Saturday assorted links

Failure is the Mother of Success

New paper from Jeffrey E. Harris:

The decades-long effort to produce a workable HIV vaccine has hardly been a waste of public and private resources. To the contrary, the scientific know-how acquired along the way has served as the critical foundation for the development of vaccines against the novel, pandemic SARS-CoV-2 virus. We retell the real-world story of HIV vaccine research – with all its false leads and missteps – in a way that sheds light on the current state of the art of antiviral vaccines. We find that HIV-related R&D had more than a general spillover effect. In fact, the repeated failures of HIV vaccine trials have served as a critical stimulus to the development of successful vaccine technologies today. We rebut the counterargument that HIV vaccine development has been no more than a blind alley, and that recently developed vaccines against COVID-19 are really descendants of successful vaccines against Ebola, MERS, SARS-CoV-1 and human papillomavirus. These successful vaccines likewise owe much to the vicissitudes of HIV vaccine development.

The new Michela Wrong book

It is called Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad, and so far it is very good.  Here is one bit:

As a Rwandan psychologist once told me: “To show emotional reserve is considered a sign of high standing.  You do not just pour out your heart in Rwanda.  You do not cry.  It’s the opposite of Western oversharing, a form of stoicism.

A culture that glories in its impenetrability, that sees virtue in misleading: to someone proposing to write a nonfiction account embracing many of the most controversial episodes in Rwandan history, it posed a bit of a challenge.

Recommended, I will continue reading, and this one is likely to make the “best non-fiction of the year” list.

$1000 submission fee to the AER?

I saw that circulating as an April Fool’s joke, but is it such a crazy idea?  Here would be a few effects:

1. Submissions would decline, thus liberating some time for editors and referees.  This is valuable in its own right, and furthermore remaining decisions might be made with greater care.  And presumably the remaining submissions would be those with a higher chance of acceptance.

2. To some extent departments would pick up the submission fee.  This would favor researchers in wealthier departments, though whether this is good or bad I am not sure.  And even the most flush departments would find this pretty steep and I don’t think would offer carte blanche reimbursement.

3. It would favor senior and wealthier colleagues over junior colleagues.  That sounds bad to most people, but is it?  Favoring the wealthier senior colleagues might help limit the arms race for “here is my 90-page paper that has performed every possible cross-check of the results.”  It also might lower the return to technique, as younger researchers tend to be more up on the latest math but they are also less broad and by definition less experienced.

4. Graduate students in particular would be less likely to submit, especially from lower-tier departments.  It would be harder for job candidates from the non-top schools to prove themselves by publishing in the AER.

5. Papers would be “shopped around” more to seminars before being submitted.

6. Papers would become longer, which is probably a bad thing.

7. It might select for overconfident economists from wealthier families.

8. The AER would no longer “get all the best papers,” at least as such things are perceived.  That could very well be good!  Why should one journal have such a lock?

Would the AEA take in more revenue with this plan?

What else? What is in fact the optimal submission fee for a journal where publications can be worth tens of thousands of dollars (or sometimes much more) there?  Why should the authors/submitters be charged so little?

Why don’t more people go to college?

This new piece in American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics seems to be channeling some parts of Bryan Caplan’s argument:

Despite increases in the college earnings premium to persistently high levels, investment in college education remains low. We can understand this apparent puzzle by considering the risk of attending college and, in particular, the possibility of failing to graduate. Students with a reasonable probability of completing college already enroll, and for those who do not enroll, the low chance of completion blunts the impact of the rising college premium. In the absence of improved college readiness, our quantitative results suggest that continuing long-standing trends in skill-biased technological change can be expected primarily to increase earnings inequality rather than college attainment.

From Kartik Athreya and Janice Eberly.  The implied discontinuity in the de facto talent distribution also echoes some themes from my own Average is Over.

In Praise of Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison

Here’s a great video on FastGrants, the fast funding-institution started by Tyler and Patrick Collison to fund COVID research at a speed that could make a difference on the ground. And it did.

Lots of other people stepped in with funding including Arnold Ventures, The Audacious Project, The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, John Collison, Crankstart, Jack Dorsey, Kim and Scott Farquhar, Paul Graham, Reid Hoffman, Fiona McKean and Tobias Lütke, Yuri and Julia Milner, Elon Musk, Chris and Crystal Sacca, Schmidt Futures, and others.

The list of funded people and projects is long and impressive and while the grants were fast, the payoff is going to last well beyond the pandemic.

Thanks, Tyler and Patrick!

Further estimates on the cost of climate change and global warming

Sea level rise will cause spatial shifts in economic activity over the next 200 years. Using a spatially disaggregated, dynamic model of the world economy, this paper estimates the consequences of probabilistic projections of local sea level changes. Under an intermediate scenario of greenhouse gas emissions, permanent flooding is projected to reduce global real GDP by 0.19 percent in present value terms. By the year 2200, a projected 1.46 percent of the population will be displaced. Losses in coastal localities are much larger. When ignoring the dynamic response of investment and migration, the loss in real GDP in 2200 increases from 0.11 percent to 4.5 percent.

That newly published paper is from Klaus Desmet, Robert E. Kopp, Scott A. Kulp, Dávid Krisztián Nagy, Michael Oppenheimer, Esteban Rossi-Hansberg and Benjamin H. Strauss in American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics.  Am I wrong to feel a little…underwhelmed by those estimates?  Here is an earlier recent paper on other cost estimates.

New issue of Econ Journal Watch

Volume 18, Issue 1, March 2021

In Memoriam (.pdf)

In Memoriam (.pdf)

In this issue (.pdf):

Will you live longer if you move to a place where people live longer? Commenting on an American Economic Review article, Robert Kaestner examines the causality behind an association between Medicare enrollees’ longevity and their post-Katrina migration from New Orleans to various destinations. Tatyana Deryugina and David Molitor reply to Kaestner.

Does machine learning improve corporate fraud detection? Commenting on a Journal of Accounting Research article, Stephen Walker investigates the findings for the effectiveness of machine learning in detecting accounting fraud. Yang Bao, Bin Ke, Bin Li, Y. Julia Yu, and Jie Zhang reply to Walker.

Is institutional quality impacted by immigration from poor or corrupt countries? Garett Jones and Ryan Fraser suggest overcontrol bias in works studying the issue, propose to investigate the matter using simpler evidence, and find indications of adverse impact on economic freedom. Jamie Bologna Pavlik, Estefania Lujan Padilla, and Benjamin Powell controvert the suggestion of overcontrol bias and provide new results finding against any such adverse impact.

Adam Smith in LoveEnrique Guerra-Pujol considers several pieces of evidence and concludes that Adam Smith very likely knew from personal experience what it meant to be in love with another person.

A final inning on colonial money: Ronald Michener has persistently challenged the scholarship of Farley Grubb on colonial money. Here, Professor Grubb replies to Michener’s last rejoinder, focused again on the experience of colonial New Jersey.

Against Standard Deviation as a Quality Control Maxim in Anthropometry: Austin Sandler discusses a pervasive practice in his field of anthropometry: Rejecting data sets in which standard deviations are ‘too big.’ He describes the origin and spread of this practice and its rationales, and argues against it.

Readworthy 2050: We complete the fielding of the question: What 21st-century works will merit a close reading in 2050? New responses are provided by Mitchell Langbert, Andrés Marroquín, Steven G. Medema, Alberto Mingardi, Paul D. Mueller, Stephen R. Munzer, Evan W. Osborne, Justin T. Pickett, Rupert Read and Frank M. Scavelli, Hugh Rockoff, Kurt Schuler, Daniel J. Schwekendiek, Per Skedinger, E. Frank Stephenson, Scott Sumner, Cass R. Sunstein, Slaviša Tasić, Clifford F. Thies, and Richard E. Wagner. (The first tranche is here.)

The History of Economic Thought as a Refined Liberal Art: Kevin Quinn reflects on intellectual history as a way of cultivating our humanity, with compliments for Don Lavoie.

EJW Audio:

Enrique Guerra-Pujol on Adam Smith’s Love Life

Lucas Berlanza on Liberalism in Brazil

Scott Drylie on Scholarship on Adam Smith on Schooling and Government

Call for papers:

Commentaries on Smith/Hume scholarship

Who should get the Nobel Prize in economics, and why?

EJW invites ‘journal watch’ submissions beyond Econ.

EJW fosters open exchange. We welcome proposals and submissions of diverse viewpoints.

Read the March 2021 issue in full (.pdf)

Table of contents (.pdf) with links to articles

Thursday assorted links

In praise of Alex Tabarrok

Here’s a question I’ve been mulling in recent months: Is Alex Tabarrok right? Are people dying because our coronavirus response is far too conservative?

I don’t mean conservative in the politicized, left-right sense. Tabarrok, an economist at George Mason University and a blogger at Marginal Revolution, is a libertarian, and I am very much not. But over the past year, he has emerged as a relentless critic of America’s coronavirus response, in ways that left me feeling like a Burkean in our conversations.

He called for vastly more spending to build vaccine manufacturing capacity, for giving half-doses of Moderna’s vaccine and delaying second doses of Pfizer’s, for using the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, for the Food and Drug Administration to authorize rapid at-home tests, for accelerating research through human challenge trials. The through line of Tabarrok’s critique is that regulators and politicians have been too cautious, too reluctant to upend old institutions and protocols, so fearful of the consequences of change that they’ve permitted calamities through inaction.

Tabarrok hasn’t been alone. Combinations of these policies have been endorsed by epidemiologists, like Harvard’s Michael Mina and Brown’s Ashish Jha; by other economists, like Tabarrok’s colleague Tyler Cowen and the Nobel laureates Paul Romer and Michael Kremer; and by sociologists, like Zeynep Tufekci (who’s also a Times Opinion contributor). But Tabarrok is unusual in backing all of them, and doing so early and confrontationally. He’s become a thorn in the side of public health experts who defend the ways regulators are balancing risk. More than one groaned when I mentioned his name.

But as best as I can tell, Tabarrok has repeatedly been proved right, and ideas that sounded radical when he first argued for them command broader support now. What I’ve come to think of as the Tabarrok agenda has come closest to being adopted in Britain, which delayed second doses, approved the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine despite its data issues, is pushing at-home testing and permitted human challenge trials, in which volunteers are exposed to the coronavirus to speed the testing of treatments. And for now it’s working: Britain has vaccinated a larger percentage of its population than the rest of Europe and the United States have and is seeing lower daily case rates and deaths.

Here is more from Ezra Klein at the New York Times.

Arguments for Africa

Despite the past centuries’ economic setbacks and challenges, are there reasons for optimism about Africa’s economic prospects? We provide a conceptual framework and empirical evidence that show how the nature of African society has led to three sets of unrecognized “latent assets.” First, success in African society is talent driven and Africa has experienced high levels of perceived and actual social mobility. A society where talented individuals rise to the top and optimism prevails is an excellent basis for entrepreneurship and innovation. Second, Africans, like westerners who built the world’s most successful effective states, are highly skeptical of authority and attuned to the abuse of power. We argue that these attitudes can be a critical basis for building better institutions. Third, Africa is “cosmopolitan.” Africans are the most multilingual people in the world, have high levels of religious tolerance, and are welcoming to strangers. The experience of navigating cultural and linguistic diversity sets Africans up for success in a globalized world.

Here is the NBER paper from Soeren J Henn and James A. Robinson.

Mistrust of the CBO is unfortunately a growing bipartisan avocation

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

Recently the CBO issued a working paper considering what would happen if U.S. government expenditures were to consume an additional 5% to 10% of GDP. The results are pretty grim: By 2030, because of higher taxes and higher borrowing, the level of GDP would be 3 to 10 percentage points lower. The largest losses are suffered by young Americans, who would go through more of their lives with a lower capital stock, leading to lower wages. Worse yet, the losses are highest when the spending is financed by progressive taxation — a very popular idea in today’s Democratic Party.

As with the CBO’s minimum-wage analysis, you may not agree with every aspect of this study. The authors themselves note that it neglects any productivity gains that might follow from the expenditures. Still, these estimates represent a real challenge to those who favor more government spending.

This analysis has mostly been ignored rather than attacked, which is unfortunate for those of us who would prefer a robust debate. In the meantime, “If you can’t even convince the CBO” seems like a good standard of proof for Democrats to accept — and one they themselves insisted on not very long ago.

For the pointer to the new CBO study I thank Corey Frederick Kallen.

Godzilla vs. Kong (no real spoilers)

In Florida, even when Godzilla attacks, the schools stay open.  It seems the intransitivity of sovereignty is underrated.  There is a case for UBI for very large creatures.  If your country depopulates too much, they no longer feature your cities being destroyed.  The best and most interesting Godzilla movies focus on the Japanese bureaucracy, not the special effects.  Hollywood movie-making continues to become worse, soundtracks all the more so.

*Island On Fire*

A good book, recent winner of the National Book Award for non-fiction, the author is Tom Zoellner and the subtitle is The Revolt that Ended Slavery in the British Empire.  Here is one excerpt about Jamaica, the central theater for the book:

Among the staple crop civilizations of the nineteenth century, Jamaica was noteworthy for what it didn’t have in abundance: granite monuments, private gardens, schools, parks, beautiful churches, columned public halls.Nobody thought to bring a printing press until sixty-six years after the British takeover.  Graceful mansions like those built in the American South were less common in Jamaica and generally seen only around Kingston and on the shore of St. James Parrish, where the wealthier planters aimed to impress their neighbors with bloodwood floors, wine cellars, silverware, china sets, and ancestral portraits on the walls.  But the master’s “Great House” was more commonly made of crude materials and sometimes looked no better than a barn with windows.  As a government secretary described them, many country estates were “miserable, thatched hovels, hastily put together with wattles and plaster, damp, unwholesome and infested with every species of vermin.”