A Timely Agent Based Model

I’m going to play economic imperialist and declare that epidemiology is partly within the domain of economics. I’m not sure how big the overlap is, but certainly there are economic questions that bear epidemiological type modeling. The movement of ideas is, in the long run, as important as the movement of a virus is in the short run. In any event, economists should be using this sort of methodology more often.

Crisis, governments and the micro-macro conundrum

Layoffs and salary cuts are individual firm responses to a crisis that may make sense from a micro perspective- it is about saving money – but they will have dire consequences on the macro level.

I lived through this in Greece. Ten years ago, every firm was expecting the worst to come from the memorandum. They started making people redundant, pulling out from planned investment and cutting salaries. Unemployment went up, demand collapsed, public revenue went down, more austerity measures were needed and the downward spiral deepened. The country ended up losing one third of its economy in just four years.

Will it now be Greece on steroids everywhere?

The side effects of myriads of micro adaptations appear on the macro level. This is a key problem for economics and is particularly challenging for Austrian economics. Entrepreneurs creatively respond to a crisis by adopting a cautious and defensive approach long before some of them could spot new opportunities for investment and take positive action to exploit them. But if they all choose to first play ‘defense’, they shape the macro-environment in patterns that keeps telling most of them “keep on protecting yourself”, “there are more risks than opportunities out there”. Both supply and demand are on a continuous downward spiral. While some discerning entrepreneurs will spot some opportunities even in the direst of the circumstances, their plans need time to materialise and some may never come to fruition. In the meantime, most economic actors are not well positioned to start what they know to do well, and many have already lost their money in activities that went downhill.

On the other hand, the side effects of a large top down intervention such as the global lock down confirms the Austrian critique that central planning is also a risky endeavour. In an effort to control a complex reality, radical top-down interventions can divert investment to the specific activities they prop up, which appear sustainable for as long as this diversion lasts. Restrictive measures can also backfire, such as Greece’s shock austerity that was intended to balance the budget in Greece, or can prolong a precarious environment, such as the debt-fuelled bailouts elsewhere to save the banking system.

The problem is that policymakers do not have the tools to gain a full grasp of any potential unintended or undesired consequences from their actions. When they focus on one range of analysis, such as preventing a spike of deaths during the epidemic, the measures they take can generate a cascade of negative side effects in areas off their alarmed radar which they may have no idea how to arrest or fix.

I don’t see this micro-macro antithesis as an automatic validation of post Keynesianism in the sense that capitalism is always inherently unstable. It is unstable in periods of crisis when the micro and the macro can become a contradiction.

Exogenous shocks periodically happen. But it is worth studying what post Keynesians state: a crisis can emerge endogenously as in the financial markets.

The way out may be to think in terms of resilience rather than stability. I am inspired by Hilton Root’s forthcoming book Network Origins of the Global Economy. Resilience is the capacity of a system to accommodate turbulences and absorb shocks in recurrent episodes of instability. The system is unstable but can withstand the stresses.

Are multiple adjustments by adaptive agents able to bring about resilience in a system? Or do we need a central node to gain control and bring about order? Is a centrally-induced order a structure of relations that can be resilient over time, given that it depends on the health of the central node and knowing that the capacity of governments to understand and predict is limited?

Again: Never reason from a fatality change

The future isn’t written yet

Last week Richard Epstein predicted around 500 fatalities in the United States (I originally misread his estimate to be 50,000 for the US, not the whole world). His estimate was tragically falsified within days and he has now revised his estimate to 5,000. I still think that’s optimistic but I am hopeful for less than 50,000 deaths in the United States given the social distancing measures currently in place.

Today, several US peers have become excited about a Daily Wire article on comments by a British epidemiologist, Neil Ferguson. He has lowered his UK projections from 500,000 to 20,000 Coronavirus fatalities. The article omits the context of the change. The original New Scientist article (from which the Daily Wire is derivative with little original reporting) explains that the new fatality rate is partly due to a shift in our understanding of existing infections, but also a result of the social distancing measures introduced.

The simple point is:

Policy interventions will change infection rates, alter future stresses on the health system, and (when they work) lower future projections of fatalities. When projections are lower, it is not necessarily because the Coranavirus is intrinsically less deadly than believed but because appropriate responses have made it less deadly.

A PPE pandemic reading list

I haven’t written for a while – other duties get in the way – but I’d like to suggest this reading list in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics for the present time of crisis and perplexity. The main reason is that everyone seems to be an expert in Economics, Epidemiology, and Political Philosophy these days, assuming that from “facts” we can easily derive “values” and answer the question, “what is to be done?” I think this is at best a naïve attitude and at worst the same rationalistic hubris we experience everytime a political issue is simplified and reduced to a matter of “science”. Yes, there are facts and they shouldn’t be ignored, but it’s not easy to decide what is to be done, morally and politically, in light of those facts.

The first item on the list is Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. A classic, and a reminder that people choose all the time to sacrifice some degree of liberty in the altar of survival (or a chance to survive), but also a reminder that Leviathan may turn from friend to foe, from protector to persecutor – and there is very little we can do about it. The second item is John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, which then explores this topic in light of the fact that civil government shouldn’t have absolute power. It makes an attempt to show us how that power can, or should, be limited within a certain sphere of responsibility. Though it’s still there to protect us.

In this time of pandemic, people feel tempted to panic. People and politicians are calling for dramatic measures, and one reason is that the use of government coercion – which, according to Locke, ought to be limited – might be necessary to force people to cooperate, for example, by staying home. This is a proposed solution to the dilemmas of collective action posed by the problem that some may “free-ride” on the rest, and, as a result, the disease will keep spreading, frustrating any attempt to slow it down. Against dramatic, desperate and, perhaps, arrogant, use of political power, and in favor of prudence and wisdom, Edmund Burke’s collection of writings from the period of the French Revolution can be a beacon of light. On the other hand, explaining the dilemmas of collective action and suggesting ways of solving them, Mancur Olson offers an insightful look at incentives and group behavior in The Logic of Collective Action.

However, the idea that government coercion is the only solution to dilemmas of collective action (such as imposing a quarantine, for example) doesn’t hold water. In fact, other economists follow Olson in saying the problem is real and challenges a strict individualist way of thinking, but, adding to Olson’s point, they also acknowledge the role of private action and sanctions in fostering cooperation. Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons is a wonderful study that opens up a number of possibilities for private enforcing of collective action to preserve and promote the frugal allocation of common goods. This can be complemented by The Quest for Community, an overlooked work by sociologist Robert Nisbet, where it becomes clear that, between individuals, the state, and the market, there’s room for other associations and communities that strengthen civil society – particularly in this challenging time. Nisbet’s lesson invites liberty-loving people to reflect on whether a hyper-individualistic view of the world ends up pitting helpess individuals against Leviathan instead of offering the buffer zone of community in between. This is something Alexis de Tocqueville discussed in the 19th century.

And just for the sake of dealing with the issue that “is” doesn’t easily lead to “ought”, and that science might have facts and an explanation for them, but does not easily conduce to a proper discussion on values policy, I must finish this PPE pandemic reading list with F. A. Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty. On Chapter 4, for example, Hayek introduces a constrast between “rationalist liberalism” and “anti-rationalist liberalism”. Rationalist liberals assume too easily that knowledge of the facts on the ground will give them what they need to re-design a society governed by reason. Hayek warns us against this technocratic assumption and offers a defence of “anti-rationalist liberalism”. Anti-rationalist liberals understand the importance of spontaneous order and of constraining power (even at a time of crisis) while prudently balancing the values of liberty and safety in light of past experience and tradition.


Three Additional readings:

Buzan, Waever and De Wilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis (1997). In a liberal democracy, the state steps in suspending some civil liberties only if it can persuade citizens that there’s a threat that justifies it. This book offers a framework to interpret how such threats are constructed in official and non-official discourse, and to what extent this construction of a threat can be effective.

Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan (2013). 25th anniversary edition. Looks at US history and how government employed crises to its advantage and the advantage of the ruling elites. In particular, security and economy related issues are dealt with.

Sanford Ikeda, Dynamics of the Mixed Economy (2002). Shows that a time of crisis might be a time for further interventionism in the economy, as Higgs (see above) suggests, but might also be a time for disintervention, as seems to be the case with part of the agenda today (FDA deregulation, etc.) This is based on Ludwig von Mises’ view that interventionist economies are not very stable and are always swinging as a pendulum between socialism and capitalism.

 

Never reason from a fatality rate

 

Richard Epstein has produced several posts and a video interview arguing that the mainstream media is overreacting to the Coronavirus pandemic. Richard understands the potential seriousness of this situation and the proper role of government. He recognises the value of the Roman maxim Salus populi suprema lex esto – let the health of the people be the highest law. In public health emergencies, many moral and legal claims resulting from individual rights and contracts are vitiated, and some civil liberties suspended.

Nevertheless, along with Cass Sunstein, Richard claims that this particular emergency is likely to be overblown. His justification for this is based on data for infection and fatality rates emerging from South Korea and Singapore that appear (currently) under control with only a relatively small proportion of their population infected. This was achieved without the country-wide lockdowns now being rolled out across Europe. Extrapolating from this experience, Richard suggests that the Coronavirus is not too contagious outside particular clusters of vulnerable individuals in situations like cruise ships and nursing homes.

The line of argument is vulnerable to the same criticism that one should never reason from a price change. The classic case of reasoning from a price change is reading oil prices as a measure of economic health. When oil prices drop, it could herald an economic boom or, paradoxically, a recession. If the price dropped because supply increased, when OPEC fails to enforce a price floor, then that lower price should stimulate the rest of the economy as transport and travel become cheaper. But if the price drops because economic activity is already dropping, and oil suppliers are struggling to sell at high prices, then the economy is heading towards a recession. The same measure can mean the opposite depending on the underlying mechanism.

The same logic applies to epidemics. The transmission rate is a combination of the (potentially changing) qualities of the virus and the social environment in which it spreads. The social environment is determined, among other things, by social distancing and tracking. Substantial changes in lifestyle can have initially marginal, but day after day very large, impacts on the infection rate. When combined with the medium-term fixed capacity of existing health systems, those rates translate into the difference between 50,000 and 500,000 deaths. You can’t look at relatively low fatality rates in some specific cases to project rates elsewhere without understanding what caused them to be the rate they are.

Right now, we don’t know for sure if the infection is controllable in the long run. However, we now know that South Korea and Singapore controlled the spread so far and also had systems in place to test, track and quarantine carriers of the virus. We also now know that Italy, without such a system, has been overrun with serious cases and a tragic increase in deaths. We know that China, having suppressed knowledge and interventions to contain the virus for several months, got the virus under control only through aggressive lockdowns.

So the case studies, for the moment, suggest social distancing and contact tracing can reduce cases if applied very early on. But more draconian measures are the only response if testing isn’t immediately available and contact tracing fails. Now is sadly not the time for half-measures or complacency.

I believe that Richard’s estimated fatality rates (less than 50,000 fatalities in the US) are ultimately plausible, but optimistic at this stage. Perversely, they are only plausible at all insofar as people project a much higher future fatality rate now. People must act with counter-intuitively strong measures before there is clear and obvious evidence it is needed. Like steering a large ship, temporally distant sources of danger must prompt radical action now. We will be lucky if we feel like we did too much in a few months’ time. Richard believes people are more worried than warranted right now. I think that’s exactly how worried people need to be to adopt the kind of adaptive behaviors that Richard relies on to explain how the spread of infection will stabilise.

Human Capital Diversification vs Pancake Mix

I went to the grocery store yesterday (late morning) expecting either business-as-usual or empty shelves. I was surprised to see both. I’m currently regretting not taking photos because it probably will be business-as-usual by the time I go back.

Some shelves were empty, and others were full. What I saw was a direct visualization of what my neighbors don’t know how to cook.

Going through my store I could see that my neighbors know how to put jarred sauce on pasta. But I saw the opportunity to blend some canned whole tomatoes and make my own sauce. “International” foods were largely untouched, but anything in the local culinary lexicon was sparse.

The whole Baking Needs aisle was basically fine, except for the pancake mix which was all gone. This is really the whole story. Who buys pancake mix? Culinary illiterates.

(Disclaimer: I’m a biased source when it comes to pancakes. I take pancakes as seriously as 75th percentile Bostonian takes the fact that the Yankees suck.)

It takes a modest amount of skill to make pancakes, but the ingredients are cheap and YouTube wants to help you. Now is a great time to up your pancake game. But even if you just follow the directions on any random pancake recipe you’re stirring together flour, salt, baking powder, sugar, eggs, oil, and milk.

The mix will either give you a crappy shelf-stable replacement for the eggs and/or milk (yuck!) or hold your hand as you stir together some powder with eggs, oil, and milk.

Thinking back to my career as an omnivore, I can recall a time when I’ve bought ingredients I really should have made. I’m not judging people who don’t know how to cook, because I’ve been there.

What I’m pointing out is that those people are always going to have the hardest time when it comes to food shortages. I’d be in the same boat if I was shopping at a store that didn’t sell the limited set of ingredients I know how to use.

There’s a tension in economics that we don’t pay enough attention to: gains from specialization vs. gains from diversification. At a system level (and in a Principles class) the two go together. But at the level of individual there is a lot to be said for diversification–you’re more robust to change, resilient in the face of problems, and perspectives gained in one domain may have lessons to apply to others.

I’m grateful I haven’t taken my own human capital specialization so far that I can’t make my own pancakes.

Prediction: Online Adjuncting is About to Boom

SUNY has been pushing for more online for some time. It means an increased ability to sell credentials to a broader market with lower real estate costs.

As far as I can tell, the primary constraint has red tape. I don’t know who put it there (unions? accreditors? governments?), but getting a class certified to go online on my campus has meant going through a steep enough up front cost that few people bother. Combine that with the fact that an online class is simply less fun and you’ve got a recipe for a mercifully slow expansion of online teaching.

That changed this week. Now almost all of SUNY is online, like it or not. The red tape might be there when we get back to normal, but the up front cost to getting a class online will fall enough that many adjuncts will get in on the action next fall.

About 15% of summer 2020 classes are slated to be led by adjuncts. I predict that by summer 2021 that will increase to 25% and that will just be the start of a much larger trend of adjunctification of online classes.