On inflation, inequality, and hungry ghosts.

On inflation, inequality, and hungry ghosts.

If people who earnestly believe in ghosts decide to host a séance, they’re no more likely to conjure an apparition than if non-believers host a similar ceremony simply as a lark.

A ring of candles, a drop of blood, earnest believe: none of these will summon spirits. And so the rest of us – the unwitting public who might find ourselves endangered if hungry ghosts were unleashed upon the world – need not fear any gathering of believers. The force of their belief can’t hurt us.

But inflation is a ghost who can be summoned by belief.

Inflation can only be summoned by belief.

And inflation hungers. But this ghost will not pursue us equally. Rather, inflation is like a spirit of vengeance, aggrieved by inequality. Inflation gobbles fortunes while forgiving debts.

Corporate executives – people with the power to set prices – have contributed most to inflation’s summoning. Their belief, within the financial séance, has mattered more. And, as they tend to be more wealthy than the average person, they have the most to fear.

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Inflation is a rise in the prices of all goods and services. Wages rise, and so do prices, each increasing ostensibly in response to the other.

Consider an example: if the price of apples increased but all other food prices stayed the same, that would not be inflation. That might reflect a poor apple harvest. Apples would become more expensive relative to other goods.

But if, after this poor apple harvest, grocers raise the prices of apples, then notice that people are actually willing to pay those higher prices, and then decide to raise all their other prices too, just to see, and then workers demand higher wages in order to afford their more expensive groceries, that is inflation.

Inflation is a pressure to keep relative prices the same. Which results from belief – in our example, grocers simply believing that two lemons should cost as much as an apple, even after a poor apple harvest, and workers believing that they should be able to afford an apple with the wages of five minutes’ work, just like they could last year.

This distinction – that inflation occurs because people believe one good should not become more expensive compared to another – is essential to understanding the origins of our current episode of inflation. Which has a lot of roots – disruptions to Chinese manufacturing, shipping snafus, embargoes against Russian energy exports – but the story begins with wages.

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In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, many workers realized that they were being unfairly undercompensated. People switched to better-paying jobs. Employers had to offer more money to retain staff. Briefly, it seemed as though workers would become more expensive relative to corporate profits, executive pay, or consumer prices.

Our current episode of inflation can be understood partly as a game of tug-of-war between workers and corporations. Workers insist that they should be valued more than they previously were – in response, their wages increase. Then executives tug back, insisting that workers were already treated well enough – they set prices higher, negating the increase in workers’ buying power.

If a single executive behaved this way, that corporation might suffer. If a can of Coca-Cola cost two dollars while a can of Pepsi cost only one, people might switch to Pepsi. But if many executives coincidentally behave like a cartel, all raising their prices at the same time, then they maintain the séance. Despite needing to pay high wages, their profits rise. So do their personal salaries. They reinforce their belief about the status of workers.

And their belief creates inflation.

See, for example, the New York Times article, “Food Prices Soar, and So Do Companies’ Profits.

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Increased fuel and shipping costs have also contributed to rising prices, but these didn’t cause the inflation we’re experiencing today.

In our economy, fuel is used for almost everything: powering farm equipment, transporting goods across the country, hopscotching components along the supply chain, even commuting to work. As fuel costs rise, all production becomes more expensive.

You might imagine that if prices were raised to reflect the rising cost of fuel, we’d see something like inflation. But it costs just as much to ship ten pounds of cheap trinkets as it does to ship ten pounds of intricate devices; it costs just as much for a janitor to drive to work as for an executive. Boosting every wage to account for increased commuting costs would compress the percentage gap between executive and worker salaries. Raising the price of all goods to account for increased shipping and manufacturing costs would make formerly cheap products become relatively more expensive.

Instead, prices and wages have increased by a percentage of what they were before. Real occurrences in the world – beleaguered workers bargaining for higher salaries, a shipping crunch when people stuck at home bought furnishings online, a war in Ukraine – caused some prices to rise. Belief lifted all the others.

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Our current episode of inflation has also been abetted by unhappiness.

Because inflation arises from belief, it always has psychological roots. People with the power to set prices will set them higher if they believe that other people are also setting higher prices. But right now, inflation has also been bolstered by the psychological malaise of consumers.

During an interview with Ezra Klein, economist J. Bradford DeLong offers an explanation for the end of inflation in the U.S. in the 1970s:

And Paul Volcker says, ‘We’ve gotten ourselves into a situation in which people don’t just expect inflation next year to be what it was last year. People expect inflation next year to be what it was last year plus a bit more.”

“ ‘I’ve got to fix this and I got to fix this by hitting the economy on the head with a brick and keep hitting until people understand that no, if they insist on raising their prices, they’ll have no demand for their products.’ ”

In this description, DeLong correctly describes the root cause of inflation as belief. Inflation happens because the people with power to set prices believe that inflation is happening. And DeLong describes a way for inflation to end: convincing those people, the ones who are setting prices, that consumers will stop buying things.

Our current period of inflation began with wages rising – due to the pandemic, people wouldn’t come to work unless they received higher wages. Then executives raised prices. Everyone needs to eat, so consumers have few options if executives raise food prices in concert, but people could choose not to buy a new computer or couch. Raising those prices could have caused a drop in demand, which would have ended the brief kindling of inflation.

But unhappy people are more likely to buy things. I’ve certainly felt this in my own life, spending too much money on stuff I didn’t need when I was feeling crummy.

Incidentally, this is why Facebook (& Instagram, & …) is designed to make users unhappy. The users of Facebook are the product that Facebook sells to advertisers, and an unhappy user is more desirable to advertisers than a happy user. By intentionally cultivating unhappiness in emotionally-addictive ways, Facebook can offer advertisers a premium product: the attention of people who are more likely to buy things as they attempt to fill an empty ache inside.

The lingering malaise of the pandemic and the scary ways that our world has changed have made people more likely to buy things, even when prices should feel “too high” compared to last year. Which means that the concerted price increases set by executives have kept causing inflation instead of reducing demand.

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Legal U.S. currency has only a modicum of inherent value, primarily aesthetic. I’ve heard that a high denomination bill can be rolled into a tube and used to snort cocaine in front of potential romantic partners. Some people think that this showy behavior is alluring.

Mostly, though, U.S. currency is considered valuable because we believe it is, together. The value of money is a collective fiction. Like medieval outbreaks of Tarantism, we keep dancing because we fear that we might die if we ever stopped.

Currency intervenes in every exchange. You can’t directly trade a bail of hay for fifteen-minutes’ legal help in the modern world.

Once upon a time, the value of U.S. currency was backed by gold. Like dollar bills, gold has only limited inherent value, primarily aesthetic. Because gold glitters, it was made into jewelry. In the modern world, gold is also a useful catalyst for certain chemical reactions, but during the glory days of gold – to which some disingenuous or ignorant politicians argue that we should return – gold held value because people believed in its value together. Collectively, people believed that a particular weight of it could be traded for a bay of hay, and that a particular weight could be traded for legal help, and this allowed everything in the world to be assessed with the same measure.

The relative value of goods and services is fixed in the short term. Legal help is judged to be just so difficult to produce, so fifteen minutes should be worth the same as a certain amount of hay. Over longer timespans, these relationships can drift: if a team of programmers creates an AI script that provides legal help much more abundantly than human lawyers, each fifteen minutes of legal help should be worth less hay.

But there’s no constraint on how hay should be priced with respect to a currency whose value is created by belief. As long as the relative prices of hay and legal help stay the same, both a bail of hay and fifteen-minutes’ legal help could be priced at a gram of gold, or a tenth of a gram, or a hundredth. In each case, the world functions the same way. Hay can be traded for currency which can be traded for legal help.

But belief still matters. If lots of people harvest hay, then the aesthetic preferences of any one person aren’t important. But if one person buys up all the hay fields, and then that person decides that gold isn’t particularly attractive, that person might demand twice as much gold in exchange for hay. This demand would be temporarily irksome, but if everyone agrees that this hay merchant has good aesthetic taste – maybe gold was never as pretty as we thought! – people will start trading twice as much gold as before for hay, and for legal help, and for labor. The world still works. Gold was only ever a measuring stick. As long as everyone switches together, it doesn’t matter whether the measuring stick is delineated in inches or centimeters. The numbers change – eight inches, twenty centimeters – while the actual size of objects stays the same.

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Ah, but wait. The world in motion stays the same: a bail of hay is still worth fifteen-minutes’ legal help. But the static world has changed. A dragon, lounging atop his golden horde, had known that he could trade those mounded coins for seven years of legal help. It was a mighty stash.

Suddenly – and all because an influential merchant decided that he didn’t like the look of gold – the dragon can only buy three years of help. The people’s belief crept in like a thief. The dragon’s great wealth was stolen.

The dragon would obviously feel irate.

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Because money has no inherent value, the terms of monetary exchange are set by collective belief. And in recent months, inflation has been summoned by conflicting beliefs: workers claim that they were undervalued, executives claim that they weren’t.

This is the crux of inflation: whether or not relative values should change. Should some things become more expensive, compared to others, or should all things cost more money?

In my opinion, it’s reasonable for workers to become more expensive. Workers were treated unfairly for decades! And it’s reasonable for certain foods to become more expensive – there’s a war in Ukraine!

But some corporate executives disagreed, refusing to believe that workers or food should become more expensive relative to other things. And then, instead of balking, unhappy consumers kept on buying things.

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To recap: the beliefs of powerful people caused inflation. Now many of those same powerful people are upset, because inflation attacks their dragonish hordes. If somebody already has a bunch of money – a bank account with ten million dollars of savings – then a world in which all costs and wages suddenly double will see this person become half as wealthy. If somebody else has debt – a credit card bill, a mortgage, unpaid student tuition – then they’ll become half as poor.

Unless inflation goes so far that we entirely unravel our collective fiction – everyone waking from the collective dream that currency holds any value – only wealthy people will be hurt. Inflation hungers after their large, fictitious numbers.

And yet it was wealthy people’s belief – perhaps real, perhaps purported in bad faith – that summoned inflation in the first place.

On masks and whether they ‘work.’

On masks and whether they ‘work.’

tl;dr – Please get vaccinated, friend!

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My community’s most recent school board meeting was exceptionally contentious.

Public education is almost always contentious in this country: Evolution! The pledge of allegiance! The Founding Fathers’ complicity in felonious (oft murderous) abduction & torture!

Now, we’re also arguing over whether it’s safe for schools to be open at all!

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At the school board meeting, a white woman stood up at the podium, ripped off her mask, and said “I can’t breathe.”

(Unfortunately, I assume the resonance with the BLM protests was intentional. When I went to pick up my kids from school last week, a white mother was wearing a t-shirt with the traditional white on black BLM layout that said “Drunk Wives Matter.” My hometown is within a half hour’s drive of the national KKK headquarters.)

As is the way of things in our country right now, about half the parents in attendance were aghast. The other half cheered.

“The masks don’t work! Everybody knows the masks don’t work!” people shouted.

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Oddly enough, though, the people saying “the masks don’t work” are actually correct. But so are the people who say that masks work. The word “work” is pretty nebulous!

As Joseph Allen & Helen Jenkins wrote in a recent New York Times editorial, many well-meaning people have been unhelpfully vague when defining goals for our pandemic response. Are we trying to minimize lifelong harms from all causes? Are we trying to minimize the number of deaths that occur this year? Are we trying to eradicate the virus that causes Covid-19?

Each of these goals would require that we take a different set of actions.

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Masks “work” in the sense that when people are wearing face masks, there’s a lower probability of Covid-19 transmission during any interaction.

Masks reduce the number of viral particles that exit a person’s airspace as they speak or exhale. Of course, this presupposes that the person wearing a mask actually is shedding viral particles. But that’s the tricky thing about Covid-19 (or influenza)! Some people feel fine!

Masks also might reduce the likelihood of transmission when an unexposed person who is hoping to avoid or delay illness wears a mask. (Masks probably help with this, but it’s less well tested.)

Universal mask requirements are a great tool to delay transmission!

When worn selectively – for instance, only during hospital visits, or only when inside nursing homes – masks can also skew the demographics of transmission. With Covid-19, skewing the demographics of transmission is a great goal!

Even back before we had safe, effective vaccines, we could’ve saved huge numbers of lives by skewing the demographics of transmission! Some people are much more likely to recover from Covid-19 safely than others! (Major risk factors include advanced age, diabetes status, and probably smoking status. But there are also unknown risk factors – we don’t know why certain young healthy people can get so sick from this.)

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Masks don’t “work,” though, if the goal is to prevent cases of Covid-19.

By May of 2020, it was already clear that Covid-19 would become endemic. We’d spread the virus too widely by then. The virus will never go away. Cases will never fall to zero.

Everyone alive today, and everyone born in the future, will be exposed to Covid-19 eventually. (With the possible exception of people who happen to die of other causes within the next few years.)

There’s still a strong argument for using masks to delay Covid-19 transmission: with more time, more people can be vaccinated! The vaccines work, by which I mean that the vaccines save lives.

Everyone will be exposed to Covid-19! The people who have been vaccinated are much more likely to survive! This front page article in my local newspaper is fear mongering; it’s a sort of fear mongering that I wholeheartedly endorse!

Vaccination is a safe, effective, time-tested medical practice. The principles behind vaccination were independently discovered centuries ago by scientists and healers in Africa, India, and China. Their discoveries were the basis for Edward Jenner’s smallpox vaccine.

When scientists say that vaccines “work” – vaccines save lives – we mean something very different than when we say that masks “work” – masks delay exposure!

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In conjunction with vaccination, masks can be helpful!

Which is why the argument that children should currently wear masks in school is reasonable. Covid-19 tends not to be very dangerous for children, but occasionally it’s deadly. There’s a definite cost to wearing masks in school – muffled voices, hidden facial expressions, increased hassle – but children could be kept safer by delaying their exposure to Covid-19 until after a vaccine is approved for them.

(I feel lucky that my kids have already safely recovered from Covid-19 – I’m not beset by the same fear over this that other parents are navigating. But I understand their concern: raising children often feels terrifying because my heart would shatter if anything happened to these tiny, willful, fragile creatures.)

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Most of the people who say “masks don’t work” are planning not to get the Covid-19 vaccine. Which means, weirdly, that they’re right! Without the end goal of eventual vaccination, masks don’t work! Even if universal masking policies were kept in place forever, Covid-19 is so infectious that everyone would still be exposed eventually!

The vaccines can save lives; masks cannot.

Obviously, I’m not arguing that you should ignore local mask requirements: I’m currently wearing a face mask as I type this! And there are lots of people who do want to be vaccinated who don’t have access yet – this isn’t much of an issue for adults in the United States, but vaccine access is an incredible privilege for most of the world’s population.

Because Covid-19 can be transmitted by people who feel fine, wearing a mask is a way to protect others. And personal preference isn’t a good reason to endanger the lives of the folks around us! That’s why we have traffic laws! Even if I think it’d be fun to go out driving while buzzed on booze, or to cruise on the left-hand side of the road, I shouldn’t be allowed to do it!

But also, I think it’s worth acknowledging that, within the full context of their actions, people’s denunciations of masks are actually scientifically accurate.

“Follow the science” is an unhelpful slogan – scientific analysis doesn’t result in a monolithic set of inarguable conclusions. At the heart of any policy, there are goals and priorities. These are set by philosophical or ethical considerations, not scientific fact.

“Follow the scientific findings that help us all achieve my goals for the world” doesn’t have the same pithy ring to it, though.

On perspective and Zoom.

On perspective and Zoom.

In Unique, neuroscientist David Linden describes the cultural associations between smell and taste.

Most people from the United States will say that vanilla, strawberry, or mint odors smell sweet.

On the face of it, this doesn’t make sense. Sweet is a taste, not a smell. A substance cannot smell sweet any more than something can sound red.

There’s nothing intrinsically sweet about these odors – we’ve just learned to associate them with sweet taste.

As a counterexample, in Vietnam, where caramel and mint are used primarily in savory dishes, their odors are not typically described as sweet.

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This association is sufficiently powerful that its effect can be measured in the lab.

For people whose past cultural experiences have led them to associate mint smells with sweet tastes, pairing the scent of mint with a sip of sucrose solution makes them believe that the drink is more sugary than it really is. When mint scent is paired with a sip of mildly acidic water, the drink seems less sour than it really is.

This experiment didn’t assess people’s perception of alcoholic drinks, but people in the United States probably make the same mistake about the bourbon in a mint julep.

photo by Grizdave at flickr

Our assumptions – particular to our own cultural experience of the world – can powerfully deceive us.

A mint julep mixed perfectly for someone from the United States would taste bitter to someone from Vietnam.

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Viet Thanh Nguyen – author of The Sympathizer, which I’ve written about previously – strives to draw attention to our cultural blindness. The way our minds’ innate self-deceptions allow us to overlook or misinterpret the experiences of others.

My spouse and I have often felt grateful for Nguyen’s work. His essay about the sinking sensation he felt after teaching his child to read was particularly beautiful. (I linked to it in my own essay about teaching a child to read.)

Which is why we felt so dismayed by Nguyen’s most recent New York Times editorial.

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Nguyen explains why he enjoys teaching over Zoom. He’s prompted with students’ names; he can see their reactions up close; student voices contribute to the lecture from the same up-front position of power as his own; typed remarks can overlap without distracting; lectures are recorded for students to review later.

All well and good. Nguyen is quite intelligent. If he thinks Zoom is good for lectures, I’m inclined to believe him.

But lectures aren’t the best way to learn.

For many subjects, project-based learning is a more effective way to educate students. Many of my spouse’s resources – designed primarily for teaching college-level biology and introductory Earth & space science with a social justice bent – are available on her website, here.

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For the better part of a decade, I’ve hosted a poetry class in the county jail. We read poems and discuss how they make us feel. Our discussions touch upon contemporary scientific research, mythology, economics – all safe enough topics, for most folks – but also religion, addiction, trauma, violence, relationships, loss – which can be tough for anyone to talk about, let alone a room full of men who won’t get to see their families for months.

Because people cycle through the county jail, I never know who will be coming to class each week until I get there. For a few months, I might be with mostly the same group of men. Other weeks, I won’t have met any of the dozen or so people previously.

And there’s a huge difference between what we can accomplish – between what sorts of things feel safe to discuss – when the people in class haven’t met me before, and haven’t been in a class like that with each other. If we haven’t built the necessary emotional connection, we can do less. The class is worse for all of us.

Recently, the jail has allowed a small number of classes over Zoom. But Zoom doesn’t let you make the same emotional connection.

People sometimes complain about the supposed invasiveness of Zoom – the camera snatches up your personal surroundings, the pictures on your wall, the books on your shelves, your family in the background – but it’s by no means the intimacy of being there.

screenshot from a video by Rose Bythrow

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My spouse says, “Over Zoom you can’t tell who’s hungry.”

It would be nice if she meant this metaphorically – that it’s hard to tell who’s eager to learn. But, no. Many students aren’t eating enough. They are hungry.

Worse, we read Nguyen’s paean to Zoom on a snow day.

Streets near my spouse’s high school school were well-salted and plowed, but we live in a sprawling, semi-rural area – the school district serves families from a mix of socioeconomic backgrounds. There are hills and valleys – not everyone can get a satellite signal at home. And the for-profit cable companies certainly haven’t connected those families to the modern world with wires.

Still, the pandemic has made “e-learning days” seem like a reliable alternative. If it snows, kids learn from home.

“What’s Zoom supposed to do,” my spouse asked, “for my students with no heat?”

This isn’t (only) a concern for fluke events like the avarice-fueled power outages and heat losses in Texas. My spouse grew up in Albany, New York. Every winter was cold. The infrastructure to heat homes there was secure – for children whose families had money.

My spouse’s family didn’t. Her father failed to pay the electric bill. The power was shut off. And then the district called a snow day.

If my spouse and her sibling had gone to school, it wouldn’t have been so bad. Warm classrooms, a hot meal.

Instead they were stuck at home, shivering. Wanting so badly to go to a neighbor’s house. But then the neighbors would know.

In the United States, where poverty is often stigmatized as a moral failing, people hide the ache of want.

Which is why Zoom is so horrible. Zoom makes it easy. When you only have to disguise a small corner of your life, you can convey the illusion that things are okay.

Even when they’re not.

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header image from Zoom corporation’s “About” page

On magic.

On magic.

There’s broad scientific consensus that school closures hurt children, probably making a significant contribution to future increases in premature death.

There’s also broad scientific consensus that school closures – particularly elementary school closures – aren’t helpful in slowing the spread of Covid-19. Children aren’t major vectors for this virus. Adults just have to remember not to congregate in the teachers’ lounge.

Worldwide, a vanishingly small percentage of viral transmissions have occurred inside schools.

And … our district just closed in-person school for all children.

In-person indoor dining at restaurants is still allowed. Bars are still open.

Older people are sending a clear message to kids: “Your lives matter less than ours.”

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For at-risk children, school closures are devastating. A disruption in social-emotional learning; lifelong education gaps; skipped meals.

But for my (privileged!) family, the closure will be pretty nice. I was recently feeling nostalgic about the weeks in August when my eldest and I spent each morning together.

Our youngest attends pre-K at a private school. Her school, like most private schools around the country, (sensibly) re-opened on time and is following its regular academic calendar.

My eldest and I will do two weeks of home schooling before winter break. And it’ll be fun. I like spending time with my kids, and my eldest loves school so much that she often uses up most of her energy during the day – teachers tell us what a calm, lovely, hard-working kid she is. And then she comes home and yells, all her resilience dissipated.

Which is normal! Totally normal. But it’s a little crummy, as a parent, to know you’ve got a great kid but that you don’t get to see her at her best.

Right now she’s sad about not going to school – on Monday, she came home crying, “There was an announcement that we all have to switch to online only!” – but I’m lucky that I can be here with her. Writing stories together, doing math puzzles, cooking lunch.

Maybe we’ll practice magic tricks. She loves magic.

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Last month, I was getting ready to drive the kids to school. T. (4 years old) and I were in the bathroom. I’d just handed T. her toothbrush.

N. (6 years old) walked over holding a gallon-sized plastic bag.

“Father, do you want to see a magic trick?” she asked.

“Okay, but I have to brush my teeth while you’re doing it.”

“Okay,” she said, and opened the bag. She took out a multi-colored lump of clay. It was vaguely spherical. Globs of red, white, and blue poked up from random patches across the surface, as though three colors of clay had been haphazardly moshed together.

“So you think this is just this,” she said, but then …”

She took out a little wooden knife and began sawing at the lump. “This is just this?”, I wondered. It’s an interesting phrase.

Her sawing had little effect. The knife appeared useless. I’m pretty sure this wooden knife is part of the play food set she received as a hand-me-down when she was 9 months old. “Safe for babies” is generally correlated with “Useless for cutting.”

She was having trouble breaking the surface of her lump.

I spat out my toothpaste.

She kept sawing. She set down the knife and stared at the clay intently. A worthy adversary.

I stood there, watching.

She grabbed the knife again and resumed sawing. More vigorously, this time. She started stabbing, whacking. This was enough to make a tiny furrow. She tossed aside the knife and pulled with her fingertips, managing to pry two lobes of the strange lump away from each other.

“Okay,” she said, “it’s hard to see, but there’s some green in there.”

T. and I crouched down and peered closely. Indeed, there was a small bit of round green clay at the center of the lump.

“Wow!” exclaimed T. “I thought it was just a red, and, uh, blue, and white ball! But then, on the inside, there’s some green!”

“I know!” said N., happy that at least one member of her audience understood the significance of her trick. “And look, I might even get it back together!”

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N. started performing magic when she was four. T. was asleep for her afternoon nap.

“Okay,” she said, “you sit there, and I’ll put on a magic show. Watch, I’ll make, um … this cup! See this cup? I’ll make it disappear.”

“Okay,” I said, curious. We’d just read a book that explained how to make a penny disappear from a glass cup – the trick is to start with the cup sitting on top of the penny, so that the coin looks like it’s inside the cup but actually isn’t.

I had no idea how she planned to make the cup itself disappear.

“Okay, so, um, now you’re ready, and …” she looked at the cup in her hands. Suddenly, she whisked it behind her back. And stood there, looking at me somberly, with her hands behind her back.

“I don’t have it,” she said.

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Magic – convincing an audience to believe in an illusion.

This is just this.

I don’t have the cup – it’s gone.

Much of our Covid-19 response has been magic-based. We repeat illusory beliefs – schools are dangerous, reinfections are rare, death at any age is a tragedy – and maybe our audience is swayed.

But that doesn’t change the underlying reality.

The cup still exists – it was behind her back.

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Everyone will die. Mortality is inescapable.

Our species is blessed with prodigious longevity, probably because so many grandmothers among our ancestors worked hard to help their grandchildren survive.

(The long lives of men are probably an accidental evolutionary byproduct, like male nipples or female orgasms. Elderly men, with their propensity to commandeer resources and start conflicts, probably reduced the fitness of their families and tribes.)

After we reach our seventies, though – when our ancestors’ grandchildren had probably passed their most risky developmental years – our bodies fail. We undergo immunosenescence – our immune systems become worse at suppressing cancer and infections.

We will die. Expensive interventions can stave off death for longer – we can now vaccinate 90-year-olds against Covid-19 – but we will still die.

Dying at the end of a long, full life shouldn’t feel sad, though. Everybody dies. Stories end. That’s the natural arc of the world.

What’s sad is when people die young.

Children will face the risk of dying younger due to unnecessary school closures.

Children will face the risk of dying younger due to unmitigated climate change.

Children will face the risk of dying younger due to antibiotic resistant bacteria.

These are urgent threats facing our world. And we’re not addressing them.

The cup is still there.

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For my daughter, of course, I played along. I smiled, and laughed. She stood there beaming, holding the cup behind her back.

“Magic!” I said.

N. nodded proudly, then asked, “Do you want me to bring it back?”

It’ll take the same measure of magic to bring back schools.