The Better Letter: Looking for Mathletes

Pandemic math, political math, market math, and more

As Ferris Bueller warned, “Life moves pretty fast.” 

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro found that out the hard way last week when his press secretary tested positive for COVID-19.

This week’s focus will be math problems of various sorts and is publishing on Sunday, since people are hanging at home due to COVID-19 and I got it done. If you like what you read, I hope you will sign up (using the “Sign up now” button below) to get every edition of The Better Letter delivered to your inbox for free, and share it widely (via the “Share” button). Thank you.

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Pandemic Math

You can’t gaslight a virus. The Trump administration bet a lot on COVID-19 not being a big deal and squandered a major opportunity by botching its response. Conceptually, the big problem is that they didn’t get the math.

Suppose* you have a pond of a certain size and, on that pond, a single lily pad. This particular lily pad reproduces once a day, so that on day two, you have two lily pads. On day three, you have four, and so on. If it takes the lily pads 48 days to cover the pond completely, how long will it take for the pond to be covered halfway?

Intuitively, we want to say 24 days, because linear growth is more common and easier to grasp. However, doubling is exponential growth and, as my friend Brian Portnoy says, we have no natural intuition for the exponential function. The pond will be covered in 48 days, half-covered in 47 days, a quarter-covered in 46 days, and so on. At day 40, you’d barely know the lily pads are there.

Viruses, like the lily pads in our math problem, spread exponentially (fuller explanation here). That COVID-19 killed fewer Americans than lightning at some point says nothing about how bad the pandemic can or will get. Here is the grim math.

The difference between linear growth, exponential growth, and our understanding of them is at the heart of why one group of people has consistently downplayed the threat of coronavirus, telling us we’re crazy for panicking and highlighting that, so far, COVID-19 has “only” killed x number of people, while others properly stress the urgency of the crisis, even though the range of outcomes is wide. 

As Megan McArdle explained, “When something dangerous is growing exponentially, everything looks fine until it doesn’t.” The late physicist Albert Bartlett went so far as to exclaim, “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”

If we don’t “flatten the curve” by taking aggressive action to slow the spread of coronavirus, the damage could be catastrophic. For example, China’s travel lockdown sharply slowed the spread of the virus. “You do that with trying to interfere with the natural flow of the outbreak,” explained Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Although our tardy response has cost us a lot of precious time, it appears that the vast majority of people now seem to be taking the threat seriously or, at least, are willing to take appropriate protective measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. May it continue. 

One more thing.

In a piece of very good news, Kevin Love committed $100,000 to the Cleveland Cavaliers' arena and support staff due to the suspension of the NBA season. Other players have followed suit. Especially during difficult periods, it is crucial to remember that need isn’t evenly distributed and can spiral exponentially. We should all consider how we can be doing more to help others, especially now.



* This problem comes from Megan McArdle, in The Washington Posthere. A simpler version was first published by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Totally Worth It

Here are some recent stories I found interesting, noteworthy, important, or fun.

That's what God wants us to do.” Wonderful. Peeps-themed crocs. How Mount Everest became a multimillion-dollar business. Any vacation would be improved if it started with locking your phone in a box. McDonald's is selling a new four patty Big Mac. Family says they bought 12-year supply of toilet paper by accident amid coronavirus scare. The most interesting man in the world. Hundreds of hungry monkeys swarmed across a Thai street as “rival gangs” of them fought over food because tourists who normally feed them are staying away because of coronavirus.

Mixed Media: A U.S. appeals court held that Led Zeppelin did not steal the iconic acoustic guitar lick that opens “Stairway to Heaven” (my Senior Prom theme) from another band (compare the licks here). Stupid crooks and social media – a match made in heaven. An amazing find of baseball cards. Japanese chef carves food into incredible pieces of art (images). See Antarctica from the back of a whale (video). Sarah Palin raps “Baby Got Back” and Sir Mix-A-Lot approves (video). How long should you wash your hands? There's a tune from every decade to help. I vote for Gloria Gaynor and “I Will Survive.”

Political Math

There’s an old adage that you can tell a politician is lying when his lips are moving. That’s about right.

As a candidate, Donald Trump repeatedly insisted that he would be able to get rid of the nation’s debt “over a period of eight years.” It has grown by $4 trillion. He pledged to eliminate the federal deficit, too. The deficit has more than doubled. Republicans promised that their tax cut plan would not only “pay for itself” through higher growth, but it would reduce the deficit by a trillion dollars. Obviously, it hasn’t.

That’s political math, and they all do it. 

Often, it’s simply a lie. Sometimes it’s a lie of omission. One-time frontrunner Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the presidential race after Super Tuesday. She won nowhere (except for her claimed scalp of Michael Bloomberg) and came in third in her home state. Last fall, when Senator Warren embraced Medicare for All and fudged about paying for it, she spooked a significant part of her base, and lost her front-runner status.

Sometimes it’s deceptive characterization. When the Federal Reserve provided liquidity to ensure a smooth functioning market on Thursday by pledging $1.5 trillion in very short-term loans, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez immediately pretended corporate welfare had been provided and claimed that the money would have been better “spent” eliminating student debt. The Fed was providing corporate welfare only if eliminating student debt means making loans to the former students, at interest and with collateral, that had to be repaid within 90 days, and the debtors repay them. On time.

Michael Bloomberg’s exercise in political math was a terrible miscalculation: spending more than half-a-billion dollars to win American Samoa. That’s the worst ROI in history.

And Bernie Sanders lies as brazenly as President Trump although, also like the president, he seems to believe his lies. The cost of Bernie’s new policy proposals, over 10 years, is a staggering $60 trillion. That would more double the $52 trillion that the Congressional Budget Office projects the federal government will spend over the next decade on all existing programs, from defense to Social Security. 

To hear Bernie tell it, you’d think his plans would all be paid for by billionaires.* Senator Sanders is crystal clear: “I don’t think that billionaires should exist.” There are 705 American billionaires who have a total net worth of $3 trillion. We could confiscate all their money and still be $57 trillion short of what Bernie needs to pay for his plans. 

That’s political math.


* Bernie defends his being rich by pointing out that he wrote a best-selling book. If others did the same, he says, they too could become a millionaire who owns three houses. He never explains how what he did is different or better than other ways of acquiring wealth.

Market Math

“Boomer Remover” trended on Twitter last week due to the global COVID-19 pandemic and we are now clearly in a bear market (down at least 20 percent from a recent high). It’s the fastest one ever. Last week was the first time since November 1929 where every single day of a week saw the S&P 500 move at least four percent one way or the other.

The S&P 500 is down about 27 percent from its most recent high and 23 percent since President Trump tweeted, in late February, “Stock Market starting to look very good to me!” As last week progressed, bonds failed to rally as stocks fell, suggesting both a market problem and a liquidity problem. 

Liquidity in all markets is increasingly scarce. On Thursday, the Fed poured $1.5 trillion in gasoline into a car that’s broken down. Both stocks and bonds barely reacted. A major decline in corporate earnings is inevitable due to the economic slowdown we’re seeing on account of the coronavirus crisis, now officially a pandemic. The Post headline below refers to March Sadness and all the other sports that have gone dark, but it might as well be talking about the economy.

The analyst consensus had called for eight percent EDS growth for the U.S. in 2020. Current expectations – still obviously preliminary – are more like (-10) percent globally, just slightly better domestically. Companies with weak balance sheets, overleveraged after years of almost free money, will be particularly hard hit. That’s bad news.

The economic impact of that bad news is terrible for many people, above the enormous human cost. However, the economic costs should mostly be temporary, if more lingering that many expect. The pandemic will do its damage, taking lives, throttling economies, and scuttling routines, but it will also pass. Corporate earnings will likely be increasing by the end of the year, and the stock market should follow. That’s (relatively) good news. 

Image: Venus of Willendorf (30,000 BCE)

Here’s the “big but.” The economic and stock market recoveries are dependent upon what a group of politicians who do not trust each other can agree upon in a presidential election year. Contrary to the previous assertion by the president, COVID-19 is not and has never been “very much under control.” As David French noted Thursday, competence is a character trait, requiring self-discipline, an openness to critical information, and a commitment to improvement. 

President Trump’s televised Oval Office address to the nation Wednesday evening was less than promising in that regard. As soon as the president finished, stock futures plunged, and the speech required multiple corrections and clarifications. As of a few days ago, South Korea had conducted up to 700 times more tests per capita than the United States and things aren’t getting much better. “The lack of testing in the United States is a debacle,” said Harvard’s Marc Lipsitch. “We’re supposed to be the best biomedical powerhouse in the world and we’ve been unable to do something every other country has been able to do.” Meanwhile, an elderly president who has lost at least a yard on an already lousy fastball will be inaugurated come January, no matter who is elected. That’s ugly news.

Here’s hoping there is significant improvement on the medical front. On Friday, President Trump declared a national emergency over the coronavirus outbreak, which allows the federal government quickly to free up billions of dollars in federal aid for states and local municipalities to use to combat the illness. That, plus the promised fiscal stimulus package, would be a decent start although, as of my putting this edition of TBL to bed, the stimulus is hung up over mandatory sick leave. Here’s hoping they get that solved quickly.


Poll data suggests that religion is waning in cultural influence. However, people are still desperate for some of the benefits of religion – like community, transcendence, and being part of something bigger than oneself. Watch this remarkable video of the audience singing along with John Legend on his cover of Paul Simon’s “A Bridge Over Troubled Water” for evidence…

…or consider this joyful flash mob…

…or listen to Italians singing together through open windows while in mandatory coronavirus lockdown. 

I’ll let that be this week’s benediction.

Issue 3 (Early social distancing edition, March 15, 2020)