Friday, August 12, 2005

Blowing smoke. . .

Wow, it's really humbling to see the discussion on my first post here. I don't know that I'm particularly qualified, but since I have control of the top level here I feel I should try to give a summing up and response.

In social science, we don't have a good handle on radical discontinuity. We can describe it after it happens, but we can't often see it coming. Engineers can stress materials till they break. They can fully specify designs of structures so they can mathematically model what happens when they are stressed. But we don't have a nearly adequately detailed description of the economy, culture and political order, and we certainly can't do experiments.

My strongest single impression from comments on my last post is that many people see the present global order as brittle, just needing a gust of wind to break down. I suspect that at least part of this perception is related to factors that may not logically be predictive of the immediate consequences of a killer flu pandemic. We know that 30 years from now, we are going to have to live very differently from the way we do now. Human society is truly running up against limits. There are only so many fish in the sea, only so many trees in the forest, only so much oil in the ground, only a finite atmosphere. The most horrific weapons are in more and more hands. While we have indeed seen the extent of extreme poverty reduced in much of the world (outside of sub-Saharan Africa) this isn't simple good news. It means accelerating demands on resources, accelerating urbanization and demands on infrastructure, and growing global interdependence.

In these extremely challenging times, it is dismaying beyond words that the United States -- consumer of a quarter of the world's resources and possessor of half the world's military power -- has such incompetent leadership, motivated by narrow self interest, constrained by rigid ideology, with no vision beyond the next election and the next billion dollars to be extracted by the oil industry or agribusiness.

It is certainly likely that a major flu pandemic would cause a sharp economic contraction. The high levels of household debt in the U.S., the bankruptcy of the airline industry, the enormous federal budget deficit, and the unregulated and largely opaque international financial system do give concern that this could spiral into a substantial financial crisis and perhaps a global depression. However, exactly how this would fit into our longer term challenges is far from clear. I would say that international trading relationships and supply lines, the organization of business and commerce, are probably all quite robust and would knit back together quickly after the disruption. We would face hard times, as we have before, and then perhaps simply recover in due course. But so much is unpredictable -- possible loss of key individuals, political repercussions, cultural responses (will this be good or bad for fundamentalist religion?), the course of conflicts both active and latent.

While we should be concerned about a global pandemic, and do what we can to prepare, I think we should avoid projecting our larger concerns onto this particular issue. They remain concerns regardless. A pandemic will be a relatively brief event, in historic terms. It may compound our challenges, but fundamentally, they won't change. That's my view anyway.

I promise, no more thumbsuckers. I'm off to find some actual information to write about. Meanwhile, I call upon those who have a different view to excoriate me. The floor is yours.