Why Does the CDC Do This?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday advised Americans to avoid travel to Canada, citing “very high” levels of the coronavirus.

Canada was placed under a Level 4 travel health notice — the highest category…“Because of the current situation in Canada, even fully vaccinated travelers may be at risk for getting and spreading Covid-19 variants,” the C.D.C. said.

It’s very strange. It’s as if the CDC are on auto pilot and even after two years can’t recognize that the United States may not be the safest place in the world. But why announce to everyone that they can’t compare risks? Why throw away so much credibility?

Where are the Variant Specific Boosters?

I wasn’t shocked at the failures of the CDC and the FDA. I am shocked that our government still can’t get its act together in the third year of the pandemic. Consider how lucky, yes lucky, we have been. Here’s Eric Topol:

…the original vaccines were targeted to the Wuhan ancestral strain’s spike protein from 2019. The spike protein, no less the rest of the original SARS-CoV-2 structure, is almost unrecognizable now in the form of the Omicron strain (see antigenic drift from prior post). While there’s naturally been much focus on the extraordinary number of mutations in the receptor binding domain and the rest of the spike protein, over 50 mutations are spread out throughout Omicron, making the prior major variants of concern (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta) lightweights with respect to changes in structure that are not just linear or uni-dimensional. Each mutation can interact with others (epistasis); any mutation or combination of mutations has the potential to change the 3D structure of the virus. In this sense, Omicron is an overwhelming reboot of the ancestral strain.

Omicron is very different from the Wuhan ancestral strain and it’s only a matter of luck that the vaccines continue to work and that Omicron is likely less severe than Delta. Don’t tell me that viruses evolve to be less severe over time–that isn’t correct in theory or practice. The most one might say is that a very deadly virus may be difficult to transmit but that only closes off a small part of the evolutionary design-space. There is plenty of room for transmission and lethality to both increase. So the vaccines continue to work well. We got lucky. But for how long will our luck last? Do we really have to wait for a more transmissible, more deadly, more vaccine escaping variant before we act?

Where are the variant-specific boosters? The FDA has said they would approve them quickly, without new efficacy trials so I don’t think the problem is primarily regulatory. Why not catch-up to the virus and maybe even get a jump ahead with pan-coronavirus vaccines?

More generally, in our February 2021 paper in Science my co-authors and I argued that we were still leaving trillion dollar bills on the sidewalk by not investing in more vaccine capacity. I am sorry to say that we were right. Why the failure to invest more broadly?

Mostly I blame American lethargy. After 9/11 the country was angry and united and we had troops in Afghanistan within a matter of weeks and we had taken over the country in a matter of months. For better or worse, we acted quickly and with resolve. Yet, when the virus was killing at 9/11 levels every day the public never reached the same level of anger or resolve. Even now Congress has spent trillions on unemployment insurance, business protection, money for schools and stimulus but has not passed the American Pandemic Preparedness Plan, a pretty decent, mostly science-based investment plan.

80,000 hours ranks research and investment against Global Catastrophic Biologic Risk (GCBR) as among the most pressing and yet tractable problems to work on and yet they estimate that quality-adjusted only about a billion dollars is being spent on these risks. Moreover, COVID doesn’t even count as a GCBR, i.e. 80000 hours at least recognizes that things could be much worse.

I understand that future people don’t vote but even so I expected a little bit more foresight.

Debate: The Ethics of Tuberculosis Challenge Trials

On Wed. Jan 12 there will be a live online debate on the bioethics question, If wild type tuberculosis challenge studies would be useful, would they be ethical to conduct? The debate will feature debaters from the The Rikers Debate Project:

  • Jerusalem Demsas, Policy Writer at Vox.com
  • Kaamilya Finley, Senior One Team Ambassador, Deloitte & Rikers Debate Project Fellow
  • Charles Hopkins, President, National Action Network – PG County, Maryland & Rikers Debate Project Fellow
  • Brian Patrick, Activist, Artist, & Rikers Debate Project Fellow

and will be judged by a panel of experts, policy makers and interested parties including myself:

  • Gabriel Bankman-Fried, Director, Guarding Against Pandemics
  • Camilla Broderick, Community Navigator for Midtown Community Court & Rikers Debate Project Fellow
  • Ann M. Ginsberg, Deputy Director, TB Vaccines Global Health
  • Phil Krause, Former Deputy Director, FDA/CBER/OVRR
  • Jake Liang, Chief of Liver Diseases Branch & Deputy Director of Translational Research, NIDDK, NIH
  • Larissa MacFarquhar, Staff Writer, The New Yorker
  • Matt Memoli, Director, Clinical Studies Unit, IRP’s Laboratory of Infectious Disease, NIAID
  • Jerry Sadoff, Head of Early Development, Crucell Vaccine Institute, Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson
  • Alex Tabarrok, Professor of Economics, George Mason University
  • Nikki Teran, Senior Biosecurity Fellow, The Institute for Progress
  • Matthew Yglesias, Founder, Slow Boring

Should be fun. Admission is free and you can register for attendance here.

Elite Capture of Foreign Aid

Not surprising but not good and not good for support for foreign aid. Still we report it all at MR.

Do elites capture foreign aid? This paper documents that aid disbursements to highly aid-dependent countries coincide with sharp increases in bank deposits in offshore financial centers known for bank secrecy and private wealth management but not in other financial centers. The estimates are not confounded by contemporaneous shocks—such as civil conflicts, natural disasters, and financial crises—and are robust to instrumenting using predetermined aid commitments. The implied leakage rate is around 7.5% at the sample mean and tends to increase with the ratio of aid to GDP. The findings are consistent with aid capture in the most aid-dependent countries.

Jørgen Juel Andersen, Niels Johannesen and Bob Rijkers, forthcoming in the JPE.

On the Responsibility of Universities to their Students

Emily Oster in The Atlantic:

Many universities have announced a pivot to remote learning for at least part of January, among them UCLA, Columbia, Duke, Yale, Stanford, and Michigan State. The list goes on.

This move—in response to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant—feels like a return to March 2020, when virtually all U.S. universities closed for in-person learning, sending students home for spring break and telling them not to come back. At that point, keeping students away from campus was reasonable. Now, however, this decision is a mistake. It reflects an outmoded level of caution. And it represents a failure of universities to protect their students’ interests.

I agree. Despite being a big fan of online education there is a big difference between online classes developed over many years with substantial funding, like MRU’s classes, and throwing professors into teaching over zoom. College is supposed to be fun. Meeting people is part of the education. Online is great but not for everything.

I would add three points to the those that Oster makes. First, this is where the students are anyway. I gave a talk at UVA recently and everyone was masked according to policy. After the the talk we went to the Corner where the bars and restaurants were packed with unmasked revelers. Mask mandates are pandemic theatre and inconsistent with how much of the country let alone most students are already living. Similarly, going remote is also pandemic theatre and not likely to appreciably reduce interactions in the community at-large.

Second, the elasticity of substitution. It made sense to change behavior substantially when the vaccines were coming. But the vaccines have been here for some time, they are great, they work. So get vaccinated, be thankful, and get back to life.

Finally these arguments apply with at least as much strength if not more to the public schools. Furthermore, we have spent billions of dollars on pandemic preparations for the public schools. Why did we spend that money if not to open the schools?


Does Pot Contribute to GDP?

As Tyler and I explain in our textbook, GDP is the market value of all finished goods and services produced within a country in a year. Sounds simple but there are always edge cases including whether or not illegal goods should count towards GDP. According to the definition, illegal goods should count towards GDP. But in practice they often don’t. In part because some people think that counting illegal goods would signal approval (or that not counting them signals disapproval) but also because it’s hard to count the market value of illegal goods. Do we really expect the BEA to survey drug dealers and prostitutes about the price of their goods and services?

But what happens when an illegal good is legalized? The market value of any finished legal good should definitely count towards GDP but just adding it to GDP on the day of legalization causes problems. Did the economy boom the day pot was legalized? Did the recession end that day? Did we all become wealthier? Some countries shrug and just add footnotes.

In 1987, Italy, whose citizens are famous scofflaws when it comes to reporting income and paying taxes, announced that it was adjusting GDP upward by about a fifth to reflect the underground—but not necessarily illegal—economy. Overnight, Italy became the fifth-largest economy in the world, surpassing the United Kingdom. National euphoria ensued. Italians dubbed it “il sorpasso,” the overtaking.

But when Canada legalized pot in 2018, Statistics Canada decided not just to add pot to GDP but to backdate all their previous GDP statistics to create a consistent series. The Walrus has the interesting story.

The teams had to invent codes to capture classifications for new line items. Among them: 71.0105, in the classification of instructional programs for cannabis culinary arts and cannabis-chef training, and 71.0110, for cannabis-selling skills and sales operations.

…Apart from hammering out semantic protocols, StatCan faced two central hurdles in determining how to count cannabis: How much do Canadians use? And what does it cost? But the economists at StatCan wanted to calculate those numbers not just for the final quarter of 2018, when cannabis became legal, but for every year back to 1961, which is as far back as the national accounts go, at least in their current form.

…So the cannabis team dug back through decades of surveys on drug use, addiction rates, law enforcement, and health data to figure out how much cannabis Canadians were consuming back in the day. It started small, with as little as twenty-four tonnes a year in the early 1960s. By 2015, it was close to 700 tonnes. Until the 1990s, when the US war on drugs ramped up, a lot of that came from abroad. Now, we’re a major exporter.

Still, StatCan craved more detail. So, in 2018, analysts hooked up with researchers at McGill University’s department of chemical engineering for a year-long scrutiny of wastewater in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Edmonton, and Vancouver. (Halifax clocked in with the highest cannabis load per capita and roughly triple the usage of Vancouverites. Go figure.) That pilot project has now been suspended for lack of money, says Barber-Dueck.

The latest figures show that more than 2 million Canadians use cannabis at least once a week, and more than a third of those use it every day. But what have they been paying? Barber-Dueck says that the team ploughed into historical databases of weed prices, talked to law enforcement officers, and canvassed longtime illegal growers, mining their memories. British Columbians were especially forthcoming. “People are pretty open about it and have been for years,” Barber-Dueck says.

As the legalization date approached, the team created the crowd-sourcing app StatsCannabis, complete with a cannabis logo. “Statistics Canada needs your help collecting cannabis prices,” the app pleads, adding, “Your data is protected!”

The technique had its drawbacks, Peluso notes. Heavy users of cannabis are the most frequent participants in the surveys by default. But they’re also filling out the survey right after they’ve made a purchase. “When you survey heavy users of a psychotropic substance, the error band is always a little bit bigger. You’re picking up people whose—How shall I put it?—whose awareness might be slightly compromised.”

So does pot contribute to GDP? It does in Canada but not in the United States!

Neither Canada nor the United States include prostitution in GDP although the Netherlands does. The United States has higher GDP per capita than either the Netherlands or Canada but if we included pot and prostitution our GDP per capita would be even higher and would better reflect our true standard of living relative to these other countries!

Hat tip: Ryan Briggs on twitter who notes that as another consequence Canada’s CPI now includes pot prices, at a weight of .55%.

The Barbary Pirates

Rumors held that as many as sixty Barbary men-of-war were actively prowling the English Channel, waiting for the opportunity to capture more product for the slave markets of Algiers and Tripoli. For most of the seventeenth century, an English or Irish family living near the coast confronted the real possibility that the might be hauled off without warning….[the] numbers suggest that the odds of sudden enslavement by Barbary pirates were far higher for the average Devonshire resident than the odds of experiencing a terrorist attack in a modern-day Western City.

From Steven Johnson’s excellent Enemy of All Mankind, about which I will say more later.

Fracking to Europe’s Rescue

Fracking has lowered energy prices and generated huge benefits to the US economy (e.g. here, here.) Western Europe in contrast has mostly banned fracking or put in place large regulatory barriers:

Bloomberg: Germany, France, the Netherlands, Scotland and Bulgaria all effectively ban fracking. The only major activity is in Ukraine, which is weaning itself off of Russian gas, and in the U.K., where the government is promoting the technology to help replace plunging domestic output from the North Sea. In October, Cuadrilla Resources won permission to frack as many as four wells in the U.K., ending a two-and-a-half year battle with local authorities. In 2011, tremors caused by an exploratory Cuadrilla rig in northwestern England led to a one-year moratorium on fracking in the country. In 2013, hundreds of protesters camped in a tiny village south of London until the company abandoned its well there. People in Zurawlow, a town in eastern Poland, successfully blockaded a fracking site in 2012 and Greenpeace activists have occupied a shale gas rig in Denmark.

The differences may be due to US land policy which recognizes the landowner rather than the state as the owner of mineral rights (the resources under the land)–thus, despite huge campaigns against fracking in the US, the landowners were a natural balancing constituent.

The US fracking revolution has made the US energy independent while Europe uncomfortably relies on large imports from Russia. Yet, even though Western Europe has mostly banned fracking they have begun to import lots of US liquid natural gas. The first LNG exports in the lower United States date only to 2016 but since that time exports have increased dramatically to China and Europe and the US will be the world’s largest exporter of LNG by the end of 2022.

European Commission: The European Union imports more and more liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the United States to diversify and render its energy supply more secure. LNG imports from the U.S. have increased substantially since the first shipment in April 2016. Data show that at the end of 2019 LNG exports to the EU recorded the highest volume ever. In November 2019 imports reached 3 billion cubic meters and their value was estimated at €0.5 billion. In December 2019 LNG imports from the US reached a new monthly record: 3.2 billion cubic meters, with an estimated value of €0.5 billion.

European imports have only increased since that time as Europe has shut down nuclear reactors and the price of European energy has soared. A Russian invasion of Ukraine could increase US demand even more.

All hail the fracking revolution.

Most Popular MR Posts of the Year!

As measured by page views here are the most popular MR posts of 2021. Coming in at number 10 was Tyler’s post:

10. Best non-fiction books of 2021

Lots of good material there and well worth revisiting. Number 9 was by myself:

9. Revisionism on Deborah Birx, Trump, and the CDC

TDS infected many people but as the Biden administration quickly discovered the problems were much deeper than the president, leading to revisionism especially on the failures of the CDC and the FDA. Much more could be written here but this was a good start.

Number 8 was Tyler’s post:

8. The tax on unrealized capital gains

which asked some good questions about a bad plan.

7. We Will Get to Herd Immunity in 2021…One Way or Another

Sadly this post, written by me in January of 2021, had everything exactly right–we bottomed out at the end of June/early July as predicted. But then Delta hit and things went to hell. Sooner or later the virus makes fools of us all.

6. Half Doses of Moderna Produce Neutralizing Antibodies

One of my earlier pieces (written in Feb. 21) on fractional dosing. See also my later post A Half Dose of Moderna is More Effective Than a Full Dose of AstraZeneca. We have been slow, slow, slow. I hope for new results in 2022.

5. A few observations on my latest podcast with Amia Srinivasan

Listener’s took umbrage, perhaps even on Tyler’s behalf, at Srinivasan but Tyler comes away from every conversation having learned something and that makes him happy.

4. The Most Impressive AI Demo I Have Ever Seen

Still true. Still jaw-dropping.

3. Patents are Not the Problem!

I let loose on the Biden administration’s silly attacks on vaccine patents. Also still true. Note also that as my view predicts, Pfizer has made many licensing deals on Paxalovid which has a much simpler and easier to duplicate production process (albeit raw materials are still a problem.)

2. A Nobel Prize for the Credibility Revolution

A very good post, if I don’t say so myself, on this year’s Nobel prize recipients, Card, Angrist and Imbens.

1. How do you ask good questions?

Who else but Tyler?

To round out the top ten I’d point to Tyler’s post John O. Brennan on UFOs which still seems underrated in importance even if p is very low.

Erza Klein’s profile of me still makes me laugh, “He’s become a thorn in the side of public health experts…more than one groaned when I mentioned his name.” Yet, even though published in April many of these same experts are now openly criticizing the FDA and the CDC in unprecedented ways.

UFOs going mainstream or Tabarrok’s view of the FDA going mainstream. I’m not sure which of these scenarios was more unlikely ex ante. Strange world.

Let us know your favorite MR posts in the comments.

Don’t F*ck with Big Sugar

In Modern Principles, Tyler and I analyze the economics and politics of the sugar quota which raises the US price of sugar to about twice the world level. Doug Irwin points us to a revealing passage in John Boehner’s memoir, On the House:

Sugar was never really my fight, but I always thought it was a little silly that the sugar industry has all this power in Washington. But I liked to spend my time on issues I might actually be able to change, and I knew the chances of winning a fight with Big Sugar was basically zero.

At one point in the mid-1990s, I got fed up and decided to yank their chains anyway. I was on the Agricultural Committee and were getting ready to put together the 1996 farm bill. I walked into my office while this was going on and found a sugar lobbyist hanging around, trying to stay close to the action. I felt like being a smart-ass so I made some wise-crack about the sugar industry raping the taxpayers. Without another word, I walked into my private office and shut the door. I had no real plan to go after the sugar people. I was just screwing with the guy.

My phone did not stop ringing for the next five weeks….I had no idea how many people in my district were connected to the sugar industry. People were calling all day, telling me they made pumps or plugs or boxes or some other such part used in sugar production and I was threatening their job. Mayors called to tell me about employers their towns depended on who would be hurt by a sugar downturn. It was the most organize effort I had ever seen.

And that’s why don’t fuck with sugar.

Twice the speed, half the time, no loss of learning

News you can use:

We presented participants with lecture videos at different speeds and tested immediate and delayed (1 week) comprehension. Results revealed minimal costs incurred by increasing video speed from 1x to 1.5x, or 2x speed, but performance declined beyond 2x speed. We also compared learning outcomes after watching videos once at 1x or twice at 2x speed. There was not an advantage to watching twice at 2x speed but if participants watched the video again at 2x speed immediately before the test, compared with watching once at 1x a week before the test, comprehension improved. Thus, increasing the speed of videos (up to 2x) may be an efficient strategy, especially if students use the time saved for additional studying or rewatching the videos, but learners should do this additional studying shortly before an exam. However, these trends may differ for videos with different speech rates, complexity or difficulty, and audiovisual overlap.

See my piece, Why Online Education Works, for more on time and cost savings. Try MRU for great economics videos.

ProPublica on the FDA and Rapid Tests

Lydia DePillis has written the best piece on the FDA that I have ever read in a mainstream news publication. It gets everything right and yes it frankly verifies everything that I have been saying about the FDA and rapid tests for the last year and a half. I wish it had been written earlier but I suppose that illustrates how difficult it is to radically change people’s mindset from the FDA as protector to the FDA as threat. The sub head is:

Irene Bosch developed a quick, inexpensive COVID-19 test in early 2020. The Harvard-trained scientist already had a factory set up. But she was stymied by an FDA process experts say made no sense.

The piece recounts how cheap, rapid tests could have been approved in March of 2020! Here’s the opening bit:

When COVID-19 started sweeping across America in the spring of 2020, Irene Bosch knew she was in a unique position to help.

The Harvard-trained scientist had just developed quick, inexpensive tests for several tropical diseases, and her method could be adapted for the novel coronavirus. So Bosch and the company she had co-founded two years earlier seemed well-suited to address an enormous testing shortage.

E25Bio — named after the massive red brick building at MIT that houses the lab where Bosch worked — already had support from the National Institutes of Health, along with a consortium of investors led by MIT.

Within a few weeks, Bosch and her colleagues had a test that would detect coronavirus in 15 minutes and produce a red line on a little chemical strip. The factory where they were planning to make tests for dengue fever could quickly retool to produce at least 100,000 COVID-19 tests per week, she said, priced at less than $10 apiece, or cheaper at a higher scale.

“We are excited about what E25Bio is capable of shipping in a short amount of time: a test that is significantly cheaper, more affordable, and available at-home,” said firm founder Vinod Khosla. (Disclosure: Khosla’s daughter Anu Khosla is on ProPublica’s board.)

On March 21 — when the U.S. had recorded only a few hundred COVID-19 deaths  Bosch submitted the test for emergency authorization, a process the Food and Drug Administration uses to expedite tests and treatments.

You know how the story ends but really READ the WHOLE THING.

The Slow Rollout of Rapid Tests

I thought the Biden administration would at least make original pandemic errors. But no, its been making all the same errors. Slow on vaccines, slow on rapid testing and slow on new drugs, and far too little investment. Still after a year and half of shouting it from the rooftops we are getting some rapid tests. Josh Gans has an interesting reminder focusing on Canada that this has been an example of expert failure not just US failure. 

Rapid test advocates such as myself have suddenly moved from fringe crazies who were told they didn’t understand the science to we need them and we need them now.

Several cases in point:

  • The CDC now says that unvaccinated students exposed to Covid can “test to stay.” That is, rather than sending all the students in a class (or a school!) home when one tests positive for Covid, they test the students instead and so long as they are negative, they stay.
  • The US Government is going to order 500 million rapid tests and distribute them free to the public … by mail!

It is hard to appreciate what a sea change this is in terms of attitude. A year ago, when we tried to roll out rapid tests — that had already been purchased and were sitting in their millions in warehouses in Canada — to Canadian workplaces, we were told that those tests had to be administered by health care professionals in PPE in secure and sanitised environments with all manner of precautions taken that really took the “rapid” out of rapid testing let alone exploding the costs to businesses who wanted to keep their workers safe. This was because they required those long-swabs etc. Eventually, short swabs were permitted. Then self-swabbing supervised in the workplace. Then swabbing at home while on a virtual call with a professional for that supervision with the swabs being picked up and then taken for safe disposal. Finally, we got to self-administered, at-home screening without supervision and you could pop your negative swan in the bin. A year after we had been told that you needed a full-court medical professional press to do this, our kids in Ontario were sent home with 5 rapid tests to use over the holidays. Only a couple of weeks ago, the Ontario government’s advisory board, the Ontario Science Table, finally endorsed the use of rapid tests in this way.

The Rise and Decline of Thinking over Feeling

In texts, both fictional and non-fictional and in English and Spanish, thinking words relating to technology and social organization (experiment, gravity, weigh, cost, contract) become more common between 1850 and approximately 1977 (beginning of the great stagnation) but since then thinking words have declined markedly and feeling words relating to belief, spirituality, sapience, and intuition (e.g. forgiveness, heal, feel) have become more common.

The graph at right shows the ratio of rationality words to intuition words over time in different corpuses. Paper here.

The surge of post-truth political argumentation suggests that we are living in a special historical period when it comes to the balance between emotion and reasoning. To explore if this is indeed the case, we analyze language in millions of books covering the period from 1850 to 2019 represented in Google nGram data. We show that the use of words associated with rationality, such as “determine” and “conclusion,” rose systematically after 1850, while words related to human experience such as “feel” and “believe” declined. This pattern reversed over the past decades, paralleled by a shift from a collectivistic to an individualistic focus as reflected, among other things, by the ratio of singular to plural pronouns such as “I”/”we” and “he”/”they.” Interpreting this synchronous sea change in book language remains challenging. However, as we show, the nature of this reversal occurs in fiction as well as nonfiction. Moreover, the pattern of change in the ratio between sentiment and rationality flag words since 1850 also occurs in New York Times articles, suggesting that it is not an artifact of the book corpora we analyzed. Finally, we show that word trends in books parallel trends in corresponding Google search terms, supporting the idea that changes in book language do in part reflect changes in interest. All in all, our results suggest that over the past decades, there has been a marked shift in public interest from the collective to the individual, and from rationality toward emotion.

The authors blame the change in language towards feelings on the failure of “neo-liberalism” which seems dubious and without plausible mechanism. If anything, I would put the causality the other way. A more plausible explanation is more female writers and the closely related feminization of culture.

The analysis is consistent with my earlier post on how quickly the NYTimes became woke.

Hat tip: Paul Kedrosky.