officers.

Anecdotally the results appear good:

“It was close to a $45,000 to $50,000 annual savings from hiring a police officer the first time to hiring a social worker,” [former Alexandria Police Department chief] Ward said. “They (police social workers) started solving problems for people in our community and for our agency that we’ve never been able to solve before.”

Ward believes the results in Alexandria, a city of less than 10,000, could be replicated in larger cities like Louisville, where officers respond to calls involving mental health, domestic disturbances, and homelessness an average of once every 10 minutes.

“Louisville is very big with services,” Pompilio said. “They have lots of things to offer families. It’s just a matter of a social worker connecting.”

Alexandria doubled down on its commitment and now employs two full-time social workers to work and respond with its 17 officers.

Hat tip: NextDraft.