Politics

Book review: Black Death at the Golden Gate: The Race to Save America from the Bubonic Plague, by David K. Randall.

Imagine a story about an epidemic that reached San Francisco, after devastating parts of China. A few cases are detected, there’s uncertainty about how long it’s been spreading undetected, and a small number of worried public health officials try to mobilize the city to stop an imminent explosion of disease. Nobody knows how fast it’s spreading, and experts only have weak guesses about the mechanism of transmission. News media and politicians react by trying to suppress those nasty rumors which threaten the city’s economy.

Sounds too familiar?

The story is about a bubonic plague outbreak that started in 1900. It happens shortly after the dawn of the Great Sanitary Awakening, when the germ theory of disease is fairly controversial. A few experts in the new-fangled field of bacteriology have advanced the radical new claim that rats have some sort of connection to the spread of the plague, and one has proposed that the connection involves fleas transmitting the infection through bites. But the evidence isn’t yet strong enough to widely displace the standard hypothesis that the disease is caused by filth.

There was a vaccine for the bubonic plague, which maybe helped a bit. It was only 50% effective, the benefits lasted about 6 months, and the side effects sound like cruel and unusual punishment. It was controversial and often resisted, much like the compulsory smallpox vaccinations of the time.

Yet the plague didn’t seem to know that it was supposed to grow at exponential rates. That left an eerie sense of mystery about how the plague could linger for years, with people continuing to disagree about whether it existed.

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New infections have been declining at an almost adequate pace (10% per week?) in most parts of the US, and probably the rest of the developed world.

The overall reported new cases look more discouraging, for two reasons.

One reason is the increase in testing. I estimate that two months ago, a bit less than 10% of new infections were being confirmed by tests, and I estimate that now it’s above 20%, maybe getting close to 25%. That means that if the new infection rate were unchanged, we’d be seeing a roughly 10% per week increase in reported cases.

Nearly all parts of the country have done a good deal better than that.

I estimate the change in new infections since the early April peak by multiplying the early April confirmed daily cases by 10 or 12, and the June ones by 4 or 5, and I get a current rate that’s about 1/4 to 1/3 of the peak.

The bad news is that there are some heavily populated areas for which the trend doesn’t look very good over the past few weeks. When the rate of new infections remains constant in some areas, but declines at exponential rates in others, the exponential declines stop affecting the total numbers before too long. E.g. much of California has suppressed the pandemic, but a few cities, such as Los Angeles and Oakland, are enough to keep the state’s total count of new infections steady.

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In this post, I make some conjectures about U.S. economic growth over the next year or two.

Many people expect a depression, due to the current high unemployment numbers. But depressions aren’t caused by unemployment – that’s a symptom, with little predictive power.

The main cause of poor economic growth has been an inability to alter wages so that the supply of and demand for labor are in balance. That typically means deflation, or a large, unexpected decline in the inflation rate, combined with sticky wages.

So I’ll mostly focus on guessing whether we’ll have inflation or deflation.

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Elon Musk has gotten some well-deserved flack for predicting (in March) close to zero new infections in the U.S. by now.

Yet the focus on national or statewide infections has obscured a curious phenomenon: if he’d just predicted infections in Santa Clara county, he’d have been partly right – new cases peaked on April 10 at 83, were down to 23 on April 27, and appear to have dropped more since then (reporting may be incomplete for more recent days). (Santa Clara county roughly coincides with Silicon Valley; Tesla’s plants are a few miles from the Santa Clara county border, technically in Alameda county, but in most senses Tesla’s plants are part of Silicon Valley, which I’ll treat as a city, even though it’s more a city-less suburb).

Meanwhile, the statewide totals fail to show a trend of doing much more than stabilizing the rate of new cases. A good deal of that is due to Los Angeles.

What’s different between LA and Silicon Valley that would explain this difference?

It’s probably not much due to differences in government policy. California is using a mix of statewide rules and county rules, which makes it tricky to say whether there are policy differences. My impression is that most differences between county policies have relatively minor effects. I guessed that the most important difference would be in when they required facemasks use. Yet it looks like LA required facemasks on April 17, in synchrony with most of the bay area. But Santa Clara county differed by strongly urging, but not requiring, facemasks.

Maybe the reason that Santa Clara county didn’t create a formal facemask rule is that residents were sufficiently quick to adopt them that there was less need than in other counties? That fits my intuitions fairly well.

The LA area has been in the news for having crowded beaches. Outdoor activity in warm, sunny weather seems relatively low risk, but I doubt that the people on those beaches carefully evaluated the effects of ventilation, sun, and temperature on their risk, so it’s likely that the crowded beaches are at least a symptom of attitudes which cause the spread of infections.

I can see from Ohio that there are significant regional differences in people’s willingness to wear facemasks. I’m surprised that Ohio voters won’t put up with a rule to make them wear masks in order to enter stores. (Ohio’s Governor DeWine deserves much better constituents than he’s currently stuck with. Here in Berkeley, I get the impression that a majority decided that we needed to follow that rule before our government got around to announcing it).

Another relevant difference is that Silicon Valley workers switched to working from home more readily than most other places. This is likely a moderate factor, but I’d have expected a peak before April 10 if it explained more than half of Silicon Valley’s success.

Another influence might be blood types: type A blood creates higher risk of COVID-19, while type O lowers risk. Judging from the blood type differences between the U.S. and China, the large Chinese population in Silicon Valley ought to lower risk a bit.

LA’s apparently steady number of new cases can’t be very stable. People’s willingness to take precautions will decline at some point if herd immunity looks inevitable. Pushing in the other direction: increasing numbers of people will become immune, reducing the virus’ ability to spread. It seems almost impossible for these forces to balance out.

Robin Hanson sees a world polarized between regions that prevent infections and regions that get something like herd immunity. I expect that many regions, such as LA, will end up at various places in between, with maybe 10% of the population becoming immune. Since the people most likely get infected and to spread the virus will be over-represented in that fraction, it will put a sizable dent in R, enough to enable significant periods of suppression.

Robin expects that variance in R will be harmful. Zvi counters that variance is not bad, given sufficiently effective travel restrictions.

I mostly agree with Zvi here. The cost of restricting nearly all travel to commuting distance or less from home is much lower than the cost of the current drastic restrictions, so voters will typically demand a shift in that direction. My main concern is that these travel restrictions are getting lumped in with “lockdown measures” such as stay at home, and shut down “nonessential” businesses. That means that pressure to reopen activities that ought to be reopened could become pressure to remove most travel restrictions.

How many politicians will see beyond simple categories such as lockdowns versus reopening the economy, to pick and choose between the good and bad pieces of lockdowns? My impression is that at least half of the state and local politicians are on track to doing so, and have enough power to sidestep whatever problems exist at the federal level.

I sympathize with Musk’s desire to reopen Tesla plants, and it’s somewhat plausible that now is the right time for that. But I’m reluctant to side with him until he alters his tweets to be more narrowly targeted on specific, arguably safe, changes. I don’t want the world polarized between openers and closers.

Some links to information sources that I’ve been using:

Food delivery is erratic in Berkeley. GoodEggs seems to have major food shortages, and maybe some labor shortages. Model Meals has been working almost as smoothly as normal, providing I place my order a day before their deadline – they are selling out of most things near their deadlines. I tried Instacart for the first time, and it seems substantially degraded by high demand – I had problems with getting 2 apples when I ordered 2 3-lb bags of apples (no that wasn’t listed as a substitution – the intentional substitutions worked fine). I’m guessing I’ll want to go back to shopping at grocery stores in person in a week or so. Infection rates are almost certainly dropping here now that the shelter-in-place rules have been around for a while, but it will likely be a week before much evidence confirms that.

I hiked in Briones Regional Park on Friday. I expect to see no more than 5 cars at the trailhead on a weekday; this time there were more than 30! People seemed unusually friendly. Most were making a decent effort to keep a 6 foot distance from me, but a few of the younger ones seemed to not care.

I think OPEC just collapsed, and nobody celebrated. I suppose the climate change implications might be a bit bad, but most effects will be pretty good.

Will auto sales be up or down a year from now? Loss of wealth will delay some purchases, and a fair number of existing drivers will drive less. But some people will switch from public transport to owning a car; others will switch from UberPool to UberX.

A modest number of maids will be replaced by Roombas [disclosure: I just bought stock in iRobot].

Politicians are talking about bailing out airlines, with terms that prevent them from stock buybacks. I expect that restriction to be purely symbolic – it will be a while before airlines are tempted to do buybacks anyway. If politicians were really upset about buybacks, they would instead deny the bailout to a single airline that was the most reckless in buybacks (maybe the one that achieved the worst debt to tangible equity ratio? I think that’s Delta). Alas, politicians won’t do that. After all, it might help people see that bailouts are somewhat targeted at helping bond and stock holders, and that the planes, workers, etc., don’t just vanish in the (somewhat unlikely) event that bankruptcy proceedings cause one company to shut down.

Some senators are under fire for insider trading on some sort of COVID-19 insights. If they profited from improved analysis of public information, I think that’s great! I’d like them to have an incentive to listen to experts. It would be suspicious if they profited from secret data, but I can’t find much reason to think that’s what happened – as far as I can tell, the relevant evidence was made public fairly quickly, and what mattered was competent evaluation of that evidence. And the most important question is what else they did to prepare. If, as the news storytellers vaguely imply, they did little else to warn people, then either they were more confused than the reports suggest, or they were recklessly negligent.

Shutting borders can hurt:

One issue has been restrictions on travel intended to stem the spread of coronavirus, which has affected [U.S. ventilator maker] ResMed’s Singapore factory which employs many workers from neighbouring Malaysia. He said ResMed has appealed to the Malaysian government for an exemption so its workers can travel to Singapore.

Biomerica has a new COVID-19 test with some apparently nice features that differ from the common PCR-based tests. However:

Biomerica is positioned to begin filling large international orders of this disposable one-use tests within weeks, assuming international product shipping channels remain open and active.

In addition, Biomerica has begun the application process with the FDA under the COVID-19 Emergency Use Authorization (EUA), aimed at the possible clearance and eventual use of the test in the US. At this time, the product is not available for sale or use in the US.

And finally, some related entertainment about flattening the curve of armchair epidemiology.

Book review: Artificial Intelligence Safety and Security, by Roman V. Yampolskiy.

This is a collection of papers, with highly varying topics, quality, and importance.

Many of the papers focus on risks that are specific to superintelligence, some assuming that a single AI will take over the world, and some assuming that there will be many AIs of roughly equal power. Others focus on problems that are associated with current AI programs.

I’ve tried to arrange my comments on individual papers in roughly descending order of how important the papers look for addressing the largest AI-related risks, while also sometimes putting similar topics in one group. The result feels a little more organized than the book, but I worry that the papers are too dissimilar to be usefully grouped. I’ve ignored some of the less important papers.

The book’s attempt at organizing the papers consists of dividing them into “Concerns of Luminaries” and “Responses of Scholars”. Alas, I see few signs that many of the authors are even aware of what the other authors have written, much less that the later papers are attempts at responding to the earlier papers. It looks like the papers are mainly arranged in order of when they were written. There’s a modest cluster of authors who agree enough with Bostrom to constitute a single scientific paradigm, but half the papers demonstrate about as much of a consensus on what topic they’re discussing as I would expect to get from asking medieval peasants about airplane safety.

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Book review: Where Is My Flying Car? A Memoir of Future Past, by J. Storrs Hall (aka Josh).

If you only read the first 3 chapters, you might imagine that this is the history of just one industry (or the mysterious lack of an industry).

But this book attributes the absence of that industry to a broad set of problems that are keeping us poor. He looks at the post-1970 slowdown in innovation that Cowen describes in The Great Stagnation[1]. The two books agree on many symptoms, but describe the causes differently: where Cowen says we ate the low hanging fruit, Josh says it’s due to someone “spraying paraquat on the low-hanging fruit”.

The book is full of mostly good insights. It significantly changed my opinion of the Great Stagnation.

The book jumps back and forth between polemics about the Great Strangulation (with a bit too much outrage porn), and nerdy descriptions of engineering and piloting problems. I found those large shifts in tone to be somewhat disorienting – it’s like the author can’t decide whether he’s an autistic youth who is eagerly describing his latest obsession, or an angry old man complaining about how the world is going to hell (I’ve met the author at Foresight conferences, and got similar but milder impressions there).

Josh’s main explanation for the Great Strangulation is the rise of Green fundamentalism[2], but he also describes other cultural / political factors that seem related. But before looking at those, I’ll look in some depth at three industries that exemplify the Great Strangulation.

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Book review: Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas Piketty.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century is decent at history, mediocre at economics, unimpressive at forecasting, and gives policy advice that is thoughtfully adapted to his somewhat controversial goals. His goals involve a rather different set of priorities than I endorse, but the book mostly doesn’t try to persuade us to adopt his goals, so I won’t say much here about why I have different priorities.

That qualifies as a good deal less dumbed-down-for-popularity than I expected from a bestseller.

Even when he makes mistakes, he is often sufficiently thoughtful and clear to be somewhat entertaining.

Piketty provides a comprehensive view of changes in financial inequality since the start of the industrial revolution.

Piketty’s main story is that we’ve experienced moderately steady increases in inequality, as long as conditions remained somewhat normal. There was a big break in that trend associated with WW1, WW2, and to lesser extents the Great Depression and baby boom. Those equalizing forces (mainly decreases in wealth) seem unlikely to repeat. We’re back on a trend of increasing inequality, with no end in sight.

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Most Universal Basic Income (UBI) proposals look a bit implausible, because they want to solve poverty overnight, and rely on questionable hopes for how much taxpayers can be persuaded to support[1].

They also fall short of inspiring my idealistic motives, because they want to solve poverty only within the countries that implement the UBI (i.e. they should be called national basic income proposals). That means even those of us living in relatively successful countries would be gambling on the continued success of the country they happen to live in. I imagine some large upheavals in the next century or so that will create a good deal of uncertainty as to which countries prosper.

Political movements to create national basic income run the risk of being hijacked by political forces that are more short-sighted and less altruistic.

Whereas I’m more interested in preparing for the more distant risks of a large-scale technological unemployment that might accompany a large increase in economic growth.

UBI without taxation?

Manna is a somewhat better attempt. It’s a cryptocurrency with a one account per human rule, and regular distributions of additional (newly created) currency to each account.

It provides incentives to sign up (speaking of which, I get rewards if you sign up via this link). It’s less clear what incentive people have to hold onto their manna[2].

It’s designed so that, given optimistic assumptions, the price of manna will be stable, or maybe increase somewhat. Note that those optimistic assumptions include a significant amount of altruism on the part of many people.

Cryptocurrencies gained popularity in part because they offered a means of trust that was independent of their creator’s trustworthiness.

Manna doesn’t attempt to fully replicate that feature, because they’re not about to fully automate the one-human-one-account rule. They’ve outsourced a good deal of the verification to cell phone companies, but the system will still be vulnerable to fraud unless a good deal of human labor goes into limiting people to one account each.

The obvious outcome is that people stop buying manna, so it becomes worth too little for people to bother signing up.

I suspect most buying so far has been from people who think any cryptocurrency will go up. That’s typical of a bubble.

That may have helped to jumpstart the system, but I’m concerned that it may distract the founders from looking for a long-term solution.

Why use a cryptocurrency?

Some of what’s happening is that crypto enthusiasts expect crypto to solve all problems, and apply crypto to everything without looking for evidence that crypto is helpful to the problem at hand. The cryptocurrency bubble misled some people into thinking that cryptocurrencies created free lunches[3] (manna comes from heaven, right?), and a UBI is a good use for a free lunch.

I recommend instead that you think of manna as primarily a charity, which happens to get some advantage from using a cryptocurrency.

Cryptocurrencies provide fairly cheap ways of transmitting value.

The open source nature of the mechanism makes it relatively easy to verify most aspects of the system.

These may not sound like terribly strong reasons, but it looks to me like much of the difficulty in getting widespread adoption of valuable new charities is that donors won’t devote much effort to evaluating charities. So only the most easily verified charities succeed on their merits, and the rest succeed or fail mainly on their marketing ability.

Difficulties

It seems almost possible that the price of manna could be stable or rise reliably enough to act as a good store of value.

But it won’t happen via the thoughtless greed that drove last year’s cryptocurrency buying frenzy. It requires something along the lines of altruism and/or signaling.

It seems to require the “central bank” to use charitable donations to buy manna when the price of manna declines.

It also requires something unusual about the average person’s attitude toward manna. Would it be enough for people and businesses to accept manna as payment, for reasons that involve status signaling? That doesn’t seem quite enough.

It’s also important to persuade some people to hold the manna for a significant time.

Strategies

There’s little chance that can be accomplished by making manna look as safe as dollars or yuan. The only possibility that I can imagine working is if holdings of manna provide a good signal of wealth and wealth-related status. Manna seems to be positioned so that it could become a substitute for a fancy car or house as a signal of wealth. With that level of acceptance, it might provide a substitute for bank accounts as a store of value.

Signaling motives might also lead some upper-class people/businesses to use it as medium of exchange.

To work well, manna would probably need to be recognized as a charity, with a reputation that is almost as widely respected as the Red Cross. I.e. it would need to be a fairly standard form of altruism.

The main UBI movement wants to imagine they can solve poverty with one legislative act. Manna uses a more incremental approach, which provides less hope of solving poverty this decade, but maybe a bit more hope of mitigating larger problems from technological unemployment several decades from now.

Doubts?

Manna seems to be run by the first group of people who decided the idea was worth doing. Typically with a new technology, the people who will manage it most responsibly wait a few years before getting involved, so my priors are that I should hesitate before deciding this particular group is good enough.

Manna currently isn’t fair to people who can’t afford a cell phone, but if other aspects of manna succeed, it’s likely that cell phone companies will find a way to get cell phones to essentially everyone, since the manna will pay for the phones. Also, alternatives to cell phones will probably be implemented for manna access.

The high-level rhetoric says any human being is eligible for manna, but a closer look shows that anyone under 18 is treated as only partly qualified – manna accumulates in their name, and they get access to the manna when they come of age. The arbitrariness of this threshold is unsettling. We’ll get situations where people become parents, yet don’t have access to manna. Or maybe that’s not much of a problem because someone else will enable children to borrow, using their manna as collateral?

The problems will become harder if someone needs to figure out what qualifies a human being in an Age of Em, where uploaded minds (human, and maybe bonobo) can be quickly duplicated.

I’m not too clear on how the governing board will be chosen – they say something about voting, which sort of suggests a global democracy. That runs some risk of short-sighted people voting themselves more money now at the cost of a less stable system later. But the alternative governing mechanisms aren’t obviously great either.

I’d have more confidence if manna were focused exclusively on a UBI. But they want to also enable targeted donations, by providing verified age, gender, location, and occupation data, and “verified needy” status indications generated by other charities. Maybe a one or two of those would work out well, but I see some important tension between them and the “NO DISCRIMINATION” slogan on the home page.

The people in charge also want to solve “instability … resulting from too much money being held in too few hands and used for reckless financial speculation” without convincing me they understand what causes instability.

I’d be concerned about macroeconomic risks in the unlikely event that manna’s use became widespread enough that wages were denominated in it. Manna’s creators express Keynesian concerns about aggregate demand, suggesting that the best we could hope for from a manna monetary policy is that it would repeat the Fed’s occasional large mistakes. I’d prefer to aim for something better than that.

Current central banks have enough problems with promoting monetary stability. If they’re replaced by an organization which has a goal that’s more distinct from monetary stability, I expect monetary stability to suffer. I don’t consider it likely that manna will replace existing currencies enough for that to be a big concern, but I find this scenario hard to analyze.

Like most charities, it depends more on support from the wealthy than from the average person. Yet the rhetoric behind Manna seems designed to alienate the wealthy.

Is current People’s Currency Foundation sufficiently trustworthy? Or should someone create a better version?

I don’t know, and I don’t expect to do enough research to figure it out. Maybe OpenPhil can investigate enough?

Is this Effective Altruism?

The near-term benefits of Manna or something similar appear unimpressive compared to GiveDirectly, which targets beneficiaries in a more sophisticated (but less transparent?) way.

But Manna’s simpler criteria make it a bit more scaleable, and make it somewhat easier to gain widespread trust.

The main costs that I foresee involve the attention that is needed to shift people’s from charities such as the Red Cross or their alma mater as the default charity, toward manna. Plus, of course, whatever is lost from the charities who get fewer donations. There’s no shortage of charities that produce less value than a well-run UBI would, but the social pressure that I’m imagining is too blunt an instrument to carefully target the least valuable charities as the things that manna should replace.

Conclusion

I don’t recommend significant purchases of manna or donations to the People’s Currency Foundation now. Current efforts in this area should focus more on evaluating these ideas further, figuring out whether a good enough implementation exists, and if it should be scaled up, then we should focus more on generating widespread agreement that this is a good charity, and not focus much on near-term funding.

I give Manna a 0.5% chance of success, and I see an additional 1% chance that something similar will succeed. By success, I mean reliably providing enough income within 30 years so that at least 10 million of the world’s poorest people can use it to buy 2000 calories per day of food. That probability seems a bit higher than the chance that political action will similarly help the world’s poorest.

Footnotes

[1] – e.g. pointing to tax rates that were tolerated for a while after a world war, without noticing the hints that war played an important role in getting that toleration, and without noting how tax rates affect tax avoidance. See Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, figures 13.1 and 14.1, for evidence that tax rates which are higher than current rates haven’t generated more revenues.

[2]Wikipedia says of the original manna: ‘Stored manna “bred worms and stank”‘.

[3] – or maybe the best cryptocurrencies do create free lunches, but people see more free lunches than are actually created. The majority of cryptocurrencies have been just transfers of money from suckers to savvy traders.