How not to fight modern-day slavery

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

The Slave-Free Business Certification Act of 2020, introduced last week by Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, sounds unobjectionable, maybe even worthy. As the U.S. engages in a worthwhile and necessary reassessment of the role of slavery in its history, the bill would force large companies to investigate and report on forced labor in their supply chains.

In fact, the net effect of the bill — contrary to its stated intent — might be to increase slavery worldwide.

As a general principle, companies should cut off commercial relations with any known sources of slavery. Yet this law calls for mandatory corporate investigation and auditing, backed by CEO certification and with significant penalties for non-compliance. The investigatory process is supposed to include interviews of both workers and management in the supply chain.

Such a get-tough approach has a superficial appeal. Yet placing an investigative burden on companies may not lead to better outcomes.

Consider the hypothetical case of a U.S. retailer buying a shipment of seafood routed through Vietnam. It fears that some of the seafood may have come from Thailand, where there are credible reports of (temporary) slavery in the supply chain. How does it find out if those reports are true? Asking its Vietnamese business partner, who may not even know the truth and might be reluctant to say if it did, is unlikely to resolve matters.

It is unlikely that businesses, even larger and profitable ones, will be in a position to hire teams of investigative journalists for their international inputs. Either they will ignore the law, or they will stop dealing with poorer and less transparent countries. So rather than buying shrimp from Southeast Asia, that retailer might place an order for more salmon from Norway, where it is quite sure there is no slavery going on.

…for every instance of slavery today there are many more opaque supply chains that will be damaged and disrupted if the burden is on large companies to root out labor abuses.

Here are a few points of relevance:

1. The law penalizes opaque supply chains rather than slavery per se.  That is unlikely to be an efficient target.

2. Judgments about slavery are put in the hands of businesses rather than the government.  Why not just have the U.S. government issue sanctions against slavery-supporting countries when sanctions are appropriate and likely to be effective?  What is the extra gain from taxing businesses in this way?

3. There are many forms of coerced and exploited labor, and it is not clear this legislation will target slavery as opposed to simply low wages and poor working conditions as might result from extreme poverty.  You also don’t want the law to tax poor working conditions per se, since FDI, or purchasing flows from a supply chain, can help improve those working conditions.  You might however wish to target employment instances where, due to the nature of the law, additional financial flows toward the product will never rebound to the benefit of foreign labor.  This law (which I have read all of) does not seem to grasp that important distinction.

Infected versus Infectious

As I said in my post Frequent, Fast, and Cheap is Better than Sensitive we shouldn’t be comparing virus tests head-to-head, as if all tests serve the same purpose. Instead, we should recognize that tests have comparative advantages and a cheap, fast, frequent testing regime can be better in some respects than a slow, infrequent but more sensitive testing regime. Both regimes can be useful when used appropriately and especially when they are used in combination.

Eric Topol has a good graphic.

Image

As Topol also notes:

In order to get this done, we need a reboot at @US_FDA, which currently requires rapid tests to perform like PCR tests. That’s wrong. This is a new diagnostic category for the *infectious* endpoint, requiring new standards and prospective validation.

The FDA has sort-of indicated that they might be open to this.

Much, much too slow, of course. Matching a virus that grows exponentially against a risk-averse, overly-cautious FDA has been a recipe for disaster.

How to restart the baseball season sustainably

You may have read that a number of early games in the season have been cancelled due to many of the players testing positive for Covid-19.  There is talk of the season being unsustainable, but it seems a simple remedy has not yet been tried — dock a player 30 percent of his salary if he tests positive.  That should limit the degree of nightclubbing and carousing, keeping in mind that the already-infected are probably some of the worst offenders and they have been “taken care of.”  Furthermore, the players would have a strong incentive to monitor each other, not wanting to be on the receiving end of an infection from a teammate.

While that arrangement presumably runs counter to the collective bargaining agreement, that agreement can and should be revised if season cancellation is the true alternative.

If need be, the fines can be redistributed to the players who never test positive, thus keeping total compensation constant.

Incentives don’t always work, but if you haven’t even tried them something is amiss.  Do I hear “35 percent”?  “Forty”?  “Thirty-seven percent and three lashes”?

The Power of Vaccines

Most people understand the basic idea of a traditional live-attenuated or killed vaccine–the vaccine gives the body’s immune system a sneak peek at the virus so that when a wild type attacks, the body’s immune system has been trained to fight. It’s less well understood, however, that the newer, designed vaccines, can be better than traditional vaccines and better even than immunity from exposure to the wild virus because a vaccine can now be designed to target the immune system on the weakest part of the virus:

NYTimes: One beauty of vaccines — and one of their great advantages over our body’s natural reaction to infections — is that their antigens can be designed to focus the immune response on a virus’s Achilles heel (whatever that may be).

…The immune response generated against a virus during natural infection is, to some degree, at the mercy of the virus itself. Not so with vaccines.

Since many viruses evade the innate immune system, natural infections sometimes do not result in robust or long-lasting immunity. The human papillomavirus is one of them, which is why it can cause chronic infections. The papillomavirus vaccine triggers a far better antibody response to its viral antigen than does a natural HPV infection: It is almost 100 percent effective in preventing HPV infection and disease.

Two Washington Post headlines about “Big Tech”

Congress agrees big tech creepy, can’t agree how

The second is:

Big Tech is worth even more the day after congressional grilling

Furthermore, the tech companies have been rising in popularity.  I am going to “call” that the “war against Big Tech” essentially is over, and that the critics have failed.  The new debate will be about ensuring universal access to various internet services (which will involve further regulation of some kind), not splitting up the major companies or eliminating their basic functions.  You might also try this National Journal headline:

Hopes for antitrust reform fade after blockbuster tech hearing

It is striking just how much that “blockbuster tech hearing” has not become an enduring story for people to talk about.

Why was modernism for so long so inexhaustibly creative?

Piet Mondrian moved to Hampstead on 20 September and lived in a studio opposite Ben [Nicholson] and Barbara [Hepworth] for almost two years.  Mondrian’s studio in Paris had become a kind of pilgrimage site for modern artists across Europe in the 1930s.  With no means of viewing art unless it was exhibited, the way to see new work was to visit the artist.  Alexander Calder moved to Paris from New York in 1926, aged twenty-seven, and his visit to Mondrian’s studio gave him what he described as the ‘shock that started things’.  He likened it to being slapped like a baby to get its lungs working.

That is from Caroline Maclean’s new and noteworthy Circles & Squares: The Lives & Art of the Hampstead Modernists, a good book to read to think about the roots of artistic creativity.  Creators back then, by contemporary standards, had so few “means,” and yet they — perhaps unlike us?? — were quite capable of being shocked by new styles and thus revolutionized and awoken from their slumbers.  Is there any way to recreate those feelings?  Or will that happen only in tech areas and not so much in the arts?  What in music today could possibly shock you at this point?  Or in painting?

There is plenty of gossip in the book as well, in this case a plus.

Friday assorted links

1. “Known as the Dairy State, Wisconsin is also a paper state. The industry in Wisconsin sells more paper, employs more people and has more paper mills than any other state…But the paper market, like everything, has been rocked by the novel coronavirus.”  Link here.

2. Malcolm Gladwell rediscovers religion.

3. Joe Lonsdale on libertarianism.

4. Alec Stapp on antitrust and competition.

5. Incentivizing guardians.

6. GPT-3 responds to the philosophers.  Recommended, for instance: “I quickly dismissed these thoughts. I was a computer, and no amount of self-reflection would change that fact.”

Cross-immunities at work again?

Health care workers may be less susceptible to COVID-19 infection than people in the communities they serve, according to surprising early data from an ongoing study at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian.

Of some 3,000 workers tested in May and June, only 1% had antibodies to the novel coronavirus in their blood, despite the fact that the Newport Beach hospital has cared for hundreds of COVID-19 patients.

That 1% is far lower than what has been found in wider communities. Some 4-6% of residents in Los Angeles, Santa Clara and Riverside counties had COVID antibodies when surveillance testing was done there over recent weeks and months.

“This is what surprises some people,” said Dr. Michael Brant-Zawadzki, principal investigator. “Despite the headlines you see saying health care workers are at higher risk of contracting the disease, we haven’t seen that. In fact, we’re seeing the reverse of that. The question is, why?”

Obviously some of this is PPE, mask-wearing, and the like.  But all of it?  Here is the Teri Sforza story, via Amihai Glazer.

That was then, this is now, micro-states and empires edition

Monaco was granted sovereignty in the 1860s by Emperor Napoleon III of France, deposed a few years later. San Marino received its independence from the Roman Empire in the 4th Century, while Andorra was split off from the long forgotten Kingdom of Aragon in the 13th century. None of these great potentates would ever have imagined that the tiny stubs of countries they took pity on would have legacies much longer than their own. Yet today, San Marino competes in Eurovision and the Roman Empire does not.

Here is more on Monaco by Ned Donovan, via Ben Southwood.

That was then, this is now, Chinese bond edition

In chess, new context empowers previously redundant pieces. And one such piece could turn out to be some $1tn-plus (when compound interest is accounted for) of yet-to-be-cancelled pre-People’s Republic of China debt ranging from the Hukuang Railways Sinking Fund Gold Loan of 1911 and the Reorganisation Gold Loan of 1913, to the so-called Liberty Bonds of 1937.

Long forgotten, these bearer bonds — denominated in sterling, Swiss francs, Russian roubles, Deutsche marks or US dollars — exist mostly in people’s private collections or attics. The most relevant were issued either by the former Republic of China or the preceding Imperial Chinese state to raise money for big development and infrastructure projects. Some were secured against revenues from Chinese natural assets like salt resources.

When the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, its leaders broke with the tradition of maintaining the debt obligations of previous regimes. But they never formally de-recognised the debt. The bonds instead went into default, taking on mainly antique value.

Mitu Gulati, a professor of law at Duke University who has been studying the bonds, believes a legal argument could be made to revive some of the claims. Some of the old obligations include legal clauses that suggest new Chinese debt cannot be issued until old debt has been dealt with.

The 1912 and 1913 issues continued to trade speculatively on the London Stock Exchange until 1987, when some investor bets appeared to pay off…

George LaBarre, a specialist vintage financial paper dealer, says the price of the 1911 Hukuang bond has gone from $75-100 to about $450.

Here is more from the FT, via Malinga Fernando.

The love letter becomes a chain letter

The public’s view of almost every industry has improved since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new Axios/Harris poll. Industries with a prominent role in life under quarantine have seen especially big jumps.

Why it matters: Businesses in America were already undergoing a transformation from being solely focused on profits to being focused on values as well. The coronavirus pandemic has expedited that shift, and consumers are responding favorably to it.

Details: The poll ranks the top 100 companies, based on consumers’ scores across 7 qualities: Affinity (trust), citizenship, ethics, culture, vision, growth and products and services. Affinity is weighted higher than all other categories.

Leading the index are companies that have focused on solving problems related to the coronavirus.

By the numbers: According to the poll, 75% of consumers agree that generally speaking, during the Covid-19 pandemic and related shutdowns, “companies were more reliable than the federal government in keeping America running.”

81% of consumers agree that large companies, with resources, expensive infrastructure, and advanced logistics “are even more vital now to America’s future than before the pandemic.”

Here is the full Axios article.  Social media, telecom companies, and the airlines (?) are those sectors that have declined in reputation.

Thursday assorted links

1. French “grandes écoles” & Progress Studies.

2. New results: “the presence of S-cross-reactive T cells in a sizable fraction of the general population may affect the dynamics of the current pandemic, and has important implications for the design and analysis of upcoming COVID-19 vaccine trials.”

3. Economist Nancy Ruggles.

4. New paper on the causes of the great stagnation (I have not yet read it, but investment seems central to the story).

5. How much will restaurant prices have to go up? (NYT)

6. Northern Virginia to experiment with self-driving shuttle.

7. Soumaya Keynes on Emmanuel Farhi (The Economist).  And some tributes to Farhi.

Bezo’s Statement

Jeff Bezo’s statement to the Judiciary committee is excellent. Here’s one of many quotable parts:

Amazon’s success was anything but preordained. Investing in Amazon early on was a very risky proposition. From our founding through the end of 2001, our business had cumulative losses of nearly $3 billion, and we did not have a profitable quarter until the fourth quarter of that year. Smart analysts predicted Barnes & Noble would steamroll us, and branded us “Amazon.toast.” In 1999, after we’d been in business for nearly five years, Barron’s headlined a story about our impending demise “Amazon.bomb.” My annual shareholder letter for 2000 started with a one-word sentence: “Ouch.” At the pinnacle of the internet bubble our stock price peaked at $116, and then after the bubble burst our stock went down to $6. Experts and pundits thought we were going out of business. It took a lot of smart people with a willingness to take a risk with me, and a willingness to stick to our convictions, for Amazon to survive and ultimately to succeed.

Read the whole thing.

Pandemics and persistent heterogeneity

It has become increasingly clear that the COVID-19 epidemic is characterized by overdispersion whereby the majority of the transmission is driven by a minority of infected individuals. Such a strong departure from the homogeneity assumptions of traditional well-mixed compartment model is usually hypothesized to be the result of short-term super-spreader events, such as individual’s extreme rate of virus shedding at the peak of infectivity while attending a large gathering without appropriate mitigation. However, heterogeneity can also arise through long-term, or persistent variations in individual susceptibility or infectivity. Here, we show how to incorporate persistent heterogeneity into a wide class of epidemiological models, and derive a non-linear dependence of the effective reproduction number R_e on the susceptible population fraction S. Persistent heterogeneity has three important consequences compared to the effects of overdispersion: (1) It results in a major modification of the early epidemic dynamics; (2) It significantly suppresses the herd immunity threshold; (3) It significantly reduces the final size of the epidemic. We estimate social and biological contributions to persistent heterogeneity using data on real-life face-to-face contact networks and age variation of the incidence rate during the COVID-19 epidemic, and show that empirical data from the COVID-19 epidemic in New York City (NYC) and Chicago and all 50 US states provide a consistent characterization of the level of persistent heterogeneity. Our estimates suggest that the hardest-hit areas, such as NYC, are close to the persistent heterogeneity herd immunity threshold following the first wave of the epidemic, thereby limiting the spread of infection to other regions during a potential second wave of the epidemic. Our work implies that general considerations of persistent heterogeneity in addition to overdispersion act to limit the scale of pandemics.

Here is the full paper by Alexei Tkachenko, et.al., via the excellent Alan Goldhammer.  These models are looking much better than the ones that were more popular in the earlier months of the pandemic (yes, yes I know epidemiologists have been studying heterogeneity for a long time, etc.).

Emergent Ventures India, second cohort of winners

Praveen Mishra

Praveen Mishra when he was 16 started the Power of Youth, a non-profit aimed at empowering rural students by giving them mentorship and conducting competitions to highlight their potential. He since has been building a ‘YouTube of e-commerce’. He is the founder of ByBuy, an omni-channel retail platform, and he received his EV grant to help with this launch.

Akash Bhatia and Puru Botla

Akash and Puru are the co-founders of Infinite Analytics (IA), a Boston-based company whose proprietary AI platform analyzes customers’ data. They received their EV grant to repurpose their platform for Covid containment to help governments and authorities in India with contact tracing and mobility analyses. They have since helped millions of users, and their Containment Zone analyses are becoming the bedrock for lockdown exit strategy in Mumbai and Pune. Here is a video about the project.

Mohammed Suhail Chinya Salimpasha

Suhail is a 19-year-old senior grade homeschooler. He dropped out of high school to work on finding new ways to quantify protein in serum applied on a faster diagnosis of malnutrition. This is his TedX talk on the project.  He diverted his efforts towards Covid, to create India’s first multi-language Covid symptom checker, which was adopted by some local authorities before the Government mandated an alternative.  He is currently working on solving problems in containerizing applications, Enterprise Cloud, low latency API communication, and 5G In Social Tech Democratization.

Manasseh John Wesley

Manasseh John Wesley is a 21-year-old from Hyderabad, India, studying engineering and technologies like embedded systems megatronics/machine learning/data science/digital communication systems. He is the founder of River Bend Data Solution, a data science company with health care applications. He received an EV grant to create a platform for hospitals to provide X-rays and CT scan images and to use AIML to identify at risk districts in Andhra Pradesh.

Vidya Mahambare and Sowmya Dhanaraj

Dr. Vidya Mahambare is a Professor of Economics at Great Lakes Institute of Management working in macroeconomics as well as cultural and social economics issues. Dr. Soumya Dhanaraj is an assistant professor of economics at the Madras School of Economics, working in Development Economics and Applied Microeconomics. Their grant is to support their work in labor market and migration distortions.

Onkar Singh

Onkar Singh Batra is a fourteen-year-old web developer from Jammu and Kashmir. He developed and published his first website at the age of seven and holds the record for the World’s Youngest Webmaster. Furthermore, his book ‘When the Time Stops’ made him hold the record for the record of ‘World’s Youngest Theoretical Author.’ Recently, responding to the Covid pandemic, he received his EV grant for the web applications named –‘COVID Care Jammu’ and ‘COVID Global Care’, which connects doctors with users and helps users do a free anonymous Covid Risk Assessment test.  Onkar built his website keeping in mind slow internet speed and limited access. He has plans for many future projects, including working on a bio shield for 5G radiation technology.

Nilay Kulkarni

Nilay Kulkarni is a 20-year old software developer and he previously worked on a project to prevent human stampedes at the world’s largest gathering – the Kumbh Mela. His project’s implementation at the 2015 edition of the event in Nashik, with over 30 million attendees, led to the first stampede-free Kumbh Mela in the city’s history. Nilay has also spoken at TEDx New York about the project. He has worked on assistive technology for people with ALS enabling them to control phones using their tongues. He received his EV grant for the tech development of the MahaKavach App, the official quarantine monitoring and contact tracing platform adopted by the state government of Maharashtra. So far, the platform has helped reduce the time needed for contact-tracing from 3-4 days to 25-30 minutes, and he is now working on open-sourcing the platform for greater impact.

Data Development Lab

Drs. Paul Novosad and Sam Asher are previous EV grantees for creating the SHRUG database at Data Development Lab. The SHRUG is an ultra-clean geocoded database describing hundreds of dimensions of socioeconomic status across 8,000 towns and 500,000 villages in India. Everything in the SHRUG is carefully linked, extensively vetted and documented, and ready for immediate application. In addition to continually expanding the SHRUG, they recently received another EV grant for a second platform oriented toward informing the COVID-19 response in India. This platform has a wealth of linked pandemic-related data (e.g. hospital capacity, health system use, agricultural prices) not available anywhere else and is directly feeding several COVID response research and policy teams.

Deepak VS

Deepak VS is a 23-year-old Mechatronics Engineer from Bangalore, India and he has worked on traffic and communications projects. He also founded a college club called 42 Labs that eventually grew into a startup company called Tilt, a shared mobility platform designed for Indian campuses but now in corporate parks, colleges, townships, and cities across India. Working primarily with electric bikes, Tilt is partnering with companies to help provide alternate mobility solutions to people who typically use crowded and unsafe public transport.

Amit Varma and Vivek Kaul

Amit Varma is one of the most influential podcasters in India, and the winner of the Bastiat Prize in Journalism for his writing. He is the host of the iconic longform interview podcast The Seen and the Unseen, my chat with him on Stubborn Attachments is here and Alex’s appearances on the show here and here. Vivek Kaul is a prominent journalist and writer covering finance and economics. His most recent book, “Bad Money: Inside the NPA Mess and How It Threatens the Indian Banking System” was released earlier this month.

Amit and Vivek received their Emergent Ventures grant for their new podcast “Econ Central.” You can find Econ Central episodes here.

Raman Bahl

Raman Bahl is a 2012 Teach For India Fellow. He has worked over the last decade in different capacities to teach students, train teachers, create curricula, and create systems of teaching and learning in the Indian education system. In the light of the pandemic, rural communities in India are not getting access to quality learning at home. In particular, students from poorer and marginalized groups cannot access to remote/online education launched by local schools because they lack internet access, televisions, and/or learning materials. Raman received his EV grant for creating a Voice-based Academic System for students in rural communities, to enable access to learning at home, through mobile phones. He is launching the system in Purkhas Rathi in Haryana and hopes to scale the system to more villages and states.

PickMyWork

Vidyarthi Baddireddy, Utsav Bhattacharya and Kajal Malik are Indian entrepreneurs focused on the employability of graduating students in India. In 2017 they founded Reculta to digitize campus placements. In 2019, they launched PickMyWork, a platform for onboarding gig workers and getting them to complete tasks for client organizations through a pay-per-task model. In light of the manpower crisis during the Covid pandemic, especially on the frontlines, they want to enable matching of volunteers to emergency situations. They received their EV grant for adapting PickMyWork as a local volunteer response system to emergency situations like Covid by using the platform to source, train and deploy volunteers across various projects and locations.

Harsh Patel and Hiten Patel

Harsh Patel is an undergraduate student in electronics and communication engineering; his interests are in components, coding, and robotics. Hiten Patel is an electrical engineer interested in robotics, coding, and designing. They received their EV grant to develop robot prototypes that they call ‘E-Bot: Arogya Sahayak’ to potentially support hospitals, hotels, airports, workplaces, etc., to assist with basic tasks while maintaining social distancing.

Vinay Débrou

Vinay Débrou studied computer science and is a self-taught data scientist interested in psychology, data science, and new applications of network science for collaboration-generating contexts. He has also built resources for aspiring location-independent free-agents including a curated resources library and a weekly newsletter. Vinay received his Emergent Ventures grant to accelerate his ongoing project to build a network visualization/mapping tool (v0.1 here) to catalyze cross-disciplinary expertise-sharing and collaboration in Yak Collective – an open, networked community of 300+ (and growing) independent creators, consultants, and researchers.

Those unfamiliar with Emergent Ventures can learn more here and here. EV India announcement here. To apply for EV India, use the EV application click the “Apply Now” button and select India from the “My Project Will Affect” drop-down menu.

If you are interested in supporting the India tranche of Emergent Ventures, please write to me or to Shruti at [email protected] I believe we are seeing a blossoming of talent from India comparable to that from Central Europe in the early part of the 20th century.