Category: Uncategorized

Excess deaths are down — below average — for those younger than eighteen

In the United States that is, link here, from Lyman Stone, photo here:

In other words, lockdown and shelter at home have limited some of the otherwise risky activities that young people engage in.

Excess deaths more generally seem to have reached a normal range, albeit at the upper end of that range:

I wouldn’t want to call this “good news,” but it is one form of putting the current situation into perspective.

Pooled Testing is Super-Beneficial

Tyler and I have been pushing pooled testing for months. The primary benefit of pooled testing is obvious. If 1% are infected and we test 100 people individually we need 100 tests. If we split the group into five pools of twenty then if we’re lucky, we only need five tests. Of course, chances are that there will be some positives in at least one group and taking this into account we will require 23.2 tests on average (5 + (1 – (1 – .01)^20)*20*5). Thus, pooled testing reduces the number of needed tests by a factor of 4. Or to put it the other way, under these assumptions, pooled testing increases our effective test capacity by a factor of 4. That’s a big gain and well understood.

An important new paper from Augenblick, Kolstad, Obermeyer and Wang shows that the benefits of pooled testing go well beyond this primary benefit. Pooled testing works best when the prevalence rate is low. If 10% are infected, for example, then it’s quite likely that all five pools will have at least one positive test and thus you will still need nearly 100 tests (92.8 expected). But the reverse is also true. The lower the prevalence rate the fewer tests are needed. But this means that pooled testing is highly complementary to frequent testing. If you test frequently then the prevalence rate must be low because the people who tested negative yesterday are very likely to test negative today. Thus from the logic given above, the expected number of tests falls as you tests more frequently (per test-cohort).

Suppose instead that people are tested ten times as frequently. Testing individually at this frequency requires ten times the number of tests, for 1000 total tests. It is therefore natural think that group testing also requires ten times the number of tests, for more than 200 total tests. However, this estimation ignores the fact that testing ten times as frequently reduces the probability of infection at the point of each test (conditional on not being positive at previous test) from 1% to only around .1%. This drop in prevalence reduces the number of expected tests – given groups of 20 – to 6.9 at each of the ten testing points, such that the total number is only 69. That is, testing people 10 times as frequently only requires slightly more than three times the number of tests. Or, put in a different way, there is a “quantity discount” of around 65% by increasing frequency.

Peter Frazier, Yujia Zhang and Massey Cashore also point out that you could also do an array-protocol in which each person is tested twice but in two different groups–this doubles the number of initial tests but limits the number of false-positives (both tests must be positive) and the number of needed retests. (See figure.).

Moreover, we haven’t yet taken into account the point of testing which is to reduce the prevalence rate. If we test frequently we can reduce the prevalence rate by quickly isolating the infected population and by reducing the prevalence rate we reduce the number of needed tests. Indeed, under some parameters it’s possible to increase the frequency of testing and at the same time reduce the total number of tests!

We can do better yet if we group individuals whose risks are likely to be correlated. Consider an office building with five floors and 100 employees, 20 per floor. If the prevalence rate is 1% and we test people at random then we will need 23.2 tests on average, as before. But suppose that the virus is more likely to transmit to people who work on the same floor and now suppose that we pool each floor. Holding the total prevalence rate constant, we are now likely to have a zero prevalence rate on four floors and a 5% prevalence rate on one floor. We don’t know which floor but it doesn’t matter–the expected number of tests required now falls to 17.8.

The authors suggest using machine learning techniques to uncover correlations which is a good idea but much can be done simply by pooling families, co-workers, and so forth.

The government has failed miserably at controlling the pandemic. Tens of thousands of people have died who would have lived under a more competent government. The FDA only recently said they might allow pooled testing, if people ask nicely. Unbelievably, after telling us we don’t need masks (supposedly a noble lie to help limit shortages), the CDC is still disparaging testing of asymptomatic people (another noble lie?) which is absolutely disastrous. Paul Romer is correct, testing capacity won’t increase until we put soft drink money behind advance market commitments and start using techniques such as pooled testing. Fortunately or sadly, depending on how you look at it, it’s not too late to do better. Some universities are now proposing rapid, frequent testing using pooling. Harvard will test every three days. Cornell will test frequently. Delaware State will test weekly. Lets hope the idea spreads from the ivory tower.

The Harpers free speech letter and controversy

Many of you have been asking for a more detailed account of what I think.  Here is an NYT summary of the debate, in case you have been living under a rock.  Of course I side with those who signed the letter, but I would add a few points.

First, I don’t think the letter itself quite pinpoints what has gone wrong, nor do I think that such a collective project is likely to do so.  Most of us would agree there is nothing wrong per se with voluntary standards of affiliation, or voluntary speech regulations in private institutions, nor should the NYT feel obliged to turn its platforms over to tyrants such as…say…Vladimir Putin.

The actual problem is that we have a new bunch of “speech regulators” (not in the legal sense, not usually at least) who are especially humorless and obnoxious and I would say neurotic — in the personality psychology sense of that word.  I say let’s complain about the real problem, namely the moral fiber, emotional temperaments, and factual worldviews of the individuals who have arrogated the new speech censorship functions to themselves.  I am free to raise that charge, a collective letter signed by 153 diverse intellectuals and artists really is not, and is strongly constrained toward the more “positive” and “constructive” approaches to the problem, or at least what might appear to be such.

The letter is descriptively accurate in blaming lack of “toleration” and increased “censoriousness” for our problems, but those words only make sense if you have a much deeper mental model of what is actually going on.  There is ultimately something question-begging about words that do not pin down the proper margin of objection, or what might be a correct worldview, or what might be a worldview we should in fact not tolerate in our affiliations.  In other words, a non-question-begging answer has to take sides to some extent, and that is especially hard for a collective or grand coalition to do.

That is fine!  No complaint from these quarters, and I am very glad they took the trouble to move forward with this project.  I know many of the signers, and those individuals I like, admire, and respect, to a person.  But in reality, the letter itself, de facto, decided to elevate consensus and reputational oomph over actual free speech about the real truths in our world.

So in the Straussian sense it is actually a letter about the limits and impotence of true free speech, and the need to be constrained by social consensus.

How about the signers and non-signers?  Here is from the NYT piece:

“We’re not just a bunch of old white guys sitting around writing this letter,” Mr. Williams, who is African-American, said. “It includes plenty of Black thinkers, Muslim thinkers, Jewish thinkers, people who are trans and gay, old and young, right wing and left wing.”

Only a very small number of individuals in the world even had the option of signing, and it seems the particular individuals chosen were selected with an eye toward their public and intellectual palatability.  Do you really think they would have invited [fill in the blank with name of “evil” person of your choice] to sign?  Or how about such a letter signed only by white males?  More prosaically, how about a few vocal Trump supporters or members of the IDW?

You can’t expect readers to scroll through thousands of names, but of course with internet technology you could have a linked pdf with a second tier of signers, more numerous and also more truly intellectually diverse.  The de facto message seems to be: “free speech is too important a cause to let just anybody sign onto.”

Again, what they did is fine!  I work with voluntary institutions all the time, and am quite familiar with “how things have to go.”

But again, let’s be honest.  To produce a paean to free speech, acceptable to Harper’s and worthy of receiving a non-condemnatory article in The New York Times, the organizers had to “restrict free speech” in a manner not altogether different than what they are objecting to.

Fortunately, most people will read the Harper’s letter straight up rather than in Straussian terms.  The Straussian reading is far more depressing than the pleasure you might feel at seeing this missive take center stage, if only for a day.

Wednesday assorted links

1. “Prisoners have long used contraband cellphones to pull off all manner of scams from the inside. But in attempting to build and sell a house from behind bars, Murray allegedly took things to a new level of sophistication.”  Link here, recommended.

2. Charlie Songhurst is one of the smartest people I know.  Podcast with him, recommended.

3. Acoustic levitation of objects inside your body.

4. How did Helen DeWitt and Andrew Gelman end up co-authoring a piece?  I’d like to read another piece on that, it could be co-authored by them too.

5. Blindsight.

6. Is the dam starting to break? (but in which direction?)  And “I am so sorry.” And another retraction.  And more.  Egads, and A+.

7. War over being nice.  Wordy at first, but an important attempt, recommended.

Tuesday assorted links

Southeast Asia coronavirus update

Health officials praise Laos after coronavirus-free declaration (some new concerns here, so far nothing major)

Cambodia has zero reported deaths, broadly consistent with anecdotal evidence too.

Vietnam reports 14 new cases, all imported.  Broader record of zero deaths.

No new Covid cases in Thailand Tuesday.

Have you noticed that those four countries are right next to each other?  (Within southeast Asia, most cases are in the relatively distant Indonesia and Philippines.)

I genuinely do not understand why this heterogeneity is not discussed much, much more.

Those countries also have very different institutions and systems of government and state capacity.  Do you really think this is all because they are such policy geniuses?

Those countries have instituted some good policies, to be sure.  But so has Australia, where there is a major coronavirus resurgence.

Inquiring minds wish to know.  One hypothesis is that they have a less contagious strain, another is that they have accumulated T-cell immunities from previous coronaviruses.  Or perhaps both?  Or perhaps other factors are playing a role?

I do not understand why the world is not obsessed with this question.  And should you be happy if you have, in the past, traveled to these countries as a tourist?

Signaling vs. certification at Harvard

Harvard will be teaching solely on-line this fall (with some students in residence), yet charging full tuition rates.  Many commentators are thus suggesting this supplies evidence for the signaling theory of education.

But not exactly.  The signaling theory, taken quite literally, is that education is a very difficult set of hurdles to surmount, and if you can get through Harvard you must be really really smart and hard-working.  Caltech maybe, but Harvard like Stanford and many other top schools makes it pretty easy to get through with OK enough grades.

The hard part about Harvard is getting in.  By selecting you, Harvard certifies you (as long as you are not part of “the 43% percent,” legacy, athletes, etc…but wait that counts too!).

Why isn’t there a service that just certifies you directly?  Surely you could run a clone of the Harvard admissions department pretty cheaply.

Perhaps the logical conclusion is that both the “social connections/dating” services of Harvard and the certification services of Harvard are strong complements.  If you are certified by Harvard, but live on a desert island, or carry a contagious disease, that certification is worth much less.  So it is hard to unbundle the services and sell the certification on its own, without the associated social networks.  Nor is it so worthwhile to sell the social connections on their own.  Harvard grads are socially connected to their dry cleaning workers as it stands, but that does not do those workers much good.

It takes a good deal more work to get signaling to enter this story.  In the signaling story, you can’t tell who is high quality without actually running the tournament, and that is more or less the opposite of the certification story.

Keep also in mind that the restricted Harvard services are probably only for one year (or less), so most students will still get three years or more of “the real Harvard,” if that is what they value.  And they can use intertemporal substitution to do more networking in the remaining three years.  It’s like being told you don’t get to watch the first quarter of a really great NBA game.  That is a value diminution to be sure, but there will still be enough people willing to buy the fancy seats.  Most viewers in the arena don’t watch more than three quarters of the game to begin with.

*False Alarm*, the new book by Bjorn Lomborg

The subtitle is How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet.

I agree with the author’s claim that climate change is not an existential risk for humanity.  Still, both the title and subtitle bother me.  The alarm does not seem to be a false one, even if many of the worriers make grossly overstated claims about the end of the earth.  And right now “climate change panic” is not costing us “trillions,” rather virtually all countries are failing to reduce their carbon emissions and most are not even trying very hard.

There should be more of a focus on the insurance value of avoiding the worst plausible scenarios, which are still quite bad.  There is no argument in this book which overturns the Weitzman-like calculations that preventive measures are desirable.

I can report that the author endorses a carbon tax, more investment in innovation, and greater adaptation, with geoengineering as a back-up plan, more or less the correct stance in my view.

There is much in this book of value, and the criticisms of the exaggerated worriers are mostly correct.  Still, the oppositional framing of the material doesn’t seem appropriate these days, and Lomborg will have to choose whether he wishes to be “leader of the opposition,” or “provider of the best possible message.”  Or has he already chosen?

Monday assorted links

The Seen and Unseen: Rajagopalan and Tabarrok

On my recent trip to India, just before the world went into lockdown and disarray, Shruti Rajagopalan and I visited Amit Varma’s studio in Delhi to record an episode of his podcast, The Seen and the Unseen. Our paper, Premature Imitation and India’s Flailing State served as the jumping off point but we discussed a host of topics. I was pretty good. Shruti was on fire! Many important insights.

The Seen and the Unseen is one of my favorite podcasts. Amit is a brilliant raconteur and excellent interviewer. The episodes and books listed as relevant to our episode would form an good education in development economics. Other excellent interviews, to mention only a handful, include historian Manu Pillai on Kerala and the Ivory Throne and the Rebel Sultans of the Deccan, Madhavi Menon on the History of Desire in India and Anup Malani on Covid in India and the Lockdown.

What I’ve been reading

1. Yukio Mishima, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea.  Yes compelling, and a sufficiently influential book that you should read it.  But aren’t you ever tempted to ask: has anyone ever behaved like that?

2. Rutger Bregman, Humankind: A Hopeful History.  An elegantly written book, offering an optimistic take on human nature and cooperativeness.  I am not sure there is anything fundamentally new in here, but I did in fact read and finish it.

3. Juan Williams, Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary.  A very good and readable biography of exactly what it promises, also manages to avoid hagiography.

4. R. James Breiding, Too Small to Fail: Why some small nations outperform larger ones and how they are reshaping the world.  A very useful book expanding on the theme that smaller nations have the potential to be much better governed and thus to have smarter policy and greater accountability.

I have not yet read Steven Johnson, Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt, but in general I enjoy his works and find them smart.

There is also Jim Tankersley, The Riches of This Land: The untold, true story of America’s middle class.

Richard W. Hamming, The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn is the latest Stripe Press blockbuster.  Here is more information about the book.

Sunday assorted links

1. “Belgium was the worst-hit country per capita in Europe. They did systematic testing for #SARSCoV2 in long-term care facilities, just reported…o symptoms were reported in 6,244 *(74.8%)* of 8,343 people who tested positive”  Link here.

2. Scott Sumner on Joseph Conrad.

3. “On a per-capita basis, of the European majors only Germany has done better than the US in death rate”  Link here.

4. The WHO was (and is) wrong about the virus being airborne (NYT).  A remarkable story about an unfathomable error of great import.

5. Georgia Tech professors revolt over reopening.

6. Why the German anti-vaccine movement is robust.

7. Colonizing the sun?

“The purchasing power of money is the same everywhere”

Didn’t Mises insist on that proposition in his Theory of Money and Credit?  The claim always bugged me, as it is true only tautologically.  Here is one counterexample:

In a remote area of Papua’s Pegunungan Bintang regency, purchasing staple commodities will put a far bigger dent in your wallet than in most other areas of Indonesia.

For a sack of rice, typically weighing 10 kilograms, people in the traditional gold mining area of Korowai have to spend at least Rp 2 million (US$138.5), similar to the cost of a low-end smartphone.

For comparison, in Jakarta, 1 kilogram of rice costs Rp 10,000 to Rp 11,000, meaning 10 kg of rice costs people in the capital around Rp 110,000.

The massive price discrepancies are not limited to rice. A box of instant noodles costs Rp 1 million in Korowai. Sometimes, people even pay with two grams of gold.

“A pack of instant noodles costs Rp 25,000,” said Hengki Yaluwo, an administrator of a cooperative in Korowai’s Mining Area 33 on Wednesday.

“Ten kilograms of rice costs four grams of gold. If you pay with cash, you need Rp 2 million,” he said.

One can of fish typically costs Rp 150,000, while a cell phone could cost 10 to 25 grams of gold, Hengki said.

As for arbitrage:

Reaching Korowai is difficult. People must take a helicopter from Bovel Digoel regency, and then continue by longboat, traveling along the Boven Digoel river for one day. After this, they must travel by foot for two days before finally arriving at the Korowai mining area.

Here is the full story, via Shaffin Shariff.  Here are photos of the Korowai people, ignore the text.  Here is a more sober and probably more accurate Wikipedia article.