Month: October 2020

Why are North and South India so different on gender?

From Alice Evans:

Region is a strong predictor of female survival, literacy, autonomy, employment, and independent mobility. A woman with the exact same household wealth/ caste/ religion will likely have more autonomy if she lives in the South.

It does not seem to be a function of wealth, nor was colonialism a major factor.  And cousin marriage, which is more prevalent in the south?  Alice notes:

Southern women may have gained autonomy despite cousin marriage, not because of it.

Islam, however, is one factor:

In sum, gender segregation became more widespread under Islamic rule. Men continue [to] dominate public life, while women are more rooted in their families, seldom gathering to resist structural inequalities.

But perhaps most significantly:

Female labour force participation is higher in states with traditions of labour-intensive cultivation…

Wheat has been grown for centuries on the fertile, alluvial Indo-Gangetic plain. Cultivation is not terribly labour-intensive, though cereals must still be processed, shelled and ground. This lowers demand for female labour in the field, and heightens its importance at home.

Rice-cultivation is much more labour intensive. It requires the construction of tanks and irrigation channels, planting, transplanting, and harvesting. Women are needed in the fields. Rice is the staple crop in the South.

And this:

Pastoralism may have also influenced India’s caste-system. Brahmins dominate business, public service, politics, the judiciary, and universities. Upper caste purity and prestige has been preserved through female seclusion, prohibiting polluting sexual access. These patriarchal norms may be rooted in ancient livelihoods. Brahmins share genetic data with ancient Iranians and steppe pastoralists. Brahmins also comprise a larger share of the population in North India and only 3% in Tamil Nadu.

Over the centuries, male superiority may have become entrenched.


Northern parents increasingly support their daughters’ education, but this is primarily to improve their marriage prospects, not work outside the home.

There is much, much more at the link, including some excellent maps, visuals, and photos.

How rational individual decisions can make the pandemic worse, and why a good response is hard to maintain

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

The more time passes, the more I wonder if I have, in fact, contracted an asymptomatic version of Covid. The chance of that was quite small in February, but as each month passes it becomes modestly more likely. That realization could easily nudge many people into taking just a bit more risk.

Another train of thought considers the possibility of having a pre-existing protective immune response, perhaps from T-Cells. Experts are not sure of the likelihood or magnitude of this effect, but some have suggested that as many as one-third of Americans may have some built-in protection.

Again, as the months pass, it’s rational for me to upgrade the probability that I have such a protective immune response. With the passage of time, I will feel more protected than I used to.

The basic reasoning is straightforward: Since I haven’t caught a bad form of it by now, I must be relatively safe. Many Americans may or may not grasp the finer points of the immunology and the Bayesian statistical reasoning, but that is a very common-sense kind of response.

And so such people will take more risk — to the detriment of the broader community.

There is much more at the link, including a discussion of intertemporal substitution.  These are some reasons why initially good (or bad) Covid responses tend to get worse, relevant for Europe as well.

Tuesday assorted links

1. Update on Portuguese drug decriminalization (NYT).

2. Tidbits from the White House physician.  And that was quick markets in everything commemorative coin.

3. Brink Lindsey and Samuel Hammond do a deep dive on many important policy issues.

4. Fiscal data for African polities since 1890.

5. Kamala Harris econ major.

6. “There are 19,000 economists in the US. Close to half are working in or around DC. New York is not even in the top five of states.”  Link here, has more of interest.

Blockchain Meets it QAnon

When Jesus spit biblical rhymes on the mount, he too talked about the marshmallow test in the form of two gates that one could go through in life. One gate was narrow and lead to a difficult path; the other gate was wide and lead to an easy path. Most people, according to Jesus, took the easy path which lead to their ruin (Matthew 7:13–14). There can be no question that taking back your sovereignty is the hard path, but you must remember the alternative is destruction. Those who procure Zcash shall be part of the kingdom of God in the post-fiat world. More importantly, those who remain shitcoin pagans or bitcoin Jews will risk burning in the eternal flames of the surveillance state.

Not by any means the craziest paragraph in Intolerant Zeal a jeremiad by blockchain’s QAnon, Sixteen Holder, that combines religious history, evolutionary psychology, and meat-eating with ZCash as the savior. Is it performance art? Advertising? A sign of our times?

In other news, the Devil Facebook’s Libra is hiring economists (I have done some consulting work for a competitor):

Novi is a Facebook subsidiary whose goal is to provide financial services for Libra, a new global currency powered by blockchain technology. The first product Novi will introduce is a digital wallet, which will be available in Messenger, WhatsApp and as a standalone app. The first version of Novi will support peer-to-peer payments and a few other ways to pay such as QR codes which small merchants can use to accept payments in Libra. Over time there will be many other use-cases for Novi including in-store payments, integrations into Point-of-Sale systems, and more. When launched, Novi will have strong fraud and privacy protections. The Novi digital wallet is expected to launch in 2020.

The Novi economics team is seeking exceptional candidates from all fields, with a special focus on applied microeconomics, development, macroeconomics, finance, and market design, to join our team. Individuals in this role are expected to have deep expertise and the ability to leverage economic theory into real-world, practical solutions for blockchain based problems. We encourage applicants from all levels of seniority to apply, including PhD holders with subsequent work experience.

Depending on background, economists in this role will initiate and execute projects around topics such as financial inclusion, the macroeconomic aspects of the Libra currency, the economics of digitization and cryptocurrency markets. Candidates should demonstrate a strong research background and the ability to disseminate findings clearly and succinctly. This job will involve both foundational product work and academic research centered around the Novi digital wallet and the Libra currency.

Research Scientist, Novi Economics (Blockchain) Responsibilities

• Drive economics-based product decisions and research agendas involving the Libra currency and the Novi wallet.
• Work closely with other teams, including product and engineering, to identify and answer economics-related questions.
• Communicate findings clearly and concisely to leadership and other stakeholders.
• Author novel economics research.

Minimum Qualifications

• PhD in economics or finance or 6+ years experience working in finance.
• Experience in a general purpose programming language such as knowledge in R or Python.

Superspreaders data from India

Researchers from the Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI), Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, Berkeley, worked with public health officials in the southeast Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh to track the infection pathways and mortality rate of 575,071 individuals who were exposed to 84,965 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2. It is the largest contact tracing study — which is the process of identifying people who came into contact with an infected person — conducted in the world for any disease.

Lead researcher Ramanan Laxminarayan, a senior research scholar in PEI, said that the paper is the first large study to capture the extraordinary extent to which SARS-CoV-2 hinges on “superspreading,” in which a small percentage of the infected population passes the virus on to more people. The researchers found that 71% of infected individuals did not infect any of their contacts, while a mere 8% of infected individuals accounted for 60% of new infections…

The researchers found that the chances of a person with coronavirus, regardless of their age, passing it on to a close contact ranged from 2.6% in the community to 9% in the household. The researchers found that children and young adults — who made up one-third of COVID cases — were especially key to transmitting the virus in the studied populations.

“Kids are very efficient transmitters in this setting, which is something that hasn’t been firmly established in previous studies,” Laxminarayan said. “We found that reported cases and deaths have been more concentrated in younger cohorts than we expected based on observations in higher-income countries.”

Here is the press release, here is the original research.

A Cost/Benefit Analysis of Clinical Trial Designs for COVID-19 Vaccine Candidates

I am very happy to see this new and urgently needed study.  They have heeded the stricture to show their work.  The authors are Donald A. Berry, Scott Berry, Peter Hale, Leah Isakov, Andrew W. Lo, Kien Wei Siah, and Chi Heem Wong, and here is the abstract:

We compare and contrast the expected duration and number of infections and deaths averted among several designs for clinical trials of COVID-19 vaccine candidates, including traditional randomized clinical trials and adaptive and human challenge trials. Using epidemiological models calibrated to the current pandemic, we simulate the time course of each clinical trial design for 504 unique combinations of parameters, allowing us to determine which trial design is most effective for a given scenario. A human challenge trial provides maximal net benefits—averting an additional 1.1M infections and 8,000 deaths in the U.S. compared to the next best clinical trial design—if its set-up time is short or the pandemic spreads slowly. In most of the other cases, an adaptive trial provides greater net benefits.

And what is an adapted trial you may be wondering?:

An adaptive version of the traditional vaccine efficacy RCT design (ARCT) is based on group sequential methods. Instead of a fixed study duration with a single final analysis at the end, we allow for early stopping for efficacy via periodic interim analyses of accumulating trial data…While this reduces the expected duration of the trial, we note that adaptive trials typically require more complex study protocols which can be operationally challenging to implement for test sites unfamiliar with this framework. In our simulations, we assume a maximum of six interim analyses spaced 30 days apart, with the first analysis performed when the first 10,000 subjects have been monitored for at least 30 days.

That means of course you might cut the trial short.  Kudos to the authors for producing one of the most important papers of this year.

Brown University Graduate Student Admission Pause

To better support our current students through the global pandemic, admissions for the graduate program will be paused for the 2021-2022 academic year. We look forward to resuming our admissions process and reviewing applications.

That is everything behind the link — go model that one!  Can’t they borrow some money?  Won’t a vaccine be ready by then?  I know most university endowments are restricted, but…?

I thank Jon for the pointer.

It’s getting better and worse at the same time

That is the title of my latest Bloomberg column.  Here is one excerpt:

The larger question is how to know when this great stagnation is ending. Counterintuitively, the answer might be when people are most upset — because that’s generally how most humans react to change, even when it proves beneficial in the longer run. These feelings arise in part from the chaos and disruption brought about by some pretty significant changes.


People, here is the good news and the bad news: Change is upon us. We are entering a new era of crises — in politics and biomedicine, with climate and energy, and not incidentally, about how prudently we spend our time.

The regretful truth is that progress is never going to be easy. The great technological advances of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, remember, were followed by two world wars and the rise of totalitarianism. Innovations such as radio and the automobile improved countless lives but also broadcast Hitler speeches and led to destructive tanks.

I’m not predicting the same catastrophe for today. I’m only saying that when the discontent is palpable, as it is right now in America, keep in mind that true breakthroughs may already be underway.

The examples are in the longer text.  Recommended!

Monday assorted links

1. Against police dogs.

2. The Daniel Ek and Spotify production function, very interesting and with remarks on Beyonce too.

3. What destroyed the Bronze Age cities?

4. Having children is now starting to correlate with lower male earnings — selection or causal?

5. Good thread on monoclonal antibodies.

6. Somebody’s Nobel predictions, starting with Claudia Goldin and moving on to Dickey-Fuller.  Plausible enough, but not sure what exactly their metric is.

7. Scott is right about Satantango, and most of the others too.

What is the single best volume to read on China?

I do not know!  But this is one of the questions I receive most often, after “Can we have more of Tyrone?”, and “What do you mean by “Straussian”?”

I do find that Michael Wood’s new The Story of China: A Portrait of a Civilization and its People is a plausible contender for this designation.  Consistently interesting, substantive, and conceptual, but without over-interpreting for the sake of imposing a narrative straitjacket.

Due out November 17, I am pleased I paid the extra shipping costs to get it from the UK.

Might you all have alternative suggestions for a single best book on China?

Tyrone on clinical trials and how to keep them up and running

Tyrone — my evil twin brother — received so much hate and love mail from his recent pronouncements about QAnon that he felt emboldened to offer additional opinions.  As you might expect, he prefers to spew his hateful bile on matters of life and death.  In particular, he has been following the debates about Covid and whether new treatments should be accelerated in their availability.  Anyway, I told him I was willing to pass along another of his letters, as a kind of experiment (not quite a clinical trial) whether Tyler or Tyrone is a more beloved writer on MR.  I am sure you readers — and especially commentators — stand ready to defend my honor!

So here is his (as usual) fallacy-ridden missive:

Tyler, I don’t see why you let the defenders of FDA stalling get away with their dawdling.  They all end up with the same argument — if we let wonderful, salt of the earth Americans take beneficial medicines, treatments, and vaccines, we will not be able to set up informative clinical trials.  Why partake in the trial when you can just get the stuff through normal means?

That is so lame!  First, they could simply pay people to partake in those trials.  Isn’t that in essence what the NBA did with its Covid testing in the bubble?  If the value of those clinical trials truly is so high, it should be possible to internalize enough of those benefits to encourage participation.  If institutional barriers stand in the way there, let’s obsess over fixing those.

Why should we force so many Americans to be sacrificial lambs, just to subsidize the trial costs?  Let those costs be taken out of grant overhead!  (And admin. salaries, if need be.)

If the current medical establishment is not as able as the NBA, well OK, can’t they just admit it and plead patheticness?  We can send them to take care of Major League Baseball, and put Adam Silver and Lebron James in charge of our health care.

Second, there is another way to keep the trial up and running.  Approve use of the treatment, but allow the suppliers to charge very high prices!  Better yet, use the law to make them charge high prices and if need be forbid insurance coverage.

“What will it be sucker? Fifty percent chance of the placebo, or 100k for those monoclonal antibodies?”

I assure you Tyler that will restore a separating equilibrium.  Furthermore, in the meantime only the most meritocratic of wealthy men will get the treatment outside of the trial, all for the better.  If need be, you can pull away the price floor when the clinical trial is complete, in the meantime you have satisfied the Pareto principle.

And what about the Hippocratic Oath ?  “Do no harm”?  Is that not invoked so selectively by the public health commentators?  Surely you realize they court public opinion and high status by taking sins of commission far more seriously than the far less visible sins of omission?

Is it not harm to deny patients ready accessibility to a treatment with positive expected value?

Is it really such a great rejoinder to insist “We can’t let those patients improve their lot by raising pecuniary costs for the medical professionals running their trials!  That is true Hippocratic harm and must be avoided at all costs, because in fact we medical people would be too feckless to overcome that problem…”

Sigh.  At that point I had to stop reading and transcribing.  I am sorry readers, I didn’t know that Tyrone in his spare time was studying economics and indeed some logic as well.  Maybe he has even been reading MR.  That makes him less interesting, less funny, and maybe a bit too much like Tyler.  That is not why you come to read Tyrone, and indeed you might as well be reading Tyler.

What can I do to make Tyrone better and more eccentric again?  Perhaps try to get him premature access to some of those special treatments?  Stay tuned….

New Emergent Ventures anti-Covid prize winners

The first new prize is to Anup Malani of the University of Chicago, with his team, for their serological research in India and Mumbia.  They showed rates of 57 percent seroprevalance in the Mumbai slums, a critical piece of information for future India policymaking.  Here is the research.

Professor Malani is now working in conjunction with Development Data Lab to extend the results by studying other parts of India.

The second new prize goes to 1Day Sooner, a 2020-initiated non-profit which has promoted the idea of Human Challenge Trials for vaccines and other biomedical treatments.  Alex here covers the pending HCTs in Britain, as well as providing links to previous MR coverage of the topic.

I am delighted to have them both as Emergent Ventures prize winners.

Here are the first, second, and third cohorts of winners of Emergent Ventures prizes against Covid-19.

Sunday assorted links

1. My May predictions about the NBA bubble.

2. On acceptance parenting.

3. A second wave of Covid infections for London health care workers.

4. Floodgates work in Venice in first major test (NYT).

5. Borgen it ain’t: “The 15-year-old he slept with was member of the junior wing of the Social Democrats.”

6. Resource on aerosol transmission information.

7. Devaki Jain trauma harassment story.  Now he is all the more the least deserving economics Nobel laureate.

UK hospitals are already using monoclonal antibodies

Here is the story, note the treatment is making a very good impression:

Prof Peter Horby, who is part of Oxford University’s national Recovery trial, which aims to identify potential treatments for Covid-19, said “about three hospitals in the north” began using the drug last weekend. He said the drug was due to be rolled out to another 30 to 40 UK hospitals next week.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the drug, REGN-COV2, was “very promising” and “very potent”.

“The class of drugs, these artificial antibodies, have been around for quite a while now, and they’ve been extensively used in inflammatory conditions and cancers, and they’re pretty safe and well understood, and so the technology is something that I think we have confidence in,” Horby said.

“This particular drug has probably been given to, I would think now, four or five hundred patients, mild or severe patients in different trials, and so far there’s been no worrying safety signals.

“In the laboratory, in cell cultures, it has a very strong effect against the virus, and there have been studies in artificial animals where it also shows benefits. So probably of the drugs that are available, it’s one of the most promising.”

Horby said a single dose of the treatment provided prolonged protection for a month to six weeks, making it “quite attractive for the older population”.

I hope Donald Trump “twists” the arms of the scientists at the FDA into speedy Emergency Use Authorization, and “politicizes” them into doing the right thing.

Twist, Donald! Yes, they are accountable too. Twist harder! That’s why we gave you the monoclonal antibodies.

And please don’t tell me in response that we can expect ordinary Americans to apply for the compassionate use exception, or sign up for clinical trials.

What I’ve been reading

1. Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears).  A fun look at the Free Town project as applied to Grafton, New Hampshire: “During a television interview, a Grafton resident accused the Free Towners of “trying to cram freedom down our throats.””

2. Cass R. Sunstein and Adrian Vermeulen, Law & Leviathan: Redeeming the Administrative State.  Self-recommending from the pairing alone, there is a great deal of interesting content in the 145 pp. of text.  It is furthermore an interesting feature of this book that it was written at all on the chosen topic.  Perhaps the administrative state is under more fire than I realize.  And might you consider this book a centrist version of…maybe call it “state capacity not quite libertarianism”?

3. Michael D. Gordin, The Pseudo-Science Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe.  A somewhat forgotten but still fascinating episode in the history of science, extra-interesting for those interested in Venus.  I had not known that Velikovsky pushed a weird version of a eugenicist theory stating that Israel was too hot for its own long-term good, and that its inhabitants needed to find ways of cooling it down.

4. History, Metaphor, Fables: A Hans Blumenberg Reader, edited by Bajohr, Fuchs, and Kroll.  I love Blumenberg, but the selection here didn’t quite sell me.  Better to start with his The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, noting that book is a tough climb for just about anyone and it requires your full attention for some number of weeks.  Might Blumenberg be the best 20th thinker who isn’t discussed much in the Anglo-American world?  And yes it is Progress Studies too.

5. Laura Tunbridge, Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces.  Smart books on Beethoven are like potato chips, plus you can listen to his music while reading (heard Op.33 Bagatelles lately?).  In addition to some of the classics, this book covers some lesser known pieces such as the Septet, An die Ferne Geliebte, and the Choral Fantasy, and how they fit into Beethoven’s broader life and career.  Intelligent throughout.

6. Sean Scully, The Shape of Ideas, edited and written by Timothy Rub and Amanda Sroka.  Is Scully Ireland’s greatest living artist?  He has been remarkably consistent over more than five decades of creation.  This is likely the best Scully picture book available, and the text is useful too.  Since it is abstract color and texture painting, he is harder than most to cancel — will we see the visual arts shift in that direction?

Jonathan E. Hillman, The Emperor’s New Road: China and the Project of the Century, is a good introduction to its chosen topic.

Robert Litan, Resolved: Debate Can Revolutionize Education and Help Save Our Democracy: “…incorporate debate or evidence-based argumentation in school as early as the late elementary grades, clearly in high school, and even in college.”

I am closer to the economics than the politics of Casey B. Mulligan, You’re Hired! Untold Successes and Failures of a Populist President, but nonetheless it is an interesting and contrarian book, again here is the excellent John Cochrane review.

There is also Harriet Pattison, Our Days are Like Full Years: A Memoir with Letters from Louis Kahn, a lovely romance with nice photos, sketches, and images as well, very nice integration of text and visuals.