Category: Current Affairs

Spain’s second wave of Covid-19

Did this happen? Were Spain’s hardest hit provinces in the spring spared in the second wave?

To get a quick sense of the answers to those questions I plotted the cumulative number of cases per 100,000 population in the Spanish provinces since June 15 against the proportion of the population in the provinces that tested positive for antibodies after the first wave. If herd immunity were playing a large role in suppressing cases in the second wave, we would expect to see a negative relationship between provinces with high levels of antibodies in the population at the end of May and total case counts since that time…

Instead of a negative correlation, there is a positive, although weak, correlation between having higher prevalence of antibodies in the population and having a higher case rate in the second wave.

…Take Madrid for example, if roughly 13% of the population had antibodies after the first wave, at least one of the low-HIT models estimates the Rₑ would be approximately 60% lower than than the unmitigated reproductive rate (R₀). If population immunity were reducing transmission in the Madrid area by 60% below unmitigated levels, it seems unlikely Madrid would again have one of the highest rates of infection in the second wave [yet it does].

…Ultimately, the strongest conclusion that can be drawn from this look at infection rates is that there is not clear evidence herd immunity is playing a significant role, yet.

Also take a look at a deeper dive looking for herd immunity in Sweden (spoiler alert: no signs of it yet).

It is fine to call this inconclusive, but still the pattern predicted by standard herd immunity claims is not yet showing up.  Here is the whole piece from Kbenes, very useful.

And elsewhere, this was not supposed to happen, as New York Orthodox Jews also have been cited as a “herd immunity” community:

Officials this week released statistics showing that the positivity rate in some Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods [in NYC] had grown to anywhere from 3 percent to 6 percent, significantly more than the city’s overall rate of between 1 percent and 2 percent. Officials are especially worried about the positivity rates in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Borough Park, Midwood and Gravesend, which they have referred to as the “Ocean Parkway Cluster.”

Here is that full story (NYT).

Solve for the Seattle equilibrium

Seattle now has on its payroll a convicted pimp who once vowed to “go to war” with the city — a $150,000 “street czar” whose mission is to come up with “alternatives to policing,” reports said.

Andre Taylor — who appeared in the documentary “American Pimp” about his life as “Gorgeous Dre” — is getting $12,500 per month for a year, along with an office in Seattle’s Municipal Tower, according to the contract published by PubliCola.

It comes just a year after his organization, Not This Time, was paid $100,000 to sponsor a speaker series that was called “Conversations with the Streets.”

Here is the full story, which has further points of interest, via JK.

The game theory of SCOTUS nominations

Despite the conventional wisdom that Trump would surely nominate a judge to secure a conservative majority that would ultimately overturn Roe v. Wade, getting that judge successfully confirmed would diminish Trump’s reelection prospects (by energizing the Democratic base to vote for leaders who would pack the court or ratify PR and DC as states). But Trump doesn’t care a whit about abortion, much less ideology. He only cares about his power and his reelection. His incentive, it seems to me, is to choose a weak nominee who will surely fail confirmation or a nominee whose confirmation will be deferred post-election. If the nomination is rejected, the Democrats will be seen as obstructionists and the Republican base will be energized. A deferred confirmation, in contrast, will act as a carrot that Trump can dangle in front of congressional Republicans, who will more strongly campaign for him. In either case, an unsuccessful confirmation will work in Trump’s favor, while a confirmed conservative will act against his reelection interests. Such a maneuver by the Trump campaign can, of course, only happen surreptitiously, because it would anger both Democratic and Republican leadership to be manipulated this way.

That is from Shiran Pasternak in my email.

My Conversation with Alex Ross


ROSS: …conducting is so mysterious in terms of what is actually happening between the conductor and the orchestra. There are explicit messages being sent. There’re instructions being given, but there’s also this slightly mystical side to it, where once you get to a figure like Klemperer, or today, Bernard Haitink, who just retired, or Herbert Blomstedt, who is incredibly vital and active in his 90s.

COWEN: Coming back at age 93 in Switzerland.

ROSS: Yeah. Even before they say anything, just the mere fact, when [they] arrive at the podium, there is a level of respect. There is a level of attentiveness and readiness in the orchestra. They don’t have to be won over when Herbert Blomstedt is in front of them. His reputation . . .

Blomstedt — someone like this can just skip all the preliminaries and just go for fine-tuning these points, and everyone plays better because they’re in the presence of this celebrated, legendary older musician. It’s almost as if they don’t even need to do anything anymore. They do, of course. They are working very hard, and Blomstedt is delivering very particular instructions to the orchestra.

But there’s that psychological dimension. The musicians are excited to be having this opportunity, and they think this might be the last time, so they give something more. So that’s the mystery of conducting.

I always think of that anecdote about Furtwängler — I think it was Walter Legge who told this story — watching the orchestra rehearse with a different conductor, and they were playing all right, nothing too inspired. He’s looking straight ahead and looking at the orchestra, and suddenly something changes. Suddenly the playing is electrified, transformed. The conductor seems to have done nothing different. And so, “What is going on? How did that change take place?”

Then he happens to look over his shoulder. Furtwängler is standing by the door, watching. In the few minutes that he’s entered the hall and has been standing at the back, the orchestra noticed him there, and their playing changed completely. So that’s the weird, the slightly occult power that the conductors can have. Just their mere presence transforms the playing.

And I start with this:

COWEN: I have so many questions about Wagner. Let me start with one. Why is it I have the perception that the truly great Wagner recordings come from the 1950s or the 1960s? If I think even of the talk you gave for the New Yorker — well, you talked about Keilberth and Solti and Furtwängler. Those are ancient recordings. Clemens Krauss, that was what, 1953? What has happened to the recording quality of Wagner?


Cases vs. deaths in the Covid debates

Once upon a time, there were some herd immunity theorists.  They claimed that once a certain percentage of the population had been infected, the R for Covid would fall below one and the disease would become far less common and less significant.  Since these analysts were especially aware of heterogeneity issues (though common in the broader scholarly literature), these same herd immunity theorists tended to be less pessimistic than many of the mainstream forecasts.

To be clear, everyone knew that herd immunity was a general and universally accepted concept in the literature.  But these particular herd immunity theorists were the ones saying it really would matter, and they did so in the bold and fearless manner.  As I mentioned earlier, the NYT didn’t really start covering this issue until this August, a kind of unbelievable (and appalling) communications failure from public health experts who didn’t want to say anything that might be construed as minimizing expected risk.

Now, I don’t recall many of those theorists early on making a prediction about a specific number required for the herd immunity threshold to be reached.  Nonetheless, when deaths and hospitalizations collapsed in Sweden, London, and New York at about 20 percent seroprevalence, obviously it seemed that might be the critical level for herd immunity to kick in. (Higher measured levels of seroprevalence, such as for the slums of Mumbai might just come from the speed of ripping through a very dense and exposed community.)  And a lot of the observed later waves were in fact coming in other parts of these countries or regions, such as Barcelona following Madrid, or Arizona following New York.

These herd immunity theorists were correct in predicting an “earlier than the mainstream is telling you” collapse in deaths and hospitalizations in the hard hit regions.  And that is very much to their credit.

You will note that part of their prediction or implied prediction was that past the herd immunity point cases should fall, not just deaths.  Transmission just would not be very effective or speedy any more, so cases should be low whether or not people die in the hospitals or the hospitals can save them.  I’ll be coming back to this.

Then things started to go askew in the last few weeks.  First, it seems like a bad second wave came to an already fairly hard hit Madrid.  OK, you could say Madrid was never had 20% seroprevalence to begin with.  And then what appears to be a second wave has started coming to Israel, with rising hospitalizations.  Finally, it is believed that in Britian R equals about 1.7, and that a second wave of cases is on the verge of hitting London and Southeast England.  That hasn’t quite happened yet, but the informed authorities greatly fear it, and the numbers so far seem to indicate that as the trend.

Added all up, those data points are not decisive in rejecting the claims of these herd immunity theorists.  But they do make the herd immunity theorists look less correct than they did say three weeks ago.  Those “partial second waves,” or whatever they turn out to be, seem more active than one might have expected.  Again, though, the story is still unfolding and we should not rush to final conclusions.  But in the meantime we should update!

In response, many of the herd immunity theorists strike back and ask “where are the deaths“?  But that is not the right question for testing herd immunity claims.  Those claims were about transmission slowing down, and those claims should be true about Covid-19 cases whether or not more people are surviving in the hospital.  (Imagine for instance a perfect antiviral that saved everybody — would that mean herd immunity was true a priori?  Nope.)

Another claim from some of the less careful herd immunity theorists is that cases are rising again because testing is rising.  That doesn’t seem to explain observed patterns in Israel, Spain, or England, where in all instances actual Covid cases are rising above and beyond what is going on with testing policy, and by some considerable margin.  It probably does explain some parts of America, however.

It is very likely that death rates will be much lower this time around, because of better procedures, younger victims, lower doses, and possible (speculative!) variolation through mask use over time, exposing people to lower doses repeatedly and boosting their immune responses.

There is a temptation to say “few deaths, we don’t need lockdowns!”  Indeed, the more partisan of the herd immunity theorists are obsessed with the lockdown issue.  Lockdowns are important questions, but don’t let your lockdown views skew your interpretation of the numbers, and furthermore there are many other important Covid questions of interest, for instance:

1. How much more should we invest in better hospital procedures?  Better biomedical fixes?  And how much should we hurry?  If transmission is mostly over, you can relax much more, but ongoing cases both will bring some long-term damages (short of death) and also some ongoing panic, whether rational or not.

2. How do we deal with the fact that case numbers per se will scare people for a long time to come?  Again, if transmission is winding down, you don’t need as big a long-term plan here.

3. Should you let large swarms of tourists into your currently semi-protected region, say it is Venice, Italy or the less infested parts of Hawaii?

4. To the extent there is current herd immunity or semi-herd immunity as I call it, how fragile is that arrangement with respect to a possible rotation of potential super-spreaders?  And what might set off those fragilities?

For those questions, and indeed many others, it matters a great deal whether the original herd immunity prediction about “permanently low cases past the herd immunity threshold” is correct, or not.  Whether the death rate is high or low.  You really do need to understand about the cases in their own right, once you see this broader spectrum of issues at stake.

The more partisan herd immunity theorists wish to debate “how terrible will this be and will that justify a lockdown?”, and then they seek to talk you into a mood of not being so terrified, because frequently they are lockdown skeptics.  Again, that is a super-important question.  But don’t let it distract you from the other important questions at hand.

And for those other questions, as I’ve already stated above, the trajectory caseload predictions of the herd immunity theorists are looking worse than they did a few weeks ago.

Of course I will be giving you updates on this matter as time passes.  But this is the very latest, namely that some of the herd immunity theorists are on the precipice of being dogmatically wrong about matters of real import, just as were some of the most pessimistic mainstream predictions from March and April.

From my email, on QAnon

This is perhaps a bit whacky, but along similar-ish lines to the uniqueness theory, I have been wondering whether QAnon’s big differentiator is it’s comparative defensibility, powered by its complexity.

If you accept that social movements need their legitimacy-granting myths and “narratives” to hold up for at least as long as they are niche or otherwise unacceptable to the mainstream, and that one of the large effects of TV and the internet is to ease (and encourage) the voicing and wide dissemination of counter-narratives, then perhaps you should expect the best performing movements which do emerge to have key memes which cluster at either end of the “vague -> precise” axis.

Sitting at one of the two extremes is a great way to survive in an ideologically adversarial environment: vagueness gives converts a way to dismiss attacks out of hand (at the cost of rate of growth and cohesiveness, perhaps. Crypto might be an example), while highly detailed and well defined concepts (especially when hard to access) makes it too expensive for outsiders to build a case which will feel coherent and convincing to insiders.

QAnon is quite the cocktail, with its anonymous founder (can’t attack the credibility of an anonymous poster with no accessible history!), highly detailed yet easy to wield lore transmitted through word of mouth on semi-private Facebook groups or in person, no easy experiments which raise internal contradictions (the downfall of flatearthers), and the highly emotionally potent mix of corruption and child abuse.

Are there really any competing groups which offer anything remotely as attractive, all encompassing, and seemingly (to insiders) unassailable?

Will be interesting to see if it loses strength over time. I suspect there will be enough events which can be interpreted as confirming key points over the next 10 years for it to keep growing. Its rate of conversion is also pretty incredible, compared to previous cults/religions.

That is from Arnaud.

America fact of the day

…according to recent polls from Quinnipiac and Monmouth, 38 percent of registered Hispanic voters in 10 battleground states may be ambivalent about even voting

Progressives commonly categorize Latinos as people of color, no doubt partly because progressive Latinos see the group that way and encourage others to do so as well. Certainly, we both once took that perspective for granted. Yet in our survey, only one in four Hispanics saw the group as people of color.

Here is more from Ian Haney López and 

American distress (average is over)

The proportion of the US population in extreme distress rose from 3.6% in 1993 to 6.4% in 2019. Among low-education midlife White persons, the percentage more than doubled, from 4.8% to 11.5%. Regression analysis revealed that (1) at the personal level, the strongest statistical predictor of extreme distress was “I am unable to work,” and (2) at the state level, a decline in the share of manufacturing jobs was a predictor of greater distress.

As for the definition, exceptional distress is the percentage who reported major mental and emotional problems in all 30 of the last 30 days.

That is from Blanchower and Oswald, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

China fact of the day

A Chinese pharmaceutical company has injected hundreds of thousands of people with experimental Covid-19 vaccines, as its Western counterparts warn against administering mass vaccinations before rigorous scientific studies are complete.

China National Biotec Group Co., a subsidiary of state-owned Sinopharm, has given two experimental vaccine candidates to hundreds of thousands of people under an emergency-use condition approved by Beijing in July, the company said this week. Separately, Chinese drugmaker Sinovac Biotech Ltd. said it has inoculated around 3,000 of its employees and their family members, including the firm’s chief executive, with its experimental coronavirus vaccine.

The three vaccine candidates are still undergoing Phase 3 clinical trials, which involve testing a vaccine’s safety and effectiveness on thousands of people. Six other leading Covid-19 vaccine candidates are also in this final phase, according to the World Health Organization.

I am agnostic on this!  Of course we will see how it goes, and you should note that if the Chinese vaccines turn out to be “good enough,” they will spread to poorer countries rather quickly.

I see so much not so high quality moralizing from public health figures on Twitter, backed only by adjectives or appeals to authority.  Until they “show their work” with actual numbers and probabilities, my current view is to think this Chinese policy stands a reasonable (but by no means certain) chance of passing the Benthamite test.

Please note: this does not mean America should do the same!  In fact, China rushing may well lower the benefits from an American rush, because the major gains at stake here are the easing of non-Covid deaths and deprivations in South Asia and other poor parts of the world.  Maybe the optimal portfolio is indeed a “China + Russia rush,” followed by some good’ ol American patience.  (Is that what we do?  Who said that!?)

Here is the underlying WSJ piece.

The fragility of herd immunity

Trouble in the Madrid region is brewing again, even though earlier seroprevalance had clocked in at about 20 percent:

Good for New York of course, here is a thread discussing the comparison, to me the conclusions seem premature.  The important point in any case is that Covid-protected time periods need not last forever, and you can end up in multiple rounds of “let it rip.”  As far as I know, this is the first established case of a major “second wave” in a previously hard-hit area.

The good news is that Madrid cases seem to have peaked, and furthermore the death rate is much lower the second time around, the latter being one good reason for postponing cases into later time periods rather than taking them all up front.

Note also that England has had months of open pubs, and a very quiet situation, but now cases there are doubling every six to seven days (FT).  Don’t switch back to talk of deaths!  The “simple” theory of herd immunity is surprised to see that new trend in cases.  What I call semi-herd immunity suggests a high degree of protection for the current configuration of social relations, after some point.  As those social relations change, some of that temporary herd immunity dissolves, as new infecting connections are being created and new superspreaders arise and do their thing.  But that takes a while, possibly months.

The herd immunity theorists downplay the possible temporariness of the equilibrium they pinpoint.  They instead prefer to focus on the (correct) point that most of the mainstream approaches did not forecast the collapse in deaths and hospitalizations found in England, Sweden, New York, and now parts of the American South.  In reality, you need to put both sides of the picture together, and grasp both the insights and limitations of the herd immunity theorists.

So herd immunity does seem to be fragile, and if other developments (treatment, antivirals, steroids, masks and thus lower dosage)  lower death rates, bravo, but case behavior still moves against the simple herd immunity theory, at least in Madrid.  How fragile we still do not know, and I readily grant and indeed would emphasize that Madrid is the only major counterexample to date.  Appreciate the limits of knowledge!

If you listen to Ivor Cummins, a darling of the herd immunity theorists, he doesn’t seem to grasp these problems of possible temporariness (he loves to switch to talk of deaths at just the wrong time), but rather treats herd immunity as “it’s over,” with a few vague qualifiers tossed in at the very end.  We will see.

Markets in everything

Swedish label Kön has produced a range of gender-neutral underwear to demonstrate that products “don’t have to be categorised” as just for men or women.

The underwear is made from plant-based textiles and comes in recycled paper packaging.

Wanting to create an inclusive brand suitable for everyone, Bill Heinonen founded Kön – a fashion company offering unisex underwear in a bid to give consumers the ability to “define some products themselves”…

Kön – pronounced “shaun” – takes its name from a Swedish word that stands for both gender and sex.

“I don’t want everything to be gender-neutral,” Heinonen explained, “but I think it’s important to give consumers that ability to define some products themselves.”

“Everything doesn’t have to be categorised as ‘men or women’ – a sweater can be just a sweater, a shower gel can be just a shower gel, and so on.”

Here is the full story, via a loyal MR reader.  The photos are safe enough for work, though they are of…gender-neutral underwear.

My Conversation with Matt Yglesias

Substantive, interesting, and fun throughout, here is the audio, video, and transcript.  For more do buy Matt’s new book One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger.  Here is the CWT summary:

They discussed why it’s easier to grow Tokyo than New York City, the governance issues of increasing urban populations, what Tyler got right about pro-immigration arguments, how to respond to declining fertility rates, why he’d be happy to see more people going to church (even though he’s not religious), why liberals and conservatives should take marriage incentive programs more seriously, what larger families would mean for feminism, why people should read Robert Nozick, whether the YIMBY movement will be weakened by COVID-19, how New York City will bounce back, why he’s long on Minneapolis, how to address constitutional ruptures, how to attract more competent people to state and local governments, what he’s learned growing up in a family full of economists, his mother’s wisdom about visual design and more.

Here is one excerpt:

It was so much fun we even ran over the allotted time, we had to discuss Gilbert Arenas too.

Are School Reopening Decisions Related to Union Influence?

Yes, in short.  Here is a new paper from Corey Deangelis and Christos Makridis:

The COVID-19 pandemic led to widespread school closures affecting millions of K-12 students in the United States in the spring of 2020. Groups representing teachers have pushed to reopen public schools virtually in the fall because of concerns about the health risks associated with reopening in person. In theory, stronger teachers’ unions may more successfully influence public school districts to reopen without in-person instruction. Using data on the reopening decisions of 835 public school districts in the United States, we find that school districts in locations with stronger teachers’ unions are less likely to reopen in person even after we control semi-parametrically for differences in local demographic characteristics. These results are robust to four measures of union strength, various potential confounding characteristics, and a further disaggregation to the county level. We also do not find evidence to suggest that measures of COVID-19 risk are correlated with school reopening decisions.

And please do note that last sentence again:

We also do not find evidence to suggest that measures of COVID-19 risk are correlated with school reopening decisions (emphasis added).

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Dark matter, second waves and epidemiological modelling

Here is a new paper from Karl FristonAnthony Costello, and Deenan Pillay:

Background Recent reports based on conventional SEIR models suggest that the next wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK could overwhelm health services, with fatalities that far exceed the first wave. These models suggest non-pharmaceutical interventions would have limited impact without intermittent national lockdowns and consequent economic and health impacts. We used Bayesian model comparison to revisit these conclusions, when allowing for heterogeneity of exposure, susceptibility, and viral transmission. Methods We used dynamic causal modelling to estimate the parameters of epidemiological models and, crucially, the evidence for alternative models of the same data. We compared SEIR models of immune status that were equipped with latent factors generating data; namely, location, symptom, and testing status. We analysed daily cases and deaths from the US, UK, Brazil, Italy, France, Spain, Mexico, Belgium, Germany, and Canada over the period 25-Jan-20 to 15-Jun-20. These data were used to estimate the composition of each country’s population in terms of the proportions of people (i) not exposed to the virus, (ii) not susceptible to infection when exposed, and (iii) not infectious when susceptible to infection. Findings Bayesian model comparison found overwhelming evidence for heterogeneity of exposure, susceptibility, and transmission. Furthermore, both lockdown and the build-up of population immunity contributed to viral transmission in all but one country. Small variations in heterogeneity were sufficient to explain the large differences in mortality rates across countries. The best model of UK data predicts a second surge of fatalities will be much less than the first peak (31 vs. 998 deaths per day. 95% CI: 24-37)–substantially less than conventional model predictions. The size of the second wave depends sensitively upon the loss of immunity and the efficacy of find-test-trace-isolate-support (FTTIS) programmes. Interpretation A dynamic causal model that incorporates heterogeneity of exposure, susceptibility and transmission suggests that the next wave of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic will be much smaller than conventional models predict, with less economic and health disruption. This heterogeneity means that seroprevalence underestimates effective herd immunity and, crucially, the potential of public health programmes.

This would appear to be one of the very best treatments so far, though I would stress I have not seen anyone with a good understanding of the potential rotation (or not) of super-spreaders, especially as winter comes and also as offices reopen.  In that regard, at the very least, modeling a second wave is difficult.

Via Yaakov Saxon, who once came up with a scheme so clever I personally sent him money for nothing.