Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Properties of Winds

“Despite $28 billion program,”shrieks the San Jose Mercury News, “U.S. remains vulnerable to bioterror attack.”

Well, yes. The United States will always be vulnerable to bioterror attacks (though not as vulnerable as it will always be to natural outbreaks of disease). That's why preparedness is a better target for our money and effort than prevention.

Apart from filling and refilling the coffers of politically connected defense contractors (is there any other kind?), the main goal of our bioterror spending has apparently been to protect American politicians from blowback:

The FBI headquarters, World Bank and several other potential terrorist targets in the nation's capital have been outfitted with new germ-killing, air-purifying filters….

One bonus of these filters: Used in large enough numbers, they could save billions of dollars a year by reducing respiratory illnesses, allergies, asthma and sick building syndrome.
That’s a good point. Unfortunately, it’s exactly backwards. When you address everyday public health issues like these, you mitigate the risk and potential effects of bioterrorism, while increasing productivity and quality of life. This logic can just as easily be applied to universal healthcare, which, by conscientiously supporting early intervention and disease management, could save billions of dollars and thousands of lives, and provide an early-warning system not just for bioterror attacks, but also for emerging diseases.

By protecting your neighbor, you protect yourself; that's the basic fact that the smoke machine of conservative ideology tends to obscure, at least as it applies to the social contract (the far more abstract Domino Theory, of course, remains as compelling as ever). As I argued a while back:
[T]he quality and effectiveness of the medical care that even the poorest individual gets - especially in the case of contagious disease - is a matter of huge importance to society at large. It's not that different from firefighting; society must put out my burning house not because I'm part of some "meritocracy”…but because a conflagration at my house may well burn down everyone else's.

It's always been fashionable on the right to sneer at universal healthcare. It's interesting that the people most likely to buy "United We Stand" bumperstickers are also very likely to see themselves as standing outside the webs of interdependence and mutuality that necessarily bind worthwhile human communities. This stance is typical of people who can't face up to their own vulnerability.
I’m happy to see this point echoed in a fairly sensible new paper by the libertarian CATO Institute:
How can measures such as strengthening the public health system, which provide much broader benefits than those against terrorism, get the attention they deserve?

As Banks puts it, “If terrorists force us to redirect resources away from sensible programs and future growth in order to pursue unachievable but politically popular levels of domestic security, then they have won an important victory that mortgages our future.”
True enough. But perhaps “our” future isn’t the one that really counts. As Thomas Tusser observed in A Description of the Properties of Winds (1573),
Except wind stands as never it stood,
It is an ill wind turns none to good.
(Aerial view of Dugway Proving Ground courtesy of Polar Inertia.)


Anonymous said...

"When you address everyday public health issues like these, you mitigate the risk and potential effects of bioterrorism, while increasing productivity and quality of life."

Exactly. This should be one of the Democrats' thrusts against the Republican fear machine in the elections. So far they seem not to be aware of it.


roger said...

"By protecting your neighbor, you protect yourself..."

just so phila, and well put. pathogens recognize not fences, guards, political boundaries, nor political affiliations.