Increasing Aggregate Health

From Don Boudreaux, who is fond of analogies. Is this a good analogy, and if not, why not?

A team of the world’s finest physicians and pathologists combine to create a measure of “Gross Bodily Health” (GBH). The higher is a person’s GBH, the healthier he or she is.

GBH is an aggregate measure made up of measures of heart health, digestive health, pulmonary health, blood-pressure health, and a few others.

The main determinant of GBH is called “aggregate healthiness” (AH). Aggregate healthiness changes for any number of reasons – for example, a change in the frequency of a person’s exercise or a change in a person’s diet. Higher AH, common sense tells us, causes higher GBH…

Jones goes to his physician and finds that his GBH is dangerously low. “What should I do?” Jones asks his doctor.

“Increase your AH – your aggregate healthiness” the doctor helpfully responds.

“How?”

“Oh, it doesn’t matter. Jog, take blood-pressure medication if you think you have high blood-pressure, stop smoking if you smoke, exercise more. Anything to raise your AH. What’s important is that you get your AH up!”

“But can you tell me WHY my GBH is so low? Can you give me any details on just what I should do to improve my GBH?”

“No can do. But not to worry, for it doesn’t matter. The use of aggregates is methodologically justified in many cases. GBH and AH are aggregates, and we physicians have determined that GBH and AH are indeed very useful aggregates.

“We understand that the specific values of these aggregates for each patient at each moment in time are determined by literally billions of different things going on in that patient’s body and with that person’s diet, exercise, stress, etc. And there are other physicians – such as Drs. Alchoan, Demsitz, Hayuk, and Klang – who are great experts at looking at these more-detailed aspects of your body’s inner workings. You can consult them, if you like.

“But be aware that the Best Expert Opinion among practioners of what we call the ‘New Medicine’ is that the phenomena studied by physicians such as Drs. Alchoan, Demsitz, Hayuk, and Klang – while important – are phenomena each so sufficiently distinct from AH that we can, and should, treat deficient AH separately from any ailments that might be diagnosed by the likes of Drs. Hayuk and Klang.

“Trust me. Get your AH up and you’ll be fine. Don’t bother yourself with just why your GBH is low. Those details aren’t nearly as significant as is the fact that your GBH itself – for it’s kinda, sorta like a real phenomenon (it is measurable!) – is too low.”

“But….!”

“Please calm yourself! I’m a candidate to win a Nobel Prize in medicine. I know what I’m doing. Can you deny that a higher AH will result in a higher GBH? Of course not! Healthiness is the main determinant of GBH, so the trick to raising your GBH is really rather simple: increase your AH.”

“But suppose I take blood-pressure medication even though my blood-pressure is fine. Won’t that hurt me? And what if my GBH is low because of a lung disease. How will I help myself by improving my diet? Shouldn’t I know the details of what ails me? And isn’t it the case that the specific causes of my low GBH should be treated individually. Increasing my ‘aggregate healthiness’ seems like a hamfisted way to go about improving my health. I have SPECIFIC things wrong with me; what’s wrong with me isn’t helpfully described simply as inadequate ‘aggregage healthiness.’”

“Look. I’m the expert. I know what I’m talking about.”

Advertisements

About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
This entry was posted in Economical Musings. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Increasing Aggregate Health

  1. That’s a fairly complicated and confused analogy, and I’m not entirely sure what or who is being satirized and for what purpose, but there are several obvious and well-documented reasons why biological systems and economic systems do not belong in the same category.

    First, there are six billion people in the world and only one economic milieu. We can and have confirmed that various pathologies tend to follow a normal distribution, AND we’ve established clear biochemical pathways that both in vitro and in vivo explain manifestations of disease. Because of this huge sample size and the ability to perform falsifiable or verifiable scientific experiments, we know that penicillin cures infection just like I know that when I flick the switch next to the door, the room lights up; but we don’t and can’t know whether what Paul Krugman says will fix the economy will fix the economy, because economics is not a science. There will always be fundamental doubt about whatever conclusions numbers may suggest, that these conclusions necessarily depend on a grossly oversimplified theoretical model for their justification; there is nothing real underpinning them, despite the fact that they’re expressed in mathematical language.

    Biochemistry may not be comparable to economics, but I do think genomics and economics are comparable: both entail calculation in a ridiculous number of interconnected dimensions, both suggest that certain situations may increase or decrease the likelihood of an incident happening (which of course says nothing about that particular instance) but fail to provide certainty (despite economists’s ridiculous pretensions). Likelihoods suggested by both can be mitigated by general “healthiness”. For example, if my genome says I have a 70% chance of developing diabetes, I can eat healthy and exercise to put myself in that 30% group that doesn’t develop the disease. If economic forecasts look dismal, we can use well-designed policy to increase productive capacity or flood the markets with liquidity to stave off a depression.

  2. D. C. Sessions says:

    I’m going to have to use this at work. There’s no point in worrying about “current” and “charge,” which are just aggregations of the actions of $HONKING_GINORMOUS_NUMBERS of electrons. Come to think of it, the same goes for “temperature.”

    Details! Either get down to the details, or quit wasting time.

  3. James K says:

    At least you can state that electrons are identical – it’s a result of quantum physics. But two people will react very differently to the same stimulus. You have no idea how much of a nuisance that is for a social scientist.

  4. D. C. Sessions says:

    At least you can state that electrons are identical – it’s a result of quantum physics. But two people will react very differently to the same stimulus.

    That’s not the case for temperature or (to pick just one) fluid dynamics. If aggregate measures are worthless, if any valid analysis needs to drill down to individual behavior, then we can write off physics. And chemistry. And physiology. And … well, it’s a long list.

    You have no idea how much of a nuisance that is for a social scientist.

    No, I probably don’t. On the other hand, my daughter is ABD in social psychology [1] and she tries to beat it into my head.

    [1] Just moved to Eugene because this may be the only year in her life when she can.

  5. James Hanley says:

    . If aggregate measures are worthless,

    I don’t think the point is that they’re worthless, but more a question of what are they in fact good for? If we want to take a quick look at the overall health of the economy they’re not too bad. But how useful are aggregates when we want to fix a broken system?

    Take the temperature example. If it seems too hot for me, what is the best response? “Cool the temperature” seems like the obvious response, but it’s not necessarily so. I may be overdressed; it may just be too humid (the window air conditioner in my house rarely brings the temperature below 77 on really hot days, but it sucks out the humidity to the point I’m comfortable), or perhaps I have a metabolic disorder (which I wonder about as I become ever less tolerant of heat).

    (The analogy, for those who didn’t parse it, was to the aggregate demand approach in economics, which says that when the economy is broken, you just have to improve the aggregate and that the details don’t matter.)

  6. ppnl says:

    (The analogy, for those who didn’t parse it, was to the aggregate demand approach in economics, which says that when the economy is broken, you just have to improve the aggregate and that the details don’t matter.)

    But is anything really wrong with the economy?

    Try a different analogy. Say you have an airplane that has entered a flat spin due to operator error. There is nothing mechanically wrong but if you don’t stop spinning a perfectly good airplane is going to crash. It makes no difference why or how you entered the spin. You gotta stop spinning.

    Most aircraft are designed to make recovery from a spin easy and are tested for that ability before going on the market. Some designs make spin recovery impossible.

    You want an economy with “spin recovery” built in. Otherwise you may crash a perfectly good economy.

  7. James Hanley says:

    But is anything really wrong with the economy?
    Nearly everyone seems to think so; they just disagree about causes and cures, no?

    You want an economy with “spin recovery” built in.
    Sure, and that’s where our automatic stabilizers like unemployment compensation come in. But overall I’m not sure your analogy quite works–and I don’t mean this in a nasty way–because you’re comparing a designed system to an undesigned system. We can build some degree of spin recovery into the economy, but we can’t truly design it into the basic structure of the economic system because it’s largely just a continuously evolving entity composed of the countless individual decisions of all its participants, or, as Hayek would say, it’s “the product of human action, but not human design.”.

  8. ppnl says:

    But overall I’m not sure your analogy quite works–and I don’t mean this in a nasty way–because you’re comparing a designed system to an undesigned system.

    That is true and it is generally an important distinction. Viewing the economy as a designed system that we can manipulate as we wish is dangerous. It is a self organized system that we do not and probably cannot completely understand because we are part of it and our understanding feeds back and makes the system even more complex.

    But I’m not sure how that is relevant to my point. What happened was a kind of operator error. The market failed to understand the risk of certain investments. (Well actually the market understood just fine and punished us appropriately.) At this point why is unimportant. The economy stalled out and pulling out of the spin will be slow, awkward and somewhat counter-intuitive.

    Unemployment compensation is not what I mean by spin recovery. I mean understanding why the spin occurred and putting controls to reduce the tendency to stall and easier to pull out. Again this raises the specter of the economy as a designed system that we can engineer any way we choose. But that does not change the fact that what happened could be seen as a kind of operator error and it is prudent to try to reduce the consequences of that kind of operator error.

  9. James Hanley says:

    ppnl,

    OK, I understand you better this time. My only response is that the more complex the system, the harder it is to understand both the cause of the problem, and if we do understand the cause, to understand how to actually prevent a recurrence. A number of economists are pointing out that we’re still arguing about the cause(es) of the Great Depression, and suggesting that we may not come to agreement on the causes of the Panic of 2009 for several decades, either. With that much uncertainty, I’d be hesitant to suggest we know what kind of controls to put in place to prevent a repeat.

Comments are closed.