Valverde neighborhood has the highest rate of Covid-19 hospitalization in Denver. Image from Christie Mettenbrink for Denver Public Health

by George Taniwaki

Denver’s Valverde neighborhood is just a few miles from the Barnum West neighborhood where I grew up. The streets there are busier and noisier, with more industrial businesses lining Alameda Ave. and Federal Blvd. Studies show excessive car traffic can lead to stress and chronic respiratory ailments, especially when combined with smoking, which is more common among residents there.

The houses are smaller, with more families living in multigenerational arrangements. Residents are more likely to ride public transportation to get to work or school. They are also more likely to have jobs that are considered essential. Crowded living and working conditions increase the likelihood of contracting Covid-19.

Finally, adults in Valverde are less likely to speak English at home, meaning they have less access to healthcare information. They are less likely to have health insurance and less access to healthcare providers, even if they have insurance.

This isn’t an accident of history. Cities like Denver had long adopted policies (Colorado Trust, May 2018) that encouraged racial segregation and discrimination. From the 1920s until the 1970s, the city worked with banks, mortgage companies, and property insurers, to draw maps of neighborhoods that were safe, a practice called redlining. Similar maps were used by Denver Public Schools to plan the location of new buildings to ensure schools were kept racially segregated.

Even today, the impact of segregation is still visible. An excellent article in The Conversation (May 2020) looks at the distribution of Covid-19 hospitalization rates by neighborhood (see map at top). You can see more charts and an explanation at Denver Public Health (May 2020).


Five steps for advocacy. From

by George Taniwaki

Sue and I attended a class on advocacy. It was an eye opening experience. If you want to get involved in your community and improve governance, you should attend an advocacy class and get going. The class we attended was sponsored by the Seattle/King Country Coalition on Homelessness. If you live in the Seattle area, other organizations that hold advocacy classes include Northwest Harvest and Arc of King County.

We learned a lot. Below are some details .

Understanding advocacy

One of the first lessons is that advocacy is not lobbying. This is important since lobbying a government official can cause the nonprofit you are supporting to lose its tax-exempt status. Lobbying is approaching a politician or regulator and asking them to adopt a position that will directly or indirectly benefit you or the non-profit you represent, usually monetarily. Advocacy is asking a politician to do something that you think will address a social issue. It may benefit you or your organization, but only because it fills the unmet community need. Thus, all lobbying is advocacy, but not all advocacy is lobbying.

Advocate for bills not positions

You vote for legislators based on their positions. But there often isn’t a clear path to convert positions into actual legislation, especially related to budget bills. Your legislators are busy and subject to competing demands. They will not have time to read each bill in detail. They rely on community feedback on individual bills to gauge what is important to pass or defeat.

Thus, if you want to have impact, you have to determine which bills you want your legislator to vote for and against. (I’m assuming you are a layperson and not influential enough to actually write the bills you want to pass.) However, you also do not have time to read each bill in detail either. Thus, you will need to rely on a nonprofit organization to read them for you and pick out the talking points to make when you contact your legislators.

How to find your legislators

Every state has different number of legislators and districts. In Washington State, the there is a senate and a house with identical districts. Senators serve 4 year terms and representatives serve 2-year terms. There are 49 districts and each district has one senator and two house representatives, so a total of 49 senators and 98 representative.

To find your district and the names of your legislators, go to the district finder.

When to contact your legislators

Every state has a different legislative calendar. In Washington, in even years (like 2020), there is a short session lasting 60 days. In odd years, when the two-year budget is debated, there is a long session lasting 105 days, or sometimes longer if the budget is not approved in time. So in short session years, it is critical that you contact your legislators in January and February on the dates when the bills you are concerned about are “read” on the floor.

You may want to contact your legislators multiple times during the session. First is when the bill is in committee. If your legislator is on the committee that is debating the bill, you want to give a detailed comment. If they are not, you want to register your approval or disapproval of the bill so that they can include your tally and forward it to the committee. Once the bill is out of committee, you will want to contact your legislators again to indicate how you want them to vote. Finally, at the end of the session, thank the legislators for their vote. If they did not vote in the way you wanted, express your disappointment but say you hope they are still open to your future advocacy.

To find the status of the bills you are interested in, go to the bill report.

How to contact your legislators

There are many ways to contact your legislators and register comments. You can write an email, call by phone, send a fax, letter, or postcard, fill out a web form, or post comments on their social media sites (Facebook, Twitter, etc.).

The legislators may not read your comment personally, they may have an aide summarize them. Thus, it is important that you know which comments get summarized. Many legislators still do not get summaries of social media comments. So if you post something on their Facebook page, it may not get seen.

To comment by phone, call 1.800.562.6000

To send a comment by mail or email, go to the district finder.

To submit a comment on the web, go to Comment help.

Submitting a comment is fast and easy. If you want to get involved in advocacy, find a non-profit you want to support and get started now.

* * * *

Advocacy is cheap and easy and everyone can get involved. Lobbying is expensive and requires specialized skills as the story below shows.

“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” So wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. I realize this to a greater degree after taking the advocacy class. While moderately rich people like me often have the time and inclination to ask our representatives to vote for what we want at the local level, the very rich advocate at the national level.

I knew that many U.S. senate races involve out-of-state money. But I hadn’t realized why. A story by David Frum in the Atlantic (Apr 2020) gives a good explanation. Most very rich people live in big cities, located in coastal states, which tend to vote for leftish politicians. The rich tend to be more conservative and often find it difficult to sway their own senator’s vote. But every senator gets one vote. For the sake of efficiency, it makes more sense for them to contribute money to the campaign committees of conservative senators in small red states and then advocate or lobby for what they want by approaching those senators.

Says Frum, “United States senators from smaller, poorer red states… do not… primarily represent their states. They represent, more often, the richest people in bigger, richer blue States who find it more economical to invest in less expensive small-state races. The biggest contributor to Mitch McConnell’s 2020 campaign and leadership committee is a PAC headquartered in Englewood, New Jersey…”


Can a partially effective vaccine flatten the curve?

by George Taniwaki

During this Covid-19 pandemic, we want to know when we can stop sheltering at home and go back into public spaces again. Further, we want to know which actions can speed up the time before that can happen.

One thing we do know is that when dealing with a novel disease (one that no human appears to have immunity for), the entire population cannot go back to pre-epidemic behavior at the same time before it is safe. Doing so will cause a spike in infections and deaths. This will terrorize the population leading to another round of isolation. If the public loses faith that the government knows when it is safe to change behavior, then when it finally is safe, people will still be afraid and time will be lost during the recovery, causing additional economic hardship.

So when can we go back to normal? I think that can happen only after herd immunity is achieved. This can take a very long time as a trickle of individuals become infected and recover with resistance or die, a process called flattening the curve. Or it can happen pretty quickly after the wide-spread inoculation of individuals with a safe and effective vaccine.

An effective vaccine may take 18 to 24 months to develop. Many people, including President Donald Trump, think staying home this long is unrealistic. Is it possible to shorten that time by releasing a partially effective vaccine sooner? Doing so may help flatten the curve without requiring social distancing.

Partially effective vaccines

An intriguing paper by Eduard Talamàs & Rakesh Vohra, entitled “Free and perfectly safe but only partially effective vaccines can harm everyone” pretty much contains the answer in its title.

The idea is that a partially effective vaccine will cause people to change their behavior too much, too soon, causing the spike we want to avoid. The conclusion is similar to the analysis popularized by Sam Peltzman of the Univ. Chicago (a microeconomics professor while I was a student there) who suggested that stricter automobile safety regulations could lead to increased deaths (of pedestrians) as drivers felt safer and became more reckless (J Polit Econ, Aug 1975).

The most important conclusion in Talamàs et al., is that with overlapping social networks, even those who do not increase the size of their networks after the introduction of the vaccine can be harmed by those who do. This conclusion is slightly different than those of most epidemiological models that assume random contact between individuals rather than strategic networks. A good description of the paper is given by one of the authors, Vohra, at The Leisure of the Theory Class (Apr 2020).


What will we ask our robots to do? Image from The New Yorker

by George Taniwaki

Check out the illustration above by Tom Gauld on the cover of the May 20, 2019 issue of The New Yorker. It’s humorous because on first glance, it seems that it would be a waste if in the future we create robot dogs and robot humans for the sole purpose of having them exchange places.

But on further reflection, I think that response is wrong. Having robot dogs and robot dog walkers could both be solutions for people who like dogs. We dog owners (or previous dog owners, like me, since our beloved Wheatcakes died) like dogs because they get us out of the house. However, we are not home all the time and dogs gets bored and lonely.

For people in the middle-class who spend their day at work and not enough time at home, a robot dog might be the bourgeois solution to keep them active and outdoors. For the very rich, having a live dog and a robot to keep the dog company may be the Veblenesque solution to their desire to own a dog and to assuage their guilt about abandoning it.

by George Taniwaki

SEIU_775_purple FFlogo Wa2016Yes1501

I’m a libertarian by nature. (That’s libertarian with a small L, meaning I believe in government transparency and clarity. Please don’t confuse it with Libertarian with a capital L, which I associate with mindless anarchy.) Every two year, I dutifully check for my ballot and voter pamphlet (Washington has voter by mail). The number of items seems to be getting longer, especially voter initiatives.

Here is my method of deciding how to cast my ballot on voter initiatives. First, I start skeptically. Most voter initiatives are funded by political extremists who do not consider the consequences of adopting their pet idea. But I do my online research, checking analysis produced by hopefully reputable and unbiased sources. Ultimately though, I usually vote against them.

This year in Washington, there a really bizarre ballot issue. It is Initiative Measure No. 1501. “Increased Penalties for Crimes Against Vulnerable Individuals”

This measure would increase the penalties for criminal identity theft and civil consumer fraud targeted at seniors or vulnerable individuals; and exempt certain information of vulnerable individuals and in-home caregivers from public disclosure.

Should this measure be enacted into law? Yes [ ] No [ ]

How could anyone be against this? We want to help seniors, right? Well, it’s not that simple.

A convoluted story

There is a very complex story about this initiative. It involves a union, an antiunion think tank, and the U.S. Supreme Court. Initiative 1501 is sponsored by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) that represents healthcare workers that work in nursing homes or provide in-home care. Washington, like most states, requires certain workers, such as nurses, to have a license in order to provide services to the public. About one-third of all service workers in the U.S. require licenses. In many cases, these workers are also unionized.

Enter the Freedom Foundation. This antiunion policy group is headquartered in Olympia, Washington. It was founded by Bob Williams, who was formerly with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). You may have heard of ALEC; it is a corporate funded lobbying group that writes model legislation (which obviously is designed to further the goals of its corporate clients) which it then provides to state legislators to review. The legislators can then submit the bills for approval into law. The Freedom Foundation provides very similar services.

In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Harris v. Quinn that an Illinois state law that allowed the SEIU to collect a representation fee (union dues) from in-home healthcare workers wages was unconstitutional. The reasoning was that the fee violated the First Amendment rights of the workers to not provide financial support for collective bargaining.

After the ruling, the Freedom Foundation complained that the SEIU was not doing enough to inform its members that they did not have to pay the representation fee in order to belong to the union. Though a public records act, it sued the union and the state, won, and started to send communications to members encouraging them to stop paying the fee.

Since a Supreme Court ruling covers the entire U.S., not just Illinois, the SEIU realized that it was very vulnerable to attack by the Freedom Foundation or other antiunion organizations.

Now the initiative makes sense

In Washington, the SEIU proactively sponsored Initiative 1501 as a direct attack against Freedom Foundation. The SEIU wants to avoid having to release the names, addresses, and phone numbers of its members (or having the state reveal these either). Initiative 1501 does this by saying that in-home caregivers are a protected class, like seniors or vulnerable individuals, that the state and the union cannot release personal information about.

After all that research, the story starts to make sense. This is a battle between two parties that a libertarian like me dislikes. But more transparency is better than less. So I will vote no. Sorry seniors and vulnerable individuals, you will have to rely on existing statutes to protect you.

by George Taniwaki

Did you watch the debate on Monday night? I did. But I am also very interested in the post-debate media coverage and analysis. This morning, two articles that combine big data and the debate caught my eye. Both are novel and much more interesting than the tired stories that simply show changes in polls after a debate.

First, the New York Time reports that during the presidential debate (between 9:00 and 10:30 PM EDT) there is high correlation between the Betfair prediction market for who will win the presidential election and afterhours S&P 500 futures prices (see chart 1).


Chart 1. Betfair prediction market for Mrs. Clinton compared to S&P 500 futures. Courtesy of New York Times

Correlation between markets is not a new phenomena. For several decades financial analysts have measured the covariance between commodity prices, especially crude oil, and equity indices. But this is the first time I have seen an article illustrating the covariance between a “fun” market for guessing who will become president against a “real” market. Check out the two graphs above, the similarity in shape is striking, including the fact that both continue to rise for about an hour after the debate ended.

In real-time, while the debate was being broadcast, players on Betfair believed the chance Mrs. Clinton will win the election rose by 5 percent. Meanwhile, the price of S&P 500 futures rose by 0.6%, meaning investors (who may be the same speculators who play on Betfair) believed the stock market prices in November were likely to be higher than before the debates started. There was no other surprise economic news that evening, so the debate is the most likely explanation for the surge. Pretty cool.

If the two markets are perfectly correlated (they aren’t) and markets are perfectly efficient (they aren’t), then one can estimate the difference in equity futures market value between the two candidates. If a 5% decrease in likelihood of a Trump win translates to a 0.6% increase in equity futures values, then the difference between Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton being elected (a 100% change in probability) results in about a 12% or $1.2 trillion (the total market cap of the S&P 500 is about $10 trillion) change in market value. (Note that I assume perfect correlation between the S&P 500 futures market and the actual market for the stocks used to calculate the index.)

Further, nearly all capital assets (stocks, bonds, commodities, real estate) in the US are now highly correlated. So the total difference is about $24 trillion (assuming total assets in the US are $200 trillion). Ironically, this probably means Donald Trump would be financially better off if he were to lose the election.


The other article that caught my eye involves Google Trend data. According to the Washington Post, the phrase “registrarse para votar” was the third highest trending search term the day after the debate was broadcast. The number of searches is about four times higher than in the days prior to the debates (see chart 2). Notice the spike in searches matches a spike in Sep 2012 after the first Obama-Romney debate.

The article says that it is not clear if it was the debate itself that caused the increase or the fact that Google recently introduced Spanish-language voting guides to its automated Knowledge Box, which presumably led to more searches for “registrarse para votar”. (This is the problem with confounding events.)

After a bit of research, I discovered an even more interesting fact. The spike in searches did not stop on Sep 27. Today, on Sep 30, four days after the debates, the volume of searches is 10 times higher than on Sep 27, or a total of 40x higher than before the debate (see chart 3). The two charts are scaled to make the data comparable.


Chart 2. Searches for “registrarse para votar” past 5 years to Sep 27. Courtesy of Washington Post and Google Trends


Chart 3. Searches for “registrarse para votar” past 5 years to Sep 30. Courtesy of Google Trends

I wanted to see if the spike was due to the debate or due to the addition of Spanish voter information to the Knowledge Box. To do this, I compared “registrarse para votar” to “register to vote”. The red line in chart 4 shows Google Trend data for “register to vote” scaled so that the bump in Sept 2012 is the same height as in the charts above. I’d say the debate really had an unprecedented effect on interest in voting and the effect was probably bigger for Spanish speaking web users.


Chart 4. Searches for “register to vote” past 5 years to Sep 30. Courtesy of Google Trends

Finally, I wanted to see how the search requests were distributed geographically. The key here is that most Hispanic communities vote Democratic and many states with a large Hispanic population are already blue (such as California, Washington, New Mexico, New Jersey, and New York). The exception is Florida with a large population of Cuban immigrants who tend to vote Republican.


Chart 5. Searches for “registrarse para votar” past 5 years to Sep 30 by county. Courtesy of Google Trends

If you are a supporter of Democrats like Mrs. Clinton, the good news is that a large number of queries are coming from Arizona, and Texas, two states where changes in demographics are slowly turning voting preferences from red to blue.

In Florida, it is not clear which candidate gains from increased number of Spanish-speaking voters. However, since the increase is a result of the debate (during which it was revealed that Mr. Trump had insulted and berated a beauty pageant winner from Venezuela, calling her “miss housekeeping”), I will speculate many newly registered voters are going to be Clinton supporters.

If the Google search trend continues, it may be driven by new reports that Mr. Trump may have violated the US sanctions forbidding business transactions in Cuba. Cuban-Americans searching for information on voter registration after hearing this story are more likely to favor Mrs. Clinton.


Moon pies, cheaper from Korea

by George Taniwaki

I love moon pies (apparently, I was a southerner in a past life). Surprisingly, they are big in another southern locale, South Korea. Who knew, for history see Wikipedia.

Incidentally, don’t confuse moon pies with moon cakes which are another Asian sweet (which I usually don’t like because of the salty egg flavor).

Anyway, today, I found a really cheap source of my favorite confection. Lotte brand is $3.50 for 335g or 29 cents a pie. Mysteriously, they are hidden next to weird spices in the international food aisle, not prominently displayed with the other cookies in the snack aisle. Perhaps it’s a form of American food protectionism by US cookie makers, Asian segregationist policy, or slotting fee redlining by the store, or the result of some other nativist conspiracy plot.

It’s crazy that a South Korean company can import all the ingredients, process them, ship them back to the U.S., and still be cheaper than US-made cookies. But I don’t care as long as I get my fix of graham cracker, marshmallow, and sugary goodness.