What to Watch

A few things I have watched recently:

The Courier–a taut, spy drama about the true story of Greville Wynne, an ordinary British businessman who was recruited by the British and American spy services to courier information in the 1960s from Russian agent Oleg Penkovsky–information that proved crucial to the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Rachel Brosnahan. On Amazon Prime.

The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard–I thought this action-comedy was hilarious (in the spirit of Deadpool). The plot makes no sense but who cares? It stars Ryan Reynolds, Samuel Jackson, Morgan Freeman, Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek all of whom are clearly having a good time. Salma Hayek’s over-the-top performance makes the film. It even has an attack on occupational licensing. Saw it on a plane.

Worth–who would have thought that debates about estimating the value of a life would make a good movie? Michael Keaton plays Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer who headed the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. How much for a waiter? How much for a Wall Street trader? This is the philosophical question that gets the movie going but more practical problems also intercede. What do you do when the wife and the mistress both file for compensation? In the end, the movie bails on the big questions but succeeds on the quality of the performance by Michael Keaton. The tort system is a very expensive way to compensate victims. The Victim Compensation fund was a successful application of no-fault rules. On Netflix.

Billions–I will finish out the the fifth season but the plots are now repetitive and while I wouldn’t say it has jumped the shark it will never rise again to the heights of The Third Ortolan. I did appreciate the Neal Peart reference but it should never have been explained. Love Jason Isbell but it feels like the writers are reaching for relevance. On Showtime.

Only Murders in the Building–An old-time murder mystery starring Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez. It’s fun but will they pull off a satisfying ending? I hope so. A show I can watch with my wife. On Hulu.

Tuesday assorted links

1. Mike Makowsky good career advice for those economists (and others?) coming out of non-elite schools.

2. Bryan Caplan on his home schooling experience.

3. BBC covers EV India winner and his fight against air pollution.

4. Why young Koreans are doing so well in classical music.

5. Art Blakey and Lee Morgan in concert.

6. Guardian Fall books preview.  And Vulture Fall books preview.

Derry notes, Northern Ireland’s second largest city

People in Derry are still talking about the 1680s…it is bad to be a “Lundy,” namely a traitor to your cause but the bar here has become a high one.  You are either with them or against them.

The 17th century city wall seems fully intact, the buildings are splendid, and the green, wet, and hilly natural setting is a perfect fit.  The town is long on history, short on things to do.  It is perfect for a two-day trip.

I witnessed a Loyalist parade — the men were not feminized, nor did they seem happy. It is now so much “common knowledge” that Britain really does not care about them.  So what is their future and with whom?  Given differential birthrates, Catholics seem headed to become a majority in NI as well.

Most of the city centre is Catholic, and unlike Belfast it is not difficult to imagine Derry rather easily being swallowed up by the Republic of Ireland, some of which even lies to the north of Derry.

I went to see where Bloody Sunday occurred in 1972, and it shocked me how small the “contested territory” is/was.  It feels as if you can count each and every home, and one’s mind starts wandering to the Coase Theorem and Hong Kong real estate billionaires and Special Enterprise Zones.

Real estate in Northern Ireland seems dramatically underpriced, though along a thirty-year rather than a ten-year time horizon.  But should you buy closer to Belfast?

In some ways Derry reminded me of parts of West Virginia, including the Scots-Irish faces, the bygone glories, and also the “every family has an addiction” signs in the center of town.

One hundred years ago, in 1921, who would have thought that joining with the Irish Republic would lead to more prosperity than joining with Britain?  Therein lies a cautionary note for us all.

Why I am reluctant to endorse preschool

A few of you asked for follow-ups, given my discussion with Ezra Klein.  Here is one paper that makes me skeptical:

Exploiting admission thresholds in a Regression Discontinuity Design, we study the causal effects of daycare at age 0–2 on cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes at age 8–14. One additional month in daycare reduces IQ by 0.5% (4.5% of a standard deviation). Effects for conscientiousness are small and imprecisely estimated. Psychologists suggest that children in daycare experience fewer one-to-one interactions with adults, which should be particularly relevant for girls who are more capable than boys of exploiting cognitive stimuli at an early age. In line with this interpretation, losses for girls are larger and more significant, especially in affluent families.

That is sometimes called the Bologna preschool paper, and it is by Fort, Ichina, and Zanella.  More generally, there is the question of whether a society will produce more top performers with the state as nanny, or with the parents as nanny.  Maybe we don’t know, but my intuition suggests with the parents.  Here are some other reservations, and here are more yet.  It is difficult to show lasting benefits from preschool.  Here is the most extensive study I have seen, and it shows negative results for preschool.  Or consider this RCT.  Symbolically I am not crazy about the idea of building systems that imply human life is about “schooling” almost from the get go.  I don’t think the literature to date is conclusive, but I do think the case for preschool still remains to be made.

Monday assorted links

1. You can now buy a $475 NFT ticket to see Beeple’s $69 million NFT at an IRL party.  The ticket also includes one drink.

2. “We find that young players benefited at the expense of older players and that the disruptive effects of the new [tennis] racquets persisted over two to four generations.

3. In the early stages of pandemics, do they spread more amongst people of higher status?

4. The exclusionary history of the FHA.

5. Excerpts from me on how to read.

6. The Japanese are better at reading Twitter.

7. Tensions between the CDC and Biden administration mount.  Which one do you think is coming closer to trying to maximize expected value?  It turns out even the FDA thinks the CDC is too slow.

Operation Warp Speed: A Story Yet to be Told

Operation Warp Speed was by far the most successful government program against COVID. But as of yet there is very little discussion or history of the program. As just an indication I looked for references in a bunch of pandemic books to General Perna who co-led OWS with Moncef Slaoui. Michael Lewis in The Premonition never mentions Perna. Neither does Slavitt in Preventable. Nor does Wright in The Plague Year. Nor does Gottlieb in Uncontrolled Spread. Abutaleb and Paletta in Nightmare Scenario have just two index entries for Perna basically just stating his appointment and meeting with Trump.

Yet there are many questions to be asked about OWS. Who wrote the contracts? Who chose the vaccines? Who found the money? Who ran the day to day operation? Why was the state and local rollout so slow and uneven? How was the DPA used? Who lifted the regulations? How was the FDA convinced to go fast?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. I suspect when it is all written down, Richard Danzig will be seen as an important behind the scenes player in the early stages (I was involved with some meetings with him as part of the Kremer team). Grogan at the DPC seems under-recognized. Peter Marks at the FDA was likely extremely important in getting the FDA to run with the program. Marks brought people like Janet Woodcock from the FDA to OWS so you had a nominally independent group but one completely familiar with FDA policy and staff and that was probably critical. And of course Slaoui and Perna were important leaders and communicators with the private sector and the logistics group but they have yet to be seriously debriefed.

It’s also time for a revisionist account of President Trump’s Council of Economic Advisors. Michael Kremer and I spoke to the DPC and the CEA early on in the pandemic and argued for a program similar to what would later be called OWS. The CEA, however, was way ahead of the game. In Sept of 2019 (yes, 2019!) the CEA produced a report titled Mitigating the Impact of Pandemic Influenza through Vaccine Innovation. The report calculates the immense potential cost of a pandemic and how a private-public partnership could mitigate these costs–all of this before anyone had heard the term COVID. Nor did that happen by accident. Thomas Philipson, the CEA chair, had made his reputation in the field of economic epidemiology, incorporating incentives and behavioral analysis in epidemiological models to understand HIV and the spread of other infectious diseases. Eric Sun, another CEA economist, had also written with Philipson about the FDA and its problems. Casey Mulligan was another CEA chief economist who understand the danger of pandemics and was influenced by Sam Peltzman on the costs of FDA delay. So the CEA was well prepared for the pandemic and I suspect they gave Trump very good advice on starting Operation Warp Speed.

In short, someone deserves credit for a multi-trillion-dollar saving government program! More importantly, we know a lot about CDC and FDA failure but in order to know what we should build upon we also need to know what worked. OWS worked. We need a history of how and why.

Immigration to the U.S. is correlated with quite high life expectancy

We find that immigration increases US life expectancy by 1.5 years for men and 1.4 years for women. Over half of these contributions occur at the prime working ages of 25–64. The difference between foreign-born and US-born mortality has grown substantially since 1990, with the ratio of US-born to foreign-born mortality rates nearly doubling by 2017. In that year, foreign-born life expectancy reached 81.4 and 85.7 years for men and women, respectively—7.0 and 6.2 years higher than their US-origin counterparts. These life expectancy levels are remarkable by most standards. Foreign-born male life expectancy exceeds that of Swiss men, the world leaders in male life expectancy. Life expectancy for foreign-born women is close to that of Japanese women, the world leaders in female life expectancy. The widening mortality difference between the US-born and foreign-born populations, coupled with an increase in the share of the population born abroad, has been responsible for much of the increase in national life expectancy in recent years. Between 2007 and 2017, foreign-born men and women were responsible for 44% and 60% of national life expectancy improvements. Between 2010 and 2017, immigrants experienced gains while the US-born experienced declines in life expectancy. Thus, nearly all of the post-2010 mortality stagnation is due to adverse trends among the US-born. Without immigrants and their children, national life expectancy in 2017 would be reduced to its 2003 levels. These findings demonstrate that immigration acts to bolster American life expectancy, with particularly valuable contributions at the prime working ages.

I will repeat what is to me the most striking excerpt:

Foreign-born male life expectancy exceeds that of Swiss men, the world leaders in male life expectancy. Life expectancy for foreign-born women is close to that of Japanese women, the world leaders in female life expectancy.

Many interesting results in there, for instance those immigrants sure are mighty!  I strongly suspect much of that is selection, and another big part lifestyle, but yet another implication is that the U.S. health care system maybe isn’t as terrible as what you have been hearing.  And that living in the U.S., over the generations, screws people up.

Here is the full piece by Arun S. Hendi and Jessica Y. Ho, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Yet another underreported medical scandal — the overmedicated elderly

“Add Dx of schizophrenia for use of Haldol,” read the doctor’s order, using the medical shorthand for “diagnosis.”

But there was no evidence that Mr. Blakeney actually had schizophrenia.

Antipsychotic drugs — which for decades have faced criticism as “chemical straitjackets” — are dangerous for older people with dementia, nearly doubling their chance of death from heart problems, infections, falls and other ailments. But understaffed nursing homes have often used the sedatives so they don’t have to hire more staff to handle residents…

The share of residents with a schizophrenia diagnosis has soared 70 percent since 2012, according to an analysis of Medicare data. That was the year the federal government, concerned with the overuse of antipsychotic drugs, began publicly disclosing such prescriptions by individual nursing homes.

Today, one in nine residents has received a schizophrenia diagnosis. In the general population, the disorder, which has strong genetic roots, afflicts roughly one in 150 people.

Schizophrenia, which often causes delusions, hallucinations and dampened emotions, is almost always diagnosed before the age of 40.

Here is more from the NYT, not unrelated to issues of guardianship of course.  Furthermore, this tale does not exactly fit the usual “not enough medical care for the poor” narratives, and perhaps that is why the issue has not caught on more.  The medical profession even appears to be slightly…suboptimal in its ethical procedures.

For the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson.

The Ig Nobel Prizes

img-z2-1_357.jpgThe Ig Nobel Prize in Economics this year went to Pavlo Blavatskyy for Obesity of politicians and corruption in post-Soviet countries:

We collected 299 frontal face images of 2017 cabinet ministers from 15 post-Soviet states (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan). For each image, the minister’s body-mass index is estimated using a computer vision algorithm. The median estimated body-mass index of cabinet ministers is highly correlated with conventional measures of corruption (Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, World Bank worldwide governance indicator Control of Corruption, Index of Public Integrity). This result suggests that physical characteristics of politicians such as their body-mass index can be used as proxy variables for political corruption when the latter are not available, for instance at a very local level.

The Transportation prize went to researchers led by Cornell University’s Robin W. Radcliffe for determining that it is safe to transport an airborne rhinoceros upside down.

Other prizes here.

You may laugh but don’t forget that the great Andre Geim won an Ig Nobel prize in 2000 for levitating a frog and then won a Nobel prize in 2010 for graphene. I consider this one of the greatest accomplishments in all of science.

Photo Credit: Journal of Wildlife Diseases.

Why are American talk shows so much worse than British ones?

Sam Enright emails me:

My girlfriend is American, and she’s been struck by how the UK panel shows – QI, Would I Lie to You, 8 Out of 10 Cats – are so much better than the American ones, and play to the lowest common denominator less. There don’t seem to be a lot of panel shows in America per se, but the closest thing is late night shows, and so far as I can tell, they’re all terrible. A lot of whining about politics. Previously good comedians like Trevor Noah or John Oliver seem to become remarkably un-funny upon becoming hosts of US shows. Yet America has no deficit in producing quality films and TV in general. Do you have a theory about this? Are there culture-specific cues that I’m not picking up on? Is the American elite more competitive and therefore more politically unified, and does this filter down to there being a remarkably narrow range of views you can implicitly endorse in American comedy? Is it all just that the BBC has good taste in what it funds?

I don’t watch enough television to have an informed opinion, but my general intuition is often that the American market has all sorts of hidden corners and niches, many of them stupid, so often there are especially high returns to “selling out.”  In Britain, maybe it is more the case that “the TV customers you see are the TV customers you get”?  This hypothesis, while it can lead to cultural dumbing down, is also consistent with the U.S. market as especially good for new product introduction, and not just because population is high.  Any opinions on the TV issue?

*Beautiful World, Where Are You?* — the new Sally Rooney novel

It is really good, and more subtle than one might have expected.  Imagine Ireland’s #1 left-wing writer imbibing the brew of Ross Douthat over the last few years and putting it all into fictional form, and convincingly at that.  I don’t just mean the Mass scene and the pornography discussion, it is the consistent theme running throughout the book.

The tale ends up as a true case for cultural optimism, albeit with some reasonable qualifications.

Here is a good New Yorker review by Lauren Michele Jackson.  The title of the book is excellent as well.

Saturday assorted links

1. Rationalist baby names?

2. New Brazilian econ Ph.D student at UC Davis is in fact very famous.

3. Robby Soave on vaccine mandates (NYT).

4. The demand for academic economists is rebounding.

5. Australian vaccination progress could be doing better — incentives matter!

6. Adoption and IQ.  It is still my view, by the way, that very large cultural changes can alter IQs quite a lot, as evidenced by the Flynn Effect.  That is one reason why economic development often is so difficult.

7. Final summary and published version of Robin Hanson, et.al., grabby aliens paper.

My appearance on the Ezra Klein Show

Talking with Ezra is always both fun and enlightening for me, here is his partial summary of the episode:

So we begin this conversation by discussing the case for and against economic growth, but we also get into lots of other things: why Cowen thinks the great stagnation in technology is coming to an end; the future of technologies like A.I., crypto, fourth-generation nuclear and the Chinese system of government; the problems in how we fund scientific research; what the right has done to make government both ineffective and larger; why Cowen is skeptical of universal pre-K (and why I’m not); whether I overestimate the dangers of polarization; the ways in which we’re getting weirder; the long-term future of human civilization; why reading is overrated and travel is underrated; how to appreciate classical music and much more.

Here is the link, full transcript here, definitely recommended!

Street-Level Responsiveness of City Governments in China, Germany, and the United States

This paper presents evidence from parallel field experiments in China, Germany, and the United States. We contacted the mayor’s office in over 6,000 cities asking for information about procedures for starting a new business. Chinese and German cities responded to 36-37 percent requests; American cities responded to only 22 percent of requests. We randomly varied the text of the request to identify factors that affect the likelihood of receiving a response. American and German cities were more responsive to requests from citizens than foreigners; Chinese cities did not discriminate on this basis. Chinese cities were more responsive to requests from men than women; German cities did not discriminate on this basis and American cities had a slight bias in favor of women. Cities in all three countries were more responsive to requests associated with starting a construction business than a green business, but especially Chinese cities. Chinese cities were more responsive when the mayor was being considered for promotion than after a promotion decision, suggesting the importance of promotion incentives in China, but low responsiveness to green investment suggests limited incentives for environmental improvement. We argue that the response patterns are consistent with simple political economy theories of democracy and autocracy.

That is by Ekkehard A. Köhler, John G. Matsusaka, and Yanhui Wu.  Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.