Interesting Questions

Just a Little Longer… The Cost of COVID Lockdowns

Skip to the Costs of Lockdowns

Just a little longer now…

A few more weeks of lockdown, then we will all be able to go back to our normal lives. We will be able to see our friends and family again, play sports, and shop without worrying about the person who is going the wrong way down the new one-way isles in the grocery store. If we just commit to the lockdown a few more weeks, we can get rid of the masks and feel the sweet air against our faces. Just a little longer!

How long have we been told that?

At what point did we become sheep, aimlessly following the heard without any one of us knowing where we are headed or why?

We need to examine our current position and trajectory and at least have a discussion about whether the costs we are paying are worth it.

The Initial Reasoning for Lockdowns

I understand the reasoning behind the initial lockdown — or at least I believe so — which goes something like this:

  • We’re encountering a new virus that we don’t understand well.
  • It seems as though it is more dangerous than the “normal” viruses.
  • Due to the points above, we are anticipating that the spread of the virus will lead to a shortage of hospital beds for people who need to hospitalized upon contracting the virus.
  • We recognize the damage caused by a lockdown, but in order to not overwhelm the hospitals and thus have to turn away people who will depend on medical care, we will initiate a lockdown to flatten the curve (the concept is explained here).
    • NOTE: The purpose of the lockdown is not to eradicate COVID, but to curb the demand for hospital beds so as to not exceed the supply.

The above seems like a reasonable approach which, importantly, recognized that lockdowns do not come without costs. In the face of the potentially devastating costs of letting the pandemic run rampant, this is a cost I am willing to pay.

But somewhere along the way we forgot that the lockdowns are not the status quo, they are not the endgame, and they are not free. And I am not talking about the monetary costs, though the lockdowns are certainly not free in that regard either.

What happened to simply flattening the curve? Most hospitals have plenty of free capacity; too much free capacity in fact. I know several people in the healthcare sector who say they are no where near full.

The Cost of Lockdowns

At some point, other factors than COVID-deaths need to be considered when making decisions about our collective path forward. We need to re-examine the cost of the new status quo to determine if it is still worth it.

Here are the few factors I have come up with, but this is hardly and exhaustive list:

  • Additional cancer deaths due to delays in diagnosis and treatment.
  • Lost years of life, as I would propose this past year should at the very least be discounted.
  • Social and psychological costs, particularly for (but not limited to) children.
  • Other Consequences.

Additional Cancer Deaths

Even before COVID came into the world, people died (*gasps*). Cancer was and is one of the causes of quite a few of these deaths and though treatment has gotten better over the years, a key to defeating many cancers is early detection.

According to an article in the medical journal The Lancet, it is “estimated that across the four major tumour types, breast, colorectal, lung, and oesophageal, 3291 to 3621 avoidable deaths and an additional 59 204 to 63 229 YLLs will be attributable to delays in cancer diagnosis alone as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown in the UK.” Other estimates put the number of additional cancer deaths as high as 35,000, and this is only in the UK.

Make of it what you may, the upshot is this: COVID lockdowns will certainly cause some non-trivial amount of additional cancer deaths due to delays.

Lost Years of Life

Besides deaths, we can measure the cost of the lockdowns by using the metric of years of life lost (YLL). One benefit of using this metric is that it captures costs incurred by the whole population; whereas deaths are incurred by a small subset. Let’s run through some simple calculations.

The YLL Cost of Lockdowns

Clearly, the past year of lockdowns has not come with all the opportunities for enjoyment, fulfillment, and experiences one expects from a year. Safe to say, then, that we should discount the value of this year due to all the restrictions. Let us be very generous and say the past year was worth 90% of a normal year. In other words, each person lost the equivalent of 10% of the value of a year of life.

We need some frame of reference to understand what this means, so we’ll use the USA (most people are somewhat familiar with the country) with its roughly 330 million inhabitants. Not all citizens will feel the negative effect of the lockdowns — babies, for instance, probably don’t notice much of a difference — so it is not fair to use the full population. Again, let’s be on the safe side and use a low number, such as 200 million.

From here on out, the math is pretty simple:
200 million people * 10% of a year per person = 20 million years of life lost.

Keep in mind, this is just in the US.

The YLL Cost of a COVID Death

As a comparative, we need to look at the years of life lost due to COVID deaths. I’ll use numbers from Alberta, Canada, as they are easily available. Here in Alberta, the average age at death due to COVID is 82; the life expectancy in Alberta is also 82*. As there is no difference between these numbers, one could almost conclude that COVID is not responsible for any years of life lost whatsoever.

This does not seem right, as the very fact that people are of dying from COVID means, by its definition, that it is robbing people of some time on this Earth. Instead of the 0 YLL suggested by age at COVID death being equal to life expectancy, let’s assume that one death results in an average of 4 YLL. Once again, I believe this is a generous estimate.

Comparing the Two

Using the estimates from above, the lockdowns have been responsible for the YLL cost equal to the equivalent of 5 million deaths (20 million YLL / 4 YLL per death). As the US is currently sitting at around 500,000 COVID deaths, this 10x the amount caused by the virus. That is a staggering cost to pay!

Granted, the numbers for COVID deaths would likely be higher if there had been no lockdowns, but that much higher? Keep in mind that all of the estimates used in the calculations were very generous to the other side of this issue (by this, I mean that they all contribute to a smaller cost estimate for the lockdowns). For example, some might say that the value of the past year should be set at 80%, which would double the YLL cost of lockdowns. COVID deaths leading to an average of 4 years of life lost also seems high, as people affected are primarily at an age where death not far away. Yet, even with all of these safety margins and buffers included, the cost paid is disproportionate to what we get out of these measures.

This is a thought experiment — please don’t take it the wrong way — it is simply one way of comparing costs. Lockdowns are not free.

*The life expectancy in Alberta, Canada, as of 2019 was actually 81.6, but I’ve rounded up to 82 for sake of simplicity and to add a cushion to the estimates.

Social and Psychological Costs

In addition to the abovementioned costs, which are more tangible and easy to evaluate, there are social and psychological costs that are far harder to estimate. Nevertheless, the lockdowns have, unquestionably, had a negative impact on mental health. Even in the best of cases, the lack of face-to-face interactions with friends, loved ones, and even coworkers is a very unpleasant experience for most of us (being social animals and all) — particularly for children. There is a reason why solitary confinement is an additional punishment used in prisons.

I don’t think I need to say more on this topic; most will intuitively understand this one.

Other Consequences

Of course, there are consequences of the lockdowns too, which I have not covered. What about the lack of physical activity due to gyms and sports being closed, for instance? There’s the potential for increased rates of cardiovascular disease and other ailments resulting from this.

What about all the small businesses (and larger businesses too) that have been forced to shut down? Will there be long-term consequences, such as decreased entrepreneurial activity, or will we bounce right back?

The list of potential negative consequences goes on as far as your imagination will take it.


As is so often the case, there are no black and white answers — I don’t know, definitely, what I would do if I were in charge.

We need to consider more than one factor, though. Imagine judging the value of modern, high-speed vehicles only by the number of fatal accidents. Caring only about the deaths, the clear choice would be to remove all high-speed vehicles from the world. But what about all the benefits of being able to travel and transport goods rapidly? We all understand that the one factor is not enough to gauge the true value in this case, so why not for COVID measures too?

Human beings are intelligent, but it is impossible for one person to think of all the factors that should be considered to get a clear picture. Thus, we need to be able to have discussions with people — particularly those who hold opinions differing from our own — in order to be more well informed and make the best decisions. Generally, we make better decisions as a well-informed group.

This is what I believe, at least. Disagreement is welcome though, so if you disagree with anything I have said, please let me know.

Thank you for reading and have a wonderful rest of your day!

Interesting Questions Models Things Explained

Viruses and Vaccines: How They Work

You certainly hear enough about both viruses and vaccines these days, but how much do you actually know about them?

When I asked myself this question, answer was: “surprisingly little.”

This world is wonderfully complex; it is impossible to have a working knowledge of all of it’s complexities. That’s simply too much for any brain to handle. But having a basic understanding of a diverse range of topics is, in my opion, both desireable and possible. The secret is to keep it simple and focus only on the most generalizable and basic concepts within each domain. Being able to represent the information graphically certainly does not hurt either.

So, here is what I have learned over the past few weeks (or maybe months, it’s hard to tell sometimes). I hope you find it useful and enjoyable.

What is a virus and how does it work?

First, let’s start with the anatomy of a virus. There are, of course, various viruses (each with its own specific traits), but certain elements are common for most viruses:
1. a core with DNA or RNA,
2. a body with protein spikes, and
3. various enzymes.

As with most creatures, the “goal” of the virus is to multiply and spread. To this aim, the DNA/RNA can be thought of as the blueprints of the virus, containing all the necessary information for replicating the virus. However, the virus itself does not contain the necessary production facilities to perform the replication. This is where the protein spikes come in to play.

Utilizing the protein spikes, the virus binds to, then enters the cell of a host — for instance, when you get infected with a virus, you are the host. Since your cells contain all the necessary production capacities required to replicate the virus — these are the same production capacities used in the daily operations of healthy cells — the virus hijacks the production line and uses it, in conjunction with its own DNA/RNA, to replicate itself. From there, the new copies of the virus exit the cell and go on to look for new factories to break into and use to replicate themselves further.

How does your body protect itself from a virus?

Naturally, your body does not like that this unwelcomed guest is using its resources for malicious purposes. When the virus is detected, your body launches a defensive effort to kill the virus and stop it from spreading. Part of this effort consists of making antibodies that stop the virus from entering your cells.

Antibodies work by binding to the protein spikes, thus neutralizing the virus’s ability to bind to and enter cells. In fact, antibodies cannot enter cells either and can only neutralize viruses that are intercellular (between cells).

As you can see in the depiction on the right, the antibody fits perfectly to the protein spike in the virus. Since most viruses have differently shaped protein spikes, your body needs to develop new antibodies when it encounters novel viruses. Once a particular virus has been encountered, however, your body will keep the information about how to create the antibodies to protect itself from that virus in the future. This ability is often called immunological memory and is how you gain immunity against antigens you have encountered previously — which brings us to the next topic, vaccines.

How do vaccines work?

Vaccines are hardly a new concept to most people alive today; vaccines against COVID-19 are being rolled out across the world, with tons of publicity. But how do they work?

This is where it gets interesting. Your immune system does not have to encounter the pathogen (the whole virus) to learn how to create antibodies to defend against it; it is enough to introduce the antigen (the protein spikes). This is the part of the virus the immune system reacts to and what antibodies attach to.

Put simply, then, the idea behind a vaccine is to isolate the protein spikes of a virus, then introduce these spikes to the immune system. By doing so, there is no chance of the virus replicating in the vaccinated person’s body, as there is no DNA/RNA to orchestrate the replication process. That’s how vaccines are both safe and effective.

Now that we know the basic goal of a vaccine, let’s explore the different strategies we can use to get there.

Traditional Vaccines vs. mRNA Vaccines

Traditional Vaccines

Let’s start with traditional vaccines, which follow the most straight forward path.

Their production looks something like this:

1. Get ahold of a sample of the virus.

2. Grow more of the virus. The amount of virus to be grown is determined by the demand for vaccine doses. A lot of virus has to be grown in order to vaccinate a lot of people. Typically, the virus is injected into eggs, where it has all the stuff necessary to replicate. The US government actually keeps a lot of chickens — on farms all around the country — dedicated to laying eggs for making vaccines (if you are interested, check out this short podcast on the subject).

3. Inactivate the virus, so it won’t replicate any further from this point on.

4. Isolate the antigen.

5. Introduce the antigen to the immune system of people through a vaccine.

mRNA Vaccines

The mRNA vaccine pursues a different route which requires a bit more sophisticated methods, but ultimately simplifies the production and logistics of the vaccine.

An mRNA vaccine is produced as such:

1. Get ahold of a sample of the virus — it’s hard to get by without this step.

2. Sequence the virus genome and isolate the part of the “blueprint” that encodes the information about how to create the protein spikes.

3. Use the information from the previous step to copy that portion of the genome as many times as necessary (depending on demand) and introduce it to the immune system of people through a vaccine.

Key differences

There are some key differences between the two. Obviously, traditional vaccines require far more eggs, but there is more to take away than that:

  • You can distribute mRNA vaccines faster and further than the traditional variety. Think of sending a physical package (traditional) vs. sending an email (mRNA).
    • Once a traditional vaccine is formulated, samples of the virus have to be transported (by plane, train, boat, etc) to production facilities across the globe. Then, you have to grow more of it. All of this takes time.
    • One of the coolest traits of an mRNA vaccine is that once the genome has been sequenced and the recipe for the protein spike (the antigen) has been determined, the recipe can be sent to labs across the globe instantaneously. From there, the labs can replicate the antigen as many times as needed, using ingredients they already have available.
  • For traditional vaccines, the virus needs to be kept alive and is even actively grown; for mRNA vaccines, the virus itself is only necessary until you have sequenced it. Traditional vaccines are still produced in a very safe manner, but when you don’t need to keep the virus alive for production purposes, there is even less risk of accidental contamination or loss of control.
  • Finally, there is the potential of damaging the protein spikes through traditional vaccines. As we neutralize and take apart the virus to isolate the spikes, there is a chance that some of them get damaged, rendering the resulting vaccine less effective. The mRNA vaccines simply provide the blueprint for constructing the spikes — relying on your cells to do the rest. Thus, the spikes are made brand new every time and bear the closest resemblance to the spikes on the virus you might encounter later on. The result: a more effective immune response (a.k.a. a better vaccine).

Interesting Questions

Should there be a cap on personal wealth?

Should there be a cap on personal wealth?

Over the past few weeks, I have run into this question in multiple conversations. Apparently, this is something that many people are considering these days, so let’s look into it a bit.

What are the reasons to cap personal wealth?

– “No person should have that much money; it’s not fair.”

The most common reason I have heard is: “No person should have that much money.” Well, why not? The crux of the argument seems to lie in fairness; it’s not fair that some people have more than others. Particularly that much more.

When I’ve heard the argument, however, it has been coming from fairly well-to-do North Americans who are among the wealthiest 10% of people in the world (or can reasonably expect to be once they start working). So it seems to be more of an “it’s not fair that some people have more than I can expect to have” issue.

– “They become wealthy by not paying their employees properly.”

Another mindset is to limit wealth by making business owners pay employees more. I have to say it appeals to me to have more of the population better off and if this can be accomplished in a productive manner, I am all for it. There are some problems with this mindset though.

Businesses do not thrive by spending more money on non-growth expenses, such as unskilled labor. For this reason, a minimum wage or similar solution is likely to lead business owners to become more focused on efficiencies. Maybe they can pay two unskilled laborers $10/h each to get a job done instead of paying one trained/educated employee $23/h, but if minimum wage rises to $15/h the other option is clearly more financially sound. Now one person is taking the job of two and we are net-negative for jobs. Even more jobs could become obsolete if investing in automation becomes the cheapest option. What do we do then?

Further, it may limit the options for what could be a viable business and would likely lead to higher prices. If labor expenses increase, profit margins decrease. This means that businesses would have to raise prices, to recover the margin; eat the decrease, which would limit the money available to investment in growth; or even shut their doors. Any of these options are bad for us all.

What are the reasons to not cap personal wealth?

– Innovation benefits us all.

Generally speaking, the wealthy get to where they are financially by innovating in some way. These innovations lead to benefits for all people, eventually if not right away.

Henry Ford initially made it possible for the wealthy to utilize new methods of transportation and no most people in the western world own a car or utilize public transportation (buses are essentially large cars).

Sam Walton (founder of Walmart) revolutionized the supermarket, playing a large role in making goods cheaper for the average consumer. Walmart also increased the selection of goods available to many consumers.

Jeff Bezos built on these concepts with Amazon, making an enormous selection of items affordable and conveniently available to consumers in the countries it operates in.

And that is just a few of the countless people who got rich by innovating and propelling the human race forward… Almost everything in your world was invented by someone who became rich off the invention; it’s worse, really, when people don’t get rewarded for their contributions to progress.

Money is not everything in life, but it is useful in many ways. It can be used as a yardstick to keep track of success, where comparisons might be hard otherwise. Not all innovators are motivated in this way, but it is likely that many of them are.

Money is also essential for making ideas and visions become reality and shape our world. Thus, investors play a crucial role when funding start-ups, one they might not be willing to play if their financial future were not quite as secure. When you have a vast fortune, you can afford to make big bets without jeopardizing the well-being of your family. At the end of the day, the winning bets end up benefiting all of humanity, as new innovations eventually become available to all of us.

– Most wealth is not cash.

Most of the hyper-wealthy do not have anywhere near their net worth in cash; it is typically made up of ownership in their companies. In many cases, such as for Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, the control of their companies allows them to make decisions and take risks that others would not be comfortable with. These decisions play no small part in making Amazon, Tesla, or SpaceX what they are today – to all of our benefits.

If we cap wealth, these mavericks would lose control of their companies and the innovation would be cut short. And who would take the ownership stake? The government? How would that benefit people?

– Philanthropy is contingent on financial security and having the brightest minds eventually turn their attention to the big problems does more to solve them than their money would on its own.

As mentioned earlier, people need financial security before they can make big bets with their money. Therefore, philanthropy is contingent on the philanthropist having excess resources – a nest egg. Thus, the argument goes, we should allow people to build up their assets, as they will often benefit people who need them later. So why not make the wealthy give the money away now if they are going to give it away later anyway?

My answer to this question is this: We need bright minds, not just money to solve the biggest problems we face on the world stage. Thus, when the wealthy become interested in philanthropy and they have the financial security for their families’ futures, we get not only their financial capital but also their intellect, networks, and drive working toward solving the largest problems. Instead of wasting money on ineffective and poorly run charities or government (which isn’t known for being efficient in investing resources), these people can make a huge difference by bringing their skills and drive to a new arena. As far as I can tell, this is more than worth the wait.

– They create jobs.

Yes, not all jobs that are created pay well; and yes, some jobs are also lost when innovation leads to obsolescence; but overall and over time more jobs are created than lost. Imagine if they were not and we maxed out in the year 1800. At that time, the world population was 1 billion and it has increased by more than 7 fold since. The world would be in chaos. Yet, the opposite is true and the world is more peaceful than ever – (see Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker).

If we were to implement a cap on personal wealth, at what amount should it be set?

Take a few minutes to think about it. What number did you settle on?

To me, it seems like people always want to cap those who have more money than themselves. As such, I imagine you set the limit somewhere north of your own wealth, but not too far north. In other words, I’d expect someone who makes $50K a year and rents an apartment to set it lower than someone who makes $400K a year and owns a house. *Assuming, of course, that they both want the cap on wealth.

Now, this is just my hypothesis. It would be interesting to look into this further.

What are we willing to trade for more outcome equality?

Let’s say, we decide to cap wealth at $1 billion – a staggering sum of money.

Let’s also assume that money is both an important motivator and a vital tool for people who drive innovations. This does not only include the innovators themselves. If they don’t have the resources to fund their vision, they cannot implement it. Thus, investors play an important role too, and need money to do so.

Knowing that money plays an important role in innovation, what innovations are we willing to give up in order to limit wealth?


Bill Gates became a billionaire in 1987. Since then, he has done an enormous amount of good through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and influenced many other high-net-worth individuals to focus on philanthropy too. Together with Warren Buffet, Melinda and Bill founded The Giving Pledge – “a commitment by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to giving back.” As of October 2020, the Gate family has given away roughly $50 billion dollars to charitable causes. Needless to say, this would not be possible if the cap were set at $1 billion.

Jeff Bezos became a billionaire in 1999. Though he is not known to be particularly charitable, Bezos recently (in early 2020) pledged $10 billion to combat climate change and has given smaller amounts (still millions) to other causes throughout his lifetime. Hopefully, he too will eventually become more focused on giving back as he gets older. However, even at this stage of his life, he has created tons of value for humanity and has revolutionized how we shop. His bold, long-term focus and willingness to take apparent short-terms risks has undoubtedly blazed a path for future companies and leaders who – at least in part influenced by Bezos – will go on to create more value for people all over the world.

We can add Elon Musk, Warren Buffet, Larry Ellison, the late Sam Walton, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and many more to the list of people who – at least in part due to their accumulation of wealth – have propelled humanity to new heights.

One thing is certain: Limiting wealth will costs something

It is tough to say exactly what we would lose if a wealth cap were put in place; the important fact to consider is that it would cost something. Nothing is free. Are we willing to pay the price to have limit the wealth people could amass? I, for one, would be cautious, as we are notoriously poor at predicting the outcomes of our actions and policies.

It is important to keep the desired outcome in mind and act accordingly. What I think we all would like, is to have everyone in the world better off; it is unclear how a wealth cap would achieve this – it would simply bring the super well-to-do down, which does not seem like an outcome to be desired. We need to bring people up, not down, in order for the largest possible amount of people to enjoy a better life. I don’t think a wealth cap would achieve that.

Interesting Questions

Why are we denying the wealthy the joy of giving?

Why are we denying the wealthy the joy of giving? Is it time we stop demanding the wealthy pay for everything and finally let them be generous?

It’s a Friday night and everyone in the house has had a long week. The carnage from dinner is all over the kitchen and of course, no one really feels like doing them. My wife is pretty awesome though, so I decide I’ll get up off the couch and be the one to clean up. God knows, my wife deserves it!

I’ve made up my mind and I’m starting to feel good about it. As is often the case when doing something nice for someone else, I feel myself gettig energized. But as I get up and head toward the kitchen, my wife says:

“Hey sweetie, I’m so tired. Do you mind doing the dishes today? Please?”

There’s certainly nothing wrong with that request. She asked nicely. She has had a long week. It’s really the least I could do. Besides, I had already made up my mind to go do them. Yet, all of a sudden, I feel strongly opposed to the notion of doing the dishes.

Surely you have had similar experiences yourself?

So it should be no stretch for you to imagine how this would be the case for other humans too — even the wealthy.

Giving and Gratitude

It feels good to give things to others; having things taken from you does not.

Let me start by saying that I support a progressive tax system. It seems right that people who can afford to pay more for the societal benefits we all enjoy. What I do not agree with is the incessant escalation of the demands we place on high-earners. When they have paid more than most in taxes, how can we still be unsatisfied?

In my personal life, I always find it easier to be generous to those who are grateful. I don’t think it is unreasonable to assume that most people feel the same way. If you are thinking that we won’t get anything from the wealthy if we don’t demand it, take a look here. The US is atop of the list of giving as a percentage of GDP — your worries are unwarranted!

The Joy of Giving

In addition to increasing the resistance to giving — through our lack of gratitude — we are also denying the wealthy the joy of giving. In a society where our biggest holidays revolve around giving gifts, this seems utterly insane. When someone else is opening a present from you on Christmas, is it not a wonderful feeling? Does it not make you want to give more?

What This Means in Practice

So what does this mean in practice? What do I propose?


I think gratitude is a recipe for a better, more fulfilling life in general. In this case, I believe it is also the option that creates the most amount of joy in the world and the most amount of benefit to both sides. The wealthy get more joy; the rest of society gets more money for necessities. We all win.

So maybe it is time to stop complaining and start being grateful. I think that will lead to the best outcomes for all of us — and so much less stress and contention.

Interesting Questions Things Explained

Do you need a financial advisor?

Do you need a financial advisor? Market graph.
Do you need a financial advisor to invest successfully?

Do you need a financial advisor to invest your money successfully? The people in the industry certainly want you to believe that you do. Of course, that’s how they make their money – they are not in a position to give you an unbiased opinion. I, however, firmly believe they are no more than unnecessary middlemen, at best. More often, they are directly counterproductive to making money investing (I will show you how later). The financial advisors are more than happy to place themselves in the middle and take some of your money, without really offering much except for a facade of expertise.

I say facade because they are too unreliable at their job – beating the average market return. Don’t let the fancy jargon they use trick you into thinking they know what they are doing; they don’t. They might even be smart people, but not that smart.

How do I know? I have outlined the reasoning below. Once you have read through it once, you won’t be fooled by them again. The logic is quite simple to follow; most people have just not spent the time to inform themselves. In 15 minutes or so, you’ll be happy that you did!

Setting a baseline – The Market Average

When you invest your money, the goal is to earn as much return as possible. Now, you might be thinking that you have no idea how to accomplish this. The financial markets are complex and hard to navigate, so I don’t blame you for feeling a bit lost. In fact, people who are confident their abilities to pick “the winners” are likely in a worse position than you. Sure, they may have got lucky once or twice in the past, but they are not telling you about their failures. More likely than not, they have or will make costly mistakes that tarnish their overall average returns.

Financial advisors supposedly have the skills to invest your money in a manner that beats what you can achieve on your own. Confidence can get you a long way and they use theirs to deceive you into thinking your money would be better off in their hands. Yet, this is not the truth.

Let me explain.

First, we need a baseline of what level of return you could achieve on your own. “I don’t know that I could get any positive return through investing on my own,” you might think. Here’s why you are wrong: Anyone can earn average market returns by investing in an index fund, such as the S&P 500*.

If I’m going to pay someone to invest for me, they better get better returns than I can by investing in an index fund. If they cannot do that for me, why would I pay them?

Can financial advisors beat the market average?

So, can your financial advisor consistently beat the market average?

It is highly unlikely that they can. Most of the US stock market trading is done by people who are at least as qualified as your financial advisor. In fact, the bigger firms have far more resources dedicated to this pursuit and should, therefore, be expected to do better than individuals with limited capacity. Even, in a level playing field, only half of the people investing can ever be above average. To make matters worse, there is almost no correlation between the performance one year and the next. This means that the financial advisor with the best returns this year may very well have the worst returns next year.

What if they do beat the average consistently?

As a matter of fact, even if your advisor beats the market every year, they may not make you more money than if you invested in the S&P. That seems odd, right?

This is, of course, due to the fees they charge, which can be as high as 2.5%. How does this affect your return?

Let’s say you invest $100,000 and the average market return that year is 9%. Your financial advisor, however, boasts 10% returns. How much would your investment be worth through each investment strategy?

Index fund:

($100,000 * 109%) = $109,000

Financial advisor:

($100,000 * 110%) = $110,000
Fees = ($110,000 * 2%) (2,200)

As you can see, once the fee is factored in, the financial advisor still earns you less money than the market average. The after-fee return above for the financial advisor is actually 7.8% instead of 10%.

With this in mind, financial advisors don’t just have to beat the market average to be beneficial to you; they have to beat it by a lot, and very few do that consistently**.


Financial advisors that are worth what they charge are few and far between. To make matters worse, there is no way of telling if you found one that is, until after the fact, making it a gamble. In most cases, financial advisors are actually hurting your returns by taking a sizeable chunk of your money in fees every year.

Let me be clear, I don’t hate the people who decide to be financial advisors. I know some who are nice people and I have heard of several more. But it’s a bit like paying for a friend at that point. If that is what you are after, a financial advisor might be the thing for you. But from a financial standpoint: Do you need a financial advisor?

No, you do not need a financial advisor.


* The S&P 500 tracks the performance of the 500 largest listed companies in the US and is, therefore, a good proxy for the US stock market.

** Remember that financial advisors still charge you fees when you have had a bad year and lost money. As such, the fees are consistently impairing your ability to capitalize on the effects of compounding, which is key to good growth over time.

Interesting Questions

What is the best energy source?

Since our worldwide energy consumption continues to grow each year1, it is not a mystery that energy sources are a constant topic of debate. I regularly find myself discussing the subject with people on both sides of the political divide. Yet, I have only recently realized that I have been discussing the subject without really having any knowledge in the area. Like you, I have heard different things from different sources – often contradicting each other – leaving me confused about what is true. Who are we supposed to believe?

Finally, I decided that it was time to consult the scientific literature, as I should have done a long time ago. With a topic this complex, however, it took me a few days of initial research to figure out what energy sources to compare and which dimensions to compare them across. It quickly became obvious that the scope needed to be limited to the most important pieces, lest I get lost in the realm of scientific research and never come to any conclusions that can be used in daily life. What is presented below is the synthesis of my findings from this journey. I hope it is as illuminating to you as it has been to me.

Sources and Dimensions

As stated above, I have narrowed the scope to focus on our main energy sources to avoid making this synthesis too complex. This narrowing has the added benefit of only including sources that might be considered legitimate alternatives for the future and have substantial amounts of research data tied to them on which to base conclusions. As such, I have chosen to focus on the following sources of energy:

  • Nuclear
  • Wind
  • Solar
  • Hydro
  • Natural gas
  • Oil
  • Coal

These sources have been compared on a global scale (ignoring local peculiarities – such as more or less sun or wind) across seven dimensions to form a clearer picture of how they match up against each other on a macro level. Where relevant, all metrics are measured on a per-unit basis to control for differences in total energy production. The dimensions that have been focused on are:

  • Danger to Humans
  • Danger to Animals
  • Emissions
  • Power Density
  • Cost of Energy
  • Energy Return on Investment (EROI)
  • Reliability

Danger to Humans

Let us first look at how many human lives are lost in the production of energy. It should be noted that these numbers include deaths from clearly traceable accidents and, to a large extent for coal and oil, estimates based on the known mortality rates from air pollution. The lack of anti-pollution regulations in places like China accounts for a substantial portion of the estimates2, 3.

Considering the air pollution resulting from the combustion of coal and the dangerous nature of its mining and transportation, it may not be a surprise to most that it performs poorly on this dimension. What might come as a shock, however, is the low number of deaths resulting from nuclear power. Despite the prominent accidents of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima, nuclear power is surprisingly safe. In fact, though these numbers are from before the Fukushima meltdown, the per-output-unit death rate will be lower now; a lot more power has been generated since then and the number radiation-related deaths from the event were in the low single-digit range4, 5, 6. The vast majority of deaths were caused by the earthquake/tsunami and the ensuing evacuation6.

Danger to Animals

Unfortunately, there are no concrete numbers for all animals killed by the production of energy. Numbers for avian deaths are the most commonly researched and thus the most generalizable across the different energy sources. No such number was found for hydropower, as the technology has minimal impact on birds, but it is clear from the research that hydro plants disturb river systems and thus the wellbeing of the inhabiting species. Examples of such species include salmon and river dolphins. The use of dams necessitates the flooding of areas that would otherwise have been habitat for other species. From this, we can conclude that though some sources of energy have a larger impact on animals, the very act of energy production cannot be carried on without wildlife incurring negative externalities.

This is not to say that we should not try to minimize the extent of said negative impact; quite the contrary. In instances like these, we are obligated to look to the research so we might properly consider wildlife welfare as part of the complex problem of determining the future of energy production. Once again, fossil fuels come out unfavorably on this dimension. Though it may be easy to disregard these technologies at this point, there are confounding factors to consider. Fossil fuels continue to lessen their negative impact through stricter safety standards for waste and emissions. At the same time, increasing efficiency for wind (through larger turbines) and solar (through concentrating the sunlight) seems to increase the number of animals killed by these technologies7, 8 – muddying the already murky waters further.


On to the hot topic of emissions. At this point, it is clear that humans are having a heating effect on the environment12. The implications, however, are far from certain – though it is reasonable to assume it will be detrimental for some species and beneficial for others, just like past environmental changes. Our worry regarding this environmental change, at its most fundamental, is that the world will be less beneficial to us, as our species has thrived under the current conditions*. It is natural then, to examine the energy sources based on emissions, which is related to this heating process.

Several gases contribute to this process. To make the comparison easier to follow, the overall emissions have been expressed in grams of CO2 equivalent per kilowatt-hour (g CO2e/kWh). The numbers reported are the total life-cycle emissions of the various power sources, including building and operating the plants, and transportation of necessary supplies/raw materials. As can be seen below, wind and nuclear power come out best on this dimension, while coal and oil are the worst.

Power Density

Here, unlike in the prior graphics, more is better. This metric shows how much power capacity you get out of 1 km2 of land – the power density. As our consumption of electricity keeps climbing, power density is important to consider. Denser energy sources leave more land available to other uses – such as farming or natural preservation – lessening the worry of overpopulation of the planet and increasing our ability to let natural environments remain untouched. By sparing natural landscapes from human intervention, wildlife is preserved together with the plants that pull CO2 out of the atmosphere. Since all sources of energy need to be connected to the power grid to be useful, consolidating the power supply to a smaller area also means less wiring. Thus, power density has a plethora of implications for the sustainability and environmental impact of electricity generation.

Cost of Energy

The cost of electricity impacts the entire economy, as few (if any) businesses or individuals conduct their daily business without it. It may be easy to overlook the importance of this fact, but as our peaceful global society is predicated on constant economic growth – growth largely fueled by cheap electricity – the stakes are enormous. People cannot be expected to take a long-term view of environmental health when they are busy worrying about feeding their families. This may seem hyperbolic, but to many people around the world, this is an everyday worry. As such, any viable alternative must at least be close to the lowest price in the market.

Energy Return on Investment

In addition to the monetary cost of energy, we must also consider the energy cost. Energy Return on Investment (EROI; also known as Energy Returned on Energy Invested, EROEI) captures the relative cost of producing energy. For example, an EROI of 2 means that every kWh of energy invested results in 2 kWh of output. That might seem like a good rate of return, but it means that only half of the energy output can be used consumed as the other half has to out back into the process of energy production. As such, every metric we have looked at so far will be affected by EROI.

Here, a quick demonstration is due. Consider the following: you need 2 MW of electricity for a factory and this is being supplied by an energy source with a power density of 1 MW/km2. If the EROI of that plant is 3, your factory will need 3 km2 worth of energy. The reason you do not need 2 km2 is that a third of the energy is going back into the production process. If the EROI was 2, half the energy would be used for the production of energy and you would need 4 km2 for energy production. The same phenomenon will apply to emissions, deaths, etc., as the total amount of energy that needs to be produced to supply the grid will vary greatly depending on the EROI.


Finally, the critical factor of reliability, measured through the capacity factor**. Here, the actual output is compared to the theoretical maximal output, indicating the ability of an energy source to meet the demand from the grid. This is where the intermittency of solar power, for example, poses a problem. A temporary lack of sunshine (e.g. night time) can lead to a decrease in energy production, leading hospitals, businesses, and the government to rely on back-up generators or batteries to avoid shutting down.

The implications of such uncertainty surrounding energy production are wide-ranging. Let us consider a few: The need to include batteries in the calculation would lessen the environmental benefits of renewable energies, not to mention the fact that batteries run out – a fact that anyone living in our technological world can relate to. Backup generators will likely rely on fossil fuels and are not as efficient as larger power generators, leading to higher emissions than current fossil fuel powerplants. To meet the demand most of the time, the overall capacity would have to far exceed the energy demand of the grid***.

So what energy source is the best?

Throughout the process of doing this research, I found myself changing my mind several times, depending on the dimension I was currently focused on. Looking at emissions, wind looks like the clear choice, but what about when you have to consider land use or reliability? Suddenly, other options look far superior. And we have only considered a few of the most prominent factors; there are yet more to consider if you dig into the research. If anything has become clear, it is that if an option looks clearly superior to its alternatives, you are probably not considering all factors.

That being said, a decision needs to be made. We cannot delay decisions forever and must, therefore, accept some level of informational incompleteness. From this standpoint, the best option seems to be nuclear power, which has consistently been among the best alternatives across all the examined dimensions. The major detriment of nuclear technology is the public fear of nuclear disasters. Yet, when the data is examined, we find that nuclear powerplants are incredibly safe. The low number of casualties at the Fukushima meltdown – caused by a natural disaster that will not be a threat to most powerplants (a tsunami will not be a threat inland) – should serve as a testament to the safety of newer nuclear plants. And the Fukushima plant was commissioned in 197121. Newer plants have gone on to improve safety even further.


If we are to improve the conditions under which we and our descendants will live, it is necessary to face our fears and question the common knowledge we think we have. Surprisingly often, our fears are not founded on reality and our “knowledge” is simply regurgitated rumor. In the case of energy production, the best solution is being sidetracked by the battle between ideologues so deeply entrenched for either renewables or fossil fuels they forget why they are fighting. Taking a step back from the battle affords a view of the big picture, allowing us to reorient ourselves and get back to the main problem we were initially trying to solve. Thus, instead of putting our heads down and marching forth toward the perceived enemy, we must fight the urge so we might together find the real enemy: the stagnation of progress.


* This topic brings to mind George Carlin’s brilliant bit about saving the planet. It is certainly worth 8 minutes of your life.
** Capacity Factor = actual energy output / maximum possible output
*** A cushion of additional supply beyond the demand would allow even sub-optimal performance of energy production to satiate the demand. However, the construction of the additional capacity would impact the costs – monetary, environmental, and in terms of energy investment – per unit of output.


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  3. Conca, J. (2012). How Deadly Is Your Kilowatt? We Rank The Killer Energy Sources. Forbes. Retrieved on 2020-04-25 from:
  4. Leppold, C., Tanimoto, T., & Tsubokura, M. (2016). Public health after a nuclear disaster: beyond radiation risks. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 859-680. DOI:
  5. Reich, M. R., & Goto, A. (2015). Towards long-term responses in Fukushima. The Lancet, 386(9992), 498-500. DOI:
  6. Ritchie, H. (2017). What was the death toll from Chernobyl and Fukushima? Our World in Data. Retrieved on 2020-04-25 from:
  7. Thaxter, C. B., Buchanan, G. M., Carr, J., Butchart, S. H. M., Newbold, T., Green, R. E., Tobias, J. A., Foden, W. B., O’Brien, S., & Pearce-Higgins, J. W. (2017). Bird and bat species’ global vulnerability to collision mortality at wind farms revealed through a trait-based assessment. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. DOI:
  8. Walston, L. J. Jr., Rollins, K. E., LaGory, K. E., Smith, K. P., & Meyers, S. A. (2016). A preliminary assessment of avian mortality at utility-scale solar energy facilities in the United States. Renewable Energy, 92, 405-414. DOI:
  9. Sovacool, B. J. (2009). Contextualizing avian mortality: A preliminary appraisal of bird and bat fatalities from wind, fossil-fuel, and nuclear electricity. Energy Policy, 37(6), 2241-2248. DOI:
  10. U.S. Energy Information Administration. (2020). Wind explained. Retrieved on 2020-04-25 from:

Sources (continued):

  1. Loss, S. R., Will, T., & Marra, P. P. (2013). Estimates of bird collision mortality at wind facilities in the contiguous United States. Biological Conservation, 168, 201-209. DOI:
  2. Cook, J., Oreskes, N., Doran, P. T., Anderegg, W. R. L., Verheggen, B., Maibach, E. W., Carlton, J. S., Lewandowsky, S., Skuce, A. G., Green, S. A., Nuccitelli, D., Jacobs, P., Richardson, M., Winkler, B., Painting, R., & Rice, K. (2016). Consensus on consensus: a synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming. Environmental Research Letters, 11(4). DOI:
  3. OpenEI. (2020). LCA Harmonization. Retrieved on 2020-04-25 from:
  4. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (2014). Fifth Assessment Report, 511-898. Retrieved on 2020-04-25 from:
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  7. Van Zalk, J., & Behrens, P. (2018). The spatial extent of renewable and non-renewable power generation: A review and meta-analysis of power densities and their application in the U.S. Energy Policy, 123, 83-91. DOI:
  8. OpenEI. (2020). Transparent Cost Database. Retrieved on 2020-04-25 from:
  9. Walmsley, T. G., Walmsley, M. R., Varbanov, P. S., & Klemeš, J. J. (2018). Energy Ratio analysis and accounting for renewable and non—renewable electricity generation: A review. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 98, 328-345. DOI:
  10. Hall, C. A. S., Lambert, J. G., & Balogh, S. B. (2013). EROI of different fuels and the implications for society. Energy Policy, 64, 141-152. DOI:
  11. Wikipedia. (2020). Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Retrieved on 2020-04-26 from:

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Interesting Questions

What is the best bag for the environment?

What is the best bag for the environment? It is a simple question, but there is more to it than you might think. What do you think now, prior to reading the rest of this? Paper? Cotton, which can be used many times, maybe? It must be one of these two at least, right? I think the answer will surprise you, but first, let us look at how we make decisions.

How we make decisions

Ultimately, I believe most peoples’ actions are motivated by a desire to do the right thing. With this in mind, it is important to appreciate that even people you disagree with are likely seeking the same thing as you: A future that improves upon the present. In the course of writing this piece, I had to return to this fundamental belief often, reminding myself that it is not a lack of good intentions that most often leads to poor decisions, but a lack of relevant knowledge. As the information we have available guides the choices we make, our decisions will change when new, relevant information is made available. At least, that is how it would ideally work.

Allow me to crudely illustrate: 
Dan wants to visit Mary and wants to get there as soon as possible. He has no car. 

Unknown path to Mary's house

There are two routes to Mary’s house. Route A is 10 km; Route B is 12 km. 
Which route should he choose? 
At this point, Route A is the painfully obvious choice but bear with me.

Path A or B based on distance alone

What if Dan has a bicycle, which can only be used on Route B, since Route A is not paved? 
This new piece of information shifts the preference to Route B.

Path A or B based on distance and new information

Though I acknowledge most decisions are far more complex than this, the principle applies in the real world just as well: New information can radically change our decisions if we keep our minds open to it. 

We currently live in a world where ideological polarizations (political, religious, dietary, etc.) cause many of us to oppose any idea presented to us by someone we dislike or disagree with – anyone outside our group. This phenomenon contributes to the stagnation of humanity’s progress, as agreement becomes nearly impossible on larger issues. Many good ideas get lost in the no-man’s-land between the increasingly entrenched opposing forces and only the anomalous few prevail to become widely held among the majority of the population. As time passes, it is hard to believe that ideas we now take for granted – gender and racial equality come to mind – ever had substantial opposition. Yet we are currently debating concepts that will, in time, join the list of basic principles that future generations will take for granted. 

This common source bias does have benefits, don’t get me wrong. Letting our group make decisions for us – particularly macro-level decisions that often do not directly affect our daily lives – frees up our time and mental resources, allowing us to focus on micro-level decisions that only we can make. If we all had to thoroughly understand all the policies that are proposed by the government, no one would have the time to decide what we should have for dinner or what shirt to wear. Group cohesion also ensures that every idea has plentiful opposition, which means it will be properly dissected and its flaws will be exposed; this inclination to skepticism is fundamental to science. However, when skepticality turns to blind opposition, it holds the hold world back from the progress we all seek. We should be wary of new ideas, but when overwhelming evidence suggests we are wrong, we need to change our minds so that we might improve individually and as a society. 

Thus, as we proceed into this potentially contentious subject, please keep an open mind. Let me preface the rest of what you are about to read with this: I think we should take care of the beautiful planet we are living on, lest we make it a worse place for future generations to live. However, this cannot be achieved by blindly following the ideas that are most widely held by the general population. Sometimes efforts to do good lead to the opposite effect of what is desired, and there are few better examples of this than the condemnation of plastic bags.

The best bag for the environment

Following the narrative spun by mainstream media, the conclusion is unambiguous: “Plastic bags are ruining the environment and we should do our best to use alternatives (mainly paper or cotton) that are biodegradable and/or can be used many times.” The evidence, however, tells a different story.

A comprehensive study1 commissioned by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency examined several alternative carrier bags to determine the environmental impact of each – evaluating each bag on their performance across 14 factors. The table below shows the results. To make the comparison of the bags easy to comprehend, a standardized unit of environmental footprint – Bag Environmental Footprint (BEF) – has been used.

1 BEF = the environmental footprint of one Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) bag – the bag you would get in most stores.*

Comparison of bag alternatives

The data boils down to this: If you get a paper bag the next time you are shopping, it has the same environmental impact as 43 plastic bags. Put another way, you need to use the paper bag more than 43 times before you are having a net positive relative impact on the environment, as compared to using plastic bags – and that is if you only use the plastic bags once each. If you typically use a plastic bag twice (e.g. home from the store and more the next time you go shopping), you now have to use that paper bag more than 86 times to save the environment from additional harm.** I have never been able to use a paper bag more than once or twice and though I am certain some people can stretch the usage numbers higher than myself, 43 uses seems incredible. As we need scalable solutions to have a real global impact, the paper-bag solution should be discarded – most people will not come near the number of uses required for a net positive impact.

Next on the docket is cotton. A quick search on Google makes it look as though cotton – organic cotton in particular – is the best solution for the environment. However, looking at the numbers, we find that the cotton bag (non-organic) has the same environmental impact as 7,100 plastic bags. If you use the cotton bag twice daily, 365 days a year, you need to use it for more than 9 years and 8 months before you are having a positive impact, relative to the use of plastic one-time-use bags. That is a long time to use one bag. For organic cotton, you have to use it nearly three times as long.

Matters are made worse for cotton bags when considering that the above number of uses is multiplied by how many times the plastic bag is used. This means that if you are able to use a plastic bag three times (e.g. home from the store, as a lunch bag to work, and once more shopping), the users of cotton bags need to use their bag 21,300 (3 * 7,100) times to break even. Users of organic cotton bags now have to surpass 60,000 (3 * 20,000) uses. With two uses every day, that is more than 82 years of the same bag. Thus, the cotton bags do not seem a good solution either, leaving polypropylene (PP) as the only viable alternative to LDPE. 

The main takeaway from this research is that focusing on using plastic bags (LDPE or PP) as many times as possible would be far better for our environment than changing to other materials at this time – though I am happy to welcome better alternatives as they are developed. 

The importance of following the science

As humans, we tend to be attracted to predictions of imminent doom, always believing that we need to change our collective actions or face the consequences of following a path headed toward a precipice that will be the end of our civilization. Whether the apocalypse will be caused by our religious or scientific sins, it will be caused by our wrongdoing. During the Cold War, we were scared of a nuclear holocaust; now, we are scared that climate change will leave the planet uninhabitable. The general narrative of a path leading to what I call the “Precipice of Doom” is illustrated below. For the current worry of climate change, the start of the path can be considered to be the Industrial Revolution, as that is when humans started to have a large impact on the global environment. 

Perceived path to the precipice of doom

When this is your model of the world, an urge to change our current behavior is understandable, laudable even. We do not want to keep repeating the same mistakes when this is our trajectory. However, if we want positive change we cannot blindly leap to actions that are not grounded in science. We cannot simply follow the “common sense” narrative that plastic is always worse for the planet than paper or organic alternatives. It simply is not true; paradoxically, common sense does not always make sense and actions that are taken to improve our situation might make matter worse. 

The problem with the model above is that it does not account for the power of innovation. The illustration below shows the path I believe we are on – one of technological development that will ultimately cause humanity to steer clear of the precipice. The red path is the one that virtue-signaling actions, blind to science might lead us down. Taking a step away from the path we are on will undoubtedly make some people feel better about themselves. However, before you take that step, I urge you to ensure that you are not engaging on a more expedient path to the very future you seek to avoid.

Technological development avoiding the precipice of doom

* This is contingent on the bag being used as a garbage bag in most cases and therefore not ending up as litter.
** To get the total number of uses necessary, we need to divide the total BEF for paper bags by the BEF per use for LDPE bags when used twice (1 BEF / 2 uses = 0.5 BEFs per use). As such, the number if uses necessary for paper bags 

1 Danish Environmental Protection Agency. (2018). Life Cycle Assessment of grocery carrier bags. Retrieved from: