Things aren't that bad

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Steve Sokolowski
Posts: 4417
Joined: Wed Aug 27, 2014 3:27 pm
Location: State College, PA

Things aren't that bad

Post by Steve Sokolowski » Tue Apr 14, 2020 8:59 am

"Every generation is asked to make a sacrifice. Our fathers and grandfathers were asked to fight against fascism and die in Europe. You are being asked to watch TV and play video games, and your sacrifice will be remembered throughout history."

Questioning the conventional

Most readers will likely see the title of this post as extremely callous. It's likely that at least 17 million people were or are infected with the SARS-Cov-2 virus, and the the virus causes unbearable pain, breathing problems, and often permanent lung damage. Anyone who is living through an infection has my greatest sympathy. While many people question whether extreme suppression measures are necessary, those infected undoubtedly recognize that allowing such agony to be experienced by a majority of the world's people would be an unfathomable catastrophe.

That said, 99.7% of people, at least for now, are fortunate not to have been infected. For many of them, the main concerns are trivialities like boredom, missing friends, not being able to attend a senior prom, or deciding when to reschedule their weddings. These concerns often receive outsized attention from the press, with "helpful" how-to guides from CNN on topics like time management. Other articles, like ... ber-driver, feature people who predict that everyone is stir crazy, that stay-at-home orders are not enforceable for the long-term, and that there will be a sort of pent-up demand for services that are currently unavailable, like eating at dine-in restaurants.

But what if this conventional belief is wrong? What if, instead of the easing of restrictions unleashing a surge in in-person meetings, travel, and luxury spending, people instead come to realize that things aren't all that bad as they are now? What if the absurdity of the opening quote demonstrates how good people today have it?

A typical day

Over the past few weeks, a typical day for me has consisted of the following. I'll wake up at around 6:30am, drink some Huel, and work until about 11:30. Support tickets come first, followed by a review of where everyone is on our project, and then work on the new website. At 11:30, Cuomo's daily press briefings are on, so I drink a second bottle during the briefings. I'll continue work until about 4:00, drink a third bottle, and then switch to working out in the basement. Then, I might have time for a half hour of gaming before walking to my mom's house for dinner. After cooking or eating takeout, we'll watch a movie or a TV show, and then I'll come home by 9:30 to shower, take care of medical issues, perhaps read for a few minutes, and then go to sleep. And my sleep has never been better - for the first time in fifteen years, I've been able to fall asleep regularly in fewer than 15 minutes.

I follow this routine seven days a week, ever since I determined in mid-February that there were likely undetected cases and it was unsafe to continue to go out. During that time, I have been far more productive at work than I ever have been before. Outside of work, I realized that many of the people with whom I previously had contact caused unnecessary drama and I'm better off not talking with them.

Some days, I attend virtual Toastmasters meetings, which are at least 90% as effective as in-person meetings. I now see friends more often than I did before, because they no longer have other gatherings and are willing to play D&D more frequently. D&D games themselves run smoother and more quickly online than they did in-person.

I only spend a little more money than I did before, having allocated $2,000 for delivery fees and shipping costs for the next 18 months. I may spend more because of the significant inflation that has occurred for food. But I already bought 700,000 calories of Huel in December (viewtopic.php?f=21&t=7094), and I could lower that if I could finally convince the other people around me to drink 100% Huel.

Much of that increased spending is offset by other costs I cut. My brother and I don't need two cars, so I'm allowing the registration, insurance, and satellite radio to lapse on one of them. The other is currently being driven at a rate of 260 miles per year. I chose not to repair my broken electric bike, because I'm not willing to risk breaking a leg and ending up exposed in the hospital. Other expenses that were cut are things that others probably were also surprised about: for example, I decided not to buy new shoes because on many days I don't put shoes on at all. Deliveries take much longer to be processed by Sam's Club, taking 2 weeks instead of 2 days, but I placed an order for a case of toilet paper last week, and it is projected to arrive in May - a problem that advanced planning can easily remedy.

The reduction in noise from Interstate 99 is beautiful. I'm sure that my lungs are benefiting from the reduction in pollution as well. I can walk through the gamelands without coming across many people, and the closure of the shooting range has eliminated the frequent gunshots.

I want the pandemic to be over as much as anyone, because I don't want anyone to suffer or die needlessly. However, if I wanted to be very selfish, I would say that on average my life personally is improved compared to the way it was in February. I, like many others, have found that there's a reason the closed stores are deemed "non-essential" - because they are non-essential. Someone who was alive in 1900 or 1950 would much prefer this lifestyle to a "normal" life back then. Maybe expensive haircuts and massive cruise ships don't actually make people much happier.

If I would dare to ponder that possibility, surely it is probable that there are many others who also have seen an improvement in many aspects of their lives. There are undoubtedly many additional people who do not welcome the changes, but who also are not particularly bothered by them. Still others regret the loss of some things but cherish the addition of others. While few want suffering and deaths to happen, I offer that it would be a grave mistake to assume that everyone is sitting around bored, counting down the days until they can again resume their "normal" economic activities.

Categories of the disrupted

Ignoring people who are naively complaining because they don't like watching TV instead of going out, people who are actually disrupted by the epidemic are in one of the following three categories. There are people who are sick, who deserve everything we can do to help them recover. There are people who are on the verge of starvation, who cannot afford to buy any food or medication whatsoever because they lost their jobs or because services they relied on are shut down, and we should provide money to these people to get them through these tough times. Finally, there are people who are unemployed because their industries are not feasible in this environment. Helping this third group is both necessary and fraught with moral concerns.

The government's current solution appears to be to give everyone money until things "get back to normal." The problem is that things will never return to "normal." There will never be a day again like there was last year. Perhaps, in an extremely unlikely scenario, 80% of the currently unemployed could find work in the same industries.

Consider what would happen tomorrow if Trump decided that the world was OK to re-open. Would you go to a sporting event or a restaurant? There are certain businesses, such as the wedding industry, which are simply non-viable until the disease is nearly eradicated.

Further, assume that the world has a vaccine that's 75% effective, which would be far higher than any influenza vaccine but not as high as the Ebola vaccine is. With a base reproductive number of 3, that means the disease would not be eradicated until six billion doses of the vaccine have been manufactured and the required time after vaccination for immunity to develop has passed. As you can see, the idea that the Olympics can be held in 2021 is ridiculous, even if the vaccine timeline of 10-16 months that started being talked about in February is possible.

People who will be successful in the new economy will recognize that it will probably be 2022 before non-essential large gatherings are held again, because people will make rational decisions about their own safety.

Permanent changes

As I stated in February, though, many of the changes that have occurred will persist indefinitely, for a number of reasons.

First, there are changes based on inertia, where there is no compelling reason to revert a change. I mentioned shaking hands as a tradition that will likely never return. There are health improvements to not shaking hands, and no strong benefits to resuming the practice, so why bother? Another example of an inertial change is the plastic dividers that have been installed at supermarkets, pharmacies, banks, and other stores to divide the cashier from the public. Having spent the money to prevent disease spread, why would a supermarket dismantle and trash these dividers, given that they can also mitigate influenza transmission and save money on employee sick pay? In Asia, a legacy of the SARS-1 virus was people wearing masks in public, and I would wager that SARS-2 will result in mask-wearing remaining a part of public life, perhaps eventually limited to public transit and high-density areas, in the West for the decade or two until science is able to eliminate most disease.

Second, there are changes based upon planning for the next disaster. Few seem to have followed the news that a bird flu epidemic is ongoing in China right now. If that virus crossed over to humans, it could cause a civilization-ending pandemic. While the odds of that are low, people will hear about similar viruses and demand "act of God" clauses in contracts. Real estate prices in cities will undoubtedly be lower. The people I interact with don't always show the same level of concern about the danger posed by the virus, so I decided that in the long term I would like to live alone to be able to control my own level of risk. Other people will make changes out of fear - a study showed that 29% of people quarantined in China showed symptoms of PTSD, and there are many people in Wuhan who have become agoraphobic. Many people are going to avoid public places long after the crisis ends because of mental health issues.

Third, there are changes based upon the discovery of things that are better. I spent more on video games than I have in a decade, and I plan to continue to play more games after this is over, replacing some in-person social activities. Perhaps my last employer will stop paying to fly someone to Los Angeles and back in a single day, so that he or she can attend a 30-minute meeting in person, now that they have been forced to use videoconferencing. Many people have finally realized that it's far cheaper and a better experience (ex. you can pause to go to the bathroom) to pay a thousand dollars for a home theater and decent TV, and $19.99 to watch "Trolls World Tour" with a family of four, rather than paying $80 in tickets, gas, and concessions at a movie theater four times a year. And many people who stopped going to grocery stores will continue to use Instacart, because they liked the service.

Restaurants aren't going to be empty just because of the coronavirus. They'll be empty because people learned to cook, they are more afraid of getting the flu, and because they would rather spend time alone playing video games.


In conclusion, if you are buying stocks or bitcoins under the assumption that life will ever "return to normal," then you are making a costly mistake. It is not the case that every healthy person is suffering at home, counting the days until the virus is exterminated. Many people are simultaneously empathizing with those infected and personally enjoying the changes. Believing that everyone is waiting to return to their "normal" lives is a big mistake.

Unfortunately, this mistake is being made by those in charge of public policy. Instead of providing assistance to displaced workers until the economy has a chance to reorganize itself, and helping those workers get new jobs, the government is providing bailouts to "freeze" the economy in place. When things do open up again, there will be an initial spike in business caused by the people who did not enjoy the isolation period, and then it will become clear that many businesses that were propped up will not be able to repay their loans.

There's nothing special about me, but even I pointed out a year ago at viewtopic.php?f=11&t=6423 that it's a 50/50 shot that pandemics, nanotechnology accident, and superintelligence are existential risks would wipe out humans. Employees of businesses should be absolutely protected. Not only should taxes be raised on the rich so they can pay less, but waitresses should be given a basic income until they can find new jobs as package sorters in safe, redesigned factories where workstations are spaced far apart, for example. But the employers should not be protected. The SARS-1 virus happened just 15 years ago, and they had the same opportunity as anyone did to understand that there was some risk in operating an in-person business. Why are taxpayers being asked to reopen an economy as it was, rather than working on a transition to one that is more resilient to pandemics, with factories able to operate with people spaced far apart, schools able to switch to remote learning on a moment's notice, and as many workers as possible able to work from home?

It is not true that the pandemic was unforeseeable, but many representatives' assertion that it was impossible to foresee will result in a massive amount of money flowing to businesses that are likely to fail during the rebuilding period. As the bird flu epidemic shows, it's also possible that another pandemic will happen, and propping up sports venues could turn out to be an expensive waste of government funds.

Several years from now, the economy will be left with dramatic inflation caused by all the money infused into the system, and I suspect that many of the businesses that received this money will have failed. Things aren't all that bad for many people right now, and society will change based upon people's recognition that things aren't that bad, and also based upon the fact that many changes necessary to address this pandemic don't make sense to change back.

This huge infusion of money into businesses likely to fail anyway sounds like the perfect storm to be invested in some kind of asset that holds its value independently of any government.
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