The Scientific Cost of Immigrant Quotas

In the 1920s immigration to the United States was restricted with quotas which were designed to reduce the number of immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe, then considered to be low-quality immigrants. One unintended consequence was that the number of immigrant scientists from these areas also declined. The awesome Petra Moser and Schmuel San have an excellent new paper documenting the cost on US innovation and patenting.

Naturalization data indicate a dramatic decline in the arrival of new ESE-born scientists after the quotas. Until 1924, arrivals of new ESE-born immigrant scientists were comparable to arrivals from Northern and Western Europe (WNE), who were subject to comparable pull and push factors of migration.1 After the quotas, arrivals of ESE-born scientists decline significantly while arrivals from Northern and Western Europe continue to increase. Combining data on naturalizations with information on scientists’ university education and career histories, we estimate that 1,165 ESE-born scientists were lost to US science under the quota system. At an annual level, this implies a loss of 38 scientists per year, equivalent to eliminating the entire physics department of a major university each year between 1925 and 1955. For the physical sciences alone, an estimated 553 ESE-born scientists were lost to US science.

To estimate the effects of changes in immigration on US inventions, we compare changes in patenting per year after 1924 in the pre-quota fields of ESE-born US scientists with changes in patenting in other research fields in which US scientists were active inventors before the quotas. This identification strategy allows us to control for changes in invention by US scientists across fields, for example, as a result of changes in research funding. Year fixed effects further control for changes in patenting over time that are shared across fields. Field fixed effects control for variation in the intensity of patenting across fields, e.g., between basic and applied research.

Baseline estimates reveal a large and persistent decline in invention by US scientists in the pre-quota fields of ESE-born scientists. After the quotas, US scientists produced 68 percent fewer additional patents in the pre-quota fields of ESE-born scientists compared with the prequota fields of other US scientists. Time-varying effects show a large decline in invention by US scientists in the 1930s, which persisted into the 1960s. Importantly, these estimates show no preexisting differences in patenting for ESE and other fields before the quotas.

Canada which did not implement quotas did not see a similar decline. One interesting case study which is quite astounding in its way:

A case study of co-authorships for the prolific Hungarian-born mathematician Paul Erdős illustrates how restrictions on immigration reduced collaborations between ESE-born scientists and US scientists. Erdős moved to the United States as a post-doctoral fellow at Princeton, and became a professor at Notre Dame, travelling and collaborating with many US scientists. As a Hungarian citizen, however, Erdős was denied a re-entry visa by the US immigration services in1954, and not granted re-entry until 1963. To examine how these denials affected Erdős’ collaborations with US scientists, we collect the location of Erdős top 100 coauthors at the time  of their first collaboration. These data show that Erdős’ collaborations shifted away from the United States when he was denied re-entry. Between 1954 and 1963, 24 percent of Erdős’ new co-authors were US scientists, compared with 60 percent until 1954. These patterns are confirmed in a broader analysis of patents by co-authors and co-authors of co-authors of ESEborn scientists, which indicates a 26 percent decline in invention by scientists who were directly or indirectly influenced by ESE-born scholars. 

As you might suspect from the Erdos example, scientists in the US became less not more productive without the benefits of cooperation with Eastern European scientists.

Some of the scientists denied entry to the US in the 1920s went to Israel instead and innovated there so their genius was not entirely lost to the world.

Photo: Paul Erdos with Terrence Tao. Attribution, either Billy or Grace Tao, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

The Great Resignation: Health Care Workers

We are short a million health care workers. Today with extreme stress on the system there are 16 million health care workers, about five hundred thousand fewer than when the pandemic began in January of 2020 and about one million fewer than would be expected based on decades of growth. A loss of this many workers is unprecedented.

Ed Yong in the Atlantic discusses Why Health-Care Workers are Quitting in Droves:

Health-care workers, under any circumstances, live in the thick of death, stress, and trauma. “You go in knowing those are the things you’ll see,” Cassandra Werry, an ICU nurse currently working in Idaho, told me. “Not everyone pulls through, but at the end of the day, the point is to get people better. You strive for those wins.” COVID-19 has upset that balance, confronting even experienced people with the worst conditions they have ever faced and turning difficult jobs into unbearable ones.

In the spring of 2020, “I’d walk past an ice truck of dead bodies, and pictures on the wall of cleaning staff and nurses who’d died, into a room with more dead bodies,” Lindsay Fox, a former emergency-medicine doctor from Newark, New Jersey, told me. At the same time, Artec Durham, an ICU nurse from Flagstaff, Arizona, was watching his hospital fill with patients from the Navajo Nation. “Nearly every one of them died, and there was nothing we could do,” he said. “We ran out of body bags.”

…Many health-care workers imagined that such traumas were behind them once the vaccines arrived. But plateauing vaccination rates, premature lifts on masking, and the ascendant Delta variant undid those hopes. This summer, many hospitals clogged up again. As patients waited to be admitted into ICUs, they filled emergency rooms, and then waiting rooms and hallways. That unrealized promise of “some sort of normalcy has made the feelings of exhaustion and frustration worse,” Bettencourt told me.

Health-care workers want to help their patients, and their inability to do so properly is hollowing them out. “Especially now, with Delta, not many people get better and go home,” Werry told me. People have asked her if she would have gone to nursing school had she known the circumstances she would encounter, and for her, “it’s a resounding no,” she said. (Werry quit her job in an Arizona hospital last December and plans on leaving medicine once she pays off her student debts.)

…Many have told me that they’re bone-weary, depressed, irritable, and (unusually for them) unable to hide any of that. Nurses excel at “feeling their feelings in a supply closet or bathroom, and then putting their game face back on and jumping into the ring,” Werry said. But she and others are now constantly on the verge of tears, or prone to snapping at colleagues and patients. Some call this burnout, but Gerard Brogan, the director of nursing practice at National Nurses United, dislikes the term because “it implies a lack of character,” he told me. He prefers moral distress—the anguish of being unable to take the course of action that you know is right.

Health-care workers aren’t quitting because they can’t handle their jobs. They’re quitting because they can’t handle being unable to do their jobs.

Hat tip: Matt Yglesias.

Housing Vouchers and Education Vouchers

Here’s a recent news headline, Can Biden Deliver on His Promise to Expand Housing Vouchers? The link discusses Biden’s efforts to increase housing vouchers which subsidize low-income households to help them rent a home on the private market. Housing vouchers are a solidly Democratic proposal. Moreover, as far as I can tell, there are few people advocating to replace vouchers with public housing. The progressive think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has this to say about vouchers:

Housing Choice Vouchers sharply reduce homelessness and other hardships, lift more than a million people out of poverty, and give families an opportunity to move to safer, less poor neighborhoods. These effects, in turn, are closely linked to educational, developmental, and health benefits that can improve children’s long-term life chances and reduce costs in other public programs.

Here’s the Urban Institute:

The federal Housing Choice Voucher Program plays a critical role in helping to address housing needs for extremely low-income households. Its most important advantage is that vouchers give recipients the freedom to choose the kinds of housing and the locations that best meet their needs. As a consequence, many voucher recipients live in healthy neighborhoods that offer social, educational, and economic opportunities for themselves and their children….even for African Americans and Hispanics, vouchers perform better than public and assisted housing projects in giving families access to low-poverty and racially mixed neighborhoods.

Notice how often the words “opportunity”, “freedom” and “choice” appear. Indeed the testimony from the Urban Institute refers to “the freedom to choose.” Excellent.

I agree with these conclusions. Now here is what is strange. Exactly the same arguments apply to school vouchers and school choice. School vouchers give students the freedom to choose the kinds of schooling and locations that best meet their needs. Yet, while many on the left agree that vouchers are superior to public housing, which tends to freeze the poor into low-quality, poorly maintained housing in poor neighborhoods with a host of cognate problems, they are more reluctant to support education vouchers as superior to public schooling. But all the arguments against public housing also apply to public schooling. Public Housing=Public Schooling. (The right are also strangely reluctant to take credit for housing vouchers even though they have mostly worked in just the way that Milton Friedman would have predicted!)

It’s unclear to me why housing vouchers became accepted on the left but education vouchers are still regarded as suspect. Or to put it the other way, it would be useful to study how housing voucher won over the left.

I look forward to the day when a headline reads, Can the Democratic President Deliver on Her Promise to Expand Education Vouchers?

The Paxlovid Paradox

Zvi at LessWrong rounds up the COVID news including this excellent bit on Pfizer’s anti-Covid pill Paxlovid which looks to be very effective but is not yet FDA approved.

The trial was stopped due to ‘ethical considerations’ for being too effective. You see, we live in a world in which:

  1. It is illegal to give this drug to any patients, because it hasn’t been proven safe and effective.
  2. It is illegal to continue a trial to study the drug, because it has been proven so safe and effective that it isn’t ethical to not give the drug to half the patients.
  3. Who, if they weren’t in the study, couldn’t get the drug at all, because it is illegal due to not being proven safe and effective yet. 
  4. So now no one gets added to the trial so those who would have been definitely don’t get Paxlovid, and are several times more likely to die.
  5. But our treatment of them is now ‘ethical.’
  6. For the rest of time we will now hear about how it was only seven deaths and we can’t be sure Paxlovid works or how well it works, and I expect to spend hours arguing over exactly how much it works.
  7. For the rest of time people will argue the study wasn’t big enough so we don’t know the Paxlovid is safe.
  8. Those arguments will then be used both by people arguing to not take Paxlovid, and people who want to require other interventions because of these concerns.
  9. FDA Delenda Est.

Politicizing Medicine is Dangerous

Politicizing medicine is dangerous. Tens of thousands of people are dead because vaccines became politicized and people chose political identity over rationality. Yet instead of trying to depoliticize medicine, the AMA has doubled down and is going full woke. The AMA’s Advancing Health Equity: A Guide to Language, Narrative and Concepts is so over the top I thought at first it was satire from the BabylonBee. The guide, for example, recommends that instead of talking about poor health among low-income people that physicians should blame “landowners and large corporations” for “increasingly centralizing political and financial power wielded by a few” and limiting “prospects for good health and well-being for many groups.” Put aside that this is at best tendentious and at worst utterly fallacious and just imagine that you are a landowner or work for a large corporation (that’s most of us!). Would you trust a doctor spouting this rhetoric or might you feel that such a doctor doesn’t have your best interests at heart?

Conor Friedersdorf puts it well:

The medical profession won’t remain more broadly trusted than left-wing activists if the two become indistinguishable. And that’s what will happen if doctors follow the guide’s advice. Instead of saying, “Low-income people have the highest level of coronary artery disease,” it urges health professionals to substitute this doctrinaire sentence: “People underpaid and forced into poverty as a result of banking policies, real estate developers gentrifying neighborhoods, and corporations weakening the power of labor movements, among others, have the highest level of coronary artery disease.”

In a section attacking “the narrative of individualism,” the guide posits that health promotion “typically means educating people as individuals,” and urges “shifting this narrative, from the individual to the structural, in order to more fully understand the root causes of health inequities in our society.” It’s already hard enough to get my conservative grandfather to heed his doctors about how best to care for a bad back worn down from decades in construction. A new narrative meant to problematize real-estate developers or individualism would not improve his medical condition, but it would inflame his temper. One wonders if the AMA and the AAMC grasp how many patients of all races and socioeconomic groups (never mind doctors) strongly disagree with the agenda that the two organizations are pushing. Either way, patients will feel put off by doctors who sound like ideologues from a different political tribe.

If the AMA really wants to do something for health equity they should stop trying to police language and instead support nurse practitioners, midwives, physician assistants, and other healthcare professionals who want to expand their practices, lobby for more physicians and an end to the absurd residency bottleneck, and support greater hospital competition. Physician heal thyself.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia.

Explaining NFTs

Writing at the Harvard Business Review, Steve Kaczynski and Scott Duke Kominers have en excellent explanation of how NFTs create value–the best I have read.

NFTs don’t just provide a kind of digital “deed.” Because blockchains are programmable, it’s possible to endow NFTs with features that enable them to expand their purpose over time, or even to provide direct utility to their holders. In other words, NFTs can do things — or let their owners do things — in both digital spaces and the physical world.

In this sense, NFTs can function like membership cards or tickets, providing access to events, exclusive merchandise, and special discounts — as well as serving as digital keys to online spaces where holders can engage with each other. Moreover, because the blockchain is public, it’s even possible to send additional products directly to anyone who owns a given token. All of this gives NFT holders value over and above simple ownership — and provides creators with a vector to build a highly engaged community around their brands.

It’s not uncommon to see creators organize in-person meetups for their NFT holders, as many did at the recent NFT NYC conference. In other cases, having a specific NFT in your online wallet might be necessary in order to gain access to an online game, chat room, or merchandise store. And creator teams sometimes grant additional tokens to their NFT holders in ways that expand the product ecosystem: owners of a particular goat NFT, for example, were recently able to claim a free baby goat NFT that gives benefits beyond the original token; holders of a particular bear NFT, meanwhile, just received honey.

Thus owning an NFT effectively makes you an investor, a member of a club, a brand shareholder, and a participant in a loyalty program all at once. At the same time, NFTs’ programmability supports new business and profit models — for example, NFTs have enabled a new type of royalty contract, whereby each time a work is resold, a share of the transaction goes back to the original creator.

This all means that NFT-based markets can emerge and gain traction quickly, especially relative to other crypto products. This is both because the NFTs themselves have standalone value — you might buy an art NFT simply because you like it — and because NFTs just need to establish value among a community of potential owners (which can be relatively small), whereas cryptocurrencies need wide acceptance in order to become useful as a store of value and/or medium of exchange.

Read the whole thing. Kaczynski and Kominers also offer good advice to firms and organizations interested in creating NFTs. It remains true, of course, that there is a lot of foolish and wasted spending in the space–that’s typical of most new asset classes where the rush to get into the space throws up a lot of noise making the signal more difficult to detect.

Addendum: Don’t forget you can buy the Marginal Revolution NFT! You will be purchasing from the new owner (we sold it) but I believe we get a royalty which also illustrates an advantage of the NFT model.

Image: SupDucks6484.

Yglesias on CRT

Matt Yglesias has an excellent post on schooling and politics emphasizing three points. First, there is a lot of diversity, equity, inclusion (DEI) nonsense which the schools are using to train teachers and administrators. Second, at the same time the school administrators/teacher’s unions are generally ignoring the very real cost to children and parents of the school closures, including the costs of a widening racial gap. Third, the schools are stigmatizing testing under the guise of promoting equity but in reality because the teacher’s unions know that when you test children you learn that not all teachers are equally capable.

[The DC Public Schools] also recommend that people read a bunch of Robin DiAngelo books and brag that “more than 2,000 DCPS staff have participated in Courageous Conversation training.” But is Courageous Conversation training a good idea? This NYT Magazine profile of the company and its founder made it sound pretty bad:

Singleton, who holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford, and who did stints in advertising and college admissions before founding what’s now known as Courageous Conversation in 1992, talks about white culture in similar ways. There is the myth of meritocracy. And valuing “written communication over other forms,” he told me, is “a hallmark of whiteness,” which leads to the denigration of Black children in school. Another “hallmark” is “scientific, linear thinking. Cause and effect.” He said, “There’s this whole group of people who are named the scientists. That’s where you get into this whole idea that if it’s not codified in scientific thought that it can’t be valid.” He spoke about how the ancient Egyptians had “ideas about how humanity works that never had that scientific-hypothesis construction” and so aren’t recognized. “This is a good way of dismissing people. And this,” he continued, shifting forward thousands of years, “is one of the challenges in the diversity-equity-inclusion space; folks keep asking for data. How do you quantify, in a way that is scientific — numbers and that kind of thing — what people feel when they’re feeling marginalized?” For Singleton, society’s primary intellectual values are bound up with this marginalization.

I don’t think Frankfurt School Marxists are going to take over society by injecting these ideas into K-12 schools or anything like that. What I so think is that time and money is being wasted on initiatives that are run by people who are somewhere between stupid and fraudulent.

And it’s important to take that seriously, not just because someone somewhere may take these goofy ideas seriously (see prior commentary about Tema Okun), but because fiscal tradeoffs are real. Dollars spent on DEI trainings that come with zero proof of efficacy are dollars that can’t be invested in things like D.C.’s successful teacher bonus pay program, updating school air conditioning, improving school lunches, reducing kids’ exposure to air pollution and lead poisoning, or any of the other various interventions that have decent evidence behind them.

Of course when I say that investing in higher quality school lunches is good for kids’ learning, what I mean is that it’s good as measured on standardized tests.

Standardized testing has become a weird discourse flashpoint, but I think everyone agrees that you can, in principle, assess someone’s competence in a given subject area with a test. And if you want to compare different people, you need to give them the same test. It’s only by making comparisons across classrooms and across time that we are able to persuasively demonstrate that particulates are bad for school performance, healthy meals are good for school performance, and air conditioning improves school performance in the summer.

All this would be uncontroversial, I think, except teachers’ unions don’t like the idea of assessing teachers based on their job performance.

Read the whole thing and subscribe to Slow Boring.

How to Increase Effective Altruism

Caviola, Schubert and Greene have a good review of the reasons why effective and ineffective altruism attract donations. First, they note the large gains from making altruism more effective.

A US$100 donation can save a person in the developing world from trachoma, a disease that causes blindness [1]. By contrast, it costs US$50 000 to train a guide dog to help a blind person in the developed world. This large difference in impact per dollar is not unusual. According to expert estimates, the most effective charities are often 100 times more effective than typical charities [2].

…Most research on charitable giving focuses on the amounts that donors give [4]. However, if the societal goal of charitable giving is to improve human (or animal) well-being, it is probably more important to focus on the effectiveness of giving….you can double your impact by doubling the amount that you give to typical charities, but you can multiply your impact by a factor of ten, 100, or even 1000 by choosing to support more effective charities [2].

The authors then consider a number of cognitive factors or biases that allow or encourage ineffective altruism. For example, people tend to give to charities that they are emotionally connected with regardless of effectiveness and they also like to split donations across multiple charities in part because they have scope neglect (“a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic.” to quote Stalin who correctly identified the principle even though he was more concerned about how to get away with killing millions than saving millions).

One particular feature of the paper that I like is that instead of simply advocating overcoming these biases they think about ways to use them. For example, you can’t stop people giving to ineffective but emotionally attractive charities but because people like to split and don’t pay attention to scope you can get them to split their donation with an effective charity.

…people tend to support charities that are emotionally appealing, paying little attention to effectiveness. However, there is evidence that many people do care about effectiveness and that information about effectiveness can make giving more effective [2,21]. Combining these insights suggests a new strategy to increase the effectiveness of charitable giving: many donors may be amenable to splitting their donations between an emotionally appealing charity and a highly effective charity, especially if provided with effectiveness information.

This strategy can work especially well if you combine it with matching funds or funds to “cover overhead” which are given by a relatively small number of rich people who can be swayed by philosophical arguments in favor of effective altruism.

Hat tip: Steve Stewart-Williams.

Half Doses of Pfizer Work Well

New paper published in Vaccines from Polish group showing that half doses of Pfizer generate strong immune responses.

In the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, using a half-dose schedule vaccination can help to return to normalcy in a cost-efficient manner, which is especially important for low and middle-income countries. We undertook a study to confirm that in adults up to 55 years old, the humoral response to the half-dose (15 µg, 35 participants between 18 and 55 years old) and to the recommended dose (30 µg, 155 participants) in the two-dose three-week interval schedule would be comparable. Antibody levels were measured by the Elecsys Anti-SARS-CoV-2 S assay (Roche Diagnostics, upper detection limit: 2570 BAU/mL) on the day of dose 2 of the vaccine and then 8–10 days later to assess peak response to dose 2. The difference in proportions between the participants who did and did not exceed the upper detection limit 8–10 days after dose 2 was not statistically significant (p = 0.152). We suggest that a half-dose schedule can help to achieve widespread vaccination coverage more quickly and cheaply.

See my previous piece A Half Dose of Moderna is More Effective Than a Full Dose of AstraZeneca.

ProPublica on FDA Delay

If you have been following MR for the last 18 months (or 18 years!) you won’t find much new in this ProPublica piece on FDA delay in approving rapid tests but, other than being late to the game, it’s a good piece. Two points are worth emphasizing. First, some of the problem has been simple bureaucratic delay and inefficiency.

In late May, WHPM head of international sales Chris Patterson said, the company got a confusing email from its FDA reviewer asking for information that had in fact already been provided. WHPM responded within two days. Months passed. In September, after a bit more back and forth, the FDA wrote to say it had identified other deficiencies, and wouldn’t review the rest of the application. Even if WHPM fixed the issues, the application would be “deprioritized,” or moved to the back of the line.

“We spent our own million dollars developing this thing, at their encouragement, and then they just treat you like a criminal,” said Patterson. Meanwhile, the WHPM rapid test has been approved in Mexico and the European Union, where the company has received large orders.

An FDA scientist who vetted COVID-19 test applications told ProPublica he became so frustrated by delays that he quit the agency earlier this year. “They’re neither denying the bad ones or approving the good ones,” he said, asking to remain anonymous because his current work requires dealing with the agency.

Recall my review of Joseph Gulfo’s Innovation Breakdown.

Second, the FDA has engaged in regulatory nationalism–refusing to look at trial data from patients in other countries. This is madness when India does it and madness when the US does it.

For example, the biopharmaceutical giant Roche told ProPublica that it submitted a home test in early 2021, but it was rejected by the FDA because the trials had been done partly in Europe. The test had compared favorably with Abbott’s rapid test, and received European Union approval in June. The company plans to resubmit an application by the end of the year.

A smaller company, which didn’t want to be named because it has other contracts with the U.S. government, withdrew its pre-application for a rapid antigen test with integrated smartphone-based reporting because it heard its trial data from India — collected as the delta variant was surging there — wouldn’t be accepted. Doing the trials in the U.S. would have cost millions.

Photo credit: MaxPixel.

Pseudoviruses and Luciferase

Testing whether a drug or vaccine inhibits a virus can be especially difficult if the virus is dangerous and thus requires cumbersome biosafety level-3 conditions. A now common alternative is to create a pseudovirus, a harmless, non self-replicating virus core that has been modified to exhibit the same surface proteins as the dangerous virus. In the case of SARS-CoV-II, for example, pseudoviruses were created with the same spike proteins as the real virus. In addition, the pseudovirus is given a Luciferase gene. The Luciferase gene (aka light bearer gene) is a gene for creating the kinds of enzymes which light up fireflies and it is only expressed after entering a cell. Thus, scientists can test whether a virus has been successfully neutralized by measuring how much light virus-exposed cells exhibit. Neat!

Here’s a nice picture of the idea from Berthold Instruments who sell luminometers which measure the intensity of Luciferase activity.


Revenue Driven Policing

The NYTimes has a good piece on revenue driven policing:

Many municipalities across the country rely heavily on ticket revenue and court fees to pay for government services, and some maintain outsize police departments to help generate that money, according to a review of hundreds of municipal audit reports, town budgets, court files and state highway records.

…In Bratenahl, Ohio, the town government is so dependent on traffic enforcement that the police chief castigated his officers as “badge-wearing slugs” in an email when a downturn in ticket writing jeopardized raises. Ticket revenue helped finance sheriff’s equipment in Amherst County, Va.; a “peace officers annuity and benefit fund” in Doraville, Ga.; and police training in Connecticut, Oklahoma and South Carolina.

Revenue driven policing can be most extreme when the people you are ticketing are not voters.

Newburgh Heights, a frayed industrial village of about a half square mile with 2,000 residents just south of Cleveland, doggedly monitors traffic on the short stretch of Interstate 77 that passes through.

…All told, revenue from traffic citations, which typically accounts for more than half the town’s budget, totaled $3 million in 2019.

My paper, To Serve and Collect (with Mike Makowsky and Thomas Stratmann) shows that there is a notable increase in revenue generating arrests when local governments are facing a deficit. More from Makowsky in this thread.