Covid 9/29/22: The Jones Act Waver

The pandemic is over. Long live the Public Health Emergency.

HHS is set to extend the Covid-19 public health emergency by its standing deadline of Oct. 13. 

If renewed on the deadline of Oct. 13, the next deadline would be Jan. 11, 2023.

This would make for the 11th renewal of the PHE since its declaration in January 2020 by former and current HHS secretaries Alex Azar and Xavier Becerra, respectively.

The renewal would occur as HHS plans to shift costs of Covid-19 vaccines and treatments to the commercial market, a process beginning this fall that is expected to take months. 

Hospitals have advocated for the PHE’s extension.

There can be no clearer proof of the abuse of an emergency than extending it after publicly declaring that it is over.

Executive Summary

  1. Covid is over but somehow also still an ‘emergency.’
  2. Potential new treatment for Covid doing well in clinical trials.
  3. Some people will continue to do way too much prevention for a long time.

Let’s run the numbers.

The Numbers

Kansas reported 476 deaths, of which I removed 400 as a presumed backlog.

I decided not to remove the 12,098 positive tests in Hawaii, although I am skeptical.

Prediction from last week: 330k cases (-9%) and 2,600 deaths (-8%).

Result: 316k cases (-11%) and 2,813 deaths (-2%).

Prediction for next week: 290k cases (-9%) and 2,750 deaths (-3%).

Mildly surprising not to see a larger decline in deaths.

I saw claims in my feeds earlier this week that we were seeing increases in cases in New York and other Northeastern states as new strains take over. The numbers don’t back that up and we continue to not see anything scary on that front.

Predictions

Deaths

Cases

BA.2.75.2

The contrast between how BA.2.75.2 and other recent variants are being covered and noticed, and how previous strains that grew at similar rates were being covered, is striking.

This certainly does have a lot of signs of big trouble (paper).

Thing is, the paper said that BA.2.75.2 had ‘profound escape’ yet it is being outcompeted by a different strain, BF.7, which is a substrain of BA.5.

Optimistic Chise thread on the study on Omicron boosters from last time.

Bloom Lab thread on another study, showing B-cells more ready for Omicron 6 months out than 1 month out from a shot. New information has updated me towards Omicron boosters being a modestly better deal than expected.

Physical World Modeling

Japanese Covid treatment drug shows promise in Phase III trial (Reuters).

More study evidence that bivalent boosters work just in time for new strains to take over and throw the whole thing into question again. In humans, even, and overcoming worries about ‘original antigenic sin.’ While the new shots may or may not be worth the side effects, we continue to get corroborating evidence that they work.

The argument that healthy people shouldn’t use Paxlovid to ensure a mild case because they won’t then develop sufficiently robust immunity. I can’t imagine the math possibly working out there, even if the argument is fundamentally sound, and this is essentially gloating that a particular person got infected again while there is a new strain emerging that evades past immunity.

CDC no longer recommends universal masking in health facilities. If you call for any other gathering to have universal masking, you are saying it is a more risky setting than health care facilities, that you want to be actively more risk averse than the CDC on this, or that your rule is not about preventing Covid-19. Probably all three.

Another note of frustration with the stream of misleading Long Covid studies. Even when done right Long Covid studies have a super hard statistics problem to solve in order to be meaningful. Instead we get the same zombie claims over and over again.

Zeynep Tufecki has a thread as well.

Cutting some stuff out for length.

It goes on for a bit after that. Whole area is a disaster.

Survey confirms health care workers show increased levels of emotional exhaustion.

Important not to lose sight of a third of nurses having this problem before Covid. That is already super high and a bigger sign of problems than the increase later.

Latest air filtration review finds student performance falls by up to 13% when carbon dioxide concentrations rise from 600ppm to 1000ppm, and by 24% at 1800ppm. Percent performance is such a strange metric. What does it mean?

Does it mean we might actually take action?

Manifold Markets prediction market here. I would love for this to happen. I mostly despair of it happening on anything like this timeline.

Keep Summer Safe

Kelsey Piper points us to a thread by Lazarus Long (in profile: #MasksForAll) about the extreme lengths some people will go in the name of preventing Covid-19.

The thread is fun and scattershot, so figured I’d put the whole thing in for those who are curious.

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The HVAC and air quality stuff is all good, this is about the other stuff.

There are some very nice hints here about what is going on.

  1. We have the SAG back-to-work agreement, which mandates extreme protocols.
  2. We have productions which would shut down on a positive Covid test.
  3. We have the banks making such precautions conditions of insurance.
  4. Because there would be a shutdown on a single positive Covid test.
  5. With a lot of Covid tests. I’d be worried about false positives, even.

Does all of this make financial and other sense?

In any remotely normal situation, of course not, it’s would all be completely insane.

It’s all crazy expensive in time, money and annoyance, as they all can attest. Yet some people are worried that by not filming in masks they are ‘modeling unmasked behavior.’ The thread author thinks that these actions prove everyone else should be doing this stuff too, or at least some important portion of it?

Yes, these people are ‘modeling’ unmasked behavior, they absolutely are, as they should be, that is what the rest of us now call ‘behavior.’ Or we might call, together with not doing all the other things, ‘not being insane.’

The reason for all these precautions is that these situations are not at all normal. Nothing about show business is quite normal. It’s crazy town. Always has been.

Given you are in crazy town, with the super high cost of talent and super high cost of any delay, does all of this make sense?

That depends on another given. Given you are going to have to test and react to any test by shutting down production?

Quite possibly yes, a lot of it does then make sense. Once you have voluntarily imposed these humongous costs on everyone when someone tests positive, then you need to go to additional crazy lengths to prevent it. The real benefit of Covid-19 prevention, these days, is often preventing other Covid-19 prevention that would be even less convenient, or the risk thereof.

Whereas if you were free to do reasonable things, the risk profile looks different.

Other parts of this look like pure crazy town. Acting has been marked as a ‘this is crazy town where everyone has to act crazy with regard to Covid’ the way that universities got that designation. A virtual audition because of Covid for a relatively minor part? Sigh.

Of course, if the union insists, there is not much one can do about it. We shall see what changes when that agreement expires. Union might stop insisting.

Similarly, a lot of this is always about blame avoidance. If lack of such precautions means you would be blamed for such an incident, why take that risk?

To me this is a picture of an alternate timeline we could have lived in, if certain Public Health people got their way. Stuck in crazy town, in Permanent Midnight, indefinitely. We should be grateful that this did not happen.

Don’t Look Back

Noah Smith does a post-mortem, which is largely gated.

Arnold Kling does a post-mortem. To summarize:

  1. Vaccines: Great on fast development + OWS, should have done challenge trials.
  2. Appalled by lack of scientific curiosity, e.g. we never tested if Covid-19 could spread via surfaces. Still haven’t checked properly.
  3. Trump: Bad grade, chose Fauci, Brix and Public Health over Scott Atlas.
  4. Teachers’ unions: Awful for insisting on remote learning and masks.
  5. Colleges: Awful, overreacted, shouldn’t have charged full price for remote.
  6. Affective polarization out of control.
  7. Media gets bad grade for inaccuracy. Florida > New York, reported other way.
  8. Politicians used crisis for more power and more spending. Should not have done any “stimulus,” caused inflation.
  9. Would have endorsed 2-week lockdown early on at the time, would not in hindsight endorse it now.
  10. We need discussion of declarations of public emergencies, and when leaders violate their own rules.
  11. Public and press have been too forgiving. Call for inquiry commission.
  12. Praise for only a few individuals, of whom only Scott Atlas had any power.

Kling is not one to grade on curves. I appreciate that. Our civilization’s institutions did not handle things well and it is right to call them out on that. It is important to notice what an adequate civilization would have done and how far we failed to live up to that.

I would be less inclined to think in terms of grades and blame, and to think more in terms of what we learned about the functioning of various institutions.

In terms of particular disagreements if I was giving out grades:

  1. I would dock Trump for different reasons than those listed, and would emphasize that he did Operation Warp Speed. Many counterfactual others would not have done it. OWS was the most important decision of the pandemic. I don’t think Trump had the skills and power to go much faster than he did or to take on Public Health more effectively than he did.
  2. There was definitely too much stimulus done, some of which was hindsight and some of which was knowable. I do think that zero stimulus was not a real option.
  3. I would put more emphasis on the FDA and CDC’s failings relative to the bad grades listed, and was surprised by the omissions especially the FDA.
  4. I would give out good grades to private non-vaccine decisions in general. Our media and government and Public Health experts failed us. Given that, private decision making was remarkably good with the important exception of vaccine hesitancy. Businesses and individuals navigated the situation well, adjusting their behaviors as conditions and information changed.

In Other Covid News

Thread on reporting on Long Covid.

Health Trek 3: The Search for Paxlovid. I keep seeing stories like this. The medical system does not want most people to be taking Paxlovid, and will do its best to run them around until they run out the clock.

GM forced to quickly walk back plans to require workers to return to office. You give people a little two year taste of freedom and suddenly they don’t want to go back.

Tufts University requires all community members to get bivalent boosters by Dec 2.

Another potential reason not to mask: Send the right message.

Don’t actually let that stop you, if you have strong other reasons to mask in a situation.

For her, of course, it will never be over.

Yeah, that’s… not going to stop.

To what extent is using an argument lookup table to argue for vaccination, or anything else, lying? To what extent is it not lying while still that which we call ‘being a condescending asshole’? The debate continues. For this particular table, it’s definitely that second thing. The first depends on implementation details.

This example detail isn’t quite lying, exactly. It’s still anti-convincing.

Zeynep Tufecki, Bob Cumming and Walid Gellad expressing continued frustration at having to constantly respond to the same misleading VA Long Covid studies.

I feel her pain.

FTX Future Fund: Change Our Mind

The FTX Future Fund is announcing substantial prizes if they can be convinced to change their core opinions on AGI timelines and/or AGI risk.

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They say this link (reviews of it) best explains their current thinking on potential loss of control. It is clear that the FTX and Open Philanthropy thinking on these questions are both aligned and highly correlated. The author of the report linked to says they have updated their chance of catastrophe by 2070 from ~5% to more than 10% since the publication of the report, which puts them substantially higher than FTX’s implied estimate but remains within their threshold bounds.

My timeline probabilities are within the FTX model’s bounds and they seem conservative. I would be surprised if anyone claimed a big prize for those, in either direction.

My probability of conditional doom – of P(misalignment x-risk|AGI) – is much higher than their 35% upper bound. In my model, anyone who has numbers like 15% here does not understand the problem we are facing. That said, I have no idea how to write something that would be convincing here to someone who has looked at existing arguments, fully considered them, and remains unconvinced.

Thus, although I think FTX’s position is wrong, I expect the prize here to be unclaimed and believe that the market on this is trading too high as of when I first saw it at 29%, although correctly higher than the other prizes. I also think it is reasonable to think there is a shot they will be convinced that AGI timelines are short, while I also predict that I would probably not be convinced by the argument in question. Central hub for such Manifold Markets here.

That is not to say that I think the prize of $1.5 million is too small, as conditional on it being won, often it will be awarded to work that would have been done anyway, and it is not clear that a lot more money would be a lot more motivating especially on this tight a timeline. It is, of course, a tiny fraction of the true value of the information.

That is also not to say that I believe the contest is unfair or of the ‘you must prove the queen is not a lizard’ variety, merely that given what has already been tried I do not see a path to victory.

These prizes seem much more likely to be awarded. I’d put the chance of at least one $200k prize at maybe 40% as I do think the money is motivating.

If anyone thinks that I should be attempting to write something to claim this prize, I believe that you are wrong. If someone was willing to fund an attempt at my happy price, of course, I would be willing to do that, and to pass along any prizes won.

(Narrator’s voice: No prizes were won.)

Bad News

The results are in on the FDA’s NyQuil chicken intervention, it went exactly as you would expect except worse and maybe this should be a lesson to everyone involved?

California knows if your kids are all right on the latest test. It is refusing to tell you.

Reminder: New York public schools are legally required to hold active shooter drills (aka ‘traumatize students for no reason’) and to not alert parents that this is going to happen even when the principle clearly agrees that this is what they are doing.

California has two ballot initiatives that would legalize sports betting. Both are private attempts to grab the associated rents. Proposition 26 gives the monopoly on it to Indian casinos. Proposition 27 gives the monopoly to the bigger sports betting companies by requiring they first be legal in ten other states. Also both are ballot measures, which have proven a truly terrible way to do anything, so for overdetermined reasons I urge all to vote NO on both propositions. This reinforces my ballot initiative principle in California, which is to vote NO on every ballot proposition that isn’t a repeal of a previous ballot proposition, in which case I would vote YES. If California wants to legalize sports betting, or do anything else, it can pass a bill.

From NYT: It is impossible, due to a combination of land costs, government regulations and fees, taxes and tariffs to build an affordable ‘starter home’ that costs $200k or so, even in relatively low-cost places.

There are a lot of fixed costs here that are government imposed, which in turn are a lot of why the land is so expensive. Local areas intentionally block such development, which is why my model says that the solution will need to involve interventions at the state or federal level. There is also a lot of confusion here about what are costs and what are benefits, and why we would want someone buying a ‘starter home’ instead of renting an apartment or part of a house.

Interest rates are a big deal when taking out a mortgage.

The whole dynamic here is deeply screwed up on so many levels, and for those asking the one challenging the EMH why isn’t he rich I would say he does have a 2.5% 30-year fixed rate mortgage. Thanks, government, for effectively taking the other side of that trade. If cost to own a house has effectively doubled in a year, what happens to rent?

People have strange intuition that pain is so many orders of magnitude more important than joy.

What’s bizarre is that more people prefer to do the pain first. If the argument was ‘a hundred years of max pain would leave you a husk that wasn’t you’ or ‘given discount rates and not trusting things 100 years is too long to wait’ then sure. Instead, it gets even worse if you instead have to worry about the pain at the end.

Good News, Everyone

Alzheimer’s drug slows (27%) disease progression for the first time. Scott Gottlieb offers his take.

Polymarket has a prediction market on whether Kalshi will be allowed to have election prediction markets. Doing solid volume, the version on Insight Markets got very run over . I wrote a letter in support of Kalshi’s application, as it seems did many in SV. No matter what they did or didn’t do to their competitors, a decision in Kalshi’s favor here opens the door for such markets generally. That’s what matters.

Inflation looks to be slowing down, also I find it fascinating that we simply have no idea how such calculations work or what the answer is going to be.

It is also nice to know the risk-free interest rate on such platforms.

Study that is presumably too smart for its own good claims you can never be too smart for your own good.

More evidence that I am not too smart for my own good, as it is clear that I did not get a perfect score on my AP Calculus AB exam.

Wealth also helps you, in particular helping people evaluate their lives more favorably (via Tyler Cowen + Robin Hanson).

Income predicted self-regard emotions as strongly as it has been known to predict life evaluation. Hence, having more money makes people feel more proud, contented, and confident and less sad, afraid, and ashamed, but does not affect whether they feel grateful, caring, and angry.

Feeling grateful is one of the few known technologies for having a happier life, and the rich have extra things for which to feel grateful, so this is a periodic reminder that people are in general making a mistake here by not feeling more grateful. If you’re rich, take that as one more opportunity.

Holden Karnofsky thanks his Beta Readers, who give feedback on drafts. I usually do not use this tactic given the way I write and the timing of posts. When I do have the opportunity and share early Google Docs, it is almost always a very good use of time. If you are interested in seeing early drafts sometimes or otherwise offering feedback on working documents, please do reach out and share details on what most interests you. Letting me find the right answer via posting the wrong answer privately rather than publicly is great, and that is only the error checking aspect. Often I find the discussions on the Google Documents to be very good, on average far better than comments, I think for multiple reasons.

Fun short story called The Redaction Machine, by a friend of mine. How would you use the machine? Characters in the story barely scratch the surface of the options available. It is a remarkably deep question because one must ask what is being maximized, and what in life has what costs and what benefits on what timelines. The situation also greatly rewards those with superior decision theory. Oh, the experiments I would run.

Lizzo plays James Madison’s 200-year-old crystal flute at a concert.

Was it worth it to risk the flute this way? There is no market for the flute and she was not charged market price (or at all) to use it so we do not know. We do know it brought wonder to many, perhaps some interest in our history or in more interesting music, so it had big positive externalities. Others got to be mad about the use of the flute and Have Thoughts. Seems likely improved a lot of people’s days and net raised the value of the government’s flute collection. There may have been some rolling in graves, but my guess is there wasn’t. Plus it strikes a blow against other far more destructive forms of historical ‘preservation.’ This improved my life. Two thumbs up.

How many #1 fans do you have?

Good advice from my latest follow.

Other people are also trying to uphold the true spirit of the internet.

Subreddit Discriminates Against Anyone Who Doesn’t Call Texas Governor Greg Abbott ‘A Little Piss Baby’ To Highlight Absurdity Of Content Moderation Law

Send to the Balsa Research Department

Washington Post endorses Manchin’s permitting deal, says deal is good for solving climate change. If a group that says its goal is to stop climate change opposes this bill, it is safe to assume its primary goal is something else. On the other hand, Republicans are open to negotiating on this later, and this could plausibly improve the bill.

And yet, Manchin folds on permitting reform for the moment. Couldn’t get the votes. I worry about the game theory of never being willing to risk being on the verge of a government shutdown. Is he losing his edge? There is still hope for the lame duck session.

Biden announces new rules requiring airlines to display their various ludicrous additional fees. Under an equilibrium where customers search on price with these fees hidden, the airlines charged tons of additional fees. Change the equilibrium, and they will presumably change their pricing to be more transparent. In practice I expect this to be quite good. Super high change and cancellation fees lock people into decisions that no longer make sense, and this should help mitigate that, assuming it is implemented well.

Student loan forgiveness, or at least the up front forgiveness, less regressive than I expected, although this understates the level of regression.

US immigration system is essentially non-functional, has no appointments available for over a year, visas can’t be renewed, no one can go home and no one can visit.

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It’s not only New Dehli.

Belgium shuts down Doel3 nuclear power plant.

WSJ complains that Manchin’s permitting reform ‘includes some marginal improvements that will benefit renewables but creates new regulatory risks for fossil fuels, which is the opposite of what he promised.’ An interesting contrast with the opposition to the bill, whose essential argument is that the only thing that matters is that no one must ever be allowed to ever build anything and this bill increases the risk that someone might build something.

The insanity that is the Santa Cruz housing market, even worse than SF. Prices seem lower than I would have expected given conditions, and everything gets snapped up right away, so yes, still too low. I firmly believe zoning has to be mostly solved at the state or federal level at this point.

Help is on the way elsewhere in the state, at least. California signs its big zoning reform into law (substack post).

I continue to be amused by the fight between different unions, balancing ‘there will be more work and unlimited demand for union labor at union prices’ with the danger that once they had hired every union member someone else might be permitted to work.

It looks like this in practice.

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I wonder if this will increase opposition to roads and highways. If you want to have cities, you’ve got to build roads. If they will use the road to force you to build a city, the next logical step could follow.

This caps off 40+ laws ‘signed to increase housing production’ ‘and access’ this legislative session alone in California. The list is at the link, at least some count.

The parts where restrictions are curtailed are great. Then there’s the subsidies.

Governor Newsom also announced $1 billion in awards to 30 shovel-ready projects through the California Housing Accelerator – creating 2,755 new homes for Californians.

That’s $363,000 per home, versus a $863,390 average state home price. Seems like a lot.

I suppose that when such projects build ‘affordable housing’ it is because it is sufficiently lousy that no one is willing to pay unaffordable prices for it, and the state is picking up construction costs.

Versus the claim that the other changes, which don’t cost this kind of money, will create millions of new units instead of thousands. That is a huge deal if true, enough additional housing for >1% of the entire American population if it is built in places people want to live.

There’s also the state’s investigation of San Francisco.They investigated the housing situation, and they did not find any housing.

New York City moves to allow the building of slightly more housing. It’s a start.

Which is odd, given the huge number of self-proclaimed liberals and progressives saying exactly those two things continuously for quite some time now. If we want to pretend that never happened and send it down a memory hole, I am down.

Until then, here’s some New York suburbs with a full ‘moratorium’ on all new housing construction. I do appreciate the honesty, as well as the proposal in the comments to cut off train service in response.

Thoughts on how to fix the problem of student loans. The core thesis here is that the bulk of the problem and bulk of the loans are at private colleges, for-profit colleges and graduate programs. This seems correct. The proposed solution is to divide our current system into three distinct systems.

For public colleges, the proposal is to pay states $5,000 per student to make 2-year colleges free, and $10,000 per student to make 4-year colleges ‘affordable’ with a small sliding scale up to $5k/student based on income. At that point I’d ditch the complexity and make the whole thing free (and increase the compensation to states to match). The Pell Grant program would be maintained.

One worry with such proposals is that such a heavy subsidy to public universities makes it exceedingly difficult to make the math work for private universities. Public elementary and high schools have this effect, where they effectively face little private competition in many places and most parents can’t afford to pay for both public school (via taxes) and also private school via tuition, especially non-religious private schools. The Ivies and other elite universities would be fine. The less good ones, not so much, so the question is whether we should care.

The other worry is that we would be even more heavily subsidizing college. Do we want to do that? If college was free then those who did not go would get punished that much more. We’d be forcing more and more people to run in place in a signaling contest, so the question is what percent of college is signaling and especially what percentage of it is that to the marginal student.

I am a big fan of job training programs in principle, but they should be able to pay for themselves out of the students’ future income without the need for loans, and encourage income sharing agreements here. That would be enough if they weren’t facing heavily subsidized college competition plus heavily legally encouraged discrimination in favor of college graduates. Given those two things are present, there is definitely risk of undersupplying such programs if we don’t subsidize them. I am willing to bite the ‘let that happen and fix it elsewhere’ bullet here, and the post seems to mostly agree.

The graduate schools are where the biggest problem lies, and where the new repayment systems are going to create by far the largest boondoggle.

Liz Truss, the new Prime Minister of the UK, announced a budget with a bunch of regressive tax cuts that don’t make economic or political sense to anyone, plus some incremental deregulation that could most reasonably described as weak sauce. This has made a lot of people very angry, and is widely regarded as a bad move. The polling is ungood. The huge reaction to it in the currency markets has confused Paul Krugman (although he is no fan), it confuses Tyler Cowen, and it confuses me as well. If the update is that Liz Truss is an incompetent moron and thus the UK is doomed, I mean, yes, well. Better late than never on the uptake. Yet it seems like there were some earlier clues. Dominic Cummings, who offered some of those earlier clues, such as calling her a Human Hand Grenade and then her taking it as a complement, has more.

The Bank of England responding with emergency QE, on the other hand, to protect the illusion of the solvency of pension funds, does seem to be rather ominous especially when paired with threats to its independence.

We Should Take Spices From One Port and Ship Them to Another Port

At some point I will write my full piece (and peace) on the Jones Act to go alongside my writing on the Foreign Dredge Act. This is not that post, as I want to get it fully right, have all the right links and sources, and so on. In the meantime, the Jones Act was sufficiently in the news this week acting even more destructive than usual that it seemed necessary to say something quickly.

As in:

We should also take diesel fuel from one port, and unload it at another port. We should especially do this when there was a hurricane and the destination desperately need diesel fuel.

Yesterday, after several days of waiting, the Biden administration finally issued a waiver kindly allowing a ship to, as a favor, unload its badly needed diesel fuel in Puerto Rico.

This is the port director explaining what the situation was while they waited for that decision. Or to be keep it even simpler:

As of Wednesday morning, 335,000 customers in Puerto Rico — more than a fifth of the island’s residents — were without power, the Department of Energy reported.

One might think this was not a controversial position. One would be wrong.

Biden faces pressure to waive restriction as ship idles off Puerto Rico coast

The president faces a challenge as he simultaneously tries to make good on two pledges: To be the most pro-labor president in history and to provide Puerto Rico with whatever it needs to recover from a devastating hurricane.

This was quite the dilemma. You can allow people to have what they need to recover from a hurricane, or you can continue to ban shipping in the name of being seen as union friendly. Tough decision.

The physical situation was that there was a ship. Containing fuel. Idling off the coast of Puerto Rico. As a favor it was willing to unload and sell this fuel and even wait a few days before leaving in an attempt to do so, despite having applied for its waiver a week beforehand. Then, if no waiver was given, it would have left.

People in Puerto Rico desperately need this fuel in the wake of a hurricane. But if unloading is illegal, which it would have been without a waiver, there was nothing to be done. The ship, you see, was not American-built, American-manned, American-owned and American-flagged. Thus, using it to deliver fuel is illegal under the Jones Act.

After Trump allowed such ships to deliver supplies in the wake of a previous hurricane, Congress quickly moved to prevent that from happening again so easily, cracking down on broad wavers to prevent such abuses from happening again.

White House officials said the Biden administration did not have the authority to simply suspend the Jones Act in Puerto Rico, citing a law passed by Congress in 2020 to crack down on broad waivers. Local officials said Biden had the power to issue one-time waivers that could still provide much-needed, temporary relief, but an administration official said that any exception would require careful consideration to ensure it is legal.

None of the few remaining Jones Act compliant ships were remotely near Puerto Rico, and there was no sign of any such ship attempting to ship in fuel at any price. Meanwhile, the usual suspects defended their monopoly even during an emergency in which they had nothing for sale.

Labor unions, which have been among Biden’s strongest supporters, have opposed efforts to weaken or waive the Jones Act, including after natural disasters.

The American Maritime Partnership — a coalition that represents operators of U.S.-flagged vessels and unions covered by the Jones Act — wrote a letter to Mayorkas on Friday explaining why the Jones Act should not be waived in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona.

The group said that domestic vessels were ready and available to support the recovery effort in Puerto Rico, with more than 2,000 containers positioned in the port of San Juan to provide supplies before the storm. The group’s president, Ku’uhaku Park, said that U.S.-flagged ships are providing Puerto Rico with essential goods for its recovery, adding that waiving the Jones Act would benefit foreign shippers rather than Puerto Ricans.

“There is no indication that American shipping capacity is insufficient to meet demand, and, therefore, no justification for a waiver of the Jones Act,” he said.

Seth Harris, who until recently served as the top labor adviser at the White House, said granting waivers to foreign-flagged ships once they arrived could create a “gigantic loophole in the Jones Act,” because it is impossible to prove that American ships would not have been available after the cargo has already reached its destination.

The logic is something else. Puerto Ricans are running out of fuel. Letting them acquire this fuel ‘would not benefit’ them and somehow would erase thousands of jobs (and also, that’s it? Thousands of jobs, total, for all of our within-nation shipping? Sounds like we mostly don’t have any.) There ‘is no indication that American shipping capacity is insufficient to meet demand’ when there is no remotely nearby American shipping, no move by American shipping to provide supply, every year less and more expensive remaining ‘American shipping’ left, and we know all this because every remaining such ship can be marked on a map there are that few of them left.

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You have to love this claim that that Jones Act does not impact fuel shipments to Puerto Rico ‘at all’ because it gets its fuel from non-American sources. Which presumably is a claim that without the Jones Act, Puerto Rico still wouldn’t get its fuel from American sources? And also implies, of course, that zero American jobs would be harmed by getting a Jones Act waiver here on this, since nothing would change.

Note that we can get Jones Act waivers done in a day, as we did it in 2021 when the colonial pipeline went down. I hear it helps when your votes count. Larry Summers had some thoughts the day before the waiver was issued, some of which are important going forward, and I choose to allow and appreciate the all-caps at the end.

WSJ also had thoughts. Grid had thoughts. American Action Form has thoughts. Cato of course has all the thoughts, here is one of them. Scott Lincicome shares this thoughts constantly, here is his latest. Bloomberg keeps having thoughts.

Senator Menendez had contrary thoughts, you see, what we should do is ‘kick the ass of the energy companies to get the energy on for the people. They have the money to do it.’ That’ll… show ‘em? What would they even spend the money on? How does this lead to the fuel moving from one port to another port?

And there’s this claim that foreign companies allowed to ship goods from American port to American port would enjoy ‘oversized profits,’ and that needed relief if granted a waiver would somehow be unable to offload and thus continue to ‘idle off shore’ as if that had any bearing on the situation, and that ‘even occasional waivers would undermine the reliability of our supply chains.’

It is true. With occasional waivers, sometimes the supply chain would work.

Not that we had a supply chain at all in this case. Or in most other cases, other than ‘trade via other nations to avoid the Jones Act.’

The supposed goal of the Jones Act is to strengthen American shipping. It has been around for a century and we no longer have American shipping.

The Jones Act ships remaining are so pathetic, at this point, that America has given up on the idea of taking things at one American port, loading them onto a ship, and then sailing that ship to another American port and unloading the goods. That is no longer a thing.

Meanwhile we had several days of this happening, and I have no doubt the delay cost quite a bit of real world suffering:

“We have a ship full of diesel in the south waiting to enter the island. It’s right there, waiting for us — if they give us the waiver we’ll import it right away,” Hernández said. “A lot of people need oxygen, a lot of people need water, a lot of people need help … It’s really scary.”

What is most nuts about this whole thing is that the unions are wrong about the Jones Act.

I do not mean the unions are acting destructive and frankly evil about this.

I am not disagreeing with that statement. The mustaches, they be twirling.

What I mean, instead, is that the unions should, for selfish reasons, not want this.

Ports are unionized, through and through. The more activity takes place in the ports, the more union jobs there are for port workers. The more shipping can take place within the United States, the more we put domestic union production in all industries in position to compete against foreign production. The more we grow our economy and the pie, the more bounty exists for unions to share.

Trading all of this to get union workers on the ships would make sense if such ships continued to exist and they continued to ship things. They almost entirely don’t. There is little left to protect.

On top of that, once again, the ports are completely unionized. The unions could still ensure that American shipping use American union labor, by doing something they do often enough already, and refuse to load and unload the ships that are not playing ball.

Alternatively, if we had no other options, we could get rid of the American-built requirement, buying the shipyards off with military contracts if needed, while keeping the American-manned requirement, or even making it explicitly union-manned. Union labor is not cheap, but the money does go to American workers and compared to the cost of needing American-built (and American-flagged) ships my understanding is that it is chump change.

The Jones Act is not all bad. It does one very cool thing, which is to be the perfect version of itself. The Jones Act lives its best (worst?) life. It gives us an avatar to embody every completely insane protectionist principle, of requirements and regulations run so far amok on something everyone who is not against humans agrees is good (shipping things between our ports) that the targeted activity is effectively banned. Where there has been a one hundred year test of the law’s hypothesis, in which it has been found to cause the exact opposite effect of what its advocates claim.

Fun example: We are about to scrap a military tugboat built in the Soviet Union.

Here’s a fun thread that discusses a remarkably large percentage of the remaining Jones Act compliant fleet. This one is especially good.

It does not get less bizarre after that. The list is full of stories of ships that are operating decades after they would normally have been scrapped, that needed individual congressional in order to operate, that did every possible alteration in a foreign shipyard because American shipyards have been effectively destroyed for all competitive purposes by the Jones Act shielding them from competition.

If you want absurdity upon absurdity on this and like (in this case relatively young) men yelling into the void or at clouds demanding that we stop hitting ourselves, then Colin Grabow is your man. I hope he finds the joy in all this as often as possible.

Building Jones Act ships costs more than triple the world price.

Politico notes that this means shipping costs a lot more money:

Because Puerto Rico is an island, the Jones Act can cause the price of consumer goods to be higher than in other areas, since nearly everything needs to be imported, POLITICO previously reported.

An estimate of the magnitude here says about $1.5 billion/year annually, which is passed on to customers. That’s about $500 per person per year.

If you were not on an island, would cutting off one means of shipping in a similar way cause your prices to also go up? Burn a lot of carbon? Clog your highways? Advantage foreign production over domestic?

Thus the Jones Act is the perfect test.

If someone or some group supports repeal of the Jones Act, you know that somewhere in there is the desire for things to be better rather than worse. If someone opposes repeal of the Jones Act on reflection, they are not primarily concerned with things being better rather than worse. If they oppose emergency Jones Act waivers on reflection, what else do you need to know about them?

Or perhaps they are a Senator and ask ‘who is Jones?’

We had seven members of Congress willing to call for a waiver. That was not many.

Meanwhile, you can pattern match arguments defending the Jones Act, which are always Obvious Nonsense and amount to (1) ‘how dare you take away our giant subsidizes that also don’t exist’ as in (2) the Jones Act has no effects on prices whatsoever and also getting rid of it would devastate American shipping and (3) ‘we need good American Jones Act ships for an emergency, please ignore that the entire existing fleet is both shrinking and completely useless in an emergency.’

They’re basically doing this, except not only for the emergency, and on a loop:

Meanwhile, Jones Act advocates then defend other similarly senseless laws on principle. The principle being defended is ‘we get what we want no matter the damage to America. Narrow interests will always beat broad interests in a democracy, so keep paying up.’

This effect is explicit on the Dredge Act and Maritime Passengers Act. It is harder to know the extent that this alliance of interests reinforces itself across less obviously linked interests, where there is no line between one cause and another other than politically successful special interests. The answer seems to me to be quite a lot.

For some reason, this past week, together with Moshe Looks and Alyssa Vance, I founded Balsa Research.

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15 Responses to Covid 9/29/22: The Jones Act Waver

  1. Ninety-Three says:

    I think colleges were completely correct to continue charging full tuition. It’s an insane proposal if you assume college is about learning anything, because Zoom class is obviously a much worse experience. But if what people care about is the diploma, that’s going to be the same no matter what classroom you sit in.

    How did enrollment fare? The numbers I’ve seen are that it’s only down ~7% from pre-pandemic levels, which makes it seem like the optimal point on the Laffer curve is full price or *maybe* a couple-percent discount.

  2. Anonymous-backtick says:

    My intuition is that “me after a million years of joy” is a different enough person that his going through 100 years of intense pain doesn’t have much impact on me. Basically I’d think for a long time about Yes, Yes but end up picking No, Yes.

  3. Basil Marte says:

    “I wonder if this will increase opposition to roads and highways.”

    Since it’s keyed to the number of lanes on the road in question, sure, it will make “road diets” more popular on the margin. E.g. turning a 4-lane into a 3-lane reduces the buildable form from 3-story walkup apartments to townhouses.

    From the department of silly suggestions: would it be legal for the non-Jones ship to, say, lend the fuel to the Puerto Rican port authority or whatever, go on its merry way, and a few months later (after other ships have filled up the store) come back for “its load” that was “stored” ashore in the meantime? “Your honor, I wasn’t transporting stuff on net so the Act shouldn’t apply, and it’s not my fault that the port authority shorted my commodity.”

    “If you were not on an island, would cutting off one means of shipping in a similar way cause your prices to also go up? Burn a lot of carbon?”

    Yes. I’m on a continent (Europe). Cutting off one means of shipping (pipelines) caused my prices to go up severalfold (energy), and caused excess carbon emissions (coal-fired plants). And allegedly getting American forests cut down in order to be pelletized, shipped over and burned.

  4. Ninety-Three says:

    I do not know the structure of American unions, is staffing shipyards controlled by the same union that staffs the handful of Jones Act-compliant ships? If not we have an obvious explanation for why the unions do not selfishly opt to sacrifice a few ship jobs for many shipyard jobs: they’re not the same entity, and it would be illegal for the dockworkers to buy out the shipworkers.

    • TheZvi says:

      Unions have various umbrella organizations, but yes they often do go against each other (e.g. California’s YIMBY fights were often between different unions). Still, there are various ways to get the (very few) shipworkers ‘bought off’ here. For the Dredge Act you don’t have to do that because the contracts mean they’d have more work rather than less work. For Jones you do need to worry about the shipbuilders a bit more – ideally you’d simply compensate them with navy contracts for a while, plus the repairs on all the vessels that are now actually coming over time, maybe a subsidy for a while. Ship workers aren’t an issue because they’d be fine.

  5. magic9mushroom says:

    >My probability of conditional doom – of P(misalignment x-risk|AGI) – is much higher than their 35% upper bound.

    Thanks for saying this; it got me to reread their definition of AGI and note that it specifically says TAI deployed. I thought the number was reasonable mostly because of the scenario “the technical capability exists to build superhuman neural nets and hand over the entire economy to them, but people realise this is dumb and will get everyone killed and therefore don’t do it”, which is not allowed by the specifics of their condition.

    May take

  6. A1987dM says:

    > Biden announces new rules requiring airlines to display their various ludicrous additional fees. Under an equilibrium where customers search on price with these fees hidden, the airlines charged tons of additional fees. Change the equilibrium, and they will presumably change their pricing to be more transparent. In practice I expect this to be quite good. Super high change and cancellation fees lock people into decisions that no longer make sense, and this should help mitigate that, assuming it is implemented well.

    Sometimes I do want to spend as little money as possible and am okay with not being able to choose my seat or check in at the airport, not take any more luggage than a laptop bag under the seat in front of me, not being able to reschedule my flight, and so on. If websites are forbidden from allowing me to search which flight is cheapest under these circumstances, they will be less useful to me.

    • TheZvi says:

      My understanding is you are still going to see things sorted by lowest price by default, and it is definitely still fine to do so, they simply need to also include the other costs in the fare description. Might decrease density of the information you want but should be a minimal hit.

  7. J says:

    This seems like your jam:

    Memorial honors victims of imminent dam disaster (Onion)

  8. scorchgeek says:

    Minor link issue: The link for “Scott Gottlieb offers his take” is about Niemann and Carlsen rather than Alzheimers.

  9. hapablap says:

    ” air filtration review finds student performance falls by up to 13% when carbon dioxide concentrations rise from 600ppm to 1000ppm, and by 24% at 1800ppm. Percent performance is such a strange metric. What does it mean?”

    There’s no shortage of literature showing that carbon dioxide reduces performance.

    And then there is this study, https://bmcinfectdis.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12879-021-06056-0 which sticks a cannula in people’s noses to measure CO2 ppm while they wear various masks, and finds that a typical mask wearer is inhaling 25,000 ppm of CO2, or right on the OSHA 15 minute exposure limit.

    If the studies that find decreased performance at 1800ppm are legit, mask use which raises that to 25,000ppm should have enormous negative effects. Is that what we see in reality?

  10. hilitai says:

    All of the tweets from entertainment industry people on how their manically hard-core anti-COVID efforts had kept anyone from getting COVID on set made me think about how I’ve taken no precautions at all for the past 18 months and also never gotten COVID.

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