Month: May 2021

Friday assorted links

1. “Unlike some of these contests, the winner isn’t chosen at random. Instead, “your level of enthusiasm for watching home improvement shows will be a strong factor in the selection process,” according to the contest website.”  Link here.

2. Inequality amongst children.

3. Can bees smell Covid-19?

4. Which incentives for vaccines are most effective for which groups? (NYT)

5. Magnus Carlsen edition: That was then, and this is now (link fixed).

6. The best Ursula Le Guin books?

Four “dark horse” stories for 2021

From my Bloomberg column, here is one of them:

possible Chinese move against Taiwan has received a lot of attention, but a Russian union with Belarus could be a greater danger. Belarus might even agree to such a proposition, so it would be hard for NATO or the U.S. to decry it as a coercive invasion. Yet such a Russian expansion could upend political stability in Europe.

If Russia and Belarus became a single political unit, there would be only a thin band of land, called the Suwalki Gap, connecting the Baltics to the rest of the European Union. Unfortunately, that same piece of territory would stand in the way of the new, larger Russia connecting with the now-cut off Russian region of Kaliningrad. Over the long term, could the Baltics maintain their independence? If not, the European Union would show it is entirely a toothless entity, unable to guarantee the sovereignty of its members.

Even if there were no formal political union between Russia and Belarus, the territorial continuity and integrity of the EU could soon be up for grabs. The EU has more at stake in an independent Belarus than it likes to admit.

You will find three more undervalued possible news stories at the link.

Does performance pay increase alcohol and drug use?

I would like to see this replicated, but the result is interesting nonetheless:

Using US panel data on young workers, we demonstrate that those who receive performance pay are more likely to consume alcohol and illicit drugs. Recognizing that this likely reflects worker sorting, we first control for risk, ability, and personality proxies. We further mitigate sorting concerns by introducing worker fixed effects, worker-employer match fixed effects, and worker-employer-occupation match fixed effects. Finally, we present fixed effect IV estimates. All of these estimates continue to indicate a greater likelihood of substance use when a worker receives performance pay. The results support conjectures that stress and effort increase with performance pay and that alcohol and drug use is a coping mechanism for workers.

By Benjamin Arta, Colin P. Green, and John S. Heywood, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Should the CIA be putting out “Woke” ads?

I am fine with the idea, for reasons I outlined in my latest Bloomberg column:

If you wanted to dilute wokeness, and limit its appeal to young radicals, what could be better than a CIA endorsement? I, for one, would like to make wokeness decidedly uncool — and if this video can recruit some new talent to the CIA at the same time, what’s not to like?

If you are a passionate young person, deeply concerned with social justice, you will be looking for causes rejected by the Establishment and embraced by a cool, in-the-know vanguard. Think of Marlon Brando’s line in “The Wild One,” when he is asked what he is rebelling against: “Whadda you got?”

The CIA, which just recently rebranded itself, just went a long way toward making wokeness feel ordinary and anodyne. Wokeness isn’t going to disappear, so the sooner wokeness becomes like the Unitarian Church — broadly admired but commanding only a modicum of passion and commitment — the better.

For similar reasons, those skeptical of wokeness should not be overly worried about so many American businesses embracing the concept, at least rhetorically. Some left-wing radicals might even consider the notion of woke and  inclusive CIA assassins to be sinister, just as they fear that international conglomerates will neuter wokeness by embracing it.

Have you ever been walking through a department store and heard the Muzak version of John Lennon’s “Imagine”? Do you know the line: “Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can”? Maybe hearing the accompanying melody, perhaps while browsing the men’s wear section, made you think that Karl Marx had taken over the world. Or maybe — if you’re like me — your reaction was that John Lennon had found his place in history, and that both capitalism and conservatism were more robust than he had imagined.

Recommended, there are some subtle points in the longer exposition.

Patents are Not the Problem!

For the last year and a half I have been shouting from the rooftops, “invest in capacity, build more factories, shore up the supply lines, spend billions to save trillions.” Fortunately, some boffins in the Biden administration have found a better way, “the US supports the waiver of IP protections on COVID-19 vaccines to help end the pandemic.”
Waive IP protections. So simple. Why didn’t I think of that???

Patents are not the problem. All of the vaccine manufacturers are trying to increase supply as quickly as possible. Billions of doses are being produced–more than ever before in the history of the world. Licenses are widely available. AstraZeneca have licensed their vaccine for production with manufactures around the world, including in India, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, China and South Africa. J&J’s vaccine has been licensed for production by multiple firms in the United States as well as with firms in Spain, South Africa and France. Sputnik has been licensed for production by firms in India, China, South Korea, Brazil and pending EMA approval with firms in Germany and France. Sinopharm has been licensed in the UAE, Egypt and Bangladesh. Novavax has licensed its vaccine for production in South Korea, India, and Japan and it is desperate to find other licensees but technology transfer isn’t easy and there are limited supplies of raw materials:

Virtually overnight, [Novavax] set up a network of outside manufacturers more ambitious than one outside executive said he’s ever seen, but they struggled at times to transfer their technology there amid pandemic travel restrictions. They were kicked out of one factory by the same government that’s bankrolled their effort. Competing with larger competitors, they’ve found themselves short on raw materials as diverse as Chilean tree bark and bioreactor bags. They signed a deal with India’s Serum Institute to produce many of their COVAX doses but now face the realistic chance that even when Serum gets to full capacity — and they are behind — India’s government, dealing with the world’s worst active outbreak, won’t let the shots leave the country.

Plastic bags are a bigger bottleneck than patents. The US embargo on vaccine supplies to India was precisely that the Biden administration used the DPA to prioritize things like bioreactor bags and filters to US suppliers and that meant that India’s Serum Institute was having trouble getting its production lines ready for Novavax. CureVac, another potential mRNA vaccine, is also finding it difficult to find supplies due to US restrictions (which means supplies are short everywhere). As Derek Lowe said:

Abolishing patents will not provide more shaker bags or more Chilean tree bark, nor provide more of the key filtration materials needed for production. These processes have a lot of potential choke points and rate-limiting steps in them, and there is no wand that will wave that complexity away.

Technology transfer has been difficult for AstraZeneca–which is one reason they have had production difficulties–and their vaccine uses relatively well understood technology. The mRNA technology is new and has never before been used to produce at scale. Pfizer and Moderna had to build factories and distribution systems from scratch. There are no mRNA factories idling on the sidelines. If there were, Moderna or Pfizer would be happy to license since they are producing in their own factories 24 hours a day, seven days a week (monopolies restrict supply, remember?). Why do you think China hasn’t yet produced an mRNA vaccine? Hint: it isn’t fear about violating IP. Moreover, even Moderna and Pfizer don’t yet fully understand their production technology, they are learning by doing every single day. Moderna has said that they won’t enforce their patents during the pandemic but no one has stepped up to produce because no one else can.

The US trade representative’s announcement is virtue signaling to the anti-market left and will do little to nothing to increase supply.

What can we do to increase supply? Sorry, there is no quick and cheap solution. We must spend. Trump’s Operation Warp Speed spent on the order of $15 billion. If we want more, we need to spend more and on similar scale. The Biden administration paid $269 million to Merck to retool its factories to make the J&J vaccine. That was a good start. We could also offer Pfizer and Moderna say $100 a dose to produce in excess of their current production and maybe with those resources there is more they could do. South Africa and India and every other country in the world should offer the same (India hasn’t even approved the Pfizer vaccine and they are complaining about IP!??) We should ease up on the DPA and invest more in the supply chain–let’s get CureVac and the Serum Institute what they need. We should work like hell to find a substitute for Chilean tree bark. See my piece in Science co-authored with Michael Kremer et. al. for more ideas. (Note also that these ideas are better at dealing with current supply constraints and they also increase the incentive to produce future vaccines, unlike shortsighted patent abrogation.)

Bottom line is that producing more takes real resources not waving magic patent wands.

You may have gathered that I am angry. I am indeed angry that the people in power think they can solve real problems on the cheap and at someone else’s expense. This is not serious. I am also angry that they are sending the wrong message about business, profits and capitalism. So let me end on positive note. Like the Apollo program and Dunkirk, the creation of the mRNA vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna should be lauded with Nobel prizes and major movies. Churchill called the rescue at Dunkirk a “miracle of deliverance,” well the miracle of Moderna will rescue many more. Not only was a vaccine designed in under a year, an entirely new production process was set up to produce billions of doses to rescue the world. The creation of the mRNA vaccines was a triumph of science, logistics, and management and it was done at a speed that I had thought possible only for past generations.

I am grateful that greatness is still within our civilization’s grasp.

Addendum: Lest I be accused of being reflexively pro-patent, do recall the Tabarrok curve.

The New Era of Unconditional Convergence

Here is a new paper by Dev Patel Justin Sandefur, and Arvind Subramanian:

The central fact that has motivated the empirics of economic growthnamely unconditional divergenceis no longer true and has not been so for decades. Across a range of data sources, poorer countries have in fact been catching up with richer ones, albeit slowly, since the mid-1990s. This new era of convergence does not stem primarily from growth moderation in the rich world but rather from accelerating growth in the developing world, which has simultaneously become remarkably less volatile and more persistent. Debates about a middle-income trap also appear anachronistic: middleincome countries have exhibited higher growth rates than all others since the mid-1980s.

Here is the entire paper.  My general conclusion is that no particular model of convergence, or lack thereof, is correct, and it simply all depends on the historical period.

How to beat Paul Graham and put him in his place

Paul writes me:

I remember you wrote an article about the intersection of cryptocurrency and philanthropy, so if you haven’t heard about it yet you’d probably be interested in the new “Save Thousands of Lives” NFT being sold by a nonprofit we funded.

They run programs in India to teach new moms to take care of their babies at home. They’re amazingly effective (not surprising since they’re using the most powerful force in the world as leverage) and have the lowest cost per life saved of any nonprofit I know: $1235. And that is conservatively estimated; in reality it’s even lower.

You can read about it here: http://paulgraham.com/nft.html

I’d really appreciate it if you could help publicize this project. I bid the reserve price, but I really want to get into a bidding war with a cryptobillionaire, because the higher the price goes, the more lives get saved.

OK people, now you know how to beat Paul Graham…

Wednesday assorted links

1. Additional problems with central bank digital currencies.

2. Nicholas Wade on where Covid-19 really came from.  And commentary from Elad.  Original link is updated here.

3. Police vaccination rates are low.

4. “Travel agencies in Thailand are selling coronavirus “vaccine tours” to the United States, as some wealthy Thais grow impatient awaiting mass inoculations that are still a month away amid the country’s biggest outbreak so far.”  Link here.

My Conversation with Daniel Carpenter, on regulation and also the FDA

Here is the audio, video, and transcript, I found it a very substantive and also illuminating episode.  Carpenter is very, very smart and also very well-informed historically.  Here is part of the summary:

Daniel Carpenter is one of the world’s leading experts on regulation and the foremost expert on the US Food and Drug Administration. A professor of Government at Harvard University, he’s conducted extensive research on regulation and government organizations, as well as on the development of political institutions in the United States. His latest book Democracy by Petition: Popular Politics in Transformation, details the crucial role petitions played in expanding the franchise and shaping modern America.

Here is an excerpt from the non-FDA section, much of which focuses on (non-FDA) regulation:

COWEN: What kinds of records should the Postal Service keep about itself?

CARPENTER: [laughs] Great question. There’s a whole set of things that they don’t since the Griswold decision and since the First Amendment decisions. They don’t keep as much records of what goes through the mail. They can’t prohibit things like pornography, contraception.

I guess it depends on what you mean by “itself.” I would start with the idea that basic privacy restrictions, which governed the postal system as much through norm as by law in the 19th century and early 20th century, should govern the system.

It’s a crime if I were to walk past your mailbox and open your letter. I’m committing a federal crime, but there were also norms that seals were not to be broken, things like that. I do think whichever way the Postal Service goes — and it’s quite possible that you could imagine an electronic platform for the US postal system — I think basic privacy restrictions have to be guaranteed.

Actually, in some respects, I think we need to know a fair amount about what postal workers do without, say, calling for Amazon tracking. But if we think that postal workers are misplacing ballots or not providing birth control pills or something like that, then we should probably have some way of picking up on that kind of nefarious behavior.

In the FDA section I got mad at him, the first (but not last?) time that has happened in a CWT, do read or listen to the whole section, the two of us really had at it!  Here is a tiny sliver from it:

COWEN: But shouldn’t there be a button within the FDA that can be pushed, where the FDA goes into a kind of wartime mode?

I don’t want to misrepresent Carpenter by an ill-chosen excerpt, so please do digest his full set of replies.  Recommended.

Genetics of Psychic Ability

My jaw just about hit the floor when I read this paper.

It is commonly believed that psychic ability, like many mental and physical traits, runs in families. This suggests the presence of a genetic component. If such a component were found, it would constitute a biological marker of psychic ability and inform environmental or pharmacologic means of enhancing or suppressing this ability.

On the one hand, almost every human trait has some genetic component. On the other hand, shouldn’t you demonstrate that a trait exists before searching for its genetic correlates? The combination of science and nonsense in this paper–seemingly without irony–is disconcerting, like discovering that Newton spent a huge amount of his time trying to discern hidden codes in the Bible.

On finding psychics and matched case-controls, “individuals with indications of psychotic or delusional tendencies were excluded from further consideration.” Ok, then.

Oh, in case you are wondering:

…none of the protein-coding sequences (i.e., exons) showed any variation that discriminated between cases and controls. However, a difference was observed in the intron (i.e., non-protein-coding region) adjacent to an exon in the TNRC18 gene (Trinucleotide Repeat-Containing Gene 18 Protein) on chromosome 7. This variation, an alteration of GG to GA, was found in 7 of 9 controls and was absent from all psychic cases.

The most conservative interpretation of these results is that they result from random population sampling. However, when the results are considered in relation to other lines of evidence, the results are more provocative. Further research is justified to replicate and extend these findings.

Disappointing really.

Hat tip: Jonatan Pallesen.

Are women making progress in academic economics?

Here is a new paper by Donna K. Ginther and Shulamit Kahn:

This study uses data from Academic Analytics to examine gender differences in promotion to associate professor in economics. We found that women in economics were 15% less likely to be promoted to associate professor after controlling for cumulative publications, citations, grants and grant dollars. In contrast, we found no significant gender differences in promotion in other fields including biomedical science, physical science, political science, mathematics and statistics, and engineering. We separated the sample by the research intensity of institutions and found suggestive evidence that these results were being driven by less research-intensive institutions.

What is the best model for understanding this result?  The “ol’ boys’ network” matters more at lower-tier institutions?  Something else?  There doesn’t seem to be a gender tenure penalty at higher-ranked research institutions.

How would actual alien spacecraft influence asset prices?

Primarily as an exercise, I thought about that question for a while, and here is part of my answer in a Bloomberg column:

If you know you are being watched, what exactly do you wish to buy more of? I would bet on defense stocks to rise, whether or not there is much we can do to defend ourselves against this alien presence.

Of course investors could not be sure that these alien drone probes will merely observe us forever. They might be observing with the purpose of rendering judgment. If they are offended by our militaristic tendencies, the quality of our TV shows and our inability to adopt the cosmopolitan values of “Star Trek” over the next 30 years, maybe they will zap us into oblivion. But that kind of systematic risk is hard to insure against. After such an act of obliteration, neither gold nor Bitcoin will do you any good.

My main prediction is that alien UFOs will be bullish for the dollar. The U.S. government seems most closely connected to the UFO phenomenon, for whatever reason. (Maybe its pilots fly more sallies and record better data?) In any case, if alien UFOs become more likely, an informational advantage would accrue to the federal government. And the dollar already has a tradition as a safe haven currency…

Most of us would get used to the idea of alien presence without quite believing in it. As The New Yorker makes clear, many Americans believed in alien-origin UFOs after World War II, as did many American policymakers. It might have spurred greater interest in the space program and science fiction, but it didn’t affect most aspects of American life, nor did it seem to drive markets.

Never underestimate the capacity of markets, like humans, to adapt. Just as many of the strangest parts of our lives can come to seem normal, so Wall Street can find a way to do business with just about anybody — aliens included.

I do full, literally mean everything stated in the column.  But the piece also has (at least) two esoteric meanings — can you guess what they are?