*American Purpose*

…a new magazine, media project, and intellectual community called American Purpose is launching at www.americanpurpose.com, and can also be found on Twitter at @americanpurpose.

American Purpose, through digital publishing, conversation and convening, and podcasts, will offer a spirited examination of politics and culture. Our aim is to support the revitalization of liberal democracy at home, while addressing the authoritarian challenges to liberal democracy abroad. And we will offer lively and engrossing discussion of history and biography, arts and culture, science and technology.

“American Purpose is committed to building an intellectual community and a space for much-needed dialogue about the United States’ role as the vanguard of classically liberal ideas and institutions around the world,” said Francis Fukuyama, chairman of the American Purpose editorial board.

Thoughts on Peter Burke’s new book *The Polymath*

1. No one is really a polymath.

2. No one is really a unimath, for that matter.

3. Many supposed polymaths apply a relatively small number of learning techniques to many fields.  They remain specialized, although their modes of specialization happen not to line up with how the academic disciplines are divided.  Say you apply non-parametric statistics to five different fields — do you have one specialization or five?

4. What to make of the economist who can run experiments, use computational methods, build models, run regressions, find new data sources, has mastered machine learning, can speak fluently about macroeconomics, and popularize for a lay audience.  Is there any such person?  (No.)  Would he or she count as a polymath?

5. The medieval polymaths Albert the Great and Ramon Llull seem especially impressive to me, because they had to learn before printing presses or easy travel were available.

6. One of my views in talent search is that extremely talented people are almost always extraordinarily good at one or more entirely trivial tasks.  “I can tell exactly how much people weigh just by looking at them.”  That sort of thing.  What is your claim in this regard?  Polymaths also must encompass the trivial!

7. How many “polymaths” are great at say only seven very trivial tasks, and fail to excel at anything important.  Should the polymath concept be held hostage to Jeremy Bentham?

8. Is Leibniz — amazing philosopher, an inventor of the calculus, mastery of languages, theologian, diplomacy, legal reform, inventor, political theorist, and supposed expert on China — the most amazing polymath of all time?

9. Leonardo seems a little thin in actual achievement (though not imagination) once you get past the visual arts.  And there are fewer than fifteen paintings to his name.

10. I think of the 17th century as a peak time for polymaths.  Enough chances to learn and create things, and read lots, but not so much knowledge that you could stand on only one frontier.

11. John Stuart Mill is the most impressive polymath economist.

12. Alan Turing contributed to virtually every field, but in some sense he did only one thing.  Von Neumann did more than one thing, did he do two?  He too contributed to virtually every field.

13. I am very much a fan of Susan Sontag, but I think of her as having done, in essence, “only one thing.”

14. Here is a good piece Beware the Casual Polymath.

I am very happy to recommend this book, especially to MR readers, the full title is The Polymath: A Cultural History from Leonardo da Vinci to Susan Sontag, by Peter Burke.

What kinds of fiscal stimulus are justified right now?

Here is my Bloomberg column on that topic, excerpt:

The greatest potential problem facing the U.S. economy right now is a loss of organizational capital, most of all in small businesses. As they fold, jobs will be lost and the knowledge and efficiencies embedded in those businesses will disappear. In many cases it will be difficult to reconstitute that knowledge quickly, and so the markets for both labor and goods will be operating at less than full capacity…

If you are very optimistic about vaccines and anti-Covid therapeutics, as I am, this strengthens the case for short-term aid. If you believe that more or less normal times for many small businesses will arrive by April or May, that argues for tiding them over in the meantime.

If you are more pessimistic, however, and expect a high level of Covid-19 cases for the next few years, then the argument for aid is weaker. Those endangered small businesses cannot be kept on “life support” for that long; better for them to know that aid is not forthcoming. The economy would then continue to adjust into fewer restaurant jobs and more food-delivery jobs.

I consider further arguments and options at the link.

Wednesday assorted links

Studying Economics Increases Wages a Lot

Students who majored in economics earned median wages at the age of forty of $90,000 in 2018. Students who majored in other social sciences earned only $65,000. Why the big difference? Selection or a causal effect of earnings? Zachary Bleemer and Aashish Mehta compare students at UCSC who just missed the grade cutoff to be able to major in economics with those who just made the grade. Making the grade causes a big increase in students choosing to major in economics and a big increase in their salaries by their mid-20s of about $22,000. Thus most or all of the observed differences in salaries by major appear to be causal. The increase in salary appears to be driven by a change in preferences that leads students with economics majors to specialize in high-wage industries.

Abstract: We investigate the wage return to studying economics by leveraging a policy that prevented students with low introductory grades from declaring the major. Students who barely met the GPA threshold to major in economics earned $22,000 (46%) higher annual early-career wages than they would have with their second-choice majors. Access to the economics major shifts students’ preferences toward business/finance careers, and about half of the wage return is explained by economics majors working in higher-paying industries. The causal return to majoring in economics is very similar to observational earnings differences in nationally representative data.

As I have written, College Majors Matter and by about as much as going to college!

Hat tip: John Holbein.

Rapid Antigen Tests

Rapid antigen tests are starting to be adopted worldwide.

Reuters: Germany, where infections jumped by 4,122 on Tuesday to 329,453 total, has secured 9 million so-called antigen tests per month that can deliver a result in minutes and cost about 5 euros ($5.90) each. That would, in theory, cover more than 10% of the population.

The United States and Canada are also buying millions of tests, as is Italy, whose recent tender for 5 million tests attracted offers from 35 companies.

Germany’s Robert Koch Institute (RKI) now recommends antigen tests to complement existing molecular PCR tests, which have become the standard for assessing active infections but which have also suffered shortages as the pandemic overwhelmed laboratories and outstripped manufacturers’ production capacity.

See my earlier posts Frequent, Fast, and Cheap is Better than Sensitive, Infected versus Infectious, and Rapid Tests for more on these types of tests.

The changing culture that is Norway?

After many years of decline in violent behavior among adolescents in several Western countries, recent official statistics indicate a possible trend change. So far, knowledge on how this change is related to co-occurring changes in leisure time activities is limited. Using two cross-sectional surveys from Oslo, Norway, this study found substantial increases in the prevalence of physical fighting from 2015 (N = 23,381; 51.6% girls) to 2018 (N = 25,287; 50.8% girls) in junior and senior high school. The rise in fighting was related to co-occurring changes in several leisure activities, including increasing time spent unsupervised by adults, rising digital media use, and rising cannabis use. The study emphasizes the importance of considering leisure time activities when addressing adolescent misbehavior.

In the aggregate data:

After a steady decline from 2007 to 2013 in police registered violent crime among adolescents under the age of 18 in Oslo, the capital of Norway, the number of violent crimes increased from 259 to 499 from 2013 to 2018, an increase
of 93% in five years.

Table 2 indicates that changes in “migration background” do not seem large enough to explain that evolution, even if that were the significant factor.  And from the survey data:

In junior high school, the prevalence rates for boys increased from 31.4% in 2015 to 38.1% in 2018 and from 8.9% to
13.1% for girls…

Here is the piece by Lars Roar Frøyland, Anders Bakken, and Tilmann von Soest, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Solve for the rational Bayesian equilibrium

I now read quite a few public health experts on matters of the day, and I have noticed that none of them have condemned the British government for proceeding with the AstraZeneca vaccine trial, even after two adverse health events experienced by participants, noting that those events presumably have been examined and considered by the oversight committee.

At the same time, the American trial for AstraZeneca has remained halted.  I also have not read any public health experts criticizing that decision either.

What is the most likely equilibrium to be holding here?

1. Public health experts don’t express many opinions, especially these days.

2. Plenty of commentators think the British decision to resume is rash, Tyler just isn’t reading enough of them.

3. Most public health experts think it is fine for the British to keep on going.  But they won’t criticize the American trial halt, because their incentives and natural temperamental tendencies are to express mainly the risk-averse opinions, and rarely if ever say that the regulatory process should allow for more risk to be taken.

4. The mainly American experts actually are happy to see America free-riding upon British data, so they are content with things as they stand, but don’t want to quite come out and admit they enjoy exploiting the Brits.

5. In reality the commentators think the whole trial is so risky it never should have been started in the first place.

6. What they really enjoy writing is philosophical pieces about how social process have all these twists and turns, and natural bumps in the road, and so they don’t wish to work too hard to remove those bumps.

7. The public health experts think that Americans and British have optimally different tolerances for risk, and the split regulatory outcomes reflect that difference.

Your choice?

Mormon markets in everything?

Or is it thwarted Mormon markets in everything?:

Brigham Young University-Idaho is warning students that if they try to get the novel coronavirus, they will be suspended from school.

BYU-Idaho issued a statement Monday, saying administrators are “deeply troubled” about students intentionally exposing themselves or others to COVID-19, with the hope of getting the disease so they can be paid for plasma that contains COVID-19 antibodies.

Here is the full story, via John Chilton.

The public is fine with Human Challenge Trials

A vaccine for COVID-19 is urgently needed. Several vaccine trial designs may significantly accelerate vaccine testing and approval, but also increase risks to human subjects. Concerns about whether the public would see such designs as ethically acceptable represent an important roadblock to their implementation, and the World Health Organization has called for consulting the public regarding them. Here we present results from a pre-registered cross-national survey (n= 5; 920) of individuals in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, New Zealand, South Africa, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The survey asked respondents whether they would prefer scientists to conduct traditional trials or one of two accelerated designs: a challenge trial or a trial integrating a Phase II safety and immunogenicity trial into a larger Phase III efficacy trial. We find broad majorities prefer for scientists to conduct challenge trials (75%, 95% CI: 73-76%) and integrated trials (63%, 95% CI: 61-65%) over standard trials. Even as respondents acknowledged the risks, they perceived both accelerated trials as similarly ethical to standard trial designs, and large majorities characterized them as “probably” or “definitely ethical” (72%, 95% CI:70-73% for challenge trials; 77%, 95% CI 75-78% for integrated trials). This high support is consistent across every geography and demographic subgroup we examined, including people of diverging political orientations and vulnerable populations such as the elderly, essential workers, and racial and ethnic minorities. These findings bolster the case for these accelerated designs and can help assuage concerns that they would undermine public trust in vaccines.

Here is the paper by David Broockman, et.al.

What should I answer Vitalik Buterin?

Not a CWT, as he will be interviewing me, but likely a discussion too, who knows what I may fling back at him?

What do you all recommend I read to prepare?  I prepared a great deal for my CWT with Vitalik a few years ago (one of my favorite episodes), but what is new with Ethereum and blockchain and other matters since then?

I thank you all in advance for your usual wise counsel and advice.

Samuel Brittan has passed away

At the age of 86, he was one of Britain’s great liberals.  He wrote columns for the FT for almost fifty years, defended capitalism, and also was an early advocate of an ngdp approach.  From the FT:

Brittan had a wonderful, restless intelligence which made him an ideal, if demanding, companion…Peter Jay wrote that when he was economics editor of The Times, he was “haunted by the spectre . . . of Brittan endlessly at work, morning, noon and night, reading, reading, reading, while I tried ineffectually to reconcile the demands of work and family life”.

His Capitalism and the Permissive Society is now but a shell of a listing on Amazon, but I can recall Roy Childs excitedly telling me about the book.  Back then, it seemed like the way forward for liberalism, a way to develop a truly emancipatory vision of free market capitalism.  Now all that seems so long ago.

Here is Sam’s Wikipedia page, note the badly “off” and misrepresentative second sentence: “He was a member of the Academic Advisory Council of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a non-profit organisation “restoring balance and trust to the climate debate” that has been characterised as promoting climate change denial.”

Here was Sam in the 2009 Spectator:

I have no expertise on the subject of global warming; nor do I have a strong view about it. But I do know attempted thought control and hostility to free speech when I see it; and I find these unlovely phenomena present among all too many of the enthusiasts for climate action. Words such as ‘denial’ are intentionally brought into the debate and recall those who deny the reality of the Nazi Holocaust.

Here is John McDermott’s Ode to Sam upon Sam’s retirement in 2014.  And here is Cardiff Garcia on Sam.

*Editing Humanity*

That is the new book by Kevin Davies, and the subtitle is The CRISPR Revolution and the New Era of Genome Editing.  So far I am on p.74, but it is one of the best science books I have read in some while, maybe the best this year.  Excerpt:

…Cas9 normally takes about six hours to search through every PAM sequence in the bacterial genome, pausing at each prospective site for a mere twenty milliseconds to peer into the double helix to see if it has found the correct target.  But the packaging of DNA in a eukaryotic cell nucleus is far more complex than bacteria.  During lectures to his students at the University of Edinburgh, Andrew Wood shows a diagram of a bacterial cell alongside a winding, looping mammalian DNA fiber.  “Cas9 didn’t evolve to work in the environment in which we now put it,” he says.  “It’s mind-boggling that it is possible to interrogate hundreds of millions of nucleotides in a matter of hours.”

Recommended.  Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, the two Nobel winners from last week, are so far the central characters of the story.