Month: December 2020

Thursday assorted links

Blaming the states yes I do you should too

States and local public health officials have warned for months that they would need more than $8 billion in additional funding to stand up the infrastructure needed to administer vaccines. The Trump administration instead provided states $340 million in funding to prepare for vaccinations. Congressional lawmakers also balked for months at appropriating additional funding for vaccine distribution, although the coronavirus stimulus package signed by President Trump on Sunday included $8 billion in funding for that effort.

That is from a recent StatNews article.  Now I gladly would have expanded the federal contribution, by several times over if need be.  But people, let us put this in perspective.  First, the states got the $8 billion they were asking for.  Yes, the delay is very very bad, but let’s say they had come up with $8 billion on their own several months ago.

Total state and local spending is about $3.7 trillion, $2.3 trillion from the states alone.  $8 billion is how much of that?

About one-third of one percent.

Our states cannot come up with one third of one percent of their budgets to meet the greatest emergency in my lifetime?

This has been a pandemic of outrages, but this undercovered issue is one of the very largest of those outrages.  Heaven forbid that states should have to take a sliver of their budget away from deserving recipients.  To so many people this is simply unthinkable, and I mean that word in a very literal sense.

(And yes I do know this year is especially tight on state budgets, etc.  But even if those budgets were cut to a third of their normal level — hardly the case — that is still only one percent of state budgets.)

The other outrage is how few people have been willing to criticize the states for not having done better fiscal planning here.  You will find many deserved criticisms of Trump on this, but there is more than one line of defense, or at least there is supposed to be.  So yes, you should be mad at the states.

Jeff Holmes does a CWT with Tyler

Here is the summary:

On this special year-in-review episode, producer Jeff Holmes sat down with Tyler to talk about the most popular — and most underrated — episodes, Tyler’s personal highlight of the year, how well state capacity libertarianism has fared, a new food rule for ordering well during the pandemic, how his production function changed this year, why he got sick of pickles, when he thinks the next face-to-face recording will be, the first thing he’ll do post vaccine, an update on his next book, and more.

Here is the full dialogue, with audio and transcript, here is one short excerpt:

I also tell you what I thought of the guests we had on for the year, and also which episode had the most downloads.  Self-recommended.

And if you have enjoyed this year in Conversations, please consider donating here before the end of the year.  Thank you!

Single cell learning seems to be real

The question of whether single cells can learn led to much debate in the early 20th century. The view prevailed that they were capable of non-associative learning but not of associative learning, such as Pavlovian conditioning. Experiments indicating the contrary were considered either non-reproducible or subject to more acceptable interpretations. Recent developments suggest that the time is right to reconsider this consensus. We exhume the experiments of Beatrice Gelber on Pavlovian conditioning in the ciliate Paramecium aurelia, and suggest that criticisms of her findings can now be reinterpreted. Gelber was a remarkable scientist whose absence from the historical record testifies to the prevailing orthodoxy that single cells cannot learn. Her work, and more recent studies, suggest that such learning may be evolutionarily more widespread and fundamental to life than previously thought and we discuss the implications for different aspects of biology.

That is from a new paper by Samuel J. Gershman, Petra E. M. Balbi, C. Randy Gallistel, and Jeremy Gunawarden, of Harvard, MIT, and Rutgers.

Via the excellent Gaurav Venkataraman (an EV winner who did recent important work in this area).

Most Popular MR Posts of the Year

Here is a selection of the most popular MR posts of 2020. COVID was a big of course. Let’s start with Tyler’s post warning that herd immunity was fragile because it holds only “for the current configuration of social relations”. Absolutely correct.

The fragility of herd immunity

Tyler also predicted the pandemic yo-yo and Tyler’s post (or was it Tyrone?) What does this economist think of epidemiologists? was popular.

Tyler has an amazing ability to be ahead of the curve. A case in point, What libertarianism has become and will become — State Capacity Libertarianism was written on January 1 of last year, before anyone was talking about pandemics! State capacity libertarianism became my leitmotif for the year. I worked with Kremer on pushing government to use market incentives to increase vaccine supply and at the same repeatedly demanded that the FDA move faster and stop prohibiting people from taking vaccines or using rapid tests. As I put it;

Fake libertarians whine about masks. Real libertarians assert the right to medical self-defense and demand access to vaccines on a right to try basis.

See my 2015 post Is the FDA Too Conservative or Too Aggressive for a good review of ideas on the FDA. A silver lining of the pandemic may be that more people realize that FDA delay kills.

My historical posts the The Forgotten Recession and Pandemic of 1957 and What Worked in 1918? and the frightening The Lasting Effects of the the 1918 Influenza Pandemic were well linked.

Outside of COVID, Tyler’s 2005 post Why did so many Germans support Hitler? suddenly attracted a lot of interest. I wonder why?

Policing was also popular including my post Why Are the Police in Charge of Road Safety? which called for unbundling the police and my post Underpoliced and Overprisoned revisited.

Tyler’s great post The economic policy of Elizabeth Warren remains more relevant than I would like. On a more positive note see Tyler’s post Best Non-Fiction Books of the Year.

One of the most popular posts of the year and my most popular post was The Gaslighting of Parasite.

But the post attracting the most page views in 2020 by far, however, was Tyler’s and it was…

  1. John Brennan on UFOs.

You people are weird. Don’t expect more UFO content this year. Unless, well you know.

The clock is ticking…

President Trump’s signature Sunday on the $2.3 trillion COVID-19 relief and government funding bill started a 180 day countdown for the Pentagon and spy agencies to say what they know about UFOs.

Here is a bit more information.  I don’t expect anything revelatory, simply confirmation that the current data truly are puzzling, and are considered puzzling by the most serious observers.

Sorry Alex!  But if we are going to spend $2.3 trillion, at least we will get something in return.  Via Jackson.

Those reckless, reckless British, moving to a “first shot” strategy

The UK will move to a “first shot” strategy. The priority will be to give at-risk groups one shot of vaccine, even if it means delaying the second dose. That’s a massive change of strategy.

Here is further information.  And here, via Peter Whittaker.  C’mon American public health establishment get your act together, I don’t see that very many of you have had the stones to endorse such a change.

*The Trouble with Tribbles*

Yes, another Star Trek episode.  This one was striking for its explicit Malthusianism (!).  The tribbles increase “arithmetically,” to use Malthus’s term — Spock notes that one tribble (bisexually) breeds on average ten tribbles a mere twelve hours later.  And what is it that the tribbles end up doing?  Trying to eat away a fixed supply of grain.  Yes, grain.  Might the tribbles exercise Malthusian moral restraint by opting for a later age of marriage and reproduction?  No, they are born pregnant.  Again, as Malthus suggests, a plague (poisoning) intervenes.

The racialization of international trade preferences

…we find that white individuals have become less supportive of trade than minorities and that whites are more likely than minorities to favor trade with highly similar countries. We suggest that minority support for trade is due to four well‐documented differences in the psychological predispositions of whites and minorities in the United States. Minorities have lower levels of racial prejudice, are lower in social dominance, and express less nationalism than whites. At the same time, there is evidence of rising ingroup racial consciousness among whites. Each of these characteristics has been independently linked to trade support in a direction encouraging greater support for trade among minorities. As the United States grows ever closer to becoming a “majority minority” nation, the racialization of trade attitudes may stimulate shifts in the likely future of America’s trade relationships.

That is from a new paper by Diana Mutz, Edward D. Mansfield, and Eunij Kim.  Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Why bitcoin will not take over the world

Yes it is here to stay, and it is not a bubble, but…here is one part of the argument:

If you hold or trade with a stablecoin, you incur several risks. First, the stablecoin peg to the dollar may someday be broken, an old problem with pegged exchange rates that Milton Friedman often warned about. Second, to the extent stablecoins and other crypto assets become a major part of the financial system, they will attract more regulatory interest. That in turn will limit many of their advantages over the traditional bank sector. The U.S. government does not want a financial system that evolves outside the purview of the Federal Reserve, FDIC and other regulatory institutions.

Third, the formal banking sector will improve, for instance by moving to more rapid clearing, or by introducing electronic reserve currencies. With the latter, you could transfer your electronically-based dollars within the accounting system of the central bank, and achieve a non-intermediated transfer without resorting to crypto. It is not obvious that crypto will be the market winner once more mainstream institutions learn some lessons from the success of crypto.

And in sum:

The more utopian scenarios for crypto, whether proponents realize it or not, rely on the notion that crypto remains simultaneously fringe and mainstream. That will be a hard trick to pull off.

Your rebuttals, and more, are considered at the link to my latest Bloomberg column.

Tuesday assorted links

Wise Canadians

On December 12 I wrote:

We should vaccinate 6 million people with first dose NOW. It is deadly cautious to hold second dose in *reserve*. Supply chain will be ok and the exact timing of the second dose is not magical and likely not critical.

Modelling by a group at the University of Toronto confirmed.

Ashleigh Tuite, an epidemiologist at U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health….said she and her colleagues projected that frontloading vaccine doses would avert between 34 and 42 per cent more symptomatic coronavirus infections, compared with a strategy of keeping half the shipments in reserve.

“It makes much more sense to just get as many people their first doses as soon as possible,” Dr. Tuite said.

…everyone should get the second dose on schedule, but if supply issues delay that injection by a week or two, it shouldn’t hamper how well the vaccines work.

According to Abigail Bimman at Global News, Ontario will now switch to getting as many first doses out as possible:

NEW: Ontario is changing its vaccine policy and no longer reserving second doses, but getting all of the initial 90k out the door- they expect to finish them in the “next several days” – Health Minister’s office tell @globalnew. Change due to confidence in supply chain.

It’s not all the way to first doses first but it’s a minimally risky, smart move. Indeed, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan and British Columbia already have said that they won’t hold back first doses.

The United States should listen to the wise Canadians.

Silvio Gesell’s “stamped vaccine” plan

There are now so many more vaccines distributed than injected into American arms.  How about a simple incentive scheme?  Let’s say you are in group 1A.  You have to come get your vaccine by Jan.3 (??), or otherwise you lose your place in line and are put back into the general pool.  (I’ve heard one report from Israel that non-vaccination leads to cancellation of your health insurance, but this I cannot confirm.)  We can then move onto group 1B more quickly.

And if you are willing to postpone your second shot for three months…