Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Instructions from Hell

As I'm sure you know, the Invisible Hand has left us unnecessarily vulnerable to a deadly flu pandemic. A new WHO press release explains the obvious, yet again:

Relying on market-driven forces alone, it is estimated that by 2008-2009 the production of pandemic influenza vaccine will not exceed 2.34 billion doses per year. At present, the production capacity for seasonal influenza vaccine stands at 350 million doses.
Revere finds this unacceptable:
The US has already burned hundreds of billions of dollars in their ill-fated Iraq debacle. Just ten billion of that, had it been invested in vaccines for the world's population in March of 2003, would have put us much further ahead.
No doubt. But bullets and bombs follow their own unique laws of supply and demand, which transcend ordinary economic pressures. Speaking of which, Arms Control Wonk notes that The Onion recently published one of its most incisive “jokes” ever:
Across the country, North Korean citizens cheered wildly after learning their nation had violently transformed the equivalent of 2.3 billion hot meals, 11 million housing units, and 1,700 hospitals into their component atoms.
That Kim Jong Il sure is crazy, huh?

Meanwhile, India faces a polio outbreak:
India has reported 416 cases of polio in 2006 - more than a quarter of the world total, a senior federal health ministry official said on Tuesday….Polio has been largely eliminated in most of the world but still exists in Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
It’s well beyond horrifying that any child could contract polio in this day and age. But the problem here isn’t just economic. In each of these countries, there are Muslims who fear that the West intends to use vaccinations to wipe them out.

It's easy to feel impatient with these people, whose fanaticism blinds them to the fact that while we might bomb Muslims indiscriminately, or imprison and torture them indefinitely, or dump toxic waste along their shorelines, we are not going to shoot their children up with pathogen-laced vaccines.

Then again, no sooner do I say this than I imagine John Derbyshire quoting Winston Churchill on biological warfare: "I want the matter studied in cold blood by sensible people and not by psalm-singing uninformed defeatists."

After all, we face an existential crisis, and like bacteria, we must adapt to win:
Infectious disease can play a key role in mediating the outcome of competition between rival groups, as seen in the effects of disease-bearing conquistadors in the New World--or, on a much smaller ecological scale, the ability of bacteria to spread their viruses to competing bacteria. In a new study, researchers have compared two different general ways in which bacteria compete with one another, and they have found that each strategy seems to be particularly effective under different ecological circumstances--for example, depending on whether the bacteria are rare invaders or abundant residents….

The findings show that the release of chemical toxins is superior as a resident strategy to repel invasions, whereas the release of parasites is superior as a strategy of invasion..
I seem to have drifted - ever so slightly - from the subject of public health. In a new Scientific American article, Jeffrey Sachs argues – some would say “proves,” though I prefer to leave the burden of proof to our heartbreaking experience of everyday life – that conservatarian economics is a snare and a delusion, not least because Hayek was mistaken on a couple of basic points. Comparing Scandinavian “nanny states” to the USA, Sachs points out that we’re a good deal further along the Road to Serfdom than they are:
The results for the households at the bottom of the income distribution are astoundingly good, especially in contrast to the mean-spirited neglect that now passes for American social policy. The U.S. spends less than almost all rich countries on social services for the poor and disabled, and it gets what it pays for: the highest poverty rate among the rich countries and an exploding prison population. Actually, by shunning public spending on health, the U.S. gets much less than it pays for, because its dependence on private health care has led to a ramshackle system that yields mediocre results at very high costs.
If it’s a stretch to propose a correspondence between the self-destructive beliefs of anti-vaccination Muslims in Uttar Pradesh, and those of the average free-market fanatic in the USA, it's mainly because the Muslims can justify their paranoia, to some extent, by pointing to real-world examples of slaughter, torture, and eternal imprisonment. By contrast, the free marketeer’s repudiation of public health is based on nothing more substantial than hot air, and the weird certainty that we can build Heaven by following instructions from Hell.

UPDATE: Cervantes makes pretty much the same argument, but with statistics and without the insomnia-addled free association.


dan said...

i recently saw the south african film tsotsi and re-watched gangs of new york. the primary action in both films takes place in ghettoized areas that have become almost feral where the authorities have little or no influence and only enter when in force. both feral areas exist because of the neglect, mailicious or otherwise, of their respective governments. both movies are based on fact.

you would think at some point that even the most dedicated oligarch would realize that making policies that result in the creation of decaying lawless regions within their urban centers is not a good thing. one might even say it's bad for business.

Phila said...

both feral areas exist because of the neglect, mailicious or otherwise, of their respective governments. both movies are based on fact.

Haven't seen either film - though I've read "Gangs of New York" - but I certainly take your point. And smarter folks than I have noted that Somalia is basically a free marketeer's paradise....