Covid Pandemic Diary Part 2

I pick up from my previous post in May 2020.

That tweet from early May captures some of the joys and frustrations of working from home with small children. It was hard to get work done. My career suffered. At the same time, in my case, there were happy moments. My kids got more time with me and also with each other. One reason I didn’t go crazy is that we could get outside and the weather was decent throughout “lockdown”.

Something that happened quietly is that two-income parents hired private nannies and never mentioned it on social media. I know there are lots of families who did not do that and had a hellish year trying to parent while working from home. In my case, daycare was back open in June with extra health precautions.

Late Spring was a time when it seemed like the United States might be the worst-performing country. Certain parts of Asia were models of efficiency and cooperation, by comparison.

Late May is when I breathlessly tweeted that I had purchased a box of masks. Finally, the supply caught up with demand. Masks became plentiful and cheap. That helped us find ways to be together without such a high chance of spreading germs.

July 2020 – My public school system (which had gone virtual in the Spring) announced that elementary parents would have a choice of in-person (with masks) or virtual for the Fall. Our schools have been open all year (with masks) and no major outbreaks.

High school and middle school students did more forced remote days than elementary-aged kids. I really appreciated the creativity and flexibility. Remote school is harder on younger kids (and parents of younger kids).

I emailed my city representative to ask for a drive-through testing site in our city. He said he would bring it up at the council meeting that night. Within two weeks, they had done it! This was incredible. I did not expect that because of one request this would suddenly just happen. I suppose there were enough people who wanted it already. It probably helped that city council elections were right around the corner and he could take credit for doing something helpful. Twice in 2020, I used my city hotline to get an appointment for a Covid test.  

In August, my university got ready to bring students back for some in-person classes, while also offering remote options for every class. The campus sprouted one-way walking stickers and masks were required everywhere.

Economists moved conferences online. On September 10, 2020 I stayed up a little late to catch one of my Chinese colleagues presenting at the ESA worldwide virtual conference. My daughter didn’t want to stay in bed, so I let her stare at the Zoom meeting for a bit.

I have said nothing so far about politics in 2020, the year of politics. The televised debate between President Trump and now-President Biden in September of 2020 was a stressful event for me. If we can’t even speak to each other, then no amount of good ideas will help us solve problems. That sad moment in American history made me more determined to maintain this blog as a place to talk about ideas.

The Fall of 2020 was when intellectual soldiers like Alex Tabarrok were alerting us to the fact that we could have vaccines if the government would let us. I was following that news and doing some signal-boosting. Some of my friends on social media announced that they were participating in vaccine trials – thanks!

My university offered rapid tests to employees at the end of the Fall semester. It almost felt like a miracle to be able to just know in 15 minutes if I was carrying Covid or not (yes, I know about the false negatives).

There were moments in peak-wave when local hospitals were full because of Covid. Alabama’s worst month as measured by deaths was January 2021. When Covid was spreading widely in December 2020, I believe a lot of people did not expect that vaccines would be available so soon in the future. On the margin, a few more people might have foregone holiday parties if they had known.

Vaccines became available to medical professionals around January 2021. That was exciting news, since we had all been feeling bad about the doctors and nurses treating infectious Covid patients.

Earlier than I expected, I was able to get the Pfizer vaccine because of my “educator” status in the state of Alabama. It is convenient that I live near UAB hospitals. They had the technology for cold storage and administering the Pfizer vaccine. It was a huge relief to get the vaccine while teaching in-person classes. Since I had been following vaccine news closely, it felt like a huge achievement.

There was a period of time when conversation among my neighbors and colleagues revolved around the vaccine. Water cooler talk was “which one did you get?” or “did you have side effects?”  People told stories about how a friend called to tell them that one place had extra doses at the end of the day. Even when it was technically reserved for old people only, some young people found connections. One of my students told me he wouldn’t be in class because he was going to drive 6 hours to another state to get a vaccine. I don’t want to make the system sound corrupt, because it largely was not. It’s just a fact that some places couldn’t distribute all of their doses to the people who were designated for them. It was better to get the leftovers into arms than waste them.

I treasured that energy, and I miss it. Now, in May 2021, after all the work that went into producing vaccines, Americans are refusing to show up for shots.

Covid Pandemic Diary Part 1

Last week on Twitter, a writer in France reached out for accurate information about what is going on the US right now with regard to vaccines.

This got me thinking about the value of narratives and true stories. I’m going to chronicle a few of the Covid events experienced by me personally. Myself and the adults in my family are fully vaccinated, so life is starting to feel normal again, even though I still wear masks in many public places. I’d like to write this down in case it is useful and so that I don’t forget it.

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Old Lives Matter

Bryan Caplan has kindly responded to my latest blog post, which was in turn a response to his blog post on the relative value of human lives by age. Caplan has always been kind in his responses, even when responding to pesky graduate students — kind in both his approach and the time he dedicates to responding thoughtfully. So I appreciate his taking the time to respond to me, and I will offer a few more thoughts on the matter.

To briefly summarize: Caplan believes that young lives (10 year olds) are worth 100-1,000 as much as old lives (80 year olds). I contend that they are closer to roughly equally valued. My disagreement with Caplan can be broken down into two categories:

  • A. Caplan’s three reasons why young lives are worth more (a lot more!) than old lives. I didn’t respond to that directly, but I will do so here. I think Caplan is narrowing the goalposts.
  • B. A disagreement over the shape of the VSL curve over the lifetime, specifically whether an inverted-U-shaped curve makes sense. I’ll say more about this too, but Caplan doesn’t just have a beef with me, but with almost everyone in the VSL literature!

Let’s start with Caplan’s three reasons, which he calls “iron-clad”: young people have more years to live, those years are generally healthier, and young people will be missed more when they are gone. The first in undeniably true on average, the second is probably true almost all the time, and I’m not sure on the third, but I’m willing to admit it’s not a slam dunk either way.

So how can I disagree? These are only three things. There are many other considerations, and we can imagine other reasons that old lives are valued as much or more than younger lives! I’ll call mine 4-6 to go with Caplan’s 1-3:

  1. Old age spending is the largest component of public budgets in developed countries (and this is unlikely mostly due to rent seeking or the self interest of younger generations).
  2. The elderly possess wisdom which is highly valuable and that the young benefit from.
  3. The last years of your life are, on average, worth a lot more — you are usually very wealthy, have no employment obligations, you have grandchildren you love (without the responsibilities of parenting), and are (until the very end) generally healthy too.

Taken as a whole, I think these three reasons present a strong counterargument to Caplan’s three reasons. And I think we could certainly come up with more! My point being that Caplan has picked three areas where clearly young lives have the advantage, but ignored all the good reasons why old lives are more valuable. These is what I mean by we shouldn’t rely on our intuitions. Neither of our lists are exhaustive, but let me elaborate on a few of these.

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Blood Clots for You and Me

On April 13, 2021, CDC and FDA recommended a pause in the use of Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen COVID-19 Vaccine. When I first heard that the FDA was pausing the J&J vaccine because of less than 10 blood clots out of millions of patients, I thought I’d really get to the bottom of blood clots and blog about it. Other people (some of them are the kind of doctor that helps people) have already done a pretty good job in the past few days.

First, it is a tragedy that the vaccine is not being give to every male over 50 who wants it. Doing so would free up many thousands of other types of vaccines for young women.

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The Value of Life, Again

Bryan Caplan argues that the life of a 10-year-old is worth 100-1,000 times that of an 80-year-old. But he suggests the modal answer people would give is that the two lives are equally valued.

I’m not sure if he is right about what the modal answer would be that they are exactly equal (though see below for an attempt to answer this question). Surprisingly, though, roughly equally valuing all lives is actually the answer that a normal economic calculation, willingness-to-pay for risk reduction, would give you! Or at least roughly. I haven’t seen an estimate for a 10-year-old, but estimates of the Value of a Statistical Life for 20-year-old is roughly equal to an 80-year-old. I’ve written about this before, and here’s a summary of a working paper by Aldy and Smyth that I am drawing on. Middle age lives are worth more, using this method, though perhaps just 2-3 times more.

Caplan doesn’t directly connect his hypothetical to the COVID pandemic, but in the comments Don Boudreaux does make that connection and says that “surely the correct level of precaution to take against a disease that kills X number of old people is lower [than a disease that kills the same number of young people].” I find this a very interesting statement because Don Boudreaux, and many others, have been against just about any precaution (other than asking the elderly to isolate) in the current pandemic. Would he and others support more caution if they believed the VSL estimate to be true?

So who is right? Caplan’s intuition? Or the modeled VSL calculations? For surely these are miles apart, and they can not both be correct.

As an economist, I have a strong preference in favor of willingness-to-pay over our intuitions. Indeed, Caplan himself as defended the VSL approach quite forcefully!

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Teaching Economics with COVID

In many of my blog posts I address either issues related to COVID or teaching economics. In this post, I want to combine the two. One thing economists of a certain age struggle to do is find examples to illustrate economic concepts which will actually connect with 18-22 year olds. The silver lining of the pandemic is that we now have an example that everyone is familiar with, and can be used to illustrate a host of economic concepts.

A great new book by Ryan Bourne, Economics in One Virus, really pushes this idea to the limit. He uses examples related to COVID to explain almost every single concept you would cover in a typical introductory economics course: cost-benefit analysis, thinking on the margin, the role of prices, market incentives, political incentives, externalities, moral hazard, public choice issues, and more.

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Thank you Tyler and Alex

Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok have done really good work on saving America and beyond from Covid and from bad Covid takes. It’s worth saying this in more places.

Here is Alex on how great Tyler’s work has been on advancing disease-fighting science. Here is Ezra Klein (NYT) on how Alex’s advocacy.

Recall how this all started, as per the Econtalk podcast record in March 2020:

Tyler Cowen: I have been hunkered down at home every day, with some quick trips outside, typically to use the printer at work or maybe to refresh some grocery supplies as quickly as I can. But, , I wake up; I get onto my sofa; I get into information-absorption mode, and just let it rip until it’s time to go to bed at night. And, I’ve been blogging and writing about this the whole time, and really not doing very much else. Although I am spending more time cooking.

So, what I see as the data come in is we ought to have greater concern as to the possible risks here, for this being a very large scale negative event.

… And in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been busier in my entire life. Reading materials, writing, passing along advice, just processing information. Every day feels like an enormous rush of things I have to do, even though in the sense of my physical surroundings it’s quite static.

No one had all the right answers in the Spring of 2002. How many people devoted themselves to figuring it out? Who was reading dense medical research papers instead of watching extra Netflix, after being forced into semi-quarantine? There have been many heroes of the pandemic (see data heroes). The Marginal Revolution blogging team is certainly among them.

I have a virtual heap of notes on pieces I would like to write. I made notes a few years ago for an essay with the working title “Tyler Cowen as pro life economist” (which has nothing to do with abortion, by the way). I was going to construct an original argument and pull together disparate facts. Someday, maybe I will write it, but now I’ll be leading with the example of the pandemic response. It’s so obviously “a matter of life and death”. If they caused the vaccine to arrive a month sooner, then we can count the lives saved.

I didn’t plan to phrase it this way, in my original essay, but everything is life and death to economists. Occupational licensing is life and death. Deflation is life and death, because if economic output is lost due to deflation that will be someone’s prescription payment and someone else’s ability to live a full life. Economic growth is life and death. Tyler is one of the few people pointing out that it’s not only today’s low-income people but also future generations that will have longer fuller lives if economic growth is higher.

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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GDP Growth in 2020

Last year was a historically bad year for many reasons, but to economists that badness is most visible in our widest measure of the economy: Gross Domestic Product. All issues with GDP aside, especially as a perfect measure of relative living standards, the annual real (inflation-adjusted) growth rate of GDP gives us a good picture of how much national economies were harmed by the pandemic, private behavior changes, and government restrictions (disentangling these three effects is hard — I will leave that to the academic journals rather than a blog post).

While GDP is reported with a lag of several months and is subject to revision, many countries have now reported full GDP data for 2020. For those that don’t follow GDP very closely, for a developed country an annual rate of growth of about 2% is pretty normal and respectable. For further context, in the US recent recessions had declines of -2.5% in 2009, -0.1% 1991, and -1.8% in 1982 (the 2001 recession never had an annual decline, only a few quarterly declines). While it is unusual for countries to go more than 10 years without a decline, it does happen. For example, Australia’s last annual decline was in 1991, when it declined -1.3%. But that’s unusual.

This chart shows the 2020 GDP growth rates (mostly negative, with one exception — Taiwan) for 2020 for most countries were I could find data. What this number shows us is the total amount of economic activity in 2020 compared with the total amount of economic activity in 2019 (adjusted for inflation, of course). I believe this is a better measure than others you might see, such as data that compares the level in the 4th quarters of 2020 and 2019 (a country could have had a terrible 2nd quarter but still gotten back close to the prior year level, and a simple Q-over-Q measure would miss that decline). As I did for the 3rd quarter data, this chart also plots the cumulative COVID-19 death rates on the vertical axis.

GDP data comes from government statistical agencies and media reports. COVID-19 death data is from Our World in Data.

What can we learn from this data?

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Economic Research on COVID-19

The past 12 months has been dominated by COVID-19, the related recession, the government response, and other matters. But it has not just dominated our lives, it has also dominated new research, including research by economists!

Working papers from the National Bureau of Economic Research are one place to track on-going research by economists. While not all economic research is released as an NBER working paper (there are other series, and some economists just post them on their own website or department page), the volume of NBER papers should tell us something about the trends.

Here’s a chart showing the weekly NBER working papers that are in some way related to COVID-19. The first batch of three papers was released in late February, one long year ago. The second batch of nine papers came one month later. Since then, there have been papers released every single week, with the exception of the week of Christmas.

In total, there have 373 papers released that relate to COVID-19. The peak comes in late May and early June, with 61 papers released in a 4-week period and 21 of those papers coming out on May 25 alone. Since the May-June peak, we’ve seen a slow decline in papers on COVID-19, and we are now at our lowest level, with just 14 papers released in the past 4 weeks.

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