The new phrenology?

Ubiquitous facial recognition technology can expose individuals’ political orientation, as faces of liberals and conservatives consistently differ. A facial recognition algorithm was applied to naturalistic images of 1,085,795 individuals to predict their political orientation by comparing their similarity to faces of liberal and conservative others. Political orientation was correctly classified in 72% of liberal–conservative face pairs, remarkably better than chance (50%), human accuracy (55%), or one afforded by a 100-item personality questionnaire (66%). Accuracy was similar across countries (the U.S., Canada, and the UK), environments (Facebook and dating websites), and when comparing faces across samples. Accuracy remained high (69%) even when controlling for age, gender, and ethnicity. Given the widespread use of facial recognition, our findings have critical implications for the protection of privacy and civil liberties.

Here is more from Michal Kosinki, published in a journal which is an offshoot of Nature.

Saturday assorted links

Detroit Fauci

The mayor of Detroit has turned down an allocation of the J&J vaccine.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan declined an initial allocation of the newly authorized Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine….”So, Johnson & Johnson is a very good vaccine. Moderna and Pfizer are the best. And I am going to do everything I can to make sure the residents of the city of Detroit get the best,” Duggan said during a news conference Thursday.

Sigh. What an error. Note, however, that the Detroit Mayor rejecting the J&J vaccine is exactly what the FDA has done with the AstraZeneca vaccine. Moreover none other than Anthony Fauci made exactly the same argument about AstraZeneca (an argument I criticized at the time):

But even if the vaccine ends up being approved, it will probably only have an efficacy of 60 to 70 percent. “What are you going to do with the 70 percent when you’ve got two (vaccines) that are 95 percent? Who are you going to give a vaccine like that to?” Anthony Fauci, the leading American expert on vaccines, recently wondered.

To be clear, I don’t blame Fauci for the actions of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. Duggan would probably have said the same had Fauci never made his error. Indeed, perhaps you might even read this as excusing Duggan (if even Fauci, “the leading American expert on vaccines”, could make this error then…).

Still, Fauci’s error has been much more costly for the United States.

Hat tip: JF.

My Economics in Argumentation seminars job

You can trace my earlier jobs here, my next job, which I believe started at age nineteen, involved giving summer talks to high school debaters.  The program was called Economics in Argumentation, and it continues today in a much broader form under the name Economic Thinking, led by the excellent Gregory Rehmke, who was program leader back then as well.

The program was looking for someone who had debate experience (I debated for one year, my high school debate partner was the later economist and Fed governor Randall Kroszner), someone who was available, someone willing to fly around the whole country, someone affordable, someone who could relate to the high school students, and someone who knew enough economics.  That was me.

So I barnstormed for part of the summer, doing I would guess six to eight events a year?  I was paid $500 plus expenses for a weekend, typically to give a few talks on how to apply economics to the year’s debate topic.  One topic example was “the economics of arms sales,” and so in advance I had to spend a few months reading up on the topic of that year.  Other potential speakers were not so interested in doing that.

For my first talk, which was my very first public talk ever, I was nervous and disorganized, but after that I was fine and just consistently got better.  That is when and how I learned to give public presentations.  It was also my first time taking flights on a regular basis, and navigating new locations other than the immediate Atlantic seaboard/95 corridor.

Here are a few things I learned and some related memories:

1. I visited Seattle and Houston most frequently.  But I also went to Louisville, Grand Rapids, Wichita, a bunch of other Midwest places, and Los Angeles and San Francisco for the first time.  I learned what a great country America is, and I began to figure out how to travel.  I became acquainted with locales such as eastern Kansas, and would have not otherwise seen them, or realized how much I enjoy seeing them.  My knowledge base expanded rapidly.

2. Greg was super-nice to me throughout, and he has ended up being one of the people who helped me out most.  The money was useful but most of all the experience.  Greg had to put up with a lot of me, and he enjoyed mocking me (gently) for thinking (at first) that all restaurants around the United States were going to be serving chocolate ice cream.  Greg had formerly been a student of Paul Heyne’s at the University of Washington, so he had broadly Austrian and market-oriented views, and I fit into his programmatic vision very well.  (In fact most of what I was teaching I had learned from Heyne’s own book, which I read when I was fourteen.)  Plus going around with Greg was a lot of fun.  He is also a basketball fan, explained to me articulately exactly why Bill Walton was such a great player albeit briefly, and he taught me things like “if you are going to fly around the country, you need to have a credit card.”

3. High school debate coaches are in general a great and very dedicated group of educators.  The debate world back then was a kind of privatized appendage to the public school system, and it was a good refuge for people who really wanted to learn things.  They were also good audiences to practice upon, because a) they are used to considering all sides of an argument, and b) they judge presentations as such and apply fairly high but not obnoxious standards.  They also expect you to get to the point very quickly.

4. Giving the talks forced me to figure out what I thought economics really was all about.  Incentives and opportunity cost were the two ideas I pushed the hardest.  I tried to show the audience, through the application of concrete examples and arguments to the topic area, that those ideas were useful for formulating and responding to debate arguments.  I also encouraged them to think about secondary consequences in a more rigorous and systematic fashion, rather than just tacking them onto arguments for the sake of debate.

5. Here is a seven-minute excerpt from one of my talks.  I was younger then.

6. I had the chance to meet Paul Heyne when we visited Seattle, and in general met lots of interesting people along the way.

6b. I have a memory of driving around with Greg, finding a delicious Basque restaurant in Nevada.  But how did we end up in Nevada?

7. A number of other speakers for the program were graduate students in economics, and with debate backgrounds, yet I noticed immediately that they did not really think like economists.  They knew more neoclassical economics than I did, but somehow they were lifeless in their approaches and were not able to integrate the economic way of thinking with debate topics.  Some remain in the profession to this day.  It was important for me to learn just how much of the educated world fit into this category, one way or another.

8. Most of all this job required the energy to start, finish, and maintain each talk in a way that would command the attention of bright high school students.  They also respected preparation, so you had to come in knowing more than they did about the topic, but at the same time make the economics the primary focus.  Ultimately “show up and perform” is one of the job styles I am most comfortable with.

9. I felt I was getting a good deal overall, and wasn’t looking to demand a higher wage.  At the margin, I was more likely to ask for more events on the West Coast and in other good places.

10. Maybe I did this for three summers in a row?  (One of my successor speakers was Air Genius Gary Leff.)  Graduate school and then moving to Germany pulled my attention toward other endeavors.  But it was a job I loved, and a job that in modified form I still have to this day.

Bad Advertising Bans

In Australia physicians are currently banned from recommending COVID vaccines as this is considered a form of advertising.  (See also this twitter thread).

Crazy, but then I am reminded that one year ago Britain’s Advertisement Standards Authority banned advertisements for masks ruling that:

Public Health England did not recommend the use of face masks as a means of protection from coronavirus. We understood there was very little evidence of widespread benefit from their use outside of clinical settings, and that prolonged use of masks was likely to reduce compliance with good universal hygiene behaviours that were recommended to help stop the spread of infectious diseases (including coronavirus), such as frequent hand washing and avoiding touching the eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands. We considered that the reference to “coronavirus” in the listing was likely to exploit people’s fears regarding the coronavirus outbreak. Particularly in a context where the relevant public health authority had not recommended face masks as a means of the public protecting themselves from coronavirus, we considered that the ad was misleading, irresponsible and likely to cause fear without justifiable reason.

We concluded that the ad breached the Code.

A good reminder that advertising bans have costs and benefits. I prefer the 1st Amendment which also has costs and benefits.

Hat tip: Steven Hamilton.

Friday assorted links

The traffic impact of Covid

For the first time since 2007, preliminary data from the National Safety Council show that as many as 42,060 people are estimated to have died in motor vehicle crashes in 2020. That marks an 8% increase over 2019 in a year where people drove significantly less frequently because of the pandemic. The preliminary estimated rate of death on the roads last year spiked 24% over the previous 12-month period, despite miles driven dropping 13%. The increase in the rate of death is the highest estimated year-over-year jump that NSC has calculated since 1924 – 96 years.

Here is the full story, the Great Psychometric Test continues.  Via Nick A.

Modestly silly Australian markets in everything

To combat the “border blues,” Australia’s national carrier said Wednesday that it is launching three mystery flights to unspecified domestic destinations.

The announcement came a day after government officials announced the country’s international border closure would stretch through at least June, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.

Mystery-flight travelers will find themselves roughly two hours away from the departure airports in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. In addition to “low-level scenic flybys of key landmarks en route,” the trips will include a day’s worth of activities on the ground. The airline says that could include a winemaking course or live music on a tropical island — and promises to give passengers clues so they know what to wear and pack.

Here is the full article, is the potential for regional surprise so great relative to the costs of avoiding the boring locations?  At least this is better than speeding recklessly in a car…

Are prediction markets going to make it this time around?

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

A skeptic might say that demand is limited because there are already so many good and highly informative markets in other assets. In 2009, for instance, was a market necessary to predict how well the iPhone was going to do? The share price of Apple might have served to perform a broadly similar function.

The question, then, is which prediction markets might prove most useful. Nobel Laureate economist Robert J. Shiller has promoted the idea of prediction markets in GDP, but most people face major risks at a more local, less aggregated level. One of the risks I face, for example, concerns the revenue of the university where I teach. This year enrollments rose slightly even though U.S. GDP fell sharply. So a GDP-based hedge probably is not very useful to me.

How about a prediction market in local real-estate prices, so that home buyers and real-estate magnates may hedge their purchases? Maybe, but then the question is whether enough professional traders would be attracted to such markets to keep them liquid. So-called binary options, particularly when the bet is on the price of a financial asset, often have remained unfairly priced or manipulated, and are viewed poorly by regulators.

For a prediction market to take off, it probably has to satisfy a few criteria: general enough to attract widespread interest; important enough to matter; and unusual enough not to be replicable by trading in existing assets. The outcomes also need to be sufficiently well-defined that contract settlement is not in dispute.

It remains to be seen how many new assets can meet all these standards.

Recommended, and the “hook” of the piece is the new attempt to jump-start prediction markets through the start-up Kalshi.

Canada: An Official Strong Recommendation for First Doses First

Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI), a scientific advisory group to the government, has made a forceful and dramatic statement strongly favoring First Doses First (delay the second dose.) This is a very big deal for the entire world. Basically NACI have endorsed everything that Tyler and I have said on First Doses First since my first post tentatively raised the issue on December 8. I am going to quote this statement extensively since it’s an excellent summary. No indentation.

—-NACI Statement—-

Based on emerging evidence of the protection provided by the first dose of a two dose series for COVID-19 vaccines currently authorized in Canada, NACI recommends that in the context of limited COVID-19 vaccine supply jurisdictions should maximize the number of individuals benefiting from the first dose of vaccine by extending the second dose of COVID-19 vaccine up to four months after the first. NACI will continue to monitor the evidence on effectiveness of an extended dose interval and will adjust recommendations as needed. (Strong NACI Recommendation)

    • In addition to emerging population-based data, this recommendation is based on expert opinion and the public health principles of equity, ethics, accessibility, feasibility, immunological vaccine principles, and the perspective that, within a global pandemic setting, reducing the risk of severe disease outcomes at the population-level will have the greatest impact. Current evidence suggests high vaccine effectiveness against symptomatic disease and hospitalization for several weeks after the first dose, including among older populations.

Protecting individuals

  • By implementing an extended four month interval strategy, Canada will be able to provide access to first doses of highly efficacious vaccines to more individuals earlier which is expected to increase health equity faster. Canada has secured enough vaccines to ensure that a second dose will be available to every adult.
  • As a general vaccination principle, interruption of a vaccine series resulting in an extended interval between doses does not require restarting the vaccine series. Principles of immunology, vaccine science, and historical examples demonstrate that delays between doses do not result in a reduction in final antibody concentrations nor a reduction in durability of memory response for most multi-dose products.
  • Assessment of available data on efficacy and effectiveness of a single dose of mRNA vaccine was a critical factor in assessing the impact of a delayed second dose at this time. The two available clinical trials for mRNA vaccines (Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna) provide evidence that indicates that efficacy against symptomatic disease begins as early as 12 to 14 days after the first dose of the mRNA vaccine. Excluding the first 14 days before vaccines are expected to offer protection, both vaccines showed an efficacy of 92% up until the second dose (most second doses were administered at 19-42 days in the trials). Recently, real world vaccine effectiveness data presented to or reviewed by NACI assessing PCR-positive COVID-19 disease and/or infection from Quebec, British Columbia, Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States support good effectiveness (generally 70-80%, depending on the methodology used and outcomes assessed) from a single dose of mRNA vaccines (for up to two months in some studies). While studies have not yet collected four months of data on effectiveness of the first dose, the first two months of population-based effectiveness data are showing sustained and high levels of protection. These data include studies in health care workers, long term care residents, elderly populations and the general public. While this is somewhat lower than the efficacy demonstrated after one dose in clinical trials, it is important to note that vaccine effectiveness in a general population setting is typically lower than efficacy from the controlled setting of a clinical trial, and this is expected to be the case after series completion as well.
  • Published data from the AstraZeneca clinical trial indicated that delaying the second dose to ≥ 12 weeks resulted in a better efficacy against symptomatic disease compared to shorter intervals between doses.
  • The duration of protection from one or two doses of COVID-19 vaccines is currently unknown. Experience with other multi-dose vaccines after a single dose suggests persistent protection could last for six months or longer in adolescents and adults. Longer-term follow-up of clinical trial participants and those receiving vaccination in public programs will assist in determining the duration of protection following both one and two doses of vaccination. NACI will continue to monitor the evidence on effectiveness of an extended interval, which is currently being collected weekly in some Canadian jurisdictions, and will adjust recommendations as needed if concerns emerge about waning protection.

Protecting populations

  • Although effectiveness after two-doses will be somewhat higher than with one dose, many more people will benefit from immunization when extending the interval between doses in times of vaccine shortage; offering more individuals direct benefit and also the possibility of indirect benefit from increasing population immunity to COVID-19 disease. Everyone is expected to obtain the full benefit of two doses when the second dose is offered after 4 months.
  • Internal PHAC modelling reviewed by NACI based on Canadian supply projections suggested that accelerating vaccine coverage by extending dose intervals of mRNA vaccines could have short-term public health benefits in preventing symptomatic disease, hospitalizations, and deaths while vaccine supply is constrained. Even a theoretical scenario analysis in which intervals were extended up to six months and protection was lost at a rate of 4% per week after the first dose also showed that extending the mRNA vaccine dose intervals would still have public health benefits. External modelling results have also suggested that extending dose intervals can avert infections, hospitalizations and deaths.
  • The impact on variants of concern by extending the interval between doses is unknown, but there is currently no evidence that an extended interval between doses will either increase or decrease the emergence of variants of concern. COVID-19 mRNA vaccines and AstraZeneca vaccine have shown promising early results against variant B.1.1.7. As effectiveness of the first dose against other variants of concern is emerging, ongoing monitoring will be required.
  • Vaccine distribution will be optimized through this strategy, and current vaccine supply projections will work well with an extended dose strategy that aims to immunize as many Canadians as efficiently as possible. Extending the dose intervals for mRNA vaccines up to four months has the potential to result in rapid immunization and protection of a large proportion of the Canadian population….

My job as managing editor of the Austrian Economics Newsletter

I’ve already posted about my chess teaching, and my grocery store work (here and here), my next job was as managing editor of the Austrian Economics Newsletter, for 1980-1981.  I was only eighteen (and nineteen) then, so for me this was a big step up.

I was responsible for commissioning content, making sure authors got their pieces in on time, editing those pieces (along with the editor proper, Don Lavoie), proofreading, picking up all the copy and delivering it to the typesetter, and coming up with ideas for future features.  I wrote a few short pieces too, conference coverage if I recall.  Part of my job was managing Don as well, though overall he was extremely generous with his time and also easy to work with.  Note that all of this work was de facto pre-computer.

From this job I learned a few things:

1. Most of all, I was grateful to Don for taking a huge chance on me.  A while earlier, I had driven to a party at his house in Brooklyn and spent a few hours with him.  One core lesson here is show up!  If I had not gone to Don’s party, almost certainly none of this would have happened.  At the time, the drive from New Jersey to Brooklyn seemed a little daunting to me, but my Auseinandersetzung with the BQE went fine.

2. I began to suspect all the more that “keeping track of things getting done” requires an innate predisposition, though a bad upbringing can squeeze it out of you.  But a lot of people just can’t or won’t do that, even if they are very smart.

3. The most fragile element of the supply chain was keeping the typesetter in line to deliver material promptly.  We were just never going to be a major customer of his and thus we were not a priority.  I just had to keep on bugging him, and I was afraid he would find out I was only an eighteen-year-old.

4. Parents matter!  My father and mother owned and ran a magazine (Commerce, affiliated with a chamber of commerce in NJ but they owned and ran it), and there I was at age eighteen, helping to run a mini-magazine.  Coincidence?  I don’t think so.  And my mother dealt with typesetters all the time.  My grandmother helped with the editing and the proofreading.

Here I am at an older age, still co-running a magazine of sorts, namely MR.  (Some of you help with the proofreading — thanks!)  You could say it is affiliated with a number of groups, starting with GMU, but it is owned and run by…you get the picture.

5. The issues of the Austrian Economics Newsletter all came out in an orderly fashion, so I considered my work there a success.  Don and I also pushed each other in broader and more empirical directions, away from the earlier Austrian praxeological approaches.  The Newsletter helped make Austrian economics a broader tradition.

6. Managing your boss is a big part of most jobs.  Again, Don I found easy to work with, and I learned a great deal from him, but he did need a co-worker who could appreciate his ideas and listen to his “speeches.”  I feel I served that function well.  I did see that Don was onto ideas that represented real advances in Austrian economics, and to this day Don is underrated.  He was the best and most influential Austrian economist of his generation, but is not universally regarded as such (he passed away prematurely of cancer at the age of 50).

7. As a young person, you can advance much more quickly if you are doing something outside of the mainstream.  That is yet another reason to be on the lookout for “weird” talent.

8. One of the more important things I learned was “what it means to know everyone/everything going on in a particular field.”

9. I don’t recall exactly how the job ended.  But I think that version of the newsletter was discontinued, and Don stopped doing it, more or less at the same time.  (Later it was taken over by the Mises Institute and became a very different product; the Mercatus publication Market Process was the true successor.)  I was very glad to have done it, but after two years or so I was ready to move on to the next thing.

Sins of omission vs sins of commission

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

To be clear, public health officials are encouraging additional vaccinations. But they don’t seem to realize how much their own ostensibly “careful” rhetoric makes vaccination sound unappealing. “Not talking up the vaccines” is a sin of omission, not a sin of commission, and so it is tolerated and is not a major issue for public debate.

Should public officials be allowed, indeed encouraged, to treat sins of commission and omission so differently, as private citizens (myself included) typically do?

I live near Arlington National Cemetery, where approximately 400,000 veterans (and family members) are buried. I suspect they would not care so much whether their deaths were the result of errors of commission or omission. Did a commanding general order a hill to be charged that should have been left alone? Or did he make the mistake of not charging a hill that could have been taken?

Most citizens care about the total number of military casualties from a battle and are only modestly concerned about the details of the mistakes that caused them. That seems like the right and rational attitude. Perhaps it is also the correct attitude for the war against the coronavirus — that is, an overriding concern with casualties and outcomes, regardless of the kind of error that led to them.

Recommended.

Why Didn’t Congress Fund Operation Warp Speed!?

STAT is reporting a ‘scandal’:

The Trump administration quietly took around $10 billion from a fund meant to help hospitals and health care providers affected by Covid-19 and used the money to bankroll Operation Warp Speed contracts, four former Trump administration officials told STAT.

The NYTimes tried to create a similar scandal back in June when it reported on a diversion of funds to OWS from lung treatment research.

Coronavirus Attacks the Lungs. A Federal Agency Just Halted Funding for New Lung Treatments.

The shift, quietly disclosed on a government website, highlights how the Trump administration is favoring development of vaccines over treatments for the sickest patients.

My response at the time and today is the same. Good! The real scandal is why Congress never put big funding behind Operation Warp Speed–thus requiring the administration to fund OWS by surreptitiously cutting elsewhere. The Trump administration gets blamed for its inept handling of the pandemic but Congress is supposed to be in charge of the laws and the purse strings and Congress was an abysmal failure. Who in Congress lauded let alone funded Operation Warp Speed, the only big success of the pandemic response?

Here’s what I was shouting from the rooftops in June, Get BARDA More Money! It actually pains me to read this today because even a few extra billion then would have made a big difference.

The real scandal is how little we are spending on advanced research for vaccines–$2.2 billion is a pittance, less than a day’s worth of economic loss caused by COVID. Given their limited budget, BARDA is making good investments. Congress, however, has not allocated enough money to BARDA, one of the few agencies that had the foresight to do the right things, such as investing in emergency vaccine capacity, even before the pandemic hit. Congress’s failure to fund BARDA is why the administration is scraping the bottom of the barrel to get them all the funding they can.

We should go big, really big, on vaccines. But when I talk with people in Congress, I tell them that a big plan is ideal but if we can’t do that then at least GET BARDA MORE MONEY!

Addendum: The fact that BARDA can’t get enough funding from Congress in a pandemic is a good example of why we need a Pandemic Trust Fund.