Category: Economics

In the Race for a Coronavirus Vaccine, We Must Go Big

Today in the New York Times I have an op-ed with Susan Athey, Michael Kremer and Christopher Snyder. We argue for a big program to invest in vaccine capacity before any vaccine is tested and approved. We agree with Bill Gates that we want the vaccine factories to be warmed up by the time a vaccine is approved. We can’t leave it all to Gates, however. The US economy is hemorrhaging $150-$350 billion a month so the benefits of a vaccine to society are huge and we should go big.

Today, the U.S. government could go big and create a Covid-19 vaccine A.M.C., guaranteeing to spend about $70 billion on new vaccines — enough to make direct investments to support capacity installation or to repurpose capacity and to pay, say, $100 per person for the first 300 million people vaccinated.

An investment of that size can anticipate and overcome several challenges typical of vaccine development. If we want to achieve a 90 percent probability of success, we must take into account historical rates of success from publicly available data; doing that suggests that we need to actively pursue not two or three vaccine candidates, but 15 to 20.

…Usually, to avoid the risk of investing in capacity that eventually proves worthless, firms invest in large-scale capacity only after the vaccine has proved effective. But in the middle of a pandemic, there are huge social and economic advantages to having vaccines ready to use as soon as they have been approved. If we leave it entirely to the market, we will get too little vaccine too late.

An advance market commitment for Covid-19 should combine “push” and “pull” incentives. The “pull” incentive is the commitment to buy 300 million courses of vaccine at a per-person price of $100, for vaccines produced within a specified time frame. If multiple vaccines are developed, the A.M.C. fund will have authority to choose products to purchase based on efficacy, the availability of sufficient vaccine for timely vaccination or suitability for different population groups. So firms compete to serve the first 300 million people with the most attractive vaccines, and the “pull” component provides strong incentives for both speed and quality.

The “push” incentive guarantees firms partial reimbursement for production capacity built or repurposed at risk and partial reimbursement as they achieve milestones. The partial reimbursement ensures that manufacturers have “skin in the game,” while inducing them to build large-scale capacity before approval is certain.

More than usual, read the whole thing and please do help to circulate the ideas by posting and tweeting.

The op-ed draws on the work of a large team of economists and statisticians who have been working days and nights for weeks. You can find out more at AcceleratingHT where we will soon be posting additional analysis and tools.

It’s a great privilege for me to be working with this group. One day I will write the story but for now let me just say that I have never seen such a brilliant and dedicated group come together to apply their skills to a problem of such importance and urgency.

A Pandemic Trust Fund

The Coronavirus Pandemic may be the most warned about event in human history. Surprisingly, we even did something about it. President George W. Bush started a pandemic preparation plan and so did Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in CA but in both cases when a pandemic didn’t happen in the next several years those plans withered away. We ignored the important in favor of the urgent.

It is evident that the US government finds it difficult to invest in long-term projects, perhaps especially in preparing for small probability events with very large costs. Pandemic preparation is exactly one such project. How can we improve the chances that we are better prepared next time?

In a short paper for the Center for Growth and Opportunity I offer a different funding mechanism to address the problem:

…we would like organizations tasked with protecting the public from low-probability, high-cost events to be funded on a permanent basis that is not subject to budgetary discretion or degradation. Instead of yearly appropriations, it’s preferable to have a one-time appropriation to finance a stream of investments. The financial means of doing this is to buy a bond with an earmarked revenue stream. That is, instead of selling bonds the government buys long-term safe bonds which pay out dividends that are earmarked to a program, in this case to pandemic preparation.

There is a well-known example of such a financing scheme, the social security trust fund. The social security trust fund was established in 1937. It buys long-term safe bonds that pay dividends that are used to finance social security payments. Unlike the pandemic trust fund I propose, the Social Security Trust Fund buys bonds on an ongoing basis but that is a relatively unimportant difference.

The Social Security Trust Fund buys the safest form of government bonds, which has given rise to a long-standing controversy over whether the trust fund is a “fiction.”10Of course, the trust fund is a kind of fiction but so are federalism, checks and balances, and the Constitution. Fictions can be powerful because they create shared understandings that govern behavior and determine equilibrium action. The trust fund does what it says—it increases trust by indicating that Social Security payments are higher in creditor priority than other spending. Just as Section 507 of the Bankruptcy Code increases trust by indicating that secured bondholders get paid before unsecured creditors such as a company’s suppliers. Since 1937, the Social Security Trust Fund has always held net assets, and when it briefly ran deficits in the 1970s and early 1980s, the Greenspan commission was established to shore up the system.11 That is, the simple existence of the Trust Fund as an accounting entity created an awareness, which made it easier to act to maintain the Fund.

A Pandemic Trust Fund would begin with a $250 billion investment in bonds earmarked to pandemic preparations. At current effective rates of interest of about 3%, this is enough to support spending of $7.5 billion annually.12 Note that $7.5 billion is nowhere near enough to address the current pandemic, but that is because we did not invest enough in pandemic preparation. Had we invested $7.5 billion in pandemic preparation every year for the last two decades, for example, we would be in much better shape today. The $7.5 billion is for annual ongoing preparation.

…A Pandemic Trust Fund invested in $250 billion of government bonds is an accounting fiction that may be readily agreed upon today at the height of the crisis because it has few current costs. Yet, as we have discussed, accounting fictions can have real power in changing the future allocation of resources.

Read the whole thing, it is also includes some interesting info on clever DOD contracts that have advanced pandemic preparations.

Blood Money

NYTimes: Around the world, scientists are racing to develop and mass produce reliable antibody tests that public health experts say are a crucial element in ending the coronavirus lockdowns that are causing economic devastation. But that effort is being hamstrung, scientists say, by a shortage of the blood samples containing antibodies to Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, that are needed to validate the tests.

Recognizing a rare opportunity, some companies are seeking to cash in on the shortages, soliciting blood donations and selling samples at rich markups in a practice that has been condemned by medical professionals as, at the very least, unethical.

“I’ve never seen these prices before,” said Dr. Joe Fitchett, the medical director of Mologic, one of the British test manufacturers that was offered the blood samples. “It’s money being made from people’s suffering.”

I am reminded of Walter Williams who asks his students whether it is wrong to profit from the misfortune of others:

But I caution them with some examples. An orthopedist profits from your misfortune of having broken your leg skiing. When there’s news of a pending ice storm, I doubt whether it saddens the hearts of those in the collision repair business. I also tell my students that I profit from their misfortune — their ignorance of economic theory.

A price is a signal wrapped up in an incentive so if you want a strong signal and a strong incentive you need to let prices rise. The prices in this case don’t even seem that high:

From March 31 to April 22, prices asked by Cantor BioConnect for its cheapest samples — always sold by the milliliter, the equivalent of less than a quarter of a teaspoon — rose more than 40 percent, to $500 from $350.

Bear in mind the costs of collecting the sample, including nurse time and PPE. Some samples which are especially rich in antibodies, do sell for prices that are well above cost which is not surprising as those samples are in high demand as they may offer a cure.

Do the firms willing and able to pay the highest prices necessarily have the best science? No, not necessarily, but on balance the decentralized allocation process offered by markets and civil society will likely be far more effective than centralized, political allocation. We also know from field experiments around the world that higher prices for blood increase supply, a key consideration.

As Hayek said the moral rules of the tribe which appear natural to us–like don’t profit from misery–cannot maintain a civilization so we struggle between what we think is right and what actually works to prevent misery.

There can be no doubt that our innate moral emotions and instincts were acquired in the hundreds of thousand years—probably half a million years—in which Homo sapiens lived in small hunting and gathering groups and developed a physiological constitution which governed his innate instincts. These instincts are still very strong in us. Yet civilization developed by our gradually learning cultural rules which were trans­mitted by teaching and which served largely to restrain and suppress some of those natural instincts.

Earnings expectations in the COVID crisis

That is a new paper by Augustin Landier and David Thesmar, here is the abstract:

We analyze firm-level analyst forecasts during the COVID crisis. First, we describe expectations dynamics about future corporate earnings. Downward revisions have been sharp, especially for 2020 and 2021, but much less drastic than the lower bound estimated by Koijen et al. (2020). Analysts’ consensus forecast does not exhibit evidence of over-reaction: Forecasts over 2020 earnings have slowly decreased by 10.2% over the course of March and April 2020 before stabilizing. Long-run forecasts, as well as expected “Long-Term Growth” have reacted less than short-run forecasts, and feature less disagreement. However, even the 2024 forecasts are revised down. Second, we ask how much forecast revisions explain market dynamics. Without change in discount rates, mean forecast-implied cumulative returns from mid-February to mid-April should be around -9%, while they were actually -20%. The difference between forecast-implied returns and actual returns implies a rise in the average discount rate of about 1\%. This increase is decomposed into three factors: increased risk premium (+1\%)), increased leverage (+1\%) and interest rate reduction (-1\%). In other words, analyst forecast revisions explain most of the downward revision in equity values.

This is perhaps the best stock market analysis I have seen so far…?

Universities with Hospitals and Labs

Mitch Daniels, the President of Purdue, has outlined a preliminary plan to reopen involving test, trace and supported isolation on campus.

We intend to know as much as possible about the viral health status of our community. This could include pre-testing of students and staff before arrival in August, for both infection and post-infection immunity through antibodies. It will include a robust testing system during the school year, using Purdue’s own BSL-2 level laboratory for fast results. Anyone showing symptoms will be tested promptly, and quarantined if positive, in space we will set aside for that purpose.

We expect to be able to trace proximate and/or frequent contacts of those who test positive. Contacts in the vulnerable categories will be asked to self-quarantine for the recommended period, currently 14 days. Those in the young, least vulnerable group will be tested, quarantined if positive, or checked regularly for symptoms if negative for both antibodies and the virus.

This paper provides details on transforming a university lab into a testing center. In essence, a major university with a hospital (which Purdue doesn’t have) should be able to do it technically but to work to reopen for students it probably has to be a university located outside of a major urban area. Here are a few possibilities:

  • Baylor University
  • Vanderbilt University
  • University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
  • University of Virginia
  • University of Iowa
  • University of Utah
  • University of Alabama

Mitch Daniel also notes:

Our campus community, a “city” of 50,000+ people, is highly unusual in its makeup. At least 80% of our population is made up of young people, say, 35 and under. All data to date tell us that the COVID-19 virus, while it transmits rapidly in this age group, poses close to zero lethal threat to them.

which does seem to miss (ahem) an important group necessary for reopening.

My Conversation with Glen Weyl

I found it interesting throughout, the first half was on Covid-19 testing, and the second half on everything else.  Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the summary:

Tyler invited Glen to discuss the plan, including how it’d overcome obstacles to scaling up testing and tracing, what other countries got right and wrong in their responses, the unusual reason why he’s bothered by price gouging on PPE supplies, where his plan differs with Paul Romer’s, and more. They also discuss academia’s responsibility to inform public discourse, how he’d apply his ideas on mechanism design to reform tenure and admissions, his unique intellectual journey from socialism to libertarianism and beyond, the common element that attracts him to both the movie Memento and Don McLean’s “American Pie,” what talent he looks for in young economists, the struggle to straddle the divide between academia and politics, the benefits and drawbacks of rollerblading to class, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

And:

And:

For me the most instructive part was this:

COWEN: What do you view yourself as rebelling against? At the foundational level.

But you will have to read or listen to hear Glen’s very good answer.

Definitely recommended.

Whether or not we are living in a simulation, *they* are living in a simulation

Savers at the Bank of Nook are being driven to speculate on turnips and tarantulas, as the most popular video game of the coronavirus era mimics global central bankers by making steep cuts in interest rates.

The estimated 12m players of Nintendo’s cartoon fantasy Animal Crossing: New Horizons were informed last week about the move, in which the Bank of Nook slashed the interest paid on savings from around 0.5 per cent to just 0.05 per cent.

The total interest available on any amount of savings has now been capped at 9,999 bells — the in-game currency that can be bought online at a rate of about $1 per 1.9m bells.

The abrupt policy shift, imposed by an obligatory software update on April 23, provoked a stream of online fury that a once-solid stream of income had been reduced to a trickle with the stroke of a raccoon banker’s pen.

“I’m never going to financially recover from this,” one player wrote on a Reddit forum. “Island recession incoming,” said another.

Here is more from the FT, via Malinga Fernando.

Melissa Dell, economic historian, wins John Bates Clark award

Very well-deserved, here is the full account, including a summary of her research.  Excerpt:

Historians (e.g., Engerman and Sokolov) have long argued for the persistence of institutions and the “long shadow” of historical events on developing countries. For example, cross-national studies have noted that Latin America and North America organized labor differently during colonial periods and used cross-country historical data to support the idea that these differences have had long-run impacts. More generally, Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson compare the experience of countries with different institutions set in place during colonial time for largely accidental reasons, showing that these early differences continue to matter today.

In her work, Dell goes beyond the cross-country evidence, using historical accidents or peculiarities to shed light on persistent effects of institutional differences, including different in the organization of the state. She exploits historical settings in which she is able to very convincingly establish the persistent impacts of specific institutions as well as explore specific channels through which these impacts occur.

Do read the whole thing.  Here are some previous MR posts on Melissa Dell.

Corrupted by Commerce?

Many people claim that commodification, transforming a good or activity into a commodity bought and sold on a market, corrupts that good or activity. As Michael Sandel puts it:

Putting a price on the good things in life can corrupt them. That’s because markets don’t only allocate goods; they express and promote certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged.

But few people have tested this idea which is why I loved Stephen Clowney’s Does Commodification Corrupt? Lessons from Paintings and Prostitutes. Clowney does something simple. He interviews art appraisers and male escorts, people who live with commodification, and asks them about art and sex. In short he uses the “lived experiences of those affected by commodification” to test whether commodification corrupts.

Does appraising art, for example, reduce the appraiser’s appreciation for art the way working in a pork factory might reduce a worker’s appetite for bacon?

Scott Altman, a legal scholar who has studied commodification, perfectly captures the standard market skeptic position: “[s]omeone who spends all day estimating the value of art might eventually have difficulty appreciating art in any way other than as worth a certain amount.”

What does Clowney find?

Of the twenty assessors interviewed for this study, not one reported that market work disfigured their ability to enjoy the emotional, spiritual, and aesthetic qualities of artistic masterworks. In fact, most appraisers insisted they can easily and completely compartmentalize their professional duties from their private encounters with art. This finding challenges the panicked rhetoric of many anti-commodification theorists who continue to insist that commerce diminishes the meaning of sacred things. Contrary to the predictions of market skeptics, the appraisers in this study spoke with joyful enthusiasm about their experiences viewing exceptional works of art. Even the most senior appraisers—those who have monetized thousands and thousands of objects—remain passionate consumers of art in their personal lives.

…Jane C.H. Jacob, an appraiser with thirty-five years of experience, explained, “[the appraisal work] does not corrode my enjoyment at all. I never get tired of looking at art. Never bored. I love art more now than I did 20 years ago.” She continued, “[f]or me, the joy is being able to experience it and inspect it. Listen, I don’t love art because of the price, but because of the way I respond to it. When I see [Monet’s] Water Lilies I never don’t get excited. A tear comes to my eye.”

In fact “a majority of the assessors stated that ascribing values to art actually increased their admiration for paintings, photographs, sculptures, and other creative work.”

But how could that be so? Given the widely reported dangers of commodification, how could non-instrumental values blossom in the hard soil of the marketplace? Anti-commodification scholars, it seems, have failed to appreciate that market work is a powerful educational agent that breaks the stale cake of ignorance, turns apathy into understanding, and nurtures new insights about the sacred. Imagine, for example, an appraiser confronted with attaching value to Mary Cassatt’s painting, Young Mother Sewing. Anyone attempting to price such an object must, at the outset, become well-versed in the artist’s career, the provenance of the work, and the ethos of the larger impressionist movement. Then, the appraiser must probe to explain whether the painting is a “good, better, or best” example of Cassatt’s work.

… Arch-anti-commodificationist Elizabeth Anderson even suggests that those who engage in ranking and valuation of art are “philistines, snobs, and prigs, precisely those least open to a free exploration and development of  their aesthetic sensibilities.” But that is quite wrong. Commodification does not render these artworks flat and fungible. And it is not carried out by Philistines. Just the opposite. Putting an accurate price on sacred objects demands education, rigorous training, and cultivation of the eye. Appraisers must understand the objects on an intimate level in order to properly evaluate their quality and make suitable comparisons between seemingly disparate works. Such knowledge only enhances appreciation for the way that creative work can exhilarate, sooth, baffle, enlighten, and uplift.

See also Tyler’s classic In Praise of Commercial Culture on these points.

What about sex?

In a sprawling literature, commentators have argued that exchanging sex for money “commodif[ies] sexuality,” degrades intimacy, “impedes human flourishing,” and foments attitudes that undermine the sacredness of the body. In short: market skeptics believe that prostitution corrupts the meaning of sex.

Clowney interviewed male escorts because he argues that the market in male escorts is freer and more developed. Male escorts, for example, are less likely to be abused by the police or pimps. Some will question that choice but for the purposes of the commodification theory it should still be the case that commodification degrades sex for the male escorts. Does it?

the escorts I interviewed insisted that selling physical intimacy did not corrupt their understanding of sex. While the physical demands of the job often left the interviewees feeling exhausted, each of the prostitutes revealed that they continued to experience the loving (and joyfully profane) virtues of the sexual act. Indeed, a majority of escorts confided that their market work positively impacted their private lives—commercial sex honed their sexual skills, boosted their confidence, and deepened their understanding of other men.

For these men, sex remained a joyful and cherished activity, even after years of selling their bodies.A strong majority of the escorts reported that engaging in commercial sexual activities actually improved the quality of their private lives and their appreciation for sacred things.Just as appraisal work revealed new insights about the creative process, prostitution taught the interviewees about the complexity of desire, gave them a deeper understanding of the sexual act, and enhanced their ability to satisfy a private partner.

Thus, far from turning sex into a flat and interchangeable commodity, market work deepened the escorts’ understanding of physical intimacy. Sex work instilled the importance of honest communication between partners, revealed that men have many different (and often colorful) needs, and showed that not all fantasies can be met by working off the same script. On these points, the market is an exacting teacher.

Clowney’s paper is a highly original, major new work in the commodification literature and contains much more of interest. Read the whole thing.

What should I ask Ashley Mears?

From Wikipedia:

Ashley Mears is an American writer, sociologist, and former fashion model. She is currently an associate professor of sociology at Boston University. Mears is the author of Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model, and is regularly quoted in media as an academic expert in the culture and economics of fashion.

I am also a big fan of her forthcoming book Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit, which is one of my favorite books of the year.

So what should I ask her?  Here is more about Ashley on Google.

The Decline of the Innovation State is Killing Us

The latest relief bill contains another $320 billion in small business relief and $25 billion for testing. Finally, we get some serious money to actually fight the virus. But as Paul Romer pointed out on twitter, this is less than half of what we spend on soft drinks!!! (Spending on soft drinks is about $65 billion annually). Soda is nice but it is not going to save lives and restart the economy. Despite monumental efforts by BARDA and CEPI we are also not investing enough in capacity for vaccine production so that if and when when a vaccine is available we can roll it out quickly to everyone (an issue I am working on).

The failure to spend on actually fighting the virus with science is mind boggling. It’s a stunning example of our inability to build. By the way, note that this failure has nothing to do with Ezra Klein’s explanation of our failure to build, the filibuster. Are we more politically divided about PCR tests than we are about unemployment insurance? I don’t think so yet we spend on the latter but not the former. The rot is deeper. A failure of imagination and boldness which is an embarrassment to the country that put a man on the moon.

In Launching the Innovation Renaissance I said the US was a welfare/warfare state and no longer an innovation state. The share of R&D in the Federal Budget, for example, has diminished from about 12% at its height in the NASA years to an all time low of about 3% in recent years. We are great at spending on welfare and warfare but all that spending has crowded out spending on innovation and now that is killing us.

Covid-induced innovation in the business world

The Economist has a full article on this topic, here is one good excerpt:

But the defining feature of the latest innovation revolution is breakneck speed. Companies are being forced to raise their corporate metabolism and overcome “analysis paralysis”, an affliction caused by top managers having pored over the same irrelevant case studies at business school. In a recent briefing consultants at Bain urged companies to throw out old data, test quickly and often, and assume you will be in testing mode for some time to come.

The article is interesting throughout, and here is my earlier post on the rising speed premium in a pandemic world.

Big G

Yes, that is the title of a new paper and it is excellent indeed.  Lydia Cox et.al bring you a fresh and original look at some properties of government spending:

“Big G” typically refers to aggregate government spending on a homogeneous good. In this paper, we open up this construct by analyzing the entire universe of procurement contracts of the US government and establish five facts. First, government spending is granular, that is, it is concentrated in relatively few firms and sectors. Second, relative to private expenditures its composition is biased. Third, procurement contracts are short-lived. Fourth, idiosyncratic variation dominates the fluctuation of spending. Last, government spending is concentrated in sectors with relatively sticky prices. Accounting for these facts within a stylized New Keynesian model offers new insights into the fiscal transmission mechanism: fiscal shocks hardly impact inflation, little crowding out of private expenditure exists, and the multiplier tends to be larger compared to a one-sector benchmark aligning the model with the empirical evidence.

Via the still excellent Kevin Lewis.

China fact of the day

The U.S. higher education sector will also be hard hit, with U.S. universities increasingly dependent on tuition from Chinese students. According to the Institute of International Education, China has remained the largest source of international students for ten years running,44 with 369,548 Chinese students enrolled in U.S. higher education programs in 2018 and contributing $15 billion in tuition payments.45 The postponement or cancellation of U.S. college entrance examinations in China, indefinite travel restrictions, and continued uncertainty surrounding when U.S. college campuses will reopen are expected to reduce Chinese demand for U.S. higher education in the 2020-2021 academic year.46 University administrators report that cancelled recruitment events in China and inability to work with local recruitment agencies could further depress Chinese student enrollment in U.S. university programs.

Here is the full document, on cascading economic impacts from China more generally.  For the pointer I thank a loyal MR reader.