Category: Current Affairs

Newark fact of the day

Newark Police officers did not fire a single shot during the calendar year 2020, and the city didn’t pay a single dime to settle police brutality cases. That’s never happened, at least in the city’s modern history.

At the same time, crime is dropping, and police recovered almost 500 illegal guns from the street during the year.

Here is the longer story.

From the comments, Zaua on capital gains tax hikes

This is a big mistake even from a class equality perspective as it will cause rich people to invest more in things that are less liquid and accessible, and therefore harder to tax, from private businesses to real estate to crypto.

I believe that as much wealth as possible should be based on publicly traded corporations, because that is an avenue to build wealth that is accessible to all people with any amount of spare money and an avenue where regular people probably aren’t going to get screwed too badly by insiders because of the efficient markets hypothesis. However, the liquidity and accessibility of public markets also makes them easier to tax. So the higher capital gains tax rates are, the less attractive the public company form will be and the more attractive investment options will be put behind opaque structures that have tax advantages but also become too risky or even inaccessible to the general public.

If you must raise taxes on the rich, do it on their individual income rates, not their capital gains rates.

Here is the link.

Canada (oil sands) fact of the day

Between Mr. Trudeau’s election in 2015 and 2019, Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions increased by 1 percent, despite decreases in other rich nations during the same period, according to government data released last week. In fact, Canada is the only Group of 7 country whose emissions have risen since the Paris climate agreement was signed six years ago.

Here is more from the NYT.

Is this really better than borrowing?

Or how about a VAT?

President Joe Biden will propose almost doubling the capital gains tax rate for wealthy individuals to 39.6%, which, coupled with an existing surtax on investment income, means that federal tax rates for investors could be as high as 43.4%, according to people familiar with the proposal.

The plan would boost the capital gains rate to 39.6% for those earning $1 million or more, an increase from the current base rate of 20%, the people said on the condition of anonymity because the plan is not yet public. A 3.8% tax on investment income that funds Obamacare would be kept in place, pushing the tax rate on returns on financial assets higher than the top rate on wage and salary income, they said.

Here is the full story from Bloomberg.  Given state rates, that means over 50% in New York and California — is that what the science recommends?

A Foreign Policy Disaster in the Making

NYTimes: A lethal, fast-paced second wave of the coronavirus pandemic has brought India’s health care systems to the verge of collapse and is putting millions of lives and livelihoods at risk.

On Sunday and Monday, the country recorded more than 270,000 and 259,000 cases, respectively, of Covid-19, a staggering increase from about 11,000 cases per day in the second week of February. Reported coronavirus infections shot up from about 20,000 per day in mid-March to more than 200,000 by mid-April.

The newspapers and social media are scrolls of horror and failure of the health system. There are reports of lines of ambulances with patients waiting outside the largest Covid facility in Ahmedabad in the western state of Gujarat because ventilator beds and oxygen had run out.

On Friday in the northern city of Lucknow, Vinay Srivastava, a 65-year-old journalist, shared his falling oxygen levels on Twitter, tagging government authorities for help. Overburdened hospitals and laboratories wouldn’t take calls from his family. The last tweet from Mr. Srivastava’s handle described his oxygen saturation level at 52, way below the 95 percent, which is considered normal. Nobody helped. He died on Saturday.

When I left India in February of 2020 I feared that COVID would rip through its dense, urban populations which were already under stress from some of the world’s worst air and water pollution. I feared that COVID would overwhelm India’s weak public health care system and leave its low-capacity state flailing. As it happened, I should have worried more about America’s poorly cared for nursing home populations, its high obesity rate, and its low state-capacity. It was the US state that ended up flailing, as it and the public became absorbed by media spectacles, impeachments and scandals du jour even as thousands died daily. The virus mocks us all.

All of this will require some rethinking. Today, however, I want to point to a foreign policy disaster in the making. America’s role as the guarantor of a globalized, mostly peaceful, and orderly world–already deeply hurt by four years of “America First,”–is now under further threat by an increasing perception that we are vaccine hoarders. Conspiracy theories are running wild in India on WhatsApp and elsewhere that we have hundreds of millions of spare doses. It isn’t true, of course. We ordered more doses than we needed because we didn’t know which vaccine would work and so we smartly placed multiple bets. Our advance-purchases from Pfizer and big investments in Moderna and related parts of the vaccine supply chain have paid off big time. As the US is vaccinated, our investments will benefit the entire world. Our investments in Novavax, AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson were also smart investments but those bets have yet to pay off in a big way. We don’t have hundreds of millions of doses stockpiled but maybe tens of millions of some AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson vaccines.

We have, however, used the Defense Production Act to prioritize American vaccine manufacturing at potentially great cost to India. As The Economist reports:

Production lines in India, making at least 160m doses of covid vaccine a month, will come to a halt in the coming weeks unless America supplies 37 critical items.

A shutdown of vaccine production in India would be a disaster for India and also for the United States. Our image in Asia will be tarnished at a time when we want to be making allies to counter Chinese influence. Moreover, the US benefits tremendously from a globalized world. Indeed, the US cannot supply its own vaccine needs without inputs from the rest of the world so flouting the rules will boomerang, leaving us and everyone else worse off. Autarchy is very bad for vaccine production.

The Biden Administration has some leeway. We have over 60 million doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines on hand and more arriving every day. We do not need to pause our own vaccination efforts to help others. We can donate what AstraZeneca stockpiles remain at no cost to us. A I said in my testimony to Congress, forget being humanitarians, there are health, economic and political reasons to vaccinate the world.

So let’s make it clear that we have an American plan to vaccinate the world before perceptions solidify that we are the villain and not the hero of the story.

Lucan’s *Civil War* is grossly underrated, and I found reading it to be a revelation

COWEN: Why does reading Lucan’s The Civil War make more sense in 2021 than it might have 30 years ago? To me, it seems remarkably contemporary — more than Virgil. People are crazy. They’re at each other’s throats, but not really for any good reason.

BARTSCH: Lucan seems contemporary. Lucan is very much after and in response to Virgil. He reads Virgil as saying the possibility of the good state, the good empire is a real thing. What Lucan says is, “No, that is never possible. There will always be men grubbing for power and killing each other, and civil war is, frankly, a condition of life, a condition of history. Right now, I’m writing under Nero, who is not a good emperor. I’m writing about the events that led to Nero coming to power, and I hate them. They’re terrible. People lie to each other. Brothers killed brothers. Friends slashed each other in the face, all for political reasons. People use language, again, incorrectly to distort what they meant, and then — here’s the rub — because I’m writing under Nero and because Nero is one of the bad emperors, I can’t complain about writing under Nero. I have to praise him. Otherwise, I’ll get in trouble.”

So you get this beautiful juxtaposition of a poet starting out his poem with almost over-the-top praise. “Oh, Nero, you’re going to heaven, and you’re going to be a star in the constellations. There’s never been anybody so wise as you. Civil war was worth it if you were the outcome.”

Then the rest of the poem is this blistering indictment of the present, which is the present under Nero. By indicting the present but praising Nero, he effectively shows us that his praise is false, but that false praise is what everybody has to engage in in a world where there’s no freedom. Maybe that is what seems topical to you. Or maybe it’s just about fake news, and you see Lucan is writing fake news in the beginning of his epic.

COWEN: I think the lack of obvious self-interested motivation for the polarization is what strikes me as so contemporary about Lucan. It’s not primarily about rent-seeking. There’s simply some logic of escalation that never stops. Now, maybe at the end of the poem, there’s a return to sanity in some ways, but there’s still this total immersion in violence, and the dynamics of that, the nonrationality or arationality — it struck me if I had read Lucan in 1991, I would have been quite puzzled, like this is something of antique interest. But I read it today — I’m not so pessimistic about the Western world, but it seems to hit much closer to home.

BARTSCH: Why is that? Sorry, you’re supposed to be asking me questions, but why does it seem to strike closer to home to you now?

COWEN: There seems to be a logic in contemporary politics where people take opposite sides of an issue because other people have taken a side. They don’t necessarily care anymore what it’s about. This may have moderated in the last few months, but there was a sense, if Trump tweeted some view about Turkey, some people would agree, and other people would take the other side, whether or not they had agreement about Turkey.

BARTSCH: Absolutely. The polarization of political views — that is completely in Lucan. Everything is binary. Both sides are at each other’s throats. The problem is, neither side is good. They’re just both opinionated. Yes, he constantly shows us horrible, meaningless scenes of butchery, which will never lead to anything meaningful. I think in that sense, yes, it’s an interesting comparison to what happens today.

Another interesting thing that he does is that, even though everything has been boiled down into them versus us — or actually them versus them because there’s nobody good in the epic except for Cato, who ends up dying — even as he takes on so serious a subject, he refuses to partake of its seriousness in a way. What I mean by that is that his battle scenes are ridiculous. They’re not realistic.

Here’s an example. You’re fighting for Julius Caesar, and you’re on a boat, and you’re trying to get onto a boat that belongs to Pompey, so you grab it with one arm as it comes by, but the people in Pompey’s boat chop off your arm. Then you grab it with your other arm, and then they chop that arm off. Then you’ve got no arms. So, what do you do? Well, Lucan says, you just lob yourself onto the boat armlessly and hope that you can make a difference that way. There’s arms and legs flying everywhere.

In Virgil or Homer, somebody stabs you, you groan, blood comes out, you die. In Lucan, you just bop around like a puppet losing limbs and legs. That’s very strange.

That is from my Conversation with Shadi Bartsch.

Mexican drug cartel now assassinates its enemies using drones?

Ho hum, nothing to see here:

Mexico’s drug cartels are notoriously well armed and equipped, with some possessing very heavy weaponry, including armored gun trucks sporting heavy machine guns. Now at least one of these groups appears to be increasingly making use of small quadcopter-type drones carrying small explosive devices to attack its enemies. This is just the latest example of a trend that has been growing worldwide in recent years, including among non-state actors, such as terrorists and criminals, which underscores the potential threats commercially-available unmanned systems pose on and off the battlefield.

Various police raids seem to have uncovered quadcopters armed with shrapnel.  Just how speculative is this report?  I do not know, but I have been expecting such developments for quite a few years now, and it would be sad if finally they were upon us.  Here is the full story by Joseph Trevethick.

My Congressional Testimony

I thought the meeting went well. I made four points.

  • It is not too late to do more.
  • We should invest in nasal and oral vaccines.
  • We should vaccinate the world.
  • We should stretch doses through fractional dosing and delaying the second dose, this will be important to vaccinate the world quickly.

One observation. Lots of people are talking about vaccine hesitancy but I am one of the few people who have been talking about nasal and oral vaccines which are the only really solid approach to the issue that I have seen.

My best line:

The unvaccinated are the biggest risk for generating mutations and new variants. You have heard of the South Africa and Brazilian variants, well the best way to protect your constituents from these and other variants is to vaccinate South Africans and Brazilians.

I also got in the last word in Q&A when discussing the pause of J&J:

For the rest of the world it is important to underline that it is most important to get vaccinated now. Use the AstraZeneca vaccine, use the Johnnson & Johnson vaccine…don’t wait for Moderna or Pfizer, it is going to take too long…start your vaccination program early…vaccinate as quickly as possible, that is the route to health and wealth.

See Western Warnings Tarnish Vaccines the World Badly Needs for the beginnings of a disaster. Note that if J&J and AZ are tarnished or knocked out of the vaccine arsenal then dose stretching and investing in more capacity are going to be even more important.

I also submitted five excellent and important pieces to Congress:

Canadian statement on delaying the second dose.

National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) Canada. 2021. “COVID-19 Vaccine Extended Dose Interval for Canadians: NACI Recommendation.” Government of Canada. March 3, 2021. https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/immunization/national-advisory-committee-on-immunization-naci/rapid-response-extended-dose-intervals-covid-19-vaccines-early-rollout-population-protection.html.

Value of vaccine capacity and additional investments.

Castillo, Juan Camilo, Amrita Ahuja, Susan Athey, Arthur Baker, Eric Budish, Tasneem Chipty, Rachel Glennerster, et al. 2021. “Market Design to Accelerate COVID-19 Vaccine Supply.” Science, February. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abg0889.

Efficacy of the first dose from NEJM.

Skowronski, Danuta, and Gaston Serres De. 2021. “Letter to the Editor on Safety and Efficacy of the BNT162b2 MRNA Covid-19 Vaccine.” New England Journal of Medicine, February 17, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMc2036242.

Overview of dose stretching policies (with links in the online version).

Tabarrok, Alex. 2021. “What Are We Waiting For?” Washington Post, February 12, 2021, sec. Outlook. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/02/12/first-doses-vaccine-rules-fda/

A plan to vaccinate the world.

Agarwal, Ruchir, and Tristan Reed. 2021. “How to End the COVID-19 Pandemic by March 2022” SSRN. 2021. https://documents.worldbank.org/en/publication/documents-reports/documentdetail/181611618494084337/how-to-end-the-covid-19-pandemic-by-march-2022

The whole thing is here. My written testimony is here.

“RCTs for me but not for thee”?

Zeke Emanuel, a professor of healthcare management at the University of Pennsylvania and a former coronavirus adviser to US president Joe Biden, said: “I understand they wanted to be transparent, but did they really have to announce a complete pause? “My concern is this will unnecessarily undermine confidence in the vaccine, and possibly all [Covid-19] vaccines. Are people going to know the difference?”

Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, said: “The damage is done, this is going to be hard to resume. All [the CDC] can do is say how rare this is, show how safe and efficacious the J&J vaccine is. But this action is going to be hard to reverse.”

Here is the full FT piece.  Since lives are at stake, how about this for a proposal?  The FDA is allowed to suspend the use of any positive expected value vaccine only after running an RCT on their underlying theory of credibility and public risk communication in the relevant context.  (NB: asking about attitude change is not nearly good enough!)  And after they run the RCT, they have to wait three weeks to schedule the meeting on evaluating the data.  After all, that is how long it takes, right?

Estamos de acuerdo?

By the way, one reader wrote to me: “I submit to you that the credibility of the FDA on the relative safety of various vaccines may be a minor issue in the pool of issues that prevent the level of vaccinations we would like to see.”  Do we even know if that is true or false?

The Covid culture that is Australia

Health Minister Greg Hunt has refused to guarantee Australia’s borders will open even if the whole country has been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Australia’s borders have been shut since March 2020 and will remain closed until at least the middle of June, leaving more than 36,000 Australians trapped overseas, unable to return due to caps on the number of quarantine spaces.

The closure also bans citizens from leaving the country unless they have an exemption or are travelling to New Zealand.

Mr Hunt suggested at a news conference in Canberra on Tuesday the international border closures could last much longer and stay in place even if the entire population had been vaccinated against the coronavirus.

“Vaccination alone is no guarantee that you can open up,” Mr Hunt said.

“If the whole country were vaccinated, you couldn’t just open the borders.”

“We still have to look at a series of different factors: transmission, longevity [of vaccine protection] and the global impact – and those are factors which the world is learning about,” he said.

Really people?  Via Chris.

Hearing: “Vaccinations and the Economic Recovery”

I will be testifying to the JEC of Congress today at 2:30 pm est.

Witnesses:       

Dr. Paul Romer
Nobel Prize Winning economist and NYU Professor
New York, NY

Dr. Céline Gounder, MD, ScM, FIDSA
Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine & Infectious Diseases, NYU School of Medicine & Bellevue Hospital
CEO of Just Human Productions
New York, NY

Dr. Alexander Tabarrok
Bartley J. Madden Chair in Economics at the Mercatus Center and Professor of Economics George Mason University
Fairfax, VA

Dr. Belinda Archibong
Assistant Professor, Economics
Barnard College, Columbia University
New York, NY

Link here.

Why I am not entirely keen on the Great Barrington Declaration and AIER

More people are asking me about my attitudes toward Great Barrington and AIER, including David Henderson in this post (which also has a good transcript of my remarks to Russ Roberts).  Earlier I wrote a conceptual critique of the Great Barrington Declaration, but today I would like to make some more targeted remarks.  I didn’t do this when speaking to Russ because I feel they require direct quotation and documentation, which one cannot easily do in a podcast.  And in general I don’t like to write posts “attacking people” (way oversupplied on the internet), but in this case libertarian sympathies are so split that a kind of a wake-up call is needed.

Let me first say that if you are libertarian, and would like a libertarian response to the pandemic, and you find Alex and me not libertarian enough, read the Ryan Bourne book from the Cato Institute.  You may not agree with everything in there, but it has no “gross errors” and no “biomedical weirdness.”  And people, the Cato Institute really is libertarian.  They once hired David Henderson as chief economist.

As for the AIER, read this Jeremy Horpedahl thread and click through appropriately, here is the Sam Bowman-produced part of the thread.  Conspiracy theorist and shall we say “speculative thinker” Naomi Wolf is now a senior researcher at AIER, please do read her tweets.  5G conspiracy theories?  Vaccine nanoparticles that make you travel back in time?  “Not kidding” she wrote, and the general weirdness extends far beyond that, to some of her books as well.  Or try this “externality denialism” from just a few days ago: “Your vaccine status makes no difference to others.”  Her pinned tweet casts suspicion on Bill Gates, and refers to “global treason.”

I say it is a mistake to let such a group set the libertarian agenda or indeed any agenda, even if you favor very rapid reopenings and are very critical of lockdowns.  I implore you to think very seriously about what is going on here.

Going back to the GBD proper, which again is sponsored by AIER, here is co-author Sunetra Gupta:

“What we’ve seen is that in normal, healthy people, who are not elderly or frail or don’t have comorbidities, this virus is not something to worry about no more than how we worry about flu,”  professor Gupta told HT.

Nope, almost 600,000 U.S. deaths later.  Or how does this Gupta claim look?:

‘Why would you arrest transmission?’ she asks. ‘To wait for a vaccine? You cannot get rid of it.’

What would Benjamin Netanyahu say?  Or Gupta in May: “Covid-19 is on the way out.”

The best of them is probably Jay Bhattacharya, with whom I often agree, and who, as far as I can tell, has no track record of blatantly false predictions.  Yet even he cannot avoid a tinge of biomedical weirdness.

Why was Bhattacharya on the advisory board of the anti-vax group Panda?  I am reluctant to play the “guilt by association” game here, but I think there is a broader pattern of these writers simply being wrong about the science, and their associations reflecting that.

I agree with his WSJ critique (with Kulldorff) of vaccine passports.  Still, he comes up with some literally true but misleading sequences such as:

The idea that everybody needs to be vaccinated is as scientifically baseless as the idea that nobody does. Covid vaccines are essential for older, high-risk people and their caretakers and advisable for many others.

I wonder why cannot he bring himself to say that “the average social value of a 16-year-old getting vaccinated is strongly positive”?  (And we are running significant tests to lower the remaining uncertainty, and if it is merely adenovirus platforms you worry about well say that.)  Instead he has to walk around the issue and play down the value of near-universal Covid vaccination.  You might think that is all the fault of the editorial chopping board, but it seems to be a broader and more consistent pattern with this group.

Take Hulldorff’s now-famous tweetThose with prior natural infection do not need it [Covid vaccines]. Nor children.”  “Need?” — OK, I get it, demand curves slope down.  But again, his tweet is not nearly as good or as accurate a message as “the average social value of a 16-year-old getting vaccinated is strongly positive.”  There is good evidence that the vaccines provide better protection than does natural infection, especially against the Covid variants, and it is established that infected younger persons can carry Covid to the unvaccinated, of which there will always be quite a few, most of all globally.  Furthermore, non-vaccine methods of achieving herd immunity are looking worse, due to the spread of variants and areas such as Manaus, which seem to have high rates of reinfection.  And have I mentioned that hospitalization rates for the young are rising?  (We are not sure why.)

Is it so great that 38.9% of Marines are refusing to take the vaccine? (no).  Or have these writers looked into the huge success that is Gibraltar?

Why take this weird, hinky attitude toward the science for no good reason?  It’s as if — when it comes to vaccines — they deliberately talk in an Alice in Wonderland universe without self-awareness of that fact.

No matter what your associations may or may not be, getting people vaccinated with quality vaccines is the #1 issue right now and it is the path back to liberty most likely to succeed and prove sustainable.  If you are not really enthusiastic about that, I think, frankly, that you are out to lunch.