Self interest and self care

“Self care” is all the rage. It’s heralded as a novel and progressive notion.

The stance one takes on Simone Biles is largely colored by one’s theory of self care.

So, as Biles occupies the headlines for days, why isn’t more credit going to Adam Smith and his intellectual descendants? “Self interest” was condemned, yet here we are in 2021 with “self care”!

James had a similar post yesterday! He went back in history much further than Adam Smith.

Simone Biles and the Trojan War

When star gymnast Simone Biles decided to sit out the Olympics this week to ‘focus on herself’, both those praising her and those criticizing her seemed to treat this like a unique story that wouldn’t have happened in earlier generations. But it reminds me of one of the oldest recorded stories in the world, one that predates even the first ancient Greek Olympics of 776 BC- Achilles’ decision to sit out the Trojan War.

Here is Biles this week:

We also have to focus on ourselves, because at the end of the day we’re human, too… We have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.

Here is Achilles, greatest of the Greek warriors, thousands of years ago:

Him do I hate even as the gates of hell who says one thing while he hides another in his heart; therefore I will say what I mean. I will be appeased neither by Agamemnon son of Atreus nor by any other of the Danaans, for I see that I have no thanks for all my fighting. He that fights fares no better than he that does not; coward and hero are held in equal honour, and death deals like measure to him who works and him who is idle. I have taken nothing by all my hardships- with my life ever in my hand; as a bird when she has found a morsel takes it to her nestlings, and herself fares hardly, even so man a long night have I been wakeful, and many a bloody battle have I waged by day against those who were fighting for their women. With my ships I have taken twelve cities, and eleven round about Troy have I stormed with my men by land; I took great store of wealth from every one of them, but I gave all up to Agamemnon son of Atreus. He stayed where he was by his ships, yet of what came to him he gave little, and kept much himself….

Agamemnon has taken her from me; he has played me false; I know him; let him tempt me no further, for he shall not move me. Let him look to you, Ulysses, and to the other princes to save his ships from burning…. I will draw my ships into the water and then victual them duly; to-morrow morning, if you care to look, you will see my ships on the Hellespont, and my men rowing out to sea with might and main. If great Neptune vouchsafes me a fair passage, in three days I shall be in Phthia. I have much there that I left behind me when I came here to my sorrow, and I shall bring back still further store of gold, of red copper, of fair women, and of iron, my share of the spoils that we have taken; but one prize, he who gave has insolently taken away. Tell him all as I now bid you, and tell him in public that the Achaeans may hate him and beware of him should he think that he can yet dupe others for his effrontery never fails him.

As for me, hound that he is, he dares not look me in the face. I will take no counsel with him, and will undertake nothing in common with him. He has wronged me and deceived me enough, he shall not cozen me further; let him go his own way, for Jove has robbed him of his reason. I loathe his presents, and for himself care not one straw. He may offer me ten or even twenty times what he has now done, nay- not though it be all that he has in the world, both now or ever shall have; he may promise me the wealth of Orchomenus or of Egyptian Thebes, which is the richest city in the whole world, for it has a hundred gates through each of which two hundred men may drive at once with their chariots and horses; he may offer me gifts as the sands of the sea or the dust of the plain in multitude, but even so he shall not move me till I have been revenged in full for the bitter wrong he has done me. I will not marry his daughter; she may be fair as Venus, and skilful as Minerva, but I will have none of her: let another take her, who may be a good match for her and who rules a larger kingdom. If the gods spare me to return home, Peleus will find me a wife; there are Achaean women in Hellas and Phthia, daughters of kings that have cities under them; of these I can take whom I will and marry her. Many a time was I minded when at home in Phthia to woo and wed a woman who would make me a suitable wife, and to enjoy the riches of my old father Peleus. My life is more to me than all the wealth of Ilius while it was yet at peace before the Achaeans went there, or than all the treasure that lies on the stone floor of Apollo’s temple beneath the cliffs of Pytho. Cattle and sheep are to be had for harrying, and a man buy both tripods and horses if he wants them, but when his life has once left him it can neither be bought nor harried back again. 

My mother Thetis tells me that there are two ways in which I may meet my end. If I stay here and fight, I shall not return alive but my name will live for ever: whereas if I go home my name will die, but it will be long ere death shall take me. To the rest of you, then, I say, ‘Go home, for you will not take Ilius.’ Jove has held his hand over her to protect her, and her people have taken heart. Go, therefore, as in duty bound, and tell the princes of the Achaeans the message that I have sent them; tell them to find some other plan for the saving of their ships and people, for so long as my displeasure lasts the one that they have now hit upon may not be

In either case, economists aren’t surprised to see people stop showing up to work when they think the costs to them exceed the benefits, even when that work is itself unusual and could benefit their country.

The Recession Is Over! (15 months ago)

Lately there has been lots of both good and bad news about the pandemic and its impact on the economy. But here’s once piece of good news you might have missed: the recession which began in February 2020 ended in April. And not April 2021… it ended in April 2020. At least, that’s according to the NBER Business Cycle Dating Committee, which made the announcement last week.

The 2020 recession of just 2 months is by far the shortest on record. NBER maintains a list of recessions with monthly dates going back to 1854 (there are annual business cycles dates before that, including important modern revisions of the original estimates, but the monthly series starts in 1854). In that timeframe, there have been 7 recessions in the 6-8 month range, but nothing this short. Still, it was mostly definitely a recession, as unemployment briefly spiked to levels not seen since the Great Depression. But only for 2 months. Keep in mind that the first part of the Great Depression last 43 months.

Unemployment Rate, 1948-present

But how can this be? Is the recession really over? There are still about 6-7 million fewer people working than before the pandemic began. Lots of businesses are still hurting. The unemployment rate is still 2 full percentage points above pre-pandemic levels. How in the world can we say the recession ended 15 months ago?

To answer that question, it helps to know what NBER and most macroeconomists mean by a “recession” — essentially, it is used interchangeably with “contraction.” It means the economy, by a broad array of measures (NBER uses about 10 measures), is shrinking — or we might say, going in the wrong direction. The only other option, at least in the NBER chronology, is an expansion — when the economy is going in the right direction.

Does an economic expansion mean that everything is fine the economy?

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Why is the COVID Delta Variant So Infectious?

The “delta variant” of COVID-19 is far more virulent than the original strains, and is largely responsible for the recent surges in COVID cases in the U.S. and worldwide. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky told the Senate on July 15  that the delta variant now makes up 83% of U.S. cases, up from 50% at the beginning of this month. It was first detected in India, then spread to the U.K. and the U.S., and around the world.

What is it that makes the delta variant so infectious? From a molecular point of view, here are the known functional mutations in the DNA that produces the “spike” proteins in the virus which bind to human cells:

Source: Stanford

Four of these mutations in particular are believed to contribute to the virulence of this strain, as discussed here. Among other things, they can cause the spike protein to bind more strongly to our cells, and inhibit our immune response. See here for 3-D model of the virus spike binding to human receptor, showing the locations of those mutated proteins.

As a result of those mutations the delta variant grows faster inside people’s respiratory tracts and reaches much higher levels. Per NPR,

On average, people infected with the delta variant had about 1,000 times more copies of the virus in their respiratory tracts than those infected with the original strain of the coronavirus, the study reported.

In addition, after someone catches the delta variant, the person likely becomes infectious sooner. On average, it took about four days for the delta variant to reach detectable levels inside a person, compared with six days for the original coronavirus variant.

… People who have contracted the delta variant are likely spreading the virus earlier in the course of their infection.

How can we stop it? It is pretty simple:  get vaccinated (or never be in a closed space with other unvaccinated humans). Vaccines don’t totally prevent you from getting COVID initially, so you might still have early symptoms and also be able to spread the virus to others for a few days. However, vaccines are highly effective in helping your immune system to quickly shut down any infection you do get before the symptoms get severe. This is true for all for essentially all strains of COVID, including delta.

Again per NPR,

Preliminary data shows that in some U.S. states, 99.5% of COVID-19 deaths in the past few months were among people who weren’t vaccinated, said CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky at a White House press conference in early July.

And 97% of those currently hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, according to Walensky.

Just compare the two maps below of which American states have high/low vaccinations and high/low COVID incidence, and draw your own conclusions:

Percent Vaccinations. Image source: ABCnews

COVID Case Density. Image source: ABCnews

Another marginal cost bites the dust?

The story of renewable energy changing the world for the better has always been about solving two parallel concerns: figuring out 1) how to produce clean, renewable power cheaply and 2)how to store the power generated for long periods of time. Over the last decade the cost of solar and wind power generation has plummeted. It’s not just that its cheaper per megawatt than fossil fuels, its also that the rate of cost decline shows not signs of slowing. But to fully displace fossil fuels also requires solving the “intermittency problem”. You can store piles of coal and barrels of oil, but how do store solar power for use when the sun doesn’t shine?

If we allow ourselves a moment’s credulous excitement and believe the press releases from Form Energy, a major step towards solving the intermittency problem has been made. I am in no position to judge the credibility of their technology or their capacity to effectively scale its development and distribution, but I find the opportunity to engage in a little futurism too exciting to resist. (Warning: I’m an economist, not an engineer. But even if I have the specifics wrong here, it’s still a fun exercise.)

The new technology in question is an iron-based battery that stores power for upwards of 100 hours. This reads to me as meaning two things:

  1. Power is going to become very cheap
  2. The batteries are going to be heavy

The second part is important. These aren’t the batteries that Tesla wants to put in their cars. They are, however, the batteries that can make for a local power station…or perhaps enable a perpetually self-powered large train?

If you’ve been daydreaming about high-speed rail remaking day-to-day American life, today is potentially a very big day for you. If you want to see millions of travelers speeding along rails in the 21st century, however, you need to lure them out of their cars and business-class flights with a speed and cost proposition that is not just better, but irresistible. Even more, you need to lure them in numbers sufficiently vast that cities (states? nations?) face a value proposition so great that its worth making fixed cost investments measured in hundreds of billions of dollars. A 10% reduction in cost isn’t going to do that. Appeals to community, civic duty, environmental stewardship — I’m pretty sure that will have much effect. What I think might do it, however, is cutting travel costs in half.

Why stop at half though? What happens if a $500 billion investment means urban residents can travel for a twentieth of the cost we associate with cars and planes today? What if that investment only truly pays off if other cities on a route make commensurate investments? It’s easy to point out the challenges of multi-state coordination in a country with highly polarized politics. What’s maybe easier to forget are the challenges that success might bring.

In a world where public transit pushes the marginal cost of travel to a tiny fraction of that faced by travelers in regions without similar fixed cost investments, the urban-rural divide becomes all the starker. Furthermore, its not every urban center that participates – it’s only the ones in the network. Automobiles, while not necessarily inexpensive, evolved into a relatively democratic mode of travel. Combined with the interstate highway system, hamlets and towns could pop up all over the country, and sometimes hang around long after local industry had dissipated or fled. In a world extraordinarily low-cost transit, the gravity of the dense urban areas could become irresistible. Pick a side in a congress heavily gerrymandered along urban-rural lines, and imagine you’re a representative from either side, and it doesn’t take much reflection to realize that no one will be on the sidelines for these votes. If you’re from a rural district, your political life and the future of your party depends on stopping free high speed rail from ever seeing the light of day. Perhaps ironically, though, if the costs per mile of NYC subway are a relevant metric, union negotiated prices may be an even bigger obstacle.

We’ve spent the last year adapting to technologies that left us thinking half of us could work from home, that we could live anywhere, dispersing us to every corner of the globe in a thin layer of extremely online exurbanites. Today we got a glimpse of a different technology, one that might pull us closer together again while taking a major step towards addressing global climate change and increasing the wealth of billions of people at every decile of the income distribution. We’ve lived our lives on landscapes defined by the maps first drawn by sailors, caravans, and indigenous peoples. Maps full of rivers, mountains, and intricate webs of roads. If the next round of massive fixed costs investments allows those along its chosen network to enjoy the benefits of near costless travel, don’t be surprised when the defining maps of the future look like the London Tube.

How to Talk to People (elderly and children)

This is a great Youtube video on how to talk to people with memory loss. It’s for family and caregivers. It’s a helpful free practical resource for an aging population. (40 minutes, but you can get a lot out of the first 20)

Even if you have good intentions, it is surprisingly easy to say something hurtful to another person. Ultimately, these scripts are shortcuts for what I think you would say if you had deep empathy and spent time getting to know the person you are speaking to. To save time, if you can find a good script writer, steal their lines. Economists speak of “money on the sidewalk”. Learning tricks that enable you to express what you actually mean to people seems like free money, speaking as a life-long awkward person.

On the other end of life, there is an Instagram account @biglittlefeelings with good tips for talking to toddlers. Here’s a video with Danny Silk on kids and and how they interpret attempts to control them.

What Women Want

What do women want, if they have kids and no budget constraint? I think a lot of women would choose what this wealthy mom of 3 has, if they could afford it.

The title of a current article from Parents magazine is “‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Star Caterina Scorsone on Raising 3 Daughters of Different Ages and Abilities” The subtitle is “As a mom of three, … Scorsone leans on her own sisters and a community of chosen family to balance work and parenting, spend one-on-one time with each child…”

What is a “community of chosen family”? You pay those people. They are chosen, to be sure. According to the article, along with help from relatives,

The actress also relies on a babysitter, Sam, and a nanny and former restaurateur, Frances, who does much of the cooking. “I would never perpetuate the myth that it’s all easy,” says the actress, who shares custody with her ex. But she’s quick to count blessings, especially for the “ridiculous salary” that comes from playing Dr. Amelia Shepherd … “COVID-19 forced people to acknowledge how hard it is to work and parent. My sister and nanny lend their talents to our family while I lend my skills to the show.”

I’m all for specialization and trade. I think it’s great that she can pay someone else to clean up kid messes. The next part seemed more odd to me.

“She also carves out one-on-one time with each daughter on weekends. “I make sure to check in with each individually,” she says. “Besides, it’s more peaceful. If we spend an entire weekend as one pack, there’s a lot of fighting and crying!”

I better pause to say that I am not judging this woman. I’m not trying to tear her down or label her as out of touch, as so many internet dwellers did to Chrissy Teigen. I’m considering whether a wealthier society of the future would choose to wall off negative social interactions.

If you spend time as a family, there will be “a lot of fighting and crying”. My nuclear family spent the weekend “as one pack”. We took the kids through the Ruby Falls cave tour. Here is a picture of my kids fighting, 300 feet under the surface of the earth! They have also fought at 30,000 feet in the air.

Part of me would like to pay someone else to deal with the fighting (more likely to be a robot than a human domestic helper in the future). Would that ultimately be a good choice? One reason wealthy people live in atomized nuclear families is to shield themselves from humanity’s “fighting and crying.” Generally, the last human interaction we preserve is the highs and lows of our own children. (Lots of people live with a “partner” but people get divorced at a much higher rate than they abandon their children.)

How much fighting would very wealthy people choose? Would they make a good choice? Is there any such thing as a real relationship without fighting?

What if humanity avoids cataclysmic disasters for the next 100 years and they become much richer? What struggles would they choose to keep? Are there hardships that no one would choose, but which ultimately enrich life?

The highly atomized nuclear family is a modern phenomenon. Wealth enables us to live apart from each other, but that can in turn lead to loneliness and frustration. If the future humans are instead poorer than we are today, then there is a good chance that kids will be raised by a tribe once again. Sometimes I wish my kids had more tribe, but I also try not to romanticize the past. A tribe is not “a nanny and former restaurateur.”

When I contemplate the low rate of voluntary vaccination around me, it makes me worry that we are headed for the poorer route. But it’s still worth thinking about what would happen if we get much richer.

Informational Diabetes

We all recognize that in the Internet Age, it is easy to communicate and to access information.

For the infovores, this is a cause for celebration.

Others worry that this leads to “information overload”, and to the spread of “disinformation” and “misinformation”. While this is clearly true, complaints about it typically seem to come from elites longing for the days when they had the only microphone, before the Revolt of the Public. Its hard to banish “misinformation” without screening out differences of opinion and correct contrarians even if you want to- and for some, such “collateral damage” would in fact be the main goal. But clearly something is wrong with the current information environment.

In a recent podcast appearance, Balaji Srinivasan used a metaphor I like better- Informational Diabetes:

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COVID Deaths and Middle Age

We have known for a long time (basically since the start of the pandemic) that COVID primarily affects the elderly. Infection fatality rates are hard to calculate (since not all infections are reported), but most of the data suggest that the elderly are much more likely to die from COVID than other age groups.

For some, this has become one of the most important aspects of the pandemic. For example, Don Boudreaux emphasizes the age distribution of deaths many times in a recent episode of Econtalk, and he uses this point to argue that we addressed the pandemic incorrectly (to say the least). Boudreaux specifies that COVID is only deadly for those 70 and older. And while I won’t rehash the argument here, please also see my exchange with Bryan Caplan, where he argues that elderly lives are worth a lot less than younger lives (I disagree).

At first blush, the data seems to bear that out. The CDC reports that almost 80% of COVID-involved deaths were among those aged 65 and older (I will use the CDC’s definition of COVID-involved deaths throughout this post). In other words, of the currently reported almost 600,000 COVID deaths in the US, about 475,000 were 65 and older. Throw in the 50-64 age group, and you’ve now got 570,000 of the deaths (95% of the total).

But is this the right way to think about it? Remember, the elderly always account for a large share of deaths, around 75% in recent years. So it shouldn’t surprise us that most deaths from just about any disease are concentrated among the elderly.

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Making Sunbaked Essene Bread: Snatching Victory from the Jaws of Sprouting Defeat

Last week I posted a somewhat downbeat article on my attempts at growing sprouts to eat. Clumps of hair-like alfalfa sprouts are OK, but the various sprouted beans and peas I made got no traction with me or my extended family. And my sprouted wheat tasted terrible, like a mouthful of grass.

The wheat got me curious – – I have enjoyed plenty of nice “sprouted wheat” bread, and it is supposed to be good for you. In the germination process, the enzymatic chemistry of the wheat seed goes into action and breaks down some of the highly stable compounds in order to activate them for supporting active growing instead of stasis. Studies show that this sprouting chemistry renders the material in the wheat more amenable to human digestion than in the original seed and greatly increases the vitamin A and C content.

So, what did I do wrong? It turns out that the timing of wheat sprouting is critical: if it goes too long, the wheat composition changes dramatically, turning more bitter. That is what happened with my first sprouting effort. Smarting with this failure, I decided to try again.

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