Monday, August 31, 2020

What if the private sector were responsible for California wildfires?

So we enter another week enveloped in smoke, here in California.

My thought for the day: Can you imagine the public and political reaction if this were caused by a private-sector activity?

Imagine for a minute that Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg had a many thousand acre ranch in Northern California, but for decades they refused to do any proper management and let kindling pile up. Suppose that when massive fires erupted every year, they relied on heroic volunteers and prisoners being paid a few dollars a day to go try to put out the flames. Suppose this happened every year, covering the state in smoke that make the bad old days of 1960s air pollution. Or, worse than Beijing

Suppose when questioned that Bezos and Zuckerberg said, well, there is nothing to be done about it because the climate is getting warmer. Or supposed they offered to build a high speed train and subsidize electric cars to reduce California's 0.1% contribution to carbon, so the climate will only get warmer 2.999 degrees rather than 3.00 degrees in the next century. Which you will pay for.

Imagine if any of this came from the private sector. Suppose one of the few remaining oil refineries were covering the state in smoke for a month at a time every year. Or if it were automobile exhaust.

I think the guillotine set up in front of Bezos' home recently is mild compared to what would happen. The state government would be launching lawsuits, draconian regulations, and long prison terms. Politicians and activists would be issuing daily denunciations of capitalism gone amok.  Bad air  hits poor, sick, and minorities harder, which they'd be screaming about.

This is the state that pioneered clean air after all. We have had our own special smog restrictions on cars for a half a century. Commenters on nextdoor go apoplectic if anyone turns on a gas leaf blower.

Yet the response so far is an amazing silence. If indeed it is climate change, dear fellow citizens, then that is ever more reason to do something about it. Climate change is a slow-moving predictable problem that will get worse. Even if the whole world takes up the whole green new deal, and even if that turns out to work, it only limits how much the climate gets warmer. If it's climate change, the only rational answer is to spend a lot more money to fix the problem, now. There are a lot of unemployed people in this state. They could be cleaning forests 11 months of the year. There is a huge amount of money in the state budget. It could be hiring firefighters, buying airplanes, and stopping this in its tracks.

Underlying it is the moralistic attitude. This is the price we must pay for our carbon sins, so we must pray to the carbon gods with useless virtue signals and endure, as our ancestors prayed to keep plague away. Even though we know the cause and effect here. To do anything about climate-induced problems is dreaded "adaptation," which does not involve the necessary self-flagellation.

But that attitude would change fast if the government were not completely responsible for this avoidable disaster. Hence my thought for the day.

Goodfellows RNC commentary

The latest Goodfellows podcast, with guest Lanhee Chen. We discuss the Republican convention, the implosion of cities,  and related matters.

Direct link here.

The main message of each convention, perhaps: Joe Biden is not Donald Trump. Donald Trump is not a progressive Democrat.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

More on tests

 Robert Zubrin puts the point well in a National Review essay (thanks to a commenter on my last post). 

There are now a variety of fast coronavirus tests that could be readily administered by businesses and schools and provide results within 20 minutes. These tests require only saliva samples, not deep upper nose swabs, and can be readily administered by practically anyone with very modest training. The FDA just approved “emergency use” of one of them by the NBA. The problem is that they won’t let the rest of us use them. Recently I was offered highly effective and economical rapid tests developed by an extremely well-qualified biotech firm. But FDA rules precluded transporting their tests across state lines. Upon appeal it now appears that the FDA might be willing to authorize such shipments on an “emergency basis,” but only for use in already overbooked clinics certified by yet another bureaucracy.

This won’t do. We need to be able to use the tests ourselves.

No clinics. No prescription. No doctor visit. No faxing forms to insurance companies. 

If we were allowed to use these tests, schools and businesses could test their students and workers at the start of each week and send all virus carriers home by 9 a.m. Monday. We could end the pandemic within four weeks, without needing to shut down any schools or companies. 

Testing every American every two weeks means about 30 million tests a day. 

The authorities can’t possibly administer 30 million tests per day. But we — the people — can do it easily, provided we are allowed to do so. 

We are currently forbidden from doing so. The financial cost is trivial compared to the $5 trillion the government is spending on covid relief.  

Friday, August 14, 2020

Test = vaccine

"Cheap, frequent COVID tests could be ‘akin to vaccine,’ professor says" from the Harvard Gazette HT Miles Kimbal

Yes, I'm repeating myself, but maybe if we just try over and over again we'll get through. We could stop this disease now with tests. Vaccines are just a tool to stop disease transmission. Widespread, cheap frequent tests are just as effective a tool to stop disease transmission. So I'll keep quoting anyone who wants to say this! 

A Harvard epidemiologist and expert in disease testing is calling for a shift in strategy toward a cheap, daily, do-it-yourself test that he says can be as effective as a vaccine at interrupting coronavirus transmission — and is currently the only viable option for a quick return to an approximation of normal life.

“These are our hope,” said Michal Mina, assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “We don’t have anything tomorrow, other than shutting down the economy and keeping schools closed.”

....the paper-strip tests have already been developed and their shotgun approach to testing — cheap and widespread — provides a way back to the workplace, classroom, and other venues.

The tests, which can be produced for less than a dollar, can be performed by consumers each day or every other day. Though not as accurate as current diagnostic tests, they are nonetheless effective at detecting virus when a person is most infectious, Mina said. If everyone who tests positive stays home, he said, the widespread effect would be similar to that of a vaccine, breaking transmission chains across the country.

... What I would like to see happen is to start using testing [as] a true public health tool to break transmission chains in the same way that we know we can use masks to decrease transmission,” Mina said. “I want these tests to tell people they’re transmitting [the virus to others] at the time they’re transmitting, and [when] people can act on it because they’re getting immediate results. And I want them to take it every single day, or every other day.”

Several companies have developed such tests, Mina said.

Why aren't we doing this, voluntarily even? 

The Food and Drug Administration,..  has held up approval because the tests aren’t as accurate as nasal-swab, lab-based tests. While that would matter if they were intended as an individual diagnostic tool, Mina said that from a public health viewpoint, they are accurate enough to provide critical initial screening on a large scale. ....

“Everyone says, ‘Why aren’t you doing this already?’ My answer is, ‘It is illegal to do this right now,’” Mina said. 

In other words, the FDA says:  "Yes, you can use a thermometer to screen people out and send them home. Yes, you can use a questionnaire to screen people out and send them home.  No, you may not use a far more accurate $1 paper test for exactly the same purpose. And if you try, we'll ruin your company and send you to jail." 

Alex Tabarrok puts it nicely: We're testing for contagiousness, not for infection. 

President Trump seems to have discovered President Obama's phone and pen. A suggestion: Tomorrow morning, 9 AM, executive order: The sale and use of these paper tests shall be legal. We could be done with Covid 19 in a month or two. 

Thursday, August 13, 2020

TikTok dust up

This week's Goodfellows conversation was a bit more contentious than usual. The most interesting part, I think, is our little dust-up over TikTok, following Niall's Bloomberg commentary.

As in the rest of this series I am the skeptic of jumping in to Cold War II -- or at least against lashing out against all things China without an overall strategy. So I pushed hard on my colleagues -- Be specific. Just exactly what is the danger you fear about allowing a Chinese social media company to operate in the U.S?

Monday, August 10, 2020


America has essentially given up on containing the corona virus, and will just let it spread while we await a vaccine. Oh sure, our governors and other public officials flap around about wearing masks and social distancing. But there is no serious public health effort. (If you're in California, I encourage you to listen to NPR's faithful coverage of our Governor Gavin Newsom's noon daily press conference. Never has anyone so artfully said so little in so many words.) 

A vaccine is a technological device that, combined with an effective policy and public-health bureaucracy for its distribution,  allows us to stop the spread of a virus.  But we have such a thing already. Tests are a technological device that, combined with an effective policy and public-health bureaucracy for its distribution, allows us to stop the spread of a virus. 

For that public health purpose, tests do not need to be accurate. They need to be cheap, available, and fast. When the history of this virus is written, I suspect that the immense fubar, snafu, complete incompetence of the FDA, CDC, and health authorities in general at understanding and using available tests to stop the virus will be a central theme. (Well, forecasting historians is a dangerous game. Already "the virus increases inequality and social injustice" seems to be the narrative of the day.) 

Marginal revolution has three insightful posts on the issue. "Bill Gates is angry" starts with a  comment on the fact that currently, once you get a test, it can take days or even weeks to get the results.  

..that’s just stupidity. The majority of all US tests are completely garbage, wasted. 

If the point of the test is to find out who has it, and isolate them, then an answer that comes back after they've gone out to spread the virus to friends, family and co-workers is completely wasted. Gates has an econ-101 insight into why this is happening:

If you don’t care how late the date is and you reimburse at the same level, of course they’re going to take every customer...You have to have the reimbursement system pay a little bit extra for 24 hours, pay the normal fee for 48 hours, and pay nothing [if it isn’t done by then]. And they will fix it overnight.

I know a great such reimbursement system, but I'll hold that in suspense. (You can probably guess what it is.) 

A second great insight: 

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Sowell review

Coleman Hughes writes a wonderful review of Thomas Sowell's life and work in City Journal. Savor it.

My first Sowell book was Knowledge and Decisions, and I am heartened to see Hughes put that foremost as well. Sowell takes up where Hayek left off, how the price system is the network like our neurons communicating information across a complex economy. This remains a verbal part of the economics tradition, resisting formal modeling so far, and is thereby too often glossed over in graduate training. Read it. 

Sowell of course has written masterpieces on race, a collection of impeccably documented uncomfortable truths to the progressive left. My first, The Economics and Politics of Race is just one of nearly a dozen meticulous books, from Black Education: Myths and Tragedies (1972) to Discrimination and Disparities, second edition (2019). Hughes reviews important points in Conquests and Cultures, Migrations and Cultures, and Race and Culture.