Tim Harford The Undercover Economist

Articles published in 2020

What will bounce back after the pandemic, and what will never be the same?

In the middle of a crisis, it is not always easy to work out what has changed forever, and what will soon fade into history. Has the coronavirus pandemic ushered in the end of the office, the end of the city, the end of air travel, the end of retail and the end of theatre? Or has it merely ruined a lovely spring?

Stretch a rubber band, and you can expect it to snap back when released. Stretch a sheet of plastic wrapping and it will stay stretched. In economics, we borrow the term “hysteresis” to refer to systems that, like the plastic wrap, do not automatically return to the status quo.

The effects can be grim. A recession can leave scars that last, even once growth resumes. Good businesses disappear; people who lose jobs can then lose skills, contacts and confidence. But it is surprising how often, for better or worse, things snap back to normal, like the rubber band. The murderous destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001, for example, had a lasting impact on airport security screening, but Manhattan is widely regarded to have bounced back quickly. There was a fear, at the time, that people would shun dense cities and tall buildings, but little evidence that they really did.

What, then, will the virus change permanently? Start with the most obvious impact: the people who have died will not be coming back. Most were elderly but not necessarily at death’s door, and some were young. More than one study has estimated that, on average, victims of Covid-19 could have expected to live for more than a decade.

But some of the economic damage will also be irreversible. The safest prediction is that activities which were already marginal will struggle to return. After the devastating Kobe earthquake in Japan in 1995, economic recovery was impressive but partial. For a cluster of businesses making plastic shoes, already under pressure from Chinese competition, the earthquake turned a slow decline into an abrupt one.

Ask, “If we were starting from scratch, would we do it like this again?” If the answer is No, do not expect a post-coronavirus rebound. Drab high streets are in trouble.

But there is not necessarily a correlation between the hardest blow and the most lingering bruise. Consider live music: it is devastated right now — it is hard to conceive of a packed concert hall or dance floor any time soon. Yet live music is much loved and hard to replace. When Covid-19 has been tamed — whether by a vaccine, better treatments or familiarity breeding indifference — the demand will be back. Musicians and music businesses will have suffered hardship, but many of the venues will be untouched. The live experience has survived decades of competition from vinyl to Spotify. It will return.

Air travel is another example. We’ve had phone calls for a very long time, and they have always been much easier than getting on an aeroplane. They can replace face-to-face meetings, but they can also spark demand for further meetings. Alas for the planet, much of the travel that felt indispensable before the pandemic will feel indispensable again. And for all the costs and indignities of a modern aeroplane, tourism depends on travel. It is hard to imagine people submitting to a swab test in order to go to the cinema, but if that becomes part of the rigmarole of flying, many people will comply.

No, the lingering changes may be more subtle. Richard Baldwin, author of The Globotics Upheaval, argues that the world has just run a massive set of experiments in telecommuting. Some have been failures, but the landscape of possibilities has changed. If people can successfully work from home in the suburbs, how long before companies decide they can work from low-wage economies in another timezone?

The crisis will also spur automation. Robots do not catch coronavirus and are unlikely to spread it; the pandemic will not conjure robot barbers from thin air, but it has pushed companies into automating where they can. Once automated, those jobs will not be coming back.

Some changes will be welcome — a shock can jolt us out of a rut. I hope that we will strive to retain the pleasures of quiet streets, clean air and communities looking out for each other.

But there will be scars that last, especially for the young. People who graduate during a recession are at a measurable disadvantage relative to those who are slightly older or younger. The harm is larger for those in disadvantaged groups, such as racial minorities, and it persists for many years. And children can suffer long-term harm when they miss school. Those who lack computers, books, quiet space and parents with the time and confidence to help them study are most vulnerable. Good-quality schooling is supposed to last a lifetime; its absence may be felt for a lifetime, too.

This crisis will not last for decades, but some of its effects will.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 5 June 2020.

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is NOW OUT. Details, and to order on Hive, Blackwells, Amazon or Watersones. Bill Bryson comments, “Endlessly insightful and full of surprises — exactly what you would expect from Tim Harford.”

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Book of the Week 26 – How to do Nothing by Jenny Odell

This thoughtful – and thought-provoking – book takes on a different undertone when read in the light of lockdown. Odell takes her time describing her slow meanderings around the Rose Garden in Oakland, California, sitting and listening to birdsong. Last year that might have felt slightly quirky; this year, we’ve all been doing it.

I was expecting Odell’s book to be something like Cal Newport’s excellent Digital Minimalism, a book I absolutely loved for it’s practically-minded reframing of our troubled relationship with technology.

But Odell is trying to do something different – to reflect on the political and economic structures that surround us and try to monetise our attention. (I don’t think Newport ever used the word ‘neoliberalism’; it springs naturally to Odell’s pen.) I wasn’t won over by this, but perhaps I’m starting in too different a place. For example, when Odell quotes Audre Lorde, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”, I really don’t grasp what she’s driving at. Evidently I need to read Audre Lorde’s words in their original context.

If you approach this book hoping for a self-help manual you may be disappointed. (Try Newport.) But you may well enjoy it if you approach it for what it is – an extended reflection on nature, humanity and the challenges of the society we have built, from a thoughtful and politically engaged artist and technology writer.

UK: AmazonBlackwell’s

US: AmazonPowell’s

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is NOW OUT. Details, and to order on Hive, Blackwells, Amazon or Watersones. Bill Bryson comments, “Endlessly insightful and full of surprises — exactly what you would expect from Tim Harford.”

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14th of July, 2020Other WritingComments off

Cautionary Tales – That Turn to Pascagoula

For years, people had warned that New Orleans was vulnerable – but when a hurricane came close to destroying the city, the reaction was muted. Some people took the near miss as a warning – others, as confirmation that there was nothing to worry about.

So why do we struggle to prepare for disasters? And why don’t we draw the obvious lessons from clear warnings?

Written by Tim Harford with Andrew Wright. Producers: Ryan Dilley with Marilyn Rust. Sound design/mix/musical composition: Pascal Wyse. Editor: Julia Barton. Publicity: Christine Ragasa.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Heather Fain, Maya Koenig, Mia Lobel, Carly Migliori, Jacob Weisberg, and of course, the mighty Malcolm Gladwell.

[Apple] [Spotify] [Stitcher]

Further reading and listening

I first read about Hurricane Ivan in The Ostrich Paradox by Howard Kunreuther and Robert Meyer, and other forebodings of disaster are recounted in Predictable Surprises by Max Bazerman and Michael Watkins.

The story of Meaher Patrick Turner is vividly told by Amanda Ripley in The Unthinkable. All three books are strongly recommended.

Here is Meaher Patrick Turner’s obituary.

Warnings of disaster in the Houston Chronicle, The New Orleans Times-Picayune, and USA Today.

California’s stockpile was covered in the Los Angeles Times, and the UK’s pandemic preparation by New Statesman and Tortoise Media.

Margaret Heffernan’s Willful Blindness discusses the problems with the post-Katrina pumps, as did The Guardian.

This podcast was based on ideas I first worked through for the Financial Times Magazine in a piece titled Why We Fail To Prepare For Disasters.

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10th of July, 2020Cautionary TalesComments off

What countries can – and can’t – learn from each other

Brazil has lost two health ministers; their replacement is a general. The country now probably has the highest prevalence of active coronavirus infections in the world.

South Korea was briefly the worst hit country outside China. It has suppressed the virus, albeit with myriad curtailments of everyday life. Just 280 people have died in total. In the UK in mid April, that death toll would have been reached each morning before breakfast.

Vietnam went in hard, early, rapidly restricting movement and introducing a vigorous contact-tracing programme. There have been a few hundred confirmed cases and no deaths.

Germany rolled out a massive, decentralised testing and contact-tracing programme to help slow the spread of the virus, then introduced a lockdown early on the epidemic curve. Economic damage was contained, while the death rate is much lower than in France, Italy or Spain.

Sweden opted for a policy of “herd immunity”, keeping schools and businesses open and relying on distancing measures. An influential Swedish epidemiologist, Johan Giesecke, declared that the fatality rate was probably about 0.1 per cent — much less deadly than feared elsewhere. Sweden has the highest infection prevalence in Europe right now, by design. The flow of new confirmed cases is still growing.

The UK flirted with herd immunity, too, before locking down late and discharging some elderly people from hospitals into care homes without testing them. One in 16 residents of care homes in the UK has already died, according to Stuart McDonald of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, and Britain has arguably suffered one of the most deadly outbreaks yet of any country. Shops are open. For most pupils, most days, schools are not.

As for the US, the response has been so diverse across different states as to defy easy description. “A patchwork of state reopenings,” the Washington Post called it in mid May, adding that it was “a deadly game of trial and error”.

It is certainly true that this messy diversity of approaches, both in the US and worldwide, makes it harder for all simultaneously to suppress the virus like South Korea. But global suppression now seems impossible anyway.

At least the unnerving lack of co-ordination is an opportunity to learn what works by comparing different approaches. In 1932, US Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis wrote: “A single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”

In the case of an infectious disease, one could hardly say experiments are without risk. But perhaps we should be reframing the sprawling variety of responses as a chance to learn from the laboratory of those who do things differently.

The economist Charles Manski argues persuasively that modelling only teaches us so much about an uncertain future, whether the modellers are economists or epidemiologists. Ultimately, one must learn from experience. The more experiences cities, states or nations are having, the faster we can learn from each other.

But it is one thing to be presented with an object lesson. It is quite another to learn from it. It seems clear that western countries learnt too little from the experience of Sars. And even when the new virus hit Italy, other European countries seemed to hesitate before acting in earnest. The delay was fatal.

Why were so many countries so slow? I asked Jill Rutter and Gemma Tetlow of the Institute for Government. One problem they identified — which is both pathetic and all too human — is that it is simply more convenient to learn from countries with a shared language. There is plenty of information in the UK about what is going on in New Zealand, the US, and Anglo-fluent Sweden. Dispatches from South Korea or Vietnam seem to come from a different planet.

It should be possible, of course, for diplomats to gather information from anywhere in the world. But the people in the UK government with contacts in Hanoi and Seoul are not necessarily those with contacts in public health and epidemiology.

Ideology matters, too. For some politicians, the US is the role model to be emulated. For others, Scandinavia is the paragon. The current British cabinet seems disinclined to learn anything from Germany, while nobody seems to care about Vietnam.

There is another reason why countries are often not set up to learn from others: each place has its own institutions, culture and history. In most policy areas, lessons do not easily translate. There is a limit to how much the UK really can learn from Japanese banking regulators, or what Ethiopia can conclude from a study of German pensions. The starting points are so far apart that the lessons are obscure.

Coronavirus is different. It doesn’t care about cultural norms and barely about the level of economic development. There are ample lessons we can learn from each other about how to deal with it. But they must be learnt quickly — and we are not in the habit of studying.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 19 June 2020.

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is NOW OUT. Details, and to order on Hive, Blackwells, Amazon or Watersones. Bill Bryson comments, “Endlessly insightful and full of surprises — exactly what you would expect from Tim Harford.”

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Book of the Week 25 – A Man for All Markets by Edward Thorp

Edward O. Thorp is a remarkable chap, and so this is a remarkable autobiography. A Depression-era child whose parents were smart but desperately poor, young Thorp took part-time jobs so that he could buy raw materials. As a boy, he made his own gunpowder, pipe-bombs, rockets, rocket-powered toy cars, and even nitro-glycerine. Discovering a powerful dye, aniline red, he used it to turn his local swimming pool a satisfying blood-red colour, earning the headline in the local newspaper, “Unknown Pranksters Dye Long Beach Plunge Red.”

By 1960 Thorp was a young maths professor at MIT and the headlines had migrated to the Washington Post: “You Can So Beat the Gambling House at Blackjack, Math Expert Insists.” Thorp was the father of card-counting, but there’s so much more than that: he recounts a casino trying to poison him as he took them to the cleaners at baccarat, and most splendid of all, his adventures with Claude Shannon – the Einstein of computer science – building a wearable computer in an effort to beat roulette.

Thorp made far more money, in the end, running hedge funds – and his advantures in the early days of quantitative finance are no less interesting.

Ed Thorp is no prose stylist, but with such remarkable raw material he doesn’t need to be: he tends to tell the story brisk and straight, with an eye for nerdy detail. A great book; I should read more biography!

UK: Blackwell’s Amazon

US: Powell’s Amazon

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is NOW OUT. Details, and to order on Hive, Blackwells, Amazon or Watersones. Bill Bryson comments, “Endlessly insightful and full of surprises — exactly what you would expect from Tim Harford.”

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6th of July, 2020MarginaliaResourcesComments off

Cautionary Tales – The Village of Heroes

Not far from where I grew up, there’s a village called Eyam with a story to tell – a story of a plague, and of tragedy, and of heroism.

That old tale sits easily with stories of our modern response to the pandemic: too many people seem unwilling to suffer the slightest inconvenience to help others.

Has human nature really changed so much? Or might it be that the old story, and the new ones, are leading us astray?

Written by Tim Harford with Andrew Wright. Producers: Ryan Dilley with Marilyn Rust. Sound design/mix/musical composition: Pascal Wyse. Editor: Julia Barton. Publicity: Christine Ragasa.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Heather Fain, Maya Koenig, Mia Lobel, Carly Migliori, Jacob Weisberg, and of course, the mighty Malcolm Gladwell.

[Apple] [Spotify] [Stitcher]

Further reading and listening

The story of Eyam has been covered repeatedly in the media of late (the BBC got there a few years early) but a particularly useful source is Patrick Wallis in 1843 Magazine, who provides a valuable note of historical scepticism.

Rutger Bregman’s compelling book is Humankind.

James Meek writes an excellent and horrifying account of the earlier plague of 1348 in the London Review of Books.

The conversation between Eddie Compass and Fred Johnson is reported by the Floodlines podcast.

Geraldine Brooks wrote a novel about Eyam, Year of Wonders.

The study of the petrified forest is Robert B. Cialdini, Linda J. Demaine, Brad J. Sagarin, Daniel W. Barrett, Kelton Rhoads & Patricia L. Winter (2006) Managing social norms for persuasive impact, Social Influence, 1:1, 3-15, DOI: 10.1080/15534510500181459

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3rd of July, 2020Cautionary TalesComments off

What the pandemic teaches us about our priorities, our planet, and the degrowth movement

Certain environmentalists have long argued that economic growth must end for the sake of the planet. “Degrowth” is concisely defined by one proponent, Riccardo Mastini, as “the abolition of economic growth as a social objective”.

Degrowth represents the view that sufficiently sharp reductions in carbon dioxide emissions cannot be achieved through new technology, pricing incentives or even major investment in energy and transport systems. The only thing that will work is economic growth itself coming to an end, permanently.

The pandemic is giving us a taste of what an end to growth might look like. So what lessons should we learn?

The lockdowns have indeed suppressed carbon dioxide emissions, but less than we might hope. The climate science website Carbon Brief estimates that emissions in 2020 are likely to fall by about 5 or 6 per cent relative to emissions last year. That would be the largest fall on record.

What might be a surprise is that it is not enough. If the cuts were compounded at that rate for the rest of the decade, we’d still fall short of what the UN Environment Programme estimates would be needed to restrict global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees. (A 2 degree target would be easier: five pandemics in the next decade would suffice.)

Evidently, hitting demanding emissions targets through crude degrowth would be hopeless. The human misery would be immense.

So would the political backlash. Relative to the slow-burning crisis of climate change, coronavirus is vivid and immediate. It is killing people by the thousand, every day, often in the world’s richest and most famous cities. It should be easy to get people to rally round the idea of making sacrifices to defeat the virus. Yet there is still a vocal minority opposed to any economic sacrifice whatsoever. That should unnerve any of us who worry about the far more diffuse threat of climate change.

Refined policies beat crude ones. The reason we opted for the hardship of a lockdown was that we hadn’t developed any better options. We didn’t have a vaccine, we didn’t have much in the way of treatments and, in many countries, we couldn’t even get together the basics such as testing stations, contact tracing and protective equipment for medics.

Refined beats crude for climate change, too. We could, of course, crush livelihoods to prevent ecosystem collapse, just as we have crushed them to prevent mass death from Covid-19. But that, too, would be a last resort, an admission that we had no alternative.

We do, in fact, have plenty of alternatives, although we have hesitated to use them: research subsidies for green technology; support for the smart grids necessary to harness ever-cheaper solar and wind energy; carbon pricing. The last has been a tough sell, politically, but I am willing to bet it polls better than a deep green perma-depression.

Of course, while many environmentalists would nod along with Greta Thunberg’s sentiment about “fairy tales of eternal economic growth”, most would acknowledge that the priority is not actually to reduce gross domestic product growth to zero or below, but instead to reduce emissions, restore natural ecosystems and sustain human flourishing and freedoms.

Fine. Yet if ending growth is not the objective, but the means to an end, might I suggest that it is not a very effective means? “Abolish economic growth” works as a radical political slogan, but when we’re looking for policy levers to pull we find ourselves coming back to specific taxes, subsidies, public investments and regulations. So why don’t we stop talking about degrowth and focus on the particular policies that might address environmental degradation?

We might find that those policies, applied with sufficient vigour to save the planet, would indeed have the side-effect of bringing economic growth to a halt. I doubt it. But the way to find out is to try; we might be pleasantly surprised at how flexible economic activity can be, and how much fun we can all have while respecting planetary limits.

Here, again, the pandemic sharpens the point. Because in the short term we have left ourselves few options, we have fought the virus with lockdowns. The lockdowns have damaged growth. But there are no “degrowth epidemiologists” arguing that throttling economic activity is the aim rather than the unwelcome side-effect, and that vaccines and contact tracing are fairy tales peddled by neoliberal economists.

The virus has taught us that our way of life is more vulnerable than we might hope. It has taught us the importance of making sacrifices now to prepare for predictable risks in the future. It may even have reminded us that driving to work, or flying half way around the world for a meeting, are not always necessary, and of the joys of walking or cycling through quiet streets.

These lessons may help us deal with the threat of climate change that still looms over us. But my friends in the environmental movement should take one more lesson to heart: if degrowth is the only solution we can find to our problems, perhaps we haven’t looked hard enough.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 1 May 2020.

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is out in the UK in May and available to pre-order; please consider doing so online or at your local bookshop – pre-orders help other people find the book and are a huge help.

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Can the pandemic help us fix our technology problem?

We have a technology problem.

By that, I mean that we currently lack the technology to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. We don’t have a cheap, easy, self-administered test. We lack effective medicines. Above all, we don’t have a vaccine.

But I also mean something vaguer and more diffuse. We have a technology problem in the sense that scientific and technological progress has been sputtering for a while. That is evident in the data. The 2010-19 decade of productivity growth in the UK was the lowest for the past couple of centuries, and coronavirus can take no blame for that.

If productivity statistics do not speak to your poetic soul, go into your kitchen and look around. You’ll see little there that you couldn’t have seen 50 years ago. The same could not be said of, say, the 50 years between 1920 and 1970. Or ponder air travel, if you can remember what that is like. Between 1920 and 1970, we went from aviator goggles and fabric-covered biplanes to the Boeing 747 and Concorde. Not only have we failed to surge forward since then, one could even argue that we’ve gone backward.

Given how much we keep being told about the disruptive pace of innovation and the boundless creativity of Silicon Valley, the reality is both surprising and disappointing. After several years pondering the history of inventions and inventors, I wondered whether these two problems might shed light on each other — what can we learn from the pandemic about technology, and what does the history of technology teach us about the pandemic?

Get the incentives right

In 1795, the French government offered a prize of 12,000 francs for inventing a method of preserving food. Napoleon Bonaparte was an ambitious general when the prize was announced. By the time it was awarded, he was France’s emperor, and two years away from his disastrous invasion of Russia. Napoleon may or may not have said: “An army marches on its stomach,” but he was keen to broaden his soldiers’ provisions from smoked and salted meat.

One of the hopefuls who tried his hand at winning the prize was Nicolas Appert, a Parisian grocer and confectioner credited with the development of the stock cube and — less plausibly — the recipe for chicken Kiev. Through trial and error, Appert found if you put cooked food in a glass jar, plunged the jar into boiling water and then sealed it with wax, the food would keep — all this was before Louis Pasteur was born.

Having solved the problem, Monsieur Appert duly claimed his reward.

This is by no means the only example of an innovation prize, a policy tool that has waxed and waned over the years. The most famous was the 1714 Longitude Prize, for solving the problem of how far east or west a ship was. The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, the RSA, also awarded prizes on a frequent basis, often for safety measures that were regarded as unprofitable but socially valuable. Anton Howes, author of Arts and Minds, a history of the RSA, reckons that the society awarded more than 2,000 innovation prizes between the mid-1700s and the mid-1800s. Some were “bounties”, ad hoc recognition for good ideas; many, however, were classic innovation prizes like that awarded to Appert, which pose an important problem and promise to reward the person who solves it.

Nowadays such prizes are out of fashion. Governments tend to favour a combination of direct support for researchers and the award of an intellectual monopoly, in the form of a patent, to those who develop original ideas. But just like the innovations the RSA rewarded, rapid vaccines can be unprofitable but socially valuable. So a group of the world’s leading economists believes that if we are to maximise the chances of producing that vital coronavirus vaccine at the speed and scale that is required, we need to bring innovation prizes back in a big way.

This team, known as “Accelerating Health Technologies”, includes Susan Athey, the first woman to win the prestigious John Bates Clark medal, and Michael Kremer, a Nobel laureate.

“Whoever discovers the vaccine first is going to get such a big hug,” joked the Financial Times cartoonist Banx. It’s safe to say that they would get much more than that, but would they get enough? Major pharmaceutical companies have been scarred by earlier experiences, where they sank money into vaccines for diseases such as Zika or Sars, or in 2009 rushed to fulfil large orders for flu vaccines, only to find that demand had ebbed.

The problem is that most vaccine research programmes do not produce successful vaccines, and so companies — understandably — try to keep a lid on their spending until one is proven to work. Anthony Fauci, director of the US’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, lamented the problem in February: “Companies that have the skill to be able to do it are not going to just sit around and have a warm facility, ready to go for when you need it,” he told an Aspen Institute panel.

We need the leading vaccine contenders to invest vastly more in trials and production than they normally would, even though much of that investment will ultimately be wasted. And of course, they already are investing more — up to a point. That is partly an act of good corporate citizenship and partly in response to subsidies from governments or the Gates Foundation. But it may not be sufficient.

After all, the cost of failure will be borne mainly by the companies involved, while the benefits of success will be enjoyed by all of us: the IMF estimates the benefits are more than $10bn for every day that widespread vaccine delivery is hastened. Any inducement the rest of us can offer might be money well spent. So Athey, Kremer and their colleagues have proposed a kind of prize called an “advanced market commitment”, a promise to buy hundreds of millions of doses of a vaccine for a premium price.

This is not an untried idea. In 2004, Kremer and Rachel Glennerster, the current chief economist of the UK’s Department for International Development, proposed the concept of an advanced market commitment (AMC). In 2010, donors promised $1.5bn as an AMC for a pneumococcal vaccine for low-income countries; this dramatically accelerated the rollout of successful vaccines and saved hundreds of thousands of lives. But the AMC is really just a sophisticated variant on the innovation prizes of the 18th and 19th centuries, such as the one claimed by Nicolas Appert. Incentives are not the only thing that matter — but matter they do. If we want a solution that badly, we shouldn’t hesitate to commit to rewarding those who produce it.

It is not such a leap from food preservation to a vaccine.

Don’t overlook what seems simple

On August 4 1945, as the US and USSR were manoeuvring for position in a postwar world, a group of boys from the Young Pioneer Organisation of the Soviet Union made a charming gesture of friendship. At the US embassy in Moscow, they presented a large, hand-carved ceremonial seal of the United States of America to Averell Harriman, the US ambassador. It was later to become known simply as “the Thing”. Harriman’s office checked the heavy wooden ornament for signs of a bug, but concluded that, with neither wires nor batteries, it could do no harm. Harriman mounted the Thing proudly on the wall of his study. From there, it betrayed his private conversations for the next seven years.

Eventually, a British radio operator stumbled upon the US ambassador’s conversations being broadcast over the airwaves. These broadcasts were unpredictable: scan the embassy for radio emissions, and no bug was in evidence. It took yet more time to discover the secret. The listening device was inside the Thing. And it was so subtle, so simple, as to have proved almost undetectable.

The Thing had been designed — under duress in a Soviet prison camp — by none other than Léon Theremin, famous even then for his eponymous musical instrument. Inside it was little more than an antenna attached to a cavity with a silver diaphragm over it, serving as a microphone. There were no batteries or any other source of power. The Thing didn’t need them. It was activated by radio waves beamed at the US embassy by the Soviets, at which point it would broadcast back, using the energy of the incoming signal. Switch off that signal, and it would go silent.

The US agents who examined the Thing for bugs did not understand its potential to do them harm. It seemed too simple, too primitive, to matter. And I worry that we often make the same mistake. When we think about technology, we think of the flashy, sophisticated stuff. We overlook the cheap and the simple. We celebrate the printing press that produced the Gutenberg Bibles, but not the paper that many of those Bibles were printed on. Alongside paper and the RFID tag, place the brick, the postage stamp and, for that matter, the humble tin can: inventions that are transformative not because they are complicated but because they are simple.

We should remember the same lesson when it comes to the innovations that fuel public health. The simplest technologies — such as soap and gloves, and, it seems increasingly likely, cloth masks — have proved invaluable, and are much-missed when in short supply.

And those are just the obvious technologies. The UK and the US stumbled in their efforts to scale up testing in the crucial early weeks of the epidemic. It will take post-pandemic inquiries to establish exactly why — and incompetence is clearly one explanation — but reporters highlighted a shortage of the chemical reagents necessary to conduct the test, the protective gear needed to shield the medical staff and even something as simple as cotton swabs.

Even now, it is too easy to dismiss the potential of truly cheap and simple testing. The economist Paul Romer, another Nobel memorial prize winner, argues that if everyone in a country could be tested twice a month — the equivalent, in the UK, of more than four million tests a day — that should provide enough information to suppress the virus whenever there was an outbreak. That is a vast leap beyond our current testing capacity — but the benefits could be enormous. Imagine a reliable test that was cheap and self-administered, like a pregnancy test or a thermometer. Highly sophisticated is good, but being cheap has a sophistication of its own.

Contact tracing is another simple but vital approach. An age-old idea that requires little more than a phone, a notebook and a small army of persistent and diplomatic people, it was abandoned in the UK for the three gravest months of the crisis, apparently on the basis that the army had yet to be recruited and so the tracing system could cope with no more than five new cases a week. Since the lockdown was eased, we have well over a thousand a day.

Then there are the everyday logistical miracles made possible by other simple inventions, the barcode and the shipping container. Nobody cares about logistics until things go wrong. It has been remarkable to see how resilient retail supply chains have been in the face of the most extraordinary disruption. At a time when much of the world’s population was told not to venture beyond their own front doors, we saw little more than a brief awkwardness in sourcing flour, pasta and toilet paper.

But it has not been so straightforward to duplicate this feat when it comes to testing. Embarrassed by the early deficiency, the UK government set ambitious targets. Ministers then claimed to hit them, first by including testing kits that had merely been posted out, and then by bragging about “capacity”. Meanwhile, the government simply stopped reporting how many people had been tested at all. The logistics of conducting, or even counting, the tests proved challenging enough that for the purposes of meeting targets, logistical problems were simply assumed away.

In our desperation to develop high-tech solutions such as drugs or contact-tracing apps, there is a risk that we ignore the simple technologies that can achieve a lot. As Averell Harriman discovered, it is a mistake to overlook technologies that seem too simple to matter.

Manufacturing matters too

There is more to innovation than a good idea. The food-preserving “Appertisation” technology did not stay in France for long — it migrated across the Channel to seek London’s entrepreneurialism and venture capital, allowing production to scale up. (This was a time when the British were, evidently, not too proud to borrow a good idea from the French.) Appert himself was also trying to expand his operations. He invested his prize money in a food-preservation factory, only to see it destroyed by invading Prussian and Austrian armies. Ideas matter, but factories matter too.

Factories are likely to prove equally fateful for vaccine production. Developing a successful vaccine is far more than just a manufacturing problem, but manufacturing is undoubtedly the kind of challenge that keeps experts awake at night. The candidate vaccines are sufficiently different from each other that it is unfeasible to build an all-purpose production line that would work for any of them, so we need to build several in parallel.

“Imagine that your life depended on completing a home construction project on time,” Susan Athey told the Planet Money podcast. “Anyone who’s ever done a construction project knows that none of them had ever been completed on time . . . literally, if your life depended on it, you might try to build five houses.”

Or to put it another way, if your life depends on a letter being delivered on time, send multiple copies of the letter by as many methods as you can find.

In the case of a coronavirus vaccine, setting up multiple redundant production lines costs money — tens of billions of dollars. But remember that an accelerated vaccine is worth more than $10bn a day. Any reasonable subsidy would be value for money, assuming it increased the probability of quick success. Some subsidies are already available — for example, as part of the US “Warp Speed” project, and from the Gates Foundation. But Michael Kremer wants to see more international co-ordination and more ambition. “We think the scale of the problem and the risks associated with each candidate warrant pursuing a substantially larger number of candidates,” he told me.

Alex Tabarrok, another member of the team, added: “Bill Gates is doing the right thing but even Gates can’t do it all. Governments are acting too slowly. Every week that we delay a vaccine costs us billions.”

Athey, Kremer, Tabarrok and the rest of the team behind the Advanced Market Commitment proposal want to supplement it with generous 85 per cent subsidies for the immediate construction of vaccine factories. The calculation here is that firms are the best judges of their own prospects. A firm with a marginal vaccine will not build much capacity, even with an 85 per cent subsidy. But anyone with a decent chance at producing a vaccine will see the prize on offer, and the subsidies, and start building factories at once.

On the principle of not overlooking what seems simple, even the most sophisticated vaccines rely on ingredients that are all too easy to take for granted. Consider the supply of glass vials. Several doses can be included in a single vial, but that still suggests a demand for hundreds of millions of them if a successful vaccine is made. The vaccine industry is used to operating at scale, but this would be something new: vaccines simply aren’t given to everyone in the world all at once.

Or perhaps the hold-up won’t be the glass, but something else. James Robinson, a vaccine manufacturing expert, told the science writer Maggie Koerth: “A vaccine manufacture . . . might source several thousand ingredients to make a vaccine. But each material is coming from factories with hundreds of sources, and those sources have sources.”

For example, GlaxoSmithKline uses an extract from the soap-bark tree to produce a vaccine-enhancing ingredient called an adjuvant; for some of the vaccines now in development, the adjuvant may enhance their effectiveness or make a certain quantity stretch to more doses. As Koerth noted, however, the bark is harvested in Peru, Chile and Bolivia during the summer months of the southern hemisphere. Last year’s crop was harvested before the coronavirus had become a household name; this year’s harvest will not begin until November.

Disruption can help

It hasn’t just been the past few decades in which apparently remarkable technologies have made an underwhelming impression on the productivity figures. Consider the history of electrification in American factories. In the 1890s, the potential for electricity seemed clear. Thomas Edison and Joseph Swan independently invented usable lightbulbs in the late 1870s. In 1881, Edison built electricity-generating stations at Pearl Street in Manhattan and Holborn in London. Things moved quickly: within a year, he was selling electricity as a commodity; a year later, the first electric motors were used to drive manufacturing machinery.

Yet by 1900, less than 5 per cent of mechanical drive power in US factories was coming from electric motors. Most factories were still in the age of steam. This was because when manufacturers replaced large steam engines with large electric motors, they were disappointed with the results.

I’ve written about the work of economic historian Paul David before. He argued it wasn’t enough merely to replace steam engines with electric motors. The capabilities of those new motors could only be used fully if the factories were redesigned.

While replacing a large steam engine with a large electric motor had achieved very little, electric motors could be efficient at a smaller scale. That meant that each worker could have a small motor at their bench. Wires could replace driveshafts; factories could spread out into lighter, airier spaces; the flow of product could be optimised, rather than being constrained by proximity to the power source.

But a fascinating part of David’s argument is that all this was catalysed by a crisis. After 1914, workers became more expensive thanks to a series of new laws that limited immigration into the US from a war-torn Europe. Manufacturing wages soared and hiring workers became more about quality, and less about quantity. It was worth investing in training — and better trained workers were better placed to use the autonomy that electricity gave them. The recruitment problem sparked by the immigration restrictions helped to spark new thinking about the design of the American factory floor.

Some of the modern parallels are obvious. We have had email, internet and affordable computers for years — and more recently, video-conferencing. Yet until the crisis hit, we had been slow to explore online education, virtual meetings or telemedicine. 3D printing and other agile manufacturing techniques have moved from being curiosities to life-saving ways to meet the new demand for medical equipment. We are quickly learning new ways to work from a distance because suddenly we have had no choice. And we are learning about resilience.

There is no guarantee that a crisis always brings fresh ideas; sometimes a catastrophe is just a catastrophe. Still, there is no shortage of examples for when necessity proved the mother of invention, sometimes many times over.

The Economist points to the case of Karl von Drais, who invented an early model of the bicycle in the shadow of “the year without a summer” — when in 1816 European harvests were devastated by the after-effects of the gargantuan eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. Horses were starved of oats; von Drais’s “mechanical horse” needed no food.

It is a good example. But one might equally point to infant formula and beef extract, both developed by Justus von Liebig in response to the horrifying hunger he had witnessed in Germany as a teenager in 1816. Or, if we are to recognise art as well as science, there is Mary Shelley’s masterpiece Frankenstein, written that same rainy summer beside Lake Geneva; the creature’s isolation mirrors that of the starving peasants she saw, begging for food. One crisis may lead to many creative responses.

The same may be true of this pandemic. Disruptions — even calamitous ones — have a way of bulldozing vested interests and tearing up cosy assumptions, jolting people and organisations out of the status quo.

It is just possible that future generations will point to 2020 as the year the innovation slowdown ended. Even economists need to be able to hope.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 11 June 2020.

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is NOW OUT; this article is based in part on ideas in that book. Details, and to order on Hive, Blackwells, Amazon or Watersones. Bill Bryson comments, “Endlessly insightful and full of surprises — exactly what you would expect from Tim Harford.”

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1st of July, 2020HighlightsOther WritingComments off

Book of the Week 24 – Dark Data by David Hand

What is Dark Data?

Consider the example of the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster. Should the shuttle launch, despite fears that low temperatures might weaken the “o-ring” seals? A graph of seven previous occasions when the o-rings had been stressed showed no relationship between temperature and the degree of damage.

Alas, what was missing was the data from all the launches where there had been no damage at all: in each case, air temperatures were higher. On viewing all the data, a clear relationship was visible.

“Dark data are data you do not have,” writes Hand. “They might be data you thought you had, or hoped to have, or wished you had. But they are data you don’t have. You might be aware that you do not have them, or you might be unaware.”

This book, then has some commonalities with Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women, a book about systematic failure to collect data about women or issues that might be of particular relevance to women. Hand’s book is a shade more technical, but that is not the only difference: as the Challenger example makes clear, there are many different kinds of missing data, and many reasons why we might fail to have them. (The most mundane of all: time series data when some of the data points lie in the future…)

I enjoyed this book a lot; it is well-written and accesible, although mostly aimed at practioners.

UK: Blackwells Amazon

US: Powell’s Amazon

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is NOW OUT. Details, and to order on Hive, Blackwells, Amazon or Watersones. Bill Bryson comments, “Endlessly insightful and full of surprises — exactly what you would expect from Tim Harford.”

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30th of June, 2020MarginaliaComments off

Book of the Week 23 – How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X Kendi

‘”Racist” and “antiracist” are like peelable name tags that are placed and replaced based on what someone is doing or not doing, supporting or expressing in each moment. These are not permanent tattoos. No one becomes a racist or antiracist. We can only strive to be one or the other.’

Just one of the ideas that stuck with me from Kendi’s thought-provoking polemic. It seemed original (it was certainly new to me) and useful – a way of moving beyond the sterile attempts to peer into each others’ souls and pronounce ourselves and our allies non-racist, while some despicable opponent is, of course, racist. Better to judge by actions.

Kendi begins the book with an account of himself as a young man taking part in a public speaking competition. While he explicitly rejects what he thought and said back then, he certainly hasn’t rejected the toolkit of the debater. He argues cleverly, persuasively, and like a good debater, is happy to take a logical short-cut when it suits him. For example: yes, many racists say “I am not a racist” – but it does not follow, as Kendi repeatedly implies, that “not-racism” is inevitably combination of racism plus lies.

(A personal aside: one of the reasons I picked up How To Be An Antiracist was my sense that I had no idea of the issues involved. I had that generic liberal sense that racism was repugnant and that everyone regardless of skin colour or ethnic heritage should be free to fulfil their potential, free from fear, oppression or discrimination. But it was dawning on me that I really hadn’t a clue what – for example – a young black man in America might have to deal with. Ironic, then, that Kendi’s first anecdote is of him doing pretty much what I was doing when I was the same age: standing on stage and spouting off.)

While I did not agree with everything, I learned a lot from this book – both the personal reflections and the argument. I found it particularly useful to have read Caroline Criado Perez’s excellent Invisible Women; the two books together helped me understand how much damage can be done by the unthinking default to male – or, in Kendi’s book, the unthinking default to white. This made it easier for me to engage with Kendi’s assertion that every policy is either racist or antiracist: what seemed at first a strange exaggeration made sense in the light of Crado Perez’s arguments. Sure, there almost certainly are policies that are neither racist not antiracist, but it’s worth explicitly asking yourself, “what is the likely impact of this policy or idea on different racial groups?”

UK: Amazon Blackwells

US: Amazon Powell’s

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is NOW OUT. Details, and to order on Hive, Blackwells, Amazon or Watersones. Bill Bryson comments, “Endlessly insightful and full of surprises — exactly what you would expect from Tim Harford.”

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29th of June, 2020MarginaliaComments off


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