Alexander Trentin Interviews Miles Kimball on Next Generation Monetary Policy

I have been pleased with all of Alexander Trentin's interviews of me. The previous interviews are here:

Also, let me highlight this piece by Alexander:

My post "Improvements in Productivity Need to Be Accommodated by Monetary Policy" prompted Alexander's latest interview. Our discussion ranged widely, centering around the recommendations for monetary policy that I give in my paper "Next Generation Monetary Policy." Below the line is the edited text of the interview in English. I am grateful for permission to mirror these texts here. The links to the text of the interview on the original website are above under the screen shot at the top of this post.

This is Alexander's summary: 

Miles Kimball, professor of economics at the University of Colorado Boulder, is one of the main proponents for deep negative interest rates as a monetary policy instrument. In an interview with «Finanz und Wirtschaft», he argues that central banks are misguided when the try to smooth the path of interest rates. Monetary policy should be more active with large swings in interest rates. His view is that «stable prices and low unemployment are the things which matter for economic welfare» – not stable interest rates. Miles Kimball publishes a popular economics blog, «Confessions of a Supply-side Liberal».

Professor Kimball, you argue for deep negative interest rates as a tool for monetary policy. Now the Fed has moved to raise rates. Do you think it is regrettable that the pressure on central banks to innovate in monetary policy has gone?
Central banks still should keep working hard thinking about how to expand the monetary policy toolkit. It is their job to be ready for the next recession. They shouldn’t just pat themselves on the back that the economy finally climbed out of the Great Recession and its aftermath. Things might have been worse if it hadn’t been for monetary policy innovations such as Quantitative Easing, QE. But in absolute terms it was a terrible performance for monetary policy with very bad outcomes. Next time such a performance would be totally unacceptable. I worry that central bankers think that now they figured everything out—that it is good enough to use the same approach next time.

Why was it that Quantitative Easing was implemented relatively quickly, but not deep negative rates?
The conceptual framework for Quantitative Easing was already sitting there in 2008, but the framework for deep negative rates was not ready. I hope I contributed somewhat toward getting the conceptual framework for deep negative rates ready for the next time it is needed. I worry that the concept of deep negative rates has to compete with QE in the future. If the concept had been ready in 2008, things might have played out better.

In Switzerland we have quite low interest rates already. Is the Swiss National Bank ready to go deeper?
The Swiss National Bank is very sophisticated in its understanding of negative rate policy, including what needs to be done to effectively implement deep negative rates. When I visited the Swiss National Bank in late 2016, they demonstrated a thorough understanding of my approach and my arguments. But, as they emphasized, the Swiss National Bank operates under serious legal and political constraints. That there could be a referendum on anything is very much on their minds.

In June Swiss people will vote on such a referendum. The proponents of «Vollgeld» – similar to 100%-reserve banking – want to prohibit banks from creating money when issuing new loans. What is your opinion on that?
I don’t have any objection in principle against this initiative. In theory, as long as the central bank creates enough base money to keep the overall money supply the same, such a proposal can work. Fractional-reserve banking is mainly a way to throw seigniorage to the private banks. In 100%-reserve banking, the government keeps all the seigniorage for itself. Implementing such a reform will take an adjustment process. There are unknowns, but to experiment with theoretically reasonable things might be valuable. On the other hand, there is more cautious and also reasonable view «If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.»

I think the Swiss people might not like the idea to be part of an experiment in monetary policy.
Presumably somebody thinks there is an upside to 100%-reserve banking, or they wouldn’t be advocating it. Why do people advocate a «Yes» vote on this referendum?

One argument is that it makes the financial system safer as bail-outs of banks would not be necessary anymore.
I wish they would devote their energies to something that can do a lot more for the safety of the financial system than that! If you want to make the banking system safer, you should advocate dramatically higher capital requirements. I explain this to my students with toppling dominoes. You can compare the ratio of capital to a bank’s balance sheet to the width of a domino. If a bank has only 3% equity relative to your balance sheet, that’s comparable to a very thin domino and it falls over easily. If you have 30% equity, that would be a very fat domino which would not fall over easily. Even if one falls over, it will not propagate the same way, as other dominoes will not be affected so easily.

You argue for a very active monetary policy which could result in large swings of interest rates. Would it not make sense to aim for stable interest rates?
The goal for monetary policy is not to stabilize interest rates, but to stabilize prices and employment. Stable prices and low unemployment are the things which matter for economic welfare. Forward guidance by central banks is much less necessary if they say that there could be large swings in interest rates for short periods of time whenever needed. Central banks have a desire to smooth interest rates – and I strongly believe this is misguided.

But financial markets react strongly even to small changes in rates.
Central banks are cognitively captured by the financial industry in their concern with having smooth interest rates. Those in the financial industry want to have a placid life. They would have to get used to large movements in rates. The economy overall ought to be more stable after people get used to this new style of monetary policy. If interest rates move, it would be for a short period of time. Once people understood that, they would react less strongly to any given movement in interest rates.  Today every quarter point move signals a big changes in the path of interest rates for the future. In my proposal, people would infer less for the future path of interest rates from interest rate movements now. They would not have to read the tea leaves so carefully.

What role does the exchange rate play in your ideal monetary policy framework? The SNB is looking at the exchange rate when conducting monetary policy.
What applies to the interest rate also applies to the exchange rate. It should not be a goal for monetary policy. When there are shocks to the exchange rate because of capital flows, a central bank would need to react to that. But this is not because of what happens to the exchange rate, but because of what happens to prices and unemployment.

In one of your papers you argue that monetary policy should take technological progress into account. Why should central banks think about such long-term developments as technological progress?
Shocks to technology, which are defined as unpredictable movements in productivity, can matter in the short term. Real business cycle theory is an extreme which argues that business cycles are mostly caused by technology shocks. I don’t believe that. But I think technology shocks matter in the short run. There are substantial fluctuations in technology.

How can that be?
One might think that technology improves only gradually. The data seems to say otherwise. There can be speedy changes in technology. What shows up as a technology shock in the aggregate data is  not the invention of new things, but rather the adoption of a new approach by a large share of businesses in some sector of the economy. Economists define technology very broadly. It doesn’t have to be high tech, it can be any new way of organizing production that allows more output to be produced with the same inputs or the same amount of output to be produced by fewer inputs. Adoption follows an S-shaped curve: First there are only a few early adopters, but later on the adoption curve becomes very steep.

That means at one point in time there can be rapid changes in technology?
Robert Solow said in 1987, you can see the computer revolution everywhere but in the productivity statistics. But the productivity growth was coming later. For example, the spread of e-mail allowed a bigger span of control. One manager could have more direct-reports. As a result, companies didn’t need as many levels of managers, and many mid-level managers became obsolete.

Another nice example of a big change in technology that is easy to understand is the containerization of shipping. Having standardized containers that could go straight from ships to the back of a truck dramatically improved the efficiency of transporting goods.

What is the right response of monetary policy to an improvement in technology?
If you need less factor inputs to produce the same economic output, you can have the same output with fewer people, which would create unemployment. Or you can produce more with the same level of employment and overall, people are richer. Monetary policy determines if a major technology improvement leads to unemployment or not.

So the effects of technological change on employment can be neutralized by central banks?
Even if monetary policy is done right, there will be shifts in employment and pains of adjustment. Some people need to find new jobs as sub-sectors made obsolete by technological improvements need less labor. Some people’s wages will go up and some people’s wages will go down. But it is completely unnecessary for technological improvement to create more unemployment overall. If there is an increase in unemployment overall after a technogical improvement, the central bank hasn’t done enough to increase aggregate demand when facing increased aggregate supply.

Did central banks do this wrong in the past?
In theory, improvements in the efficiency of producing machines should result in a stronger boom, because investment should increase. But the US data do not show this: There is a larger improvement if there is an improvement in producing non-durable consumption goods. One plausible reason for this is that the Fed was staring at the consumption deflator. If productivity in manufacturing nondurable consumption goods goes up, consumer prices fall and the Fed shifts to a more expansionary monetary policy. A comparable reduction in the prices of machines for factories didn’t show up as a decline in the consumption deflator, so the Fed underreacted, leading to unemployment.

So they did not do the right thing in response to improvements in the productivity of producing investment goods such as machines?
Right. Theory tells us that prices of investment goods should be more important for monetary policy than their share of GDP would seem to indicate. But a central bank staring only at the consumption deflator is treating investment goods as less important than their share in GDP would suggest.

Unfortunately, the literature on sticky prices, which is an important basis for monetary policy, have emphasized the importance of consumer goods prices and neglected investment good prices. Also, most models of optimal monetary policy don’t have investment goods in them at all. This is a big problem with these models.

So what has all this meant for how monetary policy is done in practice?
Central banks have to keep the price level stable. But what the US data shows is that after a technology improvement inflation typically went down. Inflation shouldn’t go down, if a central bank is doing the right thing. Inflation should be stabilized. It is a monetary policy mistake to have inflation decline after a technological improvement. There are a lot of early warnings that a technological improvement is coming if central banks look carefully. Due to the S-shaped adoption curve, you see early on when firms first start to adopt new technologies. You should be able to see early adoption a couple of years before the steep part of the S-curve when a technology quickly becomes widespread.


Magic Bullets vs. Multifaceted Interventions for Economic Stimulus, Economic Development and Weight Loss

                                               image source for the silver bullets above

                                            image source for the silver bullets above

In "Obesity Is Always and Everywhere an Insulin Phenomenon," and the podcast "Miles Kimball Explains to Tracy Alloway and Joe Weisenthal Why Losing Weight Is Like Defeating Inflation" I compared successful weight loss to defeating inflation. In this post I reverse the direction of the analogy and compare successful weight loss to providing what it would have taken to get out of the Great Recession, as I laid out in "America's Big Monetary Policy Mistake: How Negative Interest Rates Could Have Stopped the Great Recession in Its Tracks."

Sometimes there is an intervention so powerful that it can solve a particular type of problem regardless of the specific causes of the problem and with only minimal assistance from complementary tools. For example, when economic stimulus is called for, deep enough interest rate cuts can provide the needed stimulus. As the posts linked in "How and Why to Eliminate the Zero Lower Bound: A Reader’s Guide" explain, for a smart, independent central bank, there is no effective lower bound on interest rates. So interest rate cuts can be the magic bullet for providing economic stimulus. Like any type of economic stimulus, too much is inflationary, but whatever is the right amount of stimulus, interest rate cuts can provide it. My detailed argument for the essentially unlimited power of negative interest rates to provide stimulus can be found in:

Just as negative interest rates are the magic bullet for providing economic stimulus, for those who can tolerate it, fasting—periods of time with water but no food—is the magic bullet for weight loss. Like negative interest rates, many people rule fasting out of bounds as a weight-loss tool, and end up instead with a complex set of recommendations that don't work very well individually, and are only halfway effective even in combination. Instead of ruling negative interest rates out of bounds, people should concentrate on making them work as smoothly as possible when they are needed. Instead of ruling fasting out of bounds, people should concentrate on making fasting as easy and painless as possible. 

The secret to making periods with no food as easy and painless as possible is to eat foods that raise one's insulin index relatively little when one does eat. On how to do that, see my post "Forget Calorie Counting; It's the Insulin Index, Stupid." If you do that, you will be surprised at how painless it is to go for, say, 20 hours without eating. It is still important to arrange things to make it easy not to think about food by staying away from food as much as possible and having distractions from food such as work or a good TV show, but if you eat food low on the insulin index when you do eat, you will feel a lot less bodily hunger during fasting than you expect. 

One thing I don't know is how long a period of time you need to have eaten low on the insulin index before fasting will become easy. Keto folks say it takes some time for your body to get used to generating energy from food that is not as easily digestible as sugar and other carbohydrates that have an insulin kick. In particular, the idea is that eating enough dietary fat can train your body to be able to generate energy from its own fat. If your body is good at processing its own fat, then there is a limit to how hungry you will be while fasting: once your blood sugar and insulin levels get low enough, your body will start turning your own fat into energy. If you get close to running out of body fat, you would have a problem, but most of us aren't that close to running out of body fat. 

Here is my own experience: for the last half of 2016, I tried eating only 600 or so calories every other day without otherwise modifying my diet. I managed to do it, but that was hellish. In early 2017, I went off sugar, potatoes, rice and bread for several months. After that I started skipping meals and found it was easy. Also, I notice that when I cheat a little and eat some easily digestible carbs or other food high on the insulin index, I get hungrier and the fasting is harder.

Unlike negative interest rates, there aren't many people disputing the idea that fasting will help you lose weight. Instead, they claim that fasting is dangerous or hellish. I discussed hellish above. What about dangerous? Here I keep going back to this: surely human beings must be physically designed to go extended periods without food. Otherwise, how did our ancestors survive to become our ancestors? It just wasn't that easy to always have plenty of food handy two hundred thousand or thirty thousand years ago. 

One important thing about a magic bullet is that it can work even if the set of all the things that affect something are complex. Many other things besides fasting can affect weight loss and weight gain. For example, in "A Conversation with David Brazel on Obesity Research," I mention the idea that keeping it cold—say keeping the thermostat at 68 degrees Fahrenheit instead of 72 degrees Fahrenheit—might aid weight loss. But fasting is such a powerful weight loss tool that you might not need to know every detail such as that. So I end up disagreeing with Marc Bellemare's very interesting post "Is the Study of Obesity Like Development Economics?" You may remember Marc from his guest post here: "Marc F. Bellemare's Story: 'I'm Bad at Math'" I am grateful for his permission to mirror "Is the Study of Obesity Like Development Economics?" below. Here are Marc's words:

I received a new book titled The Obesity Code last week, written by Canadian nephrologist Jason Fung.

Over the last year, I had read a few things by Dr. Fung on his clinic’s blog, but one of the things he says about obesity in his book made me believe that the study of obesity has a lot in common with development economics. Specifically, on p. 216 of his book, Dr. Fung writes:

The multifactorial nature of obesity is the crucial missing link. There is no one single cause of obesity. Do calories cause obesity? Yes, partially. Do carbohydrates cause obesity? Yes, partially. Does fiber protect us from obesity? Yes, partially. Does insulin resistance cause obesity? Yes, partially. Does sugar cause obesity? Yes, partially. All these factors converge on several hormonal pathways that lead to weight gain, and insulin is the most important of these. Low carbohydrate diet reduce insulin. Low-calorie diets restrict all food in there for reduce insulin. Paleo and [low-carb, high-fat] diets reduce insulin. Cabbage-soup diets reduce insulin. Reduced-food-reward diets reduce insulin. …

Obesity is a multifactorial disease. What we need is a framework, a structure, a coherent theory to understand how all its factors fit together. Too often, our current model of obesity assumes that there is only one single true cause, and that all others are pretenders to the throne. Endless debates ensue. Too many calories cause obesity. No, too many carbohydrates. No, too much saturated fat. No, too much red meat. No, too much processed foods. No, too much high-fat dairy. No, too much wheat. No, too much sugar. No, too much highly palatable foods. No, too much eating out. It goes on and on. They are all partially correct. …

Without understanding the multifactorial nature of obesity–which is critical–we are doomed to an endless cycle of blame.

In his book, Dr. Fung proposes a multi-pronged strategy to fight obesity. It looks as though he knows what he is talking about, since he has apparently helped several patients return to a normal weight.

Having long toyed with the idea of developing a model of individual weight dynamics wherein an S-shaped fat accumulation curve leads to there being two equilibria, much as in the modified Solow growth model with poverty traps, what the above excerpt made me think of is the equally multifactorial nature of poverty. Indeed, one of the first things I teach students when I teach a development course is that persistent economic under-development–poverty, that is–is the result of multiple market failures. The corollary of that statement is that there are no silver bullets in development. So unless you tackle all the problems at once, you might make a small, temporary dent in poverty, but people will tend to slide right back to where they were–much like people who, say, cut their calories tend to lose weight in the short run, but tend to go right back up to were they were after a few months.

In practice, this means that in situations of persistent economic under-development, microfinance will not magically lift people out of poverty. Nor will an input subsidy program. Nor will a micro-insurance scheme. Nor will any single intervention not aimed at resolving multiple market failures at once. And lest you think this makes me an advocate of something like the Millennium Villages Project, it does not. At least not in its current form, which does not lend itself to rigorous impact evaluation.

(By the way, this is why I had a hard time with Why Nations Fail: Because the authors are some of the smartest people alive today, yet their rhetoric seems to suggest that economic under-development has a single cause: extractive institutions. The journal articles on which they base the book are a lot more nuanced, so I imagine a publisher asked them to be slightly more polemic in order to make the book make an argument that sells better.)

If it were so simple as simply providing people with micro-loans, poverty would be a thing of the past. Similarly, if it were simply a question of “eat less, exercise more,” obesity would be a thing of the past as well. But whenever someone is suggesting a simple solution to a persistent problem, it is a safe bet that you are probably being sold snake oil.

I don’t know if Dr. Fung is the originator of the claim that obesity is multifactorial. But my intuition is that the claim is correct, and I certainly hope it gains traction with the publication of Dr. Fung’s book. As to what Dr. Fung advocates to treat obesity, you will have no doubt guessed that he does not advocate any single thing. Rather, The Obesity Code advocates doing all of the following:

  • Reducing one’s consumption of added sugars
  • Reducing one’s consumption of refined grains
  • Consuming a moderate amount of protein
  • Increasing one’s consumption of natural fats
  • Fasting for periods of 24, 36, even 48 hours
  • Getting seven to nine hours of sleep every night
  • Meditating

Of this list of things Jason Fung recommends, I argue that fasting is the centerpiece. The other things will help. And the low consumption of added sugars, refined grains and moderate consumption of protein is a key to making the fasting experience reasonably pleasant. But fasting is the big one. 

Afterword: Returning briefly to economics, I really like what Marc says about economic development needing many interventions at once. I think that is right. Economic development can only be done in complex ways. Economic development is like getting healthy—something that requires many more elements than just weight loss. By contrast, economic stimulus, like weight loss, is best kept simple. There are many monetary policy papers talking about how to deal with the lower bound on interest rates, many advising things that are otherwise bad ideas. It is simpler and better to just eliminate the lower bound on interest rates! (See for example "The effective lower bound and the desirability of gradual interest rate adjustments," Sebastian Schmidt and compare this to my argument in "Next Generation Monetary Policy.") 


Don't miss these other posts on diet and health and on fighting obesity:

Also see the last section of "Five Books That Have Changed My Life."






My Organized-Tweet Stories, In Order of Popularity, in Their Flight from a Dying Storify to the Haven of Wakelet

For me, Twitter has been and remains a good way to see what other people think about ideas I care about. For me, a good argument is when I either prevail or learn something. By that standard, I have had many, many good arguments on Twitter. The art of having a civil argument, and the even more difficult art of replying civilly to someone who is being uncivil, is something in short enough supply these days, that it has often seemed worthwhile to preserve a Twitter discussion as a story of organized tweets. For almost six years, I did that using Storify. But Storify is being abandoned by its parent company.

Fortunately, Wakelet has taken up the torch of providing a free website where tweets and other material can be organized into stories. Staff at Wakelet were good enough to transfer all of my Storify stories over to Wakelet. I should make clear that they chose the pictures at the top of each story, and I have decided to leave those pictures be. The most misleading result is that almost every story with "electronic money" in the title has a picture cryptocurrency symbols. When I talk about electronic money, I am talking about the checks, credit cards and debit cards that are already in common use. The key idea, as explored in everything you can see in "How and Why to Eliminate the Zero Lower Bound: A Reader’s Guide," is to make dollars in the bank—and more directly those dollars in the bank that are backed by reserves at the central bank—the unit of account rather than paper currency dollars.

I am probably kidding myself, but one of these stories may even have had a good effect on the world. I like to think that my story "The Marginalization of Economists at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau" had some small effect in the strong status that economists now have in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. I visited in 2016 and now think very highly of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and very much hope it survives the political siege it is under. My post "On the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau" is a philosophical defense of what the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is trying to do. In general, I am far to the the right of Elizabeth Warren in my political views, but I honor her for two important contributions: pushing for the establishment of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and pushing for much tougher capital equity requirements and stricter leverage limits on financial firms in order to avoid another financial crisis. 

To make sure all of my organized-tweet stories remain accessible, I list everything moving over from Storify to Wakelet below, in order of the number of pageviews it received, as listed after each title. Each title links to the Wakelet page for that story. Remember that you can search within this blog post using the normal text search command (Apple F on a Mac) for any particular title you are looking for.

Even if you never click on any of the links, I think you will learn a lot just by reading through the titles. First, the pageview data gives a window into what people are interested in. Second, scanning through the titles will give you picture of my views and concerns about a wide range of topics; including topics I have never written a regular blog post on.  

  1. A More Personal Bio: My Early Tweets 2962
  2. How the Mormons Became Largely Republican 2575
  3. Did the Gold Standard Help Bring Hitler to Power? (Twitter Round Table) 2009
  4. Noah Smith, Miles Kimball and Claudia Sahm on Math in Economics 1245
  5. How the Calories In/Calories Out Theory Obscures the Endogeneity of Calories In and Out to Subjective Hunger and Energy 961
  6. Miles Kimball and Brad DeLong Discuss Wallace Neutrality and Principles of Macroeconomics Textbooks 819
  7. Roger Farmer, Noah Smith, Miles Kimball, Tony Yates and Others on Math in Economics 736
  8. Umair Haque on Liberalism 676
  9. Why Does the Left Hate Markets? 672
  10. The True Marginal Product of Studying Hard and the Perceived Marginal Product of Studying Hard 657
  11. Jonathan Portes, Brad DeLong and Noah Smith Set Me Straight When I Praise John Cochrane's Shoddy OpEd 646
  12. The Marginalization of Economists at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau 618
  13. Does the Fed Really Want 2% Inflation? 615
  14. The Time Miles was Called a "Neoliberal Sellout" by Matt Yglesias and was Glad for the Compliment in the End 565
  15. Why the Nominal GDP Target Should Go Up about 1% after a 1% Improvement in Technology 560
  16. Miles Kimball and Noah Smith on Balancing the Budget in the Long Run 552
  17. Noah Smith's and Matthew Yglesias's Unpopular Opinions That I Mostly Agree With 552
  18. Critiques of Economics 535
  19. Putting the Perspective from Jason Fung's "The Obesity Code" into Practice* 521
  20. Daniel Altman and Miles Kimball: Should We Expand Government or Expand the Nonprofit Sector? 495
  21. Brad DeLong on the Six James Buchanans 480
  22. Miles Kimball, David A. Levine, Robert Waldmann and Noah Smith on the Design of a US Sovereign Wealth Fund 471
  23. On Schools of Thought in Macroeconomics 457
  24. The Paul Ryan Tweets 453
  25. Narayana Kocherlakota and Miles Kimball Debate the Size of the US Output Gap in January, 2016    441
  26. Should We Have Tight Monetary Policy in Order to Help Virtuous Savers? 425
  27. Which is More Radical? Electronic Money or a Higher Inflation Target? 415
  28. Noah Smith on Multiculturalism and Assimilation 405
  29. On the Freshwater Style of Using Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium Models 402
  30. Unlearning Economics, Sanders Wagner and Miles Kimball: Nature, Nurture and Individual Agency 390
  31. Is Hari Seldon a Bad Influence on Macroeconomists? 383
  32. If You Had to Choose, Would You Want Your Employee to Know Some Statistics or Know Some Calculus? 382
  33. Is Math Used to Illuminate or Obfuscate in Economics? 381
  34. Claudia Sahm on Reforming the Refereeing Process in Economics 378
  35. Twitter Melee on Minimum Wages 364
  36. Chris Blattman on Lab Experiments and Field Experiments 361
  37. Noah Smith and Company: What Economic Things are Better Now than They Used to Be? 360
  38. Tomas Hirst Recoils at the Starkness of Efficiency Wage Theory 350
  39. Do Nordic Countries Do Well Because of Democratic Socialism or Because of Nordic Culture? 330
  40. On the Deregulation of Social Science Research 328
  41. Business Cycles: A Shocking Discussion 327
  42. Jason Smith and John Cochrane on the Refereeing Process in Economics 327
  43. Miles Kimball Debates Danielle DiMartino Booth and Her Friends about Monetary Policy 322
  44. Daniel Altman and Miles Kimball: Is It OK to Let the Rich Be Rich As Long As We Take Care of the Poor? 320
  45. On Fighting Obesity 318
  46. Miles Kimball and David Andolfatto Defend John Cochrane Against the Wrath of John L. Davidson 318
  47. Miles Kimball's Comments on the Scott Sumner/David Andolfatto Debate 306
  48. Noah Smith: California Shows the Racial and Ethnic Future for the US 299
  49. Where is the Republican Party on Monetary Policy? 285
  50. What is Consumption for the Purposes of a Consumption Tax? 282
  51. Noah Smith, Brad DeLong and Miles Kimball on Wallace Neutrality 279
  52. The Balance Between Persistence and Finding Your Own Comparative Advantage 279
  53. Sticky Prices, Sticky Inflation and the Cost of Inflation as Reflections of Cognitive Costs 277
  54. Gender Roles, Economics and the Labor Market 277
  55. Stephen Williamson and Miles Kimball Debate Nominal GDP Level Targeting 272
  56. Genes vs. Hard Work in Learning Math 271
  57. Matthew C. Klein and Miles Kimball on the Effects of Negative Interest Rates on Savers 264
  58. Anti-Construction is Anti-Poor 261
  59. Noah Smith's Tweetstorm on Making Everyone a 'Math Person' 257
  60. Twitter Debate on Monetary vs. Fiscal Policy: Take 1    257
  61. Edward J. Epstein, Miles Kimball, Brad Delong, Alex Bowles and Ramez Naam: Was Edward Snowden a Spy? 256
  62. Monetary Policy and Financial Policy Discussions Sparked by the Kimball and Konczal vs. Peter Schiff HuffPost Live 251
  63. Responses to the Great Recession 249
  64. Showing How Charles Murray is Wrong Instead of Shouting Him Down 249
  65. Preaching in the Temple: Presenting "Breaking Through the Zero Lower Bound" at the Fed 248
  66. Socialism and Capitalism: A Conversation of Miles Kimball, Unlearning Economics, Adam Gurri and Daniel Hart 245
  67. What is Monetary Policy? 243
  68. Are Central Banks Scared to Admit that the Zero Lower Bound is a Policy Choice, Not a Law of Nature? 241
  69. Why I Won't Join the AARP 239
  70. Beatrice Cherrier on the Weaponization of the Lucas Critique 235
  71. On Bringing the Questions and Concerns of Sociology into Economics 234
  72. Tomas Hirst and Miles Kimball on Fiscal Stimulus vs. Negative Rates 234
  73. Immigration Tweet Day, February 4, 2013: Archive    233
  74. Twitter Round Table on Targeting Core Inflation 230
  75. Why Wasn't There Massive Inflation or Massive Deflation During the Great Recession? 229
  76. College as a Marriage Market: A Twitter Discussion 229
  77. High Bank Capital Requirements Defended 228
  78. Noah, Richard, Miles and Jake Talk about God and SuperGod 222
  79. Is There Any Excuse for U-Shaped Average Cost Curves? 221
  80. Electronic Money, Nominal GDP Targeting, and the Transmission Mechanisms for Monetary Policy 221
  81. Daniel Altman and Miles Kimball on the Long-Run Target for Inflation 220
  82. Eliminating the Zero Lower Bound: An Introduction 215
  83. Twitter Round Table on Our Disastrous Policy of Pegging Paper Currency at Par 211
  84. Rich People Do Create Jobs 208
  85. Adam Ozimek, Miles Kimball and Neal Hockley on Paternalism and Other-Regarding Preferences 206
  86. Miles Kimball, Roger Farmer, Stephen Williamson and Joe Little on Recent Japanese Monetary Policy 204
  87. Minimum Wages vs. Wage Subsidies 203
  88. John Dearie, Miles Kimball and Others Debate High Equity Requirements for Banks 200
  89. TakingHayekSeriously on Neo-Kantianism on Campus 200
  90. JP Koning and David Beckworth on Negative Interest Rates in the Repo Market 195
  91. Paper Currency Policy: A Primer 193
  92. The Vicious Self-Fulfilling Prophecy That You Can't Do Math 193
  93. Negative Interest Rates, Helicopter Drops and NGDPLT-- Matthew Klein, David Beckworth and Miles Kimball 192
  94. On Religion and Conservative Ideology in Collision with Colleges 192
  95. Seignorage and Fractional-Reserve Banking 192
  96. The Moral Case for Immigration Reform 191
  97. Ritwik Priya's Estimates of the Cost of Paper Currency Storage (and Miles Kimball's Discussion of Izabella Kaminska's... 186
  98. Anat Admati Defends High Bank Equity Requirements 186
  99. The Politics of Electronic Money: Take 1     184
  100. Gold, Electronic Money, and the Determinants of the Prices of Storable Commodities from the Ground 183
  101. Defending Negative Interest Rates Against All Comers 182
  102. Taking Care of the Poor and Troubled Without Getting Tied Up in Knots About Race 180
  103. Allowing Construction of More Housing Units Within a Quick Bus Ride of Jobs as an Imperative of True Social Justice 177
  104. Arguing about Gay Marriage 176
  105. Why Equity Requirements for Financial Firms Should Be Dramatically Increased 176
  106. David Beckworth on the Zero Lower Bound as a Price Floor 175
  107. The Historical Effects of Monetary Policy Mistakes 173
  108. Miles Kimball, Marc Andreessen and Others on Head Transplants and Cyborgian Immortality 173
  109. Reihan Salam and Miles Kimball Disagree on the Right Benchmark for Judging the Progressivity of a Value Added Tax 173
  110. Against the Mortgage Interest Deduction, Zoning as a Tool of Exclusion, and Occupational Licensing 172
  111. Noah Smith and Miles Kimball on Exploring the Mystery of Consciousness and Bokononism 170
  112. Noah Smith on Why Economists Need to Take Racism Seriously* 169
  113. How Neoliberalism Got Itself Into Political Trouble 168
  114. David Aron Levine and Miles Kimball on the Effects of Low Interest Rates on Pension Funds 166
  115. Neutral Monetary Policy as Part of the Foundation for a Free-Market Economy 165
  116. Are Rape and Sexual Assault About Power and Lust or Only About Power? 165
  117. A House Mystery: Why Does House Construction Go Up in Booms and Down in Recessions? 165
  118. Diego Espinosa and Miles Kimball on Bitcoin and Electronic Money 165
  119. Answering Skeptics about Negative Rates 163
  120. 'Forget Calorie Counting. It's the Insulin Index, Stupid' in a Few Tweets 159
  121. Tom Nichols and Eric Weinstein on the Public's Attitude toward Experts 159
  122. Do the Minimum Wage and Other Labor Market Rigidities Hamper the Assimilation of Immigrants? 157
  123. Velocity 157
  124. Debating 'Forget Calorie Counting; It's the Insulin Index, Stupid' 156
  125. Twitter Round Table on Contrarian Sovereign Wealth Funds as a Way to Tame the Financial Cycle 156
  126. Miles Kimball and 'Jimmy Madison' Debate the Minimum Wage 156
  127. Twitter Melee Over Negative Interest Rates 156
  128. Ontology and Cosmology in 14 Tweets     155
  129. Twitter Debates Sparked by Miles's and Yichuan's Second Quartz Column on Reinhart and Rogoff 155
  130. A Discussion on the Politics, Ethics and Psychology of Immigration Policy 154
  131. Q&A about Negative Interest Rates--The Centre for Monetary Advancement and Miles Kimball 153
  132. Cyptocurrency Conference Tweets 153
  133. The New Abolitionists Discuss Tactics for Immigration Policy 153
  134. Tweets about How to Turn Every Child into a "Math Person" 152
  135. Electronic Money, Helicopter Drops and Seignorage 151
  136. Don't Discriminate against Asian Americans in College Admissions; Emulate Them in Study Habits 150
  137. Adam Posen, Miles Kimball, Ritwik Priya and Tomas Hirst on Electronic Money vs. Central Bank Asset Purchases 150
  138. Why I Am Not a Neoliberal—In Tweets 148
  139. Does Economic Stability Inevitably Lead to Financial Fragility? 148
  140. Twitter Roundtable: Will Donald Trump's Administration Be an Economic Disaster or Only a Moral Disaster? 148
  141. David Beckworth Recommends RATS--"Regression Analysis of Time Series" Software--for Vector Auto Regression 147
  142. Greg Ransom on Hayek and Modern Macro Models 146
  143. Implementation Issues for Electronic Money 144
  144. Technique and Substance in Economics 143
  145. Noah Smith on the Idea of a Colorblind Society 143
  146. Representative Agent Defends Negative Interest Rate Policy by Citing a Non-Representative Agent Model 143
  147. Twitter Round Table on Consumption Taxation 142
  148. On Rent Control in San Francisco 142
  149. Can Electronic Money Stimulate the Economy Even When Banks are Running Scared? 142
  150. Twitter Roundtable on Deep Negative Interest Rates 141
  151. Will Negative Rates Cause Malinvestment? Will They Harm Banks? 141
  152. Eric Lonergan and Miles Kimball Discuss the Transmission Mechanism for Negative Interest Rates 141
  153. Miles Kimball and JW Mason on the International Role of the Dollar 141
  154. Twitter Discussion of Inequality 140
  155. Noah Smith: No Group of Americans is the Problem; Ideas Are Problems, Organizations Are Problems, Systems Are Problems 139
  156. Are Low Short-Term Interest Rates Bad for the Middle Class? 139
  157. The Politics of Electronic Money: Take 2      135
  158. Soncharm Scolds Me for Sounding Too Sure of Myself 135
  159. Noah Smith Teaches Miles the Difference Between Vouchers and Charter Schools 133
  160. Narayana Kocherlakota on the Stimulative Effects of Cutting Interest Rates 133
  161. Exchange Rate Interventions as QE 133
  162. Climate Change Science and Climate Change Orthodoxy 129
  163. Analogies Between Economic Models and the Biology of Obesity 126
  164. Danielle DiMartino Booth, Michael Lebowitz and Miles Kimball on the Dominance of the Fed by Economics PhDs 124
  165. Ensuring Safety from Rape and Sexual Assault is Beautiful 124
  166. Miles Kimball, Steven Verner and James Feldman Debate School Choice 124
  167. Wikipedia, Linguistics and the Price System 124
  168. Debating Higher Capital Requirements in the Light of the End of the Zero Lower Bound 121
  169. Does the Online World Allow Us to Change the Past? 121
  170. Miles's Queasiness about Current Ways of Modeling Financial Frictions 120
  171. TakingHayekSeriously and Miles Kimball on Macroeconomic Experiments in History 118
  172. Monetary Policy in the Light of Likely Nominations of Marvin Goodfriend and Randal Quarles to the Federal Reserve Board 117
  173. Confirmation Bias in the Interpretation of New Evidence on Salt 114
  174. Twitter Convo: Do Blogs Enhance Public Debate about Economic Research? 114
  175. Underneath What Looks Like Discontent with Central Banks is a Lot of Discontent with the Financial System 113
  176. The Fed Should Not Raise Rates Again Until It Says It Would Lower Rates Promptly If Later Data Suggests It Should 113
  177. Twitter Roundtable on Federal Lines of Credit and Monetary Policy 111
  178. Europe Needs Negative Rates, Higher Equity Requirements, Balanced Budgets and Supply-Side Reform 111
  179. A Bit of Personal History of Thought: Zero Lower Bound-->Quantitative Easing-->Electronic Money 110
  180. Up for Debate: There Is No Such Thing as Decreasing Returns to Scale 109
  181. Miles Kimball and Soncharm on Jesus in Politics 108
  182. Bringing Social Justice to Home Owners' Associations 106
  183. Miles Kimball, Jason Becker and Jordan Weissmann Discuss Affirmative Action 106
  184. Noah Smith on Racial Politics 105
  185. A Debate on Monetary Policy Primacy: Tomas Hirst, Miles Kimball and Christopher Cordeiro 104
  186. Vaidas Urba Stress Tests Sovereign Wealth Funds 103
  187. The Twitter Campaign for Repealing the Zero Lower Bound: September 2013     102
  188. Miles Kimball, Matt Yglesias, Brad DeLong and Ryan Decker Talk about Mitt Romney 102
  189. David Andolfatto, Miles Kimball and Mike Johnson: What Ails Housing Construction? What about Monetary Policy? 100
  190. Is Having the Young Pay for the Old 'Insurance'? 99
  191. The Argument that the Free Market Will Rectify Discrimination as a Guide to Business Opportunities 98
  192. Amod Agarwala and Miles Kimball on Equity and Debt Finance 98
  193. The Tweets on Faith 97
  194. On Abolishing the Penny 96
  195. Mormon Afterlife Tweets 96
  196. How The Talent Code Gave Colman Reilly a Myelin-Induced Toothache 96
  197. Noah Smith: Material Deprivation is Declining Because of Redistribution and Decolonization 96
  198. Reaching for Yield 94
  199. Heather Mac Donald is Wrong: Discrimination Is Not Just in People's Imaginations 93
  200. TakingHayekSeriously and Miles Kimball on Open Borders 93
  201. Everyone with a College Degree Should Be Equipped to Give the Arguments for Reasoned Discussion and Free Speech 92
  202. Twitter Roundtable on Insider Trading 92
  203. Doubting Tomas: Electronic Money in an Open Economy with Wounded Banks 89
  204. Charles Goodhart—Central Banking: Past, Present and Future 88
  205. Could Donald Trump Be Forced to Choose Among Existing Federal Reserve Governors for Chair If He Replaces Janet Yellen? 88
  206. Narayana Kocherlakota: Negative Rates are the Cleaner Economic Solution 87
  207. Bonnie Kavoussi's Tweetstorm on "Restoring American Growth" 86
  208. Richard Florida on the Level of Competition in Physics 86
  209. Are Negative Interest Rates a Drug That Requires Ever-Increasing Doses? 86
  210. Miles Kimball and Noah Smith on Job Creation 85
  211. Miles Kimball and John L. Davidson on CEO Pay 85
  212. Supply-Side Reform: A Portfolio of Tweets 83
  213. Twitter Convo About Miles's Dustup With Paul Krugman About the Dangers of Debt 82
  214. Twitter Roundtable on Jeffrey Friedman's 'Public Choice Theory and the Politics of Good and Evil' 82
  215. What is "the West"? 81
  216. Defending the Principles of Western Civilization While Excoriating Bad Behavior Then and Now 80
  217. Twitter Debate on "Politicism" (Political Prejudice) 79
  218. Twitter Roundtable on the Power of Negative Interest Rates Compared to Other Stimulative Policies 79
  219. On the Future of the Economics Blogosphere: Running Tweets by Audience Members 77
  220. How Electronic Money Can Eliminate Inflation 76
  221. A Perspective on the Mormon Church's Official Twitter Feed 75
  222. Negative Rate Policy in Switzerland, December 2014-September 2016   73
  223. Michael Martinez: If Banks That Tricked Consumers into Fees Were Eliminated, There Wouldn't Be Any Banks Left 72
  224. On Exercising Free Speech to Express Bearish Opinions about the Stock Market and the Best Approach to Regulation 72
  225. Jag Bhalla and Miles Kimball on the Idea of Economic Distortions 72
  226. Twitter Roundtable on Monetary Policy Tools and Targets 72
  227. John L. Davidson on Persuasion of Juries and Voters 71
  228. The Ethics of Immigration Policy, Revisited 70
  229. Miles Kimball and Anat Admati Argue for Higher Capital Requirements 69
  230. Could Andrew Jackson Have Averted the Civil War? 69
  231. The Role of Nonprofits in Dealing with Inequality and Other Problems 68
  232. Who Should Foster the Public Weal? Weighing National Government, State and Local Government, and the Nonprofit Sector 67
  233. Discussion of John L. Davidson's Guest Post "The Institutional Realities of House Construction" 67
  234. On the Relationship Between Government and Financial Firms 66
  235. Peter Conti-Brown on the Effect of Ideology on the Federal Reserve Board 65
  236. Discussing the Virtue of Scientific Disrespect 63
  237. Noah Smith on the Lack of a Forward-Looking Center-Left Agenda 63
  238. Miles Kimball and John L. Davidson Debate Economic Freedom 63
  239. The Reproducibility Crisis in Biomedical Research 60
  240. Denmark's Brilliant Stabilization Policy 59
  241. Don Luis Espinal on the Hatred of People with an Accent 58
  242. John L. Davidson Disses Economists and Resists Increasing Saving as the Best Route to More Balanced Trade 57
  243. Anonymity for Central Bank Digital Cash? 56
  244. Miles Kimball, Chris Oestereich, John Horton and Wayne Vernon on New York's War on Airbnb 56
  245. L. Naples on the Human Potential Movement 54
  246. Miles Kimball and Mike Johnson: Can We Make a Difference for Climate Change? 53
  247. On John Locke and Land Claims 53
  248. Dan Abrams on the Politics of Occupational Licensing Reform 47
  249. Thirumaran Defends Narendra Modi's Reputation 45
  250. Umair Haque and Miles Kimball Discuss Stagnation 44
  251. The Interest Rate as an Intertemporal Transportation Cost 43
  252. Technocracy vs. Political Passion 39
  253. Larry Summers and the Zero Lower Bound 38
  254. One-Tweet Wonders 35
  255. Integrity as the Foundation of Freedom 33
  256. Christianity is Not Helpful for Those Who Want to Look Down on Foreigners and Other Races 33
  257. Jason Smith and Miles Kimball: Technical Difficulties for Boost-Phase Interception of Missiles 29
  258. Proclamation of Immigration Tweet Day: Monday, February 4, 2013     29
  259. David Eli and Miles Kimball on Health Care Policy 25
  260. Christine Porath: A Lack of Basic Civility in the Workplace Takes a Big Toll on Productivity 21
  261. Tweets Too Flattering and Nice Not to Save 19
  262. Legal Counterfeiting as a Way to Enforce a Ban on Paper Currency 14
  263. Tweeted Reviews, April 14, 2013—      6
  264. Miscellaneous Maxims 3
  265. A Tour Through the Topical Sub-Blog Links on My Sidebar 2

Podcast: Miles Kimball Explains to Tracy Alloway and Joe Weisenthal Why Losing Weight Is Like Defeating Inflation

                                                               Link to the podcast

                                                            Link to the podcast

I was delighted to get a chance to talk to Tracy Alloway and Joe Weisenthal about diet and health and in particular about fasting as the key tool for defeating obesity. The result is the Odd Lots podcast "An Economist Explains Why Losing Weight Is Kind Of Like Defeating Inflation." One of the key things I say in this podcast is that using fasting to fight obesity is like a central bank engineering a recession to fight inflation, except that recessions are horrible, while fasting is not that bad an experience at all, if you do it right. 

All around, I think this is a very high-quality podcast, thanks to the Odd Lots team. I hope you will try listening!


Don't miss these other posts on diet and health and on fighting obesity:

Also see the last section of "Five Books That Have Changed My Life."


John Locke Explains 'Lord of the Flies'

Many readers think of William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies as a pessimistic take on humanity in general. But John Locke, who is an optimist about the rational inclination toward justice of adults is a pessimist who doubts the inclination of youngsters toward justice. In section 63 of his 2d Treatise on Government: “Of Civil Government” (Chapter VI. Of Paternal Power), he writes:

The freedom then of man, and liberty of acting according to his own will, is grounded on his having reason, which is able to instruct him in that law he is to govern himself by, and make him know how far he is left to the freedom of his own will. To turn him loose to an unrestrained liberty, before he has reason to guide him, is not the allowing him the privilege of his nature to be free; but to thrust him out amongst brutes, and abandon him to a state as wretched, and as much beneath that of a man, as their’s. This is that which puts the authority into the parents’ hands to govern the minority of their children. God hath made it their business to employ this care on their offspring, and hath placed in them suitable inclinations of tenderness and concern to temper this power, to apply it, as his wisdom designed it, to the children’s good, as long as they should need to be under it.

This resonates with me. At least in my own, relatively fortunate life, I was much more frightened of the possibility of physical harm from other youngsters when I myself was young than I have been of physical harm from other adults now that I am an adult myself.

It is also true that a large share of crime is committed by those who, while they might have reached the age of majority in our culture are still relatively young adults. At least in relation to the danger that they might commit bodily harm, age tends to mellow most people. 

Another important correlation is between criminality and having difficulty reasoning. Criminals are often caught because they make stupid mistakes. And the crimes they commit in the first place are often stupid mistakes. For example, some commit crimes because they are not good at thinking about the future, when penalties such as being thrown in jail might fall upon them. Not all crimes come from a lack of rationality, but many do. So there is something to what John Locke is saying. 


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

Glenn Hubbard on National Debt Ethics

                                                  Link to the article shown above

                                               Link to the article shown above

In Glenn Hubbard's February 11, 2018 Wall Street Journal op-ed "An Honest Federal Budget Would Help Control Spending and Debt," I like his principle that that there should be a presumption against having a future generation pay for benefits current generations get. Here is how he lays this idea out:

The ratio of federal debt held by the public to GDP has skyrocketed, from 26% in 1970 to 75% in 2017. Our present-day arguments over tax burdens notwithstanding, this shift reflects changes in spending. And spending has shifted away from traditional public goods toward private benefits in the form of transfer payments like Social Security and Medicare, while no mechanism forces tax changes to fund current and projected spending.

This observation is not meant to suggest simply that “spending is too high.” Rather, the issue is one of accountability for spending choices. Historically, spending on war or territorial expansion was conceptualized as “capital” spending—benefiting current and future generations, who shared the costs. Regular operations were borne by the people alive at the time. Such an approach does not necessarily mean lower spending, but it does require current taxpayers, not future ones, to pick up the bill.

While trying at many points in the op-ed to be even-handed between those who want more spending and those who want tax cuts, one of Glenn's specific proposals reflects his own desire to restrain spending:

The Hoover Institution’s Tim Kane and I have offered one idea—that each year’s total federal spending be limited to the average annual inflation-adjusted revenue of the previous seven years. This formulation attenuates problems posed by inflation and the business cycle. Temporary spending increases could be approved by legislative supermajority votes, with increasing supermajorities required for longer departures from the rule. Such departures would be up to the Congress at the time, as opposed to predefined categories.

Because the seven-year average inflation-adjusted revenue is predetermined and slowly changing, such a rule would make it very hard to increase spending. Compare Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane's proposed rule to this one:

Estimated natural-level-of-employment tax revenue must equal at least the average inflation-adjusted spending of the previous seven years. 

The second rule would push toward tax-hikes instead of spending restraint. Neither Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane's proposed rule, or the rule just above (which as far as I know, noone is proposing) is neutral between spending restraint and tax hikes. A rule that would be more neutral is this one:

Absent an official declaration of war or a supermajority vote, what each year's total federal spending would be if the law was applied to a natural-level-of-employment situation must be no more than 3 % higher than the average inflation-adjusted—and previous-15-year-average-real-GDP-growth adjusted—revenue of the previous seven years; also estimated natural-level-of-employment tax revenue must be no more than 3% lower than the average inflation-adjusted—and previous-15-year real GDP-growth-adjusted—spending of the previous seven years. 

In practice, this rule would require quite a bit of both spending restraint and tax hikes to reduce the government budget deficit, while allowing some adjustment in taxes and spending over time after the budget is roughly in balance.

One of my earliest blog posts makes another attempt at a balanced budget rule:

Let me caution that any balanced-budget rule would be safer when coupled with eliminating the zero lower bound, so that the Fed can stabilize the economy effectively, even in the absence of specifically legislated fiscal stimulus. See my aggregator post "How and Why to Eliminate the Zero Lower Bound: A Reader’s Guide." Among the posts flagged there, these discuss fiscal policy as well as monetary policy:

Finally, on the idea of capital budgeting that Glenn touches on, see my column with Noah Smith

and my post


Update: I noticed a related March 15, 2018 Brookings post: "Three reasons to be optimistic about budget process reform" by Stuart M Butler and Timothy Higashi.

How Fasting Can Starve Cancer Cells, While Leaving Normal Cells Unharmed

People use the "curing cancer" as a metaphor for a giant achievement. There is no question that literally curing cancer would indeed be a giant achievement. Cancer is not only the second biggest cause of death, it can often be agonizingly painful. Moreover, the common cancer treatments of radiation and chemotherapy are awful experiences that can themselves cause lasting damage even if the cancer itself is defeated. So I was fascinated to read Thomas Seyfried's argument for another way to attack cancer in his book Cancer as a Metabolic Disease: On the Origin, Management, and Prevention of Cancer.

Cancer as a Metabolic Disease is not a well-written book. But it has an important set of ideas that are more mainstream than Thomas Seyfried lets on: 

  • A majority of cancer cells have damaged metabolisms, often because delicate structures in their mitochondria—the folds called cristae—are damaged.
  • Metabolically damaged cancer cells can't produce as many handy ATP energy packets from each molecule of glucose (blood sugar). They can still produce ATP from the initial splitting of of a glucose molecule into two molecules of called glycolysis, which does not use oxygen. But they are not good at producing ATP from combining oxygen with the products of glycolysis to produce additional ATP. 
  • This means that metabolically damaged cancer cells need to take in more glucose than normal cells to produce a given amount of ATP energy packets. They are more glucose-hungry than normal cells. So it helps cancer cells if glucose is abundant. 
  • As an alternative to splitting glucose, cancer cells with damaged metabolisms can make ATP by using the energy in glutamine--an amino acid human bodies can make from many other amino acids.

Two key messages are that anything that boosts glucose or glutamine availability leads to better-fed cancer cells:

  • Eating sugar or other easily-digested carbohydrates is a good way to boost glucose levels in the bloodstream. Indeed, this is exactly what the glycemic index for different foods is designed to measure.
  • Eating high-protein foods is a good way to make amino-acids that can be turned into glutamine highly abundant. (It would be great to have measurements of a "glutamine index" for the effect of different foods on glutamine availability, parallel to the glycemic index.)

I am intrigued by cancer cells' ability to burn glutamine for energy in conjunction with the evidence for an association between protein intake and cancer that T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell emphasize in "The China Study: Revised and Expanded Edition: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, and Long-Term Health." I wrote about that in "Meat Is Amazingly Nutritious—But Is It Amazingly Nutritious for Cancer Cells, Too?" At the time I wrote that post, I thought complete protein might be helpful as a raw material for the growth of cancer cells, which still might be true; but in addition, any kind of protein is likely to increase the availability of glutamine for cancer cells to burn. 

The third key message is that fasting—a period of time without eating (while still drinking water)—will be harder on cancer cells than normal cells:

  • Fasting lowers glucose levels in the bloodstream. Normal cells can get a lot more ATP energy packets out of scarce glucose. 
  • Fasting is likely to reduce glutamine availability. 
  • Normal cells can burn fat during fasting. Cancer cells have a really tough time metabolizing fat. (During fasting, stored fat is often broken down to produce ketone bodies that circulate in the bloodstream to provide energy.)

If you actually get diagnosed with cancer, the current status of medical knowledge and the rules of medical ethics will mean your doctor will recommend that you try fasting only in conjunction with the usual treatments: surgery, radiation and chemotherapy according to standard protocols. But if you periodically fast as a preventative measure, you may starve cancerous or precancerous cells before you ever get diagnosable cancer. Fasting is relatively easy when you are eating foods low on the insulin index in any case. (See Forget Calorie Counting; It's the Insulin Index, Stupid.) And fasting is one of the best ways to lose weight, with all of the benefits from losing weight in reducing the risk of other diseases besides cancer. (See "Stop Counting Calories; It's the Clock that Counts" and "Obesity Is Always and Everywhere an Insulin Phenomenon.")

When I googled Thomas Seyfried, I found Orac's Respectful Insolence blog post "More hype than science: Ketogenic diets for cancer." Orac has two main points:

  • Thomas Seyfried is premature in recommending that people with diagnosed cancer depend on fasting and dietary changes to fight their cancer instead of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Much research should be done before that.
  • The idea of attacking cancer cells by their metabolic Achilles heel is now a mainstream idea, as I previewed above.

Consider these quotations from Orac's post, which is billed as critical of Thomas Seyfried:

Dr. Seyfried is a professor of biology at Boston College, who’s pretty well published. He’s also working in a field that has gained new respectability over the last five to ten years, namely cancer metabolism, mainly thanks to a rediscovery of what Otto Warburg discovered over 80 years ago. What Warburg discovered was that many tumors rely on glycolysis for their energy even in environments with adequate oxygen for oxidative phosphorylation, which generates the bulk of the chemical energy used by cells. ...

If you do a Pubmed search on “targeting cancer metabolism,” which is what Dr. Seyfried is talking about, you’ll find over 22,000 articles, with over 3,000 in 2013 alone, with a sharply increasing curve since 2000 that only now appears to be leveling off. A search on “cancer metabolism” brings up 369,000 references, with 28,000 in 2013 alone. Cancer metabolism is an incredibly important topic in cancer research and has been for several years now, and finding means of targeting the common metabolic abnormalities exhibited by cancer cells is currently a hot area of research. From my perspective, Dr. Seyfried is exaggerating how hostile the cancer research community is towards metabolism as an important, possibly critical, driver of cancer, although, to be fair, one prominent cancer researcher, Robert Weinberg, has been very skeptical. 

After pointing out that, given current knowledge, human subjects review boards would insist on trying metabolic therapies on top of the standard approaches of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, Orac writes:

... you might as well do a proper phase I/II clinical trial, which is what is happening. For instance:

In other words, clinical data should be rolling in fairly soon, and that’s a good thing.

Along the way, Orac points out that "only approximately 60-90% of cancers demonstrate the Warburg effect." To me, 60-90% sounds like a large fraction! What is more, in his book, Thomas Seyfried has what seem to me plausible criticisms of the experimental procedures used to conclude that some types of cancers can effectively oxidize the products of glycolysis. The basic problem, according to Thomas, is that to the unwary experimenter, metabolizing glutamine can generate indicators that create the illusion that a cancer cell is producing ATP by the oxidation of the products of glycolysis. 

Orac's link above on the phrase "60-90% of cancers demonstrate the Warburg effect" is to the Science article "Energy Deregulation: Licensing Tumors to Grow" by Ken Garber. The claim 60-90% of cancers demonstrate the Warburg effect itself is attributed by Ken Garber to cancer biologist Craig Thompson.

In his article, Ken gives this useful background on metabolism in cancer cells:

[Eyal] Gottlieb, a biologist at the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research in Glasgow, U.K., notes that tumor cells need an unusual amount of energy to survive and grow. "The overall metabolic demand on these cells is significantly higher than [on] most other tissues," he says.

Tumors often cope by ramping up an alternative energy production strategy. For most of their energy needs, normal cells rely on a process called respiration, which consumes oxygen and glucose to make energy-storing molecules of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). But cancer cells typically depend more on glycolysis, the anaerobic breakdown of glucose into ATP. This increased glycolysis, even in the presence of oxygen, is known as the Warburg effect, after German biochemist Otto Warburg, who first described the phenomenon 80 years ago. Warburg thought this "aerobic glycolysis" was a universal property of cancer, and even its main cause.

Otto Warburg won a Nobel Prize for his work on respiration, but his claim that messed-up metabolism was a central cause of cancer fell out of favor. In Cancer as a Metabolic Disease, Thomas Seyfried provides strongly-argued modern rehabilitation of Warburg's theory of the origin of cancer. Thomas argues in detail that the oxidation of the products of glycolysis in "respiration" is crucial for maintaining the genetic stability and polite behavior of a cell: if cellular respiration fails, a cell usually dies, but sometimes manages to survive and go wild.

A key part of Thomas Seyfried's rehabilitation of Otto Warburg's claim about cancer origins is modifying Otto Warburg's idea that cancer cells derive their energy from splitting glucose to the idea that cancer cells derive their energy from splitting glucose and metabolizing glutamine. The mid-20th century criticisms of Otto Warburg's idea focused on his hypothesis that cancer derived their energy almost entirely from splitting glucose alone. These criticisms that, in Ken Garber's word, "discredited" Otto Warburg's ideas about the origins of cancer have much less bite against Thomas Seyfried's version in which cancer cells get energy from glutamine as well as glucose. Accounting fully for glutamine metabolism by cancer cells might raise the estimated percentage from Craig Thompson's "60-90% of cancers demonstrate the Warburg effect."

Regardless of whether damaged metabolism is important in the origins of cancer or not, the much less controversial proposition that cancer cells often have damaged metabolism means that fasting can stress out cancer cells a lot more than it stresses out normal cells.

I first learned about Thomas Seyfried in Jason Fung's book The Obesity Code. (See Five Books That Have Changed My Life.) Jason retails Thomas's advice to do a 7 to 10 day fast once a year in order to try to kill any cancerous or precancerous cells one may be hosting. I did that toward the end of 2017 and plan to do it again this year. I am a lot more scared of cancer than I am of fasting. 

If I were ever diagnosed with cancer, the first thing I would do would be to begin fasting immediately; my hope would be to slow down the progress of the cancer during the time it took to develop a more conventional treatment strategy for my cancer. I would also do my best to try to convince my cancer doctor to read Thomas Seyfried's book in the hope my cancer doctor might get some good ideas for improving the treatment strategy.   

I hope research on metabolic approaches to cancer treatment and cancer prevention continues at a brisk pace. Those outside the usual cancer research guild may well be able to think of ways to help the progress of this research. 


Don't miss these other posts on diet and health and on fighting obesity:

Also see the last section of "Five Books That Have Changed My Life."

Tom Bartlett: What’s So Dangerous About Jordan Peterson?

The link above takes you to a well-written and fascinating article by Tom Bartlett in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the now extremely controversial Jordan Peterson. Thanks to John Davidson for pointing me to this article. 

Tom Bartlett found many he interviewed about Jordan Peterson unwilling to comment about on the record. This makes me worry greatly about the spread of guilt by association. Individuals should be held to account for things they say personally, but people should have a lot of leeway to hang out with--and even to say nice things about--individuals who have said arguably bad things.

Update: This post has sparked a vigorous and enlightening discussion on my Facebook page for it.