Category: Current Affairs

The Economist on Patent Waivers

A good statement from The Economist:

We believe that Mr Biden is wrong. A waiver may signal that his administration cares about the world, but it is at best an empty gesture and at worst a cynical one.

A waiver will do nothing to fill the urgent shortfall of doses in 2021. The head of the World Trade Organisation, the forum where it will be thrashed out, warns there may be no vote until December. Technology transfer would take six months or so to complete even if it started today. With the new mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna, it may take longer. Supposing the tech transfer was faster than that, experienced vaccine-makers would be unavailable for hire and makers could not obtain inputs from suppliers whose order books are already bursting. Pfizer’s vaccine requires 280 inputs from suppliers in 19 countries. No firm can recreate that in a hurry.

In any case, vaccine-makers do not appear to be hoarding their technology—otherwise output would not be increasing so fast. They have struck 214 technology-transfer agreements, an unprecedented number. They are not price-gouging: money is not the constraint on vaccination. Poor countries are not being priced out of the market: their vaccines are coming through COVAX, a global distribution scheme funded by donors.

In the longer term, the effect of a waiver is unpredictable. Perhaps it will indeed lead to technology being transferred to poor countries; more likely, though, it will cause harm by disrupting supply chains, wasting resources and, ultimately, deterring innovation. Whatever the case, if vaccines are nearing a surplus in 2022, the cavalry will arrive too late.

Elsewhere in this issue they draw on my work with Kremer et al.

The increase in capacity seen over the past year was brought about in large part because of government interventions, most notably Operation Warp Speed in America and the activities of the Vaccine Taskforce in Britain, which guaranteed payments and drove the expansion of supply chains.

These efforts splashed around a lot of money which, if none of the vaccines had worked, would have been lost. But with the benefit of hindsight it is now hard not to wish they had been more generous still. In March Science, a journal, published estimates from a group of economists of the total global economic loss that would have been avoided if enough money to produce vaccines for the entire world had been provided up front, rather than enough for most of the rich world. They calculated that if the world had put in place a vaccine-production infrastructure capable of pumping out some 1.2bn doses per month by January 2021, it would have saved the global economy almost $5trn (see chart).

Eric Budish of the Chicago Booth School of Business, one of the model’s authors, explains the situation using a plumbing metaphor: it is faster to lay down a wider-bore pipe at the start of a project than to expand a narrow one later. The rich world succeeded in producing effective vaccines remarkably quickly in quantities broadly sufficient to its needs: an extraordinary achievement. But the capacity of the system it built in order to do so created constraints that the rest of the world must now live with. That was a choice, not destiny.

David Brooks on how wokeness will get watered down

But as the discourse gets more corporatized it’s going to get watered down. The primary ideology in America is success; that ideology has a tendency to absorb all rivals.

We saw this happen between the 1970s and the 1990s. American hippies built a genuinely bohemian counterculture. But as they got older they wanted to succeed. They brought their bohemian values into the market, but year by year those values got thinner and thinner and finally were nonexistent.

Corporations and other establishment organizations co-opt almost unconsciously. They send ambitious young people powerful signals about what level of dissent will be tolerated while embracing dissident values as a form of marketing. By taking what was dangerous and aestheticizing it, they turn it into a product or a brand. Pretty soon key concepts like “privilege” are reduced to empty catchphrases floating everywhere.

Here is the full NYT link.

Ezra Klein on UFOs

What if they turn out to be “a thing”?  Here is one excerpt, to be clear this is not the only view or possibility he is putting forward:

One immediate effect, I suspect, would be a collapse in public trust. Decades of U.F.O. reports and conspiracies would take on a different cast. Governments would be seen as having withheld a profound truth from the public, whether or not they actually did. We already live in an age of conspiracy theories. Now the guardrails would truly shatter, because if U.F.O.s were real, despite decades of dismissals, who would remain trusted to say anything else was false? Certainly not the academics who’d laughed them off as nonsense, or the governments who would now be seen as liars.

And this:

One lesson of the pandemic is that humanity’s desire for normalcy is an underrated force, and there is no single mistake as common to political analysis as the constant belief that this or that event will finally change everything. If so many can deny or downplay a disease that’s killed millions, dismissing some unusual debris would be trivial. “An awful lot of people would basically shrug and it’d be in the news for three days,” Adrian Tchaikovsky, the science fiction writer, told me. “You can’t just say, ‘still no understanding of alien thing!’ every day. An awful lot of people would be very keen on continuing with their lives and routines no matter what.”

Excellent column, do read the whole thing (NYT).

Where Next? Forecasting COVID in India

The Development Data Lab has put together a real-time forecast of COVID by district in India.

The underlying dataset of the portal is open-access and has information on total cases, deaths, estimated reproductive rate, total clinics and hospitals at the district level. Our hope is that residents of high-risk district will adjust behavior if their area has a precariously increasing reproduction rate over time. Even better if aid and medical support that many organizations are mobilizing at an impressive pace could be allocated based on district-level evidence. District-level bureaucrats can incorporate this additional information in planning their pandemic response (most of us have read about the striking example of what the District Collector of Nandurbar was able to achieve to prepare against the second wave). Finally, central and state governments could tailor their pandemic response given the obvious paucity of resources and time based on district-level risk estimates.

Overall, knowing where the virus will strike next can help save lives — by guiding behavior change, local public health measures, and allocation of scarce resources.

This is an important resource. Anup Malani, Satej Soman, Sabareesh Ramachandran, Ruchir Agarwal, Sam Asher, Tobias Lunt, Paul Novosad, and Aditi Bhowmick are some of the people working on this.

How are the major tech hubs evolving?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is the section on Miami:

In Miami and Miami Beach I had a wonderful time. But I don’t see the area as a new and budding tech center. Many tech entrepreneurs moved there during earlier phases of the pandemic, but many have since left. Perhaps the region is more of a place to spend tech money than to earn tech money.

The positives for southern Florida are clear: It is a major crossroads with significant connections to Latin America and the Caribbean, it is a fun place to live, Miami Mayor Francis X. Suarez is pro-tech, and there is no state income tax.

Yet that is not enough. Miami does not have a top-tier university, and the city does not have much of what I would call “nerd culture.” The city’s first language is arguably Spanish, but the tech world is mostly English, and its current ties to Asia are more important than possible future connections to Latin America.

Renowned venture capitalist Keith Rabois is in Miami and is a staunch advocate for the city. It would not be surprising if Miami developed a few significant tech companies due to his influence. Miami could also become more of a center for crypto wealth. If you’ve earned a billion dollars through Bitcoin, and live part of the year in Puerto Rico to avoid capital gains taxes, is there anywhere better to hang out and spend your wealth than Miami?

All that said, I do not see Miami as a serious contender to be a major tech center.

Comments on NYC and the Bay Area then follow…

Texas Covid and school reopenings

Mostly I think American schools have been closed for way too long, but I am typically wary when I read “dogmatic” cases for universal school reopenings, especially when those reopenings are not done under the proper circumstances, namely good data and plenty of testing, or low case levels.  Here is one new piece that sheds some new light on the topic:

This paper examines the effect of fall 2020 school reopenings in Texas on county-level COVID-19 cases and fatalities. Previous evidence suggests that schools can be reopened safely if community spread is low and public health guidelines are followed. However, in Texas, reopenings often occurred alongside high community spread and at near capacity, making it difficult to meet social distancing recommendations. Using event-study models and handcollected instruction modality and start dates for all school districts, we find robust evidence that reopening Texas schools gradually but substantially accelerated the community spread of COVID-19. Results from our preferred specification imply that school reopenings led to at least 43,000 additional COVID-19 cases and 800 additional fatalities within the first two months. We then use SafeGraph mobility data to provide evidence that spillovers to adults’ behaviors contributed to these large effects. Median time spent outside the home on a typical weekday increased substantially in neighborhoods with large numbers of school-age children, suggesting a return to in-person work or increased outside-of-home leisure activities among parents.

That is a new NBER working paper by Charles J. Courtemanche, Anh H. Le, Aaron Yelowitz, and Ron Zimmer.  In other words, having the kids at home kept the adults tied down and less mobile.  Of course, even with this result, there is still a case for reopening the schools, but I am happy to see some of the trade-offs recognized.

Unmask the Vaccinated?

Ilya Somin points us to legal scholars Kevin Cope and Alexander Stremitzer who make the case that vaccine passports may be constitutional necessary:

Here’s why governments may be constitutionally required to provide a vaccine passport program for people under continuing restrictions. Under the U.S. Constitution, the government may not tread on fundamental rights unless the policy is “the least restrictive means” to achieve a “compelling” government interest. Even some rights considered nonfundamental may not be infringed without a rational or non-arbitrary reason. Before vaccines, blanket lockdowns, quarantines, and bans on things like travel, public gatherings, and church attendance were a necessary measure to slow the pandemic. The various legal challenges to these measures mostly failed—rightly, in our view. But now, a small but growing set of the population is fully vaccinated, with high efficacy for preventing transmission and success rates at preventing serious illness close to 99 percent or higher.

Facilitating mass immunity—and exempting the immunized from restrictions—is now both the least liberty-restrictive method for ending the pandemic through herd immunity and the most effective one. Imagine a fully vaccinated person whose livelihood is in jeopardy from ongoing travel or business restrictions. She might go to court and argue: “I present little or no danger to the public. So restricting my freedoms and preventing me from contributing to society and the economy isn’t rational, let alone the least restrictive means of protecting the public. Since you’re not lifting restrictions for everyone, the Constitution requires that I be exempt.”

This argument alone should be enough to justify mandating that passports be made available where COVID restrictions are still in place….

The NYTimes also notes that surveys suggest that the right to go maskless could increase vaccine take-up:

Enforcement is an issue but this might work well with universities and workplaces. See Ilya’s post for more.

New results on Work from Home

Emphasis is added by TC:

Using personnel and analytics data from over 10,000 skilled professionals at a large Asian IT services company, we compare productivity before and during the work from home [WFH] period of the Covid-19 pandemic. Total hours worked increased by roughly 30%, including a rise of 18% in working after normal business hours. Average output did not significantly change. Therefore, productivity fell by about 20%. Time spent on coordination activities and meetings increased, but uninterrupted work hours shrank considerably. Employees also spent less time networking, and received less coaching and 1:1 meetings with supervisors. These findings suggest that communication and coordination costs increased substantially during WFH, and constituted an important source of the decline in productivity. Employees with children living at home increased hours worked more than those without children at home, and suffered a bigger decline in productivity than those without children.

That is from a new paper by Michael Gibbs, Friederike Mengel, and Christoph Siemroth.

The excellent Tim Sackett on the labor shortage

I’m a daily reader of your stuff and I just love the sharing you do. Thank you! I’m a blogger and analyst in the HR and Talent Acquisition space and speak to CHROs and Org Executives every day and over the past 90 days or so there has been a giant disconnect between something I frequently see Economists saying in the media verse what is reality in the job market. I was hoping you guys could tackle this subject in a future post!

Specifically, around this idea that extended Unemployment Insurance and the extra federal government stimulus being given out to unemployed workers having only a “marginal” effect on the amount of available workers. A great example of this – https://www.wsj.com/articles/millions-are-unemployed-why-cant-companies-find-workers-11620302440

Economists claim that these policies have little impact to availability of workers, but CHROs at every size company, every industry, in all markets are begging for workers right now, and every one of them I speak to complain that they have workers telling them they won’t come back until they have to because they can make as much, or more, or even slightly less, but don’t have to work because of these additional benefits.

Why the giant disconnects between what Economists believe about UI verse what the reality is on the ground for organizations trying to hire? Also, I’ll give you UI/Stimulus isn’t the only factor driving difficult hiring. We have a ton of older workers leaving the workforce for retirement, which is giving us this step-up kind of hiring, where younger workers are skipping traditional entry level jobs and getting opportunities up the job food chain, we have GenZ who doesn’t want to work some dirty, crappy $12/hr job, so we see fewer GenZ in the labor force than previous generations at the same age, fear of Covid, etc. I still believe, especially in the $12-22/hr job market, UI plays a significant impact to worker availability currently.

File under #TheGreatForgetting.  Noah fortunately remembers.

Four “dark horse” stories for 2021

From my Bloomberg column, here is one of them:

possible Chinese move against Taiwan has received a lot of attention, but a Russian union with Belarus could be a greater danger. Belarus might even agree to such a proposition, so it would be hard for NATO or the U.S. to decry it as a coercive invasion. Yet such a Russian expansion could upend political stability in Europe.

If Russia and Belarus became a single political unit, there would be only a thin band of land, called the Suwalki Gap, connecting the Baltics to the rest of the European Union. Unfortunately, that same piece of territory would stand in the way of the new, larger Russia connecting with the now-cut off Russian region of Kaliningrad. Over the long term, could the Baltics maintain their independence? If not, the European Union would show it is entirely a toothless entity, unable to guarantee the sovereignty of its members.

Even if there were no formal political union between Russia and Belarus, the territorial continuity and integrity of the EU could soon be up for grabs. The EU has more at stake in an independent Belarus than it likes to admit.

You will find three more undervalued possible news stories at the link.

Should the CIA be putting out “Woke” ads?

I am fine with the idea, for reasons I outlined in my latest Bloomberg column:

If you wanted to dilute wokeness, and limit its appeal to young radicals, what could be better than a CIA endorsement? I, for one, would like to make wokeness decidedly uncool — and if this video can recruit some new talent to the CIA at the same time, what’s not to like?

If you are a passionate young person, deeply concerned with social justice, you will be looking for causes rejected by the Establishment and embraced by a cool, in-the-know vanguard. Think of Marlon Brando’s line in “The Wild One,” when he is asked what he is rebelling against: “Whadda you got?”

The CIA, which just recently rebranded itself, just went a long way toward making wokeness feel ordinary and anodyne. Wokeness isn’t going to disappear, so the sooner wokeness becomes like the Unitarian Church — broadly admired but commanding only a modicum of passion and commitment — the better.

For similar reasons, those skeptical of wokeness should not be overly worried about so many American businesses embracing the concept, at least rhetorically. Some left-wing radicals might even consider the notion of woke and  inclusive CIA assassins to be sinister, just as they fear that international conglomerates will neuter wokeness by embracing it.

Have you ever been walking through a department store and heard the Muzak version of John Lennon’s “Imagine”? Do you know the line: “Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can”? Maybe hearing the accompanying melody, perhaps while browsing the men’s wear section, made you think that Karl Marx had taken over the world. Or maybe — if you’re like me — your reaction was that John Lennon had found his place in history, and that both capitalism and conservatism were more robust than he had imagined.

Recommended, there are some subtle points in the longer exposition.

Patents are Not the Problem!

For the last year and a half I have been shouting from the rooftops, “invest in capacity, build more factories, shore up the supply lines, spend billions to save trillions.” Fortunately, some boffins in the Biden administration have found a better way, “the US supports the waiver of IP protections on COVID-19 vaccines to help end the pandemic.”
Waive IP protections. So simple. Why didn’t I think of that???

Patents are not the problem. All of the vaccine manufacturers are trying to increase supply as quickly as possible. Billions of doses are being produced–more than ever before in the history of the world. Licenses are widely available. AstraZeneca have licensed their vaccine for production with manufactures around the world, including in India, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, China and South Africa. J&J’s vaccine has been licensed for production by multiple firms in the United States as well as with firms in Spain, South Africa and France. Sputnik has been licensed for production by firms in India, China, South Korea, Brazil and pending EMA approval with firms in Germany and France. Sinopharm has been licensed in the UAE, Egypt and Bangladesh. Novavax has licensed its vaccine for production in South Korea, India, and Japan and it is desperate to find other licensees but technology transfer isn’t easy and there are limited supplies of raw materials:

Virtually overnight, [Novavax] set up a network of outside manufacturers more ambitious than one outside executive said he’s ever seen, but they struggled at times to transfer their technology there amid pandemic travel restrictions. They were kicked out of one factory by the same government that’s bankrolled their effort. Competing with larger competitors, they’ve found themselves short on raw materials as diverse as Chilean tree bark and bioreactor bags. They signed a deal with India’s Serum Institute to produce many of their COVAX doses but now face the realistic chance that even when Serum gets to full capacity — and they are behind — India’s government, dealing with the world’s worst active outbreak, won’t let the shots leave the country.

Plastic bags are a bigger bottleneck than patents. The US embargo on vaccine supplies to India was precisely that the Biden administration used the DPA to prioritize things like bioreactor bags and filters to US suppliers and that meant that India’s Serum Institute was having trouble getting its production lines ready for Novavax. CureVac, another potential mRNA vaccine, is also finding it difficult to find supplies due to US restrictions (which means supplies are short everywhere). As Derek Lowe said:

Abolishing patents will not provide more shaker bags or more Chilean tree bark, nor provide more of the key filtration materials needed for production. These processes have a lot of potential choke points and rate-limiting steps in them, and there is no wand that will wave that complexity away.

Technology transfer has been difficult for AstraZeneca–which is one reason they have had production difficulties–and their vaccine uses relatively well understood technology. The mRNA technology is new and has never before been used to produce at scale. Pfizer and Moderna had to build factories and distribution systems from scratch. There are no mRNA factories idling on the sidelines. If there were, Moderna or Pfizer would be happy to license since they are producing in their own factories 24 hours a day, seven days a week (monopolies restrict supply, remember?). Why do you think China hasn’t yet produced an mRNA vaccine? Hint: it isn’t fear about violating IP. Moreover, even Moderna and Pfizer don’t yet fully understand their production technology, they are learning by doing every single day. Moderna has said that they won’t enforce their patents during the pandemic but no one has stepped up to produce because no one else can.

The US trade representative’s announcement is virtue signaling to the anti-market left and will do little to nothing to increase supply.

What can we do to increase supply? Sorry, there is no quick and cheap solution. We must spend. Trump’s Operation Warp Speed spent on the order of $15 billion. If we want more, we need to spend more and on similar scale. The Biden administration paid $269 million to Merck to retool its factories to make the J&J vaccine. That was a good start. We could also offer Pfizer and Moderna say $100 a dose to produce in excess of their current production and maybe with those resources there is more they could do. South Africa and India and every other country in the world should offer the same (India hasn’t even approved the Pfizer vaccine and they are complaining about IP!??) We should ease up on the DPA and invest more in the supply chain–let’s get CureVac and the Serum Institute what they need. We should work like hell to find a substitute for Chilean tree bark. See my piece in Science co-authored with Michael Kremer et. al. for more ideas. (Note also that these ideas are better at dealing with current supply constraints and they also increase the incentive to produce future vaccines, unlike shortsighted patent abrogation.)

Bottom line is that producing more takes real resources not waving magic patent wands.

You may have gathered that I am angry. I am indeed angry that the people in power think they can solve real problems on the cheap and at someone else’s expense. This is not serious. I am also angry that they are sending the wrong message about business, profits and capitalism. So let me end on positive note. Like the Apollo program and Dunkirk, the creation of the mRNA vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna should be lauded with Nobel prizes and major movies. Churchill called the rescue at Dunkirk a “miracle of deliverance,” well the miracle of Moderna will rescue many more. Not only was a vaccine designed in under a year, an entirely new production process was set up to produce billions of doses to rescue the world. The creation of the mRNA vaccines was a triumph of science, logistics, and management and it was done at a speed that I had thought possible only for past generations.

I am grateful that greatness is still within our civilization’s grasp.

Addendum: Lest I be accused of being reflexively pro-patent, do recall the Tabarrok curve.

My Conversation with Daniel Carpenter, on regulation and also the FDA

Here is the audio, video, and transcript, I found it a very substantive and also illuminating episode.  Carpenter is very, very smart and also very well-informed historically.  Here is part of the summary:

Daniel Carpenter is one of the world’s leading experts on regulation and the foremost expert on the US Food and Drug Administration. A professor of Government at Harvard University, he’s conducted extensive research on regulation and government organizations, as well as on the development of political institutions in the United States. His latest book Democracy by Petition: Popular Politics in Transformation, details the crucial role petitions played in expanding the franchise and shaping modern America.

Here is an excerpt from the non-FDA section, much of which focuses on (non-FDA) regulation:

COWEN: What kinds of records should the Postal Service keep about itself?

CARPENTER: [laughs] Great question. There’s a whole set of things that they don’t since the Griswold decision and since the First Amendment decisions. They don’t keep as much records of what goes through the mail. They can’t prohibit things like pornography, contraception.

I guess it depends on what you mean by “itself.” I would start with the idea that basic privacy restrictions, which governed the postal system as much through norm as by law in the 19th century and early 20th century, should govern the system.

It’s a crime if I were to walk past your mailbox and open your letter. I’m committing a federal crime, but there were also norms that seals were not to be broken, things like that. I do think whichever way the Postal Service goes — and it’s quite possible that you could imagine an electronic platform for the US postal system — I think basic privacy restrictions have to be guaranteed.

Actually, in some respects, I think we need to know a fair amount about what postal workers do without, say, calling for Amazon tracking. But if we think that postal workers are misplacing ballots or not providing birth control pills or something like that, then we should probably have some way of picking up on that kind of nefarious behavior.

In the FDA section I got mad at him, the first (but not last?) time that has happened in a CWT, do read or listen to the whole section, the two of us really had at it!  Here is a tiny sliver from it:

COWEN: But shouldn’t there be a button within the FDA that can be pushed, where the FDA goes into a kind of wartime mode?

I don’t want to misrepresent Carpenter by an ill-chosen excerpt, so please do digest his full set of replies.  Recommended.