Life-Years Lost: The Quantity and The Quality

A few weeks ago, the NYT reported that “The Coronavirus Has Claimed 2.5 Million Years of Potential Life.” If you read the original study, you’ll discover one crucial caveat: The authors’s calculations assume that COVID victims would have had the standard life expectancy for Americans of their age.  They freely admit that this is unrealistic and inflates their estimate:

The SARS-CoV-2 virus is known to infect and replicate in many different tissues and exacerbates problems in several organ systems including the kidney, liver, heart, lungs and brain (Lu et al., 2020; Chandrashekar et al., 2020). Any individual with problems in these systems or the immune system is likely to be more vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2 infection and suffer more severe outcomes as has been demonstrated for immune deficiencies (Bastard et al., 2020). In addition, other health states qualifying as pre-existing conditions, such as obesity, hypertension, chronic kidney disease and diabetes are known comorbidity factors for COVID-19 (see CDC co-morbidity tables and references therein; https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/evidence-table.html) and these cohorts of individuals have a shorter than average predicted life span. Deaths due to complications with pre-existing comorbid conditions would artificially increase the person-years lost in these calculations but are difficult to quantitate in this current analysis.

The authors argue that fixing this problem would only modestly cut their estimates.  I’m not convinced, but I’d rather focus on a much bigger issue: Taking quality of life into account, how many life-years has the reaction to COVID destroyed?  To see what I’m getting at, ask yourself: “Suppose you could either live a year of life in the COVID era, or X months under normal conditions.  What’s the value of X?”  Given the enormous social disruption and dire social isolation that most people have endured, X=10 months seems like a conservative estimate.  For what it’s worth, this Twitter poll agrees*:

So what?  Well, we’ve now endured 8 months of COVID life.  If that’s worth only 5/6ths as much as normal time, the average American has now lost 4/3rds of a month.  Multiplying that by the total American population of 330M, the total loss comes to about 37 million years of life.  That’s about 15 times the reported estimate of the direct cost of COVID.

Casual readers will be tempted to declare that the cure has been much worse than the disease.  The right cost-benefit comparison, however, is not to weigh the cost of prevention against the harm endured.  The right cost-benefit comparison is to weigh the cost of prevention against the harm prevented.  You have to ask yourself: If normal life had continued unabated since March, how many additional life-years would have been lost?  I can believe that the number would have been double what we observed, even though no country on Earth has done so poorly.  With effort, I can imagine that the number would have been triple what we observed.  There’s a tiny chance it could have been five times worse.  But fifteen times?  No way.

Upshot: The total cost of all COVID prevention has very likely exceeded the total benefit of all COVID prevention.

Before you panic, note these key caveats:

1. This does not imply that zero COVID prevention was optimal.  The lesson is merely that we went much too far.

2. Prevention includes both private and government efforts.  The main lesson of the data is not merely that government overreacted, but that people overreacted.

3. As I’ve argued before, the initial costs of government action were moderate, because private individuals reacted strongly on their own.  Over time, however, government’s share of the burden has increased because private individuals’ have a strong tendency to lose patience and return to normalcy.

4. If a vaccine suddenly became available today, my calculations for the story so far would still hold.  Behavioral changes prevent deaths day-by-day.  They also drain life of much of its meaning day-by-day.

 

At this point, you could protest, “Hey Bryan, I thought you weren’t a utilitarian.”  So what if the cost of COVID prevention greatly exceeds the value of life saved?  My answer, to repeat, is that I have a strong moral presumption in favor of human liberty.  So while I respect individuals’ rights to overreact to moderate risks, I oppose any act of government that does not pass a cost-benefit test with flying colors.

And no, I don’t think that an asymptomatic person who walks down the street unmasked is “aggressing” against passersby in any meaningful way.

* You could object that my Twitter followers are self-selected to regard COVID prevention costs as high.  In point of fact, they consider the personal costs markedly less serious than the average costs:

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Sullivan and Henderson Talk on School Shutdowns

Last Thursday, my Naval Postgraduate School colleague Ryan Sullivan and I made a case against school shutdowns in a Zoom talk to a local Monterey group called The Old Capitol Club. It’s an actual physical location in downtown Monterey and I’ve given 2 talks there in person in the last 20 years, something I refer to right at the end of this talk. This, of course, was remote.

From about 23:00 to 25:15, I handle the issue of human capital vs. signaling to explain why I think the $2.5 trillion loss of human capital is overstated. I draw on Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education, which I point out should be titled The Case Against Schooling.

At 32:38, a viewer named Hampton raises a question. I gave him a seat-of -the-pants answer. I later went to the data and came up with a much different answer.

Going to CDC data that updated after our talk, I found that the number of American residents below age 15 who had died of COVID-19 is 83, up from 81.

The number who had died who were between age 15 and 24 was 418. So I interpolated to get the number of between age 15 and 18, and got 0.4 of 418 = 167. This is substantially higher than the seat-of-the-pants answer I gave Hampton.

It’s also an overestimate because we know that the mortality rate rises with age. So people in the age 15 to 18 category are substantially lower risk than people in the age 19 to 24 category.

 

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Donehower on the Net Fiscal Effect of Low-Skilled Immigrants

When I emailed the editors of the National Academy of Sciences report on The Economic and Fiscal Impact of Immigration about Jason Richwine’s criticism, they responded swiftly and scrupulously.  Series editor Francine Blau put me in touch with Gretchen Donehower, one of the authors of the section.  Donehower sent me the following response.  Reprinted with her kind permission.


Hi Bryan,

Thanks for reaching out.

Richwine is correct in that piece that he writes, and we actually exchanged a bunch of emails to verify back in February of this year.  The $35k cell (upper left-hand corner of Table 8-12) is the net fiscal impact of someone who comes to the US aged 0-24 whose parents’ average education falls in the <HS category.  The average age in that cell comes from the average age of actual persons age 0-24 who have entered the US in the last 5 years (with 2012 being the base year for the calculations done then).  All of the other age groups are categorized by the person’s own education. The reason that the 0-24 age group must be treated differently from the other age groups is that the vast majority in that cell have not yet completed their own education.  In other words, it wouldn’t make sense to treat a child in 6th grade as a high school drop out, because she hasn’t had the chance to finish high school yet.  What to do then?  We decided to use the taxes and benefits that accrue to kids by parental education group while they are ages 0-24 but starting at age 25, we predict their future taxes and benefits based on a predicted educational distribution.  The prediction is based on educational transmission functions from parent to child in the past (see annex 8.4 for details, it’s on page 488 in my copy).  These result in future trajectories of taxes and benefits based on weighted averages of education groups, meant to represent a predicted path for that child.

So, Richwine is right.  He is also right that in Table 8-13, the estimated impact of a person exactly age 25 at entry with <HS education has a fiscal impact of -186K and this probably implies that it is negative for age 24 also.  However, he is most certainly not right that it is negative for age 5 on average.  Those educational transmission functions come from data.  I did not make them up.  It is more likely that a child of <HS immigrant parents will at least complete HS than that she will not.  That’s not an interpretation, that’s just what the data showed.  If it hadn’t showed that, the $35k number would have been much lower.  So, somewhere between age 0 and age 25 there is an age when the net fiscal impact is probably close to zero.  I don’t have that sitting around, but it would be an interesting thing to dig out if the calculations are ever done again.

I hope that helps.  The whole idea – predicting a person’s future – is pretty complex and if it wasn’t obvious enough in the write up how I did it I do apologize.  If you’d like to talk further, we can keep emailing or set up a phone or zoom sometime.

Thanks,

Gretchen

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Richwine on the Net Fiscal Effect of Low-Skilled Immigrants

In Open Borders, I heavily rely on the National Academy of Sciences report on The Economic and Fiscal Impact of Immigration to estimate the net fiscal effect of immigration.  Recently one of my graduate students pointed out this post by Jason Richwine criticizing my interpretation of the results.

Among dropouts, immigrants in the 25-64 and 65+ age categories are clearly fiscal burdens, as they cost taxpayers $225,000 and $257,000, respectively. Caplan, however, is tantalized by the age 0-24 column, which shows positive $35,000. “Even young high school dropouts more than pull their weight,” he concludes.

That conclusion is based on a misunderstanding of the table. Among immigrants in the age 25-64 and 65-plus columns, the education rows refer to the education of the immigrants themselves. However, in the age 0-24 column, education refers to the education of the immigrants’ parents. As p. 464 of the National Academies’ report explains, “If the immigrant arrives before age 25, we instead predict a future education level … based on parental education.” The reason the fiscal impact appears positive is that the model assumes that the children of high school dropouts will get more education than their parents did. In other words, most of Caplan’s “young high school dropouts” are not dropouts at all.

Richwine concludes in a gentlemanly manner:

This is an understandable mistake, as the National Academies authors should have been clearer that the age 0-24 column has a different interpretation than the other two age columns. Nevertheless, Caplan’s misinterpretation has led him far astray.

Did I indeed misread the report?  Yes.  Volume editor Francine Blau connected me with Gretchen Donehower, one of the authors of the section, and she confirmed my mistake.

Here’s the relevant NAS passage:

Because an individual’s tax payments and benefit receipts differ so much by the individual’s educational attainment, to predict future flows for an immigrant one must first predict the educational level that individual and his descendants will attain. An immigrant who arrives after age 25 is likely to maintain the education level observed on arrival, so we assume no change in educational attainment after age 25. If the immigrant arrives before age 25, we instead predict a future education level by estimating regression functions that predict offspring education based on parental education.

In hindsight, I was always a little puzzled by the NAS tables.  What does it mean, after all, to report the net fiscal impact of a 10-year-old college graduate?  I was also somewhat puzzled by how young immigrants could have such a favorable fiscal effect when taxpayers are immediately paying massive sums to educate so many of them.  But I deferred to the NAS numbers instead of double-checking the text.  I did read the whole chapter, but this qualification failed to register.  Mea culpa.

In light of Richwine’s correction, here is my revised position on the NAS report.

1. Young immigrants (ages 0-24) whose parents are high school dropouts have a positive net fiscal effect.

2. But the dropout parents themselves generally have a negative effect, even if they arrive as young adults.

3. Even 25-year-old immigrant high school dropouts have a negative net fiscal effect (-$186,000), though 25-year-old immigrant high school graduates have a positive net fiscal effect (+$72,000).

 

I continue to stand by several closely related controversial claims, most notably:

1. Immigrants have a much more favorable fiscal effects than matching natives.  The table showing that 25-year-old immigrant dropouts have a net fiscal effect of -$186,000 also shows that 25-year-old native dropouts have a net fiscal effect of -$388,000!

2. If you consider this an inadequate basis for restricting the reproduction of natives, it is hard to see why it is an adequate basis for restricting the migration of foreigners.

 

Last point: If there is a second-edition of Open Borders, I’ll definitely fix the mistake and thank Richwine for pointing out my error.

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Who Owns Your Genes?

Doctor He Jiankui was sentenced to a three year prison term, fined $430,000, and fired from his academic position as Associate Professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China. Did he engage in groping a patient? No. Poisoning a client? Again, no. According to the official Chinese Xinhua News Agency, Dr. He and two others, Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou, were convicted of gene editing fetuses.

His clients were a healthy mother and a father who was HIV positive. Dr. He engineered the genes of their twin girl babies so they would be resistant to HIV..

At the outset, this appears to be an agreement between consenting adults to engage in a capitalist act. The couple knew of the risks involved in this new medical technology. According to the defense, He did not hide these from the mother and father. They agreed to the procedure since they weighed the dangers of AIDS for their daughters more heavily than the perils of the new, unproven, technique.

Why, then, were He and his two colleagues arrested and convicted? It is all too easy to surmise that this was done because it occurred in China, withits reputation as a lawless country. The fact of the matter is that if He had performed this CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing operation in the United States, a similar fate would have befallen him. This is because the Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved of this technique for human beings in terms of reproduction.

What are we to make of all of this? Let us adopt a set of private property rights economic freedom spectacles through which we can best perceive all such controversial acts. We start by asking, who were the owners of the property in question? This, presumably, would be the parents. Did they receive informed consent from the supplier of the service? Not according to the local Shenzhen court. Let us, however, abstract from this finding. Instead, we adopt a Platonic perspective. This is because although we are indeed interested in this one case, we also want to derive a principle to deal with all such violations of the law. So let us assume that there was no fraud involved here.

Should He and his colleagues have then been found guilty? Well, they did break an extant law. This leads to another question: is it a proper law that prohibits voluntary trades of this or any sort? The answer emanating from the free enterprise philosophy is a clear “No.” Rather, this would be a victimless crime, and all those even properly found guilty of violating it, should be set free.

Was there a victim here? Yes, possibly. If the dangers of this procedure were indeed of greater moment than these two children suffering from AIDS, then, yes, they might be considered victims. After all, one day that now manageable disease might be fully cured. But this is clearly a judgement call upon which reasonable people can disagree. The parents would certainly not be guilty of child abuse even were this contrary to fact conditional to come into being. They were doing what they thought best for their children.

What of the doctors involved? It is difficult to see them in any other way than as heroes. They put their careers and their freedom on the line, in order to help this mother and father be good guardians. Yes, Dr. He jumped the legal gun, whether that of the FDA in the United States, or its Chinese counterpart. But the monopoly powers of these government bodies are incompatible with the free enterprise ethic through which we are viewing their behavior. These organizations, too, can err. But when they do (thalidomide, anyone?) they carry on merrily into the sunset. They cannot be bankrupted through erroneous decisions. That is no way to run a railroad.



Walter E. Block is the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics at Loyola University New Orleans.

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Drissel on the Normative Core

I received the following email from Bill Drissel about my “Public Choice: The Normative Core.”  Reprinted with his permission.


Dr. Caplan

The data you seek for your “normative core” is readily available in one arena: public transportation.  I follow the Anti-Planner, Randal O’Toole.  The planned benefit is number of riders.  The planned cost is usually available in dollars(of a given vintage).  The subsequent cost-overruns and consequent ridership are also available.  So every cost/benefit ratio could easily be adjusted by a “normative core adjustment”.

For example, if extensive research shows that, for public transportation, actual costs / planned costs average 2.1 and actual ridership / planned ridership average 0.40, then the normative core adjustment factor for public transportation = 5.25.  So for back-envelope calculations, the planned cost/benefit should be multiplied by 5 or so.

I have considerable acquaintance with software estimates including many that ended up in proposals and contracts.  I don’t know of a single case of software under-run (costs less than planned).  I would guess the typical over-run for routine software development at 2:1.  For difficult stuff: 5:1.  Really hard stuff like voice, face, fingerprint recognition: much higher than 5.  Development of a capable word processor with fonts and embedded images like MS Word, a single lifetime wouldn’t be enough.

I had a one-man consulting business for 45 years.  Whenever I asked a client about his over-run experience, I got a mournful story.  If I suggested he apply an experience-based multiplier, the response was always, “If we did that, we’d never get any business!”  I guess that’s the equivalent of, “Junior Professor: By that standard, government should never do anything.”

I admire the work that you and Don Boudreaux do.  I’m 87 but if I had encountered the public choice body of knowledge while I was much younger, I might have given up engineering for economics.

=====================

Warmest regards,

Bill Drissel

bill@drissel.us

The Colony, TX

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Public Choice: The Normative Core

The economic analysis of politics goes by many names: political economy, rational choice theory, formal political theory, social choice, economics of governance, endogenous policy theory, and public choice.  Each of these labels picks out a subtly different intellectual tradition.  Each tradition expands our understanding of the world.  My favorite, though, remains public choice.

As a GMU professor, you may attribute this to home-team favoritism.  Yet before I was a professor at GMU, I was a student at UC Berkeley and Princeton, and neither school fostered the love of public choice… to say the least.  The main reason I prefer public choice, rather, is for its normative core.  All economists who study politics do cost-benefit analysis, but the public choice approach is wiser.  And heretical.

What exactly is this “normative core” of public choice?  Simple: After doing standard microeconomic analysis of government policy, public choice adamantly states:

That’s an upper-bound on how well government intervention can work.  In the real world, government intervention usually works much more poorly.  Before we claim government intervention passes a cost-benefit test, we can, should, and must use past government performance to predict future government performance.

The upshot: Public choice economists end up opposing many government interventions blessed by textbook and policy wonk alike.

Example: Most economists – even economists who study politics – are fans of Pigovian taxation to address externalities problems.  What public choice reminds us, though, is that Pigovian taxation is the best that governments can accomplish.  In the real world, however, governments are worse in dozens of ways.   Before you advocate a regime where government sets Pigovian taxes to address externalities, then, you should estimate what real-world governments will actually do when you give them that kind of power.

Another case: When I was a grad student TAing Industrial Organization, I often argued with the junior professor teaching the class.  He knew a lot of theory, but almost no economic history, so I told him about quite a few famously anti-competitive antitrust decisions.  After a while, I recall a little exchange that went roughly like this:

Junior Professor: Bryan, I don’t care about what government did in the past; I care about what government is going to do in the future.

Me: Shouldn’t we use the past behavior of government to predict the likely future behavior of government?

Junior Professor: By that standard, government should never do anything.

Me: [double-take] Not really, but OK!

For Junior Professor, the normative core of public choice was practically a reductio ad absurdum.  But that’s only because he started with a firm pro-government conclusion, and rejected even ironclad premises that undermined it.  When I applied the normative core of public choice, he saw a big bias against government.

This so-called “bias,” however, is simply well-justified pessimism.  If actual governments abuse the power to tax, subsidize, and regulate, then it makes cost-benefit sense to put the officials who set tax, subsidy, and regulatory policies in a few chains.  Or a lot of chains.  Or a solid block of concrete.

Mainstream economists tend to scoff at this mentality.  Frankly, that’s because they’re fifty years behind the research frontier.  Although textbook demonstrations that well-crafted government policies can make the world better are fun homework problems, they end up being an intellectual smokescreen for demagoguery.  The normative core of public choice shows that laissez-faire is undervalued: Even when good government is plainly able to make things better, past experience teaches us to be deeply skeptical that government will do so in practice.  Until economists judgmentally study government in action, they have no business recommending that government do much of anything.

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The Risks of Friendship: A Socratic Dialogue

The scene: Ancient Athens.  Glaucon is standing in the Parthenon, wearing a face mask.  Socrates enters without a mask.

Socrates: Greetings, Glaucon!  How do you fare during this awful pandemic?

Glaucon: [jumps 5 feet]  What the hell are you doing?  Are you trying to kill me?

Socrates: No, why would you think so?

Glaucon: We’re indoors and you’re not wearing your mask!

Socrates: I’m 20 feet away from you.  And the Parthenon is cavernous.

Glaucon: You should be wearing a mask.

Socrates: Very well. [dons mask]  Feel safe enough to talk now?

Glaucon: [unconvincingly] Sure.

Socrates: I suggest we go outside to continue the conversation with greater ease.

[One minute later, outside the Parthenon; Socrates and Glaucon are 25 feet apart.]

Socrates: I must admit, Glaucon, I’m very puzzled.

Glaucon: About what?

Socrates: About your level of fear.

Glaucon: [with trepidation] Oh, I’m not afraid.

Socrates: Well, what do you think are the odds that I’ve got the plague right now?

Glaucon: Uh, one in a thousand?

Socrates: Reasonable enough; I’m asymptomatic after all.  Now, supposing I was sick, what are the odds that I would have infected you within the Parthenon while wearing a mask?

Glaucon: One in twenty?

Socrates: Plausibly.  And what are the odds I would have infected you in the same scenario without wearing a mask?

Glaucon: One in five?

Socrates: Very well.  Now as we both know, susceptibility to the plague depends heavily on age and underlying conditions.  We’re both fifty.  Do you have any underlying conditions?

Glaucon: Thankfully, no.

Socrates: Then according to a table Plato compiled for me, your odds of death if infected are about 1 in 2000.

Glaucon: It’s not just about the risk of death, Socrates!

Socrates: It never is.  There is also the unpleasantness of the plague’s symptoms, and a small chance of long-run harm.  Still, the same goes for almost all risks.  Those who survive a fall from a horse usually suffer pain for a week or two – and a small fraction are maimed for life.  So we can still fruitfully compare your risk of death from plague to other mortality risks, never losing sight of the fact that death is only one of many possible tragic outcomes.

Glaucon: [nervously] Fine.

Socrates: Very well, let us calculate the risk I imposed on you earlier by not wearing a mask.  We multiply my risk of infection times the change in your infection risk times your mortality risk.  That comes to 1/1000 * (.2-.05)* 1/2000, which rounds to about 1-in-13 million.

Glaucon: And that seems small to you.

Socrates: Wouldn’t it seem small to any sober man?

Glaucon: Well, is it really so awful to wear a mask?

Socrates: I wouldn’t mind if the numbers were more favorable.  If I were endangering a thousand people like you, I’d happily wear the mask.  As it stands, though, your fear seems paranoid and your outrage seems unjust.

Glaucon: Look, why should I have to endure any risk for your comfort?

Socrates: You’re enduring a risk right now.  Surely you don’t imagine that your infection risk magically falls to zero as soon as you exit the Parthenon?

Glaucon: Well, why should I have to endure an unnecessary risk?

Socrates: It is “necessary” that we speak at all?  Hardly.  And we could slash our risk further by separating a hundred feet and shouting at each other.

Glaucon: Now you’re just being difficult.

Socrates: I only wish to understand you, Glaucon.  Is that your horse over there?

Glaucon: Yes, Pegasus is his name.

Socrates: A noble moniker.  Now do you know the annual risk of dying on horseback?

Glaucon: About one in ten thousand?

Socrates: Indeed.  Yet you’ve never fretted over the risk of death by horse?

Glaucon: The daily risk is 365 times lower, or hadn’t you considered that?

Socrates: Quite right.  The daily risk of death by horse is therefore about 1-in-4 million – less than one-third of the risk that terrified you inside the Parthenon.

Glaucon: As long as I’m alone, I’m not exposed to any risk of plague at all.

Socrates: And as long as you’re unhorsed, you’re not exposed to any risk of death on horseback.  Yet during the minutes you’re on horseback, you’re a model of composure.  Why then are you so fearful of plague?

Glaucon: Plague is contagious.  Death on horseback is not.

Socrates: I’ve seen you riding with your son, slightly endangering his life as well as your own.  That’s not precisely “contagion,” but you can hardly claim that you’re endangering no one but yourself when you ride Pegasus.

Glaucon: If I catch plague, though, I could be responsible for the deaths of thousands.

Socrates: Possible, I’ll grant.  If I were returning home from a plague-infested land, I’d understand your scruples.  You wouldn’t want to be the conduit for mass destruction.

Glaucon: Indeed not.

Socrates: By now, however, this plague is already well-advanced.  You’re highly unlikely to make it noticeably worse.  Indeed, by this point the average person infects less than one extra person.

Glaucon: I might not be average.

Socrates: You are right to say so.  Still, shouldn’t our knowledge of averages guide our behavior?  In any case, let us return to the key issue: Why are you so fearful of talking inside the Parthenon without masks when the risk of death is vanishinly low?

Glaucon: Perhaps we should sponsor a raging Bacchanalia, then?

Socrates: I think not.  A drunken festival of a hundred people would probably have a thousand times the plague risk of a two-person conversation.  We should avoid that until the plague subsides.

Glaucon: So you admit the danger?

Socrates: I always did.  I’m not saying that plague is harmless.  I’m saying that you’re reacting to risk qualitatively rather than quantitatively.

Glaucon: Meaning?

Socrates: You’re much more afraid of a tiny plague risk than a larger horseback risk.  Why do you think that is?

Glaucon: Have you ever seen someone die of plague?

Socrates: Have you ever seen someone die on horseback?  Both are terrible tragedies, with a long list of ugly secondary risks.

Glaucon: Look, you’re in denial.  Everyone in Athens is scared of the plague.  Your risk analysis is beside the point.

Socrates: How can risk analysis ever be “beside the point”?

Glaucon: We as a society have decided to fight the plague, and you’re going to have to do your part, like it or not.

Socrates: Glaucon, what is my profession?

Glaucon: What?

Socrates: I said, “Glaucon, what is my profession?”

Glaucon: You’re a philosopher.

Socrates: Indeed.  As as a philosopher, what is my mission?

Glaucon: To defy and aggravate others?

Socrates: Hardly.  As a philosopher, my mission is to improve the thinking of my fellow Athenians, my fellow Greeks, my fellow human beings.

Glaucon: [sarcastically] Very noble.

Socrates: I take a certain pride in my efforts.  How, though, am I supposed to improve their thinking?

Glaucon: I don’t know.

Socrates: The answer, seemingly, is: By asking questions.

Glaucon: [weary] Yes, yes.

Socrates: Now Glaucon, when you urge me to “do my part,” what do you have in mind?

Glaucon: Wear the mask, Socrates.

Socrates: I’m wearing one now, to put you at ease while we converse.  In more crowded conditions, I’ve worn a mask out of prudence and decency.  But as a philosopher, obediently wearing a mask is woefully inadequate.

Glaucon: Well, what more should we do?

Socrates: I don’t know about non-philosophers.  For we philosophers to “do our part,” however, requires us to challenge popular fallacies and innumeracy.

Glaucon: Isn’t this just an elaborate rationalization for putting your own comfort above the lives of your fellow Athenians?

Socrates: Possibly.  More likely, though, your agitation is an elaborate rationalization for putting conformity above reason.

Glaucon: Your numbers could be wrong, you know.

Socrates: Indeed, I suspect that all of my numbers are wrong.  As we learn more, each of my numbers will be revised.

Glaucon: If you don’t really know the risks, why are you lecturing me?

Socrates: Because, Glaucon, you’re approaching the uncertainty emotionally rather than analytically.  Uncertainty is a poor argument for panic.

Glaucon: I was never “panicked.”

Socrates: Very well, let us take off these masks, enter the Parthenon, and continue the conversation in comfort.

Glaucon: Are you crazy, Socrates?

Socrates: And a corruptor of the youth, from what I hear.  Do you think there will be a trial?

Glaucon: Look who’s panicking now!

Socrates: A fair point, my dear Glaucon.  A fair point.

Glaucon: Look Socrates, it all comes down to this: There’s no reason not to just go along with society’s expectations here.

Socrates: No reason?  What about friendship?

Glaucon: I don’t follow you, Socrates.

Socrates: Since this plague struck, I’ve barely seen you.  Mask or no mask, you avoid me, as you avoid almost all human contact.

Glaucon: Well, what do you expect me to do?

Socrates: Weigh the tiny risks to health against the immense value of friendship.

Glaucon: You’re making too much of this, Socrates.

Socrates: Am I?  The great Epicurus taught us that friendship is one of the highest of goods.  Friendship is essential to human happiness, and a life well-lived.

Glaucon: You speak unjustly me to, Socrates.  I am and ever have been your friend.

Socrates: I know, which is why your panic pains me so.

Glaucon: If you’re really my friend, you will share my concern for my own safety.

Socrates: I do, Glaucon.  If you were in serious danger, and I could save you by shunning you, I would grieve.  Yet shun you I would.

Glaucon: Very gracious of you.

Socrates: I know you would do the same for me.

Glaucon: Again, most gracious.

Socrates: The plain fact, however, is that you are not in serious danger.  By the numbers, you are in the kind of minor danger that you’ve always accepted in the past.

Glaucon: And?

Socrates: And so I say the time is long since past to resume our normal friendly relations.  In troubles times, minor adjustments are often wise.  But abandoning your friends out of fear of minor risks is folly, Glaucon.

Glaucon: [forced] Well, thank you for your candor, Socrates.

Socrates: [resigned] May we meet again in saner times, my friend.

Glaucon: Good day to you, Socrates.  Good day.

[Glaucon and Socrates go their separate ways.]

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Should I Start a School?

When fellow professors discover that I homeschool my children, their most common reaction is: “How do you get any work done?”  Hand to God, I’ve never found it hard.  I started homeschooling my older sons back in 2015 when they were 12.  They were already more mature than most adults will ever be, so Caplan Family School ran like clockwork.  Since the pandemic, I’ve added my younger kids to my student body.  While I don’t have Caplan Family School 2.0 running like clockwork yet, we’re well on our way.  All kids have a schedule – and the schedule includes specific time slots for feedback from me.  The rest of the time, my kids are supposed to work independently and let me do my regular work.  Compliance, though imperfect, is high.

My system works so well that I’ve been toying with the idea of opening my own school.  Legally, I would probably call it a tutoring center for homeschooling parents, but I’d use the same system for customers that I use for my own kids.  As a professor, of course, I have immense freedom to manage my time as I see fit, so I wouldn’t have to quit my existing job to explore this entrepreneurial venture.

Why bother?  Here are the positives as I see them.

1. I deeply enjoy teaching highly-motivated, mature students.  If I were running my own school, I could select such students exclusively.

2. I like fostering my intellectual sub-culture – and my pedagogical approach is so radically different from the mainstream that I could realistically reshape my students for life.

3. I cherish making new friends and enriching existing friendships, and the pandemic has made both tragically hard.  Running a school would give me much-needed human connection.

4. While I have little concrete use for extra money, earning money doing something I love is gratifying.

5. I’d like to have a viable family business to pass on to any of my children who want high autonomy.

6. I enjoy accomplishing things I haven’t done before.

 

The negatives, unfortunately, are weighty.

1. General rule: Almost everyone is bad at doing stuff they haven’t done before.  “I’m good at educating my own kids, so I could run a school well” may well be akin to “I’m good at cooking, so I could run a restaurant well.”

2. I do not like dealing with mundane hassles, like getting a lease, setting up wifi, or keeping business records.

3. I intensely resent bureaucracy.  I don’t want to figure out how to get a business license, file new tax forms, or learn about government regulations on running a tutoring center versus a school.  Much of the appeal of running my own school is to get more autonomy, but in practice I’d probably have less than I already do.

4. Couldn’t I hire someone else to do this unpleasant work?  Someone good enough to do the job could easily eat up my whole budget and more.  And as soon as I had a full-time employee, another pile of regulations kicks in.

5. I could probably get five or ten outstanding students during the pandemic.  Once the schools re-open, though, demand for my unconventional product could easily dry up.  Since almost every start-up has high fixed start-up costs, this is a big risk.

6. What about liability?  Part of what I would be offering is a risk-tolerant environment; I believe in erring on the side of normalcy – not the side of caution. The state of Virginia, however, is bad on waivers.  If my students get sick, I don’t want to lose my house.  Yes, I could get insurance, but that too would probably be a tangled mess.

 

All things considered, then, I’m in a holding pattern.  What would tip the scales?  Most directly: If GMU cancelled in-person classes again, my motivation to create a space where I could work with real students would be high.  More generally: The longer the gross social overreaction to the pandemic continues, the more eager I will be to build my own sphere of normalcy.

One other factor that would make a big difference: If I had a queue of eager would-be customers.  If you’re a parent of a highly-motivated, mature kid grades 7-12 and you’re interested, please email me!

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When to Defund

From my The Case Against Education:


When I argue education is largely wasteful signaling, most listeners yield. Popular resistance doesn’t kick in until I add, “Let’s waste less by cutting government spending on education.” You might think conceding
the wastefulness of education spending would automatically entail support for austerity, but it doesn’t. The typical reaction is to confidently state, “Education budgets should be redirected, not reduced.”

Such confidence is misplaced. The discovery of wasteful spending does not magically reveal constructive alternatives. Prudence dictates a two-step response. Step 1: Stop wasting the resources. Step 2: Save those
resources until you discover a good way to spend them. Not wasting resources is simple and speedy. Don’t just stand there; do it. Finding good ways to use resources is complex and slow. Don’t just do it; think it
through. Remember: you can apply saved resources anywhere. Time and money wasted on education could pave roads, cure cancer, cut taxes, subsidize childbearing, pay down government debt before our Fiscal
Day of Reckoning, or allow taxpayers to buy better homes, cars, meals, and vacations.

Suppose I prove your toenail fungus cream doesn’t work. I counsel, “Stop wasting money on that worthless cream.” Would you demur, “Not until we find a toenail fungus remedy that works”? No way. Finding a
real remedy could be more trouble than it’s worth. It might take forever. Continuing to waste money on quackery until a cure comes into your possession is folly. Saying, “There must be a cure!” is childish and
dogmatic. Maybe your toenails are a lost cause, and you should use the savings for a trip to Miami.

[…]

Are draconian education cuts really a good idea, especially for a society as rich as our own? Calling them “draconian” begs the question. If we’re not getting good value for our educational investments, we shouldn’t call deep cuts “draconian.” We should call the status quo “profligate.” Rich societies can afford to waste trillions. But why settle for that? Rich societies face countless opportunities. The trillions we spend boring youths might cure cancer, buy driverless cars, or end world hunger. Collective complacency seems harmless, but it kills by omission.

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