Which Pandemic?

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IMG 1721No cars!

So we are living through a pandemic. Everything is shut down and the bureaucrats and their political masters are screaming at us to stay home and stop hoarding toilet paper. Everywhere (except Africa, it seems) is in melt down. We are all going to die! Was the Black Death this bad?

I don’t deny that there is a pandemic. It’s just what the pandemic is actually about that’s so fascinating. It seems to me, as a rural person who is socially isolated by definition, as someone looking on from the outside, that this pandemic is all about control rather than biology. 

Knowing that anything anyone might have to say on this topic is likely to offend as many people as those who might agree, that’s not going to stop an utterly inevitable avalanche of exposé books on the subject that will be deluging the best seller lists as some kind of perverse re-appraisal of all those empty toilet paper shelves we now suffer.

Yes, it seems there is a virus let loose out there. But it seems to be kind of inane, compared with, say, the Bubonic Plague, HIV/Aids or Ebola. Indeed, it seems that this Corona virus is essentially a really bad case of influenza. Bad for the vulnerable and inconvenient for the rest. It’s all a question of how inconvenient and how bad this thing might be to different groups and how statistically significant each group might be. It’s all about statistics, it seems, because it’s statistics that are seemingly driving the current global panic. As we economists are taught from day one, when social situations cannot be resoundingly resolved by mathematics, the politicians need to intervene. And intervene they currently are. Decisions over how to weigh up and choose between all the alternative medical management options out there (‘herd immunity’ or ‘lock down’ being two glaringly different choices) can be made on the grounds of economic impact, but no one is going to like the advice economists might make in this regard let alone be prepared to live through the consequences. So, the politicians and their legions of ‘public service advisers’ have been given free reign, constrained only by the boundary conditions for utter global economic collapse, or what we understand those boundary conditions might actually be (how much damage is ‘society’ prepared to accept without invoking a revolution or civil wars). It’s a tough game. 

One thing we are likely to find, when the exposés are written and deconstructed six months or so from now, is that the entire decision framework applied to advocate ‘lock down’ and the knowing decimation of the world economy, has been informed by the world’s most dodgy methodological charade: modelling. Yes, all those deterministic objectivists out there are busy working their black boxes to churn out disaster scenarios that are, essentially, nothing more than an extension of the extraordinarily uncontested assumptions those boffins feed into them. I spent going on thirty years as an academic ecological economist railing against these ‘expert system’ modelling exercises. Mainly because of the black box character that most experts seem to apply. Modelling does not need to be black and opaque. Modelling should be about learning; modelling should be nothing more than an exercise aimed at stimulating learning, reflection and systematic thinking. Modelling should be about the learning journey, not the destination/answers that models might provide. Modelling should be a learning tool for policy makers and their political masters. Not some kind of ATM answer machine. So, we end up with predictions of millions dead etc etc and an ensuing scare campaign. That’s appallingly bad policy making and that’s what we are observing all around the world right now. One thing I am sure of is that the ‘deconstruction literature’ that’s going to hit the shelves six months from now will be savage on how free a reign all those black box boffins have been given through this pandemic show. And how astoundingly naive have been our politicians for putting so much confidence on the confidence trick that black box modelling actually is, and has always been.

I have supervised over 18 Phd’s around the stupidity of decision making that works through boffin boxes of the kind now being employed. There are alternatives out there (the System Dynamics domain, for starters) that are, as usual, being totally overlooked. Why? Because that raft of tenured academics who keep on keeping on refusing to retire to a life of endless golf are maintaining their stranglehold against critical thinking and learning-based, genuinely collaborative and certainly transdisciplinary decision making, for reasons largely to do with wanting to be seen as more relevant than they really are…

I have yet to be impressed by any of the decision making being applied to this ‘situation’ in evidence, anywhere in the world. Houston, we have a problem!!!

It’s just a bad case of the flue, people!

Yes, the vulnerable are vulnerable, but they always are and always have been. Why not lock the vulnerable down and provide them with protection rather than the other 90 per cent of the human race? 

I was once advised by a psychologist student of mine that the process of unleashing critical thinking is not a total win-win for everyone involved. Critical thinkers can be a bit hard to manage when their managers think more like robots or a self-automated linear thinking machine (a bit like some local council planners and ATM machines…). People are usually less ‘behaved’ than traditional assumptions about human behaviour might otherwise predict. Traditional economic models of human behaviour, for example, completely collapse when people get all excited or confronted by phenomena like, say,  empty toilet paper shelves. And we can’t have that! As the old mantra goes, if reality diverges from the theory, change the reality back to fit the theory. People almost always operate with more chaotic behaviour because they are almost always less informed or capable of informed behaviour than policy makers would like. The usual (and utterly wrong) political response to chaos is a good dose of control. That’s exactly what our politicians and their policy makers are currently doing.  Critical thinkers know that control never, ever works the way the boffins expect or would hope. Control uninformed by intelligence begets more control; via a never ending spiral to utterly unsustainable autocracy. The only winner is law enforcement and those who really, really enjoy wearing enforcement badges and ‘security’ tee shirts in public. 

Via critical thinking, the current world responses to The Pandemic are a real head scratcher. I have never, ever, seen such a breathtaking display of astounding naivety (about human behaviour) as has been evident so far. 

Goodness me, who would have predicted the run on toilet paper?! 

Actually, anyone who’s watched basic human consumer behaviour on the eve of public holidays and the like could have predicted the hoarding binge that is emptying our stores of the strangest things. Toilet paper, flour, tinned food and the like are always go first whenever a cyclone, flood, drought, or plague of locusts hits town. Let’s consider a bit of history here shall we. There’s nothing chaotic about chaos. People do what people always do: operate contrary to the models that modellers need to ensure well-behaved models to advise those in charge. Always have, always will. I am singularly unimpressed by those corporate supermarket spokes-people who claim to be caught by surprise. Garbage. The real story is about inventory and just-in-time stocking regimes. No corporate interest wants to inventory stuff just in case. 

But the big eye opener about this current crisis is its character as one gigantic experiment in social control. This has been one amazing drill in global crisis management. It’s a pity that this experiment has not been previously invoked for a real crisis, like, say, global warming. Or, perhaps seemingly at a more mundane level, in controlling the sheer holocaust-level assault on human society that cars and their drivers have become. More people die from death by cars (or more precisely, car drivers) than by the current Covid Plague. Let alone via the secondary impacts of car polluted air and the toxicity of an oil-based economy. I am an Ecological Economist, you should expect me to say such things. 

The last time society was so centrally controlled as it is now was during the second world war. And then people were being bombed and bombs seem more real than the plague to which we have currently surrendered. It’s not exactly at the stage of ‘bringing out your bodies’ as per the Bubonic Plague. Yet… my detractors might be orgiastically seeking to interject…

Ah well, one thing is good from all of this. We cyclists who are still allowed to ride outdoors are having a really, really, great time! The thrill of no cars is a wonder to savour. It’s a precious thing to not be run off the road by road raged bogans in two tonne boxes that serve to validate fantasies of importance rather than the necessities to transport a load. 

I have a statistically unvalidated proposition that cyclists are vastly more endangered by the drivers of cars than we are by Covid 19.