The Seen and Unseen: Rajagopalan and Tabarrok

On my recent trip to India, just before the world went into lockdown and disarray, Shruti Rajagopalan and I visited Amit Varma’s studio in Delhi to record an episode of his podcast, The Seen and the Unseen. Our paper, Premature Imitation and India’s Flailing State served as the jumping off point but we discussed a host of topics. I was pretty good. Shruti was on fire! Many important insights.

The Seen and the Unseen is one of my favorite podcasts. Amit is a brilliant raconteur and excellent interviewer. The episodes and books listed as relevant to our episode would form an good education in development economics. Other excellent interviews, to mention only a handful, include historian Manu Pillai on Kerala and the Ivory Throne and the Rebel Sultans of the Deccan, Madhavi Menon on the History of Desire in India and Anup Malani on Covid in India and the Lockdown.

The Deleted Clause of the Declaration of Independence

When Thomas Jefferson included a passage attacking slavery in his draft of the Declaration of Independence it initiated the most intense debate among the delegates gathered at Philadelphia in the spring and early  summer of 1776.  Jefferson’s passage on slavery was the most important section removed from the final document.  It was replaced with a more ambiguous passage about King George’s incitement of “domestic insurrections among us.”  Decades later Jefferson blamed the removal of the passage on delegates from South Carolina and Georgia and Northern delegates who represented merchants who were at the time actively involved in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.  Jefferson’s original passage on slavery appears below.

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.  This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain.  Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce.  And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

From Blackpast.  Kevin Kallmes at Notes on Liberty has more details.

Hat tip: Brandon C.

When Police Kill

When Police Kill is the 2017 book by criminologist Franklin Zimring. Some insights from the book.

Official data dramatically undercount the number of people killed by the police. Both the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Arrest-Related Deaths and the FBI’s Supplemental Homicide Reports estimated around 400-500 police kills a year, circa 2010. But the two series have shockingly low overlap–homicides counted in one series are not counted in the other and vice-versa. A statistical estimate based on the lack of overlap suggests a true rate of around 1000 police killings per year.

The best data come from newspaper reports which also show around 1000-1300 police killings a year (Zimring focuses his analysis on The Guardian’s database.) Fixing the data problem should be a high priority. But the FBI cannot be trusted to do the job:

Unfortunately, the FBI’s legacy of passive acceptance of incomplete statistical data on police killings, its promotion of the self-interested factual accounts from departments, and its failure to collect significant details about the nature of the provocation and the nature of the force used by police suggest that nothing short of massive change in its orientation, in its legal authority to collect data and its attitude toward auditing and research would make the FBI an agency worthy of public trust and statistical reliability in regard to the subject of this book.

The FBI’s bias is even seen in its nomenclature for police killings–“justifiable homicides”–which some of them certainly are not.

The state kills people in two ways, executions and police killings. Executions require trials, appeals, long waiting periods and great deliberation and expense. Police killings are not extensively monitored, analyzed or deliberated upon and, until very recently, even much discussed. Yet every year, police kill 25 to 50 times as many people as are executed. Why have police killings been ignored?

When an execution takes place in Texas, everybody knows that Texas is conducting the killing and is accountable for its consequences. When Officer Smith kills Citizen Jones on a city street in Dallas, it is Officer Smith rather than any larger governmental organization…[who] becomes the primary repository of credit or blame.

We used to do the same thing with airplane crashes and medical mistakes–that is, look for pilot or physician error. Safety didn’t improve much until we started to apply systems thinking. We need a systems-thinking approach to police shootings.

Police kill males (95%) far more than females, a much larger ratio than for felonies. Police kill more whites than blacks which is often forgotten, although not surprising because whites are a larger share of the population. Based on the Guardian data shown in Zimring’s Figure 3.1, whites and Hispanics are killed approximately in proportion to population. Blacks are killed at about twice their proportion to population. Asians are killed less than in proportion to their population.

A surprising finding:

Crime is a young man’s game in the United States but being killed by a police officer is not.

The main reason for this appears to be that a disproportionate share of police killings come from disturbance calls, domestic and non-domestic about equally represented. A majority of the killings arising from disturbance calls are of people aged forty or more.

The tendency  of both police and observers to assume that attacks against police and police use of force is closely associated with violent crime and criminal justice should be modified in significant ways to accord for the disturbance, domestic conflicts, and emotional disruptions that frequently become the caseload of police officers.

A slight majority (56%) of the people who are killed by the police are armed with a gun and another 3.7% seemed to have a gun. Police have reason to fear guns, 92% of killings of police are by guns. But 40% of the people killed by police don’t have guns and other weapons are much less dangerous to police. In many years, hundreds of people brandishing knives are killed by the police while no police are killed by people brandishing knives. The police seem to be too quick to use deadly force against people significantly less well-armed than the police. (Yes, Lucas critique. See below on policing in a democratic society).

Police kill more people than people kill police–a ratio of about 15 to 1–and the ratio has been increasing over time. Policing has become safer over the past 40 years with a 75% drop in police killed on the job since 1976–the fall is greater than for crime more generally and is probably due to Kevlar vests. Kevlar vests are an interesting technology because they make police safer without imposing more risk on citizens. We need more win-win technologies. Although policing has become safer over time, the number of police killings has not decreased in proportion which is why the “kill ratio” has increased.

A major factor in the number of deaths caused by police shootings is the number of wounds received by the victim. In Chicago, 20% of victims with one wound died, 34% with two wounds and 74% with five or more wounds. Obvious. But it suggests a reevaluation of the police training to empty their magazine. Zimring suggests that if the first shot fired was due to reasonable fear the tenth might not be. A single, aggregational analysis:

…simplifies the task of police investigator or district attorney, but it creates no disincentive to police use of additional deadly force that may not be necessary by the time it happens–whether with the third shot or the seventh or the tenth.

It would be hard to implement this ex-post but I agree that emptying the magazine isn’t always reasonable, especially when the police are not under fire. Is it more dangerous to fire one or two shots and reevaluate than to fire ten? Of course, but given the number of errors police make this is not an unreasonable risk to ask police to take in a democratic society.

The successful prosecution of even a small number of extremely excessive force police killings would reduce the predominant perception among both citizens and rank-and-file police officers that police have what amounts to immunity from criminal liability for killing citizens in the line of duty.

Prosecutors, however, rely on the police to do their job and in the long-run won’t bite the hand that feeds them. Clear and cautious rules of engagement that establish bright lines would be more helpful. One problem is that police are protected because police brutality is common (somewhat similar to my analysis of riots).

The more killings a city experiences, the less likely it will be that a particular cop and a specific killings can lead to a charge and a conviction. In the worst of such settings, wrongful killings are not deviant officer behavior.

…clear and cautious rules of engagement will …make officers who ignore or misapply departmental standards look more blameworthy to police, to prosecutors, and to juries in the criminal process.

Police kill many more people in the United States than in other developed countries, even adjusting for crime rates (where the U.S. is less of an outlier than most people imagine). The obvious reason is that there are a lot of guns in the United States. As a result, the United States is not going to get its police killing rate down to Germany’s which is at least 40 times lower. Nevertheless:

[Police killings]…are a serious problem we can fix. Clear administrative restrictions on when police can shoot can eliminate 50 to 80 percent of killings by police without causing substantial risk to the lives of police officers or major changes in how police do their jobs. A thousand killings a year are not the unavoidable result of community conditions or of the nature of policing in the United States.

How to Live in a World Gone Mad?

A long-time reader asks for advice:

I’ve been a MR reader for years. It sounds like you’re concerned about cancel culture and the associated political situation. I’m from eastern europe and caught the tail end of communism. What’s happening now in the US terrifies me. It seems like every week I learn that someone I respect is being tried in a court of public opinion for crimes that didn’t exist six months ago.

I’m in Silicon Valley, and realistically it’s impossible to operate here without lying. And I’m not right wing either, I’ve always considered myself a liberal! Some people seem to be dealing with it all right, but having to maintain a facade really eats at me. I effectively have to self-quarantine in a political closet. I hate it. I never could have imagined that I would need to choose between truthful expression and career/friendships in America. There’s always some finesse in human interaction of course, but this is so qualitatively different it may as well be another country altogether.

Do you have any advice for how to act, survive, and thrive in this political climate? I don’t know how to navigate this at all.

Social media has messed with our minds. The madness of crowds used to be limited by geography, time, and transaction cost–all of which have been lessened by social media. As a result, the crowds are now bigger and madder. And our brains, which are finely tuned to listen to the crowd (meaning the tribe or village ala Dunbar’s number), are overwhelmed when the crowd is in the thousands or millions. We should discount signals which come at the cost of a tweet but we can’t and so the pressures to conform are intense. If your job isn’t protected, stay off social media or at least use a pseudonym. Even if you do nothing today, the crowd may come after you years later so you can never feel safe.

I wish I had better answers. Readers?

Can Philosophy Make People Generous?

Schwitzgebel and Rust famously found that professors of ethics are no more ethical than other professors. Peter Singer being perhaps a famous exception to the rule. In follow-up research Schwitzgebel and psychologist Fiery Cushman tried to find philosophical arguments to change people’s willingness to donate to charity. They were unable to find any. But perhaps they just weren’t good at coming up with effective philosophical arguments. Thus, they challenged moral philosophers and psychologists to a contest:

Can you write a philosophical argument that effectively convinces research participants to donate money to charity?

By a philosophical argument they meant an argument and not an appeal to pity or emotion. No pictures of people clubbing baby seals. The contest had 100 entrants which were winnowed down in a series of tests.

The test had people read the arguments and then decide how much of a promised payment they would they like to give to charity. An average of $2.58 was contributed to charity (of $10) in the control group (no argument). The best argument increased giving by 54% to $3.98. Not bad.

Here’s the argument which won:

Many people in poor countries suffer from a condition called trachoma. Trachoma is the major cause of preventable blindness in the world. Trachoma starts with bacteria that get in the eyes of children, especially children living in hot and dusty conditions where hygiene is poor. If not treated, a child with trachoma bacteria will begin to suffer from blurred vision and will gradually go blind, though this process may take many years. A very cheap treatment is available that cures the condition before blindness develops. As little as $25, donated to an effective agency, can prevent someone going blind later in life.

How much would you pay to prevent your own child becoming blind? Most of us would pay $25,000, $250,000, or even more, if we could afford it. The suffering of children in poor countries must matter more than one-thousandth as much as the suffering of our own child. That’s why it is good to support one of the effective agencies that are preventing blindness from trachoma, and need more donations to reach more people.

Now here’s the kicker. The winning argument was submitted by Peter Singer and Matthew Lindauer. Singer is clearly screwing with Schwitzgebel’s research!

You can read some of other effective arguments here. I don’t think it’s an accident that the winning argument was the shortest and also the least purely philosophical. I’m not saying Singer and Lindauer cheated, but compared to the other arguments the Singer-Lindauer argument is concrete and by making people think of their own children, likely to arouse emotion. That too is a lesson.

Ubundling the Police in NYC

In Why Are the Police in Charge of Road Safety? I argued for unbundling the police–i.e. taking some of the tasks traditionally assigned to police such as road safety and turning them over to unarmed agencies more suited to the task. A new report from Transportation Alternatives adds to the case. The report notes that the police in NYC aren’t even doing a good job on road safety.

For example, in 2017, there were 46,000 hit-and-run crashes in New York City. Yet police officers arrested just one percent of all hit-and-run drivers. In the past five years, hit-and-run crashes in New York City have increased by 26 percent. By comparison, DOT infrastructure projects designed to reduce these traffic crashes have proven effective and scalable.

Streetsblog (cited in the report and quoted here) also notes this remarkable fact:

Streetsblog recently reported that of the 440 tickets police issued to people for biking on the sidewalk in 2018 and 2019, 374 — or 86.4 percent — of those where race was listed went to Black and Hispanic New Yorkers. The wildly disproportionate stats followed another report showing that cops issued 99 percent of jaywalking tickets to Black and Hispanic people in the first quarter of this year.

The Gaslighting of Parasite

Amazon.com: Parasite: Kang Ho Song, Sun Kyun Lee, Yeo Jeong Cho ...I am late to this but Parasite, now available on streaming services, is the most willfully misinterpreted movie that I have ever seen. The conventional interpretation is so obviously wrong that I cannot but think that it is anything but a collective gaslighting. The conventional interpretation is that the film is about inequality and on the surface that makes sense. After all, there is a rich family and a poor family, and an upstairs and a downstairs, and everyone knows that inequality is the problem of our age so despite the subtitles this Korean film must be a version of what we expect to see. Hence, Manohla Dargis writing at the New York Times says “The story takes place in South Korea but could easily unfold in Los Angeles or London.” True but not in the way she imagines! Rather than a conventional discourse on “inequality,” Parasite is deeply, shockingly, politically incorrect, even subversive. Mild spoilers.

The Dargis review is spectacularly, hilariously wrong from the very first sentence “a destitute man voices empathy for a family that has shown him none. “They’re rich but still nice,” he says, aglow with good will.” The man is not destitute (his entire family has been raking in the cash by this point), the family has shown him nothing but generosity and respect, and he is not aglow with good will. But what do you expect from a newspaper that rates Parasite an R for “class exploitation”! The Times is leading the cultural revolution.

Indeed, in the entire film the rich family does nothing wrong whatsoever. This is not my judgement it is what the film tells us. The rich family pay their employees generously (the film goes out of its way to note that they pay overtime), the work is not especially hard (English tutor, art therapist, chauffeur, cook and cleaner), and the employees are treated with respect. Moreover, the rich family are kind and loving. The father works hard but he is not absent. The rich family’s wealth is explicitly shown as coming from innovation and entrepreneurship (not say shady deals or stock market manipulation).

Are the poor family destitute? Not really. The son is handsome, he knows English well and he has an exceptional psychological sense which he uses to teach his student and his father; the daughter is gorgeous and skilled with computers. The mother was a champion athlete, the father is intelligent enough. It’s obvious that this family has everything needed for success. Moreover, the family isn’t discriminated against–they aren’t African-American in the 1950s south, they aren’t Dalits, they aren’t even North Koreans. So why aren’t they successful? One reason is because they aren’t willing to do an honest days work for an honest day’s pay. They fail utterly at folding pizza boxes–not because they are stressed or because the job is difficult–but because they are lazy and don’t give a damn. The film also shows that it is other hard-working, honest-people who are harmed by their laziness (not some evil pizza corporation). The fact that the kids are gorgeous, by the way, is important. The director Bong Joon-ho (and writer Han Jin-won) are telling us to look below the superficial. Note that everything the poor family gets they get by lying and stealing–they are grifters. The son even steals his best friend’s girlfriend–whom he doesn’t even especially like. To exploit her further, he steals her diary.

In fact, Bong Joon-ho hits us over the head with his message. In an early scene, for example, we see the poor family being fumigated but this is not played for pathos. Indeed, the family welcomes the fumigation. The director is telling us that this is the family’s natural habitat. Who gets fumigated? Work it out. The title may help.

Toilets also play a big role. There are many scenes with the poor family and toilets (and none with the rich family). In one scene the poor family is literally swimming in shit. This is not played for pathos. Bong Joon-ho covers the family in shit because he wants us to know they are a shitty family. (This scene comes immediately after a scene making this clear.) The daughter is so comfortable in the shit she relaxes and smokes a cigarette.

At one point, the rich family is away and the poor family takes over their house. What do they do? They immediately get drunk, including the kids. And not just drunk but slovenly drunk with food and garbage spread all over what had been an immaculate house. The family talks about what it would be like if they lived in this house–the film makes it clear that if they lived in this beautiful house it would soon go to shit.

The shit is not an accident. A key element of the film is that the poor family smells bad. Some people read this as a sign of disrespect but the rich family never demean the poor family or bring it up to their face. Indeed, we know the smell isn’t a class marker because it’s the youngest child of the rich family, a pure innocent, who notes it first. Moreover, even after the poor family know that they smell and make plans to fix the problem their bad smell remains. Why? Because they can’t wipe the shit off–a smell they can’t escape is the director telling us that they are a shitty family. A bad smell is a signal that something is rotten, something is off, something is shitty. It’s an elemental warning to the rich family.

Finally we come to the remarkable climax in which the father does something so stupid, so utterly impulsive, so completely contrary to his interest that we see immediately why he has never been able to hold down a job for very long. (The previous “no plan” scene foreshadows.) The first time I saw this scene I thought it didn’t make sense because the father could be a hero and solve all his problems by attacking the person who has probably just killed his son and daughter. Yet instead of doing the sensible thing he does something quite different. The director then metes out his punishment which is to put the father where he belongs, in a prison where he emerges only at night to scuttle around the floor stealing food like a….parasite.

It’s amazing that a film this politically incorrect, even reactionary, could win multiple awards, it’s as if The Camp of the Saints won best picture. Of course, the message had to be ignored to win but even so. I should emphasize that everything I have said is drawn from very obvious scenes. It doesn’t take Freud to understand the meaning. If you must, cancel Bong Joon-ho not me!

Perhaps readers can tell us whether Korean reviewers saw the obvious and were willing to say so.

A Burning

A Burning, the debut novel by Megha Majumdar, received a very unusual stellar review by James Wood in the New Yorker:

Majumdar marshals a much smaller cast of speakers than Faulkner did, and her spare plot moves with arrowlike determination. It begins with a crime, continues with a false charge and imprisonment, and ends with a trial. The book has some of the elements of a thriller or a police procedural, but one shouldn’t mistake its extraordinary directness and openness to life with the formulaic accelerations of genre: Majumdar’s novel is compelling, yet its compulsions have to do with an immersive present rather than with a skidding sequence. Her characters start telling us about their lives, and those lives are suddenly palpable, vital, voiced. I can’t remember when I last read a novel that so quickly dismantled the ordinary skepticism that attends the reading of made-up stories. Early Naipaul comes to mind as a precursor, and perhaps Akhil Sharma’s stupendously vivid novel “Family Life.” Sharma has spoken of how he avoided using “sticky” words—words involving touch and taste and smell—so as to enable a natural velocity; Majumdar finds her own way of achieving the effect.

“A Burning” is about the fateful interactions of three principal characters, who take turns sharing their narratives. At its center is a young Muslim woman named Jivan, who lives in the slums of Kolkata, and who witnesses a terrorist incident that tips her life into turmoil. A halted train at a nearby station is firebombed, and the ensuing inferno kills more than a hundred people. At home, Jivan makes the mistake of posting a politically risky question on Facebook—“If the police didn’t help ordinary people like you and me, if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean that the government is also a terrorist?”—which attracts official attention. The police come for her in the middle of the night.

…There are two people whose testimony could save Jivan, and much of the novel turns on their capacity and their willingness to offer it. One is an aspiring actress named Lovely, who also lives in the slum. Lovely—the name she took at eighteen—is a so-called hijra, a designation that affords intersex and transgender people a recognized status, but a perilously ambiguous and marginal one.

…The third protagonist, a physical-education teacher called PT Sir, knew Jivan when she was one of the “charity students” at S. D. Gosh Girls’ School.

I agree, A Burning is very good. I will add only two points. I wrote about the hijra of India when I was living in Mumbai and that post is well worth reading for background. Second, most of the reviews, especially the annoying NYTimes review by Parul Sehgal (compare Wood and Sehgal on Lovely’s voice, Wood is right and obviously so if you are not blinded by political correctness) focus on the Indian setting and contemporary Indian politics. That’s a natural, if superficial, vantage point. What impressed me more was the less obvious commentary on social media which is very relevant to the US. How does the pressure and potential of being seen by many others alter our choices? There are multiple mobs in A Burning; two of the mobs, one virtual, the other not, result in the brutal murders of innocent people, a third mob launches a star.

Get BARDA More Money!

The NYTimes headline is Coronavirus Attacks the Lungs. A Federal Agency Just Halted Funding for New Lung Treatments and they do try their best to make this a scandal:

When the coronavirus kills, it attacks the lungs, filling them with fluid and robbing the body of oxygen. In chest X-rays, clear lungs turn white, a sign of how dangerously sick patients are.

But earlier this month, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, a federal health agency, abruptly notified companies and researchers that it was halting funding for treatments for this severe form of Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.

The new policy highlights how staunchly the Trump administration has placed its bet on vaccines as the way to return American society and the economy to normal in a presidential election year. BARDA has pledged more than $2.2 billion in deals with five vaccine manufacturers for the coronavirus, compared with about $359 million toward potential Covid-19 treatments.

I think diverting funding from lung treatments to vaccines is the right thing to do. Note that we are not talking about reducing spending on patients. BARDA, as the name suggests, funds advanced research and development. Thus, the administration is diverting funding from advanced research and development for lung treatments to vaccines. What’s better a vaccine that prevents a lung treatment from ever being needed or a lung treatment? A billion dollars spent on vaccines looks a lot more productive right now than a billion dollars spent on investigating new lung treatments.

The real scandal is how little we are spending on advanced research for vaccines–$2.2 billion is a pittance, less than a day’s worth of economic loss caused by COVID. Given their limited budget, BARDA is making good investments. Congress, however, has not allocated enough money to BARDA, one of the few agencies that had the foresight to do the right things, such as investing in emergency vaccine capacity, even before the pandemic hit. Congress’s failure to fund BARDA is why the administration is scraping the bottom of the barrel to get them all the funding they can.

We should go big, really big, on vaccines. But when I talk with people in Congress, I tell them that a big plan is ideal but if we can’t do that then at least GET BARDA MORE MONEY!

Addendum: The fact that BARDA can’t get enough funding from Congress in a pandemic is a good example of why we need a Pandemic Trust Fund.

Juneteenth: Celebrate Freedom!

I have long favored a new national holiday so I am delighted that VA has recognized Juneteenth and I look forward to this being a national holiday. Juneteenth is a good bookend to July 4, a second day of independence that helped to fulfill the promise of the first. The National Museum of African American History and Culture notes:

Although the Emancipation Proclamation officially took effect on January 1, 1863, freedom did not immediately come for all enslaved people because Confederate-controlled states refused to implement it. Freedom finally came nationally on June 19, 1865, when some 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas. The army announced that the more than 250,000 enslaved people in the state were free by executive decree. This day came to be known as “Juneteenth” by the newly freed people in Texas.

The museum has an excellent online exhibit and tour.

FDA Allows Pooled Tests and a Call for Prizes

The FDA has announced they will no longer forbid pooled testing:

In order to preserve testing resources, many developers are interested in performing their testing using a technique of “pooling” samples. This technique allows a lab to mix several samples together in a “batch” or pooled sample and then test the pooled sample with a diagnostic test. For example, four samples may be tested together, using only the resources needed for a single test. If the pooled sample is negative, it can be deduced that all patients were negative. If the pooled sample comes back positive, then each sample needs to be tested individually to find out which was positive.

…Today, the FDA is taking another step forward by updating templates for test developers that outline the validation expectations for these testing options to help facilitate the preparation, submission, and authorization under an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA).

This is good and will increase the effective number of tests by at least a factor of 2-3 and perhaps more.

In other news, Representative Beyer (D-VA), Representative Gonzalez (R-OH) and Paul Romer have an op-ed calling for more prizes for testing:

Offering a federal prize solves a critical part of that problem: laboratories lack the incentive and the funds for research and development of a rapid diagnostic test that will, in the best-case scenario, be rendered virtually unnecessary in a year.

…We believe in the ability of the American scientific community and economy to respond to the challenge presented by the coronavirus. Congress just has to give them the incentive.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) have already begun a similar strategy with their $1.4 billion “shark tank,” awarding speedy regulatory approval to five companies that can produce these tests. Expanding the concept to academic labs through a National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST)-sponsored competition has the added benefit ultimately funding more groundbreaking research once the prize money has been awarded.

This is all good but frustrating. I made the case for prizes in Grand Innovation Prizes for Pandemics in March and Tyler and I have been pushing for pooled testing since late March. We were by no means the first to promote these ideas. I am grateful things are happening and relative to normal procedure I know this is fast but in pandemic time it is molasses slow.

Comparative Institutional Failure

The common element to our twin crises is that many of the government agencies we thought were keeping us safe and secure—the CDC, the FDA, the Police–have either failed or, worse, have been revealed to be active creators of danger and insecurity. Alex Tabarrok.

Derek Thompson writing at The Atlantic uses my quote as a jumping off point for a good piece on the failure of American institutions. He does a good job of covering the failures of the CDC, the FDA and the police but most interestingly asks why the FED has acted very differently.

While too many American police are escalating encounters like it’s 1990, and the FDA is slow-playing regulatory approval as if these are normal times, and the CDC is somehow still using fax machines, the Federal Reserve has junked old shibboleths about inflation and deficit spending and embraced a policy that might have scandalized mainstream economists in the 1990s. Rejecting the status-quo bias that plagues so many institutions, this 106-year-old is still changing with the world.

Why haven’t other American institutions done the same? Perhaps America’s dependency on old leadership makes our institutions exquisitely responsive to the anxieties and illusions of old Americans. Perhaps the nature of large bureaucracies is to become lost in the labyrinth of mission-creeping path dependency. Perhaps years of political polarization and right-wing anti-science, anti-expertise sentiments have wrung all of the fast-twitch smarts out of the government. Or perhaps we should just blame Trump, that sub-institutional creature summoned from the bilious id of an electorate that lost faith in elites when elites lost their grip on reality.

Whatever the true cause for our failure, when I look at the twin catastrophes of this annus horribilis, the plague and the police protests, what strikes me is that America’s safekeeping institutions have forgotten how to properly see the threats of the 21st century and move quickly to respond to them. Those who deny history may be doomed to repeat it. But those who deny the present are just doomed.

I see three reasons why the FED may have been different. First, the FED is one of the most independent agencies which may help to explain its faster and more adaptive behavior ala Garett Jones’s 10% Less Democracy. Second, and relatedly, the FED pulls a lot of leadership and staff from academia. That gives FED staff an affiliation goal and clique outside of politics which creates mental independence as well as political independence. Third, the FED was also tested in the last crisis and experience with crises helps as we have also seen in Asia tested by H1N1, SARS and MERS more than the US was.

I am not sure which, if any, of these explanations is the most important but I do think that we have a lot more to learn from comparative institutional analysis not just within the US but across countries as well.

Bloody Well Pay Them

The United States is one of the few countries in the world where plasma donors are paid and it is responsible for 70% of the global supply of plasma. If you add in the other countries that allow donors to be paid, including Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Czechia, the paid-donor countries account for nearly 90% of the total supply.

Countries that follow the WHOs guidance to rely exclusively on voluntary, unpaid donors all have shortages of plasma (hmmm…what’s the WHOs track record like?) So what do these countries do? Import plasma from the paid-donor countries. The United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and some Canadian provinces, for example, prohibit paid donors and they import a majority of their plasma from paid donor countries. (See chart at right).

As Nobel prize winner Al Roth puts it, in his gentle way:

I find confusing the position of some countries that compensating domestic plasma donors is immoral, but filling the resulting shortage by purchasing plasma from the US is ok.

The UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada can afford their moral hypocrisy but their decision to forbid paid-donors reduces the world supply of plasma driving up the price and harming people in poorer countries.

I have cribbed from an excellent new report by Peter Jaworski, Bloody Well Pay Them: The Case for Voluntary Remunerated Plasma Collections.

Previous MR posts on plasma.