Category: Current Affairs
Americans returning from China landed at U.S. airports by the thousands in early February, potential carriers of a deadly virus who had been diverted to a handful of cities for screening by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Their arrival prompted a frantic scramble by local and state officials to press the travelers to self-quarantine, and to monitor whether anyone fell ill. It was one of the earliest tests of whether the public health system in the United States could contain the contagion.
But the effort was frustrated as the C.D.C.’s decades-old notification system delivered information collected at the airports that was riddled with duplicative records, bad phone numbers and incomplete addresses. For weeks, officials tried to track passengers using lists sent by the C.D.C., scouring information about each flight in separate spreadsheets.
“It was insane,” said Dr. Sharon Balter, a director at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. When the system went offline in mid-February, briefly halting the flow of passenger data, local officials listened in disbelief on a conference call as the C.D.C. responded to the possibility that infected travelers might slip away.
“Just let them go,” two of the health officials recall being told.
Here is the full NYT piece, thorough, excellent, and scary throughout, and it shows a first-rate understanding of bureaucracy. Don’t forget the CDC budget has risen steadily in real terms.
That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is the opener:
If I have learned one thing over the last few weeks, it is that the psychology of the American public is weirder — and perhaps more flexible — than I ever would have thought.
Consider, as just one example among many, the issue of nursing homes. According to some estimates, about 40% of the deaths associated with Covid-19 have occurred in nursing homes, with more almost certain to come.
You might think that those 40,000-plus deaths would be a major national scandal. But so far the response has been subdued. Yes, there has been ample news coverage, but there are no riots in response, no social movement to “clean up the nursing homes,” no Ralph Nader-like crusader who has made this his or her political cause.
Nor has there been much resulting vilification. There are plenty of condemnations of technology billionaires, but very few of nursing-home CEOs. Many of the state and local politicians who oversee public-sector nursing homes have been rewarded with higher approval ratings.
As if all this weren’t bad enough, of those 40,000 deaths, surely a considerable number are African-American (data by race is hard to come by). This could be an issue for Black Lives Matter, but somehow it isn’t.
There is indeed much more at the link.
Hard to describe how rampant the looting was tonight in Midtown Manhattan and how lawless it was. Complete anarchy. Literally hundreds of stores up and down Broadway, Fifth Ave, Sixth Ave. Kids ruling the streets like it was a party.
Now, those are among the most visible and “high value” spots in the whole city and the NYPD has over 38,000 police to draw upon. So what is the best model of why all that trouble happened and indeed was allowed to happen? I see a few candidates:
1. Those police are not sufficiently well trained.
2. Those police are trained but they are afraid of confronting protestors and so they don’t do it.
3. The mayor de facto doesn’t want the police to be too involved, as that might be unpopular with swing voters in the primaries or even the general election.
4. The police union insists, de facto, that not many police be sent directly into such confrontations.
5. There is a general lack of accountability, and so there is failure at multiple levels, and so many good things simply do not happen, but for reasons which are not always entirely concrete.
6. The police do not have the right technology to handle these kinds of problems.
Which is it, and which other hypotheses am I neglecting?
As a more general observation, if this problem cannot be solved, complaining about Trump holding the Bible and the tear gas on the way to the church ultimately will fall upon deaf ears. Ultimately the American public are not going to side against “the thin blue line” (i.e., the police), so to win all those important civil liberties victories you also need the police doing the proper job effectively. Maybe I picked the wrong Google terms but “why didn’t New York police stop rioters” does not in fact yield anything substantive on the question I am asking. How can that be? While you’re at it, model that too!
Addendum: One reader hypothesis is to send a signal to the mayor for criticizing them. Another is here: “Similar to Baltimore, the police in Minneapolis will make it clear that looting and widespread private property destruction will be tolerated for the remainder of the protests as a way to conflate protesters and looters and “teach a lesson to” their liberal civilian bosses“
A correspondent writes me:
I live in Minneapolis and have worked in education policy here for a few years. With all of the unrest going on here, I feel increasing urgency to learn more about a question that’s been puzzling me for many years, and which I can’t seem to find a satisfactory answer to: why is Minnesota one of the worst states in the nation for disparities between black and white students, both in education and other outcomes such as employment and income?
Of course, most of my liberal colleagues and friends will say something like, “structural racism”, which isn’t really an explanation. That doesn’t explain why we to do so poorly in disparities, when other somewhat similar states such as Michigan and Illinois do better than us in their educational disparities.
All of this makes me think – there must be a study of disparities among minority or historically marginalized groups that looks across countries and cultural contexts, to try and understand what specifically causes students from those communities to perform poorly in school. And surely there must be cases where poor minority groups perform better in school than would be expected.
Do you have any suggestions for reading that could start me on the path to figuring this out?
Are you familiar with the earlier history of Minneapolis, say from the 1960s and 1970s? From an article by Jeffrey T. Manuel and Andrew Urban, here is one passage about two mayors:
In 1969, four-term Democratic-Farmer Labor (DFL) mayor and former University of Minnesota political science professor Arthur Naftalin declined to run for a fifth two-year term as the mayor of Minneapolis, leaving the contest open amid the social turbulence of the late 1960s. Naftalin was a close associate of former Minneapolis mayor Hubert H. Humphrey and a practitioner of Humphrey’s brand of liberalism. They believed that government’s role was to manage and coordinate different interest groups within society, such as business leaders, members of organized labor, and racial minorities, so that the city would function efficiently and social conflict could be avoided. By allocating money to various social programs, they believed urban problems such as crime and poverty could be solved. In an unexpected move, Charles Stenvig, a 41-year-old detective in the Minneapolis police department and president of the police federation, threw his hat into the ring as an independent candidate for mayor. Running an unconventional campaign that spent little money and relied on volunteer labor, Stenvig won the 1 969 election by pledging to “take the handcuffs off the police” and to crack down on “racial militants,” criminals, and student protesters. Capturing 62 percent of the vote against a moderate Republican opponent, Stenvig shocked the city’s political establishment with his convincing victory. Running again as an independent in 1971, Stenvig defeated Harry Davis, Minneapolis ‘s first black mayoral candidate, receiving a remarkable 71 percent of the vote.
Naftalin’s connection with academia was a sharp contrast to Stenvig’s open animosity toward higher education.
Naftalin argued that with “proper computers,” a single executive authority could easily – and rationally – control a widely- scattered metropolitan area. For Naftalin, a rational executive would have to make unpopular decisions based on his or her expert knowledge of what was best…
Thus, at several points during his career Stenvig tried to censor what he believed were immoral publications…
At the national level, many observers were surprised that race could even be a political issue in Minneapolis given the city’s numerically small minority population… Although the city’s African American population was relatively small it was concentrated in several neighborhoods, which led to frequent incidents of alleged police harassment and the belief that residents of black neighborhoods were treated unfairly by the overwhelmingly white police force.
When a 12-year-old African-American boy was attacked by a police dog and dragged down the street by two policemen, many saw it as confirmation of Stenvig’s attitude toward blacks.
Far from a naïve reactionary, Stenvig presented a political ideology that was sharply critical of liberalism and rejected social scientific knowledge and abstractions as useful guides for governance.
The article is interesting throughout, and is likely to remain so. And you can read here about the 1967 race riots in northern Minneapolis.
See the sign? “Thou shall not kill anymore”.
For Atlantic, here is one excerpt:
“Our regulatory state is failing us.”
And to troll some of you, here is another bit:
Friedersdorf: Libertarians and small-government conservatives are highly skeptical of the regulatory state. What do they get wrong?
Cowen: Very often, the alternative to regulation is ex post facto reliance on the courts and juries to redress wrongs. Of course, the judiciary and its components are further instruments of governments, and they have their own flaws. There is no particular reason, from, say, a libertarian point of view, to expect such miracles from the courts. Very often, I would rather take my chances with the regulators.
Also, let’s not forget the cases where the regulators are flat-out right. Take herbal medicines, penis enlargers, or vaccines. In those cases, the regulators are essentially correct, and there is a substantial segment of the population that is flat-out wrong on those issues, and sometimes they are wrong in dangerous ways.
Recommended, there is much more at the link.
Half of new coronavirus infections in Washington [state] are now occurring in people under the age of 40, a marked shift from earlier in the epidemic when more than two-thirds of those testing positive were in older age groups.
A new analysis finds that by early May, 39% of confirmed cases statewide were among people age 20 to 39, while those 19 and younger accounted for 11%.
1. As people adjust, and the higher-risk individuals take greater precautions, and the lower risk people relax their vigilance, this is likely to happen.
2. The case for age segregation, as a remedy and protection, becomes stronger. If your policy prescriptions never change over the course of a pandemic, you are not paying sufficient attention, or you are a dogmatist, or both.
3. Universities have to worry a bit less about their students and a bit more about their faculty, at the margin.
4. As more young people acquire immunity, the incentive for yet additional young people to invest in immunity, through stochastic deliberate exposure, rises. That in turn strengthens #2 and #3.
5. Will markets play a further role in this trend? The excellent Kevin Lewis sends me the following (WSJ):
…while surging demand has proven a boon for the traders known as blood brokers who source this commodity, diagnostic companies say high prices for the blood of recovered Covid-19 patients are posing a hurdle to developing tests. ‘We’ve had a terrible time trying to obtain positive specimens at a decent rate,’ said Stefanie Lenart-Dallezotte, manager of business operations for San Diego-based Epitope Diagnostics Inc., which sells an antibody test for Covid-19…She said one broker quoted $1,000 for a one-milliliter sample of convalescent plasma, a term for the antibody-containing part of the blood from recovered patients. Executives at other diagnostics companies say they have been quoted prices of several thousand dollars for one milliliter of plasma.
What is the market-clearing price here, and what is the elasticity of exposure with respect to that price? Evolving…
The National Science Foundation (NSF) would get a sweeping remake—including a new name, a huge infusion of cash, and responsibility for maintaining U.S. global leadership in innovation—under bipartisan bills that have just been introduced in both houses of Congress.
Many scientific leaders are thrilled that the bills call for giving NSF an additional $100 billion over 5 years to carry out its new duties. But some worry the legislation, if enacted, could compromise NSF’s historical mission to explore the frontiers of knowledge without regard to possible commercial applications.
The Endless Frontiers Act (S. 3832) proposes a major reorganization of NSF, creating a technology directorate that, within 4 years, would grow to more than four times the size of the entire agency’s existing $8 billion budget. NSF would be renamed the National Science and Technology Foundation, and both the science and technology arms would be led by a deputy reporting to the NSF director. (NSF now has a single deputy director; the slot has been unfilled since 2014.)
Passage of the legislation could significantly alter how NSF operates. In particular, agency officials would have the authority to adopt some of the management practices used by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) within the Department of Defense, known for its agility and focus on tangible, deadline-driven results. “The new [technology] directorate can run like DARPA if NSF wants it to,” says one university lobbyist familiar with Schumer’s thinking.
One provision would expand NSF’s ability to use outside experts hired for short stints. At DARPA, new program managers are expected to propose significant changes to the research portfolios of their predecessors, with the best new ideas receiving generous funding. In contrast, NSF’s core disciplinary programs change very little from year to year.
The bill has some degree of bipartisan support, and of course I will be following this issue. Here is the full story, via J.
Upwards of 70 percent of the Covid19 death toll in Sweden has been people in elderly care services (as of mid-May 2020). We summarize the Covid19 tragedy in elderly care in Sweden, particularly in the City of Stockholm. We explain the institutional structure of elderly care administration and service provision. Those who died of Covid19 in Stockholm’s nursing homes had a life-remaining median somewhere in the range of 5 to 9 months. Having contextualized the Covid19 problem in City of Stockholm, we present an interview of Barbro Karlsson, who works at the administrative heart of the Stockholm elderly care system. Her institutional knowledge and sentiment offer great insight into the concrete problems and challenges. There are really two sides the elderly care Covid19 challenge: The vulnerability and frailty of those in nursing homes and the problem of nosocomial infection—that is, infection caused by contact with others involved in the elderly care experience. The problem calls for targeted solutions by those close to the vulnerable individuals.
That is the abstract of a new paper by Charlotta Stern and Daniel B. Klein.
In Brazil, 15 percent of deaths have been people under 50 — a rate more than 10 times greater than in Italy or Spain. In Mexico, the trend is even more stark: Nearly one-fourth of the dead have been between 25 and 49. In India, officials reported this month that nearly half of the dead were younger than 60. In Rio de Janeiro state, more than two-thirds of hospitalizations are for people younger than 49.
And here are the speculations:
Because population density is so much higher in much of the developing world — and because so many people must keep working to survive — a far greater share of the population ends up being exposed to the virus.
The virus then spreads through a population that’s less resilient. People in the developing world grapple not only with the diseases that have long been associated with it — malaria, dengue, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS — but increasingly with those more closely associated with wealthier countries. Rates of diabetes, obesity and hypertension are surging. But treatment for many such illnesses is lacking.
So what is the Japan model? First, it is a cluster-based approach, derived from a hypothesis obtained from an epidemiological study based on Chinese data and conducted on the Diamond Princess cruise ship that entered the port of Yokohama on February 3, 2020. This hypothesis accounts for the many passengers who were not infected with the coronavirus despite having had close contact with infected persons. It posits that the explosive increase in infected persons is a result of the high transmissibility of certain infected individuals, which forms a cluster. Infected individuals with even higher transmissibility appear from these clusters to form more clusters and infect many others. Based on this hypothesis, under the cluster-based approach, each cluster is tracked to the original infection source and persons with high transmissibility are isolated to prevent the spread of infection. For this reason, pinpoint testing is carried out and broad testing of the population is not required, in contrast to the approaches taken in other counties.
This cluster-based approach is conditioned on an environment in which there are only a few infected persons and clusters are detectable at an early stage. In February 2020, when the spread of infection was observed in Hokkaido, a cluster-based approach was adopted. As a result, Hokkaido was successfully able to contain its outbreak.
For the cluster-based approach to be effective, protective measures at airports and ports are important. Hokkaido has the advantage of being an island, making it comparatively easy to control the inflow of infected people. Behavioral changes are also required. On February 28, 2020, acting without legal basis, Hokkaido Governor Naomichi Suzuki declared a state of emergency and called on residents to refrain from going outside. Residents took the call seriously, and are responsible for the success of the cluster-based approach. Following its success in Hokkaido, the cluster-based approach was adopted nationally. On February 25, 2020, a Cluster Response Team was established in the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare.
Here is more from Kazuto Suzuki, with other points of note.
That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:
The immediate future of my region thus appears to be a major demand shock to the stores, acceptable continuing employment for the upper middle class, and economic devastation for lower-income individuals. The traditional mix of government-connected employment and retail will swing heavily in the direction of government. In essence, the federal government will pay its employees to click on Amazon while working from home.
The ethnic dimension of Covid-19 in Fairfax County is especially noteworthy. Latinos make up 16.8% of the county’s population, but account for 62.7% of the diagnosed Covid-19 cases. And if you assume that perhaps lower-income Latinos are less willing or able to go to a doctor, the true percentage of the Latino cases may be higher yet.
I thus foresee a future where people are more reluctant to hire Latino immigrants for housework or for child care, and thus additional home responsibilities will fall on parents, probably disproportionately on women. In turn, I expect many Latinos to leave the area, at least temporarily, unable to afford the higher rents when there is little work. There may also be greater employer discrimination against Latino applicants, as unfair or unjust as that would be.
Those developments will lead to Fairfax County becoming whiter. (If you are wondering, blacks are a slightly lower Covid-19 case share in the county than population share).
Recommended, for all those who care.
Interesting throughout, here is the audio and transcript. Here is the summary:
Paul Romer makes his second appearance to discuss the failings of economics, how his mass testing plan for COVID-19 would work, what aspect of epidemiology concern him, how the FDA is slowing a better response, his ideas for reopening schools and Major League Baseball, where he agrees with Weyl’s test plan, why charter cities need a new name, what went wrong with Honduras, the development trajectory for sub-Saharan Africa, how he’d reform the World Bank, the underrated benefits of a culture of science, his heartening takeaway about human nature from his experience at Burning Man, and more.
I liked the parts about charter cities and the World Bank the best, here is one excerpt:
COWEN: How optimistic are you more generally about the developmental trajectory for sub-Saharan Africa?
ROMER: There’s a saying I picked up from Gordon Brown, that in establishing the rule of law, the first five centuries are always the hardest. I think some parts of this development process are just very slow. If you look around the world, all the efforts since World War II that’s gone into trying to build strong, effective states, to establish the rule of law in a functioning state, I think the external investments in building states have yielded very little.
So we need to think about ways to transfer the functioning of existing states rather than just build them from scratch in existing places. That’s a lot of the impetus behind this charter cities idea. It’s both — you select people coming in who have a particular set of norms that then become the dominant norms in this new place, but you also protect those norms by certain kinds of administrative structures, state functions that reinforce them.
COWEN: If you could reform the World Bank, what would you do?
ROMER: Oh, that’s an interesting question. I think the Bank is trying to serve two missions, and it can’t do both. One is a diplomatic function, which I think is very important. The World Bank is a place where somebody who represents the government of China and somebody who represents the government of the United States sit in a conference room and argue, “Should we do A or B?” Not just argue, but discuss, negotiate. On a regular basis, they make decisions.
And it isn’t just China and the US. It’s a bunch of countries. I think it’s very good for personal relationships, for the careers of people who will go on to have other positions in these governments, to have that kind of experience of, basically, diplomatic negotiation over a bunch of relatively small items because it’s a confidence-building measure that makes it possible for countries to make bigger diplomatic decisions when they have to.
That, I think, is the value of the World Bank right now. The problem is that that diplomatic function is inconsistent with the function of being a provider of scientific insight. The scientific endeavor has to be committed to truth, no matter whose feathers get ruffled. There’s certain convenient fictions that are required for diplomacy to work. You start accepting convenient fictions in science, and science is just dead.
So the Bank’s got to decide: is it engaged in diplomacy or science? I think the diplomacy is its unique comparative advantage. Therefore, I think it’s got to get out of the scientific business. It should just outsource its research. It shouldn’t try and be a research organization, and it should just be transparent about what it can be good at and is good at.
And toward the end:
COWEN: Last question thread, what did you learn at Burning Man?
ROMER: Sometimes physical presence is necessary to appreciate something like scale. The scale of everything at Burning Man was just totally unexpected, a total surprise for me, even having looked at all of these pictures and so forth. That was one.
Another thing that really stood out, which is not exactly a surprise, but maybe it was the surprise in that group — if you ask, what do people do if you put them in a setting where there’s supposed to be no compensation, no quid pro quo, and you just give them a chance to be there for a week. What do they do?
For purposes of contrast, here is my first Conversation with Paul Romer.
That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:
Demand for in-restaurant dining is likely to fall as well, though estimates vary. Since the average small business carries less than a month’s worth of liquid reserves, and the wait for a vaccine is likely to be at least a year, many restaurants will simply be unable to survive the shrinking of the market.
I call these places ghost restaurants because they are still walking around, so to speak, visible to us and listed on Yelp, but not really alive and without much of a future.
In a few months’ time, a significant number of these ghost enterprises will be gone. My drive around Northern Virginia, rather than being rich with culinary choice, will soon become fairly desolate — and the overall economic landscape will indeed be much emptier.
What else in our current capital structure might qualify as “ghost”?
And while an all-but-certain death awaits some businesses, others can look forward to mere stagnation. If you are a 23-year-old entrepreneur, how easy will it be to build up the network of “soft ties” that will help you launch the next phase of your career?
As many marginal businesses are going under, it is quite possible that the public-health situation will improve. Civic spaces will repopulate as commercial ones depopulate, giving urban landscapes a confusing feel. And because there will be fewer businesses to choose from, it will be all the harder for those remaining to enforce social distancing.
Many Americans have been clamoring lately for more freedom, and those desires are understandable. But as they emerge from lockdown, they might well be disappointed to discover that, above all else, what people will be exercising is the freedom to go out of business.
If you start by using the word “ghost” (better than zombie, in this setting), don’t be surprised if the column turns out a bit gloomy!