Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Saturday, March 21, 2015

I Wrote a Poem Once Again

"About Coffee"

The dark-roasted beans are glossy and sleek,
The light ones are small and matte.
And I wonder as I mix them:
Does coffee have something deep to tell us
About the world, about ourselves?
Or is it just a pleasant psychoactive drink?

The latter seems more likely, but
Maybe that says more about me
Than it does about coffee.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Moderate Consumption of Alcohol

A while ago I had a Twitter exchange about this...  I don't know, blog post, article, column, whatever, by Stanton Peele.  I didn't handle it very gracefully at the time, but now I'll try to explain where I'm coming from.

My basic problem with the piece is that the writer is whistling past the graveyard in any number of ways.  To write so blithely about the benefits of alcohol reminds me of the classic What If? in which Randall Munroe walks through the many advantages of the sun going out, before finally noting the major downside:  "We would all freeze and die."

It's really the tone that gets me, the trolling, tendentious, college-debate-style dickishness.  Why doesn't our society do more to trumpet the health benefits of alcohol?  I don't know, Stanton Peele, it's a real fucking mystery!

Peele starts by recounting the death of Bob Welch, a teetotaler, at the age of 57.  Peele then suggests that the evidence is that the cause of Welch's premature death was his abstention from alcohol, and asks why we are so reluctant to draw this conclusion when the evidence is so strong.

Now look, I have no problem with publicizing the positive health effects of alcohol.  But there's something odd about Peele's piece.  Before we get there, though, let's pull a couple of passages from Wikipedia.  First, from the page on Jason Molina (citations and links removed):
On September 19, 2011, a message from the musician's family was posted on the Secretly Canadian Records website, titled "Where Is Jason Molina?", which said that over the past two years, Molina had visited rehab facilities and hospitals in England, Chicago, Indianapolis, and New Orleans for an unnamed condition. His family wrote that at the time, he was "currently working on a farm in West Virginia raising goats and chickens for the next year or so, and is looking forward to making great music again." The note also stated that the last several years had been "a very trying time for Jason, his friends, and his family. Although no one can be sure what the future holds, we feel very encouraged by the recent steps Jason has taken on the road towards becoming healthy and productive once again." The post ended by asking fans to donate to a PayPal account that would fund Molina's recuperation.
On May 5, 2012, a post titled "a note from jason" was posted on the Magnolia Electric Co. website, explaining certain aspects of his situation for the first time. Saying that it had been "a long hospital year", Molina expressed gratitude and appreciation for the monetary and emotional support he had received from fans and friends. He gave a brief update on his condition, saying, "Treatment is good, getting to deal with a lot of things that even the music didn't want to. I have not given up because you, my friends have not given up on me." The note concludes on an optimistic tone, saying that there were a few music projects on the "distant radar screen."
 . . . .

Molina died on March 16, 2013, in Indianapolis as a result of alcohol abuse-related organ failure. He was 39. Henry Owings, a friend of the musician, published an article on his online music magazine Chunklet that said Molina had struggled with alcoholism for most of the decade leading up to his death. Owings also wrote that Molina had "cashed out on Saturday night in Indianapolis with nothing but a cell phone in his pocket."
And from the page on Townes Van Zandt (again, I've removed citations and links - and note that this passage picks up after Van Zandt has injured himself falling down a flight of stairs):

Determined to finish the album that he had scheduled to record with Shelley and Two Dollar Guitar, Van Zandt arrived at the Memphis studio being pushed in a wheelchair by road manager Harold Eggers. Shelley canceled the sessions due to the songwriter's erratic behavior and drunkenness. Van Zandt finally agreed to hospitalization, but not before returning to Nashville. By the time he had consented to receive medical care, eight days passed since the injury. On December 31, X-rays revealed that Van Zandt had an impacted left femoral neck fracture in his hip, and several corrective surgeries were performed. Jeanene informed the surgeon that one of Townes' previous rehab doctors had told her detoxing could kill him. The medical staff tried to explain to her that detoxing a "late-term alcoholic" at home would be ill-advised, but he would have a better chance at recovering under hospital supervision. She did not heed these warnings, and instead checked Townes out of the hospital against medical advice. Understanding that he would most likely drink immediately after leaving the hospital, the physicians refused to prescribe him any painkillers.

By the time Van Zandt was checked out of the hospital early the next morning, he had begun to show signs of DTs. Jeanene rushed him to her car, where she gave him a flask of vodka to ward off the withdrawal delirium. She would later report that after getting back to his home in Smyrna, Tennessee, and giving him alcohol, he was "lucid, in a real good mood, calling his friends on the phone." Jim Calvin shared a marijuana joint with him, and he was also given about four Tylenol PM tablets.

While Jeanene was on the phone with Susanna Clark, their son Will noticed that Townes had stopped breathing and "looked dead." He alerted his mother, who attempted to perform CPR, "screaming his name between breaths."
Now I want to be clear, Peele didn't suggest that alcohol is always and everywhere a healthy thing to consume.  For instance, women with the BRCA 1 or 2 mutations (which are related to breast cancer), or who are otherwise at heightened risk for breast cancer, might reasonably abstain from alcohol.  Also, "Frequent, heavy binge drinking is unhealthy. But then you knew that already, didn't you? If you don't distinguish binge drinking from daily moderate drinking, that would be due to America's addiction-phobia, which causes them to interpret any daily drinking as addictive."

Maybe.  Maybe "addition-phobia" is the reason for our failure to distinguish between moderate drinking and binge drinking.  But I can't help pointing out that it is precisely the inability of many people to do one without the other that causes alcohol to be such a destructive force in their lives.

I understand that Peele is a polemicist, and as such doesn't have to concern himself with questions like, "On net, does alcohol consumption in the United States contribute to or detract from public health?"  Or:  "What is the actual stopping place for people who drink more than the ideal amount?"  In this connection, note that alcohol consumption forms a hockey-stick pattern, with the top decile consuming on average 73.85 drinks per week, vastly more than the other 90% combined.  The idea that public policy might be oriented toward keeping people out of that decile, rather than pushing them up to the eighth decile (6.25 drinks per week on average), apparently hasn't occurred to Peele.

Again, I don't have a problem with what you might say are his "literal" claims.  People absolutely should consider drinking in moderation if they can handle it, and should take into account genetic factors like BRCA 1 and 2 (and the genes related to "Asian flush," which Peele doesn't mention).  But this suggestion that alcohol consumption is a "health behavior," that when teetotalers die young we should call them out for their bad health decisions, that it makes sense to discuss the pros and cons of alcohol while barely mentioning alcoholism...  this is repugnant to me.  Probably the most telling thing about the piece is something that Peele mentions but doesn't dwell on, which is that Bob Welch, the teetotaler who died at the age of 57 (5 years older than Townes Van Zandt and 18 years older than Jason Molina), abstained from alcohol because he felt that he had a "disease."  So in other words, Welch diagnosed himself with alcoholism and successfully quit drinking, a path that neither Molina nor Van Zandt was able to follow.  And this—Welch's sobriety!—is the behavior that Peele thinks should be labeled "unhealthy."  This is what Peele chose to use as a cautionary tale.  Presumably if Molina and Van Zandt had gotten sober, Peele would have used them as cautionary tales, too.

Fuck Stanton Peele.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Economics: Projects for Future Benefit

This is part of a series of posts on economics.  Unlike my typical posts, these posts are dynamic—I'm going to come back and edit them as my thoughts develop.  I am basically "thinking out loud."  I am trying to fit things together in a modular way, so that each piece stands on its own analytically.  But no promises.

We are not going to develop a very detailed model of the market for goods and services.  As we have noted, people get utility from consuming goods and services, which is reason enough to buy them.  But people can also buy goods and services for reasons that are less directly related to utility.  We've already briefly discussed this topic, but let's look at it in a little more depth.  There are various projects that can be undertaken with the following feature:  resources are spent at time t = 0 and then there is some benefit that accrues at time t = n (the benefit may also be spread out over several periods).  Examples include things like adding more machines to a factory to expand its production capacity, or buying a microwave so that you can easily heat food in your kitchen.  These examples are different in that one is an investment in capital, while the other is investment in a consumer item, but we are not going to make very much of this distinction.  In both cases you must spend money at time t = 0 in anticipation of benefiting in the future.  The main differences between the factory and the microwave that will interest us are when and for how long those future benefits will accrue, and what risks attach to the project (for instance, maybe the microwave has a 5% chance of breaking down each year, and its warranty lasts only a year).  There is not a sharp distinction between immediate consumption and a consumption project that lasts several time periods — there is a continuum from 100% of the utility being gained at t = 0 to 100% of the utility being derived far in the future.

We are not going to look very closely at these projects, except to note a few features that we will assume.  First, the anticipated value of a project is dependent on circumstances.  If you are going to build an ice cream factory, your expected profits depend on your view of the market for ice cream in the future, when the factory starts producing ice cream.  If there is a health craze, or if refrigeration becomes much more expensive, then the demand for ice cream may be depressed and your investment may prove unprofitable.  Or it may be that milk and sugar will be more expensive in the future, reducing profits even if demand remains steady.  Another important aspect (which we will examine more closely in a separate post) is the interest rate and the risk premium available in the market.  If the ice cream factory yields a return of 15% and the market interest rate is 20%, then the ice cream factory may be a bad investment even if it is profitable as an accounting matter.  In other words, the ice cream factory may earn enough profits to more than pay back the original investment, but the investor might still have done better by loaning the money to someone else.

Second, we are going to assume (somewhat unrealistically) that when someone spends money on consumption or on a project for future benefit (such as the ones we have been discussing), the expenditure involves using scarce resources.  So for instance, if I invest in machines for my factory, those machines will be unavailable for anyone else.  If they are custom-made, then the materials and labor that go into making them are unavailable for anyone else to use.  This is realistic for many goods and services, but it's not universally true.  When an individual buys software, or pays to stream a movie over the internet, there is no reduction in resources available for other people to use (or the reduction is minor, such as the use of bandwidth on the internet, which represents a small part of the price of the movie).  We are going to ignore these non-rival goods and services.

We are also going to ignore non-market use of resources.  Technically, if someone operates an orchard, she may be using carbon dioxide, without which she couldn't produce any fruit.  But there is no market for carbon dioxide, and realistically her use of carbon dioxide is trivial.  The same would be true of a facility that concentrates argon from the atmosphere and then sells it.  Technically, in addition to the market goods and services that are used (machines, electricity), the facility also removes argon from the atmosphere.  This is not what we mean when we talk about using up resources.  And we are going to ignore other cases in which people use up society's resources in a more material way without paying for them (as when a farmer removes water from an aquifer that extends beyond his land).  This may be economically significant, but it is not a project for future benefit for our purposes because the farmer doesn't spend anything for the water at time t = 0.  If she has to buy a pump to get the water, on the other hand, then that would count as a project for our purposes.

So in conclusion, projects for future benefit require spending at time t = 0, they use up scarce resources, and their profitability depends on external circumstances such as market demand for the particular good in question, as well as the market rate of interest and the risk premium that attaches to financial products.