When is it Lethal to Kick the Can Down the Road?

Wretchard talks about the common problem many “leaders” are prone to: choosing to look away from the power of exponents in a given problem. Don’t you wonder if this blind spot is due to the nature of their jobs, or perhaps the general incompetence of those who lust after leadership positions?

He brings up the seeming paradox in that old story we all tripped over in grade school math. As he says, it’s an object example of the dangers accruing to that sort of blindness and then gives us an up-to-the-minute sad example of people who will suffer because of their leaders’ mistakes — willful or not:

That property was invoked by Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit of the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg who warned Deutsche Welle that Liberia and Sierra Leone are now lost to Ebola.

“The right time to get this epidemic under control in these countries has been missed,” he said. That time was May and June. “Now it will be much more difficult.”

Schmidt-Chanasit expects the virus will “become endemic” in this part of the world, if no massive assistance arrives.

With other words: It could more or less infect everybody and many people could die.

The only thing that can be done now, he dolefully said, is to prevent the virus from spreading to countries like Senegal and Nigeria. The compartment is flooded. Dog the watertight door if you want to save the ship. Is he right?…

At the end of that quote he provides two jarring graphs to show Ebola’s spread in those countries from March or so till now. They’re worth perusing to get an idea how fast this disease goes through a population, but I leave it to you whether or not to study them. The sharp rise is certainly disturbing, but we’re given no demographic information on those who contract the disease.

But scary or not, this information is useful to those willing to contemplate further inferences.

First, Wretchard lists the duelling institutes and agencies who want to be the one claim credit for “conquering” this scourge before it spreads past Africa. The list includes the World Health Organization and the Center for Communicable Diseases, etc. However, these places are bureaucracies and as Wretchard reminds us, “the power of nonlinear rates of propagation often explain why bureaucracies are caught flat-footed by events. A problem is ‘small’ until suddenly it is not”.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Though he doesn’t say so, it is necessary to remind oneself that by their very nature, bureaucracies are unable to be agile or creative. Instead, their main concern is the prevention of encroachments on their turf and the growth of the organization. It is this characteristic which will make ObamaCare an eventual FAIL. Our “Affordable” Care (the rates of which appear to be rising and increasingly excluding those who need it) will never be found in the same realm as cutting edge care; the former has a built-in avoidance system. Thus, the cut-out for, say, concierge medicine will grow with time (cf. Cuba’s private medical care for outsiders), just as ObamaCare will ossify, making the gap between the top and bottom rungs in our healthcare system all the more evident, just as they are now in our “justice” system and our “education” bamboozle.

So if these flat-footed bureaucracies cannot outrun the events, what do they do? From experience, by now you know the drill for dealing with uncomfortable facts and inconvenient truths. The experienced bureaucrat has a cafeteria of choices available to address the problem at hand:

  • ignore
  • stonewall
  • deny
  • minimize
  • demonize
  • lie like a rug
  • shun/ridicule the messenger
  • re-name (using a more benign term)
  • claim it’s stale-dated
  • redact it
  • dis-remember it
  • swear ignorance
  • decline to comment
  • change the subject
  • lose your records
  • leave for a more pressing meeting — your golf game

If you are cursed with ownership of a television set and you watch “news” programs, you’ve seen these methods employed endlessly in recent months… or weeks… or even days. You might even notice yourself numbing out from the sheer effort required to pay attention.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Thus Wretchard asks rhetorically what many people are wondering: when will Ebola be brought under control? He thinks it’s an open question due to the nature of the problem:

The power of fires, epidemics — even ISIS — to surprise illustrates that we often have a smaller margin that we think. That is why phenomen[a] with the potential for exponential growth must be hit early and hard.

He cites some Obama opinions which demonstrate, at least implicitly, that our president doesn’t think in scientific terms, or even very logically. Obama “opens his mouth in order to damp down reality and then changes the subject when his previous words… well, when they seem even more uninformed and impulsive than usual. You begin to wonder if any of his inner circle, his advisory team, ever take the time to trot over to his golf cart to tell him when things change, or even — heaven forefend — that he may have misstated a crucial situation.

Wretchard notes:

Only early this year the president thought ISIS was a ‘jayvee’ team. Now he’s looking for help to damp it down. It’s hard not conclude that it got the jump on him.

In truth, Obama was as clueless about ISIS as he was when he drew that red line for Syria. You know, the “what-red-line” red line that he trusted the winds to scour away. In a half-way ‘normal’ presidency, the incumbent would be hounded relentlessly for that one. But this is the Nobel Prize presidency, the one which means you never have to walk your words back to some semblance of a truth firmly ensconced in reality.

When Wretchard winds up his reflections on “the lackluster showing of scientists world-wide” to comprehend “the seriousness of Ebola”, he says of their predictions, “…The truth is probably more prosaic. They were faked-out by self-deception and complacency.”

But complacency in the scientific world is a feature, not a bug. Those scientists-for-hire think small; for the most part they are simply small cogs in a large governmental or quasi-governmental organization; complacency follows on in the wake of job security. Can you imagine, say, Thomas Edison working in a modern laboratory? Would his insanely long hours and endless failures be a part of his annual evaluation? Would he be promoted or take the month-long vacations that were his “right”?

Wretchard’s words about self-deception/complacency do have a certain ring. It is possible to conceive them, a few generations from now, carved on an Obamanian monument? I see them, in a smaller script, right under the words UNPARALLELED HUBRIS. If ever there was a more regal complacency than Obama’s I’ve not seen it. Oh, wait: I forgot Wallis Simpson. But, as they say in Obamaland, “that was all so long ago.”

Wretchard says it is difficult for politicians to comprehend there are “certain classes of problems where it is absolutely lethal to kick the can down the road”. I’ll second his notion and add that this may be especially true for the politician/bureaucrat who reigns secure and complacent in the modern welfare state. But don’t tell them that: it would merely mean they’d have to hide the can.

6 thoughts on “When is it Lethal to Kick the Can Down the Road?

  1. In this particular case, Ebola/Africa, I often wonder if at least some of the usual suspects have a deeper reason for not doing what seems obvious. Given current trends holding up the African population will double in the next 35 years, from 1.2 billion to 2.4 billion. That would result in a crisis to write home about. How will they be fed, and who will foot the bill? How many of them will try to flee to more affluent countries?

    Population control is not a new idea, and it is not becoming less relevant as the years pass by. Contraception/abortion does not work for some on moral grounds, letting people starve to death or war is unacceptable for the same reason. What is left? “Natural” causes, disease and old age.

  2. Speaking of columns by Wretchard where he ties math to politics, here is an oldie from the days when Belmont Club was still part of Blogspot.


    In the early days of the 2000’s, I tended to take a more isolationist view of our involvement in places like Afghanistan. That was, until I read this particular post titled Dark Networks. In it Wretchard talks about a metric called the Dunbar number. After reading this particular post my attitudes on our involvement immediately switched 180°.

    The issues Wretchard brought up in this post are just as applicable to our involvement in the Middle East today as they were 10 years ago when it was written. The arguments contained in this essay are subtle and would probably be totally missed by your average person. But, I have full confidence that the readers here at Gates of Vienna are fully capable of appreciating the logic this old post contains. So have at it.

  3. Not a doubt in my mind that if the current occupant of 1600 penn ave could figure out how to get “poor Asylum seeking” children from Africa into the USA he’d do it and make sure several hundred of them had Ebola to boot. They are probably trying to figure that out in cahoots with the UN

    • Sorry to pour cold water on your conspiracy theory, JBP, but unless BHO and those he favours have an antidote, such an action could be literally signing their own death warrants.

      The President may be many things, but suicidal?

    • A gov’t seeking to assume unchecked power ideally needs the people to be utterly disposed to turn to gov’t to be saved.

      Economic Cloward Piven-oriented sabotage may have some real limitations, in terms of assumption of power on the basis of chaos amid econ and dollar collapse: would it fly?

      At certain moments, I have wondered how far into “crisis” cultivation some of those currently in power could be willing to go. I surprise even myself at such moments.

      Considering some potential epidemic response scenarios is taking me unsettlingly near that brink now.

Comments are closed.