Additional Thursday assorted links

1. Will Greenland let China mine there?

2. How regulators are starting to think about Coinbase.  And interpreting bitcoin as a better chain letter.

3. Neopronouns: “but what does thon think?”  And today’s Ezra Marcus NYT piece on neopronouns is first-rate.  Can I use “Tyler” as my neopronoun?  Can I choose to be pronounless?: “Instead of using third person pronouns, a nullpronominal person is usually referred to by name, or can be referred to with an epithet, or the sentence can be rephrased to omit pronouns, typically by using the passive voice.”  I like that, should I put it on my Twitter profile?

4. Ezra Klein (NYT) has a very good take on the Biden administration, though I would frame the described truths in a quite negative manner.  I would say that in essence they are making decisions based on their own sociology and class and conformism, and also on the basis of what they think (poorly informed) voters want, rather than focusing on scientific reasoning and trying to see that through.  And whatever problems economics might have, including as a predictive tool, one does not do better with those who are trying to take its place.  Further interpretation from Ezra here.

5. Bryan Caplan turns fifty, and what did he do in his forties?

6. More on muons.  Best treatment so far.

Vaccine passport sentences to ponder

From New York State:

Using Excelsior Pass is entirely voluntary, but it requires learning about the state’s system and mastering a few different websites and apps. It took me 20 minutes over Zoom to help an octogenarian set up his pass, though it was certainly simpler than mastering vaccine-appointment websites. And even when we thought we understood the system, Excelsior Pass didn’t always work: My tech-reporter colleague tried to use it to enter Yankee Stadium, but the system didn’t update with his clearance until after the game was over…

Testing Excelsior Pass, what surprised me most was how easy it is to fake. When you first sign up for your QR code on the state website, it asks a handful of questions based on your vaccination and testing records. But after that, you’re on the honor system — you can add the QR code to any phone without any more challenge questions.

Designed by IBM, here is the full story.  I get that different parts of the country (Michigan…surge vaccine supply!) may need to proceed at different speeds, but basically it is time to plan a full reopening, and it seems that vaccine passports are more likely to hinder than to help achieve that end.

Thursday assorted links

From the comments, on Covid and our response

It is simply not a tenable policy to oppose pandemic lockdowns on the premise that COVID-19 only negatively affects a certain portion of the population. First, the fact that COVID-19 disproportionately killed the elderly was not something that was readily apparent right out of the box, when the virus was spreading rapidly. Hindsight is 20-20. Second, focusing solely on mortality is short-sighted given that approximately one-third of all people who get over COVID-19 suffer “long haul” symptoms that persist for months and may even be permanent in some. We cannot simply claim that the non-elderly have no reason to fear COVID-19.

So far, COVID-19 has killed more Americans than we lost in World War II, and it took the war five years to do what the virus did in one year. Even though the majority of the deaths were 65+, these are staggering numbers. Losing well over 100,000 people under the age of 65 in one year alone is nothing to sneeze at, and that’s with lock-downs and other harsh measures being taken. A “let them live their lives” approach would doubtlessly have escalated those numbers greatly.

The best early policy for any pandemic is to ramp up rapid testing as fast as possible, and test people constantly. A widespread testing regime (like in South Korea) would allow uninfected people to live more or less normally, while stifling the spread of the virus by identifying infected people quickly so they can immediately quarantine and prevent further spread. [Alex’s] earlier post on Testing and the NFL is instructive on that point. Such a testing regime could have enabled us to avoid harsher measures later on. But, unfortunately, America was led at the time by a president who did not prioritize testing (and in fact discouraged it to hide the spread of the virus) and sought to pooh-pooh its danger, shrugging off even the slightest mitigation efforts, like masks. Even after he got it, and was hospitalized, almost put on a ventilator, he acted as though it was nothing. That leadership caused a dangerous cognitive dissonance in public perceptions of COVID-19 — a dissonance that is causing people to take unreasonable risks, refuse to get vaccinated, and otherwise take actions that will make it even harder for us to get out from under this pandemic.

Focusing on the Great Barrington Declaration itself, the big problem with its approach is that it presumes that “herd immunity” will naturally occur with COVID-19 at some point. The evidence indicates, however, that natural infection does not lead to permanent immunity. The worse a person’s symptoms from COVID-19, the longer their immunity lasts, but that’s it. The only immunity that is possible now is through vaccination, and even that will require yearly updates as the virus mutates as it is already doing. Eventually we will have it under control. But the suggestion that people under 65 can just safely infect themselves into herd immunity is likely an impossibility, and certainly not a good enough foundation to rest any pandemic policy on.

None of this is meant to minimize or challenge the obvious economic and mental health effects of certain pandemic policies. There are a great many costs being imposed by lock-downs and other policies. Businesses are failing and not coming back, jobs are being permanently lost, people are feeling isolated, on and on. All of that is tragic, and could have been largely avoided had we aggressively pursued testing (especially rapid-result testing) from the outset. When the next pandemic comes, I hope our descendants remember that lesson. Because once the pandemic started spreading because we didn’t get a testing regime in place, it was too late, and then the harsher policies became inevitable. The horse was out of the barn, and the game changed for good.

That is from James N. Markels, responding to Don Boudreaux in these comments.

Here is another way to put the broader argument, not my preferred first-order response, but I think significant nonetheless.  Given the way government and public choice work, anything that kills over half a million Americans is going to be a big deal for policy, whether we like it or not (Don should be the first to recognize that government will restrict your liberties for far less than 500k deaths!).  You want the best feasible version of a response, as there isn’t really a stable libertarian response pattern out there.  Trying partial but non-sustainable libertarian approaches will in the end get you more and more statism as the virus keeps on defeating you, deaths rise, and calls for ever-greater state action increase.  A lot of what libertarians don’t like about lockdowns in part stems from the “do nothing” response of the first two months of notice that we Americans had when Covid first appeared in China.

Wednesday assorted links

1. “The most terrifying words in the English language are Balaji was right.”  Transcript of his now-famed podcast with Tim Ferriss.

2. Physical formidability and acceptance of police violence.

3. The Martians of Budapest.  And Girard, McLuhan, and Robbins on Interintellect.

4. A contrarian view on voting in Georgia.

5. Don Boudreaux upset at me.  I think on some issues he misrepresents my views (e.g., I don’t claim the age of the Covid deaths is irrelevant), and he pins a whole host of interventions on me that I do not favor.  But to respond to the main point on social cohesion, I’ll make a simple prediction: in terms of social cohesion the American southeast will come out of this whole mess looking relatively good, on both a national and global scale.  Countries such as Brazil and Mexico, which have downplayed Covid risks to an extreme degree, and imposed very few regulations on behavior, will come out looking quite bad in terms of both deaths and social cohesion.  I prefer the response of the U.S. southeast to that of Brazil and Mexico, and the response of the U.S. southeast is (broadly) the one I endorse in the podcast with Russ Roberts (assuming you can’t halt the whole thing early, and no we never should have banned any outdoor activities, etc.).  Don is otherwise a big proponent of comparative institutional analysis, but he isn’t doing nearly enough of that in his critique — social cohesion compared to what?  Which is the alternative that was going to give us greater social cohesion than what say Florida will end up with?

6. “Lego enthusiast explains why the black market for the toy bricks is so lucrative.”  Interesting throughout.

7. Marshall Sahlins has passed away.

8. AEI panel on whether the great stagnation is now over.

My Conversation with the excellent Dana Gioia

Here is the audio, transcript, and video.  As I mention in the beginning, Dana is the (only?) CWT guest who can answer all of my questions.  Here is part of the summary:

Dana and Tyler discuss his latest book and more, including how he transformed several businesses as a corporate executive, why going to business school made him a better poet, the only two obscene topics left in American poetry, why narrative is necessary for coping with life’s hardships, how Virgil influenced Catholic traditions, what Augustus understood about the cultural power of art, the reasons most libretti are so bad, the optimism of the Beach Boys, the best art museum you’ve never heard of, the Jungianism of Star Trek, his favorite Tolstoy work, depictions of Catholicism in American pop culture, what he finds fascinating about Houellebecq, why we stopped building cathedrals, how he was able to effectively lead the National Endowment for the Arts, the aesthetic differences between him and his brother Ted, his advice for young people who want to cultivate their minds, and what he wants to learn next.

And here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Why is Olaf Stapledon an important writer?

GIOIA: It’s not a question I expected.

COWEN: How could you not expect that?

GIOIA: Well, first of all, I hope people know who Olaf Stapleton was. Tremendously influential, rather clumsy, visionary, early science fiction writer who wrote novels like Odd John and the First and Last Man. What Olaf Stapleton did was I think he was the first really great science fiction writer to think in absolutely cosmic terms, beyond human conceptions of time and space. That, essentially, created the mature science fiction sensibility. If you go even watch a show like Expanse now, it’s about Stapledonian concerns.

COWEN: He was also a Hegelian philosopher, as you know. My friend Dan Wang thinks Last and First Men is better than Star Maker. Though virtually all critics prefer Star Maker.

GIOIA: Michael Lind, the political writer, and historian, Stapledon is one of his formative writers. Star Maker is kind of an evolution of the Last and First MenOdd John is kind of the odd, the first great mutant novel.

Definitely recommended.  And I am very happy to recommend Dana’s latest book (and indeed all of his books) Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life.

Some of the Covid-era deregulations will stick

Lawmakers in Texas and at least 19 other states that let bars and restaurants sell to-go cocktails during the pandemic are moving to make those allowances permanent. Many states that made it easier for healthcare providers to work across state lines are considering bills to indefinitely ease interstate licensing rules. Lawmakers in Washington are pushing for Medicare to extend its policy of reimbursing for certain telehealth visits. States also are trying to lock in pandemic rules that spawned new online services, from document notarization to marijuana sales.

Deregulation has long been a central tenet among Republican politicians, but many of the coronavirus-inspired changes have gained bipartisan support…

In February, California State Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, co-authored legislation with a Republican lawmaker to make permanent the coronavirus-era suspension of liquor laws that prohibited drinking in sidewalk extensions known as parklets and other outdoor dining spaces used by multiple vendors. If approved by two-thirds of the legislature and signed by the Democratic governor, it would take effect in September.

State legislatures in Connecticut and Arkansas also are weighing bills to extend outdoor dining allowances made during the pandemic.

Mr. Wiener said he has spent years studying ways to modernize the state’s liquor laws, some of which are 100 years old.

Here is much more from Aaron Zitner and Julie Bykowicz at the WSJ.  For the pointer I thank Greg Roemer.

When will China move against Taiwan?

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

It’s not as if all of a sudden one morning the news will be filled with reports of bombs falling on Taipei. China has other options: It might occupy the islands of Quemoy and Matsu, just off the coast of China but claimed by Taiwan. Imagine China taking the islands, possibly with zero casualties, and then calling both Taipei and Washington to discuss what should happen next. Taiwan would have to think long and hard.

It would hardly be new for China to target Quemoy and Matsu. In 1958 Taiwan defended those islands with U.S. support after a Chinese incursion. An uneasy stalemate followed. There was also a crisis in 1954-55, again with inconclusive results. A possible confrontation today, in view of growing Chinese military and economic power, requires a fundamentally different calculus.

And this:

The most common argument against imminent Chinese action is that “time is on China’s side.” The size of China’s economy relative to America’s is likely to rise over time, along with China’s relative military prowess.

But China’s GDP as a share of global GDP may already be near a peak, depending on how well the rest of the world does. China has also to worry about the rise of India, the continuing rearming of Japan and a possibly recalcitrant Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, the Communist Party itself may face increasing fractures and lose some of its grip on power. If China is going to take significant action against Taiwan, now may be the easiest time to do so.

The evolution of military technologies would also seem to argue for Chinese action sooner rather than later. Even a very powerful China might find Taiwan difficult to conquer in 20 years. At the current moment, Taiwan’s defense capabilities seem especially run down.

Momentum is another reason why China might decide to act soon. China recently changed the status of Hong Kong, and has taken increasingly concrete steps to tighten its grip on Xinjiang, in both cases facing an international opposition that is modest and manageable.

Once countries start down such an aggressive road it is sometimes difficult for them to stop. Both the Chinese military and the organizational infrastructure of the Communist Party are currently geared toward “solutions,” activism, and the notion of bringing everyone into the fold. China is used to receiving foreign criticism, and its leaders seem to be consolidating their power. Because of its success in halting the spread of the pandemic, the party currently enjoys a status that it might find hard to regain.

Is it possible for the party to put the brakes on this process and restart it 20 years later? Maybe — but again, the view that China is prepared for imminent action on Taiwan is a plausible one.


Tuesday assorted links

1. Promise on an HIV vaccine?

2. “The money itself is programmable. Beijing has tested expiration dates to encourage users to spend it quickly, for times when the economy needs a jump-start.” (WSJ)

3. Soviet LOTR “markets” in everything.

4. Have they ruined Plastic Ono Band? (WSJ, probably)

5. NYT obituary for Robert Mundell.

6. The decline of the Central American elites (The Economist).

Deregulation has never been more imperative

Electric vehicle charging stations can in fact be provided by the private sector, just as gas stations are.  But will state and local governments step out of the way?:

There are several regulatory barriers to the deployment of EV charging infrastructure including permitting of charging infrastructure, the lack of a technical standard for charging infrastructure, policy uncertainty regarding sale of electricity, regulation regarding EV-related investment by utilities, etc. Cities which face these regulatory barriers should address them as early as possible by building political consensus and then mandating the relevant government agency to address each issue whether it be modifying building codes, streamlining permitting, deciding a standard in consultation with OEMs, etc. As mentioned in Chapter 4, city governments hold a comparative advantage in zoning and building codes and permitting, and they should use those levers to good effect. Cities should use their regulatory influence smartly to remove / mitigate barriers to create a conducive environment for private investors. This report also shows that perse a direct subsidy to private infrastructure providers is not required because charging networks offer a viable business opportunity – the notable exemption being cities with large proportions of on-street residential parking where residents might be undersupplied with charging infrastructure as the economics under those conditions are less appealing.

Here is the full report, from Stephen Crolius and the Clinton Climate Change Initiative.

From the Kibbutz to Libertarianism

Meir Kohn on his long path to becoming a libertarian. As a teenager he moved to Israel to live on a kibbutz.

Kibbutz is bottom‐​up socialism on the scale of a small community. It thereby avoids the worst problems of state socialism: a planned economy and totalitarianism. The kibbutz, as a unit, is part of a market economy, and membership is voluntary: you can leave at any time. This is “socialism with a human face” — as good as it gets.

Being a member of a kibbutz taught me two important facts about socialism. The first is that material equality does not bring happiness. The differences in our material circumstances were indeed minimal. Apartments, for example, if not identical, were very similar. Nonetheless, a member assigned to an apartment that was a little smaller or a little older than someone else’s would be highly resentful. Partly, this was because a person’s ability to discern differences grows as the differences become smaller. But largely it was because what we received was assigned rather than earned. It turns out that how you get stuff matters no less than what you get.

The second thing I learned from my experience of socialism was that incentives matter. On a kibbutz, there is no material incentive for effort and not much incentive of any kind. There are two kinds of people who have no problem with this: deadbeats and saints. When a group joined a kibbutz, the deadbeats and saints tended to stay while the others eventually left. I left.

In retrospect, I should have known right away, from my first day, that something was wrong with utopia. On my arrival, I was struck by the fact that the pantry of the communal kitchen was locked.

Read the whole thing.

Addendum: Ilya Somin has interesting comments especially on kibbutz versus the lesser known moshavim.

Has Covid ushered in a new era of U.S. regional decentralization?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, and here is the opener:

The homogenization of America — through national TV and politics, cheap transportation and big online or nationwide businesses such as Walmart and Amazon — is a longstanding story. Regardless of how true it is, or ever was, a new truth is emerging from the pandemic: In the last year, the differences among the U.S.’s states and regions have become increasingly apparent — and they are more temperamental than political.

I recently spent two weeks in Miami Beach, and the mood was festive. On the street, many people wore masks, but once they entered the packed restaurants and clubs, the masks came off and the partying started. (Disclosure: I am vaccinated, and was an observer, not a participant.) The midnight curfew was by no means always respected.

That scene might make you recoil in horror, and many observers predicted catastrophe for Florida’s policies. But Florida’s death toll is close to the national average, and Governor Ron DeSantis is extremely popular. The state’s lockdowns were never very strict, its schools have been open since August, and Miami’s NBA team is welcoming fans, albeit with seating restrictions. The economy has been booming for some time, in part because people who wish to spend money or organize get-togethers have been drawn to Florida.

And my sense is that most Floridians feel vindicated. I spoke to several people who admitted they had had Covid earlier in the year and described the experience with a giggle or a smirk, as if it were nothing serious. Just last week DeSantis announced that Florida would have nothing to do with plans for vaccine passports…

San Francisco is one obvious point of contrast. The schools still have not reopened, with no clear date in sight, even though the teachers have been offered vaccines. (Meanwhile, the school board decided to rename many of its schools.) Large public gatherings are rare, and inside dining has been largely prohibited. Like Florida, the city can boast of very low death rates from Covid, and like Floridians, many San Franciscans seem proud of their course.

You might think this is all because Florida is a Republican-leaning state. But Donald Trump won only 51.2% of the vote there last year, and Joe Biden won Miami-Dade County by seven percentage points…

Overall the Southeast would seem to be a big winner, as the psychological effects of low rates of unemployment may prove more durable than the effects of high rates of casualties.

There is much more at the link, including a comparison of Virginia and Maryland.

Wohin economics?

Mammograms and Mortality: How has the Evidence Evolved?

Surviving a Mass Shooting

Representation is Not Sufficient for Selecting Gender Diversity

Back to School: The Effect of School Visits During COVID-19 on COVID-19 Transmission

The Public Health Effects of Legalizing Marijuana

Those are all new NBER working papers, issued today.  To be clear, I do not intend this list as criticism, either of these papers or of the NBER (for one thing, I have not read them).  But surely it is worth pointing out that something has changed.  If you think economists should be doing these papers, does that translate into a relatively low opinion of the quantitative standards in those fields proper?  Or maybe the economists are better at spotting interesting questions and seeing the work through?  Yes or no?  How exactly should we imagine the (possible) comparative advantage of economists with these topics?  I mean these as genuine questions, not snarky ones.  I have never been a per se opponent of economic imperialism.