Category: Current Affairs

India fact of the day

India’s most recent National Family Health Survey, which is conducted every five years by the Health Ministry, was released Wednesday and showed the total fertility rate (TFR) across India dropping to 2.0 in 2019-2021, compared with 2.2 in 2015-2016. A country with a TFR of 2.1, known as the replacement rate, would maintain a stable population over time; a lower TFR means the population would decrease in the absence of other factors, such as immigration…

In cities across India — as in other countries — women are opting for fewer children: The urban fertility rate is 1.6.

And the bias against baby girls is diminishing.  Here is the full story.  Via Naveen.

The Covid pandemic is not taking the very best of turns

This was emailed to me, but I am not doing a double indent…in any case I fear the person might be right…

“The prevailing sentiment is that the COVID pandemic is close to over. The vaccines are of course miraculous but we are not currently on a good trajectory.

  • It is increasingly clear that two shots plus a booster of our current vaccines are the least one needs to have effective medium-term protection. Almost nowhere (least of all the US) is on track to reach this kind of coverage. The messaging in the US remains mistaken, where the CDC to this day recommends boosters only for those aged 50 and older. More broadly, the institutional confusion around boosters shows that the adults are not yet in charge.
  • Even though Delta arose in the spring, we are still vaccinating (and boosting) people with the original Wuhan strain. This is insane, and probably meaningfully less effective, and yet nobody is up in arms about it.
  • Severe outbreaks are manifestly possible even in exceptionally vaccinated populations, especially when booster uptake is low. See: Singapore, Gibraltar, Ireland. One should assume that almost every part of the US will see significant waves before COVID “ends”, whatever that turns out to mean. Note that just 60% of the US population is vaccinated today with two doses.
  • There is early suggestive evidence from Israel that boosters may wane.
  • Waning aside, it’s clear that breakthrough infections in boosted individuals are not uncommon. While the vast majority of those infections are not severe, this does mean that there will still be plenty of mutagenesis.
  • It’s unclear that longitudinal cross-immunity is strong. Getting COVID is not enough to confer long-term protection. We probably can’t just “get this over with”, even if we are willing to tolerate a large number of one-time deaths.
  • The currently-breaking news about the South African Nu strain shows that arguments about how the spike protein is running out of mutation search space are almost certainly wrong.
  • While the fog of war is thick right now, the early data on Nu suggests that it may be a big deal. Even if it’s not, however, it has been obvious since we got the vaccines that vaccine escape is a concern. You can debate whether the probability of a vaccine escaping variant is 20% or 80%, but in any case we need effective contingency plans in place. If we fail to respond effectively to Nu, that will be a considerably greater institutional failure than anything that happened at the outset of the pandemic. We’ve had almost two years since the first COVID case and one year from the vaccine approvals to prepare. So I ask: what is the plan for the vaccine-escaping variant?

On current trends, it looks like we will probably need one of two things to effectively end the pandemic: (1) very effective COVID therapeutics (paxlovid, molnupiravir, and fluvoxamine all being candidates but my guess is that none is a silver bullet) or (2) pan-coronavirus vaccines (with broader protection than what is currently available).

It isn’t over yet.

P.S. Has any U.S. health body recommended the clinical use of fluvoxamine (an already-approved drug), or has the FDA given any guidance as to when it might approve paxlovid? If not, can they outline their reasoning? 1,600 Americans died of COVID on Nov 24.”

Nu, a variant of real concern

Here is the Eric Topol thread.  Do read it.  Here is the scary graph, based on preliminary data.  Here is Bloom Lab.  Here is a layperson’s take from the Times of London:

When was the variant first discovered?
South African authorities raised the alarm at 2pm on Tuesday of this week, when they found samples with a significant number of worrying mutations.

The samples dated from tests taken on November 14 and 16. On Wednesday, even as scientists were analysing the genome, other samples were found in Botswana and China, originating from travellers from South Africa.

Why were scientists initially concerned by this variant?
The spike protein is the tool a virus uses to enter cells, and the part of it our vaccines are trained to spot. This variant had 32 mutations in the spike — meaning it would look different to our immune system and behave differently when attacking a body. As a virologist at Imperial College put it, it was a “horrific spike profile”.

Why has worry increased over the course of the week?
When geneticists and virologists looked at the mutations they realised there was a high likelihood they could increase its transmissibility or help it evade immunity. But these concerns were still theoretical. However, today South African scientists spotted a quirk in the testing regimen. PCR tests look for three genes in the coronavirus and amplify them. If, however, the virus was this variant they were only able to amplify two.

In the province of Gauteng, where the proportion of tests coming back positive has rocketed to one in three, they found the proportion in which only two genes were amplified has also rocketed.

What does this mean?
There are three options. It is still possible — though unlikely — this is chance, with the variant’s apparently increased spread relating to an unusual cluster. If it does have a genuine advantage, then it is either better able to spread or better able to infect people who have prior immunity — either from vaccination or infection. Or, it is both.

This might come to nothing, but it is definitely a matter of concern.  One more general point is that even if Nu is a non-event, it seems to show that the space for possible significant mutations is largely than we had thought.

What should I ask Russ Roberts?

I will be doing a podcast with him, specifically focusing on his decision to emigrate to Israel.  Here are the suggestions that Russ solicited from Twitter.  We will release the episode both on EconTalk and on CWT.

So what should I ask him?  Keep in mind this is the Conversation with Russ I want to have…

Carlsen vs. Nepo

Here is my Bloomberg column on that topic:

He [Carlsen] recently opined that he is lucky to be facing Nepo rather than two other potential challengers, Fabio Caruana or Ding Liren. That’s the kind of trash talk most sports competitors frown upon for fear of motivating opponents.

Carlsen also has been engaging in online marathons of “bullet chess,” exactly the kind of attention-disrupting, energy-draining stunt contenders are supposed to avoid. In a bullet game, each player has only one minute for all the moves. The pace is so rapid the games are hard to watch, much less play. Carlsen also made a recent appearance in Dortmund, Germany, in part to pose for a photo with a Norwegian soccer player. Nepo, in contrast, claims to have done an “insane amount of work” for the event.

Will the fast thinking of bullet chess help Carlsen see more moves during the much slower time controls of the match with Nepo? (A championship game can easily last four hours or more.) Or maybe the bullet success will intimidate Nepo?

Carlsen also is making it clear that for him, chess is a business proposition. His parents set up a company in his name when he was 16, and the commercial empire since has expanded. Carlsen has worked as a fashion model, endorsed an online sports betting site, and worked with a Norwegian water company. He sponsors a leading chess app and has organized his own series of online chess tournaments, played with more rapid time controls, during the pandemic. Those events arguably have attracted more attention than any of the mainstream tournaments.

Carlsen is probably at the point where even a loss in the match would barely affect his income stream, and that is a dangerous motivational place to be…

Nepo is considered a super-talented but inconsistent player, one who does not bounce back well from adversity. But if he stays focused he could pose a formidable challenge. He was never expected to be a challenger in the first place, so he may feel he has little to lose and, in accord with his naturally aggressive style, he can take all the chances he wants. Carlsen is considered the superior player, perhaps the greatest ever, and remains a heavy favorite with the sports betting sites.

I am picking Carlsen to win.  And on the future of chess:

Carlsen has argued that the mainstream matches of classical chess are too slow and yield too many draws. He would prefer a time limit of around 25 minutes per game per player to become the default. Why shouldn’t the world of chess switch over to a system that spectators seem to prefer?

If Carlsen retains his title, he may well lead such a switch, and it would be hard for the chess establishment to resist. If Nepo wins the match, Carlsen might secede from the current system, causing the chess world to splinter.

What we are seeing in the lead-up to this match is this: A healthy chess world is going to be a more diversely organized chess world, with a lot of disagreement over which forms of chess are most important. Twitch streaming and YouTube already have joined the mix. Chess is likely to retain its recent popularity, but in doing so it will fully realize its destiny as the esport it has already become. The good news is that if you don’t like the outcome of the upcoming chess drama, you can find another one to watch the next day.

Recommended.

The next Fed chair

Although the betting markets favor Powell, I’m at the point where I think the Biden people are more likely to throw him overboard for Brainard and blame him for the inflation; if they opt for reappointment, it feels like they have to “own” the inflation  I favor Powell because I think he is less likely to institute a disastrous version of the “central bank digital currency” idea, and because he is better at dealing with Congress and generating support for Fed policies.  He might also be better at allowing crypto innovation to proceed, although that is just a guess, not based on solid information.

p.s. The word is that it will be Powell!

The weirdness of government variation in Covid-19 responses

That is the new Substack post from Richard Hanania, here is one excerpt:

But imagine at the start of the pandemic, someone had said to you “Everyone will face the existence of the same disease, and have access to the exact same tools to fight it. But in some EU countries or US states, people won’t be allowed to leave their house and have to cover their faces in public. In other places, government will just leave people alone. Vast differences of this sort will exist across jurisdictions that are similar on objective metrics of how bad the pandemic is at any particular moment.”

I would’ve found this to be a very unlikely outcome! You could’ve convinced me EU states would do very little on COVID-19, or that they would do lockdowns everywhere. I would not have believed that you could have two neighboring countries that have similar numbers, but one of them forces everyone to stay home, while the other doesn’t. This is the kind of extreme variation in policy we don’t see in other areas.

It’s similar when you look at American jurisdictions.

And:

As the political reaction to COVID-19 has surprised me, I’m still trying to figure it out. But for now I can say it’s shifted my priors in a few ways.

  1. People are more conformist than I would have thought, being willing to put up with a lot more than I expected, at least in Europe and the blue parts of the US.
  2. Americans in Red States are more instinctively anti-elite than I would have thought and can be outliers on all kinds of policy issues relative to the rest of the developed world (I guess I knew that already).
  3. Partisanship is much stronger than I thought. When I saw polls on anti-vax sentiment early in the pandemic, I actually said it would disappear when people would have to make decisions about their own lives and everyone could see vaccines work. This largely didn’t happen. Liberals in Blue States masking their kids outdoors is the other side of this coin. Most “Red/Blue Team Go” behavior has little influence on people’s lives. For example, deciding to vote D or R, or watch MSNBC or Fox, really doesn’t matter for your personal well-being. Not getting vaccinated or never letting your children leave the house does, and I don’t recall many cases where partisanship has been such a strong predictor of behavior that has such radical effects on people’s lives.
  4. Government measures that once seemed extreme can become normalized very quickly.
  5. The kinds of issues that actually matter electorally are a lot more “sticky” than I would have expected. Issues like masks and lockdowns, though objectively much more important than the things people vote on, are not as politically salient as I would have thought. A mask mandate for children eight hours a day strikes me as a lot more important than inflation, but it seems not to be for electoral purposes. If an asteroid was about to destroy earth and Democrats and Republicans had different views on how to stop it, people would just unthinkingly believe whatever their own side told them and it would not change our politics at all.
  6. Democratically elected governments have a lot more freedom than I thought before, especially if elites claim that they are outsourcing decisions to “the science.” Moreover, “the science” doesn’t even have to be that convincing, and nobody will ask obvious questions like how “the science” can allow for radically different policy responses in neighboring jurisdictions without much of a difference in results. This appears true everywhere in the developed world but in Red State America, where people really hate experts, regardless of whether they’re right or wrong.

You should all be getting Richard’s Substack.  Of all the “new thinkers” on the Right, he is the one who most combines extreme smarts and first-rate work ethic, with non-conformism thrown in to boot.  Read him!

The Great Resignation: Health Care Workers

We are short a million health care workers. Today with extreme stress on the system there are 16 million health care workers, about five hundred thousand fewer than when the pandemic began in January of 2020 and about one million fewer than would be expected based on decades of growth. A loss of this many workers is unprecedented.

Ed Yong in the Atlantic discusses Why Health-Care Workers are Quitting in Droves:

Health-care workers, under any circumstances, live in the thick of death, stress, and trauma. “You go in knowing those are the things you’ll see,” Cassandra Werry, an ICU nurse currently working in Idaho, told me. “Not everyone pulls through, but at the end of the day, the point is to get people better. You strive for those wins.” COVID-19 has upset that balance, confronting even experienced people with the worst conditions they have ever faced and turning difficult jobs into unbearable ones.

In the spring of 2020, “I’d walk past an ice truck of dead bodies, and pictures on the wall of cleaning staff and nurses who’d died, into a room with more dead bodies,” Lindsay Fox, a former emergency-medicine doctor from Newark, New Jersey, told me. At the same time, Artec Durham, an ICU nurse from Flagstaff, Arizona, was watching his hospital fill with patients from the Navajo Nation. “Nearly every one of them died, and there was nothing we could do,” he said. “We ran out of body bags.”

…Many health-care workers imagined that such traumas were behind them once the vaccines arrived. But plateauing vaccination rates, premature lifts on masking, and the ascendant Delta variant undid those hopes. This summer, many hospitals clogged up again. As patients waited to be admitted into ICUs, they filled emergency rooms, and then waiting rooms and hallways. That unrealized promise of “some sort of normalcy has made the feelings of exhaustion and frustration worse,” Bettencourt told me.

Health-care workers want to help their patients, and their inability to do so properly is hollowing them out. “Especially now, with Delta, not many people get better and go home,” Werry told me. People have asked her if she would have gone to nursing school had she known the circumstances she would encounter, and for her, “it’s a resounding no,” she said. (Werry quit her job in an Arizona hospital last December and plans on leaving medicine once she pays off her student debts.)

…Many have told me that they’re bone-weary, depressed, irritable, and (unusually for them) unable to hide any of that. Nurses excel at “feeling their feelings in a supply closet or bathroom, and then putting their game face back on and jumping into the ring,” Werry said. But she and others are now constantly on the verge of tears, or prone to snapping at colleagues and patients. Some call this burnout, but Gerard Brogan, the director of nursing practice at National Nurses United, dislikes the term because “it implies a lack of character,” he told me. He prefers moral distress—the anguish of being unable to take the course of action that you know is right.

Health-care workers aren’t quitting because they can’t handle their jobs. They’re quitting because they can’t handle being unable to do their jobs.

Hat tip: Matt Yglesias.

My Conversation with David Rubinstein

Here is the audio, video, and transcript — David has a studio in his home!  Here is part of the CWT summary:

He joined Tyler to discuss what makes someone good at private equity, why 20 percent performance fees have withstood the test of time, why he passed on a young Mark Zuckerberg, why SPACs probably won’t transform the IPO process, gambling on cryptocurrency, whether the Brooklyn Nets are overrated, what Wall Street and Washington get wrong about each other, why he wasn’t a good lawyer, why the rise of China is the greatest threat to American prosperity, how he would invest in Baltimore, his advice to aging philanthropists, the four standards he uses to evaluate requests for money, why we still need art museums, the unusual habit he and Tyler share, why even now he wants more money, why he’s not worried about an imbalance of ideologies on college campuses, how he prepares to interview someone, what appealed to him about owning the Magna Carta, the change he’d make to the US Constitution, why you shouldn’t obsess about finding a mentor, and more.

Here is an excerpt from the dialogue:

And:

And please note that David has a new book out, The American Experiment: Dialogues on a Dream.

The Paxlovid Paradox

Zvi at LessWrong rounds up the COVID news including this excellent bit on Pfizer’s anti-Covid pill Paxlovid which looks to be very effective but is not yet FDA approved.

The trial was stopped due to ‘ethical considerations’ for being too effective. You see, we live in a world in which:

  1. It is illegal to give this drug to any patients, because it hasn’t been proven safe and effective.
  2. It is illegal to continue a trial to study the drug, because it has been proven so safe and effective that it isn’t ethical to not give the drug to half the patients.
  3. Who, if they weren’t in the study, couldn’t get the drug at all, because it is illegal due to not being proven safe and effective yet. 
  4. So now no one gets added to the trial so those who would have been definitely don’t get Paxlovid, and are several times more likely to die.
  5. But our treatment of them is now ‘ethical.’
  6. For the rest of time we will now hear about how it was only seven deaths and we can’t be sure Paxlovid works or how well it works, and I expect to spend hours arguing over exactly how much it works.
  7. For the rest of time people will argue the study wasn’t big enough so we don’t know the Paxlovid is safe.
  8. Those arguments will then be used both by people arguing to not take Paxlovid, and people who want to require other interventions because of these concerns.
  9. FDA Delenda Est.

Real consumption must at some point fall

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

The best way to adjudicate competing claims about today’s economy is to consider opportunities for consumption. Over much of the last two years, labor supply contracted significantly, in large part due to the pandemic. That means the economy produced less. If you produce less, sooner or later you have to consume less, too. And if you consume less, you will be dissatisfied with economic conditions, especially in America, where the consumer typically is considered to be king (or queen).

There isn’t any way around this basic logic, no matter what the data say. Even if measured consumption is currently high, at some point it will have to fall relative to expectations. And indeed there are a host of problems, with shortages, supply-chain delays and a sluggish service sector. In a normal year, more Americans would have seen “Dune” on the big screen and gone to concerts. Americans are not quite able to get what they want, and that is obscured in the aggregate statistics.

The biggest messenger for consumption losses is the rate of consumer price inflation, which measured at 6.2% on last reading. Not so many Americans expect to get an offsetting raise…in return, and above-average inflation is likely to continue for a year or two, some would say for longer. So real wages for many millions of Americans will be noticeably lower for the near future, too. That will translate into lower levels of consumption, with the timing of those losses depending on the spending and borrowing plans of individual households.

Add to all this growing and unprecedentedly high debt for the federal government, plus unfunded liabilities in Medicare and Social Security.

Even if they don’t understand the exact economic logic here, most Americans grasp the common-sense truth that inflation and deficits are bad — for them, for their real wages, and for their future opportunities. They are happy to have higher savings in the bank, but they see the treadmill turning ever faster.

Some parts of the labor shortage also qualify as a decline in consumption. One reason for the “great resignation” is that people cannot get the kinds of jobs they want. That too is a manner of enduring lower consumption, even though it does not show up in consumption statistics. It’s not just the unemployed, as many people took jobs they were only marginally happy with. A job might involve a higher risk of Covid exposure than a worker feels comfortable with, or an internship might take place in a largely empty office.

Here is the James Brown song “The Payback.”

China fact of the day

Global concerns over inflation were also inflamed by data released earlier on Wednesday, showing that Chinese producer price inflation — the measure of what businesses pay each other for goods — rose 13.5 per cent in October from the same time last year, its biggest leap in 26 years as factories absorbed higher energy prices.

Here is more from the FT, mostly about domestic U.S. inflationary pressures.