ErickBall

I am currently a nuclear engineer with a focus in nuclear plant safety and probabilistic risk assessment. I am also an aspiring EA, interested in X-risk mitigation and the intersection of science and policy.

ErickBall's Comments

C19 Prediction Survey Thread

Update: it is the evening of April 7th and the latest data from plague.com has the US death count at 12,846. It looks like we'll hit 15,000 on the 9th probably, so I was a tad pessimistic. People have been talking about how new infections are slowing down and they think everything will peak in mid-April, but I don't see much reason to believe it. The trend continues much the way it was before.

Transportation as a Constraint

If transportation isn't a problem then transporting water/sewer/energy over long distances would presumably also be cheap, so buildings could share infrastructure without being colocated, right?

An alarm bell for the next pandemic

It would be nice if we had somebody who specifically agreed to check sites like that regularly and then let the rest of us know if there's something worth being concerned about. That way we could avoid duplication of effort.

What will happen to supply chains in the era of COVID-19?

Are those government-owned warehouses of grain like the ones Kaj mentioned in Finland? The US used to have a strategic grain reserve, although it looks like at the time it was liquidated in 2008 it had only 915,000 tons of grain, which would feed the country for... not even a week.

Requiring businesses that sell non-perishable food to store a few months' supply sounds reasonable, but I'm curious if other places have used that approach successfully. I know groceries are a low-margin business to begin with.

What will happen to supply chains in the era of COVID-19?

Pushback against just-in-time supply chains sounds appealing, but how would it actually work? Is this something we can regulate, maybe make grocery stores go through stress tests like the ones we do for big banks? Somehow I have a hard time believing practices will change.

C19 Prediction Survey Thread

May 1st prediction:

US deaths: lognormal(11.4, 0.5) mode: 69k -- this is roughly equivalent, per capita, to what Italy is at currently (March 30th). Therefore it assumes the current growth will slow considerably. 15k is not even on the radar. I expect we will hit 3000 today, and 15k around April 7th.

US confirmed cases: lognormal(15, 0.7) mode: 2 million. This is more uncertain because it largely depends on how fast we ramp up testing.

Price Gouging and Speculative Costs

Ah, okay. I guess that answers my question: you don't think it's possible to mitigate shortages by stockpiling without losing money in expectation. I wish it were--surge production is a much more tenuous solution that depends on being able to foresee a disaster shortly before it occurs, and even then it might not be possible to produce enough to help significantly.

Price Gouging and Speculative Costs
You're also in a morally worse spot - you run the risk that you are creating or amplifying the shortage, not just predicting and smoothing the consumption of rapidly-value-changing products. If you aren't solving the problem given in the post (you could make more, but not at your normal prices), you're not as clearly on the side of good.

I don't follow. The idea would be that you aren't contributing to the normal supply, you just stockpile in case of future emergency. This increases production during normal times slightly, and then when there is a pandemic you would stop purchasing and start selling. This reduces the need for manufacturers to produce more at higher marginal cost. How could it create or amplify a shortage?

It's true you'd have no profit prior to the emergency (and large costs) but in theory that shouldn't matter as long as your investors diversify.

Price Gouging and Speculative Costs

Is there a way to do this if you're not already a manufacturer? With, say, N95 masks--could we buy up a bunch of regular ones when there's no shortage, do something that costs a little money and adds a tiny bit of value (maybe print cute pictures on them for doctors who wear them around little kids) and then mark them up 900%? I mean, I don't have money to buy them with, but if stockpiling really makes economic sense then I'd think we could get investors to front it.

How do price gouging laws apply to discounted products? If we almost always offer an 80% discount, can we stop offering that during an emergency?

ETA: to be clear, masks are just an example. They would not be a good choice in the future because after this pandemic governments will actually stockpile them. We'd need to figure out what there's likely to be a major shortage of in the NEXT global emergency.

Authorities and Amateurs

It said the fraction would be a bit lower for the US because local outbreaks could be dealt with by state-level lockdowns, but I didn't see a hard number. Still, intermittent lockdowns for 18 months seems much more achievable than a continuous lockdown. The Hammer article is definitely more optimistic than the Imperial paper, though it still doesn't quite imply "return to normal".

Since "do nothing" is not a real option, what will actually happen in the US (I'm moderately confident) is some degree of lockdown for several weeks to several months depending on how effective it is. The sooner we start it the better it will work. After that we will either: 1) give up, if the lockdown was ineffective and a large fraction of the country is infected (this is "flattening"), or 2) if the lockdown succeeded in reducing the number of cases substantially, we'll move into a period of intermittent and possibly localized lockdowns interspersed with trying to test and contact trace. The fraction of time we spend in intermittent lockdowns will depend on how effective the testing and tracing is.

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