Tag Archives: Proposal

Vouch For Pandemic Passports

Car pollution is an externality. Via pollution, the behavior of some hurts others, an effect that injurers may not take into account unless encouraged to by norm, contract, liability, or regulation. However, as the pollution from one vehicle mixes with that from many others, liability is poorly suited to discourage this; it is too hard to identify which cars hurt you, and there are too many of them. It seems to work better use regulations regarding car design and maintenance to limit the pollution emitted per mile driven, and to tax those miles driven.

Assault is also an externality; you can hurt someone by punching them. But in contrast to pollution, regulation is poorly suited to assault. We could require everyone to wear boxing globes and headgear, and we might ban insults and alcohol consumption, or perhaps even all socializing. But such regulations would go too far in restricting useful behavior. It works better to just hold liable those who punch others, via tort or criminal law. Yes, to discourage assault in this way, we must hold (or at least threaten to hold) expensive trials for each assault. But that still seems far cheaper than regulatory solutions.

These two examples illustrate a well-known tradeoff in choosing between (strict) liability and regulation. On the one hand, making people pay damages when they hurt others encourages them to take such harms into account, while also letting their behavior flexibly adapt to other context. On the other hand, regulation lets us avoid expensive court trials that require victims to prove who hurt who when where and how much. Though regulation induces more uniform behavior that is less well adapted to circumstances, it works acceptably well in many cases, like auto pollution, even if less well in others, like assault. (The mixed solution of negligence liability is discussed below.)

In our current pandemic, the main externality is infection, whereby one person exposes another to the virus. Conventional public health wisdom says to discourage infection via regulation: tell everyone when to get tested and isolated, and make them tell you who they met when and where. Tell them who can leave home when and for what reasons, and what they must wear out there. However, as we are all now experiencing first hand, not only are such changes to our usual behaviors quite expensive, such rules can also induce far from optimal behavior.

Recent pandemic rules have banned bike riding, but not cars or long walks. You can take only one exercise trip per day, but there’s no limit on how long. Members of a big home can all meet in their yard together, but members of two small adjacent homes may not meet in one of their yards. You can’t go meet distant friends, even if they only ever meet you. All parks are closed regardless of how densely people would be in there. The same rules were set in dense cities and in sparse rural areas. Alcohol store workers are deemed critical, even though alcohol can be mailed, but not auto repair, which cannot be mailed. Six feet is declared the safe distance, regardless of how long we stay near, if we wear masks, if we are outdoors, or which way the air is moving. Workplaces are closed regardless of the number of workers, how closely they interact, or how many other contacts each of them have. The same rules apply to all regardless of age or other illness. You may have to wear a mask, but it doesn’t have to be a good one.

Imagine that we instead used legal (strict) liability to make as many of us as possible expect to suffer personally and directly from infecting others, and to suffer more-so the worse their symptoms. In this scenario, such people would try to take all these factors and more into account in choosing their actions. For actions that risk infecting others, they would consider not only on how important such acts are to them, but also on how likely they are personally to be infected now, how vulnerable each other person they come near might be to suffering from an infection, how vigorously their activity moves the air near them, where such air currents are likely to go, how well different kinds of masks hinder infected air, and so on. If allowed, they might even choose variolation.

Of course, for the purpose of protecting ourselves from getting infected by others, we already have substantial incentives to attend to such factors. The problem is that simple regulations don’t give us good incentives to attend to these factors for the purpose of preventing us from infecting others. With regulations, we have incentives to follow the letter of the law, but not its spirit. So we don’t do enough in some ways, and yet do too much in others. But if liability could make us care about infecting others as well as ourselves, then it might simultaneously reduce both infections and the economic and social disruptions caused by lockdowns. With strong and clear enough liability incentives, we wouldn’t need regulations; we could just let people choose when and how to work, shop, travel, etc.

But is it feasible to use liability to discourage infections? Yes, if we can satisfy two conditions: (1) most people are actually able to pay for damages if they are successfully sued for infecting others, and (2) enough of those who infect others are actually and successfully sued, and so made to pay.

On the first condition, ensuring that people can pay damages if they are found guilty, it is sufficient to require people who mix with others to buy infection liability insurance, similar to how we now require car drivers to get accident liability insurance. That is, to get a “pandemic passport” to excuse you from a strong lockdown, you must get an insurance company to guarantee that you will pay damages if you are shown to have infected someone. In a sense they “vouch” for you, and so are your “voucher”. The more types of voucher-client contract terms we are willing to enforce, the more levers vouchers gain to reduce risks.

The premiums for such insurance will be low if you can convince a voucher that you have already recovered from the virus, and so are relatively immune, or that you will leave your lockdown only rarely, to safe destinations. Otherwise, a voucher may require you to install an app on your phone to track your movements, or they may spot check your claims that you have sufficient supply of good masks that you use reliably when you leave home.

Okay, but what about the second condition, that enough infectors are actually made to pay? For this we need enough data to be collected on both sides, the infector and the infected, so that one can frequently enough match the two, to conclude that this person likely infected that one at this location at this time.

Now, we don’t need to be always absolutely sure of who infected who. In ordinary civil trials, the standard is a “preponderance of the evidence”; courts need only be 51% or more sure to convict the defendant. And sometimes we add on extra “punitive” damages, up to four ties as large as basic damages, often to compensate for a lower chance of catching offenders. So if we can find evidence to convince a court at the 51% or better standard for only one fifth of offenders, but we can add four times punitive damages, then offenders who do not know if they will be caught still expect to on average to pay near the basic damage amount.

Okay, but we still need to collect enough info to see who infected who at least one fifth of the time. Is this feasible? Well it is clearly quite feasible early in a pandemic, when few have been infected. Early on, if the times and places, i.e., space-time path, consistent with you being infected then and there overlap with the space-time path when someone else was likely infectious, then it was most likely their fault. This is the “contact trace” process usually recommended by public health workers early in a pandemic.

The problem gets harder later in a pandemic, when your infected path may overlap with the infectious paths of many others. Here it might be possible to use info on which virus strain you and they had to narrow the field. But even so there may still be several consistent candidates. In this case it seems reasonable to divide the liability over all of them, perhaps in proportion to the size of the path overlap. For the purpose of creating incentives to avoid infecting others, it isn’t that important to know later who exactly infected who when.

But yes, we still need info on who was infected and infectious where and when, perhaps supplemented by data on who had what virus strains. How can we get this info? People who might get infected have incentives to collect info on their path, to help them sue if infected. But people who might infect others would seem to want to erase such info, to keep them from being sued. I’ve recently outlined a more general approach to induce the collection of info sufficiently likely to be useful in later lawsuits. But for this essay, I’ll just propose that collecting key info be another condition required to get a pandemic passport, with violations punished by fines also guaranteed by your voucher.

Let me also note that yes, legal liability doesn’t work to discourage harms if typical harms get so small that people wouldn’t bother to sue to recover damages. In this case we could use a random lottery approach to dramatically lower the average cost of suing.

So let’s put this all together. You must stay at home, locked down, unless you get a “pandemic passport”, in which case you can go where you want when, to meet anyone. To get such a passport, you must get someone to vouch for you. They guarantee that you will pay should someone successfully sue you for infecting them, if you agree to their terms of premiums, behavior, monitoring, punishment, and co-liability. Defendants who pay damages may have to pay extra, to compensate for most infectors not getting caught in this way. When several infector candidates are consistent with the data, they can divide the damages. And for low damage levels, a random lottery approach can lower court costs.

To get and keep a passport, your voucher also guarantees that you will collect info that can help others to show that you infected them, but which can also help you to sue others if they infect you, and win you bounties via showing that others did not collect required info. For example, perhaps you must track your movements in space and time, regularly record some symptoms like body temperature, and also save regular spit samples. This info is available to be subpoenaed by those who can show sufficient reason to suspect that you infected them. Such info seems sufficient to catch enough infectors.

And by catching a sufficient fraction of infectors who then actually pay on average for the harms that they cause by infecting, (strict) legal liability can give sufficient incentives to individuals to avoid infecting others. If so, we don’t need crude lockdown regulations telling people what to do when and how; individuals can instead more flexibly adapt to details of their context in deciding when and where to work, shop, travel etc. Yes, voucher rules would not let them do such things as freely as they would in the absence of a pandemic. But behavior would be more free and impose lower economic costs than under crude regulations which similarly suppress the pandemic spread.

Note that today the most common form of legal liability is actually negligence, which we can see as a mixed form between simple regulation and simple strict liability. With negligence, the court judges if your behavior has been consistent with good behavior standards, which are essentially behavior regulations. But you are only punished for violating these regulations in situations where your behavior contributed to the harm of a particular person. Today courts tend to limit strict liability to cases where courts find it hard to define or observe good behavior details, such as using explosives, keeping a pet tiger, or making complex product design choices. As courts find it harder to define and observe good behavior in a new pandemic, strict liability seems better suited to this case.

Note also that none of this requires employers to be liable for their infected employees. Someone who is sued for infecting others may turn around and blame their employer for pushing them into situations that cause them to infect others. Employer-employee contract could usefully address such issues.

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Why Not More Job Agents?

Professional agents take substantial fractions of client wages: 3-10% in sports,10-15% in music, 10-20% in acting, and 15% for writers. Somewhat relatedly, job recruiters take 10-30% of a first year salary, and home realtors take 2-3% of home sales.

The logic is simple: you might be good at your job, but you can’t be the best at everything related to your career. There is room to be helped by people or organizations who specialize in advising, presenting, evaluating, matching, and networking for workers with your sort of career. Such help can be useful not only when you seek to change jobs, or get promoted within an organization, but at all points in your career. Even at the start, when you are deciding where to get trained in what.

The agency relation works smoothest with a clear division of labor; your tasks and their tasks. But there is also room for collaboration on shared tasks. Such as by their giving you advice on choices that are ultimately up to you.

The best agents are usually paid via an “incentive contact”, wherein they get paid a fraction of what clients get paid. This seems a big improvement on how we usually pay tutors, advisors, mentors, personal coaches, or inclined-to-advise friends and family. When you instead pay someone by the hour, or by favors traded, their interests are less clearly aligned with yours. Yes, you might judge them based on reputations or track records. But track records are rarely visible, and reputations are often only loosely related to help. You may not be much better at judging if their help and advice is good than you would be at just trying to do those things yourself.

In contrast, paying your agent a fraction of your earnings more clearly aligns their interests with yours, and also makes it easier to choose an agent. By agreeing to be your agent, someone credibly signals confidence in their and your abilities, and that you can work together. This is similar to how most lawyers will happily take your case if you pay them by the hour, but will be much picker if you ask them to be paid a contingency fee (i.e., % of the verdict). Also, all else equal, the lower the fraction of earnings they will take to do the same tasks, the higher their estimate of your earnings given their help.

While most people informally collect some career advisors and mentors, it seems something of a puzzle that more people don’t have career agents. You might claim that agents just can’t help most careers, but that seems just wrong. Maybe they don’t help a lot, but surely they could charge a little do a little. You might note that most of us have goals other than making money, but that is also true for most who have agents; the incentive contract method doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to be better than other methods, such as paying by the hour.

Yes, if your career is very risky, with a small chance of huge success, then being your agent is risky too. But each agent can have many clients, and agents can band together into larger firms to spread risk. As a result, risk-aversion need not greatly limit agent incentive contracts.

Now perhaps you object that an agent just couldn’t help enough to deserve 10%, or even 5%, of most salaries. But you can use an initial signing fee to separate an agent’s incentive from their net compensation. For example, assume that your and your agent’s fractional incentives must add to 100%, and that for incentive purposes the most efficient fractions are 70% for you and 30% for your agent. But also assume that the cost to an agent to put in that optimal effort is equivalent to only 10% of your salary. In this case, a better contract is for the agent to pay you a 20% up front “signing fee” for the right to be your agent and then later get 30% of your earnings. In this way your agent will on net get paid 10% of your earnings, and yet have a 30% stake in your income to give them a strong incentives.

Yes, for short term contracts such incentives only make agents work hard in ways that can produce short term gains. And we might rightly be wary of committing early on to one agent for our whole life. A simple solution here is to have each new short-term agent pay their up front signing fee to your previous agent, instead of to you. In this way each of your agents has a long term incentive about you, even if they may not always stay your agent. Your first agent may then pay you an especially large signing fee, which you might use to help pay for early career education or training (or you could paying for those part of their tasks).

To avoid the problem that a stronger incentive for your agent comes at the cost of a weaker incentive for you, it is actually possible to have the sum of your and your agent’s wage fractions add up to more than 100%. All you have to do is find a third party “anti-agent” willing to accept the remaining incentive. For example, you could get 100% and your agent get 50% of your earnings, if your anti-agent takes a -50% stake. You’d pay your anti-agent an up-front signing fee, and then they’d later pay your agent 50% of your earnings, while you just kept your earnings.

The main problem with an anti-agent is that they’d have an incentive to hurt your career. So you’d want to make sure to pick anti-agents only from organizations who are set up so that it is hard for them to hurt you. Perhaps (1) they are only your anti-agent for a short period, (2) you use cryptography so they don’t know who exactly you are, (3) they are headquartered far from where you live, and (4) they are just a financial holding firm, without employees able to do things to help the firm.

It wouldn’t be terrible to use auctions (or decision markets) to pick your agents and anti-agents, and their fees, from qualified candidates. For example, you might initially pick optimal agent and anti-agent fractions, and identities, via an initial auction for the max net singing fee given to you. You could probably use many criteria to define who is qualified, though your agents would be wary of your later using arbitrary conditions to extort the signing fees that agents were supposed to be paid. So you would have to agree on some limits to changes in qualification conditions.

If agents expect that you will may make choices that cut your earnings, they would likely pay more for agent contracts that put those choices within their sphere of control. Such as the ability to format your resume, or perhaps to veto job choices. So you’d want to think carefully about which choices agents get full control over, and which they can only advise you on. And current laws may limit these contracts in many ways.

Think about it this way: with a good initial auction to choose an agent, if the help of an agent isn’t actually on average worth its cost, then the winning bid should be someone who just pays you up front for the present financial value of a fraction of your future income. They won’t include an amount in their bid to cover costs to help you, as they don’t plan to try to help. If that’s the winner, accept them, and walk away wiser for knowing that you are better off without an agent trying to help you.

With all these options available to help set up a productive agency relation, I am honestly puzzled about why more people don’t seem interested in having agents. Especially as it tends to be the more prestigious and successful people today who have agents. Why don’t people get an agent, just to brag that they have one?

(Note that I’m not making any assumptions about how the roles of “agent” are organized or divided. They could be provided by individuals or by large firms, and could either be unified into one role or divided up into many differing roles.)

Added 19Apr: Many say they’d rather pay an agent a percentage of earnings over some reference earnings. But that’s mathematically equivalent to an agent who pays a signing fee and then gets a percentage of all earnings.

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Variolation (+ Isolation) May Cut Covid19 Deaths 3-30X

(Here I try to put my recent arguments together into an integrated essay, suitable for recommending to others.)

When facing a new pandemic, the biggest win is to end it fast, so that few ever suffer. This prize makes it well worth trying hard to trace, test, and isolate those near the first few cases. Alas, for Covid-19 and the world, this has mostly failed, though not yet everywhere.

The next biggest win is to find a cheap effective treatment, such as a vaccine. And while hope remains for an early win, this looks to be years away. To keep most from getting infected, at this point the West must apparently develop and long maintain unprecedented expansions in border controls, testing, tracing, and privacy invasions, and perhaps also non-home isolation of suspected cases. Alas, these ambitious plans must be implemented by the same governments that have so far failed us badly.

Yes, there remains hope here, which should be pursued. But we also need a Plan B; what if most will eventually be infected without a treatment? The usual answer is “flatten the curve,” via more social distance to lower the average of (and increase the variance of) infection rates, so that more can access limited medical resources. Such as ventilators, which cut deaths by <¼, since >~¾ of patients on them die.

However, extreme “lockdowns”, which isolate most everyone at home, not only limit freedoms and strangle the economy, they also greatly increase death rates. This is because infections at home via close contacts tend to come with higher initial virus doses, in contrast to the smaller doses you might get from, say, a public door handle. As soon as your body notices an infection, it immediately tries to grow a response, while the virus tries to grow itself. From then on, it is a race to see which can grow biggest fastest. And the virus gets a big advantage in this race if its initial dose of infecting virus is larger.

This isn’t just a theory. The medical literature consistently finds strong relations, in both animals and humans, between initial virus dose and symptom severity, including death. The most directly relevant data is on SARS and measles, where natural differences in doses were associated with factors of 3 and 14 in death rates, and in smallpox, where in the 1700s low “variolation” doses given on purpose cut death rates by a factor of 10 to 30. For example, variolation saved George Washington’s troops at Valley Forge.

Early on, it can be worth paying such high costs to end a pandemic. But once a pandemic seems likely to eventually infect most everyone, it becomes less clear whether lockdowns are a net win. However, the dose effect that lockdowns exacerbate, by increasing dose size, also offers a huge opportunity to slash deaths, via voluntary infection with very low doses. (As others have been also been suggesting.) Continue reading "Variolation (+ Isolation) May Cut Covid19 Deaths 3-30X" »

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Deliberate Exposure Intuition

Many have expressed skepticism re my last post on controlled exposure. So let me see if I can’t communicate my intuition more clearly, so we can all examine it more carefully.

Assume we have a virus like COVID-19, highly infectious and substantially deadly, not blocked or cured by any known or soon-coming treatment. It takes up to 2+ weeks from exposure to death or recovery, and advanced medical resources like ICUs can cut death rates. Even with unusually strong quarantine efforts, COVID-19 currently seems to be escaping from its initial region and nation, doubling roughly every week. Even if that growth rate falls by a factor of three on average, it will reach most of the world within a year.

At which point roughly half of the world who isn’t immune gets infected over a perhaps two week period. Medical resources are completely overwhelmed, so ICUs save only a few. And the world economy takes a huge hit; for perhaps months before that point most workers have stayed home from work in an eventually futile effort to avoid exposure. At the worst possible moment, food, trash, cleaning, heating, and cooling may be scarce, increasing the fraction of sick who die.

To deal with this crisis, there are two key kinds of resources: medicine and isolation. With limited medical resources, including medical workers, we can treat the sick, and cut their chance of dying. We also have a limited set of quarantine resources, i.e., places where we can try to isolate people, places that vary in their health support and in their rate of infection leakage in and out. If we put the more likely infected into stronger isolation, that slows the disease spread.

Consider three different policy scenarios, based on three different policy priorities.

First, consider a policy that prioritizes immediate-treatment. This is a common priority in our medical systems today. Each day, medical and quarantine resources are devoted to the individuals for whom they seem most most-effective in keeping that person alive over the next few days. So hospital ICUs hold the patients whom ICUs can most help now. And the best quarantine locations are allocated to the apparently not-infected at most risk of dying if infected. (Such as the old.) Workers are allowed to stay home from work if they think that will increase personal safety.

In this scenario, medical and critical infrastructure workers may not be given priority in quarantines or medial treatment. So medical workers are culled earlier than others due to their extra contact with the sick, and most medical workers may be sick or stay home near the peak of the epidemic, which is a pretty sharp peak. Most workers in critical infrastructure may be home then too, and may have been there a while. Worse, by allocating isolation resources according to a risk of dying if infected, a treatment-focused policy does little to slow the disease spread.

Next, consider a policy that more prioritizes containment. This is the usual priority of public health today facing a new contagious disease. Here more people become more isolated, and the best isolation resources are allocated much more to those most likely to be recently infected, not to those most likely to die if infected. Efforts may be made here to isolate medical workers, even if that results in worse individual treatment.

This priority can make sense given a substantial chance that the disease can be stopped from spreading beyond an initial area. Even if spread seems inevitable eventually, a containment priority also makes sense if that policy makes an effective treatment substantially more likely to be found before this disease spreads to most everyone. Or if more medical or isolation resources can be created in the extra time. Hope springs eternal, and it feels good to assume the best and act on hope.

But what if there is little hope of containing or treating the disease before most everyone is exposed? And what if getting sick and then recovering often gives someone substantial immunity to the disease for a period? After all, if everyone is constantly exposed, the recovered quickly get sick again, and this infection has high mortality, then death is coming soon no matter what. So we must hope for some immunity.

For this situation, consider a policy that prioritizes long-term treatment-resources. Most everyone will be exposed within a year or so, and unless they are immune they will get sick, at which point their chance of recovery instead of death should depend on medical resources, and critical infrastructure, at that time. So this policy seeks to create a pattern of isolation, and possibly deliberate exposure, to increase the average resources available to help people recover when they are sick.

The obvious problem here is that the above scenarios can have a pretty sharp peak in infection rates, overwhelming medical resources at that point in time. And workers who stay home also threaten the availability of other critical infrastructure resources. Yes, if containment slows the rate of growth of the disease, it also spreads out the time period of peak infection by a similar factor. But that could still be pretty short period.

Relative to the containment policy, this long term resource policy would seek to move the time of infection of many people from near the peak, to substantially earlier than the peak. Moving to later than the peak is not possible, if we’ve been containing as much as possible. And the obvious way to infect people earlier is to directly expose them, on purpose.

Of course directly exposing people won’t help spread out the peak if the people exposed are isolated to the same average degree as people are in the containment scenario. That would instead just move the peak to an earlier point in time, and perhaps even make it sharper, by making the disease spread faster. So this long-term treatment policy would have to involve infecting some people deliberately, while giving them much higher than average quality isolation. If their isolation were very good, then they’d use medical resources at an earlier point in time when such resources are more available, without adding much to the overall growth of the disease.

Now, if good isolation resources, and medical resources, were already strained dealing with a flux of likely infected from outside, then there might be little point in adding new infected on purpose. But what if there are many good isolated places available not being fully used to deal with folks very likely to have been exposed, and also available medical resources not fully used, what if recovered folks had little risk of infecting others for a period, and what if we were closer in time to the peak than that average period between reinfections? Well that’s when we might tempted to deliberately expose some, and then to strongly isolate them.

One key idea here is to create a stronger correlation between the strength of isolation of a place and the likelihood that people there are infected. Such a strong correlation allows us to create a population of already recovered folks who are at least temporarily immune. And that can spread out the period of peak infection, so that more medical resources are available to treat the sick. And that can cut the average mortality rate, which means that more people don’t die.

People who work in medicine and critical infrastructure seem especially promising candidates for early deliberate exposure. This is because after recovery they become more available to work during the peak infection period. They are not sick then, and are less afraid of being exposed then, making it easier to persuade them to go to work. The other set of promising candidates are those most likely to die without sufficient help, which seems to be men and especially the old.

And that’s the intuition behind deliberate exposure. Its wisdom depends on some parameters of which we are unsure, and may learn more about soon. So it seems clearer that we should think more about such options than that we should pull the trigger to start one now. And there are substantial challenges in organizing such a policy fast enough, and in gaining sufficient public and elite support to allow it. Maybe this can’t work this time, and must wait until another big pandemic.

But contrary to many loud and rude commenters lately, this option isn’t crazy. And within the next year we may come to see and suffer the full consequences of not working harder to spread out a pandemic peak of maximum infection and medical need.

Added 2p: The obvious easy win policy solution (given that key assumptions hold) here is just to make it easy for people to volunteer for (1) exposure to virus, (2) strong 24 day quarantine, (3) medical help while there, (4) regular checkups afterward. Create a place where people can go to do this, an easy way to sign up legally, and pay to expose and house them there. Maybe even pay them extra if they work in medicine or critical infrastructure. (Btw, as such an option isn’t now available, and I don’t work in critical infrastructure, it wouldn’t help society much for me to just “go infect yourself”, as many have suggested in so many colorful ways. And as I don’t own my family, I can’t volunteer them.)

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Consider Controlled Infection

In many places long ago, in families with many kids, as soon as one kid caught an illness, parents would put the other kids in close contact, so they could all catch it at once. Because it was less trouble to care for all the kids in a family at once than to care for them one at a time.

Should we also consider controlled infection to deal with our current pandemic? Like controlled burns that prevent later larger fires, it might be a good idea to expose some people early on purpose.

Today a coronavirus is spreading rapidly across China, and the world, and many are trying hard to resist that spread. One obvious reason to resist is the hope that the spread can be completely stopped, limiting how many are exposed. However, once a contagious enough virus has spread to enough people and places, this scenario becomes quite unlikely; the virus will soon spread to most everywhere that isn’t high isolated.

Unfortunately, we are probably already past this point of no return with coronavirus. It seems to spread easily, apparently including via people who are contagious but don’t show symptoms. It already seems to have spread from its initial region to infect many people in a great many other Chinese cities and regions (thousands infected, dozens dead). And that’s with keeping everyone home from work, which can’t last much longer. Once this virus comes to infect most of China, it seems hard to imagine a strong enough China wall (a 24-day quarantine for everyone leaving) to keep it from spreading further. Especially since China & WHO are arguing against such a wall, and we already have confirmed a few hundred cases outside China; they’ve doubled every week for four weeks.

Another reason to resist virus spread is in the hope that a vaccine (or other effective treatment) will be available before it spreads everywhere, stopping the spread at that point. There’s some hope for a drug soon to prevent infections, but the odds are poor and if that doesn’t work prospects are dim. Alas “typically, making a new vaccine takes a decade or longer”, and estimates for this case are at least 18 months. That doesn’t include time to manufacture and distribute it, once we know how to make it.

As of yesterday, total known deaths were 1384, a number that’s had a 6 day doubling time lately. (A very different method estimates 7 day doubling.) At that rate, in four months deaths go up by a factor of a million, which is basically the whole planet. So unless long-term growth rates slow by more than a factor of four, there’s probably not time for a vaccine to save us.

If the virus spreads to most of the world, so most everyone is exposed, then the fraction of the world that dies depends how deadly is the virus, which we just don’t know, and can’t control. Maybe we’ll get lucky, and this one isn’t much worse than influenza. But we are probably not so lucky. The fraction of the world that dies also depends our systems of social support, which we can do more to influence.

I’m not a medical professional, so I can’t speak much to medical issues. But I am an economist, so I can speak to social support issues. I see two big potential problems. One is that our medical systems have limited capacities, especially for intensive care. So if everyone gets sick in the same week or two, not only won’t the vast majority get much of help from hospitals, they may not even be able to get much help from each other, such as via cleaning and feeding. Perhaps greatly increasing death rates. This problem might be cut if we spread out the infection out over time, so that different people were sick at different times.

The other related problem is where many non-sick people stay away from work to avoid getting sick. If enough people do this, especially at critical infrastructure jobs, then the whole economy may collapse. And not only is a collapsed economy bad for most everyone, sick people do much worse there. Not only can’t they get to a doctor or hospital, they might not even be able to get food or heating/cooling. Infected surfaces don’t get cleaned, and maybe even dead bodies don’t get removed. Thieves don’t get stopped. And so on. We can already see social support partially collapsing in Wuhan now, and it’s not pretty.

There’s an obvious, if disturbing, solution here: controlled exposure. We could not only insist that critical workers go to work, but we might also choose on purpose who gets exposed when. We can’t slow down infection very much, but we can speed it up a lot, via deliberately exposing particular people at particular times, according to a plan.

Such a plan shouldn’t just expose random people early, as they’d be likely to infect others around them. Instead, groups might be taken together to isolated places to be exposed, or maybe whole city blocks could be isolated and then exposed at once. Exposed groups should be kept strongly isolated from others until they are not longer very infectious.

Those who work in critical infrastructure, especially medicine, are ideal candidates to go early. Such a plan should only expose a small fraction of each critical workforce at any one time, so that most of them remain available to keep the lights on. If critical workers could be moved around fast enough, perhaps different cities could be exposed at different times, with critical workers moving to each new city to be ready to keep services working there.

Such plans can help even if some people who are infected and recover can get reinfected later. As long as being infected gives enough people enough immunity for a long enough time period, that is enough for this plan to spread out the infections over a time period of similar duration, so medical service needs don’t all appear together. Even an immunity of only two months, which is extremely short compared to most diseases, would allow a lot of spreading.

People selected to be exposed earlier might be paid extra cash, to compensate for perceived extra risk. (Maybe X days worth of their usual wages, so as not to especially select the poor.) Or perhaps they could be paid in extra priority for sick associates if medical help is rationed later. (I’d seriously consider both kinds of offers.) We might even be able to implement a whole plan like this entirely via volunteers, though adding that constraint may make a strong plan harder to design. A compromise might be to let city blocks vote on if to be paid to go early together. I’m willing to help in design work on this, if that could help make the difference.

I don’t have a detailed plans to offer, and obviously any such plans should be considered very carefully. Also obviously, such plans might face strong opposition, which could undermine them. If they were designed or implemented badly, they might even make things worse. But the alternative is to risk having large fractions of the population get sick at once, while the economy collapses due to critical workers staying home to avoid getting sick. A scenario which could end up a lot worse.

So authorities, and the rest of us, should at least consider controlled infection as a future option. I’m not saying we should start such a plan now; maybe that drug will work, and it will all be over soon. But if not, we should start to ask when we might learn what could help us decide, what might be a good time to pull the trigger on such a plan, and how to prepare earlier for the possibility of wanting to pull such a trigger later.

Added 17Feb: See also my next post elaborating the intuition behind why and when deliberate exposure could make sense.

Added 03Mar: See also my spreadsheet model, and further discussion.

Added 15Mar: See also elaborations of spreadsheet model.

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Nickname Court

For perhaps a millions years, humans did justice mainly via gossip: the rule was that when you saw a rule violated, you were to tell of it to others, talk together on what to do, and then do it.

Problem was, gossip has long been known to be unreliable. When you hear someone rely an accusation that another person did something terrible, there’s a social “rush to judgment” pressure to immediately agree, to show your disapproval of that terrible thing. Even though you haven’t heard all the relevant evidence, including what that accused person might say in their defense.

Forager bands fixed this vis group discussions. They’d all gather around a campfire, listen listen together to the accusations and any rebuttals, discuss it, and only decide together after everyone had their say. Alas, as social groups got larger this was no longer feasible. So near the dawn of civilization, we invented formal trials: we supported the judgment of a subset of us, who made sure to judge only after hearing all the evidence.

Today we still gossip on a great many topics where there are no formal trials, and on those topics we still suffer big problems with rushes to judgment. So we’d do well to try to find more excuses to make formal trial processes whose judgements we’d be tempted to support.

Note that this isn’t the same as just having some group recommend a judgement. We do that all the time via news editorial boards, expert commissions, interest groups endorsements, etc. The difference is that a formal trial is a public process, airing all relevant evidence, and its judges are not selected to already represent particular sides in familiar debates.

But how? We might declare a new kind of court housing a new kind of trial, but how can we get people to bother to participate as jurors, present evidence as advocates, and to see its ruling as “official” enough to feel pressured to support it?

Here’s my idea: nickname courts. Imagine that people are tempted to use a nickname for a certain person in a particular social context. Such as: the 2nd grade homeroom 3 of public school 117 wants to use the nickname “Stinky Stu” for young member Steward Williams. Perhaps on the basis of recent events wherein young Stu was said to be stinky.

Assume there’s no law against using such a nickname, but that students, parents, and teachers might feel there are relevant social norms against doing something so “rude”. Some of these authorities might even declare their own local rules regulating such nicknames. (Nicknames are going to exist no matter what rules; the best we can do is to better channel that instinct.) I propose that these authorities give substantial deference to a new kind of court, a nickname court.

Someone initiates the process by officially proposing a nickname for a person in a social context, and committing to argue in its favor. That person who is to be given this nickname is notified, and confirms that they will oppose this. Then a “random” jury drawn from this social context is impaneled, which in the example above would be members of this homeroom class. They come together, all present their arguments and evidence, and the jury decides. In the example above, these might all be 2nd grade members of this class, including Stu.

If the jury rules yes, then it becomes more acceptable for members of this community to use this nickname of Stinky Stu for this particular Stu. This ruling may or may not have any legal force, even within the official rules of the school. But people might feel more comfortable knowing that their actions had this “official” support.

If Stu later decided that things had changed enough, he might initiate a new case, arguing that the nickname should no longer apply. Others would be notified, and we’d see if anyone wanted to take the lead to oppose him, starting with whomever initiated that first case. If Stu wins, then it would no longer to be as acceptable to call him Stinky Stu, though it might be okay to call him, “Once-was Stinky Stu”.

This sort of approach could obviously be applied to social media. For example, someone might initiate a case to make it more okay to call Robert Random by the nickname “Racist Rob” on Twitter. As I’ve said before, many of us might prefer a formal process for such labels over the current internet mobs that greatly suffer from rushes to judgment.

I’d bet that kids could really get into nickname courts, and learn a lot about law in the process. And later in life they’d probably think more about how similar processes might apply to other topics. For example, I’d love to have Radical Reform Courts, which evaluate radical proposals for social reform. Today there’s way too much of a rush to judgement, wherein each person who hears of a proposal quickly imagines one potential problem, and then concludes that it can’t work. But I don’t yet know how to make anyone care enough about the ruling of such a court.

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Open Borders

In their new book Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration, Bryan Caplan and Zach Weinersmith do everything you’d think that good policy pundits should do.

They don’t just track trends or scold rivals, they identify and focus on a feasible positive policy change. They don’t just pick any old change, but focus on one of the biggest possible gains they can identify. And it isn’t a complex fragile proposal that most people couldn’t understand, or that would go badly if not implemented exactly as recommended; their proposal is simple and robust. They don’t pick a topic that has little emotional-resonance, regarding which few would act even if they were persuaded; their topic is quite emotionally-engaging. They don’t pick a change so abstract (like futarchy) that few can concretely imagine it; one can create concrete vivid images of what would happen if their proposal were implemented.

They don’t use complex technical prose, they write in simple clear language, and even add engaging pictures; their book is actually a well-done “graphic novel”. They don’t just present one side of an argument, but instead respond to many major counter arguments. They don’t just use one favored framework of analysis, they consider the issue from many possible frameworks. They don’t just focus on their favorite policy choice, they consider many possible ways to compromise with others. They aren’t overly confident in their claims. And while they consider many possible details and complexities, their main argument, regarding the main effect of their proposal, is simplicity itself.

Most important, their arguments seem solid and correct. Adopting their proposal could in fact plausibly double world product, over and above the growth rate that we might achieve without it. The main obvious effect seems so huge as to overwhelm other considerations. Relative to that huge gain, other costs and risks seem minor and acceptable. Of course, the real world is more complex than are our models of it, and so we can never be very confident that changes which go well in our models will actually go well in the real world. And all the more so when our models are noisy and partial, as in social science. Even so, this is another case I’d call “checkmate”, at least in argument terms.

So, damn it, Caplan and Weinersmith do everything you might think pundits should do. I remain personally persuaded (as I have long been); I’d pull the trigger on doing large broad tests of their plan, and if necessary making big compromises to get a deal that can make these tests happen.

I very much hope that everyone loves this book, and that it is the trigger we needed to start a larger debate that leads eventually to big trials. But alas, I’d bet against this happening, if I had to bet. The large political world isn’t that responsive, at least in the short to medium term, to the world of elite policy debates, and in the elite world people mainly care about signs of status and prestige. Elites loved Hawking’s Brief History of Time, Dubner & Levitt’s Freakonomics, Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and Bostrom’s Superintelligence not because those offered clear solid arguments that readers understood, but because they came with signs of high status. Many elites talked about them, their style projected prestige, their authors had high status affiliations, and the positions they took were in fashion, at least in elite circles.

I deeply admire my colleague Bryan Caplan, and am proud that he has again gone for the big solid simple intellectual win, as he did before regarding politics, parenting, and school. I hope he can do it another dozen times. I’ll read each one, and usually be persuaded. There’s a small chance he’ll have big effects, and his taking that chance seems a clear win on cost-benefit terms. But I must also be honest; that chance is still low.

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Who Vouches For You?

A <600 word summary of my crime law proposal:

Who Vouches For You?: A Radical Crime Law Proposal

The legal system used by most ancient societies was simply A-sues-B-for-cash. But in the last few centuries, states added “crime law,” wherein the state investigates, sues, and imprisons “criminals.” These centrally-run one-size-fits-all bureaucratic systems don’t innovate well or adapt well to individual conditions. And even though most of your “constitutional rights” are regarding such systems, they still seem badly broken.

In the ancient world, a stranger who came to town was trusted more if a local “vouched” for them. We still use vouching today in bonded contractors, in open source software, in organized crime, and in requiring most everyone to get an insurer ready to pay if they cause a car accident. I propose requiring everyone to get an insurer to vouch for them regarding any crimes they might commit. If you are found guilty of a crime, your “voucher” pays the state a fine, and then pays to punish you according to your contract with them. This fine in part pays the private bounty-hunter who convinced the court of your guilt. Competing bounty-hunters obey law because they can’t maintain a blue-wall-of-silence.

To lower your voucher premiums, you might agree to (1) prison, torture, or exile, if caught, (2) prior limits on your freedom like curfews, ankle bracelets, and their reading your emails, and (3) co-liability wherein you and your buddies are all punished if any one of you is found guilty. In this system, the state still decides what behaviors are crimes and if any one accusation is true, and it sets fine and bounty levels regarding how hard to discourage and detect each kind of crime. But each person chooses their own “constitutional rights”, and vouchers acquire incentives and opportunity to innovate and adapt, by searching in a large space of ways to discourage crime.

Some key details:

  1. Judges and juries can retain discretion to consider case details when setting guilt or fines.
  2. If fines vary with wealth or income, then the rich don’t get a free pass to commit crimes.
  3. We could subsidize premiums, or offer a public option, to poor ex-cons for which we feel sorry.
  4. Other poor ex-cons might have to work for a while at isolated ships or mining or logging camps.
  5. Not being vouched is punished severely, not via a fine. Need violations to be rare, as with license plates today.
  6. Perhaps each person/building wears visible QR code or pingable RFID of voucher-client ID (VCID).
  7. It is enough to know VCID to charge with crime, no need to physically detain them.
  8. Key criteria for being a voucher is showing that will have enough money to pay fines.
  9. Vouchers are held to contracts for as long as it takes clients to find new vouchers.
  10. Contracts typically worse for clients over time if not renewed, to cover revealed-criminal scenarios.
  11. Contracts typically do not cover pre-existing crimes or plans, for which prior voucher pays.
  12. Clients can switch at will, though co-liability partners must all agree to switch at same time.
  13. First-to-file bounty hunter has right to prosecute first, though is crime to file with little evidence.
  14. Courts would remain skeptical of both sides’ evidence, with evidence faking being a big crime.
  15. Bounty-hunters access to evidence varies with contract-specified client privacy levels.
  16. Market estimates of fines given privacy levels set extra fine factors paid by clients with high levels.
  17. As immigrants & tourists must be vouched, it matters less if immigrants cause more crime.
  18. Parents must get vouchers for kids, so “majority” age could be when kids can afford it on own.
  19. These or related vouchers might pay for costs to assist folks suffering poverty or unemployment.
  20. May want solemn voucher signing ceremony, after passing test shows that understand contract.

Added: See also this talk video.

Added: See also vouching re pandemics.

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