Toots Hibbert, RIP

Possibly a Covid death (NYT), he was leader of Toots and the Maytals, and along with Desmond Dekker a favorite figure from the earlier period of reggae music.  “Sweet and Dandy” and “Pressure Drop” and “Monkey Man” I still listen to frequently, among others.  I was lucky to see him in concert twice, once as recently as two years ago, the other time in the late 1990s…

China fact of the day

A Chinese pharmaceutical company has injected hundreds of thousands of people with experimental Covid-19 vaccines, as its Western counterparts warn against administering mass vaccinations before rigorous scientific studies are complete.

China National Biotec Group Co., a subsidiary of state-owned Sinopharm, has given two experimental vaccine candidates to hundreds of thousands of people under an emergency-use condition approved by Beijing in July, the company said this week. Separately, Chinese drugmaker Sinovac Biotech Ltd. said it has inoculated around 3,000 of its employees and their family members, including the firm’s chief executive, with its experimental coronavirus vaccine.

The three vaccine candidates are still undergoing Phase 3 clinical trials, which involve testing a vaccine’s safety and effectiveness on thousands of people. Six other leading Covid-19 vaccine candidates are also in this final phase, according to the World Health Organization.

I am agnostic on this!  Of course we will see how it goes, and you should note that if the Chinese vaccines turn out to be “good enough,” they will spread to poorer countries rather quickly.

I see so much not so high quality moralizing from public health figures on Twitter, backed only by adjectives or appeals to authority.  Until they “show their work” with actual numbers and probabilities, my current view is to think this Chinese policy stands a reasonable (but by no means certain) chance of passing the Benthamite test.

Please note: this does not mean America should do the same!  In fact, China rushing may well lower the benefits from an American rush, because the major gains at stake here are the easing of non-Covid deaths and deprivations in South Asia and other poor parts of the world.  Maybe the optimal portfolio is indeed a “China + Russia rush,” followed by some good’ ol American patience.  (Is that what we do?  Who said that!?)

Here is the underlying WSJ piece.

Who is my favorite public intellectual?

Over the weekend I sat in on Anna Gát’s Interintellect Salon, which I enjoyed.  Many of the participants were asked who is their favorite public intellectual.  My answer was something like:

Alex Tabarrok, he’d better be, I’ve been working with him for thirty years!  There would be something wrong if he wasn’t.  And I always look forward to reading what he writes.

So there you go.  None of the other answers, worthy though they were, had equivalent support in demonstrated preference.

The fragility of herd immunity

Trouble in the Madrid region is brewing again, even though earlier seroprevalance had clocked in at about 20 percent:

Good for New York of course, here is a thread discussing the comparison, to me the conclusions seem premature.  The important point in any case is that Covid-protected time periods need not last forever, and you can end up in multiple rounds of “let it rip.”  As far as I know, this is the first established case of a major “second wave” in a previously hard-hit area.

The good news is that Madrid cases seem to have peaked, and furthermore the death rate is much lower the second time around, the latter being one good reason for postponing cases into later time periods rather than taking them all up front.

Note also that England has had months of open pubs, and a very quiet situation, but now cases there are doubling every six to seven days (FT).  Don’t switch back to talk of deaths!  The “simple” theory of herd immunity is surprised to see that new trend in cases.  What I call semi-herd immunity suggests a high degree of protection for the current configuration of social relations, after some point.  As those social relations change, some of that temporary herd immunity dissolves, as new infecting connections are being created and new superspreaders arise and do their thing.  But that takes a while, possibly months.

The herd immunity theorists downplay the possible temporariness of the equilibrium they pinpoint.  They instead prefer to focus on the (correct) point that most of the mainstream approaches did not forecast the collapse in deaths and hospitalizations found in England, Sweden, New York, and now parts of the American South.  In reality, you need to put both sides of the picture together, and grasp both the insights and limitations of the herd immunity theorists.

So herd immunity does seem to be fragile, and if other developments (treatment, antivirals, steroids, masks and thus lower dosage)  lower death rates, bravo, but case behavior still moves against the simple herd immunity theory, at least in Madrid.  How fragile we still do not know, and I readily grant and indeed would emphasize that Madrid is the only major counterexample to date.  Appreciate the limits of knowledge!

If you listen to Ivor Cummins, a darling of the herd immunity theorists, he doesn’t seem to grasp these problems of possible temporariness (he loves to switch to talk of deaths at just the wrong time), but rather treats herd immunity as “it’s over,” with a few vague qualifiers tossed in at the very end.  We will see.

Markets in everything

Swedish label Kön has produced a range of gender-neutral underwear to demonstrate that products “don’t have to be categorised” as just for men or women.

The underwear is made from plant-based textiles and comes in recycled paper packaging.

Wanting to create an inclusive brand suitable for everyone, Bill Heinonen founded Kön – a fashion company offering unisex underwear in a bid to give consumers the ability to “define some products themselves”…

Kön – pronounced “shaun” – takes its name from a Swedish word that stands for both gender and sex.

“I don’t want everything to be gender-neutral,” Heinonen explained, “but I think it’s important to give consumers that ability to define some products themselves.”

“Everything doesn’t have to be categorised as ‘men or women’ – a sweater can be just a sweater, a shower gel can be just a shower gel, and so on.”

Here is the full story, via a loyal MR reader.  The photos are safe enough for work, though they are of…gender-neutral underwear.

Friday assorted links

Declining Business Dynamism…The Role of the Burden of Knowledge

There is a new and important and I believe largely true paper from Thomas Astebro, Serguey Braguinsky, and Yuheng Ding:

We document that since 1997, the rate of startup formation has precipitously declined for firms operated by U.S. PhD recipients in science and engineering. These are supposedly the source of some of our best new technological and business opportunities. We link this to an increasing burden of knowledge by documenting a long-term earnings decline by founders, especially less experienced founders, greater work complexity in R&D, and more administrative work. The results suggest that established firms are better positioned to cope with the increasing burden of knowledge, in particular through the design of knowledge hierarchies, explaining why new firm entry has declined for high-tech, high-opportunity startups.

Here is the link.

How to Gain Super Powers!

Imagine that you were offered the superpower of being immune to bullets. Bullets just bounce off you like Luke Cage. That’d be pretty cool, right? Even partial immunity to bullets would be a great superpower! I’d be willing to pay a lot for that superpower, even undertake say some mildly perilous journey. So I am puzzled that some people say they don’t want a COVID vaccine. What??? That’s like rejecting a super-power, the power of immunity! Indeed, COVID has killed far more people this year than bullets, so virus immunity is a much better superpower than bullet immunity. Sign me up!

Addendum: Perhaps you think that the superpower of bullet immunity is better than the super power of virus immunity because, like Luke Cage, you could use bullet immunity to save lives, thus becoming a super-hero. Guess what? Vaccination also gives you the power to save lives.

Arise Vaccination Man! Arise Vaccination Woman! Gain Super Powers! Be a Super Hero!

The Washington Consensus Works: Causal Effects of Reform, 1970-2015

Sustained economic reform significantly raises real GDP per capita over a 5- to 10-year horizon.

Despite the unpopularity of the Washington Consensus, its policies reliably raise average incomes.

Countries that had sustained reform were 16% richer 10 years later.

As for the method:

In this paper, we define generalized reform as a discrete, sustained jump in an index of economic freedom, whose components map well onto the points of the old consensus. We identify 49 cases of generalized reform in our dataset that spans 141 countries from 1970 to 2015. The average treatment effect associated with these reforms is positive, sizeable, and significant over 5- and 10- year windows. The result is robust to different thresholds for defining reform and different estimation methods.

There are dozens of books trying to tell you this is not true, but…it is true, at least as best we know.

That is all from the new paper by Kevin and Robin Grier, did you know by the way that I helped to fix them up, leading to their later marriage and also coauthorships?

On audiobooks

From my email, from Robert Kwasny:

I imagine you listen to audio books rarely but, still, I wonder if you have any new thoughts on this topic.

Few thoughts of my own:

1. Shakespeare audiobooks are excellent. Much better than watching blu-rays. Unlike on real stage, Prospero (voiced by Ian McKellan in one production) can actually whisper softly to Miranda without worrying about people in the back rows. Stage directions are already included in the dialogue.

2. Pop psychology and self-help are terrible. Once cannot easily skip or skim the boring parts.

3. History books written by academics (e.g. The Sleepwalkers) are tough unless one already knows the necessary context. Otherwise it’s easy to get lost in the thicket of background facts. That’s probably true for all dense books. For example, Piketty’s books are available on Audible but I didn’t even bother sampling them. It’s just a wrong format.

4. I’ve had great experience with books written by authors with journalistic experience. Robert Caro’s works are excellent in audio form. William Manchester’s Churchill biography is good as well. Lawrence of Arabia by Scott Anderson too. Good audiobooks can’t be just one fact after another, they need to tell a story.

5. If the book’s author does the narration it’s usually bad. Voice acting is hard.

Unfortunately I don’t know of any book created specifically for audio. Where are biographies of Bob Dylan with songs included? Or books on rhetoric with audio of great speeches included? Audiobooks (and ebooks for that matter) don’t seem to be a new medium, at least so far. 10 years ago I would have not predicted that.

I have no new thoughts on audiobooks!  Though for my next book (which is co-authored), I was asked to read at least part of the AudioBook.  I will thus develop additional thoughts over time.

Thursday assorted links

1. What do economists know about the Black Death?

2. Topol and Offit on vaccines.  Excellent material, but it is striking how conservative Offit is when it comes to means of responsibly accelerating knowledge about vaccines.  Not a peep about market incentives, for one thing.  WWJBS?

3. More detail on the Taiwanese Covid response, especially from the tech side.

4. “…which includes work on the rhetorical strategies of far-right groups.

5. Super recognisers, recommended.

6. Using AlphaZero (and Kramnik) to invent new forms of chess.

Evidence from 27 Thousand Economics Journal Articles on Africa

The first two decades of the 21st century have seen an increasing number of peer-reviewed journal articles on the 54 countries of Africa by both African and non-African economists. I document that the distribution of research across African countries is highly uneven: 45% of all economics journal articles and 65% of articles in the top five economics journals are about five countries accounting for just 16% of the continent’s population. I show that 91% of the variation in the number of articles across countries can be explained by a peacefulness index, the number of international tourist arrivals, having English as an official language, and population. The majority of research is context-specific, so the continued lack of research on many African countries means that the evidence base for local policy-makers is much smaller in these countries.

Here is the article by Obie Porteus, via David Evans.

Those new service sector jobs, coffin whisperer edition

Also known as markets in everything:

Bill Edgar has, in his own words, “no respect for the living”. Instead, his loyalty is to the newly departed clients who hire Mr Edgar — known as “the coffin confessor” — to carry out their wishes from beyond the grave.

Mr Edgar runs a business in which, for $10,000, he is engaged by people “knocking on death’s door” to go to their funerals or gravesides and reveal the secrets they want their loved ones to know.

“They’ve got to have a voice and I lend my voice for them,” Mr Edgar said.

Mr Edgar, a Gold Coast private investigator, said the idea for his graveside hustle came when he was working for a terminally ill man.

“We got on to the topic of dying and death and he said he’d like to do something,” Mr Edgar said.

“I said, ‘Well, I could always crash your funeral for you’,” and a few weeks later the man called and took Mr Edgar up on his offer and a business was born.

In almost two years he has “crashed” 22 funerals and graveside events, spilling the tightly-held secrets of his clients who pay a flat fee of $10,000 for his service.

And:

In the case of his very first client Mr Edgar said he was instructed to interrupt the man’s best friend when he was delivering the eulogy.

“I was to tell the best mate to sit down and shut up,” he said.

“I also had to ask three mourners to stand up and to please leave the service and if they didn’t I was to escort them out.

“My client didn’t want them at his funeral and, like he said, it is his funeral and he wants to leave how he wanted to leave, not on somebody else’s terms.”

Despite the confronting nature of his job, Mr Edgar said “once you get the crowd on your side, you’re pretty right” because mourners were keen to know what was left unsaid.

You might think “that’s it,” but no the article is interesting throughout.  For the pointer I thank Daniel Dummer.