What can a cruise ship tell us about COVID-19

The coronavirus (COVID-19) that is spreading through China is a tragedy, and I’d like to send my best wishes to those that are sick and my love to those who have passed on.

However, as yesterday’s quote noted – sometimes we need to temper our warm hearts with cold heads in order to understand social phenomenon and discover truths that lead to the improvement of society.  If we are interested in understanding the risks to a country associated with coronavirus, we need good information on how the virus spreads and the fatality rate, in order to set appropriate policy.   

In that way I’d like to talk about selection bias in the coronavirus figures – how this may overstate the death rate and understate the number of people catching it, and how the cruise ship – as well as being an incubator – may be (in part) a natural experiment which allows us to correct for this bias.  

As my economics PhD thesis consider health related questions, this is an issue I like to think through, and which I think is valuable.

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QOTD: Andrew Dickson and Bill Kaye-Blake

While the blog was out of action I noticed a lot of people linking the following article by Andrew Dickson and Bill Kaye-Blake (from Groping to Bethlehem).

All the links focused on how the article made the case for a tax on sugar.  That is fine and all, it was an externality case that we can discuss, appeal to evidence and value judgments on, and then decide whether we agree or not.  In fact, I get the impression that is the exact point that the authors are raising after setting up the pro-argument.

However, I didn’t get the impression that many people made it to the second half of the article (given the way it was used) – and the second half was absolutely glorious.

The second half starts with this: Read more

Food and obesity

Via Noah Smith I’ve seen this interesting article on the food industry – it is a long read, but worth it!

But why couldn’t Big Food’s processing and marketing genius be put to use on genuinely healthier foods, like grilled fish? Putting aside the standard objection that the industry has no interest in doing so—we’ll see later that in fact the industry has plenty of motivation for taking on this challenge—wouldn’t that present a more plausible answer to America’s junk-food problem than ordering up 50,000 new farmers’ markets featuring locally grown organic squash blossoms?

It is an issue I see a lot of my friends talking about, and one which has led Gareth Morgan and Geoff Simmons to write a book.  Seems like an interesting and important issue to think about 🙂

Note:  I have no interest in trying to define what people should be doing here – and I aim to have a little chat about choice at some point in the future as I think it is an important issue that can get lost in this (eg I feel it gets lost here).  However, I can tell the food issue is, and is going to be, an issue that people want to look into – and would like to hear your thoughts 😉

Will the pseudoephedrine ban reduce P availability?

Oregon made pseudoephedrine-based cold medicines prescription-only back in 2006. A new report on the effectiveness in reducing the availability of P concludes:

Oregon’s experience with methamphetamine manufacture and abuse since 2006 does not stand out from its neighbors or other parts of the United States. This potentially calls into question whether Oregon’s Rx-only law had any independent effect on these key measures. Moreover, this law does come at some cost to consumers and government and private payers.

So the ban on selling effective cold medicine over the counter had no observable effect upon the P problem, but does cause inconvenience for people with a cold. It will be interesting to see comparable studies for New Zealand in a few years time, although the lack of neighbouring states makes it harder to find control groups to compare with.

Spirit level: A more fundamental concern

I agree with Dim Post that the choice of countries to add to the choice of countries made in the Spirit Level is a bit arbitrary (although I think Not PC and Kiwiblog also have a point regarding how sensitive the regression results are to the choice of countries that aren’t strictly the largest outliers in the sample) – but I still think that this particular “regression” is a steaming pile of unmentionables.

Lets ignore the fact that the slope of the  “regression line” appears very sensitive to the addition of a few countries.  Lets instead focus on the fact that it is a poor regression and that there isn’t a clear “theoretical background for causation”.

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Government fail(ure)

Seriously, why the hell did we ban pseudoephedrine in New Zealand?  Has it had any impact on the “external costs of P”?

I know it has had a serious impact on me during this years flu season – given that all the alternatives suck.  And I know a lot of people who feel the same.

Dumb policy with a very obvious and high cost and pretty much no benefit.  What is this!  How does this rubbish get passed.