Month: September 2020

Fifty Shades of QE: Conflicts of Interest in Economic Research

Ho hum, nothing to see here…

Central banks sometimes evaluate their own policies. To assess the inherent conflict of interest, we compare the research findings of central bank researchers and academic economists regarding the macroeconomic effects of quantitative easing (QE). We find that central bank papers report larger effects of QE on output and inflation. Central bankers are also more likely to report significant effects of QE on output and to use more positive language in the abstract. Central bankers who report larger QE effects on output experience more favorable career outcomes. A survey of central banks reveals substantial involvement of bank management in research production.

That is a new NBER working paper by Brian Fabo, Martina Jančoková, Elisabeth Kempf, and Ľuboš Pástor.  Here is very good commentary and analysis from John Cochrane.

Wednesday assorted links

1. Now they are cancelling parrots.  And there is no satire anymore.  Or is it Straussian?

2. Oakland airport wants to attract passengers with free rapid Covid testing.

3. Should Matt Yglesias go on the warpath against car seats?

4. Virtual work partners to help you focus.

5. Survey of the evidence on declining Covid death rates.  And here is yet further evidence on the relevance of T-cells.  And new Covid results from lots of Indian data (NYT).

6. 15-minute test coming to Europe (Bloomberg).

7. Good thread on the new fusion developments.

Reston, VA

The Richmond Fed has a nice review of Reston, VA and Columbia, MD, two of the first private towns in the United States.

Reston was “not just a building project but a whole new way of living.” Practically, this meant dense, mixed-use development that was not permissible under the existing zoning code in Fairfax County, Va. Although the county was resistant at first, it ultimately created a new zoning code that rejected the single-use standard of the day and allowed for a mix of single-family homes, apartments, condominiums, commercial development, recreational facilities, and open spaces in proximity to one another.

Fifty miles northeast, Columbia, Md., was unveiled on June 21, 1967. This new town was the brainchild of James Rouse, a real estate developer, urban planner, civic activist, and philanthropist. Like Reston, Columbia was built on a vision of livability and integration. Its motto, “The Next America,” was meant to capture Rouse’s hope that the community could serve as an example of pragmatic utopianism for other communities across the nation — that is, an example of social interaction and harmony that, in Rouse’s words, could provide “an alternative to the mindlessness, the irrationality, the unnecessity of sprawl and clutter as a way of accommodating the growth of the American city.”

Both Reston and Columbia have been consistently ranked as two of the best towns to live in the United States. One bit I didn’t know, was that both Reston and Columbia were integrated from the beginning:

In the mid-1960s, Doris Briggs and her four children drove the 700 miles from Chicago to Virginia in her Chevrolet in pursuit of a new life. Briggs would later recall, “Everybody said, ‘Don’t do it, don’t do it, you have no friends.’ I said I have friends everywhere. And I had my faith, had my four children, and I knew it was going to be a better life for me.” Their destination, Reston, Va., promised a community-centered alternative to modern suburbia that was inclusive of black families like the Briggses — well before the Fair Housing Act of 1968 made housing discrimination illegal.

Addendum: Here’s my NYTimes op-ed with Shruti Rajagopalan, Designing Private Cities Open to All.

Do algorithms collude?

Yes, in short.  Emilio Calvano, Giacomo Calzolari, Vincenzo Denicolò and Sergio Pastorello cover this topic in the latest issue of the American Economic Review:

Increasingly, algorithms are supplanting human decision-makers in pricing goods and services. To analyze the possible consequences, we study experimentally the behavior of algorithms powered by Artificial Intelligence (Q-learning) in a workhorse oligopoly model of repeated price competition. We find that the algorithms consistently learn to charge supracompetitive prices, without communicating with one another. The high prices are sustained by collusive strategies with a finite phase of punishment followed by a gradual return to cooperation. This finding is robust to asymmetries in cost or demand, changes in the number of players, and various forms of uncertainty.

Here is the paper.

Where and when does herd immunity kick in?

Here is the abstract of a new paper by Axel S LexmondCarlijn JA Nouwen, and John Paul Callan. So herd immunity yes, but at some point after fifty percent:

We have studied the evolution of COVID-19 in 12 low and middle income countries in which reported cases have peaked and declined rapidly in the past 2-3 months. In most of these countries the declines happened while control measures were consistent or even relaxing, and without signs of significant increases in cases that might indicate second waves. For the 12 countries we studied, the hypothesis that these countries have reached herd immunity warrants serious consideration. The Reed-Frost model, perhaps the simplest description for the evolution of cases in an epidemic, with only a few constant parameters, fits the observed case data remarkably well, and yields parameter values that are reasonable. The best-fitting curves suggest that the effective basic reproduction number in these countries ranged between 1.5 and 2.0, indicating that the curve was flattened in some countries but not suppressed by pushing the reproduction number below 1. The results suggest that between 51 and 80% of the population in these countries have been infected, and that between 0.05% and 2.50% of cases have been detected; values which are consistent with findings from serological and T-cell immunity studies. The infection rates, combined with data and estimates for deaths from COVID-19, allow us to estimate overall infection fatality rates for three of the countries. The values are lower than expected from reported infection fatality rates by age, based on data from several high-income countries, and the country population by age. COVID-19 may have a lower mortality risk in these three countries (to differing degrees in each country) than in high-income countries, due to differences in immune response, prior exposure to coronaviruses, disease characteristics or other factors. We find that the herd immunity hypothesis would not have fit the evolution of reported cases in several European countries, even just after the initial peaks; and subsequent resurgences of cases obviously prove that those countries have infection rates well below herd immunity levels. Our hypothesis that the 12 countries we studied have reached herd immunity should now be tested further, through serological and T cell immunity studies.

They offer an implied exposure estimate of 72% for Afghanistan, 67% for Ethiopia, 74% for Kenya, and 80% for Madagascar.  Pakistan clocks in at 72%, South Africa at 71%.  Notice those are not case counts, rather it is working backwards, using a model, to infer exposure rates from the data we do have, assuming that not all cases are being measured.

Here is mostly good NYT coverage on herd immunity theories, though in my view unfair on T-Cell immunity issues — they confuse uncertainty with “there is no reason to believe anything here.”  Here is a new and good NYT article on the Swedish approach.  The different pieces still do not all fit together.

Via Alan Goldhammer.

Addendum: From Catinthehat in the comments:

It’s a simple homogeneous model Ni(t+1)= Ni(t) * Ro * Si(t) / Ntot -> Infected at time t+1 = Infected at time t * Ro * the proportion ( of the population) susceptible at time t. where t is discretized.
They fit the step t to an infection duration , then they fit Ro, to reproduce the shape of the curve for each country and at each step they multiply the infected by a parameter p (the undetected case ratio) to fit to the total population. This acts as an accelerant to the epidemic . Each country has its own p.
The main issue is that you can look at any epidemic curve and fit it that way and you will rather automatically reproduce this high immunity threshold which comes from your homogenous model.

In Europe you can’t assume the undetected ratio is so high ( 1000x to 2000 x) so you must conclude social distancing stopped the epidemic, because your strategy would not fit experimental data.

In the countries fitted , the paper must conclude the epidemic raged fairly undetected, fairly quickly and infected most of the population.

Ho hum

Compact Nuclear Fusion Reactor Is ‘Very Likely to Work,’ Studies Suggest (NYT)

What else have we got this year?  Visiting alien drones, life on Venus and Mars, super-acceleration of vaccine production techniques, Tesla valued at mega-levels, and plummeting prices for solar panels.

Remember what I wrote in the final section of The Great Stagnation?  I predicted you’ll all be super-pissed off when it ends.

Tuesday assorted links

1. Beetle technicianRat tickler: “it’s crucial for researchers to know whether the animals are having a positive or negative experience.”

2. No central original point here, but this paper is actually an extremely useful piece for understanding currency risk.  And Captain Beefheart’s ten commandments of guitar playing.

3. “Surprisingly, we document that innovation was resilient in the face of one of the largest financial crises in the U.S. history, suggesting that it is likely to be even more so during milder economic recessions.”  Link here.  One plausible way of reading the result is that independent inventors were damaged, but their efforts were reallocated into firms, which improved by a result.

4. Buried lakes on Mars?

5. An actual scientific study of intermittent fasting suggests no real benefit and loss of muscle mass.

6. “With more of us than ever working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a spike in demand from employers for surveillance software. US-based Hubstaff says its number of UK customers is up four times year-on-year since February.”  Link here.

A Calculation of the Social Returns to Innovation

Benjamin Jones and Larry Summers have an excellent new paper calculating the returns to social innovation.

This paper estimates the social returns to investments in innovation. The disparate spillovers associated with innovation, including imitation, business stealing, and intertemporal spillovers, have made calculations of the social returns difficult. Here we provide an economy-wide calculation that nets out the many spillover margins. We further assess the role of capital investment, diffusion delays, learning-by-doing, productivity mismeasurement, health outcomes, and international spillovers in assessing the average social returns. Overall, our estimates suggest that the social returns are very large. Even under conservative assumptions, innovation efforts produce social benefits that are many multiples of the investment costs.

What was interesting to me is that their methods of calculation are obvious, almost trivial. It can take very clever people to see the obvious. Essentially what they do is take the Solow model seriously. The Solow model says that in equilibrium growth in output per worker comes from productivity growth. Suppose then that productivity growth comes entirely from innovation investment then this leads to a simple expression:

Where g is the growth rate of output per worker (say 1.8% per year), r is the discount rate (say 5%), and x/y is the ratio of innovation investment, x, to GDP, y, (say 2.7%). Plugging the associated numbers in we get a benefit to cost ratio of (.018/.05)/.027=13.3.

To see where the expression comes from suppose we are investing zero in innovation and thus not growing at all. Now imagine we invest in innovation for one year. That one year investment improves economy wide productivity by g% forever (e.g. we learn to rotate our crops). The value of that increase, in proportion to the economy, is thus g/r and the cost is x/y.

Jones and Summers then modify this simply relation to take into account other factors, some of which you have undoubtedly already thought of. Suppose, for example, that innovation must be embodied in capital, a new design for a nuclear power plant, for example, can’t be applied to old nuclear power plants but most be embodied in a new plant which also requires a lot of investment in cement and electronics. Net domestic investment is about 4% of GDP so if all of this is necessary to take advantage of innovation investment (2.7% of gdp), we should increase “required” to 6.7% of GDP which is equivalent to multiplying the above calculation by 0.4 (2/7/6.7). Doing so reduces the benefit to cost ratio to 5.3 which means we still get a very large internal rate of return of 27% per year.

Other factors raise the benefit to cost ratio. Health innovations, for example, don’t necessarily show up in GDP but are extremely valuable. Taking health innovation cost out of x means every other R&D investment must be having a bigger effect on GDP and so raises the ratio. Alternatively, including health innovations in benefits, a tricky calculation since longer life expectancy is valuable in itself and raises the value of GDP, increases the ratio even more. (See also Why are the Prices So Damn High? on this point). International spillovers also increase the value of US innovation spending.

Bottom line is, as Jones and Summers argue, “analyzing the average returns from a wide variety of perspectives suggests that the social returns [to innovation spending] are remarkably high.”

New measures for health care productivity

The most productive part of medical care is treatment for cardiovascular disease, both acute conditions and risk factors.  Productivity estimates for acute cardiovascular diseases are $89,000 in aggregate — 79% of the total increase [in health care productivity from 1999 to 2012].

There has been very little progress over that same period in treating mental illness, arthritis, and musculoskeletal conditions.  How about this:?

Despite a vast increase in the number of people treated with drugs for mental illness, the population’s mental health showed essentially no change over time.

Overall medical care was increasing in productivity over that period by about 0.7% a year, still great stagnation territory as they say.

That is all from a new paper by David M. Cutler, Kaushik Ghosh, Kassandra Messer, Trivellore Raghunathan, Allison B. Rosen, and Susan T. Stewart.

The Elite Quality Index

Here are the top ten, by Tomas Casas and Guido Cozzi:

1. Singapore

2. Switzerland

3. Germany

4. United Kingdom

5. United States

China comes in #12, Mexico wins for Latin America, Poland overperforms and France (!) underperforms.  Botswana is #23, and Argentina…uh-oh.  I don’t quite understand how the index is constructed, but how much a given elite focuses on Value Creation and avoids rent-seeking seems to be a key consideration.  The degree of Regulatory Capture counts as a negative.  Overall, the U.S. does very, very well on many metrics, but does poorly on Value Extraction.

Here is the underlying paper.  Here is the sponsoring organization.  Here is a lengthy treatment of the methodology.  For the pointer I thank Chandran.

*The Murder of Professor Schlick*

The author is David Edmonds, and the subtitle is The Rise and Fall of the Vienna Circle.  I very much enjoyed this book, and found its direct style refreshing, and I hope it will serve as a model for others.  The author actually tells you what you want to know!

I enjoyed the small tidbits.  I had not known that Frank Ramsey traveled to Vienna for psychoanalysis, because he was in love with a married woman his senior.  Ramsey ended up drinking the Freudian Kool-Aid, and also in Vienna became acquainted with Wittgenstein’s sister Gretl.

I had forgotten that Quine was two years the senior of A.J. Ayer.  He also spoke sarcastically of his forthcoming audience with Wittgenstein but sought it nonetheless.  Quine learned German remarkably quickly in Vienna, and then was lecturing philosophy in it without much difficulty.

Karl Popper was first an apprentice cabinetmaker, then a social worker, and then a teacher before he became a professional philosopher.  When he moved to New Zealand during the War, the university library in Otago had fewer books than his father’s library back home.

You can pre-order the book here.

Monday assorted links

1. “Secularization, having fissured the sacred, leaves religion a pliable cultural tool.

2. How people find ways to abide by comparative advantage in any case.

3. The race to redesign sugar (New Yorker).

4. Coinbase is a mission focused company, good to see them putting this piece out.

5. Weaker herd immunity in Manaus than had been expected.

6. Poland plans to build six nuclear reactors.

What Alex Has Been Watching

Ted Lasso on Apple TV. My go to feel-good show. The relentlessly optimistic US soccer coach Ted Lasso finds himself teaching a moribund team of British footballers. Everyone needs some Ted Lasso in their life! Especially now. Hat tip: Joshua Gans.

Mythic Quest on Apple TV a situation comedy where the situation is game developer’s office. Nowhere near as good as Silicon Valley but there were three excellent episodes (5, 7, 10) and no bad episodes which is a pretty good ratio. Probably would not hold my interest outside of a pandemic.

Lovecraft Country on HBO–my favorite show right now. I’m not a big fan of horror but Lovecraftian horror is more about revealing the black depths of the mysterious unknown than about chainsaw massacres. The story is a mystery, taking place mostly in 1950s Jim Crow America. J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele are among the show runners. I could do without the interruptions of spoken poetry. In one climatic scene we get a reading of Whitey On the Moon rather than a soundscape. Yeah, we get it, the horror is a metaphor for racism. The show also gets very weird. I worry that it is self-indulgent. Watchmen pulled it off by pulling it all together in the finale but that was a miracle. Can Lovecraft Country do the same? The show is based on the book Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. Ruff enjoys wordplay, fantastical stories, and he has a libertarian streak. My favorite Ruff novel, Sewer,Gas and Electric, features a billionaire beat to death with his prized first-edition of Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand as a resurrected A.I. bottled up in a hurricane lamp. It’s a satire but there’s love there. Ruff is also a fan of David Friedman. I haven’t seen much if any libertarian influence in Lovecraft Country.

Bandish Bandits on Amazon–an Indian rom-com series in which pop-singer girl meets classically trained boy. The rom-com is ok but I liked it especially for the many gorgeous shots of Jodhpur. It’s also an effortless way to listen to some Indian classical music. It gets better after the first few episodes. Probably only worth watching if you have some prior interest in the region or the music. Panchayat is another Indian show I gave a shot. It does a good job of explaining how Indian village politics actually works. The lead character, however, is so sullen than I had a hard time continuing. Apparently, he gets less sullen over time.

The Pharmacist on Netflix. A great documentary following a pharmacist’s investigation of his son’s murder that takes him deeper and deeper into the opioid crisis. The first three episodes are stellar while the last is also good but covers the big picture I was already familiar with. Much better constructed than Tiger King or The Vow, the NXIVM doc on HBO, which is far too long and surprisingly boring.

Perry Mason on HBO. A film noir reboot of the classic series, basically Perry Mason meets Chinatown. Much darker than expected. Tatiana Maslany has a good performance as an old-time revival preacher but her story arc felt incomplete. Della Street should have written the bar, not Mason, or at least they should have made the fact that she didn’t more pointed. Overall, good but not great. Character and location driven–this one might grow on me, like Bosch.

The remixing of quality in the pandemic

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

Now consider another of my favorite pastimes, watching professional basketball. I have been following the NBA bubble with great interest. The Miami Heat are now favored to reach the NBA Finals, even though they were only the fifth-ranked team in the East at the end of the regular season. What happened? They have played with grit and determination, and their entire active roster showed up in first-rate physical shape. That’s not easy to do after a five-month layoff, as it required tremendous discipline.

In contrast, the Los Angeles Clippers were among the favorites to win the NBA title. They were recently eliminated by the Denver Nuggets, a very good team but not previously a top contender. In the final quarter of the last game of the series, the victorious Nuggets played with energy and verve, while the Clippers seemed to be gasping for air. After their defeat, some of the Clippers admitted that inferior conditioning was part of their problem.

So “staying in shape during a five-month layoff” is now a critical skill for a basketball player. But this doesn’t necessarily mean the Clippers need to revamp their roster. Maybe they should just wait for a return to normal times.


Might these changes in quality affect your choices beyond work — such as your decisions about friends, family relations, romance, and much more? Should you buy a dog, knowing you probably won’t be homebound two years from now? How about dating? On a first date, presumably, looks should matter less and social carefulness more. But again, for how long? It would be very strange, and probably unwise, to form a lasting relationship based on how well your romantic interest wears a mask.

Sadly the world has entered a new paralysis, most of all because no one knows when things will return to normal, or what might become normal, or what might remain strange. When this pandemic ends, one thing we can all look forward to is making better plans.

Recommended, at least until the pandemic is over.