It’s Time to Open the Canada-US Border

When infection rates in two areas are similar the argument for closing borders is weak. Canadian and US infection rates are now similar and both countries are highly vaccinated by world standards. The arguments for not opening are mostly psychological, a fear of foreigners. As a result, we have both Canadians fearful of opening to Americans and Americans fearful of opening to Canadians which doesn’t make sense. At least one must be wrong! Moreover, if we require even a weak proof of vaccination to cross borders then the average Canadian coming to America will be safer than the average American and the average American traveling to Canada will be safer than the average Canadian.

It’s time to open the border.

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The Edward Nelson books on Milton Friedman

Two volumes, such a wonderful book, for sure one of the best of the year.  Not quite a biography, more a study of Friedman’s career, but his career was his life so this is a wonderful biography too.  Here is one excerpt:

Friedman was a student of business cycles who was prone to say that he did not believe there was a business cycle.  He was a trenchant critic of reserve requirements as a monetary policy tools and a strong advocate of financial deregulation, yet he had many favorable things to say about moving to a regime of 100 percent reserve requirements.  he stressed the looseness of the relationship between money and the economy, yet critics saw his policy prescriptions as predicated on a tight relationship.  He criticized in detail the way the Federal Reserve allowed the money stock to adjust to the state of the economy, yet he was often characterized as treating empirical money-stock behavior as exogenous.  He made fundamental contributions to the development of Phillips-curve theory, yet he was averse to conducting discussion of inflation prospects using Phillips-curve analysis.  He spent much of his first two decades as a researcher working on labor unions and the use of market power in setting prices, yet for the subsequent five decades he found himself accused by critics of predicating his economic analysis on an atomistic labor market, a one-good model, or perfectly competitive firms.

Here is Scott Sumner on the book.  Highly recommended, here is the Amazon link, and volume II.

John Stuart Mill on the English

From causes which might be traced in the history and development of English society and government, the general habit and practice of the English mind is compromise.  No idea is carried out to more than a small portion of its legitimate consequences.  Neither by the generality of our speculative thinkers, nor in the practice of the nation, are the principles which are professed ever thoroughly acted upon; something always stops the application half way.  This national habit has consequences of very various character, of which the following is one.  It is natural to minds governed by habit (which is the character of the English more than of any other civilized people) that their tastes and inclinations become accommodated to their habitual practice; and as in England no principle is ever fully carried out, discordance between principles and practice has come to be regarded, not only as the natural, but as the desirable state.  This is no an epigram, or a paradox, but a sober description of the tone of sentiment commonly found in Englishman.  They never feel themselves safe unless they are living under the shadow of some convention fiction — some agreement to say one thing and mean another.

That is from Mill’s Vindication of the French Revolution of February 1848.

The political economy of green energy

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

Japan seems to be approaching its energy infrastructure with politics at the forefront. It is making a big bet on hydrogen power, which is technologically iffy and expensive, currently about eight times more so than natural gas. Yet Japanese leaders are aware that Japan does not have its own solar power industry at scale, making the country dependent on China for solar panels. Hydrogen can also be used by existing (though modified) power plants, which both reduces cost and eliminates the need for new infrastructure. And if this all works, Japan could become known as the world leader in hydrogen power.

Greenpeace has criticized the Japanese approach, saying that its ammonia-reliant formula for hydrogen power is costly and will itself create greenhouse-gas emissions. That critique may well be right, but it’s also possible that Japan is thinking through the political questions at a deeper level.

The most relevant question about green energy isn’t necessarily about technology or cost. It may be about politics: “How many special-interest groups support this idea?” If there isn’t a decent answer, then maybe the idea doesn’t stand a decent chance.

There is much more at the link, including a consideration of other alternative energy sources.

Mexico stimulus facts of the day

“The combination of continued reopening with strong remittances and a US-led global recovery has allowed Mexico to close the gap with other Latin American economies, outperforming all of them in the first half of 2021,” said Marcos Casarín, chief economist for the region at Oxford Economics. The consultancy’s recovery tracker shows Mexico is returning to pre-pandemic levels of activity more quickly than any other Latin American country. “Mexico will grow 6.0 per cent this year and it could be higher,” said former finance minister and academic Carlos Urzúa, citing the spillover effects of US fiscal stimulus and increased remittances from Mexicans working across the border. These could reach $55bn this year and are “much more important than oil”, he added.

Here is more from the FT.

*Unsettled*, by Steven E. Koonin

A few of you have asked me to review this book, sometimes presented as a clinching case for climate contrarianism.  I thought it was fine, but not a great revelation, and ultimately disappointing on one very major point of contention.  On the latter angle, on p.2 Koonin writes:

The net economic impact of human-induced climate change will be minimal through at least the end of this century.

That is presented as a big deal, and yes it would be.  But “minimal”?  The economist wishes to ask “how much.”  The more concrete discussion comes on pp.178-179, which looks at twenty studies (all or most of them bad), and reports they estimate that by 2100 global gdp is three percent less due to climate change, or perhaps the damages are smaller yet.  Those estimates are then graphed, and there is a bit of numerical analysis of what that means for growth rates working backwards.  There is not much more than that on the question, and no attempt to provide an independent estimate of the economic costs of global warming, or to tell us which might be the best study or what it might be missing.  Koonin seems more interested in discrediting the hypocritical or innumerate climate change researchers than finding out the best answer to the question of cost.

To be sure, this is all a useful corrective to those who think global warming will destroy the earth or create major existential risk.  I am happy to praise the book for that and for all of its other corrections of hysteria.

But I just don’t find the Koonin discussion of economic costs to be useful.  The best estimate I know estimates global welfare costs of six percent, with some poorer countries suffering losses of up to fifteen percent, and some of the colder regions gaining.  There is high uncertainty about average effects, so you also can debate what kind of risk premium can be considered.  (I have myself written about how climate change may induce stupid policy responses, thus perhaps boosting the costs further yet.)  You may or may not agree with those numbers, but the above-linked paper provides plenty of structure for considering the problem further, such as modeling migration and adjustment effects across different parts of the world.  The Koonin brief meta-survey does not, it simply tells you that the junky papers don’t have the numbers to justify the panic.

So in what sense is the Koonin book useful for furthering my understanding of my number one question of concern?  Of course not every book has to be written for me, but at the end of the day it didn’t cause me to update my views much at all.

Claims about Iceland

We find that people diagnosed outside of quarantine are 89% more infectious than those diagnosed while in quarantine, and infectiousness decreases as a function of the time spent in quarantine. Furthermore, we find that people of working age, 16-66 years old, are 47% more infectious than those outside that age range. Lastly, the transmission tree enables us to model the effect that given population prevalence of vaccination would have had on the third wave had they been administered before that time using several different strategies. We find that vaccinating in order of ascending age or uniformly at random would have prevented more infections per vaccination than vaccinating in order of descending age [emphasis added].

That is from a new paper by lots of people with Icelandic names, via Eric Topol.  This is not yet confirmed or general, but it does resurrect the idea of vaccinating many younger people first, due to their (possibly) greater ability to spread the virus.  Note also the data here are taken from Iceland’s third wave, which might further limit the generality of the result.

Wednesday assorted links

My Conversation with Elijah Millgram

Elijah is one of my favorite contemporary philosophers, here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

Elijah joined Tyler to discuss Newcomb’s paradox, the reason he doesn’t have an opinion about everything, the philosophy of Dave Barry, style and simulation theory, why philosophers aren’t often consulted about current events, his best stories from TA-ing for Robert Nozick, the sociological correlates of knowing formal logic, the question of whether people are more interested in truth or being interesting, philosophical cycles, what makes Nietzsche important today, the role that meaning can play in a person’s personality and life, Mill on Bentham, the idea of true philosophy as dialogue, the extent to which modern philosophers are truly philosophical, why he views aesthetics as critical to philosophy, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Newcomb’s paradox: Are you a one-boxer or two-boxer, and why?

MILLGRAM: I’ve never been able to take a stand on that, mostly because there’s this moment in Robert Nozick’s discussion of the Newcomb paradox. Should we pause to tell the audience . . .

COWEN: No, no. This is not for them; this is for us. They can Google —

MILLGRAM: Oh, this is for us? OK. Nozick said, “Look, here’s what happens when you get a class,” or not even a class. People talk about Newcomb’s paradox. Some people end up having one view and some people end up having the other view. Each side has the argument for their own view, but they don’t have the explanation of what’s wrong with the other argument. Then Nozick says — and I think this is absolutely on target — “It doesn’t help to just repeat your own argument more slowly and more loudly.”

Since I don’t know what’s wrong with the — whichever other argument it is, I don’t have a view.

COWEN: If you don’t have a view, doesn’t that by default put you close to the one-box position? It means you don’t consider the dominance principle self-evident because you’re not sure that in fact you’re getting more by opting for the two boxes. Quantum mechanics is weird; aliens may be weirder yet. You don’t know what to do. Why not just take the slightly smaller prize and opt for one box? Not with extreme conviction, but you would be a default, mildly agnostic one-boxer.

MILLGRAM: Who knows what I would do if somebody turned up and gave me the . . .

But let me say something a little bit to the meta level, and then I’ll speak to the view that I would be a one-boxer. I live in a world where I feel disqualified from a privilege that almost everybody around me has. People are supposed to have opinions about all kinds of things. They have opinions about politics, and they have opinions about sports teams, and they have opinions about who knows what.

I’m in the very peculiar position of being in a job where I’m paid to have opinions. I feel that I can’t have opinions unless I’ve worked for them and I can back them up, and that means that unless I’ve done my homework, unless I have an argument for the opinion, I don’t have it — so I don’t.

Now, going back from the meta level, kind of one level down: let’s stop and think about what’s built into the . . .

When you explain dominance to a classroom, you say, “Look, here are the different options you have,” and I guess the options are used to the column, “and here are the different states of the world, and you can see that for each state of the world this option does better than that option. So you should take . . .”

There’s a lot built into that already. For example, that the world is carved up into these different — the state space is carved up, and your option space is carved up, and you don’t get to rethink, recharacterize — the characterization of the things that you do is already given to you, and it’s fixed. It’s an idealization.

Until the situation arrived and I had a chance to face it and think about it, I wouldn’t know whether to accept that idealization. I know that sounds really coy, but the principled view is that since I don’t have an argument, I don’t have an opinion.

Recommended.  And here is Elijah’s home page and research.

What we learned doing Fast Grants

Here is my new piece with Patrick Collison and Patrick Hsu.  The title says it all, here is one excerpt:

…we recently ran a survey of Fast Grants recipients, asking how much their Fast Grant accelerated their work. 32% said that Fast Grants accelerated their work by “a few months”, which is roughly what we were hoping for at the outset given that the disease was killing thousands of Americans every single day.

In addition to that, however, 64% of respondents told us that the work in question wouldn’t have happened without receiving a Fast Grant.

For example, SalivaDirect, the highly successful spit test from Yale University, was not able to get timely funding from its own School of Public Health, even though Yale has an endowment of over $30 billion. Fast Grants also made numerous grants to UC Berkeley researchers, and the UC Berkeley press office itself reported in May 2020: “One notably absent funder, however, is the federal government. While federal agencies have announced that researchers can apply to repurpose existing funds toward Covid-19 research and have promised new emergency funds to projects focused on the pandemic, disbursement has been painfully slow. …Despite many UC Berkeley proposals submitted to the National Institutes of Health since the pandemic began, none have been granted.” [Emphasis ours.]

And:

57% of respondents told us that they spend more than one quarter of their time on grant applications. This seems crazy. We spend enormous effort training scientists who are then forced to spend a significant fraction of their time seeking alms instead of focusing on the research they’ve been hired to pursue.

The adverse consequences of our funding apparatus appear to be more insidious than the mere imposition of bureaucratic overhead, however.

In our survey of the scientists who received Fast Grants, 78% said that they would change their research program “a lot” if their existing funding could be spent in an unconstrained fashion. We find this number to be far too high: the current grant funding apparatus does not allow some of the best scientists in the world to pursue the research agendas that they themselves think are best.

And:

Some of the other Fast Grants investments were speculative, and may (or may not) pay dividends in the future, or for the next pandemic. Examples include:

  • Work on a possible pan-coronavirus vaccine at Caltech.
  • Work on a possible pan-enterovirus (another class of RNA virus) drug at Stanford University that has now raised subsequent funding.
  • Multiple grants going to different labs working on CRISPR-based COVID-19 at-home testing. One example is smartphone-based COVID-19 detection, being worked on at UC Berkeley and Gladstone Institutes.

Self-recommending…

A recent common cold may confer partial Covid-19 protection

Initial replication of SARS-CoV-2 in the upper respiratory tract is required to establish infection, and the replication level correlates with the likelihood of viral transmission. Here, we examined the role of host innate immune defenses in restricting early SARS-CoV-2 infection using transcriptomics and biomarker-based tracking in serial patient nasopharyngeal samples and experiments with airway epithelial organoids. SARS-CoV-2 initially replicated exponentially, with a doubling time of ∼6 h, and induced interferon-stimulated genes (ISGs) in the upper respiratory tract, which rose with viral replication and peaked just as viral load began to decline. Rhinovirus infection before SARS-CoV-2 exposure accelerated ISG responses and prevented SARSCoV-2 replication. Conversely, blocking ISG induction during SARS-CoV-2 infection enhanced viral replication from a low infectious dose. These results show that the activity of ISG-mediated defenses at the time of SARS-CoV-2 exposure impacts infection progression and that the heterologous antiviral response induced by a different virus can protect against SARS-CoV-2.

That is a just published paper, supported by Fast Grants, by Nagarjuna R. Cheemarla, Timothy A. Watkins, Valia T. Mihaylova, Bao Wang, Dejian Zhao, Guilin Wang, Marie L. Landry, and Ellen F. Foxman.

Tuesday assorted links

1. What would one-dimensional chess look like?

2. Very high implicit marginal tax rates for poor people (link fixed).

3. Very good Jason Furman thread on inflation uncertainty.

4. The power of median inflation.

5. Buy shares in your favorite musicians?

6. Andreu Mas-Colell is in trouble for secessionary activities.  And more from Pol AntrasHans Peter Grüner says: “It is hard to imagine that someone capable of writing such a wonderful textbook could have done anything that makes him deserve that kind of treatment.”

7. Very negative take on El Salvador and bitcoin.