Assorted thoughts on the coronavirus

post by adamzerner · 2020-03-18T07:08:30.614Z · score: 11 (5 votes) · LW · GW · 11 comments

Contents

  Is it that bad?
  Existential risks are still a much bigger problem
  QUALYS and happiness
  0.1% is a lot of micromorts
  Is the quarantined life really that bad?
  Is losing money really going to be that bad?
  Low-cost interventions FTW!
None
11 comments

Epistemic status: Ramblings. Sorry for the tone. It was easier to write this way. I promise I won't be stubborn about any of this in the comments.

Is it that bad?

After reading Mr. Money Mustache's take on the coronavirus, I started having a few doubts about how bad it actually is. I didn't realize that 2M people in America die each year of things related to "lifestyle factors".

It's possible that the coronavirus might be much worse than that. Let's say the worst case scenario is 50% infected and 10% of those infected die. In America that would mean about 150M infected and 15M dead. Almost an order of magnitude more than what what currently happens with lifestyle factors, so that's a lot.

But for a more average case scenario let's say 25% infected and 3% death rate, which would mean 75M infected and 2.25M deaths. An amount of deaths on par with the deaths we currently have due to lifestyle factors.

And for a more hopeful scenario, let's say 10% infected and a 2% death rate, which would mean 30M infected and 600k deaths. Less than a third of the lifestyle factors deaths.

Maybe the coronavirus is scarier than the lifestyle factor deaths we currently seem to just accept. But how much scarier? Mr Money Mustache asks this question:

But do you feel the appropriate ratios of fear in these two situations?

I know that my level of fear seems to be weighted too strongly towards the coronavirus.

This all makes me think of one of my favorite movie scenes: where the Joker talks about things that are "part of the plan".

Existential risks are still a much bigger problem

Sorry for being so America-centric in the previous section. Let's look at worst case scenario for the entire world. Call it a 50% infection rate and 10% death rate. That'd be about 4B infected and 400M dead.

400M dead is certainly a lot, but I think it pales in comparison to the consequences of screwing up with existential risks. As Eliezer says in his Twitter bio:

Ours is the era of inadequate AI alignment theory. Any other facts about this era are relatively unimportant, but sometimes I tweet about them anyway.

And if that's true, then by focusing on the current LessWrong Coronavirus Agenda [LW · GW], are we purchasing fuzzies or utilons [LW · GW]?

QUALYS and happiness

If existential risk wasn't a thing, my attention would probably be on The Happiness Crisis. That's right: people aren't happy enough! I suspect that if we put existential risks aside, the best way to do good for the world might be to just make normal people happier!

I was going to do some research and spend a some time explaining this belief, but fortunately I remembered a talk I came across a while back that does a better job.

If 1) my suspicion is correct that what Michael Plant calls "ordinary human unhappiness" is more harmful than deaths due to things like lifestyle factors, and 2) my argument in the first section is correct, then I think it follows that the coronavirus isn't particularly notable compared to The Happiness Crisis.

0.1% is a lot of micromorts

I get the impression that a lot of young people wave their hands at the risk that they personally have with the coronavirus. Even on LessWrong, to some extent.

But a 0.1% death rate isn't small. Neither is a 0.01% death rate. Neither is a 0.001% death rate.

Death is bad. 0.1% is a lot of micromorts.

Is the quarantined life really that bad?

I don't know about you guys, but after reading How to have a happy quarantine [LW · GW], I'm pumped!

Is losing money really going to be that bad?

One of my more contrarian beliefs is that it is absolutely ridiculous how worried we are about maintaining our standard of living. It seems to me that there is a ton of evidence showing that once your basic needs are met, money doesn't really matter. I think money is mostly a lost purpose [LW · GW]. It's originally an instrumental goal for happiness, but people forget this and pursue it because they "need money".

Some unorganized comments:

So then, with all of that said, getting back to the coronavirus, people are going to lose their jobs, dip into their savings, maybe even require help from family or the government. But would it really be that bad if that stuff happened?

Low-cost interventions FTW!

Something I've always appreciated about PainScience is how the author reasons about whether things are worth a shot. If something is unlikely to work, but it's also cheap and harmless, he'll say "give it a shot!". I love that mindset, and unfortunately don't see it enough in the medical world. If the downside is low, the barrier to trying should be correspondingly low.

As it applies to this coronavirus stuff, there are certain things that seem like the downside is so low that our response should be "screw it, I'll give it a shot!".

The point I'm trying to make makes me think about the third virtue of rationality:

The third virtue is lightness. Let the winds of evidence blow you about as though you are a leaf, with no direction of your own.

It isn't quite the same thing as what I'm saying, but I think the analogy of lightness applies. When the downside is low, don't hesitate to act.

11 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Isnasene · 2020-03-18T15:58:18.409Z · score: 13 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is anecdotal but last week I read the article by Mr Money Mustache which you linked. As part of it, he posts this picture with the caption "I went out on the town at the peak of the scare. The reality is different from the news headlines."

Then I went to Venkatesh Rao's twitter and was immediately confronting with this picture. Stores empty. People are in danger. This is an exceptional case given Venkatesh's location and the timing. Nevertheless, the simple fact that Mr Money Mustache describes the picture as being at the peak of the scare has seriously lowered my faith in him. As if it was a scare. As if it wasn't going to get worse.

"Alas, it is hard to overreact. We did ordinary cheap preparing. We had a month’s worth of food, all our medicines and stuff like that. Initially I thought that would be the plan. [LW · GW]"

After reading Mr. Money Mustache's take on the coronavirus, I started having a few doubts about how bad it actually is. I didn't realize that 2M people in America die each year of things related to "lifestyle factors".

No. Never compare the effects of things like death from "lifestyle factors" -- things that happen because people willingly trade-off having a long-time for having a good-time, things subject to hyperbolic discounting, things that (on an individual level) are really very hard to track the effects of -- with an imminent risk that 1-10% of everyone dies within the next two years. Personally, covid poses little threat to me but we don't know the end-game here: we're fighting between potentially lengthy economic shutdowns and the possibility of containment failure and global health system collapse [LW(p) · GW(p)]. And if low-income people are forced back to work due to money-needs before containment succeeds, the economy crashes and our healthcare system fails.

Is losing money really going to be that bad?

Once you have enough money, losing 50-90% of your wealth really isn't that bad at all -- which is I like the idea of earning-to-give once I'm confident in my runway. Indeed, if you're the kind of person who reads Mr Money Mustache, you're probably going to be fine in general.

For my low-income friends though, yes. Yes it is going to be that bad. Sometimes people don't have jobs. Sometimes people don't have savings. A large portion of people live paycheck to paycheck. Many people are going to die because of the virus. Many people are going to die because our healthcare systems will at least partially fail. Many people are going to die because that is what the economics imply.

comment by adamzerner · 2020-03-18T22:19:14.238Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I totally agree that MMM got quite a few things wrong in that post. It's caused me to decrease my confidence in him too. However, the lifestyle factors point didn't strike me as one of those. We certainly shouldn't take his word for it, but it seems worth considering the question.

Those are some good points you make, thank you. I agree that there is something to be said about how "lifestyle factors" are a conscious choice that people made. To me that nudges things somewhat, but isn't a game changer. I don't think it makes it 10x less bad or anything.

The economic impact is a point that I think is crucial to the question of how bad this really is, and I think it's related to the questions I pose about how bad is it really to have less money. If bad economic impact means lower standard of living, and lower standard of living isn't really that impactful on happiness, then maybe bad economic impact isn't that bad. But I suspect that there are things I'm overlooking, and that bad economic impact is in fact relatively bad. So then, I update my viewpoint to being that it's a notable amount worse than lifestyle factors deaths, but still in the same ballpark, not 10x worse. My confidence in the "how bad is it to have a bad economic impact" question is pretty wide though, because it's not something I know much about.

with an imminent risk that 1-10% of everyone dies within the next two years.

Is that really a possibility? I imagine that governments would impose a strict quarantine before letting it get that bad.

For my low-income friends though, yes. Yes it is going to be that bad. Sometimes people don't have jobs. Sometimes people don't have savings. A large portion of people live paycheck to paycheck.

In the situation where you don't have savings or a job, here is what I'm imagining. The majority would have family or a friend they could stay with until they get back on their feet, which doesn't seem that bad. For those who don't have anyone to turn to, I assume homeless shelters would be an option, as opposed to literally dying on the streets without food, water or shelter. Homeless shelters do provide basic needs, so if you want to be really hardcore with the "happiness is all in your head" stuff, you should still in theory be ok. But I don't know much about what it's truly like; maybe there's more to it than that. On that note, to be clear, I don't mean to come across as insensitive or anything. I fully acknowledge that I might be wrong here. What I'm trying to do is explain what my model is and figure out where it might be wrong.

comment by Isnasene · 2020-03-19T00:35:53.542Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
To me that nudges things somewhat, but isn't a game changer. I don't think it makes it 10x less bad or anything.

Fair enough. As a leaning-utilitarian, I personally share your intuition that it isn't 10x bad (if I had to choose between coronavirus and ending negative consequences of live-style factors for one year, I don't have a strong intuition in favor of coronavirus). Psychologically speaking, from the perspective of average deontological Joe, I think that it (in some sense) is/feels 10x as bad.

Is that really a possibility? I imagine that governments would impose a strict quarantine before letting it get that bad.

10% is unlikely but possible -- not because of the coronavirus itself alone but because of the potential for systemic failure of our healthcare system (based on this comment [LW(p) · GW(p)]). I think it's likely that governments may impose a strict quarantine before it gets that bad or (alternatively) bite the bullet and let coronavirus victims die to triage young people with more salient medical needs.

In the situation where you don't have savings or a job, here is what I'm imagining. The majority would have family or a friend they could stay with until they get back on their feet, which doesn't seem that bad.

I partially agree with this. Frankly, as a well-off person myself, I'm not exactly sure what people would do in that situation. Conditioned on having friends or (non-abusive) family with the appropriate economic runway to be supportive, I agree that it wouldn't be that bad. However these (in my sphere) are often significant contributing factors to being low-income in the first place.For low-income families, things also get messier to do the need-to-support-people being built in.

Homeless shelters do provide basic needs, so if you want to be really hardcore with the "happiness is all in your head" stuff, you should still in theory be ok. But I don't know much about what it's truly like; maybe there's more to it than that.

I agree that this kind of stoicism helps (I resonate a lot with stoicism as a philosophy myself). But I view this as more of a mental skill that is built-up rather than something that people start doing immediately when thrust into lower-standad-of-living situations. Hedonic adaptation takes time and the time it takes before setting in can also be unpleasant. I'd also like to push-back a little on the idea of hedonic adapation with respect to losing money because there is a correlation between measures of happiness and income which only starts breaking down around $50k.

comment by adamzerner · 2020-03-19T05:54:53.352Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
But I view this as more of a mental skill that is built-up rather than something that people start doing immediately when thrust into lower-standad-of-living situations.

That's a great point. I got caught up thinking about how (I think) people should respond as opposed to thinking about how it'll actually play out in practice. That moves me a few more steps towards thinking that it is more harmful.

comment by PeterMcCluskey · 2020-03-18T16:36:36.407Z · score: 8 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Some coronavirus-related problems are more tractable today than normal problems.

In a couple of months, longer-term problems should be our main focus, but it feels hard to focus on them now.

comment by adamzerner · 2020-03-18T22:22:28.492Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
Some coronavirus-related problems are more tractable today than normal problems.

Hm, that's true, right now is a particularly good time to work on the coronavirus. I'm not sure if that outweighs the fact that other issues like xrisk are way bigger than the coronavirus though.

comment by Richard Meadows (richard-meadows-1) · 2020-03-18T20:04:53.656Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I love MMM but he dun goofed on this one. From his post:

Some people are just prone to this type of thinking, and I even have a few in my own life. They have warned me to gather “at least a few months worth” of nonperishable food in my pantry...

This is some of the juiciest low-hanging fruit anyone could pluck! Assuming you're going to use the food anyway, it is a zero-cost option that potentially makes a huge difference! And doing this as far in advance as possibly - rather than at the last minute, when people receive the officially-sanctioned 'licence' to panic - also helps to flatten the demand curve, and keep shelves fully stocked.

comment by adamzerner · 2020-03-18T21:59:16.951Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's a great point, I totally agree. Like Isnasense mentioned [LW(p) · GW(p)] in their comment, my faith in MMM is quite a bit lower after reading the post. However, it is still possible that correct about the points regarding how bad the coronavirus is compared to status quo thing like heart disease.

I don't think we should take his word for it, but thinking about it from first principles, it seems at least very plausible to me. But maybe I'm wrong, that's partly why I wrote this post. I'm curious to hear what others think.

comment by RedMan · 2020-03-19T06:16:24.139Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I made minimal lifestyle changes, made no unusual purchases, and did not participate in any of the shopping rushes.

I will continue grocery shopping as needed for perishable goods (which I expect to get cheaper) during off-peak hours (mostly empty means no need for me to burn a N95 mask--I have plenty), and my job has limited human contact and is unlikely to go bankrupt or otherwise cease to exist during the pandemic.

Unfortunately, as I now realize, I am a weirdo who is 'prepared' for this sort of thing at all times, and when this craziness ends, I should probably make a concerted effort to get out more.

Anyone else in the same boat?

comment by jmh · 2020-03-18T21:04:42.600Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Life style risk. Perhaps two takes on that.

First, no one is choosing the virus so not a great comparison.

Flip side might be, we don't pick a lot of things that can randomly happen to harm us given the life we want to live. Why is a virus that much different. Those that want to just keep living as if nothing has changed can, those the see a big risk can then work from home, home school their kids, isolate, interact via a bunch of remote communication tools. The key here then is just what the spill over is -- how much danger do the free-wheeling life style put the run-for-the-hills life style at risk?

I think it is an interesting take. One thing I am pretty sure about is that we're living that old Chinese curse about living in interesting times ;-)

comment by adamzerner · 2020-03-19T05:57:05.801Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
First, no one is choosing the virus so not a great comparison.

Yeah, that's true. When someone eats fast food every day and dies of a heart attack it's not quite as sad as when someone more innocent gets hit by a car.