Notes on “Why Tech Didn’t Save Us From Covid-19”

The MIT Technology Review recently published an interesting, thought-provoking article with the title in quotes above. It was also a little bit one-sided, but we’ll get to that later.

  • The title itself brought to mind Peter Thiel’s quote about being promised flying cars, and being given 140 characters instead. You may want to make a snarky joke about whether 280 characters counts as progress or not, but the point is well taken. And indeed, reinforced by this quote from David Rotman’s article:
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    “In an age of artificial intelligence, genomic medicine, and self-driving cars, our most effective response to the outbreak has been mass quarantines, a public health technique borrowed from the Middle Ages.”
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  • The article then goes on to highlight at least three separate aspects of why tech has failed us: lesser government support for technology and innovation (particularly in the USA), a sclerotic bureaucracy, and policy-making that is not a) proactive enough b) good at managing risks effectively c) far too focused on short-term issues d) aware of the pitfalls of focusing solely on efficiency.
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    Let’s begin with the last of these points:
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  • ““The pandemic has shone a bright light on just how much US manufacturing capabilities have moved offshore,” says Erica Fuchs, a manufacturing expert at Carnegie Mellon University.”
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    I teach courses in international economics at the Gokhale Institute, and one of the fundamental insights that I think students need to walk away with is the concept of a non-zero sum game. Trade makes both parties better off, and therefore more trade is good, is literally the basic starting block of a course on trade. For an excellent summary of this idea, read this article by Paul Krugman, or watch this TED talk by Matt Ridley.
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    But two basic concepts from economics have come to haunt this rather neat idea. One is scale, and the other is the need to diversify. Both are very closely related.
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  • If, conventional theoretical thinking goes, a firm is able to scale up effectively, it will be able to produce more for cheaper. Yes, it is more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of the benefits of scale. Now, think of all countries as firms, and China is the obvious example of a country that scaled more rapidly than other countries, and was able to produce stuff cheaper than almost anywhere else. And that’s how China became the “manufacturing centre of the world”. The more you import from China, the more they scale (and effectively!). The more they scale, they cheaper they can make stuff. The cheaper stuff gets, the more you have an incentive to import from China. And once the loop is up and running, it becomes difficult to stop.
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  • And that’s a simple explanation for how the world ended up putting all of its eggs in one basket. We failed to diversify, because we focused on efficiency, without worrying about risk. What happens if an increasingly efficient global trading order suddenly breaks down? The price of efficiency is two fold: a) a lack of diversification b) not enough risk mitigation measures that allow one to fall back on domestic production. Which is where most of the world finds itself today. Readjusting global supply chains away from China is necessary, but it will not be easy. Especially because most countries will not want to pursue twin objectives: a) diversification away from China into other potential export powerhouses b) some production to be kept at home, especially in crucial sectors such as healthcare.
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    Scale, and a lack of diversification. There’s a lesson in there for us at the individual level as well, of course. A single minded pursuit of some goal (say money, or career growth) at the cost of other things isn’t necessarily a good idea.
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  • “Why couldn’t the US’s dominant tech industry and large biomedical sector provide these things? It’s tempting to simply blame the Trump administration’s inaction.”
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    The truth is always more complicated than you think, and beware simple explanations, but that being said, you might want to read The Fifth Risk. Here’s a slightly tangential review from The Guardian if you are feeling lazy, and a quote from that article follows:
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    “But we’re actually much more likely to die driving to the shops. The fifth risk is something impossible to conceive of in advance, or to prepare for directly. What matters is having a well-organised government in place to respond to these contingencies when they hit – exactly what the Trump administration has failed to do.”
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    No government, or Big Ol’ Central Planner is perfect, of course (and there’s a very readable book about that topic, or here’s a fascinating review of the same book), but Michael Lewis makes the claim that the Trump administration is rather less than perfect even by our less than exacting standards.
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  • “Any country’s capacity to invent and then deploy the technologies it needs is shaped by public funding and government policies. In the US, public investment in manufacturing, new materials, and vaccines and diagnostics has not been a priority, and there is almost no system of government direction, financial backing, or technical support for many critically important new technologies. Without it, the country was caught flat-footed.”
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    The book to read about this topic, if you ask me, is The Entrepreneurial State, by Mariana Mazzucato. Here’s the Wikipedia link about the book. Governments need to play, she says (and I suspect the author of this article would agree), a more active role in fostering the tech ecosystem in a country. Shades of Studwell, perhaps, but I have a counterargument here:
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  • “Incompetence and a sclerotic bureaucracy” is a phrase David Rotman uses early in the article when speaking about the Center for Disease Control in the USA. I find myself in complete agreement with the adjectives used. Why presume, then, that other government departments are likely any better? The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle. You can certainly make the case a la Michael Lewis, that the Trump administration took us to one end of the spectrum – but you should beware equally the other end of it!
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  • “Economists like to measure the impact of innovation in terms of productivity growth, particularly “total factor productivity”—the ability to get more output from the same inputs (such as labor and capital). Productivity growth is what makes advanced nations richer and more prosperous over the long run. For the US as well as most other rich countries, this measure of innovation has been dismal for nearly two decades.”
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    Well, yes, sure. And there is more than a grain of truth to the charge laid above, and not just for America. But keep in mind that measuring TFP is really and truly hard, and I am nowhere close to being convinced that we do a good job of it, even for a country like the USA, forget India. I am writing this post while sitting in my bed, using a laptop that allows me to keep multiple tabs (well over 50 right now) open in a modern browser, while being seamlessly connected to an overwhelming variety of news sources. All this while I listen to a Spotify playlist, and sip on excellent coffee that is made using home delivered Arabic beans. I’ll stop channeling my inner Keynes now, but most of this was not possible, especially at these prices, two decades ago.
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    Progress may not be fast enough for our tastes, sure – but it has been taking place. If you would like to read a book with a take contrarian to mine, try this on for size: The Rise and Fall of American Growth, by Robert Gordon.
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  • “The problem with letting private investment alone drive innovation is that the money is skewed toward the most lucrative markets.”
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    Churchill’s quote about democracy comes to mind!
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  • “In a widely circulated blog post, internet pioneer and Silicon Valley icon Marc Andreessen decried the US’s inability to “build” and produce needed supplies like masks, claiming that “we chose not to have the mechanisms, the factories, the systems to make these things.” The accusation resonated with many: the US, where manufacturing has deteriorated, seemed unable to churn out things like masks and ventilators, while countries with strong and innovative manufacturing sectors, such as China, Japan, Taiwan, and Germany, have fared far better.”
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    Here’s is Andreessen’s post, and also, this is your periodic reminder to read How Asia Works. China, Japan, Taiwan and Germany being up there isn’t a coincidence.
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  • ““The great lesson from the pandemic,” says Suzanne Berger, a political scientist at MIT and an expert on advanced manufacturing, is “how we traded resilience for low-cost and just-in-time production.””
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    Options are easy to teach, but difficult to grasp, and even more difficult to implement. See put, long.
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  • “…they are calling for an immediate ramp-up of public investment in technology, but also for a bigger government role in guiding the direction of technologists’ work. The key will be to spend at least some of the cash in the gigantic US fiscal stimulus bills not just on juicing the economy but on reviving innovation in neglected sectors like advanced manufacturing and boosting the development of promising areas like AI. “We’re going to be spending a great deal of money, so can we use this in a productive way? Without diminishing the enormous suffering that has happened, can we use this as a wake-up call?” asks Harvard’s Henderson.”
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    More participation from the government than is currently happening, but throw also into the mix a more venture-capital-ish approach, and don’t forget prizes! In fact, I found myself wishing midway through the article that the author had explored other options, rather than the government-or-markets binary.
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  • I hope I haven’t comes across as overly critical of the article, and my apologies if I have. That has certainly not been my objective. We rely far too much on the private sector now, that is true – and government can and should play a bigger role than is the case currently. But an extreme position, in either direction, always worries me a little!

Etc: Grandmothers, writers, Robert Solow (among others)

I recently had the honor (and pleasure) of meeting Paul Seabright, and to prepare for the meeting, I read, after many years, In The Company of Strangers. Hopefully, a review will follow soon. But there were a lot of interesting snippets in the book that led me down many a random trail in the jungles of the internet. They explain some of the links that have been chosen for your reading pleasure today.
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  1. “Defined broadly, menopause is the programmed end of fertility in a female animal. Human women, of course, are well aware that their fertility will decline with age and cease after a certain point, typically around age 50. In the animal kingdom at large, however, menopause is an oddity — and a long-standing evolutionary mystery. An organism’s ultimate goal is reproduction. Why sacrifice that consummate purpose? Even more puzzling, why would an animal naturally become infertile and then go on living for years? Throughout history, scientists have proffered numerous theories. But studying the biological phenomenon of menopause is difficult, in part because it seems to be so rare.”
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    Paul Seabright mentions this briefly in his book, and this article explains why menopause is so very important for the human species.
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  2. “I’ve often thought to myself that if Substack had existed when I’d first started writing, I might have approached my work very differently. As a writer who built an audience around a niche topic, I’ve wondered why it is so hard to make money directly off of one’s work. I’ve been lucky that my interests overlapped with the software industry, but what if I’d been obsessed with cataloging perfumes instead, or the causes of Britain’s Industrial Revolution? Many content creators are now able to strike out on their own, thanks to platforms like Instagram, YouTube, and Twitch, but writers, journalists, analysts, researchers, curators, and other independent obsessives mostly seem to make money by indirectly translating their reputation into something they can get hired for.”
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    This is something I’m only very vaguely thinking about right now – starting a much more systematic newsletter than I currently manage at the moment. Folks who read this blog via email, please feel free to drop me an email explaining what you like about it, what you don’t, and what else I could do. Thank you.
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  3. ““I think the way people do economics today is too much governed by the availability of data,” he says. “A lot of the articles that I see written in the journals seem to exist not because there is a problem here that needs to be solved, or a puzzle that needs to be explained, but because I have come upon this enormous bunch of data, [and figure] these data have to include the answer to some question.” But, he adds, that’s “natural,” given the sheer amount of data on hand and the pressure to publish.”
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    Amruuta, on Twitter, was kind enough to share this link with me, about Robert Solow, his long and justly celebrated career, how good he has proven to be as a mentor, and so much more.
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  4. The amazing – a word entirely appropriate in this case – Scott Alexander on what he learnt in this past decade.
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    “There’s an argument that I should learn less each decade, since I’ll be picking higher and higher fruit. My own knowledge can advance either because civilization advances and I hear about it, or because I absorb/integrate older knowledge that I hadn’t noticed before. Civilization advances at a decade per decade (or maybe less; see the Cowen & Southwood paper above), but each year it becomes harder and harder to find relevant older knowledge that I haven’t integrated yet. I plausibly only have five more decades to live, and I don’t think I’d be happy only advancing five times this amount over the rest of my life, let alone less than that.”
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  5. “The key thing about human beings is that our environment is as much each other as it is a particular natural ecology, and that component of our environment, the social component, has changed spectacularly in the last ten millennia. Therefore, the things we do can’t possibly be explained in a very simple way as having evolved through ordinary natural selection for the environment in which we find ourselves today. So we have to patch together an argument consisting of two parts. The first part is to say: What do we think human beings were like, physically and psychologically, as a result of their evolution in the African woodland savannah until about 10 millennia ago? Then we have to ask: How can we imagine that you launch that set of capacities out on the open sea of human social interactions where suddenly things get fantastically complicated, we start dealing with situations we never had to deal with before, with modern society as the result.”
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    I thoroughly enjoyed reading, once again, In The Company of Strangers. An interview with Paul Seabright about the book, and some other things besides.