Quick hits

Sorry, just this one not-all-that-long edition:

1) Bernstein on what we really need to make the House better:

In particular, increasing number of House districts enough to make representation happen on a normal human scale would produce an unwieldy legislative chamber of thousands of representatives. The likely results: either chaos, or a highly centralized body in which individual representatives had little or no importance. Neither of these would be good for healthy, meaningful representation. The more plausible reforms, on the other hand, would add relatively small numbers of representatives, and it wouldn’t take long before population growth brought their districts back to about the same size they are now.

In other words, in a nation soon to reach 350 million people, there’s no realistic way for the national legislature to have districts that allow most people to know their representatives.

Rather than increasing the size of the House, the best way to increase personal connections between members and constituents would be to throw money at the problem.

Congressional staff budgets haven’t come close to keeping up with the size of congressional districts over the last 30 years. Over that same period, the demise of local media has made low-cost communication with the district a lot harder, and perhaps impossible. Once upon a time, members gave interviews to local TV and radio stations that everyone in the district could watch and listen to, and were quoted on national and local issues in local newspapers that constituents could subscribe to. All of that, of course, is either gone or diminished. There are lots of reasons that the incumbency advantage in House elections has just about disappeared, but it certainly can’t help that there’s a lot less local media for incumbents to dominate.

So instead of, say, quadrupling the size of the House, how about quadrupling (or more!) each member’s budget? Yes, a lot of that money would be wasted or spend on frivolous things, but so what? Constituents might not have any better chance of knowing their representative personally, but they would have a better chance of visiting a district office, knowing a district staffer (or even a Washington-based one), and perhaps “knowing” their representative on social media. Of course, with a bigger personal staff, members might also increase their personal capacity for doing legislative work without relying on the party leadership. That would be good, too.

In the 1970s, a reasonable objection to adding resources to individual members of the House would have been that it might make them invulnerable to electoral defeat. Today, House elections are nationalized, and so individual members are hostage to the fate of their parties. Whether restoring a bit of incumbency advantage would be a little good or a little bad, it certainly wouldn’t be decisive.

2) Yglesias: on standardized testing and racial equality:

Most critiques of SATs are wrong

People offer a lot of casual criticisms of the SAT that are false or misleading, such as noting that kids with richer parents have higher SAT scores and thus inferring that the test is easily gamed by high-income parents.

It’s true that there is a modest positive correlation between parental income and SAT scores, but you see a similar positive correlation with pretty much anything related to school or child development. Parceling out exactly why it is that the children of doctors and lawyers and business executives do better at school-related stuff than the children of waitresses and cashiers and cab drivers is probably really hard. But broadly speaking, people who do well in school and have high standardized test scores end up earning more money than those who don’t. They then have children who are genetically related to them, and they raise those children in households where the adults are able to constantly model the behaviors of a good-at-school person. There would be something profoundly weird about a world in which the children of good-at-school people were not, on average, better at school than the children of bad-at-school people.

What’s not the case is that rich parents are bestowing huge gains to their kids via the mechanism of extensive test prep. Slate’s Daniel Engber did a good roundup of this in 2019 — the benefits of test prep are modest, maybe between 10 and 30 points out of 1600. There’s a Wall Street Journal article making the same point.

Note that this is not the same as saying that practicing for the tests isn’t helpful! You will absolutely do better on a test if you are familiar with the kind of questions you are going to be asked than if you show up to it cold. But what that means is that taking a little time to prepare is going to help you, not that vast sums of money are going to dramatically boost your score. From the WSJ article:

Laurence Bunin, a College Board senior vice president, says the board’s own research shows limited benefit from test-prep courses. He says familiarity with the SAT tends to provide the biggest short-term gains for students. He recommends free and low-cost College Board materials, including a $20 study guide.

This kind of practice can make a huge difference!

3) Leonhardt on wages:

The chief executive of Domino’s Pizza has complained that the company can’t hire enough drivers. Lyft and Uber claim to have a similar problem. A McDonald’s franchise in Florida offered $50 to anybody willing to show up for an interview. And some fast-food outlets have hung signs in their windows saying, “No one wants to work anymore.”

The idea that the United States suffers from a labor shortage is fast becoming conventional wisdom. But before you accept the idea, it’s worth taking a few minutes to think it through.

Once you do, you may realize that the labor shortage is more myth than reality.

Let’s start with some basic economics. The U.S. is a capitalist country, and one of the beauties of capitalism is its mechanism for dealing with shortages. In a communist system, people must wait in long lines when there is more demand than supply for an item. That’s an actual shortage. In a capitalist economy, however, there is a ready solution.

The company or person providing the item raises its price. Doing so causes other providers to see an opportunity for profit and enter the market, increasing supply. To take a hypothetical example, a shortage of baguettes in a town will lead to higher prices, which will in turn cause more local bakeries to begin making their own baguettes (and also cause some families to choose other forms of starch). Suddenly, the baguette shortage is no more…

Human labor is not the same thing as a baguette, but the fundamental idea is similar: In a market economy, both labor and baguettes are products with fluctuating prices.

When a company is struggling to find enough labor, it can solve the problem by offering to pay a higher price for that labor — also known as higher wages. More workers will then enter the labor market. Suddenly, the labor shortage will be no more…

If anything, wages today are historically low. They have been growing slowly for decades for every income group other than the affluent. As a share of gross domestic product, worker compensation is lower than at any point in the second half of the 20th century. Two main causes are corporate consolidation and shrinking labor unions, which together have given employers more workplace power and employees less of it…

Corporate profits, on the other hand, have been rising rapidly and now make up a larger share of G.D.P. than in previous decades. As a result, most companies can afford to respond to a growing economy by raising wages and continuing to make profits, albeit perhaps not the unusually generous profits they have been enjoying…

That so many are complaining about the situation is not a sign that something is wrong with the American economy. It is a sign that corporate executives have grown so accustomed to a low-wage economy that many believe anything else is unnatural.

4) Terrific interview with Michael Mina on the Yankees outbreak and his latest ideas on testing:

It seems like you don’t think these are “breakthrough” infections and also that you’re not surprised to see them.
The Yankees are testing themselves frequently. When that happens, especially if you’re doing PCR tests, you’re going to find exposures and infections.

Even in people who’ve been vaccinated?
Yes. I’ve always said that it is very unlikely that these vaccines will create fully sterilizing immunity. Sterilizing immunity is the kind of immunity where, if you get exposed and the virus lands in your respiratory tract, it will be neutralized (or killed) immediately. It will not have a chance to replicate. On the other hand, you can have very highly protective vaccines that are not fully sterilizing — vaccines that prevent you from illness, especially severe illness, but may still allow the virus to grow.

And a PCR test would catch those kinds of infections?
This is a technology that can catch just ten molecules of virus. But this is a virus that when it is contagious, there are billions of molecules. So we have to be very careful about how we interpret PCR results. Just because the virus can grow a bit — and be detected on a PCR test — does not mean we are stuck in the woods as far as herd immunity goes. A vaccine that doesn’t create sterilizing immunity can still greatly limit virus growth, perhaps enough to massively limit transmission. This is likely the case with the mRNA vaccines at least, given the large reductions in cases among kids in hospitals as a result of the adults getting vaccinated. Clearly transmission declined significantly enough to elicit some level of herd effects on the kids.

But it probably won’t decline to zero.
As I have been saying since last summer, we should expect reinfections following infection or vaccination. This should not come as a surprise to anyone. The real question is do those reinfections matter — or more to the point — do the reinfections have negative consequences?

Do we not have to worry about infections of that size?
In my opinion, if they’re not infections that are causing disease, they should be viewed very differently from a breakthrough case, which is a term that should absolutely be reserved for a case that’s causing disease…

In other words treating infection as much more of a spectrum, when throughout the pandemic we’ve treated it much more as a binary matter. 
Right. The way we’ve been using PCR thus far is the equivalent of saying that you either are completely immune to a disease, or you’re completely vulnerable. But we all know that you can get a little bit sick or you can get a lot sick, and that those are two really different things.

That had its own cost throughout the pandemic, of course, but it’s also meant we’ve sort of poorly educated the public about how to navigate the post-pandemic, as this episode with the Yankees shows.
That’s exactly right. Binarizing all of these results, and continuing to put everything in black and white — that has been immensely destructive. One of my core philosophies in public health is we absolutely need to bring the public along. You need to keep them up to speed. You need to keep them informed. If you don’t have the public buy-in for everything you’re doing, you will never defeat a pandemic.

Throughout this pandemic, we’ve generally considered the public to be the problem. But this is public health. The public isn’t the problem – that’s on the virus – instead, the public is the solution. As we are seeing with vaccines, the public is the solution and unless we want to vaccinate people based on some forceful military state requirements (which we do not and I hope never would) then we must see the public as the solution, always.

So we need to bring the public along. You need to keep them up to speed. You need to keep them informed. If you don’t have the public buy-in for everything you’re doing, you will never defeat a pandemic. What we’ve done instead, by assuming that the public was unable to deal with this kind of information and this kind of nuance, we have done immeasurable damage.

We’ve made the same mistake with herd immunity — treating it as some threshold before which there’s still great danger and after which there is none, rather than a gradual lessening of risk as more people gain immunity through infection or vaccination.
It’s crazy. Why we continue to treat everything as black and white from testing to disease to herd immunity is … I can’t really figure out why. Maybe it’s just a basic human thing, but I think it’s something our CDC and our FDA and our policymakers should’ve done a much better job educating about. The burden really falls on them.

5) Quite entertaining science journalism, “The Body’s Most Embarrassing Organ Is an Evolutionary Marvel: And yet we have very little idea where anuses come from.”

The appearance of the anus was momentous in animal evolution, turning a one-hole digestive sac into an open-ended tunnel. Creatures with an anus could physically segregate the acts of eating and defecating, reducing the risk of sullying a snack with scat; they no longer had to finish processing one meal before ingesting another, allowing their tubelike body to harvest more energy and balloon in size. Nowadays, anuses take many forms. Several animals, such as the sea cucumber, have morphed their out-hole into a Swiss Army knife of versatility; others thought that gastrointestinal back doors were so nice, they sprouted them at least twice. “There’s been a lot of evolutionary freedom to play around with that part of the body plan,” Armita Manafzadeh, a vertebrate morphology expert at Brown University, told me.

But anuses are also shrouded in scientific intrigue, and a fair bit of squabbling. Researchers still hotly debate how and when exactly the anus first arose, and the number of times the orifice was acquired or lost across different species. To tap into our origins, we’ll need to take a squarer look at our ends.

 

In the beginning, there was nothing. The back ends of our animal ancestors that swam the seas hundreds of millions of years ago were blank, relegating the entry and exit of all foodstuffs to a single, multipurpose hole. Evolutionary echoes of these life-forms still exist in corals, sea anemone, jellyfish, and a legion of marine worms whose digestive tract takes the form of a loose sac. These animals are serially monogamous with their meals, taking food in one glob at a time, then expelling the scraps through the same hole. (Contrary to what you might have read, not everyone poops.) These creatures’ guts operate much like parking lots, subject to strict vacancy quotas that restrict the flow of traffic.

The emergence of a back door transformed those parking lots into highways—the linear “through-guts” that dominate body plans today. Suddenly, animals had the luxury of downing multiple meals without needing to fuss with disposal in between; digestive tracts lengthened and regionalized, partitioning into chambers that could extract different nutrients and host their own communities of microbes. The compartmentalization made it easier for animals to get more out of their meals, Andreas Hejnol, a developmental biologist at the University of Bergen, in Norway, told me. With the lengthening and uncorking of the end of the gut, he said, many creatures grew into longer and larger body forms, and started to move in new ways. (It would take several more eons for true buttocksthe fleshy, fatty accoutrements that flank the anuses of some animals, such as humans—to evolve. Some researchers I talked with are comfortable using butt to mean any anal or anus-adjacent structure; others are purists, and consider the term strict shorthand for buttocks and buttocks alone.)

6) Really enjoyed Robinson Meyer on the new F150 electric:

4. An electric vehicle is, at a mechanical level, a giant battery on wheels. Ford is pitching this not only as a technical necessity but as a feature: They want you to plug stuff into the car. “Let’s say you’re at a tailgate or at work. You can set up a cement mixer, a band, or lights and draw only half the power the truck is capable of producing at a time,” Linda Zhang, the chief engineer on the Lightning, told me. Like all electric vehicles, the F-150 replaces the hefty internal-combustion engine with a much smaller electric motor, and like many EVs therefore has a storage compartment under its front hood: a “frunk.” Except the F-150 has a “power frunk”—the most marvelous three-syllable phrase American marketing has produced since “half-priced apps”—meaning that it both opens to the touch of a button and has multiple plugs for appliances.

The Lightning can store so much power that, in a blackout, it can supply a house’s normal power usage for three days, according to Ford. If the house conserves power, it can keep the lights on for more than a week, Zhang said. Talking about this feature, Ford employees and Farley himself have referenced the Texas blackouts. The Lightning is a technology of resilience, of climate adaptation.

5. Chemically speaking, decarbonization—the move away from carbon-based fossil fuels—is a shift to less dense forms of energy. Gasoline, for its many flaws, contains an enormous amount of potential energy in a very small amount of mass. Transitioning away from it means, in practical terms, that electric vehicles will be much heavier than gasoline-powered vehicles. The F-150 Lightning weighs 6,500 pounds, about the same as the gargantuan Hummer H2 of the mid-2000s. The battery alone is 1,800 pounds.

These are hefty, dangerous vehicles. Ford has said that it will send software updates to its EVs over the air, and that it will soon transmit its new autonomous-driving feature, BlueCruise, to its EV fleet. But the tonnage of the Lightning, specifically, means that it must especially prioritize advanced safety features, sensors, and auto-braking. Otherwise pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers of smaller and lighter vehicles will die.

7) Zeynep on ransomware:

The dynamics of digital insecurity, ransomware, and related threats are eerily similar to the global public health dynamics before the pandemic. Battlestar Galactica helps explain one key similarity: Networked systems are vulnerable. The premise of the series is that the battleship Galactica, and only Galactica, survived an attack by the Cylons (humanoid robots) on the human fleet simply because it was old and had just been decommissioned in the process of being turned into a museum. Being older, it had never been networked into the system. The “shutdown” command sent by the attackers never reached it, and it was thus spared…

In pandemic terms, Galactica was an island that no one could travel to.

Our software infrastructure is not built with security in mind. That’s partly because a lot of it depends on older layers, and also because there has been little incentive to prioritize security. More operating systems could have been built from the start with features such as “sandboxing,” in which a program can play only in a defined, walled-off area called a “sandbox” that is unreachable by anything else. If that program is malicious, it can do damage only in its sandbox. (This is analogous to the idea of “air gapping,” in which crucial parts of a network are unplugged from a network’s infrastructure.)

Adding security after the fact to a digital system that wasn’t built for it is very hard. And we are also surrounded by “technical debt,” programs that work but were written quickly, sometimes decades ago, and were never meant to scale to the degree that they have. We don’t mess with these rickety layers, because it would be very expensive and difficult, and could cause everything else to crumble. That means there is a lot of duct tape in our code, holding various programs and their constituent parts together, and many parts of it are doing things they weren’t designed for.

Our global network isn’t built for digital security. As I wrote in 2018, the early internet was intended to connect people who already trusted one another, such as academic researchers and military networks. It never had the robust security that today’s global network needs. As the internet went from a few thousand users to more than 3 billion, attempts to strengthen security were stymied because of cost, shortsightedness, and competing interests.

8) My favorite sports analytics discovery (thanks, BB!) of recent vintage is hockey writer JFresh.  I really enjoyed this look at how hockey is about the most luck-dependent of sports and we really need to keep this in mind.  So much regression to the mean both ways.  

9) It also led be to this Vox video” Why it’s so much harder to predict winners in hockey than basketball” that I just absolutely loved (and put in a request for the book it’s based upon).

10) Good stuff from Mark Blumenthal, “How far might incentives nudge the hesitant toward getting COVID-19 vaccines?”

As the rate of new COVID–19 vaccinations has slowed, health officials have grown more creative in efforts to entice the unvaccinated to get their shot. In Ohio, the offer of a chance to win $1 million helped boost new vaccinations to their highest rate in three weeks.

New YouGov polling – conducted prior to the announcement of the Ohio lottery – shows that while such efforts may do little to dissuade the most hardcore of vaccine resistant Americans, the various nudges and incentives being offered in some areas have the potential to motivate many Americans still on-the-fence about getting vaccinated.

The most recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll, for example, asked unvaccinated Americans whether a series of incentives would make them more likely to get vaccinated. Not surprisingly, the various enticements were most attractive to those already planning to get vaccinated (11% of adults overall), especially the prospect of getting easier access to things like travel, sports, entertainment and restaurants (would make 63% of this group more likely to get a shot), receiving $100 in exchange (62%), or the option to be vaccinated “at my doctor’s office” (58%). Nearly all (91%) who say they are planning to get vaccinated respond favorably to at least one of eight potential incentives tested…

In short, these results confirm survey results elsewhere, such as those of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which finds the unvaccinated “have a range of questions and concerns about the vaccine that require different strategies to address.” 

It may take a broad range of approaches and incentives, but if 90% of those still planning to be vaccinated and 40% of those who say they are unsure can be prodded to get at least one vaccine dose – targets consistent with the results above – it would mean a vaccination rate above 70% of the adult population, the goal recently set by President Biden for July 4.

11) I’ve got Amanda Ripley’s new book on conflict on my coffee table and cannot wait to read it.  I really loved this whole interview with Yascha Mounk.  So many good tidbits in here:

Mounk: I’m struck often, in our political discourse, by the ways in which many of my friends and acquaintances—people who are broadly on the, quote, unquote, same side—want to have a view of the other side that’s as negative as possible. Actually, they seem comforted when the other side does something horrible, because it allows them to hate them without any reservations or without any nuance. Then when the other side actually does something honorable, that’s sort of irksome. 

Ripley: At this level of conflict, emotion is driving the train. I admit to that myself. I remember, early on in Trump’s tenure, he did something—I can’t remember what it was, something about China. I remember having this sudden thought that, actually, that was not a bad idea—but not even wanting to have the thought in my head, let alone verbalize it. Then I realized I felt like if I gave him an inch, he’d take a mile—as if we were in a relationship. It’s a trick of the brain, as if he and I were in conversation, which we’re not. So, it’s a fear. It’s a lack of trust. It’s easier, in a way, to keep things binary: bad, good. There’s really cool research that haunts me to this day by Robb Willer and Matthew Feinberg, where they asked liberals and conservatives if they would reframe an argument for something in words that [would get] conservatives behind it. Interestingly, they found that 20% of liberals would not reframe their arguments to persuade conservatives, even if it would work better to get what they want. That’s high conflict: when any concession, no matter how small, feels too threatening to contemplate, even when it would be in their interest.

Mounk: I find it to be true that when you say, “Hey, these arguments really are not persuasive and popular to a lot of people,” there’s a particularly strong reaction against that among some readers and on social media, where they’re saying, “Look, this is a question of justice, how dare you talk about it in these kinds of terms.” It’s like you’re desecrating the sacredness of your cause by thinking about how you might put it in a way that’ll actually attract support. Of course, we live in a democracy, and that means you have to think about majorities, and that can sometimes be a slightly dirty business. But if you actually cared about the cause, you would be willing to reframe your argument in the ways that makes it most likely for your cause to happen—whereas I think it’s an indication that you care more about being on the good side when you become reluctant to do that. […] To what extent do you think we can apply everything you say about high conflict to the current situation in the United States?

Ripley: I think 100%. That’s why I wrote the book. What I found is, if you come at [conflict] head on, you lose a lot of people. Many people are stridently locked in on one side or another. But if you come at it sideways, with an analogy, people will make the connection. When you’re in high conflict, it feels unique to you, your country and your pathology. You just can’t believe that this is a universal human condition that has anything to do with divorce court. But I’ll tell you what, there is no daylight between divorce court and Congress at this point. There is nothing different about it. 

12) Really good stuff from Derek Thompson on why Texas was okay despite removing its mask mandate super-early:

In early march, Texas became the first state to abolish its mask mandate and lift capacity constraints for all businesses. Conservatives hailed Governor Greg Abbott’s decision, while liberals predicted doom and death and President Joe Biden disparaged it as “Neanderthal thinking.”

Nine weeks later, the result seems to be less than catastrophic. In fact, in a new paper, economists at Bentley University and San Diego State University found that Abbott’s order had practically no effect on COVID-19 cases. “The predictions of reopening advocates and opponents failed to materialize,” the authors concluded.

How could a policy so consequential—or at least so publicly contested—do so little? …

A subtler possibility is that Abbott’s decision didn’t matter very much because other factors—such as weather, accelerating vaccinations, and a bit of luck—mattered more at the time. The coronavirus seems to spread less efficiently in hot and humid environments, which could partly explain why states such as Texas and Florida have managed to avoid higher-than-average COVID-19 deaths, despite their governors’ famous aversion to restrictions. Add this to the pace of vaccinations in March, and it’s possible that Abbott just got lucky, by lifting restrictions at a time when cases were destined to decline, no matter what.

Yet another explanation is that Abbott’s decision didn’t matter because nobody changed their behavior. According to the aforementioned Texas paper, Abbot’s decision had no effect on employment, movement throughout the state, or foot traffic to retailers. It had no effect in either liberal or conservative counties, nor in urban or exurban areas. The pro-maskers kept their masks on their faces. The anti-maskers kept their masks in the garbage. And many essential workers, who never felt like they had a choice to begin with, continued their pre-announcement habits.The governor might as well have shouted into a void.

Across the country, in fact, people’s pandemic behavior appears to be disconnected from local policy, which complicates any effort to know which COVID-19 policies actually work.

In November, for instance, a team of economists using private data to survey all 50 states concluded that state-ordered shutdowns and reopenings had only “small impacts on spending and employment.”…

Governors don’t reopen or close economies. The CDC doesn’t put masks on or take them off citizens’ faces. A small number of elites don’t decide when everyone else feels safe enough to shop, eat inside, or get on a plane. People seem to make these decisions for themselves, based on some combination of local norms, political orientation, and personal risk tolerance that resists quick reversals, no matter what public health elites say.

And, I gotta say, this following part super-resonated with me (for obvious reasons, once you read it):

If governor mandates don’t change behavior, and state shutdowns don’t change behavior, and CDC guidance doesn’t change behavior (so far), then where do our beliefs about this virus come from? Who shapes the way we think, feel, and act in response to complex and consequential things like a global pandemic?

I’ll first answer for myself: Skeptical of some official narratives from the Trump administration to the CDC, I’ve become my own private investigator on all things COVID-related. (It helps that I’m paid to be one.) I track what public-health officials say about the pandemic, but I don’t wait with bated breath for their pronouncements. Months before the CDC acknowledged that surface transmission of the coronavirus is vanishingly rare, I wrote that surface transmission is vanishingly rare. Weeks before the CDC acknowledged that outdoor mask mandates make no sense, I wrote that outdoor mask mandates make no sense. I’m not bragging; I’m … well, all right, I’m bragging a little.

But my private-detective work isn’t so special. At at time when citizens don’t trust their government and when information is abundant, anybody can, like me, become their own sleuth on all things COVID-related, piece together their own theory about what this virus is and how it spreads, and come up with their individual risk level. Many remote workers, hunched behind their laptops for 16 months, have had the opportunity to steep themselves in modern epidemiology.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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