Information Asymmetries

If there's one thing everyone knows about diabetics, it's that we eat artificial sweeteners. Judge us if you must, but we find that artificial sweeteners make life tolerable. As a normal person, you have access to all kinds of tasty treats. Not us. We pretty much only have access to artificial sweeteners.

I knew I had completely embraced my condition the day I started buying artificial sweetener in bulk. A big, bulk box of artificial sweetener packets costs something reasonable and lasts for something like two years, plus or minus the scale of my hyperbole. It is stunning how many little packets fit in a shoe-sized bulk box. I use two to three packets per day: one for my morning oatmeal, one for my morning yogurt, and one for a cup of tea I have at some point during the day.

No one else in the house eats the stuff, so it was a mystery when I looked in my pantry one day and noticed a big bag of artificial sweetener.

For the uninitiated, let me explain. Artificial sweeteners come in four different format.

The first format is liquid. To my knowledge, the only people who use liquid artificial sweetener are industrial food producers in factories, and people who like to light dollar bills on fire for fun. That's my way of saying that liquid artificial sweetener is very expensive.

The second format for artificial sweeteners is tablet. The sweetener is compressed into a little pill-sized cookie, and a few dozen of them are poured into a plastic bottle. When you want a little sweet treat, you drop a tablet or two into your tea or coffee, and then wait for seventeen hours while the tablet fails to dissolve. Finally, you lose patience and stab the undissolved tablet with a teaspoon until it becomes several shards of undissolved tablet. You drink the unsweetened tea or coffee with a grimace on your face until you reach the last few drops at the bottom, containing all of the undissolved shards. They slip into your mouth with the final drops of tea, forcing you to chew them up, gag, and ultimately hate yourself. It should not surprise you to learn that the tablet form of artificial sweeteners is a favorite among seniors.

The third format for artificial sweeteners is my personal favorite, paper packets full of powder. The packets are pre-measured by weight to ensure that each one contains exactly the equivalent of a teaspoon of sugar. Taking a sachet by the topmost seam, you can give it a vigorous little shake, producing a satisfying percussive sound, not unlike maracas. Doing so forces all of the powder to the opposite end of the sachet, at which point you can tear the packet at the top seam and pour the powder wherever you need it to be. The sachet is small enough that it can be precisely aimed; spilling is minimal. The powder dissolves instantly, so instantly, in fact, that if you pour it over a steaming cup of tea it sometimes dissolves in the vapor itself without ever reaching the cup. For this reason, I typically opt to pour the sweetener in alongside the tea bag, prior to pouring in the water. Perhaps the only drawback to artificial sweetener in paper packets is the fact that it is usually mixed with dextrose, which is a sugar. Why industrial manufacturers of artificial sweetener have chosen to mix real sugar in with fake sugar as a bulking agent is beyond me. I wish they wouldn't. Still, there is no superior format for artificial sweeteners than paper packets.

Fourthly and finally, artificial sweetener comes in large, plastic, resealable bags of powder. Near as I can tell, this format was developed for people who like to bake with artificial sweeteners, and who have developed an emotional attachment to scooping raw ingredients out of bags. When folks make cookies, they scoop sugar and flour out of bags. If you find this sort of thing comforting, the food industry has provided a solution for you: artificial sweetener in large, plastic, resealable bags. A second advantage of this format is the absence of dextrose bulking agents. A teaspoon of sweetener is a teaspoon of sweetener. On the detrimental side of the picture, artificial sweeteners weigh much less than sugar granules. Consequently, when you open the large bag, air enters the bag along with your scooping implement. When you then proceed to close the bag, the air escapes, and with it a thick cloud of sweet, white dust, which coats the lungs. To my knowledge, the health impacts of inhaling artificial sweeteners have never been studied. We diabetics are a living experiment.

With that in mind, we can return to my pantry, where, for years, there contained the selfsame bulk box of paper packets from which I drew my artificial sweetener. On this particular day, though, I noticed the addition of a big plastic bag of raw sweetener. My mind effervesced with questions. Where did it come from? Who would buy such a thing? When would I ever use it? Within moments, I had dismissed its very existence. I had my paper packets, which I would continue to use at my leisure. No need to worry about an irrelevant and useless thing.

I should have known at the time that I would one day run out of paper packets and need to purchase a new box. I should also have been more self-aware, for when do I ever buy what I need before it's too late? So it was; the day came when I inevitably ran out of paper packets and was forced to scoop my sweetener out of a bulk bag, inhale the white cloud of dust springing forth as the bag closed, and so forth.

It was a livable situation, but not a lengthy one. I replenished my stock of paper packets soon enough, but in the interim an ecological thought occurred to me. Paper packets come in a cardboard box, so after the sweetener itself is dispensed, all that remains is completely biodegradable packaging. By contrast, the plastic bulk bag involves less overall packaging waste, thanks to the absence of individual, per-portion sachets; but that packaging it does have is not biodegradable. Paper products require lumber, which must be forested. Or should I say deforested? Plastic products are extracted from the ground and refined with ample carbon footprint, deep and wide.

As a consumer, I have no insight into the comparative merits of either form of packaging. The price difference is negligible, and I can be trained not to inhale stevia dust. My point here is that I would like to make the most environmentally sound choice at the margin, but I have no knowledge of which option is the more ecological. I can see benefits and drawbacks to either choice. An informed consumer could make an informed choice, but the finer points of the effects of packaging materials on the environment are complex enough that I doubt any consumer - or, indeed, any lone person on earth - knows the answer to this question with certainty.

With better information, we could all make more informed choices. Not all of us would choose artificial sweeteners based on their environmental impacts, but some of us would, and that would represent a more efficient marketplace. It's hard to say that the asymmetrical information of packaging represents an enormous deadweight loss, but life can, and does, get better over time. If somehow this kind of information could be gathered and delivered to people making simple every-day decisions at the grocery store, then there's no telling what kind of improvements could be made to the environment, or to life in general.

The problem, at least in this case, is our inability to fuse together the relevant facts in a way that informs market decisions. I'm cynical enough to guess that any such attempt would quickly become politicized to the point of uselessness, but wouldn't it be great if humans could find a way, anyhow? 


Ethical Veganism: A Critique

Inspired by the latest Cato Unbound symposium, I'd like to argue for why I think ethical veganism is possibly disingenuous.

Problems With Utilitarian Calculus

The first series of issues I would like to address involve ethical vegans' claims about mitigating the suffering of animals.

Their basic argument goes something like this:
  1. Animals experience at least some level of suffering and pleasure.
  2. Modern meat production imposes widespread suffering on animals.
  3. Even if animals are less morally important than humans, there is so much animal suffering in modern meat production that it overwhelms the human benefit of meat consumption.
  4. Therefore, we should not eat meat.
The first problem with this argument is that it presupposes that humans' pleasure from meat consumption is trivial. There is no amount of human pleasure that would be enough to convince an ethical veganism that eating meat was worthwhile. This suggests to me that the utilitarian calculus involved in this argument is disingenuous. Vegans simply assume from the outset that eating meat fails to generate enough human utility to justify industrial meat production practices. 

The problem is that actually demonstrating that animal suffering is so terrible that it demands we eschew meat was the very task ethical veganism was required to demonstrate in the first place. You had one job, ethical vegans, and you merely assumed what you were supposed to prove. Or even substantiate.

The second problem with this argument is that it discounts all utilitarian benefits to animals that come from industrial meat production. The most obvious benefit is existence itself; were it not for the meat industry, many if not most livestock animals simply wouldn't exist. There are other benefits, such as secured living space, protection from natural predators, opportunities to breed, veterinary care, and so on. All of these things are provided at no small expense to humans and confer at least some utilitarian benefits to livestock animals. Even if the utilitarian value of these things is very low, it's not zero, and thus it belongs somewhere in the moral calculus. The fact that vegans omit this step in the calculus, however, suggests that their utilitarian calculus itself is disingenuous.

A third problem with the utilitarian argument for veganism is that vegans already have responses to the arguments I've made above, but their responses are not utilitarian arguments

For example, when asked to demonstrate animal suffering, vegans often present explicit descriptions of what life for an animal is like on a factory farm. This is an emotionally gripping argument, indeed; but it is not a calculation of utility. We might agree that animals experience suffering on factory farms, but until that suffering is quantified in a way that counter-balances against the human pleasures of meat consumption, it is merely an emotional argument, and not a utilitarian one. If ethical vegans respond to utilitarian critiques of their utilitarian arguments with non-utilitarian reasoning, this suggests that their real reasons for ethical veganism are non-utilitarian reasons.

So, in three different ways, I have shown that the utilitarian arguments for ethical veganism are disingenuous. 

A Problem With "Animal Suffering"

Non-vegans frequently point out that plant foods must be grown, and therefore require farmland. Farmland deprives animals of their habitat, and thus also causes animal suffering. 

Vegans typically respond to this by reminding us that, on a per-calorie basis, plant foods require less farmland than animal meat. But, there are two problems with this argument.

The first problem is that, in making this argument, vegans have already conceded that their food causes animal suffering. They are no longer suggesting that veganism is an ethical alternative to meat-eating; they are only saying that veganism is not as bad for animals as meat-eating is. But ethics is about more than merely avoiding the most harmful thing, it's about avoiding any harmful thing at all, wherever possible. So, the problems with agriculture aren't limited to meat-eating; an ethical vegan ought to avoid any avoidable food that causes animal suffering "unnecessarily."

This brings me to the second problem of the argument. On a per-calorie basis, surely grains and many nuts are more efficient agricultural products than meat. But this cannot possibly be true of many vegetables, such as celery (a net-negative-calorie food), herbs, lettuce, spinach, and so on. These vegetables are extremely low in calories and therefore may actually be worse for animal suffering than the raising of traditional livestock animals. And I hasten to add that this is true of the environmental impacts of such products, as well

Ethical vegans who wish to remain philosophically consistent should not just eschew meat, but also any vegetable product that causes more animal suffering than it's "worth." Yet, the dearth of animal-welfare arguments against the consumption of celery and parsley among ethical vegans demonstrates either that they haven't thought through the implications of their own arguments very carefully, or that the arguments themselves are disingenuous.

A Conclusion

Now, when I say "disingenuous," I don't mean to suggest that ethical vegans are trying to pull the wool over our eyes. I'm only suggesting that the arguments in favor of ethical veganism, as presented by ethical vegans, cannot possibly be the real reason these vegans believe in veganism. If, for example, a person came to believe in veganism based on utilitarian arguments, then that vegan would either be capable of providing utilitarian responses to utilitarian criticisms, or he would have to admit that the matter is as-yet unresolved. When was the last time you heard a vegan do either?

So why are people ethical vegans? 

One possibility is that they have an emotional attachment to animals that causes them to look upon industrial meat production with disgust. It's an emotional reaction, but not a hard one to understand. It's also thoroughly unobjectionable. If the way cattle are butchered makes you sick to your stomach, why should you have to eat beef? That, alone, is a valid reason to eschew beef. There is no need to pretend to be an ethical vegan. There is no reason you can't avoid meat for the simple reason that meat production seems icky to you. If so, it would be better to simply acknowledge things as they are.

Another, more unsavory, possibility is that ethical veganism is a type of moral grandstanding. To have extremely high levels of empathy is a high-status position. Imagine how much higher-status it is to have so much empathy that you are even capable of extending it to other creatures. Some people even extend their empathy to trees, even to rock formations. The more we proclaim our concern for increasingly more inanimate non-human things, the more we seem to say to our fellows, "Look here, I am the caring-est one of us all. Behold the extent to which I care for things!"

It seems likely to me that most self-proclaimed ethical vegans are some combination of the two. They don't like meat, they are grossed-out by meat production, and they want other people to know how much they care deeply for the welfare of all things. I have no objection to people's taste in food, and I don't fault anyone for being grossed out by the meat industry. My only "beef" (get it?) is with disingenuous arguments and moral grandstanding.


Cleaning Your Room

For many years, I was the sort of man who believed that the path to success and the solution to every problem was to simply work harder and become the best at whatever it is he happened to be doing. While a strategy like that bears sweet fruit in the teenage years, the so-called real world has a way of making mincemeat of it.

So it was one morning, when I found myself sinking into the earth-toned cushions of an old, uncomfortably squishy sofa at the far end of a psychiatrist's office. He was an incomprehensibly thin man with a patch of white hair bursting from the top of his head like water from a lawn sprinkler; his shirts were always plaid, and always of the same earth tones as his sofa; he spoke with earnestness, but I could always tell that he left too much unsaid, usually in response to something I had said -- a terrible quality in a psychiatrist. He also kept two small dogs on the premises with them; they, at least, were a soothing presence in the office.

I found my way into his office by route of my career: No matter how hard I worked, and no matter how good I became at my work, the assignments got worse, the company struggled, and the attitude in the office got darker and darker. A level-headed man could take such things in stride, but this was my first venture into the world of not being able to turn the beat around when the song started to drag, as it were. And this song, to be sure, had become a funeral dirge.

I hadn't much experience in therapy, so like most folks, I went into it with preconceived notions. We would talk about my feelings, I thought. The good doctor would identify some problems with my way of thinking, and help me correct course. Before long, my attitude would be adjusted, and I could go back to doing my work with the kind of pep and ambition I longed for.

In the long run, it didn't quite happen that way. After making weeks of appointments, I eventually figured out the solution to my own ennui. I told the doctor at my final visit that I wouldn't be making another appointment, since it didn't seem necessary. He asked me then, "Would you mind telling me what worked for you?" I told him was something he said -- focus on the things you can control -- that made all the difference. I did that, and life got better. He seemed puzzled.

What brought the old doctor to mind this morning was the sad story of Jordan Peterson, and the memory I had of my first visit to a clinical psychologist.

Sitting in that earth-toned tar pit of a sofa with a small dog rubbing its wet nose against my dangling fingertip, my doctor asked me whether I'd considered antidepressant medication. I told him no, and that I would like to avoid doing so. He accepted my wishes, but first went on a brief soliloquy about the virtues of psychoactive medication. He told me that when he first started his practice, he, too, was skeptical of medication, but eventually came to see it much the same as taking an aspirin. We take an aspirin when we have a headache, and we think nothing of it; the doctor's position was that we ought to think similarly of antidepressants. He delivered his monologue in a pleasant and reasonable way, with calm and academic vocality. I did not come away with the impression that he was either arguing with me or trying to push medication on me. Instead, it seemed as though he wanted his office to be a safe place to discuss the therapeutic benefits of short-term psychoactive medication. But I did not pursue the matter any further, and so neither did he.

Yet, I can't help but wonder what a less thoughtful -- or more deeply troubled -- patient would have done in the face of such a calmly put suggestion by a qualified mental health practitioner in a time of need. It's not difficult for me to imagine that the marginal patient could be persuaded to fill a new prescription for psychoactive medication. In some cases, this might be entirely justified; in others, it might indeed be the wrong course of action. We trust our doctors to make that determination for us, but maybe we shouldn't.

The psychiatrist I saw that day was both an academic working at a university and a practicing clinical psychologist. Jordan Peterson can also make that claim. I point this out to venture a guess that perhaps these two men, similarly aged and of similar pedigree and professional background, held similar views on medication.

The National Post reports that Peterson began taking his medication "to treat anxiety after what [his daughter] described as an autoimmune reaction to food." This is a familiar issue to me: I once suffered anaphylaxis in response to eating a Brazil nut, and for years dealt with the fear of accidentally eating a nut and dying. Such fear is a very real and very palpable thing, and I would never minimize it. Still, it would never occur to me to address a problem like that with anti-anxiety medication, much less with hefty compounds like benzodiazepine tranquilizers.

But perhaps a man like Jordan Peterson, educated in accordance with modern of psychiatric medicine, would think almost nothing of it, just as we don't think twice about taking aspirin for a headache. If so, it would be a terrible lesson to have to learn the hard way.

I'm fond of Jordan Peterson's philosophy of life. I think it's a difficult road to follow, but a very worthwhile one for those capable of doing so. It saddens me to see such a strong advocate of living a deliberately moral life come face-to-face with his own moral failings in such a painful way, a way that risks such terrible long-term neurological damage, and in so public a fashion. The weaker thinkers among us, and those with a taste for schadenfreude, will (and have) pounce on this opportunity to denigrate a man who simply advocated that we live life according to our own moral compasses.

As hard as it will be for the critics to understand, Jordan Peterson's moral compass didn't actually fail him. He most likely took tranquilizers because he genuinely believed that they were the correct way to treat his anxiety. He most likely arrived at that belief through his own scientific expertise in psychology. When his addiction became obvious, he submitted himself to treatment. These are, simply stated, correct moral decisions. Unfortunately for Peterson -- and for all of us -- the world of psychology has not yet caught up with what the rest of the world already knows about tranquilizers.

Jordan Peterson nearly got himself killed. On the wrong day, for the wrong person, at the wrong doctor's office, it could have plausibly happened to me, or to you. Let us remember this episode, then, and learn another important thing from Dr. Peterson. Psychoactive medications are no mere aspirin, to be taken as for when we have headaches. They are powerful, dangerous substances that can leave a lasting and negative impact on your life, even on your legacy.

Be careful out there.


What Makes A Good Blog?


Blogging is, for all intents and purposes, dead. Nobody reads blogs anymore, unless those blogs have been designed in such a way as to create the appearance of a major publication. No, I'm not naming names.

Still, a few of us still enjoy reading blogs. I know I do. When I encounter a blog I haven't seen before, I generally have one of two reactions. One reaction is that I become absolutely absorbed in the blog content and read as many posts in quick succession as I possibly can. The other reaction I tend to have is that, as I start to read one blog post, my eyes start to glaze over, I skim the rest of the post, quickly skim the other posts in search of content that doesn't make my eyes glaze over, fail to find it, and then move on to other things.

So, my reaction to blogs is that I either find them really interesting, or they just plain suck.

My own blog probably falls into the latter category. I can't imagine a single reason why someone who wasn't me or a Russian ad-bot would want to read my blog. That's perfectly fine; I only blog for myself, anyway. It's safe to say, then, that I have cultivated a terrific expertise in blogs that just plain suck.

What about the good ones? What makes them so great? Here's a list of attributes that I think make blogs good. This is my list of attributes; yours might be different. Feel free to provide your list in the comments (ha ha, nobody reads my blog).

  • Good blogs deal in interesting subject matter. Content really is king. I'll forgive a poorly designed, or even a poorly written, blog if I'm interested in the subject matter. I'l forgive a lot of things. But if the blog is just like... autobiographical yammering (hmm, kinda like mine...) then I won't spend much time reading it.
  • Good blog posts tend to be well-written. George Selgin recently wrote a blog post on the history of an obscure rule governing the Federal Reserve's board of governors. I'm as big an economics nerd as anyone, and even I think that's dull subject matter. But the thing of it is, Selgin is such a wonderful writer that he can make anything absolutely fascinating; and so he does with this post. Someone who writes that well can write on virtually any topic and keep the reader engaged. 
  • Good blog posts tend to be concise. There is a time and a place for long-form writing, and some of my favorite blog posts have been quite long. But when I discover a new blog for the first time, I tend to look for short posts whose quality can be easily assessed. It's easier to follow a blog when following it doesn't involve a major investment of time or reading effort.
  • Good blogs tend to have an active comments section. I don't know how to curate this sort of thing, but it can make even a dull blog a lot more fun.
Considering the above, I can think of one blogger who excels on all fronts: Bryan Caplan. I think he might be the best blogger in the virtual-reality-space-that-was-formerly-known-as-the-blogosphere. We bloggers should all aspire to be more like him.


I'm going to make a bit of a blog pivot again. I'm going to pivot away from strongly autobiographical material -- there isn't much going on in my life that would be interesting to readers, anyway -- and toward honing my writing skills. I'll take a two-pronged approach. 

The first prong will be developing more concise, reader-friendly blog posts like the ones I've just described. You know, be a better blogger

The second prong will be developing my own, unique writing voice. I have some book ideas I'd like to work on. I won't use the blog to publish those book ideas, but I will use it as a way to find my voice. Those blog posts will likely be a bit longer.