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Solve for the journalistic equilibrium

In a company memo, the chief executive of the politics news site said he supported staff members’ right to march, adding that the publisher would cover bail for any employee who is arrested…

According to several people with knowledge of recent discussions at Axios, Mr. VandeHei said he did not intend his note to actively encourage marching in protests. He has also reminded the staff that the company’s reporters still need sources to open up to them, and that appearing to take one side could jeopardize their position.

And for purposes of contrast:

Ethics guidelines at The Times — similar to many other newsrooms across the country — say the company’s journalists “may not march or rally in support of public causes or movements” or publicly take positions on public issues. It adds, “doing so might reasonably raise doubts about their ability or The Times’s ability to function as neutral observers in covering the news.”

Here is the full NYT story, via a loyal MR reader.

Does partisanship shape investor beliefs?

We use party-identifying language – like “Liberal Media” and “MAGA”– to identify Republican users on the investor social platform StockTwits. Using a difference-in-difference design, we find that the beliefs of partisan Republicans about equities remain relatively unfazed during the COVID-19 pandemic, while other users become considerably more pessimistic. In cross-sectional tests, we find Republicans become relatively more optimistic about stocks that suffered the most from COVID-19, but more pessimistic about Chinese stocks. Finally, stocks with the greatest partisan disagreement on StockTwits have significantly more trading in the broader market, which explains 20% of the increase in stock turnover during the pandemic.

Here is the full piece by J. Anthony Cookson, Joseph Engelberg, and William Mullins, via the excellent Samir Varma.

That was then, this is now, pandemic public protest edition

Greta Thunberg is calling on other young climate activists to avoid big protests and move their demonstrations online amid efforts to contain the novel coronavirus. Over the past year and a half, Thunberg has incited thousands of students across the globe to protest inaction on climate change. She’s inspired many to join massive demonstrations like those outside United Nations climate conferences in New York and Madrid last year. Now, she’s asking people to stay home…

Just as she does when it comes to climate change, Thunberg urged people to “unite behind experts and science” to address the current public health crisis posed by the novel coronavirus…

“We’ll have to find new ways to create public awareness & advocate for change that don’t involve too big crowds,” Thunberg tweeted. “Listen to local authorities.”

Here is the relevant article.  I don’t recall anyone protesting her decision at the time, or arguing that the benefits of the climate change protests would outweigh their public health costs, or even attempting such a calculation.

I am inclined to conclude that some mix of two truths must hold, though I am not sure in what combination: 1) Many of you care less about climate change than you may think, compared to other issues, and/or 2) The lockdown has made us all somewhat batty.

I thank A. for the relevant pointer, noting that no one else seems to have considered this parallel, which is perhaps evidence for #2?

Revisiting Camden

ImageOne of the few bright spots over the past week was Camden, NJ where instead of beating protesters the police joined them. Protests in Camden were peaceful and orderly and there was little to no looting. As I wrote last year, Camden disbanded its police force in 2013, nullifying the old union contract, and rebuilt.

Jim Epstein described the situation prior to rebuilding:

Camden’s old city-run police force abused its power and abrogated its duties. It took Camden cops one hour on average to respond to 911 calls, or more than six times the national average. They didn’t show up for work 30 percent of the time, and an inordinate number of Camden police were working desk jobs. A union contract required the city to entice officers with extra pay to get them to accept crime-fighting shifts outside regular business hours. Last year, the city paid $3.5 million in damages to 88 citizens who saw their convictions overturned because of planted evidence, fabricated reports, and other forms of police misconduct.

In 2012, the murder rate in Camden was about five times that of neighboring Philadelphia—and about 18 times the murder rate in New York City.

In May of 2013, however, the entire police department was disbanded nullifying the union contract and an entirely new county police department was put into place.

The old city-run force was rife with cops working desk jobs, which Cordero saw as a waste of money and manpower. He and Thomson hired civilians to replace them and put all uniformed officers on crime fighting duty. Boogaard says she didn’t see a single cop during the first year she lived in the city. “Now I see them all the time and they make friendly conversation.” Pastor Merrill says the old city-run force gave off a “disgruntled” air, and the morale of Metro police is noticeably better. “I want my police to be happy,” he says.

Note that the police were not “defunded.” In fact, Camden put more police on the street and as Daniel Bier noted crime fell and clearance rates increased.

Camden remains a high poverty, high crime place to live but the improvement shows the importance of some fairly simple attitudinal changes–“It’s more of a protect-and-serve approach to dealing with the residents, rather than kicking down doors and locking our way out of the problem,” –and reforms such as restraining the police unions, focusing on violent and property crimes and not using policing as a revenue source.

 

 

Rescheduling for thee, but not for me

When Wisconsin Republicans refused to move their election day, Democrats, experts, and various media types decried the decision as immoral and dangerous during a pandemic. “Regularly scheduled, orderly elections with direct governmental consequences were either too dangerous, or insufficiently compelling,” Adam wrote in a late-night email. “Contrast that, of course, with Democrats’s evident belief that we absolutely must not delay these protests against police brutality. The protests—spontaneous not scheduled, disorderly not orderly, emotive not concretely consequential—simply had to go on.”

Protests and demonstrations are more important and indispensable than elections. The deliberate act of voting, essential to a democracy, can be put on a schedule delay but political catharsis must proceed on its own schedule. Mario Cuomo used to say that “We campaign in poetry but we govern in prose.” Now it’s poetry or nothing.

Here is more by Jonah Goldberg.  I am not looking to attack or make trouble for any individual person here, so no link or name, but this is from a leading figure in biology and also a regular commenter on epidemiology:

As a citizen, I wholeheartedly support the protests nonetheless.

My worries run deep.  Should the original lockdown recommendations have been asterisked with a “this is my lesser, non-citizen self speaking” disclaimer?  Should those who broke the earlier lockdowns, to save their jobs or visit their relatives, or go to their churches, or they wanted to see their dying grandma but couldn’t…have been able to cite their role as “citizens” as good reason for opposing the recommendations of the “scientists”?  Does the author have much scientific expertise in how likely these protests are to prove successful?  Does typing the word “c-i-t-i-z-e-n” relieve one of the burden of estimating how much public health credibility will be lost if/when we are told that another lockdown is needed to forestall a really quite possible second wave?  Does the author have a deep understanding of the actual literature on the “science/citizen” distinction, value freedom in science, the normative role of the advisor, and so on?  Does the implicit portrait painted by that tweet imply a radically desiccated, and indeed segregated role of the notions of “scientist” and “citizen”?  Would you trust a scientist like that for advice?  Should you?  And shouldn’t he endorse the protests “2/3 heartedly” or so, rather than “wholeheartedly”?  Isn’t that the mood affiliation talking?

On May 20th, the same source called a Trump plan for rapid reopening (churches too, and much more) “extraordinarily dangerous” — was that the scientist or the citizen talking?  And were we told which at the time?  Andreas’s comments at that above link are exactly on the mark, especially the point that the fragile consensus for the acceptability of lockdown will be difficult to recreate ever again.

If you would like a different perspective, bravo to Dan Diamond.  Here is his article.  And here are some better options for public health experts.  Here is a useful (very rough) estimate of expected fatalities from the protests, though it does not take all-important demonstration effects into account.  I can say I give credit to the initial source (the one I am criticizing) for passing that tweet storm along.

We really very drastically need to raise the quality and credibility of the advice given here.

Saturday assorted links

1. Which variables are most correlated with income?  (Does not entirely make sense, but has some significant points and correlations of note).

2. Dogs detecting Covid-19.

3. Why won’t they let Andrew Sullivan write his column?

4. Rodney Brooks on peer review.

5. Do freelancers send negative commitment signals?

6. John Cochrane on Magical Monetary Theory.

7. “To prevent unionization, nonunion firms over-hire high-skill workers—who vote against the union—and under-hire low-skill workers— who vote in its favor.

8. What to do — and safely — rather than protest (my Bloomberg column).

Toward a model of the New York City police

Bill de Blasio has excused police officers who swing batons at unarmed protesters and ram their vehicles into crowds. He has repeatedly stuck by his commissioner, Dermot Shea, and maintained the police have acted with the utmost discretion, though eyewitness testimony and videos suggest otherwise. Former aides who worked to elect a mayor on a platform of police reform are aghast. What went wrong, exactly?

Why does the Mayor of New York City defer so egregiously to his police department? Why does this keep happening?

Mass protests aren’t new to New York City. Neither is police violence. The police department in New York is a paramilitary that operates with little accountability, relative to other city agencies. A police commissioner in New York can be thought of as an appointed mayor of a quasi-independent fiefdom. The police commissioner, ultimately, must answer to the mayor and City Council—mayors can fire commissioners at any time—but the police can cow those who oppose them politically. As recently as 2015, one year after Eric Garner died in police custody, the otherwise progressive City Council led a multi-year campaign to hire 1,000 new police officers. This year, in their latest stimulus bill, House Democrats included $300 million for a nationwide police expansion. Politicians of both political parties have supported bolstering police power for decades.

That is from Ross Barkan, here is more:

Police, in this calculus, safeguard property value. If police don’t do their jobs, a mainstream Democratic politician would tell you, the city could spiral into chaos. Crime would skyrocket. Property value would decline. The real estate and investor class would lose confidence in New York and stop investing their capital. Any pivot toward a model of social democratic urban planning—or even, at the minimum, a reduction in the NYPD’s near $6 billion budget—would trigger this unraveling. De Blasio’s appointment of Bratton, the Giuliani-era police commissioner, can be understood in this context. Bratton was a liberal mayor’s concession to a business and real estate establishment he believed needed to be placated. It was a signal that his administration, no matter its reputation, would never veer too far left. De Blasio is of the belief that any progressive reform can’t happen without police to maintain New York’s low crime rate. Any spike will sap political capital for his projects.

Police unions understand politicians. Pat Lynch has been leading the PBA since 1999. He has merely followed a playbook written by past union presidents, who literally staged riots and race-baiting, citywide referendums when mild reforms of the department were proposed. The threat police have dangled over mayors, left and right, is rather simple: you make us angry and we will unleash disorder.

There is more of interest at the link, and for the pointer I thank Jordan.

Our regulatory state is broken, installment #1837

Americans returning from China landed at U.S. airports by the thousands in early February, potential carriers of a deadly virus who had been diverted to a handful of cities for screening by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Their arrival prompted a frantic scramble by local and state officials to press the travelers to self-quarantine, and to monitor whether anyone fell ill. It was one of the earliest tests of whether the public health system in the United States could contain the contagion.

But the effort was frustrated as the C.D.C.’s decades-old notification system delivered information collected at the airports that was riddled with duplicative records, bad phone numbers and incomplete addresses. For weeks, officials tried to track passengers using lists sent by the C.D.C., scouring information about each flight in separate spreadsheets.

“It was insane,” said Dr. Sharon Balter, a director at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. When the system went offline in mid-February, briefly halting the flow of passenger data, local officials listened in disbelief on a conference call as the C.D.C. responded to the possibility that infected travelers might slip away.

“Just let them go,” two of the health officials recall being told.

Here is the full NYT piece, thorough, excellent, and scary throughout, and it shows a first-rate understanding of bureaucracy.  Don’t forget the CDC budget has risen steadily in real terms.

Just how weird are things now?

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

If I have learned one thing over the last few weeks, it is that the psychology of the American public is weirder — and perhaps more flexible — than I ever would have thought.

Consider, as just one example among many, the issue of nursing homes. According to some estimates, about 40% of the deaths associated with Covid-19 have occurred in nursing homes, with more almost certain to come.

You might think that those 40,000-plus deaths would be a major national scandal. But so far the response has been subdued. Yes, there has been ample news coverage, but there are no riots in response, no social movement to “clean up the nursing homes,” no Ralph Nader-like crusader who has made this his or her political cause.

Nor has there been much resulting vilification. There are plenty of condemnations of technology billionaires, but very few of nursing-home CEOs. Many of the state and local politicians who oversee public-sector nursing homes have been rewarded with higher approval ratings.

As if all this weren’t bad enough, of those 40,000 deaths, surely a considerable number are African-American (data by race is hard to come by). This could be an issue for Black Lives Matter, but somehow it isn’t.

There is indeed much more at the link.

Model this New York City police force

Last night, and some previous nights, many storefronts in Manhattan were trashed, there was looting in Soho, or how about this description from Rachel Olding at The Daily Beast?:

Hard to describe how rampant the looting was tonight in Midtown Manhattan and how lawless it was. Complete anarchy. Literally hundreds of stores up and down Broadway, Fifth Ave, Sixth Ave. Kids ruling the streets like it was a party.

Now, those are among the most visible and “high value” spots in the whole city and the NYPD has over 38,000 police to draw upon.  So what is the best model of why all that trouble happened and indeed was allowed to happen?  I see a few candidates:

1. Those police are not sufficiently well trained.

2. Those police are trained but they are afraid of confronting protestors and so they don’t do it.

3. The mayor de facto doesn’t want the police to be too involved, as that might be unpopular with swing voters in the primaries or even the general election.

4. The police union insists, de facto, that not many police be sent directly into such confrontations.

5. There is a general lack of accountability, and so there is failure at multiple levels, and so many good things simply do not happen, but for reasons which are not always entirely concrete.

6. The police do not have the right technology to handle these kinds of problems.

Which is it, and which other hypotheses am I neglecting?

As a more general observation, if this problem cannot be solved, complaining about Trump holding the Bible and the tear gas on the way to the church ultimately will fall upon deaf ears.  Ultimately the American public are not going to side against “the thin blue line” (i.e., the police), so to win all those important civil liberties victories you also need the police doing the proper job effectively. Maybe I picked the wrong Google terms but “why didn’t New York police stop rioters” does not in fact yield anything substantive on the question I am asking.  How can that be?  While you’re at it, model that too!

Addendum: One reader hypothesis is to send a signal to the mayor for criticizing them. Another is here: “Similar to Baltimore, the police in Minneapolis will make it clear that looting and widespread private property destruction will be tolerated for the remainder of the protests as a way to conflate protesters and looters and “teach a lesson to” their liberal civilian bosses

Monday assorted links

1. Death threats against German virologists.  And “His perception of fishes’ features was so refined, she added, that he could distinguish individual faces, the way humans recognize one another.”  (NYT)

2. Does altitude matter for Covid-19?

3. Police violence thread, excellent, scholarly.

4. Thread on police unions.  Very good.

5. Model this, Samantha Shader edition.  And Scholar’s Stage on rioting.  And the lawyers are now throwing Molotov cocktails at the police (NYT)

6. Toward a further economics of gossip.

7. Data on school reopenings and how they have gone.

8. Roland Fryer on policing the police.

Fight the Virus!

I was asked by the LATimes to contribute to a panel on economic and pandemic policy. The other contributors are Joseph E. Stiglitz, Christina Romer, Alicia H. Munnell, Jason Furman, Anat R. Admati, James Doti, Simon Johnson, Ayse Imrohoroglu and Shanthi Nataraj. Here’s my contribution:

If an invader rained missiles down on cities across the United States killing thousands of people, we would fight back. Yet despite spending trillions on unemployment insurance and relief to deal with the economic consequences of COVID-19, we have spent comparatively little fighting the virus directly.

Testing capacity has slowly increased, but where is the national program to create a dozen labs each running 200,000 tests a day? It’s technologically feasible but months into the crisis, we have only just begun to spend serious money on testing.

We haven’t even fixed billing procedures so we can use the testing capacity that already exists. That’s right, labs that could be running tests are idle because of billing procedures. And while some parts of our government are slow, the Food and Drug Administration seems intent on reducing America’s ability to fight the virus by demanding business-as-usual paperwork.

Operation Warp Speed is one of the few bright spots. Potential vaccines often fail and so firms will typically not build manufacturing capacity, let alone produce doses until after a vaccine has been approved. But if we follow the usual procedure, getting shots in arms could be delayed by months or even years.

Under Operation Warp Speed, the government is paying for capacity to be built now so that the instant one of 14 vaccine candidates is proven safe and effective, production will be ready to go. That’s exactly what Nobel-prize winning economist Michael Kremer, Susan Athey, Chris Snyder and I have recommended. It might seem expensive to invest in capacity for a vaccine that is never approved, but it’s even more expensive to delay a vaccine that could end the pandemic.

Relief payments can go on forever, but money spent on testing and vaccines has the potential to more than pay for itself. It’s time to fight back.

Alex Tabarrok is a professor of economics at George Mason University and a member of the Accelerating Health Technologies With Incentive Design team.

My point about not fighting the virus directly was illustrated by many of the other panelists. Joseph Stiglitz, Christina Romer, Alicia Munnell, Jason Furman, James Doti, and Shanthi Nataraj say nothing or next to nothing about viruses. Only Anat Admati, Simon Johnson, Ayse Imrohoroglu get it.

Admati supports a Paul Romer-style testing program:

Until effective vaccines and therapies are available, which may be many months away, our best approach is to invest heavily in increasing the capacity for testing many more people and isolating those infected.

Simon Johnson argues, in addition, for antibody tests (not the usual PCR tests):

Policymakers should go all-in on ramping up antibody testing, to determine who has been exposed to COVID-19. Such tests are not yet accurate enough to determine precise immunity levels, but the work of Michael Mina, an immunologist and epidemiologist at Harvard, and others demonstrates that using such tests in the right way generates not just information about what has happened but, because of what can be inferred about underlying disease dynamics, also the information we need to understand where the disease will likely next impact various local communities.

Imrohoroglu advocates for targeted lockdown:

In addition to CDC recommendations about social distancing and public health strategies for all, I believe that as we reopen, we should keep a targeted lockdown policy in place for at-risk groups.

Coronavirus travel insurance markets in everything

Moral hazard — forget about it!:

In the Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus, government leaders have pledged to cover all costs for any traveler who tests positive for the coronavirus while on vacation, according to the Associated Press. In a letter sent out to governments, airlines and tour operators, Cypriot officials said they would cover “lodging, food, drink and medication for covid-19 patients and their families” while on the island.

Tourism accounts for 13 percent of Cyprus’s economy, according to the AP, and with one of the lowest coronavirus ratios per capita in Europe, tourism ministers plan to restart international air travel on June 9.

Here is the full story, which includes other examples.

Alex Armlovich on blood plasma donors and markets

From my email:

I saw your post about COVID blood brokers–My girlfriend and I had it in March and finally got antibody tests last week when the city opened the free clinics.

I inquired on a national plasma donor site, was directed to CSL Plasma in Clifton NJ, and a donor concierge from LeapCure reached out. They didn’t tell me what the compensation is (the CSL website says it’s usually ~$50 for normal plasma) but they’re calling a roundtrip Uber from my apartment near Ridgewood, Queens all the way to NJ, which is $108 one-way. The concierge said to reach out if there are any concerns with the first trip next week because they’re hoping for up to 2x weekly donations.

What I don’t understand is, why doesn’t the city’s antibody testing program directly link up to plasma donation? I had to go through a bunch of hassle to find out where to donate, and I think the information & coordination friction is a bigger deterrent than anything else. And why isn’t there more collection capacity in the city itself; the long commute seems unnecessary. If this is scientifically important enough to merit real donor spending from biotech, it seems like the city should make even a minimal investment in reducing process friction.

Maybe an integrated, frictionless testing & plasma donation infrastructure should be a permanent strategy for future “zero-day viruses” where convalescent antibodies are the only thing we have to treat first responders…

Here is Alex Armlovich on Twitter.