Category: Political Science

What Operation Warp Speed Did, Didn’t and Can’t Do

Operation Warp Speed was a tremendous success and one that I was pleased to support from the beginning. Many people, however, are concluding from the success of OWS that big Federal funding can solve many other problems at the same speed and scale and that is incorrect.

First, it’s important to understand that OWS did not create any scientific innovations or discoveries. The innovative mRNA vaccines are rightly lauded but all of the key scientific ideas behind mRNA as a delivery mechanism long predate Operation Warp Speed. The scientific advances were the result of many decades of work, some of it supported by university and government funding and also a significant fraction by large private investments in firms such as Moderna and BioNTech. It was BioNTech recall that hired Katalin Karikó (and many other mRNA researchers) when she couldn’t get university or government funding. Since OWS created no new scientific breakthroughs there isn’t much to learn from OWS about the efficacy of large scale programs for that purpose.

Second, it’s important to understand that we got lucky. OWS made smart bets and the portfolio paid off but it could have failed. Indeed, some OWS bets did fail including the Sanofi and Glaxo-Smith-Klein vaccine and the at-best modest success of Novavax. Many other vaccines which we didn’t invest in but could have invested in also failed. To be clear, my work with Kremer et al. showed that these bets and more were worth taking but one should not underestimate the probability of failure even when lots of money is spent.

So what did Operation Warp Speed do? There were four key parts to the plan 1) an advance market commitment to buy lots of doses of approved vaccines–this was important because in past pandemics vaccines had entered development and then the disease had disappeared leaving the firms holding the bag with little to show for their investment 2) the lifting of FDA regulations to allow for accelerated clinical trials, for example, phase 3 trials could start before phase 2 trials were fully complete 3) government investment in large clinical trials–clinical trials are the most expensive part of the development process and by funding the trials generously, the trials could be made large which meant that they could be quick 4) government investment in capacity, building factories not just for the vaccines but also for the needles, vials and so forth, even before any of the vaccines were approved–thus capacity was ready to go. All of these steps shaved months, even years, off the deployment timeline.

The key factor about each of these parts of the plan was that we were mostly dealing with known quantities that the government scaled. It’s known how to run clinical trials, it’s known how to produce vials and needles. The mRNA factories were more difficult but scaling problems are more easily solved with investment than are invention problems. It’s also known how to lift government regulations and speed the bureaucracy. That is, no one doubts that lifting regulations and speeding bureaucracy is within our production possibilities frontier.

It also cannot be underestimated that OWS funded people who were already extremely motivated. The Pfizer and Moderna staff put in near super-human effort–many of them felt this was the key moment of their life and they stepped up to their moment. OWS threw gasoline on fire–don’t expect the same in a more normal situation.

Another factor that people forget is that with vaccines we had a very unusual situation where the entire economy was dependent on a single sector–a macroeconomic O-ring. As a result, the social returns to producing vaccines were easily a hundred times (or more) greater than any potential vaccine profits. Thus, by accelerating vaccine production, OWS could generate tremendous returns. Most of the time, markets internalize externalities imperfectly but reasonably well which means that even if you accelerate something good the total returns aren’t so astronomical that you can’t overspend or spend poorly. Governments can spend too much as well as too little so most of the time you have to factor in the waste of overspending even when the spending is valuable–that problem didn’t really apply to OWS.

So summarizing what do we need for another OWS? 1) Known science–scaling not discovering, 2) Lifting of regulations 3) Big externalities, 4) Pre-existing motivation. Putting aside an Armageddon like scenario in which we have to stop an asteroid, one possibility is insulating the electrical grid to protect North America from a Carrington event, a geomagnetic storm caused by solar eruptions. (Here is a good Kurzgesagt video.) Does protecting the grid meet our conditions? 1) Protecting the electrical grid is a known problem whose solution does not require new science 2) protecting the grid requires lifting and harmonizing regulations as the grid is national/inter-national but the regulations are often local, 3) The social returns to power far exceed the revenues from power so there are big externalities. Indeed, companies could have protected the grid already (and have done so to some extent) but they are under-incentivized. (The grid is aging so insulating the gird could also have many side benefits.) 4) Pre-existing motivation. Not much. Can’t have everything.

I think it’s also notable that big pandemics and solar storms seem to occur about once in every one hundred years–just often enough to be dangerous and yet not so often that we are well prepared.

Thus, while I think that enthusiasm for an “OWS for X” is overblown, there are cases–protecting the grid is only one possibility–where smart investments could pay big returns but they must be chosen carefully in light of all the required conditions for success.

The political economy of doomscrolling

The now-neverending stream of information shapes our perception of time. For many people, especially America’s news-intensive elites, it may make the war feel much longer than it actually has been.

This greater sense of witness to atrocities cements this impression. Each moral outrage, no matter how small, is taken in. Several generations ago, people may have heard that there was a big battle over a place called Dien Bien Phu. Nowadays, they can see, replay and share videos of people who died or were injured in the bombing of a theater in Mariupol. Each terrible event somehow feels more intolerable than the last, fueling the feeling that something must give and that the war has to end soon.

That is a dangerous feeling, if only because it makes it harder for leaders to pursue strategies of patience. Polls show high U.S. public support for a no-fly zone, although in my view that would lead to an unacceptably higher risk of escalating the war. This hawkish stance is not hard to understand. If the current situation feels intolerable, then surely something dramatic and decisive has to happen very soon — and better to act than be acted upon. At the very least action will imbue a feeling of having “done something.”

Doomscrolling-induced impatience also induces people to underrate Russian military prospects.

Here is the rest of my Bloomberg column on the topic.

New nuclear security grants

Here is the link with more information, via Stefan Schubert.

Yes those new service sector jobs are getting weirder

On Thursday afternoon, 30 top TikTok stars gathered on a Zoom call to receive key information about the war unfolding in Ukraine. National Security Council staffers and White House press secretary Jen Psaki briefed the influencers about the United States’ strategic goals in the region and answered questions on distributing aid to Ukrainians, working with NATO and how the United States would react to a Russian use of nuclear weapons.

Here is the full story, via Bryant Seaman, and several other MR readers.

Emergent Ventures winners, eighteenth cohort

Zvi Mowshowitz, TheZvi, New York City, to develop his career as idea generator and public intellectual.

Nadia Eghbal, Miami, to study and write on philanthropy for tech and crypto wealth.

Henry Oliver, London, to write a book on talent and late bloomers.  Substack here.

Geffen Avrahan, Bay Area, founder at Skyline Celestial, an earlier winner, omitted from an early list by mistake, apologies Geffen!

Subaita Rahman of Scarborough, Ontario, to enable a one-year visiting student appointment at Church Labs at Harvard University.

Gareth Black, Dublin, to start YIMBY Dublin.

Pradyumna Shyama Prasad, blog and podcast, Singapore.  Here is his substack newsletter, here is his podcast about both economics and history.

Ulkar Aghayeva, New York City, Azerbaijani music and bioscience.

Steven Lu, Seattle, to create GenesisFund, a new project for nurturing talent, and general career development.

Ashley Lin, University of Pennsylvania gap year, Center for Effective Altruism, for general career development and to learn talent search in China, India, Russia.

James Lin, McMaster University gap year, from Toronto area, general career development and to support his interests in effective altruism and also biosecurity.

Santiago Tobar Potes, Oxford, from Colombia and DACA in the United States, general career development, interest in public service, law, and foreign policy.

Martin Borch Jensen of Longevity Impetus Grants (a kind of Fast Grants for longevity research), Bay Area and from Denmark, for a new project Talent Bridge, to help talented foreigners reach the US and contribute to longevity R&D.

Jessica Watson Miller, from Sydney now in the Bay Area, to start a non-profit to improve the treatment of mental illness.

Congratulations to you all!  We are honored to have you as Emergent Ventures winners.

Who is working on creative solutions to limit nuclear war risk?

I don’t mean on the macro foreign policy side, but more the micro elements.  For instance, how do we make sure all countries with nuclear weapons have accurate early warning systems, so they do not confuse flocks of birds with incoming missiles?

Your suggestions do not have to be credentialed in the traditional sense, but they should be smart, curious, and hard-working, at the very least.

I thank you in advance for the nominations.

Addendum: I am looking for actual suggestions and will delete all “soapbox” comments.

The US Government is Digging in the Couch to Find Change to Buy Drugs

The richest government the world has ever known is having trouble finding the money to buy Paxlovid, a critical medical treatment for COVID.

STAT: The White House has held off on buying millions of courses of Pfizer’s highly effective antiviral drug that the White House already committed to buy due to budget constraints, according to public contract disclosures and the Department of Defense, which issues the contracts.

In January, the White House announced that it was doubling its order of Pfizer’s antiviral, named Paxlovid, committing to buy an extra 10 million courses. But according to public contracts, the White House has only actually contracted for 835,000 of those courses to date.

“Contract options will be exercised when funding becomes available,” Department of Defense spokesperson Jessica Maxwell said in a statement to STAT.

The problem isn’t lack of money per se but rules and regulations designed to create “transparency” and avoid “corruption” and the resulting bureaucracy and vote players. Another example of the Mancur Olson problems Ezra Klein and I discussed and an example of how declining trust leads to rule complexity.

Here’s another telling example. Operation Warp Speed was perhaps the most successful government program in more than a half century but it was funded only because the Trump administration and then the Biden administration finagled the rules, almost certainly breaking some laws in the process. But that is sometimes the only way to get things done today, especially at speed.

Both administrations funneled far more money than Congress allocated to Operation Warp Speed, in particular, and to its successor efforts to buy vaccines and therapeutics.

Nearly 10% of the funding Congress set aside to support hospitals and health care providers, or $17 billion, was funneled to buy vaccines and therapeutics, as STAT first reported. Other funding for Operation Warp Speed was taken from money designated for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Strategic National Stockpile, as Bloomberg reported. An additional $5 billion came from a fund for Covid-19 testing efforts, according to a document obtained by STAT.

The difficulty of finding funds in an emergency is one reason I have suggested a pandemic or emergency trust fund. Even though it would only represent nominal savings it would nevertheless matter because it could be accessed quickly.

The game theory of attacking nuclear power plants

From my latest Bloomberg column (do I really need to indent my own text?):

“Putin would like to find a way of making nuclear threats without quite incurring the liability from … making nuclear threats.

Enter nuclear power plants. When Russian forces attack the plant, there is some chance that something goes wrong, such as a radiation spill. But more likely than not, the plant will hold up, and most dangerous processes can be shut down and the very worst outcomes avoided. You can think of Putin as choosing a “nuclear radiation deployment” with only some small probability.

Why might he do this? Well, he is showing that the use of broader nuclear deployments is not out of the question. He is also showing that he is willing to take a huge risk.

Most of all, he doesn’t much have to fear retaliation. The Western powers cannot know if these nuclear attacks are deliberate strategy or simply an accident of tactics in the field, and so — if only for that reason — they will not respond with a major escalation. If Russian forces moved on Estonia, they might be courting a very serious NATO response. But not in this situation.

You don’t have to believe that Putin sat in his lair rubbing his hands as he dreamed up this diabolical strategy. It’s also possible that the attack on the nuclear power plant started by mistake, or was ordered by lower-level commanders. Putin then simply allowed it to continue, perhaps out of a general love of chaos. At the very least, he did not consider it a priority to stop the attack.

Game theory doesn’t always have to be about explicit plans and intentions. It also can help explain why “invisible hand” mechanisms lead people to a particular point in the strategy tree, as if they had those strategies as conscious intentions.

Attacking the nuclear power plant also illuminates some other parts of game theory. Ukraine and its people are taking very heavy losses and are hoping for NATO to intervene on their behalf. If the conflict seems riskier to all of Europe, and not just Ukraine, the odds of such intervention improve.

In this sense, the attack on the nuclear power plant does not have to be entirely bad for Ukrainian prospects in the war. The Ukrainian leadership is rightly horrified by this attack, due to the risks for Ukrainian citizens. But the attack could also mobilize European public opinion on behalf of military intervention for Ukraine. If the war greatly increases chances for the spread of dangerous nuclear radiation, then the likelihood that Germany, France, Turkey and other nations will intervene also greatly increases.

Notice, however, that the Russian position here may be sounder than it at first appears. European citizens care more about radiation in Ukraine than do American citizens, for reasons of simple proximity. Putin may realize he can put Europeans at greater risk so long as he doesn’t provoke an intervention from the U.S. military, which would probably be decisive. It is a risky strategy that he might just get away with.

If you are the Ukrainian government, your incentive is to make the nuclear power plant attack sound as risky and precarious as possible. Indeed, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has done exactly that.”

I am sorry to say that the column does not have an especially optimistic ending.

An index for state capacity

This paper contributes to the literature on state capacity by developing a method that yields an index of state capacity with far more comprehensive data coverage across time and countries than has been possible previously. Unlike narrower measures of fiscal capacity or legal capacity, the index is more comprehensive, using data from the Varieties of Democracy dataset on fiscal capacity, a state’s control over its territory, the rule of law, and the provision of public goods used to support markets. Like the previous literature, it demonstrates that the historical prevalence of warfare predicts state capacity. Several exercises are performed to demonstrate the validity of the index in measuring state capacity.

That is from a newly published paper by Colin O’Reilly and Ryan H. Murphy, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

How much expected surplus do we want Putin to have?

My Bloomberg column is on another topic altogether, starting with bank runs, but this part I can reframe in terms of principal-agent theory.  We want to squeeze Putin so hard that he “cries Uncle”, yet without eliminating his surplus so much that he takes a lot of extra risk.  Hard to achieve both of those ends at the same time!  Here is one bit reflecting that dilemma:

For a point of contrast on how decentralized incentives operate on each side, consider the nuclear alert ordered by Putin on Sunday. The chance of Russian nuclear weapons being ordered into actual use is small. But Putin faces a dilemma as he attempts to manipulate the decentralized systems of the Russian military. If he gave an order for a nuclear strike on a Ukrainian city, would the Russian military obey it? Whoever did would know they could be liable for war crimes.

The outcomes here are impossible to forecast, but the uncertainty works in favor of the Ukrainians. If it became known that Putin ordered a nuclear strike and was ignored, for example, he would become the proverbial “paper tiger” rather quickly and might lose power altogether.

These decentralized mechanisms potentially shift the entire logic of the war. Russia has to win fairly quickly, or these and other forces will increasingly work against it. Ukraine thus can fight for a military stalemate, but Russia cannot. The Russian forces must take increasing levels of risk, even if those risks have what decision theorists call “negative expected value” — that is, they serve as desperate gambles and on average worsen the Russian situation.

Of course that makes the war increasingly dangerous, and not just for the Ukrainians. If Putin is afraid the forces in the field won’t always carry out his orders, for example, he may order the launch of 10 tactical nukes rather than just one.

As AK would say, “Have a nice day.”

Are nuclear weapons or Rogue AI the more dangerous risk?

I was going to write a long post on this question, as recently I had been urged to do by one of the leaders of the Effective Altruism movement, during a Sichuan lunch.

But then Putin declared a nuclear alert, and I figured a short post might be more effective.  To be clear, I think the chance of nuclear weapons use right now is pretty low.  But it is not zero, if only because of errors and misunderstandings.  So imagine this kind of scenario repeated across a few centuries, with an increasing number of nuclear powers at that.  And this time around, there is a truly existential threat to the current version of the Russian state, and a number of people are suggesting that Putin has gone a little wacko.

And this is in a world where, about one week ago, the conventional wisdom was that Russia would not really invade Ukraine at all, maybe just a limited police action in the east.

As for Rogue AI, here is a long Scott Alexander post (ungated) on the topic.  For now I will just say that it makes my head hurt.  It makes my head hurt because the topic is so complicated.  And I don’t take any particular form of technological progress for granted, not along any time frame.  That holds all the more true for “exotic” claims about what might be possible over the next few decades.  Most of the history of the human race is that of zero economic growth, sometimes negative economic growth.  And how good were past thinkers at predicting the future?  Don’t just select on those who are famous because they got some big things right.

So I see nuclear war as the much greater large-scale risk, by far.  We know nuclear weapons work and we know they can be deployed without any technological advances at all.  And we know they are highly destructive by their very nature, whether we “align” them or not, whether we properly train them or not.

How many people, as public intellectuals, have made “let’s make sure all countries holding nuclear weapons can accurately distinguish between an incoming rocket and a flock of birds” their main thing?  Zero?

An ongoing political shift

In another pandemic challenge for Democrats, many of the institutions and aspects of daily life that skew culturally liberal have been undermined by the more cautious approaches to the coronavirus in left-leaning precincts: the performing arts, libraries and museums, public education, academia, mass transit, progressive religious congregations, and restaurants and small independent retailers. In pre-pandemic times, these sorts of institutions and businesses provided sustenance in Democratic-leaning communities, and their shakiness after nearly two years of off-and-on withdrawal has its own political cost.

I would remove restaurants from that list, but otherwise I agree.  That is from Alec MacGillis.