Archive for July 2021


The rapidly shrinking lab leak hypothesis

The late spring boomlet in the Covid-19 lab leak hypothesis is rapidly deflating. The hypothesis was mostly based on 5 pieces of evidence, 4 of which have now been shown to be nearly meaningless. Here are the 5:

1. The outbreak was first discovered in Wuhan, which is close to a Covid research lab.

2. The outbreak was first discovered in Wuhan, which is far from the Yunnan bat caves where such a virus would presumably originate.

3. The Chinese government cover-up is evidence of guilt.

4. Three Wuhan lab workers (out of hundreds) were hospitalized with flu symptoms during November 2019.

5. The structure of the Covid virus looks manmade.

Only the first piece of evidence still has persuasive power. Everyone concedes the first SARS outbreak was natural, but that virus first showed up in Guangdong, an urban region far from Yunnan. Everyone concedes the first SARS outbreak was natural, but the Chinese government engaged in a vigorous cover-up in that case as well, as it does after every single natural disaster. China was hit by a major flu outbreak in late 2019, and workers in China who miss work due to illness need a written medical excuse. Unlike in the US, workers typically get those excuses from the hospital, not the doctor’s office.

Many scientists say the structure of Covid looks like it is unlikely to have been manmade. Other don’t know. The most famous proponent of the “looks man-made” hypothesis is David Baltimore. But after his was corrected on certain technical points, he recanted on his claim.

I still think there’s a non-trivial chance that it was a lab leak. You still have the fact that it first appeared in Wuhan, which has a lab doing gain-of-function research. But people in my comment section were claiming there is overwhelming evidence for the lab leak hypothesis, which is not remotely true.

PS. The only western scientist to work at the Wuhan lab in 2019 finds the lab leak hypothesis to be highly implausible. But I’m sure my commenters are in a much better position to evaluate the theory than she is.

HT: Andrew Thompson

Scopes monkey trial redux

Before dumping on Tennessee, let me congratulate them for being one of the few states that is willing to let teenagers make medical decisions.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to apply to government officials informing people that minors have a right to vaccinate:

Tennessee fired its top immunization official Monday, the official said, in retaliation for her attempts to let teenagers choose whether to be vaccinated against the novel coronavirus. . . .

According to Fiscus, lawmakers took offense when she sent a memo in which she explained to medical providers the state’s “Mature Minor Doctrine,” a legal mechanism by which they are allowed to inoculate minors 14 and above without consent from their parents.

The details of the Mature Minor Doctrine, which was established in 1987, are publicly available on the health department’s website.

Fiscus said the language in the letter was provided to her by the health department’s attorney, who told her at the time that it had been approved by the governor’s office and that she was allowed to share it with anyone.

How should we think about “transient inflation”?

Here’s Matt Yglesias:

One definition of transient inflation is higher than normal inflation that will soon return to normal (say 2%.) That’s probably the definition this is most consistent with how we normally define terms like “transient”. But I don’t think it’s the most useful definition, the definition that gets at the question that we actually have in our minds.

Whether inflation is temporary depends on what the Fed does in the future. But surely people have something more than future monetary policy in mind when they contemplate whether a given bout of inflation is transient. For instance, the Fed is equally capable of stopping a demand-side inflation like 1966-69 as it is in stopping a temporary bout of supply-side inflation (such as 2007-08). Nonetheless, these two inflations seem intrinsically different in some sort of important way.

So here’s my proposal for a more useful definition of “transient inflation”. A transient inflation can be brought back to 2% relatively quickly without triggering much higher unemployment. Inflation that is not transient can also be brought back to 2%, but doing so quickly will trigger much higher unemployment. It’s like the difference between an illness that will quickly pass away on its own, and an illness that requires painful medical treatment. Both are temporary, but only the former is transient.

If you are wondering whether nominal wage inflation plays a role here, the answer is yes. Be very wary of people who react to rising nominal wages by saying, “Finally! Workers are getting a raise.” What matters is real wages, which are not doing well in recent months. We would like to see a higher long run growth rate of real wages, whereas we would not like to see short run spikes in nominal wage growth.

PS. I used to like reading Yglesias. Now I hate him:

Macho men and scaredy-cats

There is a certain type of person who was contemptuous of the risks associated with Covid-1:

As Brazil entered its third week of quarantine, President Jair Bolsonaro began to get impatient.

“The virus is there. We need to face it like a man, dammit. We will all die someday,” said the rightwing leader on Sunday, just days after announcing a new campaign that urged citizens to break self-isolation and return to their jobs.

And this:

“We have to stop being a country of sissies.”

Bolsonaro used the Portuguese word “maricas,” an offensive slang term for gay people.

Now the vaccine is here, but Bolsonaro does not want to “face it like a man, dammit”. Rather he wants to face the vaccine with the same courage you’d expect from a child that sees a big scary spider in his bedroom:

But Serrana was given a way out. Between February and April, all adults were offered jabs as part of a study by the Butantan Institute, which produces CoronaVac, a vaccine developed by Sinovac, a Chinese firm. More than 95% of serranenses got jabbed, despite Jair Bolsonaro, the president, claiming that it was unsafe. Preliminary results released on May 31st showed that symptomatic cases and deaths fell by 80% and 95%, respectively. Only two covid-19 patients remain hospitalised in the local clinic (both refused the vaccine).

Is Bolsonaro unusual? Not according to the comment section of my blog. Last year it was full of tough guys ridiculing fears of Covid, citing one lie after another (“it’s like the 1957 flu” or “the IFR is only 0.25%”, etc.) Now some of those same tough guys are wetting their pants over the risks posed by the (ultra-safe) Covid vaccine. Again they cite one lie after another (“9000 people have died from the vaccine”, etc.)

So what’s going on here? This is obviously not about risk tolerance. So what is it about? What is the hidden agenda?

Lockdowns can be seen as paternalistic regulations that aim to protect the public from harming themselves and their families. In America, conservatives were more likely to oppose such laws. But conservatives are more likely to support paternalistic drug laws aimed at protecting people from harming themselves and their families. Perhaps it’s all about framing. Is a “sissy” someone who is scared to try cocaine? Or is a sissy someone who uses narcotics to avoid facing up to life’s responsibilities “like a man”?

If there’s no rhyme or reason to these framings, then it opens the door to political reshuffling, which may already being occurring in the UK:

The delay of “Freedom Day”, which was supposed to see lockdown restrictions lifted almost entirely on June 21st, has probably been a boon for protesters. One says he was surprised by the number of vaccinated people joining in, either because they wanted to get back to normal or because they have become concerned about possible side-effects since being jabbed.

The protests attract both anarchist left and anti-establishment right. Piers Corbyn, the brother of Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s former, far-left leader, has shared platforms with David Kurten, once a member of the United Kingdom Independence Party, a populist outfit that campaigned for Brexit, and now leader of the right-wing Heritage Party. Activists have united around “freedom”, discussing John Locke and Ayn Rand.

And I think we know where Foucault would be on these issues.

But no matter how many times the political deck is reshuffled, they never get around to creating a tribe that I wish to join.

A sign of the times

While shopping online, I noticed a retailer with the following payment options:

I’m no expert on bitcoin, so please tell me if any of my assumptions are incorrect:

1. Bitcoin is increasingly widely used as a store of value and a medium of exchange, but not as a unit of account. In other words, retailers are not setting bitcoin prices, rather they are setting dollar prices and allowing the payment of an equivalent amount of bitcoin. Is that correct?

2. If point one is correct, then bitcoin affects monetary policy in much the same way that other money substitutes like credit cards, debit cards, and checks affect monetary policy—not much at all.

3. If point one is correct, then bitcoin “monetary policy” doesn’t affect the macroeconomy. A change in the supply of bitcoin doesn’t impact nominal aggregates (NGDP, CPI, etc.) A change in the use of bitcoin would only affect nominal aggregates if it were not offset by the central bank.