Capital Thinking • Issue #577 • View online
A while ago, I started getting messages that my computer was running out of memory. I put off doing anything about it -- cleaning up a decade's worth of files did not sound like a fun task.
But eventually I took a look, sorted files by size, and came to a lovely discovery. There were a few large files -- some video attachment to an email someone sent me three years ago, stuff like that.
After I deleted 10 or 20 of these, all of a sudden there was lots of space!
The rest of my computer remains a Marie Kondo nightmare.
Every distribution has fat tails.
And if you need to do something about it, spend all your time on the tail events and don't bother with the small stuff.
That lesson, of course applies to stopping the spread of the corona virus.
Stopping the negligible possibility that a hiker passes it to another hiker out on a (now closed) trail in the Santa Cruz mountains is beyond pointless.
Stopping the tiny probability that a worker passes it to another worker in a thoughtfully structured high value business is equally pointless, and vastly more costly.
What do we know about the fat tail? Not as much as we should.
Jonathan Kay's lovely Quillette essay on super spreader events covers a lot. (HT Marginal Revolution).
Jonathan points out that our scientists still don't really know whether Covid-19 is spread primarily by large "ballistic" droplets, small persistent aerosol droplets, or contact with surfaces where droplets have landed.
They don't know what kind of activities lead to spread. He investigated super spreader events to try to figure that out.
Jonathan put together all the information he could find on known Covid-19 super spreader events. He found 54, with details on 38.
A bit more data collection and research effort on this crucial question would seem worthwhile.
I have a different goal -- what are the activities that we can reduce with greatest effect on the disease, and least economic cost, and within the everyday more apparent limitations of our political and government apparatus?
Like others (see Arnold Kling for example) I'm starting to despair of a way out.
We will not have a vaccine for a long time, and kill the economy till the vaccine comes is not an option.
Bend the curve, followed by vigorous test, trace and isolate would be possible, but I doubt the US, has the institutional capacity or political will for trace and isolate once we eventually get test to work.
I cannot imagine our authorities imposing life in Wuhan (another MR HT). Paul Romer has articulately advocated a big push for widespread testing, notably by relaxing regulations (university labs not allowed to conduct tests, for example).
Paul notes correctly that it's worth spending hundreds of billions of dollars on testing to save trillions of dollars of economic and fiscal damage.
If we could test everyone every day, and get most of the positives to stay home, the virus would quickly peter out.
But I'm dubious our government is capable of even this. Let it rip, argue many others, and wait for herd immunity.
But I don't think our governments can do that either, as Boris Johnson found out.
Our governments can, however, come up with lists of banned activities.
So let those lists have just a little more common sense.
Let the lists of banned activities 1) focus on the tail of super spreader events 2) consider the economic damage vs. public health benefit.
The bottom line I get from Jonathan: It looks like the biggest transmission danger is large droplets exchanged by people talking loudly in large gatherings, in closed quarters, and where many different people interact.
Yes, it may be transmitted in other ways, but this is the fat tail, and start with the fat tail.
The even greater news: practically no GDP is lost if you ban the super spreading activities on his list.
However the rhetoric needs to change.
I will emphasize again that I am not an epidemiologist, virologist, or infectious-diseases expert (though I like to think I’ve made myself a somewhat educated reader of the most recently published scientific literature in these fields).
But even a layperson can see that there is a fairly clear pattern in the most notorious, destructive, and widely reported cases of mass COVID-19 infection—virtually all of which feature forms of human behaviour that permit the direct ballistic delivery of a large-droplet Flüggian payload from face A to face B.
If fomites were a major pathway for COVID-19 infection outside of hospitals, old-age residences, and homes, one would expect restaurant cooks, mass-transit ticket handlers, and FedEx delivery workers to be at the center of major clusters.
If small-droplet airborne concentrations in unventilated spaces were a common vector for COVID-19 transmission (as with measles, for instance), one would expect whole office buildings to become mass-infection hot spots.
That doesn’t seem to have happened.