Belmont Club

The Giant Institution vs. the Virus

(Courtesy Wikipedia)

Without much fanfare, one of the most dramatic changes in modern history occurred. Britain left the European Union. Boris Johnson tweeted, “the Withdrawal Agreement has received Royal Assent and is now law. We will leave the EU on January 31st.”

A similar resolution has eluded America. Yet while the U.S. Senate is preparing to begin what will probably be a failed impeachment trial of Donald Trump, the old global world continues to be shaken by unforeseen developments. China’s lunar new year — its most festive occasion — was ruined by the outbreak of a new coronavirus, 2019-nCoV. A quarantine zone has enclosed more than 10 cities and a population the size of Canada.

But its impact was global. Canada, already teetering on the edge of an economic slowdown, “would face a major test if the disease spreads into the North American country, economists said.” Skynews described how a virus that may have started in a local wild animal fresh-meat market in central China’s Wuhan spread around the world.

The first case was traced back to 10 December but it was not until 10 January when the Chinese authorities admitted they had isolated and identified the new strain, when 41 people were confirmed as being infected and one person had already died.

Within a few days, cases were identified in Japan and Thailand, in each case from Chinese people who had come from Wuhan where the disease broke out. By Thursday night, 13 days after the disease was publicly identified, more than 600 people have been confirmed as infected around the world in nine countries and 18 had died.

It was an example of “No Borders,” but not in a good way. The pathogen got on a plane, abetted by a delay in acknowledgment. “The Chinese government failed to act quickly enough to curb the spread of the Wuhan virus, risking further outbreaks,” Guan Yi, the Director of the State Key Laboratory of Emerging Infectious Diseases at the University of Hong Kong told the Asia Times. The Chinese government’s own data, hosted on Wikipedia, confirms this.  It shows how at the beginning, the numbers were small, the infection still all in one place. After a week it blew up.

This illustrates how giant totalitarian governments like China’s can be at a disadvantage in dealing with emergent events. What it gains in ruthless response cannot always make up for lost response time caused by the official denial of embarrassing facts.  That explains why establishments are often surprised by events like Brexit and Hillary Clinton’s shock loss. They are unexpected because they were not in the 5-year plan. They arrive like a bolt from the blue.

When the unexpected happens, the official Narrative often increases the reaction time of the system. While events are slow-moving, there may be no penalty. But in the fast-moving global world, threats like the coronavirus may hit the public even before institutions admit it exists. The old model of globalization has paradoxically both speeded up the rate at which events occur and slowed the rate at which behemoth transnational institutions can respond.

The result is a mismatch, and failure of institutions is the theme that unites Brexit, the U.S. impeachment and the repeated viral threats from China. In “A Time to Creatively Destroy” Leo Linbeck describes the history of the crisis and its solution:

The last century saw a dramatic centralization of power in the United States. In 1910, 60 percent of government spending was local; a hundred years later that had fallen to 25 percent. The federal share of government spending doubled from 30 to 60 percent. Elites also centralized and homogenized businesses, nonprofits, religious groups, civic organizations, and other entities that previously had encapsulated a broad range of practices and points of view, and deep everyday experience….

Authoritarian countries like China and Russia have throttled the flow of information within, and sometimes outside, their borders. In important information industries, dominant mega-companies exercise near monopolies. What is particularly scary about these new forces…  is that they “plainly encourage the vices most dangerous to a free society.”

One of these vices is the instinct to cover up. The task is not to capture the giant institutions but supplement them with subsidiary ones. Fighting for control of the summit is less important than restoring intelligence to the base.

Populists are not anti-institutional; they simply believe some institutions are more important than others. They want to give priority to small institutions like marriage, family, neighborhood groups, churches, and family businesses.

Subsidiarity is a principle that is missing from … a recommitment to institutions. If we apply it in the future as we should, institutions that are large and condescending will shrivel. Elites occupying those institutions might view that as decay, but to the rest of us it will look like a restoration of balance between Top and Bottom.

It was subsidiarity, a retrospective of the Ebola epidemic noted, that saved Africa from worse. “The no-longer-disputed fact that WHO reacted too late was based on a fatal misjudgment of the initial epidemic in Western Africa. EVD is, next to rabies, one of the infectious diseases with the highest lethalities. On the other hand, Ebola virus is only transmitted by close contact and those seriously ill with the disease can hardly move. For this reason, earlier EVD epidemics, which occurred in the remote villages of Equatorial Africa, had always burnt out after two to three months.” But giant institutions could not use that information.

In Western Africa, the people have learned how to protect themselves against EVD-like illnesses: avoid any contact with the sick and the dead, as well as with strangers. Tens of thousands of local community health workers carried this message to the most remote villages. This simple rule of behavior is the main reason why new infections have dropped since October 2014. …

The statisticians of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and WHO did not take this learning process into account when they predicted at the end of September 2014 that in Liberia and Sierra Leone, alone, the number of EVD cases would rise up to 1.4 million by mid-January 2015 … On the basis of these pessimistic forecasts, many countries, including Germany, devised long-term aid programs, with the result that most of the treatment centers were only completed when the epidemic had already abated.

That drama is being reprised. Even the mighty Chinese state has conceded it has to surrender some control to achieve results. The Washington Post reports on Beijing’s new openness:

Just 10 days after a pneumonia-like illness was first reported among people who attended a seafood market in Wuhan, China, scientists released the genetic sequence of the coronavirus that sickened them. That precious bit of data, freely available to any researcher who wanted to study it, unleashed a massive collaborative effort to understand the mysterious new pathogen that has been rapidly spreading in China and beyond.

The genome was posted on a Friday night on an open-access repository for genetic information. By Saturday morning, Andrew Mesecar, a professor in cancer structural biology at Purdue University, had redirected his laboratory to start analyzing the DNA sequence, which bore a striking resemblance to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the 2002 viral outbreak that sickened more than 8,000 people and killed nearly 800. Scientists at the federal Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Montana asked a company to turn the information from a string of letters on a computer screen into actual DNA they could study in lab dishes.

At unprecedented speed, scientists are starting experiments, sharing data and revealing the secrets of the pathogen — a race that is made possible by new scientific tools and cultural norms in the face of a public health emergency.

“The pace is unmatched,” said Karla Satchell, a professor of microbiology-immunology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “This is really new. Lots of people [in science] still try to hide what they’re doing, don’t want to talk about what they’re doing, and everybody out there is like: This is the case where we don’t worry about egos, we don’t worry about who’s first, we just care about solving the problem. The information flow has been really fast.”

We would be better off putting money in detection, improving our subsidiary OODA loop and building uncensorable comms channels than spending a trillion dollars on a clunky top-down Green New Deal. It may not work any more than China’s bureaucracy did. Complexity means we can’t anticipate the threats of the 21st century, only maximize response.

It was civilizational resilience that saved men from the Black Death and the Spanish Flu in the era before modern medicine. It was to that which H.G. Wells’ lines from the War of the Worlds refer: when the might of the British Empire failed against the Martians, ordinary things prevailed.

For so it had come about, as indeed I and many men might have foreseen had not terror and disaster blinded our minds. These germs of disease have taken toll of humanity since the beginning of things—taken toll of our prehuman ancestors since life began here. But by virtue of this natural selection of our kind we have developed resisting power; to no germs do we succumb without a struggle, and to many—those that cause putrefaction in dead matter, for instance—our living frames are altogether immune. But there are no bacteria in Mars, and directly these invaders arrived, directly they drank and fed, our microscopic allies began to work their overthrow. Already when I watched them they were irrevocably doomed, dying and rotting even as they went to and fro. It was inevitable. By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers; it would still be his were the Martians ten times as mighty as they are. For neither do men live nor die in vain.

In our complex 21st-century world, centralized institutions are too weak to cope with emergent events. It is man—ordinary, adaptable, individual, deplorable man who must be called upon to help.

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Loserthink: How Untrained Brains Are Ruining America, by Scott Adams. The creator of Dilbert has come up with a guide to spot and avoid mental habits trapping victims in their own bubbles of reality, such as the inability to get ego out of your decisions, thinking with words instead of reasons, failing to imagine alternative explanations, and making too much of coincidences.

Humanity in a Creative Universe, by Stuart A. Kauffman. Best known for his philosophy of evolutionary biology, Kauffman calls into question science’s ability to ever accurately and precisely predict the future development of biological features in organisms. He argues that our preoccupation to explain all things with scientific law has deadened our creative natures and concludes that the development of life on earth is not entirely predictable, because no theory could ever fully account for the limitless variations of evolution.

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Open Curtains by George Spix and Richard Fernandez. Technology represents both unlimited promise and menace. Which transpires depends on whether people can claim ownership over their knowledge or whether human informational capital continues to suffer the Tragedy of the Commons.

The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres

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