Monday, 16 March 2020

Coronavirus: The Best Strategy May Not Be As Obvious As You Think

I think the safest thing we can say about the coronavirus problem is that it's too complex for anyone to fully understand. If you try to measure on a scale of 0-100 what you think the national response should be (pretending you don't know full well that the government can't do anything like as much as people think), where 0 is 'carry on as you were and do absolutely nothing', and 100 is 'the country in near lockdown', the right response rating is going to be somewhere between 0-100. But not only is it the case that no one knows exactly what the right number response rating is, it's also inevitable that the right number response rating changes each day with each changing situation.

The situation today is roughly as the epidemiologists predicted - the virus has spread considerably and will infect many more people as it heads towards its peak. We also know that the coronavirus is growing exponentially, and that the earlier the countries responded with things like social distancing and self-isolation, the slower the spread of the virus.

For some, it seems obvious – the UK government has made a huge blunder by not reacting earlier to encourage social distancing and putting us in lockdown. But as I said, this problem is highly complex, and just because some countries slowed the spread of the virus by acting early, that doesn't mean every country should do the same.

Here's why. Let me tell you a few things we don't know. We don't know how many people in the UK have the coronavirus, we don't know the dynamics of exactly how it will spread, or exactly how fast, or among whom, nor the patterns of immunity, nor the complex dynamics of knock-on effects. But I can tell you two things I do know with a reasonable degree of confidence.

First, you as an individual know your own cost-benefit ratios for every social situation better than anybody else. If the benefit of a particular event of social interaction isn't significant to you, then stay at home. And like a sorites-type analysis (when does a heap become a heap?) the older you are, the more important this cost-benefit consideration becomes. Don't take unnecessary risks for relatively small gains. There are so many positive things you can do when you're self-isolating - things that really matter; prayer, meditation, contemplation, reading, learning, family relationship-building, writing emails to friends, catching up on jobs your future self won't have time to do when things are busier, you name it.

Second, in case anyone isn't entirely clear on this, the reason people shouldn't panic buy isn't just because we should all be kind, thoughtful citizens who need to be mindful of the negative effects on society's most vulnerable (although that is a good enough reason in itself). No, it's also because, even if your short-term interests are narrow enough to stockpile, and you think it's wise to only look after yourself and your immediate family, you'll very likely go on to hurt your future self and your future immediate family too in the long run, because further down the line everyone's well-being and stability is both proximally and distally connected to everyone else's. 

To see why, imagine if panic buying yields something like a Pareto distribution (otherwise known as the 80/20 rule - roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes), where a high proportion of the necessary goods are stockpiled by a small proportion of the people - it could slowly knock-on to retard the supply and demand distributions across the UK, until it hurts people the stockpilers also rely on. Somewhere down the line, the teachers, nurses, bus drivers, shop assistants and delivery drivers might pay the price of your stockpiling in a way that snaps back to undermine the supply chains to the goods and services on which your future self and your future immediate family will also rely. The economy needs to stay as stable as possible, and the supply and demand links must flow as steadily as possible for the good of everyone. Everyone carrying on only buying what we need is a good way to help this stability.

Nobody, including me, knows exactly the best way to tackle the coronavirus outbreak in exactly the right way with exactly the right courses of action at exactly the right times - and anybody that tells you otherwise is either a liar or deluded. But I'm going to make a suggestion that has a good chance of being somewhere near right. Just like the damage to the supply and demand chains I mentioned with the panic buying, it is also probable that short-term overreactions in terms of obstructing economic activity could decimate the economy in the longer term in ways that could harm society even more than the eventual medical effects of the coronavirus.

In other words, if you’re faced with the prospect of an economic recession (x) and a mass infection (y), you are only realistically going to see one of the following outcomes:

1) No x and no y

2) X but no Y

3) Y but no x

4) Both x and y

If we assume that 1 simply isn't going to happen, that it seems fairly certain that y is going to happen (which also rules out 2), and agree that 4 is cleary the worst scenario and the one we really want to avoid most, then it's clear that number 3 would be our least bad of all the realistic scenarios. Like everyone else, I do not know if we can achieve number 3, and even if we could, I'm not even sure how we could achieve it - but if there's an outside chance that in the medium to long term the probability of an utterly decimated global economy could be traded off against a slightly larger set of infected people in the short term, then it's possible that not going into a complete shutdown is something our future selves will thank us for in the long run.

Given that a lot of people are going to be infected, they can either be infected with a decimated economy, or with only a badly hit economy, and it isn't easy to know how bad the economic damage will be, or the rate of the spread of infection, because the further into the future we try to go with our predictions, the greater the possibility of margin of error. But equally, it isn’t obvious that we could have realistically stopped an exponential spread, given that we don't have an authoritarian political system, and that so many infected people remained under the radar, so there might be some unseen wisdom in the government's current strategy, even if it seems to many quite counterintuitive.

The upshot is, even though the natural instinct might be to try to protect everyone by mass isolation and shutting down large swathes of our industry, it really may not be the best medium to long-term strategy for maximising human utility. The best response might well be a mass bottom up approach whereby people act on new information in accordance with a medium term strategy that maximises the immediate interest as best they can. So for example, we know age determines risk of death, which means older people should act in conjunction with the greater risk their freedom poses. For now, don't go to places you don't need to go to, don't put any unnecessary strain on the NHS, and assume the conditions that minimise your chances of infection with the optimum trade off in a way that maximises value for you and your loved ones in the short term but also for the medium to long term strategies of our future selves. 

To see why this might be the best approach, consider an illustration. The economy is finely balanced with a delicate framework of connectivity- it took hundreds of years to evolve and develop. It is a bit like a well-functioning brain, and a damaged economy is a bit like the process of necrosis, which is where cells are damaged by things like infection, inflammation, injury, blood flow or trauma, leading to overall cognitive impairment. The more the brain is damaged by necrosis, the worse the cognition becomes, and the worse it can become still.

Damage to various sectors of industry could work in a similar (although not exactly identical) way. The more the supply chains are undermined, the more barriers to trade emerge, the more income lost, the more people are out of work, the bigger the economic damage - and once an economy becomes damaged to that extent, it could quite easily set off a kind of social butterfly effect of shortage, hunger and mass deprivation that governments are powerless to repair, and from which humans find it difficult to recover quickly. 

The safest bet is we'd do well not to over-react or under-react, and we'll do even better if we don't get the balance of our short-term and medium to long-term trade offs wrong - but as for the right measure, it's difficult to say on any given day.

Thursday, 5 March 2020

What You Should Do About Coronavirus (Apart From Stay At Home If You Have It)

Because people are susceptible to what psychologists call ‘magnification’ (making a massive thing out of a relatively trivial thing), it was inevitable that the coronavirus reaction would be incommensurably more overblown than the intrinsic problems the virus would have otherwise created. Yes, coronavirus is bad, and it may turn out to be really bad (and if it gets that bad we should act accordingly), but currently the mass overreactions have ensured the damage is already going to turn out to be astronomically worse than it needed to be, especially in terms of economic recession and job losses, where this mass panic into behaviour-change is causing untold damage to industries and livelihoods. 

The only chance of preventing a meltdown (if it’s not too late already) is if everyone stops overreacting - which basically means; unless you have no other option, carry on exactly as you would have before this media frenzy broke out. Don’t panic buy, don’t overconsume, don’t refrain from travelling, don’t cancel events, don’t shut up shop in a panic – at least, not yet, not until it's shown to be necessary - you’ll simply create a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby fear of doom will create the very doom you feared.

This type of behaviour is as old as the economic hills, of course – it’s what we call “the tragedy of the commons,” derived from a scenario in which several farmers have one cow and a patch of grass (the commons) that serves everyone, but where a second cow for one farmer eventually causes overconsumption for all the cows to the point where there is no grass to consume. You can probably remember this happening with the petrol crisis about 20 years ago. People panic bought for fear of a shortage, which encouraged others to do the same, which had the net result of creating a shortage, where all the pumps ran dry. If everyone had simply carried on as normal it wouldn’t have been nearly as bad.

Unfortunately, there is not an easy solution to the tragedy of the commons-type of problem, because people try to maximise their narrow self-interest, even if it culminates in a net worse collective outcome. To see why, imagine a microcosmic version of society - consider ten people sitting round a table playing a game. The table has a bowl in the middle. The game is simple; each player is given £10 to start and told that whatever they all put in the bowl will be doubled and shared evenly, and they are each allowed to put in anything up to £2 at a time. If all ten players put in £2 first off, the £20 pot will be doubled to £40, and each player gets £4 return. 

Naturally this process could keep continuing, but what tends to happen is that some of the ten will realise that if they don't put in they can improve their wealth relative to other group members. Suppose eight people put in £2 and the other two (Jack and Jill) put in nothing. The £16 pot is doubled to £32, and each member gets £3.20 back (including Jack and Jill, who are now in relative terms each £2 better off than the other eight people). While it’s better to allow a couple of freeloaders than see the whole game collapse, what’s more likely to happen is that others will try a similar strategy, making everyone else (and themselves) worse off in the long run.

It's not only Macbeth or whatshisname in Dangerous Liaisons for whom bad choices can negatively decide their own fate in ways they didn’t expect – with global phenomena and mass communication, this can happen to us all if we are not very careful with our words, actions and reactions.

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

People Complain So Much Because There's So Little To Complain About

No, I really mean it - I'm not being flippant or sensationalist - it seems fairly obvious to me that this Blog title "People complain so much because there's so little to complain about" taps into a profound truth that the more advances we make, the more we complain about what we think needs fixing.
In one sense, this has to true, by definition, because more advancement means more things to assess, and more things that can go wrong or that can be improved upon even further. But for a fairly large sub-section of society, it's seems that it's not just the case that the better we do collectively in terms of standard of living and advancement of material progress the more things people find to complain about - it's also the case that the better we do, the more trivial those complaints become (clearly there are going to be exceptions, but it seems largely true).
People living in any period of about 99.95% of our 200,000 year human history would have primarily focused on mere survival and acquiring the basic necessities for daily sustenance; they wouldn’t have had time to worry about how many black people are represented on Oscar night, or whether Remembrance Sunday offends Muslims, or whether a student thinks trans women are real women. Compared to most people who’ve ever lived, a person of today needs to have a relatively comfortable life to have the luxury of complaining about most of the things that people frequently complain about.
I’m not saying our first world problems don’t provide difficulties, and nor am I denying that there is genuine hardship right across the globe. But people badly need to get a sense of perspective, otherwise every period of greater prosperity will just yield more and more frustration, and make us even more myopic towards the countless ways the world is getting better.
There’s also a danger that we could become resistant to the collective encouragement that should emerge from acknowledging what a good job we’ve done to make so much progress. I think idealists forget that we are apes; so much more than mere apes, of course, but apes nonetheless – and only relatively recently sophisticated within the timeframe of our long Savannah-dwelling history. Given the foregoing, I’d say we are actually doing remarkably well, especially in such a short time-span, and it’s only our monumental achievements that give us the cushion to enjoy such high expectations about what else we can accomplish as a species.
Sadly, complaining without a proper sense of perspective makes people less happy and more stressed, which is especially disconcerting, given that what causes the complaining is the very thing that demonstrates that there isn't all that much to complain about - increased wealth and prosperity. Life has to be pretty good in order to arrive at the luxury of being able to complain so much about so many relatively non-serious things.
There's an old joke proffered around at Christmas time:
Q) What do you buy for someone who has everything?
A) Penicillin
The joke, like all jokes of that kind, taps into a truth - the rich and prosperous are harder to buy for than the poor, because materially speaking the rich already have more of what they want. Suppose a dying billionaire asks you to put his money to the best use - you'd probably use it to give to as many poor and needy people as possible, and you'd have no difficultly in knowing what to buy them; a place to live, heating, clothes, and most basic of all, food and drink.
If you had to carry on spending on their behalf, you could improve their lives even further still with nice household furniture, a good hi-fi, TV, car, garage, conservatory extension and some holidays. But then what? Suppose you still had hundreds of millions more you had to spend on them - you'd find it harder than when you only had to decide on the basic necessities and small luxury goods. To know how to spend hundreds of millions on someone, you'd have to really work hard to learn what they'd most value - a football club, hundreds of cars, the world's biggest mansion, rare works of art, or a small island? Who knows? The point is, beyond a certain threshold, it's tough to keep spending on luxuries. If I had billions to spend on myself and wasn't allowed to give any away, I don't think it'd be easy compared with being able to use it to help others.
The picture I painted more or less describes what it's like in Britain on a smaller scale - the first few thousand pounds of our earnings are the most important - that's what pays our bills, keeps us fed and clothed, taxes and insures our car, and so forth. After that, our individuality comes out more - as we each spend our leisure money on different things.
And what I've just described applies to government spending and our public services too. Most people concur on the basics; they want a good health service that makes people better; a good education that informs pupils; a good social services system that protects vulnerable people, a good police force that keeps crime rates down, and so on. But on top of all that money pumped in, people differ on what they want that money spent on. If you had to choose between extra Home Office money going on putting more people in prison or better rehabilitation for those already in prison, opinions would diverge. The same would be true if you had to choose between extra money going into the arts or extra money going to improve our military equipment or our ecosystem – you’d never get everyone to agree.
The upshot is, it might be good to bear all the above in mind when you hear people complaining (or feel like complaining yourself) about things that aren't attached to the basic necessities – being offended on Twitter, trains being too slow; the minimum wage being too low, the country being too unequal, having to pay for your own social care out of your own savings, plastic in the oceans, the earth being a few degrees warmer, poor Broadband coverage, whether an airport should have another runway, the price of energy, and so on - those complaints are usually a sign that, with everything considered on the grand scale of human history, things are going pretty well. Rest assured; If I’d have lived in the Victorian era, I wouldn’t have had the luxury or time to write these complaints about human complaints.
* Photo courtesy of

Monday, 2 March 2020

Exploring The Ontological Argument For God's Existence

A friend asked me what I think of Anselm’s famous Ontological Argument for God’s existence. For those unfamiliar with it, the Ontological Argument is this:

1) It is a conceptual truth (or, so to speak, true by definition) that God is a being than which none greater can be imagined (that is, the greatest possible being that can be imagined).

2) God exists as an idea in the mind.

3) A being that exists as an idea in the mind and in reality is, other things being equal, greater than a being that exists only as an idea in the mind.

4) Thus, if God exists only as an idea in the mind, then we can imagine something that is greater than God (that is, a greatest possible being that does exist).

5) But we cannot imagine something that is greater than God (for it is a contradiction to suppose that we can imagine a being greater than the greatest possible being that can be imagined.)

6) Therefore, God exists.

Anselm's Ontological Argument is interesting: It’s not as ill-conceived as many atheists claim, because Anselm was not trying to prove God's existence in the traditional sense, he was merely stating a belief in God and trying to show why he thought such a belief is rational. And equally it’s not as compelling as some Christians think, because his argument ultimately comes to grief whenever it is mistakenly offered as straightforward evidence for God.

Ideas like Anselm’s Ontological Argument work best as demonstrative, investigative ideas based on the assumption of God’s existence and that this belief is substantiated by rational sense. Arguments of the kind Anselm propounded are not so much a priori proofs of faith; rather they are a posteriori demonstrations of the harmonious link between faith and its metaphysical profundities and narrative-intense structures.

I think the ultimate point related to the Ontological Argument is whether God's nature is something qualitatively different from anything else we experience, or whether the attributes of God are filtrated into human emotions (like love, grace, mercy and justice) in an inexpressibly larger quantity (this is known as ‘kinesis’). When thought of that way, ideas like Anselm’s are very interesting starting blocks for much deeper spiritual contemplations.

When one reads poetry, fantasy novels and science fiction books, the primary force of the creativity comes from improvement of concepts that are already familiar to the everyday person (however strange the narrative). If they did not pertain to representations of life projected in everyday living they would not be sold in their millions. 

With the concept of God and whether one can imagine something so far beyond naturalistic mental precipitations that God must be reasonably inferred, the question, I think, would be something like; can it be shown that we are projecting not just a quantitative change in our current understanding but also a qualitative change in it; and if the latter, what/where is the demarcation line? 

First off, how the form provides us with narrative and metaphor and symbolism is complex because it impinges upon the extraction of meaning facilitated by our mental resources. When it comes to God's word in scripture we extract meaning and contextualisation, but that meaning and contextualisation is played out against a further backdrop of meaning and contextualisation in being itself - a sort of meta-meaning and meta-contextualisation. For example, a parable about human kindness and solicitude like the Parable of the Good Samaritan has meaning based on singular instances of helping those in need, but a broader meta-meaning can be extracted from the story related to the overall well-being of the human race and the psychological development of those who act with great concern for others. 

One of my favourite allusions to the Ontological Argument is in the Narnia tale The Silver Chair – it's known as Puddleglum's speech:

‘One word, Ma’am.  All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst of things and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things–trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. .Then all I can say is, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just four babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can, even if there isn’t any Narnia. So we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland’.

The upper world is Aslan's world, which of course represents what Christ drives us towards in a relationship with Him. Just like Pascal’s wager, C.S. Lewis is stating what we could call ‘Puddleglum's Wager’ - which expresses that even if Jesus isn’t God, it is still a better life pursuing the world envisaged by Christ. It is a probabilistic venture based on the wisdom of Christ even aside from the supernatural – and it calls for a courage that many find difficult, because it asks us to ‘be perfect’ - which is about the most supernaturally unnatural thing anyone has ever said while also sounding perfectly truthful and authentic in saying it. 

The quintessence of its magic is in another altogether unexpected form; roughly this; ‘Don’t worry if you cannot believe that there’s a God’ just believe you have the courage to act as though there is one, and by your failing to live up to the standards you’ll increase your probability of belief’. I think that really is the genius of Christ – and shows precisely His coming to earth just once was more than enough for humankind to fall at their feet, believe, and have everything we need for a full life. With this, you can see why Christ assured us that, for anyone who asks, the full life will be given to them -

"Seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened."

Puddleglum's speech is basically this: if Narnia does not exist, then fiction is more stupendous than reality - and as fiction cannot be more stupendous than reality, Narnia must be real. To translate that into Christian thinking as regards the Ontological Argument, then if Christ's claims are not based on Him being the truth, Christ's fiction appears to me to be more stupendous than any truth out there.

What I'm always telling the atheists is that I personally know of no better way to live, or no greater standards to which I’d want to adhere. I’m on Jesus’ side even if there isn’t any Jesus to lead the Christian world. If I’m guilty of making a play-world, then I fancy that the play-world into which I’m immersed and to which I’m committed licks the other ‘real’ world hollow.