*American Republics*

That is the new Alan Taylor book and the subtitle is A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850.  Excerpt:

With 124,000 inhabitants in 1813, Mexico City was twenty times bigger than Washington, D.C. — and about forty times grander.  Poinsett described the public buildings and churches as “vast and splendid,” providing “an air of grandeur…wanting in the cities of the United States.”  A German intellectual, Alexander von Humboldt, thought the city’s statues and Baroque palaces “would appear to advantage in the finest streets of Paris, Berlin and [St.] Petersburg.”

…Mexico City had an array of cultural institutions created during the colonial era.  “No city of the new continent, without even excepting those of the United States, can display such great and solid scientific establishments as the capital of Mexico,” marveled Humboldt.  The United States had nothing to match Mexico’s Academy of Fine Arts, National Botanic Garden, National University, and School of Mines.  Founded in 1551, the university was the oldest in the Americas.

The book is excellent, including on Mormons, and also the War of 1812, and it will be one of the best books of this year.  It is time to admit that Taylor is not only one of the best historians, but he is one of the best writers period in any field.  Recommended.

The American economy circa 2021

Spending on cars and trucks is 15.1 percent higher than it would have been on the 2019 trajectory; spending on furnishings and durable household equipment is 16.6 percent higher; and spending on recreational goods is a whopping 26 percent higher.

Altogether, durable goods spending is running $348.5 billion higher annually than it would have been in that alternate universe, as Americans have spent their stimulus checks and unused travel money on physical items.

The housing sector is experiencing nearly as big a surge. Residential investment was 14.4 percent above its prepandemic trend, representing $90 billion a year in extra activity. And that was surely constrained by shortages of homes to sell, and lumber and other materials used to make them. It is poised to soar further in coming months, based on forward-looking data like housing starts.

Another bright spot is business investment in information technology. The tech industry has been comparatively unscathed by the crisis. Spending on information processing equipment in the first quarter was 23 percent higher than its prepandemic trend, and investment in software 7.4 percent higher.

But:

Spending on transportation services remains 23 percent below its prepandemic trend, recreation services 31 percent, and restaurants and hotels 19 percent.

Those three sectors alone represent $430 billion in “missing” economic activity — largely equivalent, it’s worth noting, to the combined shift of economic activity toward durable goods and residential real estate.

A corollary shows up in trade data. Services exports are down 26 percent compared with the prepandemic trend, which reflects in significant part the freeze-up in global travel.

Here is the full NYT story.

Friday assorted links

Why the quality of the police is not higher

According to the Fairfax County Fraternal Order of Police, the average starting salary for a Fairfax County cop is $52,000. The median household income in the county was $124,831 in 2019.

And:

Fairfax County Police Department is down 188 officers, according to Sean Corcoran, president of the Fairfax County Coalition of Police. Officers eligible for retirement are leaving, others are getting out to join higher paying federal agencies like the Capitol Police.

It is thus very difficult to exercise quality control.  Here is the full story.

The culinary space culture that is French

A French astronaut who leaves Earth these days does not leave French food behind.

Here are some of the foods that Thomas Pesquet, a French astronaut who launched on a SpaceX rocket to the International Space Station on Friday, will enjoy during his six-month stay in orbit: lobster, beef bourguignon, cod with black rice, potato cakes with wild mushrooms and almond tarts with caramelized pears.

“There’s a lot of expectations when you send a Frenchman into space,” Mr. Pesquet said during a European Space Agency news conference last month.

Alas, alcohol is prohibited, much of the food is freeze-dried, and croissants do not work in orbit.  They do have kale and ice cream.  Here is the full story (NYT).

Facts about biomass

The carbonaceous winners are plants, which make up about 80 percent of all biomass on Earth. Bacteria comes in second at 13 percent and fungus is third at just 2 percent.

Of the 550 gigatons of biomass carbon on Earth, animals make up about 2 gigatons, with insects comprising half of that and fish taking up another 0.7 gigatons. Everything else, including mammals, birds, nematodes and mollusks are roughly 0.3 gigatons, with humans weighing in at 0.06 gigatons. The research appears in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The fact that the biomass of fungi exceeds that of all animals’ sort of puts us in our place,” Harvard evolutionary biologist James Hanken, who was not involved with the study, tells Borenstein.

Here is the full piece.  And from the cited research article:

…the biomass of domesticated poultry (≈0.005 Gt C, dominated by chickens) is about threefold higher than that of wild birds…

…the total plant biomass (and, by proxy, the total biomass on Earth) has declined approximately twofold relative to its value before the start of human civilization. The total biomass of crops cultivated by humans is estimated at ≈10 Gt C, which accounts for only ≈2% of the extant total plant biomass…

In terms of biomass, mollusks are a bigger deal than you might think.

The science rave culture that is British

Thousands of people at a mass nightclub rave in the U.K. this week will be a key test of whether live events halted during the pandemic can reopen at full capacity as planned from the end of June.

The two-day event in Liverpool, northwest England, is part of a national research program which so far appears to show people are happy to be tested for coronavirus to secure entry to large-scale events.

There are also no early signs that live events are spreading the disease, according to government scientist Paul Monks, and the program is expected to move to its second phase next month — with live events held at a “full range” of indoor and outdoor venues with “different scales” of capacity.

Here is the full story, via Vith E.

Thursday assorted links

1. Michael Collins, RIP (Byrds song).

2. The rise of French tacos (New Yorker).

3. Cass Sunstein on interest group theories of regulation.

4. Biden sides with the stagnationists.

5. Really?: “Germany’s domestic intelligence service said on Wednesday that it would surveil members of the increasingly aggressive coronavirus denier movement because they posed a risk of undermining the state.” (NYT)

6. It is hard to reform science funding, I say go stand-alone, important.

7. Can this France poll be right?

The Disastrous J&J Pause

We were told that the J&J pause was necessary to prevent vaccine hesitancy. I never understood the certainty people expressed on this point, even people who were relatively good on other issues. In anycase, as the excellent Daniel Bier argues, the best explanation for the data right now is that the J&J pause increased vaccine hesitancy.

Image

Could the plunge timing have been a coincidence? Perhaps the eager had already gotten their vaccinations, leaving only the less eager and more hesitant. Maybe. But note that younger people were getting vaccinated rapidly before the pause and at increasing rates in line with the rates of the older people who had been vaccinated before them. But then the vaccination rates of the young plummeted, just as for the old. In other words, the plunge started in all age groups at the same time but at very different levels of vaccination. The similar timing across age groups is easy to explain if it was the J&J pause (everyone saw the pause at the same time) but it requires multiple coincidences to explain why every age group would reach their hesitancy point at different levels of vaccination but at the same time.

Image

My view is that neither the CDC nor the FDA should be playing psychological games with the public. Just give it to us straight. In this case, since there was never much doubt that the J&J vaccine was much safer than COVID, a bulletin to physicians would have been appropriate to the circumstances. We don’t know for certain what would have happened under that counterfactual (although the data from Britain v. Europe on the AZ pause suggest a bulletin would not have generated the same hesitancy) but it would have been the right decision on the evidence.

See Bier’s tweet thread for further breakdown of the data.

Let’s not raise the capital gains tax

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, the vitriol of the Twitter response of course confirms my point.  Here is one excerpt:

First and foremost, any system of taxation is about values. And a much higher rate of capital taxation would undermine some of America’s core values.

A society’s values and its tax regime have to be mutually compatible or they will undermine each other. So the first question about a taxation system is which values it promotes.

The values that the U.S. should prioritize are a valorization of wealth, the encouragement of saving, and the encouragement of children. People may disagree with these priorities — in fact, they disagree quite strenuously! — but for me, it’s important to know whether a proposed tax reform supports or weakens these values. This is a more important consideration than economic calculations of “deadweight loss.”

And:

Values are all the more important for taxation because America is a nation of immigrants. Which is the better message to potential new arrivals? Should it be “America is a great country to get really rich”? Or “Americans are pretty egalitarian, so they won’t let the wealthy get too rich”?

The first message is far preferable — and this is true even if you personally hold fairness to be an important value. It is more important to encourage ambition in those newly arrived to the U.S., if only to take in creative (and yes, sometimes greedy) people who will help solve America’s social problems. Immigrants are responsible for so many of this country’s best and most successful startups.

And note this:

It may well be true that the U.S. has more efficient ways of encouraging ambition and wealth accumulation than the current approach to capital gains taxation. But to make that argument, advocates of the higher capital gains rate need to say what else they would do to boost the valorization of American wealth. Somehow, however, such explanations are never forthcoming — because this debate really is about a clash of values, not just efficiency, and one side wants to lower the status of accumulated wealth.

Like Godot, I will wait forever for an alternative proposal on this matter.  p.s.:

Only a few weeks ago, the prevailing opinion was that it was fine for the federal government to spend an additional $1.9 trillion, because at current margins, deficits don’t matter. Maybe so. But that nonchalance is now mysteriously absent. That too is a sign that, for most people, the values represented by any decision about taxation are paramount.

Of course, if you are doing the comparative statics, the wealthier and more open the rest of the world, the more American should favor its innovators to an extreme.  So the tax on innovation should be falling over time, not rising.

The new Biden health initiative

The Biden administration today began to flesh out a proposal for a new agency—modeled on the military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)—that would seek to speed the development of medical treatments by funding risky, innovative projects. The agency, dubbed ARPA-Health (ARPA-H), would be housed at the National Institutes of Health and have a 2022 budget of $6.5 billion, according to a White House spending request released today.

Few other details about ARPA-H have been released, except that it would initially focus on cancer and diseases “such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s.”

…Under the DARPA model, projects would not be vetted by peer reviewers, but instead, funding decisions would be made by program managers. And instead of multiyear grants, the agency would disburse awards as milestone-driven payments; program managers could also cancel projects that they decide aren’t panning out.

Here is the full story, via NQ.

C’mon people, listen to Shruti

We assess India’s healthcare capacity by comparing several countrywide and state-level metrics: per capita spending on healthcare, healthcare spending priority in budgets, hospital bed capacity, and capacity in terms of doctors, nurses, and total healthcare personnel. We find that, overall, India has very fragile healthcare infrastructure for dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak. We make three recommendations: (1) India’s private-sector healthcare system has more capacity than government facilities, so the Indian government will need to rely on and incentivize the private sector by increasing funding and removing bottlenecks. (2) Healthcare capacity varies across states, and the union government should identify and assist at-risk states. (3) Compared to rural areas, urban areas are very poorly served by the state hospitals, creating an urgent need for state governments to identify and assist at-risk, high-density urban areas.

That is part of a Mercatus working paper by Shruti Rajagopalan, with Abishek Choutagunta, April 2020.