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The Arithmetic of Life and Death

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 25, 2001

    Clever in concept but weak in substance....

    Shaffner takes a clever idea, develops it to a point, but then leaves it short by revealing bias, inconsistency, and a weak understanding of basic economics. Even though I thought several discussions were worth reading including 'You Can('t) Be Anything You Want,' 'The Sum of All Decisions,' 'The Odds of Getting Caught' and 'Streaks and the Law of Averages,' I became cynical after discovering the following problems. First of all, Shaffner argues that confused teens can be shown the value of an education by taking the average incremental earnings attributed to higher education and dividing this by the number of hours needed to get this education to ultimately arrive at an impressive hourly wage. Although the message is good, the logic is weak because it completely ignores the time value of money, which is something even teenagers seem to grasp quite well. Shaffner also argues that smoking causes a significant number of deaths, but in doing so seems to incorrectly imply that kicking this irrational habit will somehow make you immortal whereas we all know that eventually everyone has to die from something. Another problem for me is that Shaffner applies the concept of inflation in a selective and self-serving fashion. For example, he mentions that costs may rise 5% per year but does not include the fact that wages will undoubtedly go up as well. And finally, Shaffner complains about the evils of our national debt, revealing his ignorance to the fact that (1) it is capped by law, (2) interest paid on debt represents a future benefit as well as a future liability, and (3) the debt to income ratio of the U.S. is currently very low, historically speaking. Along the way, Shaffner also takes what seems to be unjustified swipes at government in general, which made me feel like he was suppressing some kind of anti-government agenda. If you can see past these problems, The Arithmetic of Life and Death will be a fun, fast read. Otherwise, you may be better served to keep your expectations in check.

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