Category: Current Affairs

That was then, this is now, Minneapolis racial animus edition

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…

And this:

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.

Conor Friedersdorf interviews me on the regulatory state and the pandemic

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.

The shift of prevalance toward the young

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%.

Here is the full article, via Anecdotal.  A number of points:

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…

Will science funding be revolutionized?

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.

Stockholm City’s Elderly Care and Covid19

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 developing countries the coronavirus deaths are younger

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.

Here is more from Terrence McCoy and Heloisa Traiano.

The Japan model

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.

How will Fairfax County evolve?

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.

My (second) Conversation with Paul Romer

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.

And this:

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?

They work.

For purposes of contrast, here is my first Conversation with Paul Romer.

Will Covid-19 expose the ghost firms?

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 this:

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!

A charter city finally in Honduras? (from Mark Lutter)

Prospera, Honduras just launched on the island of Roatan. It is a ZEDE (Zona de Empleo y Desarollo Economico), the legacy of Paul Romer’s time in Honduras promoting charter cities. It has substantial autonomy, different taxes, different courts, different labor law, and more. It is one of the most innovative jurisdictions in the world.

First, a bit of history. The ZEDE legislation was passed in 2013. It allows for the creation of a special jurisdiction with an almost unprecedented amount of autonomy. The only recent comparison is the Dubai International Financial Center, which, as the name suggests, focuses exclusively on finance. The ZEDE legislation allows for different labor law, environmental law, business registration, dispute resolution, and more. It is more analogous to Hong Kong, or at least the Hong Kong ideal, of one country, two systems.

In 2013 and 2014 rumors swirled about ZEDE projects, including a port in the Gulf of Fonseca, but nothing materialized. I even moved to Honduras in 2014, at the time the murder capital of the world, to be closer to the action. As late as 2017, the Honduran government was saying projects were about to begin.

The ZEDE legislation is the successor to the RED (Regiones Especiales de Desarrollo) legislation, which Romer helped introduce to build charter cities. Romer had a falling out with the Honduran government in 2012. Shortly after his departure, the RED legislation was declared unconstitutional. The ZEDE legislation was passed to address the constitutional shortcomings of the RED legislation, though it also benefitted from seeing the Supreme Court judges who ruled against the RED legislation fired. To be fair, the government claims they were fired for a ruling on a police brutality case, which I am wont to believe. If there was sufficient government support behind ZEDEs to fire Supreme Court justices, it would not have taken seven years for the first ZEDE to be launched.

I worked with much of the Prospera team under the previous incarnation, NeWAY Capital (I’m not sure of the formal relationship between the two). I left around the time they pivoted to Honduras, 2.5 years ago. I was skeptical, as Honduras was the place projects went to die. Years had gone by without projects gaining meaningful traction and I expected them to run out of funding before launching. I’m happy to have been proven wrong.

Congratulations to Erick Brimen and the team. It is a lot of work to create a new jurisdiction, especially one as innovative as Prospera. The Charter Cities Institute has two team members spending approximately two thirds of their time on developing a “Governance Handbook,” a guide to the governance of a new jurisdiction. It will likely take about 9 months to complete, and that is just for the handbook, not implementation…

Residency costs $1300 annually, unless you’re Honduran, in which case it costs $260. Becoming a resident also requires signing an “Agreement of Coexistence,” a legally binding contract between Prospera and the resident. Prospera, therefore, cannot change the terms without exposing itself to legal liability. Most governments have sovereign immunity, this goes a step beyond removing that, with a contract that clearly defines the rights and obligations on both sides.

After signing the Agreement of Coexistence, all residents are required to buy general liability insurance which will ensure themselves against both civil and criminal liability. General liability insurance, as well as criminal liability insurance, has been proposed by economist Robin Hanson, among others.

That is from an email by Mark Lutter, Founder and Executive Director of the Charter Cities Institute. I thank Massimo for drawing my attention to this.

Emergent Ventures prize winners, third cohort

I am happy to announce two further winners of the Emergent Ventures prizes to fight Covid-19.

The first is to for their excellent and intelligent reporting on public health, including the coronavirus, with the latter articles being ungated.

This is not only a prize for past achievement, but also resources to allow them to continue into the future.  As most of you know, journalism is a highly precarious enterprise these days.

And to be clear, this is a one-time prize and it involves absolutely no editorial control or influence over what they publish.

Here is a recent NYT article on  the headline reads: “The Medical News Site that Saw the Coronavirus Coming Months Ago.”

The second winner is Tina White and Covid Watch, for their work on track and trace apps, you will note that Tina and her group were earlier winners of a (smaller) Emergent Ventures fellowship.  This is an Early Response prize, for their critical and timely work to boost the quality of these apps and to make them more privacy-friendly and more palatable to civil liberties concerns.  Here is some coverage:

This App Protects Privacy While Tracing Covid-19 Infections

Here is the second cohort of prize winners, here is the first cohort.  And here is an update from Celine, from Curative Inc., from the very first cohort of winners:

Emergent Ventures is pleased to have been their very first funder, and to have consummated the entire grant process, including the wire of funds (at the time critical for materials purchase), in less than 24 hours.

How bad is Covid-19 risk compared to other risks?

I’ve had about five of you write me about this point in the last day.  Hundreds of thousands of people worldwide die from falls each year, what about car accidents, cancer, heart attacks, etc.?  Why is this new risk so special?

I think you need to keep clear monthly vs. yearly rates of death.  Covid-19 very likely has killed over 100,000 Americans over the last two months or so.

It either will continue at that pace or it won’t.  Let’s say that pace continues (unlikely in my view, but this is simply a scenario, at least until the second wave).  That is an ongoing risk higher than other causes of death, unless you are young.  You don’t have to be 77 for it to be your major risk worry.

Alternatively, let’s say the pace of those deaths will fall soon, and furthermore let’s say it will fall by a lot.  The near future will be a lot safer!  Which is all the more reason to play it very safe right now, because your per week risk currently is fairly high (in many not all parts of America).  Stay at home and wear a mask when you do go out.  If need be, make up for that behavior in the near future by indulging in excess.

A few of you also have asked me how all this Covid history has changed my view of the world.  If nothing else, I am realizing that people are worse at intertemporal substitution than I had thought.

On the all too frequent split between theory and practice

I know some people who react very fearfully each time a package comes to the door, or when a jogger passes ten feet away.

Maybe those people are right to have that response!  (Suspend judgment for the time being.)  But if they are right, and the risk is real rather than truly tiny, it is hard to imagine lockdown working.  We can’t eliminate all risk, and we will end up with a fairly high percentage of the population infected fairly quickly.  After all, danger is almost everywhere (in this view).  If you run a pretty high risk of getting infected over the next month or two anyway, you might as well go buy some shoes at Nordstrom for your trouble.

What is noteworthy is that these fearful people tend to be very supportive of lockdown.

On the other side of the coin, some individuals defend the Swedish model.  Presumably they believe that herd immunity can be achieved relatively quickly, and with a high upfront cost the medium- and long-term can be fairly safe, with a net gain overall.

Yet if you accept those presuppositions (suspend judgment for the time being), in fact you ought to behave in a very fearful manner.  Just stay at home and wait until herd immunity arrives in late summer or whenever, and then go out and have all of your fun.  Let the Nordstrom shoes wait!

Yet advocates of the Swedish model also seem quite interested in going out and frolicking in the shorter run.

In reality, mood affiliation may be playing a role here.  People side with either “caution and fearfulness,” or with “openness and boldness,” and then both their theories and behavior follow accordingly.

In reality, the Swedish model advocates ought to behave quite cautiously and lockdown advocates should be willing to take more chances.