On inequality and disease.

On inequality and disease.

I should preface these remarks by stating that my political views qualify as “extremely liberal” in the United States.

I’m a well-trained economist – I completed all but the residency requirement for a masters at Northwestern – but I don’t give two shits about the “damage we’re doing to our economy,” except insofar as financial insecurity causes psychological harm to people in poverty.  Our economy should be slower, to combat climate change and inequality.

One of my big fears during this epidemic is that our current president will accidentally do something correctly and bolster his chances of reelection.  The damage that his first term has already caused to our environment and our judiciary will take generations to undo – imagine the harm he could cause with two.

And yet, in arguing that our response to the Covid-19 epidemic is misguided, I seem to be in agreement with our nation’s far right. 

As far as I can tell, the far right opposes the shutdown because they’re motivated by philosophies that increase inequality.  Many of them adore Ayn Rand’s “Who will stop me?” breed of capitalism, as though they should be free to go outside and cough on whomever they want.  They dislike the shutdown because they think our lives are less important than the stock market.

By way of contrast, I care about fairness.  I care about the well-being of children.  I care about our species’ future on this planet.  It’s fine by me if the stock market tanks!  But I’ve written previously about the lack of scientific justification for this shutdown, and I’m worried that this shutdown is, in and of itself, an unfair response.

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Quarantine could have prevented this epidemic from spreading.  If we had acted in December, this coronavirus could have been contained.  But we did nothing until several months after the Covid-19 epidemic began in the United States. 

Then schools were closed: first for two weeks, then a month, then the entire year.

Stay-at-home orders were issued: first for two weeks, then extended to a month.  No data supports the efficacy of these orders – haphazard, partial attempts at social distancing, from which certain people, like my buddy doing construction for a new Amazon facility, have been exempted.  And no metrics were announced that might trigger an end to the shutdown.

Currently, the stay-at-home orders last until the end of April.  But, as we approach that date, what do people expect will be different?  In the United States, we still can’t conduct enough PCR tests – and even these tests yield sketchy data, because they might have false negative rates as high as 30%, and they’re only effective during the brief window of time — perhaps as short as one week — before a healthy patient clears the virus and becomes invisible to testing.

Based on research with other coronaviruses, we expect that people will be immune to reinfection for about a year, but we don’t know how many will have detectable levels of antibody in their blood.  As of this writing, there’s still no serum test.

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In the United States, New York City has the largest concentration of risk – densely populated elderly people with constant exposure to unclean air. But even the New York Times has begun to print articles describing the folly of our response to Covid-19.

The Italian government is considering the dystopian policy of drawing people’s blood to determine if they’ll be eligible for a permit to leave their homes.  If you were worried about the injustice that the virus itself imposed on people who are elderly or immunocompromised, this is worse!

We can’t evaluate our response without tests.  Missteps by the CDC (which was gutted by the Trump administration) have left us blind to the progression of the epidemic.  And we can’t evaluate our response if we have nothing to compare it to – we will have to end the shutdown to see what happens next (with the option of resuming these safety measures if our test shows they were necessary).

We know, clearly, that the shutdown has been causing grievous harm.  Domestic violence is on the rise.  This is particularly horrible for women and children in poverty, trapped in close quarters with abusers.  The shutdown is creating conditions that increase the risk of drug addiction, suicide, and the murder of intimate partners.

We don’t know whether the shutdown is even helping us stop the Covid-19 epidemic.  And we still don’t know whether Covid-19 is scary enough to merit this response.  As of this writing, our data suggest that it isn’t.

Covid-19 is a rare breed, though: a communicable disease where increased wealth correlates with increased risk.

And so we’re taking extreme measures to produce a small benefit for the most privileged generation to ever walk the face of this Earth, at the cost of great harm to vulnerable populations.  This is why I feel dismayed.

Hopefully I can present some numbers simply enough to explain.

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Many diseases are more likely to kill you if you’re poor.

Malaria kills between 400,000 and one million people every year.  The vast majority are extremely poor, and many are children – the World Health Organization estimates that a child dies of malaria every thirty seconds.

Wealth protects against malaria in two ways.  Wealthy people are less likely to live in parts of the world with a high prevalence of malaria (most of the deaths each year occur in Africa and India), and wealthy people can buy effective anti-malarial medications. 

I took prophylactic Malarone when I visited Ecuador and India.  Lo and behold, I did not get sick. 

I believe Malarone costs about a dollar per day.  I am very privileged.

HIV kills between 700,000 and one million people every year.  Again, the vast majority are poor.  HIV is primarily transmitted through intimate contact – exposure to blood, needle sharing, or sex – so this virus rarely spreads across social boundaries in stratified communities. 

In the United States, HIV risk is concentrated among people living in our dying small towns, people without homes in inner cities, and people trapped inside the criminal justice system. 

It seems that these people are all easy to ignore.

Wealth will protect you even if you do contract HIV.  We’ve developed effective antiretroviral therapies.  If you (or your government) can pay for these pills, you can still have a long, full life while HIV positive.  About 60% of the people dying of HIV happen to have been born in Africa, though, and cannot afford antiretrovirals.

Even the myriad respiratory infections that plague our species – of which Covid-19 is but one example – are more likely to kill you if you’re poor.  The World Health Organization lists the top causes of death for people living in low-income versus high-income countries.  The death rate from respiratory infections is twice as high for people living in low income countries.

The second-highest cause of death among people in low-income countries is diarrhea.  Diarrhea kills between one million and two million people each year, including about 500,000 children under five years old.

These deaths would be easy to treat and even easier to prevent. 

Seriously, you can save these people’s lives with Gatorade!  (Among medical doctors, this is known as “oral rehydration therapy.”)  Or you could prevent them from getting sick in the first place by providing clean water to drink.

We could provide clean water to everyone – worldwide, every single person – for somewhere between ten billion and one hundred billion dollars.  Which might sound like a lot of money, but that is only one percent of the amount we’re spending on the Covid-19 stimulus bill in the United States.

We could do it.  We could save those millions of lives.  But we’re choosing to let those people die.

Because, you see, wealthy people rarely die of diarrhea.  Clean water is piped straight into our homes.  And if we do get sick – I have, when I’ve traveled – we can afford a few bottles of Gatorade.

Instead, wealthy people die of heart disease.  Stroke.  Alzheimer’s.  Cancer.

If you’re lucky enough to live past retirement age, your body will undergo immunosenescence.  This is unfortunate but unavoidable.  In old age, our immune systems stop protecting us from disease.

Age-related immunosenescence explains the high prevalence of cancer among elderly people.  All of our bodies develop cancerous cells all the time.  Usually, our immune systems kill these mutants before they have the chance to grow into tumors.

Age-related immunosenescence also explains why elderly people die from the adenoviruses and coronaviruses that cause common colds in children and pre-retirement-age adults.  Somebody with a functional immune system will get the sniffles, but if these viruses are set loose in a nursing home, they can cause systemic organ failure and death.

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I haven’t seen this data presented yet – due to HIPAA protections, it can’t easily be collected – but Covid-19, on average, seems to kill wealthier people than influenza.

On a personal level, wealth will protect you from Covid-19.  We know that early treatment saves lives, which is a reason why Germany’s death rate is so low, and wealthy people are less likely to postpone going to the hospital.  Wealthy people can afford the Albuterol inhaler that might keep you out of the ICU. Wealthy people are less likely to experience the stresses, sleep loss, and discrimination that have caused disproportionate numbers of Black people in the United States to succumb to Covid-19.

But on a population level, wealth is correlated with increased risk.

Part of this wealth gap is due to age.  I’ve made a rough sketch of the risk of death versus age for both Covid-19 and seasonal influenza.  Currently we don’t have enough data to know exactly where these risk curves intersect, but it seems to be around retirement age.  If you’re younger than retirement age, seasonal influenza is more deadly.  If you’re older than retirement age, Covid-19 is more deadly.

In the United States, if you’re older than retirement age, you’re more likely to be wealthy.

Covid-19 is also more dangerous if you’re already sick.  A study of Covid-19 deaths found that 97% of the people killed were already sick with at least one serious medical condition.  The average person killed by Covid-19 had 2.7 other serious diseases.

Because these people were receiving expensive medical care, they were able to survive despite their other diseases.  Imagine what would have happened if these people had chanced to be born in low-income countries: they would already be dead. 

This is a tragedy: all over the world, millions of people die from preventable causes, just because they had the bad luck of being born in a low-income country rather than a rich one.

We don’t have data on this yet, but it’s likely that Covid-19 will have a much smaller impact in Africa than in Europe or the United States.

When my father was doing rounds in a hospital in Malawi, his students would sometimes say, “We admitted an elderly patient with …”  And then my father would go into the room.  The patient would be 50 years old.

Covid-19 is particularly dangerous for people in their 80s and 90s.  Great privilege has allowed so many people in Europe and the United States to live until they reached these high-risk ages.

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Our efforts to “flatten the curve,” in addition to increasing many people’s risk of death (from domestic violence, suicide, and the lifelong health repercussions of even a few months of sedentary living), will save relatively few lives, even among our country’s at-risk population.

The hope is that we won’t exceed the capacity of our hospitals.  If someone’s condition deteriorates after a Covid-19 infection, they need invasive ventilation.

Please note that we can often prevent people’s condition from deteriorating by giving them Albuterol inhalers.  And these used to be so cheap!  In the early 2000s, you could buy an inhaler for about five dollars.  But pharmaceutical companies were allowed to re-patent these and the price has soared to nearly four hundred dollars.

Many news reports have included sensational numbers about how many people in their 30s and 40s have gone to the hospital for Covid-19.  These reports rarely mention that many of these hospitalizations could be prevented with a five dollar inhaler.

But we’re allowing drug companies to charge people four hundred dollars a pop for these now, which puts them out of reach for many people.

When I caught what I assume to be Covid-19, I took an inhaler.  I am very privileged.

Some young people can’t afford an inhaler, and many elderly people develop symptoms too severe to be treated with Albuterol, so they need care in an ICU.

But the benefit of this shutdown is simply the difference between how many people would die if we did nothing, compared to how many people will die now. 

In a recent essay, I gave an estimate for how many people would die if we’d done nothing.  New data suggests that my estimate was too low – the numbers out of Italy (where they did nothing until it was probably too late) suggest that around 80,000 people might have died in the United States.  Hospitals would have been overwhelmed, and some people whose condition required invasive ventilation would have been denied that treatment.

Even with the shutdown, though, we’re doing a crappy job.  Our numbers are pretty much guaranteed to be worse than Germany’s, which has a more equitable health care system overall and is testing enough people to track the spread of the disease and treat people early.  With this shutdown, all we’re hoping for is that the severe cases will be spread enough in time that everyone whose condition deteriorates to the point of needing invasive ventilation can have it.

Maybe.  The shutdown is so slapdash that hospitals in certain high-risk areas, like New York City, will still be overwhelmed.

Assuming that our efforts to flatten the curve succeed – and neglecting all the other risks of this strategy – we’ll be able to provide ventilation to everyone.  But there will still be a lot of deaths.  The shutdown will not have helped those people.  The shutdown is only beneficial for the small number who would be treated in one scenario, would not be treated in another, and who actually benefit from the treatment.

The Lancet reported that in the initial wave of the Covid-19 epidemic, 97% of patients receiving invasive ventilation died.  Later on, the death rate among people receiving ventilation was still over 80%

So we’d actually be saving only a fifth of the people who would have to be triaged if we’d exceeded our hospitals’ capacity to provide care.  This could be as few as 10,000 at-risk people.

Their lives matter, too.  Many of us have a friend or relative whose life was cut short by this. But something that we have to accept is that we all die.  Our world would be horrible if people could live forever.  Due to immunosenescence, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep people alive after they reach their 70s or 80s.

And the priorities of elderly people are different from mine.  I care deeply about the well-being of children and our planet’s future.  That’s why I write a column for our local newspaper discussing ways to ameliorate our personal contribution to climate change.  That’s why my family lives the way we do.

These priorities may be quite different from what’s in the short-term best interests of an 80-year-old.

Schools are closed.  Children are suffering.  Domestic violence is on the rise.  All to protect a few thousand people who have experienced such exceptional privilege that they are now at high risk of dying from Covid-19.

Our national response to Covid-19 is being directed by a 79-year-old doctor.  I haven’t gotten to vote in the presidential primary yet, but if I get to vote at all, I’ll be allowed to choose whomever I prefer from a selection of a 77-year-old white man or a 78-year-old white man.  Then comes the presidential election, where there’ll be an additional 73-year-old white man to choose from.

It makes me wonder, what would our national response be like if we were facing a crisis as risky as Covid-19, but where elderly people were safe and children were most at risk?

And then I stop wondering.  Because we are facing a crisis like that. 

It’s climate change.

And we have done nothing.

On social norms.

On social norms.

I assume that you, personally, have never clear-cut and burned a patch of the Amazon rain forest.  Neither have I.  The number of people who have done the actual cutting is vanishingly small compared to the world’s population.

I also assume that you enjoy living in a world where the Amazon rain forest exists — certainly more than you’d enjoy living in a world where it had all been slashed and burned.  If we lose the Amazon rain forest, climate change might spiral out of control, flooding coastal cities worldwide and causing desertification in much of the interior United States.  If we lose the Amazon rain forest, huge numbers of species will go extinct, including a wide variety of medicinal plants that we’ve only begun to investigate.

And the rain forest is beautiful.  Future generations would feel an ache of want – likely compounded with a mix of jealousy and anger – if they saw photographs of the Amazon rain forest after it were gone.

When I was in elementary school, my third grade class sponsored a patch of the Amazon rain forest.  In retrospect, I’m not sure what this entailed.  We raised money and sent it off in an envelope.  I don’t remember whether we ever saw photographs of “our” forest, whether the arrangement was supposedly akin to a rental or purchase of those trees. 

I have no idea who received our sponsorship money, but the general idea that money should be sent from the U.S. to Brazil is actually correct.  Many of the world’s problems would be easier to address if we used a global wealth tax to fund a guaranteed basic income for everyone.  At the very least, if there are natural resources that benefit all of humanity, then countries that are currently wealthy because they ravaged their environments should pay to encourage other nations not to accrue wealth through extractive industries.

Some people in Brazil would be wealthier if the Amazon rain forest were destroyed.  Everyone in the world would suffer as a result.  If we – everyone outside Brazil – would prefer that the rain forest not be destroyed, we should compensate Brazilians for the foregone short-term economic benefits.

Unless you are fantastically wealthy, you personally will be unable to enact this policy on your own.  If I decided to split my family’s entire annual income among the people of Brazil, each would get 2% of a penny … and my family would be left with nothing.

A guaranteed basic income is the right policy, but it’s not something that I can accomplish as an individual.

In We Are the Weather, Jonathan Safran Foer discusses how each one of us can help preserve the Amazon rain forest today.  We as a people should strive for political solutions to the world’s problems, but we as individuals shouldn’t make choices that exacerbate those very problems.  It would seem hypocritical to lobby for fines against littering if we continued to blithely toss candy bar wrappers onto the ground.

Foer describes how painful it feels to recognize this hypocrisy in himself.  This sensation grows more intense as he watches his children grow in a world that is becoming increasingly dangerous.

But what kind of father prioritizes feeling good over doing good?

Foer knows that he could choose to help.  Each day, he could act in a way that makes his children’s world safer.

He often doesn’t.

There is a far more pernicious form of science denial than Trump’s: the form that parades as acceptance.  Those of us who know what is happening but do far too little about it are more deserving of the anger.  We should be terrified of ourselves.  We are the ones we have to defy.  I am the person endangering my children.

As you read this, the Amazon rain forest is being destroyed.  Why?  To clear space for cows to graze.

Photo by Joelle Hernandez on Flickr, whose caption from this 2007 photograph reads, “On a few occasions Brazilians told me that ‘People thousands of miles away are contributing to our deforestation.'”

Even if the meat or cheese you eat was not imported from Brazil, by choosing to eat it, you are reinforcing the social norm that is causing the Amazon rain forest to be destroyed. 

Eating meat is pleasurable.  A good cheese pizza can be divine.  Humans evolved as omnivores, and the tastes of meat and cheese are particularly delicious.  Choosing not to eat these foods would be a sacrifice.

Foer has tried to be a vegetarian for decades.  He has previously written about the animal welfare arguments against eating meat; now he’s written about the environmental arguments.  He knows that eating meat is immoral – the cow suffered to produce it, and Foer’s own children will suffer a worse climate as a consequence.

But this knowledge isn’t enough.  He still surreptitiously buys cheeseburgers.

So why hasn’t vegetarianism become any easier after thirty years?  Why has it become harder?  I crave meat more now than I have at any point since I became a vegetarian.

Foer wishes that there were a social norm to eat only foods made from plants. 

Eating meat is pleasurable.  Eating cheese is pleasurable. 

Injecting heroin is pleasurable too.  Driving a car while drunk is pleasurable.  Heck, even cruising down the road while everybody else pulls aside for the ambulance behind you would be pleasurable.

In our culture, there’s a social norm to pull aside for ambulances.  Even though it would be more pleasurable to keep driving, most people don’t.

Meats and cheeses are responsible for somewhere between 20% and 50% of all climate-change-causing emissions. 

(There’s a wide range in that estimate because, although it’s incontestable that it takes more land to produce meats and cheeses than it does to make equivalent foods from plants, it’s debatable what would be done with all that extra land if people changed their diets.  If the extra space would be used to restore forests, then animal agriculture is responsible for 50% of climate change.  If the extra space would be kept as grass – setting aside the curious question of why – then animal agriculture causes only 20% of climate change.  Only 20%.  By way of comparison, all the world’s cars, trucks, and airplanes together cause less than 15% of climate change.  You can look at the appendix to We Are the Weather for an explanation of these numbers, or even glance at Donald Trump’s EPA website for some pie charts with identical information.)

The current administration has gutted the EPA, and compelled their staff scientists to restate their findings in the weakest ways possible … and these are the numbers still posted on their website.

If every gasoline-powered car was replaced with a hybrid vehicle – instantly, world-wide – greenhouse gas emissions would be about 96% of what they are currently.  If that was the only change we made, our planet would be toast.

If we all followed a social norm to eat food made from plants, greenhouse gas emissions could be 50% of what they are currently.  With no other changes, humanity would survive.  Our planet would remain habitable for our children, and our grandchildren.

Pleasure matters.  I’m an atheist, and I’m well aware that the eventual heat death of the universe means humanity will go extinct eventually.  I don’t believe you can make a viable philosophical argument for existence based on helpfulness or social connections alone – your life needs to be pleasurable, too.

Your life can be pleasurable without meat or cheese.  I support responsible hedonism.  Good food is a joy, but you can eat well while making only choices that protect our planet.  Most people think that sex is great fun, but we have a social norm that you should enjoy your sexuality only with other consenting adults.  Groping a beautiful stranger might be more fun than eating cheese – in our culture, a social norm restrains us. 

Well, most of us.

Foer wishes that we, as a people, could choose better.  He’s been struggling to eat food made from plants.  But he doesn’t struggle to restrain himself from murder, or theft, or groping his students.  In those instances, our social norms make it easy to do the right thing.

And you can still be a hedonist while eating plants!  If you’re ever in Chicago, you should stop by my dear friend Auntie Ferret’s vegan deep-dish pizza restaurant, or use Happy Cow to find a decadent plant-based restaurant near you.

Deep dish pizza, mac and cheese, nachos and more — all vegan at Kitchen 17.

Feature image by Neil Palmer / CIFOR on Flickr.

On auctions, politics, quantum computing, and waste.

On auctions, politics, quantum computing, and waste.

I recently played the board game Fists of Dragonstone.  It was fun – the premise is that each turn a spell is revealed and players will make a simultaneous, secret bid to acquire its effect.  The spells might earn victory points, increase your future income, or help you thwart other players’ plans.

Each turn felt tense because Fists of Dragonstone uses “all pay” auctions.  If you bid two dollars, you’ll lose this money whether or not you get the prize you wanted.  This type of auction is a slippery beast – inherently stressful in the real world, but psychologically compelling within the safe confines of a game.

Fists of Dragonstone. Image by hal_99 on Flickr.

When most people think of auctions, they imagine the type that eBay uses – only the winner pays, and the amount paid is equal to the second-highest bid.  In this type of auction, you ought to state your intentions honestly.  If you would get $15 worth of joy from owning an item, you should bid $15 – you’ll either get to have it for that amount of money (or less), or else learn that someone else values the item more.

If we didn’t have such rampant wealth & income inequality, this type of auction would arguably improve the world.  Objects would wind up in the hands of whomever valued them most, boosting overall happiness.

In practice, of course, things don’t work out so well.  Some people have access to far more money than others.  Even if a wealthy person estimates that a blanket would provide $60 of happiness, and a poor person estimates that the same blanket would provide $10 of happiness, it might be that the poor person would actually get more happiness from the blanket.  Inequality means that there’s no universal way to convert between money and joy, but the marketplace treats all our dollars the same.

Image by Todd Huffman on Flickr.

In a board game, you can address inequality by doling out the same set of initial resources to each player.  But the standard auction type – which rewards honest valuation – wouldn’t be much fun.  Everyone should value each item equivalently, and so the game is reduced to a puzzle.  It might be fun to solve once, but there wouldn’t be a reason to play again.

In an “all pay” auction, though, you benefit by being unpredictable.  Because you lose your bid whether or not you win the auction, you should often bid zero even if there’s an item you’d like.  You’re throwing away money if you make a non-zero bid but someone else bids higher.

You could still attempt to “solve” this sort of game, but the optimal solution invokes random behavior.  You should make a bid somewhere between zero and your true valuation, with a certain probability assigned to each.  That’s what a robot would do.

Most humans are pretty terrible at doing things that are actually random, though.  When we try to create a fake list of outcomes from a set of coin flips, for instance, we usually hew to an alternating pattern of heads and tails.

Since we’re bad at making random choices – and we know that other players are bad at it too – we fall back on misguided psychological reasoning.  She bid nothing the last two rounds, so maybe I can sneakily win this next auction with a $1 bid!  We get to feel clever when our stratagems succeed.  We get to curse when they fail.  All much more fun than the honest appraisal encouraged by auctions in which only the winner pays!

In the real world, though, an “all pay” auction is a recipe for waste.

This type of auction is a good proxy for many types of adversarial encounters.  Political contests, computer security, sporting events.  Even restaurant management, if people have a discrete budget set aside for eating out and are simply choosing which establishment to frequent. 

In each of these situations, every player has to pay – to run for political office, you invest years of your life and spend a whole bunch of money on advertisements.  It’s not as though you get that time or money back when you lose.  All players spend their total bids, but only one gets the prize of elected office.

Contemporary political campaigns are incredibly expensive.  So many people have already devoted years of their lives to the 2020 presidential campaign.  The efforts of the losing side will have been wasted.  Because major platforms are willing to air totally fraudulent advertisements, candidates have little chance of victory if they spend much less than their opponents.

Sure, sometimes people will console themselves with the thought that “We may not have won the election, but we changed the tenor of political discourse!”   In our country, this is a fantasy.  U.S. politics is sufficiently polarized that the winners rarely concern themselves with the expressed desires of the losing side.  Two of our past three presidents lost the popular vote and still proceeded with their agendas as though they’d received an overwhelming mandate.

Security is another form of “all pay” auction.  This is an asymmetrical game – your initial resources and victory conditions are clearly different if you happen to be playing as a homeowner or a thief – but the basic principle remains the same.  One player bids an amount on security; the other player bids time and money to undermine it; depending on who bids more, a break-in succeeds or it doesn’t.

As in Fists of Dragonstone, players have an incentive to randomize their behavior.  Sometimes a homeowner should display signs for a security system that hasn’t actually been installed.  Sometimes a thief should pass by a house even if it looks like a juicy target.  If players are too predictable, they can be narrowly outbid.

Computer encryption is an auction like this.  Equifax bid less than the people trying to hack its servers; a huge amount of personal data was stolen.  Mine too.  As an apology for low-balling their security bid, Equifax will send me a settlement check for some amount between $125 and $0.03, depending on how many of the other victims they choose to compensate.

What could I do with three pennies?

I glued pennies together to make little legs for my laptop computer – three cents for the back legs, two for the front – hoping to improve air flow for the exhaust fan.  When a computer overheats, programs malfunction.  The operating system might freeze, the same way I do when I’m typing and somebody says “Hi” to me.  My brain stutters – processing, processing – unable to determine whether I know this person, and, if so, from where.

Shut down, reboot.

Anyway, building these laptop stilts out of pennies seemed cheaper than any other materials.  I’ve already built them, though.  I don’t really need another $0.03 check from Equifax.

But this situation must feel frustrating for the people at Equifax, too.  Improved encryption isn’t valuable in and of itself.  This is an adversarial contest that produces only waste.  A world in which companies spent little or nothing on computer security and other people simply chose not to breach their nonexistent defenses would be better than our world, in which data needs to be scrupulously guarded.

A world in which politicians didn’t advertise, trusting voters to learn about their platforms from impartial sources, would be better than our world.

That’s not where we live, though.  Instead, scientists are working to create quantum computers.  These are marvels of engineering.  In contrast to the behavior of macroscopic objects, certain properties of a quantum transistor can remain undefined during a calculation, collapsing into a discrete binary value only at the end.  To accomplish this, the transistor must be guarded from its environs – you may have heard that “measurement” collapses wavefunctions, but measurement doesn’t mean that a human is looking at something.  Measurement simply means that the state of an object becomes coupled with the state of its environment.

If a photon approaches, the state of the object becomes linked with the state of the photon.  They might’ve collided or not, which narrows the range of space in which the object might exist, which narrows the set of wavefunctions that could be summed to give its momentum.  A collision-less encounter restricts us to a different set of futures than if the photon hit the thing.

In practice, that means a quantum computer needs to be kept dark, and atmosphere-less, and very, very cold.  For a long time – the transistors have to stay unmolested for the entire duration of a calculation.

IBM’s Quantum Q. Photo by IBM research on Flickr.

Obviously, these devices are very expensive to build and run.

And why might we want them?  Well, they’d be better than conventional computers at … um … at factoring the large numbers that are used for computer encryption! 

Quantum computers are fascinating.  Our attempts to build them have helped us learn more about the workings of our world.  But the actual existence of quantum computers – at least until we think of an application other than cracking computer security – will make the world worse.

Worried that people might copy data and then use quantum computers to decode it later — you know, after these computers have been invented — security experts say that we need to start spending more money on encryption now

While playing Fists of Dragonstone, my friends would curse and shout after making an exorbitantly high bid and then seeing that every other player bid zero.  I could have won with $1! 

That’s basically what security experts are encouraging us to do. Not curse — overbid. They say that we should make extremely high bids on encryption now, to protect ourselves from a technology that might never exist.  Otherwise, undesirables might gain access to the password-protected folder of risqué photographs that you and your partner(s) took.  Or break into your bank account.

Occasionally, adversarial work improves the world.  When restaurants compete, service might get better. The food, tastier.

But most adversarial contests are engines for waste.  High-speed stock trading makes the market more fluid – you can log on and purchase a few dozen shares of whatever you’d like since AI algorithms are ready to facilitate transactions between buyers and sellers. 

That’s a small service, though.  High-speed trading firms shouldn’t be extracting as much wealth as they are in this country.  Mostly they eavesdrop on others’ conversations, sneak in front of people who’re trying to buy something, then scalp it back at higher prices.  Trading firms pay exorbitant rent on shelf space that’s close as possible to the stock exchange mainframes – if one scalper is microseconds faster than another, that’s the one who gets to shake you down.

In a board game, cooperation is generally less fun than adversarial play.  For the former, players are trying to solve a puzzle created by the designer.  With adversarial rules, players are using their intelligence to create puzzles for each other in real time.

In a game, the waste is the entire point.  Nothing tangible is produced, but the expended time leads to social camaraderie.  The expended brainpower can give you a sense of satisfaction from having worked through intellectual puzzles.  And, hopefully, you’ll have fun.

But – whoops – we’ve used the principles of good game design and mistakenly applied them to the real world.  Fists of Dragonstone was fun; our political system shouldn’t be based on all-pay auctions.  With major politicians poised to ravage the Amazon, cull the world’s few remaining old-growth forests, and dredge up Arctic oil fields, the people wealthy enough to make high bids on upcoming elections might well destroy us.

NASA image revealing the ongoing deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.  Just f.y.i., the forest is being cleared to make space for cows.  Each time you choose eat beef or dairy cheese, you’re contributing to the destruction of the “Lungs of our Planet.”

Featured image for this post: “Auction Today” by Dave McLean on Flickr.

On smell (again!).

On smell (again!).

1200px-Concentrated_animal_feeding_operation,_Missouri_(2)If you live next to a concentrated animal feeding operation – facilities that houses thousands of farmed animals in fetid conditions – there’s no point in buying perfume.  The smell of animal excrement overwhelms any scent you could wear.  If you’re interested in a romantic dalliance, you’ll have to woo people with your looks.  Or, sure, conversation.  But a charming scent won’t do it.

In other environs, scent contributes to your allure.  We humans choose our mates based on a huge number of considerations, including the way people smell.  Back in 1995, zoologist Claus Wedekind proposed that human females are most attracted to the scents of men whose immune genes differ from their own.

oldspiceDuring college, a friend tried to convince me that the best route to romantic success was Old Spice aftershave.  “It reminds women of their fathers,” he said.  This is, of course, the opposite theory from Wedekind’s – that females would seek out partners whose scents mirror their own genetic lineage.

But this much is uncontested – by overwhelming our sense of smell, air pollution makes humans less sexy.

Stick_insect_WGWe’re not the only animals who use aroma to identify attractive mates.  Stick insects can have a wide range of physical appearances, and multiple species sometimes live in overlapping areas.  Each subpopulation of stick insects secretes a different mix of oily aromatic chemicals from their skin.  These oils protect them from scrapes and dehydration – and help them find mates of their own kind.

If stick insects couldn’t smell, they might mate wantonly.

That’s what happens with fish.

When we pollute water, fish lose the ability to recognize each other.  In the same way that humans near a CAFO won’t notice each other’s scents because they can only smell ammonia and sulfurous shit, fish living near human dumping grounds – whether it be farm run-off, factory effluents, or untreated sewage – find their sense of smell overwhelmed.

fishMany types of fish behave the way my Old-Spice-sporting friend hoped humans would – they seek mates who smell like their forebears.  Which they can’t necessarily do in polluted waters.  And so fish mate across species.  Their chimeric children dissolve the old boundary lines.

Perhaps you thought this couldn’t happen – the traditional definition of a “species” is a population of organisms that can produce fertile offspring only by mating with each other.  But the traditional definition is wrong; scientists don’t actually know what a species is.  Whatever boundaries exist seem porous.  The Neanderthal genes carried by modern Homo sapiens show that humans also mated with other species, at least until we drove our relatives into extinction.  Chimpanzees are the closest we have left, sharing 98% of our DNA, but now they’re endangered too.

Although – maybe that’s fine.  Not murdering our relations, or endangering the chimps; maybe it’s fine for multiple lineages to merge back into one.  I hate to find any virtue in pollution, but dissolving species boundaries doesn’t sound so bad.

Contemporary biology textbooks claim that species boundaries arise whenever subpopulations cease interbreeding.  For the “Advanced Placement” biology test, students are expected to know that speciation can be triggered by migration, or a geographic impediment like a new highway, or even cultural barriers.

A strong preference for certain types of scent might qualify as a cultural barrier.  Or tropical birds that want their mates to look or dance a certain way.  And so would anti-miscegenation laws in the United States.  Except for the gene flow provided by pale-skinned rapists, those biology textbooks imply that epidermal melanin concentrations marked a species boundary until the 1960s in the United States.

In the contemporary U.S., parental wealth creates a similar mating barrier.  In many parts of the country, children born to rich, well-educated parents rarely even chat with children born to poor people, let alone marry them.  This phenomenon has persisted for only a generation or two, which is certainly too brief to create a species division, but shows no sign of abating.

Marrying somebody who shares your interests seems fine.  My spouse and I seem to be fairly similar people.  And yet – should I be alarmed that my own choice inches us closer toward the world of Metropolis?

 

Feature image: “Character study, strong smell” by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt.

On sex work, reparations, a global wealth tax, and the connection between the three.

On sex work, reparations, a global wealth tax, and the connection between the three.

CaptureMany people are upset that Amnesty International finally came out in favor of decriminalizing sex work.

Not me.  I think decriminalizing sex work is a step in the right direction.  Sex workers’ lives are often miserable.  Their underground status denies them police protection; instead, they are often actively abused by the police.

The philosophical rationale for outlawing sex work is at least more sound than the equivalent rationale for outlawing the drug trade, though.  I’m in favor of decriminalization for both, but in the case of sex work I acknowledge that there are extremely valid reasons to feel squeamish about the tacit approval conferred by decriminalization.

Laws are just only insofar as they protect people.  Driving laws are imminently just — letting people drive however they wanted would endanger the lives of everyone else on or near roadways.  Whereas drug laws appear at first glance to be imminently unjust — if a burnout decides to loaf around his apartment, smoke a jay, watch some television, it would seem that no one else is harmed.

Only two arguments I’ve seen for outlawing drug use have any merit.  One is that a person under the influence of a particular compound cannot be trusted to peacefully loaf in his apartment.  Amphetamine use, for instance, both confers extra energy and impairs judgement (the latter effect is due mostly to lack of sleep, not a pharmacological effect of amphetamines themselves, but I think it’s fair to make this approximation since amphetamines impede sleep.  This is especially true for the methylated analogues because that methylation slows drug metabolism; the half-life is so long that a single dose can prevent someone from sleeping for a day or two).

It’s reasonable to guess that people given free access to amphetamines would become unlawful.

CaptureOf course, we outlawed amphetamines poorly.  They are all scheduled, meaning they are all illegal to purchase or possess without a prescription… but many flavors can be purchased in large quantities with a valid prescription.

In practice, this means that amphetamines are outlawed for poor people.  Wealthy college students and medical doctors and tenure-track professors all have ready access.  So the way amphetamines are outlawed in this country is clearly unjust, and rampant abuse among wealthy populations belies the notion that amphetamines lead to lawless behavior… but as long as you ignore the empirical evidence and just focus on the theory, the philosophical rationale makes sense.

The other argument for outlawing drug use is that compounds are so addictive, and so dangerous, that we should accept some harm to adults (imprisonment, the danger of participating in underground markets) in order to prevent children from ever trying drugs.  Children, knowing that the laws make users’ lives awful, might consider that extra cost and decide that a first taste isn’t worth it.  Additionally, the laws might reduce access, so there’d be less risk that a child ever has an opportunity to choose poorly.

Personally, I think this is a rotten strategy.  There are viable alternatives that allow adult access while still keeping a good or service out of the hands of children.  These strategies also tend to break down in markets for illegal goods or services.  In many regions of our country it is easier for children to buy marijuana than alcohol.  And we now have nearly a half-century’s worth of evidence that harm caused by the War on Drugs outweighs the potential paternalistic protection afforded to children.

The War on Drugs has led to heroin overdoses because illegal goods have limited quality control.  Brutality & murder in impoverished urban areas because people without access to police protection depend upon reprisal to maintain order.  Brutality, murder, rape, kidnapping, terror & more in huge swaths of Mexico, all clearly the result of U.S. drug policy.  And millions of harmless people denied their freedom in U.S. prisons, effectively state-sponsored partial murders because those people forfeit the bulk of their adult lives.

But, again, that’s merely empirical evidence.  None of that contradicts the theoretical justification for outlawing drug use, the idea that some harm to adults is acceptable in order to protect children.  Perhaps our legislators simply care about children’s well-being much more than I do.

(Except, right, they don’t care about children in Mexico.  Or those living in our nation’s dangerous inner cities.  Or those who grow up without access to their incarcerated parents.  But, give our legislators a break!  Empathy fatigue is real!  They can’t be expected to maintain the same degree of concern for everyone.  Shouldn’t they be commended that they at least care deeply about the well-being of privileged suburban children?)

It felt necessary to detail those arguments because they also provide the motivation for outlawing sex work.

The feminist argument resembles the supposition that people allowed to buy drugs will then behave unacceptably.  The idea is that men who are allowed to purchase women’s bodies will devalue women in general.  I’m skeptical, though.  After decriminalization, most bodies will still not be for sale.  No one would be forced to participate in the sex trade.  And just because you can walk into a sparring gym and pay a boxing instructor to let you take some swings at him does not mean that people think it’s fair game to throw down some bills and punch whomever they like.

shutterstock_128676716-800x430It’s true that we live in a very misogynistic culture.  Some misogynists might feel empowered to talk & act even more crudely if they were legally allowed to purchase sex.  But it’s not as though misogynists are currently unable to purchase sex.  And our current system denies sex workers protection against bad actors — decriminalization would confer dignity and allow them to demand more respectful treatment from their clientele.

And there is a serious problem with the “increase the cost of participation in the sex trade to protect people from it” argument.  A major reason why people need to be protected from joining the trade is that it is illegal.  Decriminalization would reduce the dangers.  And even though current laws against sex work increase the cost of participation, there are still many people willing to pay that cost.  There are individuals who want to buy sex.  There are desperate people who need money.  Ironically, the laws against sex work even reduce the amount of money that the latter group can earn.

(Some economics in brief: demand for most goods is based on price.  If price increases, demand goes down.  For purchasers of illegal sex, the risk of being caught is an additional cost.  Which means that in every transaction they are paying in both dollars and risk.  If the legal risk were instead zero, the amount of dollars that buyers would be willing to pay for identical services would increase.)

This is where my personal qualms come in, by the way.  I’m willing to believe that some people are genuinely willing to sell sex.  I’ve spoken with several people who enjoy working as massage therapists, and to my mind some types of sex work differ in degree, not in kind, from massage.  A professional uses practiced touch to confer physiological and psychological wellness.

The problem is that people who did not want to but had no other options might also sell sex.

Lydia_Cacho_en_entrevistaI’m in favor of decriminalizing sex work, but I think that if we do decriminalize sex work but make no other changes to the world, the result will be evil.  Women will continue to be hurt in ways resembling those documented by Lydia Cacho in her book Slavery, Inc.  (The book is great — if you care about these issues, it’s well worth a read.  Also, if somebody ever starts printing heroic human rights worker trading cards, I’d definitely nominate Cacho to appear in the first set.)

Without a concurrent effort to address poverty, decriminalizing sex work could reasonably be construed as coercive.  The impoverished might well feel compelled to participate in order to survive.  If people have extremely limited options, making one option more attractive does funnel people into participation.  It wouldn’t be entirely against their will, but survival impetus means it wouldn’t be entirely voluntary either.  Ironically, their near-forced participation would also reduce the amount that all those desperate people could earn from each unwanted act.

(The other side of price equilibrium is based on supply — if supply of a good is high, like if many hungry people have to sell sex to have enough money to eat, the price has to be lowered to move the whole quantity.  Poverty-impelled participants would undermine each other’s wages.)

Part of why this is so crummy is that we have sufficient resources to fix this.  The productivity gains from modern automation and agriculture mean we could probably provide all people with food, shelter, and basic utilities (water will get trickier as time goes on) for free.  The rudiments of survival don’t cost that much relative to modern production capacity.

And a guarantee of subsistence would make the idea of decriminalized sex work much more palatable.  The idea of sex being traded as commerce isn’t so problematic in and of itself — as I mentioned, I see it as being on the same continuum as legal massage… or mosh pits, which also provide paid access to human contact.  The horrors come from people feeling pressured to sell sex in order to survive.

In my opinion, a guaranteed minimum standard of living is also the most practical form for reparations to take.

320px-Ta-Nehisi_CoatesI really enjoyed Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article about reparations (“The Case for Reparations”).  It wasn’t at all pedantic or abstract — which means that I was clearly not the intended audience — but I enjoyed it all the same.  One of his main aims is to show that people alive today have been victimized by the long legacy of racially-motivated abuse in the United States.  Which means reparations would be not only an acknowledgement of long-past wrongs, but would also serve to ameliorate very recent & ongoing harm.

In his article, however, Coates did not address who would pay or how reparations might be fairly distributed.  To my mind those practical considerations are of utmost importance in deciding whether the idea is at all viable.

I think it is.  I think that a global wealth tax used to fund a minimum standard of living for all people is plausible, philosophically justifiable, and would have meaningful economic & psychological consequences for the decedents of oppressed peoples.

I wrote about some of the underlying principles in my previous post about the creepy parallel between gene duplication and oppression — the idea that our cultural & technological heritage is the product of exploitation because subjugation of the world’s many allowed a free-riding few to pursue goals other than subsistence.  This has rough equivalence to the way advancement comes about in evolution — gene duplication produces free-riding DNA sequences that are allowed to drift because the original copy takes care of required function.

But the basic idea behind using a wealth tax to fund reparations is even simpler: wealth begets wealth.  Initial inequalities in distribution (which probably even existed amongst “egalitarian” hunter gatherers) will, over time, magnify into dramatic unfairness.  Wealthy heirs earn far more by renting their property than our hardest workers possibly could via effort alone.

I’m not sure anyone still thinks that communism is a reasonable fix for this, though.  As much as I dislike Ayn Rand’s writing (although it’s fascinating to me that many feminists and conservative Christians both like her books… this despite repeated depictions of Rand’s ideal men sexually assaulting her ideal women and Rand’s clear disdain for Christianity), I agree with some of her arguments against communism.  Knowing that you can’t profit from your efforts saps motivation.  Absolute equality undermines personal value.  And it seems just plain strange to have your net worth instantly decrease whenever a stranger has a child.

345829246_a7434a76dcMore reasonable, to my mind, is a tax on total wealth.  This would not devalue effort because it ignores income; the tax would be based on current holdings.  Taxation at any amount less than the rental income rate would still leave that maxim “wealth begets wealth” untouched… the only change would be that wealth would beget slightly less wealth.  (A reasonable rate of return on wealth right now, like if you buy some certificates of deposit, is about 3%.  Historically 5% is standard, and the largest property holders are often able to attain rates of 8% – 12%.  If you’d like to read a little more about this, you could check out my previous post on wealth tax, automation, & human trafficking.)

A global wealth tax would be philosophically justifiable as an acknowledgement that all current holdings can be traced back through time to violence and oppression.  For instance, no one created land (this isn’t entirely true — China has been constructing islands, and you could argue that draining the weather-buffering swamps in Florida and Louisiana was akin to creating land — but for most places, though most of history, it’s true enough).

It’s pretty easy to see land entitlement as having resulted from violence.  Humans migrated into new territory, killed off the dangerous animals that were there, then were murdered in turn by a new wave of human migrants, who were then murdered by new migrants, over and over until the conquerors were sufficiently powerful to defend their property and stop the cycle of theft.

Or there’s the case of the United States.  Our current wealth reflects our long history as a global superpower, but that history began somewhere.  First European settlers massacred the Native Americans.  Our meteoric rise was then propelled by cotton.  And how was the United States able to dominate the world’s cotton market?

Oh, right.

353181520_92b6b4a831

Our nation’s rise as an economic superpower was due to the brutal exploitation of black laborers.

Murder of those who resisted their enslavement.  Rape to propagate an imprisoned people.

Because wealth begets wealth, and because economic reparations were never paid, all current wealth in this country can be traced back to that initial evil.  Our nation’s initial prosperity came from sin.  Everyone who enjoys good fortune here today benefits from & is thereby marked by crimes whose reverberations have not ended & will not end on their own.

I’m not saying that no one did honest work later.  Obviously hundreds of millions did.  Your parents presumably did not oppress anyone in order to purchase their house.

But that doesn’t change the legacy.  If they were lucky, your parents received a decent education — their schools’ funding did not materialize wholesale from the aether.  They presumably received a loan to be able to purchase a home (the Coates reparations article has some excellent documentation for historic and contemporary harm perpetuated by both our nation’s banks & federal lending policies).  The original inhabitants of the land on which that home was built were murdered.  The national prosperity that makes that land more valuable than an equivalent parcel elsewhere was bled out of generations of slaves.

It’s too late to seek forgiveness for sins perpetuated against those who are now dead, but economic reparations could serve to make current wealth clean.

There is, of course, the question of who should benefit from reparations.  History is sufficiently tangled that I don’t think any attempt at strict accounting of whose ancestors were harmed & how much would be fruitful.  Nor do I think an accounting of that sort is necessary.  In contemporary times, the most egregious harms result from our failure to provide for the children of the poor — in our country, not only does wealth perpetuate itself, we have policies that go a long way toward guaranteeing that poverty will perpetuate itself as well.

This could be ameliorated by providing all people with a minimum standard of living.  Children can’t learn when they’re hungry. It wouldn’t cost much to offer all students a peanut butter & jelly sandwich (or a calorically-equivalent hypoallergenic meal) at the beginning of each school day.  Instead we let them sit in classrooms with rumbling stomachs & agitated minds and chastise their teachers when they fail.

Children who work long hours to help their parents pay rent (please scroll to the bottom of this article and read the final 10 paragraphs — the rest is good too, but I’ve picked out the most heartbreaking section for you) can’t learn well either.  Even children who simply stay awake worrying what’ll happen to their families are at a major disadvantage.  If you’re worried about having enough money to survive, you can’t really think about anything else (feel free to check out Mani et al.’s “Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function” if you haven’t seen it yet, or see this recent post).

If food & shelter & basic utilities were guaranteed, we’d cut down on those worries.  Poor people would be given room to breathe and think and plan.

(Are you one of those people who likes numbers?  Here is a tiny bit of math to support my claim that this is feasible.  I’d say $500 per month per person is reasonable to provide food, shelter, and utilities — honestly, this amount comes close to cutting it in Bloomington IN, and that’s without any dedicated infrastructure for the project.  For most of the globe, $500 might be a vast overestimate.  With a world population of seven billion, that puts us at needing $3.5 trillion per year if all people wanted to take advantage of the crappy minimum offerings.  Under a twentieth of the gross world product.  And, regarding a wealth tax, it would take approximately a 1.5% tax on wealth holdings to fund that full amount.  That’s well below the historical 5% rate of return for capital.)

This implementation wouldn’t explicitly target blacks.  Maybe that’s a bad thing, because it wouldn’t make the apology aspect of reparations explicit.  This nation, as a collective, has done wrong and should atone for it.  But our nation’s blacks do suffer the slings of poverty more severely than other citizens (largely because we still have policies in place that ensure that they will), so a serious program to address poverty would benefit many who’ve inherited that legacy of mistreatment.  And the impoverished masses in other countries generally reside in areas that were once (or are still) exploited by our world’s now-wealthy nations.  Their plight reflects past theft of their resources.

And, getting back to sex work — many of the problems that will come from decriminalized sex work would not arise in a world with guaranteed subsistence.

People might feel compelled to sell sex against their wishes if the practice is decriminalized and they need money to survive but have no other way of obtaining it.  Many of the current ails of sex workers result from their criminal status.  But without addressing poverty, it is likely that sex workers will still be denied police protection because they’ll still be considered criminals.  Instead of being criminals by virtue of being sex workers, they’ll be considered criminals because of immigration status.  Impoverished people have long been trafficked to regions with decriminalized sex work and held hostage by the threat of fines, deportation, and reprisal against their families.

5611594783_8e9a533564_bWhich obviously sounds grim.  But I don’t think those are inherent consequences of decriminalized sex work.  Those are the consequences of impoverished desperation amongst people with few options.  Similar economic motivations underlie participation in unethical organ markets (which I wrote about for my first post to this website).

Still, I’d like to thank Amnesty International.  Their advocacy for decriminalization is sorely needed.  But I expect to hear many more horror stories akin to those documented in Cacho’s book unless we make a sincere effort to combat poverty.  Micro-loans or not-quite-enough-to-live-on food allotments are not going to cut it.  People need to know that they’ll at least survive if something goes wrong.

Also, how did I type up this whole post without including the Balzac epigraph from Mario Puzo’s The Godfather?  I’ll include it here — please pretend you read it earlier, to punctuate any of the above paragraphs where it would’ve been appropriate.

“Behind every great fortune there is a crime.”