What Happens in a Recession Anyway?

A few years/weeks ago, my boyfriend asked me “what happens during a recession?”, and I realized that while I knew the technical definition- GDP shrinks, unemployment grows- I didn’t really know what the human effects were. So as part of my temp job as “something something coronavirus” at LessWrong, I went looking.

All data is for the United States unless otherwise specified.


My prediction:

  • Unemployment increases in a recession. This creates a long lasting negative effect on people who enter the labor force during a recession (unemployment scarring).
  • Women’s employment is more stable than men’s

By Sector

According to Have employment patterns in recessions changed? (which was published in 1981), recessions universally (for n=4) concentrate employment in the service sector, by 1-3 percentage points

Looked at in more detail, from the Bureau of Labor Statistics

By Gender

From 1953-1980, women have a higher unemployment rate than men, during both expansions and recessions. From 1980 on, men and women have nearly identical unemployment rates in good times, but men’s unemployment has higher peaks during recessions.

Unemployment over time, by gender

At first I thought this was because men are more likely to work in manufacturing, which is more procyclic (see next section), but the pattern holds even within sectors

But unemployment typically means ‘is looking for work’. Perhaps women who lose their jobs are more likely to call themselves Stay-At-Home-Parents and stop looking for work. What happens to the labor force participation rate?

So that’s not it either.

By Race

Black and Latino people typically have a higher unemployment rate than white people (I did not find equivalent data for Asians over a long enough time period), and are hit harder during recessions

By Age

Unfortunately I could only find comparative data going back to 1990, but it looks like youth unemployment is continually higher than older adults, by a similar amount over time.

This isn’t the whole story though, because unemployment can have long term negative effects when you’re young, and especially when you’re just entering the workforce. This is known as unemployment scarring. People who enter the workforce during recessions have lowered employment, wages, and job fit, an effect that lasts for at least 15 years and possibly more. Here are some papers covering the effect. Obviously the longest term data is available only for older recessions, and I could imagine that things aren’t as bad now given the loss of the one-employer-for-life model… but here’s one paper covering the Great Recession that says it’s still quite bad.


My prediction: divorces are postponed during a recession, leading to an apparent drop and then catch-up bounce

Reality: Trends in divorce continue basically unabated

This paper, the only long-time-scale survey I could find, reports a minor negative correlation between unemployment rates and divorce. However looking at their graph, the relationship is obviously mild.

Religious Participation

My prediction: religious participation increases during a recession.

Reality: Religious Service Attendance Stays Flat

I was really surprised to find only one academic paper in the last 40 years on religiosity and economic conditions, which was not available online. It reports a “strong” countercyclic effect in religious participation in evangelical Protestants but procyclic effect in mainline Protestants, in the 2001 recession. Meanwhile a Pew poll and a Gallup poll show no change in religious participation during the 2008 recession.

Life Expectancy

I googled this before making a prediction, but do not believe I would have predicted the results.

People die a little less often, especially in nursing homes.

Deaths go down during recessions; according to Ruhm 2002, a 1% decrease in the unemployment rate is associated with an average 0.4% rise in total mortality (about 13,000 deaths, relative to the average of ~2.8m). This is counterintuitive, because wealth is associated with longevity (e.g. Chetty et al. 2016) . There were a lot of potential explanations for this centering on how work was dangerous and didn’t leave time for health, but it turns out most of the additional deaths are concentrated among groups that were unlikely to be employed in the first place, such as those over 70 (70% of the total) or under 4. Fewer than 10% of the additional deaths occur among those between the ages of 25 and 64 (Stevens et al 2011).

Why does employment of working-age adults have such an impact on elderly mortality? Stevens et almake a compelling case that it’s because widespread unemployment increases the relative number of people willing to take unpleasant, low-paying nursing home jobs, particularly entry level “aide” positions, and this improves care of residents.


My prediction: recessions lead to a moderate drop in number of live births

The effect of economic downturns on births is surprisingly complicated. On one hand, people have less money and kids are expensive*, which you would expect to lead to fewer children. On the other hand, a reduction in employment expectations reduces the opportunity cost of children, which you would expect to lead to more.

Based primarily on Economic recession and fertility in the developed world and spot checking its sources, my conclusion is that modern recessions temporarily decrease per capita births, but by and large do not change cohort fertility (i.e. women have the same number of total children they would have had without the recession, but later). Some trends:

  • The reduction in births is seen mostly in younger women (20-24), not older women (30-34), suggesting this is a voluntary decision incorporating knowledge of ability to have children in the future.
  • The effect is much larger for first births than subsequent births, suggesting this may be more about union formation than post-union decisions to have children (this could also explain the age-related effects)
  • The change seems to be driven more by change in situation than by absolute status, i.e. there isn’t a strict relationship between per capita GDP or unemployment and fertility that holds across countries, but in countries where children and women have the same status, people will react similarly to a change in circumstance.
  • Male unemployment is universally bad for fertility.
  • Female unemployment depends on the era (used to be positively associated with fertility, now is negatively) and on a woman’s socioeconomic status (richer/better educated women’s fertility is more procyclic than poorer/worse education women’s).
  • Generous unemployment insurance or non-employment-linked maternity benefits unsurprisingly raise the birth rate during a recession.

Specific numbers are hard to give because every country, demographic, and recession is different, but as an example, this article estimates ~9% decrease in fertility in 2013 in the US.

* This is in societies where children are economic sinks. In situations where they are assets, you would expect the reverse.

Thanks to Eli Tyre for research assistance on this section.


My prediction: Suicide rises in a recession

Reality: Suicide rates rise, primarily in unemployed men

review found that out of 38 studies:

  • 31 of them found a positive association between economic recession and increased suicide rates.
  • 2 studies reported a negative association,
  • 2 articles failed to find any association
  • 3 studies were inconclusive.

Unfortunately they didn’t share the effect size for most of these studies. Looking at other sources (notes here), I found anywhere from a 4% increase (across Europe and the Americas during the 2008 recession) to 60% (among men in Russia during the 1991 crisis). Studies typically found a much larger effect in men than women, sometimes finding no change in the female suicide rate at all. Different studies found different effects on different age groups; these felt too subdivided to me and I ignored them. Unsurprisingly, unemployment was positive correlated with suicide.

That 60% increase in Russia corresponded to an additional 30 deaths per 100,000 people per year, at a time when the overall death rate was 1300 deaths per 100,000 people. That 4% Europe/Americas increase represents 5000 deaths total, across three continents.


I was 3 for 5 on predictions, 3 for 6 if you include the one I didn’t formally predict ahead of time.

My full notes on this are available here.


Many thanks to my Patreon patrons who also supported this work.

Negative Feedback and Simulacra

Part 1: Examples

There’s a thing I want to talk about but it’s pretty nebulous so I’m going to start with examples. Feel free to skip ahead to part 2 if you prefer.

Example 1: Hot sauce

In this r/AmITheAsshole post, a person tries some food their their girlfriend cooked, likes it, but tries another bite with hot sauce. Girlfriend says this “…insults her cooking and insinuates that she doesn’t know how to cook”. 

As objective people not in this fight, we can notice that her cooking is exactly as good as it is whether or not he adds hot sauce. Adding hot sauce reveals information (maybe about him, maybe about the food), but cannot change the facts on the ground. Yet she is treating him like he retroactively made her cooking worse in a way that somehow reflects on her, or made a deliberate attempt to hurt her.


Example 2: Giving a CD back to the library

Back when I would get books on CD I would sometimes forget the last one in my drive or car. Since I didn’t use CDs that often, I would find the last CD sometimes months later. To solve this, I would drop the CD in the library book return slot, which, uh, no longer looks like a good solution to me, in part because of the time I did this in front of a friend and she questioned it. Not rudely or anything, just “are you sure that’s safe? Couldn’t the CD snap if something lands wrong?.” I got pretty angry about this, but couldn’t actually deny she had a point, so settled for thinking that if she had violated a friend code by not pretending my action was harmless. I was not dumb enough to say this out loud, but I radiated the vibe and she dropped it.


Example 3: Elizabeth fails to fit in at martial arts 

A long time ago I went to a martial arts studio. The general classes (as opposed to specialized classes like grappling) were preceded by an optional 45 minute warm up class. Missing the warm up was fine, even if you took a class before and after. Showing up 10 minutes before the general class and doing your own warm ups on the adjacent mats was fine too. What was not fine was doing the specialized class, doing your own warm ups on adjacent maps for the full 45 minutes while the instructor led regular warm ups, and then rejoining for the general class. That was “very insulting to the instructor”.

This was a problem for me because the regular warm ups hurt, in ways that clearly meant they were bad for me (and this is at a place I regularly let people hit me in the head). Theoretically I could have asked the instructor to give me something different, but that is not free and the replacements wouldn’t have been any better, which is not surprising because no one there had the slightest qualification to do personal training or physical therapy. So basically the school wanted me to pretend I was in a world where they were competent to create exercise routines, more competent than I despite having no feedback from my body, and considered not pretending disrespectful to the person leading warm ups.

Like the hot sauce example, the warm ups were as good as they were regardless of my participation – and they knew that, because they didn’t demand I participate. But me doing my own warm ups broke the illusion of competence they were trying to maintain.


Example 4: Imaginary Self-Help Guru

I listened to an interview where the guest was a former self-help guru who had recently shut down his school. Well, I say listened, but I’ve only done the first 25% so far. For that reason this should be viewed less as “this specific real person believes these specific things” and more like  “a character Elizabeth made up in her head inspired by things a real person said…” and. For that reason, I won’t be using his name or linking to the podcast.

Anyways, the actual person talked about how being a leader put a target on his back and his followers were never happy.  There are indeed a lot of burdens of leadership that are worthy of empathy, but there was an… entitled… vibe to the complaint. Like his work as a leader gave him a right to a life free of criticism.

If I was going to steel- man him, I’d say that there are lots of demands people place on leaders that they shouldn’t, such as “Stop reminding me of my abusive father” or “I’m sad that trade offs exist, fix it”. But I got a vibe that the imaginary guru was going farther than that; he felt like he was entitled to have his advice work, and people telling him it didn’t was taking that away from him, which made it an attack.


Example 5: Do I owe MAPLE space for their response?

A friend of mine (who has some skin in the meditation game) said things I interpreted as feeling very strongly that:

  1. My post on MAPLE was important and great and should be widely shared.
  2. I owed MAPLE an opportunity to read my post ahead of time and give me a response to publish alongside it (although I could have declined to publish it if I felt it was sufficiently bad).

Their argument, as I understood it at the time, was that even if I linked to a response MAPLE made later, N days worth of people would have read the post and not the response, and that was unfair.

I think this is sometimes correct- I took an example out of this post even though it required substantial rewrites, because I checked in with the people in question, found they had a different view, and that I didn’t feel sure enough of mine to defend it (full disclosure: I also have more social and financial ties to the group in question than I do to MAPLE).

I had in fact already reached out to my original contact there to let him know the post was coming and would be negative, and he passed my comment on to the head of the monastery. I didn’t offer to let him see it or respond, but he had an opportunity to ask (what he did suggest is a post in and of itself). This wasn’t enough for my friend- what if my contact was misrepresenting me to the head, or vice versa? I had an obligation to reach out directly to the head (which I had no way of doing beyond the info@ e-mail on their website) and explicitly offer him a pre-read and to read his response.

[Note: I’m compressing timelines a little. Some of this argument and clarification came in arguments about the principle of the matter after I had already published the post. I did share this with my friend, and changed some things based on their requests. On others I decided to leave it as my impression at the time we argued, on the theory that “if I didn’t understand it after 10 hours of arguing, the chances this correction actually improves my accuracy are slim”. I showed them a near-final draft and they were happy with it]

I thought about this very seriously. I even tentatively agreed (to my friend) that I would do it. But I sat with it for a day, and it just didn’t feel right. What I eventually identified as the problem was this: MAPLE wasn’t going to be appending my criticism to any of their promotional material. I would be shocked if they linked to me at all. And even if they did it wouldn’t be the equivalent, because my friend was insisting that I proactively seek out their response, where they had never sought out mine, or to the best of my knowledge any of their critics. As far as I know they’ve never included anything negative in their public facing material, despite at least one person making criticism extremely available to them. 

If my friend were being consistent (which is not a synonym for “good”) they would insist that MAPLE seek out people’s feedback and post a representative sample somewhere, at a minimum. The good news is: my friend says they’re going to do that next time they’re in touch. What they describe wanting MAPLE to create sounds acceptable to me. Hurray! Balance is restored to The Force! Except… assuming it does happen, why was my post necessary to kickstart this conversation?  My friend could have noticed the absence of critical content on MAPLE’s website at any time. The fact that negative reports trigger a reflex to look for a response and positive self-reports do not is itself a product of treating negative reports as overt antagonism and positive reports as neutral information.

[If MAPLE does link to my experience in a findable way on their website, I will append whatever they want to my post (clearly marked as coming from them). If they share a link on Twitter or something else transient, I will do the same] 


Part 2: Simulacrum

My friend Ben Hoffman talks about simulacra a lot, with this rough definition:

1. First, words were used to maintain shared accounting. We described reality intersubjectively in order to build shared maps, the better to navigate our environment. I say that the food source is over there, so that our band can move towards or away from it when situationally appropriate, or so people can make other inferences based on this knowledge.

2. The breakdown of naive intersubjectivity – people start taking the shared map as an object to be manipulated, rather than part of their own subjectivity. For instance, I might say there’s a lion over somewhere where I know there’s food, in order to hoard access to that resource for idiosyncratic advantage. Thus, the map drifts from reality, and we start dissociating from the maps we make.

3. When maps drift far enough from reality, in some cases people aren’t even parsing it as though it had a literal specific objective meaning that grounds out in some verifiable external test outside of social reality. Instead, the map becomes a sort of command language for coordinating actions and feelings. “There’s food over there” is perhaps construed as a bid to move in that direction, and evaluated as though it were that call to action. Any argument for or against the implied call to action is conflated with an argument for or against the proposition literally asserted. This is how arguments become soldiers. Any attempt to simply investigate the literal truth of the proposition is considered at best naive and at worst politically irresponsible.
But since this usage is parasitic on the old map structure that was meant to describe something outside the system of describers, language is still structured in terms of reification and objectivity, so it substantively resembles something with descriptive power, or “aboutness.” For instance, while you cannot acquire a physician’s privileges and social role simply by providing clear evidence of your ability to heal others, those privileges are still justified in terms of pseudo-consequentialist arguments about expertise in healing.

4. Finally, the pseudostructure itself becomes perceptible as an object that can be manipulated, the pseudocorrespondence breaks down, and all assertions are nothing but moves in an ever-shifting game where you’re trying to think a bit ahead of the others (for positional advantage), but not too far ahead.

If that doesn’t make sense, try this anonymous comment on the post

Level 1: “There’s a lion across the river.” = There’s a lion across the river.
Level 2: “There’s a lion across the river.” = I don’t want to go (or have other people go) across the river.
Level 3: “There’s a lion across the river.” = I’m with the popular kids who are too cool to go across the river.
Level 4: “There’s a lion across the river.” = A firm stance against trans-river expansionism focus grouped well with undecided voters in my constituency.

In all five of my examples, people were given information (I like this better with hot sauce, you might break the library’s CD, these exercises hurt me and you are not qualified to fix it, your advice did not fix my problem, I had a miserable time at your retreat), and treated it as a social attack. This is most obvious in the first four, where someone literally says some version of “I feel under attack”, but is equally true in the last one, even though the enforcer was different than the ~victim and was attempting merely to tax criticism, not suppress it entirely. All five have the effect that there is either more conflict or less information in the world.


Part 3: But…

When I started thinking about this, I wanted a button I could push to make everyone go to level one all the time. It’s not clear that that’s actually a good idea, but even if it was, there is no button, and choosing/pretending to cut off your awareness of higher levels in order to maintain moral purity does you no good. If you refuse to conceive of why someone would tell you things other than to give you information, you leave yourself open to “I’m only telling you this to make you better” abuse. If you refuse to believe that people would lie except out of ignorance, you’ll trust when you shouldn’t. If you refuse to notice how people are communicating with others, you will be blindsided when they coordinate on levels you don’t see. 

But beating them at their own game doesn’t work either, because the enemy was never them, it was the game, which you are still playing. You can’t socially maneuver your way into a less political world. In particular, it’s a recent development that I would have noticed my friend’s unilateral demand for fairness as in fact tilted towards MAPLE. In a world where no one notices things like that, positive reviews of programs become overrepresented.

I don’t have a solution to this.  The best I can do right now is try to feed systems where level one is valued and higher levels are discussed openly.  “How do I find those?” you might ask. I don’t know. If you do, my email address is elizabeth – at – this domain name and I’d love to hear from you. You can also book a time to talk to me for an hour. What I have are a handful of 1:1 relationships where we have spent years building trust to get to the point where “I think you’re being a coward” is treated as genuine information, not a social threat, and mostly the other person has made the first move. 

The pieces of advice I do have are:

  1. If someone says they want honest feedback, err on the side of giving it to them. They are probably lying, but that’s their problem (unless they’re in a position to make it yours, in which case think harder about this).
  2. Figure out what you need to feel secure as someone confirms your worst fears about yourself and ask for it, even if it’s weird, even if it seems like an impossibly big ask. People you are compatible with will want to build towards that (not everyone who doesn’t is abusive or even operating in bad faith- but if you can’t start negotiations on this I’d be very surprised if you’re compatible).
  3. Be prepared for some sacrifices, especially in the congeniality department. People who are good at honesty under a climate that punishes it are not going to come out unscathed.

Talk to Me for an Hour


Did you know I like talking about things as well as writing about them? If there’s something in particular I’ve written you want to discuss, or just have something you think I’d be interested in, you can book a time to do so with me.

The easiest way to do this is via calendly. I try to keep my calendar up to date so that automated scheduling works, but in the immediate post-quarantine rush of social activity I can’t promise that. But the end of quarantine means that for a very limited time, it is possible to schedule time with me to meet in person in the bay area by e-mailing me at elizabeth@acesounderglass.com or DMing me on Twitter. Please send at least one topic you’d like to discuss, a few times that work, and social media presence if you have it so I can learn about you too.

Talk to Me for (Half an) Hour is intended for purely social calls. If you’re interested in discussing working together please check out my Hire Me page and reach out over email. If things proceed you’ll get a different calendly link with more options for a longer call.

If you want to ask me for advice on being my kind of researcher; I don’t blame you, I love this job. Unfortunately I get more of these requests than I have time for. My first piece of advice is going to be that you start a blog investigating things that seem interesting to you. If that doesn’t sound fun for its own sake I wish you luck but nothing I say will be of any use to you. If that does sound fun, I invite you to reach out once you have a few posts, and to include a link to your blog. In the meantime let me direct you to my AMA on Twitter,  which may already have an answer to your questions and if not you’re welcome to ask there.

Quarantine Failure Report

I am a little bit sick. Not very, just enough to be sure it’s not allergies. It’s not necessarily covid, but I’d be extremely surprised if it wasn’t a contagious respiratory illness. In order to help others calibrate, I’d like to share details of my quarantine.

* I started quarantining weeks before anyone else
* I took one trip to the vet two weeks ago (12 days before symptoms started). The vet tech wore a mask and glove to get the cat from my car, and did the same to return her. I left her carrier outside after the visit.
* Cats are otherwise indoors and can’t have picked anything up from outside.
* I saw my boyfriend the day before the vet visit. Neither he nor his 2 roommates are sick, and they’d been maintaining quarantine for 3+ weeks as well.
* I’ve only left the house for daily hour+ walks (wearing a mask only on crowded streets, but going into the street to maintain 6+ feet distance with other people, except twice when some asshole runner passed me from behind), and being in my own yard.
* Incoming packages (of which there have been many) got some combination of being sprayed with peroxide and waiting two+ days before handling.
* No restaurant food
* I live in a duplex with no shared air ducts to the other unit, and I believe separate plumbing.
* I leave my windows open when it’s warm, but they are a considerable distance back from the street.

That’s it. Those are all the vectors I’ve been exposed to.


My symptoms:

* sneezing a bit Monday and Tuesday. This went away
* Fatigue starting Wednesday, minor loss of appetite
* Yesterday’s symptoms plus tickle in throat
* Yesterday’s symptoms plus stronger tickle in throat, very minor chest congestion

Me and Monastic Academy

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About a year and a half ago I did a retreat at a monastery. I was trepidatious about this retreat. It was designed to make you a little sleep deprived and a little undernourished, which I agree can be stimulating. But I need more sleep and more specific food than the typical person, and I was worried that what was calibrated to make the average person a little on edge would be debilitating for me. I talked to their “care person” (that’s the official title) ahead of time and was assured that there was enough flexibility built into the system that I would be fine.

There wasn’t and I wasn’t. It was not productive deprivation, it was just miserable and activating in ways that inhibited emotional or intellectual progress. In addition to the lack of sleep and food it was freezing, which they did not warn us about and which for idiosyncratic reasons combined really poorly with the bad-fit-for-me food.

I don’t blame the monastery for me being a whiny baby who crumbles under certain kinds of adversity. That’s not their fault. I do blame them for listening to my concerns and telling me it would be fine. Looking at it now, I don’t think there’s anything I could have said that would have made them go “oh, no, you’re not a good fit.”

I think that happened in part because the person in question was bad at their job. That’s not a surprise or even really a criticism, given the monastery’s explicit, deliberate policy of placing people in jobs they’re bad at to facilitate personal growth. I think personal growth is a great goal and that taking on things you’re bad at does facilitate it; the problem is that the rest of the system is built around treating people as competent. I was told the care person was qualified to decide if I could go, and I trusted her. That’s partially on me for not insisting she explain why she was so sure it would be fine; certainly part of the lesson is that trust without models is not a privilege I should extend to strangers. But it continued at the retreat; we were supposed to respect and obey people because of their position, questioning plans was bad. 

I really do not like people insisting I entrust care of myself to them and then not taking care of me. You get at most one of trust and incompetence, and my preference is neither.

To their credit, I complained and some things got changed to make it tolerable. The subtext was “you are a whiny baby who failed”, but maybe those were my own feelings externalized.

I didn’t find the meditation instruction that helpful. I’m told the head monk is much better, but he wasn’t there at the time, which was their choice. I did enjoy the circling parts of the retreat.

I didn’t take well to the busywork parts of monastic life at all, but that’s really not their fault- they were perfectly upfront that it was going to happen and I raised no concerns about it. I think if I had been well-slept and -fed it would have been a growth experience rather than growth-inhibiting misery. 

Why did it take me 1.5 years to write this, despite the fact that I began composing a version in my head before I left? A day or two before I left, the monk who’d introduced me to the monastery, who I knew best, and who had improved my experience by standing up for me, said that he was afraid I would write an angry blog post about them. And I flinched.

I stand by the initial flinch- it is good for me to realize that people I’m talking about have feelings, even if the version of this post where I don’t is much funnier. But that just means I should acknowledge the feelings, not that I should lie or distort reality to spare them. It would have been really useful to me to read a blog post like this when I was choosing to go or not; I’d be angry at someone who had this information and withheld it so the people who were going to hurt me didn’t feel bad. My compromise was to give a head’s up to the monk who made the joke before publishing (although I did not offer to let him read it ahead of time). 

The name of the monastery was Monastic Academy, aka MAPLE, which has the California spin off OAK. I regret going.

A couple of notes:

  1. MAPLE is attempting something very hard, and part of attempting hard things is making mistakes.
  2. I don’t know of anyone else who had the same internal experience I did.
  3. Overestimating the universality of a program you really believe in is a common flaw
  4. This was 1.5 years ago and lots of things could have changed, although their website’s schedule and promise of “2 healthy vegan meals each day” suggests the things most relevant to me haven’t.