Thursday, March 26, 2020

Japan vs. Italy: Why is the virus exploding in one but not the other? (Demographic Doom Podcast #36)

This is the script for my Demographic Doom podcast episode (#36) released on 26 March 2020. It may differ slightly from the final broadcast. This episode is available on major podcast platforms, including PodbeanApple Podcasts and a video version on YouTube. See the description on the YouTube version for annotations, links and corrections. You can also comment on this episode there. (If you leave comments on this blog post, I might not see them.) The main website for this project is DemographicDoom.com



I’m Glenn Campbell. I call myself a demographic philosopher. I’m looking at life and trying to predict the future through the lens of demography, or the study of human populations.

Today is Thursday, March 26, 2020, and we're in a time of great cultural insanity. The world is facing two simultaneous calamities: the COVID-19 epidemic and the collapse of the world economy, and in general, people and governments handling things porrly. Far and away the biggest threat today is the global economic collapse, much bigger than the one in 2008. This is certain to cause more human misery than any virus, but as of today, the world seems to be treating the virus in isolation, as though it was the only thing that mattered. In this episode, I'm going to follow pretty much that same path, focusing mostly on the virus, but I assure you the economic collapse will consume many future episodes.

The biggest insanity of the moment is the current obsession with lockdowns. This is the emotional solution to every threat: Just lock everything down. Everyone stay home. Hide under you pillows. No one in or out. A lockdown is when a whole country, state or region is ordered to shut down. Transportation is restricted, and all supposedly "nonessential" businesses are told to close. All those workers are expected to go home, hunker down and wait for some kind of All-Clear signal from the government. It is seen as your patriotic duty to sit on your couch, watch TV and not leave home.

To put this podcast into historical perspective: As I record this, there have been roughly 800 coronavirus deaths in the USA. (It is senseless to talk about the number of coronavirus cases because the US doesn't have anywhere near the capacity to test all the people who are suspected to have it.) At present, some two dozen states have enacted lockdown restrictions requiring non-essential businesses to close. What constitutes "nonessential" is a matter of debate, but it's fair to say that half the states have shut down half their businesses, and the situation is roughly similar in Europe.

There a multiple absurdities in this. The biggest one is that any lockdown assures a rapid and brutal economic decline, much faster and harder that would otherwise happen. No matter how you measure human misery, the economic collapse is certain to cause far more it over its lifetime than any virus—over the course of years, not just months—yet politicians don't seem to be factoring in how these lockdowns are making the economic crisis far worse. Everyone's running around yelling, "The ship is sinking! We got to save everyone!" but in the process they're just blowing more holes in the ship.

In popular rhetoric, the economy doesn't matter right now. All that matters is saving lives. If even one life is saved by these measures, it's worth it. What these speakers don't understand is that all of human well-being ultimately rests on the economy. If you deliberately nuke it, like a lockdown does, ultimately people are going to starve. They may survive the virus, but they'll be living in a world more horrible than you can imagine—a Venezuela or North Korea world—where nothing works, including medicine, because you don't have the economic underpinnings to support it.

Many of the workers who are being told to go home today will never go back, because their jobs will be gone. This is a sudden, brutal layoff of a major portion of the workforce, instead of gradual waves of layoffs as in previous crashes. Make no mistake, an economic collapse was destined to happen with or without any virus, but lockdowns assure that it is happening faster and harder.

Another great absurdity is that these lockdowns aren't accomplishing what they intend to. They aren't actually saving any lives. I understand the desire to "flatten the curve", but there a deep fallacy here. I'll get into later, but really you don't want to flatten the curve; you want reduce it altogether. Lockdowns are like trying to kill a mouse with a sledgehammer. Sure, you might get the mouse eventually but you're causing so much collateral damage to your home that the mouse doesn't matter anymore.

The main focus of this episode is figuring out what works and what doesn't in the fight against the disease. Hygiene works. Changing contact behavior works. Lockdowns don't work. They're a disaster in the making. To illustrate this, I'm going to focus on the current epidemic in two countries: Japan and Italy.

You may not have heard much about the coronavirus epidemic in Japan, and for good reason. It seems to have fizzled. Even though Japan was one of the first outside China to receive the virus, cases have not spiked exponentially. In the current official accounting, there are about 1200 diagnosed cases and about 45 deaths, for a population of 127 million, and the numbers are rising only slowly. Compare this to Italy with less than half the population, 60 million, which was exposed to the virus later than Japan. There have been about 7000 deaths in Italy and at least 80,000 cases.

Interestingly, Italy is in full lockdown mode, while Japan is not. In Italy, transportation has essentially stopped; non-essential businesses are closed; people are ordered to stay in their homes under threat of fines. The whole country is essentially in a wartime blackout, yet cases continue to climb.

In Japan, it's basically business as usual. The subways and trains are still running, still packed with sardine commuters. Most businesses are still open and operating as usual. Big gatherings and entertainment events have been cancelled. Theme parks for have closed, but clubs are still open. Sit-down restaurants are still open. I confirmed this with a friend who lives in Japan. Not mjch is shut down, yet we have a feeble 45 deaths in Japan vs. 7000 in Italy.

So on one side we have Italy, in full lockdown mode, where the epidemic is raging. In Japan with no lockdown, it seems to be petering out.So what gives here? Why is there so much difference in how the virus attacks each country. Understand this, and you'll understand what really works and why lockdowns are such a grievious mistake.

You can't blame the medical systems. In Japan and Italy, they are roughly equivalent. You also can't say the Italy has more coronavirus deaths because it has so many old people, because Japan has even more. So what is it that makes Japan essentially immune to coronavirus, at least so far?

So here's my theory: Japan has been largely spared by the virus because it is full of.... Japanese!

I don't mean there's a racial component. There is no real evidence that the virus prefers one race over another. I mean there's a cultural component. To put it crudely, the Japanese are obsessed with hygiene, while the Italians are not.

Now it's unfair and bigoted to apply such stereotypes to individuals. You shouldn't call someone a "dirty Italian" because, on an individual basis, it may not be true, but it is not unfair to acknowledge measurable statistical differences between populations. That's called "culture" and it's a real thing. The Japanese, as a culture, place a high value on personal hygiene—on being and appearing clean. This is the home of electronic toilet seats to thoroughly clean and sanitize your bum. Electronic toilet seats are doing nothing to prevent the spread of Covid-19, but they reflects the mindset of the Japanese people. This was a very clean culture long before the virus hit. This is also not a touchy-feeling culture—not a lot of hugging and social kissing. In Japan, you keep your distance.

Italy, on the other hand, is a very touchy-feely culture. Lots of warm embraces and kisses on the cheek. When you talk to someone, you come up close to them. I can't say that I know Italian culture very well, but it's obviously different than Japanese culture. Statistically, Italians and Japanese interact with each other differently, and these differences are going to change how COVID-19 moves through the population.

So here what I think is the single biggest difference between Italians and Japanese: It's how they greet each other. In Italy, they shake hands, maybe they embrace; they are physically close. In Japan, they bow from a respectable distance. It is considered rude for anyone to touch anyone else without a justifiable purpose.

Just eliminating handshakes could be the biggest coronavirus prevention measure short of a vaccine. No one knows yet how big a vector handshakes are, but I suspect it's huge. Have you wondered why so many Western politicians are getting the virus, far more than than the statistics suggest? Politicians shake a lot of hands! Shaking hands is a solid viral connection between one individual and another, and Japanese culture has almost completely eliminated this vector.

Then there are all the other ways the Japanese try to be clean. I spent two weeks in Tokyo in 2012, and one thing that struck me is how many people were wearing surgical face masks in the street. Initially, I thought this was because people were paranoid about catching something. This may in fact be true, but there's another side of it: If you have a cold, it is considered impolite to cough without a mask. It is not yourself you are trying to protect but others. If you coughed in public and weren't wearing a facemask, people would look at you askance, which is the Japanese equivalent of yelling at you loudly.

A Japanese government report on March 9 found that 80% of the people who got the disease didn't pass it on to others, which is the sort of R-nought you can live with. This virus is supposed to be passed to between 2 and 3 people on average—That's the generally accepted R-nought.—but Japan is showing only a fraction of that, and I think it's because of their culture, their way of interacting.

So if this is true—that Japan has licked the virus just by being Japanese—it suggests that the best solution for other countries is simple behavior change. Americans and Europeans need to be more Japanese in their hygiene behavior—and they're doing it! They've stopped shaking hands. Coughing in public is now a no-no. There are all sorts of easy and cheap changes that can be made by individuals and businesses to emulate the Japanese model. If a society does enough of these high-value things, then it pushes its R-nought below one, and the virus expires.

In an earlier podcast, I talked about herd immunity. That's the notion that if a certain percentage of people in a population get a virus, it helps protect the others, because the virus now has no way to get to those uninfected people, but I'm now wondering whether herd immunity is a red herring, distracting us from something more important: the R-nought, or the reproduction rate within a population. That's the number of people, on average, that each carrier of the disease infects. If the R-nought is above one, it spreads through the population. If it is less than one, the virus eventually expires.

If you can push the R-nought below one, then herd immunity never become relevant, because the virus expires after only a couple of hops. One person might give it to another who might give it to a third, but it eventually stops, not very far from where it started.

The media have been treating the R-nought as a fixed number that is a characteristic of the virus itself. It's not. It is a characteristic of the human culture that carried the virus. One virus may be more inherently transmissible than another, but the actual transmission is still done by humans, so it's totally dependent on human behavior. Change the behavior, and you change the R-nought.

What the Japanese seem to have done is pushed the R-nought close to one just by being Japanese. They just aren't giving the virus enough opportunities to reproduce itself, so it's dying off before it reaches the broader population. Yes, the Japanese are still riding in packed subway cars and going out to clubs, and it's probably true that some people are catching the disease in these places, but if it's not a major source of transmission, it doesn't push the R-nought over one.

Sure, the R-nought may have been 2-3 in Wuhan, China—maybe even higher—but that was Wuhan China, an entirely different culture from Japan. Different hygiene standards. Different ways of interacting. In every culture, the R-nought is going to be different, but our culture-blind thinking means that we've been treating it as a fixed number. We're saying, "Boy, if the R-nought in the USA is the same as it was in China, then we're all screwed!" Well, it won't be the same as in China, because America is a different culture with different ways of interacting.

Furthermore, the R-nought is highly malleable. People can be quickly trained to change their behavior, especially if they know their lives depend on it. Just by not shaking hands anymore, an entire culture can reduce it's R-nought by a significant factor. I have not idea what that factor it, but I bet it's big.

An important thing to note is that you don't need to eliminate every conceivable source of transmission to push the R-nought below one. You only need to target the biggest forms of transmission. If you can neutralize the things that contribute most to transmission—like handshakes and door knobs and getting directly coughed on—then you may not need to sweat over the minor ones like riding in the subway or going to a club. You just need to suppress the major vectors to the total R-nought is below one. You don't need 100% sterile containment. You just need a "good enough" reduction of the main sources of transmission.

Lockdowns don't acknowledge any of this. They are intent on nothing less than full containment. Everyone is supposed to lock themselves in their homes so there's no possibility of transmission. And it's true: People are locked away from each other can't spread the virus, but you've also disabled your whole society and economy for no good reason. A lockdown is carpet-bomb attack on all forms of in-person social interaction, most of which have little chance of spreading the virus. In many states, you can't even go to the beach anymore, because there's a possibility, however slim, that the virus might jump from one beach-goer to another. If that's possible, but it's probably a one in a million chance compared to, say, a 1 in 10 chance of spreading the virus with a handshake.

The trouble with blanket lockdowns is they have no sensitivity, no perspective. They are treating highly unlikely sources of transmission exactly the same as a likely ones. In the philosophy of lockdowns, no risk of transmission is acceptable. Only total containment will do.

Much attention has been focused on two sources of transmission that may be possible with COVID-19: asymptomatic transmission and aerosolization. Asymptomatic transmission means that someone who shows no symptoms of the disease can still give it to others. Aerosolization means the virus can be transmitted though the air for long distances, not just within a meter or two of someone who coughs. Taken together, these two factors mean you can't trust anyone or any place. If you walk into an airport terminal and breath the air, the virus can get you. If you come within 6 feet of someone who show no symptoms, you're gonna die.

While these vectors may be real, they're probably not significant enough to change the R-nought, yet lockdowns treat all these risks as the same. We're going to close all the airports and keep everyone at least six feet away from each other, because nothing less than perfect protection will do.

A sensible epidemiological approach is, "Let's address the main factors." The stupid approach is, "Let's address every conceivable factor." The first approach is manageable. The second approach is both impossible and unsustainable, and you are absolutely killing your economy in the process.

I spoke about lockdowns in a previous podcast. I called them national suicide. One you start down this road of seeking absolute protection at any cost, how do you call it off? Right now, we've got millions of people hunkering down in their homes waiting for the All-Clear from their government on when to come out. So when will this All-Clear be given? Two weeks from now? Six months? How will conditions in six months be any different than they are today? The virus will still still exist, but no one will have learned how to manage it in real-world settings.

Lockdowns are like "curing" a drug addict by throwing him into prison or a locked rehab facility. Yes, if you deprive him of access to drugs, he will get off them. He will detox. At the end of his stay, the addict will be "clean", but he hasn't learned anything about how to stay off drugs, and he'll go right back to his old behavior as soon as the drugs are available again. You haven't cured him all.

So what are the justifications for this current lockdown obsession in America and Europe? There are several of them, and I think they're all pretty damn stupid.

First, there's this notion of "flattening the curve". If a certain number of people are destined to get the disease anyway, then you don't want them all hitting your hospitals at once. Services will be overwhelmed and most people won't get treatment. It would be better, the reasoning goes, to spread those cases out over a long period of time, so more people get treated.

The main fallacy here is the assumption that there are destined to be a fixed number of cases, like 10 million requiring hospital care, and there's no way to to change this number. The experience in Japan says otherwise. You can change the number of people infected by changing human behavior. The Japanese don't have to worry about flattening the curve, because their curve already seems manageable. Instead of flattening the curve, we should be reducing the curve so that fewer people get the disease. Lockdowns don't really help with this, because they aren't training people how to reduce their exposure.

Another reason lockdowns are taking off right now is that they're both popular and easy to promote. Politicians love lockdowns because it gives them an easy way to show that they're doing something.  They're taking charge. Lockdowns give them a chance to project themselves as strong, decisive leaders, not waffling, nuanced bureaucrats. The populace, in turn, seem to appreciate this apparently bold leadership. They think this one simple solution is going to save them.

Most of the lockdowns in the USA have been in place for only a couple of days. So far, the average citizen seems to be on board, largely supportive of their leaders. Let's see how sentiments evolve as one week turns into two or three and all the hidden costs of imprisonment begin to sink in. Because that's what lockdowns really do: They imprison people without a trial. They force them into house arrest, which gets harder and harder the longer it goes on. I can't even begin to describe the huge toll this is going to take on people's finances, social life and sanity. Many of the activities you used to engage in are simply not available anymore.

So today is March 26, and many of the signs I've seen on businesses say, "Reopening April 6." That's about 12 days away, plenty of time for people to learn how horrible house arrest can be. They may also begin to see that the politicians who advocated the lockdowns don't really have a plan at all. They're just responding to public hysteria with the illusion of a plan that's in no way workable. Personally, I don't think these lockdowns can go on for very long, but by the time they end, the damage is done. Sure, people may be allowed to go back to work, but many won't have jobs to go back to. It's hard to start up the glue factory once you shut it down.

Another reason I think lockdowns are popular is that the Chinese did it. They were the first to experience the virus, and they responded in a massive totalitarian way, and it would appear on the surface that these efforts have been successful. For example, China has been claiming almost no new cases for the past couple of weeks. The number of confirmed cases is stuck at around 81,000, and any new cases are supposedly brought into China by foreigners. This supposed "success story" is cited by Western politicians as proof that lockdowns work.

But is any of this real? Has China really cured its coronavirus problem? Or is this just an incredibly effective propaganda effort. China has been manipulating its statistics for decades, claiming, for example, that it was achieving consistent economic growth of 6% year after year. In this totalitarian state, only the Chinese government knows what is really going on in China, and it's entirely within their power to suppress all new cases and deaths.

But even if the Chinese numbers are accurate, what have been the costs? If the lockdowns continue to this day, then they can hardly be considered a success story, because the ultimate goal is to let people out so they can pursue normal life again. I'm not sure whether this is happening in China. Are the Chinese people still semi-free, like they were a year ago, or is everyone living under house arrest?

In any case, China is not a good role model for the West. They can do things that other countries can't and shouldn't, like trample human rights. You don't want to follow them down that path even if it saves a few lives.

Listening to the rhetoric of politicians, I hear two contradictory philosophies: One is that this is a war. We are fighting an external enemy, the virus, and we all have to make sacrifices for the war effort. The other things I hear politicians say is that every life is precious. Even if this lockdown saves only one life, it'll be worth it. Well, which is it? When you're at war, you don't worry about a single life. You don't try to protect everyone from everything. In a war, commanders have to make cold, calculated decisions about who to kill, essentially. They are going to put some soldiers at risk to protect others and the country they're trying to save. They're balancing the good of one group of citizens with the good of the whole. They're making hard triage decisions about how to save and who to let die.

Any responsible commander is going to kill a lot of his own troops. It's part of the job. But politicians and businesses can't do that. Every life is precious, and every life must be saved. No one may be submitted to any kind of definable risk. If you're a business in America, and one of your customers suffers any kind of injury in your business, you're going to get sued. If you're a politician and you make any kind of decision that inflicts harm on one person, the victims and their family are going to be all over the media crying about it. In a liberal democracy, the only acceptable solution is a perfect one. Protect everyone regardless of the costs. Unfortunately, this won't win you any wars.

Winning a war required having a strategy, and lockdowns don't involve any. It's just pure impulse. Pure fight or flight. Right now, people are in flight mode. They're running away to their bunkers without thinking about the consequences. In a modern economy, everyone running for the bunkers at the same time is a recipe for disaster, because and economy needs people to be doing things. They need to go out and buy things, and if everyone stops at once, it becomes a doom loop that just goes on and on.

At this point, I think we're already well into the doom loop. There's really no escape. We're being sucked down the vortex, and I shudder to think what's on the other side.


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For annotations, links and corrections, see the description on the video version of this podcast. You can also leave comments there.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Comprehending the Crisis (Demographic Doom Podcast #35)

This is the script for my Demographic Doom podcast episode (#35) released on 18 March 2020. It may differ slightly from the final broadcast. This episode is available on major podcast platforms, including PodbeanApple Podcasts and a video version on YouTube. See the description on the YouTube version for annotations, links and corrections. You can also comment on this episode there. (If you leave comments on this blog post, I might not see them.) The main website for this project is DemographicDoom.com



I’m Glenn Campbell. I call myself a demographic philosopher. I’m looking at life and trying to predict the future through the lens of demography, or the study of human populations.

Today is Wednesday, March 18, 2020, and in this episode I want to try to describe what's happening in the world from the widest possible perspective. A wide perspective is why I got into demography. It's looking at whole human populations, not individuals. Individuals are certainly important. Under the right circumstance, one person can change the course of history, but individuals are unpredictable. Whole populations can a bit more predictable. Given a few basic assumptions about human nature, you can sometimes predict what a whole group will do, even if you don't know the individual players or the exact course of history.

So today I want to talk about the coronavirus crisis from the highest possible altitude, like aliens approaching from outer space. What do they see?

I think that right now the aliens would see a planet in shock. Something big is happening, and some 8 billion people are trying to figure out what is going on and how they should react. Everyone is walking around in a daze. They don't know what to make of current events, and they are responding in typical human fashion. They are focusing on trivial things, like being absolutely sure they have enough toilet paper, and most people aren't really grasping the big picture. So in this episode I'm trying to give you that big picture.

The biggest event coming down on us is not a viral epidemic. That's something we can all adapt to pretty quickly. The big event starting to unfold is a worldwide economic collapse on the scale of the Great Depression or World War II in Europe. Everyone's life is going to be turned upside down.

The COVID-19 virus triggered the collapse, but it didn't cause it. An economic bubble has been building up ever since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and maybe long before that, and the virus simply pricked the bubble. The bubble was destined to pop sooner or later, and if a virus didn't do it, something else would have.

The cause of the bubble is relatively easy to understand. In response to the Global Financial Crisis, the US Federal Reserve and other central banks dramatically lowered interest rates. It was supposed to be a temporary fix, but the absurdly low interest rates have remained with us to this day. The "cheap money" that the Fed sponsored fueled a massive speculative asset bubble and a host of other dysfunctions. Assets like real estate and stocks shot up in price to unsustainable levels. You experienced this if you owned a home and saw it go way up in value or you tried to buy a home and found it unaffordable.

What has to happen in this crisis is that all those asset values must come back down to earth. We are beginning to see this now in the stock markets, which have dropped about 30% from their February peak, and we will soon see it most other assets, including housing prices. Real estate prices haven't crashed yet, but they will. In my view, the carnage has only just begun.

In the background is an underlying demographic issue: The population in the developed world is no longer growing. This may seem like a good thing from the environmental standpoint, but from an economic standpoint it is devastating. All of our economic assumptions about the world were based on the late-20th Century environment where everything was growing, powered by the growth of the working population, mainly coming out of the post-war Baby Boom. More people mean more economic activity, and less people mean more economic activity. A growing population of working-age people means a growing economy, while a shrinking population of workers means a shrinking economy. All of our financial and social expectations are based on a growing population. The world isn't ready for a shrinking economy, and adjusting to this change is what the current crisis is all about.

A second demographic factor, apart from at soon-to-be-shrinking population, is that people from the high birth period, mainly the Baby Boom, are now getting old. Most of the Baby Boomers have already turned 60. As people age, they can still remain vibrant, but on the whole they produce less value for society and require more services like health care.

So we have this huge burden of old people bearing down on us without enough resources to sustain them. Economic growth has gone stagnant, but assets markets continued to party like it was 1999. All of that is coming to an end right now. This is the massive crash that rationalizes all the insanities of the past.

So what does this mean for you and me? Well there's plenty of reason to be afraid. Whereever you income comes from and whatever assets you think you hold, they are both at risk. There's a real possibility that you will lose your job, and there's a real possibility that the assets you thought you had will evaporate.

The first thing we're going to see is massive unemployment. This may seem hard to comprehend at the moment, because in America at least you still see help-wanted signs in almost every store and restaurant. Those signs will be going away soon as those jobs fill up and go away.

It hasn't been reported much in the media yet, but widespread unemployment is already beginning to take hold. It has been masked by the current wave of lockdowns and closings, which I talked about in my previous podcast. In response to requests by the government, employees are being sent home for two weeks or more. It is supposed to be temporary, but for many it will be permanent. Coronavirus concerns are killing a whole bunch of industries at once: tourism, sit-down restaurants, spectator sports, conferences, any kind of mass entertainment. People are being sent home from work, supposedly for a hiatus, but this hiatus could stretch out indefinitely, because, frankly, no one ever needed those industries to begin with. By the time the virus abates, the economic collapse will be in full swing and the consumer will remain in bunker mode, spending as little money as possible.

There will be no more frivolous spending, which is devastating for an economy built on frivolous spending. A major portion of the products we buy and services we use just aren't necessary and can be eliminated almost instantly in a downturn. No one needs to buy a boat right now, and they won't, which throws the leisure boating industry into the trash can. Certain industries are kind of safe. Fast food will probably thrive, because it's cheap and people still need to eat. People will still need the basics, but the basics can get very basic if you don't have much money and are struggling to make it last, which is the situation most of us are going to be in.

In short, nothing you could count on two months ago is secure anymore. You might not have a job. The assets you thought you had could evaporate. The comfortable retirement you planned might never come to fruition. Everything seemed fine in January, but now everyone's lifestyle, if not their very life, is at risk.

How are people reacting to this? They are doing it in typically human ways. They are overreacting. They are focussing on trivialities, like toilet paper. Some are denying that there is anything wrong at all. Many are hunkering down for the apocalypse, but largely they are preparing for the wrong apocalypse. They are stockpiling supplies they don't need and are declining to prepare for the risks that might really get them.

Surprisingly, I am fairly optimistic about the virus itself, that it's not going to infect or kill as many people as the early scenarios suggest, at least in the developed world. This is because I think people are taking hygeine and social distancing very seriously. This isn't based on any empirical data, just on my observations that people are very focused on this and are truly changing their behavior. The are careful about how they touch door handles; they're avoiding crowds. Social distancing comes naturally to Americans, because we are a very socially distant people.

I think the internet and social media are a great asset to humanity overall, because they allow the rapid dissemination of information. Much of this information is crap, but I think most of it is helpful. Even without the government telling them, people seem to know what to do. They are acting like their life depends on their own hygeine plan, which it does.

If anything, people are overreacting to the virus, which is par for the course. A virus is a passive object. It can hang in the air for a few minutes or sit on a surface for up to three days, but it can't jump long distances, pass through walls or stalk you through the streets, yet people are acting as though it can.

For example, older people seem to be upset that college students are still enjoying Spring Break down in Florida. There are shots on the news of young people filling the beaches. "How outrageous!" the old folks say. They're out enjoying themselves when they should be hunkered down inside. Well, I can't think of a safer place to be than a beach. There's plenty of air circulation. Even on a crowded beach, nobody touches anyone else, and there are no doorknobs or common surfaces that everyone is touching. I thinking the old people are mainly upset by the image of people relaxing and having fun. This is a national crisis, and you're supposed to be miserable.

Humans, on the whole, prefer rituals over substance, and right now the main ritual is lockdowns. You're supposed to go inside, hunker down and not interact in person with anyone else, which doesn't make a lot of epidemiological sense. You don't have to be inside to be safe. If you take a hike in the woods, you are 100% safe. If you meet someone in the street, and you don't shake hands, I think it is completely fine to hold a long conversation with them, just as you normally. The very simple behavior change here is: Don't shake hands. Don't hug or kiss in a social setting. Be careful of the objects you touch in common. These are simple things to learn, and they don't distrupt your life much at all.

So right now, we're in a period of over-compensation. People are going overboard in their virus protection strategies, which is better than not responding at all. Over time, people will separate out useful strategies from the ridiculous ones, but it's a long process. It's just like how people in the US reacted to 9-11. Initially, everyone overreacted to the terrorism threat. They saw terrorists everywhere, in places they couldn't possibly be, but over time, society settled into some fairly reasonable precautions without distrupting their lives. That's where things are heading with the coronavirus. People are paranoid and overreacting right now, but eventually sensible precautions will set in, and the virus itself will fade into the background.

As I said in my previous podcast, I think the massive wave of lockdowns and closings we're now seeing is counterproductive, but it does give people time to regroup. Effectively, Europe and North America are beginning a two-week forced vacation when they and their governments have a chance to process things, and I think they'll come out with a fairly sane set of strategies, at least regarding the virus itself. No one will be shaking hands any more. Big, tight crowds will be a thing of the past, but most of our previous activities will be allowed to resume.

Overall, I'm pretty optimistic about the public response to the virus. People will look after their own survival with a personal hygiene plan that is reasonably effective, and this will limit the infection rate. I am not optimistic about the financial crisis however. This is a massive, world-changing event that won't be quickly assimilated. I don't know what's going to happen next. All I know is that debts are unsustainable in all sectors of the economy, and one way or another, these debts must collapse.

When people lose their jobs, they stop paying their debts. They stop paying their student loans, their credit cards, their mortgages, because they need to reserve their money for food and other basics. When this happens on a massive scale, it means the creditors are going to fail. That means banks failing, pension funds failing. Lots of institutions are going to fail. It will be like bombs destroying German industry in World War II, except none of the offices or factories will be destroyed. What is being destroyed is the financial juice that makes them run.

Everyone is going to expect a bailout from the government, and the government will probably comply. Right now, the Trump administration is proposing that a $1000 check be sent to every taxpayer, and that's just beginning. Every affected industry is going to want a bailout—airlines, banking, tourism—and the government will try to do it, because the alternative is to see these industries collapse.

The trouble is, the government doesn't have any money. For years, it has been spending more money than it makes in taxes, and it's going to get much, much worse. A 1 trillion deficit is going to turn into a 2 or 3 trillion deficit. Before the crisis, the US government was borrowing roughly 25% of it's annual budget, and that percentage is going to explode.

The only way the government can fund all these bailouts is by printing more money. The way it works is that the government issues bonds, then the Federal Reserve buys those bonds and creates new money. It's a Ponzi scheme, pure and simple, and eventually it's going to collapse. I can't tell you exactly when and how it will collapse, but it will collapse.

So the virus is manageable. It's going to be brought under control. I don't think the lockdowns will help, but the hygiene plans of individuals probably will. In a few months, the virus will just seem a routine part of life. It will become normalized.

We are a long way from normalization on the financial front. The 30% collapse of stock markets over the past couple of weeks is just the beginning. There's a lot of even worse financial news yet to come. I don't want to predict exactly how the bad news will unfold, but it is coming. In the long run, governments, corporations and individuals can't pay their huge debts, while much of the wealth we thought we had will evaporate. Things will be bad in financial markets, but they will also be bad on the ground, because people will lose their jobs and sooner or later the government well will run dry.

Even I have trouble getting my head around this. I know what the end result will be: a massive debt default in which most debts are disabled, most assets are devalued, and the economy has to be restarted almost from scratch. I just don't know how we're going to get there.

———

For annotations, links and corrections, see the description on the video version of this podcast. You can also leave comments there.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Lockdown Mania: Is It Making the Epidemic Worse? (Demographic Doom Podcast #34)

This is the script for my Demographic Doom podcast episode (#34) released on 17 March 2020. It may differ slightly from the final broadcast. This episode is available on major podcast platforms, including PodbeanApple Podcasts and a video version on YouTube. See the description on the YouTube version for annotations, links and corrections. You can also comment on this episode there. (If you leave comments on this blog post, I might not see them.) The main website for this project is DemographicDoom.com



I’m Glenn Campbell. I call myself a demographic philosopher. I’m looking at life and trying to predict the future through the lens of demography, or the study of human populations.

Today is March 17, 2020, and pretty much the entire world is in full-swing hysteria about coronavirus Covid-19. As of today, about 70 people have died from it in the U.S., but people are responding like death is at their door. This is good in a sense that people are preparing, but they're preparing in stupid ways.

I want to speak today about two aspects of the hysteria, one of them quite trivial and the other completely non-trivial. The trivial hysteria is the great Toilet Paper Mania of 2020, how people are hoarding toilet paper for no good reason. The non-trivial hysteria is the wave of unproductive lockdowns and closings sweeping the planet right now. A lockdown, as I define it, is restricting the movements of healthy people, as opposed to the quarantining of sick people. In these lockdowns, we are restricting people to their homes, telling them not to go to work and not go out for any purpose that isn't absolutely essential, in the vague hope of preventing them from getting the disease.

These lockdowns usually have a stated expiration date. For example, France has ordered its citizens to stay at home for the next 15 days. But really these lockdowns are open-ended, because what is going to change in 15 days? The disease won't have gone away. As soon as people start interacting again, the virus is going to start spreading again, and in the meantime these shutdowns are absolutely killing the French economy. They're not just locking down people over 70 who are at greater risk but schoolkids face very little risk. I think that blanket lockdowns of otherwise healthy people who aren't at great risk are going to be seen by history as one of the greatest follies of our era. It think it will be seen as decimating the economy while doing little to slow the disease. What might end up happening is that more people starve worldwide due to their economies collapsing than die from the virus itself.

But let me set aside the lockdowns for now and talk about the fun stuff: toilet paper. In America, there's none of it to be found anywhere. Right now, if you walk into any Walmart or any other retailer that sells the stuff, the toilet paper aisle has been stripped clean. Absolutely none. There are videos online of people fighting over it. Of all the crazy things to hoard, why toilet paper? This is truly bizarre. Everyone needs to wipe their bum, but how much toilet paper do you need? Diarrhea is not a prominent feature of the disease, so most people will use the same amount of toilet paper as they normally do. How much can that possibly be? One roll per week per person? I don't know.

Furthermore, there are a thousand other things you can wipe your bum with. Virtually any cloth or paper product will do. When you're in the bathroom, you can use the shower. People have been pooping since they beginning of time. What did they use before there was toilet paper?

I wouldn't think even the most Nutso survivalist would think of toilet paper as an essential supply for facing the apocalypse. Stockpiling non-perishable food I understand, and people are doing that too. All the shelves in Walmart look a little depleted, but most aren't wiped out like the toilet paper aisle.

You might think that one party who is winning from this mania is the toilet paper industry. As best I can recall—not having seen a package for a while—most toilet paper purchased in the USA is made in the USA. It's an North American product, because it makes no sense to ship something light and bulky like that across the ocean from China. In America, we've got plenty of trees to make more toilet paper, but in the long run we won't need to. I'm sure Georgia-Pacific will ramp up production to make more toilet paper, but it's a futile exercise, because sales are going to crash in a few months anyway. That's right the Great Toilet Paper Mania of 2020 is going to be followed by at great Toilet Paper Crash.

What happens when people go out and buy a ton of toilet paper? Well, it means they're not going to buy any more of it for a very long time. I mean, the BOTTOM is going to fall out of the toilet paper market, and once stores are fully restocked, they're hardly going to sell any of it.

Now I think all the RUNS on toilet paper are funny, but lockdowns are not funny. All around the world, healthy people are hunkering down at home. Either they've been told to do it by their government, or they are doing it on their own, advised by the media. Schools and universities are closing right and left. Events are being canceled, even when they don't involve crowds. Everyone is being told to work from home if your job is non-essential. So how do you do that if you work at a store or drive cars for a living like I do?

So what we are being advised to do—and in some cases forced to do—is shut down all economic activity.  Not just potentially contagious industries, but all industries short of emergency services or health care. Don't go to work. Don't go to school. Just hunker down until this thing blows over.

Well, this thing this isn't going to blow over anytime soon. It's going to go on and on for months.

So France is shutting down for 15 days. At the end of that time, I don't think conditions are going to be any better. The death toll will have risen, and many more cases will have been confirmed. What is the French government going to do then? Tell people to go back to work? Are they going to tell them it's okay to go to work now after telling them to not go to work under better conditions?

Once you start a lockdown, how do you end it? It's going to go on and on. Once you close schools for three weeks, how do you open them again?  You know the epidemic is going to be worse in three weeks than it is today, so reopening becomes difficult. How long are you going to keep people away from school and work? Six months? A year? When the all-clear is given and people come out of their bunkers, there won't be any economy left.

Italy had already shut its whole country down the week before, and I regard this as national suicide. The Italians are essentially blowing up their economy, absolutely devastating it, when it was in pretty frail condition to begin with. Pretty soon you're going to be real economic desperation in Italy, maybe even a famine. There may be food, but if people can't work, they can't afford to buy it, and if no one works, no one is producing any food, so eventually it will run out completely.

And I don't think it is proven that lockdowns help improve the medical situation. That is, I don't think that lockdowns of healthy people are going to result in fewer deaths in the long run. The quarantining of sick people makes more sense. If you're sick, you should hunker down and stay away from others, but at any particular time, this is a small portion of the population. The economy can get by without them. The economy can't get by if its entire workforce goes home.

One of the rationales for lockdowns of young and healthy people is the perception that anyone can be a carrier. There may be some evidence that the virus can be spread asymptomatically, but as yet we don't have any reading on how big an issue it is. In the meantime, by treating everyone as suspected carrier, you're destroying the economy. In the long run, you're assuring that society becomes so economically weak and dysfunctional that can't respond to any kind of threat.

No country can just make money out of thin air. They can continue to print it, like the US and many other countries are doing, but eventually this catches up with you. There's going to be hyperinflation or some other debasement of the currency. To make an economy work, people have to work. Stuff has to be produced; services have to be provided, so taxes can be collected and the government can continue to function. No taxes, and eventually the government collapses, and it wouldn't be able to provide any kind of services, let alone fight a virus.

Let's look at school closings. Entirely insane. Kick kids out of school, and where are they going to go? Now parents have to scramble for daycare, and the lack of it may force them to leave work. By necesssity, they may ask other parents to care for their kids, so now you've got kids congregating again but without the structure and control of school. So you've got the possibility of schools closing, with no net change to the number of kids being infected.

And of course, it already seems evident that kids are hardly in danger by Covid-19, at least not much beyond the colds they normally get. Worldwide, very few have died or suffered serious complications. The only real rationale for closing schools is to protect older people, because infected kids could bring it to them, but this whole rationale collapses if the kids go home and play with other kids anyway. You can't just order kids not to the play with each other for the next six months. It is both traumatizing and unenforceable.

So what would a sensible solution be? Just keep schools open. At least they are a place where you can keep kids under control. It's a structured place where you can manage hygiene. School gives you a chance to teach kids how to avoid that disease, rather than just cutting them loose to fend for themselves. I think most goverments are going to come to this conclusion eventually. In the meantime, you've got kids running around loose with no controls whatsoever.

One unique problem in America is our liability culture. Americans love to sue big institutions, like schools. If even one student catches the virus from school, the family is going to hire a lawyer from one of those highway billboards and try to sue the school. I think that's the main reason schools are closing in America, and it is not easily solved. If a kid gets the disease from playing with his friends, no one gets sued, but if it happens at school, the school's liability is unlimited. It might be that the only way to solve it is changes in law, which takes time. This may mean that America restarts its educational system a lot later than other countries.

I think that's the real cause of these government lockdown orders, even outside US. Politically, governments aren't allowed to put anyone at risk. Everybody has to be 100% protected from the slightest risk of getting the disease, and this means in effect that no one is protected, because the government can't protect anyone if society itself collapses.

No matter what kind of lockdown you propose, it's going to be imperfect, and the virus is still going to spread. You might slow it down a bit, giving a bit of relief to overburdened emergency rooms, but at huge economic cost. For the past two weeks, the news has been all about the virus. I think in coming weeks, the news is going to be all about the economic collapse, which I think is going to be far more devastating to society than the virus itself.

The virus is the pin that pricked the bubble, but the bubble was already there, ready to pop. It was a bubble of debt and runaway government spending, and these lockdowns are guaranteeing that both are going to explode even further. It's a perfect storm of everything going wrong at once, which I'm sure I'm going to talk about in future podcasts.

So if locking down the healthy population isn't the solution to the epidemic, what is? How about hygiene and behavior modification? People should go about their daily business as they normally would while taking reasonable precautions that are continuously revised with experience. That's what I'm doing. I've got a hygeine plan and I'm constantly fine-tuning it, but I'm continuing to live my life pretty much as normal.

The key is sustainability. Closing schooling and businesses and ordering people to hunker down at home are not sustainable solutions. Good hygiene practices are sustainable. Sensible changes of behavior are sustainable. No more big crowds—I totally understand that—but shutting down all businesses even if they don't involve crowds makes no sense. There is a balance here between protecting the public and sustaining the economy that ultimately feeds the public. If you go too far in the direction of eliminating all risk, then you end up not being able to feed people.

I think the Lockdown Mania of 2020 will be seen by history as being just as crazy as the Toilet Paper Mania of 2020 but much more destructive. This is on a par with the Stock Buying Mania of the past couple of years for its pernitiousness and, well, its bubbliciousness. Like bank bailouts and quantitative easing, you shouldn't enter into a lockdown without a clear plan for how to get out. Once you shut down the economy, how are you ever going to get it started again?

There was no fundamental logic or sensible analysis behind the debt and asset mania that inflated the bubble that's now popping, and there is none behind most lockdowns. It's just doing what feels right without regard to long-term consequences.

———

For annotations, links and corrections, see the description on the video version of this podcast. You can also leave comments there.



Outtakes


The following sections were edited out of the video in the final version:

A funny thing in the stores I've been to is that they still seem to have paper towels in stock. Not a lot, but these shelves aren't completely bare like the toilet paper section is. What are paper towels but big rolls of toilet paper? One explanation I've heard online is that you can't flush paper towels without clogging your toilet. So don't flush it! Throw it away instead. Having traveled the world, I know that many countries don't flush their toilet paper at all due to their fragile sewer systems. There's a bin beside the toilet for that.

———

I went to a Walmart in Iowa last night, and the only other sections that were stripped bare were ramen noodles and bulk packaged breakfast cereal. Ramen noodles I kind of understand. It's cheap and it's sort of like food. All the Cup o' Noodles type things were almost completely sold out. I wouldn't really regard it as survival food, though. Eating it once a week would be about as much as my own body could take. There's virtually no nutrition in those things. Just empty calories. You might as well eat bulk sugar or flour. If you're only eating ramen, maybe you're going to need all that toilet paper to deal with the aftermath. It's a vicious cycle: The more ramen you buy, the more toilet paper you need.

The packaged cereals is even less sane. What I'm talking about is generic Fruit Loops-type cereal sold in a bag instead of a box for a very low price. That section was completely sold out. The branded cereals in a box, like your Honey Bunches of Oats were depleted but still in stock. This is also empty calories, and how are you going to eat it? Most Americans eat their cereal with milk, so when you're hunkered down for the apocalypse, where are you going to get it? I suppose I would buy powdered milk, canned evaporated milk or those non-perishable boxes of milk, but this is sacrilidge for most Americans. It's fresh milk or none at all. So even though they've stockpiled a year's supply of breakfast cereal, there was never much non-perishable milk in the store, so they are still going to have to venture out for fresh milk.

Wandering through the Walmart aisles last night, looking at what was sold out and what remained in stock, I came to appreciate the stupidity of my fellow Americans, not to mention their poor dietary habits. They're in a panic, and they're going directly for their comfort items. They need toilet paper because—I don't know. You tell me. I don't think it's worth my time to psychoanalyse this.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Episode 33: The Ironies of Herd Immunity (Demographic Doom podcast script)

This is the script for my Demographic Doom podcast episode (#33) released on 15 March 2020. It may differ slightly from the final broadcast. This episode is available on major podcast platforms, including PodbeanApple Podcasts and a video version on YouTube. See the description on the YouTube version for annotations, links and corrections. You can also comment on this episode there. (If you leave comments on this blog post, I might not see them.) The main website for this project is DemographicDoom.com



I’m Glenn Campbell. I call myself a demographic philosopher. I’m looking at life and trying to predict the future through the lens of demography, or the study of human populations.

Today is March 15, 2020—the Ides of March—and I'm talking once again about the Covid-19 epidemic that is now sweeping the planet. In this episode, I want to talk about one demographic aspect of this disease: something called "herd immunity". This concept is important because it tells us something about when and how the epidemic is going to end.

Regarding the virus, you may have heard people say, "This thing is spreading so fast that eventually everyone is going to get it." This is simply not true—at least with a viral epidemic as opposed to a bacterial one. No virus can ever achieve a 100% infection rate. Unlike a bacterium, a virus is passed from person to person and can't survive or reproduce on its own. Virus particles are shed by one person and picked up by another, but this has to happen quickly, within a couple of days, or the virus particle disintegrates. A virus can't "attack" anyone. It can only float around in the air or stick to a surface until someone inhales it or otherwise takes it in. The virus then hijacks a vulnerable cell and turns it into a virus factory, which spews out more little particles to be inhaled by someone else.

If someone is infected by a virus, two things can happen. Either they die, or they fight off the virus and gain immunity, at least to current version of the virus. Their body has learned to detect and neutralize the virus so it can't infect them again.

Herd immunity means that enough members of the population have already gained immunity that the rest don't have to worry anymore. For example, if the neighbors living on either side of you get the virus and recover, then you can no longer catch the virus from them. They are unlikely to be reinfected, so they can't pass the virus to you. If you are surrounded by enough people with immunity, then you are essentially immune yourself, because there's no one to give it to you.

Of course, a virus can mutate over time, which is why we can get the flu every year, but for each specific version of the virus, you either die from it or you gain immunity. If enough people gain immunity in a given population, then the others are protected. I can't tell you what the percentage is. It differs by the virus and the countermeasures taken against it, but this number exists, and once that proportion is reached, the virus begins to die out.

Herd immunity is connected to the "R-nought" or the infectiousness of a virus. In the case of Covid-19, the R-nought is said to be somewhere between two and three. In other words, under current conditions, each person who catches the virus gives it to, on average, between two and three other people. This isn't a fix number, however. It can go up and down with the circumstances. If one infected person sneezes on a dozen people, their personal R-nought is quite high, but if most of those people are already immune, then the R-nought remains low.

Once the R-nought falls below one, then herd immunity kicks in. If each person getting the virus gives it, on average, to less than one person, then the virus eventually expires. There may still be people in the community have never had the virus and are not immune, but the virus can't get to them because it has run out of carriers.

So how many people need to catch the virus to confer herd immunity on all the rest? This is a matter of debate. Mathematically, it's something around 60% for this virus, but this is a moving target, because people can change their behavior, and consequently their R-nought. Right now, in the early stages of the epidemic, the R-nought is between 2 and 3, but this will decrease with time, both because more people become immune and because people have changed their behavior so they are less likely to contract and pass on the bug.

What this means in practice is that the number of people required for herd immunity is probably less than the 60% mathematical ideal. I'm guessing only about 40% of the population will be getting the bug, because I see that so many people around me are getting paranoid about hygiene. So long as everyone in society is desperately trying not to contract the disease, fewer people overall will get it and fewer will die.

In other words, it is NOT inevitable that you will get the disease. If you can maintain a high level of hygiene for, say, the next year, you could skate through this without ever catching it. Eventually, enough members of the herd will be infected that the R-nought falls below one, and the rest of the population is safe.

Herd immunity has a lot of practical implications, some of them rather unexpected, so let me talk about the ones I've thought of.

The Number One implication of herd immunity is that it is not inevitable that you will get the disease, On the whole, I'd guess you only have about a 50% chance of getting it, give or take, assuming you are careful.

To a large extent, whether or not you get the disease is under your control. You don't have absolute control, but you can shift the odds in your favor by changing your behavior. I'm not going to get into what those changes should be, but you've heard about them in the media: wash your hands frequently, be careful what you touch, don't touch your face when your hands have been tainted, etc. Everyone has to come up with their own hygiene plan, but if yours is smart and effective, you can greatly reduce your chances of getting the disease, and consequently you'll reduce the chances of someone else catching the disease from you.

Each person has a lot of discretion. They can change their behavior so they are less likely both to get the bug and to give it to others. In this way, your own behavior contributes to the health of your entire community. It is one case where your own personal self-interest coincides with the interests of your country. By practicing good hygiene, you're not just protecting yourself, you're also helping to protect others.

But there is also a non-altruistic angle to herd immunity: Even if it's not in your self-interest to get the disease, it is in your self interest to have others get it, because you need them to protect you.

Let's imagine you're a brutal dictator, like Kim Jong-un of North Korea. You know the virus is raging through your country, and you don't want to take the risk of dying from it. If you were ruthless and you understood epidemiology, you could systematically go through all the people in your inner circle and order that each of them be deliberately infected. While they are infected, they are sent away to quarantine, where they either die or gain immunity. Once they have gained immunity, they would be brought back to your inner circle. Eventually, everyone around you would be immune, and you couldn't get the disease because there would be no one to give it to you. Of course, a certain percentage of your inner circle would die, but you personally would be protected.

The same logic applies in the rest of the world. It is in your own best interest to not get the disease. But in the long run, it is also in your best interest that other people do get it, because it helps build up herd immunity that will protect you. From a purely selfish standpoint, the best outcome is for all your neighbors to get the virus but you don't.

How would this be expressed in the real world? Let's say you buy up all the hand sanitizer at you local store, until you have way more than you need. This increases the risk for other people in your neighborhood who now can't get hand sanitizer. Nobody thinks, "I want to screw my neighbors," but that's effectively what's happening. By buying too much hand sanitizer you are essentially encouraging your neighbors to get the disease which will eventually protect you with herd immunity.

In one sense, we're all in this together. No one wants this thing to spread so fast that it overwhelms medical resources. In another sense, we are all competing with each other to survive. Everyone wants to be among the 50% who never get the disease and who are eventually protected by the herd. It's not an overt conflict, and most people aren't conscious of it. It's more a sense that, "I'm going to avoid this thing, because I have better hygiene than you."

Right now, on March 15, the Covid-19 epidemic is just getting started in the U.S. Less than 50 people have died so far, and nobody knows how many have been infected because testing has been so limited. Certainly everyone is talking about it. I was in an airport yesterday, and as I listen to snippets of conversation, it seems like most travelers are talking about the virus and what they're going about it. This is a major shift from just 3 weeks ago, when the virus was a news story but hardly anyone on the streets of the U.S. was talking about it.

From overhearing these conversations, I have come to realize that everyone has their own hygiene plan, and they can vary greatly from person to person. Some people are wearing face masks, thinking this is their best means of protection. Others are eating garlic, because they think that's going to help them. Personally, I'm a surface guy. I focus on the surfaces that my hands touch and how to protect myself from them. Some people get really paranoid and go into full bunker mode, while others refuse to do anything at all. They believe the virus is no big deal, so they see no reason to modify their behavior,

A person's hygiene plan and how well they implement it are a reflection of their personality, so there are as many plans are there are people. Once someone has settled on their plan, it's hard to dissuade them of it. If they think garlic is the way to go, you got to let them follow their path. If they're going to hoard toilet paper, let them do it. Like other aspects of personality, any evidence you offer probably isn't going to change their mind.

In the long run, though, some hygiene methods are better than others, and the virus itself will decide what works. Those people who are eating garlic in lieu of other precautions are more likely to be struck down, while people who can think rationally and put themselves in the position of the virus are more likely to survive.

It is often noted that two classes of people are disproportionately affected by the virus: the elderly and people with pre-existing medical conditions. I propose a third class who will be disproportionately affected: stupid people. No one can be blamed for catching the disease in its early stages, because none of us were prepared, but once you do have time to prepare, a lot more of the burden falls on you. You can do everything right and still get the disease, but your risk is greatly reduced. On the other hand, if someone does nothing right, taking no precautions whatever, their risk remains elevated. If your hygiene plan is stupid, you're more likely to get the disease and more likely to die, which has a certain Darwin Awards justice to it. The virus is going to take out a lot of old and sick people, through no fault of their own, but it's also going to take out a lot of stupid people who should have taken precautions but didn't.

So that's one of the societal conflicts right now. You have smart people competing with stupid people to be among the 50% who will eventually be protected by herd immunity. Getting the disease doesn't prove you are stupid, because you can never reduce you're risk to zero, but all other things being equal, the stupid will bear the brunt of this disease. They will choose an ineffective hygiene plan and catch the disease. Then they will either die or provide the herd immunity that protects the others.

So here's another crazy idea that's raised by herd immunity. We know that the young people are relatively unaffected by the disease. Around the world, very few children have died, while people in their twenties can almost laugh it off. So how about we deliberately infect all of those young people to contribute to herd immunity? I know it's not an acceptable politically, but from an epidemiological standpoint, it would theoretically help.

The standard policy now is to close schools in any area where the disease is suspected. This may be the right political decision, but I don't think it is backed up with science. Where are these children going to go? Lacking adequate adult supervision, they are probably going to congregate with each other and could still pass the disease among themselves and eventually pass it to their more vulnerable elders. A more sensible solution, scientifically but not politically, would be to bring them to school, lock the doors and deliberately infect them all with the disease. You keep them there for a month or so, until they are no longer contagious, then you release them into the community again. Now they can't infect anybody. In the long run, this would mean few deaths overall. Those who are vulnerable would be less likely to get these disease because there will be fewer infected children to spread the disease.

You can do this sort of thing with a population of rats or livestock, but you can't do it with people. The irony of quarantines, closing schools and many other political interventions is that it may be making things worse overall. Politicians are making the decisions, not scientists, and politics is a very short-sighted endeavor. Politicians are trying to read what the public is feeling and are responding directly to those feelings. No politician could tell parents, "We're going to put your child at risk to protect some old people." In a political environment, any deliberate imposition of risk is unacceptable, which really cripples the whole political system is a situation like this.

So what we're left with is hysterical lockdowns and closings without any real analysis of what the long-term effects will be. I suspect that the most effective counter-measure to the virus is the more laissez-faire approach that America seems to be pursuing. Everyone is responsible for their own health and hygiene. I think that for the most part, people are paying attention. I see people opening doors in new ways so they don't have to touch the handle. If enough people are behaving this way, it's probably going to do more to reduce the R-nought than any government program or quarantine.

And here's another crazy idea: Donald Trump's incompetence might actually be helpful. As you may know, the response of the Trump administration to the epidemic has been less than stellar. Trump himself has called the epidemic a hoax and blamed it on his enemies. I'm not saying I would want an incompetent leader, but there are some potential bright sides. A big one is that the U.S. could avoid some of the desperate "bargaining" actions that other countries have taken.

You've heard of the Five Stages of Grief. They are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Donald Trump is stuck in the denial and anger phases, which are the only things he really knows how to do, and this may be good, because the bargaining phase can get very expensive. Bargaining is when you grasp at any kind of straw to try to make the problem go away, and often these straws are very costly.

Italy, for example, has locked down it's entire country, trying to ban travel and get everyone to stay home. I have doubts about how effective this will be, but it is devastatingly expensive for the economy. Closing schools here in America is also an expensive move, putting a huge burden on parents in exchange for unproven gains. These are examples of bargaining, or desperate attempts to restore order with dubious results. The Trump Advantage is that his administration is so crippled that it may not have the opportunity or wherewithal to pull off many of these desperate moves.

If a competent administration had been in place, it might already have implemented quarantines, like cordoning off sections of Washington State. The competent President would have reassured the nation with his or her speeches, while Trump just stokes more panic with his. The net effect is that nobody trusts the government to protect them. This may be good, in that it forces people to rely on their own resources. Everyone is realizing, "Only I can save myself," which gets them focused on the practical things they can do to avoid the virus. In the end, this might be more effective and less costly than any government initiative.

One way or another, we have to achieve the stable state of herd immunity, where a certain proportion of the population has gotten the disease and the rest are protected by them. If people, on the whole, are paranoid about their own safety and follow effective hygiene protocols, it is better for society because it means the R-nought is lower and fewer people have to get the disease to achieve herd immunity. Trump may actually be helping things if he stokes paranoia and gets people panicked, because you want people to take action. At this moment in history, a competent, soothing voice in the White House might actually be a bad thing if it lulls people into a false sense of security.

I don't want you to think I'm a Trump supporter, but sometimes an idiot can be useful.

———

For annotations, links and corrections, see the description on video version of this podcast. You can also leave comments there.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Episode 32: Millennials vs. Baby Boomers: The Coronavirus Edition (Demographic Doom podcast script)

This is the script for my Demographic Doom podcast episode (#32) released on 11 March 2020. It may differ slightly from the final broadcast. This episode is available on major platforms, including PodbeanApple Podcasts and a video version on YouTube. See the description on the YouTube version for annotations, links and corrections. You can also comment on this episode there. (If you leave comments on this blog post, I might not see them.) The main website for this project is DemographicDoom.com



I’m Glenn Campbell. I call myself a demographic philosopher. I’m looking at life and trying to predict the future through the lens of demography, or the study of human populations.

Today is March 11, 2020, and I want to talk again about the biggest news story on the planet right now: the spread of the coronavirus around the world, but I have a different angle on it you might not have heard. I want to talk about how it relates to the conflict between the generations, because the virus discriminates based on age. Old people face a significant risk of dying or become seriously sick, while young people are likely to skate through unscathed. At this early stage, children seem to be unaffected by the epidemic, at least beyond the colds they normally get, but if you are over 80, you might face a 10-20% chance of dying, at least according to current figures.

As you may know, there is an ongoing societal conflict between the Millennials and the Baby Boomers. In the USA, Boomers seem have monopolized the wealth; they've spent the country deeply into debt and have effectively impoverished all of the younger generations. The Boomers have charged up the national credit card that future generations are somehow expected to pay, and they've have generally behaved badly regarding the legacy they leave behind. I'm a Boomer myself, and I'm not proud of my generation, but none this was intentional. It was just millions of people pursuing their own self-interest without any meaningful government supervision.

But now the coronavirus could even the score. If you're old—like the Boomers now are, most of them over 60—you're legitimately fearing for your life, but if you're young, the virus may seem like no big deal. Your chances of dying are low, so you have no great motivation to change your behavior. Once you realize how little risk you face, as a young person, you might not observe any quarantines or follow any hygiene protocols. It's not in your personal self-interest. It's in society's self-interest, but most people haven't been trained to think about society. The indifference of young people to the virus could mean it spreads more quickly through society and puts the Boomers more at risk.

So it's payback time. It's time to kill off the Boomers.

Now, it would be different if every age had the same risk of dying, say 1%. It that case, everyone would be equally vigilant about avoiding the virus, but when one segment of the population gets a free pass, they have no great motivation to follow the official guidance. As of today, I'd say everyone is equally scared, but I'm predicting that as the age distribution becomes more widely known, many of the young are going to rebel. They'll say, "Why should I change my life when my own risks are low? I'm probably going to get the virus eventually, so why not just get it now and be done with it?" This puts the Boomers at risk because it means they are more likely to catch the virus from young people, and they will get it too soon, when the medical system is overwhelmed and can't help them.

So that's the ultimate revenge of the Millennials against the Baby Boomers. They're gonna try to kill off the old folks. I'm not saying it's intentional. This is just young people pursuing their own self interest just as the old people did before them. In this case, I think the Boomers are going to be the losers.

So watch for this in the coming weeks: a rebellion by young people. They'll say, "Why should I do all of these things if my own risks are low?" That's why some districts are closing schools. The students don't seem to be at risk. It's the elders they're trying to protect, because children are potent disease carriers. So we have two classes of people—young children and their relatively young parents—who are expected to make great sacrifices for the Baby Boomers. I wouldn't fault them for rebelling. They could say, "Give us our schools back! Let Boomers be responsible for their own health." I can't blame them.

Boomers still hold the lion's share of the power in this country, and they're going to use that power to protect themselves. It may in their best interests to close schools and impose lockdowns, even if it's not in the best interests of students and parents. Once again, they are transferring their burdens to the younger generation, and maybe the younger generation has the right to rebel.


Sunday, March 1, 2020

My Coronavirus Hygiene Protocol


By Glenn Campbell, last revised 20 March 2020

I stopped updating this document in mid-March 2020, when I was admitted to a hospital in Boston for an affliction not related to COVID-19 (lymphoma cancer). In my ward, everyone is screened for COVID, so I don't need to worry about it anymore. You should regard the advice below only as a starting point.

I travel continuously within the USA for work—driving other people's cars and pets around the country. I travel by car, plane and public transit, and I visit stores, restaurants and public restrooms almost every day. I am reasonably fearful of the coronavirus, since I am a not-technically-young citizen with some past health issues, but I believe I can reduce my chances of exposure with the steps and observations below. I don't mean these instructions to be definitive. They are just a starting point. At this early stage of the pandemic (March 2020), there's a lot we don't know, but we can make some reasonable assumptions based on past outbreaks and known information.

I know that I can't completely eliminate all risks, but I believe I can reduce them by 99%. Instead of protecting myself from every possible vector of contamination, I focus on the most likely ones.

These are my assumptions, based on current information:
  1. There's no risk in touching something that no one else has touched within the past three days (the maximum external life of the virus according to study).
    — This means I can enjoy complete freedom in nature and other places people rarely visit. It also means you can "sterilize" an object simply by not touching it for 3 days. 
  2. Unlike bacteria, viruses can't "grow" on surfaces, they can only be deposited there and degrade from that point on.
    This suggests that I should focus attention on surfaces that other people have touched recently with less concern about objects touched days ago.
  3. The virus prefers cool, dry environments. It is more likely to degrade in warm, humid environments. This contrasts with bacteria, which usually prefer the opposite.
    Virus is more of a concern in winter and in cold climates. Virus won't survive very long in places where you are sweating.
  4. Porous surfaces like fabric or paper are less likely to transfer the virus than non-porous surfaces. This is because the virus becomes embedded in the fibers and can't easily transfer to the skin.
    — This suggests that if you touch objects with your clothing or with paper products like tissues, the virus is unlikely to transfer to you before it degrades.
  5. The main vector of entry for the virus is touching an infected object with your hands then touching your face with your hands.
    This means the most important rule is to not touch your face at times when your hands might be tainted.
  6. The highest risk comes from touching something that a lot of people have touched, like elevator buttons, door handles, gasoline dispensers, etc. There is less risk from an object that only one or two people have touched.
    — This means my highest vigilance should focus on "high-traffic" surfaces.
  7. When people cough or sneeze, the highest risk is within about two meters of them, since the droplets they emit tend to settle from the air quickly.
    This means you should stay more than 2 meters away from anyone coughing or sneeze. However, you do need to worry about the surfaces where the droplets may have settled.
  8. "Aerosolization"  may be possible, but I assume it is unlikely until I hear evidence otherwise. Aerosolization is the distribution of the virus in "microdroplets" that can travel long distances of more than 2 meters, as opposed to bigger droplets from sneezes that fall out of the air quickly.
    Aerosolization, if a significant vector, is something I can do very little about, so I am choosing to ignore it for now. If it were a real source of infection, then you could never go to a store or other public indoor space.
  9. Masks are relatively useless for protecting yourself from the disease.
  10. Handwashing with soap is the most effective way to sanitize your hands, since it destroys the lipids that form part of the virus' shell.
  11. In the absence of soap and water, hand sanitizer and alcohol are effective ways to sanitize your hands.
I am only ASSUMING these things are true. I am always watching the news for evidence otherwise.

Based on these assumptions, I can assemble a "good enough" protocol that protects me from most sources of infection. I am concerned not just about protecting myself but protecting others. I also don't want be a jerk to people who aren't following the same protocol. I still want to engage in normal human interactions.

Here is some specific aspects of my protocol:

My Safe Zone

I consider the car I am driving (or my home if I had one) to be my Safe Zone, assuming it hasn't had much traffic from other people. I am also safe in nature or places that other humans rarely visit. I can do anything I want in my Safe Zone, the same as before; I can touch my face anytime, and I don't need to use hand sanitizer or wash my hands. I have to take special precautions only when I step out of this zone.

Hand Washing

I wash my hands with soap and water whenever I have the opportunity. Soap is said to be highly effective in killing the virus because it neutralizes lipids, which are a component of a virus. It is okay to touch a soap dispenser or faucet before I wash, but not after, so I use my elbow to turn off the faucet. Paper towels are safe, since no one has touched them, so long as I don't have to touch a dispenser. I use a paper towel or toilet tissue to turn a doorknob or pull a handle to exit a restroom.

Hand Sanitizer

I always travel with a bottle of hand sanitizer and a small bottle of alcohol (over 70%) for times when I can't wash my hands. I prefer hand sanitizer, but I can use alcohol instead. Since these things are currently in short supply, I use them sparingly. I apply just enough to wet the parts of my hand that actually touched a foreign surface. (There's no point in applying it to the back of my hand or between my fingers.) To apply alcohol, I purchase a bottle of perfume with a spritzer top (available at the dollar store). I throw away the perfume and replace it with alcohol. This lets me spray just enough alcohol to do the job without wasting any.

Leaving My Car

Whenever I leave my car, I take some paper napkins with me, and I leave a bottle of hand sanitizer on the driver's seat to remind me to use it when I return. I usually leave my cellphone in the car. This prevents me from being tempted to use it and cross-contaminate myself.

Using My Left Hand

After I leave my car, I try to use only my left hand to touch foreign objects that other people may of touched, like door handles. Once my hand has touched these objects, I treat it as "poisonous". I avoid touching my face or my right hand with it until I can wash or sanitize that hand. I use my left hand to leave my right hand free to touch my face or operate my cellphone (if I have it with me).

Napkins

I try to carry restaurant napkins in my pocket wherever I go. I can use them to protect my hands when I open doors. When practical the napkin can be thrown away immediately, but even if I keep it with me, I figure it is better than touching a door handle directly. Porous surfaces like paper and cloth are said to transfer the virus less effectively than non-porous surfaces. I consider a napkin or paper towel safe because no one is likely to have touched it prior to my taking it from the dispenser.

Air

For the time being I assume that the air in stores, airports, restrooms and most other places is safe, so long as I am not in close proximity to someone who looks sick. I can't do much about the air I breathe, so for now I am mainly concerned with surfaces, including places where droplet from an infected person may have settled.

Touching My Face

Not touching my face is a lot more difficult than it seems. It requires a lot of attention, so I attempt to do it only for short periods when I am away from my safe zone. If there is an itch on my face that I must scratch, I use a napkin from my pocket.

Money

Handling cash could be a problem, since it changes hands frequently. Bills are a porous surface, which less likely to transfer the virus, but coins are non-porous.

One way to avoid money is to use a credit card. Unfortunately, a credit card transaction usually requires you to use a keypad or touchscreen to enter information. These will have been touched by far more people than money you receive in change.

Instead, I "quarantine" the money I receive. As soon as I receive change for a cashier, I put it in a pocket that I only use for this purpose. Thereafter, I treat my pocket and my hand that handled the cash as "poisoned". When I return to my car or home base, I put the money in a plastic bag and don't touch it for a couple of days. I assume the virus will expire on its own.

Restrooms

I consider public restrooms to be easy to handle, since there are washing facilities on-site. After I wash my hands, I use my elbow to turn off the faucet, and I use a paper towel or toilet tissue to open the restroom door. 

Contact between buttocks and toilet seat is a potential source of infection, but I don't think it is a significant one. Outside a restroom, I don't often touch my own buttocks, so moving the virus from there to my face would be a long journey.

Restaurant Food

Restaurant food could be a big problem. It is not the food I'm worried about but the packaging and other things that the server or preparer might have handled. I have to analyze each situation to see what I should do to avoid touching something that someone else has touched.

Store Products

I see store products as relatively low risk. Someone has touched the product when they put it on the shelves, but it is likely only one person many hours ago. I try to use my left hand to touch products. If the epidemic becomes severe, I may wipe down the products with alcohol after I buy it, but for now it doesn't seem necessary.

Clothing

When possible I use my sleeve or another part of my clothing to open doors or otherwise touch foreign objects. For example, I can push open a door with my shoulder or hip. I also use my sleeve to touch elevator buttons. I figure virus in my clothing is highly unlikely to reach my face before it dies.

Shaking Hands

The custom of shaking hands should clearly be avoided, but I'm not going to be a jerk about it. If someone wants to shake my hand, I do it warmly, but I consider that hand "poisoned" until I can sanitize it.

Public Transit

Public transit can be a nightmare, especially when it is crowded. It's nearly impossible not to breathe other people's air and touch things that other people have touched. If things get bad, I may avoid public transit altogether. In the meantime, I am careful not to touch my face until I get off the bus/train and can sanitize my hands.

Health Club

A health club represents a special set of challenges. You are touching all sorts of equipment others have touched, and you're surrounded by a lot of sweating and heavily breathing people, no doubt spewing water droplets. There is not a lot I can do about the ambient air, but at least I rarely come within 2 meters of anyone else (except when the club is crowded). The one thing I have control over is what I touch. The only equipment I use is a treadmill and the showers. I usually use the treadmill for 30 minutes, and during this time I am touching the equipment, touching my face and touching my iPhone (because I can't live without it for 30 minutes).

My solution: I bring two clean rags with me, preferably of different colors. I wash my hands before my workout and take a shower after. During my workout I use one rag to touch my face when I feel I need to. I use the other rag to operate the equipment. This means I can keep my hands clean to operate my cellphone. 

There are a lot of risks in the health club, but at present I feel the benefits outweigh them. I want to be in top cardio-pulmonery shape when the coronavirus finally strikes me.

——

These are my starting rules. Since I'm now in the hospital with unrelated cancer, I will not be updating them.