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.

Hong Kong and Shenzhen

I was asked by the NYTimes to comment on the lockdown of Shenzhen. This is what I said:

Shenzhen is China’s Silicon Valley so shutting it down will raise the cost of exporting electronics. Why would China shut down a vital export region? Next door is Hong Kong with currently the highest daily death rates from COVID ever reported. China’s population is highly vaccinated but with what may be less effective domestic vaccines and there are still millions of elderly people who are unvaccinated. China remains in a precarious position.

You can see why China is worried in these two pictures of daily deaths (left) and cumulative deaths (right) per million people in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is likely to exceed Canada’s death rate per capita before this is over, despite having had much lower rates for the previous two years. China is more vaccinated than Hong Kong. By some reports only 37% of the over-80s were vaccinated in Hong Kong while the rate is over 50% in China but still that leaves many very elderly unvaccinated. By the way, I have been somewhat skeptical about the three C’s story for Japan’s success but Japan has now gotten 95% of their over-80s vaccinated so Japan is in good shape regardless.

Shut-ins

Millions of people continue to curtail work and social activities for fear of COVID and they apparently have no plans to change their behavior.

NYTimes: Throughout the pandemic, many people in the United States desperately hoped for an end to mask wearing, isolation from friends and co-workers, and six feet of social distance. Others not so much.

In fact, new research suggests, millions have no intention of ending some pandemic behaviors even if the threat from the coronavirus and its variants were to fully subside.

Roughly 13 percent of people in the study reported that they did not intend to change their protective behaviors, like avoiding elevators, mass transit and eating indoors at restaurants.

As Nick Bloom, one of the researchers, puts it this is long social distancing a psychological version of long COVID.

The original research from Jose Maria Barrero, Nicholas Bloom & Steven J. Davis is here.

Letters of Marque and Reprisal

Brooking, Charles; Commodore Walker’s Action: The Privateer ‘Boscawen’ Engaging a Fleet of French Ships, 23 May 1745; National Maritime Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/commodore-walkers-action-the-privateer-boscawen-engaging-a-fleet-of-french-ships-23-may-1745-173089

Representative Lance Gooden (R, TX) introduced a bill to authorize the President of the United States to issue letters of marque and reprisal against certain Russians.

Writing Matters

We estimate the causal effect of writing quality by comparing how experts judge the quality of 30 papers originally written by PhD students in economics. We had two versions of each paper: one original and one that had been languageedited. The language editing was done by two professional editors, who aimed to make the papers easier to read and understand. We then asked 18 writing experts and 30 economists to judge some of the original and edited papers. Each of these experts judged five papers in their original versions and five papers in their edited version, spending around 5 minutes per paper. None of the experts saw both versions of the same paper. None of the experts knew that some of the papers were edited. The writing experts judged the writing quality and the economists judged the academic quality of the papers. All economists in our sample have PhDs in economics and their academic positions range from postdoc to full professor; four of them are editors of academic journals; and all of them are regularly involved in judging the quality of academic papers as referees or members of conference committees. We estimate the effect of language editing on perceived writing quality and perceived academic paper quality by comparing the average judgement of original and edited papers.

Our results show that writing matters. Writing experts judged the edited papers as 0.6 standard deviations (SD) better written overall (1.22 points on an 11point scale). They further judged the languageedited papers as allowing the reader to find the key message more easily (0.58 SD), having fewer mistakes (0.67 SD), being easier to read (0.53 SD), and being more concise (0.50 SD). These large improvements in writing quality translated into still substantial effects on economists’ evaluations. Economists evaluated the edited versions as being 0.2 SD better overall (0.4 points on an 11point scale). They were also 8.4 percentage points more likely to accept the paper for a conference, and were 4.1 percentage points more likely to believe that the paper would get published in a good economics journal. Our heterogeneity
analysis shows that the effects of language editing on writing quality and perceived academic quality are particularly large if the original versions were poorly written.

From a very well written paper by Jan Feld, Corinna Lines and Libby Ross.

US Pandemic Policy: Failures, Successes, and Lessons

My talk at Bowling Green State University on US Pandemic Policy: Failures, Successes, and Lessons

This was not a black swan event. This was an entirely predicted and predictable event. We knew it was going to happen….And yet, we weren’t ready.

I am told that my talk made many people angry (not at me, natch).

Kotkin on Russia and the West

A great interview with historian Stephen Kotkin. Kotkin has some some thoughts on the Kennan, Mearsheimer, Kissinger, Hill, Service et al. view that expanding NATO was a precipitating event in the Ukraine-Russia war which are well taken, albeit he fails to think on the margin. Much more important is his full throated defense of the West. Just a few months ago a defense like this would have been branded as right-wing agitprop and the author attacked for not being woke to the evils of capitalism. But Putin has reminded the West of its virtues.

How do you define “the West”?

The West is a series of institutions and values. The West is not a geographical place. Russia is European, but not Western. Japan is Western, but not European. “Western” means rule of law, democracy, private property, open markets, respect for the individual, diversity, pluralism of opinion, and all the other freedoms that we enjoy, which we sometimes take for granted. We sometimes forget where they came from. But that’s what the West is.

And yet, as corrupt as China is, they’ve lifted tens of millions of people out of extreme poverty. Education levels are rising. The Chinese leaders credit themselves with enormous achievements.

Who did that? Did the Chinese regime do that? Or Chinese society? Let’s be careful not to allow the Chinese Communists to expropriate, as it were, the hard labor, the entrepreneurialism, the dynamism of millions and millions of people in that society.

On a kind of natural resource curse:

…in Russia, wealth comes right up out of the ground! The problem for authoritarian regimes is not economic growth. The problem is how to pay the patronage for their élites, how to keep the élites loyal, especially the security services and the upper levels of the officer corps. If money just gushes out of the ground in the form of hydrocarbons or diamonds or other minerals, the oppressors can emancipate themselves from the oppressed. The oppressors can say, we don’t need you. We don’t need your taxes. We don’t need you to vote. We don’t rely on you for anything, because we have oil and gas, palladium and titanium.

On why the stupid get on top:

You have to remember that these regimes practice something called “negative selection.” [In a democracy, AT] You’re going to promote people to be editors, and you’re going to hire writers, because they’re talented; you’re not afraid if they’re geniuses. But, in an authoritarian regime, that’s not what they do. They hire people who are a little bit, as they say in Russian, tupoi, not very bright. They hire them precisely because they won’t be too competent, too clever, to organize a coup against them. Putin surrounds himself with people who are maybe not the sharpest tools in the drawer on purpose.

That does two things. It enables him to feel more secure, through all his paranoia, that they’re not clever enough to take him down. But it also diminishes the power of the Russian state because you have a construction foreman who’s the defense minister [Sergei Shoigu], and he was feeding Putin all sorts of nonsense about what they were going to do in Ukraine. Negative selection does protect the leader, but it also undermines his regime.

On the importance of error correction:

…Finally, you’ve given credit to the Biden Administration for reading out its intelligence about the coming invasion, for sanctions, and for a kind of mature response to what’s happening. What have they gotten wrong?

They’ve done much better than we anticipated based upon what we saw in Afghanistan and the botched run-up on the deal to sell nuclear submarines to the Australians. They’ve learned from their mistakes. That’s the thing about the United States. We have corrective mechanisms. We can learn from our mistakes. We have a political system that punishes mistakes. We have strong institutions. We have a powerful society, a powerful and free media. Administrations that perform badly can learn and get better, which is not the case in Russia or in China. It’s an advantage that we can’t forget.

And most importantly, we need to blaze a path to de-escalation.

The problem now is not that the Biden Administration made mistakes; it’s that it’s hard to figure out how to de-escalate, how to get out of the spiral of mutual maximalism. We keep raising the stakes with more and more sanctions and cancellations. There is pressure on our side to “do something” because the Ukrainians are dying every day while we are sitting on the sidelines, militarily, in some ways. (Although, as I said, we’re supplying them with arms, and we’re doing a lot in cyber.) The pressure is on to be maximalist on our side, but, the more you corner them, the more there’s nothing to lose for Putin, the more he can raise the stakes, unfortunately. He has many tools that he hasn’t used that can hurt us. We need a de-escalation from the maximalist spiral, and we need a little bit of luck and good fortune, perhaps in Moscow, perhaps in Helsinki or Jerusalem, perhaps in Beijing, but certainly in Kyiv.

A great interview. Read the whole thing.

The Sheriff of Transnistria

You will probably start to hear a lot more about Transnistria in the near future. Transnistria sits in between Moldova and Ukraine and was formed in the 1990s as a pro-Soviet breakway state from Moldova. After a brief civil war it is now governed independently and its security is overseen by “a three-party (Russia, Moldova, Transnistria) Joint Control Commission that supervises the security arrangements in the demilitarised zone, comprising 20 localities on both sides of the river.”

Wikipedia: Although the ceasefire has held, the territory’s political status remains unresolved: Transnistria is an unrecognised but de facto independent semi-presidential republic with its own government, parliament, military, police, postal system, currency, and vehicle registration.[16][17][18][19] Its authorities have adopted a constitution, flag, national anthem, and coat of arms. After a 2005 agreement between Moldova and Ukraine, all Transnistrian companies that seek to export goods through the Ukrainian border must be registered with the Moldovan authorities.[20] This agreement was implemented after the European Union Border Assistance Mission to Moldova and Ukraine (EUBAM) took force in 2005.[21] Most Transnistrians have Moldovan citizenship,[22] but many also have Russian, Romanian, or Ukrainian citizenship.[23][24] The main ethnic groups are Russians, Moldovans, and Ukrainians.

Now here is where it gets weird.

Wikipedia: Sheriff (Russian: Шериф) is the second-largest[citation needed] company in the unrecognised breakaway state Transnistria. It is based in the city of Tiraspol. Formed in the early 1990s by Viktor Gușan and Ilya Kazmaly, former members of the special services, Sheriff has grown to include nearly all forms of profitable private business in the unrecognised country, and has even become significantly involved in local politics and sport,[2] with some commentators saying that company loyalists hold most main government positions in the territory.

…Sheriff owns a chain of petrol stations, a chain of supermarkets, a TV channel, a publishing house, a construction company, a Mercedes-Benz dealer, an advertising agency, a spirits factory, two bread factories, a mobile phone network, the football club FC Sheriff Tiraspol and its home ground Sheriff Stadium, a project which also included a five-star hotel.

And consider the following from 2021:

New Moldovan President Maia Sandu has said she wants her country to join the European Union and demanded Russian troops leave Transnistria.

But the breakaway statelet still affirms its allegiance to Moscow.

In Tiraspol, a billboard reads “Russia in our hearts,” while a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin hangs on a wall in Krasnoselsky’s offices.

Hat tip: The deputy, Kevin Lewis.

The US Government is Digging in the Couch to Find Change to Buy Drugs

The richest government the world has ever known is having trouble finding the money to buy Paxlovid, a critical medical treatment for COVID.

STAT: The White House has held off on buying millions of courses of Pfizer’s highly effective antiviral drug that the White House already committed to buy due to budget constraints, according to public contract disclosures and the Department of Defense, which issues the contracts.

In January, the White House announced that it was doubling its order of Pfizer’s antiviral, named Paxlovid, committing to buy an extra 10 million courses. But according to public contracts, the White House has only actually contracted for 835,000 of those courses to date.

“Contract options will be exercised when funding becomes available,” Department of Defense spokesperson Jessica Maxwell said in a statement to STAT.

The problem isn’t lack of money per se but rules and regulations designed to create “transparency” and avoid “corruption” and the resulting bureaucracy and vote players. Another example of the Mancur Olson problems Ezra Klein and I discussed and an example of how declining trust leads to rule complexity.

Here’s another telling example. Operation Warp Speed was perhaps the most successful government program in more than a half century but it was funded only because the Trump administration and then the Biden administration finagled the rules, almost certainly breaking some laws in the process. But that is sometimes the only way to get things done today, especially at speed.

Both administrations funneled far more money than Congress allocated to Operation Warp Speed, in particular, and to its successor efforts to buy vaccines and therapeutics.

Nearly 10% of the funding Congress set aside to support hospitals and health care providers, or $17 billion, was funneled to buy vaccines and therapeutics, as STAT first reported. Other funding for Operation Warp Speed was taken from money designated for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Strategic National Stockpile, as Bloomberg reported. An additional $5 billion came from a fund for Covid-19 testing efforts, according to a document obtained by STAT.

The difficulty of finding funds in an emergency is one reason I have suggested a pandemic or emergency trust fund. Even though it would only represent nominal savings it would nevertheless matter because it could be accessed quickly.

I Booked an Airbnb in Kyiv

I booked 5 nights at an Airbnb in Irpin, a heavily bombed city near Kyiv.

I’m not going. (And I told the host I wasn’t going).

The host replied:

Любі друзі дякуємо за допомогу. На ці гроші ми зможело допомогти сімьям які залишились без будинків. Дякуємо

Dear friends, thank you for your help. With this money we were able to help families left homeless. Thank you

It’s a very strange world in which you can book an apartment in a bombed city thousands of miles away.

Would this form of charity pass the Givewell test? Probably not. Still I am glad to have done it. Not to make light of the situation, but the look on my wife’s face when I told her I had booked an Airbnb in Kyiv was priceless.

What is the Probability of a Nuclear War, Redux

Reupping this post from 2019. No indent.

I agree with Tyler who wrote recently that “the risk of nuclear war remains the world’s No. 1 problem, even if that risk does not seem so pressing on any particular day.”

The probability of a nuclear war is inherently difficult to predict but what strikes me in this careful survey by Luisa Rodriguez for the Effective Altruism Forum is how much higher all the expert predictions and model forecasts are compared to what we would like them to be. Keep in mind that the following are annualized probabilities. For a child born today (say 75 year life expectancy) these probabilities (.0117) suggest that the chance of a nuclear war in their lifetime is nearly 60%, (1-(1-.0117)^75). At an annualized probability of .009 which is the probability from accident analysis it’s approximately 50%. See Rodriguez and also Shlosser’s Command and Control on the frightening number of near misses including one nuclear weapon dropped on North Carolina.

These lifetime numbers don’t strike me as crazy, just crazy high. Here is Rodriguez summarizing:

If we aggregate historical evidence, the views of experts and predictions made by forecasters, we can start to get a rough picture of how probable a nuclear war might be.[8] We shouldn’t put too much weight on these estimates, as each of the data points feeding into those estimates come with serious limitations. But based on the evidence presented above, we might think that there’s about a 1.17% chance of nuclear war each year and that the chances of a US-Russia nuclear war may be in the ballpark of 0.39% per year.

Addendum: A number of people in the comments mention that the probabilities are not independent. Of course, but that doesn’t make the total probability calculation smaller, it could be larger.

The GEZ: A Digital Special Zone

The Catawba are a federally recognized tribe of Native Americans with land in South Carolina, near the city of Rock Hill. The Catawba nation has just voted to establish a new digital special economic zone, the Green Earth Zone (GEZ), which aims to specialize in fintech and cryptocurrency.

…The GEZ can be prosperous thanks to the ability of Native-American Tribes under US law to have their own commercial code, regulation-making and administrative capacities.

…Using a model similar to Estonia’s eResidency, after completing the ‘know your customer’ (KYC) requirements, anyone in the world will be able to set up an eCorporation online in the GEZ, and take advantage of policies and regulations that allow them to safely manage their digital assets, raise investment capital and offer digital-banking services. eCorporations are legal corporations, permitted to conduct business virtually from the GEZ, and can open bank accounts within the United States. GEZ eCorporations are ideal for online companies, software developers, remote workers, banking and finance, insurance and firms involved in the creation, sale or management of digital assets.

This is a very interesting development for crypto which needs some legibility and rational rule making that the SEC is not providing.