One Billion Vaccinations in a Month!

The news on world vaccinations is good. As of late September of 2021 we have vaccinated 3.43 billion people (2.51 billion people with 2 doses). Even more impressive over the last 30 days the world vaccinated one billion people. That is a tremendous achievement. There are about 7.9 billion people in the world so 44% of the world has had at least one dose and nearly a third of the world population has  had two doses. We are on track to fully vaccinate 70% of all adults in 2021 and most of the world that wants a dose by early 2022. Judging by the US, demand will be more of a constraint than supply as we hit ~60% of the world population.

The NYTimes on the FDA and Rapid Tests

In July of 2020 I wrote in Frequent, Fast, and Cheap is Better than Sensitive:

A number of firms have developed cheap, paper-strip tests for coronavirus that report results at-home in about 15 minutes but they have yet to be approved for use by the FDA because the FDA appears to be demanding that all tests reach accuracy levels similar to the PCR test. This is another deadly FDA mistake.

…The PCR tests can discover virus at significantly lower concentration levels than the cheap tests but that extra sensitivity doesn’t matter much in practice. Why not? First, at the lowest levels that the PCR test can detect, the person tested probably isn’t infectious. The cheap test is better at telling whether you are infectious than whether you are infected but the former is what we need to know to open schools and workplaces.

It’s great that other people including the NYTimes are now understanding the problem. Here is the excellent David Leonhardt in Where are the Tests?

Other experts are also criticizing the Biden administration for its failure to expand rapid testing. Even as President Biden has followed a Covid policy much better aligned with scientific evidence than Donald Trump’s, Biden has not broken through some of the bureaucratic rigidity that has hampered the U.S. virus response.

In the case of rapid tests, the F.D.A. has loosened its rules somewhat over the past year, allowing the sale of some antigen tests (which often cost about $12 each). But drugstores, Amazon and other sellers have now largely run out of them. I tried to buy rapid tests this weekend and couldn’t find any.

The F.D.A.’s process for approving rapid tests is “onerous” and “inappropriate,” Daniel Oran and Dr. Eric Topol of Scripps Research wrote in Stat News.

For the most part, the F.D.A. still uses the same cumbersome process for approving Covid tests that it uses for high-tech medical devices. To survive that process, the rapid tests must demonstrate that they are nearly as sensitive as P.C.R. tests, which they are not.

But rapid tests do not need to be so sensitive to be effective, experts point out. P.C.R. tests often identify small amounts of the Covid virus in people who had been infected weeks earlier and are no longer contagious. Rapid tests can miss these cases while still identifying about 98 percent of cases in which a person is infectious, according to Dr. Michael Mina, a Harvard epidemiologist who has been advocating for more testing

Identifying anywhere close to 98 percent of infectious cases would sharply curb Covid’s spread. An analysis in the journal Science Advances found that test frequency matters more for reducing Covid cases than test sensitivity.

As I said on twitter what makes the FDA’s failure to approve more rapid antigen tests especially galling is that some of the tests being sold cheaply in Europe are American tests just ones not approved in the United States. If it’s good enough for the Germans it’s good enough for me!

The Kids Are Also Polarized

Adolescents used to identify with a party but polarization was muted by a general warmth towards authority figures. Today, however, the warmth is gone and adolescents are as polarized as adults which has implications for future polarization and generalized distrust. New paper by Iyengar and Tyler (note the data is pre-pandemic):

We have shown that the onset of partisan polarization occurs early in the life cycle with very little change thereafter. Today, high levels of in-group favoritism and out-group distrust are in place well before early adulthood. In fact, our 2019 results suggest that the learning curve for polarization plateaus by the age of 11. This is very unlike the developmental pattern that held in the 1970s and 1980s, when early childhood was characterized by blanket positivity toward authority figures and partisanship gradually intruded into the political attitudes of adolescents before peaking in adulthood.

When we considered the antecedents of children’s trust in the parties, our findings confirm the earlier literature documenting the primacy of the family as an agent of socialization (Jennings and Niemi 1968; Jennings, Stoker, and Bowers 2009; Tedin 1974). Polarized parents seem to transmit not only their partisanship, but also their animus toward opponents. It is striking that the least polarized youth respondents in 2019 are those who have not adopted their parental partisan loyalty.

In closing, our findings have important implications for the study of political socialization. Fifty years ago, political socialization was thought to play a stabilizing role important to the perpetuation of democratic norms and institutions. In particular, children’s adoption of uncritical attitudes toward authority figures helped to legitimize the entire democratic regime. Indeed, researchers cited this functional” role of socialization in justifying the study of political attitudes in childhood (Kinder and Sears 1985; van Deth, Abendschön, and Vollmar 2011).

In the current era, it seems questionable whether the early acquisition of out-party animus fosters democratic norms and civic attitudes. Extreme polarization is now associated with rampant misinformation (Peterson and Iyengar 2021), and, as indicated by the events that occurred in the aftermath of the 2020 election, with willingness to reject the outcome of free and fair electoral procedures. The question for future research is how to transmit party attachments, as occurred in the pre-polarization era, without the accompanying distrust and disdain for political opponents.

Hat tip: John Hobein

MRU Around the World

Here’s a message I received from Amol Shaila Suresh:

Hi Prof. Alex,

Last year, I started preparing for entrance exams of India’s premiere universities for masters in economics. I am an ‘engineering’ undergrad, turned to development sector. When I decided to do masters in economics, I had a huge 6 years educational gap and was amateur to the field. Mrs. Ashwini Kulkarni (whom you visited in Nashik, India to understand onion market) recommended me to check out “Marginal Revolution University” website for econ videos.

Following her advice, I completed micro and macro courses on mru.org and only then touched other reference books (be it Mankiw, Blanchard, Varian, Debraj, etc.) MRU videos helped me immensely in grasping basic economics concepts and made my preparation so smooth that I scored highly in many university entrance exams. Being from non-econ background with 6 years education gap & that too self-study, it was quite a satisfying performance.

Yesterday, South Asian University in New Delhi declared its result and I am at #13 on the merit list across India. It has been a dream to crack the SAU entrance and study development economics there. And I made it!

Sir, I am writing this whole story in detail to convey how huge this has been for me. I can not thank you and Prof. Cowen more. I referred to plenty of resources on the internet, but MRU as starter was exceptional and saviour for me! Without MRU, I may have struggled and who knows I could have given up to the subject which was alien to me.

Thank you sooooo much sir!

Look forward to meeting you in person in your next India trip! 🙂

Congratulations Amol! Everyone at MRU is thrilled to have helped. We love stories like this.

Here is our Principles of Micro class and Principles of Macro and for instructors here is more information on our textbook, Modern Principles of Economics.

Addendum: Here’s the post about my trip to the Lasalgaon Onion Market which apparently had ripple effects.

Gödel Prize Winners Don’t Cosplay

Tim Roughgarden, a top-notch computer scientist (co-winner of a Gödel Prize), is teaching a class on blockchains. He’s only just begun to put up material but I liked this bit of “hype” from Lecture One.

It’s worth recognizing that we’re currently in a particular moment in time, witnessing a new area of computer science blossom before our eyes in real time. It draws on well-established parts of computer science (e.g., cryptography and distributed systems) and other fields (e.g., game theory and finance), but is developing into a fundamental and interdisciplinary area of science and engineering its own right. Future generations of computer scientists will be jealous of your opportunity to get in on the ground floor of this new area–analogous to getting into the Internet and the Web in the early 1990s. I cannot overstate the opportunities available to someone who masters the material covered in this course–current demand is much, much bigger than supply.

And perhaps this course will also serve as a partial corrective to the misguided coverage and discussion of blockchains in a typical mainstream media article or water cooler conversation, which seems bizarrely stuck in 2013 (focused almost entirely on Bitcoin, its environmental impact, the use case of payments, Silk Road, etc.). An enormous number of people, including a majority of computer science researchers and academics, have yet to grok the modern vision of blockchains: a new computing paradigm that will enable the next incarnation of the Internet and the Web, along with an entirely new generation of applications.

I share Tim’s excitement at the possibilities. Indeed, I had the pleasure of working with Tim advising a blockchain project (sadly killed by the SEC). By the way, Silvio Micali, another winner of the Godel prize, is a prime mover behind the Algorand blockchain.

Addendum: Here’s a perfect example of a mainsteam media article stuck in 2013.

Scott Gottlieb’s Uncontrolled Spread

Scott Gottlieb’s Uncontrolled Spread is superb. I reviewed it for the WSJ. Here’s one bit:

If there’s one overarching theme of “Uncontrolled Spread,” it’s that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention failed utterly. It’s now well known that the CDC didn’t follow standard operating procedures in its own labs, resulting in contamination and a complete botch of its original SARS-CoV-2 test. The agency’s failure put us weeks behind and took the South Korea option of suppressing the virus off the table. But the blunder was much deeper and more systematic than a botched test. The CDC never had a plan for widespread testing, which in any scenario could only be achieved by bringing in the big, private labs.

Instead of working with the commercial labs, the CDC went out of its way to impede them from developing and deploying their own tests. The CDC wouldn’t share its virus samples with commercial labs, slowing down test development. “The agency didn’t view it as a part of its mission to assist these labs.” Dr. Gottlieb writes. As a result, “It would be weeks before commercial manufacturers could get access to the samples they needed, and they’d mostly have to go around the CDC. One large commercial lab would obtain samples from a subsidiary in South Korea.”

At times the CDC seemed more interested in its own “intellectual property” than in saving lives. In a jaw-dropping section, Dr. Gottlieb writes that “companies seeking to make the test kits described extended negotiations with the CDC that stretched for weeks as the agency made sure that the contracts protected its inventions.” When every day of delay could mean thousands of lives lost down the line, the CDC was dickering over test royalties.

In the early months of the pandemic the CDC impeded private firms from developing their own tests and demanded that all testing be run through its labs even as its own test failed miserably and its own labs had no hope of scaling up to deal with the levels of testing needed. Moreover, the author notes, because its own labs couldn’t scale, the CDC played down the necessity of widespread testing and took “deliberate steps to enforce guidelines that would make sure it didn’t receive more samples than its single lab could handle.”

Read the whole thing.

Addendum: My previous reviews of Michael Lewis’s The Premonition, Slavitt’s Preventable and Abutaleb and Paletta’s Nightmare Scenario.

What’s the Right Dose for Boosters?

The Biden administration says booster shots are coming, but the FDA hasn’t decided on the dose. Moderna wants a half-shot booster. Pfizer a full shot. But could the best dose for Americans and for the world be even less?

COVID-19 vaccines are the first successful use of mRNA vaccine technology, so a lot remains unknown. But identifying the smallest dose needed to provide effective boosting is critical to protect Americans from adverse effects, increase confidence in vaccines, and mitigate global vaccine inequity.

We’ve known since earlier this year that a half-dose of the Moderna vaccine produces antibody levels similar to the standard-dose and newer information suggests that even a quarter-dose vaccine may do the same. If a half or quarter dose is nearly as effective as a standard dose for first and second shots then a full dose booster may well be an overdose. The essential task of a booster is to “jog” the immune system’s memory of what it’s supposed to fight. Data from the world of hepatitis B suggest that the “reminder” need not be as intense as the initial “lesson.” And in the cases of tuberculosis, meningitis, and yellow fever vaccines, lower doses have been as good or better than the originals.

Lower doses could also reduce risks of adverse effects.

That’s myself and physicians Garth Strohbehn and William F. Parker on the Med Page Today. Strohbehn is an oncologist and specialist in optimizing doses for cancer drugs. William Parker is a pulmonologist and professor of medicine at the University of Chicago.

What to Watch

A few things I have watched recently:

The Courier–a taut, spy drama about the true story of Greville Wynne, an ordinary British businessman who was recruited by the British and American spy services to courier information in the 1960s from Russian agent Oleg Penkovsky–information that proved crucial to the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Rachel Brosnahan. On Amazon Prime.

The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard–I thought this action-comedy was hilarious (in the spirit of Deadpool). The plot makes no sense but who cares? It stars Ryan Reynolds, Samuel Jackson, Morgan Freeman, Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek all of whom are clearly having a good time. Salma Hayek’s over-the-top performance makes the film. It even has an attack on occupational licensing. Saw it on a plane.

Worth–who would have thought that debates about estimating the value of a life would make a good movie? Michael Keaton plays Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer who headed the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. How much for a waiter? How much for a Wall Street trader? This is the philosophical question that gets the movie going but more practical problems also intercede. What do you do when the wife and the mistress both file for compensation? In the end, the movie bails on the big questions but succeeds on the quality of the performance by Michael Keaton. The tort system is a very expensive way to compensate victims. The Victim Compensation fund was a successful application of no-fault rules. On Netflix.

Billions–I will finish out the the fifth season but the plots are now repetitive and while I wouldn’t say it has jumped the shark it will never rise again to the heights of The Third Ortolan. I did appreciate the Neil Peart reference but it should never have been explained. Love Jason Isbell but it feels like the writers are reaching for relevance. On Showtime.

Only Murders in the Building–An old-time murder mystery starring Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez. It’s fun but will they pull off a satisfying ending? I hope so. A show I can watch with my wife. On Hulu.

Operation Warp Speed: A Story Yet to be Told

Operation Warp Speed was by far the most successful government program against COVID. But as of yet there is very little discussion or history of the program. As just an indication I looked for references in a bunch of pandemic books to General Perna who co-led OWS with Moncef Slaoui. Michael Lewis in The Premonition never mentions Perna. Neither does Slavitt in Preventable. Nor does Wright in The Plague Year. Nor does Gottlieb in Uncontrolled Spread. Abutaleb and Paletta in Nightmare Scenario have just two index entries for Perna basically just stating his appointment and meeting with Trump.

Yet there are many questions to be asked about OWS. Who wrote the contracts? Who chose the vaccines? Who found the money? Who ran the day to day operation? Why was the state and local rollout so slow and uneven? How was the DPA used? Who lifted the regulations? How was the FDA convinced to go fast?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. I suspect when it is all written down, Richard Danzig will be seen as an important behind the scenes player in the early stages (I was involved with some meetings with him as part of the Kremer team). Grogan at the DPC seems under-recognized. Peter Marks at the FDA was likely extremely important in getting the FDA to run with the program. Marks brought people like Janet Woodcock from the FDA to OWS so you had a nominally independent group but one completely familiar with FDA policy and staff and that was probably critical. And of course Slaoui and Perna were important leaders and communicators with the private sector and the logistics group but they have yet to be seriously debriefed.

It’s also time for a revisionist account of President Trump’s Council of Economic Advisors. Michael Kremer and I spoke to the DPC and the CEA early on in the pandemic and argued for a program similar to what would later be called OWS. The CEA, however, was way ahead of the game. In Sept of 2019 (yes, 2019!) the CEA produced a report titled Mitigating the Impact of Pandemic Influenza through Vaccine Innovation. The report calculates the immense potential cost of a pandemic and how a private-public partnership could mitigate these costs–all of this before anyone had heard the term COVID. Nor did that happen by accident. Thomas Philipson, the CEA chair, had made his reputation in the field of economic epidemiology, incorporating incentives and behavioral analysis in epidemiological models to understand HIV and the spread of other infectious diseases. Eric Sun, another CEA economist, had also written with Philipson about the FDA and its problems. Casey Mulligan was another CEA chief economist who understand the danger of pandemics and was influenced by Sam Peltzman on the costs of FDA delay. So the CEA was well prepared for the pandemic and I suspect they gave Trump very good advice on starting Operation Warp Speed.

In short, someone deserves credit for a multi-trillion-dollar saving government program! More importantly, we know a lot about CDC and FDA failure but in order to know what we should build upon we also need to know what worked. OWS worked. We need a history of how and why.

The Ig Nobel Prizes

img-z2-1_357.jpgThe Ig Nobel Prize in Economics this year went to Pavlo Blavatskyy for Obesity of politicians and corruption in post-Soviet countries:

We collected 299 frontal face images of 2017 cabinet ministers from 15 post-Soviet states (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan). For each image, the minister’s body-mass index is estimated using a computer vision algorithm. The median estimated body-mass index of cabinet ministers is highly correlated with conventional measures of corruption (Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, World Bank worldwide governance indicator Control of Corruption, Index of Public Integrity). This result suggests that physical characteristics of politicians such as their body-mass index can be used as proxy variables for political corruption when the latter are not available, for instance at a very local level.

The Transportation prize went to researchers led by Cornell University’s Robin W. Radcliffe for determining that it is safe to transport an airborne rhinoceros upside down.

Other prizes here.

You may laugh but don’t forget that the great Andre Geim won an Ig Nobel prize in 2000 for levitating a frog and then won a Nobel prize in 2010 for graphene. I consider this one of the greatest accomplishments in all of science.

Photo Credit: Journal of Wildlife Diseases.

Strategic Citing

Amir Rubin and Eran Rubin have a clever new paper in the JPE on strategic citations (SSRN). In order to obtain publications in top-tiered journals, get invited to conferences, become a reference and so forth:

…authors may cite top-tier journals as a way to enhance their relationships with those journals.They may further consider the preferences of top-tier journals’ referees for such citations. Typically, these referees serve more than one top-tier journal, which they potentially even more appreciate as quality signals and whose top-tier status they wish to preserve by receiving citations. Consequently, authors may consider the expected positive impact of top-tier journal citations in satisfying referees.

Rubin and Rubin have a unique test of this behavior. For administrative reasons, the Journal of Business, a top journal in finance, stopped publication in 2006. Thus, after 2006, there were fewer strategic reasons to cite JOB papers even though the scientific reasons to cite these papers remained constant. The authors test this by matching articles in the JOB with articles in similar journals published in the same year and having the same number of citations in the two years following publication–thus they match on similar articles with a similar citation trajectory. What they find is that post-2006 the citation count of the JOB articles falls substantially off the expected trajectory. The figure below illustrates.

The finding is robust to controlling for self-citations, own-journal citations, and a variety of other possibilities. The authors also show that deceased authors get fewer citations than matched living authors. For example, living Nobel prize winners get more citations than dead ones even when they were awarded the prize jointly.

Rubin and Rubin suggest this bias might be correctable with more metadata on citations. Negative citations, for example, can be very informative about the development of a scientific field. I am not sure the problem is big enough to worry about but I was impressed by how much strategic behavior can be uncovered by clever data analysis. I was also convinced I should be more strategic in my citations.

Organic Disaster

Sri Lanka’s President abruptly banned chemical fertilizers earlier this year in a bid to become 100% organic. The ban has resulted in reduced production and soaring prices that, together with declining tourism and the pandemic, have created an economic crisis.

According to major Sri Lankan tea conglomerate Herman Gunaratne, one of 46 experts picked by President Rajapaksa to spearhead the organic shift, the move’s consequences for the country are unimaginable.

“The ban has drawn the tea industry into complete disarray… If we go completely organic, we will lose 50 per cent of the crop, (but) we are not going to get 50 per cent higher prices,” he reportedly said.

…Former central bank deputy governor W.A. Wijewardena reportedly termed the organic plan as a “dream with unimaginable social, political and economic costs”. He said Sri Lanka’s food security had been “compromised” and without foreign currency, it’s “worsening day by day”.

An island-wide survey of farmers found out that 90 per cent use chemicals for farming and 85 per cent expected sizable reductions in their harvest if disallowed to use fertilisers. Moreover, the survey said that only 20 per cent farmers had the knowledge to transition to completely organic production.

It also found that 44 per cent farmers are experiencing a decline in harvests, and 85 per cent are expecting a fall in the future.

The survey also revealed that many key crops in Sri Lanka depend on heavy use of chemical input for cultivation, with the highest dependency in paddy at 94 per cent, followed by tea and rubber at 89 per cent each.

With the shift from chemical to organic cultivation, Sri Lanka needs a large domestic production of organic fertilisers and biofertilisers. However, the situation is very bleak.

The government has responded to the soaring prices not by reversing its decree but in the usual way by imposing price controls, attacking “hoarders” and seizing stocks of agricultural commodities like sugar.

Organic farming has its place but it takes a lot of human capital to make it work and overall it results in lower yield and thus more land used. Nor is organic farming less polluting per unit of output. See this piece from the Annual Review of Resource Economics.

Organic agriculture is often perceived as more sustainable than conventional farming. We review the literature on this topic from a global perspective. In terms of environmental and climate change effects, organic farming is less polluting than conventional farming when measured per unit of land but not when measured per unit of output. Organic farming, which currently accounts for only 1% of global agricultural land, is lower yielding on average. Due to higher knowledge requirements, observed yield gaps might further increase if a larger number of farmers would switch to organic practices. Widespread upscaling of organic agriculture would cause additional loss of natural habitats and also entail output price increases, making food less affordable for poor consumers in developing countries. Organic farming is not the paradigm for sustainable agriculture and food security, but smart combinations of organic and conventional methods could contribute toward sustainable productivity increases in global agriculture.

Authoritarian Australia

Australia is now one of the most authoritarian states in the world. Conor Friedersdorf writes:

Australia is undoubtedly a democracy, with multiple political parties, regular elections, and the peaceful transfer of power. But if a country indefinitely forbids its own citizens from leaving its borders, strands tens of thousands of its citizens abroad, puts strict rules on intrastate travel, prohibits citizens from leaving home without an excuse from an official government list, mandates masks even when people are outdoors and socially distanced, deploys the military to enforce those rules, bans protest, and arrests and fines dissenters, is that country still a liberal democracy?

As I noted earlier, Australia is in clear contravention of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, Article 13 of which states:

  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
  2. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Friedersdorf continues:

To give Australia’s approach its due, temporary restrictions on liberty were far more defensible early in the pandemic…Had it behaved rationally and adequately valued liberty, a rich nation like Australia would have spent lavishly—before knowing which vaccines would turn out to be most effective—to secure an adequate supply of many options for its people. It could afford to eat the cost of any extra doses and donate them to poorer countries. Australia then could have marshaled its military and civil society to vaccinate the nation as quickly as possible, lifted restrictions more fully than Europe and the United States did, and argued that the combination of fewer deaths and the more rapid return to normalcy made their approach a net win.

Instead, Australia invested inadequately in vaccines and, once it acquired doses, was too slow to get them into arms. “Of the 16 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine that have been released to the government by manufacturer CSL, only about 8 million have gone into the arms of Australians,” The Age reported on August 21, citing concern about blood clots and a widespread preference for the Pfizer vaccine.

…Because of its geography, Australia is a neighbor and an observer of authoritarian countries as varied as China and Singapore. But its own fate, too, may turn on whether its people crave the feeling of safety and security that orders from the top confer, or whether they want to be free.

Australians largely support the restrictions but to me that makes them all the more disturbing.

Temporary restrictions on liberty can be justified in an emergency if the restrictions produce something else of great value but respecting the great value of liberty and individual rights means doing everything in one’s power to limit the scope of and lift such restrictions as quickly and completely as possible.

The Kids are Doing Alright

You may have seen the viral tweet suggesting that boomers own all the wealth and millennials are poor. It’s hard for me to get worked up. Talk about a problem that will solve itself!

The problem that the graph suggests, however, is not even correct. Why are we looking at generational wealth shares when we could be looking at the much more straightforward statistic, wealth per capita. Jeremy Horpedahl does just that:

 

Looking at the exact same data (from the Fed Distributional Financial Accounts) from a different perspective gives us a much different picture of recent history. In this version, Gen X is now richer (30% richer!) than Boomers were at the same age (late 40s). Millennials don’t yet have a year of overlap with Boomers, but they are tracking Gen X almost exactly. There is no reason they won’t continue to track Gen X, and therefore exceed Boomers as well when they are in their late 40s (which will happen in about 2037 for Millennials).

In other words, people in the current generation have as much or more wealth than people of previous generations did at the same age.

Read the whole thing if you want some additional astute points about student debt and politics but I call this one busted. The kids are doing alright.