Shrinkflation, Disqualiflation, and Depression and more
My latest Bloomberg Opinion column is explained well in an excellent subhead (contrary to popular assumptions, writers don’t craft the headlines or subheads that appear on their work): “Packaging less stuff for the same price doesn’t fool consumers or economists. But diminishing quality imposes equally maddening extra costs that are almost impossible to measure.” Excerpt:
If a 16-ounce box contracts to 14 ounces and the price stays the same, I asked Bureau of Labor Statistics economist Jonathan Church, how is that recorded? “Price increase,” he said quickly. You just divide the price by 14 instead of 16 and get the price per ounce. Correcting for shrinkflation is straightforward.
New service charges for things that used to be included in the price, from rice at a Thai restaurant to delivery of topsoil, also rarely sneak past the inflation tallies any more than they fool consumers.
But a stealthier shrinkflation is plaguing today’s economy: declines in quality rather than quantity. Often intangible, the lost value is difficult to capture in price indexes.
Faced with labor shortages, for example, many hotels have eliminated daily housekeeping. For the same room price, guests get less service. It’s not conceptually different from shrinking a bag of potato chips. But would the consumer price index pick up the change?
Probably not, Church said.
This phenomenon, which Doug Johnson aptly dubbed “disqualiflation” in a Facebook comment, is widespread. One example is the four-hour airport security line I chronicled in an earlier Substack post. Another is the barely trained newbie who screws up your sandwich order—a far more common experience today than four years ago. It’s the flip side of a phenomenon I wrote about in The Substance of Style and in economics columns in the early 2000s (see here and here).
During the 2000s and 2010s, inflation was probably overstated because of unmeasured quality increases. Now there’s the opposite phenomenon. Quality reductions have become so pervasive that even today’s scary inflation numbers are almost certainly understated.
Depression feels as foreign and irresistible as the flu.
You may have heard that the “chemical imbalance” theory of depression has been disproved. A typical summary is this one, from a post by a Facebook friend who shall remain nameless:
The pseudoscientific idea that “depression” is a “chemical imbalance in the brain” has been among the most pernicious for the happiness of humans, but among the most convenient for big pharma. “You don't need to rethink your life. Just take this pill.” The same logic behind drug addiction.
Here’s a popularization by the authors of the scientific paper. The study is not about whether the general idea of a chemical imbalance is correct. Nor is it about whether antidepressants work. It is specifically about the theory that “depression is a result of abnormally low or inactive serotonin.” Saying depression isn’t caused by abnormally low serotonin is a long way from saying it’s just the world telling you to rethink your life.
I do not need to rethink my life. I have a wonderful husband, meaningful work, financial security, generally good health. I had a loving family and a happy childhood. But from adolescence onward, I have suffered from bouts of depression. “But I can’t be depressed!” I long thought. I had a happy childhood!
But when this Zoloft commercial originally ran in 2001, I completely identified with the little blob—only I was much more miserable and worthless feeling. And I had already rethought my life. I had quit my job as editor of Reason, driven at least in part by a desire to stop feeling like a failure, and embarked on a career as an independent writer. My career was going well, but my mood was as black as ever.
I did eventually talk with my internist, who diagnosed depression. When she asked whether I ever felt suicidal, I said no, never, but I understand why other people do. She prescribed fluoxetine, aka Prozac, because it was available as a cheap generic. It made me less passionate and gave me weird dreams but allowed me get a rational grip on my depressive cycles. After a number of years, I went off the drug. When my depression returned a few years ago, thankfully not in as intense a form, my doctor prescribed sertraline (aka Zoloft), which is much, much better. It simply makes me feel normal, without the numbing effects of fluoxetine.
Depression feels as foreign and irresistible as the flu. If you think it is mere sadness, you don’t know what you’re talking about. We may not understand why antidepressive medication works, which makes it like many other medications, but I have to wonder at the urge to tell people who suffer from this crippling disease that they should just get their acts together.
Of course, I’m just a single data point. If you want to read some expert reactions, here’s a collection of short responses to the new findings. A couple of examples, from the same institution, University College London, as the review’s co-authors:
Dr Michael Bloomfield, Consultant Psychiatrist and UKRI Principal Clinical Research Fellow, Translational Psychiatry Research Group Head, UCL, said:
“The hypothesis that depression was caused by a chemical imbalance in serotonin was a really important step forward in the middle of the 20th century. Since then, there is a huge of amount of research which tells us that the brain’s serotonin systems plays very important roles in how our brains process different emotions.
“The findings from this umbrella review are really unsurprising. Depression has lots of different symptoms and I don’t think I’ve met any serious scientists or psychiatrists who think that all causes of depression are caused by a simple chemical imbalance in serotonin. What remains possible is that for some people with certain types of depression, that changes in the serotonin system may be contributing to their symptoms. The problem with this review is that it isn’t able to answer that question because it has lumped together depression as if it is a single disorder, which from a biological perspective does not make any sense.
“Many of us know that taking paracetamol [acetaminophen] can be helpful for headaches and I don’t think anyone believes that headaches are caused by not enough paracetamol in the brain. The same logic applies to depression and medicines used to treat depression. There is consistent evidence that antidepressant medicines can be helpful in the treatment of depression and can be life-saving. Antidepressant medicines are one type of treatment alongside other types of treatment like psychotherapy (talking therapy). Patients must have access to evidence-based treatments for depression and anyone taking any treatment for depression who is contemplating stopping treatment should discuss this with their doctor first.”
Prof David Curtis, Honorary Professor, UCL Genetics Institute, said:
“This paper does not present any new findings but just reports results which have been published elsewhere and it is certainly not news that depression is not caused by “low serotonin levels”. The notion of depression being due to a “chemical imbalance” is outmoded, and the Royal College of Psychiatrists wrote that this was an over-simplification in a position statement published in 2019. Nor is it the case that SSRI antidepressants increase serotonin levels. Their immediate action is to alter the balance between serotonin concentrations inside and outside neurons but their antidepressant effect is likely due to more complex changes in neuronal functioning which occur later as a consequence of this. It is very clear that people suffering from depressive illness do have some abnormality of brain function, even if we do not yet know what this is, and that antidepressants are effective treatments for severe depression whereas interventions such as exercise and mindfulness are not. It is important that people with severe depression are not discouraged from receiving appropriate treatments, which can make a huge difference to them and those around them.”
And here’s Freddie deBoer, who knows serious mental illness all too well.
Misc. short takes
Show, don’t tell: One of the small, pervasive changes that makes news stories seem both patronizing and politicized is the increasingly common practice of inserting judgmental adjectives into otherwise descriptive sentences. Telling readers that a statement is “false” while repeating it may be justified, if intrusive, but in other cases it’s an unnecessary tic.
Gone is the assumption that readers are intelligent people who can draw their own conclusions from a compelling presentation of the facts. Journalists now seem to live in fear that their readers won’t think correctly. Take this sentence from interesting article on the evolution of American Sign Language: “For a portion of the 20th century, many schools for the deaf were more inclined to try to teach their students spoken English, rather than ASL, based on harmful beliefs that signing was inferior to spoken language.” (Emphasis added.)
If you read the article, you are highly unlikely to come to the conclusion that signing is anything less than a full-blown language, not inferior to spoken English. But the article never gives evidence that this incorrect 20th-century belief was harmful. It doesn’t discuss the pluses and minuses of signing, or why one belief was succeeded by another. That’s a different story. In the context of this story, the adjective is unnecessary, distracting, and insulting to the reader’s intelligence.
Postrel’s The Fabric of Civilization is a relatively academic analysis made accessible to casual readers. It’s full of amazing anecdotes, too: you will learn, for example, that a 100sqm sail for a Viking ship would take 60 miles of yarn to weave, and took longer to make than the ship itself. Postrel also visits modern textile-production facilities and weaving schools, to understand the technology behind the huge uptick in global availability of fabric.
Just for fun: