The Refusal To Think Conceptually

An effective way to ignore someone else’s wisdom is to refuse to think conceptually. If you can get away with treating someone’s point as an isolated and overly literal statement, then it is more likely to seem weak, shallow, vapid, or ridiculous. Once having managed to dismiss the point as preposterous, one no longer has to worry about its truth value.

I thought about this while reading David Henderson’s latest blog post at EconLog. The post is all about how, if one commits to reducing costs, living frugally on the margins, and making modest but consistent investments, then over the course of a lifetime even people with very humble incomes can save enough to become millionaires. He’s right, and that’s a fact.

But Henderson argues against a man - Tim Herreira of the New York Times - who refuses to think conceptually. Here’s Herreira:
So I feel like we’re in this weird bubble where a lot of personal finance advice is centered around tiny expenses, like coffee, snacks, occasional lunches or other small indulges. I hate it! Those are usually the things that make life worth living!
Henderson quite effectively responds by showing that the daily $4 expense of a Starbucks coffee, if foregone for a year and invested instead, soon yields $25,000. But Herreira’s problem isn’t that he doesn’t understand this. Herreira’s problem is that he thinks this conversation is about coffee.

What I mean is, there are people in Herreira’s position who don’t drink coffee at all. For them, the daily indulgence they make might be something else, like a candy bar, or an expensive shampoo, or a larger-than-necessary car lease. The daily indulgence could be anything, really. It doesn’t have to be coffee. The coffee isn’t the point.

The point is that there is some expense in your life, somewhere, that you won’t miss giving up. Maybe Herreira loves his coffee so much that he’s not willing to invest that money instead. Fine. Chances are pretty good, though, that he’s spending more money than he has to on something. Wherever it is that he’s willing and able to reduce his expenses and invest the difference in his future, that’s what he should be doing. And if he does this on a consistent enough basis, then he, too, can be a millionaire one day. That, not coffee, is the real point.

Part of this, I must admit, is the fault of “financial gurus,” who are largely incapable of describing savings in terms of opportunity costs.

Here’s an example: I drink two fancy lattes absolutely every day. On one level, that’s probably even more indulgent than Tim Herreira’s daily Starbucks habit. The difference with me is that I make my lattes at home, using a $12 range top espresso maker and coffee that I buy in bulk and grind using a small electric grinder. My lattes cost me pennies, not dollars. If Herreira is correct that these small indulgences make life worth living - and when it comes to coffee, I happen to agree - then doesn’t it make sense to economize on your passion? Doesn’t it make sense to figure out how to drink as many fancy lattes as possible at the lowest possible expense? That’s what I do, and it’s really paid off. I save a ton of money while still maintaining a quite decadent daily coffee ritual.

And don’t even get me started on my daily smoked salmon omelet.

The opportunity cost of giving up your daily Starbucks habit doesn’t have to be “drinking no coffee at all.” It might instead be, “making an even better cup of coffee at home and at a fraction of the cost.” Then you can reinvest that difference and save for your future. There are dozens of expenses like this. I stopped buying scrambled eggs at restaurants, for example, because it’s a waste of money compared to making them at home. Tea at a restaurant is as much as $3. For a teabag and a cup of hot water! No thanks, I’ll just go home and have the same cup of tea - same tea bag and everything - for pennies. I’m giving up a little bit of pleasure, the pleasure of drinking a cup of tea in a restaurant. But that amount of pleasure isn’t enough to compensate me for the financial cost of frivolous expenses.

The secret here isn’t giving up things that make your life better. The secret is finding ways to make your life as good as possible without wasting money. Given that you can enjoy a better latte or the same cup of tea at home for literal pennies on the dollar, why waste the money?


Politics Versus Mario Kart

One of the first theories I ever heard about "why Donald Trump won the election" was that, at the end of the day, Republicans would rather vote Republican, even when their candidate is not particularly Republican on any major issue. Seen from one angle - that the only thing Republicans stand for is being against Democrats - this criticism strikes me as being unfair. Seen from another angle, though - that "he may be a bastard, but he's our bastard" - and it makes a little more sense.

Suppose that you were like me in 2016, and you had no one good to vote for. In a choice between two terrible candidates who will both make your life worse, but each perhaps in their own unique way, the decision criteria shift away from the issues and toward more petty concerns. For example, I know more than a few people who voted for Trump mainly to spite Hillary Clinton and all those who desperately wanted her to win. I don't condone spite, much less using it as a basis for national political decision-making, but that doesn't mean people don't make decisions based on spite. There was an old blog post from The Last Psychiatrist that argued that if schools make grades basically meaningless, then employers will start basing hiring decisions on things like racial prejudice, since they have no useful way of using grades to make a hiring decision. I don't doubt for a second that, absent a solid policy-making argument for Hillary or Donald, many people just chose to vote "against the woman" or "against the pig."

It's sad that national politics has to come down to something like this, but that's the direct consequence of a lobby-corrupted two-party government duopoly whose main purpose is to enrich themselves at the expense of the taxpayer and at the price of pandering to the public employment sector.

It isn't surprising, then, that people would tend to lose interest in national elections and voter turnout could be generally pretty low. I looked into the data and found voter turnout to be roughly flat for the last 100 years, so even despite cataclysms like World War II and the Great Depression, and even the Civil Rights Movement, people have about as little faith in politicians as ever. I think many of us see through the charade. Out of that enlightened population, a few become anarchists, a few more become insufferable cynics, and the vast majority become people who would just rather go home and read a book.

Losing interest and going off to do something more productive is precisely the best response to this kind of futility. If the average person can't move the political needle in any positive direction without doing even worse damage, then clearly the best response is to hold a Mario Kart tournament in your game room with beer and pizza. It may be sub-optimal, but it's Pareto sub-optimal. (That's a joke, folks. I know that I'm describing an optimum. Don't @ me.)

But the hallmark of a great economic mind is that such a mind will think at the margins, no matter how bad the margins get. Just because you're circling the drain doesn't mean you can't circle it a little better; just because the odds of disaster are 98:1 doesn't mean they couldn't be 97:1 with a little creative thinking. We just have to ensure that the cost of going from 98 to 97 isn't higher than the opportunity cost. For most people, the opportunity cost is a foregone Mario Kart tourney, and is thus too steep. For a very few of us, it involves much smaller shifts in perspective.

How do you know which group you're in? Pay attention to the conversations you're having. If your political discussions tend to be highly partisan in nature, and to re-hash a lot of the same points again and again, the odds are pretty good that you should be playing more Mario Kart. If your political discussions tend to be had with very learned people who are experts in their field and who respond to you in long form rather than short form, then you're probably in the latter category of people who can afford to try to push the needle in a positive direction.

Push the needle in a positive direction by arguing at the margins. You'll probably never convince your friend that taxation is a form of theft, but you could probably very easily sway him to reconsider the worthiness of a new tax. You might never convince someone to change from one stance on abortion to another, but put to him a pretty good case for why a new abortion law should be tweaked slightly toward your end of the spectrum.

And if you can't, just stop talking and go play some Mario Kart instead.


Economics For Your Mental Health?

I don't know why it popped up on my feed this morning, but I saw a link to two-year-old news that Instagram is the social medium that is supposedly "worst for mental health."

Of course, I have written before that I like Instagram much better than other social media, and I have surmised that one of the reasons for this is because I have curated my Instagram feed much differently than my other social media accounts. Rather than following friends and relatives on Instagram, I instead follow famous or interesting people who take photographs of things I want to see: beautiful places, cute animals, great acts of outdoor sporting, appealing fashion, and so on. If it tends to bring me joy when I see it, I'll follow it on Instagram. If it tends to upset or bore me, I won't. I don't spend a lot of time on Instagram, but whenever I use it, it gives me a smile.

The question is, why is my experience so at odds with that of the average person?

Recently, I have seen other reports about how fitness trackers make people miserable and impede their athletic progress. Meanwhile, regular readers will note that my experience with fitness trackers tends to be the exact opposite. I love them. I love Strava. I love seeing all that data, getting the kudos, seeing what kinds of workouts other people are doing, how their races went, and so on. It's wonderful.

In thinking about both of these things, I realized that there are really two different ways of seeing it.

Suppose you log on to Instagram and see a beautiful woman's photos of a beautiful life in a beautiful place, with loving friends and family, and fun happening all the time. One reaction you might have is to be happy for that woman. After all, there is a lot for her to be happy about. You could pay attention to the fun things she does and the nice photos she takes, and you could try to learn lessons to apply to your own life. Do you love all the photos she takes of the beach? Then maybe you should find more time to go to the beach. Do you love all the time she spends with her family? Then maybe you should spend more time with your family. Do you love how glamorous her photos are? Then maybe you and your friends could practice taking glamorous photos of each other. In small ways, you can learn from people who appear to be doing something right, and make your own life better at the margins. It's unlikely that you'll ever live the beautiful life of a social media influencer, but that shouldn't mean that you can't apply a few of their best successes to your own little world.

That's how I feel when I see these Instagram accounts. That's how I feel when I see people post their workouts on Strava. It encourages me, inspires me, and gives me something to learn from.

Other people, though, have another way of seeing it. To them, the fact that they'll never be able to live the glamorous life they see depicted on Instagram is a source of sadness. They want that life, they know they can't have it, and it makes them feel sad. They see someone on Strava logging 80 miles of running per week, and they lament that it can't be them. Or else, they become obsessive about logging an 80-mile week and end up hurting themselves. Anything good that they see on social media becomes a contrast to their own lives. That someone can live a fabulous life implies, in their minds, that their own lives are somehow less-worth-living.

One major difference between these two ways of seeing things is that the first way, my way, involves thinking at the margins: How can I make small changes to what I'm doing so that I can live a little better? The second way involves dichotomous thinking: My life isn't as good as theirs. Dichotomous thinking is pathological to a long list of psychological problems, most obviously depression. The more you see things as all-good or all-bad, the more any small bad thing will bother you, because it implies that everything is bad.

This makes me wonder: Do people who think at the margins - economists, and the like - fare better when it comes to their psychological wellbeing? Could it be that economic training could improve people's perspectives by training them to think less dichotomously?

I think it's worth investigating.


What Do You Expect?

I love sparkling water, but the first time I tried it, it disgusted me.

I remember it vividly. I was in third grade, and we were learning about caves in science class. We were learning about how dripping mineral water forms stalactites and stalagmites. My teacher, Miss Swenson, brought in sparkling mineral water and poured it in little paper cups for each of the students to drink, so that we could learn what the mineral water in caves tastes like. I can't confirm or deny that the water in caves is anything like sparkling mineral water. This is just what happened in my third-grade class.

There was a small amount of bubbling water in a tiny paper cup sitting on my desk. It looked just like Sprite, something I had tasted many times and loved. When Miss Swenson gave us permission, I lifted the cup to my lips and drank.

Instantly, I recoiled. It tasted nothing like Sprite! It wasn't sweet at all. It was just… just… Well, I didn't like it, and that was that.

Many years later, I had a very different experience with sparkling water. I met a cool guy who owned an Italian café. He was into bikes and coffee and he liked to drink San Pellegrino mineral water. A number of our mutual friends got into drinking San Pellegrino as a sort of status symbol. You know, we don't like regular water, we like San Pellegrino.

Under these new circumstances, I had the opportunity to try sparkling water again, and this time I discovered that I liked it quite a bit. One of the reasons I liked it was that after a long run in the desert, my mouth would be dry and sticky, and I found that sparkling water had a better way of cutting through that stickiness than tap water did. Soon I became a lifelong drinker of sparkling water, although these days I drink the generic brands and save a lot of money!

My purpose in writing this is to highlight how expectations impact the quality of an experience. If your expectation of sparkling water is that it will taste like Sprite, you'll probably hate sparkling water when you taste it. If your expectation is that it's cool and tastes delicious, then you might find you rather enjoy it.

This concept extends well beyond sparkling water. I've noticed, for instance, that when people spend too much time listening to just one kind of music, they quickly lose patience with any music style that diverges from their preferred genre. I've noticed that people who expect other cars in traffic to drive in roughly the same manner they themselves do are often the ones who get most frustrated when they encounter unexpected traffic patterns. I've noticed that people who come to expect a certain kind of cityscape in their neighborhood often get the most flustered when a large community of immigrants moves in.

In some of these instances, there is some taste or difference in perspective involved. In many of them, however, most of the dissatisfaction comes from the fact that expectation and reality diverges. People don't like it when they expect one thing and see another. People instead prefer consistency. When they don't get it, they can get quite angry, and this anger translates itself into things like anger at music genres, road rage, and racism.

I hasten to add that this is not a complete explanation of all human dissatisfaction. But it is an important aspect of human nature, and you may benefit from occasionally analyzing your anger through that lens. Are you frustrated with something that is genuinely dissatisfactory, or are you merely trying to map the present set of circumstances onto an ill-fitting set of expectations?

Indeed, I think a lot of interpersonal disagreement can be attributed to the difference between expectation and reality. Many couples break up under the reasoning that one of them "changed" or that they "grew apart," and both of these descriptions reflect a set of unmet expectations. Many arguments have been had between people who absolutely do not disagree on the issue, but who instead phrase the concepts a little differently: "I vehemently disagree with the way you reached the same conclusion I reached!"

With a little concentration, we can approach every situation and every conversation as though there are no preconceived expectations for other people. You might be black, but black doesn't have to "mean something" or imply anything about our interaction. I can simply listen to what you have to say and respond to it on its merits. You might be a rock-climber, but rock-climber doesn't have to "mean something" or imply anything about our interaction.

More challengingly: You might be saying something that sounds similar to something I heard before, but that doesn't have to mean that you are saying something I have heard before. It's incumbent upon me to pay attention to exactly what you say, how it differs from what I've heard in the past, and to approach it from the context of our current discussion, rather than from the context of an old discussion I had long ago, with someone else.

I don't claim that any of this is easy, by the way.


Nihilistic Accelerationism

The currently favored meme among "shitposting" alt-righters is "clown world." That sentence is packed with references that will be unknown to many, and obsolete in a year, so let's briefly unpack it.

"Shitposting" refers to the practice of making largely unserious and frequently irreverent social media posts that one wouldn't necessarily want one's family or professional colleagues to see. For example, if I wanted to inundate the world wide web with pictures of the "circle game," my family would quickly grow tired of the gag, and my colleagues would think I was puerile. But, if I create an alternate social media profile, calling myself "RyLo Ken" or something, then I can post as many lame "circle game" pictures as I want to. Voila. Shitposting. Some people post inflammatory political content on their "shitposting account," some post lots of dad jokes, some post other dumb things.

Alt-righters are an ambiguous lot of people. They are predominantly of a conservative or right-wing political bent, but where the traditional right-winger is pretty serious about traditional, conservative morality (e.g. religious-based morality and straight-laced social presentation), alt-righters are essentially reverse-accelerationists. They have come to embrace the worst aspects of fringe left-wing culture in hopes of exaggerating it and hastening its ultimate demise. The classic alt-right example of this is overt racism: alt-righters start by embracing left wing notions of identity politics and intersectionalism, and then apply those theories to white males, resulting in white supremacy. It's not clear to me whether the alt-right's point is to literally embrace white supremacy or to simply use white supremacy as a means of making identity politics so intolerable to the left that identity politics are ultimately defeated. If the alt-right were to openly state that their embrace of identity politics is all an accelerationist ruse, that would render the point moot. So the world must unfortunately wait to see whether the alt-right was ever serious about white supremacy.

This brings us to "clown world," a series of memes in which Pepe the Frog (and anyone else, really) is depicted wearing a red clown nose and a rainbow wig. I think the original clown world pictures were just intended as ambiguous jokes. I went down the rabbit hole on this a bit, and it seems like the original clown world picture was simply posted with an open-ended question, "How does this make you feel?" That makes "clown world" kind of funny. Unfortunately, since the picture involved both Pepe the Frog, which has been used in various racist ways, and rainbow colors, which are emblematic of the LGBTQ pride movement, you can guess where "clown world" eventually went.

All of this represents a sort of mean-spirited cynicism. It's one thing to troll the overly earnest, cause them to clutch a few pearls for some laughs, and then move on with your day. (I don't condone that, either, but it is at least somewhat forgivable in a merry-prankster sort of way.) It's quite another to burn the Overton Window to cinders.

To put it simply, in order to buy into the alt-right's nihilism, one pretty much has to let go of everything: not merely all of your respect for other people, but even the notion that respect for other people itself is a virtue worth pursuing. Why else would you present yourself as maybe-a-nazi? It goes beyond promoting a set of ideas and into the realm of destroying the integrity of the notion of ideas. In other words, the project is not to win arguments and defeat ideas, but to eliminate the need for having an argument at all.

For a long time, I've been wondering why this sort of thing bothers me so much, and I think I finally have the answer. Ideas are, essentially, the conceptual equivalent of civilization.  Ideas are to humanity as personal relationships are to society. They are the foundation of advanced civilization, and if we're ready to give them all up - all of them, not just the bad ones, but all of them - then we are essentially giving up on civilization itself.

And you can easily recognize this in the alt-right. Their preference is for might-makes-right, and "alpha" behavior. They don't make heroes of Einstein or Feynman, they make heroes of Patton and Caesar. Warlords, generals, chieftains… This is the kind of civilization the alt-right is aiming at, and how could it be otherwise? The end of the road to nihilism is death, destruction and abnegation. You can't build a civilization on chiefs and strongmen. No one is strong enough to build a society, in fact. We need ideas for that.

Human society existed for eons as mere tribes of chiefs and strongmen; it wasn't until we started exercising temperance, restraint of force and passion and violence that we were able to climb out of mud hovels long enough to build a thatched roof; and from there, shingles, and sideboards, and so on. The brute could never have conceived of planting seeds and caring for them for months so that the tribe could be fed for a year. The brute couldn't conceive of it because the brute deals in force, not ideas. It required temperance to reach that realization, and temperance itself is an idea. Then, just as Mises describes in his writings on higher-versus-lower-order goods, each new development cleared the path for another, greater development; one technology building on the last and enabling the next. The wheel-and-axle is not just a physical technology, it's a template for how to build a machine. It is an idea.

Ideas are what build societies, and a society without ideas is a failed state. Therefore, nihilism is, in a way, the belief in a failed state. It's the belief that none of the things we believe in long enough to make the world a better place really matters. So nihilism can only ever produce an inferior world, and the longer we cling to it, the worse the world gets, all the way to the nadir.

And, frankly, that's why the alt-right will never win.


Low Expectations?

Training-wise, today I am invoking Rule #6.1 (or 6a, or however I eventually settle on nomenclating the rules) from my new and forthcoming list of healthy lifestyle rules. This will be a list I'll make available at the top of the blog next to "Find A Workout" that describes my intellectual framework for training and living healthy. The plan is to provide an accompanying blog post for each rule and sub-rule for a fully elaborated and comprehensive record of how I approach health and fitness. All for free, of course, because paying for stuff sucks. So, stay tuned.

In the meantime, I'd like to talk about a recent experience I had, and how it made me notice what has been called by others "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

While running a half marathon last Sunday, I reached a turnaround point and started running back the way I came, as per the race course. This gave slower runners behind me a chance to pass the race leaders and see how things were going.

I was in second place, behind a rather good runner who was far ahead of me. As I passed each small group of slower runners going the other direction, many of them would cheer me on. (I would have cheered them on, too, but I was out of breath and focused on my race.)

Suddenly, I heard a woman call out, "Alright! First female runner! Way to go!" Instantly I understood that the woman had seen my long hair drawn back in a ponytail and had mistaken me for a female. (Meh, what are you going to do? I imagine that nearly every man with long hair has had to deal with that a time or two.)

Now, I was running a decent race for my current level of fitness, but I was far behind the first runner and basically not going what I'd consider "fast," not even by "female standards." So, I thought to myself, why would this woman go out of her way to praise a mediocre performance just because the person happened to be female (or so she thought)?

It's likely that she was just cheering everyone on, so don't fixate too much on this lone example. I spent some time thinking about it, and I realized that society has a tendency to praise female behavior that would otherwise be seen as mediocre or even objectionable if conducted by a male.

The example that really came to mind was Captain Marvel. The truth is, I kind of liked that movie. But even though I liked it, I couldn't help but notice that if she were a male character, the movie would mostly be unremarkable. She was a big hit because she was female, and there have been many such movies in recent years; action movies, in which a strong female protagonist takes names and kicks ass.

Isn't it strange, then, that when male-character-driven action films come out, mostly people just find them silly, juvenile, and boring? Ask your romantic partner out to see the latest shoot-em-up action flick, and she'll likely say, "No thanks, let's watch something else." But if the lead character is female, I'll bet you'll get a different answer.

The problem in this case is that a desire to see strong females depicted in film is clouding our judgement. The mere fact that Rambo is a Rambi (get it?) causes some people to think that a story they would not otherwise appreciate is really something great. But the story is the same either way; the only real difference is the politics. Blech.

Somehow, this sense of politics has managed to keep the WNBA afloat all these years, but I think it's a sentiment whose time is rather limited. The true mark of gender equality will be when people view shoot-em-up films and mediocre athletic performances more or less the same way, regardless of whether the object of analysis is male or female.

Until that time comes, a lot of people will waste a lot of time forcing themselves to enjoy stuff that they don't really enjoy on its own merits.


The 15:32 Special

Here's a tough workout that's not for the faint-of-heart. I call it "The 15:32 Special." The objective of the workout is to run a cumulative 5K in 15:32, i.e. five-minutes-per-mile pace.

It goes like this:

  • Warmup: 7 minutes at a relaxed pace
  • Three sets of:
    • 4 x 75 seconds at 5 min/mi pace
    • Take 60 seconds to recover between each 75-second repetition
  • Take 3 minutes to recover between each set of 4 reps
  • Cool down by running home/back to your starting point
You can also do this workout at the track; simply run 4 x 400m repeats instead of 4 x 75 seconds. I prefer the 75-second version, however, because then it's an open question as to whether you'll truly run five kilometers in 15:32.

Make sure you write down how you did, or track your performance in a running app, so that you can chart your progress over time and ensure that you're improving.

I did this workout today and found it to be difficult, but extremely rewarding.


This workout adheres to the following principles:

  • A1 (fun)
  • A2 (no out-and-backs)
  • C1 (serves a purpose)
  • C2 (based on speed, not heart rate)
  • C3 (improves a known weakness)
  • C4 (wrote it down here and tracked on Strava)
  • C5 (hard days should be hard)
  • D1 (came prepared)
  • D4 (consistent with Precautionary Principle)


Creatine Versus Mere Hydration

Here's a quick post about creatine.

Last year, after reading about some studies that found creatine consumption to be safe for diabetics, I decided to give it a try. Long story short, I subjectively determined that creatine helped me feel fresher and better-able to do my workouts. So, I stuck with it.

What does creatine do? Well, in so many words, it helps muscles retain water so that they have more ready access to ATP, i.e. energy during exercise. Because these muscles have more energy at-the-ready, every time a person exercises, each round of exercise does more good than it would under a status quo scenario. How much more good? Well, studies tend to show that body-builders who use creatine are able to build about 6% more lean muscle mass than non-users, and that the gains are real. That is, the 6% more mass doesn't go away when you stop using creatine, it appears to be a real gain.

On the label of every package of creatine, you'll see that the directions indicate that anyone taking creatine should drink extra water. That got me thinking, "Drink extra water and take this harmless substance, and you will retain more water" sure sounds a lot like, "Combine this placebo with a diet and exercise regimen to lose weight." In the latter case, the placebo obviously isn't doing the work, it's the diet and exercise that is helping a person lose weight. So, what if the former case is analogous? That is, what if creatine is a harmless placebo that evinces users to drink more water? What if you can obtain the same benefits of creatine merely by drinking more water?

I put the question to my social circle, and no one seems to be aware of any creatine studies that specifically controlled for water consumption. Never mind the fact that such a study would be extremely difficult -- every two human bodies are different and thus have different hydration requirements, so how exactly could water consumption be held constant for the purposes of the study?

If my reasoning is correct, then, at least on a personal level, athletes interested in creatine supplementation should start by increasing their water consumption and testing whether this gives them 6% more gains, plus-or-minus an acceptable error rate. If so, there is no point to taking additional creatine.

Of course, since creatine is cheap and virtually harmless, there will always be a "what if." What if good hydration improves athletic performance by a full 6%... And then creatine supplementation could increase it another 6%? Athletes who are interested in such things will always be keen on experimenting to see whether they can squeeze out a little better performance. And there are almost no downsides to using creatine.

Still, this line of thinking was enough to convince me to stop using it.