Category: Current Affairs

How might depopulation reverse itself?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, drawing upon an earlier discussion by Robin Hanson.  The problem is this: if families find that having three or four kids just isn’t that fun, and women wish to focus more on their careers, which forces might be capable of reversing that trend?:

One possibility is that a shrinking population itself will bring self-reversing mechanisms. For instance, a Japanese population half its current size would make Japan an emptier place, presumably lowering land prices. Some families would find it easier to afford a larger apartment in central Tokyo and perhaps decide to have more children.

But that mechanism seems more likely to reduce population decline than to reverse it. Living space is only one of many factors behind decisions about family size. And as population declines, the stock of houses and apartments will decline too, so in the longer run the amount of space per family may not increase by very much…

Another factor in declining fertility, especially in the U.S., is single parenthood. If a potential mother is facing a fertility decision without another full-time parent on the scene, she is more likely to choose to have fewer children. As population falls, will single-parent families become less common? It is hard to see why. Whether the issue is a lack of marriageable men, unstable family norms or women who simply prefer to go it alone, there is no particular reason to think those factors will disappear in an era of population decline.

And:

What might be some other intervening factors to restore fertility? Perhaps tender and loving robots will make it much easier to raise young children. Or maybe, as populations fall to much lower levels, a sense of moral panic will set in. Families might decide to have more children, feeling that the very survival of their country is at stake. A more elaborate and dystopian scenario would be that corporations take over empty parts of the globe and pay for the raising of children there, in return for a share of their future income.

Here is Ross Douthat’s Sunday column on broadly similar issues, each column was written independently of the other.  As I interpret his discussion, he is more (potentially?) optimistic about ideological and religious forces reversing the decline than I am, in any case an interesting contrast of approach.  By the way, here is Robin Hanson’s proposal for how to escape the problem, more economistic than either Ross or myself.

A quiet war, with mutual option values on both escalation and further Clubhouse comments

‘Neither Israel nor Iran want to publicly take responsibility for the attacks because doing so would be an act of war with military consequences,’ Hossein Dalirian, a military analyst affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, told The New York Times in a Clubhouse discussion on Thursday.

Here is the full NYT article.

Supply chain sentences to ponder

Khanna says these intricacies mean that brash political talk about reshoring operations is naive. “Even the supply chain has a supply chain,” he says.

A dose of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, for example, requires 280 components from multiple countries, according to the company. The idea of moving from what Okonjo-Iweala calls “just in time to just in case to just at home” is harder than it looks.

Here is more from David Pilling and co-authors at the FT.

Charter city finally in Honduras?

Próspera is the first project to gain approval from Honduras to start a privately governed charter city, under a national program started in 2013. It has its own constitution of sorts and a 3,500-page legal code with frameworks for political representation and the resolution of legal disputes, as well as minimum wage (higher than Honduras’s) and income taxes (lower in most cases). After nearly half a decade of development, the settlement will announce next week that it will begin considering applications from potential residents this summer.

The first colonists will be e-residents. Próspera doesn’t yet have housing ready to be occupied. But even after the site is built out, most constituents will never set foot on local soil, says Erick Brimen, its main proprietor. Instead, Brimen expects about two-thirds of Prósperans to sign up for residency in order to incorporate businesses there or take jobs with local employers while living elsewhere…

After years of debate, Próspera will be the first real-world test of a divisive libertarian idea, says Beth Geglia, an anthropologist who studies charter cities. “There was a noticeable lull in the startup city movement in general until the Próspera Zede project got off the ground,” she says. “It’s ground zero.”

There is considerably more at the link, if this continues on track I will gladly visit and report back.

Focus on the supply side

The biggest question in the U.S. right now is how rapidly vaccinations will proceed. Yet only 8.5% of the new appropriations — under the most generous calculations — are directed toward vaccine supply and anti-Covid-19 efforts.

The biggest question for the world is whether the wealthier nations will put up the estimated $25 billion needed to jump-start a global vaccination campaign in a (relatively) timely manner. So far it appears that they will not — again, a supply-side issue. There did not seem to be much interest in putting such an expenditure into the American Rescue Plan, even though the resulting resumption of trade and migration would undoubtedly have benefited the U.S. by far more than $25 billion.

Major stories about supply-side problems receive only fleeting notice in the U.S. media. Poor infrastructure and distribution are making it difficult for the 270 million inhabitants of Indonesia to get vaccinated, yet very few Americans are paying attention. Indonesia is not usually the focus of attention — and people are not sufficiently obsessed with the supply side.

In the corporate world, there was the big announcement that Intel plans to move full speed ahead to produce more high-quality semiconductor chips and to put more chip factories in the U.S. That switch has come after years of disappointing results from Intel. Can it set things straight? Right now there is a chip shortage in automobile manufacturing, and given the potential fragility of Taiwanese chip supply, U.S. national security hangs in the balance…

Supply-side economics got a bad name because it was associated with too many economists who insisted that tax cuts would be self-financing, or who insisted on tax cuts above all other possible supply-side improvements. Yet all economists ought to proudly announce that they are supply-side economists, first and foremost. That is pretty far from the world we live in, especially as social media have made U.S. monetary and fiscal policies a touchstone for the entire world to debate, often in highly emotional terms.

Here is the rest of my Bloomberg column.

Housing and the Game of Reverse Musical Chairs

The Mayor of Charlottesville recently tweeted.

Please explain how building more market rate housing will free up the housing market for low-income citizens. Which low-income citizens will be able to afford to buy or rent a home that’s going to sell to $450,000? New construction will not lower the selling price of older homes….

musical chairsFortunately, Bryan Caplan has an excellent explanation, the game of reverse musical chairs.

New housing is usually nice housing, because over time technology improves and capital depreciates.  Since richer people are more willing to pay the upcharge for nicer housing, the future residents of new construction are usually well-to-do.

So what do casual observers miss?  They miss the big picture: People who move into new construction are moving away from older construction.  When they move, those older units become available for others.  While those others probably won’t be drastically poorer than those they replace, they tend to be slightly poorer.  Think: “one rung down.”  When these slightly poorer people move, their prior dwellings will tend to be taken over by those who are a further rung down.  And so on, in a great chain reaction.  Allowing new construction really does help the whole income distribution.

Since this is hard to visualize, picture a game of musical chairs.  With one key difference.  A normal game of musical chairs starts out with one chair per person, then subtracts a chair every turn.  The result: Faster, aggressive kids push out everyone else, until the fastest, most aggressive kid wins.  In my variant game, we start out with fewer chairs than people, then add a chair every turn.  The result: Slower and more pacific kids start getting places to sit, until there are enough chairs for everyone.

Both games feature a competitive scramble.  In conventional musical chairs, however, the competition gets more and more cutthroat and in the end almost everyone loses.  In my reverse musical chairs, in contrast, competition gets milder and milder and in the end everyone wins.

Trypanophobia or How to Alleviate Vaccine Hesitancy

A significant share of vaccine hesitancy is driven by fear of needles, trypanophobia. Adults don’t like to admit a fear of needles and less so that they would avoid a vaccine for fear of a needle. But trypanophobia is common and does reduce flu immunizations:

Avoidance of influenza vaccination because of needle fear occurred in 16% of adult patients, 27% of hospital employees, 18% of workers at long‐term care facilities, and 8% of healthcare workers at hospitals. Needle fear was common when undergoing venipuncture, blood donation, and in those with chronic conditions requiring injection.

Aside from fear of the needle, I think there is also a perception that needles are “serious medicine” and thus anything that comes in needle form must be serious or dangerous. In fact, vaccines are safer than many commonly used drugs that are taken orally.

Needle hesitancy is bad for the hesitant who don’t get protection from COVID and bad for everyone else who are further subject to transmission from unvaccinated carriers.

The best way to alleviate needle hesitancy is to get rid of the needle. Operation Warp Speed made smart investments in a fairly widely range of vaccines (we advised going wider) including a pill vaccine from VaxArt. The VaxArt vaccine has completed a Phase I trial with modest results and is moving into Phase II. Nasal vaccines are in development. The RadVac open science vaccine, for example, is a nasal vaccine available to anyone with a scientific bent willing to give an unapproved vaccine a try. CodaGenix has a nasal vaccine in Phase I trials as does Altimmune.

Aside from ease of delivery, a COVID nasal or oral vaccine may also be better than intramuscular injection because it stimulates the immune system at the first point of viral attack, the mucosal tissues in the nose, mouth, lungs and digestive tract. In addition, the mucosal immune system has some unique elements so you get a potentially stronger immune response more capable of neutralizing the virus quickly.

Operation Warp Speed investments generated trillions in value for billions in cost, a few additional smart investments in accelerating nasal and oral vaccines could pay off highly in mopping up vaccine hesitancy and moving us more quickly to herd immunity. We could even do a human challenge trial with nasal vaccine v. intramusucalar injection. Oral and nasal vaccines will also be great for kids and for booster shots.

Even at this late stage we are spending trillions on stimulus/relief and not enough on investment, especially on highly successful investment in vaccines.

Addendum: I know it probably won’t help but fyi, it’s a painless shot. Nothing to fear! Get a superpower and a donut afterwards. It will be memorable.

Noah Smith on the new macro wars

The most interesting thing about the new Macro Wars is that academic research is almost a total non-factor. In 2011 we were arguing about the Zero Lower Bound, DSGE models versus reduced-form models, etc. Now, though academics are involved in the debates, you rarely see an actual paper invoked. And when it is, it’s nearly always an empirical paper rather than a theory paper.

Why? If academics themselves weren’t involved in the debates, you could say that OK, maybe these people are just ignorant of the literature. But academics are involved, and they do know the literature; they’re just not invoking it much. Also, it’s not that Twitter econ debates are lightweight or short on references — the minimum wage debate, for example, cites papers constantly.

You can come up with various hypotheses for this, but it seems fairly clear to me that the reason is that everyone quietly stopped believing in the usefulness of academic macro theory. Macro profs are still out there doing their jobs, writing theory papers, and getting paid handsomely for it — in fact, I’d argue that with folks like Emi Nakamura, Jon Steinsson, Yuriy Gorodnichenko, and Ivan Werning on the job, the field of macro theory is chock full of top talent. And those are good people who take their jobs seriously and aren’t out to push political narratives.

But the problem is that macro theory is just really, really hard.

His whole Substack post is very good, though I give the entire matter a different interpretation.  I do not view contemporary macroeconomics as wonderfully predictive, but it does put constraints on what you can advocate or for that matter on what you can predict.  I saw the Republicans go down this path some time ago, and now the Democrats are following them — it ain’t pretty.  I think what we are seeing now is that (some, not all) Democratic economists want Democrats to be popular, and to win, and so they will rearrange macroeconomic thinking accordingly.  David Henderson, in a recent post, put the point well:

Notice what even Krugman admits. First, that the aid to state and local governments is too much, even by his standards. Second, the checks to people who hadn’t suffered much, which are a huge part of the package, are the “least-justifiable piece in terms of standard economics.” And what’s Krugman’s justification for those payments? That they are “by far the most popular” and, for that reason, we can’t “entirely disregard that.”

On the actual analytics of this debate, Summers has been a clear winner, and that simply hasn’t mattered much at all.  See also this excellent comment by Karl Smith:

Bidenism is hitting at exactly the right time politically. It’s not pushing the American people but meeting them where they are. It is quite frankly the coherent manifestation of MAGAism in the same way that Reaganism was a coherent manifestation of Carter-era deregulation

Ongoing…

Power Up!

Two weeks ago I was bitten by the equivalent of a radioactive spider and now I have superpowers! Including the power of immunity and the power to fly! Awesome. As I said earlier, the SARS-COV-2 virus killed more people this year than bullets “so virus immunity is a much better superpower than bullet immunity!”

I got the J&J vaccine–one of the first in the world to do so–which seemed appropriate as I have been calling for first doses first and the J&J vaccine is single dose. I will probably supplement with Novavax at a later date when supplies are plentiful.

Addendum: Also, I can get free donuts at Krispy Kreme.

That was then, this is now, the median voter theorem remains underrated

In March 2020, the Trump administration put into place one of the most controversial and restrictive immigration policies ever implemented at the U.S. border — and in January, President Biden quietly continued it.

The Biden administration says the Trump-era policy known as Title 42, which relies on a 1944 public health statute to indefinitely close the border to “nonessential” travel, remains necessary to limit the spread of the coronavirus. At the same time, Biden officials say, migrants at the southern border still can seek protection in the United States, a right afforded to them under U.S. law.

Yet since March 20, 2020, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its order invoking Title 42, U.S. border officials have claimed unchecked, unilateral authority to summarily expel from the country hundreds of thousands of immigrant adults, families and unaccompanied minors who didn’t have prior permission to enter, without due process or access to asylum — let alone testing for the coronavirus.

In a year of Title 42, of more than 650,000 encounters with migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, fewer than 1% have been able to seek protection, the Los Angeles Times has learned…

“The Biden administration’s use of Title 42 is flatly illegal,” said Lee Gelernt of the American Civil Liberties Union, who sued the Trump administration over the policy, which the Biden administration is defending in court. “There is zero daylight between the Biden administration and Trump administration’s position.”

Here is the full story, via Rich.  Here is further coverage.  And why is the problem not going away?  Here is the FT:

Experts said Biden’s decision to exempt minors from expulsion will keep the numbers flowing. “It’s a no-brainer”, said Jasmin Singh, a New York-based immigration lawyer. “It’s all kids at the moment,” said one person in Guatemala involved in the smuggling, or coyote, trade.

Ongoing…

The EU Vaccine Bungling

The EU vaccine rollout has been remarkably bungled even by the standards we have come to expect from Western governments. In advising governments I and the AHT team argued that vaccines were the world’s easiest cost-benefit test because Billions<<Trillions. Yet when manufactures offered the EU vaccines worth thousands of dollars a dose for just $5-$40 a dose the EU foolishly shouted “price gouging” and wasted weeks in dickering. I leave it to you as an exercise to calculate the value EU governments implicitly placed on European lives.

The latest bungling was the halt by over a dozen European governments of vaccination with the AstraZeneca vaccine due to fears that it might cause very rare blood clots (wisely Belgium and Great Britain continued vaccinations). After a review, the EMA has now cleared the vaccine:

The European Union’s drug regulator said on Thursday that the AstraZeneca vaccine was safe and effective, a finding that officials hope will alleviate concerns about possible rare side effects involving blood clots and allow more than a dozen countries that halted its use to add it back into their arsenal against the resurgent coronavirus.

The halt, however, was never justified. The EMA press release make this clear because it hasn’t added much more information it only underlines what we already knew. Namely, there was no increase in the overall risk of blood clots. There might be an increase in a very rare type of blood clot but that wasn’t obvious, especially when one takes into account that when you are monitoring hundreds of rare side effects it’s bound to be the case that some show statistically significant effects even if there are no true effects. As a result, the more conditions you test the higher standards you should apply to judge a difference as statistically significant (ala Bonferroni Correction which the EMA does not appear to have done). Moreover, even assuming that the rare vaccine effects were real they were thousands of times less than the effects of blood clotting from COVID itself so if you wanted to avoid blood clots the way to do so was to take the vaccine. Moreover, even assuming that the rare effects were real, they were not larger than those from other common activities such as flying or taking contraceptive pills. Moreover, and this point does not seem to have been made prominent, the most plausible argument for the vaccine creating blood clots is through the generation of the spike protein, which all the vaccines do, so there is little reason to believe that the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine would not also have the same problems (which they might). Thus, the focus on AZ seemed oddly misplaced. Draw your own conclusions on that.

The end result is that more people will die from the halt than could possible have been saved by the halt. Why did this happen? One reason is the absurd focus on doing anything to alleviate “vaccine hesitancy.” To alleviate vaccine hesitancy we have repeatedly sent the message that the vaccines are “safe, safe, safe.” When we should have said the vaccines pass a cost-benefit test (with flying colors!) and are much safer than many drugs people take for less serious conditions. But every drug or vaccine has side-effects. Tradeoffs are everywhere.

Unfortunately, vaccine hesitancy seems to have become a catch-all excuse for never having to show your work with a cost-benefit analysis. As I said in my post Don’t Delay a Vaccine to Allay Fear (should have said don’t halt one either!):

We should not let public policy be guided by the most risk averse, fearful, and scientifically illiterate among us.

[And]… rather than alleviating fear, delay may increase fear. People may reason, if the FDA is taking this long to review the evidence when thousands of people are dying every day it must be a hard decision.

The latter point, of course, is exactly what has happened. The EU halt has increased vaccine hesitancy rather than alleviating it.

Addendum:

  • Feb. 2: France restricts AstraZeneca vaccine to those aged less than 65 years of age.
  • March 2: France approves AZ vaccine for all ages.
  • March 19: France recommends AstraZeneca vaccine only to those aged more than 55 years.

I guess 55-65 years of age is the sweet spot.

How bad is EU bungling? So bad, Paul Krugman and I are in agreement. He almost quotes me on “Progressivism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be making a profit.”

Bigger Is Better When It Comes to Vaccine Production

My co-authors, Eric Budish and Chris Snyder, have an excellent piece in the WSJ:

We recently published a paper in the journal Science that aimed to quantify the enormous value of Covid-19 vaccine capacity: both existing and the value of building more. We worked with a team of economists, statisticians and policy experts led by the University of Chicago’s Michael Kremer.

While vaccines are intuitively very valuable, the numbers are mind-boggling. The value of three billion courses of annual vaccine capacity—enough to vaccinate rich countries by the end of 2021 and the world by the end of 2022—is $17.4 trillion, or $5,800 for every course. This reflects the value of getting people back to work and school, avoiding unnecessary deaths and preserving health. If anything, we suspect our figure is conservative.

We estimate that another billion courses of vaccine capacity is worth $1 trillion of additional global benefits, and could accelerate vaccination by two months for rich countries and five months for the world. This $1 trillion—$1,000 for each additional course—would be much higher if the pandemic takes a turn for the worse—if, say, new variants require fresh vaccination or some vaccine manufacturers hit production snags.

Is it physically possible to build more capacity? We don’t know how much more can be built and how quickly, but the global benefits of capacity—$5,800 for every vaccination course overall, and $1,000 for incremental capacity—far exceed the prices paid to firms in deals to date, between $6 and $40 a course. This means that private incentives are a fraction of the social value at stake.

Private incentives may be particularly poor when it comes to speed. Consider a firm that will vaccinate one billion people at a fixed price of $40 each. The firm earns the same $40 billion whether it supplies the billion courses in a single month or stretched over a year. But doing it in a month requires 12 times the capacity costs. If you are wondering why vaccination is taking so long, this is the basic economic reason.

…The recent announcement that Merck will produce the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a great example of finding a creative way to build more capacity. We don’t have specific production numbers for this deal. But suppose deals like this one could create an additional 40 million courses a month for the U.S., starting in April. Our analysis suggests that such a capacity increase is worth $136 billion to the U.S. and allows Americans to be vaccinated by June instead of August. If this new capacity is donated to the world after the U.S. is finished using it, it would generate more than $500 billion in total global benefits and accelerate global vaccination by nearly three months.

There are also options for stretching what exists: delaying the second of two doses, giving only one dose to those previously infected, or using lower-dose regimens. If it turns out that half doses are almost as effective as full doses, or a single dose is almost as effective as a two-dose course, capacity would effectively double overnight—which our analysis suggests is worth several trillion dollars.

Is this truly an Irish equilibrium?

The British health system is the single most important issue driving opposition to Irish unification in Northern Ireland. Citizens of Northern Ireland get free medical care as part of the U.K.’s socialized medicine. British taxpayers subsidize Northern Ireland’s public services to the tune of $12.5 billion, according to one estimate. That’s a lot of money to give up for the nationalist cause. Nor is it clear more generally what the costs of unification would be or who would pay them, or what the economic benefits of unification might involve and who would get them.

It rubs my intuition the wrong way to believe that one form of socialised medicine over another is actually the major factor.  In any case, here is more from Kimberly Cowell-Myers.

Pandemic sentences to ponder

Of course, there are national health systems in Canada, Mexico, England, and France, among many others, and the uniformity of failure across this heterodox group suggests that structure may have made less of a difference than culture.

“One of the common features is that we are a medical-centric group of countries,” says Michael Mina, a Harvard epidemiologist who has spent the pandemic advocating for mass rollout of rapid testing on the pregnancy-kit model — only to meet resistance at every turn by those who insisted on a higher, clinical standard for tests. “We have an enormous focus on medicine and individual biology and individual health. We have very little focus as a group of nations on prioritizing the public good. We just don’t. It’s almost taboo — I mean, it is taboo. We have physicians running the show — that’s a consistent thing, medical doctors across the western European countries, driving the decision-making.” The result, he says, has been short-sighted calculations that prioritize absolute knowledge about everything before advising or designing policy about anything.

…in East Asia, countries didn’t wait for the WHO’s guidance to change on aerosols or asymptomatic transmission before masking up, social-distancing, and quarantining. “They acted fast. They acted decisively,” says Mina. “They made early moves. They didn’t sit and ponder: ‘What should we do? Do we have all of the data before we make a single decision?’ And I think that is a common theme that we’ve seen across all the Western countries—a reluctance to even admit that it was a big problem and then to really act without all of the information available. To this day, people are still not acting.” Instead, he says, “decision-makers have been paralyzed. They would rather just not act and let the pandemic move forward than act aggressively, but potentially be wrong.”

This, he says, reflects a culture of medicine in which the case of the individual patient is paramount.

Here is more from David Wallace-Wells, interesting throughout and with a cameo from yours truly.

FDA Postpones Inspections Delaying New Drugs and Creating Shortages of Old Drugs

NYTimes: The Covid-19 pandemic has forced the Food and Drug Administration to postpone hundreds of drug company inspections, creating an enormous backlog that is delaying new drug approvals and leading the industry to warn of impending shortages of existing medicines.

…In an interview, F.D.A. officials said they sharply curtailed the inspections to protect their investigators, following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which discouraged federal employees from travel during the pandemic.

But some people in both industry and public health communities say that federal drug inspections are essential, and that the agency should bypass travel restrictions by taking precautions, including wearing proper personal protective equipment.

…In interviews, F.D.A. officials denied that the dramatic drop in inspections has slowed drug approvals. But a number of drug companies, including Spectrum Pharmaceuticals, Biocon Biologics and Bristol Myers Squibb, has issued statements noting deferred F.D.A. action because of the agency’s inability to conduct inspections.

  • In October, Spectrum announced that the F.D.A. had deferred action on its application for Rolontis, a treatment for cancer patients who have a very low number of certain white blood cells, because it could not inspect the manufacturing plant the company uses in South Korea.

  • In late December, Biocon Biologics notified shareholders that the F.D.A. deferred action on its joint application with Mylan for a proposed biosimilar to Avastin, a cancer drug.

  • Bristol Myers Squibb announced in November that the F.D.A. would miss its November deadline for taking action on a lymphoma treatment, lisocabtagene maraleucel because it could not inspect a third-party Texas manufacturing plant. The agency eventually did complete its inspection and approved the drug last month.

Grocery store workers are working, meat packers are working, hell bars and restaurants are open in many parts of the country but FDA inspectors aren’t inspecting. It boggles the mind.

Let’s review. The FDA prevented private firms from offering SARS-Cov2 tests in the crucial early weeks of the pandemic, delayed the approval of vaccines, took weeks to arrange meetings to approve vaccines even as thousands died daily, failed to approve the AstraZeneca vaccine, failed to quickly approve rapid antigen tests, and failed to perform inspections necessary to keep pharmaceutical supply lines open.

I am a long-time critic of the FDA and frankly I am stunned at the devastation.