One Year of Applied Divinity Studies

When I first started writing, I had no intention of making any of it public. I read internet blogs, and sometimes penned emails in response. Scattered thoughts never meant to see light.

Eventually, this put me in contact with Alexey Guzey, who urged me to work in public. He personally reviewed every post for the first several weeks, leaving detailed comments, vetoing drafts, and helping to craft the style and format my writing has since matured into.

Those of you who have followed my blog for this last year know that I remain reluctant. I am often, in a melodramatic and self-pitying way, threatening to quit and leave it all behind.

In one of my first posts, I mourned the the coming death of the blogosphere I so deeply loved, “lamenting”, I wrote, “the last days of a community.” I have been overjoyed this last year to learn, time and again, just how wrong I was. There are more good blogs now, than perhaps there ever have been in the history of humankind. That is a poor proxy for some forms of progress, but it is a robust demonstration of the growing community of people who have chosen to think critically, express the thoughts important to them, and subject those thoughts to debate in the public forum.

Of course, once public, the comments are often found to be lacking in quality. It is often clear that respondents have not actually read the piece, but merely seen the title, skimmed a couple paragraphs and seen the opportunity to share a tangentially related opinion they already held.

On the other hand, the emails I now receive are the single greatest joy of having a public presence. I am blessed to read, on a regular basis, thoughtful correspondence from readers who not only read my blog, but often know far more than me on the topic at hand, and are eager to point me down new and exciting roads. Overwhelmingly, these emails are not merely polite, they are friendly and warm.

I sometimes imagine what a good life would look like if I were much wealthier. Though I share the now trendy distaste for formal academia, I like to imagine a future where I fund my own personal intellectual circle. I could have researchers on a variety of topics engaged to write on the latest developments in their respective fields, share their own insights, and occasionally answer whatever questions I might be able to formulate. This would be more than an aristocrat’s intellectual harem, it would be a genuine community of interlocking minds and co-evolving perspectives. A kind of utopia for strange and novel ideas to blossom, compete, and flourish.

The joke, of course, is that this already describes my life fairly well. And I don’t have to spend a cent. There is already a community, already researchers, writers, and analysts available to contact and eager to engage in discussion, and already I get to be a part of it. Not merely as a patron or external observer, but as a participant in my own right, active in the middle of it all.

It is difficult to imagine a more fulfilling or humbling existence.

That’s not to say I’m perennially content or in a state of bliss. To the contrary, I am often frustrated. But it is a frustration not with my helplessness or pain or loneliness, but merely with my inability to think and write as well as I feel I need to. Not for an external purpose, but for my own desire to express the half-formed impressions floating around in my mind. If that is the cost of striving continuously to improve without falling into complacency, then it is a price well worth paying.

When I am at my best, writing without hesitation or fear, writing as I am now at 3am unable to sleep and unwilling to try, the words simply spill out. It is as if there is an autocomplete so sophisticated as to predict not only the ends of words or sentences, but the progression of thought itself. It is simply a matter of considering what kind of idea could even be satisfying, and then evaluating post hoc if it is actually the correct one.

That might sound crazy, but it is far saner than the madness of pure deductive logic. A computer can trivially, given a set of axioms and rules for operating on them, generate any number of true but useless statements.

As best as I can self-reflect and then describe, my writing is largely the product of emulation at a high level of abstraction. Rather than mimic specific ideas, beliefs, or values, I am painting a pastiche of the entire shape of an argument. Drawing from my years spent as a reader, observing and learning from the people I admire, and in some instances, am now fortunate enough to consider my peers.

I am particularly indebted to Tyler Cowen and Agnes Callard who were among the first to recommend my blog, and most of all, Alexey Guzey for instigating this project to begin with.

Their writing is a part of mine now. I hope that one day yours will be too.

Ordinary Life Improvements 2030

Air Quality: Despite the continued progression of climate change, and proliferation of wildfires, air filtration is seamless for most indoor environments. A cheap air quality meter syncs with industrial purifiers, regulating PM2.5 intake below the cognitively harmful level. Though the improvement to quality of life is nearly imperceptible, the change adds an estimated $2Tn to US GDP annually.

Pandemics: Similarly, outdoor air quality is managed by cheap 3d-printed negative-pressure helmets which have the side-benefit of preventing essentially all airborne disease in public settings. Privately, we still have to rely on testing, but it’s only $5, relatively non-invasive, and easy to perform from the comfort of your home.

Bluetooth: Bluetooth just works. Not the way XKCD predicted, but actually better. Once opened, the AirPods Mini Pro S simply connect, immediately and painlessly, to your active Apple device.

Food: Improvements in flash freezing enable produce that’s always seasonal, delicious and ripened on the vine instead of in-transit. More general applications mean fully prepared meals, available at a moment’s notice, and designed for your taste. It’s the frozen TV dinner from the 50s, except, you know, actually good. Compact countertop combination air-fryer/microwave/steamers mean that food is always cooked through evenly (no more hot pocket magma). Again, all from the comfort of your home, no need to gear up to go outside, and no depressing Blade Runner 2049 vending machines.

Beauty: A lot of this is just virtual now. You can save your skin and wallet from layers of makeup, with way more freedom than ever before to transfigure your own face. In person, countless hours at the gym have been saved by safety improvements to Brazilian Butt Lift and other cosmetic surgeries, now fully mainstream and destigmatized.

Longevity: Selective androgen receptor modulators are safer than ever, and alongside TRT, mean that no one suffers from premature muscular dystrophy or loses their agency to hampered mobility.

Transportation: Trains remain cheap and safe, and are now ubiquitous as well. For longer international travel, supersonic aircraft have cut transit time by about 50%. Though again, the advent of remote work and improved VR mean that transit is just generally less necessary. For private transit, self-driving cars just work.

Okay, sorry, it’s probably obvious, but the joke is that none of this is the future. It’s now. It’s already happening. Aside from the supersonic planes (which really won’t happen until 2030), 100% of the technology discussed here is functional, just not widespread.

Except that even there I’m sandbagging a bit. The technology is available in China. Trains are good, cheap and ubiquitous. Cosmetic surgery is normalized. Air pollution is rapidly improving. Food delivery is really cheap and consistently delicious. There’s practically no Covid.

China isn’t the future, it’s the present. Whether this is cause for concern or cause for optimism depends on your background, concern about the ongoing human rights violations, and time horizon.

Meanwhile, in the US, commute times are actually going up, air quality is getting worse, fires are getting worse, Amtrak is getting worse.

So okay, one reasonable interpretation of this whole piece is that the US is in decline, but China is in ascension. Another interpretation is that actually, progress is rapid and things are improving. But it’s worth noting, also, how many of these “solutions” are to relatively new problems. So a third interpretation is that all progress happened before 1970, and we’re still paying back debt incurred from environmental problems and the unexpected harms of (sub)urbanization.

I really don’t know. I’m tired, and I just want the future to be decent.

Inspired by Gwern’s My Ordinary Life: Improvements Since the 1990s.

The Myth of the Myth of the Latte Millionaire

In 1999, David Bach popularized the idea of a Latte Millionaire: someone who stops making a small luxury purchase, and thanks to the magic of compound interest, later finds themselves a million dollars richer. As he asked in 1999, “Are you latte-ing away your financial future?”

Modeling the problem as a geometric series, we get that $5, saved each day for 50 years with a 8% growth rate (10% less 2% inflation), does indeed result in 1.05 million dollars.

Since then, the idea has come under repeated scrutiny. The Guardian calls it “a nice fairy tale… also not true”. Slate denounces that it “wasn’t true. It didn’t work mathematically”. Eater sarcastically writes “rid yourself of all material delights, you piece of garbage”. Most substantially, there are three primary objections:

  1. It doesn’t work out mathematically, the model is wrong
  2. It doesn’t work out politically, we’re blaming poor people for luxury spending instead of addressing the real issues of poverty
  3. It doesn’t work out behaviorally, if you don’t buy a latte, you’ll feel the extra money burning a hole in your pocket and buy something else later

I actually don’t disagree at all. A Starbucks latte is only $2.95, and S&P returns are around 9.81%, so 7.8% less inflation. That gets us to $577,000, still pretty good, but not quite an even million. Bach’s claim is also outdated. A million in 1999 would be 1.64 million today, so the claim is exaggerated by about a factor of 3.

The critics are right politically as well. Decades of personal finance advice have pinned poverty on the poor, shaming them for improper retirement savings and irresponsible personal finance. But it’s too easy to use that as an excuse for poor economic policy and fail to fix the underlying conditions that allow poverty to exist at all.

Finally, I’m sympathetic to the view that people do tend to squander extra change. If not a latte, then for a beer after work.

…and yet, it’s dangerous to lean too heavily into this kind of thinking.

Sure it’s not a million, but $577,000 is still pretty good. Maybe a latte wasn’t the right metaphor, but many of us do have unnecessary luxury purchases. Sometimes I take an Uber instead of the bus, or buy too much produce and have to throw it out. I don’t know how much it all adds up to, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I was wasting more than $3/day on purchases that don’t really contribute to my happiness.

While it’s true that we need better economic policy, the view that people can’t take responsibility and can’t be taught to make better decisions is infantilizing. Yes, housing, healthcare and education costs have skyrocketed, that still doesn’t make you helpless in the face of macroeconomic trends.

In 2012, Derek Thompson reported that “Households earning less than $13,000 a year spend a shocking 9% of their money on lottery tickets”. Overall, a 2018 study found that “35% of lottery players had incomes below $40,000”. Another survey finds that consumers making under $20,000 spend on average 1.6% of their pre-tax income on alcohol.

You might object that this discussion is equally infantilizing. Isn’t it wrong to police the consumption of the very poor? Isn’t it wrong to suggest that they don’t also merit hope, and wonder, and nice things? That’s true, and for what it’s worth, I would also berate a wealthy friend for buying lottery tickets, but I’m desperately hoping for the tiniest bit of nuance here. It is both possible to argue that policies hurt poor people, and to acknowledge that people behave sub-optimally. As Tyler Cowen once wrote:

People who see a political war against the interests of the poor and thus who are reluctant to present or digest analyses which blame some of the problems of the poor on…the poor themselves. (Try bringing up “predatory borrowing” in any discussion of “predatory lending” and see what happens.) There’s simply an urgent feeling that any negative or pessimistic or undeserving view of the poor needs to be countered.

Actually, to be even more clear, none of this is meant as a negative view of the poor. It’s just a negative view of people. According to that same survey, wealthy people spend much more on alcohol than the poor! Not as a percentage of income, but in absolute terms, it’s still bad.

Finally, I just don’t really buy the behavioral explanation. People are capable of change, as the countess anecdotes on various personal finance subreddits and legions of Mr. Money Mustache followers suggest. There’s no reason excessive un-frugality has to be the norm.

For that matter, the objection is particularly ridiculous when it comes to coffee, which as you might remember, is literally a habit-forming dependency-inducing psychoactive drug. That’s not to scare you off from drugs, it’s just to say: If there is a purchase which, although unnecessary, repeatedly brings consumers back time and again, coffee is a pretty likely candidate.

So enjoy your latte if you want, but consider doing the math too.