Friday assorted links

Corporate donations are good for political moderation

This article demonstrates that limits on campaign contributions—which alter a candidate’s ability to raise money from certain types of donors—affect the ideologies of legislators in office. Using an original data set of campaign contribution limits in some US states over the last 20 years, I exploit variation across and within states over time to show that higher individual contributions lead to the selection of more polarized legislators, while higher limits on contributions from political action committees (PACs) lead to the selection of more moderate legislators. Individual donors prefer to support ideologically extreme candidates while access-seeking PACs tend to support more moderate candidates. Thus, institutional changes that limit the availability of money affect the types of candidates who would normally fund-raise from these two main sources of campaign funds. These results show that the connection between donors and candidates is an important part of the story of the polarization of American politics.

That is from a new paper by Michael J. Barber.  Via Matt Grossman.

Money-maximizing macaque thieves demand ransoms

At the Uluwatu temple in Bali, monkeys mean business. The long-tailed macaques who roam the ancient site are infamous for brazenly robbing unsuspecting tourists and clinging on to their possessions until food is offered as ransom payment.

Researchers have found they are also skilled at judging which items their victims value the most and using this information to maximise their profit.

Shrewd macaques prefer to target items that humans are most likely to exchange for food, such as electronics, rather than objects that tourists care less about, such as hairpins or empty camera bags, said Dr Jean-Baptiste Leca, an associate professor in the psychology department at the University of Lethbridge in Canada and lead author of the study.

Mobile phones, wallets and prescription glasses are among the high-value possessions the monkeys aim to steal. “These monkeys have become experts at snatching them from absent-minded tourists who didn’t listen to the temple staff’s recommendations to keep all valuables inside zipped handbags firmly tied around their necks and backs,” said Leca.

After spending more than 273 days filming interactions between the animals and temple visitors, researchers found that the macaques would demand better rewards – such as more food – for higher-valued items.

Bargaining between a monkey robber, tourist and a temple staff member quite often lasted several minutes. The longest wait before an item was returned was 25 minutes, including 17 minutes of negotiation. For lower-valued items, the monkeys were more likely to conclude successful bartering sessions by accepting a lesser reward.

Here is the full story, via David Curran.

Insurrections are contagious

That is the topic of my current Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

Put aside U.S. politics for a moment and view the events of the last week from a global perspective. Without backing from the military, a crowd entered the Capitol building and disabled the U.S. Congress, and almost succeeded in achieving more violent goals yet.

The question is not what people should infer, or what most people will think. It’s what the people at the extremes will think and do. Even if many foreign citizens conclude that the events of last week were not a big deal, the most determined and rebellious observers might give them a different and more radical gloss. (Besides which, it actually was a big deal.) As the

Now imagine you live in Hungary, Uganda, Myanmar or any country that is experiencing political turmoil. If you had a violent plan against your own government, do you now rate your chances of success as lower or higher? Organizing a storming mob may have just become more appealing, especially since your adversary is almost certainly less formidable than the U.S. government.

And what if you express your surprise over recent events?:

Yet this very surprise, while justified, may itself induce a dangerous contagion effect. The surprise carries an implicit message: “It may not seem like you have many allies, but in fact you do, including in some powerful places.” So you can imagine how a supporter of say QAnon might come to believe that there are secret allies everywhere. And those beliefs may in turn encourage political violence.

And this:

One implication is that the media needs to be very careful about how they portray the perpetrators of the Jan. 6 events. Most media organizations have been publicizing the identities and deeds of these criminals, as they should. A lot of Americans need to be shocked out of their complacency about what happened, or at least nudged out of various theories of false equivalence. The more information becomes public, the more it becomes clear that at least part of the Capitol-storming group was conspiring and intent on violence and mayhem — and for very bad political ends: in essence, the destruction of American democracy.

Yet there is such a thing as too much information. In other contexts, the news media withhold the names, images and causes of many terrorists and criminals. To the extent those individuals are doing it for recognition, denying them that recognition may discourage future wrongdoers.

There are further arguments at the link.

Thursday assorted links

The Magical Extra Doses and Supply Chain Optimization

1-ml syringe design yields 2 micro literes and standard syringe and needle hub yield 84 micro liters on average.
Image from Wikipedia, Low dead space syringe.

As pharmacists began vaccinations using the Pfizer vaccine some of them discovered that it was possible to extract a 6th or even 7th dose from a standard 5-dose vial. Where were the extra doses coming from? The fortuitous discovery was not due to over-filling. The vials contained just 5 doses when using standard syringes. But some of the vaccine distribution sites had access to low dead-volume syringes, syringes that leave less vaccine trapped between the plunger and needle — the “dead volume” — after a shot is given. Thus, less vaccine was wasted in the syringe and more available for putting into arms using the low dead-volume syringes.

This is quite remarkable. Increasing vaccine supply by 20% by building more factories could cost billions. We should do that, it would be worth it. But in this case, we managed to increase supply by at least 20% use a relatively inexpensive redesign of the syringe. What this indicates is the importance of thinking along the entire supply chain for opportunities for optimization.

The catch? Not all syringes provided by Operation Warp Speed and Pfizer are low dead-volume syringes so not every vaccine distribution site is getting the extra doses. We do need to invest more in the syringe supply chain.

What should I ask Sarah Parcak?

Yes I will be doing a Conversation with her.  Here is part of her Wikipedia entry:

Sarah Helen Parcak is an American archaeologist, Egyptologist, and remote sensing expert, who has used satellite imaging to identify potential archaeological sites in Egypt, Rome, and elsewhere in the former Roman Empire. She is a professor of Anthropology and director of the Laboratory for Global Observation at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In partnership with her husband, Greg Mumford, she directs survey and excavation projects in the Faiyum, Sinai, and Egypt’s East Delta.

And here is Sarah on Twitter.  Here is her very useful bio page.  Here is her book Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes the Past.  So what should I ask her?

The volatility of events is correlated (and not always in a good way)

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

Consider bad economic news, which is relatively unambiguous. With stock market returns, volatility is correlated over time, and it is higher in bear markets. To some extent the bad mood is contagious, and the bad events behind the volatility may be interlinked as well.

To be clear, the stock market has done fine lately. The latest bad news is about politics and public health, not corporate earnings. Still, the stock market is readily measurable and can offer clues about how broader social processes are connected over time — and one obvious conclusion is that volatility tends to feed upon itself, not usually in positive ways.


Another problem is what my colleague Bryan Caplan has labeled “the idea trap.” Social science research indicates that in troubled times people are more likely to turn to bad ideas. The distressed German economy of the 1920s and early 1930s, for example, helped to breed support for the Nazis.

More recently, the global economy has been very much a mixed bag since the financial crisis of 2008. So people might begin to embrace worse ideas, which in turn will breed subsequent volatility. Such a cycle can worsen over time, and a ragged recovery from the Covid-19 deep recession could exacerbate this dynamic. It simply isn’t good for decision-making if everyone is feeling frazzled and stressed.


Fact of the day, get to those rooftops!

Pepvar’s first goal should be supporting the production of enough doses to vaccinate the entire world within a year. It is estimated that building such capacity for an mRNA vaccine like Moderna’s would cost less than $4 billion — that’s significantly less than the U.S. government already spends each day on Covid-19 relief — with the cost about $2 per dose. Of course, making the vaccines is just the first step: Pepvar must

People, even if that estimate is off by a factor of ten or more…etc.  Here is the NYT link, bJames KrellensteinPeter Staley and .

Wednesday assorted links

My Conversation with the excellent Noubar Afeyan

Among his other achievements, he is the Chairman and co-founder of Moderna.  Here is the audio and video and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

He joined Tyler to discuss which aspect of entrepreneurship is hardest to teach, his predictions on the future of gene editing and CRISPR technology, why the pharmaceutical field can’t be winner takes all, why “basic research” is a poor term, the secret to Boston’s culture of innovation, the potential of plant biotech, why Montreal is (still) a special place to him, how his classical pianist mother influenced his musical tastes, his discussion-based approach to ethical dilemmas, how thinking future-backward shapes his approach to business and philanthropy, the blessing and curse of Lebanese optimism, the importance of creating a culture where people can say things that are wrong, what we can all learn by being an American by choice, and more.

Here is one excerpt:


I should point out, Tyler, what these people don’t yet realize is that mRNA, in addition to being unique in that it’s really the first broadly applied code molecule, information molecule that is used as a medicine and with all the advantages that come with information — digital versus analog — or where you actually have to do everything bespoke, the way drugs usually work.

The other major advantage that it has is that it is something that is actually taking advantage of nature. There was a lot of know-how we had going into this around how the process could be done. In fact, let me tell you the parallel that we used.

We have a program in cancer vaccines. You might say, “What does a cancer vaccine have to do with coronavirus?” The answer is the way we work with cancer vaccines is that we take a patient’s tumor, sequence it, obtain the information around all the different mutations in that tumor, then design de novo — completely nonexistent before — a set of peptides that contain those mutations, make the mRNA for them, and stick them into a lipid nanoparticle, and give it back to that patient in a matter of weeks.

That has been an ongoing — for a couple of years — clinical trial that we’re doing. Well, guess what? For every one of those patients, we’re doing what we did for the virus, over and over and over again. We get DNA sequence. We convert it into the antigenic part. We make it into an RNA. We put it in a particle. In an interesting way, we had interesting precedents that allowed us to move pretty quickly.

And at the close:

Imagine if all of us were also born imagining a better future for ourselves. Well, we should be, but we’ve got to work to get that. An immigrant who comes here understands that they’ve got to work to get that. They have to adapt. The problem is, if you’re born here, you may not actually think that you’ve got to work to get that. You might think you’re born into it.

This will be a funny thing to say, and I apologize to anybody that I offend. If we were all Americans by choice, we’d have a better America because Americans by choice, of which I’m one, actually have a stronger commitment to whatever it takes to make America be the place I chose to be, versus not thinking about that as a core responsibility.

Definitely recommended, he is working to save many many lives, and with great success.

Daughter-driven divorce?

Are couples with daughters more likely to divorce than couples with sons? Using Dutch registry and U.S. survey data, we show that couples with daughters face higher risks of divorce, but only when daughters are 13 to 18 years old. These age-specific results run counter to explanations involving overarching, time-invariant preferences for sons and sex-selection into live birth. We propose another explanation that involves relationship strains in families with teenage daughters. In subsample analyses, we find larger child-gender differences in divorce risks for parents whose attitudes towards gender-roles are likely to differ from those of their daughters and partners. We also find survey evidence of relationship strains in families with teenage daughters.

That is from a new paper by Jan Kabátek and David C Ribar.  Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Ireland fact of the day, coming soon to a state near you

Some experts estimate this could mean, if we do not accelerate the pace of vaccination, one million deaths for the United States.

Tuesday assorted links

Can open access scientific publishing work?

That is the top of my latest Bloomberg column, another link here, here is one excerpt:

The Indian government has a proposal, called the “One Nation, One Subscription” plan, to buy bulk subscriptions of the world’s most important scientific journals and provide them free to everyone in India. Given the porousness of the internet, and the widespread availability of VPN services, general worldwide access is likely to result. Sci-Hub, based in Russia, already offers open access to many scientific publications.

But why stop there? Rather than just reproducing published articles, the publication process could be opened up altogether.

And the key part:

The biggest problem for an open-access regime is how to ensure good refereeing, which if done correctly raises the quality of academic papers. Under the current system, editors decide which papers get refereed, and they choose the identities of the referees. Those same referees are underpaid and underincentivized, and often do a poor or indifferent job.

Many of the original papers on mRNA vaccines, for example, were rejected numerous times by academic journals, hardly a ringing endorsement of the status quo. More generally, since publication is currently a yes/no decision, the refereeing system creates incentives to avoid criticism and play it safe, rather than to strike out with bold new ideas and risk rejection.

Under my alternative vision, research scientists would be told to publish one-third less and devote the extra time to volunteer refereeing of what they consider to be the most important online postings. That refereeing, which would not be anonymous, would be considered as a significant part of their research contribution for tenure and promotion. Professional associations, foundations and universities could set up prizes for the top referees, who might be able to get tenure just by being great at adding value to other people’s work. If the lack of anonymity bothers you, keep in mind that book reviews are already a key determinant for tenure in many fields, such as the humanities, and they are not typically anonymous.

Freer entry yes, open access yes, but also more refereeing.