Saturday, April 25, 2020

Thousands of Miles to Reach Thousands of Hearts

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Compiled pictures of Justin Doering's Van taken throughout his trip across the country interviewing homeless. (Visit his website

The world was watching as each state's polls were closing. Could Trump actually pull it off? One by one the votes were counted and then it was over, official, Donald Trump was the President of the United States. Many of us remember where we were that night. For some it was shocking, some exciting, and some debated their exit to Canada. But for others it was just another cold night on the street.

Justin Doering was driving slowly down the street that night as rain poured down in Cleveland Ohio. The van hadn’t exactly been the best or most reliable vehicle as it trudged along this cross country trip, but one can’t expect too much from a $1200 vehicle. One of its most problematic features was that it would have been easier to measure its gas consumption in feet per gallon rather than miles. But despite its downsides, it was his only mode of transportation, and more importantly, his home for the last few months.

How quickly things change. He pressed the brake to stop; he couldn’t have been going over 10 miles per hour, but a thin layer of water prevented it and the van gracefully slid and smashed into another van. A woman ran out of her vehicle yelling, looked at her car, and layed down on the ground, continuing to yell. Justin, with all his belongings in the van thrown askew, ran out with his sleeping bag and pillow, made the women as comfortable as possible and called the police. Then he looked back at his smashed van and wondered how he was possibly going to make the 2,000 miles back home. He also faced the question the people he interviewed faced everyday, where am I going to sleep?

“You have a van listed for $1400,” he said as he spoke to the man he had found online. “Well, I’m from Coeur D'alene, Idaho, and I'm in the middle of a project. I am traveling across America interviewing the homeless. The van I purchased for $1,200 to accomplish this got totaled last night. I could really use your van, but I can only pay you $700.” It was bold to only offer half the asking price, but desperation can bring out all sorts of things we didn’t know we had in us, and Justin’s financial situation was becoming increasingly desperate.

The plan had been simple: travel across America and trade sandwiches for interviews with the homeless. The plan was to highlight at least 50 of these interviews. He had harbored the idea in his mind since he was an early teen and even picked the name of the project back then: Fifty Sandwiches.  All through high school he spent time volunteering at a local shelter and getting to know individuals, completing his senior project on how the media’s portrayal of homlessness affects our view.

Justin attended college at Boise State, he worked hard and when it was clear that he was going to finish a year ahead of schedule he decided it was time to change the idea into reality. But, it wasn’t going to be cheap. He needed transportation, food, recording equipment, and a decent camera. One way to accomplish this was through kickstarter. The goal was to raise $10,000. The way kickstarter works is you have to raise your entire goal in your time limit or you get bupkis. He planned and prepared for 6 months for the kickstarter launch. The first few days were great and he had raised several thousand dollars. “I’ve got this in the bag,” he thought.

But as time went on the funding slowed. He was working a job as a sandwich delivery boy and then biking to campus for free wifi and staying until 11 at night trying to fundraise. For a while, it looked like it wasn’t going to come through, but a few days before the close he did it, he hit $10,000. He was going to do this.

After $1200 for a van and the cost of a decent camera to document the journey, it was clear that $10,000 was going to be tight to fund all his upfront expenses and 3 months on the road. He sold a computer and other electronics to try to get a few more dollars and then he was off. From Portland, OR down to San Diego, CA then to Tallahassee, FL to Boston, MA and back to the Pacific Northwest. He lived in his van, and while he would never compare what he went through to the lives of those he interviewed, he did experience some of the challenges of living on the streets. “For a time it felt as if Rangers and Police were my alarm clocks, regularly waking me up to see what I was doing. “But they were mostly supportive after I told them what I was up to.”

In Florida while interviewing Eva, a homeless woman struggling with mental illness, a scuffle broke out at the table next to them. It was a dispute over money related to a cocaine sale. One man pulled out a knife and lunged at the other's neck. Two other men grabbed the man and struggled to get the knife away as he held it inches from delivering a deadly slice. Just then a police officer pulled into the park and the fight quickly dispersed. Justin was shaken and fearful for his own safety, but to his amazement Eva didn’t flinch or think much of it. It was part of the life she lived.

From one interview to the next, he began to gain insight into the lives we rarely notice. And here he was on the phone hoping a kind stranger would take $700 for a $1400 van so he could finish his journey and get home. “The man was the kindest man I ever met,” Justin recalls. "He said he would take the $700." There was one problem. The man with the van was in Detroit, MI. And Justin was still in Cleveland, OH, with a van that was barely functional. It actually could run, but there was a shard of metal frame that jabbed into the tire if you made the slightest right turn. “I traveled from Cleveland, OH to Detroit, MI without a single right turn. I couldn’t even use the highway because taking an exit would be impossible. Just side roads and 3 lefts everytime I needed a right. There is no setting on Google maps for that.”

Once home, he worked to complete a book that would highlight his interviews. The effort was impressive, he had taught himself photography, graphic design, and ultimately publishing. The book is beautiful and inspiring. It shows, with realism and clarity the breadth of the problem of homelessness. He interviews the old, the young, the single mom, the grieving father, the mentally ill, the addicted, those who choose to be homeless and those who have overcome some of life's most difficult struggles. Throughout the interviews he includes well researched information about the current state of homelessness in our nation. He paints a vivid picture of what these lives are like, not shying away from any of it’s dark realities. He quotes, “It is not that the stereotypes are untrue, but that they are incomplete, they make one story the only story.”

Fifty Sandwiches work continues. The goal of the organization he started is simple, to close the gap between the perception of homelessness and reality. He does this one interview at a time, one book sold at a time. Justin today works a full time job and then spends his evening selling building the organization he hopes one day will be his life’s work.

I would encouraging everyone who reads this to buy the book. At about $20 bucks for a hardback filled with amazing photos and interviews, it is a great deal. The money goes to a great cause, to help Justing continue the work at fifty sandwiches. And on top of that it is an amazing book. You will enjoy every page and you will find that it enlightens your mind and softens your heart and anything that can do that is worth pursuing.

Two ways to buy the book Justin’s website, this is how I recommend you buy it. It’s a little cheaper and he will sign it for you.

Or if you prefer here is the Amazon website.

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Thursday, April 16, 2020

Gee's Second Law of Water Management

Here is the link to the first law and first equation.

Coming soon

Gee's First Law and First Equation of Water Management

Lake Mead helps supply water to 25 million people. And it just hit ...
Lake Mead

(Disclaimer: Views in this article are entirely my own and do not represent the views of my employer, my Aunt, or Your third cousin once removed. For good measure we better add, or anybody who is not named Nathaniel Gee and lives in Boulder City, that should cover it.)

Equation: C+C = C (Clean + Close = Cheap)

Law: There is never a shortage of water, only cheap water.

Every first grader is taught that water is extremely precious. They are told that less than 3% of the worlds water is fresh and most of that is stuck in glaciers (They made this sound like a bad thing when I was a kid, but they don't seem to be jumping for joy now that those glaciers are melting), so at the end of the day less than 1% of all the worlds water is accessible for us to drink. Oh no!

Play scary music as every little kid begins to worry about life without water, how long can 1% last us! You know when your children have this lecture at school because its the day they come home and yell at you for brushing your teeth, or doing the dishes. (Or at least that is what people who do such things told me). I remember coming home from school after the talk about the future of water, and just watching water come out of the faucet knowing, that at any moment, it was going to run dry.

But here I am thirty years later and it's still flowing. Of course, the reason is that there is ton of water on this planet. And as fast as we use it and pollute it, our wonderfully planet is cleaning and redistributing it. The world has been designed with the most ingenious system to clean and transport water, the other great thing you will learn about in first grade, the water cycle.

But if that is true, that our planet cleans and sends water back as fast as we use and pollute it, why do we always seem to be struggling for water. We are always fighting either having too much water or not enough. While this is a consistent battle, I want to focus on one side of that equation. The one that seems to prevail in the West, not enough water.

This is where we get the famous quote, "Whiskey is for drinking, Water is for fighting over." The west is famous for water fights. Arizona vs. California is a series of supreme court cases where Arizona sued California over water fights. It is actually at least 10 cases (that is how many times Arizona sued), but the most famous of these is the longest supreme court case in history. It was put to the court in 1952 and was not decided until 1964, 12 years later, and it is the basis for ongoing water negotiations today.

But the idea that there is ever a shortage of water is a fallacy. There is always water. After all, the world is 71% water. The thing that people want is cheap water. That is always the fight, who gets the cheap water. I can give a thousand examples, but the an obvious one is LA. LA has been party to many famous water battles. There was the successful plan, led by William Mulholland to get water out of the Owens Valley in the early 1900's. They were also one of the big drivers behind Hoover Dam and Parker Dam to get Colorado River Water. Did LA need more water? They are on the ocean. They don't need more water, but at the time they needed usable water. Why did they choose Owens Valley first? Because Mulholland figured out he could deliver Owens Valley water mostly by gravity to LA. That meant it was the cheapest alternative. Today LA could replace transported water with Ocean water but don't because they don't just want water, they want cheap water.

So again, the fight is for cheap water. Whenever you think there may be a water shortage, you look for what is the cheapest water you can get. There is always water if you are willing to pay for it. Which leads me to Gee's first law of water management: There is never a shortage of water, only cheap water.

So that leads into how do we define cheap water, and that is where we get Gee's first equation of water management.

Clean + Close = Cheap.  When you are looking for water you want water that is clean and close, because that is cheap. That is why historically the first source of water was always well water. Well water is one of the cleanest sources of water and it's right under your feet. The only cost is to bring it to the surface.

It's a simple equation but it does get more complex as you break it down. First if you look at close. Water is a wonderful fluid, and can easily be pumped and transported, but it requires energy and infrastructure to move it. It also needs to be moved both across land and over mountains, so you have to look at both vertical and horizontal distance it must travel from the source.

Clean, is the most complicated part of the formula. All forms of water treatment are not created equal. Surface water generally requires more treatment than ground water, and saline water requires very expensive treatment. It is easier to treat raw sewage, which you might consider more unclean, than ocean water. Why? it is very expensive to remove salts from water. That is why ultimately it is cheaper for LA to move surface water hundreds of miles rather than clean ocean water that is on their doorstep.

But despite the complexities the basics are easy, and good to remember. They are: there is never shortage of water only cheap water. And that when trying to find cheap water the equation is simple:
Clean + Close = Cheap.

Next up Gee's Second Law of Water Management

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Tuesday, April 14, 2020

A Third Perspective on the Stimulus

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon quote: the government can do nothing for ...
Recently, I posted my thoughts about the stimulus here.

My brother wrote a rebuttal here.

And happy to say my Father has written his thoughts. Enjoy.

I was, as a father, proud of both articles on the stimulus. Essentially, I agree with Nathaniel’s but I very much appreciated Gavin’s ending comments about the Church.

Now for my own comments:

Essentially, I feel that handing out money as in all “stimulus” or “pump priming” or “make work” schemes is flawed. If I, as an individual, did any of them it would be considered dishonest. There are, in my opinion, three things that enable politicians to do it and essentially “get away with it”.

#1 Corrupt the language. Lenin said the key to destroying private property and capitalism is to corrupt the language. In this case, the word corrupted is “money”. Real money is “a medium of exchange”. But obviously, if you simply print money and distribute it without expecting anything in return, what we call “money” is really something else. It is not really money in the sense of a medium of exchange. It becomes in fact, a medium of control. By doing it politicians are trying to control people, usually in order to get their votes and stay in power.

#2 Denial of the validity of the “Law of Markets” (Say’s Law). Both Marx and Keynes based their economics largely on the idea that in an advanced economy Say’s Law no longer operates. Hence, the key to economic success is spending and consuming. This gives rise to the so-called “Paradox of Thrift”, ie what was earlier considered a virtue—saving—is, in fact, a vice. This gives rise to a whole tissue of fallacies, e.g. investment, tools, manufacturing, invention, entrepreneurship, and even self-discipline are essentially automatic; they just happen and are, in advanced economies, inevitable. What must be “stimulated” is spending.

#3 The government has independent resources, even hidden resources above and beyond takings. This myth is perpetuated by the fact that as people come to depend more and more on government, the government takes over more and more functions that at one time were private. Few of these produce a surplus which would provide the resources to give out “stimulus” money. Does anyone honestly think that the surpluses generated by the post office, the VA hospitals, the public schools, PBS, and Public radio, etc, etc, will actually provide the resources to pay for free medical care, free food, and now, checks for everyone, and the numerous other “stimulus” programs? Most of these government “businesses” run most years in the red.

Why do politicians do this? I believe it is because they realize that in today’s dependent political climate, if they were totally honest they would lose their jobs and with their skills they would be lucky to find work at McDonald's. I resent it because my wife and I have saved for years to make our home more comfortable for us and for our children when they visit. The fact of the matter is that when the government does not have the simple decency to tax for whatever they spend, their only recourse is to take it out of people’s savings. Recently, we got a quote for the cement work required for a garage we were hoping to add to our yard. That cement work will now probably cost us more than what we had originally budgeted for the entire garage and if we can’t get our contractor to do the work before the effect of this latest “stimulus” kicks in, the cement work will probably cost more than the entire project, if we can afford it at all.

One last comment: I deeply resent the idea that whenever there is a problem, the government must do something.

In 1920-21 almost all the leading economic indicators dropped lower than they did during the Depression of the 1930’s. The problem was—or in my opinion, the blessing was—the president, Harding, was so involved with scandals, and the vice-president, Coolidge, and his Sec. of the Treasury, Mellon, felt it was none of their business, so as a result, the government did nothing. The result was that this, which, had Wilson or Hoover, or Roosevelt been president would probably have been our “Greatest Depression” was over and done in less than a year. All too often, what the government does, beyond what the Constitution says it ought to do results in such a distortion of motivations and incentives for individuals, that it is worse than “doing nothing.”

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Thursday, April 9, 2020

Why the Death of Retirement would be a Good Thing

3 Myths That Will Ruin Your Retirement Security

We work hard are whole lives, so we can...stop working. Admittingly, on face value it doesn't make much sense. Yet there is a part of all of us that looks forward to that day. The day when we can stop waking up every morning to go to work. When we can finally do what we want, whatever we want, when we want, how we want and really enjoy life. The problem is the more I look into the idea of retirement the more I am convinced it is a bad idea. Why?

Social Security is a bad idea-
Social Security is the worst kind of bad idea there is, one that has been successful for a long time. Americans love the social security program. After all, it has helped the elderly 'retire with dignity' for a long time. We all know hundreds of seniors that rely on this program and because of this it is a sacred cow that no politician dare threaten. But despite it's long success we all know it is headed to failure. 

Ask the average millennial if social security will exists when they retire, and they will say, "I doubt it." Why? because they can do math. There are two major problems with Social Security. (I got a lot of this from a great study done at Stanford.

1. When social security was passed into law in 1935 the average life expectancy in the United States was 61, today it is almost 79. Given medical advancements it is likely that this number will continue to rise.

2. When the program was started there was approximately 27 workers for each retiree, today there are 3. Given that our birthrate continues to drop in the US, this number will continue to fall.

These numbers are catastrophic for the program and yet Americans continue to consider it a retirement fund, not a social safety net it was designed to be. Go to most online calculators for retirement and they will include social security. Not only that, there is very much an entitlement mentality of, "I paid into it my whole career, I deserve to get paid back." To such people I have some bad news. For one thing, Social Security pays out far more than you paid in. And for a second, that money is gone. When it passed, the program starting paying out to people who had never paid in a dime and I am afraid that at some point there will be people on the other end of that, they will have paid in their entire lives and they won't get paid a dime.

This should help us realize that social security isn't the only idea that is unsustainable.

The entire idea of retirement is unsustainable and ridiculous if you take the big picture view-

For the first 18 years, going up to almost 30 for many of us, we will be more consumer than producer. I don't mean to disparage children, if you know me, you know I love kids, but they aren't the most productive. We spend a lot of resources as a society to train them physically and mentally hoping they will become productive. Then we think we can work from 25-65, or 40 years and then kick back from age 65 to 95 and again become a consumer and not producer. That means to be a net positive for society we have to produce more in 40 years than we consume in 90-100. That's unrealistic and unsustainable.

But the fact that social security and retirement in general is generally a mathematical disaster waiting to happen isn't the worst part about the idea, even worse is:

Giving an incentive for our most experienced employees to not work is a bad idea-

Social Security was originally intended for those who could not work. There is no doubt that this is the case for millions of people in the program, but there are almost as many who do not work in part because of social security, even though they are very able. It is an economic fact, that which you pay for, you get more of. Pay people not to work, and you will get less work. Think about it, if social security disappeared tomorrow, it would be devastating, but more people would enter the work force.

The other issue is the idea that people over 62 or 65 or even 70 are not productive in society. As our economy has moved increasingly from a labor driven economy to information based economy, older workers with their extensive experience and internal knowledge are increasingly valuable. Look at the people we have chosen to run our country. The republicans want a man who will be 74 when he starts his second term and democrats want a man who will be 78. No matter which side of the isle you are on it is clear that we as a society believe that people can be productive well into their 70's. Having a large number of elderly reenter the workforce would be a benefit to this county and more importantly:

Working is a benefit to the worker, at every age-

Money is not the only benefit to working. It's a simple fact, if I didn't have to work, I wouldn't. And I would have a weaker body, a weaker mind and a weaker character. Much of who I am is because of the work I have had to perform. The people I look to as my greatest hero's have learned that work is its own reward. They continue to work long after they financially need to.  My greatest hero is my Father, he turns 78 this year and continues to work despite not needing to financially. But most of the people really changing our society belong to this group of people. I already noted those running for president, but what about Elon Musk, President Nelson, Mark Zuckerberg, Mark Cuban and Bill Gates. What all these men have in common is they work far harder than I ever have or likely will and don't need another cent.

They discovered something we all need to discover to really enjoy life:

Happiness in life is all around us and is found in doing hard things, not waiting for a moment we no longer have to do anything-

One of the greatest lies that I have given into my whole life is, "I will be happy when...." You could fill in the blank with a million things: When I graduate from school, when I get married, when I get on my mission, when I get home from my mission, when I buy my home, when I have a kid, when my kid moves out. You get the idea. The older I get the more I look back and realize I was happy before all the whens, but I was too busy buying in the lie to accept it. I am beginning to realize this is true with work to. If you are unhappy in your job the thing to do is find a new job, not to stop working all together. Which leads me to what we really need to do-

Never retire, just move to a new job-

We may get sick of a given job, or want to try something new or be physically unable to perform at the same level we once did. Great, find a new job. And if you are one of the fortunate few who has enough to not need money do a full time job that doesn't bring in money. Bill Gates works full time giving money away. Some of the greatest people I know work full time or more serving missions, just serving people and teaching the gospel.

I realize that many who do these things still call themselves retired. And many great people I know have chosen to retire and are still making amazing contributions to society. My wish is we get away from the idea of retirement. We wisely have realized that many of us will stop going to school, but if we are smart will embrace life long learning. I would love to see us embrace that while many will change jobs or move away from traditional work-force what we all need is life-long working.

If you liked this you might also enjoy:
Yea Bipartisanship! Oh Wait?
Thriving in a Pandemic
or The Miracle of Pineapple

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Sunday, April 5, 2020

Windfall is better than a freefall

My older Brother wrote an excellent rebuttal to my earlier post, Yea bipartisanship, Oh Wait! Enjoy.

Earlier this week Nathaniel posted about $2 Trillion dollar bill which passed with rare bi-partisan support. Normally I agree with Nathaniel's sense of fiscal responsibility,but in this case I think he missed the mark.

Nathaniel is probably right that the bill is a bad one and that it will lead to windfalls for companies and individuals who don't need it. But if a fire is starting in your kitchen you don't stop to think about the best way to put it out you just start throwing water as quickly as you can. So I'll do my best to defend each part of the bill that my little brother took issue with.

First the check to each American. To be clear this is NOT a check to everyone. Many people (myself included) don't qualify. Ideally this money would only go to people whose income is being impacted, but the writers did have the sense to exclude people with high income who likely will be able to get by if they do miss a month of wages. If economist and tax professionals had spent 3 months to develop a more targeted plan I'm sure they would have saved billions of dollars. However, it would have been debated in Congress for 3 months and failed to get any support. Of course by then it would have been far too late for people whose paychecks are now cut in half (or taken away completely).

The second point is additional unemployment insurance. Nathaniel argued that this was also a windfall as people could make more on unemployment then they do in their normal employment. You could argue that this incentives people not to work. Normally you want to avoid such incentives, but in this case it is exactly the behavior we are trying to achieve.

I work at an office where we are given ample paid sick leave and even if we didn't I am sure no one would go hungry if they missed a few days of pay. Yet it is all too common that people come to work sick, as they don't want to be seen as being "slackers". From what I hear the on-site child care center is even worse as no one wants to miss a day of work because their child is sick. Now if people who still get paid to stay home when they are sick don't stay home, then what is the likely hood that someone who is living paycheck to paycheck will? The "windfall" is needed as the ~ 10 million people who filled for unemployment in the past 2 weeks would like to keep working, but they have been forced to stop to help save the lives of those in their communities. Those people should not be punished just because their line of work was not deemed essential and they don't have the luxury of being able to do their work from home.

The last element, the business bailout, is also essential. Several industries have been specifically hurt by this pandemic. Some of their businesses would have been naturally impacted (cruise lines and airlines) others were impacted in advance by companies being good stewards (Disney when they shut down their parks) and finally there are the businesses that were shutdown by government decree (initially restaurants, but now it covers many more). This businesses should not be shutdown for their help in fighting the pandemic.

I agree that some of these companies put themselves in a bad place due to over leveraging themselves. Politicians have been vilifying companies who have been buying stock back the past few years and are now on the brink of insolvency. I don't think the issue is the stock buy backs but rather the unsustainable level of debt. I would understand the concern that companies will come to rely on government more in times of disruption. But given the strings that will likely be attached and the political backlash for using it for anything deemed unfit companies will wish that they had the freedom of the companies still in good standing (ie. Microsoft, JnJ, GOOGL).

The real issue with this bill is not the bill at all. The issue is that for the last 10 years we have had a decreasing unemployment rate and a healthy economy and we chose to cut taxes and increase spending. Our government basically took the same position as the companies loading up on debt and using their money for share buy backs.

Compare the companies and the governments cash ability to weather this pandemic to that of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church also drew the scrutiny of people in the church and out a few months ago when a whistle-blower claimed the church had amassed a fortune of $100 Billion. Many questioned if it was right for any organization (especially a non-profit) to accumulate so much wealth. It became apparent in later SEC filings that it was actually less than $40 Billion. That the church had built up so much should not have been a surprise to anyone. In each general conference the auditor says the church lives by the principles it teaches living within a budget, avoiding debt, and saving for a future time of need. If we had all only followed similar principles. With the recent stock market crash the church account is probably close to ~ $25 Billion. The church will of course see a drop in tithing receipts this year, they will see a large increase in demand at the bishops storehouse (the church run food bank), they will see an increase in humanitarian aid request, mission cost will stay high, and they still have the cost of operating temples around the world. But even with all of these changes the church will be able to continue to their planned construction of new Temples across the world.

If we had taken advantage of the recent growth in the economy by reducing our debt, then this $2 Trillion dollar pill would be a little easier to swallow. So that leads me to the advice for Nathaniel and others who are getting their cash payouts. Save/Invest it! We haven't seen the worst of this yet. Many more of us will be out of work before it is over. It is very possible that if you don't need it today you will need it in a month or two. And if you are fortunate and you don't see any impact to your income. Then in theory we will need to pay this back in the form of higher taxes eventually. If that day ever comes, you will be ready for it and just like the church you will be able to continue with everything else you had planned without any financial disruption.

For my Father's view on this topic, click here.

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Saturday, April 4, 2020

Risk, Corona and Judging others

Risk Board Game : Target
Facebook is often a place for us to post or notice extremes and this Corona epidemic is no exception. I see hundreds of post claiming it is a hoax made up by the media to scare us and control us. These post focus on statistics that show that Corona isn't much more deadly than many of the common risk of death we deal with everyday, heart failure, flu, smoking or car accidents.

On the other hand, I see the posts that this Corona virus will leave millions in the US dead if we don't do exactly as our leaders demand, avoid large groups (the magic number seems to be 10), avoid leaving our home, stay 6 feet apart, where masks, and under no circumstance visit others. This group is gone to public shaming if you fail to comply, and mocking politicians they feel who don't go far enough or who were too slow to react (our President being their favorite target.)

These groups seem to see the whole Corona pandemic from very different lenses and most of us likely fall somewhere between. But who is right? Before I answer that can I go on a bit of a lecture about risk?

Risk is a major part of my job in Dam Safety. It is my job to ensure that the dams I oversee do not fail and kill people down stream. Can I 100% promise the dams won't fail? No. I have to make an estimate of the risk that dam poses to downstream population. In my job we attempt to keep all risk of losing one life in any given year at or below 1 in 10,000. We call this "tolerable risk". Meaning our industry feels that is the risk that society will tolerate dams to pose.

My study of risk has taught me a few things.
1. We are horrible at estimating low probability events: Partially because we have a hard time wrapping our brain around probability lower than 1 in 100 to 1 in 1000. There is something about very small numbers, 1 in 100,000 or 1 in a million, that we can't grasp. Most of us fall into one of two camps when numbers get this small. Either, this is basically zero so don't worry about it, or there is still a chance so we over worry about it.

Another way of looking at this is would you buy a lottery ticket? It depends, are you of the camp that says the chances are basically zero, so I am throwing my money away. Or are you of the camp that says there is a chance, so why not?

2. Perceptions drives our view of risk more than actual risk: One of the most interesting phenomenons in risk is that we as a society tolerate a lot less risk in mass casualty situations. The most classic example of this is cars vs. planes. We all know commercial planes are far safer than driving vehicles, we are told this over and over. Why? Because we as a society tolerate much less risk in commercial planes and have forced the industry to be much safer, and it comes at a very high cost. Why are we willing to pay it? Because when an airline goes down with 100+ passengers, it is all over the news and we simply demand action. Look at the recent failures of two Boeing 737 max's (October 29, 2018 Lion Air Flight 189 Dead, March 10, 2019 Ethiopian Airlines flight, 157 dead). All the 737 Max's were grounded there was huge public outcry and demand that action be taken. But think about it, this was a total of 346 deaths in the air over about 6 months, and this was world wide. During the same time there was over 600,000 motor vehicle deaths, no outcry or demands that companies who make cars need to be held accountable, or demand cars stay in their garages.

You could say the same thing about guns or many other things. One mass casualty shooting that kills 15 people will have 1000 times more coverage and therefore calls for action, than 15 individual murders committed using  the same style weapon.

Likewise our perception is driven largely by a very small number of interactions. Think of the person whose neighbor gets Corona and dies, versus the person whose neighbor get's Corona and says, it was no big deal and recovers 100%. Now the person's neighbor was one data point among millions, yet because of our interaction with this person it may sway our view of the risk much more than that one data point really should.

3. True Fear magnifies risk immensely: Once we truly fear a situation and I mean really fear it, it doesn't matter if the risk is 1 in 10 or 1 in 10 Million, we will do anything to avoid it. I want to give an example and I hope my wife will forgive me. My wife handles situations very well. I think she does better than most at weighing risk and then making wise decisions based on those risks. As such she has handled the Corona situation in a level headed manner, that is until she read a certain article. The article was about how even though very few infants died, 10% are being hospitalized and it gave an example where because the infant had COVID the Mother had been exposed, so she was told she had to stay at home and be on quarantine and could not be with the baby at the hospital.

Being separated from her 3 month year old son is a true fear of my wife. What is the risk that it would happen? We would have to calculate the risk of the baby coming in contact with the infection, risk he gets the infection, risk he goes to the hospital, risk our hospital has the same policy as this one and won't allow her to stay...Anyway, the risk is likely very, very small. But it doesn't matter, she will do anything to avoid that situation. Shortly after she read this, I woke up at like 2 AM, my mouth had been open, so it was dry. I cleared my throat and coughed. That was it, she was convinced I had Corona. She wouldn't kiss me and debated kicking out of the bed that night. Likewise, she has increased the amount of isolation our family has. Fear of a specific outcome magnifies risk beyond their true value.

4. Every has different tolerable risks: I mentioned earlier that the Dam Safety industry has put a risk tolerance at 1 in 10,000 chance of loosing one life in a year. But that is trying to average what risk society will allow in a given industry. Every individual has different risk tolerances. And risk tolerances are a big part of all risk decisions.

5. Our Risk choices affect others: While our risk tolerance is personal, whatever risk choices we make will affect those around us. When and how we drive will affect others, our decision to engage in risky behaviors such as drug use, or open sexual behavior. All of these choices will have impact on the world around us.

6. Good risk analysis requires data- If you really want to understand the risk of an event happening. You need a lot of data to get an accurate number. Data takes money, time and effort to get, lots of it.

So, what is the point. Who is right when it comes to COVID? Everybody and nobody, or simply put, we really don't know. Let me break down how both sides are right and how both sides are wrong.

The side saying this is all a hoax and politicians and everyone else is over reacting- Clearly COVID-19 is real, people really are dying, it is clearly very contagious. We should not ignore science and we should be anxious for the new data we get as time goes on. I think this side is wrong that the media is purposely just making this up to scare us, or control us or whatever the conspiracy theory of the day is.  I think it is wise to take precautions to avoid getting infected and spreading Corona. Ignoring all the advise, to stay home, watch hands, social distance etc... is unwise.

However, this side is correct that our current judgement of this risk is based more on perception than reality, and magnified by lopsided coverage and fear. What do I mean by that? Because we are all going through this together, we as a society, watching the numbers going up day by day. Getting 24-7 news media about it etc... Our perception of this is more closely related to what would go through our mind in a mass causality situation. We naturally as stated above tolerate much less risk as a society in such situations, weather or not that is logical. Compare to the flu, we don't track every death and wonder how bad it will be every year. We don't hear about every celebrity who gets it, or every quasi-clerity who dies from it. (I have read and heard more news coverage about people who are supposedly famous, who I have never heard of, because they died of Corona than I thought possible.) But the CDC estimates that as much as 60,000 people die a year in the US with the flu. Will COVID-19 exceed that number? We really don't know. It is looking increasing likely with deaths of around 1000 a day. But, if this bug is seasonal that may drop off quickly in the next month and we may not reach that total. I have considerable hope that Nevada for instance, where I live, which has had 43 deaths, will not exceed it annual death toll from the flu (636 in 2017), but I really don't know.

The other thing that changes this is, it is a new disease, therefore it is unknown and we naturally fear the unknown. And there is some logic to this. When we go to calculate the risk we say to ourselves, what is the chances that if I get this I will die. The truth is we have no idea at this point. The world health organization put the chances at 2-3%, which is very high for a disease. Those are big enough risk numbers that we can really wrap our mind around them. But what is clear is that we really don't know how accurate this estimate is. The death rates vary wildly from country to country and state to state. Much of this is from limited testing. There is anecdotal evidence that some people get this disease and have mild to no symptoms. Given that, it is almost impossible to say what the death rate is. Are there twice as many people sick as have been tested? Ten times? 100 times? Nobody at this point really knows. And of course, the death rate varies wildly on age, health condition, past and current health choices etc...

Now for the other-side. The, take pride to stay at home and shame anyone who isn't and let's shame the politicians who aren't as cautions as I am. Maybe my problem with this side is the dirty looks I get when I go outside for a walk with my family. Yes, we are violating the don't congregate in groups of 10 rule, I have 8 kids and a wife and we decided we will still all live together despite Corona and the government suggestion. Almost every decision we make is risked based and when we make the decision we have to weigh the risk to ourselves, to those around us, and the benefits taking that risk will bring.

That is why many of us choose to shop. There is a risk associated with it, but we like food and get a general benefit from it. Some say, we all have to eat. But the truth is, most of us could buy a months worth of oatmeal and survive with no trips to the store, but we like variety in what we eat. We like and benefit from fresh food, so for our personal benefit, we risk society and ourselves and go to Costco to get our milk, bananas and chocolate chip cookies.

But should we visit our neighbors? No, No, No. I hear a group crying out, posting facebook memes to dissuade us of this evil practice. Do you hate them? You ask. Aren't you putting yourself and them at risk for no reason? I am not so sure on this one. Social, face to face interaction has many benefits. People need physical touch. I agree with my wife that separating a new born from their Mother is wrong and in that case, I think the benefits of letting them be together outweigh the risk. I worry that none of us are visiting our most vulnerable part of society because of fear or a disease we don't fully understand, this may have lasting negative consequences. More than the many deaths it would save otherwise? I don't know. I don't think any of us do.

What I do know is this? The risk varies greatly from place to place at this time. If I choose to visit my Grandma when we both live in rural Kansas and have both been socially isolating, is a lot different than if I live in New York city and have been going to work everyday in a hospital.

We also really don't know enough about this disease to accurately say what all our precautions are doing. It is clear to me that the actions we have taken will reduce the amount of lives lost from Corona. But by how much? I don't think we really have an accurate picture of that.

Governors, Mayors and our President all have some very difficult decisions to make. And they are making them will very little data, and with no time to really calculate and weigh it out. I do not envy them. There are risks to everything they do. Everyone who knows me, knows that I have my disagreements with our current President. But I am glad on this, I think he is really weighing what is best. He has had much ridicule for saying, "The cure can't be worse than the problem."  People say, "It's just money versus people lives. We are a rich economy we can afford to take a few months off." I think that is as narrow a viewpoint as the idea we should pretend Corona doesn't exist.

There are negative externalities to doing the shutdowns we have. People not working is bad for individuals and society, and not just because of money. Work makes us better. Taking a few months without working may have significant negative impacts on some, and it is impossible to know how quickly we will or won't bounce back. In addition, we may see a spike in suicides. Unfortunately, many kids are saved from abusive relationships because they go to school and even in the summer the abusive parent goes to work. We will likely see an increase in the amount of child abuse, due to stress and the situation.

Also when the US economy suffers we do get a trickle down effect and not a good one. Charitable giving will drop and many organizations will be unable to help when those in need may need it most. Many of those organizations help the poorest, most vulnerable countries. What happens when the next wave or Corona virus takes off in Africa and the much of the wealthiest countries, US and Europe are all still in the middle of a recession? Who will they turn to for medical aid, the treatments, doctors, vaccines? Our choosing to slow our economy now may save thousands of Americans only to kill millions of Africans. Do I know this? No. It's a risk.

My point in all this. We are all searching for the right thing to do. As politicians, businesses, and individuals. We need to be open to data, figuring out more so we can be better informed and make better decisions. And we need to be a little less judgmental, of our politicians, business owners and individuals. We will look back and realize we made some mistakes. We may look back and say we overreacted, or we may look back and say we under-reacted, as a society and as individuals. But let's spend more time supporting each other, building on what we get right and learning from what we get wrong, than we do tearing each other down, or shaming those who disagree with us. We need each other now more than ever.

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