New York Fact of the Day

NYTimes: New York City built only 163,000 units of housing in the 2010s, fewer than the 205,000 created in the 1930s, during and after the Great Depression, according to a city report. From 2009 to 2018, the New York metro region added 0.5 units of housing for every new job, down from 2.2 units per job in the previous decade.

The article continues:

In December, a New York Supreme Court judge annulled the city’s rezoning plan for Inwood…The Inwood plan would have increased the allowable height and density in parts of the neighborhood, which could have brought 3,900 new units to the area, including 1,600 below-market apartments, according to the Department of City Planning. The city is appealing the decision.

The judge agreed that the city’s environmental review process, which aims to measure the impact of development, did not adequately study a number of concerns, including the risk of racial displacement and the effect of speculative development on local businesses, many of which can be more valuable to landlords as land sales.

This is another illustration of how collective decision making impedes innovation. Neither judges nor regulators should be making these “balancing” decisions which politicizes and creates veto players who can dam innovation at low-cost to themselves. Decisions about when and where to build should by left to the spontaneous order operating under the principles of private property and the rule of law.

Look at this nonsense and imagine if every decision had to be so studied for every group and interest that one could possibly imagine:

“They don’t have to study the racial impact? That’s ridiculous,” said Michael Sussman, the petitioners’ attorney, who argued that speculation would have an outsize impact on minority residents in the area, many of whom live in rent-regulated apartments.

More on Alternative Dosing

Some quick comments in response to questions and discussion about my paper Could Vaccine Dose Stretching Reduce COVID-19 Deaths? (written with the all-star cast of Witold Więcek, Amrita Ahuja, Michael Kremer, Alexandre Simoes Gomes, Christopher M. Snyder and Brandon Joel Tan.

1) Any method of increasing vaccine supply will require other changes in the supply chain such as more needles. We think alternative dosing can increase supply quickly with the fewest supply chain disruptions.

2) If we had started Moderna with 50 ug dosing no one would be advocating for 100 ug dosing, thereby halving supply. Rather than “full” or “half-doses,” which bias thinking, we should talk about alternative dosing and ug.

3) Judging by neutralizing antibodies, a 50 ug dose of, for example, Moderna looks to be more effective than standard dosing of many other vaccines including AZ and J&J and much better than others such as Sinovac. Thus alternative dosing is a way to *increase* the quality of vaccine for many people.

4) A 50 ug dose vaccine available today is much higher quality than a 100 ug dose vaccine available one year from now.

5) There are substantial risks from following the current approach, as India and now parts of Africa illustrate. Alternative dosing has a very large upside but small downside since we could switch back to standard doses. For example, Great Britain and Canada delayed the second dose to 12 and 16 weeks respectively but have since reduced the dosing interval as more supplies have become available.

6) The greatest risk to immune escape comes from the unvaccinated. Alternative dosing protects not only those who are dosed but by reducing transmission also reduces risks to the unvaccinated.

7) The key question we face now is not whether there are objections and complications to alternative dosing (there are) the key question is what additional information, available quickly could resolve the most uncertainty? In other words, what can we learn soon that would most aid decision makers?

See the paper for details and also my previous post, A Half Dose of Moderna is More Effective Than a Full Dose of AstraZeneca.

Addendum: It should be clear that this isn’t about the United States, it is about getting high-quality vaccine to places that have little to none.

It’s Time to Open the Canada-US Border

When infection rates in two areas are similar the argument for closing borders is weak. Canadian and US infection rates are now similar and both countries are highly vaccinated by world standards. The arguments for not opening are mostly psychological, a fear of foreigners. As a result, we have both Canadians fearful of opening to Americans and Americans fearful of opening to Canadians which doesn’t make sense. At least one must be wrong! Moreover, if we require even a weak proof of vaccination to cross borders then the average Canadian coming to America will be safer than the average American and the average American traveling to Canada will be safer than the average Canadian.

It’s time to open the border.


Incentives for Organ Donation

Lottery tickets for vaccination seems to have been reasonably succesful. What else could we use incentives for? Al Roth sends us to kidney surgeon Arthur Matas’s argument for testing incentives for organ donation:

A regulated system of incentives for donation could provide a sizable increase in the number of kidneys available for transplant. Yet incentives for kidney donation are illegal in the US.
…Initially, the concept of incentives for living donation can be unsettling (some have said “repugnant”4). Yet ethicists worldwide have argued that there is no ethical reason to prohibit incentives. And studies show that the public is in favor of incentives. Additionally, dialysis is more expensive than transplant; a regulated system of incentives would be cost saving to the health care system.

We accept kidney donation. Any successful argument against incentivized donation must be able to differentiate it from our currently accepted conventional donation. Notably, incentives are legal for plasma, sperm, and egg donation or surrogate motherhood, and certainly there are risks involved with egg donation and surrogate motherhood. Gill and Sade5 argue that the only difference between donating and selling is monetary self-interest, and monetary self-interest alone does not warrant legal prohibition.

It is time to move past the feelings that incentives are wrong to the reality that as a result of a potentially preventable shortage of organs, patients on the waiting list are dying or becoming too sick to transplant….It is time for professional societies and patient groups to advocate for changing the law to allow trials of incentives for donation.

See many previous posts at MR on organ donation and blood donation.

Mission Protocol

Business is the most important way in which human beings cooperate. In his Philosophical Letters, Voltaire explained to his French compatriots how the British had achieved religious toleration by focusing on business:

Go into the London Stock Exchange – a more respectable place than many a court – and you will see representatives from all nations gathered together for the utility of men. Here Jew, Mohammedan and Christian deal with each other as though they were all of the same faith, and only apply the word infidel to people who go bankrupt. Here the Presbyterian trusts the Anabaptist and the Anglican accepts a promise from the Quaker. On leaving these peaceful and free assemblies some go to the Synagogue and others for a drink, this one goes to be baptized in a great bath in the name of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, that one has his son’s foreskin cut and has some Hebrew words he doesn’t understand mumbled over the child, others go to heir church and await the inspiration of God with their hats on, and everybody is happy.

What Voltaire understood is that if diverse people are to cooperate they must focus on their common interest and leave other (important) predilections like religion at home. Unfortunately, the woke movement is bringing religion back into business (and every other aspect of life). The religions have changed but Voltaire would not have been surprised at the consequences, a break down of cooperation and amity. That’s why I am very pleased to see how Brian Armstrong’s mission-focused company principles is growing rapidly:

A handful of founders and CEOs—Brian Armstrong of Coinbase, Jason Fried of Basecamp, Shopify’s Tobias Lütke, Medium’s Ev Williams—have said the unsayable. In the face of shop-floor social-justice activism, they’ve decided, business owners should resolve to stick to business.

No hashtag coders. No message-board threads about anti-racism or neo-pronouns. No open letters meant to get someone fired for a decade-old tweet. No politics. As Armstrong put it in his famous (or infamous) September 27th, 2020 blog post, business should be “mission focused.” A software developer explained that the conciliatory approach has become too costly: “The Slack shit, the company-wide emails, it definitely spills out into real life, and it’s a huge productivity drag.”

In October, a pseudonymous group inspired by Coinbase’s Brian Armstrong came together under the banner “Mission Protocol,” with the aim of getting other companies to start “putting aside activities and conversations” outside the scope of their professional missions. (“Mission focus doesn’t mean being apolitical,” they note. “It means being political about the mission. This mission is what you came together to accomplish, and this mission is what you’re fighting for in your work on the project.”) Paul Graham, a famed venture capitalist and “hacker philosopher,” tweeted his support to 1.3 million followers. Melia Russell, who covers the startup beat for Business Insider, noted that startups were jumping into the Mission Protocol threads “with a hell yes.”

One of the great achievements of the enlightenment was taking religion off the table. The result was peace, prosperity and the industrial revolution. In a similar way, sustaining cooperation among a diverse group of people, operating at a high level of performance is the task of great leaders and it means being mission focused.

A Half Dose of Moderna is More Effective Than a Full Dose of AstraZeneca

Today we are releasing a new paper on dose-stretching, co-authored by Witold Wiecek, Amrita Ahuja, Michael Kremer, Alexandre Simoes Gomes, Christopher M. Snyder, Brandon Joel Tan and myself.

The paper makes three big points. First, Khoury et al (2021) just published a paper in Nature which shows that “Neutralizing antibody levels are highly predictive of immune protection from symptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection.” What that means is that there is a strong relationship between immunogenicity data that we can easily measure with a blood test and the efficacy rate that it takes hundreds of millions of dollars and many months of time to measure in a clinical trial. Thus, future vaccines may not have to go through lengthy clinical trials (which may even be made impossible as infections rates decline) but can instead rely on these correlates of immunity.

Here is where fractional dosing comes in. We supplement the key figure from Khoury et al.’s paper to show that fractional doses of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have neutralizing antibody levels (as measured in the early phase I and phase II trials) that look to be on par with those of many approved vaccines. Indeed, a one-half or one-quarter dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine is predicted to be more effective than the standard dose of some of the other vaccines like the AstraZeneca, J&J or Sinopharm vaccines, assuming the same relationship as in Khoury et al. holds. The point is not that these other vaccines aren’t good–they are great! The point is that by using fractional dosing we could rapidly and safely expand the number of effective doses of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.

Second, we embed fractional doses and other policies such as first doses first in a SIER model and we show that even if efficacy rates for fractional doses are considerably lower, dose-stretching policies are still likely to reduce infections and deaths (assuming we can expand vaccinations fast enough to take advantage of the greater supply, which is well within the vaccination frontier). For example, a half-dose strategy reduces infections and deaths under a variety of different epidemic scenarios as long as the efficacy rate is 70% or greater.

Third, we show that under plausible scenarios it is better to start vaccination with a less efficacious vaccine than to wait for a more efficacious vaccine. Thus, Great Britain and Canada’s policies of starting First Doses first with the AstraZeneca vaccine and then moving to second doses, perhaps with the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines is a good strategy.

It is possible that new variants will reduce the efficacy rate of all vaccines indeed that is almost inevitable but that doesn’t mean that fractional dosing isn’t optimal nor that we shouldn’t adopt these policies now. What it means is that we should be testing and then adapting our strategy in light of new events like a battlefield commander. We might, for example, use fractional dosing in the young or for the second shot and reserve full doses for the elderly.

One more point worth mentioning. Dose stretching policies everywhere are especially beneficial for less-developed countries, many of which are at the back of the vaccine queue. If dose-stretching cuts the time to be vaccinated in half, for example, then that may mean cutting the time to be vaccinated from two months to one month in a developed country but cutting it from two years to one year in a country that is currently at the back of the queue.

Read the whole thing.

The Becker-Friedman center also has a video discussion featuring my co-authors, Nobel prize winner Michael Kremer and the very excellent Witold Wiecek.

Better Crowdfunding

In 1998, I designed the “dominant assurance contract” (DAC) mechanism for producing public goods privately. In my latest paper, just published in GEB written with the excellent Tim Cason and Robertas Zubrickas we test the theory in the lab and…it works! Kickstarter hadn’t yet been created when I first wrote but the DAC mechanism can now be easily explained as a Kickstarter contract with refund bonuses. On Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites you contribute to a project and if a contribution threshold isn’t reached you get your money back. The Kickstarter contract is useful but it’s still easy for a good project to fail because there are many equilibria with non-funding. For example, if I think that you won’t contribute then I may decide not to contribute and if I don’t contribute then you may decide not to contribute. Neither of us can do better by contributing, given the other person is not-contributing, and so non-contributing is a Nash equilibrium (see my talk at the Foresight Institute for more details). Now introduce refund bonuses which pay out only if the threshold is not reached. Now if I think that you won’t contribute then I want to contribute, to earn the refund bonus, and the same is true for you. Indeed, the only equilibria in the crowdfunding game with refund bonuses have the project being funded. Thus, a nice feature of the refund bonus game is that in equilibrium the refund bonuses are never paid!

To test the theory we (mostly Tim and Robertas!) created an environment very similar to that faced by people on Kickstarter. Namely, there are multiple projects to choose from, each with different private payouts and each project has a contribution threshold and some projects offer refund bonuses. We test a variety of different types of refund bonuses including fixed (e.g. $10) and proportional e.g. (20% of your contribution) and also early refund bonuses (a refund bonus if the contribution threshold is not reached and you agreed to contribute in the first half of the funding period) or for contributions at any point in the game. Our research leads to three important conclusions.

First, without refund bonuses only ~30% of socially valuable projects succeed (perhaps coincidentally almost the exact same as on Kickstarter). But with refund bonuses the success rate increases by about 50% to 50- 60% and it doesn’t much matter much what type of refund bonuses are used!

Second, early refund bonuses have some useful properties. A key to the mechanism is that it quickly makes many contributors pivotal. At the beginning of the game it’s in no single individual’s interest to fund the public good but as others contribute there comes a time when the contribution necessary to push the total funding over the threshold is less than the value of the public good to the individual–thus, for purely self-interested reasons, a potential contributor can benefit by pushing funding just over the threshold. We say such contributors are pivotal. Early refund bonuses make contributors pivotal sooner and we think this gives people time to recognize that pushing funding over the threshold is in their interest. In addition, when more people contribute early this sends a signal of social cooperativeness which also appears important to fund public goods.

Third, refund bonuses pay for themselves! In theory, refund bonuses are never paid but in practice, as we have seen, some socially valuable projects fail even with refund bonuses. Nevertheless, for reasonable markups it’s still in an entrepreneur’s interest to use refund bonuses because the greater success rate more than pays for having to pay modest refund bonuses when a project fails.

We think refund bonuses can substantially improve crowdfunding and we hope to partner with a crowdfunding site to run a field experiment. Contact me if interested!

Read the whole thing.

Fractional Dosing Study in Brazil

Fiocruz, the Brazilian public health institute, will test half doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Not much information available yet. From a Google Translate article.

BANDNews: Fiocruz, in partnership with the government of Espírito Santo, is going to carry out a study with the application of half a dose of the Astrazeneca vaccine to the entire population of the municipality of Viana, in Greater Vitória.

The city has about 35 thousand inhabitants.

The immunization will take place on Sunday, June 13, and residents will be able to choose whether they want to participate in the study.

According to the state secretary of Health, Nésio Fernandes, there is already evidence of the effectiveness of the application of half a dose of the vaccine in immunization against Covid-19.

If the experience is successful, it will be possible to double the number of people vaccinated in the country with the immunizing agent produced by Fiocruz.

See my previous posts on fractional dosing for why this is very important.

Hat tip: Cisco Costa.

Trade Wars Are Hard to Win, Part LXXIV

Bloomberg: The surge of cheap panels from China dealt a crushing blow to U.S. manufacturers — and Solyndra wasn’t the only casualty. After three other U.S. solar manufacturers sought bankruptcy protection, Obama in 2012 slapped duties as high as 249% on the imports. Manufacturers responded by moving operations out of China, but they didn’t head to the U.S. Instead, large manufacturers skirted the U.S. tariffs by building facilities to assemble solar cells and modules across Southeast Asia.

Making matters worse, China retaliated by imposing its own duties of up to 57% on imports of U.S.-made polysilicon — tariffs that crippled U.S. producers of the conductive material used in solar panels.

…Before the Chinese tariffs, U.S.-made polysilicon had been shipped to the country and used to produce ingots, the next stage of solar cell manufacturing. But the tariffs made American polysilicon too expensive, Wang said, and the U.S. went from making 50% of the world’s polysilicon in 2007 to less than 5% today.

Tariffs on imports of solar panels were imposed by both the Obama and Trump presidencies and neither succeeded. We would have done better by letting the Chinese subsidize their solar industry and thus our solar energy system and more likely keeping our input suppliers.

Hat tip: Scott Lincicome.

Update on Rapid Tests for COVID

Nearly a year ago, I wrote Frequent, Fast, and Cheap is Better than Sensitive, arguing for rapid antigen tests:

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.

See also my posts Infected versus Infectious and Rapid Tests. The EMA and then the FDA finally did start approving these tests. So how well are they working? Pretty damn well. Canada has two innovative programs. First, in Nova Scotia pop-up clinics have been using rapid tests for asymptomatic people:

During the third wave that hit Nova Scotia over the past month, the province’s community rapid testing centres have correctly sniffed out at least 285 COVID-19 cases in asymptomatic people, or about 10 per cent of all confirmed cases in this time period, according to the Nova Scotia Health Authority.

While most provinces reserve testing only for symptomatic people or close contacts of a case, Nova Scotia’s pop-up centres allow asymptomatic people to simply show up and get a rapid test for free, with results sent to them within an hour. The whole process relies largely on volunteers without a health-care background.

Furthermore, the true number of cases credited to rapid testing is probably much higher. When a rapid test correctly identifies a positive case, the person’s close contacts such as their family get PCR lab tests that don’t show up in the rapid test statistics.

Lisa Barrett, an infectious diseases specialist and the driving force behind the rapid testing program, said it’s hard to say for certain, but taken altogether it’s possible rapid antigen testing has helped Nova Scotia find up to 18 per cent of all cases during the third wave.

“This is the early detection system,” Barrett said. Rapid testing tends to catch people early on in their infection when they’re full of virus, meaning positive cases are found and put into isolation fast — likely days before they would have been found with a PCR test, if they were found at all.

Michael Mina argues that since the rapid antigen detected cases are among the most infectious cases, detecting these cases is probably worth half of all the PCR testing.

Second, Canada’s CDL Rapid Screening Consortium is now in 200 sites with 50 large companies and rapidly expanding. A very interesting, just published paper in The Lancet runs an experiment that suggests that these testing regimes can work. The experiment rapidly tested 1000 people and the negatives were then randomly assigned either to be sent-home to conduct their regular life or to attend a multi-hour concert with masks but also singing, dancing, alcohol and no-social distancing. After 8 days there were two infections in the at-home group and no infections in the Concert group which suggests that this type of rapid testing can be used to open and keep-open concerts, schools, universities, airplanes and workplaces.

What’s the point of testing now that we have vaccines? Two reasons. First, most of the world still hasn’t been vaccinated so testing will be a very useful stop-gap measure until vaccination is more widely distributed. Indeed, the success of these programs shows what we lost by not acting more quickly a year ago. Second, although the pandemic is (essentially) over in the United States (as predicted) there will likely be an uptick in the fall among the unvaccinated and you want rapid tests to be available rapidly in hot-spots. In other words, rapid deployment of rapid tests will help us to avoid outbreaks in the future.

Two Vaccine Updates

First, in an article on new vaccine boosters in USA today there is this revealing statement:

Any revised Moderna vaccine would include a lower dose than the original, Moore said. The company went with a high dose in its initial vaccine to guarantee effectiveness, but she said the company is confident the dose can come down, reducing side effects without compromising protection.

Arrgh! Why wait for a new vaccine??? Fractional dosing now!

A microneedle patch for vaccines.

The same article also notes:

One of Moderna’s co-founders, MIT professor Robert Langer, is known for his research on microneedles, tiny Band-Aid-like patches that can deliver medications without the pain of a shot. Moderna has said nothing about delivery plans, but it’s conceivable the company might try to combine the two technologies to provide a booster that doesn’t require an injection.

The skin is highly immunologically active so you can give lower doses with a microneedle patch. The microneedles are sometimes made from sugar and don’t hurt. Microneedle delivery, however, can cause scars but I say apply the patch where the sun don’t shine and let’s go!

Second, Canada’s NACI has now endorsed mix and match for the AZ and Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. First Doses First has put Canada in very good shape (now ahead of the US in percent of the population with at least one dose) and this was always part of the FDF plan–delay second doses to get out more first doses and then, when supplies increase, give second doses, possibly with a better vaccine.

More on Individualism and Benevolence

This paper investigates the role of individualism in charitable giving. Individualistic societies are those that value individual fulfillment, personal responsibility, and relationships with those outside one’s in-group. Though critics suggest individualism undermines virtues such as generosity, we consider contrary mechanisms first developed in the tradition of classical political economy, especially the “doux commerce” hypothesis (Hirschman 1982), which posits that self-interested pursuit of gains through trade has broader, usually positive, effects on the attitudes and behavior (Matson 2020). Originating in French Enlightenment–era works—especially Montesquieu (1777a, XX.2)—and later found in Mandeville (1988 [1714]), Smith (1982 [1759]), and Hume (1994 [1742]), these arguments fell out of favor within mainstream economics for much of the twentieth century (Boettke 1997). But interest in these works has reemerged alongside growing interest in endogenous preferences (Bowles 1998) and the cultural dimensions of economic activity and as experimental evidence identifying success in trade as a cause of prosocial conduct has accumulated (Smith and Wilson 2019).

…To test our hypotheses, we use evidence from a large cross-section of countries and several measures of individualism, including Hofstede’s (2001) individualism-collectivism index, the index of survival versus self-expression from the World Values Survey (WVS) (Inglehart and Oyserman 2004), and measures of generalized tolerance. Each represents a quantitative measure of culture, or what David Hume referred to as national character (Sent and Kroese 2020). Our empirical results show that individualism is indeed associated with charitable giving, as is economic freedom. The results support the argument of classical liberals thatcommercial society and the social and cultural institutions that support it are sources of the common good.

From Cai, Caskey, Cowen, Murtazashvili, Murtazashvili and Salahodjaev. See my previous post(s) on this topic.

The Ford F-150: An Electric Vehicle for Red America

The Ford F-150 truck has been America’s best selling vehicle for forty years! (Bubble test: Do you own one or know someone who does?) The new version, the F-150 Lightning, goes into production in 2022 and it’s electric. Even today there is still the whiff of “liberal America” around electric vehicles but what’s impressive about the Lightning isn’t that it’s electric, it’s that it’s a better truck. The Lightning, for example, can power a home and work appliances from its 11 outlets including a 240 volt outlet! Look at this brilliant ad campaign:

Security and peace of mind are invaluable during severe weather and unpredictable events. That’s why Ford helps ensure you never have to worry about being left in the dark…

Security, peace of mind, don’t be left alone in the dark…all great conservative selling points. Note the truck in the picture is powering the house and the chain saw. The husband and wife, their home and their truck, project independence, success and confidence–a power couple–even with a nod to diversity.

The Lightning is also fast with 0-60mph times in line with those of a Porsche 911 circa 2005, it has more carrying capacity (thanks to the smaller electric motors) than a similar gas vehicle, and it can tow a respectable maximum of 10,000 pounds with all the options.

The Lightning might succeed or it might fail but it won’t fail on politics, this is a vehicle a red-blooded, meat-eating skeptic of global warming could love.

Individualism Promotes Benevolence

NYTimes: On average, people in more individualist countries donate more money, more blood, more bone marrow and more organs. They more often help others in need and treat nonhuman animals more humanely. If individualism were equivalent to selfishness, none of this would make sense.

…individualism promotes a more universalist outlook. In focusing on individual rights and welfare, it reduces the emphasis on groups — and the differences between “us” and “them” that notoriously erode generosity toward those outside one’s own circle.

See also my posts Globalization and the Expanding Moral Circle and Testing Doux Commerce in the Lab.