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Trade-Offs, Not Solutions

Among my favorite observations made by Thomas Sowell is his insistence that in economic reality human beings confront, not the possibility of solutions to problems but, instead, only trade-offs.  We can have more of this good, but only at the cost of having less of that good.  T.A.N.S.T.A.A.F.L.  Such is economic reality.

A frustration suffered by those of us who understand this reality is supplied by our frequent encounters with politicians, pundits, professors, and preachers who ignore trade-offs and talk or write as if objective solutions are available – solutions that, of course, must be imposed by government on the mass of humanity over which it so benevolently rules.  So it was with great surprise and delight that I read this passage, found in today’s New York Times Book Review, by reviewer Sonia Shah:

For the Sonnenburgs [authors of a book on the microbiome], this means that a diverse gut microbiome is the key to good health. But at the same time, aspects of the modern Western lifestyle that have reduced microbial diversity in the gut have increased longevity, too. Processed foods have cheaply filled bellies, sanitary methods that separated human waste from food and drink have prevented epidemics of disease, and antibiotics have saved us from life-­threatening infections. This may be why, in part, the ­hunter-gatherer tribes whose highly diverse gut microbes the Sonnenburgs mention admiringly have a life expectancy at birth that is about half that of the typical, microbially depleted American. Had the Sonnenburgs incorporated these facts into their argument, a more nuanced view of microbes in human health might have emerged.

Ms. Shah’s recognition of a trade-off in opposition to someone’s proffered or implied ‘solution’ to an alleged problem might appear to be a small thing.  But given that this recognition appears in the pages of a newspaper not known for a propensity to feature Sowellian insights – and given that this insight says a kind word about modern processed foods – I was so struck by this passage that I traded-off some of my time that would otherwise have been devoted to some alternative task in order to blog on it.