Month: June 2021

The separating equilibrium (a ban by any other name?)

Governor Ron DeSantis would not let cruise ships sailing from Florida mandate vaccination?  Well, this is what you end up with:

Now we know the true cost of not getting vaccinated for COVID-19: You won’t be able to order sushi when cruising on Royal Caribbean‘s Freedom of the Seas.

Here is a list of all the other restrictions for the unvaccinated cruise passengers.  Via Stephen Jones.

Wednesday assorted links

1. More.  Please forgive the source and the pop-ups.

2. Those new service sector jobs: the rising number of dog lawyers in Canada.

3. The decentralized origin of standard weights.

4. The longer-term economic consequences of pandemics, over 220 years.

5. Why Africa’s island states are generally freer (The Economist).

6. Transient pacemaker that dissolves harmlessly in your body.  And another step toward a pancoronavirus vaccine.

7. New Joe Lonsdale AmericanOptimist podcast.

My Conversation with Richard Prum

Prum is an ornithologist at Yale, here is the audio, video, and transcript. Here is part of the summary:

Richard joined Tyler to discuss the infidelity of Australian birds, the debate on the origins of avian flight, how the lack of a penis explains why birds are so beautiful, why albatrosses can afford to take so many years to develop before mating, the game theory of ornithology, how flowers advertise themselves like a can of Coke, how modern technology is revolutionizing bird watching, why he’s pro-bird feeders yet anti- outdoor cats, how scarcity predicts territoriality in birds, his favorite bird artist, how Oilbirds got their name, how falcons and cormorants hunt and fish with humans, whether birds exhibit a G factor, why birds have regional accents, whether puffins will perish, why he’s not excited about the idea of trying to bring back passenger pigeons, the “dumb question” that marks a talented perspective ornithologist, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Putting path dependence aside, if you were trying to give us the most fundamental explanation of why sexual dimorphism is different in birds compared to mammals, what would that be?

PRUM: Well, that’s actually a really big question. [laughs]

COWEN: Of course, but the most fundamental factor — what is it?

PRUM: The most fundamental factor is that most birds don’t have a penis.

COWEN: Talk me through the equilibrium there.

PRUM: [laughs] There’s a lot. That’s where we start: Most birds don’t have a penis, which means that one of the things that happens in avian evolution that’s distinct from mammals is that the kids require a lot of care. They’re growing up in the nest, they’re hatching out of an egg, but they’re very, very vulnerable until they can fly.

Birds have a very rapid period of rapid development. That means that they grow up and leave the nest, and you need two parents to do that efficiently in most diets or most kinds of ecologies. That means the dad’s got to be at the nest.

We usually thought that you have social monogamy, at least two birds helping raise the young, because the young are so needy and they have to grow up quickly. But there’s another possibility, which is that they could evolve to be so needy and grow up quickly because they managed to get males at the nest.

One of the things that happened in the phylogeny of birds — you’ve got ostriches and their relatives, and you’ve got chickens and ducks, and then you’ve got the rest of birds, and that’s a bunch. That’s the vast majority of them, and in that lineage leading to the rest of birds, the penis evolved away, and the question is why. My own theory is that female birds preferred mates that did not have a penis.

One of the ancillary benefits of that, one of the correlated benefits of that is that they were no longer subject to sexual coercion or sexual violence. They could be coerced behaviorally, but they couldn’t be forcibly fertilized. That means that they have freedom of choice, and what do they do with their freedom of choice? They choose beauty. One of the reasons why birds are so beautiful is that males don’t have a penis. They have to be subject to choice in order to effect reproduction, and also they have to invest if females require it.

COWEN: Now, sometimes albatrosses don’t breed until they’re 20 years old or even, on average, maybe it’s what — 10 years old. What are they doing in the meantime that’s so important?

PRUM: Well, that is a deep question.

Recommended, this was one of my favorite CWT episodes.

The Premonition

In The Premonition Michael Lewis brings his cast of heroes together like the assembling of the Avengers. In the role of Captain America is Charity Dean, the CA public health officer who is always under-estimated because she is slight and attractive, until she cracks open the ribcage of a cadaver that the men are afraid to touch. Then there is Carter Mecher, the redneck epidemiologist who has a gift for assembling numbers into coherent patterns. And Richard Hatchett the southern poet who finds himself at the head of The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness (CEPI), the world’s most important organization during the pandemic; and Joe DiRisi the brilliant, mad scientist picked by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative as the person most likely to cure disease…all of them. As you might expect from Michael Lewis, it’s all terribly well done, albeit formulaic and  sometimes over-the-top, e.g.

Charity’s purpose was clear….she was put on earth to fight battles, and wars, against disease. To save lives and perhaps even an entire country. p. 200-201

But Lewis has a bigger problem than over-the-top writing.

The heroes were defeated. Lewis likes to tell stories of brilliant mavericks like Billy Beane and Michael Burry who go against the grain but eventually, against all odds, emerge victorious. But six hundred thousand people are dead in the United States and whatever victory we have won was ugly and slow. Indeed, Lewis assembles his mighty team but then The Premonition trails off as the team is defeated by bureaucracy, indecision, complacency and malaise before they even have a chance to enter the real battle against the virus. It’s telling that none of Lewis’s heroes are even mentioned in Andy Slavitt’s Preventable (about which I will say more in a future post).

To be fair, Lewis’s heroes are fascinating, brilliant people who did some good. As part of the Kremer team I interacted a bit with Richard Hatchett and CEPI. Hatchett headed CEPI and understood the danger of SARS-COV-II before anyone else and with Bill Gates’s support started funding vaccine production and shoring up supply lines before anyone else was off the starting line. CEPI was magnificent and their story has yet to be told in full measure. Had Lewis’s heroes been in charge I have no doubt that many lives could have been saved but, for the most part, the heroes were sidelined. Why and how that happened is the real question but Lewis’s story-telling skills aren’t the right skills to answer that question.

If there is one central villain in The Premonition, it’s the CDC. Lewis acknowledges that his perspective has changed. In The Fifth Risk, the system (the “deep state” used non-pejoratively if you will) is full of wisdom and power but it’s under threat from Trump. In The Premonition, Trump is an after-thought, at best a trigger or aggravating factor. Long before Trump or the pandemic:

Charity had washed her hands of the CDC. “I banned their officers from my investigations,” she said. The CDC did many things. It published learned papers on health crisis, after the fact. It managed, very carefully, public perception of itself. But when the shooting started, it leapt into the nearest hole, while others took fire. “In the end I was like ‘Fuck you’, said Charity. “I was mad they were such pansies. I was mad that the man behind the curtain ended up being so disappointing.” p. 42

As the pandemic starts the CDC fails repeatedly. At the beginning of the pandemic on January 29 the government had started to repatriate Americans from Wuhan bringing some of them to a National Guard base just outside of Omaha. But shockingly the CDC doesn’t test them for the virus.

Never mind that every single one of the fifty-seven Americans in quarantine wanted to be tested: the CDC forbade it. And [James] Lawler [US Naval Commander and national security coordinator on pandemic response] never understood the real reason for the CDC’s objections…Whatever the reasons, fifty-seven Americans spent fourteen days quarantined in Omaha, then left without having any idea of whether they’d been infected, or might still infect others. “There is no way that fifty-seven people from Wuhan were not shedding virus,” said Lawler. p. 176

Many of the people brought home from China are not even quarantined just told to self-quarantine:

…When local health officers…set out to find these possibly infected Americans, and make sure that they were following orders to quarantine, they discovered that the CDC officials who had met them upon arrival had not bothered to take down their home addresses.

…[Charity] posed a rude question to the senior CDC official moved on the call: How can you keep saying that Americans are at low risk from the virus if you aren’t even testing for the virus. She’d been answered with silence, and then the official move on to the next topic. [p.206-207, italics in original]

And all of this is before we get to the CDC’s famously botched test an error which was amplified by the FDA’s forbidding private labs and state governments to develop their own tests. Charity Dean wanted California to ignore the CDC and FDA and, “blow open testing and allow every microbiology lab to develop its own test.” But Dean is ignored and so by as late as February 19, “Zimbabwe could test but California could not because of the CDC. Zimbabwe!” p. 223. The failure of testing in the early weeks was the original sin of the crisis, the key failure that took a containment strategy ala South Korea and Taiwan off the table.

Lewis’s most sustained analysis comes in a few pages near the end of The Premonition where he argues that the CDC became politicized after it lost credibility due to the 1976 Swine Flu episode. In 1976 a novel influenza strain looked like it might be a repeat of 1918. Encouraged by CDC head David Sencer, President Ford launched a mass vaccination campaign that vaccinated 45 million people. The swine flu, however, petered out and the campaign was widely considered a “debacle” and a “fiasco” that illustrated the danger of ceding control to unelected experts instead of the democratic process. The CDC lost authority and under Reagan the director became a political appointee rather than a career civil servant. Thus, rather than being unprecedented, Trump’s politicization of the CDC had deep roots.

Today the 1976 vaccination campaign looks like a competent response to a real risk that failed to materialize, rather than a failure. So what lessons should we take from this? Lewis doesn’t say but my colleague Garett Jones argues for more independent agencies in his excellent book 10% Less Democracy. The problem with the CDC was that after 1976 it was too responsive to political pressures, i.e. too democratic. What are the alternatives?

The Federal Reserve is governed by a seven-member board each of whom is appointed to a single 14- year term, making it rare for a President to be able to appoint a majority of the board. Moreover, since members cannot be reappointed there is less incentive to curry political favor. The Chairperson is appointed by the President to a four-year term and must also be approved by the Senate. These checks and balances make the Federal Reserve a relatively independent agency with the power to reject democratic pressures for inflationary stimulus. Although independent central banks can be a thorn in the side of politicians who want their aid in juicing the economy as elections approach, the evidence is that independent central banks reduce inflation without reducing economic growth. A multi-member governing board with long and overlapping appointments could also make the CDC more independent from democratic politics which is what you want when a once in 100 year pandemic hits and the organization needs to make unpopular decisions before most people see the danger.

Lewis hasn’t lost his ability to write exhilarating prose about heroic oddballs. Page by page, The Premonition is a good read but the heroes in Lewis’s story were overshadowed by politics, bureaucracy and complacency–systems that Lewis’s doesn’t analyze or perhaps quite understand–and as a result, his hero-centric story ends up unsatisfying as story and unedifying as analysis.

How do you ask good questions?

Ryan writes to me:

Consuming the different variety of media in which you publish ideas, I’ve noticed that you pose very high quality questions. For me, high quality questions have a Heideggerian quality insofar as they open a space for exploration, i.e. a concept, category, path of thought has specific affordances that were merely dormant up until the performative moment of that question being posed.
Do you have an instinctual knack for posing high-quality questions or is there a conscious method employed when you engage with ideas.
Are you aware of any interesting articles/books exploring the nature of questions and how to improve asking questions. Lots written about answering questions; very little, so far as I can tell, about asking questions.

I have a few tips for asking better questions:

1. Highly specific questions are better on average.

2. It is often better to preface a question with a confession of some sort, or with information from yourself. That sets a standard for the respondent. Set that standard high!

3. Demonstrate credibly that you are truly listening and that you care about the answer.

4. With any possible question, ask yourself in advance: can the person being asked the question respond too easily in a vague and not very useful way? “Why did you write a book about Napoleon? Well, let me tell you, French history always fascinated me.” etc. If that is the kind of slop you might get back in response, try making the question more pointed or more specific.

5. High status people get better answers than do low status people. So be high status. Or at least credibly pretend to be high status.

6. I have enjoyed Gregory Stock’s The Book of Questions.

7. You might say “listen to other interviewers.” Well, maybe, but perhaps not too much? They will encourage you, by default, to ask the same questions that everyone else does. And too many of the sources available to you are mega-famous people who are getting by using their fame to boost the significant of their questions. (Anything Oprah might ask me would be interesting per se.) So use this standard tip sparingly and with caution.

8. Any questions about all this?

A problem in nuclear waste semiotics

Via Richard Harper, this thread asks how you might warn very future people away from a nuclear waste site. Alexandra Erin wrote:

An easy way to understand the problem of nuclear waste storage semiotics is to imagine what kind of warning could have been on an Egyptian tomb that would have kept Howard Carter from robbing it.

Here is some background material on how people are thinking about the problem at Yucca Mountain.  Here is a Wikipedia page on different signs and options.  Alex suggests color-changing cats.

I would think the question of how to inform a super-advanced civilization is a manageable one, at least if they have any patience at all.  Simply explain the whole truth in plain English, and give them enough English text, in durable micro form if needed, so they can unlock the secrets of English.  Also put up some images of radioactive decay.  Skull and crossbones may not mean so much to them.

What about our possible “Mad Max” descendants?  Of course that scenario means our own civilization has in some manner perished, so it is not a totally optimistic prognosis for human prudence.  So why think some silly red signs will make much of a difference?  After all, just try today to talk people out of alcohol.  Good luck.

So instead my mischievous thoughts turn to finance theory and portfolio diversification.  If the nuclear waste site is truly remote and previously unobserved and undiscovered, why not put something really good in there as recompense?

A seed bank.  Copies of The Great Books.  The text of the United States Constitution.  Proofs of Newton’s Laws.  Einstein’s theory of relativity (maybe wait on that one?…)  Design for a better medieval water wheel.  Compositions of Beethoven and Mozart.  Translation advice, some of it pictorial.  And so on.  Surely some of it will be useful, sooner or later.

Which is further reason why all of your ideas are less likely to work.  You can’t credibly commit to not giving people insurance against their bad decisions — just ask the Fed!

Bulletin: a more than marginal boost for Marginal Revolution

We are proud to announce that Marginal Revolution now exists on a second site as well, affiliated with Facebook, at

We are excited to be part of this new project, called Bulletin.  Please note that will be fully free and open, just as the current site is.

If you prefer to stay here, you can do so — no need to make any changes.  RSS, Twitter feed, email service, everything remains intact.  Or if you prefer it over there, that is great too.  Facebook obviously has a reputation for producing great software, and we look forward to seeing what they can do with this project.  Many other content creators have been recruited for this venture, they will have their own Bulletin sites, and we will tell you more about them soon.

We are keen to see our ideas and writings brought to new audiences, and our new partnership with Facebook will enable this.  So far they have been great to work with, and we will be able to continue with our fully independent status.

We are also delighted to see that some of you will have the opportunity to comment on two different sites, not just one.

Onwards and upwards!  We are in this for the long haul.

And as always, we thank you all for reading.


We are thrilled that Marginal Revolution is a featured part of Facebook’s new Bulletin writing service. Facebook has nearly 3 billion active users and this new partnership will bring additional readers to Marginal Revolution. Don’t worry, however, we remain an independent source of news and opinion and Marginal Revolution will continue to exist at Marginal Revolution as well as at Bulletin will bring us new readers and we are excited about the new methods of content delivery that Facebook will bring to the table. More on that in the future!

Tuesday assorted links

1. Quarles skeptical about a CBDC.

2. Ransomware hackers building their own VC system.

3. Why is American infrastructure so expensive?

4. Mas-Colell update (in Spanish), here in English.  Judgment rendered, and he (joint with Mas, if I understand correctly) has to put up a bond of over two million euros and later stand trial, possibly to be found liable for that sum.

5. Amazing how cheap this Courbet is (other Old Masters too).

6. I feel I’ve been in advance of this trend.  Non-believer intellectuals on the Right who pay heed to religion as a cultural foundation.

7. Nintil on California wildfires, very good post.

The Pandemic JOLTS

The 2009 recession was big but it followed a very familiar pattern–job separations were a little bit larger than job hires and this lasted for a little less than year which drove up unemployment rates. Unemployment rates then declined slowly as hires became a little bit larger than separations. Now look at the pandemic recession! Separations triple from normal–absolutely unprecedented. Hires then rebound at a slower rate than separations but at a much faster rate than in any previous recession (I haven’t bothered correcting for population since the differences are so large.)

I don’t know entirely what to make of this but we are still debating the Great Depression and the Great Recession so the Pandemic Recession will provide data and questions for a generation of economists. Why, for example, are supply shocks seemingly so much easier for an economy to handle than demand shocks? And why are some demand shocks worse than others? The dot com bust was at least as big a decline in wealth than the housing bust in 2009 but the latter resulted in a much bigger recession. How much was due to policy? How much was due to the fact that the financial system wasn’t so involved in the dot com bust or the pandemic recession? Finance often seems like it doesn’t do so much but why then do things go so badly when the financial system is impeded?

*The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade*

That is a new and very useful book by Benjamin T. Smith, oddly it came out first in the UK.  Here is one excerpt:

Over the past fifty years, to earn the median wage, a Mexican has had to sell an average of 700 grams of marijuana, 18 grams of heroin, or 66 grams of cocaine on the U.S. streets. It amounts to weed weighing two cans of soup, coke weighing a tennis ball, or smack weighing just three U.S. quarters. And this is only the average. During the economic collapse of the mid-1980s, it took only 280 grams of marijuana and 4.8 grams of heroin to make the annual wage. You could earn as much growing a single marijuana plant or a window box of poppies as driving a cab for a year.

And this:

Up to the 1970s, violence was rarely employed to sort out disputes between drug traffickers. The trade was relatively peaceful. Cooperation was the rule. Deep ties of blood, marriage, friendship, and neighborhood, which linked many of the traffickers, prevented the frequent use of force. In general, so did the local protection rackets. Both state governors and state cops were keen to avoid conflicts that risked exposing their own ties to the traffickers.

This changed because sometimes the later state authorities sought to institute their own protection rackets, using force toward that end. Many of the gangs sought to extend their turf beyond drugs to other commercial areas, also leading to conflict. Finally, the U.S.-led war on drugs induced a form of Mexican aggressive counternarcotics policing that bred conflict as well.

Overall this is a good book about a hard to research topic.

There is now actually a book like this

And a very good book at that:

My main argument is that Jacob’s approach to urbanism and economics was developed parallel to, and perhaps benefited from, a much broader field of knowledge than is generally understood.  Therefore, the chapter considers a wide context, including the revolutionary critique of planning espoused by Alison and Peter Smithson throughout the 1950s, on the one hand, and the Austrian-school theory of spontaneous order, on the others.  Decades before Jacobs’s remarkably hypotheses, liberal theorists had advanced a demoralizing critique of central design as a challenge to the legacy of collectivist planning while advocating market-based solutions and demonstrating the crucial role that informal commerce played in spontaneous order.


That is from the new and noteworthy Anthony Fontenot, Non-Design: Architecture, Liberalism & the Market.


Sentences to ponder solve for the cycling equilibrium

Austin Cyclists Split On Sharing Bike Lanes With Pizza Delivery Robots

Some Austin cyclists are not happy about the robots using bike lanes, while others are optimistic that sharing their path will lead to good things down the road…

“My personal view is that I don’t believe these belong in the bike lane,” said Jake Boone, who serves as vice-chair of the city’s Bicycle Advisory Council.

“I almost feel like we’re the test subject for this new technology, and that does bother me,” he said. “What if in two years we have several hundred of these on the road?”

Here is the full story, via Mike Doherty.

The origins of Wokeism

My latest Bloomberg column considers one factor (of many), here is an excerpt:

The male-female imbalance in academic life should be treated as a kind of emergency. But the institutions that address it are slow and bureaucratic.

Now enter the philosophy of wokeism. One way to think of the woke is as a bunch of people who scream about various injustices. But sometimes they don’t have a good plan to address a particular imbalance — and along the way they can inflict a good deal of unjustified damage, for instance by canceling people who make the wrong remarks about gender imbalance or other issues.

These and other criticisms of the woke may well be correct. Still, at the end of the day it has to be recognized that an unresponsive society will generate a lot of unproductive (and unresponsive) screamers. So simply dissecting the weaknesses of woke tactics and arguments misses the point. When practical solutions do not seem to exist, many people will resort to screaming.

This leads to the conclusion that wokeness won’t be defeated as an ideology until there is a more convincing and practical vision of how to undo institutional sclerosis. When that vision comes, it may not be so closely allied with wokeness, which is not excessively concerned with effective administration and incentive compatibility.

And this:

Sometimes it even seems that woke forces are effective. Recently some major museums have announced that they are sending back their highly valuable West African bronze sculptures to their countries of origin. Many of those sculptures were stolen by British colonial occupiers, and their restoration would reunite those countries with a significant part of their cultural heritage. This justified change would probably not have occurred without pressure from wokeism.

One underlying theme of the column is that the defects of the Woke — such as excess rigidity — are closely allied to the defects of the society they are protesting against.