Category: Current Affairs

China fact of the day

China is still wrestling with how to rule over a diverse, ethnically mixed population that does not necessarily accept the dominance of the Han or the CCP narrative.  The challenge for the CCP is that ethnic minorities constitute only about 10 percent of the total population but inhabit 60 percent of the land mass, much of which is in sensitive border areas (the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous region, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Tibet Autonomous Region, and Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region).  The national language is a recent construct and has priority in schools over the local languages.  About 30 percent of the population speaks a language at home other than the national language.

That is from the new and “must read” From Rebel to Ruler: One Hundred Years of Chinese Communism, by Tony Saich.  Keep in mind that the CCP is the most important institution in the world today — have you ever read a book on it?

How and why is Conquest’s Second Law true?

“Any organization not explicitly and constitutionally right-wing will sooner or later become left-wing.”

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Additional forces strengthen Conquest’s Second Law. Educational polarization increasingly characterizes U.S. politics, with more educated Americans more likely to vote Democratic. Those same Americans are also likely to run nonprofits or major corporations, which would partially explain the ideological migration of those institutions.

There are, of course, numerous U.S. institutions that have maintained or even extended a largely right-wing slant, including many police forces, significant parts of the military, and many Protestant Evangelical churches. Those institutions tend to have lower educational requirements, and so they are not always so influential in the media, compared to many left-wing institutions.

Furthermore, the military and police are supposed to keep out of politics, and so their slant to the right is less noticeable, although no less real. The left is simply more prominent in mass media, so Conquest’s Second Law appears to be truer than it really is. (Note that by definition the law excludes explicitly right-wing media.)

And:

The common thread to these explanations is that left-wing views find it easier to win in spheres of reporting, talk and rhetoric — and that those tendencies strengthen over time.

It follows that, if Conquest’s Second Law is true, societies are more right-wing than they appear. Furthermore, it is the intelligentsia itself that is most likely to deluded about this, living as it does in the world of statements and proclamations. It is destined to be repeatedly surprised at how “barbarian” American society is.

There is also a significant strand of right-wing thought, most notably in opposition to Marxism, that stresses the immutable realities of human nature, and that people change only so much in response to their environments. So all that left-wing talk doesn’t have to result in an entirely left-wing society.

Conservatives thus should be able to take some comfort in Conquest’s Second Law. They may find the discourse suffocating at times. But there is more to life than just talk — and that, for liberals as well as conservatives, should be counted as one of life’s saving graces.

Racial segregation is increasing in many parts of America

Some of the nation’s largest metropolitan regions have become increasingly segregated in the last 30 years, underscoring racial inequalities that have led to poorer life outcomes in Black and brown neighborhoods, according to a study released Monday by the University of California Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute.

The study found that 81% of regions with more than 200,000 residents were more segregated in 2019 than they were in 1990, despite fair housing laws and policies created to promote integration.

Some of the most segregated areas included Chicago, Milwaukee and Detroit in the Midwest and New York, northern New Jersey and Philadelphia in the mid-Atlantic.

Conversely, large metropolitan regions that saw the biggest decrease in segregation included Savannah, Georgia, San Antonio and Miami.

Here is the full story, exactly as I argued in my earlier book The Complacent Class.  Via Ilya Novak.  And from the study, don’t forget this:

Southern states have lower overall levels of segregation, and the Mountain West and Plains states have the least

Ouch…!

More on Alternative Dosing

Some quick comments in response to questions and discussion about my paper Could Vaccine Dose Stretching Reduce COVID-19 Deaths? (written with the all-star cast of Witold Więcek, Amrita Ahuja, Michael Kremer, Alexandre Simoes Gomes, Christopher M. Snyder and Brandon Joel Tan.

1) Any method of increasing vaccine supply will require other changes in the supply chain such as more needles. We think alternative dosing can increase supply quickly with the fewest supply chain disruptions.

2) If we had started Moderna with 50 ug dosing no one would be advocating for 100 ug dosing, thereby halving supply. Rather than “full” or “half-doses,” which bias thinking, we should talk about alternative dosing and ug.

3) Judging by neutralizing antibodies, a 50 ug dose of, for example, Moderna looks to be more effective than standard dosing of many other vaccines including AZ and J&J and much better than others such as Sinovac. Thus alternative dosing is a way to *increase* the quality of vaccine for many people.

4) A 50 ug dose vaccine available today is much higher quality than a 100 ug dose vaccine available one year from now.

5) There are substantial risks from following the current approach, as India and now parts of Africa illustrate. Alternative dosing has a very large upside but small downside since we could switch back to standard doses. For example, Great Britain and Canada delayed the second dose to 12 and 16 weeks respectively but have since reduced the dosing interval as more supplies have become available.

6) The greatest risk to immune escape comes from the unvaccinated. Alternative dosing protects not only those who are dosed but by reducing transmission also reduces risks to the unvaccinated.

7) The key question we face now is not whether there are objections and complications to alternative dosing (there are) the key question is what additional information, available quickly could resolve the most uncertainty? In other words, what can we learn soon that would most aid decision makers?

See the paper for details and also my previous post, A Half Dose of Moderna is More Effective Than a Full Dose of AstraZeneca.

Addendum: It should be clear that this isn’t about the United States, it is about getting high-quality vaccine to places that have little to none.

The CDC is broken, our regulatory state has been failing us

I was surprised by how good this NYT piece was, for instance here is one of the better diagnoses of the problem, or at least part of it:

Allen disputes the notion that she and her colleagues are doing work that the C.D.C. itself should be doing; in fact, she says, the task force and the federal agency have worked closely together. But she acknowledges that the interdisciplinary approach of the collaborative — it consists not only of doctors and public-health professionals but also of political scientists, economists, lawyers and M.B.A.s — enables it to spot problems that the federal institution can’t necessarily see. Infection control is a good example. “This is not a public-health problem, or even a medical one,” she says. “It’s an issue of organizational capacity.” The C.D.C. is not equipped to identify organizational issues, let alone resolve them.

And:

Around half of the agency’s domestic budget is funneled to the states, but only after passing through a bureaucratic thicket. There are nearly 200 separate line items in the C.D.C.’s budget. Neither the agency’s director nor any state official has the power to consolidate those line items or shift funds among them. “It ends up being extremely fragmented and beholden to different centers and advocacy groups,” says Tom Frieden, who led the C.D.C. during the Obama administration.

How about this?:

This funding system also hobbles emergency-response efforts, because there is no real budget for the unexpected.

Highly recommended, one of the best pieces of this year, here is the full article by Jeenen Interlandi.

It’s Time to Open the Canada-US Border

When infection rates in two areas are similar the argument for closing borders is weak. Canadian and US infection rates are now similar and both countries are highly vaccinated by world standards. The arguments for not opening are mostly psychological, a fear of foreigners. As a result, we have both Canadians fearful of opening to Americans and Americans fearful of opening to Canadians which doesn’t make sense. At least one must be wrong! Moreover, if we require even a weak proof of vaccination to cross borders then the average Canadian coming to America will be safer than the average American and the average American traveling to Canada will be safer than the average Canadian.

It’s time to open the border.

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Mexico stimulus facts of the day

“The combination of continued reopening with strong remittances and a US-led global recovery has allowed Mexico to close the gap with other Latin American economies, outperforming all of them in the first half of 2021,” said Marcos Casarín, chief economist for the region at Oxford Economics. The consultancy’s recovery tracker shows Mexico is returning to pre-pandemic levels of activity more quickly than any other Latin American country. “Mexico will grow 6.0 per cent this year and it could be higher,” said former finance minister and academic Carlos Urzúa, citing the spillover effects of US fiscal stimulus and increased remittances from Mexicans working across the border. These could reach $55bn this year and are “much more important than oil”, he added.

Here is more from the FT.

What we learned doing Fast Grants

Here is my new piece with Patrick Collison and Patrick Hsu.  The title says it all, here is one excerpt:

…we recently ran a survey of Fast Grants recipients, asking how much their Fast Grant accelerated their work. 32% said that Fast Grants accelerated their work by “a few months”, which is roughly what we were hoping for at the outset given that the disease was killing thousands of Americans every single day.

In addition to that, however, 64% of respondents told us that the work in question wouldn’t have happened without receiving a Fast Grant.

For example, SalivaDirect, the highly successful spit test from Yale University, was not able to get timely funding from its own School of Public Health, even though Yale has an endowment of over $30 billion. Fast Grants also made numerous grants to UC Berkeley researchers, and the UC Berkeley press office itself reported in May 2020: “One notably absent funder, however, is the federal government. While federal agencies have announced that researchers can apply to repurpose existing funds toward Covid-19 research and have promised new emergency funds to projects focused on the pandemic, disbursement has been painfully slow. …Despite many UC Berkeley proposals submitted to the National Institutes of Health since the pandemic began, none have been granted.” [Emphasis ours.]

And:

57% of respondents told us that they spend more than one quarter of their time on grant applications. This seems crazy. We spend enormous effort training scientists who are then forced to spend a significant fraction of their time seeking alms instead of focusing on the research they’ve been hired to pursue.

The adverse consequences of our funding apparatus appear to be more insidious than the mere imposition of bureaucratic overhead, however.

In our survey of the scientists who received Fast Grants, 78% said that they would change their research program “a lot” if their existing funding could be spent in an unconstrained fashion. We find this number to be far too high: the current grant funding apparatus does not allow some of the best scientists in the world to pursue the research agendas that they themselves think are best.

And:

Some of the other Fast Grants investments were speculative, and may (or may not) pay dividends in the future, or for the next pandemic. Examples include:

  • Work on a possible pan-coronavirus vaccine at Caltech.
  • Work on a possible pan-enterovirus (another class of RNA virus) drug at Stanford University that has now raised subsequent funding.
  • Multiple grants going to different labs working on CRISPR-based COVID-19 at-home testing. One example is smartphone-based COVID-19 detection, being worked on at UC Berkeley and Gladstone Institutes.

Self-recommending…

Intertemporal substitution isn’t always good

“Because of the lockdown, we couldn’t have invited many people and therefore wouldn’t have needed to spend too much money. We would have saved the money that is ordinarily spent on paying for the tents, halwai (caterer), band baja. We would have been able to save a few lakhs. Because of the lockdown, we could have had a simple wedding for a few thousand rupees,” she explained, adding, “There’s no way we can afford a normal wedding in regular times.”

The second Covid surge and the accompanying lockdown has brought with it a spike in the number of cases of attempted child marriages across Madhya Pradesh.

According to figures shared by the Madhya Pradesh Women and Child Development ministry, a total of 710 child marriages were attempted between April 2020 and March 2021. But as soon as the second lockdown hit this year, the number of attempted child marriages shot up to 391 between April and May this year. This is more than half the figure reported in the past one year.

While ministry officials said the weddings were stopped “just in time”, families forwarded varying reasons for the attempted nuptials — from the lure of a “cheap” ceremony, to a fear of who will look after the child if the parents succumb to Covid, and therefore an attempt to find an alternative family.

Here is the full story, via Sheerwan.

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.