Category: Current Affairs

The very good vaccine news

Very good news from Pfizer on the vaccine front.  And Zoom shares have been crashing.  Disney is soaring.  Book that wedding venue now!

Here is the woman who led the effortAnd:

If you want to tell positive stories about immigration, look no further than the BioNTech vaccine: company co-founders Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci are both children of Turkish Gastarbeiter who came to Germany in the late 1960s.

This also means a lot of the other vaccine candidates are quite likely to work.  Finally, please do note this:

In seriousness, the expected value of delaying getting sick just went way, way, way up.

Bravo to all those involved.  And from one reader:

What do you think of proposing a new holiday to your readers?

Most of them are going to celebrate Christmas and Thanksgiving with their families during the peak of the pandemic, when immunity is available just around the corner. Perhaps “Vaccinalia” a two day celebration two weeks after your entire family is vaccinated, with presents AND turkey…

Not disappearing after November 3rd

Via Scott Gottlieb.  And how about North Dakota?  It is a low population state, but if all of the United States were putting in a comparable Covid performance we would be having about 12,500 Covid deaths a day.  That is certainly not my prediction, but it is one way to think about what could happen from a very bad policy and social norms response.  Is that the road we wish to be veering towards?

Secularization and the Tribulations of the American Working-Class

That is a work in progress by Brian Wheaton, job market candidate from Harvard University.  Here is the abstract:

Over the past several decades, working-class America has been plagued by multiple adverse trends: a sharp increase in social isolation, an even sharper increase in single parenthood, a decline in male labor force participation rates, and a decline in generational economic mobility – amongst other things.  Material economic factors have been unable to fully explain these phenomena, often yielding mixed results or – in some cases, such as that of single parenthood – lacking explanatory power altogether.  I study the decline in religiosity and, using a shift-share instrument leveraging the fact that different religious denominations are declining at different rates, I find that religious decline has a strong adverse effect on the aforementioned variables.  The effects are not weakened by including other potential explanatory factors (such as China trade shocks and variation in public assistance).  I present evidence that, to the extent reverse causality exists, it creates bias in the opposite direction of my estimates.  These findings are also robust to several alternative instruments, including the repeal of the state blue laws banning retail activity on Sundays and the Catholic church scandals of the 2000s.  Two instruments – the blue laws and the state anti-evolution laws mandating teaching of creationism in school – allow me to ascertain whether the effect proceeds through religious attendance or beliefs.  I find that, for most outcomes, the bulk of the effect is driven by religious attendance.

To be clear, that is not Brian’s job market paper, which covers “Laws, Beliefs, and Backlash.” Or you might wish to try these results on corporal punishment in schools (with Maria Petrova and Gautam Rao):

We find that the presence of corporal punishment in schools increases educational attainment, increases later-life social trust and trust in institutions, and leads to less authoritarian attitudes toward child-rearing, and greater tolerance of free speech. Additionally, exposure to corporal punishment in school decreases later-life crime. We find no effects on mental or physical health.

Here is his paper about flat tax reform in Eastern Europe:

Using static and dynamic difference-in-differences approaches, I find that the flat tax reforms increase annual GDP growth by 1.36 percentage points for a transitionary period of approximately one decade.

I praise the scholarship and courage of Brian N. Wheaton.

This election’s winners and losers

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, and no I do not mean the politicians.  Here is one excerpt:

…the political-science hypothesis of “retrospective voting” took a whacking. Retrospective voting suggests that the electorate evaluates incumbents by recent economic performance and votes accordingly, regardless of whether the incumbents are actually at fault. Yet Trump presided over about 320,000 excess deaths related to Covid-19, as well as huge contractions in GDP and employment. Even if he loses, as now seems likely, those failures didn’t knock him out of the race. A lot of his supporters still seem to have felt he would cope better with matters moving forward.

And to close:

American democracy: Maybe this one is premature, but so far the U.S. has held a closely contested election under pandemic conditions. Turnout was much higher than usual, and so far there hasn’t been much election-related violence. Could it be that the system really works?

And when will the “money in politics” people admit they were wrong?

How are things in North Jutland these days?

Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announced special restrictions for more than 280,000 people in the north of Denmark on Thursday after a mutated version of the new coronavirus linked to mink farms was found in humans.

Copenhagen warned that the mutation could threaten the effectiveness of any future vaccine.

“From tonight, citizens in seven areas of North Jutland are strongly encouraged to stay in their area to prevent the spread of infection,” Frederiksen told a news conference, adding that people were being ordered not to travel there, while bars and restaurants would also shut.

“We are asking you in North Jutland to do something completely extraordinary,” Frederiksen said, talking of a “real closure” of the region.

“The eyes of the world are on us,” she added.

Here is the story, here is further analysis, and some analysis from bioscientists, does anyone know more?

Vaccine politics will soon replace electoral politics

That is the title and theme of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

And who should get the vaccine first? The elderly are more vulnerable, but the young are more likely to spread Covid-19. Some recent results suggest it would be better to vaccinate the young first, but that is less politically likely. Again, it is easy to see potential conflicts over this question, cutting across traditional party lines.

An even more complex problem would arise if one good vaccine is available but other, possibly better, vaccines are imminent. Does everyone get the “good enough” vaccine, disrupting the ability to conduct clinical trials to see if the other vaccines are better? How much patience do Americans have, really?

Americans would probably resent having to wait. But if they end up choosing a lesser quality vaccine, over the long run they might be unhappier yet. It is not clear the U.S. public health bureaucracy is up to the task of approving one vaccine and restructuring the other trials (possibly by paying participants more to stay in, or by shifting to other countries for data) so they can continue.

Be prepared for a mess, with almost everybody unhappy.

Uncertainty and the import of norm adherence

The cabinet agreed the measures during an emergency Zoom meeting after being presented with data that showed the NHS would run out of bed capacity by the first week in December.

That is from the London Times, and it is the government’s rationale for a new and very strict lockdown plan.  Once you are in this position, there are truly no good choices, nor will you succeed in “protecting the vulnerable” under any of the paths before you.

But let’s turn the clock back a wee bit, shall we say to Liverpool, circa July 2020.  At that point, in the “clubby” part of town, drunken youths were walking around, arm-in-arm, serenading each other and singing.  Without masks.  Barber shops were full, the barbers are wearing plastic visors (often no masks, and it seems the visors are less effective) and many of the patrons were wearing no masks.  Overall the mask-wearing rate did not seem to exceed ten percent, if that.  People on the (closed window) trains to and from Liverpool often did not have masks, and they were gabbing rather than silent.  Few natives were looking aghast at any of this.  And unlike in London and parts of southeast England, there was no plausible reason whatsoever to believe in herd immunity for Liverpool.

The recommendation is simply that Liverpool and most or all other parts of England needed stronger norms back then. To stop later severe lockdowns.

And here is Max Roser on testing.

If someone talks about “protecting the vulnerable,” ask a simple follow-up question: how much are they also talking about masks and testing (and biomedical advances)?

You can argue about exactly how effective masks are, or how much the current Covid return is a purely seasonal effect, or what about Peltzman effects (mask wearers will take more risks), and so on.  There is typically uncertainty about just how strong norms will be in their final effects, but that is not reason to toss out those norms.

But if people aren’t even trying, you know something is very, very wrong.  Blame the elites.  Blame the people themselves.  Those two alternatives are not nearly as distinct as they might seem.

And I am not asking for the impossible or for the totalitarian.  Liverpudlians and the now on the run cohorts of Europeans would be much better off if they had only matched the rather ragged norms and safety record of my own northern Virginia, which is full of immigrants I might add.  People here made many mistakes, but on the whole never became altogether negligent.

Europe is seeing a major second wave of its current magnitude because, in so many places, people simply stopped trying.  With vaccines on the way, those were indeed grave errors.

Rational Criminals, Irrational Lawmakers

Columnist Phil Matier writes in the SFChroncile about rampant, brazen shoplifting in San Francisco.

After months of seeing its shelves repeatedly cleaned out by brazen shoplifters, the Walgreens at Van Ness and Eddy in San Francisco is getting ready to close.

…“All of us knew it was coming. Whenever we go in there, they always have problems with shoplifters, ” said longtime customer Sebastian Luke, who lives a block away and is a frequent customer who has been posting photos of the thefts for months. The other day, Luke photographed a man casually clearing a couple of shelves and placing the goods into a backpack.

Most of the remaining products were locked behind plastic theft guards, which have become increasingly common at drugstores in recent years.

But at Van Ness Avenue and Eddy Street, even the jugs of clothing detergent on display were looped with locked anti-theft cables.

When a clerk was asked where all the goods had gone, he said, “Go ask the people in the alleys, they have it all.”

No sooner had the clerk spoken than a man wearing a virus mask walked in, emptied two shelves of snacks into a bag, then headed back for the door. As he walked past the checkout line, a customer called out, “Sure you don’t want a drink with that?”

…Under California law, theft of less than $950 in goods is treated as a nonviolent misdemeanor. The maximum sentence for petty theft is six months in county jail. But most of the time the suspect is released with conditions attached.

Some stores have hired private security firms or off-duty police officers to deter would-be thieves. But security is expensive and can cost upward of $1,000 a day. Add in the losses from theft, and the cost of doing business can become too high for a store to stay open.

Perhaps San Francisco helps us with Tyler’s “solve for the Seattle Equilibrium” challenge.

David Henderson needs a reboot

David is repeatedly writing critiques of my writings on Covid-19.  (Google to them if you wish, they are so off base and misrepresentative I don’t think they deserve a link, and furthermore I find it almost impossible to track down EconLog archives under their new system.)  Virtually all of his points revolve around simple or it seems even willful misunderstandings.  For instance, David wrote:

But he’s willing to sacrifice the well-being of 50 million school-age children. Remember his casual “It just doesn’t seem worth it” remark about allowing kids to go back to school. He handles the tradeoff by not mentioning it.

Here is what I wrote:

…the value of reopening schools. It is an inarguable point, and Sweden seems to have made it work. But schools cannot and should not be reopened unconditionally. Amid high levels of Covid-19, a successful reopening very often will require social distancing, masks and a good system for testing and tracing. It would be better to focus on what needs to be done to make school reopenings work. Reopened schools in Israel, for instance, seem to have contributed to a significant second wave of Covid-19.

And my remark about “It just doesn’t seem worth it”, cited by David as me dismissing school reopenings?  Here is what I actually wrote:

Indoor restaurant dining and drinking, for example, is probably not a good idea in most parts of the U.S. right now.

Yes, many of the Covid cases spread by such activity would be among the lower-risk young, rather than the higher-risk elderly. Still, practically speaking, given America’s current response capabilities, those cases will further paralyze schools and workplaces and entertainment venues. It just doesn’t seem worth it.

I am worried about reopening indoor bars and restaurants because I want to keep schools (and other venues) open.  At my own school, GMU, I very much argued for keeping it open, which indeed we have done with success but also with great effort.  My whole point is one about trade-offs.

I’ve also linked regularly to evidence that school reopenings are often possible and desirable, but still there is a right and wrong way to do it and they are not in every case a good idea.  It is not just up to the policy analyst, you also have to keep the teachers and various other parties on board, whether you like that reality or not.

One issue here is that likely more students would end up in functioning schools under a Tyler Cowen regime than under a David Henderson regime.  David’s sum of recommendations would, in practice, if we were to trace through their full consequences, lead to more schools being shut and more teachers refusing to show up.  And more deaths and panic and overflowing medical facilities.  Now that’s a trade-off.

I could point to numerous misunderstandings in David’s recent posts, pretty much in every paragraph.  (I also think he is quite wrong on substance, allying himself with a few eccentric thinkers that hardly anyone agrees with, and who have not acquitted themselves well in debate, or made good predictions as of late, but that is another matter for a different time.  He should pay greater heed to say Scott Gottlieb, who knows what he is talking about.)

In the meantime, David is failing the ideological Turing test badly and repeatedly.

Addendum: David’s Russian vaccine post does not misunderstand me, but I don’t think it shows a very full grasp of the issue.  I very much favor regulatory reciprocity for pharmaceuticals, vaccines, and more, but I strongly believe adding Russia to the reciprocal list would “poison the well” and doom the whole idea.  In the meantime, they are not nearly as far along for a major vaccine rollout as they claim, so probably we are not missing out on very much, even if the quality were fine.  The slightest problem with the vaccine would be blown out of proportion, most of all with DT as president and Russian conspiracy theories circulating.  If your goal is to nudge and push the FDA to move more quickly across the board, starting them off with the approval of a Russian vaccine is bad tactics and is risking the entire apple cart.  Maybe try for Mother England first?  So I think David here is quite wrong, and applying market liberalization ideas in a knee-jerk rather than a sophisticated fashion.  He called the post “Tyler Cowen’s shocking post on the Russian vaccine,” but I wonder who he thinks is really supposed to be shocked by that one.  If you read David’s comment on his own post you will see he is genuinely unable to imagine that such an argument as I present above might exist.

New addendum: Note that one of the earlier comments was under the name of David Henderson but was not in fact by him, read here.  And a response by the real DRH here.

Redistribution!

Depressive symptoms increased from before to during COVID-19 and life satisfaction decreased. Individuals with higher education experienced a greater increase in depressive symptoms and a greater decrease in life satisfaction from before to during COVID-19 in comparison to those with lower education. Supplemental analysis illustrates that income had a curvilinear relationship with changes in well-being, such that individuals at the highest levels of income experienced a greater decrease in life satisfaction from before to during COVID-19 than individuals with lower levels of income.

Here is the full research paper, by Connie R. Wanberg et.al., with other interesting results including on causal mechanisms.  Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

The non-linearity of Covid-19 response

My colleague Bryan Caplan has some comments on the topic, here is also Robin Hanson here and here.  I think both are trying to fit the Covid battle too much into a framework of equating marginal benefit and marginal cost.  While that MB = MC condition is true tautologically for my views as well, I see it as a less useful framing given the non-linearities involved.  It is only a modest oversimplification to assert that either we are beating back Covid or it is beating back us, and we can’t just choose a point along a smooth curve.  You end up on one side of the distribution or another, if you are losing you are not really in control.

Here is a manipulative partisan tweet, but it still gets at a true point:

Since America is not a small, isolated island we don’t have the Kiwi option, but you can nonetheless see the two “winning” and “losing” options embedded in that comparison.

I think back to when I was 12 or 13, and asked to play the Avalon Hill board game Blitzkrieg.  Now, as the name might indicate, you win Blitzkrieg by being very aggressive.  My first real game was with a guy named Tim Rice, at the Westwood Chess Club, and he just crushed me, literally blitzing me off the board.  I had made the mistake of approaching Blitzkrieg like chess, setting up my forces for various future careful maneuvers.  I was back on my heels before I knew what had happened.

Due to its potential for exponential growth, Covid-19 is more like Blitzkrieg than it is like chess.  You are either winning or losing (badly), and you would prefer to be winning.  A good response is about trying to leap over into that winning space, and then staying there.  If you find that current prevention is failing a cost-benefit test, that doesn’t mean the answer is less prevention, which might fail a cost-benefit test all the more, due to the power of the non-local virus multiplication properties to shut down your economy and also take lives and instill fear.

You still need to come up with a way of beating Covid back.