Failures of democracy or capitalism?

May 24 JDN 2458992

Blaming capitalism for the world’s woes is a common habit of the left wing in general, but it seems to have greatly increased in frequency and volume in the era of Trump. I don’t want to say that this is always entirely wrong; capitalism in its purest form certainly does have genuine flaws that need to be addressed (and that’s why we have taxes, regulations, the welfare state, etc.).

But I’ve noticed that a lot of the things people complain about most really don’t seem to have a lot to do with capitalism.

For instance: Forced labor in Third World countries? First of all, that’s been around for as long as civilization has existed, and quite probably longer. It’s certainly not new to capitalism. Second, the freedom to choose who you transact with—including who employs you—is a fundamental principle of capitalism. In that sense, forced labor is the very opposite of capitalism; it spits upon everything capitalism stands for.

It’s certainly the case that many multinational corporations are implicated in slavery, even today—usually through complex networks of subsidiaries and supply chains. But it’s not clear to me that socialism is any kind of solution to this problem; nationalized industries are perfectly capable of enslaving people. (You may have heard of a place called the Gulag?)

Or what about corporate welfare, the trillions of dollars in subsidies we give to the oil and coal industries? Well, that’s not very capitalist either; capitalism is supposed to be equal competition in a free market, not the government supporting particular businesses or industries at the expense of others. And it’s not like socialist Venezuela has any lack of oil subsidies—indeed it’s not quite clear to me where the government ends and PDVSA begins. We need a word for such policies that are neither capitalist nor socialist; perhaps “corporatist”?

And really, the things that worry me about America today are not flaws in our markets; they are flaws in our government. We are not witnessing a catastrophic failure of capitalism; we are witnessing a catastrophic failure of democracy.

As if the Electoral College weren’t bad enough (both Al Gore and Hillary Clinton should have won the Presidency, by any sensible notion of democratic voting!), we are now seeing extreme levels of voter suppression, including refusing to accept mail-in ballots in the middle of a historic pandemic. This looks disturbingly like how democracy has collapsed in other countries, such as Turkey and Hungary.

The first-past-the-post plurality vote is already basically the worst possible voting system that can still technically be considered democratic. But it is rendered far worse by a defective primary system, which was even more of a shambles this year than usual. The number of errors in the Iowa caucus was ridiculous, and the primaries as a whole suffered from so many flaws that many voters now consider them illegitimate.

And of course there’s Donald Trump himself. He is certainly a capitalist (though he’s not exactly a free-trade neoliberal; he’s honestly more like a mercantilist). But what really makes him dangerous is not his free-market ideology, which is basically consistent with the US right wing going back at least 30 years; it’s his willingness to flaunt basic norms of democracy and surround himself with corrupt, incompetent sycophants. Republicans have been cutting the upper tax brackets and subsidizing oil companies for quite some time now; but it’s only recently that they have so blatantly disregarded the guardrails of democracy.

I’m not saying it’s wrong to criticize capitalism. There certainly are things worth criticizing, particularly about the most extreme free-market ideology. But it’s important to be clear about where exactly problems lie if you want to fix them—and right now we desperately need to fix them. America is in a crisis right now, something much bigger than just this pandemic. We are not in this crisis because of an excessive amount of deregulation or tax-cutting; we are in this crisis because of an excessive amount of corruption, incompetence, and authoritarianism. We wouldn’t fix this by nationalizing industries or establishing worker co-ops. We need to fix it first by voting out those responsible, and second by reforming our system so that they won’t get back in.

Terrible but not likely, likely but not terrible

May 17 JDN 2458985

The human brain is a remarkably awkward machine. It’s really quite bad at organizing data, relying on associations rather than formal categories.

It is particularly bad at negation. For instance, if I tell you that right now, no matter what, you must not think about a yellow submarine, the first thing you will do is think about a yellow submarine. (You may even get the Beatles song stuck in your head, especially now that I’ve mentioned it.) A computer would never make such a grievous error.

The human brain is also quite bad at separation. Daniel Dennett coined a word “deepity” for a particular kind of deep-sounding but ultimately trivial aphorism that seems to be quite common, which relies upon this feature of the brain. A deepity has at least two possible readings: On one reading, it is true, but utterly trivial. On another, it would be profound if true, but it simply isn’t true. But if you experience both at once, your brain is triggered for both “true” and “profound” and yields “profound truth”. The example he likes to use is “Love is just a word”. Well, yes, “love” is in fact just a word, but who cares? Yeah, words are words. But love, the underlying concept it describes, is not just a word—though if it were that would change a lot.

One thing I’ve come to realize about my own anxiety is that it involves a wide variety of different scenarios I imagine in my mind, and broadly speaking these can be sorted into two categories: Those that are likely but not terrible, and those that are terrible but not likely.

In the former category we have things like taking an extra year to finish my dissertation; the mean time to completion for a PhD is over 8 years, so finishing in 6 instead of 5 can hardly be considered catastrophic.

In the latter category we have things like dying from COVID-19. Yes, I’m a male with type A blood and asthma living in a high-risk county; but I’m also a young, healthy nonsmoker living under lockdown. Even without knowing the true fatality rate of the virus, my chances of actually dying from it are surely less than 1%.

But when both of those scenarios are running through my brain at the same time, the first triggers a reaction for “likely” and the second triggers a reaction for “terrible”, and I get this feeling that something terrible is actually likely to happen. And indeed if my probability of dying were as high as my probability of needing a 6th year to finish my PhD, that would be catastrophic.

I suppose it’s a bit strange that the opposite doesn’t happen: I never seem to get the improbability of dying attached to the mildness of needing an extra year. The confusion never seems to trigger “neither terrible nor likely”. Or perhaps it does, and my brain immediately disregards that as not worthy of consideration? It makes a certain sort of sense: An event that is neither probable nor severe doesn’t seem to merit much anxiety.

I suspect that many other people’s brains work the same way, eliding distinctions between different outcomes and ending up with a sort of maximal product of probability and severity.
The solution to this is not an easy one: It requires deliberate effort and extensive practice, and benefits greatly from formal training by a therapist. Counter-intuitively, you need to actually focus more on the scenarios that cause you anxiety, and accept the anxiety that such focus triggers in you. I find that it helps to actually write down the details of each scenario as vividly as possible, and review what I have written later. After doing this enough times, you can build up a greater separation in your mind, and more clearly categorize—this one is likely but not terrible, that one is terrible but not likely. It isn’t a cure, but it definitely helps me a great deal. Perhaps it could help you.

We still don’t know the fatality rate of COVID-19

May 10 JDN2458978

You’d think after being in this pandemic for several weeks we would now have a clear idea of the fatality rate of the virus. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

The problem is that what we can track really doesn’t tell us what we need to know.

What we can track is how many people have tested positive versus how many people have died. As of this writing, 247,000 people have died and 3,504,000 have tested positive. If this were the true fatality rate, it would be horrifying: A death rate of 7% is clearly in excess of even the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Fortunately, this is almost certainly an overestimate. But it’s actually possible for it to be an underestimate, and here’s why: A lot of those people who currently have the virus could still die.

We really shouldn’t be dividing (total deaths)/(total confirmed infections). We should be dividing (total deaths)/(total deaths + total recoveries). If people haven’t recovered yet, it’s too soon to say whether they will live.

On that basis, this begins to look more like an ancient plague: The number of recoveries is only about four times the number of deaths, which would be a staggering fatality rate of 20%.

But as I said, it’s far more likely that this is an overestimate, because we don’t actually know how many people have been infected. We only know how many people have been infected and gotten tested. A large proportion have never been tested; many of these were simply asymptomatic.
We know this because of the few cases we have of rigorous testing of a whole population, such as the passengers on this cruise liner bound for Antarctica. On that cruise liner, 6 were hospitalized, but 128 tested positive for the virus. This means that the number of asymptomatic infections was twenty times that of the number of symptomatic infections.

There have been several studies attempting to determine what proportion of infections are asymptomatic, because this knowledge is so vital. Unfortunately the results are wildly inconsistent. They seem to range from 5% asymptomatic and 95% symptomatic to 95% asymptomatic and 5% symptomatic. The figure I find most plausible is about 80%: This means that the number of asymptomatic infected is about four times that of the number of symptomatic infected.

This means that the true calculation we should be doing actually looks like this: (total deaths)/(total deaths + total recoveries + total asymptomatic).

The number of deaths seems to be about one fourth the number of recoveries. But when you add the fact that four times as many who get infected are asymptomatic, things don’t look quite so bad. This yields an overall fatality rate of about 4%. This is still very high, and absolutely comparable to the 1918 influenza pandemic.

But the truth is, we just don’t know. South Korea’s fatality rate was only 0.7%, which would be a really bad flu season but nothing catastrophic. (A typical flu has a fatality rate of about 0.1%.) On the (deaths)/(deaths + recoveries) basis, it looks almost as bad as the Black Death.

With so much uncertainty, there’s really only one option: Prepare for the worst-case scenario. Assume that the real death rate is massive, and implement lockdown measures until you can confirm that it isn’t.

Motivation under trauma

May 3 JDN 2458971

Whenever I ask someone how they are doing lately, I get the same answer: “Pretty good, under the circumstances.” There seems to be a general sense that—at least among the sort of people I interact with regularly—that our own lives are still proceeding more or less normally, as we watch in horror the crises surrounding us. Nothing in particular is going wrong for us specifically. Everything is fine, except for the things that are wrong for everyone everywhere.

One thing that seems to be particularly difficult for a lot of us is the sense that we suddenly have so much time on our hands, but can’t find the motivation to actually use this time productively. So many hours of our lives were wasted on commuting or going to meetings or attending various events we didn’t really care much about but didn’t want to feel like we had missed out on. But now that we have these hours back, we can’t find the strength to use them well.

This is because we are now, as an entire society, experiencing a form of trauma. One of the most common long-term effects of post-traumatic stress disorder is a loss of motivation. Faced with suffering we have no power to control, we are made helpless by this traumatic experience; and this makes us learn to feel helpless in other domains.

There is a classic experiment about learned helplessness; like many old classic experiments, its ethics are a bit questionable. Though unlike many such experiments (glares at Zimbardo), its experimental rigor was ironclad. Dogs were divided into three groups. Group 1 was just a control, where the dogs were tied up for a while and then let go. Dogs in groups 2 and 3 were placed into a crate with a floor that could shock them. Dogs in group 2 had a lever they could press to make the shocks stop. Dogs in group 3 did not. (They actually gave the group 2 dogs control over the group 3 dogs to make the shock times exactly equal; but the dogs had no way to know that, so as far as they knew the shocks ended at random.)

Later, dogs from both groups were put into another crate, where they no longer had a lever to press, but they could jump over a barrier to a different part of the crate where the shocks wouldn’t happen. The dogs from group 2, who had previously had some control over their own pain, were able to quickly learn to do this. The dogs from group 3, who had previously felt pain apparently at random, had a very hard time learning this, if they could ever learn it at all. They’d just lay there and suffer the shocks, unable to bring themselves to even try to leap the barrier.

The group 3 dogs just knew there was nothing they could do. During their previous experience of the trauma, all their actions were futile, and so in this new trauma they were certain that their actions would remain futile. When nothing you do matters, the only sensible thing to do is nothing; and so they did. They had learned to be helpless.

I think for me, chronic migraines were my first crate. For years of my life there was basically nothing I could do to prevent myself from getting migraines—honestly the thing that would have helped most would have been to stop getting up for high school that started at 7:40 AM every morning. Eventually I found a good neurologist and got various treatments, as well as learned about various triggers and found ways to avoid most of them. (Let me know if you ever figure out a way to avoid stress.) My migraines are now far less frequent than they were when I was a teenager, though they are still far more frequent than I would prefer.

Yet, I think I still have not fully unlearned the helplessness that migraines taught me. Every time I get another migraine despite all the medications I’ve taken and all the triggers I’ve religiously avoided, this suffering beyond my control acts as another reminder of the ultimate caprice of the universe. There are so many things in our lives that we cannot control that it can be easy to lose sight of what we can.

This pandemic is a trauma that the whole world is now going through. And perhaps that unity of experience will ultimately save us—it will make us see the world and each other a little differently than we did before.

There are a few things you can do to reduce your own risk of getting or spreading the COVID-19 infection, like washing your hands regularly, avoiding social contact, and wearing masks when you go outside. And of course you should do these things. But the truth really is that there is very little any one of us can do to stop this global pandemic. We can watch the numbers tick up almost in real-time—as of this writing, 1 million cases and over 50,000 deaths in the US, 3 million cases and over 200,000 deaths worldwide—but there is very little we can do to change those numbers.

Sometimes we really are helpless. The challenge we face is not to let this genuine helplessness bleed over and make us feel helpless about other aspects of our lives. We are currently sitting in a crate with no lever, where the shocks will begin and end beyond our control. But the day will come when we are delivered to a new crate, and given the chance to leap over a barrier; we must find the strength to take that leap.

For now, I think we can forgive ourselves for getting less done than we might have hoped. We’re still not really out of that first crate.

Glorifying superstars glorifies excessive risk

Apr 26 JDN 2458964

Suppose you were offered the choice of the following two gambles; which one would you take?

Gamble A: 99.9% chance of $0; 0.1% chance of $100 million

Gamble B: 10% chance of $50,000; 80% chance of $100,000; 10% chance of $1 million

I think it’s pretty clear that you should choose gamble B.

If you were risk-neutral, the expected payoffs would be $100,000 for gamble A and $185,000 for gamble B. So clearly gamble B is the better deal.

But you’re probably risk-averse. If you have logarithmic utility with a baseline and current wealth of $10,000, the difference is even larger:

0.001*ln(10001) = 0.009

0.1*ln(6) + 0.8*ln(11) + 0.1*ln(101) = 2.56

Yet suppose this is a gamble that a lot of people get to take. And furthermore suppose that what you read about in the news every day is always the people who are the very richest. Then you will read, over and over again, about people who took gamble A and got lucky enough to get the $100 million. You’d probably start to wonder if maybe you should be taking gamble A instead.

This is more or less the world we live in. A handful of billionaires own staggering amounts of wealth, and we are constantly hearing about them. Even aside from the fact that most of them inherited a large portion of it and all of them had plenty of advantages that most of us will never have, it’s still not clear that they were actually smart about taking the paths they did—it could simply be that they got spectacularly lucky.

Or perhaps there’s an even clearer example: Professional athletes. The vast majority of athletes make basically no money at sports. Even most paid athletes are in minor leagues and make only a modest living.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with being an amateur who plays sports for fun. But if you were to invest a large proportion of your time training in sports in the hopes of becoming a professional athlete, you would most likely find yourself gravely disappointed, as your chances of actually getting into the major leagues and becoming a multi-millionaire are exceedingly small. Yet you can probably name at least a few major league athletes who are multi-millionaires—perhaps dozens, if you’re a serious fan—and I doubt you can name anywhere near as many minor league players or players who never made it into paid leagues in the first place.

When we spend all of our time focused on the superstars, what we are effectively assessing is the maximum possible income available on a given career track. And it’s true; the maximum for professional athletes and especially entrepreneurs is extremely high. But the maximum isn’t what you should care about; you should really be concerned about the average or even the median.

And it turns out that the same professions that offer staggeringly high incomes at the very top also tend to be professions with extremely high risk attached. The average income for an athlete is very small; the median is almost certainly zero. Entrepreneurs do better; their average and median income aren’t too much worse than most jobs. But this moderate average comes with a great deal of risk; yes, you could become a billionaire—but far more likely, you could become bankrupt.

This is a deeply perverse result: The careers that our culture most glorifies, the ones that we inspire people to dream about, are precisely those that are the most likely to result in financial ruin.

Realizing this changes your perspective on a lot of things. For instance, there is a common lament that teachers aren’t paid the way professional athletes are. I for one am extremely grateful that this is the case. If teachers were paid like athletes, yes, 0.1% would be millionaires, but only 4.9% would make a decent living, and the remaining 95% would be utterly broke. Indeed, this is precisely what might happen if MOOCs really take off, and a handful of superstar teachers are able to produce all the content while the vast majority of teaching mostly amounts to showing someone else’s slideshows. Teachers are much better off in a world where they almost all make a decent living even though none of them ever get spectacularly rich. (Are many teachers still underpaid? Sure. How do I know this? Because there are teacher shortages. A chronic shortage of something is a surefire sign that its price is too low.) And clearly the idea that we could make all teachers millionaires is just ludicrous: Do you want to pay $1 million a year for your child’s education?

Is there a way that we could change this perverse pattern? Could we somehow make it feel more inspiring to choose a career that isn’t so risky? Well, I doubt we’ll ever get children to dream of being accountants or middle managers. But there are a wide range of careers that are fulfilling and meaningful while still making a decent living—like, well, teaching. Even working in creative arts can be like this: While very few authors are millionaires, the median income for an author is quite respectable. (On the other hand there’s some survivor bias here: We don’t count you as an author if you can’t get published at all.) Software engineers are generally quite satisfied with their jobs, and they manage to get quite high incomes with low risk. I think the real answer here is to spend less time glorifying obscene hoards of wealth and more time celebrating lives that are rich and meaningful.

I don’t know if Jeff Bezos is truly happy. But I do know that you and I are more likely to be happy if instead of trying to emulate him, we focus on making our own lives meaningful.

Authoritarianism and Masculinity

Apr 19 JDN 2458957

There has always been a significant difference between men and women voters, at least as long as we have been gathering data—and probably as long as women have been voting, which is just about to hit its centennial in the United States.

But the 2016 and 2018 elections saw the largest gender gaps we’ve ever recorded. Dividing by Presidential administrations, Bush would be from 2000 to 2006, when the gender gap never exceeded 18 percentage points, and averaged less than 10 points. Obama would be from 2008 to 2014, when the gender gap never exceeded 20 points and averaged about 15 points. In 2018, the gap stood at 23 percentage points.

Indeed, it is quite clear at this point that Trump’s support base comes mainly from White men.

This is far from the only explanatory factor here: Younger voters are much more liberal than older voters, more educated voters are more liberal than less educated voters, and urban voters are much more liberal than rural voters.

But the gender and race gaps are large enough that even if only White men with a college degree had voted, Trump would have still won, and even if only women without a college degree had voted, Trump would have lost. Trumpism is a white male identity movement.

And indeed it seems significant that Trump’s opponent was the first woman to be a US Presidential nominee from a major party.

Why would men be so much more likely to support Trump than women? Well, there’s the fact that Trump has been accused of sexual harassment dozens of times and sexual assault several times. Women are more likely to be victims of such behavior, and men are more likely to be perpetrators of it.

But I think that’s really a symptom of a broader cause, which is that authoritarianism is masculine.

Think about it: Can you even name a woman who was an authoritarian dictator? There have been a few queen tyrants historically, but not many; tyrants are almost always kings. And for all her faults, Margaret Thatcher was assuredly no Joseph Stalin.

Masculinity is tied to power, authority, strength, dominance: All things that authoritarians promise. It doesn’t even seem to matter that it’s always the dictator asserting power and dominance upon us, taking away the power and authority we previously had; the mere fact that some man is exerting power and dominance on someone seems to satisfy this impulse. And of course those who support authoritarians always seem to imagine that the dictator will oppress someone else—never me. (“I never thought leopards would eat my face!”)

Conversely, the virtues of democracy, such as equality, fairness, cooperation, and compromise, are coded feminine. This is how toxic masculinity sustains itself: Even being willing to talk about disagreements rather than fighting over them constitutes surrender to the feminine. So the mere fact that I am trying to talk them out of their insanely (both self- and other-) destructive norms proves that I serve the enemy.

I don’t often interact with Trump supporters, because doing so is a highly unpleasant experience. But when I have, certain themes kept reoccurring: “Trump is a real man”; “Democrats are pussies”; “they [people of color] are taking over our [White people’s] country”; “you’re a snowflake libtard beta cuck”.

Almost all of the content was about identity, particularly masculine and White identity. Virtually none of their defenses of Trump involved any substantive claims about policy, though some did at least reference the relatively good performance of the economy (up until recently—and that they all seem to blame on the “unforeseeable” pandemic, a “Black Swan”; nevermind that people actually did foresee it and were ignored). Ironically they are always the ones complaining about “identity politics”.

And while they would be the last to admit it, I noticed something else as well: Most of these men were deeply insecure about their own masculinity. They kept constantly trying to project masculine dominance, and getting increasingly aggravated when I simply ignored it rather than either submitting or responding with my own displays of dominance. Indeed, they probably perceived me as displaying a kind of masculine dominance: I was just countersignaling instead of signaling, and that’s what made them so angry. They clearly felt deeply envious of the fact that I could simply be secure in my own identity without feeling a need to constantly defend it.

But of course I wasn’t born that way. Indeed, the security I now feel in my own identity was very hard-won through years of agony and despair—necessitated by being a bisexual man in a world that even today isn’t very accepting of us. Even now I’m far from immune to the pressures of masculinity; I’ve simply learned to channel them better and resist their worst effects.

They call us “snowflakes” because they feel fragile, and fear their own fragility. And in truth, they are fragile. Indeed, fragile masculinity is one of the strongest predictors of support for Trump. But it is in the nature of fragile masculinity that pointing it out only aggravates it and provokes an even angrier response. Toxic masculinity is a very well-adapted meme; its capacity to defend itself is morbidly impressive, like the way that deadly viruses spread themselves is morbidly impressive.

This is why I think it is extremely dangerous to mock the size of Trump’s penis (or his hands, metonymously—though empirically, digit ratio slightly correlates with penis size, but overall hand size does not), or accuse his supporters of likewise having smaller penises. In doing so, you are reinforcing the very same toxic masculinity norms that underlie so much of Trump’s support. And this is even worse if the claim is true: In that case you’re also reinforcing that man’s own crisis of masculine identity.

Indeed, perhaps the easiest way to anger a man who is insecure about his masculinity is to accuse him of being insecure about his masculinity. It’s a bit of a paradox. I have even hesitated to write this post, for fear of triggering the same effect; but I realized that it’s more likely that you, my readers, would trigger it inadvertently, and by warning you I might reduce the overall rate at which it is triggered.

I do not use the word “triggered” lightly; I am talking about a traumatic trigger response. These men have been beaten down their whole lives for not being “manly enough”, however defined, and they lash out by attacking the masculinity of every other man they encounter—thereby perpetuating the cycle of trauma. And stricter norms of masculinity also make coping with trauma more difficult, which is why men who exhibit stricter masculinity also are more likely to suffer PTSD in war. There are years of unprocessed traumatic memories in these men’s brains, and the only way they know to cope with them is to try to inflict them on someone else.

The ubiquity of “cuck” as an insult in the alt-right is also quite notable in this context. It’s honestly a pretty weird insult to throw around casually; it implies knowing all sorts of things about a person’s sexual relationships that you can’t possibly know. (For someone in an openly polyamorous relationship, it’s probably quite amusing.) But it’s a way of attacking masculine identity: If you were a “real man”, your wife wouldn’t be sleeping around. We accuse her of infidelity in order to accuse you of inferiority. (And if your spouse is male? Well then obviously you’re even worse than a “cuck”—you’re a “fag”.) There also seems to be some sort of association that the alt-right made between cuckoldry and politics, as though the election of Obama constitutes America “cheating” on them. I’m not sure whether it bothers them more that Obama is liberal, or that he is Black. Both definitely bother them a great deal.

How do we deal with these men? If we shouldn’t attack their masculinity for fear of retrenchment, and we can’t directly engage them on questions of policy because it means nothing to them, what then should we do? I’m honestly not sure. What these men actually need is years of psychotherapy to cope with their deep-seated traumas; but they would never seek it out, because that, too, is considered unmasculine. Of course you can’t be expected to provide the effect of years of psychotherapy in a single conversation with a stranger. Even a trained therapist wouldn’t be able to do that, nor would they be likely to give actual therapy sessions to angry strangers for free.

What I think we can do, however, is to at least try to refrain from making their condition worse. We can rigorously resist the temptation to throw the same insults back at them, accusing them of having small penises, or being cuckolds, or whatever. We should think of this the way we think of using “gay” as an insult (something I all too well remember from middle school): You’re not merely insulting the person you’re aiming it at, you’re also insulting an entire community of innocent people.

We should even be very careful about directly addressing their masculine insecurity; it may sometimes be necessary, but it, too, is sure to provoke a defensive response. And as I mentioned earlier, if you are a man and you are not constantly defending your own masculinity, they can read that as countersignaling your own superiority. This is not an easy game to win.

But the stakes are far too high for us to simply give up. The fate of America and perhaps even the world hinges upon finding a solution.

Is this another Great Depression?

Apr 12 JDN 2458952

In the week from March 15 to March 21, over 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment. In the following week, this staggering record was broken, when over 6.6 million filed for unemployment. This is an utterly unprecedented number of unemployment filings in a single week; while the data is not as reliable further back, we think this didn’t even happen in the Great Depression.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average is down over 26% in the past quarter. The S&P 500 is down over 23% over the same period. The only comparable stock market crashes are Black Monday and the 1929 market crash.

Does this mean we are on track for another Great Depression? Fortunately, it does not.

This is all happening very fast, because of the rapid shutdowns of businesses during the pandemic. So when we look at short time horizons, things look very scary. But currently unemployment is still only 4.4%, and it is forecasted to rise to about 10% or 11%. This will certainly be a recession—indeed comparable to the Great Recession in 2009—but it will still pale in comparison to the Great Depression, when unemployment hit nearly 25%.

Also, we have a good reason for all this unemployment: We’re making people stay home to stop the spread of the virus. And it seems to be working: California and Washington took some of the most drastic measures, and have shown the fastest reductions in the spread of the virus.

This isn’t a normal recession. We are causing this unemployment on purpose. Paul Krugman makes the analogy to a medically-induced coma: We are shutting some functions down intentionally in order to make it easier to heal.

There is a significant chance, however, that this recession will end up being worse than it’s supposed to be, if our policymakers fail to provide adequate and timely relief to those who become unemployed.

As Donald Marron of the Urban Institute explained quite succinctly in a Twitter thread, there are three types of economic losses we need to consider here: Losses necessary to protect health, losses caused by insufficient demand, and losses caused by lost productive capacity. The first kind of loss is what we are doing on purpose; the other two are losses we should be trying to avoid. Insufficient demand is fairly easy to fix: Hand out cash. But sustaining productive capacity can be trickier.

Given the track record of the Trump administration so far, I am not optimistic. First Trump denied the virus was even a threat. Then he blamed China (which, even if partly true, doesn’t solve anything). Then his response was delayed and inadequate. And now the relief money is taking weeks to get to people—while clearly being less than many people need.

When Trump was first elected, I had several scenarios in my head of what might happen. The best-case scenario was that he’d turn out to be a typical Republican, or be kept on a tight leash by other Republicans. Obviously that didn’t happen. The worst-case scenario was a nuclear war with China; we are all very fortunate that this didn’t happen either. But this is honestly much worse than my median-case scenario, which was that Trump would be like another Reagan or another Nixon. Somehow he turned out to be another Reagan, another Nixon, another Harding, and another Hoover all rolled into one. He somehow combines the worst aspects of every President we’ve ever had, and while facing a historic global crisis his primary concern is his TV ratings.

I can’t tell you how long this is going to last. I can’t tell you just how bad it’s going to get. But I am confident of a few things:

It’ll be worse than it had to be, but not as bad as it could have been. Trump will continue making everything worse, but other, better leaders will make things better. Above all, we’ll make it through this, together.

Do I want to stay in academia?

Apr 5 JDN 2458945

This is a very personal post. You’re not going to learn any new content today; but this is what I needed to write about right now.

I am now nearly finished with my dissertation. It only requires three papers (which, quite honestly, have very little to do with one another). I just got my second paper signed off on, and my third is far enough along that I can probably finish it in a couple of months.

I feel like I ought to be more excited than I am. Mostly what I feel right now is dread.

Yes, some of that dread is the ongoing pandemic—though I am pleased to report that the global number of cases of COVID-19 has substantially undershot the estimates I made last week, suggesting that at least most places are getting the virus under control. The number of cases and number of deaths has about doubled in the past week, which is a lot better than doubling every two days as it was at the start of the pandemic. And that’s all I want to say about COVID-19 today, because I’m sure you’re as tired of the wall-to-wall coverage of it as I am.

But most of the dread is about my own life, mainly my career path. More and more I’m finding that the world of academic research just isn’t working for me. The actual research part I like, and I’m good at it; but then it comes time to publish, and the journal system is so fundamentally broken, so agonizingly capricious, and has such ludicrous power over the careers of young academics that I’m really not sure I want to stay in this line of work. I honestly think I’d prefer they just flip a coin when you graduate and you get a tenure-track job if you get heads. Or maybe journals could roll a 20-sided die for each paper submitted and publish the papers that get 19 or 20. At least then the powers that be couldn’t convince themselves that their totally arbitrary and fundamentally unjust selection process was actually based on deep wisdom and selecting the most qualified individuals.

In any case I’m fairly sure at this point that I won’t have any publications in peer-reviewed journals by the time I graduate. It’s possible I still could—I actually still have decent odds with two co-authored papers, at least—but I certainly do not expect to. My chances of getting into a top journal at this point are basically negligible.

If I weren’t trying to get into academia, that fact would be basically irrelevant. I think most private businesses and government agencies are fairly well aware of the deep defects in the academic publishing system, and really don’t put a whole lot of weight on its conclusions. But in academia, publication is everything. Specifically, publication in top journals.

For this reason, I am now seriously considering leaving academia once I graduate. The more contact I have with the academic publishing system the more miserable I feel. The idea of spending another six or seven years desperately trying to get published in order to satisfy a tenure committee sounds about as appealing right now as having my fingernails pulled out one by one.

This would mean giving up on a lifelong dream. It would mean wondering why I even bothered with the PhD, when the first MA—let alone the second—would probably have been enough for most government or industry careers. And it means trying to fit myself into a new mold that I may find I hate just as much for different reasons: A steady 9-to-5 work schedule is a lot harder to sustain when waking up before 10 AM consistently gives you migraines. (In theory, there are ways to get special accommodations for that sort of thing; in practice, I’m sure most employers would drag their feet as much as possible, because in our culture a phase-delayed circadian rhythm is tantamount to being lazy and therefore worthless.)

Or perhaps I should aim for a lecturer position, perhaps at a smaller college, that isn’t so obsessed with research publication. This would still dull my dream, but would not require abandoning it entirely.

I was asked a few months ago what my dream job is, and I realized: It is almost what I actually have. It is so tantalizingly close to what I am actually headed for that it is painful. The reality is a twisted mirror of the dream.

I want to teach. I want to do research. I want to write. And I get to do those things, yes. But I want to them without the layers of bureaucracy, without the tiers of arbitrary social status called ‘prestige’, without the hyper-competitive and capricious system of journal publication. Honestly I want to do them without grading or dealing with publishers at all—though I can at least understand why some mechanisms for evaluating student progress and disseminating research are useful, even if our current systems for doing so are fundamentally defective.

It feels as though I have been running a marathon, but was only given a vague notion of the route beforehand. There were a series of flags to follow: This way to the bachelor’s, this way to the master’s, that way to advance to candidacy. Then when I come to the last set of flags, the finish line now visible at the horizon, I see that there is an obstacle course placed in my way, with obstacles I was never warned about, much less trained for. A whole new set of skills, maybe even a whole different personality, is necessary to surpass these new obstacles, and I feel utterly unprepared.

It is as if the last mile of my marathon must bedone on horseback, and I’ve never learned to ride a horse—no one ever told me I would need to ride a horse. (Or maybe they did and I didn’t listen?) And now every time I try to mount one, I fall off immediately; and the injuries I sustain seem to be worse every time. The bruises I thought would heal only get worse. The horses I must ride are research journals, and the injuries when I fall are psychological—but no less real, all too real. With each attempt I keep hoping that my fear will fade, but instead it only intensifies.

It’s the same pain, the same fear, that pulled me away from fiction writing. I want to go back, I hope to go back—but I am not strong enough now, and cannot be sure I ever will be. I was told that working in a creative profession meant working hard and producing good output; it turns out it doesn’t mean that at all. A successful career in a creative field actually means satisfying the arbitrary desires of a handful of inscrutable gatekeepers. It means rolling the dice over, and over, and over again, each time a little more painful than the last. And it turns out that this just isn’t something I’m good at. It’s not what I’m cut out for. And maybe it never will be.

An incompetent narcissist would surely fare better than I, willing to re-submit whatever refuse they produce a thousand times because they are certain they deserve to succeed. For, deep down, I never feel that I deserve it. Others tell me I do, and I try to believe them; but the only validation that feels like it will be enough is the kind that comes directly from those gatekeepers, the kind that I can never get. And truth be told, maybe if I do finally get that, it still won’t be enough. Maybe nothing ever will be.

If I knew that it would get easier one day, that the pain would, if not go away, at least retreat to a dull roar I could push aside, then maybe I could stay on this path. But this cannot be the rest of my life. If this is really what it means to have an academic career, maybe I don’t want one after all.

Or maybe it’s not academia that’s broken. Maybe it’s just me.

Fear not to “overreact”

Mar 29 JDN 2458938

It could be given as a story problem in an algebra class, if you didn’t mind terrifying your students:

A virus spreads exponentially, so that the population infected doubles every two days. Currently 10,000 people are infected. How long will it be until 300,000 are infected? Until 10,000,000 are infected? Until 600,000,000 are infected?

The answers:

300,000/10,000 is about 32 = 2^5, so it will take 5 doublings, or 10 days.

10,000,000/10,000 is about 1024=2^10, so it will take 10 doublings, or 20 days.

600,000,000/10,000 is about 64*1024=2^6*2^10, so it will take 16 doublings, or 32 days.

This is the approximate rate at which COVID-19 spreads if uncontrolled.

Fortunately it is not completely uncontrolled; there were about 10,000 confirmed infections on January 30, and there are now about 300,000 as of March 22. This is about 50 days, so the daily growth rate has averaged about 7%. On the other hand, this is probably a substantial underestimate, because testing remains very poor, particularly here in the US.

Yet the truth is, we don’t know how bad COVID-19 is going to get. Some estimates suggest it may be nearly as bad as the 1918 flu pandemic; others say it may not be much worse than H1N1. Perhaps all this social distancing and quarantine is an overreaction? Perhaps the damage from closing all the schools and restaurants will actually be worse than the damage from the virus itself?

Yes, it’s possible we are overreacting. But we really shouldn’t be too worried about this possibility.

This is because the costs here are highly asymmetric. Overreaction has a moderate, fairly predictable cost. Underreaction could be utterly catastrophic. If we overreact, we waste a quarter or two of productivity, and then everything returns to normal. If we underreact, millions of people die.

This is what it means to err on the side of caution: If we are not 90% sure that we are overreacting, then we should be doing more. We should be fed up with the quarantine procedures and nearly certain that they are not all necessary. That means we are doing the right thing.

Indeed, the really terrifying thing is that we may already have underreacted. These graphs of what will happen under various scenarios really don’t look good:

pandemic_graph

But there may still be a chance to react adequately. The advice for most of us seems almost too simple: Stay home. Wash your hands.

How beneficial is healthcare?

Mar 22 JDN 2458931

Healthcare has been a contentious issue in the US for generations, but became especially so during the Obama administration with the passage of the Affordable Care Act. To be honest, I never quite understood the opposition to transitioning to a single-payer healthcare system; we already spend as much public funds on healthcare as most other First World countries spend in their entire healthcare system (plus we spend even more than that on private spending!), so not only can we afford it—it would in fact save us trillions of dollars a year. We might not even have to raise taxes, but even if we did, we’d pay so much less out of pocket that most of us would end up with more money. I understand why the corporations that run HMOs don’t want single-payer; but why does anyone else oppose it?

It’s not as if there are no models to follow; we could literally just copy the Canadian system (or the British system, or the French system…). It’s always amusing to me when conservatives respond to the suggestion by: “But that’s socialism! Do you want to end up like Cuba?” First of all, I said copy Canada, not copy Cuba. But even if we did copy Cuba, healthcare is one of the few things that Cuba actually does extremely well. On a QALY-per-dollar basis, it’s probably the most cost-effective healthcare system in the world (and the US is probably the least). So yeah, you know what? I kinda do want to end up like Cuba.

And no, countries with single-payer healthcare systems do not have longer wait times. Even by standard measures, our wait types are in the middle of the pack. But in fact these standard measures are clearly biased in our favor. The main way that we reduce wait times is by excluding people from care entirely. That’s not a wait time of zero; it’s a wait time of the rest of your life. If we measured properly, we would clearly have the longest wait times in the First World, because of all those people who never get care at all.

But today I’m going to ask a different question:

How much harm is done by our awful healthcare system?

Or conversely:

How much benefit would we get from insuring everyone?

The largest randomized controlled experiment on health insurance in the United States was the RAND Health Insurance Experiment, and its results were quite surprising: The marginal benefit of better health insurance for most people was very small, in many cases statistically negligible. People who were very poor or very sick benefited from having health insurance, but everyone else used more medical care without getting much apparent benefit. Since this was a large randomized controlled experiment, it should probably be considered our most credible evidence.

On the other hand, the RAND study was done before I was born, so maybe it’s time for a new study?

More recent studies have used regression discontinuity analysis, looking to see if going on Medicare seems to change the trendline in your mortality rate. It doesn’t.Of course mortality rates go up as you get older, and people become eligible for Medicare by getting older… but still, if Medicare is helping, you’d think there would be some kind of kink in the trend, and as far as we can tell, there isn’t. Perhaps people are simply transitioning from one form of adequate health insurance (e.g. employer-provided insurance) to another.

There is some evidence that healthcare saves lives, if we restrict attention specifically to what is called mortality amenable to healthcare, deaths caused by diseases that we know can be effectively treated by medical intervention. (It’s really a continuum, with malaria at one end, and airstrikes at the other. Both kill thousands of people every year, but malaria can be treated with a few doses of quinine, while there’s nothing anyone can do for you if you were in the blast center of a Hellfire missile. In between we have diseases like cancer, which medicine can sometimes save you from but not always.) By this measure, the United States clearly lags behind other First World countries, and the reason is clearly that we deny a lot of people healthcare.

However, I think mortality is really the wrong measure to use, for the following reason: We already have a universal healthcare system when it’s literally a question of life or death, and that’s the ER system. The Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, signed by Ronald Reagan (yes, Republicans also used to like saving poor people from diseases, not so long ago!), guarantees that anyone who needs emergency care can get it immediately, regardless of their ability to pay. They can still bill you later, which may be a big reason why medical costs are the leading cause of bankruptcy in the United States (and literally nowhere else in the world). But at least you won’t die.

A lot of it actually comes down to how we measure health. Self-reported measures are notoriously unreliable in various ways, yet ultimately I don’t see how we can tell whether someone is sleeping well, feeling energetic, or being in pain without asking them. Correlating self-reported measures with objective measures like records of doctor visits shows pretty good correspondence, albeit by no means perfect.

As healthcare spending has increased and medical technology has advanced, there has been a worldwide trend of reduced disability and mortality, and the US is no exception. Clearly healthcare is doing something.

Yet it remains a fair question whether most people need more healthcare—maybe we’re actually getting enough. Maybe most people’s health insurance is already adequate, and we don’t need to improve it in any substantial way.

On balance, I think the best evidence we have says that people who have no insurance at all, or really awful insurance, would strongly benefit from improved access to healthcare. There’s also evidence that people with severe chronic conditions benefit from having steady healthcare. But for most people most of the time, the benefits of more health insurance would be quite small.

Does this mean we should get rid of health insurance? Of course not. But it does mean that future reforms should be focused on getting it to people who have none, not improving it for people who already have it. We don’t need to lower co-pays or deductibles; we may not even need to raise or remove coverage caps. But we do need to get some kind of health insurance to people who don’t have any at all.
To this end, Obamacare has done fairly well: You can just look at a graph of the number of uninsured people in the US and see that not only did Obamacare reduce that number, the steady attempts to undermine Obamacare are starting to bring it back up.

Then again, a single-payer system would clearly do even better, maybe even get that number to zero… so explain to me again why we’re not doing this?