Thursday, April 16, 2020

Lessons of the Pandemic

It was slightly more than a year ago that Steven Pinker, Bill Gates and other members of our intelligentsia were touting the wonders that had been produced by the Enlightenment. According to Pinker the uses of reason had produced peace and prosperity. Violence, as in warfare, had become a thing of the past and things were inexorably getting better. 

To me it sounded like a Beatles song: I’ve got to admit it’s getting better/ A little better all the time.

Well, today, Pinker’s wide-eyed optimism is not in the news. And Gates has become a prophet of doom, standing up for the WHO-- for reasons that defy reason.

For the record, I will quote a passing remark I posted last year, on March 17:

Steven Pinker famously believes that we humans have made significant advances. We have, his numbers tell him, reduced violence. Thus, there are fewer deaths by violence today than there were in previous time periods.

Pinker gives the credit to the Enlightenment.

Souls illuminated by the light of Reason saw the futility of violence and have chosen to overcome it.

Since the unexampled violence of the twentieth century occurred well after the Enlightenment, Pinker has a problem explaining away the body count of Naziism and Communism. And we might add the body count of the Spanish flu, a pandemic that occurred after World War I and that killed millions, non-violently.

Some of us were not quite so optimistic. Some of us remembered the danger of pandemics.

Be that as it may, and taking off my prophet hat, I note that Manhattan Contrarian Francis Menton remarks (via Maggie’s Farm) that the pandemic is offering something like a reality check. Much of what we had been anguishing about in our public debates and even our public rants has faded into relative insignificance. How much credence do you want to grant to the ramblings of a Swedish school girl when the world is struggling to contain the coronavirus?

Menton writes:

An actual national and international crisis has a way of focusing the mind on what is truly important.  Our recent coronavirus pandemic may or may not rise on its own to the level of bona fide “crisis” — more on that in a subsequent post — but certainly when you add in the response of governments at all levels, it’s hard to dispute that the current unpleasantness is a crisis for large numbers of Americans involuntarily thrown out of work, as well as for many businesses, and for the economy.  And sure enough, the national conversation has turned almost exclusively to the virus and its consequences, to the exclusion of most everything else.

Do you even remember the issues that our thought leaders were all obsessing over in unison a short couple of months ago?  I’m thinking of things like income inequality, or the oppression of women and minority group members on elite college campuses, or (my personal favorite) climate change.  Now that we have something objectively important to think about, does any of that stuff even matter any more? Indeed, did any of it ever really matter?

Before the virus hit, our government and others in Europe and around the world were busy imposing vast new burdens on businesses in the name of things like social justice and “decarbonization.”  Hey, the companies are rich and they can afford it. Now in the blink of an eye large numbers of the same companies are completely broke, laying off workers in droves, and potentially going out of business for keeps.  Our federal government has just committed to spend well over $2 trillion to support individuals, businesses and state and local governments — suddenly multiplying the federal deficit by a factor of 3 or 4, from an already unsustainable $1 trillion or so per year, to something in the range of $3 - 4 trillion. 

Then again, some people never learn. Some will draw precisely the wrong conclusion. Menton adds:

Or, maybe the lesson to be learned here is the opposite — that at last there are no longer any limits.  Budgets are a thing of the past. Everything is now possible with government directives and with the infinite credit card.  Let’s go completely crazy!

And some people, need I say, will imagine that the crisis shows that they were right all along: that shutting down the world economy, throwing billions of people out of work, stopping all transportation… is just what the climate needed. After all, with fewer human beings there will be less pollution. Nothing less than human sacrifice can satisfy the hunger of the Nature Goddess.

Menton offers this summary of one activist climate change group:

At Watts Up With That, via EURACTIV, we learn that in light of the current unpleasantness the International Air Transport Association — trade association of the world’s major airlines — has requested the UN to keep 2019 as the baseline year for measuring progress of airlines toward zero carbon emissions, rather than replacing 2019 with the average of 2019 and 2020.  Obviously the airlines have figured out that 2020 is going to be a big down year for emissions, which then would set an impossible baseline going forward. Zero carbon emissions from air travel? The whole idea likely has you laughing, but at the humorless UN, even the most ridiculous things are not laughing matters. Meanwhile, most to all of the world’s major airlines are likely to be in bankruptcy within the next month or two unless sufficiently bailed out by their respective home governments.

And, of course, socialists have looked at the crisis and concluded that it was the fault of capitalism.

Menton explains:

Obviously the virus is the fault of capitalism.  (Isn’t everything bad the fault of capitalism?). Therefore, the pandemic proves the need for the prompt replacement of capitalism with socialism.  You can find dozens of pieces advocating this position. Here is one from the unhinged folks at Jacobin, March 20.  Excerpt:  “When on January 26, 2020 I first read of a coronavirus that was gaining ground in China, I immediately thought of the repercussions for the global dynamics of capital accumulation.”  Aha, now we understand everything.

So, Menton and yours truly do not know how this is going to turn out. But we do know that some of our serious thinkers are incapable of adjusting their thought to the reality on the ground.


trigger warning said...

"Much of what we had been anguishing about in our public debates and even our public rants has faded into relative insignificance."


"Nobody gives a shit about your pronouns and no one ever did. It was a privilege to be able to pretend to care about it like it mattered."
--- a tweet from Ian Miles Cheong, 3/20

UbuMaccabee said...

“Contemporary man, owing to certain, almost imperceptible conditions of ordinary life which are firmly rooted in modern civilisation and which seem to have become, so to speak, " inevitable " in daily life, has gradually deviated from the natural type he ought to have represented on account of the sum-total of the influences of place and environment in which he was born and reared and which, under normal conditions, without any artificial impediments, would have indicated by their very nature for each individual the lawful path of his development in that final normal type which he ought to have become even in his preparatory age. Today, civilisation, with its unlimited scope in extending its influence, has wrenched man from the normal conditions in which he should be living. It is, of course, true that modern civilisation has opened up for man new and vaster horizons in different technical, mechanical and many other so-called " sciences ", thereby enlarging his world perception, but civilisation has, instead of a balanced rising to a higher degree of development, developed only certain sides of his general being to the detriment of others, while, because of the absence of an harmonious education, certain faculties inherent in man have even been completely destroyed, depriving him in this way of the natural privileges of his type. In other words, by not educating the growing generation harmoniously, this civilisation, which should have been, according to common sense, in all respects like a good mother to man, has withheld from him what she should have given him ; and, it appears, that she has even taken from him the possibility of the progressive and balanced development of a new type, which development would have inevitably taken place if only in the course of time and according to the law of general human progress. From this follows the indubitable fact, which can be clearly established, that, instead of an accomplished individual type, which historical data would show man to have been some centuries ago and one normally in communion with Nature and the environment generating him, there developed instead a being that was uprooted from the soil, unfit for life, and a stranger to all normal conditions of existence.”

― G.I. Gurdjieff, The Herald of Coming Good

370H55V said...

Maslow's needs levels.