Friday, February 5, 2021

Unemployment claims topped 1.1 million last week: Congress must pass bold relief measures to keep crucial programs from expiring [feedly]

Unemployment claims topped 1.1 million last week: Congress must pass bold relief measures to keep crucial programs from expiring

Another 1.1 million people applied for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits last week, including 779,000 people who applied for regular state UI and 349,000 who applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). The 1.1 million who applied for UI last week was a decrease of 88,000 from the prior week, but the four-week moving average of total initial claims ticked up by 51,000—back to where it was in mid-October.

Last week was the 46th straight week total initial claims were greater than the worst week of the Great Recession. (If that comparison is restricted to regular state claims—because we didn't have PUA in the Great Recession—initial claims last week were still greater than the third-worst week of the Great Recession.) I should note that throughout this post I use seasonally adjusted data where I can, but for comparisons to the Great Recession I use not-seasonally-adjusted data, since the Department of Labor (DOL)'s improved seasonal adjustments aren't available before the week ending August 29, 2020.

Most states provide just 26 weeks of regular benefits, meaning many workers are exhausting their regular state UI benefits. In the most recent data (the week ending January 23), continuing claims for regular state benefits dropped by 193,000. After a worker exhausts regular state benefits, they can move onto Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), which is an additional 24 weeks of regular state UI (the December COVID-19 relief bill increased the number of weeks of PEUC eligibility by 11, from 13 to 24).

However, in the most recent data available for PEUC, the week ending January 16th, PEUC claims dropped by 290,000. I expect that to rise again in coming weeks. Over 3.5 million people had exhausted the original 13 weeks of PEUC by the end of December (see column C43 in form ETA 5159 for PEUC here). These workers are eligible for the additional 11 weeks, but they need to recertify. PEUC numbers will continue to swell as this occurs.

Extended Benefits (EB) is another program that workers in some states can get on after they've exhausted PEUC. EB has rose 376,000 between December 26th and January 16th. It appears that some workers who had exhausted the original 13 weeks of PEUC are getting on EB before they get their additional 11 weeks of PEUC. This is likely due to the delays getting PEUC fully operational again after the lapse that occurred while former President Trump delayed signing the December relief bill.

Continuing claims for PUA dropped by 126,000 in the latest data, the week ending January 16th. I expect that to rise again in coming weeks. The December bill extended the total weeks of PUA eligibility by 11, from 39 to 50 weeks. As workers who exhausted PUA before the extensions were signed get back on PUA, we can expect the PUA numbers to swell further.

The 11-week extensions of PEUC and PUA just kick the can down the road—they are not long enough. Congress must pass further extensions before mid-March, or millions will exhaust benefits at that time, when the virus is still rampant and the labor market is still weak.

Figure A shows continuing claims in all programs over time (the latest data are for January 16th). Continuing claims are currently nearly 16 million above where they were a year ago.

Figure A

January jobs data will be released tomorrow morning, and expectations are that things in January were little changed from December. As of December, there were 26.8 million workers—15.8% of the workforce—who were either unemployed, otherwise out of work because of the virus, or had seen a drop in hours and pay because of the pandemic. More relief is desperately needed. A key reason more relief is so important is that this crisis is greatly exacerbating racial inequality. Due to the impact of historic and current systemic racism, Black and Latinx workers have seen more job loss in this pandemic, and have less wealth to fall back on. The $900 billion December COVID-19 relief bill was not nearly enough. To get the economy back on track in a reasonable timeframe, we need policymakers to pass an additional roughly $2 trillion in fiscal support. In particular, it is crucial that Congress provide substantial aid to state and local governments. Without this aid, austerity by state and local governments will result in cuts to essential public services and the loss of millions of jobs in both the public and private sector.

President Biden announced a relief and recovery package that gets the economics right; his proposal is at the scale of the economic challenge we are facing and is a clear break from the mistakes we have made in past recoveries, when we hobbled the economy by not doing enough. With their slim majority in the Senate, Democrats can now get crucial relief measures through reconciliation, and they must be bold. Top priorities include COVID and vaccine measures, aid to state and local governments, additional weeks of UI, and increased UI benefits.

 -- via my feedly newsfeed

Study of racist history of Virginia death penalty

Virginia may abolish the death penalty. There's a racist history behind why a few jurisdictions use it most.

Virginia may be about to eliminate the death penalty, which would remove the state with the greatest historical use of the punishment from the execution business. Simultaneously, President Biden is the first sitting president to openly oppose capital punishment. Dozens of lawmakers have urged him to commute the death sentences of all those on federal death row.

Our recent research offers some useful insights for those considering whether Virginia or the federal government will retain their death penalty systems. Public opinion has shifted dramatically since the 1990s. Since 1973, 174 innocent men have been released from death row, which has shaken public confidence in the system. Today, few jurisdictions use the penalty. The counties most likely to condemn someone to death also had higher per capita numbers of lynchings in the Jim Crow era and have a higher Black population today than those counties that have made little or no use of the death penalty.

How we did our research


We spent years compiling a database of every death sentence in the nation since 1972, totaling more than 8,500 cases. Most were concentrated in just a few high-use counties including those surrounding the cities of Los Angeles, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Chicago and Miami. We developed a statistical model to predict how many death sentences each county would impose, for each year from 1976 through 2019. Naturally, we eliminated counties in states that had no death penalty. We looked at population size, homicides per capita and several other factors to see what might influence death penalty use.

The most influential factor, we found, is population size. Large population counties have more death sentences than small ones, a simple result of the number of homicides.

Some counties "learn to kill" while others never do


That's far from the full story, however. Here's a second important factor in boosting death penalty imposition: the cumulative number of death sentences a county had previously imposed. A district attorney's office may or may not accumulate the skills, knowledge and practice needed to successfully carry out a capital trial leading to a death sentence. Most do not; a few become specialists.

We and others have previously explained how a small number of counties generate the majority of the nation's executions. The reason is that they "learn to kill." Some counties go down the path of death sentencing and executing, and others never do. This self-reinforcing process helps explain why two counties in the same state, each looking at its own history, might reach different decisions about whether a given crime is among the "worst of the worst," deserving death. Such a system is akin to random, since small initial differences can amplify into large disparities. Inertia is a powerful force as prosecutors consider their own offices' histories, not those of surrounding areas.

Public opinion and history of lynching are strong predictors of death penalty use


Public opinion is another important influence in deciding whether to seek execution. Over the past 25 years, popular attitudes have moved sharply against capital punishment, largely because of what we've called the "discovery of innocence." As of last month, we have counted 174 death row exonerations since 1973. Innocence has transformed the debate to the point that some conservatives have moved against the penalty, partly because the system is costly and partly because they don't trust the government to be perfect.

The death penalty is also highly racialized. Our study confirms that whether a county has a significant Black population is strongly related to whether it uses the death penalty: In counties with higher proportions of Black residents, courts are more likely to impose the death penalty. Southern counties use the death penalty more frequently. In addition to having larger Black populations, Southern counties had more lynchings during the Jim Crow period of 1883 to 1930; counties that lynched more at that time condemn more to death today.

Pete Buttigieg may not know this yet: Rail transportation funding is a racial equity issue.

Legal historians would not be surprised that historical lynchings have had a lasting effect. Capital punishment has long been linked to lynchings. Promising to bring the perpetrator to "justice" within the legal system helped suppress mob violence outside the legal system in the early 20th century. The figure below shows the link between legal executions, which rose sharply from 1919 to 1935, and lynchings, which declined in the same period.

Sources: Lynchings: Tolnay and Beck, updated with Seguin and Rigby; Executions, Espy and Smylka 2005. Figure by Frank R. Baumgartner.

Executions substituted for lynchings in the 1930s. Black people are arrested, prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned at higher rates than White people throughout the criminal justice system — and are sentenced to death at higher rates as well; 43 percent of those sentenced to death since 1972 are Black.


What did not influence death penalty rates?

We also checked to see whether a county's death penalty rate went up or down based on whether that state had partisan judicial elections (as opposed to judges appointed by the governor or elected in a nonpartisan manner); whether the governor was a Republican or Democrat in that year; and the number of homicides in the county in the previous year. None mattered. Counties with higher homicide rates do not sentence more people to death, other things being equal. Once population size is accounted for, homicides don't matter.

If homicide rates don't affect death penalty rates, what matters is whether prosecutors are in the habit of seeking death sentences, a path that was much more common in counties with ugly histories of racial conflict.

Biden can't tell the Justice Department who to prosecute, but his U.S. attorneys will follow his signals.

The death penalty is on the decline


In 2006, 38 states allowed imposition of the death penalty and 23 imposed at least one death sentence; by 2020, just 28 states allowed the penalty, and only seven imposed it. Even in the dwindling number of states that have a legally valid death penalty statute, few death sentences are being imposed and even fewer carried out. The Trump administration's pursuit of executions, with 13 in the six months before President Donald Trump left office, contrasts starkly with these trends, of course. But given Biden's opposition to the practice, and Virginia's move toward abolishing the death penalty, Trump's actions may become a historic blip rather than the reversal of a trend.

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Frank R. Baumgartner is professor of political science at UNC-Chapel Hill and author of "Deadly Justice: A Statistical Portrait of the Death Penalty" (Oxford University Press, 2018) and "The Decline of the Death Penalty and the Discovery of Innocence" (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

Christian Caron is a PhD candidate in political science at UNC-Chapel Hill. His research on the death penalty has appeared in American Politics Research and PLOS One.


Thursday, February 4, 2021

MACRON, MERKEL, SALL, GUTERRES, CHARLES MICHEL, VON DER LEYEN: EU leaders on Multilateral Cooperation for Global Recovery

Multilateral Cooperation for Global Recovery

Multilateral Cooperation for Global Recovery

Feb 3, 2021


We should not be afraid of a post-pandemic world that will not be the same as the status quo ante. We should embrace it and use all appropriate fora and available opportunities to make it a better world by advancing the cause of international cooperation.

PARIS – In September 2000, 189 countries signed the "Millennium Declaration," shaping the principles of international cooperation for a new era of progress toward common goals. Emerging from the Cold War, we were confident about our capacity to build a multilateral order capable of tackling the big challenges of the time: hunger and extreme poverty, environmental degradation, diseases, economic shocks, and the prevention of conflicts. In September 2015, all countries again committed to an ambitious agenda to tackle global challenges together: the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

We should not be afraid of a post-pandemic world that will not be the same as the status quo ante. We should embrace it and use all appropriate fora and available opportunities to make it a better world by advancing the cause of international cooperation.

Our world has experienced diverging trends, leading to increased prosperity globally, while inequalities remain or increase. Democracies have expanded at the same time that nationalism and protectionism have seen a resurgence. Over the past decades, two major crises have disrupted our societies and weakened our common policy frameworks, casting doubt on our capacity to overcome shocks, address their root causes, and secure a better future for generations to come. They have also reminded us of how interdependent we are.

The most serious crises call for the most ambitious decisions to shape the future. We believe that this one can be an opportunity to rebuild consensus for an international order based on multilateralism and the rule of law through efficient cooperation, solidarity, and coordination. In this spirit, we are determined to work together, with and within the United Nations, regional organizations, international fora such as the G7 and G20, and ad hoc coalitions to tackle the global challenges we face now and in the future.

Health is the first emergency. The COVID-19 crisis is the greatest test of global solidarity in generations. It has reminded us of an obvious fact: in the face of a pandemic, our health safety chain is only as strong as the weakest health system. COVID-19 anywhere is a threat to people and economies everywhere.

The pandemic calls for a strong coordinated international response that rapidly expands access to tests, treatments, and vaccines, recognizing extensive immunization as a global public good that must be available and affordable for all. In this regard, we fully support the unique global platform Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, launched by the World Health Organization and G20 partners in April.

To deliver on its mission, the ACT-Accelerator urgently needs wider political and financial support. We also promote the free flow of data between partners and the voluntary licensing of intellectual property. In the longer term, we also need an independent and comprehensive evaluation of our response to draw all the lessons of this pandemic and better prepare for the next one. The WHO has a central role to play in this process.

The emergency is also environmental. Ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow in November, we must enhance our efforts to tackle climate change and make our economies more sustainable. By early 2021, countries accounting for more than 65% of global greenhouse-gas emissions are likely to have made ambitious commitments to carbon neutrality. All national governments, businesses, cities, and financial institutions should now join the global coalition for reducing CO2 emissions to net zero according to the Paris climate agreement – and start implementing concrete plans and policies.

The pandemic has caused the world's worst economic crisis since World War II. Recovery of a strong and stable world economy is a fundamental priority. Indeed, the current crisis is threatening to undo the progress we have made over two decades in fighting poverty and gender inequality. Inequalities are threatening our democracies by undermining social cohesion.

No doubt, globalization and international cooperation have helped billions of people escape poverty; but nearly half the world's population still struggles to meet basic needs. And within many countries, the gap between rich and poor has become unsustainable, women still do not enjoy equal opportunity, and many people need to be reassured about the benefits of globalization.2

As we help our economies overcome the worst recession since 1945, it remains our core priority to ensure rules-based free trade as an important engine of inclusive, sustainable growth. We must, therefore, strengthen the World Trade Organization and fully use the potential of international trade for our economic recovery. At the same time, protection of the environment and health as well as social standards must be placed at the heart of our economic models while ensuring the necessary conditions for innovation.1

We need to ensure that the global recovery reaches everybody. That means stepping up our support to developing countries, particularly in Africa, by building on and going beyond existing partnerships such as the G20's Compact with Africa and its joint effort with the Paris Club within the Debt Service Suspension Initiative. It is crucial to further support those countries in reducing their debt burden and ensure sustainable financing for their economies, using the full scope of international financial instruments such as the International Monetary Fund's reserve asset, the special drawing rights (SDRs).

The rise of new technologies has been a great asset for progress and inclusion, contributing to the openness and resilience of societies, economies, and states, while proving lifesaving during the pandemic. Yet, almost half the world's population – and more than half the world's women and girls – remain offline and unable to access their benefits.

Moreover, the considerable power of new technologies can be misused to limit the rights and freedoms of citizens, to spread hatred, or to commit serious crimes. We need to build on existing initiatives and involve the relevant stakeholders toward effectively regulating the Internet in order to create a safe, free, and open digital environment, where the flow of data in a trusted environment is guaranteed. Benefits must accrue especially to the most disadvantaged including by addressing the tax challenges of the digitalization of the economy and combating harmful tax competition.

Finally, the health crisis interrupted the education of millions of children and students. We must keep the promise to provide education for all and to equip the next generation with understanding for basic skills and science, as well as an understanding of different cultures, tolerance and acceptance of pluralism, and respect for freedom of conscience. Children and youth are our future, and their education is key.

To meet these challenges, multilateralism is not just another diplomatic technique. It shapes a world order and is a very specific way of organizing international relations based on cooperation, the rule of law, collective action, and shared principles. Rather than pitting civilizations and values against one another, we must build a more inclusive multilateralism, respecting our differences as much as our common values enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The world after COVID-19 will not be the same again. Let us make use of different fora and opportunities such as the Paris Peace Forum to work toward tackling these challenges with a clear vision. We invite political, economic, religious, and thought leaders to contribute to this global conversation.1

At the Paris Peace Forum on November 12 last year, French President Emmanuel Macron and other world leaders launched a global discussion on forging a new consensus for the post-COVID-19 world. This discussion is continuing through an ongoing debate published by Project Syndicate and its member newspapers worldwide.

 -- via my feedly newsfeed

Learning during the pandemic: Making social and emotional learning front and center [feedly]

Learning during the pandemic: Making social and emotional learning front and center

The prolonged school lockdowns that, starting in early spring of 2020, dismantled children's routines, including normal school days, also blocked their access to the basic supports that schools provide—including organized recreation, and, of course, the face-to-face contact with teachers and friends that is fundamental to child development. It thus should be no surprise that the pandemic has not only led to reduced student performance, on average, but also stretched to the limit children's social and emotional wellbeing.

What, in education policy and practice, we call "social and emotional learning" (SEL) has long been known to be important for student development and academic success, but the pandemic has emphasized the need to elevate its importance. Indeed, as the pandemic unfolded, it was clear that SEL, or children's "patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors," are at least as critical as other traditional academic competencies. We saw that empathy, resilience, and the ability to cope with anxiety, turned out to have major impacts on children's daily lives, and must be emphasized along with algebra, history, social sciences, or foreign languages.

There is a threefold explanation—that contains the good, bad, and ugly— as to why and how the pandemic has highlighted that need, and as to which lessons education policy can learn as we move forward.

Let's start with the obvious bad: many of our children have experienced extreme adversity over the past 10 months. Unfortunately, our systems—public education and others—are not equipped to provide the supports students need to cushion their stresses, pain, and loss. This lack is evident even in normal times, but much more so during the pandemic. Leaving aside the irreparable personal losses many have suffered with more than 400,000 dead, reports also document spikes in child poverty, hunger, homelessness, and associated mental health problems and trauma. Just two examples follow. There were almost 14 million children living in a household characterized by child food insecurity during the week of June 19–23, 2020 (This is over twice as many as during peak of the Great Recession in 2008 and 5.6 times as many as in all of 2018). Since the pandemic began in March, mental health-related emergency room visits have soared (health professionals document a 24% increase among elementary school-aged children, and a 31% rise among those between middle and high schoolers, compared with the same period last year). The lack of preparation and the inability to respond appropriately to the pandemic itself reflect broader societal weaknesses that are our collective responsibility to change.

The ugly is that it took a pandemic to make the value of SEL evident to all. We knew from the experience in effective schools and from extensive research, including ours, that social and emotional learning is integral to effective traditional academic learning. However, SEL, or intentional instruction to nurture these skills, has been substantially underappreciated in policy, due in part to overemphasis on the cognitive aspects and lack of understanding that the range of skills students acquire throughout their school years develop in tandem. This long-term failure to properly advance the development of the whole child also undermines the development of a healthy society and of our social capital.

The good in all of this is that finally placing SEL prominently in our upcoming education policy agenda, and or making whole-child education the norm, will significantly boost our recovery from the pandemic and help rebuild a better education system. A comprehensive approach to SEL reflects our acknowledgment of the full range of skills that matter, the natural variation among children with respect to different traits, and the multiple factors that help nurture them (both in and out of school). And this focus on SEL offers us a lever to lift children up: some of these traits have likely improved during the pandemic, while others have deteriorated—so noting both of these realities will boost the efforts of educators working to help students make up for lost ground.

As such, as we design a relief, recovery, and rebuilding strategy for the education system to meet that goal, we must equip schools with the resources and tools to meet all of students' needs, rather than a narrow (and misguided) focus on closing gaps on traditional outcomes. This will require implementation of diagnostic assessments that inform teachers about where students are socially and emotionally, as well as in traditional academic areas, as well as the adoption of strategies to bolster children's social and emotional strengths and address their social and emotional needs. As we continue to weather the pandemic and prepare for its aftermath, we have the opportunity of making whole-child education the norm as standards, instruction, assessments, and wraparound supports are structured, which will finally mean that SEL is front and central in our education policy agenda going forward.

This is the second blog post in our "Learning During the Pandemic" series. Over the next few months, we will be releasing more blog posts on various consequences of COVID-19 on students' learning and development and on the actions needed to recover the lost ground and lift children up during and after the pandemic.

 -- via my feedly newsfeed

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

WallStreetBets and financialised capitalism [feedly]

Interesting take by John Quiggin on the stock market as "the most efficient way to allocate capital" in the wake of the Robinhood squeeze on hedge funds.

WallStreetBets and financialised capitalism

It's been hard to miss the chaos that's arisen from a bunch of Reddit users (on sub-reddit WallStreetBets) getting together to squeeze shortsellers on stocks including GameStop and AMC Theatres. Most of the attention has been confined to the stockmarket action, but I was struck by this piece in The Bulwark[1], making the point that the process has enabled AMC to issue high-priced shares, repay debt and thereby stave off impending bankruptcy.

I don't have a view on whether AMC should go bankrupt or not, but this is the kind of decision about capital allocation that is driven, in large measure by stockmarkets. The efficient markets hypothesis says that stockmarkets do the best possible job of estimating the value of assets, and thereby guides the allocation of capital. In the absence of the WallStreetBets push, it appeared that the market judgement was that it would be better to steer capital away from AMC, and into some other activity. Now, it's the opposite.

One possible response is that WallStreetBets is an episode of craziness that will soon pass. But once you strip away newsworthy bits like the role of Reddit and the scale of the price movement, this kind of squeeze (or conversely, short-selling raid) is available, and potentially profitable, to any group of traders who can mobilize the necessary few billion (using options, those billions can be magnified a fair way). That's part of the reason why stock prices are far more volatile than would seem justified by the arrival of new information relative to future earnings.

If stock prices are more volatile than underlying value, the two must differ most of the time. That undermines the claim that financial markets do a better job of allocating investment capital than would, for example, a central planning board. Even if you don't want to go that far, there's no obvious reason why limiting stock trading to (say) once a week would impair the allocation of capital to an extent that would outweigh the savings from cutting the financial down to a small fraction of its present size.

fn1. A Never-Trump website, well worth a look.

 -- via my feedly newsfeed

Dealing with a Pandemic as If Human Lives Mattered [feedly]

Baker on the pandemic response in rich countries: coulda, shoulda, woulda  --  but capitalism got in the way

Dealing with a Pandemic as If Human Lives Mattered

It's fair to say that the U.S. performance in dealing with the pandemic has been disastrous. With the effort led by Donald Trump, this is not surprising. His main, if not only, concern was keeping up appearances. Preventing the spread of the pandemic, and needless death, was obviously not part of his agenda.

Unfortunately, many other wealthy countries, like France, Belgium, and Sweden, have not done much better. They don't have the excuse of having a saboteur in charge who was actively trying to prevent the relevant government agencies from doing their jobs.

Anyhow, I thought it would be worth throwing out a few points about how we should have approached the pandemic. While some of this is 20-20 hindsight, I was making most of these points many months ago. I should add, I claim zero expertise in public health, but I do have some common sense, in spite of my training in economics. Of course, if anyone with expertise in public health wants to correct or expand on any points here, I welcome the opportunity to be educated.

I will break down the discussion into three key areas:

  • Measures to reduce spread;
  • Efforts to develop effective testing, vaccines, and treatments;
  • The distribution of vaccines

The United States has failed horribly in all three areas, but many other countries have not done much better.


Containing the Spread

When I look back at what I have been wrong about since the pandemic started, my biggest mistake was in thinking that we could get the pandemic under control after a two or three month shutdown. (I also expected that we would make more progress in treatment. Unfortunately, the ratio of deaths to infections has not changed much since the summer.)

The idea that the shutdowns, followed by effective containment measures, could control the spread should not seem far-fetched. Several European countries did get their infection rates down to very manageable levels after their shutdowns. For example, Denmark, a country with a population of a bit less than 6 million people, had their daily infections below 20 in the summer. At this level, it is possible to do effective contact tracing and arranging for those who have been exposed to be quarantined and/or tested. Several countries in East Asia, such as Japan and South Korea, did even better.

Unfortunately, Denmark, like other European countries, allowed its people to travel freely over the summer. This resulted in many people becoming infected, and then spreading the virus when they returned.  

Anyhow, the idea that we would have shutdowns (which can be much better targeted with what we now know) and then have containment measures and testing in place to prevent large-scale spread is clearly a possibility. We completely failed in this effort in the United States, both because we did not implement containment policies and also because we had grossly inadequate testing.

As far as containment, this would require the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other agencies giving clear guidance and ideally being able to enforce their rules. This mostly did not happen because the Trump administration did not want it to happen. The most important example here was when the CDC tried to produce rules for safe school re-openings, which Trump administration officials then rewrote because they complained that they required too much work.  

In a similar vein, OSHA produced guidance for safe practices in meatpacking plants only after widespread reports of infections and deaths in a number of facilities. Incredibly, it was only last week that OSHA issued general guidance for workplace safety in dealing with the pandemic.

Going along with better guidance on the safe operation of workplaces and businesses, we should have had more aggressive efforts at testing and contact tracing. While some states have taken this effort seriously, the Trump administration was often openly hostile to the idea of more frequent testing. As Donald Trump said on several occasions, if we have less testing, we will identify fewer cases. In an administration in which public appearance was the main priority, not controlling the pandemic, there was little interest in pursuing a policy that would show the problem to be bigger.

In terms of what difference better control can make, Germany has had just over half the death rate (relative to its population) from the pandemic as the United States. Denmark has had less than one third the death rate. Governments that knew what they were doing and took the pandemic seriously kept people from dying.


Open-Sourcing Research on Testing, Vaccines, and Treatments

To my view, the biggest failure of policy in the pandemic has been the fact that we gave patent monopolies to the companies developing new tests, treatments, and vaccines. This has led to higher prices and needless shortages of the essential tools for containing the pandemic. This practice is even more frustrating since, in many cases, the government picked up the tab for much or all of the development costs.

arguedbeginning back in March, that we should see the pandemic as a great opportunity for experimenting with open-source research in a context of international cooperation. The idea is that we would negotiate some commitment of funding from each country, based on their GDP and wealth, which would go to support research on developing tests, treatments, and vaccines. All the research findings would be fully open, as would be the results of clinical trials. And, all patents would be in the public domain so that anyone with the necessary manufacturing facilities could produce any of the items developed.[1]

In principle, this would allow for the most rapid progress possible. It also would remove the incentives that patent monopolies give companies to lie about the safety and effectiveness of their products. And, it means that everything that was developed – new tests, treatments, and vaccines – would be cheap. These items are rarely expensive to manufacture, they are only expensive because drug companies have patent monopolies or other types of government protection.

The failure to go this route is hitting home now that much of the world, including the United States and Europe, are facing shortages of vaccines. In the wake of these shortages, we are hearing the response that there is limited manufacturing capacity. This is true, but that is precisely the problem.

If Moderna or Pfizer can each build one or two factories to produce their vaccines, then it was possible to build ten or twenty. If there were inputs in short supply, we could have ramped up production of these inputs. This is why we have the Defense Production Act.

There is no reason that the United States could not have had stockpiles of 300 or 400 million of any vaccine that went into Phase 3 testing, by the time that it was approved. If we had capacity to produce another 100 million or so per month, we could ensure that supply would never be the limit on our ability to vaccinate people.

There is of course the risk that we would have produced 400 million doses of a vaccine that was not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, but so what? With the cost of production around $2 per shot, this would mean throwing $800 million in the garbage. In a context where the pandemic has cost us close to 500,000 lives, and trillions of dollars of lost output, the risk of wasting $800 million looks pretty trivial.

In fact, we should be thinking about the issue on a world scale. That means that we should have been looking to have 1-2 billion doses available when vaccines first were approved by regulatory authorities. This is where international cooperation really would be hugely valuable. In addition to the U.S.-European manufacturers, China, Russia, and India have also developed vaccines.

Two of China's vaccines have been approved by other countries' regulatory authorities. Russia's vaccine has also been approved by regulatory authorities in a number of countries and a recently published article shows it to be highly effective. Russia is currently submitting for approval by the European Union's regulatory agency. Germany has already expressed a willingness to use the Russian vaccine, if it is approved. Russia indicated it could provide 100 million doses to Europe in the spring.

It is great that these other countries have developed vaccines, but unfortunately, they have not been very forthcoming with their results. The Chinese vaccines seem to be less effective than the vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna, but they may nonetheless still be very useful in slowing the spread of pandemic, and perhaps even more importantly, preventing severe cases requiring hospitalization and possibly leading to death.

If we had gone the route of full open-source research, the trial data for these vaccines would be freely available to researchers and clinicians throughout the world. This would both allow governments to make informed choices about which vaccines might be best for their populations (several of the vaccines have the advantage of not requiring freezing, which makes delivery and storage far easier, especially in developing countries) and also for doctors and patients to weigh the relative risks and benefits of the available vaccines.

It is also important to point out in this context that we have a very concrete reason for wanting a quick and successful worldwide vaccine program. We know that the more the virus spreads, the more it mutates. There is a great risk that if the pandemic is allowed to spread unchecked in large parts of the world, that there will be mutations for which the current vaccines are not effective. Even if the vaccines can be adjusted to make them effective, as some scientists have claimed, this would still require the production and distribution of hundreds of millions of new doses of a revised vaccine, with the pandemic spreading widely in the meantime.

We really really do not want to be in a situation where we have to go through this thing a second time. That means we should be very serious about getting the whole world inoculated as quickly as possible, even apart from the humanitarian interest that we should not want to see preventable illness and death anywhere.


Distributing the Vaccines

Perhaps the most mind-boggling aspect of the policy response to the pandemic has been the failure of the vaccine distribution process. In the United States we have a fairly straightforward explanation: Donald Trump. Trump made it clear that, under his leadership, the federal government was taking no responsibility for distributing the vaccine. However, even without the leadership of the federal government, it is disturbing that states have not been better in stepping up and filling in the gap.

Even more striking is the fact that United States is actually doing better in its vaccine rollout than countries like France and Germany, which do have national health care systems and generally competent governments. It is astounding that they seem to have been unprepared to deliver vaccines once they had been approved by regulatory authorities. It is striking that these countries did not seem to have plans in place to quickly deliver whatever vaccines they had available.

This means having concrete plans to distribute the vaccine immediately after the regulatory authorities gave the green light. That would mean having stockpiles available near distribution centers. It means picking locations – nursing homes, hospitals, pharmacies, or mass inoculation points at sports stadiums or other facilities – and then ensuring that the necessary personnel are at the site.

We have heard reports of shortages of everything from syringes to personnel trained in giving the shots. We had all fall to ensue that we had plenty of syringes. If enough people had not been trained to administer the shots (we give two million flu shots a day during flu season), then we should have trained more people.[2]

It is truly incredible that states did not make these preparations. Again, having a federal government that was completely AWOL on the vaccine distribution effort was a big handicap, but it is still surprising how most states seem to have fallen down so badly.[3] And, it is very hard to understand how competent governments in Europe seem to have also been unprepared to quickly deliver the vaccine doses that were available.

Conclusion – The World Has Messed Up Big Time in Dealing with the Pandemic

It is hard to look at the track record over the last year and not conclude that governments failed badly in their efforts to control the pandemic. This is partly due to corruption and a failure of imagination, as in the decision not to open-source the development of vaccines, treatments and tests, and partly to a lack of competence, as in the failure to prepare in advance for the distribution of vaccines.

Some countries, especially those in East Asia, have done very well in limiting the spread of the virus and thereby minimizing deaths and economic damage. But few countries elsewhere have much to brag about. Donald Trump is of course a big part of the problem in the United States, but the failure goes well beyond Trump. There should be some real accountability once the pandemic is contained, which hopefully will be soon, if we start doing things right.  

[1] I outline a system of publicly funded drug research in chapter 5 of Rigged.

[2] One of the amazing stories I've heard from public health people is that the coronavirus shots take longer to deliver because the shot giver has to make arrangements for a second appointment. If this is actually true, it is incredible that we would waste the time of a person giving shots, by having them make these arrangements, rather than having a separate person who checks people in doing this work.  

[3] One explanation that I have heard is that states delayed making plans because they assumed there would be money for distribution logistics in the second pandemic rescue package that eventually passed at the end of December. The idea was that if they spent funds before the bill passed, they wouldn't be reimbursed, but if they waited, they could then have the Feds pick up the tab. If this explanation is right, then it shows the enormous cost of the long delay in passing this bill.

The post Dealing with a Pandemic as If Human Lives Mattered appeared first on Center for Economic and Policy Research.

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Tuesday, February 2, 2021

The mainstream: meeting the historic challenges? [feedly]

The mainstream: meeting the historic challenges?

Recently, newly confirmed US Treasury secretary and former Fed chief, Janet Yellen, spelt out the challenges facing US capitalism in a letter to her new staff.  She said: "the current crisis is very different from 2008. But the scale is as big, if not bigger. The pandemic has wrought wholesale devastation on the economy. Entire industries have paused their work. Sixteen million Americans are still relying on unemployment insurance. Food bank shelves are going empty."  That's now; but ahead, Yellen says that there were "four historic crises: COVID-19 is one. But in addition to the pandemic, the country is also facing a climate crisis, a crisis of systemic racism, and an economic crisis that has been building for fifty years. "

She did not spell out what this 50-year crisis was. But she was confident that mainstream economics can find the solutions to these crises. "Economics isn't just something you find in textbook. Nor is it simply a collection of theories. Indeed, the reason I went from academia to government is because I believe economic policy can be a potent tool to improve society. We can – and should – use it to address inequality, racism, and climate change.  I still try to see my science – the science of economics – the way my father saw his: as a means to help people."

These are fine words. But is mainstream economics really designed to 'help people' improve their lives and livelihoods?  Indeed, is mainstream economics really offering a scientific analysis of modern economies that can lead to policies that can solve the 'four historic challenges' that Yellen outlines?

The failure of mainstream economics to forecast, explain or deal with the global financial crash and the ensuing Great Recession of 2008-9 is well documented – indeed see my paper here.  That hardly backs up Yellen's claims.

Mainstream economics cannot deliver even on its own terms because it makes two basic assumptions that are not based on reality; one in so-called 'microeconomics' and one in so-called 'macroeconomics'. As a result, mainstream falls down as a scientific analysis of modern (capitalist) economies.

First, there is utility theory and marginalism – and the resultant adoption of general equilibrium theory.  Where does 'wealth' come from in society and how do we measure it?  The classical economists, Adam Smith, David Ricardo etc recognised that there was only one reliable and universal measure of value: the amount of labour (hours) that is expended to produce goods and services. But this labour theory of value was replaced in the mid-19th century by utility theory, or more precisely, marginal utility theory.

This became the dominant explanation for value.  As Engels remarked: "The fashionable theory just now here is that of Stanley Jevons, according to which value is determined by utility and on the other hand by the limit of supply (i.e. the cost of production), which is merely a confused and circuitous way of saying that value is determined by supply and demand. Vulgar Economy everywhere".  But marginal utility theory quickly became untenable even in mainstream circles because subjective value (ie every individual values something differently according to their inclination or circumstance) cannot be measured and aggregated, so the psychological foundation of marginal utility was soon given up.  For more on the fallacious assumptions of mainstream value theory, see Steve Keen's excellent book, Debunking economics, or more recently, Ben Fine's critique of both micro and macroeconomics.

Engels called mainstream economics 'vulgar' because it was no longer an objective scientific analysis of economies but had become an ideological justification for capitalism.  As Fred Moseley has explained, "marginal productivity theory provides crucial ideological support for capitalism, in that it justifies the profit of capitalists, by arguing that profit is produced by the capital goods owned by capitalists. All is fair in capitalism. There is no exploitation of workers. In general, everyone receives an income that is equal to their contribution to production." In contrast, "The main alternative theory of profit is Marx's theory and the conclusions of Marx's theory (exploitation of workers, fundamental conflicts between workers and capitalists, recurring depressions, etc.) are too subversive to be acceptable by the mainstream. But these are ideological reasons, not scientific reasons. If the choice between Marx's theory and marginal productivity theory were made strictly on the basis of the standard scientific criteria of logical consistency and empirical explanatory power, Marx's theory would win hands down."

The ultimate logical result of this vulgar economics is general equilibrium theory, where it is argued that modern economies tend towards equilibrium and harmony. The founder of general equilibrium theory, Leon Walras, characterised a market economy as like a giant pool of water. Sometimes a rock would be thrown into the pool, causing ripples across it.  But eventually, the ripples would die out and the pool would be tranquil again.  Supply might exceed demand in a market through some shock, but eventually the market would adjust to bring supply and demand into equilibrium.

Walras was well aware that his theory was an ideological defence of capitalism.  As his father wrote to him in 1859, when Marx was preparing Capital, "I totally approve of your plan of work to stay within the least offensive limits as regard property owners. It is necessary to do political economy as one would do acoustics or mechanics."  More recently, Nobel prize winner Esther Duflo gave a speech in 2017 to the American Economics Association in which she reckoned economists should give up on the big ideas and instead just solve problems like plumbers "lay the pipes and fix the leaks". 

But do economies and markets really tend to equilibrium, if occasionally disrupted by 'shocks'?  We only have to look at the gyrations in the stock markets of the world this week to doubt that.  Actually, modern economies are more like oceans with rolling waves (booms and slumps), with tides pulled by the gravity (profit) of the moon and storms (crashes) from the forces of the weather. There is no tranquility or equilibrium but continual, turbulent movement.  Marxist economics aims to examine the dynamic 'laws of motion' over time in modern capitalism; in contrast to mainstream economics where time stands still and any 'disturbances' are caused by 'shocks' external to 'free' markets.

Of course, some mainstream economists admit that marginal utility and general equilibrium theory is nonsense.  And occasionally some physicists of the 'natural sciences' attack the assumptions of mainstream economics. The latest critic is a British physicist Ole Peters who claims the Everything We've Learned About Modern Economic Theory Is Wrong.  What's wrong is that mainstream economic models assume something called "ergodicity." That is the average of all possible outcomes of a given situation informs how any one person might experience it.

Peters takes aim at mainstream utility theory, which argues that when we make decisions, we conduct a cost-benefit analysis and try to choose the option that maximizes our wealth. The problem, Peters says, is this fails to predict how humans actually behave because the math is flawed. Expected utility is calculated as an average of all possible outcomes for a given event. What this misses is how a single outlier can, in effect, skew perceptions. Or put another way, what you might expect on average has little resemblance to what most people experience. His solution is to borrow math commonly used in thermodynamics to model outcomes using the 'correct average'.

Peters is saying that reality operates more often like 'power laws', where far from markets, wealth, employment etc tending towards the average, or towards the equilibrium, Walras-style; instead, inequality can increase to extremes, unemployment can rise not fall etc.  Outliers in the statistics can become decisive in their impact.

But it does not take us very far just to recognise uncertainty and chance and feed that into some mathematical model.  We need to base economic 'models' on the reality of capitalist production, namely the exploitation of labour for profit and the resultant regular and recurring crises in production and investment ie the laws of motion of capitalism. Marxist economist of the early 20th century, Henryk Grossman perceptively exposed the failure of mainstream theories which are based on static analysis.  Capitalism is not gradually moving on (with occasional shocks) in a generally harmonious way towards superabundance and a leisure society where toil ceases – on the contrary it is increasingly driven by crises, inequality and destruction of the planet.

Instead, mainstream economics just invents possible exogenous causes or 'shocks' to explain crises because it does not want to admit that crises could be endogenous.  The Great Recession of 2008-9 was 'a chance in a million'or an 'unexpected shock', or a 'black swan, the unknown unknown, that perhaps requires a new mathematical model to account for these shocks.  Similarly, the COVID-19 pandemic is apparently an unforeseen exogenous 'shock', not a well forecast consequence of capitalism's drive for profits from expansion into remote areas of the world where these dangerous pathogens reside.  But the mainstream does not require or want a theory of endogenous causes of crises.

At the level of macroeconomics, modern Keynesian theory has also been found wanting.  Modern Keynesianism (or 'bastard Keynesianism' as Joan Robinson called it) bases its analysis of crises in capitalism on 'shocks' to the equilibrium and uses Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium (DGSE) models to analyse the impact of these 'shocks'.

Among others, Keynesian economic journalist Martin Sandbu has been running a little campaign against the DSGE approach. There is "little doubt that mainstream macroeconomics is in deep need of reform." He says: "the question is how, and whether the standard approach, DSGE modelling, can be sufficiently improved or should be jettisoned altogether." As Sandbu says, "DSGE macroeconomics does not really allow for the large-scale financial panic we saw in 2008, nor for some of the main contending explanations for the slow recovery and a level of economic activity that remains far below the pre-crisis trend." Sandbu wants to plough on with "a more expansive and liberal form of DSGE".

Recently he has praised the idea of so-called multiple equilibria as a standard feature of their core mainstream macro model ie "allowing that there are several different self-reinforcing states the economy can fall into, not just a single equilibrium around which it fluctuates. But with multiple equilibria, there is no single central tendency. If anything, there are several, and while one can give probability distributions around the precise outcome in each equilibrium, predicting in which equilibrium the economy will find itself is a different beast altogether." Sanbu puts up this multiple equilibria approach as a method of getting better results from economics: "it becomes clear that by far the most important policy question is equilibrium selection: how to get the economy out of a self-reinforcing bad state, or prevent disruptions that tip it out of a good state." But that sounds little different from general equilibrium models. And even worse, if there really are 'multiple equilibria' in modern economies then, says Sandbu, it "is something economists are not well-equipped to advise on."

If that is so, then we cannot expect mainstream economics to meet the four historic challenges that Janet Yellen reckons capitalism faces.  What were they again?  Dealing with future pandemics; solving the climate crisis; ending inequality and racism; and the undefined 50-year crisis of capitalism (which is presumably the regular and recurring turbulence in capitalist production for profit).

We can only hope that Janet Yellen's speeches to financial institutions in Wall Street, which has earned her over $7m in the last few years, provided these bastions of capital the solutions to those historic challenges.  But don't hold your breath.

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