On Being a Copy of Someone's Mind

Robin Hanson’s book The Age of Em is a fascinating and important book applying economic theory to analyzing a dramatic technological possibility in the future: the possibility that before we truly understand the human mind and before artificial intelligence built up from first principles can match human intelligence, we might be able to make functional, faithful, software emulations of the workings of particular human brains. Robin gives these emulations the affectionate nickname “ems.”

There is much too much in The Age of Em to talk about to fit into a single blog post. Today I will address only one issue: if a copy of your own mind is made into an em, what is the experience like once that em is started up?

At one level the answer is easy. The em that is a copy of you will act just like you and say and do the same kinds of things you would say and do if you suddenly found yourself a bit of software in a virtual world but otherwise were yourself.

As I say in “On the Effability of the Ineffable,” the mysteries we talk about are not really ineffable, because we are talking about them! (Ineffable: Beyond expression; indescribable or unspeakable.) An em that is a copy of your mind will talk about things in exactly the way you do. And what the em says and does, or readings of its brain emulating activity will be the only access anyone else has to what it is like to be that em, just as what you say and so and readings of your brain activity are the only access anyone else has to what it is like to be you.

There are two obviously important cases. (I’d be glad to hear about others.) One is if dualism is true. If there is a spirit or soul inside of you that does the experiencing, then what the experience of an em is like depends on whether ems get to have a spirit or soul or not. That then depends on facts about what the gods or natural processes that grant or produce spirits or souls do.

The other obviously important case is if our experience comes from the interactions of particles and fields that are either now or someday will be known to physics, none of which individually has any more of spirit or soul than any other particle or field. In that case, it is hard to see why ems would not experience things. Since—if they are truly faithful emulations—they would speak and act as if they are experience things at exactly the same depth as human beings, it is also hard to see why they wouldn’t be experiencing things in the same way as human beings.

But is an em that is an emulation of your brain more like another human being who is eerily like you, or more like a you? On the assumption that experience comes from particles and fields known to physics (or of the same sort as those known to physics now), and that the emulation is truly faithful, there is nothing hidden. An em that is a copy of you will feel that it is a you. Of course, if you consented to the copying process, an em that is a copy of you will have that memory, which is likely to make it aware that there is now more than one of you. But that does NOT make it not-you.

You might object that the lack of physical continuity makes the em copy of you not-you. But our sense of physical continuity with our past selves is largely an illusion. There is substantial turnover in the particular particles in us. Similarity of memory—memory now being a superset of memory earlier, minus some forgetting—is the main thing that makes me think I am the same person as a particular human being earlier in time.

Noah Smith’s religion guest post “You Are Already in the Afterlife” makes this point nicely: we continue to become different than we were before, yet consider ourselves the same person. ]

Why should I consider myself the same person as the Miles Kimball twenty years ago, who in many ways was very different in characteristics, but think an em copied from me right now and started up a minute from now, who is much more similar to me, is a different person?

Just as important, if I seem to have a continuity of conscious experience despite the fact that the particles making me up keep changing, there is no reason to deny that there is a continuity of conscious experience from me to the em that is a copy of me. The weird thing is that with such copying, there would be several different continuities of conscious experience. One line of conscious experience that ended up outside any computer and another line of conscious experience that ended up inside a computer. (Note that distance in time is not a big issue: we are used to what counts as a “continuity of consciousness” having a sleep state intervening. Being in “suspended animation” as a recorded computer state is less of an interruption than a sleep period, because a sleep period changes the state more.)

In the technological environment Robin and I are considering, after the copying event these two lines of conscious experience are isolated from one another as any two human beings are mentally isolated from one another. But these two consciousnesses that don’t have the same experience after the split are both me, with a full experience of continuity of consciousness from the past me. If one of these consciousnesses ends permanently, then one me ends but the other me continues. It is possible to both die and not die.

The fact that there can be many lines of subjectively continuous consciousness that are all me may seem strange, but it may be happening all the time anyway given the implication of quantum equations taken at face value that all kinds of quantum possibilities all happen. (This is the “Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics.”) Indeed, although one type of splitting originates in macroscopic events and the other type of splitting originates in picoscopic events or smaller, they have the same qualitative description as things that have all the same observable consequences of real splitting with all paths continuing, even if one wants to deny that it is real splitting with all paths continuing. There is complete observational equivalence.

Note that, along the lines of what I said in “On the Effability of the Ineffable,” if there is any way I can even think to myself something ineffable, that is enough brain activity that it could, in principle, be revealed to someone else. So—short of hardcore dualism with a spirit or soul—it is hard to see what distinctive magic there could be to the “true me” to distinguish it as me and the copy of me as not-me. Is being composed largely of water really the magic that makes it the real me?

And my problem with hardcore dualism is this:

  1. If a spirit or soul influences any of my decisions, then it has enough effect on particles in the brain that it should be detectable by physics with the sensitivity of instruments we have now.

  2. If a spirit or soul is affected by the body but does not itself have any effect on the body (Epiphenomenalism), then it is not through any causality from that spirit or soul the spirit or soul that we talk about because it has no causal pathway to move our mouths. God might make our bodies so they talk about our epiphenominal spirits or souls. But our spirits or souls in this case are not talking about themselves on their own behalf.

Conclusion. The bottom line is that I think an emulation of my brain would have a genuine continuity of consciousness with me as me. There would be a weirdness of there being more than one of me, or one me that ends and another me that continues, but that would be “just the way it is.”

Don’t miss these related posts:

Reza Moghadam Flags 'Enabling Deep Negative Rates to Fight Recessions' in the Financial Times

I announced Ruchir Agarwal’s and my new IMF Working Paper in “Ruchir Agarwal and Miles Kimball—Enabling Deep Negative Rates to Fight Recessions: A Guide.” We are both delighted to see Reza Moghadam flag it in a Financial Times op-ed: “The ECB must make negative interest rate policy effective.”

Below, I quote the key passage from Reza’s op-ed, with my own section headings interspersed—headings that reflect what Ruchir and I call the various issues. After that, I repeat some Twitter exchanges I have had, prompted by Reza’s op-ed; these Twitter exchanges illustrate what Ruchir and I call “the political problem” and some of the ways Ruchir and I see for partially addressing the political problem. Here is Reza:


The Bank Profits Problem and the Paper Currency Problem

… with the ECB deposit rate already minus 0.4 per cent, the scope for meaningful cuts in interest rates seems limited. This credibility problem with interest rate policy requires the ECB to overcome two obstacles.

First, as it is, banks are not fully passing on the negative rate they pay on reserves at the ECB. Of course, banks can still make profits so long as their lending rates are above their borrowing costs. But while they have passed on negative rates to corporate depositors, they have not done so to households. No bank wants to undermine its funding base or be the first mover. Other things being equal, the result is lower bank profitability or higher lending rates, which weakens policy effectiveness.

Second, even if the above issue were resolved, there remains the risk of a flight to cash: as currency guarantees a zero rate of return, significantly negative deposit rates risk a large shift from deposits to cash — thus destabilising banking and economic activity.

If the ECB is to make negative rate policy truly effective, it will need to come to grips with both the transmission problem and the flight-to-cash problem. Fortunately, there are solutions, as recently discussed in an IMF paper by the economists Ruchir Agarwal and Miles Kimball.

Addressing the Bank Profits Problem

On the transmission problem, the ECB could shield small depositors from negative rates. For example, the ECB could ensure that, say, the first €5,000 of each depositor’s account is guaranteed a minimum deposit rate of zero.

The cost of such a subsidy, which ECB data suggest would fully compensate the bottom two-thirds of households by income, would be around €15bn for each percentage point of negative rates.

This seems manageable relative to the ECB’s profits and, more importantly, the goal of transmitting monetary policy to the broader economy. Such a policy can make negative rates more politically acceptable by protecting regular households, while limiting the negative impact on bank profitability. This would also be preferable to recent proposals for “tiered” ECB rates, which benefit a narrow group of banks.

Addressing the Paper Currency Problem

On the flight-to-cash risk, cash holding can be made costly. Specifically, the ECB could impose a transaction fee — equivalent to a negative interest rate — whenever a bank approaches it to obtain currency. Banks routinely turn to the ECB for currency when customers make unexpectedly large cash withdrawals at a branch or an ATM. Citing the fee, banks should be able to pass the cost on to the public. By varying the fee at its cash window, the ECB can operate the system at any negative rate it chooses.

The Political Problem

None of this is to play down the logistical and communications challenge in moving to deeply negative interest rates …

Andreas Michalsen on Fasting

Andreas Michalsen has a new book: The Nature Cure: A Doctor’s Guide to the Science of Natural Medicine.

Link to the Amazon page for  The Nature Cure

Link to the Amazon page for The Nature Cure

His August 1, 2019 Wall Street Journal op-ed “The Fasting Cure Is No Fad” is, I assume, a teaser for his book. And that teaser for his book is all about fasting.

In addition to weight-loss, as a doctor, Andreas uses fasting to help his patients with “diabetes, high blood pressure, rheumatism and bowel diseases, as well as pain syndromes such as migraines and osteoarthritis.” He typically tells his patients to restrict themselves to no more than a ten-hour eating window each day. (In “Miles Kimball on Diet and Health: A Reader's Guide” I have links to many blog posts about fasting. I also recommend Jason Fung and Jimmy Moore’s book “The Complete Guide to Fasting.”)

Andreas lists many positive effects of fasting. Let me give a theory about how they all hang together. I’ll bet that in the environment of evolutionary adaptation our ancestors lived in before the advent of agriculture, involuntary fasting—that is, periods of time with little or no food—were quite common. As a result, many of our bodies’ systems were designed in a way that took as given that there would be frequent periods of little or no food. When people eat all the time, these systems don’t work very well.

As an analogy, think of how much the design of typical kitchen tools depends on the assumption that there will be gravity. A regular cutting board or a typical mixer wouldn’t work so well on the International Space Station! For most of our activities we take gravity for granted. And, for the most part, evolution could and often did take the existence of frequent periods of little or no food for granted—for us as well as for many other animals.

Here are some body systems that seem to work better with fasting. In the indented passages that follow, my labels are in bold; reference to relevant blog posts are in italics; the remainder of the words are Andreas’s.

For annotated links to other posts on diet and health, see “Miles Kimball on Diet and Health: A Reader's Guide.”

John Locke: If Rebellion is a Sin, It is a Sin Committed Most Often by Those in Power

Who is the rebel? The Empire or the Rebellion? John Locke says it is the Empire.    Image source   .

Who is the rebel? The Empire or the Rebellion? John Locke says it is the Empire. Image source.

In Sections 223-227 of Chapter XIX, “Of the Dissolution of Government” of his 2d Treatise on Government: Of Civil Government, John Locke is answering the objection that his doctrine “lays a ferment for frequent rebellion.” John Locke’s three answers are:

  1. People don’t need Lockean doctrine in order to rise up. They would rise up anyway if things are really bad.

  2. People don’t rise up over small things.

  3. Who is the real rebel? Those overthrowing tyrants, or those who rebel against natural law by becoming tyrants?

On the 2d answer, see “Governments Long Established Should Not—and to a Good Approximation Will Not—Be Changed for Light and Transient Causes.”

As for the 1st answer, in Section 224, John Locke writes:

§. 224. But it will be said, this hypothesis lays a ferment for frequent rebellion. To which I answer,

First, No more than any other hypothesis: for when the people are made miserable, and find themselves exposed to the ill usage of arbitrary power, cry up their governors, as much as you will, for sons of Jupiter; let them be sacred and divine, descended, or authorized from heaven: give them out for whom or what you please, the same will happen. The people generally ill treated, and contrary to right, will be ready upon any occasion to ease themselves of a burden that sits heavy upon them. They will wish, and seek for the opportunity, which in the change, weakness and accidents of human affairs, seldom delays long to offer itself. He must have lived but a little while in the world, who has not seen examples of this in his time: and he must have read very little, who cannot produce examples of it in all sorts of governments in the world.

As for the 3d answer, here is how John Locke puts his challenge “Who is the real rebel? The tyrant or those rising up to restore the social contract?"

§. 226. Thirdly, I answer, that this doctrine of a power in the people of providing for their safety, anew, by a new legislative, when their legislators have acted contrary to their trust, by invading their property, is the best fence against rebellion, and the probablest means to hinder it: for rebellion being an opposition, not to persons, but authority, which is founded only in the constitutions and laws of the government; those, whoever they be, who by force break through, and by force justify their violation of them, are truly and properly rebels: for when men, by entering into society and civil government, have excluded force, and introduced laws for the preservation of property, peace, and unity amongst themselves, those who set up force again in opposition to the laws, do rebellare, that is, bring back again the state of war, and are properly rebels: which they who are in power, (by the pretence they have to authority, the temptation of force they have in their hands, and the flattery of those about them) being likeliest to do; the properest way to prevent the evil, is to shew them the danger and injustice of it, who are under the greatest temptation to run into it.

§. 227. In both the forementioned cases, when either the legislative is changed, or the legislators act contrary to the end for which they were constituted; those who are guilty are guilty of rebellion: for if any one by force takes away the established legislative of any society, and the laws by them made, pursuant to their trust, he thereby takes away the umpirage, which every one had consented to, for a peaceable decision of all their controversies, and a bar to the state of war amongst them. They, who remove, or change, the legislative, take away this decisive power, which nobody can have, but by the appointment and consent of the people; and so destroying the authority which the people did, and nobody else can set up, and introducing a power which the people hath not authorized, they actually introduce a state of war, which is that of force without authority: and thus, by removing the legislative established by the society, (in whose decisions the people acquiesced and united, as to that of their own will) they untie the knot, and expose the people anew to the state of war. And if those, who by force take away the legislative, are rebels, the legislators themselves, as has been shewn, can be no less esteemed so; when they, who were set up for the protection, and preservation of the people, their liberties and properties, shall by force invade and endeavour to take them away; and so they putting themselves into a state of war with those who made them the protectors and guardians of their peace, are properly, and with the greatest aggravation, rebellantes, rebels.

I consider the heart of these two sections to be this passage:

… men, by entering into society and civil government, have excluded force, and introduced laws for the preservation of property, peace, and unity amongst themselves, those who set up force again in opposition to the laws, do rebellare, that is, bring back again the state of war, and are properly rebels: which they who are in power, (by the pretence they have to authority, the temptation of force they have in their hands, and the flattery of those about them) being likeliest to do; …

For links to other John Locke posts, see these John Locke aggregator posts: 

Donald Trump May Finally Get People to Realize the Fed is Responsible for What Happens with the Business Cycle, Not the President or Congress

Throughout my career as a macroeconomics professor (now 32 years since my PhD), I have been dismayed by the lack of understanding that it is the Fed, not the President of the United States or Congress that should be blamed and praised for recessions and recoveries. Occasionally, the Fed doesn’t do its job well, and actions of the President of the United States and Congress can help, as when Barack Obama got through congress a stimulus bill during the Great Recession. And, of course, the Fed’s existence, independence and some aspects of its toolkit depend on Congressional authorization. But as long as the Fed is given the power it needs to tame the business cycle (see “How and Why to Eliminate the Zero Lower Bound: A Reader’s Guide”), it is the Fed that should be held accountable for the business cycle.

There are three big problems with what until very recently was the political reality that the President faced the electoral consequences of the business cycle, even though dealing with the business cycle is the Fed’s responsibility (a responsibility for which it has been given great power and independence).

First, inappropriately given the President of the United States credit or blame for the business cycle diverts attention from judging how a president is doing in dealing with long-run economic issues, foreign-policy issues, cultural issues and in setting a good example of personal behavior for the nation.

Second, even if people also paid attention to all those other dimensions of presidential performance, giving the president credit or blame for the current state of the business cycle adds a lot of random noise to evaluations of the president.

Third, giving credit or blame to the president makes it too easy for the Fed to duck responsibility. It pains me to hear the Fed or any central bank call for fiscal stimulus as a way to duck responsibility for cutting interest rates as much as necessary to stabilize the economy. I recognize that needed interest rate cuts, like needed interest rate hikes, often subject the Fed and other central banks to a lot of criticism. But just as you shouldn’t accept an appointment to the Federal Reserve Board or to be President of one of the regional Federal Reserve Banks if you can’t stand the heat that comes from raising interest rates if necessary to head off excessive inflation, you shouldn’t accept an appointment to the Federal Reserve Board or to be President of one of the regional Federal Reserve Banks if you can’t stand the heat that comes from cutting interest rates—even to negative rates if necessary—if that is what is required to get speedy economic recovery.

There is now hope—from an unexpected source—that the American public will begin to understand that it is the Fed, not the President or Congress, that is responsible for the business cycle. Donald Trump’s frequent criticism of the Fed, while often misguided, does put responsibility for the business cycle in the Fed’s lap. Of course, Donald Trump is not 100% consistent in this. If the business cycle situation looks good, he wants to take credit; if the business cycle situation looks bad, he wants to shift the blame to the Fed. Overall, however, Donald Trump has been more vocal in shifting the onus of managing the business cycle from the President of the United States to the Fed than any other president since the founding of the Fed.

As I have emphasized many times, monetary policy is limited in its power. It can tame the business cycle. But it can’t do much about long-run economic growth or the long-run interest rate, let alone solve all the many problems we face—such as the rise in obesity or nuclear proliferation—that don’t show up directly in GDP.

Even to tame the business cycle, the Fed does need support from the president and Congress.

First, the Fed needs an extensive toolkit that includes being able to use negative rates and to modify paper currency policy as necessary to accommodate negative rates. (Again, see “How and Why to Eliminate the Zero Lower Bound: A Reader’s Guide.”) It is an interesting and nonobvious legal question (which I am teaming up with a law professor to try to answer) if the Fed already has this power or not. If it does already have the power to use negative rates and modify paper currency policy, then support for the Fed’s ability to tame the business cycle would involve not passing legislation to take that power away.

Second, the Fed needs appointees who understand how to use interest rates to tame the business cycle. Here, Donald Trump falls short. He has made some good nominations for the Fed, but quite a few bad suggestions of people to nominate for the Fed (some only as trial balloons without a formal nomination). Fortunately, there is hope that the Senate will do its job of putting a reasonably high floor under the quality of appointments to the Fed.

Although monetary policy could be greatly improved compared to current practice—see “Next Generation Monetary Policy”—it is my view that it has, indeed, improved over time. In that view, I include the 2008-2016 period in which monetary policy outcomes were quite bad, but the Fed and other central banks were innovating rapidly under trying circumstances.

The bar is higher for the future, however. The Fed, like other central banks, now has a playbook for getting as much monetary stimulus as necessary in any future recession in three papers I have been involved in, plus related papers by others. Here are my three:

We do the Fed and other central banks no favors by ever letting them off the hook for their job of keeping inflation steady at a carefully chosen target rate and keeping output and employment at the natural level. We deserve courage and excellence in monetary policy. Everyone who has a hand in monetary policy decision-making should feel that responsibility keenly. They are collectively blameworthy if they don’t deliver (though individuals involved in that decision-making who were overruled might in some cases be heroes even if collectively monetary policy makers failed us).

Maintaining Weight Loss

I write in “3 Achievable Resolutions for Weight Loss” and “4 Propositions on Weight Loss” on how to get started with losing weight.

3 Achievable Resolutions for Weight Loss:

  1. Go Off Sugar

  2. Choose and Keep To an Eating Window Shorter than 16 Hours a Day—With Appropriate Exceptions

  3. Come Up with an Inspirational and Informative Reading Program to Help with Weight Loss

4 Propositions on Weight Loss:

  1. Eating nothing leads to weight loss.

  2. For healthy, nonpregnant, nonanorexic adults who find it relatively easy, fasting for up to 48 hours is not dangerous—as long as the dosage of any medication they are taking is adjusted for the fact that they are fasting.

  3. Eating sugar, bread, rice and potatoes makes most people feel hungry a couple of hours later. People who have, by and large, quit eating sugar, bread, rice and potatoes can notice this effect on the rare occasions that they do eat a substantial amount of sugar, bread, rice or potatoes. Moreover, if they pay attention, those who have quit eating sugar, bread, rice and potatoes can notice which other foods cause them to feel hungry a couple of hours later.

  4. Two months or so after quitting eating sugar, bread, rice, potatoes—and all the other foods and beverages that make them feel hungry a couple of hours later—a large fraction of people will then find fasting relatively easy.

Keeping the Weight Off

But what about when you succeed at losing weight? How can you keep the weight off? Here is my answer, in three sections:

  • Make sure you lose the weight as painlessly as possible in the first place

  • Realize that your body can now get by on much less food than you ever imagined possible

  • Fast however much you need to in order to keep your weight steady

A. Make sure you lose the weight as painlessly as possible in the first place

The current incarnation of the Wikipedia article “Yo-yo effect” gives this mechanism for people who diet, lose weight, but then bounce back up to a higher weight:

The reasons for yo-yo dieting are varied but often include embarking upon a hypocaloric diet that was initially too extreme. At first the dieter may experience elation at the thought of weight loss and pride in their rejection of food. Over time, however, the limits imposed by such extreme diets cause effects such as depression or fatigue that make the diet impossible to sustain. Ultimately, the dieter reverts to their old eating habits, now with the added emotional effects of failing to lose weight by restrictive diet. Such an emotional state leads many people to eating more than they would have before dieting, causing them to rapidly regain weight.

I want to take issue with the words “too extreme.” It is not the extremity of a diet as judged by someone else that matters here, but the amount of pain a dieter suffers that matters. If you experience a lot of physical suffering from a diet you are (a) probably following a physically harmful diet and (b) setting yourself up for weight gain later on because of the backlog of feelings of deprivation you will have built up. By “physical suffering,” I mean the starvation response. There are two ways to get thrown into the starvation response. One is to have almost no body fat to fall back on. (I touch on anorexia in “Don't Tar Fasting by those of Normal or High Weight with the Brush of Anorexia.”) The other is to have high insulin levels that lock fat in your fat cells, so that your cells feel starved, even though you have plenty of body fat. (This can be a matter of degree: presumably there are intermediate insulin levels at which some body fat is burned to nourish your body, but less than would ideally be called for.)

Either way, serious physical suffering during a diet is a bad sign. I’m not talking about (i) withdrawal pangs from going off sugar (which are normal), (ii) the discomfort when your body is shifting over from metabolizing the nutrients in what you usually eat to metabolizing your own body fat (which you might feel during the first day or so of fasting) or (iii) yearnings for particular foods or food in general because food can be so delicious and fun (or because you saw, smelled or were reminded of food by someone else). I’m talking about feeling starved—which can happen as soon as a few hours after eating something very high on the insulin index. (See “Forget Calorie Counting; It's the Insulin Index, Stupid.”)

The bottom line is this: don’t try to diet without giving up sugar and other foods high on the insulin index. If you do, your diet is likely to be a hellish experience, and you may have a psychological backlash that undoes your dieting efforts and more.

(Can you occasionally cheat? People differ in how well that works for them psychologically. And cheating with a very, very small quantity is obviously not the same as going whole hog. But my advice is to go cold turkey in giving up sugar—and potatoes, rice and bread—for a long time and only allow small amounts of cheating when you are deep into the maintenance phase. And if you do ever cheat, notice carefully and honestly what the effects are. Do you feel hungrier in the next 24 hours after you cheated? My prediction is that having an entire “cheat day” once a week as I have heard some people advocate is going to make your diet much more miserable than if you don’t do a cheat day.)

Making weight loss as painless as possible is likely to be so important to avoiding a yo-yo bounceback in your weight that, even if your current diet seems to be working well when you look at the scale, I recommend that you switch immediately to a low-insulin-index diet, starting by giving up sugar.

B. Realize that your body can now get by on much less food than you ever imagined possible

I am very critical of calorie-counting as an entry-point into weight loss: see “Obesity Is Always and Everywhere an Insulin Phenomenon” and “Forget Calorie Counting; It's the Insulin Index, Stupid.” But an awareness of calories can play a useful role after you have lost weight in helping you maintain weight loss. Here is how I put it in “How Low Insulin Opens a Way to Escape Dieting Hell” (emphasis added):

Once you have your insulin levels low enough through switching to low-insulin-index foods and having big chunks of time with no food at all, your body will be open to the possibility of burning body fat. Then and only then will you get the results people naively think they will get based on the usual calories in/calories out logic. But what you will find is that with your body open to the possibility of burning body fat, you won’t suffer from having substantial chunks of time with no food and having your total calorie intake from the outside world low. The reason is that a calorie from burning your own fat is just as good as a calorie from food you are eating now in keeping you well nourished and feeling good.

… weight-loss efforts that lack the key element of keeping your insulin levels low are likely to fail, and cause you a lot of misery on the road to failure as well as the disappointment of failure as the destination. If you do what it takes to keep your insulin levels low, people might well say “Of course that worked! You were avoiding sugar, refined carbohydrates and processed food, and going substantial chunks of time without eating!” But if they keep to the conventional wisdom that only focuses on calories-in/calories-out (and in the usual approach, inevitably ignoring many subtleties even about the calories out and about the detailed genesis of temptations for calories in), they won’t have as good an explanation for why what other people try doesn’t work in the long run.

Let me give some examples of how some awareness of calories is helpful, as long as you are doing everything else right first:

  1. True nuts are very healthy. See “Our Delusions about 'Healthy' Snacks—Nuts to That!” You shouldn’t get food cravings after eating true nuts in the way you would after eating sugar. But nuts also don’t seem to generate a strong satiation signal. It is relatively easy to keep eating more and more simply because they are delicious, even without the type of cravings one would get from less healthy food.

  2. Cream, by contrast, is quite satiating. So, unless you are pushing yourself to feeling overfull (a genuine issue) having cream as part of your meals is, in my view, fine. Cream can also be, say, used in tea or coffee on a fasting day without jacking up your insulin and therefore without making you hungry. But I have been wondering if the amount of cream I have consumed on many fasting days provided enough calories to seriously blunt my weight loss from those days. I worry that milk would jack up insulin more than cream, so what I am trying to do is reduce the amount of cream I use in tea or coffee, and more often go without any cream.

It is a hotly debated question, but there is some evidence that low-carb eating can rev up calorie-burning. (I suspect it is really low-insulin-index eating doing the trick. See “Why a Low-Insulin-Index Diet Isn't Exactly a 'Lowcarb' Diet.”) If you want to delve into that debate, see:

However, even if low-insulin-index eating by itself revs up calorie-burning, losing weight leads to less calorie burning. See “Kevin D. Hall and Juen Guo: Why it is so Hard to Lose Weight and so Hard to Keep it Off.” Over time, when your body sees less food coming in, it gets more efficient at metabolizing the food that does come in. So you need fewer calories to keep your body going vigorously than you used before. The bottom line is that you need to adjust your expectations for what is a normal amount to eat. After losing weight, you are likely to find that you can eat remarkably little in total without suffering physically and without losing any more weight.

Many people see their body getting more efficient at getting by on relatively little food as an unmitigated curse. I see it differently. The less food my healthy cells are getting by on, the less food there is to help any cancer cells or precancer cells in my body to thrive. Since cancer cells tend to be metabolically damaged, they are likely to do badly in competition with healthy cells if food availability inside my body is limited. (And the nutrients that come from body fat being metabolized are not the ideal food for metabolically handicapped cancer cells.) On this way of thinking about the relationship between getting by vigorously with only a little food and cancer, see:

C. Fast however much you need to in order to keep your weight steady

Fasting—having periods of time during which you don’t eat, but drink water, tea and coffee—doesn’t need to be on any regular schedule. But you will need to do a certain total amount of fasting to keep your weight steady—and even more if you still want to lose more weight. (Note: I discuss modified fasting in “Forget Calorie Counting; It's the Insulin Index, Stupid.” Modified fasting has a somewhat muted effect from having some calorie intake, but it works too. You will just need to do somewhat more of it than if you were doing full-out fasting.)

I am a strong advocate of the idea that, to keep a pattern of eating sustainable, it is important to accommodate social occasions in which people eat together. (It is usually possible to find low-insulin-index food to eat at most restaurants and in most banquets or spreads.) Personally, I have enough social occasions involving food that I participate in, and my body has become efficient enough getting by with relatively little food, that it takes a lot of fasting to keep my weight even. But, as I have emphasized in my whole run of diet and health posts, fasting is not painful for me. And I think that for most adults, after they have adapted to a low-insulin-index diet, there exists for them some form of modified fast that will not be painful, yet will have a strongly negative energy balance that can neutralize the effect of other days that have a positive energy balance.

The key is to alternate fasting with feasting. The more feasting you do, the more fasting you will need to do. But as long as you eat low on the insulin index, and modify your fasts (within the parameters of what I talk about in “Forget Calorie Counting; It's the Insulin Index, Stupid”) according to what works for you, personally, the alternation between feasting and fasting should go smoothly.

It is worth giving one simple example of a modified fast. If you can be strict during the rest of the day, but are a light enough sleeper so that even a modest amount of hunger can interfere with falling asleep, on a day you are fasting you may want to plan on eating a quarter cup of macadamia nuts and maybe a cup of tea with cream before bed.

Figure out the minimum quantity of very-low-insulin-index food you need to eat on a day you are fasting in order to keep things reasonably pleasant. The more calories worth of very-low-insulin-index food you eat on a day of modified fasting, the more days of modified fasting you will need to do to keep your weight even, but on the other hand, those days may be enough more pleasant that more of them is a good tradeoff.

You can also tradeoff the amount of you eat on a typical day of modified fasting and number of modified fasting days against how much you feast on low-insulin-index food on eating days. My advice is that, psychologically, it is very valuable to have days when you feel like you are feasting. Don’t hold back too much! Your gustatory life will be quite drab otherwise. But there may be some sacrifice you can make on an eating day that is not much of a sacrifice at all.

Ultimately, how much fasting or modified fasting you will need to do is an empirical matter. It is what it is. You might not like the findings from your experiments in how much fasting or modified fasting it takes to keep your weight steady given your patterns of eating on eating days and your mode of modified fasting. But that’s the way it is. My claim is that if you are eating low on the insulin index that you will be able to fast or do modified fasting enough to do the trick without any of the true suffering that dieters using other techniques so commonly experience.

The amount of fasting of modified fasting you need to maintain your weight loss may require a fair amount of self-discipline. You may need to exercise some creativity to figure out a form of modified fasting that works for you. You may need to exercise some creativity to make sure that your feasting is fun enough that you can see your way through to continuing what you are doing of something like it for the rest of your life. But the rewards are great: not just weight loss, but better health on many dimensions. By the time you reach my age—now 58—you’ll realize how precious good health is. People say “Time is money.” Here I am saying “Health is time.” And time is much more than money—it is a key input to almost everything you want.

For annotated links to other posts on diet and health, see “Miles Kimball on Diet and Health: A Reader's Guide.”

On the Effability of the Ineffable

Ineffable: Beyond expression; indescribable or unspeakable.

There is a paradox in the use of the word “ineffable”: by saying that something cannot be described, the word “ineffable” often points to a common human experience—and thereby communicates. And this is not so different from ordinary words. Many ordinary words are only understandable because of the common human experience and common human nature that we share. (That is the theme of my Linguistics Master’s Thesis. See “Miles's Linguistics Master's Thesis: The Later Wittgenstein, Roman Jakobson and Charles Saunders Peirce.”) Similarly, things that are called “ineffable,” like the pleasure of a sunset, or a mystical experience in a religious context that regularly produces such mystical experiences in coreligionists, or consciousness, are understandable to the many people who share those experiences due to their human nature. (Don’t miss my sermon “The Mystery of Consciousness.”)

One of the big jobs of the Humanities is precisely to express what had previously been ineffable—to be able to point to or evoke feelings and thereby given them a name, even if the name is the length of a novel.

The subject matter of the Humanities is also reachable by science. If anything can be expressed in words or in a painting or in music, then multimedia surveys can ask about it. And once a survey can ask about it, it can be quantified. A good thing, too! Because continuing to improve human welfare at some point involves helping people grab hold of more of the wondrous intangible things that they want. I am proud to be heavily involved in research in the economics of happiness—which is really not just about happiness alone, but about all the wondrous and the quotidian, intangible and tangible things people want.

Other Related Posts:

Brent Cebul: Supply-Side Liberalism: Fiscal Crisis, Post-Industrial Policy, and the Rise of the New Democrats

This has relatively little to do with my brand of “Supply-Side Liberalism,” but given the coincidence of the name, I thought I would post the link in case someone is interested. Here is the abstract:

A new generation of liberals emerged in the 1970s, a decade of stagflation, deindustrialization, global capital flight, and public sector fiscal crises. Prevailing interpretations of New Democrats like Bill Clinton and Michael Dukakis explain their emphasis on entrepreneurialism and post-industrial sectors as the byproduct of cynical electoral strategies of “triangulation,” that is, primarily as a reaction to the rise of Reagan Republicanism. This article instead positions their political economy as part of a much longer history of liberals’ efforts to restructure the economy in order to stimulate new jobs and tax revenues that might also generate public revenue and support a progressive policy agenda. With roots in local, state, and regional industrial policies inspired by the New Deal, “supply-side liberalism” reemerged with force in the 1970s and 1980s, revealing heretofore unappreciated continuities that contextualize and clarify the origins of New Democrats’ promotion of a set of seemingly “neoliberal” economic policies.

Against the Gold Standard

On Twitter, for the most part, the only people who talk about the gold standard are those who are in favor of it. In addition to those who mention the gold standard explicitly, anyone who says that the free market should be setting the interest rate even in the short run, with no intervention of a central bank, have to be either talking about a commodity money system—I think. I think a commodity money system would be a huge mistake, but like the sound of “the free market setting rates.” So I would be very interested in hearing about any scheme to have the free market set interest rates even in the short run that did not involve a commodity money system. (Note that cryptocurrency does not avoid having a central bank. The bitcoin algorithm is, in effect, a central bank for bitcoin. Bitcoin has a robot central bank.)

I have been a foe of the gold standard most of my life: ever since I had any opinion on the gold standard at all. The basic problem with the gold standard is the problem of instruments and targets. With the interest rate and money supply combined, we can target one thing. Should that one thing really be the price of gold? Wouldn’t we rather have it be the price of the basket of commodities in the consumer price index, say? And with price adjustment being so slow, do we really want to totally dismiss the idea of keeping output and employment at the natural level? And given the (approximately true) “Divine Coincidence” that keeping output and employment at the natural level keeps inflation steady at any chosen inflation rate, wouldn’t we want to have output and employment at the natural level and inflation equal to zero—absolute price stability? You can’t have absolute price stability and have a gold standard! The price of gold will always fluctuate relative to the basket of goods for the consumer price index.

Many supporters of the gold standard believe that central banks are inherently inflationary. That is certainly true for some central banks, but a large number of central banks now have anti-inflationary attitudes written deep into their DNA. In her July 28, 2019 Politico article “Trump Fed pick’s push for gold troubles lawmakers,” Victoria Guida says it well:

While even [Donald Trump’s intended Fed nominee Judy] Shelton agrees that the U.S. is nowhere near being on track to returning to a gold standard, which was fully abandoned by President Richard Nixon in 1971, the idea has maintained popularity in certain conservative and libertarian circles as a way to increase the dollar’s stability.

That's particularly true among those with a strong distrust of the Fed — a camp that includes Shelton.

While both the 2012 and 2016 Republican Party platforms called for a new commission to consider fixing the dollar’s value to a precious metal, most economists argue that returning to gold would prevent the central bank from acting in the best interest of the economy. They also say it would attempt to aggressively head off a problem that hasn’t existed for decades: runaway inflation.

Obsessing about a supposed strong inflationary bias on the part of major central banks is fighting monetary policy’s last war: defeating the Great Inflation of the 1970s. The current monetary policy war we are in is a war against the threat of deflation or a recurrence of the Great Recession. And there are many other future battles to fight in monetary policy, including getting a monetary policy framework that can make it safe to have zero inflation instead of 2%-4% per year. (See “The Costs and Benefits of Repealing the Zero Lower Bound...and Then Lowering the Long-Run Inflation Target” and “Next Generation Monetary Policy.”)

Quotations from interviews and other reporting Victoria does in “Trump Fed pick’s push for gold troubles lawmakers” are worth repeating:

  • The gold standard would probably shatter a lot of people’s dreams around the world right now. … There was a reason to get off of it.” —Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), a key member of the Banking Committee

  • Support for tying the dollar to gold's value makes a Fed candidate “manifestly unqualified, in the same way I wouldn’t have a surgeon general who supported leeches and bloodletting,” said Jason Furman, a Harvard professor and former chief economist to President Barack Obama. “It handcuffs the Fed and locks them into focusing on an objective that has no underlying reality, which is the price of the dollar relative to gold.”

  • “I don’t think it’s relevant,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said when asked about her views on gold, adding that there was no need to focus on “controversial statements” [that Judy Shelton made about the gold standard]

  • George Selgin, an economist at Cato, is sympathetic to the goals of gold standard supporters but doesn’t agree with their solution.

  • In 2012, the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business asked 40 prominent economists whether a return to the gold standard would be better for the average American. All of them said no.

Once upon a time, a commodity standard for money was better than what preceded it. That time is long past. Today, the gold standard is a bad idea that deserves its place in history—not a place in the present. Back in the 1930s, weakening the gold standard was the most important economic policy move Franklin Delano Roosevelt did in order to get the United States out of the Great Depression. By handcuffing monetary policy, the gold standard was a bad idea during the Great Depression, and would be a bad idea now, likely to bring a return to a new depression if not quickly abandoned.

Other links about the gold standard:

Did the Gold Standard Help Bring Hitler to Power? (Twitter Round Table)

Matthew O'Brien versus the Gold Standard

Stephen Cechetti and Kermit Schoenholtz: Why a Gold Standard is Bad

Alexander Trentin and Sandro Rosa Interview Miles Kimball: Clinging to Paper Money is Like Clinging to Gold

Additional links about “gold”:

Tim Harford: It’s Tough Turning Ideas into Gold

xkcd Webcomic on the Pot of Gold at the End of the Rainbow 

Gold, Electronic Money, and the Determinants of the Prices of Storable Commodities from the Ground

Links about cryptocurrency:

Governments Can and Should Beat Bitcoin at Its Own Game

Danny Vinik's Interview with Miles Kimball for Business Insider: There’s an Electronic Currency that Could Save the Economy—and It’s Not Bitcoin

Negative Interest Rates and When Robots Will Set Monetary Policy: George Samman Interviews Miles Kimball

What Bitcoin Tells Us about Electronic Money

Susan Athey on Bitcoin as a Medium of Exchange

Cryptocurrencies: Is the Dollar Doomed? Video of a Discussion Between Miles Kimball, Justin Wolfers and Matt Yglesias on Electronic Money

Cryptocurrency Conference Tweets

Diego Espinosa and Miles Kimball on Bitcoin and Electronic Money

The Most Exciting Thing About Bitcoin Isn't Bitcoin

Izabella Kaminska's Latest Critique of Bitcoin: "The Hubble Bubble Theory of the Continuous Expansion of the Financial Universe"