“A Public Choice Analysis of Mandated Randomized Double-Blind Clinical Trials”

My “A Public Choice Analysis of Mandated Randomized Double-Blind Clinical Trials” was presented on April 13, 2021 in the Law & Economics session of the Association of Private Enterprise Education meetings. I am grateful to Ray DeGennaro and Matthew McClanahan for including me in McClanahan’s session and to Lauren Nicole Hughes for recording the session on her smartphone.

To some extent, the presentation was an outgrowth of my book:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Etsy and Shopify Platforms Enabled Many Small Businesses to Survive the Pandemic

(p. B4) While the year has been a struggle for small businesses, some companies that host their transactions have been soaring.

Shares in Etsy Inc. and Shopify Inc., whose e-commerce platforms primarily cater to small businesses, have surged during the pandemic. Etsy has more than quadrupled this year, while Shopify has tripled.

. . .

For many small-business owners, the technology platforms have served as a lifeline as their companies shift to a focus on online sales.

Matthew Cummings owns a glass-blowing company that makes custom beer glasses in Knoxville, Tenn. He has been on Etsy since 2012, but didn’t move fully online until the pandemic hit and he had to close the doors of his bricks-and-mortar store. He said his Etsy sales are about 10 times higher this year.

Mr. Cummings said that his sales on Etsy have helped him cover his business expenses and that he was able to come out of 2020 with a profit because of his online store. He plans on selling through the platform after the pandemic, with his business now reaching as far as Australia. He has seen a new wave of repeat customers seeking to complete sets of his custom beer glasses.

. . .

One type of sale that might not last beyond the pandemic is masks.

Etsy reported that masks accounted for 11% of overall gross-merchandise sales in the third quarter.

For the full story, see:

Amber Burton. “Sales Platforms Etsy, Shopify Thrive From Small Businesses.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, Dec 24, 2020): B4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date December 23, 2020, and has the title “Etsy and Shopify Buoyed as Covid-19 Boosts Online Sales.”)

22% of U.S. Small Businesses Closed from February to April 2020

(p. B4) In early February [2020], things were looking good for Practice San Francisco, a center offering individual psychotherapy and classes for children and adults that promote physical and mental well-being. Business was so good that owner Nina Kaiser, a psychologist, had just renovated and moved into a bigger space with the goal of doubling revenue.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. In early March [2020], Ms. Kaiser moved all her classes and counseling services online. Fairly quickly, however, video fatigue set in. “After a few weeks, we saw a big downturn in attendance across all our programs, even psychotherapy,” she said. Thus began a period of “endless pivoting and troubleshooting.”

Like many other small businesses, Practice San Francisco, which has been around for three years, has essentially become a start-up again, employing a strategy similar to the “fail fast” approach well known in start-up culture: A change is made to some aspect of the business and if it works, it sticks, but if it fails, data is collected and something else is tried.

“There has been a lot of flying by the seat of your pants,” Ms. Kaiser said. “We see what doesn’t work, where we run into trouble, and we course-correct. It’s this constant, iterative process.”

That process is crucial right now for small businesses, whose numbers dropped by 22 percent — 3.3 million — between February and April [2020], according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

For the full story, see:

Eilene Zimmerman. “Small-Business Owners Pivot and Troubleshoot In Battle to Stay Afloat.” The New York Times (Tuesday, December 1, 2020): B4.

(Note: bracketed years added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Dec. 17 [sic], 2020, and has the title “Can a Start-Up Mentality Save Small Businesses?”)

The published-online-ahead-of-print version of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper mentioned above is:

Fairlie, Robert. “The Impact of Covid-19 on Small Business Owners: Evidence from the First 3 Months after Widespread Social-Distancing Restrictions.” Journal of Economics & Management Strategy (2020): 10.1111/jems.12400.

Pfizer Refused Federal Subsidy to “Liberate” Their “Scientists From Any Bureaucracy”

In September [2020], the CEO of Pfizer, Albert Bourla, appeared on CBS News’s “Face the Nation,” where he was asked about not accepting government funding for development.

“The reason why I did it was because I wanted to liberate our scientists from any bureaucracy,” Bourla explained. “When you get money from someone that always comes with strings. They want to see how we are going to progress, what type of moves you are going to do. They want reports. I didn’t want to have any of that. I wanted them — basically I gave them an open checkbook so that they can worry only about scientific challenges, not anything else.”

“And also,” he added, “I wanted to keep Pfizer out of politics, by the way.”

For the full story, see:

Philip Bump. “No, Pfizer’s Apparent Vaccine Success Is Not a Function of Trump’s ‘Operation Warp Speed.” The Washington Post (online posted Monday, November 9, 2020).

(Note: bracketed year added.)

Cancel Culture Comes for Odysseus

I took a couple of years of classical Greek in college from “Doc” Charles, a senior member of the Wabash College faculty. One year we read Homer’s The Odyssey; the other year we read Plato’s “Apology” and the Greek New Testament; I don’t remember for sure which we read first. But I think we read The Odyssey in the second year, when I was the only student in the course. I got credit for taking the course; but with only one student, Doc Charles did not get credit for teaching it. One of my abiding regrets is that I never took the time in later years to thank Doc Charles. When our daughter Jenny’s middle school class read a little bit of an English translation of The Odyssey, I grabbed my own copy of the English translation and read her a few paragraphs that I thought she would like. Jenny is partial to the dachshund breed of hound dogs. The paragraphs I read were about Odysseus finally entering Ithaca after 10 years of fighting the Trojan War and another 10 years of struggling to return home. After 20 years’ absence the first humans he meets do not recognize him. But an old hound dog who was his puppy when he left Ithaca, rises to its feet and wags its tail in greeting. The Odyssey is about loyalty and resilience and loving your hound dog. Created many centuries ago, it connects us to ancestors with whom we still share values, challenges, and hopes. Odysseus was a flawed hero but he was a hero. We should defend our right to read the story of his struggles.

(p. A15) A sustained effort is under way to deny children access to literature. Under the slogan #DisruptTexts, critical-theory ideologues, schoolteachers and Twitter agitators are purging and propagandizing against classic texts—everything from Homer to F. Scott Fitzgerald to Dr. Seuss.

. . .

The demands for censorship appear to be getting results. “Be like Odysseus and embrace the long haul to liberation (and then take the Odyssey out of your curriculum because it’s trash),” tweeted Shea Martin in June [2020]. “Hahaha,” replied Heather Levine, an English teacher at Lawrence (Mass.) High School. “Very proud to say we got the Odyssey removed from the curriculum this year!” When I contacted Ms. Levine to confirm this, she replied that she found the inquiry “invasive.”

For the full commentary, see:

Meghan Cox Gurdon. “Even Homer Gets Mobbed.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, Dec. 28, 2020): A15.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary was updated Dec. 27, 2020, and has the same title as the print version.)

Unintended Consequences of Centralized Lockdown in India Spread Covid-19

(p. A1) SURAT, India — The crowds surged through the gates, fought their way up the stairs of the 160-year-old station, poured across the platforms and engulfed the trains.

It was May 5 [2020], around 10 a.m. Surat was beastly hot, 106 degrees. Thousands of migrant laborers were frantic to leave — loom operators, diamond polishers, mechanics, truck drivers, cooks, cleaners, the backbone of Surat’s economy. Two of them were Rabindra and Prafulla Behera, brothers and textile workers, who had arrived in Surat a decade ago in search of opportunity and were now fleeing disease and death.

. . .

They were among tens of millions of migrant workers stranded without work or food after Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a national coronavirus lockdown in March. By spring and summer, these workers were so desperate that the government provided emergency trains to carry them back to their home villages. The trains were called Shramik Specials, because shramik means “laborer” in Hindi.

But they became the virus trains.

India has now reported more coronavirus cases than any country besides the United States. And it has become clear that the special trains operated by the government to ease suffering — and to counteract a disastrous lack of lockdown planning — instead played a significant role in spreading the coronavirus into almost every corner of the country.

The trains became contagion zones: Every passenger was supposed to be screened for Covid-19 before boarding but few if any were tested. Social distancing, if promised, was nonexistent, as men pressed into passenger cars for journeys that could last days. Then the trains disgorged passengers into distant villages, in regions that before had few if any coronavirus cases.

. . .

(p. A12) On March 24 [2020], at 8 p.m., Mr. Modi hit the lockdown switch. In a televised address, he ordered the entire nation to stay inside their homes for three weeks — starting in four hours.

The decision was pure Modi: sudden, dramatic and firm, like when he abruptly wiped out nearly 90 percent of India’s currency bills in 2016, a bolt-from-the-blue measure that he said was necessary to fight corruption but proved economically devastating.

Prafulla and Rabindra Behera had just finished a dinner of rice, lentils and potatoes, their usual fare. They lived in squalid, bare rooms in Surat’s industrial zone, sleeping wall to wall on the floor with a half dozen other laborers. Within minutes of Mr. Modi’s address, they started getting calls.

“Everyone was thinking the same: This will be over soon and somehow we’ll pass the days,” Rabindra said.

At the time, India had fewer than 600 known virus cases.

Many experts have criticized Mr. Modi’s government for overlooking the plight of migrant laborers, who suddenly had no work, no income and no support network in the cities. The government’s Covid-19 task force lacked migrant specialists and was hardly representative of India. Of its 21 members, only two were women and the rest were largely upper-caste men. Many of the migrant laborers came from lower castes and economically underprivileged backgrounds.

. . .

In Surat, the Behera brothers were down to their last bag of rice. They could not work — the factories were closed. But they weren’t allowed to leave the city, where virus cases were beginning to surge.

“We were trapped,” Rabindra said.

On May 1, India’s Labor Day, the railways ministry made a grand announcement: Shramik Specials. Routes were drawn up from Surat, Mumbai, Chennai, New Delhi, Ahmedabad and other cities deep into rural areas.

. . .

The Beheras were told they would quarantine for 21 days at a center and each was given a toothbrush, a slice of soap, a bucket to wash with and a thin sheet to sleep on.

But the next morning, Prafulla awoke with a splitting headache. A doctor didn’t think he had coronavirus but suggested, as a precaution, that he be moved into the courtyard, away from the other men.

The following morning, Prafulla could barely breathe and called his wife on his cellphone.

“Come and bring the girls,” he whispered. “I need to see you.”

An hour later, he was dead. A subsequent test revealed that Prafulla Behera was Ganjam’s first coronavirus death.

For the full story, see:

Jeffrey Gettleman, Suhasini Raj, Sameer Yasir, Karan Deep Singh and Atul Loke. “Rails Spread Virus as Workers Fled India’s Cities.” The New York Times (Wednesday, December 16, 2020): A1 & A12-A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Feb. [sic] 2, 2021, and has the title “The Virus Trains: How Lockdown Chaos Spread Covid-19 Across India.”)

Basing Jobs on Skills Instead of Credentials Increases Fairness, Efficiency, and Opportunity

(p. B5) For the past four decades, incomes rose for those with college degrees and fell for those without one. But a body of recent and new research suggests that the trend need not inevitably continue.

As many as 30 million American workers without four-year college degrees have the skills to realistically move into new jobs that pay on average 70 percent more than their current ones. That estimate comes from a collaboration of academic, nonprofit and corporate researchers who mined data on occupations and skills.

. . .

“We need to rethink who is skilled, and how skills are measured and evaluated,” said Peter Q. Blair, a labor economist at Harvard, who was a member of the research team.

In recent years, labor experts and work force organizations have argued that hiring should increasingly be based on skills rather than degrees, as a matter of fairness and economic efficiency. The research provides quantified evidence that such a shift is achievable.

. . .

The researchers published a broad look at the jobs, wages and skills of workers who have a high school diploma but not a four-year college degree as a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper this year. They found a significant overlap between the skills required in jobs that pay low wages and many occupations with higher pay — a sizable landscape of opportunity.

. . .

A report published this week, involving most of the same researchers, examined the pathways to higher-paying jobs for these workers, their experience and the obstacles encountered. It employed proprietary data and interviews, as well as the government data used in the first study.

For the full story, see:

Steve Lohr. “Up to 30 Million Workers in U.S. Have Abilities to Earn 70% More.” The New York Times (Monday, December 7, 2020): B5.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Dec. 3, 2020, and has the title “Up to 30 Million in U.S. Have the Skills to Earn 70% More, Researchers Say.”)

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper mentioned above is:

Blair, Peter Q., Tomas G. Castagnino, Erica L. Groshen, Papia Debroy, Byron Auguste, Shad Ahmed, Fernando Garcia Diaz, and Cristian Bonavida. “Searching for Stars: Work Experience as a Job Market Signal for Workers without Bachelor’s Degrees.” National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc., NBER Working Paper #26844, March 2020.

The later report that used proprietary data and interviews is:

“Navigating with the Stars: Reimagining Equitable Pathways to Mobility.” Opportunity@Work, Nov. 2020.

On Vaccines and Economics, Europe Suffers “the Same Bureaucratic and Intellectual Rigidity”

(p. A25) Europe’s vaccination debacle will almost surely end up causing thousands of unnecessary deaths. And the thing is, the continent’s policy bungles don’t look like isolated instances, a few bad decisions made by a few bad leaders. Instead, the failures seem to reflect fundamental flaws in the continent’s institutions and attitudes — including the same bureaucratic and intellectual rigidity that made the euro crisis a decade ago far worse than it should have been.

The details of the European failure are complex. But the common thread seems to be that European officials were not just risk averse, but averse to the wrong risks. They seemed deeply worried about the possibility that they might end up paying drug companies too much, or discover that they had laid out money for vaccines that either proved ineffective or turned out to have dangerous side effects.

So they minimized these risks by delaying the procurement process, haggling over prices and refusing to grant liability waivers. They seemed far less worried about the risk that many Europeans might get sick or die because the vaccine rollout was too slow.

For the full commentary, see:

Paul Krugman. “A Fiasco That’s Very European: Vaccines.” The New York Times (Friday, March 19, 2021): A25.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date March 18, 2021, and has the title “Vaccines: A Very European Disaster.”)

Are We Right to Experiment on Animals to Save Humans?

I believe that higher animals feel emotions and maybe even have souls, so we should try to treat them humanely. I am deeply conflicted on how far animal experiments are justified in the pursuit of curing human diseases. Whenever possible, animal experiments should have the potential to benefit the animals in the experiments, as well as the human experimenters.

(p. A15) The “title characters” of Brandy Schillace’s admirable biography “Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher: A Monkey’s Head, the Pope’s Neuroscientist, and the Quest to Transplant the Soul” were one and the same person: Robert J. White, a distinguished neurosurgeon, an accomplished neuroscientist and a man dedicated to searching for the means to transplant souls by transplanting the human brain. If this makes White sound macabre, Ms. Schillace’s account of his life, work and temperament is anything but. She deftly persuades the reader to take White seriously (he wasn’t even eccentric) and to ponder profound medical-scientific-philosophical issues. Best of all, the book is fascinating.

. . .

White felt it was his religious and medical duty to devise techniques for rescuing healthy brains from otherwise diseased and dying bodies. His solution was to transplant heads (containing their brains) onto cadavers that were brain dead but otherwise physiologically viable.

Before he could attempt such surgery on people, White experimented, mostly on monkeys, dozens of times, to ascertain and refine the necessary procedures. In March 1970 he succeeded in transplanting a monkey’s head onto another monkey’s body.

. . .

During the era in which White conducted his experiments, politicians, doctors, journalists and celebrities were becoming deeply and increasingly dismayed by scientific experiments on animals. White ran afoul of the animal-rights advocacy organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and was threatened by animal-rights extremists (he remained imperturbable). White prided himself on scrupulously avoiding harm to his animal subjects. But he didn’t believe that animals had souls: For him, Ms. Schillace writes, “the human was more than animal, and equating the two was not only wrong, it was dangerous.” One of White’s rejoinders to those who would halt animal experimentation was, to paraphrase: If you were a surgeon, how would you like to tell parents that their young child is going to die because the operation that might save him or her was impossible to perform, mainly because the necessary animal-dissection research that would have permitted it was forbidden by law or the medical canon of ethics? His foes never had a good answer.

For the full review, see:

Howard Schneider. “A Heart in the Right Place.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, February 22, 2021): A15.

(Note: ellipses added; italics in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date February 21, 2021, and has the title “Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher’ Review: A Heart in the Right Place.”)

The book under review is:

Schillace, Brandy. Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher: A Monkey’s Head, the Pope’s Neuroscientist, and the Quest to Transplant the Soul. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021.

Inventor of the Cassette Tape Liked CDs Better

(p. A9) Lou Ottens was thinking about convenience and portability when he told his product development team at Philips to come up with something better than reel-to-reel tapes.

He and his colleagues produced the cassette tape, . . .

. . .

“We expected it would be a success but not a revolution,” Mr. Ottens said in the 2016 documentary “Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape.”

. . .

Mr. Ottens later was involved in development of the compact disc, introduced in the early 1980s. He was puzzled by the revival of demand for cassette tapes among young people in recent years. “People prefer a worse quality of sound, out of nostalgia,” he said. As for himself, he told Time magazine in 2013, “I like when something new comes.”

. . .

The idea came to him, he said, one night after he struggled to thread tape through a bulky reel-to-reel player. A colleague quipped that the cassette was inspired by “the clumsiness of a very clever man.”

. . .

In the documentary, Mr. Ottens insisted that he was untroubled by the demise of technology he helped create. “I don’t believe in eternity,” he said.

For the full obituary, see:

James R. Hagerty. “Dutchman Launched Cassette ‘Revolution’.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, March 18, 2021): A9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date March 12, 2021, and has the title “Lou Ottens Led Team That Invented the Cassette Tape.”)

Hacked Trove of Documents Show China’s “Weaponized System of Censorship”

(p. 1) In the early hours of Feb. 7 [2021], China’s powerful internet censors experienced an unfamiliar and deeply unsettling sensation. They felt they were losing control.

The news was spreading quickly that Li Wenliang, a doctor who had warned about a strange new viral outbreak only to be threatened by the police and accused of peddling rumors, had died of Covid-19. Grief and fury coursed through social media. To people at home and abroad, Dr. Li’s death showed the terrible cost of the Chinese government’s instinct to suppress inconvenient information.

Yet China’s censors decided to double down. Warning of the “unprecedented challenge” Dr. Li’s passing had posed and the “butterfly effect” it may have set off, officials got to work suppressing the inconvenient news and reclaiming the narrative, according to confidential directives sent to local propaganda workers and news outlets.

They ordered news websites not to issue push notifications alerting readers to his death. They told social platforms to gradually remove his name from trending topics pages. And they activated legions of fake online commenters to flood social sites with distracting chatter, stressing the need for discretion: “As commenters fight to guide public opinion, they must conceal their identity, avoid crude patriotism and sarcastic praise, and be sleek and silent in achieving results.”

The orders were among thousands of secret government directives and other documents that were reviewed by The New York(p. 14)Times and ProPublica. They lay bare in extraordinary detail the systems that helped the Chinese authorities shape online opinion during the pandemic.

At a time when digital media is deepening social divides in Western democracies, China is manipulating online discourse to enforce the Communist Party’s consensus. To stage-manage what appeared on the Chinese internet early this year, the authorities issued strict commands on the content and tone of news coverage, directed paid trolls to inundate social media with party-line blather and deployed security forces to muzzle unsanctioned voices.

. . .

The documents include more than 3,200 directives and 1,800 memos and other files from the offices of the country’s internet regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China, in the eastern city of Hangzhou. They also include internal files and computer code from a Chinese company, Urun Big Data Services, that makes software used by local governments to monitor internet discussion and manage armies of online commenters.

The documents were shared with The Times and ProPublica by a hacker group that calls itself C.C.P. Unmasked, referring to the Chinese Communist Party. The Times and ProPublica independently verified the authenticity of many of the documents, some of which had been obtained separately by China Digital Times, a website that tracks Chinese internet controls.

. . .

“China has a politically weaponized system of censorship; it is refined, organized, coordinated and supported by the state’s resources,” said Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, and the founder of China Digital Times. “It’s not just for deleting something. They also have a powerful apparatus to construct a narrative and aim it at any target with huge scale.”

“This is a huge thing,” he added. “No other country has that.”

For the full story, see:

Raymond Zhong, Paul Mozur, Jeff Kao and Aaron Krolik. “‘Be Sleek and Silent’: How China Censored Bad News About Covid.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, December 20, 2020): 1 & 14.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Jan. [sic] 13, 2021, and has the title “No ‘Negative’ News: How China Censored the Coronavirus.”)