Is the coronavirus making UBI look better?

My last Bloomberg column was co-authored with Garry Kasparov, here is one excerpt:

Another positive sign for UBI is that most Americans seem keen to return to their workplaces. One fear has been that UBI would lead to a couch-potato culture, with people choosing to stay at home even when they’re finally able to leave. But blue-collar service workers are continuing to brave the front lines even when faced with reasonably high risks of infection. They are not trying to get fired so they can collect unemployment. White-collar workers, meanwhile, are feeling restless and unproductive. Working from home may become more common, but most people seem eager to get back to the office — especially if the alternative is a combination workplace/schoolhouse.

And:

…the crisis is serving up a very different and inferior bargain than the one many original UBI supporters advocated. Institutionalizing emergency measures designed to respond to Covid-19 would be irresponsible. It would entrench UBI without the prerequisite productivity boom from artificial intelligence and automation. (For some time it appeared the opposite might happen — namely, an AI boom but no UBI.)

I can report that Garry was a real pleasure to work and co-author with.  Here is my earlier Conversation with him.

On the all too frequent split between theory and practice

I know some people who react very fearfully each time a package comes to the door, or when a jogger passes ten feet away.

Maybe those people are right to have that response!  (Suspend judgment for the time being.)  But if they are right, and the risk is real rather than truly tiny, it is hard to imagine lockdown working.  We can’t eliminate all risk, and we will end up with a fairly high percentage of the population infected fairly quickly.  After all, danger is almost everywhere (in this view).  If you run a pretty high risk of getting infected over the next month or two anyway, you might as well go buy some shoes at Nordstrom for your trouble.

What is noteworthy is that these fearful people tend to be very supportive of lockdown.

On the other side of the coin, some individuals defend the Swedish model.  Presumably they believe that herd immunity can be achieved relatively quickly, and with a high upfront cost the medium- and long-term can be fairly safe, with a net gain overall.

Yet if you accept those presuppositions (suspend judgment for the time being), in fact you ought to behave in a very fearful manner.  Just stay at home and wait until herd immunity arrives in late summer or whenever, and then go out and have all of your fun.  Let the Nordstrom shoes wait!

Yet advocates of the Swedish model also seem quite interested in going out and frolicking in the shorter run.

In reality, mood affiliation may be playing a role here.  People side with either “caution and fearfulness,” or with “openness and boldness,” and then both their theories and behavior follow accordingly.

In reality, the Swedish model advocates ought to behave quite cautiously and lockdown advocates should be willing to take more chances.

What is the FDA Doing Now??!

My long-running skepticism about the safety and efficacy of the FDA is fast becoming conventional wisdom. Even normal people can’t believe what they are doing. This piece on the FDA in the New York Times reads like something I might have written for CATO.

An innovative coronavirus testing program in the Seattle area — promoted by the billionaire Bill Gates and local public health officials as a way of conducting wider surveillance on the invisible spread of the virus — has been ordered by the federal government to stop its work pending additional reviews.

…the program, a partnership between research groups and the Seattle and King County public health department that had been operating under authorization from the state, was notified this week that it now needs approval directly from the federal government. Officials with the Food and Drug Administration told the partnership to cease its testing and reporting until the agency grants further approval.

…the Seattle program …has wide backing, including from public health leaders, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Mr. Gates, whose foundation has been deeply involved in fighting the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also provided an in-person technical adviser to the project.

Dr. Eric Topol, the director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, who is not involved in the Seattle group, said it had “emerged as leading lights in this whole Covid-19 crisis.” He said it was “bizarre” that the F.D.A. would halt such a project.

By the way, Dr. Helen Chu, one of the leaders of the Seattle project, was one of the first Emergent Ventures prize winners for her work fighting the coronavirus (excellent pick, Tyler!). As you may recall, Chu started testing for coronavirus in an already running flu study without permission. Until she was shut down.

To repurpose the tests for monitoring the coronavirus, they would need the support of state and federal officials. But nearly everywhere Dr. Chu turned, officials repeatedly rejected the idea, interviews and emails show, even as weeks crawled by and outbreaks emerged in countries outside of China, where the infection began.

By Feb. 25, Dr. Chu and her colleagues could not bear to wait any longer. They began performing coronavirus tests, without government approval.

Federal and state officials said the flu study could not be repurposed because it did not have explicit permission from research subjects; the labs were also not certified for clinical work. While acknowledging the ethical questions, Dr. Chu and others argued there should be more flexibility in an emergency during which so many lives could be lost. On Monday night, state regulators told them to stop testing altogether.

The failure to tap into the flu study, detailed here for the first time, was just one in a series of missed chances by the federal government to ensure more widespread testing during the early days of the outbreak, when containment would have been easier. Instead, local officials across the country were left to work in the dark as the crisis grew undetected and exponentially.

History repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce.

Addendum: I see now that Tyler covered this a bit earlier in the post below. I’ll leave this post up, however, as I have more details including Tyler’s connection.

The F.D.A. halts a virus testing program backed by Bill Gates

An innovative coronavirus testing program in the Seattle area — promoted by billionaire Bill Gates and local public health officials as a way of conducting wider surveillance on the invisible spread of the virus — has been ordered by the federal government to stop its work pending additional reviews.

Researchers and public health authorities already had tested thousands of samples, finding dozens of previously undetected cases in a program based on home test kits sent out to both healthy and sick people in the hope of conducting the kind of widespread monitoring that could help communities safely reopen from lockdowns.

But the research groups and the public health department of Seattle and King County, which had been operating under authorization from the state, was notified this week that it now needs approval directly from the federal government. Officials with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration directed the partnership to cease its testing and reporting until the agency grants further approval.

Here is the NYT link, ahem.

Markets in everything

Tear gas is among the new flavors at a Hong Kong ice cream shop.

The main ingredient is black peppercorns, a reminder of the pungent, peppery rounds fired by police on the streets of the semi-autonomous Chinese city during months of demonstrations last year.

“It tastes like tear gas. It feels difficult to breathe at first, and it’s really pungent and irritating. It makes me want to drink a lot of water immediately,” said customer Anita Wong, who experienced tear gas at a protest. “I think it’s a flashback that reminds me of how painful I felt in the movement, and that I shouldn’t forget.”

The flavor is a sign of support for the pro-democracy movement, which is seeking to regain its momentum during the coronavirus pandemic, the shop’s owner said. He spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid repercussions from the pro-Beijing government.

“We would like to make a flavor that reminds people that they still have to persist in the protest movement and don’t lose their passion,” he said.

He tried different ingredients, including wasabi and mustard, in an effort to replicate the taste of tear gas. Black pepper, he said, came closest to tear gas with its throat-irritating effects…

At about $5 a serving, tear gas ice cream has been a hit. Prior to social distancing regulations over the coronavirus outbreak, the shop’s owner said he was selling 20-30 scoops per day.

Here is the full story.

Friday assorted links

Small steps toward a much better world

After mounting criticism and thousands of deaths in New York nursing homes—including several individual facilities that have lost more than 50 residents—the state on Sunday reversed the mandate, which said nursing homes couldn’t refuse to accept patients from hospitals who had been diagnosed with Covid-19. New York now says hospitals can send patients to nursing homes only if they have tested negative for the virus.

Here is the WSJ article, via John F.

How to think about uni-disciplinary advice

Let’s say its 1990, and you are proposing an ambitious privatization plan to an Eastern bloc county, and your plan assumes that the enacting government is able to stay on a non-corrupt path the entire time.

While your plan probably is better than communism, it probably is not a very good plan.  A better plan would take sustainability and political realities into account, and indeed many societies did come up with better plans, for instance the Poland plan was better than the Russia plan.

It would not do to announce “I am just an economist, I do not do politics.”  In fact that attitude is fine, but if you hold it you should not be presenting plans to the central government or discussing your plan on TV.  There are plenty of other useful things for you to do.  Or the uni-disciplinary approach still might be a useful academic contribution, but still displaced and to be kept away from the hands of decision-makers.

Nor would it do to claim “I am just an economist.  The politicians have to figure the rest out.”  They cannot figure the rest out in most cases.  Either stand by your proposed plan or don’t do it.  It is indeed a proposal of some sort, even if you package it with some phony distancing language.

Instead, you should try to blend together the needed disciplines as best you can, consulting others when necessary, an offer the best plan you can, namely the best plan all things considered.

That might fill you with horror, but please recall from Tetlock that usually the generalists are the best predictors.

Ignoring other disciplines may be fine when there is no interaction. When estimating the effects of monetary policy, you probably can do that without calculating how many people that year will die of air pollution.  But you probably should not ignore the effects of a major trade war, a budgetary crisis (“but I do monetary policy, not fiscal policy!”), or an asteroid hurtling toward the earth.

If that is too hard, it is fine to announce your final opinion as agnostic (and explain how you got there).  You will note that when it comes to blending economics and epidemiology, my most fundamental opinion is an agnostic one.

This is all well-known, and it has been largely accepted for some time now.

If a public health person presents what is “only an estimate of public health and public health alone” to policymakers, I view it as like the economist in 1990 who won’t consider politics.  Someone else should have the job.  Right now public health, politics, and economics all interact to a significant extent.

And if you present only one of those disciplines to a policymaker, you will likely confuse and mislead that policymaker, because he/she cannot do the required backward unthreading of the advice into its uni-dimensional component.  You have simply served up a biased model, and rather than trying to identify and explain the bias you are simply saying “ask someone else about the bias.”

If an economist claims he is only doing macroeconomics, and not epidemiology (as Paul Krugman has said a few times on Twitter), that is flat out wrong.  All current macro models have epidemiology embedded in them, if only because the size of the negative productivity and negative demand shock depends all too critically on the course of the disease.

It is fine to be agnostic, preferably with structure to the opinion.  It is wrong to hide behind the arbitrary division of a discipline or a field.

We need the best estimates possible, and presented to policymakers as such, and embodying the best of synthetic human knowledge.  Of course that is hard.  That is why we need the very best people to do it.

Addendum: You might try to defend a uni-disciplinary approach by arguing a decision-maker will mainly be fed other, biased uni-disciplinary approaches, and you have to get your discipline into the mix to avoid obliteration of its viewpoint.  But let’s be clear what is going on here: you are deliberately manipulating with a deliberately non-truthy approach (I intend those words as a description, not a condemnation).  If that’s what it is, I wish to describe it that way!  I’ll also note I’ve never done that deliberately myself, and that is along many years of advising at a variety of levels.  I’d rather give the best truthful account as I see it.

Thursday assorted links

1. The dark side of Coase: a crypto tale.

2. The Covid-19 rave culture that is German.

3. Wisconsin Supreme Court rejects stay-at-home order (NYT).

4. How much of health care spending is discretionary?

5. What it is like to land in Hong Kong and try to enter (recommended, short photo essay).

6. New data from France.  And a Twitter thread on same.

7. What is the cost of reining in wild horses?

8. World 2.0: chess does indeed move to the internet, and Magnus Carlsen is calling the shots.

9. Is Virginia mixing up its test results and reporting the wrong numbers?

10. I find this kind of defense convincing for many research efforts, but not for actual real world problems with immediate decisions to be made: “I don’t know the 2 Swedish models in question but in general it is disingenuous to say the models that do not try to take into account changes in human behavior failed because people behaved in ways the models didn’t model. The models were upfront about the scenarios addressed.”

Will Our Military State Fail Us?

I always assumed that for all its failings the US government was good at blowing things up. Now, I am not so sure. We did better than I expected in Desert Storm and I don’t blame the military for failures in Iraq and Afghanistan but those were not exactly major powers. I certainly don’t want war but could we handle one if it came to us? David Ignatius writing in the Washington Post says no:

Here’s a fact that ought to startle every American who assumes that because we spend nearly $1 trillion each year on defense, we have primacy over our emerging rival, China.

“Over the past decade, in U.S. war games against China, the United States has a nearly perfect record: We have lost almost every single time.”

That’s a quote from a new book called “The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare,” the most provocative critique of U.S. defense policy I’ve read in years. It’s written by Christian Brose, former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a close adviser to late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.). The book isn’t just a wake-up call, it’s a fire alarm in the night.

Brose explains a terrible truth about war with China: Our spy and communications satellites would immediately be disabled; our forward bases in Guam and Japan would be “inundated” by precise missiles; our aircraft carriers would have to sail away from China to escape attack; our F-35 fighter jets couldn’t reach their targets because the refueling tankers they need would be shot down.

…How did this happen? It wasn’t an intelligence failure, or a malign Pentagon and Congress, or lack of money, or insufficient technological prowess. No, it was simply bureaucratic inertia compounded by entrenched interests.

The general lesson still has yet to sink in

Apple Store’s Temperature Checks May Violate EU Privacy Rules, Says German Data Protection Office

Of course they do.  And yes, I know that is a small thing, and furthermore temperature checks may not even be effective.

The general point is this: you cannot over the longer run have a society based on such inflexible rules of adjustment.  For decades it may seem possible, due to underlying stasis, but eventually the truth will be revealed.  No single anecdote will be so convincing, and it will take a long time for the failures to pile up.  And in the meantime this will breed disrespect for the more valuable laws.

What I’ve been reading

1. Jordan Mechner, The Making of Prince of Persia: Journals 1985-1993.  A memoir and game development journal from a game developer.  The content is foreign to me, but this is one of the most beautiful and artistic books I ever have seen and I suspect some of you will find the narrative gripping.  A product of Stripe Press — “Ideas for Progress.”

2. Jeffrey D. Sachs, The Ages of Globalization: Geography, Technology, and Institutions.  This book is a series of lectures, based on Sachs’s earlier work on economic geography and development, yet somehow with a vaguely Yuval Harari sort of glow.  Some parts are a good introduction to the earlier work of Sachs, other parts are pitched a bit too low or too generally.  It is strange to see chapter subheadings such as “Thalassocracy and Tellurocracy.”  As an economist, I still maintain that Sachs is considerably underrated.

3. Susanna Clarke, Piranesi.  Yes this is a work of fiction.  Clarke of course wrote Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, a very long novel that I have read twice, an odd mix of fantasy, science, magic, and Enlightenment esotericism, the only novel I know with fascinating footnotes.  I was thrilled to receive this one, and on p.51 I am still excited.

4. Mieko Kawakami, Breasts and Eggs.  The hot new novel from Japan, it comes with a Murakami rave endorsement.  To me it seems like “ordinary feminism” (not that there’s anything wrong with that), and so far it is a bore.  If it doesn’t get better soon, I’ll write it off as a “mood affiliation text,” not that there’s anything wrong with that.  It probably makes most sense read in a very specific cultural context.

5. Douglas Boin, Alaric the Goth: An Outsider’s History of the Fall of Rome is a fun look at one part of ancient history through alternative eyes.  I always wonder what to trust about this era other than primary sources, and if you can’t understand them or grasp them intelligibly maybe that is itself the correct inference, namely that we have no idea what the **** went on back then.  Still, as imaginary reconstructions go, this is one that ought to be done and now it is.

6. Ryan Patrick Hanley, Our Great Purpose: Adam Smith on Living a Better Life.  Smith as a practical moral philosopher, this short volume pulls out the side of Smith closest to Montaigne and the Stoics.  You can ponder Smithian sentences such as “The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life, seems to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another.”

7. Sonia Jaffe, Robert Minton, Casey B. Mulligan, Kevin M. Murphy, Chicago Price Theory.  A very good intermediate micro text, patterned after how Econ 301 is taught at Chicago.  Apparently in the current Coasean equilibrum, this book ends up published by Princeton University Press.  Get the picture?

From a legal perspective there is Ron Harris, Going the Distance: Eurasian Trade and the Rise of the Business Corporation, 1400-1700.

Why aren’t we talking about forcible quarantine more?

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

There has been surprisingly little debate in America about one strategy often cited as crucial for preventing and controlling the spread of Covid-19: coercive isolation and quarantine, even for mild cases. China, Singapore and South Korea separate people from their families if they test positive, typically sending them to dorms, makeshift hospitals or hotels. Vietnam and Hong Kong have gone further, sometimes isolating the close contacts of patients.

I am here to tell you that those practices are wrong, at least for the U.S. They are a form of detainment without due process, contrary to the spirit of the Constitution and, more important, to American notions of individual rights. Yes, those who test positive should have greater options for self-isolation than they currently do. But if a family wishes to stick together and care for each other, it is not the province of the government to tell them otherwise.

What I observe is people citing those other countries as successes, wishing to “score points,” but without either affirming or denying their willingness to engage in coercive quarantine.  Here is another bit:

Furthermore, all tests have false positives, not just medically but administratively (who else has experienced the government making mistakes on your tax returns?). Fortunately, current Covid-19 tests do not have a high rate of false positives. But even a 1% net false positive rate would mean — in a world where all Americans get tested — that more than 1 million innocent, non-sick Americans are forcibly detained and exposed to further Covid-19 risk.

And this:

Coercive containment was tried during one recent pandemic — in Castro’s Cuba, from 1986 to 1994, for those with HIV-AIDS. It is not generally a policy that is endorsed in polite society, and not because everyone is such an expert in Cuban public health data and epidemiological calculations. People oppose the policy because it was morally wrong.

And what about uncertainty? Is it really a safe bet that America’s quarantine policy would be executed successfully and save many lives? What if scientists are on the verge of discovering a cure or treatment that will lower the Covid-19 death rate significantly? Individual rights also protect society from the possibly disastrous consequences of its own ignorance.

Here are a few points that did not fit into the column:

1. I am not opposed to all small number, limited duration quarantine procedures, such as say holding Typhoid Mary out of socializing.  This same point also means that a society that starts coercive quarantine very early might be able to stamp out the virus by coercing relatively small numbers of people.  (It is not yet clear that the supposed successes have achieved this, by the way.)  That is very different from the “mass dragnet” to be directed against American society under current proposals.

2. I am familiar with the broad outlines of American quarantine law and past practice.  I don’t see that history as necessarily authorizing how a current proposal would have to operate, and on such a scale.  In any case, I am saying that such coercive quarantines would be wrong, not that they would be illegal.  I believe it is a genuinely open question how current courts would rule on these matters.

3. From my perch from a distance, it seems to me that Human Challenge Trials for vaccines are more controversial than is mass forced quarantine.  I could be wrong, and I would gladly pursue any leads on the current debate you might have for me.  Who are the philosophers or biomedical ethicists or legal scholars who have spoken out against such policies?

Wednesday assorted links