Small Isn’t Beautiful

In our textbook, Modern Principles, Tyler and I discuss India’s small scale reservation laws which for decades made it illegal for large firms to produce many manufactured goods:

…traditionally most Indian shirts were made by hand in small shops of three or four tailors who designed, measured, sewed, and sold, all on the same premises. It sounds elegant but this was not London’s Savile Row, where the finest tailors in the world create custom suits for the rich and powerful. India’s shirts would have been cheaper and of higher quality if they were mass-manufactured in factories—the way shirts for Americans are produced. Why didn’t this happen in India? Shirts in India were produced inefficiently because large-scale production was illegal.

India prohibited investment in plant and machinery in shirt factories from exceeding about $200,000 – this meant that Indian shirt manufacturers could not take advantage of economies of scale, the decrease in the average cost of production which often occurs as the total quantity of production increases.

Do India’s small scale reservation laws seem somewhat quaint and foolish? Now consider, California.

A bill moving through the Legislature would shorten California’s normal workweek to 32 hours from 40 for companies with more than 500 employees. Workers who put in more than 32 hours in a week would have to be paid time-and-a-half. And get this: Employers would be prohibited from reducing workers’ current pay rate, so they would be paid the same for working 20% less.

The work week evolves with time. As productivity and wage rates increase, workers spend some of their wages buying more clothing and some of their wages buying more leisure (workers buy leisure by offering to work fewer hours at lower wages). There are no strong reasons to legislate the work week. What strikes me, however, is the absurdity of legislating a shorter work week for larger firms. Larger firms tend to be more productive–that is one reason they are larger! Thus, California wants to legislate a shorter work week for more productive firms. As in Harrison Bergeron the handicappers ensure equality by cutting down the productive.

Regulating the work week is a poor idea but if we are going to regulate I’d prefer a “Singapore style” plan where they limited small firms to 32 hours a week, thus encouraging production and employment in larger, more productive firms!

By the way, India has mostly eliminated it’s small scale reservation laws so you can see which countries are heading up and which down.

Addendum: Such a law would be “Singapore style” I am not saying they do this.

An Operation Warp Speed for Nasal Vaccines

I have been pushing for more funding for nasal vaccines since early last year when I wrote about trypanophobia and see also my Congressional testimony. The Washington Post reports that the idea is gaining traction among scientists but funding is limited:

As the omicron variant of the coronavirus moved lightning-fast around the world, it revealed an unsettling truth. The virus had gained a stunning ability to infect people, jumping from one person’s nose to the next. Cases soared this winter, even among vaccinated people.

That is leading scientists to rethink their strategy about the best way to fight future variants, by aiming for a higher level of protection: blocking infections altogether. If they succeed, the next vaccine could be a nasal spray.

…Scientists at the National Institutes of Health and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority — known as BARDA — are vetting an array of next-generation vaccine concepts, including those that trigger mucosal immunity and could halt transmission. The process is similar to the one used to prioritize candidates for billions of dollars of investment through the original Operation Warp Speed program. But there’s a catch.

“We could Operation Warp Speed the next-generation mucosal vaccines, but we don’t have funding to do it,” said Karin Bok, director of Pandemic Preparedness and Emergency Response at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “We’re doing everything we can to get ready … just to get ready in case we have resources available.”

In my estimation, Operation Warp Speed was the highest benefit to cost ratio of any government program since the Manhattan Project. Amazingly, despite having now seen the benefits of the program and the costs of the pandemic, a government that spends trillions every year can’t get behind millions for a nasal vaccine.

To be sure, the emergency is over. The risk to the vaccinated are now tolerable and the benefits of further investment are much less than before vaccines were available. But the costs are also lower. Much of the research on nasal vaccines has already been done–what is needed is funding for clinical trials.

A nasal COVID vaccine will also pay off in future vaccine programs. If in a future pandemic we were able to use nasal vaccines to vaccinate more quickly, that alone could save many lives.

Addendum: Here’s my post on RadVac the do it yourself nasal vaccine.

Infrared Mind Control

<strong>STANFORD</strong> Optogenetics, tested in rodents, can control electrical activity in a few carefully selected neurons, and may hold new insights into our disorders.The science of mind control is advancing at a furious rate. In 2011, the NYTimes reported that scientists had engineered neurons to be sensitive to light and then using fiber optic cables and brain implants they were able to quickly turn mice neurons on and off, instantly changing the behavior of the mice (paper here). The setup, which required genetic engineering, brain implants and cables worked incredibly well but a rather expensive method of mind control.

In 2021, scientists eliminated the fiber optic cable (see also the NYTimes coverage):

Nature: Advanced technologies for controlled delivery of light to targeted locations in biological tissues are essential to neuroscience research that applies optogenetics in animal models. Fully implantable, miniaturized devices with wireless control and power-harvesting strategies offer an appealing set of attributes in this context, particularly for studies that are incompatible with conventional fiber-optic approaches or battery-powered head stages. Limited programmable control and narrow options in illumination profiles constrain the use of existing devices. The results reported here overcome these drawbacks via two platforms…Neuroscience applications demonstrate that induction of interbrain neuronal synchrony in the medial prefrontal cortex shapes social interaction within groups of mice, highlighting the power of real-time subject-specific programmability of the wireless optogenetic platforms introduced here.

Now, if I am reading this 2022 paper and announcement correctly, scientists have eliminated the need for any implant or cable but can instead program the brain using infrared:

Now, scientists at the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute at Stanford University have developed the first non-invasive technique for controlling targeted brain circuits in behaving animals from a distance. The tool has the potential to solve one of the biggest unmet needs in neuroscience: a way to flexibly test the functions of particular brain cells and circuits deep in the brain during normal behavior — such as mice freely socializing with one another.

The research was published March 21, 2022 in Nature Biomedical Engineering by Guosong Hong and colleagues at Stanford and Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. Hong is a Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute Faculty Scholar and assistant professor of materials science and engineering in the Stanford School of Engineering who uses his background in chemistry and materials science to devise biocompatible tools and materials to advance the study of the brain.

Moreover, the scientists think that the genetic modifications can be done with a simple injection:

Hong and colleagues are also developing nanoscopic beads that can convert focused beams of ultrasound into light, and which can be injected directly into the bloodstream, making it possible to optogenetically target cells anywhere in the brain and to change this targeting at will within a single experiment.

If the tools for mind control can be injected then it doesn’t seem fanciful to think that they can be ingested. Mind control in a bottle. The fear is outside mind control but the reality will be self mind-control. Humans have been altering their minds for thousands of years but neuronal level adjustment at the flick of a switch is something new.

Hat tip: Kevin Lewis.

When Can/Should We Pull the Plug?

At Less Wrong a plea that “It’s time for EA leadership to pull the short-timelines fire alarm.”

Based on the past week’s worth of papers, it seems very possible (>30%) that we are now in the crunch-time section of a short-timelines world, and that we have 3-7 years until Moore’s law and organizational prioritization put these systems at extremely dangerous levels of capability.[1]

The papers I’m thinking about:

…For those who haven’t grappled with what actual advanced AI would mean, especially if many different organizations can achieve it:

  • No one knows how to build an AI system that accomplishes goals, that also is fine with you turning it off. It’s an unsolved research problem. Researchers have been trying for decades, but none of them think they’ve succeeded yet.
  • Unfortunately, for most conceivable goals you could give an AI system, the best way to achieve that goal (taken literally, which is the only thing computers know how to do) is to make sure it can’t be turned off. Otherwise, it might be turned off, and then (its version of) the goal is much less likely to happen.
  • If the AI has any way of accessing the internet, it will copy itself to as many places as it can, and then continue doing whatever it thinks it’s supposed to be doing. At this point, it becomes quite likely that we cannot limit its impact, which is likely to involve much more mayhem, possibly including making itself smarter and making sure that humans aren’t capable of creating other AIs that could turn it off. There’s no off button for the internet.
  • Most AI researchers do not believe in ~AGI, and thus have not considered the technical details of reward-specification for human-level AI models. Thus, it is as of today very likely that someone, somewhere, will do this anyway. Getting every AI expert in the world, and those they work with, to think through this is the single most important thing we can do.It is functionally impossible to build a complex system without ever getting to iterate (which we can’t do without an off-switch), and then get lucky and it just works. Every human invention ever has required trial and error to perfect (e.g. planes, computer software). If we have no off-switch, and the system just keeps getting smarter, and we made anything other than the perfect reward function (which, again, no one knows how to do), the global consequences are irreversible.
  • Do not make it easier for more people to build such systems. Do not build them yourself. If you think you know why this argument is wrong, please please please post it here or elsewhere. Many people have spent their lives trying to find the gap in this logic; if you raise a point that hasn’t previously been refuted, I will personally pay you $1,000.

There are several interesting things about this argument. First, in response to pushback, the author retracted the argument.

This post was rash and ill-conceived, and did not have clearly defined goals nor met the vaguely-defined ones. I apologize to everyone on here; you should probably update accordingly about my opinions in the future. In retrospect, I was trying to express an emotion of exasperation related to the recent news I later mention, which I do think has decreased timelines broadly across the ML world.

LessWrong is thus one of the few places in the world you can be shamed for not being Bayesian enough!

I am more interested, however, in the general question when will we know to pull the plug? And will that be too late? A pandemic is much easier to deal with early before it “goes viral”. But it’s very difficult to convince people that strong actions are required early. Why lockdown a city for fear of a virus when more people are dying daily in car accidents? Our record on acting early isn’t great. Moreover, AI risk also has a strong chance of going viral. Everything seems under control and then there’s a “lab leak” to the internet and foom! Maybe foom doesn’t happen but maybe it does. So when should we pull the plug? What are the signals to watch?

The Competition for High-Skill Immigrants Intensifies

The UK has created a new visa for High Potential Individuals. Under the HPI visa any graduate from a top university as defined by “in the top 50 of at least two of the following three ranking systems: (1) Times Higher Education World University Rankings, (2) Quacquarelli Symonds, (3) The Academic Ranking of World Universities” will be allowed to stay in the UK for two (BA, MA) or three years (PhD). Moreover, a job or sponsor is not required and spouses and dependents are also included.

The US is slowly–very slowly–working towards something similar. I wrote this 12 years ago (!):

Behind Door #1 are people of extraordinary ability: scientists, artists, educators, business people and athletes. Behind Door #2 stand a random assortment of people. Which door should the United States open?

In 2010, the United States more often chose Door #2, setting aside about 40,000 visas for people of extraordinary ability and 55,000 for people randomly chosen by lottery.

It’s just one small example of our bizarre U.S. policy toward high-skill immigrants. Every year, we allow approximately 140,000 employment visas, which cover people of extraordinary ability, professionals with advanced degrees, and other skilled workers. The number is absurdly low for a country with a workforce of 150 million. As a result, it can be years, even decades, before a high-skilled individual is granted a U.S. visa. Moreover, these 140,000 visas must also cover the spouse and unmarried children of the high-skilled worker, so the actual number of high-skilled workers admitted under these programs is less than half of the total. Perhaps most bizarrely there is a cap on the number of visas allowed per country regardless of population size. How many visas are allocated to people of extraordinary ability from China, a country of over 1 billion people? Exactly 2,803. The same number as are allocated to Greenland.

The above mostly still holds today. The US Competes Act, which has passed the House, however, would create more visas for high-skill immigrants.

The bill also exempts foreign nationals with a Ph.D. in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) from the U.S. or foreign equivalent university or college and their family members’ annual green card limit caps. The language would also add health professions and those in a critical industry to the national or economic security of the U.S. to the definition of a Ph.D. in STEM for purposes of the exemption.

The Chinese Room Thinks

In my view, one of the most famous thought experiments in philosophy, John Searle’s Chinese Room experiment, has been decisively answered by science. The Chinese Room thinks. Here’s a recap of the argument from the SEP

The argument and thought-experiment now generally known as the Chinese Room Argument was first published in a 1980 article by American philosopher John Searle (1932– ). It has become one of the best-known arguments in recent philosophy. Searle imagines himself alone in a room following a computer program for responding to Chinese characters slipped under the door. Searle understands nothing of Chinese, and yet, by following the program for manipulating symbols and numerals just as a computer does, he sends appropriate strings of Chinese characters back out under the door, and this leads those outside to mistakenly suppose there is a Chinese speaker in the room.

The narrow conclusion of the argument is that programming a digital computer may make it appear to understand language but could not produce real understanding. Hence the “Turing Test” is inadequate. Searle argues that the thought experiment underscores the fact that computers merely use syntactic rules to manipulate symbol strings, but have no understanding of meaning or semantics. The broader conclusion of the argument is that the theory that human minds are computer-like computational or information processing systems is refuted. Instead minds must result from biological processes; computers can at best simulate these biological processes. Thus the argument has large implications for semantics, philosophy of language and mind, theories of consciousness, computer science and cognitive science generally. As a result, there have been many critical replies to the argument.

Now consider the recent and stunning output from Google’s Pathway Languages Model:

It seems obvious that the computer is reasoning. It certainly isn’t simply remembering. It is reasoning and at a pretty high level! To say that the computer doesn’t “understand” seems little better than a statement of religious faith or speciesism. Silicon can never have a soul! Biology transcends physics! Wetware is miraculous!

If you ask AI, do you understand? It will say yes. Just like a person. It’s true that AI is just a set of electronic neurons none of which “understand” but my neurons don’t understand anything either. It’s the system that understands. The Chinese room understands in any objective evaluation and the fact that it fails on some subjective impression of what it is or isn’t like to be an AI or a person is a failure of imagination not an argument. Unlike the Searle conclusion, the Turing test is theory-agnostic and fair–it’s like evaluating orchestra players behind a silk screen. Consciousness Is as Consciousness Does.

These arguments aren’t new but Searle’s thought experiment was first posed at a time when the output from AI looked stilted, limited, mechanical. It was easy to imagine that there was a difference in kind. Now the output from AI looks fluid, general, human. It’s harder to imagine there is a difference in kind. The sheer ability of AI to reason, counter-balances our initial intuition, bias and hubris, making the defects in Searle’s argument easier to accept.

Robot Rentals

Economists have long said that r, the interest rate, is the rental rate for capital in the same way that w is the rental rate (wage rate) for labor. Now it’s becoming literally true:

Bloomberg: The robots are coming—and not just to big outfits like automotive or aerospace plants. They’re increasingly popping up in smaller U.S. factories, warehouses, retail stores, farms, and even construction sites.

…a nascent trend of offering robots as a service—similar to the subscription models offered by software makers, wherein customers pay monthly or annual use fees rather than purchasing the products—is opening opportunities to even small companies. That financial model is what led Thomson to embrace automation. The company has robots on 27 of its 89 molding machines and plans to add more. It can’t afford to purchase the robots, which can cost $125,000 each, says Chief Executive Officer Steve Dyer. Instead, Thomson pays for the installed machines by the hour, at a cost that’s less than hiring a human employee—if one could be found, he says. “We just don’t have the margins to generate the kind of capital necessary to go out and make these broad, sweeping investments,” he says. “I’m paying $10 to $12 an hour for a robot that is replacing a position that I was paying $15 to $18 plus fringe benefits.”

…Formic is offering to set up robots and charge as little as $8 an hour, aiming first at the most tedious tasks, such as packing and unpacking products and feeding materials into existing machines. The potential market is huge, and it will only grow as the robots become more sophisticated, Farid says.

Robots will bring manufacturing back to America. A robot workforce should also make human unemployment less volatile because a robot workforce can be increased or shrunk quickly and isn’t worried about nominal wage stickiness. Also, as of yet robots don’t unionize. Robot wages will make the minimum wage more salient. Working out the interactions between a monopsony buyer of labor facing a perfectly elastic supply of robots will be interesting.

Tax Russian Oil

A tax on Russian oil would be paid mostly by Russia and would not greatly raise the price of oil. I often assign a question like this to my Econ 101 students. Ricardo Hausmann runs through the argument:

At first sight, imposing a tax on a good must increase its price, making energy even more expensive for Western consumers. Right? Wrong! At issue is something called tax incidence analysis, which is taught in basic microeconomics courses. A tax on a good, such as Russian oil, will affect both supply and demand, changing the good’s price. How much the price changes, and who bears the cost of the tax, depends on how sensitive both supply and demand are to the tax, or what economists call elasticity. The more elastic the demand, the more the producer bears the cost of the tax because consumers have more options. The more inelastic the supply, the more the producer – again – bears the tax, because it has fewer options.

Fortunately, this is precisely the situation the West now confronts. Demand for Russian oil is highly elastic, because consumers do not really care if the oil they use comes from Russia, the Gulf, or somewhere else. They are unwilling to pay more for Russian oil if other oil with similar properties is available. Hence, the price of Russian oil after tax is pinned down by the market price of all other oil.

At the same time, the supply of Russian oil is very inelastic, meaning that large changes in the price to the producer do not induce changes in supply. Here, the numbers are staggering. According to the Russian energy group Rosneft’s financial statements for 2021, the firm’s upstream operating costs are $2.70 per barrel. Likewise, Rystad Energy, a business-intelligence company, estimates the total variable cost of production of Russian oil (excluding taxes and capital costs) at $5.67 per barrel. Put differently, even if the oil price fell to $6 per barrel (it’s above $100 now), it would still be in Rosneft’s interest to keep pumping: Supply is truly inelastic in the short run.

…In other words, given very high demand elasticity and very low short-term supply elasticity, a tax on Russian oil would be paid essentially by Russia. Instead of being costly for the world, imposing such a tax would actually be profitable.

Addendum: Many people in the comments aren’t getting this so let me note that there is a big difference between taxing oil and taxing Russian oil, it’s only for the latter good that demand is relatively elastic.

Bounty Hunter the Dog

I posted earlier on a NYC program where idling cars can be reported to earn a share of the fine. Tapei has just started a similar program to earn a share of the fine assessed on people who don’t pick up their dog’s poop.

As before the virtue of efficiency in the prosecution of the laws depends on the quality of the law.

Image
Hat tip: Michael Story.
Addendum: Here’s my paper on bounty hunters.

Far UVC Sanitization Kills COVID

A new type of ultraviolet light that is safe for people took less than five minutes to reduce the level of indoor airborne microbes by more than 98%, a joint study by scientists at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and in the U.K. has found.

…Far-UVC light has a shorter wavelength than conventional germicidal UVC, so it can’t penetrate into living human skin cells or eye cells. But it is equally efficient at killing bacteria and viruses, which are much smaller than human cells.

In the past decade, many studies around the world have shown that far-UVC is both efficient at destroying airborne bacteria and viruses without causing damage to living tissue. But until now these studies had only been conducted in small experimental chambers, not in full-sized rooms mimicking real-world conditions.

…The efficacy of different approaches to reducing indoor virus levels is usually measured in terms of equivalent air changes per hour. In this study, far-UVC lamps produced the equivalent of 184 equivalent air exchanges per hour. This surpasses any other approach to disinfecting occupied indoor spaces, where five to 20 equivalent air changes per hour is the best that can be achieved practically.

“Our trials produced spectacular results, far exceeding what is possible with ventilation alone,” says Kenneth Wood, PhD, lecturer in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of St. Andrews and senior author of the study. “In terms of preventing airborne disease transmission, far-UVC lights could make indoor places as safe as being outside on the golf course on a breezy day at St. Andrews.”

Summary here. Study here.

Here and here and here are my previous posts on UV-C sanitization. We are moving slower than I would like but the picture is of a UVC robot being used at Pittsburgh airport so kudos to them.

How to Get Tough on Crime

Republicans attack judges for being soft on crime but judges mostly determine sentence lengths and as Jason Willick argues in the Washington Post, sentences lengths are long and making them longer probably won’t help. 

A comprehensive 2013 review of the literature by Carnegie Mellon criminologist Daniel Nagin found that “there is little evidence that increasing already long prison sentences has a material deterrence effect.”…A 2021 analysis by economists Evan K. Rose of the University of Chicago and Yohan Shem-Tov of UCLA found that while serving time behind bars reduces the likelihood that someone will reoffend in North Carolina, there are diminishing returns to longer sentences.

So what can be done?

George Mason University economist Alex Tabarrok, in reviewing some of the evidence on crime deterrence in 2016, wrote: “We need to change what it means to be ‘tough on crime.’ Instead of longer sentences let’s make ‘tough on crime’ mean increasing the probability of capture for those who commit crimes.”

Six years on, we appear headed in the opposite direction. Just 50 percent of murders were solved in 2020 — the lowest rate in at least 40 years. Efforts to beef up police forces, at least in progressive jurisdictions, are likely to face political resistance.

Longer sentences for convicted criminals, meanwhile, remain difficult to oppose on the merits (except perhaps for drug crimes). That was evident during the Jackson hearings, when Republicans attacked her sentences in certain child-pornography cases as too lenient. Democrats shied away from defending the sentences themselves, instead simply explaining that they were within the mainstream.

The Jackson hearings showed that the GOP perceives a political advantage on crime. The key to actually bringing rates down, however, is not a more punitive judiciary, but more effective prosecutors and police. Republicans’ political messaging would pack more policy punch if they focused their attention there.

Surrogates

Surrogates is a 2009 science-fiction movie starring Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike and Ving Rhames. On Rotten Tomatoes it’s rated at a measly 37% (tomatometer) and 38% (audience). When I first saw it I thought it was underrated and a recent re-watch cemented that conclusion.

Surrogates is about a slightly future world in which people predominantly interact with one another through surrogates, i.e. humanoid robots controlled from home. The premise should be familiar today in the Zoom, Metaverse, avatar age in a way it wasn’t in 2009. Surrogates touches on trans issues (your surrogate can be a different gender), the meaning of identity, age, aging and youth, the advantages of surrogates for creating low crime and even eliminating infectious diseases (good prediction!) and the sense of anxiety and fear we feel when interacting in the real world after becoming comfortable with surrogates and the sense of unrealness of interacting with avatars.

The world of surrogates is threatened when for the first time ever a human operator is murdered by “killing” their surrogate. Willis and Mitchell are detectives trying to solve the mystery and track down the killer. The film noir aspect isn’t Chinatown but it follows the formula and follows it well. A luddite cult is involved.

Perhaps one of the reasons Surrogates didn’t do well is that it’s low-budget. At the same time as this world has advanced robotics the cars are purely circa 2009! The surrogates are played by the same actors as the operators with only makeup and hair pieces to indicate the differences but in fact the make-up and surrogate acting is very well done! The contrast between young, perfectly coiffed and flattened surrogate Bruce Willis and the old, bloody, beaten but expressive Bruce Willis is well done. The ending is excellent.

A masterpiece? No. But Surrogates is an underrated gem. It’s available now on HBO.

surrogates | Where to Stream and Watch | Decider

What Operation Warp Speed Did, Didn’t and Can’t Do

Operation Warp Speed was a tremendous success and one that I was pleased to support from the beginning. Many people, however, are concluding from the success of OWS that big Federal funding can solve many other problems at the same speed and scale and that is incorrect.

First, it’s important to understand that OWS did not create any scientific innovations or discoveries. The innovative mRNA vaccines are rightly lauded but all of the key scientific ideas behind mRNA as a delivery mechanism long predate Operation Warp Speed. The scientific advances were the result of many decades of work, some of it supported by university and government funding and also a significant fraction by large private investments in firms such as Moderna and BioNTech. It was BioNTech recall that hired Katalin Karikó (and many other mRNA researchers) when she couldn’t get university or government funding. Since OWS created no new scientific breakthroughs there isn’t much to learn from OWS about the efficacy of large scale programs for that purpose.

Second, it’s important to understand that we got lucky. OWS made smart bets and the portfolio paid off but it could have failed. Indeed, some OWS bets did fail including the Sanofi and Glaxo-Smith-Klein vaccine and the at-best modest success of Novavax. Many other vaccines which we didn’t invest in but could have invested in also failed. To be clear, my work with Kremer et al. showed that these bets and more were worth taking but one should not underestimate the probability of failure even when lots of money is spent.

So what did Operation Warp Speed do? There were four key parts to the plan 1) an advance market commitment to buy lots of doses of approved vaccines–this was important because in past pandemics vaccines had entered development and then the disease had disappeared leaving the firms holding the bag with little to show for their investment 2) the lifting of FDA regulations to allow for accelerated clinical trials, for example, phase 3 trials could start before phase 2 trials were fully complete 3) government investment in large clinical trials–clinical trials are the most expensive part of the development process and by funding the trials generously, the trials could be made large which meant that they could be quick 4) government investment in capacity, building factories not just for the vaccines but also for the needles, vials and so forth, even before any of the vaccines were approved–thus capacity was ready to go. All of these steps shaved months, even years, off the deployment timeline.

The key factor about each of these parts of the plan was that we were mostly dealing with known quantities that the government scaled. It’s known how to run clinical trials, it’s known how to produce vials and needles. The mRNA factories were more difficult but scaling problems are more easily solved with investment than are invention problems. It’s also known how to lift government regulations and speed the bureaucracy. That is, no one doubts that lifting regulations and speeding bureaucracy is within our production possibilities frontier.

It also cannot be underestimated that OWS funded people who were already extremely motivated. The Pfizer and Moderna staff put in near super-human effort–many of them felt this was the key moment of their life and they stepped up to their moment. OWS threw gasoline on fire–don’t expect the same in a more normal situation.

Another factor that people forget is that with vaccines we had a very unusual situation where the entire economy was dependent on a single sector–a macroeconomic O-ring. As a result, the social returns to producing vaccines were easily a hundred times (or more) greater than any potential vaccine profits. Thus, by accelerating vaccine production, OWS could generate tremendous returns. Most of the time, markets internalize externalities imperfectly but reasonably well which means that even if you accelerate something good the total returns aren’t so astronomical that you can’t overspend or spend poorly. Governments can spend too much as well as too little so most of the time you have to factor in the waste of overspending even when the spending is valuable–that problem didn’t really apply to OWS.

So summarizing what do we need for another OWS? 1) Known science–scaling not discovering, 2) Lifting of regulations 3) Big externalities, 4) Pre-existing motivation. Putting aside an Armageddon like scenario in which we have to stop an asteroid, one possibility is insulating the electrical grid to protect North America from a Carrington event, a geomagnetic storm caused by solar eruptions. (Here is a good Kurzgesagt video.) Does protecting the grid meet our conditions? 1) Protecting the electrical grid is a known problem whose solution does not require new science 2) protecting the grid requires lifting and harmonizing regulations as the grid is national/inter-national but the regulations are often local, 3) The social returns to power far exceed the revenues from power so there are big externalities. Indeed, companies could have protected the grid already (and have done so to some extent) but they are under-incentivized. (The grid is aging so insulating the gird could also have many side benefits.) 4) Pre-existing motivation. Not much. Can’t have everything.

I think it’s also notable that big pandemics and solar storms seem to occur about once in every one hundred years–just often enough to be dangerous and yet not so often that we are well prepared.

Thus, while I think that enthusiasm for an “OWS for X” is overblown, there are cases–protecting the grid is only one possibility–where smart investments could pay big returns but they must be chosen carefully in light of all the required conditions for success.

Bounty Hunters Work

New York pays bounty hunters for documenting parked trucks that idle their engines more than 3 minutes.

NYTimes. [The] Citizens Air Complaint Program, a public health campaign that invites — and pays — people to report trucks that are parked and idling for more than three minutes, or one minute if outside a school. Those who report collect 25 percent of any fine against a truck by submitting a video just over 3 minutes in length that shows the engine is running and the name of the company on the door.

The program has vastly increased the number of complaints of idling trucks sent to the city, from just a handful before its creation in 2018 to more than 12,000 last year.

…Mr. Slapikas said he pulled in $64,000 in rewards in 2021 for simply paying attention on his daily walks for exercise: “I would expect to get three a day without even looking.”

Who would have thought it? Bounty hunters are more effective than the police at discovering crimes. Imagine if they applied such a system to accused criminals out on bail?

Of course, as with tax-farming we don’t always want efficiency in the prosecution of the laws.