GDP Losses and COVID Deaths (6 month update)

Back in March of this year, I wrote blog posts providing data on GDP losses and COVID-19 deaths for 2020, both for selected countries and US states. Since we’ve now had another 6 months of GDP data and the pandemic continues to take lives, I thought it would be useful to update that data.

I will update the data for US states in a future post, but here is the most recent data for about 3 dozen countries (mostly European and North American countries, since they have the most believe COVID data).

*indicates that the GDP data is only through the first quarter of 2021
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Streaming Content: Scattering Vs Dumping

Like a good millennial, I don’t have cable. Instead I have Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Disney+, YouTube, and a free trial of Apple TV. And before you say that I’m spending just as much as I would have spent on cable, just – no. First, I am not. Second, I have way more capability and discretion than I ever had with cable. Each of these streaming services now has their own studio(s) and competition is causing them to produce some content of exceptional quality. And, they differ in their decisions scatter vs dump. Amazon and Apple TV scatter their new episodes on a weekly schedule. You can still watch the episodes whenever your heart desires once they’re released. But if you are up-to-date, then you must wait 7 days until new episodes are available. Netflix, on the other hand, dumps out a new series all at once. You can spend the afternoon (or morning, or night) watching an entire season of the newest content from a high-end studio.

If we take a look through the way-way-back machine, then we can observe must-see-TV on NBC in the 1990s. Networks followed the scattering model. Most people didn’t own a DVR and on demand wasn’t really a thing except for pay-per-view. VCR (video cassette recorders) were ubiquitous, but people enjoyed watching their shows as they were released rather than later watching a recording. The 90s and early 00s were a special time for NBC in particular: Friends, Seinfeld, Frasier, 3rd Rock from the Sun, and ER were all a part of the weekly line-up – with Will & Grace and Scrubs soon following the finale of Seinfeld.

New weekly episodes that were released during a literal ‘season’ of the year had been the model for as long as television signals had been broadcasted. Several of today’s streaming services still adhere to the 80-year-old practice.

Why?

I’ve got 3 reasons for why streaming services still scatter new releases. The first is the one I that have the least to say about: Buzz. It’s good marketing for a show to be released over a longer period of time. In a world of social media, the longer the time that a show is salient in your life, the greater the opportunity for you to share the show with your friends or for critics to acclaim (or pan, as the case may be). It’s a marketing tactic. If all of the episodes in a season were released all at once, then a show would be in-and-out of your life like a stray ice cube that goes rogue from the refrigerator ice-dispenser. You care for a bit. But soon, it’ll evaporate and never be a concern again. I’m not an expert in marketing. So I’ll just leave it at that.

The second reason is due to the time value of money. The sooner that we can enjoy revenues and the later that we can push costs, the better. It’s true for multiple reasons. Financially, every day sooner that you receive a dollar is an additional day during which you can earn a return by investing it elsewhere. For ease, let’s hold the schedule of costs constant and just worry about the revenues. If a streaming service releases episodes weekly, then episodes can start dropping before the season finale is even completed. There’s nothing that says that the whole season has to be ready by the time the first episode is released.  And, when episodes are released earlier, would-be viewers are sooner willing to sign-up and become paying customers. Releasing episodes weekly allows a studio to increase revenues before the whole product has finished production.

The 3rd and final reason for streaming services to release on a weekly schedule is due to the subscription structure of marginal revenue. Streaming services earn *no* additional revenue per episode viewed by customers. The marginal revenue earned from paying customers comes from subscriptions. That is, each month of a subscription is revenue for the streaming service provider – no matter how many episodes a subscriber watches. Therefore, if a season is released piecemeal, then it increases the number of weeks during which the streaming service receives revenues from the customer. Of course, people could just wait until all of the episodes are released and then subscribe for a single weekend of lethargic binging. But that can only happen when a viewer is comfortable with forsaking the frontier of new video content. That would mean that a viewer is out of fashion and out of the conversation that their friends and co-workers are having. And if this sounds like small potatoes, then keep in mind that such conversations are often about signaling belonging, comradery, and cultural sophistication. Many people are inclined to stay up-to-date on TV, the news, and sports and therefore have a greater willingness to pay.

There you have it. The 3 reasons for streaming by scattering over weeks rather than dumping all at once are 1) More persistent saliency among viewers and potential viewers, 2) Sooner rather than delayed revenues, and 3) More periods for which streaming service can charge their customers for new content.

I only have one explanation for why some streaming services do in fact dump an entire season at once. Netflix does it on the regular and Amazon started doing it in the past several years too. I suspect that they do it as a means of attracting a particular market segment: binge-watchers. There being two players who compete on this margin may make either provider appear less attractive for consumers who desire new, binge-worthy content. But, luckily for Netflix, streaming content providers aren’t in a perfectly competitive market. That content an imperfect substitute means that it’s monopolistically competitive. And, for the moment, that means higher profits. The keen reader will recognize, however, that zero long run economic profits are also implied.

Who is the Wealthiest Generation?

Have you seen this chart?

I have seen it many times. It comes from this Washington Post article, but it seems to go viral on Twitter about every 6 months or so.

The implication of the chart seems to confirm what many young people feel in their bones: Boomers had it much easier, and it’s getting harder and harder for later generations to catch up and build wealth. For many the graph… explains a lot, as one recent viral Tweet put it (in the weird world of social media, 5 short words and a recycled chart are all it takes for 20,000 retweets).

But wait. A few questions probably come to mind. For example, when Boomers were young they comprised a much larger share of the population. The original article makes an attempt to adjust for this, by calculating a few ratios towards the end of the article. However, there’s a much more straightforward way to adjust for this, which also nicely fits into a chart: put wealth in per capita terms!

If we do that, here’s the chart we get (also, of course, adjusted for inflation).

Data is for 1989-2021 from the Federal Reserve’s Distributional Financial Accounts, but only the first quarter is available right now for 2021. For 1989, it is the average of the third and fourth quarters. Population data comes from Census single-year of age estimates for various years. 2020 and 2021 population estimated using growth rate from 2010-2019.
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We need City-States

What happens when the world changes sufficiently that a subset of the institutions that laid the groundwork for the most successful nation of the last 200 years becomes becomes maladapted to their context? Well, thanks to a couple billion year of evolutionary biology, we know the possible outcomes. The classic evolutionary answer is that the species in question will either adapt, migrate, or die. Repurposed for the modern nation-state, the country in question will either:

  1. Adapt it institutions
  2. Change the context (i.e. whole nations can’t migrate)
  3. Steadily decline into some combination of irrelevance or chaos

Omar Wasow put together a nice thread, where each individual tweet stands wholly on it’s own as an acute observation, on the current state of the Senate as an elected institution:

So let’s think about our options here.

Decline into Irrelevance and Chaos

I mean, it’s a choice, but it’s not one I’m particularly excited about.

Adaptation

We could amend the constitution to change how the Senate is apportioned in some clever way that still maintains the mandated suffrage of every state. We could change/abolish the electoral college. I’ll be blunt: I don’t ever see a path forward for constitutional change that will entirely undermine the political power of the one of the major parties (good luck getting 2/3 of Senators to push through an Amendment that will undercut the careers of at least half of them). The resistance to it, at every level, will be extreme. The last time we tried to make an institutional change with that much impact on the balance of power, we had to fight a war to resolve it. There may be a path forward here, but not on a timescale that I’m interested in. I’m only interested in solutions that could be feasibly enacted in my lifetime.

Change the Circumstances

Unlike your typical seed-eating bird of the Galapagos Islands, we do have the means to change the map upon which the Senate is selected. In other words, more states. I don’t mean just granting statehood to Puerto Rico and DC (though it is mildly unconscionable that we haven’t done so already). And I don’t just mean (the very good and perfectly reasonable idea) of splitting California and Texas into 5 and 3 states. I mean a lot more states.

Let’s think about the underlying problem for a second. The Senate biasing representation towards a small minority of voters is a symptom of a larger phenomenon: the continued movement of Americans to dense urban areas. People keep moving to cities, and often from states without a major urban center, and into states with multiple large cities. The rural areas that they are emptying out from maintain their pool of slots for elected Senators, while the cities gain none. So what’s the answer?

Welcome to the great state of Seattle! [state motto: “If it’s not caffeinated, send it back”]

The Vinegar-Tomato Sauce State of Raleigh! [state color: halfway between Duke blue and UNC blue]

The Beechwood Aged State of St. Louis![ state left fielder: Lou Brock]

The Always Hustling State of Atlanta [state anthem: written and performed by Outkast]

City-states. Remember city-states!? Yes, I know, when we speak historically of city-states we mean entities independent of any other nation state – classic Venice, current Singapore or Monaco, but that doesn’t mean we can’t piggyback on their awesomeness. Texans already joke about the “People’s Republic of Austin” – let’s make it official! We can set a size minimum as either an explicit population threshold (e.g. 500k) or a moving bar, such as the population of the smallest state in the previous census. It’s essentially adding another option for a city to apply for inclusion in the next tier of our federalist system.

This is more feasible than you might think and vastly more feasible than amending the constitution.

Consider:

  1. These cities already have government infrastructures. The governor on day 1 is the current sitting mayor.
  2. The citizens of most medium- and large-sized cities derive the bulk of their regional identity from their city, not their state. Most urbanites will be thrilled at the notion of elevating the political status of their city while losing the affiliation of their previous state.
  3. New state coffers will be heavily subsidized with flag and swag sales the first few years (only mostly kidding)
  4. The remaining rural states will have the far more manageable task of trying to serve rural citizens without having to serve an urban voter base with radically different needs and preferences. Public goods will be better matched with the citizens of rural states as well.
  5. States will often look like Swiss cheese, which will be both hilarious and, slightly less importantly, will allow for constituents to even more easily vote with their feet when elected officials fall short in their duties.

Are there downsides? Sure.

  1. The speed traps before you enter and as you exit city-states into their rural envelopers will be aggressively extractive. There will be rampant attempts at exporting taxes across borders.
  2. Reconstituting water supplies as special districts supporting multiple states will be tricky.
  3. Coordinating interstate public goods will, no doubt, at times become even more farcical than the status quo.
  4. Decent chance this turns into a Neal Stephenson novel within 100 years.

But, in the medium and long run, I believe the benefits will greatly outweigh the costs. Throughout the pandemic there has been a constant tension, particularly in “red states”, between the public goods desired by the citizens in cities versus rural areas. While urbanites have been desperate for mask and vaccine mandates, rural citizens have been far more interested in consuming personal liberty and symbolic group-identity goods, at the expense of greater Covid cases and deaths for those in denser areas.

I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it tomorrow: there isn’t a red-blue divide, a religious divide, or a class divide. America is currently defined by an urban-rural divide. If we don’t adapt our institutions to reflect it and balance the equal political enfranchisement of people on both sides of that divide, it will continue to erode the integrity of our political infrastructure.

I imagine I don’t have to persuade many people that the integrity of the franchise is not something to be taken lightly. Regardless of the mathematical salience of an individual vote to any election, the fact remains that the less people believe their vote has at least the potential to be realized in the form of representation that serves them, the more they will look to alternative channels to the political process. And maybe, for the libertarian inside of you, the alternative you imagine might exist in the private marketplace for goods and services. But history informs us that the dominant alternatives to democracy are heritable lineage and bloodshed, and I don’t see any benevolent American scions laying in wait.

Inequality VS the Environment

What do we know?

We know that density is good for most environmental measures. With greater density comes less water runoff, less carbon emissions, less burned fossil fuel. With density, fewer people own vehicles, implements of yard curation, and we require fewer roofs per person.

What else do we know?

We know that in a static economy, progressive taxation makes after-tax incomes more equal. There are formal models that say the same thing about dynamic economies. Progressive taxation results in more income equality, and regressive taxation results in less. For clarity, income tax progressivity is determined by percent of income paid in taxes. When the rich pay a higher percent tax rate, that’s more progressive.

Are you ready?

Wealthy people tend to have more valuable land. That is, they improve the land and the things built on it. Do you want to tax land progressively? Then what you want is a property tax with a sliding tax rate. This way, you can make those rich people pay their ‘fair share‘. Even without a sliding scale, rich people will pay more dollars for their improved land.

Uh-oh.

Now that we are taxing property on land proportionally, rich people are seeking alternatives. They’re trying to avoid taxes! What do they do? Well, a smaller and cheaper house is a nonstarter. What is all that wealth for, if not to enjoy it partly through one’s home environment? The rich are going to find a place to live where they can be comfortable and where their property taxes are lower. Maybe a place where the land is not so expensive. Hello rural estate!

Do you want a proportional property tax so that rich people pay for the value of their property? Be ready to say hello to suburbanization and sprawl. All those benefits of urbanization mentioned above? Invert all of them to see the results.

Okay…

I see the attraction of taxing immovable property. Taxing a residence is nice for the government because the tax revenues are nice and stable, given the relatively inelastic demand for real property.

If only there were a real property tax scheme that provided stable revenues and encouraged urbanization… Well, the answer is not to try taxing the value of the land without taxing the value of property. What am I? A Georgist?

A Georgist I am not. But, I do have an affinity for lump sum taxes.

If, as a polity, you want urbanization, then impose lump sum taxes per area of land owned. Doesn’t matter if it’s a house. Doesn’t matter if it’s commercial. Doesn’t matter if it’s unimproved farm land. Just sit back and watch the skyline rise, our environmental footprint shrink, and plenty of land being turned into wildlife preserves and parks.

Oh dear.

People have feelings. Consider a beautiful multi story single-family home on an acre. Now consider a mobile home with a large yard and some trees – also on an acre. With a standard, flat proportional property tax, the owner of the big pricey house pays more. With lump sum taxes per square foot of land, they pay the same dollar figure. In other words, the less wealthy person pays a higher proportion of his properties value in taxes. In case you missed it, this beautiful solution to sprawl and environmental degradation comes hand-in-hand with proportional regressivity.

BTW:

I live in Collier County Florida. If all of the land, excluding surface water, in the county was taxed at the same lump sum per square foot, then we would need to pay about $1,600 per acre in order to replace all revenues currently collected from a variety of sources. If we assume that government property is excluded from the tax and we assume that the government owns a very liberal 10% of all property, then it is more like $1,780.

I haven’t even discussed all of the improved economic performance that an already developed counties might enjoy by eliminating the distortionary excise taxes and ad valorem taxes. I don’t know about you, but $1,600 doesn’t sound too bad in exchange for eliminating all the other nickel and dimes that add up to quite a bit.

(Just as I am not a Georgist, I am also not a revolutionary. We need not jump in head-first. We could ease our way into such a system. We’d just add a fixed lump-sum portion to existing property tax bills that increases over time. Property taxes bills would be calculated slope-intercept style with a portion being constant and a portion being dependent of property value.)

Remote Work vs Employer Power: Why I’m Not Sweating Tenure

When there’s only one employer in town who hires for jobs like yours, they have labor-market power, and can pay less and have worse working conditions than a competitive firm would. Economists call this “labor market monopsony” but I like the term “employer power”, which is simpler and makes sense when there are a few employers as well as when its literally just one. This keeps down the wages of machinists at the only factory in town, nurses at the only hospital in town, and professors at the only university in town.

Of course, workers in this situation could always move and get a better job elsewhere, and this does put some limits on employer power, but many workers have strong preferences to stay in their home, which means the balance of power is with the employers- or at least, it has been.

The growth of remote work means that workers can get jobs all over the world (or at least all over nearby time zones) without having to leave their town. Which means that monopsony is over, at least for jobs where remote work is possible.

I’m going up for tenure at my college soon, meaning that by next June they will tell me either that I have a job for life or that I’m fired. This “up or out” system naturally causes a lot of anxiety for professors. Partly this is because many professors’ identities are wrapped up in our jobs to an unnecessary and unhealthy extent, and so we take it as a judgement on our worth as human beings. But partly there was always the very practical problem that failing tenure almost certainly meant you would either need to move, accept a substantially worse job, or both.

The thinness of the academic labor market means that unless you live in a major city, its probably the case that no university nearby is hiring tenure-track academics in your subfield this year; and even if you are in a major city, there are probably only 2-3 searches in your field, and they will be so competitive that you almost certainly won’t get the job. To have a real chance at another good academic job, people need to apply nationwide (when I got my first job I sent out 120 applications all over the country to get 1 offer). Getting another job locally generally means taking a job with much worse pay, worse conditions, or both- like high school teacher, adjunct professor, or entry-level business analyst. Those in relatively practical fields like economics were able to get decent jobs outside of academia (PhD economists in private sector and government jobs typically earn better salaries than academics, at the cost of working more hours with less freedom), but such jobs were plentiful only in a few major cities (DC, SF, NYC, Boston), which usually still meant moving. Even in a mid-sized state capital like Providence, I don’t think I’d have an easy time finding something here- or I didn’t think so, until remote work became ubiquitous last year.

Now I won’t be losing any sleep over the possibility of losing my job next year. Partly I think my odds of getting tenure are good, but even a 1% chance of losing my job would have been worrisome in the pre-remote world. Now instead of worrying I just think about the huge range of opportunities in tech, finance, consulting, business, think tanks, and even government. Remote also addresses one big reason I ignored those jobs in the first place and only applied in academia- flexibility. I didn’t want to be stuck in an office 40+ hours/wk; I wanted to be able to pick my kids up from school. Now flexible hours and the ability to be evaluated on output rather than time spent at the office seem to be increasingly common.

To the extent that remote work puts a dent in employer power we would expect to see higher employment, higher wages, and fewer people feeling trapped in their jobs. We’ve seen all of these in 2021- quits in particular are at an all-time high, a good sign that workers don’t feel trapped- though much this could simply be due to the rapid economic recovery. The real test will come when we see how much this is sustained past the initial recovery, and whether it is mainly in remote-able jobs or is a broad improvement.

Would You Pay $3,000 to Not Wear a Mask?

How well do masks work at preventing disease transmission? This is a question that many of us have been asking throughout the pandemic. I have been trying to read as much about mask effectiveness as I can (for example, here’s a Tweet of mine from way back in June 2020). I think the bottom line is that, if you want really good RCTs of mask use during the COVID pandemic, there is surprisingly little evidence in any direction. But there are lots of studies, less well done but still OK, suggesting that masks do provide some protection.

I don’t want to wade into all of that research here, because Bryan Caplan has been doing that lately himself. His reading of the literature is that masks aren’t a silver bullet, but he suspects “that masks reduce contagion by 10-15%.” Still he thinks that the costs of masks (inconvenience, discomfort, and dehumanization) are large enough that they don’t pass a cost-benefit test. But this seems like a very strange conclusion given that he suspects masks reduce contagion by 10-15%! So let’s be explicit about the cost-benefit analysis.

[I am assuming that reducing contagion by 10-15% means 10-15% fewer cases and deaths. I see this as a bare minimum, since contagious disease can follow exponential growth trends, so 10-15% less contagion could mean that cases/deaths are reduced by more than 10-15%, but I’m making a simplifying assumption and the hard case.]

Quantifying the costs of the pandemic deaths is tricky, and it’s something that Bryan and I have debated before. Perhaps this is just a rehash of that debate (Bryan is highly skeptical of the VSL estimates), but I think it’s worthwhile to plug in some numbers.

What numbers should we use?

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Have you heard about Human Capital?

While writing a paper recently, I was reminded of the importance of economic modelling.

Macroeconomic models are fun to rag on – everybody does it. But all economic models help us to express our understanding of the world clearly and help us to be specific when the temptation to hand-wave is strong. After all, a model is just a fancy way of saying “a system of logic”.

The paper linked above is several revisions in. What you don’t see are the mistakes that my co-author and I made along the way and the vagueness that we had to resolve. An earlier version of the paper simply stated that deaf people were endowed with less human capital than people who could hear. So far so good. But then we said that it was ambiguous who, the deaf or the hearing, would ultimately have more human capital after making additional human capital investments.

But this is not the case!

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Anti-coercive ways to fight Delta

Two weeks ago I predicted that Covid cases would continue to spike for at least two weeks due to the Delta variant, but argued against general shutdowns as a way to combat this spike. Two weeks later cases have indeed spiked, and while localities and organizations have been mandating masks and vaccines, we have largely avoided new lockdowns, at least in the US (Australia is reverting to its roots as a prison). In the last post I mostly said what we shouldn’t do to fight Delta, so today I want to show what a better response looks like.

The tendency of authorities to reach first for coercive solutions is a natural product of their incentives, but I’ve been disappointed to see the same tendency among the chattering classes. I think this is due to polarization- people are most interested in debating solutions that are identified with a specific side in politics or the culture war. Masks became blue-coded, so many reds oppose them even though they probably work. Likewise with vaccines, even though they definitely work well and funding them early was the greatest achievement of the Trump presidency. Meanwhile certain medications became red-coded, leading blues to oppose them before the evidence even came in. But many of the best non-coercive and anti-coercive solutions barely get discussed because they have no political valence, or a mixed one.

Fully Approve the Vaccines Already!

The Covid vaccines are still being distributed under an emergency use authorization. This lack of full approval is a source of vaccine hesitancy. More concretely, it also means that pharmaceutical companies aren’t allowed to advertize their vaccines, even though they are much more effective than the typical pharmaceutical you see advertized. The randomized control trials testing the vaccines have been complete for months, we are just waiting on the FDA to do their job.

Authorize Vaccines for Kids

The FDA still bans children under 12 from receiving the vaccine, saying they are waiting for more trial data. Last week, the American Academy of Pedicatrics argued that we have enough data to justify an Emergency Use Authorization for children aged 5-11 given, you know, the emergency. The government is going to make my 5 year old wear a mask to kindergarden won’t allow me (or my physician wife!) to get him a vaccine which would protect him and others much better than a mask.

Ventilation

Opening windows, modifying HVAC systems to bring in more outside air, and using air purifiers is about as effective as requiring masks and is definitely less of an imposition on people. But we don’t talk about it, partly because people took so long to recognize that Covid is spread through the air more than through droplets, and partly because it is less of an imposition on people and so never became a culture-war debate. Ventilation might be too boring to advocate but I think staying alive is very exciting.

Outpatient Treatments that Work

Repurposing existing drugs to fight Covid is a great idea that has not yet lived up to its promise, aside from the widespread use of Dexamethasone for inpatients with severe cases. The core problem is that it takes large randomized controled trials to really prove that a drug works, and these are expensive. Worse, pharmaceutical companies don’t want to pay for these expensive trials once their drug has gone off patent. This means that many promising treatments have been ignored, while a few have been over-promoted on the basis of observational studies and tiny RCTs (and worse, still promoted once large RCTs showed they probably don’t work). But the British government stepped up to fund the large trials that found Dexamethasone effective last year, and private donors have funded mid-size trials that just found Fluvoxamine reduced Covid hospitalization by 31%. This is excellent news because Fluvoxamine is a cheap and relatively safe anti-depressant that people can take at home. There are other promising treatments that have yet get funding for large RCTs; this is exactly the sort of thing that NIH should be throwing money at. While we’re waiting on compentent government, you can ask a doctor about outpatient treatment if you do get Covid.

Overall, many of our best tools for fighting Covid are being ignored despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that they maintain or increase our freedom.

Back to School! But what’s up with college pricing?

It’s time to head back to school! Which means it’s time for college students to once again ask the question: How am I going to pay for this?

It’s common knowledge that college is expensive and getting more expensive every year. A Google search for “skyrocketing tuition” produces almost 60,000 results. But whenever a fact is so commonly accepted, it’s worth asking if it’s really true.

Here’s one way to think about: are college tuition and fees increasing faster than the overall rate of inflation? For much of recent history, the answer has been most definitely “yes.” I start the series here in 2006, because there were some methodological changes to the index just before 2006. Cumulatively, college tuition and fees (as measured in the CPI) have increased by 78%, while prices overall have only increased by about 38%.

But for the very recent history, since 2017, the answer is “no.” College tuition and fees have often been increasing at slower rates than overall prices in the CPI, and the difference is especially dramatic in 2021. Since 2017, overall prices have increased by about 12.4%, but college tuition and fees has only increased by 7.8%.

However, even this data overstates how much tuition and fees have gone up for undergraduates in the US!

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