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Posts from April 2020

GiveDirectly COVID-19 relief funds: New York City, Las Vegas, Detroit, Kenya, and more

Follow-Up to GT-2020-03-25: GiveDirectly has set up an emergency relief project to directly assist low-income families impacted by Covid-19 in the United States and GT 2020-04-09: GiveDirectly has begun its international Covid-19 emergency relief project in Nairobi. You can provide direct cash assistance to informal-sector workers affected by the pandemic and government disease control measures.

GiveDirectly is organizing a massive direct cash-relief project to assist low-income families affected by novel coronavirus disease and by emergency travel controls and economic restrictions. In addition to the general U.S. and international emergency relief response funds which I posted about over the past month, they are also now setting up regional response funds, to target relief to low-income families in 14 hard-hit metropolitan centers in the U.S. and to informal-sector workers living in extreme poverty around Nairobi, Kenya.

They accept credit cards, PayPal, checks, wire, stock transfers, or cryptocurrencies (bitcoin, ETH or XRP). I had some old bitcoin sitting around that’s appreciated quite a bit, so I’m using it to support these GiveDirectly funds:

If you’re not familiar, here’s more information about GiveDirectly and an independent, measurable-output based evaluation of their programs.[1] Updates about all their programs, Frequently Asked Questions about Covid-19 donations, operations, and Emergency Cash Response are available on the GiveDirectly page.

  1. [1]Evidential Note: From November 2018. The evaluation does not, of course, speak to their new Covid-19 emergency relief programs. However, it does discuss the operations and effectiveness of several of their existing direct cash assistance programs, which have traditionally focused on relief of extreme poverty in the developing world.

Minor Notes on Pet Peeves in Journalistic Language

Man, I don’t know about you, but I listen to a lot of NPR, and I sure am exhausted at living in a moment.

Or living in a series of Moments. I feel like someday someone will make a series of period pieces about the 2010s and early 2020s and the previews will all start with a booming Voice of God narrotor announcing: IN A MOMENT… where all our assumptions about daily life are turned upside-down…

Could it be the subways? (Follow-Up to Is epidemic Covid-19 much worse in New York and New Jersey than everywhere else? If so, why?)

Follow-up/What I’m Reading: Back in late March, I had a post on questions about Is epidemic Covid-19 much worse in New York and New Jersey than everywhere else? If so, why?. This is follow-up to that post based on a new paper that’s related to one of the questions I was wondering about: Could New York and New Jersey be more severely affected than the rest of the U.S. because of population differences? Well, maybe. … You might want to look not only at densities but at other features of how those populations go about and live their lives; for example, New York is unusual within the United States not only in having a very dense population but also in having extremely high levels of transit and subway usage within the inner city, unusually low rates of car ownership per household and per capita, etc.

The follow-up here is that Jeffrey Harris, at MIT, thinks that the effect in New York City may be due to transmissions of infection within the subway system. Here’s an NBER Working Paper draft of a paper by which argues that The Subways Seeded the Massive Coronavirus Epidemic in New York City. It’s very new (written in mid-April 2020), and it’s an NBER Working Paper off-print, so it has not been peer reviewed. The paper is an observational study, which is based on observed correlations among subway ridership, subway line locations within New York City, and hotspots for detected coronavirus cases within New York City. Well, maybe. Anyway, here’s the abstract:


New York City's multitentacled subway system was a major disseminator – if not the principal transmission vehicle – of coronavirus infection during the initial takeoff of the massive epidemic that became evident throughout the city during March 2020. The near shutoff of subway ridership in Manhattan – down by over 90 percent at the end of March – correlates strongly with the substantial increase in the doubling time of new cases in this borough. Maps of subway station turnstile entries, superimposed upon zipcode-level maps of reported coronavirus incidence, are strongly consistent with subway-facilitated disease propagation. Local train lines appear to have a higher propensity to transmit infection than express lines. Reciprocal seeding of infection appears to be the best explanation for the emergence of a single hotspot in Midtown West in Manhattan. Bus hubs may have served as secondary transmission routes out to the periphery of the city.

Jeffrey E. Harris
Department of Economics, E52-422

Shared Article from NBER Working Paper Series


New York City's multitentacled subway system was a major disseminator – if not the principal transmission vehicle –…

Jeffrey E. Harris @ web.archive.org

To be fair, the paper does not make much attempt to test whether subway lines explain disease transmission more than any other lines of pedestrian or vehicle traffic through the city, but for robustness he does also draw on some indications, drawn from press reports, that the prevalence of detected Covid-19 infections among MTA subway workers may be extremely, disproportionately high.[1]

If Harris is correct, it would help to explain the situation within the greater New York City MTA network, although of course it leaves to be explained the situation in the rest of New York State and New Jersey. The sections on unintended consequences (discussed as ironies of policy responses, e.g. on pp. 15ff) and on possible suggestions for, so to speak, removing the pump handle within the subway system as restrictions ease and ridership begins to tick back up, are both interesting and suggestive.

(Reference to the paper thanks to Chris Sciabarra (2020/04/23).)

  1. [1]Harris claims in this section that It is hard to imagine any plausible explanation for these workers' losses except that their place of work was the principal source of their coronavirus infections and that the high prevalence of detected Covid-19 among MTA workers turns out to be the clincher that transportsus from correlation to causation; I think it’s a really interesting and suggestive paper, but these claims are surely far too strong. You don’t have to be too imaginative to dream that MTA workers might be more likely to get tested than other people in New York City; they might be more likely to get infected simply because they have been continuing to work in public places, not because they’ve been working in the subway in particular, etc. You would need to compare MTA workers not to zipcodes but to other groups of essential-business workers who have been continuing to work in public places over the last month, and to gather some kind of information about any differences in rates of testing, etc.)

Into something new and strange! — Lead out unbroken song

To-day in the world of Greek and Roman Myths, stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses are usually carried off, willy-nilly,[1] and dropped into mythologickal source-books to be read as stand-alone tales. Or they are redeployed as background stories for building the world of modern fantasy novels. So it goes, and there are plenty of instances in which this is done well and we’re all the richer for it. But the Metamorphoses itself is written as a single epic poem — or a sort of one, anyway. The Iliad sings the rage of Achilles over a few weeks of the ninth year of the Trojan War; the Odyssey and the Aeneid tell or sing of a man and his wandering over the course of years. Metamorphoses promises to tell of the theme (altered forms, new bodies) in unbroken song from creation of the universe to the narrator’s own times in the days of Caesar Augustus.

Here are the opening four lines of Metamorphosis, Book I in their original Latin.[2]

In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas
corpora; di, coeptis (nam vos mutastis et illas)
adspirate meis primaque ab origine mundi
ad mea perpetuum deducite tempora carmen.

The opening is hard to translate directly into English. Latin is a highly inflected language: grammatical roles within a sentence are determined mainly by word-endings, not by word-order (as in English or modern Romance languages). So you can arrange the same words into all kinds of different orders without losing the meaning of the parts.[3] Latin poetry exploits unusual, inverted, infixed or interspersed word orders much more than Latin prose does, and Ovid especially loves to do this in the Metamorphoses, whether for rhetorical effect, or just for the hell of it. Here’s a word-by-word breakdown of the Latin:

prep.adj., neut. acc. pl.v., 3d sg. pres. act. ind.n., masc. nom. sg.part., perf. pass., fem. acc. pl.v., pres. act. inf.n., fem. acc. pl.
[into][new][carries off][mind]
[soul, spirit]
[changed, altered][4][to tell, to speak][forms, shapes]
n., neut acc pl.n., masc voc plperf. pass. part., neut dat plconjpron., 2d pl accv., 2d pl perf. act. ind.[5]conj.pron., fem acc pl
[things begun]
v., 2d pl pres act imperadj, neut dat pladj., fem abl sgprepn., fem abl sgn., masc gen sg
[breathe upon]
[blow on][6]
[my][and also the first][from][origin][of the world]
prepadj., neut acc pladj., neut acc sgv., 2d pl pres act imperadj., neut acc pln., neut acc sg
[to, toward][my][unending, continuous][lead out][times][song]

The word order makes it impossible to translate word-for-word into grammatical English — the first two words, In nova… agree with the last word of the opening clause, corpora, and wrap around the rest of the sentence;[7] fert animus… dicere (a mind carries me off to tell) is interspersed with, or shuffled into, mutatas… formas (altered forms). A word-for-word translation would be gibberish:

Into new– it carries (me) off, a mind does, of altered things, to tell– forms–
Bodies! …

Here’s a prosy sort of translation, going clause by clause, that tries to get the literal meaning into grammatical English:

In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas
corpora; di, coeptis (nam vos mutastis et illas)
adspirate meis primaque ab origine mundi
ad mea perpetuum deducite tempora carmen.

A mind carries me away to tell of forms changed into new bodies; o gods, as you have changed both yourselves and others, breathe upon my undertakings, and from the first beginning of the world, to my times, lead out an unbroken song.[8]

In my prosy translation we lead off with a mind, a mood, my soul, at the very start, but in the Latin poem animus is right in the middle of the line. To keep up with English grammar, the easiest thing to do is to sacrifice Latin word-order. But the word order in the Latin is important. Classical epics have a topic, a subject that they tell or sing, often introduced in the first word or the opening few words of the poem.[9] The topic of the Metamorphoses is In nova… (corpora) that is, Into new (bodies)! — or if we grant the effects of the long break (down to the next line) before we find out that the nova are in fact corpora, you might think of it as Into something new… This won’t make for a fluent sort of poem, but if we try to translate poetically into units that preserve something like the order in which the opening introduces its themes, word by word, at the cost of some grammatically necessary repetition, we’d get something more like this:

Into something new —
a mind carries me off to tell —
of shapes so changed into new bodies;
o Gods, these things I’ve begun–
for You have changed Yourselves, and others too–
Breathe upon my works–
and from the first beginning of the world,
to my own times
lead out an unbroken song.

Let’s try to put some of all that together into a roughly line-by-line verse translation. I’ve tried to keep some indication of places where the poet uses word order for an effect.


In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas
corpora; di, coeptis (nam vos mutastis et illas)
adspirate meis primaque ab origine mundi
ad mea perpetuum deducite tempora carmen.

Invocation: Into Something New and Strange

Transformed! A mind takes me, — to tell of figures changed into new
bodies. Gods, — You transformed Yourselves, others too, — so breathe
upon the things I have begun: from the world’s first beginning,
without pause through to my own day, lead out an unbroken song.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve got in my notebook. What do you think? How would you handle these lines?

All the original translations that I post to this blog are freely available in the public domain.

  1. [1]And often first edited to taste, or to bring them into conformity with details taken from other stories that the re-teller knows from Homer, or Vergil, or Bulfinch’s.
  2. [2]I got the text from P. Ovidius Naso, Metamorphoses at the Perseus Digital Library; they transcribed the text from Hugo Magnus’s edition of 1892 (Gotha: Friedr. Andr. Perthes).
  3. [3]puella amat puerum and puerum amat puella both mean the same thing, but the girl loves the boy and the boy loves the girl do not. Puella is in the nominative case, so it must be the subject of the verb whether it comes before or after. Puerum is in the accusative, which in this sentence indicates that it is the direct object of the verb, even if it comes before.
  4. [4]Or moved, mutated, different, successive.
  5. [5]Syncopated form, short for mutavistis.
  6. [6]Often said of the gods or of winds or sea, to indicate favor or providential encouragement.
  7. [7]You can tell nova is intended to modify corpora because they agree in case, number and gender (neuter, plural, accusative). Corpora is in the accusative because it is governed by the preposition In, which means located in, within on with an ablative object, and into, onto with an accusative object.
  8. [8]Some notes on grammatical and semantic issues in making the translation: In nova… corpora: neuter accusative plural, together with mutatas… formas, forms altered into new bodies. In the accusative because they are the object of preposition in, i.e., suggesting motion into or onto. Translators pretty uniformly translate this according to one possible meaning, the human form, figure or body. I’ve done the same. But it could also used to mean appearances or beauty. animus, a mind — Classical Latin doesn’t have or need definite or indefinite articles, so a mind, the mind, mind, Mind are all possible here. Could be translated as mind, thought, intelligence, spirit, soul, life-force, character, will, emotion, mood or temper. The interesting thing here, compared to the tradition of ancient Greek epic, is that the poet says *he* is moved to tell. He asks the gods to aid what he’s undertaken, but he, not they, has undertaken the project. In Homer, the invocation asks the goddess or the muse to sing through the poet. Vergil, like Ovid, begins Of arms and the man I sing. Fert… dicere: bears (me) off, carries (me) away to tell. Fert is a standard word for carrying or bearing a burden, also often used to mean take, take away, carry away or carry off. (When used of a person, it can mean to capture, abduct or rape — a common theme throughout the tales in the poem.) di: vocative plural, calling out to some gods or all the gods. coeptis… meis: lit. my things begun or undertaken; it took me forever to figure out how these fit together with the clause, but these are in the dative here, because they are a dative object for the intransitive form of adspirate See notes on transitive and intransitive forms in Wiktionary: aspiro. nam vos mutastis et illas: this is highly condensed, but vos could be either nominative or accusative according to the form of the word; mutastis is a contraction or syncopated form, shortened from mutavistis. In context, y’all (that is, di, the gods) would be an appropriate subject for the 2nd person plural mutastis, but I think the fem. acc. pl. et illas, lit. and those, and those (others), suggests vos is supposed to be a direct object paired together with the others (other shapes, besides their own), that the gods have transformed into new bodies. Primaque ab origine: The -que suffix (too, also) breaks off the word in front of it from the previous clause; ablative feminine prima, first, agrees with origine, origin or beginning. ad mea… tempora, perpetuum… carmen: to my times, unending or nonstop song. Again, agreement determines which adjective goes with which noun, despite the shuffled word-order. deducite: Literally, lead out (y’all); it can mean to draw out or spin, as a thread, to stretch out or extend, to pull out, as a ship from harbor. It could also mean escort or accompany, if you think that the poet also here wants to emphasize his own role in composing the poem, and is asking the gods to accompany the unceasing song not to spin it out themselves.
  9. [9]The Iliad 1.1: meninRAGE; the Iliad is the song of the rage of Peleus’s son Achilles. The Odyssey 1.1: andrathe man; the Odyssey tells us the man of many ways. Aeneid 1.1: arma virumque; the Aeneid sings arms and the man, who first….

“The process of building new homes is full of uncertainty and unexpected obstacles. Regulatory barriers make it riskier, longer and more expensive, which has consequences for housing affordability.” (Jenny Schuetz)

Listening to: Russ Roberts and Jenny Schuetz discuss land regulation, the housing market, affordable housing and land cartels (EConTalk, 30 March 2020).

Shared Article from Econlib

Jenny Schuetz on Land Regulation and the Housing Market - Econli…

Jenny Schuetz of the Brookings Institution talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about zoning, boarding houses, real estate development, and the housi…


Some roughly stated, sloganeering lessons you might take from the conversation. Or at least that I took. (Where I’m not quoting, these are in my own words, not Schuetz’s or Roberts’s.)

  • Schuetz argues that The process of building new homes is full of uncertainty and unexpected obstacles. Regulatory barriers make it riskier, longer and more expensive, which has consequences for housing affordability.
  • Unaffordable housing markets, gentrification and displacement are the result of a spiraling cost crisis in urban housing, and the cost crisis is the result of a suffocating crisis of supply in urban housing, especially in medium density in-fill building.
  • A lot of the crisis of supply can be explained by explicit legal or bureaucratic barriers to entry, which burn out the supply of a large Missing Bottom and Missing Middle of affordable homes. **The Missing Bottom would be boarding houses and rented rooms, SRO flop hotels, and other entry-level means of Scratching By in the housing market. The Missing Middle would be duplexes and triplexes, row-houses, big old houses subdivided and refitted into smaller attached dwellings, and other ways of building for higher density within neighborhoods currently reserved exclusively for single-family detached housing.
  • A lot more of the crisis of supply can be explained by the Fog of Regulation — where there aren’t explicit prohibitions spelled out ahead of time, in nearly every city there is a constant time-consuming and bewildering gauntlet to run with multiple regulatory bodies with overlapping jurisdictions and tremendous discretionary power to advance, delay, modify or veto new building and expansion of existing buildings.
  • Many housing market regulations attempt to solve the problem of housing costs by attempting to directly control costs, without addressing the underlying problem of in-fill building or housing supply. This approach may seem logical and direct in the short-term, but addressing the symptoms (high costs) rather than the root causes (choked-off supply and deformed market structures) has profoundly damaging long-term effects. These often including the perverse unintended consequence of driving up overall housing costs for every generation after the immediate recipients of the initial benefits.

From the conversation, on industry structure and the effects of time lags imposed by the paperwork chase involved in going through multiple authorities and multiple regulatory committees:

Jenny Schuetz: The time makes it really difficult for developers to get their product on the market when it needs to be available. So, in an ideal universe, a developer would start building a couple of years before they anticipate the market really needing more units. By the time the units are finished and ready, they can rent them up and fill them and they don’t sit vacant for awhile.

One of the things that we learned in the Great Recession, many of these big projects are taking a decade or longer. So, people started working on projects in the late 1990s, early 2000s, and those projects finished just as we hit the Great Recession, and then buildings just sat empty. Had they finished four years earlier, they could have at least gotten people in there. Even if they took a hit on the price, they would at least have bodies moving into the new buildings. ? Russ Roberts: But, there’s also just the forgone rent–fhe fact you’re not earning anything over this period. All that money that’s being spent without any return, the longer that goes–so, let’s say you spent, you could spend it all up front to make it simple: you just had to pay a big fee and it would cover your architect and your lawyers and your surveyors and whatever else was needed, and then of course, the raw materials, but you can’t build for two years. Well, now let’s say but you can’t build for five. You can’t build for 10. Every extension of that downtime where nothing is coming in, only stuff is going out, is stuff that you need to be compensated for in the–and the marketplace will compensate you for that because otherwise you’re losing money.

Jenny Schuetz: That’s right. I mean, this is a risky business because the developers essentially have to front a lot of this. They take on loans once you get to, say, the construction stage, so you can get a from a bank to do the actual building; but banks don’t like to lend for, sort of, the development process, the approvals–

Russ Roberts: For maybes. They don’t like maybes.

Jenny Schuetz: Exactly. So, banks don’t want to lend you money to spend the next five years paying consultants and lawyers to go through a process, and then at the end of the process they still say no and you can’t build anything.

So, developers essentially have to come up with the equity to do that themselves. You can imagine this really limits the sphere of who can be a developer and who can build. So, you have to have pretty deep pockets, or you have to be a company that has a bunch of projects going on in different stages of completion.

So, there’s actually a nice paper out by an economist at the Federal Reserve Board, who looks at how the big home-building companies essentially cross-finance different parts of their company. So, you have cash flows coming in from one project. You use that to finance the development of the next one. But, most developers work in one location, and they don’t want to take on too many of these projects simultaneously because any one of them could wind up being a bust.

Russ Roberts: And, the area itself could be a bust in a certain period of time, and you’d like to have some diversification and be in lots of cities. But, since they’re all complicated in different ways, it’s hard to be involved in lots of different cities at the same time. So, you tend to have all your eggs in that one local basket.

Russ Roberts: And, also thinking about this, you realize that the number of firms that can acquire the kind of expertise you need to deal with this regulatory thicket, it’s something akin to the pharmaceutical industry, where, you know, if you’re not big and large to spread the cost of FDA [Food and Drug Administration] compliance over lots of products, you’re done.

And so, for better, for worse, what we’ve done with the pharmaceutical industry is we’ve created a world where the large firms, they do their own research; but part of what they really are, tragically to me, is compliant experts, compliance experts. They know how to get through the FDA. A small firm can’t do that, can’t afford it, can’t acquire the expertise easily. And they are going to develop some products. They’ll sell those to the larger firm because they’re the ones who know how to shepherd it through the different trials, clinical stage of clinical trials.

Something similar is going on here, it would seem to me, where the regulatory burden can only be borne by large–a very small number of large firms. Which, of course, reduces competition and raises prices a little further probably.

— Jenny Schuetz, interviewed by Russ Roberts. Jenny Schuetz on Land Regulation and the Housing Market
EconTalk, March 30, 2020

Later on in the conversation:

Jenny Schuetz: I hear that argument a lot, that this is just landlords being greedy and trying to squeeze extra money.

It’s certainly true that landlords would rather charge a higher rent and take a profit if they can. But, landlords can only charge what the market will bear. So, in a well-functioning market, if a landlord charges $2,000 for a studio apartment, somebody else can charge $1800 for a studio apartment and they’ll take the tenants.

So, landlords can only get away with that if there’s a limited number of apartments and more people wanting to rent them than there are units available.

I will say that I’ve looked at the dispersion of rents within metropolitan areas–so not just what the median rent is, but the 75th percentile, and the 25th percentile. And, you see, when you look at the bottom end, that there’s really a floor below which rents don’t fall. Even in places like Detroit where land is basically free.

So, it’s hard to pay the minimum operating costs on an apartment for less than about $500 a month. So, if you think of just paying the mortgage on the building, the property taxes, water and sewer, common electricity and so forth, the stuff that the landlord has to pay to cover the cost of operating it, doesn’t go below about $500 a month.

Russ Roberts: As opposed to abandoning it because it’s a losing proposition.

Jenny Schuetz: That’s right. As opposed to just closing it down and taking it off the market altogether.

So, and that’s for sort of apartments that are good enough to meet our quality inspections. You probably, you’ve got some illegal rentals that are cheaper than that, but they’re cheaper than that because mostly they’re in pretty poor shape.

So, but, when you look at a place like San Jose, so the 25th percentile of rents in San Jose is about $1,200 a month, right? That’s close to the bottom. That’s not because it costs landlords $1,200 a month to run the apartment. That’s because there’s such limited supply that they can charge that. The best way to fight against greedy landlords is to flood the market with supply of new apartments and take away their market power.

— Jenny Schuetz, interviewed by Russ Roberts. Jenny Schuetz on Land Regulation and the Housing Market
EconTalk, March 30, 2020

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