Vitamins, homeopathy, and economic austerity

I was thinking about this comment by Paul Krugman, about the hegemonic certainty among European banking elites that genuine solid prosperity will only come through a long period of suffering through budget austerity:

Europe’s Very Serious People — people who believe in austerity regardless of circumstances, and who also say things like this, from the Bundesbank’s Jens Weidmann, declaring that “the money printer is definitely not the way to solve [Europe’s problems]“. This is stated as if it is a self-evident truth — even though any PRE can easily make the case (as Praet does) that the money printer is, in fact, something that can offer a great deal of help in solving Europe’s problems.

It reminded me of a similar but opposite delusion that I have noticed among health cranks promoting vitamins. “Pharmaceuticals” are by nature unnatural, and to be viewed with suspicion, even while few are willing to go full Christian Scientist when their lives are at stake. The presumption is that there are side effects, maybe worse than the disease, and the companies that developed and manufactured the drugs are basically pernicious in their goals and methods. “Vitamins”, on the other hand, even when manufactured by the same pharmaceutical company in the same factory, are presumptively good, even in doses far exceeding anything that has ever been tested clinically, much less found in nature. On the other side of the holistic medicine world — but often the same people — are the homeopaths, who take nonexistent doses of generally poisonous substance, under the plausible theory that once they’ve been diluted down to the point where not a single molecule of the substance is left in the vial, it can’t hurt.

But how could it help? That’s where they get into some mystical physics. But if we accept the efficacy of water memory, or whatever the explanation is supposed to be, then why should we continue to assume that the modified water couldn’t hurt? My presumption is that anything effective enough to help is also effective enough to harm, and it’s all a matter of getting the timing and the dosage right. That’s why there are few really easy questions in medicine. It’s always a matter of tradeoffs. The same with the vitamins. How can they help if they can’t hurt? And how could a large dose of a completely untargeted substance be more likely to help than to hurt? And indeed, every trial I know of that has put large doses of vitamins to the test has found them to be generally harmful.

One of the greatest nuggets of wisdom offered up by a (nonreligious) crackpot was Paracelsus’s famous apothegm:

Alle Ding’ sind Gift, und nichts ohn’ Gift; allein die Dosis macht, daß ein Ding kein Gift ist.
All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.

The delusion of the austerians is to believe that monetary expansion — “the money printer”, encouraging inflation — obviously can’t help the economy, it can only hurt. Now, there are serious arguments that purport to show that monetary policy has no effect at all on the “real economy”. My nonspecialist impression is that these arguments have been mostly seen off by behavioural economics, but it’s a plausible idea, in principle. Intuitively, it seems strange that something as ethereal as changing the numbers on the central bank’s balance sheet will be effective in mobilising idle labour.

But if you think that inflation and deficit spending are efficacious, it is implausible to suppose that they can only be harmful. I have respect for the conservative mindset that says, tinkering with a complicated structure is more likely to kill than to cure, but it’s not as though this is just some crackpot idea that some radicals just made up last Tuesday. Smart people have been thinking for quite a while about how to structure and dose fiscal stimulus. They might be wrong, but they’re not likely to be obviously wrong.

For the same reason that it can’t be self-evident that megadoses of vitamins couldn’t hurt.

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