Works In Progress
This week I helped launch a new online magazine called Works In Progress, along with my friends Saloni Dattani, Nick Whitaker, and Ben Southwood. Thanks to a grant from Tyler Cowen’s Emergent Ventures, we were able to have it designed by a fantastic agency and I’m really pleased with how it looks, as well as the brilliant content.
The idea is self-consciously retro: an online magazine with new issues every quarter or so, each loosely based on a different theme. This issue’s theme is ‘state capacity’ – the measure of how easily a state can actually do the things it wants to do. Mark Koyama has written the lead essay on state capacity and epidemic disease, and specifically the trade off between liberty and public health. The current problems that the United States has with Covid are not historically unusual, for example:
In 1900, the United States had a smallpox death rate 31 times greater than Denmark’s or Canada’s. The Soviet Union eradicated smallpox before America did. According to Troesken, often “the United States lagged in the eradication of these infectious diseases not despite being rich and free, but because it was rich and free”.
Studying smallpox, Troesken shows how America’s Federalism permitted local variation in the nature and enforcement of mandatory vaccination policies. In states with weak legal enforcement of vaccination laws, smallpox incidence was ten times higher than in states with strong enforcement. In the case of smallpox and other highly infectious diseases, a stronger central government capable of mandating and enforcing national vaccination policies would have resulted in fewer deaths. This is the tradeoff between liberty and public health.
Across countries, Troesken finds an U-shaped relationship between GDP per capita and smallpox rates in the late 19th century. Poor countries like China, Algeria and Egypt had the highest rates of smallpox. Rich and free countries like the United States, Switzerland, England, and the Netherlands had intermediate rates of smallpox whereas more centralized, relatively middle income states that had embarked upon compulsory mass vaccination programs like Sweden, Denmark, and Germany had the lowest rates of smallpox. On recent polls as many as one third of Americans claim that they will not avail of themselves of a vaccine for Covid-19.
I’m sad to say that Koyama’s essay is even more apposite now than it was when we first discussed doing it earlier on in the year, as the UK was in full lockdown and the disease was working its way across the United States.
As well as this, and fabulous essays by Anton Howes, Mark Lutter and Jeff Mason on the historical constraints on state capacity and the future opportunities for building new and more effective city-states, we have essays on the rise and fall of the industrial R&D lab, on the relevance of evolutionary biology to psychiatry, and (a personal favourite) an essay by Diana Fleischman on “practical veganism” – a hard-headed way of thinking about animal welfare as it relates to the way we eat. (I wanted to call this “veganism for meat lovers” – the tl;dr is that beef is the least bad meat on a per kilo basis.)
You should also read Saloni’s piece on Viktor Zhdanov, the Ukrainian virologist and Soviet health minister who was one of the key people behind the WHO’s successful campaign to eradicate smallpox. What appeals to me about Zhdanov and this effort is that it didn’t take a new technological discovery, it was a question of ambition and will, and is one of the most beneficial things to have ever happened to improve people’s lives. I love the little drawing of Viktor done for us by Eleanor Hyland-Stanbrook, who helped to design the website.
The aim of Works In Progress is not necessarily to be the house journal of “Progress Studies”, the systematic study of progress proposed by Cowen and tech entrepreneur Patrick Collison last year, although it may in practice grow into that if we are successful. Rather, I find that I am increasingly having the most interesting conversations in closed forums – private group chats and email chains that most people do not ever see. The basic aim of Works In Progress, for me at least, is to somewhat counteract that by putting some well-formed ideas that I have come across privately into a more publicly-available place, so more people can read and consider them.
Apple vs Epic
The Epic Games lawsuit against Apple is probably doomed, as my colleague Dirk Auer lays out here. But what about the question of what kind of rules we should have governing platforms like Apple’s App Store?
The most important question to me in these issues is whether the incumbent platform is doing something that is preventing valuable services from even existing. In the case of Epic, at least, it seems not – Apple’s cut is similar to that of the games consoles that Fortnite has thrived on. If that isn’t a risk, then it looks more like the dispute is about who gets what share of the pie, rather than about the total amount of output or innovation that consumers get to access.
And Apple has a very strong incentive to make sure that innovation and output are not being compromised by its fees. The best description I have read of the incentives that platforms have is in The Host’s Dilemma by Jonathan Barnett, who argues that there is a permanent trade-off between making a platform open to attract users on both sides (including developers and sellers) and regulating access to make money from it. To assume that the more open a platform is, the better, assumes away the incentives that platform owners have to build and maintain their platforms in the first place – yet Epic’s lawsuit, and that of regulators who are bringing in rules to regulate platforms to be more open than they would like to be, assumes that more openness is always a good thing.
But the quality (and, ultimately, profitability) of iOS as a platform matters a great deal – it’s one of the most important examples of “competition for the market” around, since the quality of your smartphone is so core to everything else you do online. And Apple is certainly not behaving like a company that is immune to competition – it is a world leading semiconductor designer and the new iPhone SE is priced aggressively cheaply, and is probably a better deal than almost any Android phone on the market (I speak as a lifelong Android user until switching to an iPhone 11 a few months ago).
If Apple would, in fact, start losing users if it stopped making as good a product (hardware and software combined, including the availability of good apps and games on the App Store), it seems likely to me that it has strong incentives to find the balance between closedness and openness that maximises the value of its offering to consumers. I have written on this kind of dynamic before, discussing the restrictions Amazon imposes on its own employees that are possibly a way of stopping itself from killing innovative companies that sell on its platform.
Other stuff by me
I wrote a piece with Dirk on recently released emails from 2012 in which Mark Zuckerberg appears to say he wants to buy Instagram to kill a nascent competitor. Our view: intent matters less than economics, and intent from 2012 tells us little about what we should do in 2020:
If we think that the Facebook/Instagram merger has been and will continue to be good for consumers, it would be strange to think that we should nevertheless break them up because we discovered that Zuckerberg had intended to do things that would harm consumers. Conversely, if you think a breakup would be good for consumers today, would it change your mind if you discovered that Mark Zuckerberg had the intentions of an angel when he went ahead with the merger in 2012, or that he had angelic intent today?
Rising profits in US manufacturing are associated with rising productivity rather than rising prices – more efficient firms are winning out over less efficient ones, and profiting as a result.
Saloni Dattani on when the first Covid-19 vaccines will likely arrive: by the end of March next year, she thinks, in line with Superforecasters.
The UK’s GDP figures overstate the size of the contraction a bit compared with other European countries, because of how we measure output in education and health.
I’m travelling at the moment, and I’ve found Quies’s wax earplugs to be the best I’ve used. They’re disposable, but can be reused quite a few times before you throw them away. Since I am deaf in my right ear, I get twice as much use out of a box as most people, but they’re still good value even accounting for that. My thanks to Geoffrey Gray for the recommendation.