The Impact of the Pandemic on US States: GDP and Deaths

Following up on my recent post on country GDP growth rates and mortality in 2020, we now have the first look at state GDP growth rates for 2020 from the BEA.

As with the national data, I would look to caution against over-interpreting this data. I’m presenting it here to give a picture of how 2020 went for states (including a few months of 2021 for morality data). One thing you will notice is that there appears to be little correlation with the raw data between GDP declines and mortality. Lots of important factors (policy, behavior, demographics, weather, luck) aren’t controlled for here. Still, I think it’s useful to see all the data in one picture, given how much many of us have been following the daily, weekly, and monthly releases.

Here is the data. Below I’ll explain more how I created this chart, especially the excess mortality data.

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Moneyball for March Madness

Sinclaire Green, a Samford business school student, writes:

Since Billy Beane transformed the 2002 Oakland Athletics baseball team by utilizing data analytics, propelling the team to a 20 consecutive game win streak, sports fans, coaches, and players have all become more attuned to the role data can play in baseball. As a result, professional basketball teams also began to use data analytics to improve their game plans, skills, and recruiting. In the past few years, Colton Houston and Matt Dover have begun to use data analytics to help college basketball teams similarly to how Billy Beane helped transform the Oakland A’s in the early 2000s.

Houston and Dover’s company, HD Intelligence, provides a service to college basketball that was previously only feasible for professional teams. HD Intelligence eliminates the need for internal data analysts. Analysists at HD Intelligence compile data and present it to college basketball coaches to improve decision making. HD Intelligence prides themselves on making meaningful insights that coaches can understand. Instead of coaches having to rely on watching video and looking at statistics from box scores, HD Intelligence provides reports for teams. Coaches can know their team better, know their opponent better, evaluate recruits effectively, and optimize their schedules.

In the 2019-2020 basketball season, HD Intelligence had two primary college basketball clients, The University of Dayton Flyers and the University of Alabama Crimson Tide. Similar to the Oakland A’s, Dayton does not have quite as robust of a budget as many of the nation’s other top programs. Also similar to the Oakland A’s, the Flyers had a 20-game win streak last year and many basketball aficionados think that Dayton would have won the NCAA tournament had the COVID-19 pandemic not halted the tournament. Similarly, Alabama basketball has had an excellent 2020-2021 season. The program has risen within the SEC to win the 2021 conference tournament. More importantly, the Tide made themselves a legitimate contender for the national title by making it to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament. Even though Alabama did not make it to the Elite Eight, they had a great season with many wins. HD Intelligence helped both Dayton and Alabama optimize their talent and resources by providing data analysis of each game and by assisting with pre-season non-conference scheduling for the two programs. Looking to next basketball season, Houston and Dover have over 10 schools who they will assist with data analytics.

On Cylindrical Revolutions

The three technological innovations new to my life in the last year with the greatest impact are:

  1. Pfizer mRNA vaccines (price = $19.50, input costs: no less than $2 Billion, probably more)
  2. Amazon Basics Foam Roller (price $18.99, input costs: $4.44 per ounce of styrofoam)
  3. Zoom teleconferencing (price: $no idea what my school pays for it, input costs: $146 Million in venture funding)

The vaccine, of which I am scheduled to receive my first dose of tomorrow, will allow me to (sort-of) return to my pre-pandemic life. The introduction and regular use of a cylinder of high-density styrofoam has given me a better functioning left leg than I’ve enjoyed in 5 years. Zoom has arguably done more to maintain my the short-term integrity of my income (i.e. it’s allowed me to teach online effectively).

That is a very oddly shaped distribution of investments in high-utility yield innovations.

Biotechnology and medicine as a high investment, high risk, big payoff innovation game is well understood. Less known was whether or not a rapid “innovation on demand” vaccine project was an achievable outcome, no matter how much money was thrown at it. Turns out it was, and we’re left with what might be the most impressive feat of willed innovation since the moon landing. High-resolution teleconferencing technology, on the other hand, is exactly the kind of product we’ve grown accustomed to modern tech firms producing– the supply of such innovative products via the private capital-entrepreneurship pipeline is almost always less in question than the eventual demand it may or may not find in the marketplace.

But what of treating your muscles like sugar cookie dough? This is neither a sophisticated new composition of materials nor, at face value, a particularly complex theory of musculature. But, to my knowledge, this is not something even professional athletes were doing 7 years ago, yet now is both the bleeding edge of physical maintenance and such common knowledge that everyone who’s strained a muscle in the last 6 months currently has one of these cylinders leaning against a wall in their home. And, while I don’t mean to oversell it, the introduction of foam rolling has massively improved the quality of my life, not just when I try to play any sort of sport, but when I walk down a flight of stairs. It’s not crazy to suggest it may buy me an extra decade of easy use of my preferred mode of transportation, and while using my natural knees at that.

Investment in innovation is an interesting thing – there appears to be significant returns to scale at the micro, meso, and macro levels. Firms flush with capital can focus teams on single problems, fill them with talent, and grant them the keys to every piece of equipment deemed to hold even the slightest possibility of aid en route to an end product. There are simply innovative outcomes on the horizon for the Pfizers of the world that will never be available to scrappy new start-ups. At the same time, we can see the network-driven returns to scale in markets, a la Silicon Valley or Hollywood, that only begin to appear when a critical mass of agents all find themselves drawn to the bubbling creative soups that appears in the diners, salons, and coffee shops of whatever place has become the place.

But there are scale returns at the most macro of macro levels as well, and that is where we get miraculous cylinders of foam, as well as wheels on suitcases and the polymerase chain reaction. People are many things. Occupiers of space. Emitters of carbon dioxide. Consumers of fried dough. Sometimes while doing all three they also come up with ideas.

Humans as idea machines lies at the core of Michael Kremer’s theory of economic growth, and it is perhaps my favorite idea within economics in the last 40 years. Simply put, more people leads to more ideas. Population growth is not just a product of innovation, it is a source of it. Every individual is a lottery ticket that we hope pays off with a world changing eureka moment that the rest of us can benefit from and build on for all time going forward. More people, more lottery tickets.

Those organic globules of cognitive betting slips coalesce into the long tail of innovation return on investment. We take the brightest minds, throwing them and piles of cash at our biggest problems, hoping that for the closest thing to a assured payoff. But it’s within the billions of people, and their billions of bad ideas that sometimes aren’t, within which we get countless miracles that change our lives for the better bit by bit, one smoothened middle-aged stride at a time.

The Future of the World’s Tiniest Billboards

Ben Lange, a business student at Samford, writes:

In January of this year, Apple made a big announcement. It wasn’t about a new iPhone. Apple announced that it will soon release an update to their software that allows users to choose whether they give permissions to apps such as Facebook to track their browsing history on other companies’ apps and websites.(WSJ) This has implications for data usage and availability in advertising. As technology has advanced, regulations surrounding exactly what a company is allowed to do with your data has  stayed relatively stagnant, especially for smartphones. Companies such as Facebook and Twitter are allowed to monitor your searches not only on their apps, but also on your phone browser and other apps.

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Wait for the Lower Cost Version of Policy

I’ve written previously about initial US state compulsory schooling laws in regard to literacy and in school attendance rates. I ended with a political economy hypothesis. Here’s the logic:

  1. Legislators like lower costs, all else constant (more funding is available for other priorities).
  2. Enforcing truancy and educating an illiterate populous is costly.
  3. Therefore, state legislatures that passed compulsory attendance legislation will already have had relatively high rates of school attendance and literacy.

That’s it. Standard political economy incentives. But is it true? Well, we can’t tell what’s going on in politician heads today, much less 150 years ago. Though, we can observe evidence that might corroborate the story. In plain terms, consistent evidence for the hypothesis would be that school attendance and literacy rates were rising prior to compulsory schooling legislation. The figures below show attendance and literacy rates for children ages 10 to 18.

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Working Hard for the Money

40 hours. That’s what we think of as a typical workweek. 8 hours per day. 5 days per week. Perhaps the widespread practice of working from home during the pandemic (as well as the abnormal schedule changes for those unable to work from home), has led some to rethink the nature of the workweek. But the truth is that the workweek has always been evolving.

Take this chart, for example. It comes from Our World in Data (be sure to read their excellent related essay as well), and the historical data comes from a paper by Huberman and Minns. I’ve singled out 4 countries, but you can add others at the OWiD link.

The historical declines are dramatic. This is especially true in Sweden. The average Swedish worker labored for over 3,400 hours per year in 1870. Today, that’s down to 1,600 hours. In other words, the typical Swede works less than half as many hours as her historical counterpart. Wow! The decline for the US is not quite as dramatic, but still astonishing: a US worker today labors for only about 57% of the hours of his 1870 predecessor.

It’s tempting to focus on the differences across countries today: the average worker in the US works about 250 hours more than the average French worker. That’s 6 weeks of vacation! And as recently as 1980, the US and France were roughly equal on this measure. We might also wonder why these historical changes happened. For a very brief introduction to the research, I recommend the last section of this essay by Robert Whaples.

But still, the historical declines are dramatic, even if we in the US haven’t seen much improvement in the past generation (and those poor Swedes, working 100 hours per year more than 40 years ago).

I think another natural question to ask is whether GDP data is distorted, at least as a measure of well being, given these differences in working hours. The answer is partially. Let’s look at the data!

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Chip Shortages Shutting Down Auto Assembly Lines; Buy Your Car Now Or Else

Global supply chains and just in time inventory work great – – until they don’t. Every car these days is a rolling computer, with semiconductors in every vehicle. No chips, no cars. For various reasons, there is a big worldwide shortfall in the chips needed for cars and trucks, which is causing auto assembly lines to shut down for extended periods. Car prices are already rising in response.

Chip production as a whole was slowed down this past year because of Covid effects at the factories. More importantly, chip production was switched away from automobiles to lighter consumer products. Auto assembly lines were curtailed due to the virus, resulting in reduced demand for those specific chips in 2020. The thinking among chip makers was that in the midst of a deadly pandemic, consumers would be sitting home ordering goodies from Amazon or Alibaba, rather than cruising car dealers or spending on travel. Indeed, U. S. spending on durable goods exploded in 2020, fueled in part by generous unemployment and stimulus payments, and this has soaked up existing chip production.

However, car buying has come back earlier than expected. Chip manufacturing is a lengthy process, taking some 26 weeks from start to finish. Chip makers are scrambling to add new capacity and to reconfigure their manufacturing lines for autos, but this shortage will not resolve until later in the year.

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Berkson’s Paradox nay Bias and Spring Break Blogging

You may be tempted to observe a negative correlation between the length of my blog posts and fraction of the previous 7 days that can be accounted for as “Spring Break”, but I submit that you may simply be omitting from the sample all of the short blog posts I could hypothetically be writing in crisp fall months.

Do read Lionel’s whole thread though. It’s good.

Can 5G Hurt You?

One of the many self-inflicted wounds on humanity right now is a fear of new vaccines that is somehow associated with fear of new 5G cell phone technology. This BBC story documents some really nutty stuff including a cell phone tower being attacked in Bolivia where there is not yet any 5G service.

I have my opinion of these people, but what’s the point of printing that? Let’s try to shed some light on what 5G actually is.

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