Sunday, March 22, 2020

A Novel Problem

The main idea of Taleb's The Black Swan is the outsize impact of the highly improbable.  Well, here we are.  A lot of what we thought about in December 2019 is now irrelevant with a world pandemic tearing through the world's population.  Normal is now something else.  We just don't know what it is yet.

Two months ago I mentioned that TEOTWAWKI was "Inconceivable".  A caldera explosion or an asteroid impact would be sudden game changers.  However I thought war, disease, and financial collapse were standard known unknowns--i.e. somewhat predictable as in always possible with the right conditions. As a self declared prophet, I would have to say I was worried early about China (say Jan 20th?) but missed the gathering storms impact on the rest of the world.  Now in fairness to myself I can report that reading Laurie Garret's book The Coming Plague in the mid 90's I became a firm believer in the benefits of investing seriously in Public Health.  It is, I hope, axiomatic that if you don't have your health, you got nuttin'. A big bank account is useful but small consolation.  Her later book called Betrayal of Trust(2004?) was another eye opener.  I have sung the praises of public health for a long time and my daughter in her 20's is in a PhD program for public health and my youngest son in medical school is also getting his MPH along with his MD.  I have argued for years that military budgets, anti-terrorism task forces, and cyber security are over rated for protecting safety.  Knowledgeable public health action protects us from our real enemies.  And it is a knowledge that can be shared. As they say, my good idea and your good idea gives us both TWO good ideas.  Bombs and bullets eliminate ideas and the people who hold them.

I have been a collapsenik since Sept 1, 2007.  My Dad and I used to discuss Guns, Germs, and Steel at our weekly lunches and when Diamond's Collapse book came out, we agreed that industrial civilization was headed into decline.  He tended to optimism and my pessimism about the coming financial collapse he thought was too extreme.  He died in 2006 and told me ruefully that he was sorry he had had it so good and the future for his grandkids was going to be tougher.  I told him that a childhood in the Great Depression and 2 years in the Navy for World War II were not "easy" times and I told him that due to his sacrifices I, and all his 6 children, had had only good times.  I told him sorry Dad, we boomers had it better.  My kids have had it pretty good too--until now.  I do think we are going to take a step down from globalism when the smoke clears from this outbreak.

Frankly, I feel pretty good about this virus.  I'm 67 and more likely to die if I get it but I appreciate the opportunity to deal with Reality.  As a country we have spent so long ignoring what is fundamental--that our way of life is not sustainable--that the opportunity to actually engage with a problem that everyone else acknowledges is important is actually calming.  People can actually see that the financial system was over-hyped, over leveraged, and due for more than a "correction". We are no longer on a bull market path forever.   Most people will attribute the financial collapse to the virus but those of us focusing on the unimaginable size of the world bubble in financial assets realize it was a system looking for a pin all along.

Is the financial system going to crash this year?  I would say it is crashing now but unlikely to just stop.  A "stop" or financial "freeze" would eliminate what you thought was your money.  Your money is going to need to be  eventually re-valued to "something else".  Rich people(read elites) need to maintain some relative value in the currency to remain leaders.  When I hear that government is proposing a $2 Trillion injection of "liquidity", I think, how nice for them, that already overwhelmed with debt, they  could spend another unimaginable sum for their own purposes.  My savings? They don't need to bid for them with better interest rates--no--they can just make up all they need.  My savings weren't really savings, they were a reassuring lie. We are about to discover the inconvenient truth that our money is an Idea based on trust not a Reality.

It was always hard to imagine the plagues of the 14th century, killing up to 1/2 the population in Europe in waves for 20-30 years. With our "little" virus we are talking about 10% (at worst) and 1/2 that is only barely conceivable. I am willing to let the chuckleheads in power do what they can for as long as they can since I am mature and partial to social order over anarchy.  When told to sit in my room for 3 weeks (or maybe 4 months?) I can't help but think of my fierce Mother commanding the same and I had no thoughts of rebelling.  I was very aware of my dependency.  But now?  I will be watching our overlords carefully--prepared to help but ready to protest when they go shock and awe stupid.

Those of us irrelevant Deplorables, far from the levers of influence, have to decide whether the normal we had is recoverable or is not and will require a slight adjustment, a more serious sacrifice, or Apocalypse Now.  Let's keep an eye on that - OK?

My first point is that it can't hurt to be more locally focused.  Help your neighbors.  I would suggest some rudimentary political organizing when the shelter in place order comes down.  I think you can set up a group meeting in camp chairs 6-8 feet apart in the garage and actually talk about the future.  Personally I think we are out of practice and I know I am but I don't want to wait until the grocery stores are empty to start the process.  Why was Katrina such a clusterfuck?  It was because while Bush the younger was saying "Great Job, Brownie", there were people on rooftops and cowering in attics, raiding nearby Walgreen's for diapers and TVs, and holding shotguns across their laps on the porch.  Clueless thy name is leadership.

We will get better treatments for the virus.  Don't despair of that.  But a vaccine would have to be considered the long run.  If they get one out for COVID-19 in 5 months before Fall flu season I might have some concerns about its efficacy.  I am quarantining because I want a lot of other people to get the disease first and see how it goes.  The same argument applies for being the first to get a vaccine.  We have a vocal number of anti-vaxxers.  I am not entirely sure what their problem is but my children  had no problems and I do not know any children personally that had a bad reaction. Joe Kennedy Jr. is adamant that vaccines are dangerous.  My wife and I trusted the one in a million talk about reactions.  I am of the polio generation and can vaguely recall the pool closures and fears that were magically lifted when the vaccine on the sugar cube was made available.  Yeah, I ate it.  I wanted to go swimming that summer and I've never had to worry about swimming at a chlorinated pool since 1960.  I listened to my younger brother who was 4 years old with whooping cough and I did not want that either.  I had  chickenpox and German measles -cakewalks-but my neighbor got "Red" measles (the real thing) and when it was over had to wear glasses.  I was glad they had a vaccine for that too. I got the Smallpox vaccine 3x because it wouldn't "take".  They had some pictures of smallpox survivors in our encyclopedia and I very much wanted it to "take" so I wouldn't get THAT.

Trust is a tentative thing.  The anti-vaxxers really feel the government wants to kill them or chip them.  I cannot get quite that conspiratorial.  I have had anti- Fluoride patients tell me they don't want any, it's poisonous.  I suggest that Science says 1 part per million is helpful for dental decay.  I am not interested in killing them and logically I could fill more cavities if they didn't use fluoride or give it to their children.  If I have inadvertently lowered peoples IQ by 10 points or given them bone cancer at 68, I am sorry.  But the essential problem of whether the government is trustworthy is always a good question.  The bureaucracy looks after itself.  We citizens are tasked with making sure it is properly responsive.  If it is not being helpful, it needs to be changed.  New people and new missions.  We could, for example, get rid of the mission to "improve" the Afghan peoples' democracy and try improving ours.

I have some legitimate fears for all of us associated with dentistry: me, my staff, patients.  My profession is at risk in this "new" normal. We spend 45minutes 16 inches (not six feet) from patients with a mask that admittedly does NOT block viruses completely.  It is not worth getting your teeth cleaned if it has a 5% chance of killing you.

America was clearly unprepared for this pandemic.  Why did I order extra gloves, masks, and gowns in late January?  Because it was obvious that to work I would need them.  Why don't all hospitals have a 3 months supply?  I am currently not working and am giving my supplies away but you will pardon me if I keep some, expecting to return to work and needing some protection. Alternatively,   we could declare dentists "inessential" and ban the job.  As demoted "professionals" we could then give all our stuff to overworked ER doctors and the hospital nurses.  I am up for some sacrifices but I would be very careful of the people who are asking us to make them. Perhaps all elected officials should draw NO pay until this is cleared up and all other government employees are on 1/2 rations or $50,000 whichever is more.  

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