The Daily Beast Hit Piece on Amazon

The Daily Beast hit piece on Amazon, ‘Colony of Hell’: 911 Calls From Inside Amazon Warehouses, insinuates (while denying that this is what they are doing) that Amazon warehouses are an unsafe space that generates mental health problems. The upshot is this:

Between October 2013 and October 2018, emergency workers were summoned to Amazon warehouses at least 189 times for suicide attempts, suicidal thoughts, and other mental-health episodes, according to 911 call logs, ambulance and police reports reviewed and analyzed by The Daily Beast.

The reports came from 46 warehouses in 17 states—roughly a quarter of the sorting and fulfillment centers that comprise the company’s U.S. network. Jurisdictions for other Amazon warehouses either did not have any suicide reports or declined requests for similar logs.

So how many employees does this cover? No answer. Note also the weasel words, jurisdictions which “did not have any suicide reports or declined requests” are not included. So that could mean that a majority of fulfillment centers reported no serious mental health problems. Basically the report is devoid of useful information.

As far as I can tell from the report, there were no actual suicides at Amazon warehouses during this time period. Nevertheless, let’s try to do some back of the envelope calculations. Amazon has about 125,000 full time workers in its fulfillment centers but in a typical year they will double that during holiday season so say 250,000 employees in a year. The US suicide rate for working age adults is 17.3 per 100,000 so over five years we would expect 216 suicides and many more “suicide attempts, suicidal thoughts, and other mental-health episodes”. Indeed, the National Institute for Mental Health reports that 0.5% of Americans aged 18 years or over attempted suicide in 2016 so we would expect 6,250 suicide attempts in a population of Amazon-sized workers (250000*.005*5=6,250). Of course, the Daily Beast’s numbers don’t cover all fulfillment centers, most suicides wouldn’t occur at work and there are a variety of other issues so cut these numbers down as you see fit. For any reasonable estimate, however, there is no reason, in this data, to think that Amazon’s numbers are in any way unusual for a large employer.

The CDC does have some limited data on suicide by occupation and the real outlier is the construction and extraction industry which has a suicide rate over 50 per hundred thousand, several times the national average.

Moreover, if you really want to find out what it’s like to work at an Amazon fulfillment center don’t look at anecdotes, look instead to the over 5 thousand reviews for this job at Indeed.com which gives Amazon 3.6 stars out of 5. Not stellar but not bad either. Costco, one of the most beloved and best ranked employers in the United States, has a rating of 4.2.

It’s obvious that there is a political impetus to go after big tech companies. Whatever one’s thoughts about that, we shouldn’t let propaganda infect our decisions.

The Spirit Level Delusion

The Spirit Level by Wilkinson and Pickett made a big splash a decade ago by showing many correlations between inequality and various problems. In a recent talk, Pickett summarized the thesis of the book with the graph at right.

Even at the time, however, there were peculiarities in the data–for example, some countries were dropped without explanation and data with different definitions were spliced together–as pointed out by Christopher Snowdon in the Spirit Level Delusion. Adding in a few more countries, for example, made many of the correlations disappear.

Snowdon now has a nice post with another test. Suppose we run the same or similar regressions using today’s data? If the relationships are robust we ought to see the same correlations or even stronger correlations given the increase in inequality.

Here, for example, is a key graph from The Spirit Level on inequality and life-expectancy.

If, however, we use the same countries but today’s most up-to-date figures on inequality and life-expectancy we find no correlation.

If we add the four countries that are unequivocally richer than Portugal and were excluded from The Spirit Level for no good reason (South Korea, Hong Kong, Slovenia and the Czech Republic (now known as Czechia)), there is a statistically significant association with inequality but it is in the opposite direction to that predicted by The Spirit Level hypothesis, with greater inequality correlating with longer life expectancy (r2=0.145, R=0.385, p-value=0.0495).

After examining a variety of data. Snowdon summarizes:

In summary, most of the biggest claims made by Wilkinson and Pickett in The Spirit Level look even weaker today than they did when the book was published. Only one of the six associations stand up under W & P’s own methodology and none of them stand up when the full range of countries is analysed. In the case of life expectancy – the very flagship of The Spirit Level – the statistical association is the opposite of what the hypothesis predicts.

If The Spirit Level hypothesis were correct, it would produce robust and consistent results over time as the underlying data changes. Instead, it seems to be extremely fragile, only working when a very specific set of statistics are applied to a carefully selected list of countries.

It’s certainly possible that inequality has a causal effect on various issues (both positive and negative) but it seems that such effects are small and subtle enough to require much more than cross-sectional country-level data to uncover.

Bring Back the FDA’s Parallel Track

In 1992, the AIDS/HIV “parallel track” was approved as a regulatory change for FDA to allow patients exclusive access to AIDS/HIV drugs that had passed safety tests but had not yet passed all efficacy tests. Other drugs did not have access to this approval option. As a result of parallel track, the highly effective anti-viral drug stavudine was approved, saving thousands of lives.

…In the years that followed, FDA and Congress created several paths to speed approval and open access to promising medications, including accelerated approval, priority review, fast track, breakthrough therapy, right to try, and expanded access, or “compassionate use.” Unfortunately, these approaches are often confusing, and it is difficult for drug developers to determine which approach to pursue. None of these reforms have matched the openness and simplicity of the parallel track…

Ed Hudgins in How Extending the AIDS Drug Access Model to Other Diseases Would Save Lives.

Evidence for the Continental Axis Hypothesis

One of the most striking hypotheses in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel was that technology diffused more easily along lines of latitude than along lines of longitude because climate changed more rapidly along lines of longitude making it more difficult for both humans and technologies to adapt. Thus, a long East-West axis, such as that found in Eurasia, meant a bigger “market” for technology and thus greater development.

A few pieces of evidence are suggestive:

Laitin and Robinson (2011) and Laitin et al. (2012) report that linguistic diversity has been historically more persistent across lines of latitude than longitude, suggesting that population movements were more prevalent East-West relative to North-South. Ramachandran and Rosenberg (2011) report similar evidence based on the geographic distribution of genetic variation. While these studies speak to greater movements of populations East-West relative to North-South, they do not speak directly to the diffusion of technologies and development. Alternatively, Olsson and Hibbs (2005) provide a cross-country analysis in which a variable measuring East-West orientation of major landmasses correlates significantly with present-day income levels. This finding explicitly links continental orientation to income levels. However, it does not speak directly to the  mechanisms (e.g., more diffusion of technologies) leading to this correlation.

In Did Technology Transfer More Rapidly East-West than North-South?, from which I just quoted, Pavlik and Young offer more direct evidence on the natural direction of technological diffusion:

We employ Comin et al.’s (2010) data on ancient and early modern levels of technology adoption in a spatial econometric analysis. Historical levels of technology adoption in a (present-day) country are related to its lagged level as well as those of its neighbors. We allow the spatial effects to differ depending on whether they diffuse East-West or North-South. Consistent with the continental orientation hypothesis, East-West spatial effects are generally positive and stronger than those running North-South.

Very cool!

Theranos was Fraudulent, What About Its Patents?

In Launching the Innovation Renaissance I argued that patents should be given for specific inventions rather than just for broad “ideas”:

Thomas Edison invented and patented numerous products: the light bulb, the phonograph, movie film and much else besides. (At one point the patent office required that patents be accompanied by working models.) The invention of products typically requires the expenditure of sunk costs in a way that the creation of ideas does not. Today it is not necessary to implement an idea to patent it, and many patentable ideas are so broadly phrased that they could not be implemented in a model.

Edison famously said that “genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” A patent system should reward the 99 percent perspiration, not the 1 percent inspiration. In inventing the light bulb, for example, Edison laboriously experimented with some 6,000 possible materials for the filament before hitting upon bamboo. If Edison were to patent the light bulb today, he would not need to go to such lengths. Instead, Edison could patent the use of an “electrical resistor for the production of electro-magnetic radiation,” a patent that would have covered oven elements as well as light bulbs.

Daniel Nazer, who holds the Mark Cuban Chair to Eliminate Stupid Patents at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, points out in an excellent article that giving patents for vaguely stated ideas was exactly the problem with Theranos and its so-called patents.

Holmes found a more receptive audience at the USPTO. She says she spent five straight days at her computer drafting a patent application. The provisional application, filed in September 2003 when Holmes was just 19 years old, describes “medical devices and methods capable of real-time detection of biological activity and the controlled and localized release of appropriate therapeutic agents.” This provisional application would mature into many issued patents. In fact, there are patent applications still being prosecuted that claim priority back to Holmes’ 2003 submission.

But Holmes’ 2003 application was not a “real” invention in any meaningful sense. We know that Theranos spent years and hundreds of millions of dollars trying to develop working diagnostic devices. The tabletop machines Theranos focused on were much less ambitious than Holmes’ original vision of a patch. Indeed, it’s fair to say that Holmes’ first patent application was little more than aspirational science fiction written by an eager undergraduate.

…Two legal doctrines are relevant here. The “utility” requirement of patent law requires that the invention work. And the “enablement” requirement means that the application has to describe the invention with enough detail to allow a person in the relevant field to build and use it. If the applicant herself can’t build the invention with nearly unlimited time and money, it does not seem like the enablement requirement could possibly be satisfied.

The USPTO generally does a terrible job of ensuring that applications meet the utility and enablement standards.

Despite never having built a working product, Theranos accumulated hundreds of patents. These patents are now the only thing of value left but the patents aren’t valuable because of breakthrough science, the patents are valuable because they can be used to force people who do breakthrough science to cough up part of their return.

As Nazer puts it:

Accused of having lied to investors and endangered patients, the company leaves us with a parting gift: a portfolio of landmines for any company that actually solves the problems Theranos failed to solve.

Modern Principles of Economics

If you are teaching principles of economics next year do check out our textbook, Modern Principles of Economics.

Modern Principles means modern content and modern delivery. We cover material that many other textbooks ignore, such as how managers should choose between piece rates and tournaments and how firms can increase their profits using clever forms of price discrimination such as bundling and tying. In macroeconomics, we have created a simple yet powerful AD-AS model that combines insights from New Keynesian and Real Business Cycle models. We have also created the Super Simple Solow model which for the first time makes the Solow model of economic growth accessible to principles of economics students.

High-quality videos integrated directly into the textbook make Modern Principles a new kind of textbook, one born in the age of the internet. No other textbook has the quantity and quality of supplementary material available with Modern Principles. Whether you are looking to flip the classroom or just for the occasional video to grab the student’s attention before the lecture, you will find what you need in Modern Principles. The superb course management system also makes it easy to assign videos and grade questions.

Teachers can request a free examination copy here.

Here’s a video overview of Modern Principles of Economics:

No Urban Wage Premium for Non-College Educated Workers

The Economist has a nice graph and article on the urban wage premium based on David Autor’s work. The graphs shown that in the past both college and non-college educated workers earned higher wages in more densely populated areas but today only college-educated workers experience an urban wage-premium.

Housing costs eat a large share of the college wage-premium so even college educated workers are not as better off in cities as the graphs make it appear. Autor’s point, however, is that wages for the non-college educated aren’t higher in cities so they might not move to cities even with lower housing costs. That could be true but I also suspect that the urban wage premium for the non-college educated is endogenous–firms employing these workers have moved out of the city but could move back in with lower housing and land costs.

Injectable NanoParticles Let Mice See Near InfraRed!

Wow! This paper, Mammalian Near-Infrared Image Vision through Injectable and Self-Powered Retinal Nanoantenna, newly published in Cell seems like something from the future. Basically they injected nano-particles that convert near infra-red to visible light into the retinal layer of the eye in mice enabling the mice to see in the near infra-red.

…we developed ocular injectable photoreceptor-binding upconversion nanoparticles (pbUCNPs). These nanoparticles anchored on retinal photoreceptors as miniature NIR light transducers to create NIR light image vision with negligible side effects. Based on single-photoreceptor recordings, electroretinograms, cortical recordings, and visual behavioral tests, we demonstrated that mice with these nanoantennae could not only perceive NIR light, but also see NIR light patterns. Excitingly, the injected mice were also able to differentiate sophisticated NIR shape patterns. Moreover, the NIR light pattern vision was ambient-daylight compatible and existed in parallel with native daylight vision. This new method will provide unmatched opportunities for a wide variety of emerging bio-integrated nanodevice designs and applications.

…In summary, these nanoparticles not only provide the potential for close integration within the human body to extend the visual spectrum, but also open new opportunities to explore a wide variety of animal vision-related behaviors. Furthermore, they exhibit considerable potential with respect to the development of bio-integrated nanodevices in civilian encryption, security, military operations, and human-machine interfaces, which require NIR light image detection that goes beyond the normal functions of mammals, including human beings. Moreover, in addition to visual ability enhancement, this nanodevice can serve as an integrated and light-controlled system in medicine, which could be useful in the repair of visual function as well as in drug delivery for ocular diseases.

The researchers are mostly from China. It sometimes seems that Chinese researchers are naturally extropian, bolder and more optimistic about technology, human extension and the future than anyone else in the world.

Hat tip: Paul Kedrosky.

NY State Budget Director on Amazon

The open letter on Amazon from Robert Mujica, New York State’s Budget Director, is on fire. It shines an unflattering light on many people involved in the Amazon decision but its analysis of twitter mobs goes well beyond Amazon.

In my 23 years in the State Capitol, three as Budget Director, Amazon was the single greatest economic development opportunity we have had. Amazon chose New York and Virginia after a year-long national competition with 234 cities and states vying for the 25,000-40,000 jobs. For a sense of scale, the next largest economic development project the state has completed was for approximately 1,000 jobs. People have been asking me for the past week what killed the Amazon deal. There were several factors.

First, some labor unions attempted to exploit Amazon’s New York entry. The RWDSU Union was interested in organizing the Whole Foods grocery store workers, a subsidiary owned by Amazon, and they deployed several ‘community based organizations’ (which RWDSU funds) to oppose the Amazon transaction as negotiation leverage. It backfired.

…Organizing Amazon, or Whole Foods workers, or any company for that matter, is better pursued by allowing them to locate here and then making an effort to unionize the workers, rather than making unionization a bar to entrance. If New York only allows unionized companies to enter, our economy is unsustainable, and if one union becomes the enemy of other unions, the entire union movement – already in decline – is undermined and damaged.

Second, some Queens politicians catered to minor, but vocal local political forces in opposition to the Amazon government incentives as ‘corporate welfare.’ Ironically, much of the visible ‘local’ opposition, which was happy to appear at press conferences and protest at City Council hearings during work hours, were actual organizers paid by one union: RWDSU. (If you are wondering if that is even legal, probably not). Even more ironic is these same elected officials all signed a letter of support for Amazon at the Long Island City location and in support of the application. They were all for it before Twitter convinced them to be against it.

…Furthermore, opposing Amazon was not even good politics, as the politicians have learned since Amazon pulled out. They are like the dog that caught the car. They are now desperately and incredibly trying to explain their actions. They cannot.

…Third, in retrospect, the State and the City could have done more to communicate the facts of the project and more aggressively correct the distortions. We assumed the benefits to be evident: 25,000-40,000 jobs located in a part of Queens that has not seen any significant commercial development in decades and a giant step forward in the tech sector, further diversifying our economy away from Wall Street and Real Estate. The polls showing seventy percent of New Yorkers supported Amazon provided false comfort that the political process would act responsibly and on behalf of all of their constituents, not just the vocal minority. We underestimated the effect of the opposition’s distortions and overestimated the intelligence and integrity of local elected officials.

Incredibly, I have heard city and state elected officials who were opponents of the project claim that Amazon was getting $3 billion in government subsidies that could have been better spent on housing or transportation. This is either a blatant untruth or fundamental ignorance of basic math by a group of elected officials. The city and state ‘gave’ Amazon nothing. Amazon was to build their headquarters with union jobs and pay the city and state $27 billion in revenues. The city, through existing as-of-right tax credits, and the state through Excelsior Tax credits – a program approved by the same legislators railing against it – would provide up to $3 billion in tax relief, IF Amazon created the 25,000-40,000 jobs and thus generated $27 billion in revenue. You don’t need to be the State’s Budget Director to know that a nine to one return on your investment is a winner.

The seventy percent of New Yorkers who supported Amazon and now vent their anger also bear responsibility and must learn that the silent majority should not be silent because they can lose to the vocal minority and self-interested politicians.

…Make no mistake, at the end of the day we lost $27 billion, 25,000-40,000 jobs and a blow to our reputation of being ‘open for business.’ The union that opposed the project gained nothing and cost other union members 11,000 good, high-paying jobs. The local politicians that catered to the hyper-political opposition hurt their own government colleagues and the economic interest of every constituent in their district. The true local residents who actually supported the project and its benefits for their community are badly hurt. Nothing was gained and much was lost. This should never happen again.

Even if you think the end result was fine, as I do, this was a political fiasco for New York. Amazon was wise to exit when they did because the pecking of the chickens would only have intensified as they sunk investments.

Patent Trolls in Texas Take Another Hit

Plaintiffs in patent lawsuits used to flock to the Eastern District.of Texas because they could sue anywhere in the United States and the Eastern District has long been notoriously friendly to plaintiffs. In 2016, Marshall, Texas with a population of only 24,000, was home to an astonishing 25 percent of all patent filings in the U.S. In May of 2017, however, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in TC Heartland v. Kraft Foods that plaintiffs can’t forum shop to find a friendly court. Instead patent plaintiffs must file in districts where the company  being sued is incorporated or where it has an established place of business.

Businesses are now responding to the Supreme Court’s rule by shifting their establishments. Apple, for example, looks like it will close both of its retail stores within the Eastern District of Texas and instead open a new store in Dallas, just south of the Eastern District of Texas border.

Peremptory Challenges

During the jury selection process, attorneys may request that a potential juror be stricken for cause, e.g. the juror is related to the defendant. Attorneys also have a limited number of peremptory challenges, typically between 3 and 20 depending on the state and the seriousness of the charges, which are essentially accepted without question. In Batson v. Kentucky the Supreme Court ruled that peremptory challenges may not be based solely on race but it’s widely acknowledged that Batson has no teeth because attorneys can easily come up with pretexts–which need not rise to the level of causes–to strike.

Next month the Supreme Court will revisit peremptory challenges and race. I don’t have strong opinions on the issue, although a small number of peremptory challenges seem fine to me, if only to keep the system moving and reduce the time and resources spent on jury selection. One reason I don’t have strong opinions is that I don’t think peremptory challenges are as biased as a NYTimes article seems to suggests.The NYTimes article, for example, never mentions that defendants also get peremptory challenges!  A second more subtle reason is that diversity of the jury pool constrains the jury even when there are no minorities on the jury. Here, from an earlier post, I comment on the findings of The Impact of Jury Race in Criminal Trials:

What the authors discover is that all white juries are 16% more likely to convict black defendants than white defendants but the presence of just a single black person in the jury pool equalizes conviction rates by race. The effect is large and remarkably it occurs even when the black person is not picked for the jury. The latter may not seem possible but the authors develop an elegant model of voir dire that shows how using up a veto on a black member of the pool shifts the characteristics of remaining pool members from which the lawyers must pick; that is, a diverse jury pool can make for a more “ideologically” balanced jury even when the jury is not racially balanced.

Thus, diversity of the jury pool may be as important as diversity of the jury–in a way that’s fortunate since it’s easier to make the jury pool diverse (as we have done with required randomization) than the jury. Instead of eliminating peremptory challenges, I’d raise their cost. For example, suppose that both sides get 3 “free” peremptory challenges but if they wanted one more they would have to give two to the opposing side.

Addendum: Justice Kavanaugh has written in favor of restricting peremptory challenges.

RadicalXChange, March 22-24

Robert Wiblin of 80,000 hours has an excellent podcast with Glen Weyl on Radical institutional reforms that make capitalism & democracy work better. Weyl’s diagnosis of the problems of capitalism and democracy strike me as wrongheaded but on the other hand his solutions are interesting.and original. Wiblin does a good job of gently but decisively pushing back in places, e.g. in the discussion of high modernism.

RadicalXChange is hosting a big conference March 22-24 in Detroit. In addition to Weyl, speakers include Vitalik Buterin, Margaret Levi and Zooko Wilcox among others. I will be talking about open borders and also about city development on a panel with Devon Zuegel, Mwiya Musokotwane and Mark Lutter.

Corporate Law Before the FCA (or SEC)

In the late nineteenth century Britain had almost no mandatory shareholder protections, but had very developed financial markets. We argue that private contracting between shareholders and corporations meant that the absence of statutory protections was immaterial. Using approximately 500 articles of association from before 1900, we code the protections offered to shareholders in these private contracts. We find that firms voluntarily offered shareholders many of the protections that were subsequently included in statutory corporate law. We also find that companies offering better protection to shareholders had less concentrated ownership.

Acheson, Campbell and Turner writing in the Review of Financial Studies. Interesting implications for the US system of competitive federalism in corporate law.

Hat tip: Kevin Lewis.

Reducing Discrimination with More Information

From Cui, Li and Zhang:

We conduct four randomized field experiments among 1,801 hosts on Airbnb by creating fictitious guest accounts and sending accommodation requests to them. We find that requests from guests with African American-sounding names are 19.2 percentage points less likely to be accepted than those with white-sounding names. However, a positive review posted on a guest’s page significantly reduces discrimination: When guest accounts receive a positive review, the acceptance rates of guest accounts with white-sounding and African American-sounding names are statistically indistinguishable.

In other words, taste based discrimination is weak but statistical discrimination is common. Statistical discrimination happens when legitimate demands for trust are frustrated by too little information. Statistical discrimination is a second-best solution to a problem of trust that both owners/sellers/employers and renters/buyers/workers want to solve. Unfortunately, many people try to solve statistical discrimination problems as if they were problems of invidious prejudice.

If you think the problem is invidious prejudice, it’s natural to try to punish and prevent with penalties and bans. Information bans and penalties, however, often have negative and unintended consequences. Airbnb, for example, chose to hide guest photos until after the booking. But this doesn’t address the real demands of owners for trust. As a result, owners may start to discriminate based on other cues such as names. Instead market designers and regulators should approach issues of discrimination by looking for ways to increase mutually profitable exchanges. From this perspective, providing more information is often the better approach. As Cui, Li, and Zhang write in a HBR op-ed:

Our recommendation is for the platform companies to build a credible, easy-to-use online reputation and communication system. Bringing information to light, rather than trying to hide it from users, is more likely to be a successful approach to tackling discrimination in the sharing economy.

Addendum: See also Tyler and I in The End of Asymmetric Information. We need to work with information abundance rather than try to push against the tide.

Unicorns Found!

Dr. Jorge Pérez, an evolutionary biologist from the University of La Paz, and several companions, were exploring the Andes Mountains when they found a small valley, with no other animals or humans. Pérez noticed that the valley had what appeared to be a natural fountain, surrounded by two peaks of rock and silver snow.

Pérez and the others then ventured further into the valley. “By the time we reached the top of one peak, the water looked blue, with some crystals on top,” said Pérez.

Pérez and his friends were astonished to see the unicorn herd. These creatures could be seen from the air without having to move too much to see them – they were so close they could touch their horns.

While examining these bizarre creatures the scientists discovered that the creatures also spoke some fairly regular English. Pérez stated, “We can see, for example, that they have a common ‘language,’ something like a dialect or dialectic.”

Dr. Pérez believes that the unicorns may have originated in Argentina, where the animals were believed to be descendants of a lost race of people who lived there before the arrival of humans in those parts of South America.

While their origins are still unclear, some believe that perhaps the creatures were created when a human and a unicorn met each other in a time before human civilization. According to Pérez, “In South America, such incidents seem to be quite common.”

However, Pérez also pointed out that it is likely that the only way of knowing for sure if unicorns are indeed the descendants of a lost alien race is through DNA. “But they seem to be able to communicate in English quite well, which I believe is a sign of evolution, or at least a change in social organization,” said the scientist.

Click here for the rest of the story.