Why buy a lotto ticket when other kinds of gambling are much more profitable?

The lottery is much less efficient than most form of gambling than most because each lottery ticket has an expected loss of more than 50% after taxes whereas slot machines have an expected loss of only about 10% and the stock market actually has a real expected gain of about 7% per year in the long run if stocks are picked randomly. (Unfortunately, most people, including experts, do worse than random when they put effort into deliberately picking individual stocks). Although the lottery is inefficient it appeals to the minority of Americans who buys lottery tickets.

But why buy lotto tickets when there are much more efficient ways to gamble? Ben Orlin wrote a great explainer for all the theories why people buy lotto tickets, but only a few theories explain why anyone would prefer a gamble that is so much worse than most other gambling opportunities. I think the best explanation is The Dreamer. A lotto ticket is like a movie ticket for daydreams in which the buyer is the star of the show. Because the maximum potential lotto win is bigger than in any other gamble, it helps paint a more dramatic possible life story than any other form of gambling with smaller payouts.

Posted in Labor

How pyramid schemes work

Gaby Del Valle investigated multilevel marketing companies and found.

According to the Direct Selling Association, the multilevel marketing (MLM) industry’s lobbying arm, one in six American households is involved in the industry. Most MLM salespeople don’t make a ton of money — a 2017 report by the Federal Trade Commission found that 99 percent of MLM sellers actually lose money. The website Magnifymoney recently polled 1,049 MLM sellers across various companies and found that most sellers make less than the equivalent of 70 cents an hour. Nearly 20 percent of those polled never made a sale, and nearly 60 percent earned less than $500 in sales over the past five years.

Similarly, according to a study released by AARP Foundation:

Among the more than 20 million Americans who participate or have participated in multilevel marketing (MLM) organizations, 90 percent say they got involved to make money. However, nearly half (47 percent) lose money and a quarter (27 percent) make no money.

Those surveys actually paint the industry in a pretty generous light compared with some other researchers. A study by the Consumer Awareness Institute found that 99 percent of MLM sellers lose money. The FTC found that even the top 1% BIGGEST Amway sellers in Wisconsin lost money on average and less than one tenth of one percent (0.001) of NuSkin sellers earned a profit (although the insiders at the top did make millions of dollars!). The FTC analyzed 29 MLM companies including Herbalife, Sunrider, and Tupperware. At all of the MLMs studied, more than 99% of participants lost money. 99.7% of Amway sellers lost money in the UK too.

Every study agrees that MLMs are unprofitable for most sellers among the bottom 99% because there are inherent problems with the MLM supply chain.  It is comically inefficient at getting products from manufacturers to consumers and that leads to excessively high prices.  

And the growth of MLMs is a movement in the opposite direction of technological advances are moving the rest of retailing. Technological change over the past century has tended to cause disintermediation (also known as vertical integration) in retail which cuts out as many middlemen as possible.   

Before the internet, there were door-to-door traveling salesmen who had a supply chain with many middlemen that looked like this:

Manufacturer: $50 cost + $50 markup

Distributor: $100 cost + $30 markup

Door-to-door Retailer: $130 cost + $50 markup

Consumer: $180 cost paid

This supply chain has the so-called “double” markup problem even though there is actually a triple markup. Each level has an incentive to markup the price as much as the next level will bear which creates inefficiently high prices. The optimal, profit-maximizing markup is determined by the elasticity of demand, but each level of markup has an incentive to maximize their share of the markup and when that happens at every part of the supply chain the end result is an inefficienly high price that hurts everyone in the supply chain because a lot of customers stop buying because the price is too high. Disintermediation is what all big retailers have done. They cut out middlemen between the manufacturer and the consumer. They buy directly from manufacturers and then add only about a 30% markup which is a lot smaller than the old markup for labor-intensive sales methods like door-to-door and MLM:

Manufacturer: $50 cost + $50 markup

Big Retailer: $100 cost + $30 markup

Consumer: $130 cost paid

This supply chain only has a double markup problem because disintermediation eliminated some of the extra markups in the supply chain and achieved greater economies of scale and higher profits because greater efficiency leads to a lower price which boosts the quantity of sales. If it were profit maximizing for big retailers to charge $180, they would do so, but the fact that they charge less means that eliminating the markup of an intermediary and thereby lowering prices is actually better for profits. Big-box and internet retail have dramatically increased retail efficiency and that has almost completely eliminated door-to-door sales and decimated small ‘main street’ retailers. Some manufacturers like Dell have taken disintermediation even further and even eliminated the retailer. No double markup problem:

Manufacturer (Dell): $50 cost + $50 markup

Consumer: $100 cost paid

MLMs have done the opposite of disintermediation. Instead of cutting players out of the supply chain, MLMs add additional layers to the supply chain and each level adds a markup which drives up costs more than in any other kind of supply chain.

Manufacturer: $50 cost + $50 markup (100%)

Top of the pyramid: $100 cost + $20 markup (20%)

Platinum level: $120 cost + $30 markup (25%)

Gold level: $150 cost + $50 markup (30%)

Door-to-door retail level: $200 cost + $50 markup (25%)

Consumer: $250 cost (BUT nobody wants to pay expensive MLM prices)

This hypothetical supply chain shows a MLM with only four levels between the producer and ultimate consumer (considered reasonable under U.S. Postal lottery laws), but many MLMs have many, many more levels than that. For example, Amway officially lists 22 “levels of achievement” in their award system. Although each markup shown is not a large percentage, in reality only the <1% of the elites at the top of a MLM pyramid get a big markup and none of the other levels even break even because they buy so much inventory and supplies from their upline handlers and sell so little, but the dream is to make the sort of big markups shown above.

In addition to the extra costs of Many Levels of Markup, MLM distribution also has less efficiency than the logistics systems that competitors like Amazon and Walmart use for distributing goods across the nation. Because the MLM supply chain is so much less efficient than ordinary retailing, MLMs cannot compete directly with the big retailers, so MLMs are forced to invest in product differentiation efforts which further inflates costs.

As a result of their high costs, many MLMs mainly sell to their ‘sellers’ instead of selling to consumers. The only way to make a living in MLM is not to sell products to individual consumers, but to get other people to become sellers for you who will be required to buy a lot of inventory in their “starter package” so that they can dream of getting others to sell below them.

As a result of their high costs, MLMs struggle to sell to consumers, but that isn’t really the goal. The only way to make a living in MLM is not to sell products to individual consumers, but to get other people to become sellers for you who will be required to buy a lot of inventory in their “starter package” so that they can dream of getting others to sell below them. In the UK, 90% of Amway sellers did not sell a single item to anyone, but they all had to buy a starter package of inventory.

Everyone knows you cannot make a living wage selling products directly to consumers door-to-door anymore so the real dream in MLM is to get other sellers under you in the pyramid, and skim money from them. The underlings are also joining only in hopes of getting more people to join under them. But once you get some of your friends to sell the same thing you are selling, market saturation soon means that nobody can make money.

Whereas in the old single-layer direct sales model, each salesperson wanted nobody else to sell the same product to reduce competition because one more salesperson in a territory would saturate the market, but in the MLM model, each salesperson wants as many sellers as possible under them which rapidly saturates their market if they aren’t thinking about efficient scale. If each person wants at least 10 sellers in the level below them, then with three levels there are 100 sellers and with six levels there are a million. That is almost three times more workers than Target’s total American workforce. Amway is by far the biggest MLM and they do not report how many sellers they have, but the Chinese government reported that they had 1.5 million sellers in China alone. Walmart doesn’t reveal how many dealers they have, but they were estimated to have had 700,000 in North America alone. Just Amway’s sellers in China and North America combine to equal Walmart’s total of 2.2 million worldwide employees and Amway probably has millions more sellers worldwide because Amway also has sellers in over 100 additional countries. Walmart’s global revenues in 2019 were 61 times bigger than Amway’s, so Walmart’s revenues per seller are probably well over 100 times bigger than Amway’s. With Walmart generating more than 100 times more revenues per sales associate than Amway, it would be impossible for Amway to pay sellers as much as Walmart and even highly-efficient Walmart doesn’t have a reputation for high wages.

Inefficient scale and market saturation sets in quickly for MLMs. The math just doesn’t work for this business model to be profitable for the bulk of the people below the pinnacle of the pyramid. Since an MLM is a very inefficient supply chain technology, what explains why it has been a more successful business model than most other retailing systems in recent decades?

Ironically, the same information technology revolution that has enabled the disintermediation of global supply chains by electronically connecting each cash register in each store to manufacturers across the globe has also fueled the growth of MLMs over the past half century. Social networking technology has boosted MLMs by making it easier to leverage one’s social network than the old days when social networks were dependent on face-to-face communication and snail mail. So the same communication technology revolution that boosted Amazon and nearly eliminated door-to-door sales have also dramatically boosted MLMs because it is easier for individuals to network online and use social media to sell to their friends and family. In 1990, 75% of the companies in the Direct Sales Association used single-level (door-to-door) sales and only 25% was MLM. Twenty years later, in 2009, over 94% of firms in the Direct Sales Association were MLM (and only 6% single-level) and MLMs accounted for 99.6% of sellers.

Technology has made it nearly impossible to compete with mail order and Walmart doing door-to-door sales, so the direct sales industry has abandoned that methodology and moved to an even less efficient business model where the real goal is to recruit other sellers instead of selling products directly to consumers. Imagine if MLMs sold everything: all companies including Ford, Ikea, and Proctor and Gamble were MLMs. It would be a mess. Cars and furniture and Tide laundry detergent would be much more expensive. America would be an inefficient nation of shopkeepers all hustling to get others to sell for us.

The inefficiently high transactions cost of MLM sales means that they cannot compete with traditional retailers when selling products whose quality is easily compared.  That is why MLMs focus on selling placebo products.  These are products whose quality is highly subjective and prone to suggestion.  Dubious wellness products are a natural fit for pyramid schemes, but because of medical licensure regulations, only vitamins, supplements and ‘snake-oil’ devices like magnets are legally viable for pyramid schemes.  Beauty products, soaps and cleaning products, clothing, jewelry, travel packages, handicrafts, and status goods are also good products for MLMs as long as the quality is highly subjective and susceptible to suggestion and these are common in pyramid schemes.

Drugs like alcoholcaffeine, and medical marijuana are also highly prone to placebo suggestions.  so naturally there are pyramid schemes selling them despite the complicated difficulties of complying with numerous regulations on selling psychoactive drugs.

In an efficient supply chain, each level of the chain adds value. For example, a distributor manages the logistics of shipping and warehousing for a wide area more efficiently than any other company. A retailer adds value by adding essential service and support and the convenience for customers of having many complementary products located in the same place. In comparison, is there any value added by the many levels of a MLM?

For the elites at the top of the pyramid, the hierarchical organizational structure works great. The the 0.1% of people at the top who make money know that in reality, there are mainly just two levels, them and all their worker bees below who pay for the inventory up front, store the inventory in their homes, deliver the inventory to customers (if any), market the goods, and most importantly, provide the human resources management for recruiting and training new workers. All of this is done without the elites paying any wages. MLM companies don’t have to spend much money on advertising, recruiting employees, warehousing, and the expensive last mile of delivery because the 99% below the peak of the pyramid do it all for free.

Another way that some MLMs add value for the elites at the top (but not for end consumers) is that MLMs are good at getting their foot soldiers to make misleading claims about products. There is no practical way to hold the foot soldiers accountable for making fraudulent claims because each seller is doing very little business and making no money and it isn’t worth anyone’s time to prosecute them for making illegal exaggerations. For example, my father was snookered into selling expensive “healing” magnets and “medicinal” supplements and he really believed that these products were medical miracles. His faith in the products made him an ideal seller and he made illegal health claims about these products to friends and family, but nobody prosecutes individuals talking medical BS with their family and friends. In contrast, if the MLM’s management had been documented making the same kind of claims to the public, the FDA would shut down the entire company for practicing medicine without a license and making fraudulent health claims!

Gaby Del Valle found an example of a MLM company using its Multiple Levels to distance the wealthy leaders at the peak of the scheme from their debts and unsavory parts of their business in the lower levels to try to insulate themselves from legal liability. Similarly, companies like Uber have also fought expensive battles to prevent their drivers from being classified as employees because that would mean that the corporation would be legally responsible for their workers.

This is one of the functions of the bizarre organizational structure of pyramid schemes.  The leaders who are accumulating most of the wealth do it by form a hierarchy of multiple layers of “independent contractors.” But unlike a normal bureaucracy, very few of the workers in the organizational hierarchy are employees because almost the entire organization is made up of salespeople and none of the salespeople in massive bottom levels of the hierarchy are employees.  Therefore, the masterminds at the top cannot be held legally responsible when their minions earn less than minimum wage or go bankrupt or, perhaps most importantly, when they fabricate claims about their products’ miraculous qualities or use other unethical sales tactics.

Illegal drugs are also sold in a business model that is just like a MLM except with less branding and even more decentralization.  Like multi-level marketing, illegal drug gangs need to insulate the big-money managers at the top of the pyramid from the street dealers who are taking everyday risks selling the product to numerous buyers. 

As with more legitimate pyramid schemes, the arms-length distance between the gang leaders and each layer of “independent contractors” gets a cut of profits and marks up the drugs that finally make it to the street vendors. The extra layers reduce the cost-efficiency of the supply chain, but they dramatically reduce the risk for the drug kingpins at the top of the pyramid. 

MLMs have also found a market niche by appealing to some personality types who are happy to pay more for the social milieu of MLMs. I have had numerous relatives including my father who liked the social aspects and the optimistic dreams of MLM culture. Whereas nearly all Americans shop at the big retailers, most Americans never buy anything from MLMs and only a minority of Americans puts a large fraction of their household resources into in this kind of supply chain. According to the MLM industry lobby, only about 16% of American households are involved, and this may be overstating it because the industry has an incentive to exaggerate their reach.

The real benefit of MLMs for most sellers is not the money, but the social community for the 99% at the bottom of the pyramid. Their upline superiors don’t pay them any money, but they do give lots of social support and self-esteem-boosting praise and encouragement. An MLM is like a social club with conferences and parties where like-minded people can discuss their shared hobby and ideology. We don’t expect most people can make money from their clubs and hobbies, so we shouldn’t expect MLMs to be any different. Here a clip from a great podcast called The Dream showing the real benefits of an MLM in the words of women who don’t make any money, but love it nonetheless.

These happy MLM members gush about how their MLM has boosted their self-esteem and helped them develop a community and helped them pursue a dream. That was what my parents loved about MLMs. My mother lost money in her Discovery Toys business, but she loved throwing parties and she loved buying the toys for her grand kids. It also gave her an identity as a businesswoman. When people asked what she did, she said she was an entrepreneur which probably felt better than saying that she was an empty-nest housewife with a hobby that combined parties, toys and her grand kids.

My father also liked the social aspects of the MLMs he joined. He never really even tried to make any money. He sold everything to his friends at his cost or gave it away to family as gifts. He still ended up with a lot of inventory that he couldn’t sell even at his cost and I ended up selling it on Ebay at a loss after he died, or giving it away. But dad had no regrets and he liked the conventions and the dream of it all.

Some MLMs are much worse than others in terms of how much money they suck out of their average member and how healthy the social support is that they provide in return. At the worst end are the cults and true pyramid schemes. All MLMs say that they are absolutely NOT a pyramid scheme because pure pyramid schemes are illegal. This may be true, but only because the legal definition of a pyramid scheme is very narrow due to extensive political lobbying by wealthy MLMs. Legally, a pyramid scheme doesn’t sell any goods or services to end consumers and make all of their money from people who intend to earn money from selling. In practice, many MLMs are very close to this standard. As mentioned before, one study found that only 10% of Amway members in the UK sold at least a single product to anyone else.

The original pyramid schemes were just like Ponzi schemes except that the pyramid schemes were more honest in that it should be obvious to everyone that all profits are dependent upon bringing in more “investors”. A true Ponzi scheme works exactly the same way as a pure pyramid scheme except that a true Ponzi scheme has a manager who

  1. Lies to the “investors” about where the return on investment is coming from. The Ponzi scheme manager usually claims to be a high ROI mutual fund or hedge fund, but they really pay a high ROI to previous investors from some of the money coming in from new investors.
  2. Does not pay previous “investors” specifically for bringing in new “investors”. Investors just get a fixed ROI determined by the manager. In contrast, a pyramid scheme is more honest because each “investor” knows that she won’t get paid unless she brings in enough new “investors” under her.
  3. Skims off some hidden profit and money to pay for administrating the scheme. In some pyramid schemes, there is no administrator to pay because the cash from the bottom level is paid directly to the person at the top of the pyramid.

Examples of pure pyramid schemes are the Airplane Game, Eight Ball, Blessing Loom (popular during the Covid pandemic), and “Make Money Fast” which was a chain-letter pyramid scheme.

MLMs combine elements of both Ponzi and pyramid schemes as well as legitimate direct sales organizations (which is what all MLMs claim to be). For example, when the leaders of the Airplane Game realized that it was illegal to run a pyramid scheme that doesn’t involve selling any product, they decided to keep the pyramid scheme exactly the same, but give roses for the $1,500 required ‘investment’ so they could say that they were direct selling roses! Similarly, since only 10% of Amway sellers in the UK actually sell products to anyone, then 90% of that business is a pure pyramid scheme.

MLMs that use the party system invented by Tupperware seem to be farther away from the pure pyramid model and closer to direct sales because they claim to generate more money per seller. They also tend to have more of the benefits of social clubs since it is all about hosting parties! Other companies that have copied the party plan include Discovery Toys, Mary Kay, and Norwex. But there has been increasing temptation over the past half century to move away from the direct-selling model towards the pyramid-scheme model, so there is no guarantee that a direct-sales company will always be offering a legitimate business selling products.

For a more biting critique of MLMs, see Steven Hassan of the Freedom of Mind Resource Center who says that pyramid schemes have an an incentive to use same tactics to brainwash people that cults use. Some MLMs like NXIVM have actually become cults! Other resources include:

Posted in Managerial Micro

Milton Friedman was not a rational actor

The rational-actor paradigm came to dominate economic thinking in the mid-20th century. It assumes that people are selfish and try to rationally maximize their self-interest without regard for the effects on people around them. Critics sometimes call it the rat-actor paradigm, but that really isn’t fair to rats who are often much more altruistic than the rat-actor paradigm assumes. The main reason why the rat-actor paradigm was successful at taking over economic thinking was that it is so simple and that made economic modelling easier to do. Simplicity was particularly important for mathematical modelling which came to dominate thinking in economics during this time because complexity is much harder to model with mathematical equations. And everyone has selfish impulses at times, so the rational actor paradigm often does a pretty good job predicting human behavior.

But the behavioral revolution in economics has been growing in influence over the past several decades by demonstrating that people are neither purely selfish nor rational.  We are predictably altruistic and irrational in systematic ways too. For example, most people wouldn’t kill their mother for money even if they thought nobody could find out.

One of the ideas of the rat-actor paradigm was that corporations are rat-actors too. This is much more realistic than assuming humans are selfish sociopaths because corporations really do behave more like sociopaths. But even corporations also have an altruistic side because they are run by people who have altruistic impulses. Milton Freidman thought that that was terrible. He believed that corporations should behave purely selfishly, like the rat-actor paradigm predicts and maximize profits.

Every company’s profits have to be arbitrarily divided between workers (wages), owners (profits), and people outside the company (through lower prices or less pollution or some other social benefits). Friedman thought that employees should eliminate all their altruistic goals except to altruistically maximize profits for the owners. He recognized that the rest of society can legitimately pass laws to prevent the company from hurting other people or damaging other’s property (such as by polluting), and he said that companies should abide by such laws, but corporations have considerable lobbying clout that help shape our laws and Friedman’s argument says it is the moral duty of firms to lobby and bend the political system to allow more selfish profits such as by reducing pollution regulations and enhancing the eminent domain rights of the corporation.

This idea became so fashionable that it took on the weight of law. Shareholders can sue corporate executives if they do something that is good for society if it is at the expense of profits!

Although Friedman’s supporters persist in defending the idea, it seems that at the 50th anniversary of Friedman’s famous essay, it is increasingly frowned upon.  For example, in Duff McDonald’s book The Golden Passport, about “the Moral Failure of the MBA Elite” at Harvard Business school, McDonald wrote:

Joel Bakan interviewed Friedman for his 2005 book, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, the economist repeated the point he’d made nearly 40 years before, but with a twist. In Friedman’s view, “hypocrisy is virtuous when it serves the bottom line… [whereas] moral virtue is immoral when it does not.”

McDonald’s book focuses upon how the Harvard Business School changed from an place that emphasized the character of its MBA graduates into a place where:

in 2005, Bakan was able to find a professor at HBS who was willing to channel Friedman’s “brand of cynicism [that is] old-fashioned, mean-spirited, and out of touch with reality.” According to then–HBS professor Debora Spar, corporations “are not institutions set up to be moral entities…. They are institutions which really only have one mission, and that is to increase shareholder value.”

Just a small sample of people who’ve actually “set up” corporations would seem to suggest that such a blanket statement is entirely without merit. Yvon Chouinard, the CEO of Patagonia, certainly had a larger mission in mind. John Mackey, co-founder of Whole Foods, wouldn’t agree with that premise. It also seems likely that the founders of Harvard, itself a corporation, wouldn’t have either.

Roger L. Martin wrote:

Aristotle once opined: if you seek happiness, you probably won’t end up happy; but if you seek to lead a worthy life, you are likely to end up happy. Shareholder value and happiness are counterproductive to pursue directly; rather they will happen when other things are pursued. Customer satisfaction is not the only defensible objective function. My friend Vineet Nayar argues that putting employees first is the best strategy – and he may be right. The key is to have a level playing field among objective functions. Let’s give the pursuit of each objective function – shareholder value, customers, employees – a chance to compete for success rather than swallowing the fallacious argument that having a singular objective function means that it has to be shareholder value maximization.

In Forbes Magazine, Steve Denning traced the origin of this problematic ideology to Milton Friedman and entitled another essay about it “pernicious nonsense“.

Bower/Paine article, provides powerful rational arguments as to why shareholder value thinking is financially, economically, legally, socially and morally wrong. Yet there are powerful vested interests in keeping things as they are. As Upton Sinclair pointed out a century ago, “It’s hard to get a man to understand something when he is being paid not to understand it.”

In his book, Fixing the Game, Roger Martin makes the case that if the NFL had become corrupted by gambling and manipulation of the score, everyone would be calling on the NFL Commissioner to intervene and ban the coaches and players involved so that teams could get back to playing the real game of football. Yet in business, when it is now obvious that shareholder value thinking has corrupted management and has led to the massive extraction of assets and illegal stock price manipulation on a macro-economic scale, society has remained silent too long.

As Bower and Paine pointed out their 2011 book, Capitalism at Risk, the stakes are high. Amid widespread distrust of business, “you cannot achieve a sense of legitimacy if large numbers of people think that the system doesn’t work for them or is unjust to them.”  As the business ecosystem heads off the rails, business needs to act out of enlightened self-interest.

Business leaders must move beyond being simply practitioners of capitalism and become its stewards, working to enhance the sustainability of the market system. Setting aside what Jack Welch has called “the dumbest idea in the world” is a big part of that stewardship.

The problem with Friedman’s view are numerous.

  1. It is bad for motivating employees.  Because people are altruistic and seek meaning in life, they want to do more in the 80,000 hours they spend in their careers than making money for rich shareholders.
  2. It is bad for society.  Social responsibility is a social responsibility.  If none of our most powerful institutions were trying to make society a better place, we would be much poorer as a society.  Friedman assumes that what is good for the stock market is good for everyone, but most people realize that the stock market is not a good measure of wellbeing.  When society does not function well, corporations do not function well either, but there is a free-rider problem that prevents selfish actors from making any sacrifice that makes society better.
  3. Friedman qualifies his recommendations by saying that corporations should follow the rules of society, but profit-maximizing corporations can make much more profit by changing the rules of society through PR campaigns and lobbying.  By Friedman’s view, it is the moral duty of corporations to bribe government if it helps corporations pollute more and take more property from society.

For more, see Steven Pearlstein who wrote that “the cult of shareholder value wrecked American business” and few ideas in the history of management have had such a pernicious effect. Jia Lynn Yang wrote a history in the Washington Post focusing on how it revolutionized IBM. Two Harvard Business School professors, Joseph L. Bower and Lynn S. Paine, called it, “the error at the heart of corporate leadership” in the HBR.

Posted in Medianism

Maurice Hilleman, millionaire superhero

Almost nobody has heard of Maurice Hilleman, but everyone should know his name. As Radiolab said, “his work is estimated to save about 8 million lives a year… he was the greatest scientist of the 20th century… We live longer because of him.”

He developed treatments that cured or prevented chlamydia, Japanese encephalitis, the flu, measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox hepatitis A, hepatitis B, Streptococcus pneumoniae, rubella and Haemophilus influenza. In addition to discovering several viruses and uses of antibiotics. This is a monumental amount of work. For example, the world record for the fastest vaccine ever produced (before the Coronavirus) was Hilleman’s four years of work to produce the mumps vaccine. Four years!

…he carried around a list …he kept in his pocket. [A] list of diseases that still had yet to be conquered. And I think it was a reminder that, you know, for him, his work would never be done… He would say it was like putting up a fence. …And then you’re done, and then you go back to doing it again. He was never, ever satisfied… Well, so after mumps, it was measles… And with measles, there’s actually already a vaccine in existence… And, I mean, that vaccine worked. But it wasn’t quite attenuated enough… Like, it wasn’t weak enough, so you would have to get another shot at the same time in your other arm so you didn’t get sick… Maurice then just took that virus and very quickly attenuated it so that it was perfect. That virus bounces off you. It’s a remarkable vaccine. And so we eliminated measles, the most contagious of the vaccine-preventable diseases, because it was so incredibly effective.

Maurice Hilleman developed more than 40 vaccines altogether including eight of the 14 that all children get. To put that in context, Paul Offit is comparatively renowned for having created one of those 14 childhood vaccines, the vaccine for rotavirus, and it took him 26 years! Paul Offit was quoted on Radiolab saying that Maurice Hilleman has always been unknown because:

he was humble. As rough as he was and as crude as he could be (laughter) and how – as profane as he could be, he was a humble man. He never promoted himself. So he just always flew below the radar, remarkably enough, given his accomplishments. I honestly think he was the single most-accomplished scientist in history. And when he died, I was at a – I gave a talk at the University of Pittsburgh. His son-in-law called me to say that he had passed away. And then after I heard that news, I walked in among a group of 35 to 50 pediatricians and say, you know, here’s this man, Maurice Hilleman, who just passed away. No one heard of him. No one – zero. And these are pediatricians who give his vaccines.

This is a good time to recognize the success of medical pioneers like Hilleman. For more, see the 1-hour award-winning documentary about Hilleman: A Perilous Quest To Save The World’s Children.


Posted in Millionaire Superheroes

Interest rates are low because of demographic changes and rising corporate power

Greg Mankiw wrote in the NYT about the puzzle of persistently low interest rates. Interest rates have been lower than ever before in history and they have been very low for decades so low interest rates seems to be the new normal. But why? Mankiw gives several plausible theories, but he misses an important one. He writes:

Several hypotheses might explain the decline in the natural rate of interest:

  • As income inequality has risen over the past few decades, resources have shifted from poorer households to richer ones. To the extent that the rich have higher propensities to save, more money flows into capital markets to fund investment.

Mankiw is theorizing that inequality has increased the supply of savings, but it could also increase the demand for savings (borrowing) as poor people increasingly want to borrow.  I haven’t seen evidence one way or the other for this.

  • The Chinese economy has grown rapidly in recent years, and China has a high saving rate. As this vast pool of savings flows into capital markets, interest rates around the world fall.

This was a major influence back from 2004-2010, but China’s external lending has been quite modest since then, so it cannot explain why interest rates are even lower now than they were during the peak of Chinese lending.

  • Events like the financial crisis of 2008 and the current pandemic are vivid reminders of how uncertain life is and may have increased people’s aversion to risk. Their increased precautionary saving and especially their greater demand for safe assets drive down interest rates.

There is no evidence for this. Plus, interest rates were already getting low before the crisis of 2008 and the value of risky assets like stocks has soared since the financial crisis and even the pandemic and this increased appetite for risky assets contradicts the theory.

  • Since the 1970s, average economic growth has slowed, perhaps because of a slower technological advance. A decline in growth reduces the demand for new capital investment, pushing down interest rates.

The timing is all off for this theory. Growth has been low since the 1970s, but interest rates were particularly high during the 1980s.  In theory lower productivity growth should reduce interest rates, so this should be part of the story even though the big-picture timing is off for the correlation.

  • Old technologies, such as railroads and auto factories, required large capital investments. New technologies, like those developed in Silicon Valley, may be less capital-intensive. Reduced demand for capital lowers interest rates.
  • Some economists, most notably the New York University professor Thomas Philippon, have suggested that the economy is less competitive than it once was. Businesses with increasing market power not only raise their prices but also invest less. Again, reduced demand for capital puts downward pressure on interest rates.

These last two theories are both very plausible, but difficult to measure and test.  The last theory is supported by the fact that the stock market has soared and corporate power has been growing. Another piece of supporting evidence for the last theory is this:

Whereas in the early 1980s most of global investment was funded by household saving, nowadays nearly two-thirds of global investment is funded by corporate saving. This shift in the sectoral composition of saving was not accompanied by changes in the sectoral composition of investment.

The dramatic decline in interest rates reduces the incentive to save and should reduce net household saving and increase net household borrowing, so as corporations save more, that will also cause households to save less (and borrow more) by driving down the interest rate.

The theory that Mankiw completely missed is demographic change. As life expectancy increases, that increases household savings rates because people expect to have longer periods in retirement and a longer retirement increases the need for more savings. Meanwhile, it is young households that primarily borrow money for education and house purchases and as population growth has slowed, the percent of the population in that high-borrowing age demographic has shrunken. Finally, a nation with high population growth needs to invest more in expanding roads and infrastructure and school buildings and factories to meet rising demand. As population growth has slowed, investment has also slowed and less borrowing is needed to pay for it. Retired people simply don’t need as many goods and have more time for consuming services and the latter is typically a lot less capital-intensive than manufacturing (which Mankiw characterized as “railroads and auto factories”).

Posted in Macro, Managerial Micro

How many Americans have had Covid-19? The answer explains why the infection rate will have to start dropping in the coming weeks.

As of yesterday 14.76million Americans had had Covid-19 as confirmed by testing and the numbers continue to spike due to holiday gatherings. That is only four percent of all Americans who have been confirmed to have had Covid-19 according to testing data so far. However, most cases of Covid-19 never get tested. The CDC estimated that about 16% of Americans had actually already had it by the end of September using a modeling estimate. They estimated that eight times more Americans had had the disease than had been confirmed by testing.

As of September 30, America only had about half as many confirmed cases as we do today, so if the CDC’s ratio keeps up, already today about 32% of Americans may have already had the disease. And at the present rate of infection, over 50% of Americans may well have been infected by the end of January. However, as the percent of the population that is immune rises, the rate of infection will drop, so we may not get to 50% that fast.

But that was just a modelling estimate and an empirical estimate based on antibodies in blood samples is likely to be better. One antibody sample from September found that less than 10% of Americans had antibodies and so it is possible that only less than 20% of Americans have had Covid as of today.

Another antibody study from mid-July found that about 9% of Americans had had the disease at that point. That is about ten times more people than had tested positive. If today the ration had held steady at ten times more Americans who have had the disease than who have tested positive, then 45% of Americans would already have had it!

The point is, we are galloping towards herd immunity at the infection rate we are currently seeing. It is very unlikely that we are already at 45% immunity because the infection rate would have to be slower than the current torrid rate as only about half of the population would be available to become new victims, but it is entirely plausible that we could already be around 20%-33% immunity and as we get closer to herd immunity, the infection rate will have to peak and begin to fall even without any change in behavior.

So I’m an optimist about the spring. We will have started distributing the vaccine by then and as the weather warms, that will also slow transmission once again. We’ll also know even more about what kind of activities are the most dangerous and have better data about how to mitigate risks. It is likely to be darkest just before the dawn.

Posted in Health

Guns, Toilets, and Steel: Different customs regarding humanure explain a lot of the differences in economic development.

The Humanure Handbook, by Joseph Jenkins, is a pioneering guide for people who want a simple composting toilet system.  I have used toilets that were inspired by the Handbook both in Guatemala and at a community a couple hours drive from Washington DC. It is basically a bucket composting system and it requires minor regular monitoring and management which most people don’t want to do, but it is extremely cheap and simple and effective for those who can get past the ick factor.  The Handbook, which the author kindly offers as a free download, also delves into some history of how differently human manure was dealt with in Asia versus in Europe.  Here is an excerpt:

Asians recycled human excrement for thousands of years. The Chinese have used humanure agriculturally since the Shang Dynasty, three to four thousand years ago. The Chinese, Koreans, the Japanese, and others evolved to understand human excrement as a natural resource rather than a waste material. Where Westerners had “human waste,” they had “night soil.” We produced waste and pollution; they produced soil nutrients and food. Asians have been developing sustainable agriculture for four thousand years. For forty centuries these people worked the same land with little or no chemical fertilizers and, in many cases, had produced greater crop yields than Western farmers, who were quickly destroying the soils of their own countries through depletion and erosion. A fact largely ignored by people in western agriculture is that agricultural land must produce a greater output over time. The human population is constantly increasing; available agricultural land is not. Therefore, our farming practices should leave us with land more fertile with each passing year, not less fertile. Back in 1938 the US Department of Agriculture came to the alarm-

Why didn’t we follow the Asian example of agronutrient recycling? It’s certainly not for a lack of information. Dr. F. H. King wrote an interesting book, published in 1910 titled Farmers of Forty Centuries.2 Dr. King was a former chief of the Division of Soil Management of the US Department of Agriculture who traveled through Japan, Korea, and China in the early 1900s as an agricultural visitor. He was interested in finding out how people could farm the same fields for millennia without destroying their fertility. He wrote:

One of the most remarkable agricultural practices adopted by any civilized people is the centuries long and well-nigh universal conservation and utilization of all [humanure] in China, Korea and Japan, turning it to marvelous account in the maintenance of soil fertility and in the production of food. To understand this evolution, it must be recognized that mineral fertilizers so extensively employed in modern Western agriculture have been a physical impossibility to all people alike until within very recent years. With this fact must be associated the very long unbroken life of these nations and the vast numbers their farmers have been compelled to feed.

When we reflect on the depleted fertility of our own older farm lands, comparatively few of which have seen a century’s service, and upon the enormous quantity of mineral [and synthetic] fertilizers which are being applied annually to them in order to secure paying yields, it becomes evident that the time is here when profound consideration should be given to the practices the [Asian] race has maintained through many centuries, which permit it to be said of China that one-sixth of an acre of good land is ample for the maintenance of one person, and which are feeding an average of three people per acre of farm land in the three southernmost islands of Japan.

[Western humanity] is the most extravagant accelerator of waste the world has ever endured. His withering blight has fallen upon every living thing within his reach, himself not excepted; and his besom of destruction in the uncontrolled hands of a generation has swept into the sea soil fertility which only centuries of life could accumulate, and yet this fertility is the substratum of all that is living.

According to King’s research, the average daily excreta of the adult human weighs in at 40 ounces (2.5 pounds)… Multiplied by 330 million, a rough estimate of the US population in the early twenty-first century, Americans each year produce 3.63 billion pounds of valuable agricultural nutrients just by relieving themselves in a toilet. Almost all of itis discarded into the environment as a waste material or a pollutant, or as Dr. King puts it,

poured into the seas, lakes or rivers and into the underground waters…

The International Concession of the city of Shanghai, in 1908, sold to a Chinese contractor the privilege of entering residences and public places early in the morning of each day and removing the night soil, receiving therefore more than $31,000 gold, for 78,000 tons of [humanure]. All of this we not only throw away but expend much larger sums in doing so.”

In case you didn’t catch that, the contractor paid $31,000 gold for the humanure, referred to as “night soil” and incorrectly as “waste” by Dr. King. People don’t pay to buy waste; they pay money for things of value. Furthermore, using Dr. King’s figures, the US population produced over three hundred billion pounds of fecal material annually in the early twenty-first century. That’s a lot of gross national product.

Admittedly, the spreading of raw human excrement on fields, as may be done in Asia, will never become culturally acceptable in the United States, and rightly so. The agricultural use of raw night soil produces an assault on the sense of smell and provides a route of transmission for various human disease organisms. Americans who have traveled abroad and witnessed the use of raw human excrement in agricultural applications have largely been repulsed by the experience.

That repulsion has instilled in many older Americans an intransigent bias against, and even a fear of, the use of humanure for soil enrichment. However, few Americans have witnessed the composting of humanure as a preliminary step in its recycling. Proper composting converts humanure into a pleasant-smelling material devoid of human pathogens.

Although the agricultural use of raw human excrement will never become a common practice in the US, the use of composted human refuse, including humanure, food scraps, and other discarded organic materials can and should become a widespread and culturally encouraged practice.

How is it that Asian peoples developed an understanding of human nutrient recycling centuries ago, and we didn’t? After all, we’re the advanced, developed, scientific nation, aren’t we?

…Strange as it may seem, says King, there are not today [early 1900s] and apparently never have been, even in the largest and oldest cities of Japan, China, or Korea, anything corresponding to the hydraulic systems of sewage disposal used now by Western nations. When I asked my interpreter if it was not the custom of the city during the winter months to discharge its night soil into the sea, as a quicker and cheaper mode of disposal [than recycling], his reply came quick and sharp, “No, that would be waste. We throw nothing away. It is worth too much money.” 7 The Chinaman, says King, wastes nothing while the sacred duty of agriculture is uppermost in his mind.8

While the Asians were practicing sustainable agriculture and recycling their organic resources and doing so over millennia, what were the people of the West doing? Why weren’t our European ancestors returning their manures to the soil, too? After all, it does make sense. The Asians who recycled their manures not only utilized a resource and reduced pollution, but by returning their excrement to the soil, they succeeded in reducing threats to their health. There was no putrid sewage collecting and breeding disease germs and attracting rats. Instead, the humanure was, for the most part, undergoing a natural, non-chemical purification process in the soil. Even the returning of humanure raw to the land succeeds in destroying many human pathogens in the manure and returns nutrients to the soil.

Although it is true that raw sewage naturally purifies in the soil, it takes a while and in the meantime, any food growing in the sewage is likely to be biologically contaminated with bacteria and other pathogens. However, all pathogens are killed by cooking and in Asian cultures that used raw humanure in the fields also developed practices to prevent the pathogens from infecting people. In particular, many Asian cultures such as the Chinese got into the practice of cooking everything that came out of those fields. For example, when I lived in Taiwan, I noticed that the locals ate nothing raw except tree fruits (and fish — sashimi)! I sometimes really craved a raw salad and there were only a very few Western restaurants that served salads. When I ate salad in front of my Chinese friends, they would tell me how revolting it is. Some said they were physically disgusted at the sight of me eating a salad! Now that I know the historic humanure practices in the region, it makes a lot more sense. They were disgusted because historically, eating raw vegetables was akin to eating raw human sewage because the vegetables were grown in humanure. Even though the practice of using raw humanure on fields had probably mostly ended a few decades before I arrived in Taiwan, the cultural taboos lived on. I’m happy to report that I never got sick, so the salads were not grown in raw humanure.

Similarly, when I worked with Greencorps Chicago, an urban gardening organization, I heard that some of the poor immigrants from Southeast Asia were saving their humanure each day instead of using the toilet and bringing it down to fertilize their vegetable plots in some of the community gardens we helped with. It was cheaper than buying compost and better for the soil than synthetic fertilizer. And It is fine to eat the vegetables as long as they used their traditional hygiene practices to cook everything that touches a plate and use good handwashing before touching any cooked food or plates.

This might seem barbaric to modern readers, but traditional Asian humanure practices were less barbaric than what Europeans did because at least they kept it out of the water supply. Because humanure was seen as a waste to get rid of in Europe rather than as a resource to conserve, humanure was sometimes dumped in the streets or often dumped in rivers and streams where it would infect the drinking water. Unlike in many Asian cultures which always boiled all their drinking water, Europeans frequently drank cold sewage tea. The habit of drinking boiled water in Asia was so strong, that many Asians refused to drink water that wasn’t piping hot just to be sure it is clean. For example, the gas stations in Taiwan didn’t have a cold water fountain when I was there. The only water to drink was from a boiling water dispenser. And at Asian hotels, guests always got a thermos of boiling water along with their room key. When the water is boiling hot, you knew that was safe to drink. Even in tropical Indonesia just south of the equator, we got a thermos of boiling water at every hotel for drinking. Ice often wasn’t available and even when there was ice, people were suspicious about whether it was truly purified or not.

What was happening in Europe regarding public hygiene from the 1300s on? Great pestilences swept through Europe throughout recorded history. The Black Death killed more than half the population of England in the fourteenth century. In 1552, sixty-seven thousand patients died of the plague in Paris alone. Fleas from infected rats were the carriers of this disease. Did the rats dine on piles of human waste or festering garbage? Other pestilences included the sweating sickness (attributed to uncleanliness), cholera (spread by food and water contaminated by the excrement of infected persons), “jail fever” (caused by a lack of sanitation in prisons), typhoid fever (spread by water contaminated with infected feces), and numerous others.

Andrew White, cofounder of Cornell University, wrote that …It’s now known that the main cause of such immense sacrifice of life was a lack of proper hygienic practices… “For century after century the idea prevailed that filthiness was akin to holiness.” Living in filth was regarded by holy men as evidence of sanctity, according to White, who lists numerous saints who never bathed parts or all of their bodies, such as St. Abraham, who washed neither his hands nor his feet for fifty years, or St. Sylvia, who never washed any part of her body except her fingers.

… Today, Asians are abandoning the harmonious agricultural techniques that Dr. King observed nearly a century ago. In Kyoto, Japan, for example, “night soil is collected hygienically to the satisfaction of users of the system, only to be diluted at a central collection point for discharge to the sewer system and treatment at a conventional sewage treatment plant.”

…A Humanure Handbook reader wrote an interesting account of Japanese toilets:

My only real [humanure] experience…. comes from living in Japan from 1973-1983. As my experience is dated, things may have changed (probably for the worse as toilets and life were becoming “westernized” even toward the end of my stay in Japan).

My experience comes from living in small, rural towns as well as in metropolitan areas (provincial capitals). Homes and businesses had an “indoor outhouse.” The Vault: Nothing but urine/feces were deposited into the large metal vault under the toilet (squat style, slightly recessed in the floor and made of porcelain). No cover material or carbonaceous stuff was used. It stunk!! Not just the bathroom, but the whole house! There were many flies, even though the windows were screened. Maggots were the main problem. They crawled up the sides of the vault onto the toilet and floor and sometimes even made it outside the bathroom into the hall. People constantly poured some kind of toxic chemical into the vaults to control the smell and maggots. It didn’t help — in fact, the maggots really poured out of the vault to escape the chemicals. Occasionally a slipper (one put on special “bathroom slippers” as opposed to “house slippers” when entering the bathroom) fell into the disgusting maggot-filled vault. You couldn’t even begin to think about getting it out! You couldn’t let little children use the toilet without an adult suspending them over it. They might fall in! Disposal: When the vault was full (about every three months), you called a private vacuum truck which used a large hose placed in an outside opening to suck out the liquid mass. You paid them for their services. I’m not sure exactly what happened to the humanure next but, in the agricultural areas near the fields were large (ten feet in diameter) round, concrete, raised containers, similar in looks to an above ground swimming pool. In the containers, I was told, was the humanure from the “vacuum trucks.” It was a greenish-brown liquid with algae growing on the surface. I was told this was spread onto agricultural fields.

Japan has one of the most fastidious cultures in the world about hygiene.  For example, they never wear outdoor shoes inside their homes and even have special slippers just for the bathroom.  They have probably the most advanced toilet culture in the world.  They spend vast sums of money on computerized toilets that also automatically wash and dry your bottom (if you can figure out how to control them) and yet many Japanese have been using humanure in agriculture right into fairly modern times. 

Joseph Jenkins says Korea has had similar traditions:

In my youth I listened to army veterans talking about their stints in the Korean War. Usually after a beer or two, they’d turn their conversation to the “outhouses” used by the Koreans. They were amazed, even mystified about the fact that the Koreans tried to lure passersby into their latrines by making the toilets especially attractive. The idea of someone wanting someone else’s poop always brought out a hearty laugh from the vets. This opinion sums up the attitude of almost anyone raised with a flush toilet. Humanure is a waste product that we must dispose of and only fools would think otherwise. One of the effects of this attitude is that Americans don’t know and probably don’t care where their “human waste” goes after it emerges from their back ends as long as they don’t have to deal with it.

Another system of human waste disposal was animals. Some toilets in Asia were right over a pig pen. I remember on pig pen toilet I used in the Philippines which was extremely clean. I looked down through the toilet seat to a completely flat surface of soil about 6 feet below where there was no evidence of any humanure. But I did see some eager pigs looking up at me who started squealing and grunting when I opened the outhouse door. The pigs ate all my poop as fast as I dropped it. I tried to avoid eating any pig meat in Asia after that experience and now I understand well why the Old Testament calls them unclean animals that should not be eaten.

The Humanure Handbook has a photo of this kind of outhouse below and it also discusses how humanure has been an important source of dog food in many human societies.

I spent a few months in southern Mexico in the late 1970s in Quintana Roo on the Yucatan peninsula. There, toilets were not available; people simply used the sand dunes along the coast. No problem, though. One of the small, unkempt, and ubiquitous Mexican dogs would wait nearby with watering mouth until you did your thing. Burying your excrement in that situation would have been an act of disrespect to the dog. No one wants sand in their food. A good, healthy, steaming turd at the crack of dawn on the Caribbean coast never lasted more than sixty seconds before it became a hot meal for a human’s best friend. Yum. Today, roughly 892 million people still practice open defecation, down from over 1.2 billion in 2000. Of those who still go outdoors, 90percent live in Central and Southern Asia and in sub-Saharan Africa

Several scientists have studied why most dogs will eat poop and it may be one of the distinguishing behavioral traits that separates dogs from the wolves that they were domesticated from. 

The most extensive treatment of this unsavory topic is a series of papers by James Butler and his colleagues. They studied the diet of free-ranging dogs in Zimbabwe. Fifty-six percent of 1,000 dog scats they sampled included human feces. The dogs would roam from homestead to homestead, searching for garbage and poop. They would locate human feces by smell and dig it up if it was buried. As dog food goes, human feces was surprisingly nutritious. Indeed, Butler found that poop contained twice as much protein as the dogs’ most common food (a porridge called sadza). He concluded human feces was “comparable to the upper range of energy content for mammal tissue, vegetables, and fruit.”

In a 1996 paper, the anthropologist Fredrick Simoons documented many instances of human feces consumption in areas of sub-Saharan Africa. In Liberia and the Cameroons, a dog’s waste disposal functions included licking the bottom of infants after they defecated. Simoons noted that the !Kung people of South Africa did not eat dog flesh because dogs eat human excrement.

It is getting less common for dogs to clean up human poop as more places get latrines, but progress with toilets has been amazingly slow.  Moneybox reports that progress with mobile phones has been much faster because, “it is now more common to have a mobile phone than a working toilet:”

Surprisingly, the UN reports there are now more people with mobile phones (six billion for world population of seven billion) on earth than there are with access to clean toilets (4.5 billion).

That phenomenon is easily visible in Indonesia, for example, where it is common to see people who live in metal roofed shacks without bathrooms surfing Facebook on their smartphones or feature phones. And it shows how, in the developing world, multinationals are often better at responding to peoples’ needs than governments are.

Open defecation, while not widely discussed, causes illnesses such as diarrhea that kill 4,500 children daily. Poor sanitation also hobbles emerging markets economically. According to the UN, the problem costs India $53.8 billion a year, while Nigeria loses $3 billion annually.

In rich countries we tend to think about technologies in terms of their order of adoption and [from that perspective it would seem] obvious that plumbing is more basic. But from an infrastructure investment standpoint, it’s easier [and more profitable for a private company] to build a mobile phone network than a sewer system. For that same reason, even though there tends not to be all that much competition in wireless telephony it’s a lot less monopolistic than electricity.

Both electricity and sewage service require constructing an expensive network to physically connect every home whereas cellular phones just require a few relatively cheap cellphone towers. 

60% of the world’s population either lacks a toilet entirely or has an unsanitary one that transmits fecal diseases.  Most people in nations with less than $5,000 GDP per capita lack hygienic toilets:

Posted in Development

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