Coronavirus: A Theory of Incompetence

Leaders in the public and private sector in advanced economies, typically highly credentialed, have with very few exceptions shown abject incompetence in dealing with coronavirus as a pathogen and as a wrecker of economies. The US and UK have made particularly sorry showings, but they are not alone.

It’s become fashionable to blame the failure to have enough medical stockpiles and hospital beds and engage in aggressive enough testing and containment measures on capitalism. But as I will describe shortly, even though I am no fan of Anglosphere capitalism, I believe this focus misses the deeper roots of these failures.

After all the country lauded for its response, South Korea, is capitalist. Similarly, reader vlade points out that the Czech Republic has had only 2 coronavirus deaths per million versus 263 for Italy. Among other things, the Czech Republic closed its borders in mid-March and made masks mandatory. Newscasters and public officials wear them to underscore that no one is exempt.

Even though there are plenty of examples of capitalism gone toxic, such as hospitals and Big Pharma sticking doggedly to their price gouging ways or rampant production disruptions due to overly tightly-tuned supply chains, that isn’t an adequate explanation. Government dereliction of duty also abound. In 2006, California’s Governor Arnold Schwarznegger reacted to the avian flu by creating MASH on steroids. From the LA Times:

They were ready to roll whenever disaster struck California: three 200-bed mobile hospitals that could be deployed to the scene of a crisis on flatbed trucks and provide advanced medical care to the injured and sick within 72 hours.

Each hospital would be the size of a football field, with a surgery ward, intensive care unit and X-ray equipment. Medical response teams would also have access to a massive stockpile of emergency supplies: 50 million N95 respirators, 2,400 portable ventilators and kits to set up 21,000 additional patient beds wherever they were needed…

“In light of the pandemic flu risk, it is absolutely a critical investment,” he [Governor Schwarznegger] told a news conference. “I’m not willing to gamble with the people’s safety.”

They were dismantled in 2011 by Governor Jerry Brown as part of post-crisis belt tightening.

The US for decades has as a matter of policy tried to reduce the number of hospital beds, which among other things has led to the shuttering of hospitals, particularly in rural areas. Hero of the day, New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo pursued this agenda with vigor, as did his predecessor George Pataki.

And even though Trump has made bad decision after bad decision, from eliminating the CDC’s pandemic unit to denying the severity of the crisis and refusing to use government powers to turbo-charge state and local medical responses, people better qualified than he is have also performed disastrously. America’s failure to test early and enough can be laid squarely at the feet of the CDCAs New York Magazine pointed out on March 12:

In a functional system, much of the preparation and messaging would have been undertaken by the CDC. In this case, it chose not to simply adopt the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 test kits — stockpiling them in the millions in the months we had between the first arrival of the coronavirus in China and its widespread appearance here — but to try to develop its own test. Why? It isn’t clear. But they bungled that project, too, failing to produce a reliable test and delaying the start of any comprehensive testing program by a few critical weeks.

The testing shortage is catastrophic: It means that no one knows how bad the outbreak already is, and that we couldn’t take effectively aggressive measures even we wanted to. There are so few tests available, or so little capacity to run them, that they are being rationed for only the most obvious candidates, which practically defeats the purpose. It is not those who are very sick or who have traveled to existing hot spots abroad who are most critical to identify, but those less obvious, gray-area cases — people who may be carrying the disease around without much reason to expect they’re infecting others…Even those who are getting tested have to wait at least several days for results; in Senegal, where the per capita income is less than $3,000, they are getting results in four hours. Yesterday, apparently, the CDC conducted zero tests…

[O]ur distressingly inept response, kept bringing to mind an essay by Umair Haque, first published in 2018 and prompted primarily by the opioid crisis, about the U.S. as the world’s first rich failed state

And the Trump Administration has such difficulty shooting straight that it can’t even manage its priority of preserving the balance sheets of the well off. Its small business bailouts, which are as much about saving those enterprises as preserving their employment, are off to a shaky start. How many small and medium sized ventures can and will maintain payrolls out of available cash when they aren’t sure when and if Federal rescue money will hit their bank accounts?

How did the US, and quite a few other advanced economies, get into such a sorry state that we are lack the operational capacity to engage in effective emergency responses? Look at what the US was able to do in the stone ages of the Great Depression. As Marshall Auerback wrote of the New Deal programs:

The government hired about 60 per cent of the unemployed in public works and conservation projects that

  • planted a billion trees,
  • saved the whooping crane,
  • modernized rural America, and
  • built such diverse projects as the Cathedral of Learning in Pittsburgh,
  • the Montana state capitol,
  • much of the Chicago lakefront,
  • New York’s Lincoln Tunnel and Triborough Bridge complex,
  • the Tennessee Valley Authority and
  • the aircraft carriers Enterprise and Yorktown. It also
  • built or renovated 2,500 hospitals,
  • 45,000 schools,
  • 13,000 parks and playgrounds,
  • 7,800 bridges,
  • 700,000 miles of roads, and
  • a thousand airfields. And it
  • employed 50,000 teachers,
  • rebuilt the country’s entire rural school system, and
  • hired 3,000 writers,
    • musicians,
    • sculptors and painters,
    • including Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.

What are the deeper causes of our contemporary generalized inability to respond to large-scale threats? My top picks are a lack of respect for risk and the rise of symbol manipulation as the dominant means of managing in the private sector and government.

Risk? What Risk?

Thomas Hobbes argued that life apart from society would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Outside poor countries and communities, advances in science and industrialization have largely proven him right.

It was not long ago, in historical terms, that even aristocrats would lose children to accidents and disease. Only four of Winston Churchill’s six offspring lived to be adults. Comparatively few women now die in childbirth.

But it isn’t just that better hygiene, antibiotics, and vaccines have helped reduce the scourges of youth. They have also reduced the consequences of bad fortune. Fewer soldiers are killed in wars. More are patched up, so fewer come back in coffins and more with prosthetics or PTSD. And those prosthetics, which enable the injured to regain some of their former function, also perversely shield ordinary citizens from the spectacle of lost limbs.1

Similarly, when someone is hit by a car or has a heart attack, as traumatic as the spectacle might be to onlookers, typically an ambulance arrives quickly and the victim is whisked away. Onlookers can tell themselves he’s in good hands and hope for the best.

With the decline in manufacturing, fewer people see or hear of industrial accidents, like the time a salesman in a paper mill in which my father worked stuck his hand in a digester and had his arm ripped off. And many of the victims of hazardous work environments suffer from ongoing exposures, such as to toxic chemicals or repetitive stress injuries, so the danger isn’t evident until it is too late.

Most also are oddly disconnected from the risks they routinely take, like riding in a car (I for one am pretty tense and vigilant when I drive on freeways, despite like to speed as much as most Americans). Perhaps it is due in part to the illusion of being in control while driving.

Similarly, until the coronavirus crisis, even with America’s frayed social safety nets, most people, particularly the comfortably middle class and affluent, took comfort in appearances of normalcy and abundance. Stores are stocked with food. Unlike the oil crisis of the 1970, there’s no worry about getting petrol at the pump. Malls may be emptying out and urban retail vacancies might be increasing, but that’s supposedly due to the march of Amazon, and not anything amiss with the economy. After all, unemployment is at record lows, right?

Those who do go to college in America get a plush experience. No thin mattresses or only adequately kept-up dorms, as in my day. The notion that kids, even of a certain class, have to rough it a bit, earn their way up and become established in their careers and financially, seems to have eroded. Quite a few go from pampered internships to fast-track jobs. In the remote era of my youth, even in the prestigious firms, new hires were subjected to at least a couple of years of grunt work.

So the class of people with steady jobs (which these days are well-placed members of the professional managerial class, certain trades and those who chose low-risk employment with strong civil service protections) have also become somewhat to very removed from the risks endured when most people were subsistence farmers or small town merchants who served them.

Consider this disconnect, based on an Axios-Ipsos survey:

The coronavirus is spreading a dangerous strain of inequality. Better-off Americans are still getting paid and are free to work from home, while the poor are either forced to risk going out to work or lose their jobs.

Generally speaking, the people who are positioned to be least affected by coronavirus are the most rattled. That is due to the gap between expectations and the new reality. Poor people have Bad Shit Happen on a regular basis. Wealthy people expect to be able to insulate themselves from most of it and then have it appear in predictable forms, like cheating spouses and costly divorces, bad investments (still supposedly manageable if you are diversified!), renegade children, and common ailments, like heart attacks and cancer, where the rich better the odds by advantaged access to care.

The super rich are now bunkered, belatedly realizing they can’t set up ICUs at home, and hiring guards to protect themselves from marauding hordes, yet uncertain that their mercenaries won’t turn on them.

The bigger point is that we’ve had a Minksy-like process operating on a society-wide basis: as daily risks have declined, most people have blinded themselves to what risk amounts to and where it might surface in particularly nasty forms. And the more affluent and educated classes, who disproportionately constitute our decision-makers, have generally been the most removed.

The proximity to risk goes a long way to explaining who has responded better. As many have pointed out, the countries that had meaningful experience with SARS2 had a much better idea of what they were up against with the coronavirus and took aggressive measures faster.

But how do you explain South Korea, which had only three cases of SARS and no deaths? It doesn’t appear to have had enough experience with SARS to have learned from it.

A related factor may be that developing economies have fresh memories of what life was like before they became affluent. I can’t speak for South Korea, but when I worked with the Japanese, people still remembered the “starving times” right after World War II. Japan was still a poor country in the 1960s.3 South Korea rose as an economic power after Japan. The Asian Tigers were also knocked back on their heels with the 1997 emerging markets crisis. And of course Seoul is in easy nuke range of North Korea. It’s the only country I ever visited, including Israel, where I went through a metal detector to enter and saw lots of soldiers carrying machine guns in the airport. So they likely have a keen appreciation of how bad bad can be.

The Rise and Rise of the Symbol Economy

Let me start with an observation by Peter Drucker that I read back in the 1980s, but will then redefine his take on “symbol economy,” because I believe the phenomenon has become much more pervasive than he envisioned.

A good recap comes in Fragile Finance: Debt, Speculation and Crisis in the Age of Global Credit by A. Nesvetailova:

The most significant transformation for Drucker was the changed relationship between the symbolic economy of capital movements, exchange rates, and credit flows, and the real economy of the flow of goods and services:

…in the world economy of today, the ‘real economy’ of goods and services and the ‘symbol economy’ of money, credit, and capital are no longer bound tightly to each other; they are indeed, moving further and further apart (1986: 783)

The rise of the financial sphere as the flywheel of the world economy, Drucker noted, is both the most visible and the least understood change of modern capitalism.

What Drucker may not have sufficiently appreciated was money and capital flows are speculative and became more so over time. In their study of 800 years of financial crises, Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff found that high levels of international capital flows were strongly correlated with more frequent and more severe financial crises. Claudio Borio and Petit Disyatat of the Banks of International Settlements found that on the eve of the 2008 crisis, international capital flows were 61 times as large as trade flows, meaning they were only trivially settling real economy transactions.

Now those factoids alone may seem to offer significant support to Drucker’s thesis. But I believe he conceived of it too narrowly. I believe that modeling techniques, above all, spreadsheet-based models, have removed decision-makers from the reality of their decisions. If they can make it work on paper, they believe it will work that way.

When I went to business school and started on Wall Street, financiers and business analysts did their analysis by hand, copying information from documents and performing computations with calculators. It was painful to generate financial forecasts, since one error meant that everything to the right was incorrect and had to be redone.

The effect was that when managers investigated major capital investments and acquisitions, they thought hard about the scenarios they wanted to consider since they could look at only a few. And if a model turned out an unfavorable-looking result, that would be hard to rationalize away, since a lot of energy had been devoted to setting it up.

By contrast, when PCs and Visicalc hit the scene, it suddenly became easy to run lots of forecasts. No one had any big investment in any outcome. And spending so much time playing with financial models would lead most participants to a decision to see the model as real, when it was a menu, not a meal.

When reader speak with well-deserved contempt of MBA managers, the too-common belief that it is possible to run an operation, any operation, by numbers, appears to be a root cause. For over five years, we’ve been running articles from the Health Renewal Blog decrying the rise of “generic managers” in hospital systems (who are typically also spectacularly overpaid) who proceed to grossly mismanage their operations yet still rake in the big bucks.

The UK version of this pathology is more extreme, because it marries managerial overconfidence with a predisposition among British elites to look at people who work hard as “must not be sharp.” But the broad outlines apply here. From Clive, on a Brexit post, when Brexit was the poster child of UK elite incompetence:

What’s struck me most about the UK government’s approach to the practical day-to-day aspects of Brexit is that it is exemplifying a typically British form of managerialism which bedevilles both public sector and private sector organisations. It manifests itself in all manner of guises but the main characteristic is that some “leader” issues impractical, unworkable, unachievable or contradictory instructions (or a “strategy”) to the lower ranks. These lower ranks have been encouraged to adopt the demeanour of yes-men (or yes-women). So you’re not allowed to question the merits of the ask. Everyone keeps quiet and takes the paycheck while waiting for the roof to fall in on them. It’s not like you’re on the breadline, so getting another year or so in isn’t a bad survival attitude. If you make a fuss now, you’ll likely be replaced by someone who, in the leadership’s eyes is a lot more can-do (but is in fact just either more naive or a better huckster).

Best illustrated perhaps by an example — I was asked a day or two ago to resolve an issue I’d reported using “imaginative” solutions. Now, I’ve got a a vivid imagination, but even that would not be able to comply with two mutually contradictory aims at the same time (“don’t incur any costs for doing some work” and “do the work” — where because we’ve outsourced the supply of the services in question, we now get real, unhideable invoices which must be paid).

To the big cheeses, the problem is with the underlings not being sufficiently clever or inventive. The real problem is the dynamic they’ve created and their inability to perceive the changes (in the same way as swinging a wrecking ball is a “change”) they’ve wrought on an organisation.

May, Davies, Fox, the whole lousy lot of ’em are like the pilot in the Airplane movie — they’re pulling on the levers of power only to find they’re not actually connected to anything. Wait until they pull a little harder and the whole bloody thing comes off in their hands.

Americans typically do this sort of thing with a better look: the expectations are usually less obviously implausible, particularly if they might be presented to the wider world. One of the cancers of our society is the belief that any problem can be solved with better PR, another manifestation of symbol economy thinking.

I could elaborate further on how these attitudes have become common, such as the ability of companies to hide bad operating results and them come clean every so often as if it were an extraordinary event, short job tenures promoting “IBG/YBG” opportunism, and the use of lawyers as liability shields (for the execs, not the company, natch).

But it’s not hard to see how it was easy to rationalize away the risks of decisions like globalization. Why say no to what amounted to a transfer from direct factory labor to managers and execs? Offshoring and outsourcing were was sophisticated companies did. Wall Street liked them. Them gave senior employees an excuse to fly abroad on the company dime. So what if the economic case was marginal? So what if the downside could be really bad? What Keynes said about banker herd mentality applies:

A sound banker, alas! is not one who foresees danger and avoids it, but one who, when he is ruined, is ruined in a conventional and orthodox way along with his fellows, so that no one can really blame him.

It’s not hard to see how a widespread societal disconnect of decision-makers from risk, particularly health-related risks, compounded with management by numbers as opposed to kicking the tires, would combine to produce lax attitude toward operations in general.

I believe a third likely factor is poor governance practices, and those have gotten generally worse as organizations have grown in scale and scope. But there is more country-specific nuance here, and I can discuss only a few well, so adding this to my theory will have to hold for another day. But it isn’t hard to think of some in America. For instance, 40 years ago, there were more midsized companies, with headquarters in secondary cities like Dayton, Ohio. Executives living in and caring about their reputation in their communities served as a check on behavior.

Before you depict me as exaggerating about the change in posture toward risks, I recall reading policy articles in the 1960s where officials wrung their hands about US dependence on strategic materials found only in unstable parts of Africa. That US would never have had China make its soldiers’ uniforms, boots, and serve as the source for 80+ of the active ingredients in its drugs. And America was most decidedly capitalist in the 1960s. So we need to look at how things have changed to explain changes in postures towards risk and notions of what competence amounts to.

_____
1 One of my early memories was seeing a one-legged man using a crutch, with the trouser of his missing leg pinned up. I pointed to him and said something to my parents and was firmly told never to do anything like that again.

2 The US did not learn much from its 33 cases. But the lack of fatalities may have contributed.

3 Japan has had a pretty lame coronavirus response, but that is the result of Japan’s strong and idiosyncratic culture. While Japanese are capable of taking action individually when they are isolated, in group settings, no one wants to act or even worse take responsibility unless their is an accepted or established protocol.

For the Economy, Climate Risks Are No Longer Theoretical

Climate crises, like financial crises, will be damaging, unpredictable and almost impossible to avoid

Last year Australia’s central bank hoped that several interest-rate cuts would mark a turning point for its slowing economy. That was before the worst bushfires in Australia’s history hit tourism, consumer confidence and growth forecasts for this year. There is now a good chance the bank will cut interest rates again soon.

Welcome to a world in which climate change’s economic impact is no longer distant and imperceptible.

  • Puerto Rico never fully recovered from Hurricane Maria in 2017.
  • Extreme drought in California and poorly maintained utility power lines led to severe wildfires in 2018, the utility’s bankruptcy and blackouts last year.

Climate change can’t be directly blamed for any single extreme weather event, including Hurricane Maria, California’s wildfires or Australia’s bushfires. But it makes such events more likely. “They are starting to be more than tail events, they’re starting to affect economic outcomes,” Robert Kaplan, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, told an economic conference earlier this month.

Climate crises in the next 30 years may resemble financial crises in recent decades:

  • potentially quite destructive,
  • largely unpredictable and, given the powerful underlying causes,
  • inevitable.

Climate has muscled to the top of business worries.

Every year, the World Economic Forum asks business, political, academic and nongovernmental leaders to rank the most probable and consequential risks, from cyberattacks to fiscal crises. This year, ahead of its annual meeting next week in Davos, Switzerland, climate-related risks took the five top spots in terms of probability, the first time a single issue had done so in the survey’s 14-year history.

The New NormalAs global temperatures rise, extreme temperatures and environmental disasters become more common.Summer temperatures for local regions in the northern hemisphere
STANDARD DEVIATION FROM 115-YEAR AVERAGETHOUSANDS OF OCCURRENCES1961-19802011-2015-4-3-2-10123450102030405060
World-wide extreme weather eventsSources: McKinsey Global Institute (temperature distribution), JPMorgan (extreme weather events)
.events1980’85’90’952000’05’10’150100200300400500600700800900

Of course, economies have always been vulnerable to natural disasters. Before the modern industrial era, crop failures were a leading cause of recession. The monsoon season remains a key economic variable in India, and the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011 tipped Japan into recession.

And while estimates of climate’s economic impact are suffused with uncertainty, they don’t suggest any major economy will be pushed into recession, much less depression.

Studies reviewed by David Mackie of JPMorgan Chase suggest climate change could reduce global gross domestic product by 1% to 7% by 2100, assuming “business as usual” (i.e., absent policies to mitigate emissions of carbon dioxide). Given that the impact is spread out over 80 years, in which per capita incomes probably rise 300% to 400%, even larger climate change impacts would appear small, he said.

Aggregate changes in GDP, though, can be misleading. As global temperatures climb, the probability of extreme temperatures and events and the associated economic consequences should rise more.

This relationship is driven home in a study released Thursday by the McKinsey Global Institute. It estimated that “unusually hot summers” affected 15% of the Northern Hemisphere’s land surface in 2015, up from 0.2% before 1980.

McKinsey estimated that climate change made the European heat wave that in 2019 killed 1,500 in France 10 times more likely and the forest fires that devastated northern Alberta in 2016 up to six times more likely.

Satellite Images Show Smoke From Australian Fires Circling the World

Satellite Images Show Smoke From Australian Fires Circling the World
NASA says smoke from Australian fires has made a full circuit of Earth. It has affected New Zealand’s air quality and turned skies in South America hazy. Photo: NASA Earth Observatory handout/Shutterstock

Looking ahead, assuming business as usual, McKinsey projected the probability of a 10% drop in wheat, corn, soybean and rice yields in any given year will rise from 6% now to 18% in 2050. Such a change wouldn’t cause food shortages but could cause prices to spike. The probability that a catastrophic cyclone disrupts semiconductor manufacturing in the western Pacific will double or quadruple by 2040. Such an event “could potentially lead to months of lost production for the directly affected companies,” McKinsey said. The probability of rain heavy enough to halt the mining in southeastern China of rare-earth elements, vital to many electronic devices, will rise from 2.5% now to 6% by 2050.

Such an exercise comes with plenty of caveats. The projections make no allowance for adaptation, though no doubt some outdoor activity will move indoors, some businesses will relocate from flood plains, and insurance will cushion the cost for many.

But adaptation goes only so far. Humans can’t survive prolonged high heat and humidity beyond certain thresholds. Those thresholds are rarely met now, but will be reached regularly in some regions by 2050.

Adaptation and insurance may be deemed too costly. “Underinsurance may grow worse as more extreme events unfold, because fewer people carry insurance for them,” McKinsey predicted.

Some on Wall Street are starting to treat climate change the way they regard financial crises. “Climate change is almost invariably the top issue that clients around the world raise with BlackRock,” Chairman and CEO Laurence Fink told chief executives this week in explaining why climate would be a key criterion in how BlackRock Inc. invests its $7 trillion of client money. For businesses, mandates—private or government-driven—pose a risk distinct from climate change itself. Car companies are now spending heavily to market electric vehicles with no assurance they will be profitable.

Some central bankers are also talking about climate risk the way they talk about financial crises. Christine Lagarde, the newly installed European Central Bank president, told European parliamentarians last fall, “At a minimum…[the ECB’s] macroeconomic models must incorporate the risk of climate change.”

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

How do you adjust an economy for climate change? Join the conversation below.

Yet worrying about it isn’t the same as doing something about it. Unlike financial crises, neither Wall Street nor central bankers have the tools to alter the forces making climate crises more likely: rising carbon dioxide emissions and economic development in vulnerable regions. Only political leaders can—and it isn’t clear they will.

The Madrid climate summit in December “is the most recent example of countries failing to cooperate to create a global emissions trading regime,” Mr. Mackie said. “Most likely, business as usual will be the path that policy makers follow in the years ahead…[which] increases the likelihood that the costs of dealing with climate change will go up as action is delayed.”

A Conversation with Anand Giridharadas

Join Anand Giridharadas author of Winners Take All, in conversation with Belfer Center Executive Director Aditi Kumar on the perils of philanthropy and policy in the hands of the global elite.

  1. Reputation Laundering
    • Do enough to be considered OK to meet with a senator
    • People are busy.  They don’t have time to research connection between “Sackler Art Wing” and Oxycontin
    • Only way Jeffery Epstein could come back was through association with Harvard
    • Gives Bill Gates more votes on Common Core than public
    • Which University will be able to fund an Institute on Wealth Taxation verses Social Philanthropy?

 

32:59
how many people are able to live a
decent life housing cost New York City
is as cruel as Idaho and so you look at
something like the Fair Work Week
ovement right which is trying to go
into communities and say simple thing
but a thing that has transformative
effect on people’s lives you can’t
change people’s hours with like two days
notice now for many people in this room
that may not be an issue that affects
your career you’re gonna be paid on
salary but if you’re paid by the hour
having your hours changed moved around
cut when I was in a restaurant not long
ago and as his waitress crying because
she was sent home early three hours
early for like the third time that week
right which means not getting paid
because there was not enough demand at
the same
shop the company’s risk being put on her
back she’s gonna miss a bill this is
happening to millions of Americans now
the thing about a Fair Work Week law is
you don’t need Mitch McConnell any city
in America can pass this counties can
pass it states can pass it isn’t it
interesting that we keep using a couple
parts of government that are
dysfunctional and absolve ourselves of
the fact that in all these cities where
liberals completely control everything
no one’s doing it
no one’s passing these Fair Work Week