Category: Law

The WHO Report on COVID-19

The Report of the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) is the best source of information on COVID-19 that I have seen.

The Joint Mission consisted of 25 national and international experts from China, Germany, Japan, Korea, Nigeria, Russia, Singapore, the United States of America and the World Health Organization (WHO). The Joint Mission was headed by Dr Bruce Aylward of WHO and Dr Wannian Liang of the People’s Republic of China.

Some of the language is more pro-China than is usual in an academic report but the report is full of credible data.

The bottom line is that there is good news and bad news. The good news is that due to extraordinary intervention the epidemic in China has been brought under control and is slowing to manageable levels.

In the face of a previously unknown virus, China has rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history. The strategy that underpinned this containment effort was initially a national approach that promoted universal temperature monitoring, masking, and hand washing. However, as the outbreak evolved, and knowledge was gained, a science and risk-based approach was taken to tailor implementation. Specific containment measures were adjusted to the provincial, county and even community context, the capacity of the setting, and the nature of novel coronavirus transmission there.

…. China’s bold approach to contain the rapid spread of this new respiratory pathogen has changed the course of a rapidly escalating and deadly epidemic. A particularly compelling statistic is that on the first day of the advance team’s work there were 2478 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported in China. Two weeks later, on the final day of this Mission, China reported 409 newly confirmed cases. This decline in COVID-19 cases across China is real.

Based on a comparison of crude attack rates across provinces, the Joint Mission estimates that this truly all-of Government and all-of-society approach that has been taken in China has averted or at least delayed hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 cases in the country. By extension, the reduction that has been achieved in the force of COVID-19 infection in China has also played a significant role in protecting the global community and creating a stronger first line of defense against international spread. Containing this outbreak, however, has come at great cost and sacrifice by China and its people, in both human and material terms.

The bad news is that the WHO is worried that other countries do not have the capability or will to implement some of the same policies as China did.

Much of the global community is not yet ready, in mindset and materially, to implement the measures that have been employed to contain COVID-19 in China. These are the only measures that are currently proven to interrupt or minimize transmission chains in humans. Fundamental to these measures is extremely proactive surveillance to immediately detect cases, very rapid diagnosis and immediate case isolation, rigorous tracking and quarantine of close contacts, and an exceptionally high degree of population understanding and acceptance of these measures.

.. COVID-19 is spreading with astonishing speed; COVID-19 outbreaks in any setting have very serious consequences; and there is now strong evidence that non-pharmaceutical interventions can reduce and even interrupt transmission. Concerningly, global and national preparedness planning is often ambivalent about such interventions. However, to reduce COVID-19 illness and death, near-term readiness planning must embrace the large-scale implementation of high-quality, non-pharmaceutical public health measures. These measures must fully incorporate immediate case detection and isolation, rigorous close contact tracing and monitoring/quarantine, and direct population/community engagement.

I don’t think the WHO is the final authority on what to do, public health is their hammer. I have been dismayed, however, at the failure of the CDC, which surely prior to this crisis one would have rated as one of the best US organizations. As the NYTimes wrote:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention botched its first attempt to mass produce a diagnostic test kit, a discovery made only after officials had shipped hundreds of kits to state laboratories.

A promised replacement took several weeks, and still did not permit state and local laboratories to make final diagnoses. And the C.D.C. essentially ensured that Americans would be tested in very few numbers by imposing stringent and narrow criteria, critics say.

The failure of the CDC, which is a failure of the US government at the deepest levels, not just rot from the top, meant that we lost several weeks that we may have needed to avoid more stringent measures. We will know more in a week.

Read the whole thing.

Emergent Ventures winners, seventh cohort

Nicholas Whitaker of Brown, general career development grant in the area of Progress Studies.

Coleman Hughes, travel and career development grant.

Michael T. Foster, career development grant to study machine learning to predict which politicians will succeed and advance their careers.

Evan Horowitz, to start the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts, to impose greater rationality on policy discussions at the state level.

John Strider, a Progress Studies grant on how to reinvent the integrated corporate research lab.

Dryden Brown, to help build institutions and a financial center in Ghana, through his company Bluebook Cities.

Adaobi Adibe, to restructure credentialing, and build infrastructure for a more meritocratic world, helping workers create property rights in the evaluation of their own talent.

Shrirang Karandikar, and here (corrected link), to support an Indian project to get the kits to measure and understand local pollution.

Jassi Pannu, medical student at Stanford, to study best policy responses to pandemics.

Vasco Queirós, for his work on a Twitter browser app for superior threading and on-line communication.

My 2013 NYT column on pandemics

The government should resist the strong temptation to skimp on rewards. Many health care breakthroughs come through university research programs and government grants, but bringing an innovation to fruition and managing wide and rapid distribution usually requires the profit-seeking private sector. In any single instance, the government could save money by confiscating rights, but in the longer run this would discourage the search for additional remedies.

If anything, the American government — or, better yet, a consortium of governments — should pay more for pandemic remedies than what market-based auctions would yield. That’s because, if a major pandemic does arise, other countries may not respect intellectual property rights as they scramble to copy a drug or vaccine for domestic distribution. To encourage innovations, policy makers need to bolster the expectation of rewards.

I agree with the circulating critiques of current Trump administration policy, but the Democrats are no angels in this matter either.  For instance:

Unfortunately, the United States lacks strong political coalitions for many beneficial public health measures. The Democratic Party has focused on insurance coverage and Medicaid expansion as political issues, while often wishing to lower prices of drugs or to weaken patent protection. The Obama administration’s new budget lowers spending on pharmaceuticals by an estimated $164 billion over 10 years, mostly through bargaining down Medicare drug prices. That makes it hard for the Democrats to embrace lucrative rewards for pharmaceutical companies or vaccine producers.

Here is the full column.

My Conversation with Garett Jones

Here is the transcript and audio, here is part of the opening summary:

Garett joined Tyler to discuss his book 10% Less Democracy, including why America shouldn’t be run by bondholders, what single reform would most effectively achieve more limited democracy, how markets shape cognitive skills, the three important P’s of the repeated prisoner’s dilemma, why French cuisine is still underrated, Buchanan vs. Tullock, Larry David vs. Seinfeld, the biggest mistake in Twitter macroeconomics, the biggest challenges facing the Mormon church, what studying to be a sommelier taught him about economics, the Garett Jones vision of America, and more.

Here is one bit:

COWEN: But let’s say it’s the early 1990s. Eastern European countries are suddenly becoming free, and they ask you, “Garett, what electoral system should we have?” What do you say?

JONES: What I really would go for is presidential systems, if you can handle it, something like a first-past-the-post system, where those people elected from local districts focused on local problems — which have less of a free-rider problem involved — go up to the parliament and actually argue their case. The presidential element is less important than the parliamentary idea of the single-district voting. I tend to think that creates more accountability on the part of the government.

And more:

COWEN: For the United States, what is the most effective way, in your view, that you would want us to have 10 percent less democracy? What’s the one thing you would change?

JONES: I would change the House of Representatives to a six-year term. I picked that because it’s not outside the range of plausibility, and because I think people would instantly understand what it accomplishes — not because it has the highest payoff, but because it balances payoff with plausibility in a democracy.

And on boosting IQ:

COWEN: But what’s the key environmental lever? Whatever Ireland did [to have induced an IQ rise], it’s not that people were starving, right? That we understand.

JONES: No, true.

COWEN: So why don’t we do more of whatever they did, whatever was done to the East Germans, everywhere?

JONES: Exactly.

COWEN: But what is that lever? Why don’t we know?

JONES: I would say that thing is the thing we call capitalism.

COWEN: Capitalism is a big, huge thing. Not all of capitalism makes us smarter.

JONES: Yeah, that’s the thing — figuring out which things within capitalism — what is it about living in a free society with competitive markets where, at least in our youth and middle age, we feel a need to sell ourselves as valuable creators. There’s something about that that probably is what’s most valuable for boosting cognitive skills. It’s a sort of demand-side desire to try to use our minds in socially productive ways. And I think in communism, we can —

COWEN: So marketing makes us smarter?

JONES: That’s what I would say, yeah.

There is much more at the link, an excellent Conversation.  Here you can order Garett’s book 10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust the Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less.  You can read the introduction to the book on-line.

Environmental impact statements can do great harm

In pursuit of federal approval for the nation’s first congestion pricing scheme, the one officials suggested would launch in January 2021, the question was this: Should New York State and New York City conduct a quick “environmental assessment” or a full scale “environmental impact statement,” a process that could take years?

Federal officials didn’t provide a definitive answer in that meeting, nor have they since.

That haziness puts MTA officials, and the massive system-wide rehabilitation plan whose funding is reliant on congestion pricing, in a serious bind.

Here is the full story, via Austin V.

Royal sentences to ponder

Meghan and Harry insist Queen Elizabeth doesn’t own the word ‘royal’

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle laid bare their hostility with Buckingham Palace — by insisting that neither Queen Elizabeth nor the UK Government owns the word “royal” internationally.

Hours after the Duke and Duchess of Sussex confirmed on Friday they would not go ahead with their planned “Sussex Royal” brand after The Queen put a stop to it, they posted an extraordinary statement on their website insisting they still had the right to the word “royal.”

The statement reads: “While there is not any jurisdiction by The Monarchy or Cabinet Office over the use of the word ‘Royal’ overseas, The Duke and Duchess of Sussex do not intend to use ‘Sussex Royal’ or any iteration of the word ‘Royal’ in any territory (either within the UK or otherwise) when the transition occurs Spring 2020.”

Here is the full story, via Ted Gioia.

That was then, this is now — pandemic response capabilities

From 2005:

Before adjourning last week, the US Senate passed and sent to President Bush a bill providing $3.8 billion for pandemic influenza preparedness and a controversial liability shield for those who produce and administer drugs and vaccines used in a declared public health emergency.

The preparedness funding and liability protection were part of the fiscal year 2006 defense spending bill passed by the Senate on the evening of Dec 21. The bill had cleared the House 2 days earlier.

The $3.8 billion for pandemic preparedness is a little more than half of the $7.1 billion Bush had requested in early November. House Republican leaders said last week the measure would fund roughly the fiscal year 2006 portion of Bush’s request.

As reported previously, the amount includes $350 million to improve state and local preparedness and directs the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to use most of the rest on “core preparedness activities,” including increasing vaccine production capacity, developing vaccines, and stockpiling antiviral drugs.

The liability provision offers broad legal protection for the makers of drugs, vaccines, and other medical “countermeasures” used when the HHS secretary declares an emergency. The provision says people claiming injury from a medical countermeasure can sue only if they prove “willful misconduct” by those who made or administered it. The bill calls for Congress to set up a compensation program for injuries, but it provides no funds for that purpose.

…But Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and some other Democrats, along with consumer groups such as Public Citizen, derided the liability provision as a giveaway to the drug industry.

I am pleased to have argued for this in the time period leading up to this legislation, let us continue to hope we do not need it.

Why are we letting FDA regulations limit our number of coronavirus tests?

Since CDC and FDA haven’t authorized public health or hospital labs to run the [coronavirus] tests, right now #CDC is the only place that can. So, screening has to be rationed. Our ability to detect secondary spread among people not directly tied to China travel is greatly limited.

That is from Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the FDA, and also from Scott:

#FDA and #CDC can allow more labs to run the RT-PCR tests starting with public health agencies. Big medical centers can also be authorized to run tests under EUA. For now they’re not permitted to run the tests, even though many labs can do so reliably 9/9

Here is further information about the obstacles facing the rollout of testing.  And read here from a Harvard professor of epidemiology, and here.  Clicking around and reading I have found this a difficult matter to get to the bottom of.  Nonetheless no one disputes that America is not conducting many tests, and is not in a good position to scale up those tests rapidly, and some of those obstacles are regulatory.  Why oh why are we messing around with this one?

For the pointer I thank Ada.

An argument for weaker copyright in books

From Barbara Biasi and Petra Moser:

Copyrights, which establish intellectual property in music, science,and other creative goods, are intended to encourage creativity. Yet, copyrights also raise the cost of accessing existing work – potentially discouraging future innovation.This paper uses an exogenous shift towards weak copyrights(and low access costs) during WWII to examine the potentially adverse effects of copyrights on science. Using two alternative identification strategies, we show that weaker copyrights encouraged the creation of follow-on science, measured by citations.This change is driven by a reduction in access costs, allowing scientists at less affluent institutions to use existing knowledge in new follow-on research.

The paper title is “Effects of Copyrights on Science: Evidence from the WWII Book Republication Program.”

The bureaucratization of U.S. foreign policy

The NSC [National Security Council] was established in the 1947 National Security Act, which named the members of the council: president, vice president and secretaries of state and defense. The function of the council “shall be to advise the president with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security.” The law required regular meetings…

Mr. Kissinger grew the council to include one deputy, 32 policy professionals and 60 administrators. By my count, alumni of his NSC include two secretaries of state, four national security advisers, a director of national intelligence, a secretary of the Navy, and numerous high-ranking officials in the State, Defense and Treasury departments as well as the Central Intelligence Agency.

But the NSC has only continued to expand. By the end of the Obama administration, 34 policy professionals supported by 60 administrators had exploded to three deputies, more than 400 policy professionals and 1,300 administrators.

The council lost the ability to make fast decisions informed by the best intelligence.

Here is more from John Lehman (WSJ).

Does GDPR even boost privacy?

Maybe not:

This paper studies the effects of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) on the ability of firms to collect consumer data, identify consumers over time, accrue revenue via online advertising, and predict their behavior. Utilizing a novel dataset by an intermediary that spans much of the online travel industry, we perform a difference-in-differences analysis that exploits the geographic reach of GDPR. We find a 12.5% drop in the intermediary- observed consumers as a result of GDPR, suggesting that a nonnegligible number of consumers exercised the opt-out right enabled by GDPR. At the same time, the remaining consumers are more persistently trackable. This observed pattern is consistent with the hypothesis that privacy-conscious consumers substitute away from less efficient privacy protection (e.g, cookie deletion) to explicit opt out, a process that would reduce noise on remaining consumers and make them more trackable. Further in keeping with this hypothesis, we observe that the average value of the remaining consumers to advertisers has increased, offsetting most of the losses from consumers that opt-out. Our results highlight the externalities that consumer privacy decisions have both on other consumers and for firms.

That is from a new paper by Guy Aridor, Yeon-Koo Che, William Nelson, and Tobias Salz, emphasis added by me.  Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

What does the stock market tell us about the T-Mobile/Sprint merger?

Here is an excellent post by Alec Stapp, easy to read but a bit hard to excerpt but here are the closing bits:

As a few others pointed out, these relatively small moves in AT&T and Verizon (less than 3 percent in either direction) may just be noise. That’s certainly possible given the magnitude of the changes. Contra Philippon, I think the methodology in question is too weak to rule out the pro-competitive theory of the case, i.e., that the new merged entity would be a stronger competitor to take on industry leaders AT&T and Verizon. We need much more robust and varied evidence before we call anything “bogus.” Of course, that means this event study is not sufficient to prove the pro-competitive theory of the case, either.

Olivier Blanchard, the former chief economist of the IMF, shared Philippon’s thread on Twitter and added this comment above: “The beauty of the argument. Simple hypothesis, simple test, clear conclusion.”

If only things were so simple.

Recommended.  Addendum: Philippon comments.

When defense is not a public good

Security measures that deter crime may unwittingly displace it to neighboring areas, but evidence of displacement is scarce. We exploit precise information on the timing and locations of all Italian bank robberies and security guard hirings/firings over a decade to estimate deterrence and displacement effects of guards. A guard lowers the likelihood a bank is robbed by 35-40%. Over half of this reduction is displaced to nearby unguarded banks. Theory suggests optimal policy to mitigate this spillover is ambiguous. Our findings indicate restricting guards in sparse, rural markets and requiring guards in dense, urban markets could be socially beneficial.

That is from Vikram Maheshri and Giovanni Mastrobuoni, forthcoming in Review of Economics and Statistics.  Via Peter Deffebach.