Category: Current Affairs

The behavioral economics of pandemic sex

Another girl did ask if she could call me Fauci during sex. She said it with a straight face. I pretended that I didn’t hear and kept going, because how do you even address that? I’m not going to say yes, because that’s going to be weird. And if I say no, that kills the vibe. She didn’t say anything else, and she never called me Fauci. I think the only way you can make that weirder is if she had brought a Fauci mask and asked me to put it on.

Here are other anecdotes from the DC area, no photos but the text is somewhat risque.

A Half Dose of Moderna is More Effective Than a Full Dose of AstraZeneca

Today we are releasing a new paper on dose-stretching, co-authored by Witold Wiecek, Amrita Ahuja, Michael Kremer, Alexandre Simoes Gomes, Christopher M. Snyder, Brandon Joel Tan and myself.

The paper makes three big points. First, Khoury et al (2021) just published a paper in Nature which shows that “Neutralizing antibody levels are highly predictive of immune protection from symptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection.” What that means is that there is a strong relationship between immunogenicity data that we can easily measure with a blood test and the efficacy rate that it takes hundreds of millions of dollars and many months of time to measure in a clinical trial. Thus, future vaccines may not have to go through lengthy clinical trials (which may even be made impossible as infections rates decline) but can instead rely on these correlates of immunity.

Here is where fractional dosing comes in. We supplement the key figure from Khoury et al.’s paper to show that fractional doses of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have neutralizing antibody levels (as measured in the early phase I and phase II trials) that look to be on par with those of many approved vaccines. Indeed, a one-half or one-quarter dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine is predicted to be more effective than the standard dose of some of the other vaccines like the AstraZeneca, J&J or Sinopharm vaccines, assuming the same relationship as in Khoury et al. holds. The point is not that these other vaccines aren’t good–they are great! The point is that by using fractional dosing we could rapidly and safely expand the number of effective doses of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.

Second, we embed fractional doses and other policies such as first doses first in a SIER model and we show that even if efficacy rates for fractional doses are considerably lower, dose-stretching policies are still likely to reduce infections and deaths (assuming we can expand vaccinations fast enough to take advantage of the greater supply, which is well within the vaccination frontier). For example, a half-dose strategy reduces infections and deaths under a variety of different epidemic scenarios as long as the efficacy rate is 70% or greater.

Third, we show that under plausible scenarios it is better to start vaccination with a less efficacious vaccine than to wait for a more efficacious vaccine. Thus, Great Britain and Canada’s policies of starting First Doses first with the AstraZeneca vaccine and then moving to second doses, perhaps with the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines is a good strategy.

It is possible that new variants will reduce the efficacy rate of all vaccines indeed that is almost inevitable but that doesn’t mean that fractional dosing isn’t optimal nor that we shouldn’t adopt these policies now. What it means is that we should be testing and then adapting our strategy in light of new events like a battlefield commander. We might, for example, use fractional dosing in the young or for the second shot and reserve full doses for the elderly.

One more point worth mentioning. Dose stretching policies everywhere are especially beneficial for less-developed countries, many of which are at the back of the vaccine queue. If dose-stretching cuts the time to be vaccinated in half, for example, then that may mean cutting the time to be vaccinated from two months to one month in a developed country but cutting it from two years to one year in a country that is currently at the back of the queue.

Read the whole thing.

The Becker-Friedman center also has a video discussion featuring my co-authors, Nobel prize winner Michael Kremer and the very excellent Witold Wiecek.

Bitcoin as legal tender in El Salvador

Here is FT coverage, I still feel I don’t know the whole story, but bitcoin will be legal tender and furthermore:

The government will set up a trust at the Development Bank of El Salvador to enable automatic conversion of bitcoin to dollars. The law will take effect 90 days after its publication in the official gazette.

“The entry of bitcoins will be equivalent to an increase in the country’s monetary supply, which will temporarily boost El Salvador’s economic activity, but will also pressure inflation higher and with that, interest rates will rise,” Gabriela Siller, head of economic analysis at Banco Base in Mexico, said in a note to clients.

Here are a few observations:

1. El Salvador already uses the U.S. dollar, so there is not much loss of monetary sovereignty here.

2. Maybe the easing into bitcoin is intended to lower the cost of sending remittances from the U.S., which are fundamental to the El Salvadoran economy?  According to the FT, remittances are about one-fifth of gdp, and transfer charges can be steep.

3. Is this all just?: “You don’t have to move to Puerto Rico to avoid capital gains tax, you can just invest in El Salvador!  We’re going to precommit to accepting your bitcoin so you will plan around that.”

3b. Isn’t it suspicious that their legislature approved the legal tender law by such an overwhelming margin?  Is it that they all have read and digested so many Medium crypto essays?  Or do they just see this as “a deal”?

4. I don’t see why this should increase price inflation in El Salvador.  Prices are denominated in dollars, and El Salvadorans, or for that matter visiting tourists, already had the option of converting their crypto into dollars before buying more pupusas.

5. Even in the United States the retail demand for bitcoin transactional use has been quite low.  Making merchants in El Salvador take bitcoin seems like a PR move to me.  What does it mean to make a low-tech merchant in the countryside “take bitcoin”?  How is he supposed to take it?  Do the abuelas in the market have to set up Coinbase accounts?

6. Could this be a transitional or bridge move to ease El Salvador away from the U.S. dollar and to replace it with a native currency?

7. Is the increasingly authoritarian government of El Salvador looking to PR moves to boost its international legitimacy?

8. Given all the surrounding publicity, it does seem that “they really mean it,” and the government will try to “get something” out of the initiative.

I will keep you posted as I learn more.  But as a general rule, if Central America is the laboratory for your ideas, beware before leaping to conclusions too quickly!  At the very least do go visit the country you are wondering about, and, in trying to understand the equilibrium, have the country more prominent in your mind than the innovation.

Houellebecq on the fall of France?

Here is the UnHerd essay, here is one excerpt:

No, we are not really dealing with a “French suicide” — to evoke the title of Eric Zemmour’s book — but a Western suicide or rather a suicide of modernity, since Asian countries are not spared. What is specifically, authentically French is the awareness of this suicide. But if we consent to set aside for a moment the particular case of France (and really it would be wise to do so), the conclusion becomes crystal clear: the inevitable consequence of what we call progress (at all levels, economic, political, scientific, technological) is self-destruction.

And:

The 45% of French people who believe, on the other hand, in impending civil war help to show (and it is almost sweet) that France remains a nation of braggarts.

It takes two to wage war. Are the French going to take up arms to defend their religion? They haven’t had any religion for quite some time; and in any case, their former religion is the sort where you offer your throat to the butcher’s blade…

Europe seems to me to be at a crossroads. Reading Pascal helps me a lot: but, like him, I see “nothing but cause for doubt and anxiety”.

Interesting throughout.

Fractional Dosing Study in Brazil

Fiocruz, the Brazilian public health institute, will test half doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Not much information available yet. From a Google Translate article.

BANDNews: Fiocruz, in partnership with the government of Espírito Santo, is going to carry out a study with the application of half a dose of the Astrazeneca vaccine to the entire population of the municipality of Viana, in Greater Vitória.

The city has about 35 thousand inhabitants.

The immunization will take place on Sunday, June 13, and residents will be able to choose whether they want to participate in the study.

According to the state secretary of Health, Nésio Fernandes, there is already evidence of the effectiveness of the application of half a dose of the vaccine in immunization against Covid-19.

If the experience is successful, it will be possible to double the number of people vaccinated in the country with the immunizing agent produced by Fiocruz.

See my previous posts on fractional dosing for why this is very important.

Hat tip: Cisco Costa.

The new proposal on corporate tax synchronization

The G-7 nations have coordinated (NYT, FT here) to announce a minimum corporate tax rate of 15%.  Even if seen through, that doesn’t mean all rates must be at 15% or higher, rather if a rate is at 5% another country (the home base country?  the countries where the customers are?) gets to tack on another 10% to make the total take 15%.  That limits the incentive to post very low rates in the first place, by checking the gains from tax haven strategies.

One perennial question is whether the 15% rate is defined over gross or net income.  You don’t want to tax gross income, especially if the business under consideration actually is making a loss.  In any case, you basically end up taxing business income acquisition per se.

If it is net income you are taxing at minimum 15%, you haven’t done as much to limit tax arbitrage as you thought at first.  Especially if the multinational and its subsidiaries engage at arm’s length transactions with shadow pricing, etc.  Net income is a major object of the actual manipulations, and would become all the more so under this new plan, assuming it is applied to net income.  Won’t countries wanting to play the tax haven game end up with very lax definitions of “net income”?  (Or for that matter gross income?)  Or does that get regulated as well?

I don’t think this whole plan should make “the Left” happy.  David Fickling wrote for Bloomberg:

The more likely outcome of the current round of reform will be a continuation of the decline in corporate rates that we’ve seen for four decades. Even amid the push to prevent tax-base erosion in recent years, 24 of the 37 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have cut their corporate tax rates since 2008, while just seven have raised them. Statutory corporate tax rates have trended downward by about 5% a decade since 1980 to the current situation, where the average sits at around 24%. Nations that want to compete with lower-taxed jurisdictions may find the pull of 15% irresistible.

And then:

The risk now is that 15% becomes not just a minimum, but an anchor for maximum tax rates as well.

In other words, the tax haven tax competition game is redone with a 15% floor, but the agreement also pinpoints a corporate tax rate that is “good enough” and would come to be seen as “best possible treatment.”  Neither of those are forcing moves which would require countries to drop their rates to 15% in the resulting equilibrium, but yes I agree with Fickling that there might be a good deal of clustering right at or near 15%, accelerated by this plan of course.

Note also that, under the plan, the 100 largest corporations would have to pay tax in proportion to where they sell their goods and services, even if they are not formally located in those countries (will there be a literal notch right at “company #100”?).  Ireland loses big on that provision, as in essence more corporate tax revenue would be routed to larger countries such as France and Germany.  In how serious a manner would companies have to keep track of their customers?  (What happened to privacy law here?  Or did they never really care much about privacy to begin with!?  What are crypto companies supposed to do about this?)

Biden wants to raise the U.S. corporate tax rate to 28 percent, and Ireland, one of the major supposed villains in this game, has a rate of 12.5%.  So fifteen percent just isn’t that outrageously high, even if companies do end up having the pay that actual rate (though see above about gross vs. net income, and what other “outs” will there be?).

The European digital taxes may be scrapped as well (with the details under negotiation and no one wanting to “move first”), which would ease a wee bit of the burden on the major tech companies from the broader change.

Here are various observations from Soumaya Keynes.

Is the underlying view that the U.S. Congress is supposed to approve this without further renegotiations?  How about the other countries?

Workers aren’t coming back

Data released by the Labor Department this morning show that last month, 61.6 percent of the working-age population were active in the labor force, either working in jobs or looking for them. That is essentially unchanged from the summer of 2020.

The second most significant statistic is that wages are soaring. In May, average wages grew at a 6.1 percent annual rate. In April, they grew at an 8.7 percent annual rate.

Combined, these two statistics tell much of the story of the economy this spring: Employers are boosting wage offers in order to attract and retain workers, who are increasingly difficult to attract and retain. This is a situation you’d expect with employers’ demand for workers growing much faster than workers are returning to the labor market. Labor demand is booming, and labor supply is not keeping up.

Here is more from Michael Strain.

Whose big business? (Europe fact of the day)

In 2000 nearly a third of the combined value of the world’s 1,000 biggest listed firms was in Europe, and a quarter of their profits. In just 20 years those figures have fallen by almost half. Europe is a place for companies such as Amazon and TikTok to find customers, not a base for local firms to conquer the world…

Of the world’s 142 listed firms worth over $100bn, 43 were set up from scratch in the past half-century, 27 in America and ten in China. Only one was in Europe: sap, a German software group founded in 1972. Half of Europe’s richest ten billionaires inherited fortunes spawned long ago; in America nine of the top ten are wealthy solely because of companies they founded.

Here is more from The Economist.  This is all the more reason for the United States to boost allowed emigration from the European Union.  It is also an object lesson in which are the true barriers to trade, often including language, culture, and national borders, even in the presence of (nearly) free trade.

Does church keep you away from alcohol?

Based on a panel between 1980 and 2016, I find that one more Sunday with precipitation at the time of church increases yearly drug-related, alcohol-related and white-collar crimes. I do not find an effect for violent or property crimes. These effects are driven by more religious counties. Previous evidence showing negative effects of church attendance on the demand for alcohol and drugs is consistent with a demand-driven interpretation of the results presented.

That is from a new paper by Jonathan Moreno-Medina.  Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Masking norms and Wokeism

Here is the close of my latest Bloomberg column:

On a related note: Have you noticed that private universities often have a stronger “woke” culture, and less free speech, than public universities? This fact is also somewhat of an embarrassment for many libertarians. Though libertarian-leaning, I am myself happy to be teaching at a public institution, with its stronger legal and normative free-speech protections.

Might the parallel run deeper here? Perhaps the currently enforced codes of wokeism at many universities and technology companies are like mask-wearing norms. Maybe people would be willing to relax more about these issues once someone gives the signal that it is OK to do so.

That would imply that extreme wokeism, like mask mandates, won’t last long. More than just libertarians, perhaps, can take comfort in that.

There is much more at the link.

Chris Anderson of TED interviews me

Here is the full podcast series and also other ways to listen.

Update on Rapid Tests for COVID

Nearly a year ago, I wrote Frequent, Fast, and Cheap is Better than Sensitive, arguing for rapid antigen tests:

A number of firms have developed cheap, paper-strip tests for coronavirus that report results at-home in about 15 minutes but they have yet to be approved for use by the FDA because the FDA appears to be demanding that all tests reach accuracy levels similar to the PCR test. This is another deadly FDA mistake.

See also my posts Infected versus Infectious and Rapid Tests. The EMA and then the FDA finally did start approving these tests. So how well are they working? Pretty damn well. Canada has two innovative programs. First, in Nova Scotia pop-up clinics have been using rapid tests for asymptomatic people:

During the third wave that hit Nova Scotia over the past month, the province’s community rapid testing centres have correctly sniffed out at least 285 COVID-19 cases in asymptomatic people, or about 10 per cent of all confirmed cases in this time period, according to the Nova Scotia Health Authority.

While most provinces reserve testing only for symptomatic people or close contacts of a case, Nova Scotia’s pop-up centres allow asymptomatic people to simply show up and get a rapid test for free, with results sent to them within an hour. The whole process relies largely on volunteers without a health-care background.

Furthermore, the true number of cases credited to rapid testing is probably much higher. When a rapid test correctly identifies a positive case, the person’s close contacts such as their family get PCR lab tests that don’t show up in the rapid test statistics.

Lisa Barrett, an infectious diseases specialist and the driving force behind the rapid testing program, said it’s hard to say for certain, but taken altogether it’s possible rapid antigen testing has helped Nova Scotia find up to 18 per cent of all cases during the third wave.

“This is the early detection system,” Barrett said. Rapid testing tends to catch people early on in their infection when they’re full of virus, meaning positive cases are found and put into isolation fast — likely days before they would have been found with a PCR test, if they were found at all.

Michael Mina argues that since the rapid antigen detected cases are among the most infectious cases, detecting these cases is probably worth half of all the PCR testing.

Second, Canada’s CDL Rapid Screening Consortium is now in 200 sites with 50 large companies and rapidly expanding. A very interesting, just published paper in The Lancet runs an experiment that suggests that these testing regimes can work. The experiment rapidly tested 1000 people and the negatives were then randomly assigned either to be sent-home to conduct their regular life or to attend a multi-hour concert with masks but also singing, dancing, alcohol and no-social distancing. After 8 days there were two infections in the at-home group and no infections in the Concert group which suggests that this type of rapid testing can be used to open and keep-open concerts, schools, universities, airplanes and workplaces.

What’s the point of testing now that we have vaccines? Two reasons. First, most of the world still hasn’t been vaccinated so testing will be a very useful stop-gap measure until vaccination is more widely distributed. Indeed, the success of these programs shows what we lost by not acting more quickly a year ago. Second, although the pandemic is (essentially) over in the United States (as predicted) there will likely be an uptick in the fall among the unvaccinated and you want rapid tests to be available rapidly in hot-spots. In other words, rapid deployment of rapid tests will help us to avoid outbreaks in the future.

Bangladesh fact of the day

This month, Bangladesh’s Cabinet Secretary told reporters that GDP per capita had grown by 9% over the past year, rising to $2,227. Pakistan’s per capita income, meanwhile, is $1,543. In 1971, Pakistan was 70% richer than Bangladesh; today, Bangladesh is 45% richer than Pakistan. One Pakistani economist glumly pointed out that “it is in the realm of possibility that we could be seeking aid from Bangladesh in 2030.”

India — eternally confident about being the only South Asian economy that matters — now must grapple with the fact that it, too, is poorer than Bangladesh in per capita terms. India’s per capita income in 2020-21 was a mere $1,947.

Here is more from Mihir Sharma at Bloomberg.

My Conversation with the very very smart David Deutsch

I think this episode came off as “weird and testy,” as I described it to one friend, but I like weird and testy!  Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: How do you think the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics relates to the view that, just in terms of space, the size of our current universe is infinite, and therefore everything possible is happening in it?

DEUTSCH: It complicates the discussion of probability, but there’s no overlap between that notion of infinity and the Everettian notion of infinity, if we are infinite there, because the differentiation (as I prefer to call what used to be called splitting) — when I perform an experiment which can go one of two ways, the influence of that spreads out. First, I see it. I may write it down; I may write a scientific paper. When I write a paper about it and report the results, that will cause the journal to split or to differentiate into two journals, and so on. This influence cannot spread out faster than the speed of light.

So an Everett universe is really a misnomer because what we see in real life is an Everett bubble within the universe. Everything outside the bubble is as it was; it’s undifferentiated, or, to be exact, it’s exactly as differentiated as it was before. Then, as the bubble spreads out, the universe becomes or the multiverse becomes more differentiated, but the bubble is always finite.

COWEN: How do your views relate to the philosophical modal realism of David Lewis?

DEUTSCH: There are interesting parallels. As a physicist, I’m interested in what the laws of physics tell us is so, rather than in philosophical reasoning about things, unless they impinge on a problem that I have. So yes, I’m interested in, for example, the continuity of the self — whether, if there’s another version of me a very large number of light-years away in an infinite universe, and it’s identical, is that really me? Are there two of me, one of me? I don’t entirely know the answer to that. It’s why I don’t entirely know the answer to whether I would go in a Star Trek transporter.

The modal realism certainly involves a lot of things that I don’t think exist — at least, not physically. I’m open to the idea that nonphysical things do exist: like the natural numbers, I think, exist. There’s a difference between the second even prime, which doesn’t exist, and the infinite number of prime numbers, which I think do exist. I think that there is more than one mode of existence, but the theory that all modes of existence are equally real — I see no point in that. The overlap between Everett and David Lewis is, I think, more coincidental than illuminating.

COWEN: If the universe is infinite and if David Lewis is correct, should I feel closer to the David Lewis copies of me? The copies or near copies of me in this universe? Or the near copies of me in the multiverse? It seems very crowded all of a sudden. Something whose purpose was to be economical doesn’t feel that way to me by the end of the metaphysics.

DEUTSCH: It doesn’t feel like that to you. . . . Well, as Wittgenstein is supposed to have said (I don’t know whether he really did), if it were true, what would it feel like? It would feel just like this.

Much more at the link.  And:

COWEN: Are we living in a simulation?

DEUTSCH: No, because living in a simulation is precisely a case of there being a barrier beyond which we cannot understand. If we’re living in a simulation that’s running on some computer, we can’t tell whether that computer is made of silicon or iron, or whether it obeys the same laws of computation, like Turing computability and quantum computability and so on, as ours. We can’t know anything about the physics there.

Well, we can know that it is at least a superset of our physics, but that’s not saying very much; it’s not telling us very much. It’s a typical example of a theory that can be rejected out of hand for the same reason that the supernatural ones — if somebody says, “Zeus did it,” then I’m going to say, “How should I respond? If I take that on board, how should I respond to the next person that comes along and tells me that Odin did it?”

COWEN: But it seems you’re rejecting an empirical claim on methodological grounds, and I get very suspicious. Philosophers typically reject transcendental arguments like, “Oh, we must be able to perceive reality, because if we couldn’t, how could we know that we couldn’t perceive reality?” It doesn’t prove you can perceive reality, right?

And this:

COWEN: A few very practical questions to close. Given the way British elections seem to have been running, that the Tories win every time, does that mean the error-correction mechanism of the British system of government now is weaker?

DEUTSCH: No. Unfortunately, the — so, as you probably know, I favor the first-past-the-post system in the purest possible form, as it is implemented in Britain. I think that is the most error-correcting possible electoral system, although I must add that the electoral system is only a tiny facet of the institutions of criticism and consent. In general, it’s just a tiny thing, but it is the best one.

It’s not perfect. It has some of the defects of, for example, proportional representation. Proportional representation has the defect that it causes coalitions all the time. Coalitions are bad.

COWEN: You have a delegated monitor with the coalition, right? With a coalition, say in the Netherlands (which is richer than the United Kingdom), you typically have coalition governments. Some parties in the coalition are delegated monitors of the other parties. Parties are better informed than voters. Isn’t that a better Popperian mechanism for error correction?

I also tried to sum up what I think he is all about, and he reacted with scorn.  That was an excellent part of the conversation.  And here is a good Twitter thread from Michael Nielsen about the Conversation.

@pmarca lets loose

Don’t underestimate yourself! The great writers of the past tended to be disassociative cranks. Diogenes Laertius says Heraclitus lived “by himself in the mountains, feeding on grasses and herbs” and died by burying himself in literal dung. Rousseau condemned his own children to the hell of an 18th century orphanage while sanctimoniously passing judgment on the rest of society. Nietzsche went insane protecting a horse from a whipping, and in his last messages to the world demanded the pope be jailed and all anti-Semites shot. You see, you fit right in.

And that is one of the more anodyne parts of the interview.  And yes it has been confirmed to be real.  Here is another one of the boring parts:

I predict that we — the West — are going to WEIRDify the entire world, within the next 50 years, the next two generations. We will do this not by converting non-WEIRD people to WEIRD, but by getting their kids. Their kids, and their kids’ kids, are going to grow up on the Internet at least as much as they grow up in the real world, and the pull of WEIRD culture will overwhelm all existing non-WEIRD cultures. I realize this is a very strong claim, but this process is already underway; at this point I think it’s inevitable. The cost of this will be a collapse of global cultural diversity exactly as you and Rozin predict.

Niccolo Soldo is the interviewer.