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A Pandemic Pivot Point: The Counterintuitive Dynamics of Covid-19

How over-vaccination drives the pandemic. The power of innate and recovered immunity. The early treatment solution. The unwisdom of vaccinating young people. 

See our new report offering a new Covid-19 strategy. We describe the complex evolutionary dynamics of the virus. [Newly salient with the emergence of the Omicron B.1.1.529 variant in South Africa.] We show how well-intended mass vaccination exerts evolutionary pressure toward more infectious, vaccine-resistant variants. We demonstrate the potency – and preciousness – of innate immunity, especially among young people. We show how the current strategy of maximal vaccination is leading to higher all-cause mortality. We detail highly effective but underutilized early treatments. And offer a rubric for cost-benefit analysis. 

As rationale for total vaccination sputters, censorship soars

A trove of internal Facebook documents obtained by The Wall Street Journal confirms what has been obvious for several years: Facebook exempts select VIPs from its content moderation rules while imposing harsh censorship on disfavored influential figures and regular joes.

This evidence highlights several untested clauses of Section 230, one of which immunizes online platforms from liability if they moderate their sites in “good faith.” Does good faith include some measure of neutrality and equal application of rules? We don’t know because this law has never been fully adjudicated. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas would like courts to begin analyzing this and other questions about what Section 230 means. 

Section 230, however, is just one facet of a much wider social phenomenon. And when it comes to Covid-19, these broader censorious attitudes and practices may have already pushed us past a danger point. The promotion of one strategy (lockdowns and vaccines) and the suppression of other options (focused protection, aggressive early treatment, cheap rapid testing) have damaged American health and divided us politically. 

In July, reporter Alex Berenson flagged emerging data from Israel suggesting a rise in cases and, potentially, even hospitalizations and deaths. Israel was perhaps the earliest and most broadly vaccinated nation on earth. Was this a signal of the vaccine’s failure to block transmission and its lack of durability? For asking this question, Twitter suspended Berenson for a week. 

Unfortunately, Berenson was onto something. Over the next few months, Israeli cases and illnesses surged. Of the 607 Israelis who died of Covid-19 in the month of August, 375 (61.8%) had received either two or three doses of the Pfizer vaccine, while 232 (38.2%) had either zero or one dose. Because a high proportion of Israelis had been fully vaccinated, the rate of illness among the vaccinated was still lower than the unvaccinated. The vaccines reduce the severity of disease – at least for several months. For most high-risk individuals, vaccination probably still makes sense. Yet the rationale for universal vaccination, for coercive measures, and for the vaccination of young people had crashed. 

Scotland, which also vaccinated early and often, is experiencing similar challenges. Between August 26 and September 2, 71.4% of its Covid-19 fatalities were double-vaccinated. In Britain, where 81.4% of people over the age of 16 are fully vaccinated, 8,340 Covid-19 patients are hospitalized, compared to 1,066 at the same time last year.

In the super-multi-faceted pandemic, these data do not tell the whole story. Yet the failure of the official vaccine storyline to pan out as promised should at the very least open our minds to the views of the scientists, physicians, and analysts who proved correct over the last 18 months and who have proposed alternative strategies. (I’m talking about people like Dr. Robert Malone, inventor of mRNA vaccine technology; Baylor University cardiologist Peter McCullough; Stanford epidemiologist and economist Jay Battacharya; Harvard epidemiologist Martin Kulldorff; and Oxford epidemiologist Sunetra Gupta, all of whom have been censored.) 

Instead, some nations, including the U.S., are tripling down on intrusive vaccine monomania – with the help of social media censors. When Berenson noted on August 28 that the vaccine “doesn’t stop infection. Or transmission,” Twitter banned his account permanently. But the Washington Post had already confirmed Berenson’s observation, reporting on a leaked CDC slide deck acknowledging the same.

A central fact of Covid-19 is its highly differential effect according to age and preexisting conditions. Young, healthy people are nearly invulnerable to Covid. But they and others are not invulnerable to vaccine side-effects, such as myocarditis. Europe’s EudraVigilance network, for example, reports 24,526 Covid vaccine fatalities and 1.13 million serious injuries. The CDC’s VAERS system reports 14,925 Covid vaccine deaths and 60,741 hospitalizations. 

For years, most experts acknowledged VAERS substantially undercounts adverse events, perhaps by a factor of 5-10. But now the CDC, FDA, and NIH insist VAERS is unreliable and we should ignore these danger signals. 

Everyone agrees VAERS is imperfect. It is meant to detect faint signals among lots of noise, prompting further investigation. But if it is totally useless, as our public health officials now assert, then why has our government, which is spending unlimited billions on Covid, not replaced it with a better surveillance system? How can we conduct the largest medical experiment in world history and studiously avoid collecting reliable data? Especially when governments and businesses are now coercing people – even those who are at almost zero risk from Covid – to take vaccine. 

On August 31, two of the FDA’s top vaccine scientists resigned, reportedly because they objected to White House pressure to approve vaccine booster shots. The following week, those two scientists – Marion Gruber and Philip Krause – co-authored a Lancet article warning against boosters at this time. In their Lancet letter, they echoed many of the same concerns which the censored physicians and scientists cite when pumping the brakes on coerced universal vaccination. Many of these doctors, who voice genuine and deeply learned alternative views, are not only being censored by social media but also now face threats from professional medical associations and state boards of licensure. 

Are Gruber and Krause, who sped the vaccines through the initial FDA authorizations and approvals, the new anti-vax conspiracy theorists? Apparently not. On September 17, the FDA’s VRBAC vaccine advisory committee, by a vote of 16-2, agreed with Gruber and Krause and rejected boosters for those under 65.

If the vaccines don’t prevent infection or transmission, we cannot insist that everyone take them for public health reasons – to stop the spread. And if the vaccines are sometimes harmful, failing a risk-reward calculation for many people, then we should not encourage everyone to take them for individual health reasons. Dr. Jay Battacharya of Stanford says it may be unwise for those under 30 years old to take vaccine. One scientist presenting at last Friday’s VRBAC meeting, Dr. Doran Fink of FDA, said the myocarditis risk may exceed any vaccine reward for males under 40. 

A more targeted and diversified health strategy could have delivered better results. If, in addition to the vaccines, we had focused more on early treatment with monoclonal antibodies and inexpensive and safe drugs (e.g. ivermectin), we might have saved many tens of thousands of lives. Without the economic and social destruction, and with less political venom. The suppression of information has dangerous real-world consequences. 

On September 7th, Sen. Elizabeth Warren wrote a letter to Amazon CEO Andy Jassy. She demanded the company clamp down on misinformation, specifically condemning Alex Berenson’s four Covid booklets. People noticed. Berenson’s fourth booklet, the one on vaccines, jumped to the number one best-selling book on all of Amazon. 

Bret Swanson is president of the technology research firm Entropy Economics and nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

This article originally appeared at RealClearMarkets – As rationale for total vaccination sputters, censorship soars.

Big Tech and Big Finance Breed Hubris

See our latest in The Wall Street Journal . . .

The suppression of debate over the origin of the novel coronavirus highlights a broader problem. Governments were once the chief impediments to free speech and free markets, but extremely large private companies may have become the greater danger. These hyperscale firms serve as hubs and gateways in the highly networked knowledge economy. They are well-positioned to exert special control over information—and other companies.

China’s stalling and lying about Covid’s origins weren’t surprising. On the other hand, the behavior of U.S. officials and scientists was startling. They dissembled over their intimate knowledge of gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and their early suspicions the virus was “engineered.” But who expects politicians and bureaucrats to be honest and competent? That’s what an open society is for. Truth and accountability are the responsibility of a free press—and a free internet. 

What happens when the press and the internet aren’t so free? Over the past year, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook joined with a partisan press to block and throttle discussion across a range of Covid-19 topics. They discouraged and erased talk of the Wuhan lab-leak hypothesis, cheap and safe generic treatments such as ivermectin, Sweden’s heterodox decision to stay mostly open, and the inefficacy (and cruelty) of school closures. continue reading (subscription required) . . .

Digital Duplicity

The social media purge exposes net neutrality’s true goal

AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File

For nearly two decades, Silicon Valley made net neutrality its highest policy priority. Under the banner of a “free and open” internet, Google, Facebook, and Twitter sought regulations to ensure the uninterrupted flow of information by treating every bit equally. Or so they said.

Beginning last Friday night, these firms and others executed an unprecedented digital purge of the social media and video accounts of their political rivals. After several years of accelerating suspensions and suppressions, this time YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter permanently banned a number of high-profile conservatives and deplatformed thousands of others, at least temporarily. Many of these accounts had nothing to do with last Wednesday’s heinous events at the Capitol. Yet their histories are erased. Volume 0%00:0103:12 

Shopify, Twitch, Reddit, and other online services and forums followed social media’s lead. Then something bigger happened: when app stores and cloud service providers joined the cascade by disconnecting Parler, a fast-growing competitor of Twitter, they opened an explosive new front in the information wars. 

How’d we get here? Paradoxically, the smart refusal to adopt Silicon Valley’s strict net neutrality rules fueled their rise to astronomical power. With minimal regulation of U.S. networks, broadband and mobile firms invested nearly $2 trillion in infrastructure, far more per capita than any nation. The resulting bandwidth explosion fueled the unprecedented success of smartphones, video streams, cloud computing, software-as-a-service, and a million apps. Now we’re in the middle of a $300-billion upgrade to 5G wireless.

Launched as an academic exercise in the early 2000s, the supposed rationale for strict net neutrality was to prevent internet service providers and mobile carriers from “blocking and throttling” content. Without a return to telephone-like common carriage regulation under Title II of the Communications Act, they said ISPs would discriminate and the magic of  the Internet would be lost. 

With Silicon Valley and ISPs haggling over the price of carrying floods of new video traffic, the headline battle was economic. Ardent activists, however, consistently warned of a deeper, potentially apocalyptic, threat to democracy. ISPs, they said, might one day censor disfavored political speech. 

The blocking and throttling never came to pass. Not political or otherwise.  Without net neutrality rules, ISPs still committed to fair treatment. And today the U.S. generates and consumes more Internet traffic than any nation, two to three times more, in fact, than many of our large peers. 

Then a funny thing happened. Social media firms themselves began blocking and throttling at the content layer. In the name of rooting out “hate” and “misinformation,” they started suspending, demonetizing, deboosting, and shadowbanning. They cited terms of service and moderation principles. The rationales were usually vague, however, and their targets nearly always political enemies or free thinkers who complicated the official narrative. There were few standards, merely caprice. 

In 2020, they accelerated moderation efforts, placing warning labels on supposedly false views on Covid-19 and climate, two of the most complex topics imaginable. Google suppressed three eminent epidemiologists over their Great Barrington Declaration, which called for focused protection of the elderly and vulnerable, while keeping businesses and schools open. There’s lots of evidence the trio, and the 53,000 physicians and public health scientists who signed the document, were right.

Does dangerous and illegal content exist? Yes. Is there a place for moderation? Of course. Has Section 230, the law which undergirds moderation, inspired Internet innovation? Yep. But is Section 230 perfect? I don’t think so. Can web and content platforms deliver differentiable, pro-consumer value by curating the user experience? Absolutely. Apple, for example, uses its app store to encourage security, privacy, family-friendliness, and high quality. 

Big problems arise, however, when these firms claim universal standards and neutral terms of service, but then apply them opaquely or arbitrarily. Or even weaponize them against political opponents.

After both major app stores removed Parler on Friday, Amazon dealt a potentially fatal blow by giving it one day to vacate its AWS cloud servers. Other hardware and software venders, and even its lawyers, then fell in line with Big Tech and refused them service. Unsavory characters surely exist on Parler. But uniquely? No way. The Internet is full of people with awful, or merely wrong, ideas. 

It is top-down mistakes which are the most destructive. Bad decisions from politicians or, say, dominant content platforms scale unpredictably to millions of people. Censorship is itself a dangerous top-down mistake. Free speech and pluralism, on the other hand, help us learn and grow. Viewpoint diversity is the crucial error-correcting code of civilization, and a big reason the Internet is history’s greatest generator of wealth and knowledge.

Entrepreneurs are building (and millions of users fleeing to) alternative outlets, apps, and channels. That’s the genius of the Internet – unlimited space to innovate and choose. Bitcoin and crypto communities are just one important new path to decentralized independence.

As freedom-seekers launch their own websites, servers, and streams, the aggressive censors will hunt them, demanding cancellation everywhere along the communications stack, eventually reaching the core of the network. And then we will have come full circle. They will demand ISPs block, throttle, and erase. And that government, under the guise of net neutrality, enforce their truth. 

Facebook’s head of Instagram on Monday afternoon finally admitted it: “We’re not neutral.” Net neutrality was never about Internet freedom. It’s about information dominance. 

Bret Swanson is president of the technology research firm Entropy Economics and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

This article originally appeared at RealClearMarkets.

The technology solution to hysterical mythmaking

In an MSNBC interview on Monday, Steve Coll, dean of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, was contemplating a staggering dilemma. You see, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg “profoundly believes in free speech.” Coll said Facebook had performed a bit better in 2020 than in 2016 at suppressing inconvenient election content. But it still is not adequately policing the ideas of its three billion users. “And,” Coll continued,

those of us in journalism have to come to terms with the fact that free speech, a principle that we hold sacred, is being weaponized against the principles of journalism. And what do we do about that? As reporters, we march into this war with our facts nobly shouldered, as if they were going to win the day. And what we’re seeing is that because of the scale of this alternate reality . . . our facts, our principles, our scientific method, it isn’t enough. So what do we do?

Coll is puzzled that citizens aren’t more impressed by the mainstream media’s noble marshaling of facts and science (science!). Could it be that Americans are tired of actors playing roles in elaborately scripted illusions? That they instead prefer actual news and insight? An exploding new array of amateurs, subject matter experts, local reporters, and independent journalists, all leveraging the internet, are often delivering facts far more reliably than the old outlets. When the prestige media pumps and dumps fake conspiracy theories, moralizes over a complex pandemic, blacks out real scandals, collaborates with those it is supposed to cover, and forgets to report on an entire presidential campaign, people will look elsewhere for their information. Today, it’s often former portfolio managers, suburban mothers, lawyers, engineers, curious teenagers, and doctors who are telling us what’s actually happening. 

The powerful but cheap tools of the new citizen journalists are tweets, video streams, and podcasts. So, naturally, Coll and his colleagues of the Fourth Estate have been harassing technology and social media companies to erect a Silicon Curtain (as James Freeman of The Wall Street Journal dubbed it) between the American people and any content not slickly produced in Washington or New York. They’d prefer a social media which is just as incurious, herd-oriented, and partisan as they are. Differentiation is the enemy.

Silicon Valley has been far too willing to oblige. Thus disfavored people and content get shadowbanned, suspended, demonetized, and, most recently, scolded about the ironclad reliability of signature-less, address-less, mass-marketed, late-arriving mail-in ballots. “! Learn how voting by mail is safe and secure,” Twitter insisted a million times over. Twitter even suspended Richard Baris, the pollster who most successfully predicted the 2020 state-by-state election results. And on Wednesday, YouTube announced that going forward it will disallow all content questioning the validity of the 2020 election results. Will it let users discuss the Texas v. Pennsylvania suit in the Supreme Court now backed by at least 17 other states? Or the oral argument in the Supreme Court of Wisconsin scheduled for Saturday, December 12?

In 2005, former President Jimmy Carter and James Baker III issued an authoritative report on election integrity. They found that mail-in ballots are a chief source of fraud. International election monitors have long insisted that top indicators of fraud are stopping counts in mid-stream and prohibiting observation of ballot handling and counting. Yet suddenly the Silicon Valley tech firms became experts in election law, insisting greater information about elections is more dangerous than well-known risky behavior. The soothing new admonition might as well be: “Lamborghinis and whiskey are in fact a safe combination.”

The Silicon Curtain is frustrating, but it has backfired more than Big Media and Silicon Valley know. Not only have they lost hundreds of millions of readers,  viewers, and users — forever. They’ve also locked themselves in a Faraday cage of ignorance. One of the things they are most uninformed about is the hundreds of new tech channels and media outlets already challenging them, and maybe soon looking at them in the rearview mirror. 

As technologist and investor Balaji Srinivasan says, “exit > voice.” Meaning, the hope to be treated fairly by CNN, The New York Times, or Twitter is futile. Don’t fight on their battlefield, at least not exclusively. The far more fruitful solution is to exit and create new channels — with crypto communities, Substack newsletters, online magazines, the Brave browser, and video streaming alternatives such as Rumble and NewTube. (The outlet which regularly publishes my articles without question refused to run this one. Which is funny because it proves the point – exactly.)

This path is also more promising than a Washington solution. A clarification and upgrade of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to reflect unforeseen dynamics, for example, is warranted. Social media has perverted and exploited it. But throwing it out wholesale and reinstituting a “fairness doctrine” would be unwise. As I wrote last year,

Just as social media offers a Fifth Estate to correct and replace the corrupt and crumbling Fourth Estate, an open society can create a Sixth Estate to hold Big Tech’s feet to the fire. . . . No companies, news outlets, political parties, scientific organizations, or government agencies will ever be perfect. That’s why we need continual openness to an Nth Estate, which can help correct our inevitable commercial and cultural mistakes. A new Washington-based regime that seeks to regulate social media in particular and speech in general would do more harm than good. By cementing today’s regime, it would block the pathways to the Nth Estate.

One of our great remaining newsmen, Holman Jenkins of The Wall Street Journal, correctly laments that “the increasing substitution of hysterical mythmaking for news is a malignancy of our time.”

An Nth Estate of American openness, innovation, exit, and free speech is the solution. It is the regenerative vaccine.

The $540,000 camera in your pocket

Every couple years, we update our original 2014 blog post that asked the question, “What would an iPhone have cost in 1991?” The purpose is to measure — at least in a rough way — the progress of technology by looking at the components and features integrated in smartphones owned by billions of people. In past years we’ve focused on the three most basic (and easily measurable) components: computation, digital storage, and communications bandwidth. This time, we will also look at another revolutionary facet of smartphones: their cameras. As luck would have it, the digital camera story also has a beginning in our arbitrarily chosen year. 

In May 1991, Kodak unveiled the first digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera aimed at professional photographers. Called the DCS 100, it used the frame of a Nikon F3, but instead of film it contained a 1.3-megapixel Kodak image processor. It was the middle of the personal-computer revolution, and digital photography presented an array of at least theoretically attractive advantages over film and photo paper. Photographers would be able to capture, see, store, transmit, and manipulate digital photos — computer files composed of bits — far more quickly and easily. 

This future was promising, but Kodak’s early system was still clunky. The quality was nowhere close to its legendary Kodachrome resolution and tone, and storing photos proved cumbersome. The camera came with a shoulder-carried digital storage unit which contained batteries, a visualizer, and a 200-megabyte hard disk drive that could store 156 images without compression. At $20,000 a piece (nearly $38,000 in today’s prices), Kodak is said to have sold 987 units. 

The iPhone 12, unveiled last month, has three 12-megapixel cameras, which is 36 times the number of pixels of the original DCS 100. At $15,000 per megapixel, circa 1991, that’s $540,000 worth of photographic power in every smartphone. Of course, this most basic measure doesn’t begin to account for the radical improvements in image quality and a hundred other features that make today’s smartphone cameras far superior in many ways to the very best cameras of the past. Lots of professionals like to show how their smartphones can match the best DSLRs, like in this road trip through Scotland. Also, no shoulder harness needed. Right now, I’ve got 61,300 photos on my iPhone backed up to the cloud automatically and retrievable instantly via 5G wireless. 

The iPhone 12’s new chip, the A14, also offers nearly 50 percent more computing power. But the biggest jump this year is the addition of true 5G wireless capabilities that will, conservatively, triple wireless broadband speeds and potentially boost them 10-fold over the next couple years. 

Building today’s iPhone in 1991 would thus have cost at least $51 million, with $540,000 worth of cameras thrown in for free.

Back to Work, Back to School, Back to the Future

A lack of faith in the future. That could be the central problem with today’s perilous politics.

It’s an age-old dilemma because it’s far easier to tear down than to build up. Gravity and thermodynamics say so. For thousands of years, individuals or small groups struggled each day to to find food and shelter. Growing meant seizing land or treasure. Then the Industrial Revolution led to an escape from this zero-sum trap. 

Technology and creative collaboration unleashed a positive-sum explosion not only in living standards and life spans but also in the total number of humans and the rights they enjoyed. Suddenly, radically different futures were possible. This novel ability to think about the future then propelled additional waves of investment, discovery, and equality. 

Despite our riches, there’s evidence the rate of future-orienting activities has slowed in recent years. This downshift of constructive behaviors could be both a cause and effect of recent attacks on the American idea itself. If growth slows and opportunity recedes, many will question whether the system is fair. On the other hand, pessimistic zero-sum thinking can close off the vast opportunities of a collaborative, pluralistic society.

Americans aren’t moving from place to place or job to job like they used to. Geographic mobility is down. The rate of startup business formation has been falling for several decades, even for high-growth firms. As economists John Haltiwanger and Ryan Decker show, the rate of job reallocation – the sum of jobs created by expanding firms and jobs eliminated by shrinking firms – has also significantly declined. When fewer workers move toward more innovative firms, productivity and income growth slows. (See, for example, Leaving money on the table: Declining responsiveness and the productivity slowdown ; and What Happened to U.S. Business Dynamism?)

Smaller families could also be a sign of pessimism. Births per woman declined to 1.73 in 2018 from 2.12 in 2007, the biggest drop since the early 1970s.

Falling fertility and falling economic dynamism may be mutually reinforcing. Two essential inputs of child-rearing are health care and education, the cost of which has risen between two and four times the rate of inflation for four decades. Building human capital is increasingly expensive. Unlike other industries, health care and education have mostly resisted radical technological and entrepreneurial innovations which, in the rest of the economy, routinely deliver better products at lower prices. Throw in the rising cost of housing, another non-negotiable input, and children look like near term liabilities instead of long term assets. 

Before Covid-19 hit, we’d begun a modest multi-year economic acceleration, with higher productivity and wage growth spread more broadly across workers and industries. But the pandemic interrupted this mini-trend and once again blocked our view of the future. Extended lockdowns and school closures were based on a narrow, zero-risk mindset. A panic about daily survival turned into a medieval state of paralysis, superstition, and fury.

Today’s fashionable solutions to malaise could not be more counterproductive. Just like the failed economic collectivism of the 20th century, today’s woke-tivism is positively zero-sum.

Economic Marxism presumed permanent conflict between rigid classes of  workers and owners, between labor and capital. Neo-Marxism presumes a permanent conflict between rigid groups based on identity and ideology. In both narratives, for some to rise up, it must come at the expense of those on top. There is no cooperative interplay.

Last century, that meant seizing the means of production. Today, it means seizing the means of influence – in companies, schools, and the media, on boards, in politics and university admissions, and on platforms, from social media to index funds.

But the means of production and of influence are not fixed. The miracle of technology is that we can build new machines and companies far better than the existing ones. Or create new information channels and institutions which expand the ability to speak, learn, and organize. For everyone of any identity. 

The Internet’s ability to mitigate many of Covid’s worst effects is instructive. The pandemic-induced rise of telemedicine and remote education, although imperfect, is just a preview of the quality and cost revolutions coming to these previously impervious industries. Exploding information channels can expose corruption and injustice, find and fix elite errors, and help us stumble toward the truth.

Recommitting to the future, however, requires a basic agreement on bedrock American values, such as free speech and equal opportunity. The ferocious campaign to silence disfavored voices in all our institutions, especially on social media, is dangerous. The genius of the open society is that when the best ideas in science, business, and politics rise to the top, everybody wins.

Woke science, technology, and business won’t get us to Mars, cure Alzheimer’s, or harness fusion energy. Nor will it help us deter and win wars or find solutions to our most pressing social problems. It surely cannot generate the type of economic expansion which might support healthy families and broad-based income growth, helping us to pay our surging debts.

The Internet gives us history’s most powerful tools to collaborate and generate knowledge, wealth, and justice. But only if we allow the entrepreneurial, positive-sum, error-correcting codes of free speech and creative cooperation to flourish. 

My recent COVID-19 commentary . . .

Information is the key to defeating COVID-19

The chief constraints on the world are physical and temporal. Abundant information, however, helps us evade and sometimes conquer these facts of life. Without the internet, life in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic would be far nastier and more brutish, even more solitary, and shorter, too. 

Medical staff arrive with a patient affected by COVID-19 at a hospital in Liege, Belgium, March 23, 2020 – via REUTERS

In our current predicament, the fundamental shortcomings of space and time are amplified. SARS-CoV-2 can’t replicate without our cells and our proximity to each other. So we separate for a period longer than the viral lifetime. Yet our bodies need calories, and time does not stop for debts and rents to be paid. 

So we must buy time with information

Extreme physical dis-connectivity requires extreme virtual connectivity. The speed of the virtual scale-up has been impressive. Teachers have adroitly shifted to meet with 30 million school children online. Colleges the same. Zoom video conferencing has spread faster than the virus, and Microsoft Teams added 12 million users in just one week, growing by more than a third to 44 million. Communities are leveraging social networks to support neighbors in a crunch. The government is (finally!) allowing doctors and patients to use FaceTime and Skype for remote video check-ups. The American internet infrastructure has handled increased demand admirably, with internet service providers and mobile carriers adding capacity and suspending data usage limits. 

Not every activity can be replicated online, however. And so we call on the wealth generated by our information-rich economy. Cash infusions, liquidity, loans, and forbearance can smooth away the sudden halt of face-to-face work — at least for a time. Massive investments in hospitals and medical supplies will save many of today’s ill, and tomorrow’s too. Wealth in a very real sense is resilience

But wealth must be constantly regenerated. We can only rely on past productivity for so long. And so we must get back to work — as quickly as possible, in as many places as possible. 

From macro to micro

We must replace our crucial macro response with an equally crucial micro recovery. Our initial macro efforts were broad, blunt, and indiscriminate. And understandably so. We didn’t have enough information to finely tune closings and distancing for particular people and places, nor to support earlier, more comprehensive travel bans, which would have been even more controversial. God willing, our macro efforts will spare large parts of the nation from intense breakouts of the type ravaging Milan, New York, and Seattle. 

We need to think about the next phase, however. To fully support our heroic medical community in hard-hit places and vulnerable Americans everywhere, we must quickly reignite as much of the economy as possible. And we can only do so with better information. 

Our micro efforts to target people, places, and things, and to collect exabytes of data, will be central. Which people and places are safe to return to work and school? For that, we need widespread testing. Which travel routes are safe? Which hospitals need (or can spare) extra capacity and supplies? Which early off-label and experimental therapies are showing the most promise? What are the immunity characteristics of COVID-19? Who contracted it without knowing it? And how will these answers inform our immunity strategy for any second wave this fall?

Better information can support a strategy of smart engagement. Without it, blunt macro policies will prevent the agility necessary in the days ahead. These efforts will require a heroic scale-up of information gathering tools and ideas. Most of them will not come from government (which will need to play a supporting and coordinating role), but from private firms and organizations. 

The app-ification of medicine

We can launch a new era in radically decentralized personal medicine — for better individual health, an explosion in physician productivity, a research renaissance into new therapies, and far better public health surveillance. 

In the future, massive data will detect outbreaks and smash them early, and most of the world economy can go on while risk zones are isolated and treated. Surveillance does not mean government watching your sneezes or temperature. It means mostly anonymous data collection, perhaps by third parties who can detect outbreaks and issue alerts. The goal is not zero cases. Such a goal would turn the government into an authoritarian police state. To protect both public health and private liberties, this is going to have to be a true public-private partnership.

All these things will require the FDA, CDC, and other federal agencies to adopt a new ethos of innovation, or to get out of the way. It will not come naturally. But these events must shake us out of our dangerous complacencies: the CDC’s faulty and thus delayed test; the FDA’s initial resistance to off-label and experimental therapies; the FDA’s reported resistance to Apple incorporating more health sensors and apps into the iPhone and Apple Watch.

A new bio boom The ultimate information tool is our understanding of the genome and all the “omics.” Although young, computational biology and related fields are now advancing at an astounding pace. They helped decode SARS-CoV-2’s genetic sequence in record time and, God willing, will help deliver a vaccine in record time as well. These codes of life can, along with our information technologies, lead to healthier bodies and more invaluable time with each other.

This article originally appeared at AEIdeas.

A Plan for Anti-Viral Victory

Sensing despair in the moment, I outlined a path to recovery. Originally on Twitter . . . .

A PLAN for ANTI-VIRAL VICTORY — Leveraging information to overcome our physical and temporal challenges

Health & economy are intertwined. After much-needed adoption of major behavioral modifications, we now should prepare for pivot to Rapid Recovery. pic.twitter.com/46vlQIVWhZ — Bret Swanson (@JBSay) March 20, 2020

Prolonged economic paralysis will undermine crucial health efforts. We can creatively leverage our extraordinary broadband information infrastructure for much of the economy. But we should restart the physical economy in as many places as possible, as soon as possible.

Encouraging news that pharma firms are providing big supplies – tens of millions of pills – of off-label drugs (eg HCQ) that *appear* to be effective vs. Covid-19. More speed on more fronts will help immediately – AND set new innovation-tilting precedents.

We can also launch a new era in personal medicine, with massive data so that future outbreaks can be detected and smashed early, and so most of the world economy can go on while Risk Zones are isolated and treated.

Surveillance does not mean government watching your sneezes or temperature. It means anon data collection, perhaps by third parties who can detect outbreaks and issue alerts. The goal is not ZERO cases. Such a goal would turn the government into an authoritarian police state.

Our problems are chiefly physical and temporal. We can use information to mitigate some physical and temporal dislocations, and for those we can’t, we will call on the wealth of our info-rich economy to smooth away the viral lifetime.

A short-term silver lining can be a new focus on teamwork, shared humanity, and practicality over pettiness.

A medium-term silver lining could be speedier adoption by the physical economy of information tools that can make them more productive and creative.

A long-term silver lining can be a new commitment to radical bio innovation and a transformed (better/less expensive) health sector, an acceleration of the App-ification of Medicine.

McKitrick’s wisdom on the state of the climate debate

Must reading from the excellent environmental economist Ross McKitrick:

“The old compromise is dead. Stop using C jargon in your speeches. Start learning the deep details of the science and economics instead of letting the C crowd dictate what you’re allowed to think or say. Figure out a new way of talking about the climate issue based on what you actually believe. Learn to make the case for Canada’s economy to survive and grow.

“You, and by extension everyone who depends on your leadership, face an existential threat. It was 20 years in the making, so dig in for a 20-year battle to turn it around. Stop demonizing potential allies in the A camp; you need all the help you can get.

“Climate and energy policy has fallen into the hands of a worldwide movement that openly declares its extremism. The would-be moderates on this issue have pretended for 20 years they could keep the status quo without having to fight for it. Those days are over.”

Seizing the 5G mid-band spectrum opportunity

Tomorrow, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will hear testimony on one of the spectrum bands most important to the future of 5G wireless. Known as the C-Band, the frequencies are located between 3.7 and 4.2 gigahertz (GHz), which is a kind of sweet spot in the fundamental tradeoff between distance and data rates for all wireless technologies. The spectrum is perfect for the new 5G architecture, which will rely on hundreds of thousands or even millions of small cells, already popping up across the country and around the world.

Right now, however, this band is used by three satellite firms (Intelsat, SES, and Telesat) to broadcast video and radio content to cable TV and radio ground stations for further delivery via terrestrial networks to consumers. Technology is changing this market, however. Increasingly, video and radio content is delivered to distribution points via fiber optic lines, not satellite, and so the satellite firms are left with extra spectrum, and they’d like to sell it. Which works out perfectly. Because the mobile firms would love to buy it for 5G.

The spectrum is not only perfectly situated for small cell deployments, but there’s also a lot of it. Out of the 500 MHz total held by the satellite firms today, potentially 300 MHz could be auctioned to the mobile firms. To get an idea of how much 300 MHz is, consider that today in the U.S. the mobile firms operate their networks with a deployed spectrum total of only around 580 MHz. So the C band could more than double today’s mobile airwaves.

That’s great news. But moving this spectrum from one set of users and technologies to another can be tricky. A group called the C Band Alliance has proposed a novel mechanism where the satellite firms would, under the supervision of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), auction a big portion of the 500 MHz directly to the bidding mobile firms. They think the process of auctioning, repacking, and deploying the spectrum, along with necessary ground station and fiber optic upgrades, could be accomplished in two to three years.

Other firms, however, favor a series of incentive auctions run by the FCC. This second group claims the auctions could be done quickly. But that would belie all experience, where auctions this complex would likely take at least several more years, or more than double the time, of the C Band Alliance proposal.

It’s impossible to predict exactly how each proposal would work, and how long it would take. But given the importance of 5G to U.S. economy, at this point I favor speed, which means moving ahead with the C Band Alliance proposal.

For more on 5G, mid-band spectrum, and the economic implications, see some of our other recent items:

Filling the mid-band spectrum gap to sustain 5G momentum

Spectrum big bang points to promise of 5G wireless

Mobile wireless: A still under-appreciated economic miracle

If your content doesn’t appear on Google or Twitter, do you exist?

In the world of attention-getting, getting banished or downgraded on the world’s key attention platforms is frustrating. Or worse. The latest example is a claim of invisibility by Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard. She claims that after the June presidential debate, just as she was gaining steam from a solid performance, Google deactivated the ads she had purchased on its platform, blocking people from finding her content when they searched for her. 

In recent days, most of the claims of blocking, throttling, shadow-banning, and demonetization on digital platforms has come from conservatives. Gabbard is a progressive, but some wonder whether her status as an outsider – as many of the conservatives are – is even more central to the seeming trend of suppression. Gabbard is suing Google for $50 million. She says Google’s excuses for why it deactivate her account for several crucial hours, before reactivating it, don’t add up. Much of her legal brief is couched in the Constitution. 

To this non-lawyer, Gabbard’s complaint seems rather weak. At least legally. The First Amendment protects Americans from government encroachments on speech, religion, and assembly. The Constitution doesn’t guarantee citizens the positive right to be heard on private platforms. What’s more, the big tech firms enjoy their own First Amendment rights. 

And yet, just because Gabbard’s complaint is feeble with regard to the First Amendment doesn’t mean it lacks substance as an example of a very real problem on the Internet. The blocking and throttling of Internet data based on viewpoints may not violate the Constitution, but it does violate our sense of fairness and our idea of what the Internet should be – a generally free and open platform for communication and content. 

(more…)

Apollo, mankind, and Moore’s law

When Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins went to the moon 50 years ago this week, they had a large portion of the world’s computing power with them on Columbia and Eagle and behind them in Houston. One NASA engineer estimated that, between 1962 and 1967, the Apollo program had purchased 60 percent of all integrated circuits built in the US.

An image of the Saturn V rocket, which launched the Apollo 11 astronauts into space, is projected onto the side of the Washington Monument to mark the 50th anniversary of the first lunar mission in Washington, DC July 16, 2019 – via REUTERS

Today, however, that overwhelming proportion seems paltry in its aggregate power. The two Apollo Guidance Computers (AGC) onboard the spacecraft, for example, each contained 32 kilobits of random-access memory and 72 kilobytes of read-only memory. The AGCs had a primary clock running at 2.048 megahertz, and their 2,048 integrated circuits contained only several tens of thousands of transistors. They also weighed 70 pounds.

By comparison, today’s iPhone XS sports 32 gigabits of dynamic random-access memory, 256 gigabytes of storage, and a processor with 6.9 billion transistors running at 2.49 gigahertz. That’s a million times more memory, several million times more storage, and hundreds of millions times more processing power than the AGCs. All in a package one-hundredth the weight.

Even in the late 1960s, however, NASA had begun enjoying the early fruits of Moore’s law. As The Wall Street Journal noted in one of its many impressive articles on Apollo 11’s anniversary, “the first computer chips tested by MIT” — which built the AGCs — “cost $1,000 each. By the time astronauts landed on the moon, the price had dropped to $15 apiece. . . . It set a pattern of innovation, quality control and price-cutting that persists in the computer business to this day.”

In another article about the software team, which had to do so much with such limited hardware, The Wall Street Journal described the tense moments just before landing on the moon, when the mission was nearly aborted:

Neil Armstrong hovered a few miles above the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969, searching for a safe place to make history.

Only minutes of fuel remained to land the first men on another world. A power meter failed in Apollo 11’s cramped lunar lander. Communications faded in and out. Then, warnings began flashing: Program alarm. Program alarm.

Five times the onboard computer signaled an emergency like none Armstrong and crewmate Buzz Aldrin had practiced.

In that moment, the lives of two astronauts, the efforts of more than 300,000 technicians, the labor of eight years at a cost of $25 billion, and the pride of a nation depended on a few lines of pioneering computer code.

Read the entire article and the related content. And of course watch last year’s feature film “First Man” and this year’s documentary “Apollo 11.” Looking back, Apollo 11’s skimpy digital capacity only amplifies the engineers’ creativity and genius and the astronauts’ bravery. With today’s technical capabilities and a little of their vision and determination, who knows what giant leaps are possible?

This item was originally published at AEIdeas.

Deplatforming and disinformation will degrade our democracy

We spent much of the last two decades talking about ways to expand access to information — boosting broadband speeds, extending mobile coverage, building Wikipedia and Google and Github. But now that the exafloods have washed over us, with more waves on the way, many of our new challenges are the result of information overload.

In a world of digital overabundance, how do we protect our privacy and our children’s innocence? How do we highlight the important stuff and block the nonsense? How do we filter, sort, safeguard, and verify?

Information is the currency of a culture and the basis of learning and growth. The information explosion has enriched us innumerably. But if we don’t successfully grapple with some of the downsides, we will forfeit this amazing gift.

Two of today’s biggest threats are disinformation (the spreading of false or misleading content) and deplatforming (blocking access to or manipulating some information hub). Neither is entirely new. But in our networked world, both effects are supercharged, and they strike at the heart of our society’s ability to process information effectively.

The founders thought our democratic experiment required an educated and informed citizenry. The growth of our experiment, likewise, requires the ability to generate new knowledge, which, in turn, requires disagreement, debate, and creativity. Without a grasp of reality and good faith efforts to generate new knowledge, however, the system can founder.

Over the last two years, we heard much about foreign disinformation campaigns targeting the 2016 election. But we’ve now learned that many of these alarmist charges were themselves elaborate disinformation campaigns. Fraudulent documents were pumped into our law enforcement agencies and sprinkled across the government and media. The social media tools used in modest, mostly ineffective ways by Russian trolls were then repurposed in the 2017 and 2018 elections by American political groups posing as anti-disinformation scientists. The self-described investigators of disinformation have in fact become the purveyors of disinformation.

A rational response to spam, vice, disinformation, or mere poor quality is to filter, sort, and prioritize. Thus institutions of all kinds make legitimate decisions to carry or disallow content or activity on their platforms.

Apple, for example, keeps drugs, gambling, and sex, among other vices, off of its App Store. That’s a perfectly good strategy for Apple, its customers, and society. Platforms have the right to develop their own product and culture. Some form of gatekeeping or prioritization at some nodes of our shifting networks will always be necessary.

Our sense of fairness, however, is offended when a supposedly open platform makes arbitrary or outright discriminatory decisions. If, for example, a platform doesn’t want to host political or scientific discussions, fine. But when a platform pretends to host broad ranges of content, including political, social, and scientific debate, then we expect some measure of neutrality.

In the last few years, however, these hubs have increasingly been captured by political activists, their own internal ideologies, or go-with-the-flow fads. Social networks, content repositories, and now even payment networks are deplatforming content and people deemed socially unacceptable. Many of those kicked off the platforms are thoroughly despicable characters, for sure. But mainstream activists, academics, thinkers, and even rival platforms are increasingly getting blocked, shadow banned, or otherwise suppressed by, for example, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Patreon, and PayPal. In fact, disinformation campaigns are a common way that rival activists get the hubs to deplatform enemies.

These tactics aren’t unique to the internet, of course. Disinformation is as old as time, or at least human warfare. And deplatforming is an unsavory trend on university campuses and academic journals, which are information hubs of a sort. Networks, however, amplify the power of these tactics. And so the new strategy of ideological badgering can also be found, and is especially potent, at large network nodes. Thus BlackRock, the $6-trillion family of index funds, which owns large percentages of all publicly traded companies, has become one of the activists’ juiciest targets. Instead of heckling every public firm or pension fund to do their political bidding, the activists successfully lobbied BlackRock to establish a “Stewardship Committee” to enforce their views, thus gaining some measure of control over all public firms without ownership of the firms.

The most astonishing current case is perhaps the most dangerous. It involves the apparent abuse of the government’s most powerful and sensitive surveillance tools and databases – the ultimate information platform — by political actors for political ends.

One structural solution to the politicization of centralized incumbents is to build rival institutions and decentralized platforms. arXiv is an alternative to traditional academic publishing, for example, and alternative news outlets continue to proliferate. Crypto- or blockchain-based peer-to-peer systems may be another way of disempowering the politicized platforms.

The current digital platforms might still regain some measure of public trust by recommitting to political and scientific neutrality (and to privacy, etc.). If they don’t, however, rival platforms will only grow faster. Washington, meanwhile, will be even more tempted to step in to regulate who can speak, what they can say, when, where, and how. In a misguided effort to bolster outcast speakers, free speech, a foundation of our system and our nation, will in fact likely suffer.

Some information platforms, such as law enforcement and intelligence, however, will inevitably remain unrivaled and centralized. And here we need a recommitment to professionalism, nonpartisanship, adult judgment, and farsighted citizenship.

Instead, our leadership class over the last many years has been a profound embarrassment. Perhaps poisoned by information overdose, government officials, public intellectuals, and journalists in their 50s, 60s, and 70s have behaved like the worst combination of toddlers and teenagers, gullible and paranoid, narrow-minded and spiteful. Supposedly educated and civilized men and women go on years-long rants on cable TV, while straight news has descended to its least accurate point ever. The commoditization of “the facts” has paradoxically expanded the field for factless nonsense.

What’s worse, closing off the spaces for rational inquiry will only deepen the social vertigo and prevent the course corrections needed to regain our individual and social balance. Despite all the real technological solutions to the challenge of information overload, human leadership and loftier social expectations may prove most important. To regain our balance, we desperately need our powers of science and civic discussion. Hold the current bad actors accountable, yes. But then we need to deescalate. Be skeptical — and invite skepticism of ourselves. Curate platforms for quality, but do not spitefully or ideologically discriminate. Be tough but generous and open.

The country needs robust information tools to defend itself and promote freedom across the globe. By information tools, I mean not just our military and intelligence capabilities. I refer also to free speech, science, and our open society. We cannot survive if these awesome powers are politicized and polluted.

This post originally appeared at AEIdeas – https://www.aei.org/publication/deplatforming-and-disinformation-will-degrade-our-democracy/

5G wireless, fact and fiction

New wireless technologies, including 5G, are poised to expand the reach and robustness of mobile connectivity and boost broadband choices for tens of millions of consumers across the country. We’ve been talking about the potential of 5G the last few years, and now we are starting to see the reality. In a number of cities, thousands of small cells are going up on lampposts, utility poles, and building tops. I’ve discussed our own progress here in Indiana.

The project will take many years, but it’s happening. And the Federal Communications Commission just gave this massive infrastructure effort a lift by streamlining the rules for deploying these small cells. Because of the number of small cells to be deployed – many hundreds of thousands across the country – it would be counterproductive to treat each one of them as a new large structure, such as a building or hundred-foot cell tower. The new rules thus encourage fast deployment by smoothing the permitting process and making sure cities and states don’t charge excessive fees. The point is faster deployment of powerful new wireless networks, which will not only supercharge your smartphone but also provide a competitive alternative to traditional wired broadband.

Given this background, I found last week’s editorial by the mayor of San Jose, California, quite odd. Writing in the New York Times, Mayor Sam Liccardo argued that the new FCC rules to encourage faster deployment are an industry effort to “usurp control over these coveted public assets and utilize publicly owned streetlight poles for their own profit, not the public benefit.”

But the new streamlining rules do no such thing. Public rights of way will still be public. Cities and states will still have the same access as private firms, just as they had before. And who will benefit by the private investment of some $275 billion dollars in new wireless networks? That’s right – the public.

If cities and states wish to erect new Wi-Fi networks, as Mayor Liccardo did in San Jose, they can still do so.

I think the real complaint from some mayors is that the new FCC rules will limit their ability to extort wildly excessive fees and other payments from firms who want to bring these new wireless technologies to consumers. Too often, cities are blocking access to these rights of way, unless firms pay up. These government games are the very obstacles to deployment that the FCC rule is meant to fix.

Fewer obstacles, faster deployment. And accelerated deployment of the new 5G networks will mean broader coverage, faster speeds, and more broadband competition, which, crucially, will put downward pressure on connectivity prices, boosting broadband availability and affordability.

Mayor Liccardo emphasizes the challenges of low-income neighborhoods. But there are much better ways to help targeted communities than by trying to micromanage – and thus delay – network deployment. One better way, for example, might be to issue broadband vouchers or to encourage local non-profits to help pay for access.

This isn’t an either-or problem. Cities still maintain access to public rights of way. But one thing’s for sure. Private firms will be the primary builders of next generation networks. Overwhelmingly so. And faster deployment of wireless networks is good for the public.

This year’s Nobel for economics is a technology prize!

On Tuesday, the Royal Swedish Academy awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in economic sciences to two American economists, William Nordhaus of Yale University and Paul Romer of New York University’s Stern School of Business. Romer is well-known for his work on innovation, and although the committee focused on Nordhaus’ research on climate change, this year’s prize is really all about technology and its central role in economic growth.

Paul Romer, who with William Nordhaus received the 2018 Nobel Prize in Economics, speaks at the New York University (NYU) Stern School of Business in New York City, October 8, 2018 – via REUTERS

Romer’s 1990 paper “Endogenous technological change” is one of the most famous and cited of the past several decades. Until then, the foundational theory of economic growth was Robert Solow’s model. It said growth was the result of varied quantities of capital and labor, which we could control, and a vague factor known as the Residual, which included scientific knowledge and technology. The Residual exposed a big limitation of the Solow model. Capital and labor were supposedly the heart of the model, and yet technology accounted for the vast bulk of growth — something like 85 percent, compared to the relatively small contributions of capital and labor. Furthermore, technology was an “exogenous” factor (outside our control) which didn’t seem to explain the real world. If technology was a free-floating ever-present factor, equally available across the world, why did some nations or regions do far better or worse than others? (more…)

Indiana, center of the 5G wireless world (at least for today)

About 18 months ago, wireless small cells started popping up all around Indianapolis. The one pictured above is about a half-mile from my house. In addition to these suburban versions, built by one large mobile carrier, a different mobile carrier built a network of 83 small cells in downtown Indy. These small cells are a key architectural facet of the next generation of wireless broadband, known as 5G, and over the next few years we’ll build hundreds of thousands of them across the country. This “densification” of mobile networks will expand coverage and massively boost speeds, responsiveness, and reliability. Our smartphones will of course benefit, but so will a whole range of other new devices and applications.

Building hundreds of thousands of these cells, however, will require lots of investment. A common estimate is $275 billion for the U.S. It will also require the cooperation of states and localities to speed the permitting to place these cells on lampposts, buildings, utility poles, and other rights of way. And this is where Indiana has led the way, with a decade’s worth of pro-broadband policy and, more recently, legislation that’s already encouraged the deployment of more than 1,000 small cells across the state.

Today, Brendan Carr, one of five commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission, visited Indiana to highlight our state’s early successes – and to lay out the next steps in the FCC’s program to expand 5G as quickly as possible. Carr described the key components of his plan, to be voted on at the Commission’s September 25 meeting. The prospective Order:

  1. Implements long-standing federal law that bars municipal rules that have the effect of prohibiting deployment of wireless service
  2. Allows municipalities to charge fees for reviewing small cell deployments when such fees are limited to recovering the municipalities’ costs, and provides guidance on specific fee levels that would comply with this standard
  3. Requires municipalities to approve or disapprove applications to attach small cells to existing structures within 60 days and applications to build new small cell poles within 90 days
  4. Places modest guardrails on other municipal rules that may prohibit service while reaffirming localities’ traditional roles in, for example, reasonable aesthetic reviews

Carr emphasized that this new framework, which will bar excessive fees, will help small towns and communities better compete for infrastructure and capital. We know that wireless firms have to build networks in large “must have” markets such as New York and San Francisco, where millions of Americans live and work. High fees and onerous permitting obstacles, however, are particularly hard on smaller communities – often discouraging investment in these non-urban geographies. This new framework, therefore, is yet another important component of closing the “digital divide.”

Here’s video of Carr’s talk at the Statehouse.

Energy Market of 2030: The End of Carbon Fuels?

See our contribution, with 15 others, to an International Economy symposium looking ahead to the energy market of 2030: The End of Carbon Fuels? Here was our contribution:

The dramatic reduction in U.S. carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions over the last decade is, paradoxically, the result of the massively increased use of a fossil fuel—natural gas. The shale technology revolution produced so much low-cost natural gas, and replaced so much coal, that U.S. emissions from electricity generation have fallen to levels not seen since the late 1980s.

Over time, electric vehicles—and later, autonomous ones—could reduce the need for oil. But natural gas will only rise in importance as the chief generator of inexpensive and reliable electricity.

The Energy Information Administration projects that fossil fuels will still represent 81 percent of total energy consumption in 2030. Natural gas, EIA estimates, will be the largest source of electricity, generating between 50 percent and 100 percent more than renewables.

Sure, but don’t technology revolutions often surprise even the smartest prognosticators? Renewables have indeed been growing from a tiny base, and some believe solar power is poised for miraculous gains.

Despite real advances in solar power and battery storage, however, these technologies don’t follow a Moore’s law path. Solar will grow, but we won’t solve solar’s (nor wind’s) fundamental intermittency and thus unreliability challenges by 2030. Nor can we avoid their voracious appetite for the earth’s surface, a fundamental scarcity which environmentalists and conservationists of all stripes should hope to preserve. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos even dreams of a day when we move much heavy industry into space to preserve the earth’s surface for human enjoyment.

But shouldn’t we pay extra in land area (and dollars) today to avoid CO2’s climate effects tomorrow? Fear not. The latest estimates of the climate’s CO2 sensitivity suggest any warming over the next century will be just half of previous estimates and, therefore, a net benefit to humanity and the earth. Satellites show us that CO2 greens the planet.

Economic growth is the most humane policy today, and it opens up frontiers of innovation, including new energy technologies. Premature anti-CO2 policies can actually boost CO2 emissions, as happened in Germany, where ill-advised wind and solar mandates (and also nuclear decommissionings) so decimated the energy grid that the nation had to quickly build new coal plants. New nuclear technologies are technologically superior to solar and wind but remain irrationally unpopular politically. Emitting more CO2 today may thus accelerate the date when economical, non-CO2 emitting technologies generate most of our power.

What a coincidence! Maybe better policy can lead to faster growth.

It’s fascinating to see those commentators and economists, who insisted for nearly a decade that 2% was the best the U.S. could do, grapple with the apparent uptick in economic growth and improving labor markets. Secular stagnation, technological stagnation, financial recessions are different, better get used to the “new normal” – these were the explanations (excuses?) for the failure of the economy to recover from the Panic of 2008. Millions of Americans had permanently dropped out of the labor market, robots were taking their jobs, or (paradoxically) technology was impotent, an aging population meant the U.S. would never grow faster than 2% again, and a global dearth of demand meant the economy would be stuck for many years to come. Wages for most workers weren’t growing, and inequality increased because of monopolies or greed or . . . whatever – anything but a failure of policy to encourage growth. Only bigger government could restart the stagnating secular engine, but even then, don’t expect too much.

All of the sudden, however, we’re hearing stories of tight labor markets, and 2017 will likely exhibit the fastest growth for a calendar year since 2006. We think there are three key reasons for the 2017 uptick: (1) an abrupt cessation of the anti-growth policy avalanche; (2) dramatic policy improvements, such as wide-ranging regulatory reforms and a major tax overhaul; and (3) the beginnings of a tech-led productivity freshening.

As Adam Ozimek (@ModeledBehavior) writes:

It’s refreshing to hear a mainstream economist call out the massive failure of the last decade – a devastating “growth gap” that we’ve been railing against for many years (also, e.g., Beyond the New NormalTechnology and the Growth Imperative; Uncage the Economy; etc.). It’s more than a little odd, however, that Ozimek singles out for criticism several economists who were arguing that the economy could have been growing much faster, if we’d let it, and were suggesting policies that could help boost employment. Shouldn’t he specifically call out the stagnation apologists instead? Isn’t the “giant mistake,” as Ozimek calls it, the insistence the economy was growing as fast as possible and the arguments that diverted attention from bad policy, unnecessarily slow growth, stagnating wages, and a huge drop in employment?

Growth Gap - thru 3Q 2017

Many stagnationists are now searching for possible explanations for the nascent uptick. Some are looking toward a possible resurgence of technology and the idea that productivity growth might improve from its decade-long drop. Larry Summers says the apparent uptick is merely a “sugar high” that won’t last. But you can see many of the stagnationists labor to avoid any acknowledgement that better policy might be at the heart of economic improvement. (By the way, I’m thrilled that our tech-led “Productivity Boom” thesis is getting this attention. The recent converts, however, seem to say that a new tech-boom is now inevitable, when just months or weeks ago they said tech was over. I think the policy improvements of 2017 will accelerate technological innovation in many lagging sectors.)

It’s too early to know whether these encouraging signs are the beginning of a long-term growth acceleration. But it’s good to see lots of people finally acknowledge the depth of the growth gap and the higher innovative potential of the American economy.

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