Skip to comments.(Vanity) Mongolian Flustered Cluck, Part II, or, Stop the Supply Chain, I Want to Get Off
Posted on 05/06/2009 7:47:02 PM PDT by grey_whiskers
In an earlier article, (Vanity) Mark Twain, and Pandemic Flu, or, Mongolian Flustered Cluck, I considered the current swine flu episode, and looked at its effects on various institutions, and how difficult it was for the lay person to follow what was going on amidst all the Flustered Clucking among government agencies, the blogosphere, and others. In a follow-up article, I consider some of the practical ramifications of such confusion, with thoughts on operations research, ecosystem modeling, and humor columnist Dave Barry thrown in.
By the way, thanks to member of Free Republic Smokin' Joe for his comment on my prior article which nicely anticipated this one, rendering it almost anticlimactic. (To anyone reading who has not been on Free Republic long, you have to move fast here to keep from being scooped.)
In the prior article, it was pointed out that for a variety of reasons, this either this flu has even the experts baffled, or a lot of people are attempting to use the current crisis for their own purposes, or the government knows more than it is letting on, but is failing to let people know. It is this last possibility that I wish to look at more closely.
Now don't get me wrong -- this is not going to be any type of conspiracy theory, except in the sense of Heinlein's Razor, "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity, but don't rule out malice", or possibly, Grey's Law (no relation to the author), "Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice." I think the situation is likely to be like the famous quip from Laurel and Hardy, "This is another fine mess you've gotten us into." So what exactly is this mess, and how did we get into it?
Let's answer this by revisiting the last article. In attempting to define swine flu, we had to delve all the way into molecular biochemistry, touching on what was formerly Nobel Prize level work (DNA and RNA), variants of cellular surface proteins, and could easily have gone on from there. And all this, just to describe a germ.
Unfortunately, not only is the virus not that simple: the rest of the world not that simple. Nobody is intelligent enough, or has enough time, to understand everything. And this is one of the reasons we rely on experts -- so that when a crisis comes up in a particular part of life, we turn to people who have made it their business to know that part of life, so we can hear from *someone* who knows what they're talking about. But as we have seen, if the subject is detailed enough (so we can't follow the experts), or there is enough cross-talk (so we can't tell the real experts from the blowhards), or the experts themselves don't know, we are stuck. Because nobody else can tell us about viruses, since they were all specializing in something *else*. So the very process of specialization, so useful for promoting economic growth, has an Achilles heel. A similar situation happens over and over again, during normal life, in different fields of endeavor, from employment, to computers, to biology. In order to stand out from the pack, you specialize. An expert is paid more than an average person. And, as other people begin competing, you have to raise your level of expertise in order to keep standing out. At the same time, you have to become less of an expert, less self-sufficient, in other things, in order to free up time and effort for the one area of mastery. The result is, you become (like, oh, the wooly mammoth) too specialized for your own good. The minute the ground rules change -- whether prehistoric global warming, or the introduction of the automobile, or a nasty new virus -- the very specialization which helped you stand out in *one* thing, keeps you from being good at anything else, just when you most need it. And you become unemployed or go extinct.
But there is a different Achilles' heel than just our knowledge, which the virus looks like it may strike. And oddly enough, this second vulnerability is one not of the individual, but of the entire culture. Even more oddly, this vulnerability comes about partly as a result of the specialization we have already considered.
What is this second vulnerability?
Consider the great advantages of Adam Smith's hidden hand of the market. People tend to specialize, in order to gain competitive advantage in trade, so that everyone gains by exchanging goods or services of low cost, or low value, in return for goods or services of higher value (to them) from elsewhere. One of the consequences of this activity, honed to a razor's edge in the United States, is that of lowering costs. Cost of labor, cost of production, cost of transport. And even indirect costs along the way, such as storage and taxes on inventory. Our society, in addition to outsourcing jobs and factories overseas, likes to cut out on redundancies to save money. This means we don't have a spare computer in the back room, gathering dust against the next Windows virus. That'd cost money, which can be more profitably put to use lining an executive's pocket, or being paid to lobby Congress (rim shot). And most of the time, this works just fine. Until those episodes when (by Murhphy's Law) the computer suffers a glitch just when you had a deadline. Or the widget press suffers a fatal heart attack just when you had an unexpected new order.
That would be bad enough -- except that the factory floor isn't the only thing which has been minimized. Stocks and inventories themselves are held to a minimum. There is an entire discipline called "Operations Research" which can be used to optimize one's supply chaina and output. Unfortunately -- just like the "black swan" event of a coordinated fall in house prices AND a rise in defaults, which has devastated our financial markets -- nobody seems to have thought through the weakness in our supply chain. The supply chains are not *globally* optimized (an absolute optimum with respect to all variables), but only *locally* optimized: they are geared towards cutting costs, but NOT geared towards being able to supply a rush of panicked shoppers all trying to load up on enough supplies to last for a month in quarantine, all at the same time. (I think this is why animals tend to have a pair of lungs: the extra breathing capacity comes in handy when being chased by a predator, or trying to catch an extra-fleet dinner).)
So this is one danger of the over-specialization: in only insisting on cutting costs, and going too far in that direction, we have become uniquely vulnerable to a situation where there is a sudden unforeseen demand upon our resources. And this is where things tie into the specialization of knowledge, and the incompetence of our duly elected authorities.
First, who decreed the headlong rush towards having little excess capacity; and further, in having our country so dependent upon foreign (read potentially unsafe) supplies anyway? Second, what if the hesitancy of the powers that be to keep us up to date on the flu, is a result of deficiencies in their supply chain -- that of the one which supplies medical care? For example, the number of respirators available for use in hospitals across the United States is currently insufficient just for current needs. It would be swamped immediately if we *did* have a flu pandemic. And the same is true for other areas of medical care. (For that matter, there is very little excess capacity in *anything*, from food supplies on store shelve to bottled water to ...anything we might want to stock up on to "be prepared.") So it need not be part of a diabolical plot to consign all of us to FEMA trailers, like after Hurricane Katrina. I suggest that the thinking of the bureaucrats in charge of telling us about the flu runs something like this:
"These dunderheads are too busy watching American Idol to pay any attention to our pronouncements. So we have to emphasize the danger of the flu. But if we do that, we run the risk of creating a panic among the sheep -- this are the electorate which voted for the teleprompter-in-chief, based on promptings from the press. And if we have a panic, who knows what will happen? Or even worse, this might be like Gerald Ford and the last swine flu vaccinations in 1976, where nothing happened. That would be embarrassing! And if that happens, we might lose our cushy government job. Then we'd have to get a -- gasp!! -- real job. In THIS economy? But dammit, if we soft pedal things too much, nobody will listen. And if this is the big one, and we don't do anything, the survivors will hang us from the nearest lamp post when this is all done."
And so they choose the course of least resistance, least blame: incompetence.
Now what does this have to do with Smokin' Joe's comments in the prior thread, about stocking up? Recall what some official suggested during the last non-flu event, the H5N1 avian flu scare (which by the way really is still simmering in Egypt and Indonesia). "Just put aside a couple of cans of tuna under the bed, an extra box of crackers, a case of water. And some extra medicine. Do it a bit at a time, week by week, so you don't strain your budget." (Or, unspoken, the store shelves. Because our supply chain can handle a long-term gradual increase in demand: it's built to. And for every person who *has* gradually stocked up in advance, that's one less frenzied last minute shopper when the fecal material *does* hit the horizontal electrically-powered, rotary air impeller.)
Stocking up gradually may either be a waste of time, or it may not be enough. But it's better than nothing. To quote Dave Barry about his young son's Little League baseball team, catching the ball is not their strong point. But they have advanced to the point where, whenever the ball is just about to bounce off their body, they wince.
Ping... (and I really didn’t mean to steal anyone’s thunder...)
Actually, I was well stocked in all the calibers and gauges I actually had firearms for, but I decided buy an evil black rifle firing an intermediate power cartridge. So I had to buy some ammo for it too. I've got half of it so far, and I don't yet have the firearm, except for the holo-sight, the magnifier for that, oh and the stripped lower receiver. The rest is currently promised for early July. Hope that's not too late.
Excellent article(s), Grey_Whiskers! And thanks Smokin’ Joe for the ping, it is much appreciated.
Unless (tin-foil hat ON) *they* "planned it" that way, in order to cut down on the number of the sheepleTM who would have access to guns, once TSHTF.
wink, nudge, /sarc>
......In order to stand out from the pack, you specialize. .....
I chose to be a miscellaneous expert. By putting more than just eggs in the basket I can widen my client base considerably.
Whether we are looking at "malice" or "incompetence" is yet to be seen. With the current bunch, I choose "malice", heavily seasoned with "incompetence".
Excellent and thought provoking writing grey_whiskers. Appreciate your effort.
Important reading bump!
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