This is anecdotal but last week I read the article by Mr Money Mustache which you linked. As part of it, he posts this picture with the caption "I went out on the town at the peak of the scare. The reality is different from the news headlines."

Then I went to Venkatesh Rao's twitter and was immediately confronting with this picture. Stores empty. People are in danger. This is an exceptional case given Venkatesh's location and the timing. Nevertheless, the simple fact that Mr Money Mustache describes the picture as being at the peak of the scare has seriously lowered my faith in him. As if it was a scare. As if it wasn't going to get worse.

"Alas, it is hard to overreact. We did ordinary cheap preparing. We had a month’s worth of food, all our medicines and stuff like that. Initially I thought that would be the plan."

After reading Mr. Money Mustache's take on the coronavirus, I started having a few doubts about how bad it actually is. I didn't realize that 2M people in America die each year of things related to "lifestyle factors".

No. Never compare the effects of things like death from "lifestyle factors" -- things that happen because people willingly trade-off having a long-time for having a good-time, things subject to hyperbolic discounting, things that (on an individual level) are really very hard to track the effects of -- with an imminent risk that 1-10% of everyone dies within the next two years. Personally, covid poses little threat to me but we don't know the end-game here: we're fighting between potentially lengthy economic shutdowns and the possibility of containment failure and global health system collapse. And if low-income people are forced back to work due to money-needs before containment succeeds, the economy crashes and our healthcare system fails.

Is losing money really going to be that bad?

Once you have enough money, losing 50-90% of your wealth really isn't that bad at all -- which is I like the idea of earning-to-give once I'm confident in my runway. Indeed, if you're the kind of person who reads Mr Money Mustache, you're probably going to be fine in general.

For my low-income friends though, yes. Yes it is going to be that bad. Sometimes people don't have jobs. Sometimes people don't have savings. A large portion of people live paycheck to paycheck. Many people are going to die because of the virus. Many people are going to die because our healthcare systems will at least partially fail. Many people are going to die because that is what the economics imply.

2adamzerner4moI totally agree that MMM got quite a few things wrong in that post. It's caused me to decrease my confidence in him too. However, the lifestyle factors point didn't strike me as one of those. We certainly shouldn't take his word for it, but it seems worth considering the question. Those are some good points you make, thank you. I agree that there is something to be said about how "lifestyle factors" are a conscious choice that people made. To me that nudges things somewhat, but isn't a game changer. I don't think it makes it 10x less bad or anything. The economic impact is a point that I think is crucial to the question of how bad this really is, and I think it's related to the questions I pose about how bad is it really to have less money. If bad economic impact means lower standard of living, and lower standard of living isn't really that impactful on happiness, then maybe bad economic impact isn't that bad. But I suspect that there are things I'm overlooking, and that bad economic impact is in fact relatively bad. So then, I update my viewpoint to being that it's a notable amount worse than lifestyle factors deaths, but still in the same ballpark, not 10x worse. My confidence in the "how bad is it to have a bad economic impact" question is pretty wide though, because it's not something I know much about. Is that really a possibility? I imagine that governments would impose a strict quarantine before letting it get that bad. In the situation where you don't have savings or a job, here is what I'm imagining. The majority would have family or a friend they could stay with until they get back on their feet, which doesn't seem that bad. For those who don't have anyone to turn to, I assume homeless shelters would be an option, as opposed to literally dying on the streets without food, water or shelter. Homeless shelters do provide basic needs, so if you want to be really hardcore with the "happiness is all in your head" stuff, you should still in theory be ok. But
1Isnasene4moFair enough. As a leaning-utilitarian, I personally share your intuition that it isn't 10x bad (if I had to choose between coronavirus and ending negative consequences of live-style factors for one year, I don't have a strong intuition in favor of coronavirus). Psychologically speaking, from the perspective of average deontological Joe, I think that it (in some sense) is/feels 10x as bad. 10% is unlikely but possible -- not because of the coronavirus itself alone but because of the potential for systemic failure of our healthcare system (based on this comment [] ). I think it's likely that governments may impose a strict quarantine before it gets that bad or (alternatively) bite the bullet and let coronavirus victims die to triage young people with more salient medical needs. I partially agree with this. Frankly, as a well-off person myself, I'm not exactly sure what people would do in that situation. Conditioned on having friends or (non-abusive) family with the appropriate economic runway to be supportive, I agree that it wouldn't be that bad. However these (in my sphere) are often significant contributing factors to being low-income in the first place.For low-income families, things also get messier to do the need-to-support-people being built in. I agree that this kind of stoicism helps (I resonate a lot with stoicism as a philosophy myself). But I view this as more of a mental skill that is built-up rather than something that people start doing immediately when thrust into lower-standad-of-living situations. Hedonic adaptation takes time and the time it takes before setting in can also be unpleasant. I'd also like to push-back a little on the idea of hedonic adapation with respect to losing money because there is a correlation between measures of happiness and income [
But I view this as more of a mental skill that is built-up rather than something that people start doing immediately when thrust into lower-standad-of-living situations.

That's a great point. I got caught up thinking about how (I think) people should respond as opposed to thinking about how it'll actually play out in practice. That moves me a few more steps towards thinking that it is more harmful.

Assorted thoughts on the coronavirus

by adamzerner 3 min read18th Mar 202011 comments


Epistemic status: Ramblings. Sorry for the tone. It was easier to write this way. I promise I won't be stubborn about any of this in the comments.

Is it that bad?

After reading Mr. Money Mustache's take on the coronavirus, I started having a few doubts about how bad it actually is. I didn't realize that 2M people in America die each year of things related to "lifestyle factors".

It's possible that the coronavirus might be much worse than that. Let's say the worst case scenario is 50% infected and 10% of those infected die. In America that would mean about 150M infected and 15M dead. Almost an order of magnitude more than what what currently happens with lifestyle factors, so that's a lot.

But for a more average case scenario let's say 25% infected and 3% death rate, which would mean 75M infected and 2.25M deaths. An amount of deaths on par with the deaths we currently have due to lifestyle factors.

And for a more hopeful scenario, let's say 10% infected and a 2% death rate, which would mean 30M infected and 600k deaths. Less than a third of the lifestyle factors deaths.

Maybe the coronavirus is scarier than the lifestyle factor deaths we currently seem to just accept. But how much scarier? Mr Money Mustache asks this question:

But do you feel the appropriate ratios of fear in these two situations?

I know that my level of fear seems to be weighted too strongly towards the coronavirus.

This all makes me think of one of my favorite movie scenes: where the Joker talks about things that are "part of the plan".

Existential risks are still a much bigger problem

Sorry for being so America-centric in the previous section. Let's look at worst case scenario for the entire world. Call it a 50% infection rate and 10% death rate. That'd be about 4B infected and 400M dead.

400M dead is certainly a lot, but I think it pales in comparison to the consequences of screwing up with existential risks. As Eliezer says in his Twitter bio:

Ours is the era of inadequate AI alignment theory. Any other facts about this era are relatively unimportant, but sometimes I tweet about them anyway.

And if that's true, then by focusing on the current LessWrong Coronavirus Agenda, are we purchasing fuzzies or utilons?

QUALYS and happiness

If existential risk wasn't a thing, my attention would probably be on The Happiness Crisis. That's right: people aren't happy enough! I suspect that if we put existential risks aside, the best way to do good for the world might be to just make normal people happier!

I was going to do some research and spend a some time explaining this belief, but fortunately I remembered a talk I came across a while back that does a better job.

If 1) my suspicion is correct that what Michael Plant calls "ordinary human unhappiness" is more harmful than deaths due to things like lifestyle factors, and 2) my argument in the first section is correct, then I think it follows that the coronavirus isn't particularly notable compared to The Happiness Crisis.

0.1% is a lot of micromorts

I get the impression that a lot of young people wave their hands at the risk that they personally have with the coronavirus. Even on LessWrong, to some extent.

But a 0.1% death rate isn't small. Neither is a 0.01% death rate. Neither is a 0.001% death rate.

Death is bad. 0.1% is a lot of micromorts.

Is the quarantined life really that bad?

I don't know about you guys, but after reading How to have a happy quarantine, I'm pumped!

Is losing money really going to be that bad?

One of my more contrarian beliefs is that it is absolutely ridiculous how worried we are about maintaining our standard of living. It seems to me that there is a ton of evidence showing that once your basic needs are met, money doesn't really matter. I think money is mostly a lost purpose. It's originally an instrumental goal for happiness, but people forget this and pursue it because they "need money".

Some unorganized comments:

  • The Progress Paradox is a good book on how over time standard of living has risen consistently over time, but happiness has stayed constant.
  • Hedonic adaptation is a thing.
  • I think Mr. Money Mustache does a great job of talking about how we can live totally awesome lives while still being frugal. I'm a pretty big Mustachian, with a few caveats.
  • I've been reading some books and watching some shows on history lately. Something that I've always got my eye on is what things people used to consider to be luxuries. Last night I learned that salt was once a huge luxury. They didn't have freezers or supermarkets, so they used salt to prevent their meats from going bad. Other things that were once luxuries include spices, silk, freedom, a basic education, books, and computers. All of those things are either free or dirt cheap right now.
  • Most of the things recommended by positive psychology regarding how to be happier don't really require money.
  • I have of course have other qualms with them, but I love how Stoicism and Buddhism emphasize that unhappiness stems from your mindset. What's "in here", not what's "out there". And largely your mindset regarding unrealistic wants and expectations.

So then, with all of that said, getting back to the coronavirus, people are going to lose their jobs, dip into their savings, maybe even require help from family or the government. But would it really be that bad if that stuff happened?

Low-cost interventions FTW!

Something I've always appreciated about PainScience is how the author reasons about whether things are worth a shot. If something is unlikely to work, but it's also cheap and harmless, he'll say "give it a shot!". I love that mindset, and unfortunately don't see it enough in the medical world. If the downside is low, the barrier to trying should be correspondingly low.

As it applies to this coronavirus stuff, there are certain things that seem like the downside is so low that our response should be "screw it, I'll give it a shot!".

  • Does copper tape actually prevent the disease from surviving on surfaces? Who cares, it's ten bucks!
  • Are you really going to need all of those groceries? Who cares, they're not going to go bad and you were going to buy them at some point anyway!
  • Is it too risky to hang out at Starbucks? Who knows, but is the benefit that large relative to hanging out at home?

The point I'm trying to make makes me think about the third virtue of rationality:

The third virtue is lightness. Let the winds of evidence blow you about as though you are a leaf, with no direction of your own.

It isn't quite the same thing as what I'm saying, but I think the analogy of lightness applies. When the downside is low, don't hesitate to act.