CA Put Construction Into Limbo

One silver lining of the crisis is that the country has been getting rid of a lot of regulations that slow things down. CA, however, has decided to slow things down even more.

REASON: Last week, the Judicial Council of California—the rule-making body for the state’s courts—issued 11 emergency rules for the judicial system during the current pandemic.

Included in the council’s rules was a blanket extension of deadlines for filing civil actions until 90 days after the current state of emergency ends. Ominously for housing construction, this extended statute of limitations applies to lawsuits filed under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

That law requires local governments to study proposed developments for potentially significant environmental impacts. CEQA also gives third parties the power to sue local governments for approving a construction project if they feel that a particular environmental impact wasn’t studied enough.

The law has become a favored tool of NIMBYs and other self-interested parties to delay unwanted developments or to extract concessions from developers. Anti-gentrification activists use CEQA to stop apartment buildings that might cast too much shadow. Construction unions use the law as leverage to secure exclusive project labor agreements.

Under normal circumstances, these CEQA lawsuits have to be filed within 30 or 35 days of a project receiving final approval.

Notice that the law doesn’t say the NIMBYs get an extra 30 or 35 days to file. It says that NIMBYs get to file until 90 days “after the current state of emergency ends.” In other words, no one can know when they are free to build so the law could put every CA construction project that hasn’t already past CEQA review into limbo.

“If I’m a builder I can’t move forward with my project until the [CEQA] statute of limitations has expired. The reason why I can’t do that is because if you do move forward, courts have the authority to order you tear down what you’ve built,” Cammarota tells Reason, explaining that “lenders today are unwilling to fund those loans for construction until the statute of limitations has expired.”

Hat tip: Carl Danner.

Discovering Safety Protocols

Walmart, Amazon and other firms are developing safety protocols for the COVID workplace. Walmart, for example, will be doing temperature checks of its employees:

Walmart Blog: As the COVID-19 situation has evolved, we’ve decided to begin taking the temperatures of our associates as they report to work in stores, clubs and facilities, as well as asking them some basic health screening questions. We are in the process of sending infrared thermometers to all locations, which could take up to three weeks.

Any associate with a temperature of 100.0 degrees will be paid for reporting to work and asked to return home and seek medical treatment if necessary. The associate will not be able to return to work until they are fever-free for at least three days.

Many associates have already been taking their own temperatures at home, and we’re asking them to continue that practice as we start doing it on-site. And we’ll continue to ask associates to look out for other symptoms of the virus (coughing, feeling achy, difficulty breathing) and never come to work when they don’t feel well.

Our COVID-19 emergency leave policy allows associates to stay home if they have any COVID-19 related symptoms, concerns, illness or are quarantined – knowing that their jobs will be protected.

Amazon is even investing in their own testing labs.

Amazon Blog: A next step might be regular testing of all employees, including those showing no symptoms. Regular testing on a global scale across all industries would both help keep people safe and help get the economy back up and running. But, for this to work, we as a society would need vastly more testing capacity than is currently available. Unfortunately, today we live in a world of scarcity where COVID-19 testing is heavily rationed.

If every person, including people with no symptoms, could be tested regularly, it would make a huge difference in how we are all fighting this virus. Those who test positive could be quarantined and cared for, and everyone who tests negative could re-enter the economy with confidence.

Until we have an effective vaccine available in billions of doses, high-volume testing capacity would be of great help, but getting that done will take collective action by NGOs, companies, and governments.

For our part, we’ve begun the work of building incremental testing capacity. A team of Amazonians with a variety of skills – from research scientists and program managers to procurement specialists and software engineers – have moved from their normal day jobs onto a dedicated team to work on this initiative. We have begun assembling the equipment we need to build our first lab (photos below) and hope to start testing small numbers of our front line employees soon.

Actions and experiments like these will discover ways to work safely till we reach the vaccine era.

Pandemic Policy in Developing Countries: Recommendations for India

Shruti Rajagopalan and I have written a policy brief on pandemic policy in developing countries with specific recommendations for India. The Indian context requires a different approach. Even washing hands, for example, is not easily accomplished when hundreds of millions of people do not have access to piped water or soap. India needs to control the COVID-19 pandemic better than other nations because the consequences of losing control are more severe given India’s relatively low healthcare resources, limited state capacity, and large population of poor people, many of whom are already burdened with other health issues. We make 10 recommendations:

1: Any test kit approved in China, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, the United States, or Western Europe should be immediately approved in India.

2: The Indian government should announce a commitment to pay any private Indian lab running coronavirus tests at least the current cost of tests run at government labs. 

3: All import tariffs and quotas on medical equipment related to the COVID-19 crisis should be immediately lifted and nullified.

4: Use mobile phones to survey, inform, and prescreen for symptoms. Direct any individual with symptoms and his or her family to a testing center, or direct mobile testing to them.

5: Keep mobile phone accounts alive even if the phone bills are not paid, and provide a subsidy for pay-as-you-go account holders who cannot afford to pay for mobile services. 

6: Requisition government schools and buildings and rent private hotel rooms, repurposing them as quarantine facilities. 

7: Rapidly scale up the production and distribution of masks and encourage everyone to wear masks. 

8: Truck in water and soap for hand washing and use existing distribution networks to provide hand sanitizers. 

9: Accept voter identification cards and AADHAAR cards for in-kind transfers at ration shops.

10: Announce a direct cash transfer of a minimum of 3000 rupees per month (equivalent to the poverty line of $1.25 a day or $38 a month) to be distributed through Jan Dhan accounts or mobile phone applications such as Paytm.

See the whole thing for more on the rationales.

Addendum: As we went to press we heard that India will lift tariffs on medical equipment. My co-author lobbied hard for this.

Zoom Bombing a High School Class

I “zoom bombed” a high school class that is using Modern Principles of Economics. I thought that it would be useful to relate some virus economics to some regular economics. Here’s what I said:

Why has the response to coronavirus been so poor? Exponential growth, rare events, and the necessity of using theory instead of experience.

Coronavirus infections, when unchecked, double approximately every three days. If we start out with 1000 infections that means in 10 doublings, just 30 days, there will be one million infections (1,2,4,8,16,32,64,256,512,1024). If you act early and stop just one doubling, you prevent 500,000 people from being infected. Speed is of the essence. But you need to act when the problem appears small. You need to use theory rather than observation which isn’t natural or easy.

People get good at something when they have repeated attempts and rapid feedback. People can get pretty good at putting a basketball through a hoop. But for other decisions we only get one shot. One reason South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan have been much better at handling coronavirus is that within recent memory they had the SARS and H1N1 flu pandemics to build experience. The US and Europe were less hit by these earlier pandemics and responded less well. We don’t get many attempts to respond to once-in-a-lifetime events.

Even as coronavirus swept through China and Italy, many people dismissed the threat by thinking that we were somehow different. We weren’t. Even within the United States some people think that New York is different. It’s not. Most people learn, if they learn at all, from their own experiences, not from the experiences of others–even others like them. Learning from your own mistakes and experiences is a good skill. Many people make the same mistakes over and over again. But learning from other people’s mistakes or experiences is a great skill of immense power. It’s rare. Cultivate it.

Now let’s apply these issues to another one close to your life. Savings and retirement. Savings also follow an exponential process, albeit one neither as rapid nor as certain as those involving viruses. The same principles apply, however. But in this case instead of wanting to avoid the gains at the end you want to start saving early in order to capture the big gains in your 50s and 60s as you approach retirement. You don’t get many attempts at retirement so you need to use theory rather than experience. And because you don’t get many attempts you need to learn from other people, including other people’s mistakes, to guide your savings decisions today.

The students asked good questions and we also talked about aggregate demand and supply and how to think about the economic crisis.

Hat tip: Joel Cohen and Dr. Brian Dille.

P.S. I didn’t actually zoom bomb the class. I was invited but it was a surprise to the students.

There’s No Such Things as a Free L̶u̶n̶c̶h Test

In a short-sighted blunder, India’s Supreme Court has ruled that private labs cannot charge for coronavirus tests:

NDTV: “The private hospitals including laboratories have an important role to play in containing the scale of pandemic by extending philanthropic services in the hour of national crisis…We thus are satisfied that the petitioner has made out a case…to issue necessary direction to accredited private labs to conduct free of cost COVID-19 test,” the court said.

Whether the private labs should be reimbursed by the government, will be decided later, Justices Ashok Bhushan and S Ravindra Bhat said in a hearing conducted via video conferencing.

The Supreme Court’s ruling will reduce the number of tests and dissuade firms from rushing to develop and field new drugs and devices to fight the coronavirus. A price is a signal wrapped up in an incentive. Instead of incentivizing investment, this order incentives firms to invest resources elsewhere.

Nor do private labs have a special obligation that mandates their conscription–an obligation to fund testing for all, falls on all.

The ruling is especially unfortunate because as Rajagopalan and Choutagunta document, India’s health care sector is predominantly private:

…India must rely primarily on the private sector and civil society to lead the response to COVID-19,…the role of the government should be financing and subsidizing testing and treatment for those who cannot afford to pay. India’s private healthcare system is better funded and better staffed than the government healthcare system, and it serves more people. It is estimated to be four times bigger in overall healthcare capacity, and it has 55 percent of the total hospital bed capacity, 90 percent of the doctors, and 80 percent of the ventilators.

The temptation to requisition private resources for state use in an emergency is ever present—but Indian policymakers must resist that temptation because it will compromise instead of increase capacity.

Benevolence is laudatory but even in a pandemic we should not rely on the benevolence of the butcher, brewer or baker for our dinner nor on the lab for our coronavirus tests. If we want results, never talk to suppliers of our own necessities, but only of their advantages.

Safety Protocols for Getting Back to Work

China bent the curve, Italy bent the curve and I believe that the curve is bending in the United States. Suppression is working and the second part of the strategy of test, trace and isolate will start to come into play in a few weeks. The states are gearing up to test, trace and isolate and several large serological surveys are already underway which will gives us a much better idea of how widely the virus has spread. Ideally, we will move from test, trace and isolate to a situation where we can conduct millions of tests weekly which will take us into the vaccine time.

Before testing is fully operational, however, we will need to follow safety protocols. We can learn about what works from what essential workers are doing now. Green Circuits in CA, for example, redesigned the shift schedule:

His first move was to redesign the plant’s work schedule. The company, owned by the Dallas-based private equity firm Evolve Capital, always had the first and second shifts overlap for a half-hour. That allowed workers arriving in the afternoon to confer with colleagues as they handed off duties.

But O’Neil said they realized that would risk their whole workforce getting quarantined for 14 days, if someone got infected by the coronavirus and spent time at the factory as part of this larger group.

The solution was to create three separate teams of 40 workers each. The first shift now ends at 2 p.m., and then there’s an hour when the workspaces, tools, and breakrooms are sanitized. The third team does not work at all, but rather is held in reserve and available to jump in if an illness hampers one of the two other teams of workers.

Other safety protocols include:

  • Shift work for white collar workers as well as for blue collar workers. Including spreading work over the weekends.
  • Senior shopping hours.
  • Temperature checks, perhaps via passive fever cameras at work and public transport.
  • Mandatory masks for public transportation.
  • Masks for workers.
  • Sanitation breaks for mandatory hand washing.
  • Quarantining at work for essential workers, as the MLB is thinking of doing despite not being essential.
  • Reducing touch surfaces (even with simple things like propping up bathroom doors) and copper tape for hi-touch surfaces that cannot be eliminated.

It will take longer to reopen restaurants, clubs and sports stadiums but I believe that applying these protocols will allow many of us to work safely. We aren’t ready yet but now is the time to plan for our return.

The Economic Consequences of the Virus?

The inhabitant of New York could order by computer, sipping his morning coffee in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages; or he could decide to couple the security of his fortunes with the good faith of the townspeople of any substantial municipality in any continent that fancy or information might recommend. He could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate with passport or other formality and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language, or customs, bearing just a credit card upon his person, and would consider himself greatly aggrieved by the TSA but otherwise much surprised at the least interference. But, most important of all, he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable. The projects and politics of militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries, of monopolies, restrictions, exclusion and of pandemics which were to play the serpent to this paradise, were little more than the amusements of his daily twitter feed, and appeared to exercise almost no influence at all on the ordinary course of social and economic life, the internationalization of which was nearly complete in practice.

Only slightly modified.

Immunity Passes Must Be Combined With Variolation

I wrote earlier that “recovered individuals have a kind of superpower and would be highly desirable workers.” Antibody tests will soon be able to identify these workers and that will help to reopen the economy because not only can these workers go back to work relatively safely they can also work relatively safely with those who are not immune, thus a kind of multiplier-effect for the workplace. Hence, Italy and the UK are talking about “Immunity Passes” that would allow (we hope) immune workers to go back to work.

One factor, however, which hasn’t been taken into account is that the demand to go back to work may be so strong that some people will want to become deliberately infected. If not done carefully, however, these people will be a threat to others, especially in their asymptomatic phase. Thus, if we use Immunity Passes they will need to be combined with variolation, infecting people with small doses of the virus to create immunity under controlled conditions, as suggested by Robin Hanson.

Hat tip for discussion: Rafael Yglesias.

The Strategy: Suppress then Test, Trace, Isolate

From internet comments I’ve seen some confusion on the suppress then “test, trace, isolate” strategy. The “flattening the curve” metaphor suggested that lockdown was all about spreading infections over time to keep the medical system operational. But more importantly, the purpose of lockdown is to reduce the infection rate, R, below 1. A virus needs hosts. Take away the hosts and it fades away. We can take away hosts by making people immune, either with a vaccine or through surviving exposure. We can also take away hosts by hiding–that’s what lockdown is for. If enough people hide, then the virus burns out and fades away.

Of course, hiding leaves us vulnerable to multiple rounds of infection. That’s where the second part of the strategy, test, trace and isolate comes into play. When the infection is running wild, as it is now, we don’t have enough tests to keep up with the virus. But after suppression we can put test, trace and isolate into effect very quickly as outbreaks flare up but before the virus runs out of control again. Increasing our test capacity dramatically makes this strategy even more viable. Thus, as V.V. Chari and Christopher Phelan write in a good op-ed:

…A wise use of the breathing room provided by mass quarantines would be to put in place the infrastructure to allow us to mimic the policies of countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong. These countries have thus far controlled the pandemic at much lower economic cost…[using] aggressive but targeted quarantine policies. They quarantine people displaying symptoms, aggressively trace the people they have contacted, test their contacts, and then quarantine those who have the virus (and sometimes those who have just had contact with those who test positive), regardless of whether they are symptomatic or not.

It is a test, trace and isolate policy. These countries have not generally engaged in mass quarantines or shut down factories, shopping malls or restaurants.

After suppression, we can combine “test, trace and isolate” with mask wearing and other safety protocols and move towards reopening the economy.

Trump Stops Masks from Going to Canada

In The Defense Production Act I argued that the DPA was neither especially useful or necessary and would probably be misused. In Sicken Thy Neighbor Trade Policy I argued that exports bans were a bad idea. So, of course, Donald Trump has used the DPA to ban 3M from exporting masks to Canada. “We hit 3M hard today” tweeted Trump, as if 3M were a foreign terrorist camp.

Since January (well before the government began to act), 3M has been ramping up mask production. Their response to the DPA order is on point:

Over the last several weeks and months, 3M and its employees have gone above and beyond to manufacture as many N95 respirators as possible for the U.S. market. Yesterday, the Administration formally invoked the Defense Production Act (DPA) to require 3M to prioritize orders from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for our N95 respirators.

…There are, however, significant humanitarian implications of ceasing respirator supplies to healthcare workers in Canada and Latin America, where we are a critical supplier of respirators. In addition, ceasing all export of respirators produced in the United States would likely cause other countries to retaliate and do the same, as some have already done. If that were to occur, the net number of respirators being made available to the United States would actually decrease. That is the opposite of what we and the Administration, on behalf of the American people, both seek.

I am against export bans in general but placing an ethically charged export ban on one of our largest trading partners and allies is especially shortsighted. For example, guess where one of the world’s largest producers of a key input for making surgical masks (FYI, these are different than N95s) is located? Canada.

…the Harmac mill [on Vancouver Island] is the world’s only producer of the particular grade of paper pulp used in the manufacture of surgical masks and gowns…

“K10S is the pulp that we’re producing for these medical supplies. We’re the only one that produces it,” he said. “Different pulp mills run different grades of pulp – almost kind of like recipes.”

K10S pulp is made from western red cedar that produces a soft fibre that makes it suitable for the final products made from it.

“It’s been tweaked over the years to come up with the right formula that allows it to go into the medical supplies,” Sampson said.

…the U.S. customer that produces [the surgical masks[ has doubled its order for the K10S pulp.

More generally, in the aftermath of the crisis, supply lines will tighten. I don’t favor this for the reasons given in my TED talk but it will probably happen. It’s not going to happen universally, however. China is going to be hit especially hard as they rely on the world trade system much more than does the United States. Canada and especially Mexico will gain, however, as supply lines move closer to home. In the post-Covid world, manufacturing will rationalize on North American grounds so we may as well start planning for that future by treating Canada and Mexico like a part of the US family.

Thank You Bill Gates

Bill Gates, who warned us–The Next Outbreak, We’re not ready–is getting ready for a vaccine, in fact for seven of them.

Business Insider: Gates said he was picking the top seven vaccine candidates and building manufacturing capacity for them. “Even though we’ll end up picking at most two of them, we’re going to fund factories for all seven, just so that we don’t waste time in serially saying, ‘OK, which vaccine works?’ and then building the factory,” he said.

Gates said that simultaneously testing and building manufacturing capacity is essential to the quick development of a vaccine, which Gates thinks could take about 18 months.

…”It’ll be a few billion dollars we’ll waste on manufacturing for the constructs that don’t get picked because something else is better,” Gates said in the clip. “But a few billion in this, the situation we’re in, where there’s trillions of dollars … being lost economically, it is worth it.”

This is exactly the type of planning and spending on attacking the virus that governments should be doing.

See also my post, A Solution if We Act.

FDA Prevents Import of Masks

The KN95 mask is China’s version of the N95 mask. 3M, America’s largest manufacturer of N95 masks, said in January that the masks are equivalent. But the FDA is not allowing KN95s into the country.

Buzzfeed: The KN95 mask is a Chinese alternative to the scarce N95 mask, but the FDA refuses to allow it into the country.

…By law, masks, along with most medical devices, can’t be imported or sold in the United States without the Food and Drug Administration’s say-so. Last week, to ease the national shortfall of protective gear, the FDA issued an emergency authorization for non-N95 respirators that had been certified by five foreign countries as well as the European Union. It conspicuously left the KN95 masks out of the emergency authorization.

The omission was all the more startling because in late February the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that KN95 masks were one of numerous “suitable alternatives” to N95 masks “when supplies are short.”

…Allowing the importation and use of KN95 could help to greatly alleviate the scarcity.

“The KN95 masks are far more readily available,” said Bob Tilton, who owns a New Jersey–based cosmetics packaging importer and earlier this month decided to use his familiarity with Chinese supply chains to bring in masks and other personal protective equipment to sell to hospitals. “The N95s are much harder to grab.”

Yet without the FDA’s seal of approval, importers are hesitant to order KN95 masks because they worry they’ll get held up at customs.

It’s not just the FDA that is to blame, however. America’s legal system is also to blame:

Many hospitals are refusing to accept them, even as free donations, because they fear legal liability should a health care worker get ill while using a nonpermitted device…Although some hospitals flat-out reject KN95 masks at any price on advice of their lawyers, people rounding up masks to give to hospitals have found that individual doctors or nurses will often accept the donations, given the dire need.

Consider that last bit of insanity. The ethical and common-law type rule is very simple: Do everything reasonable to protect your hospital workers. But what some feckless hospital administrators are actually doing is following “the law” even if it conflicts with the ethical rule.