Essay by Keith Rankin.
Problems make the world go round. Many of us – maybe the majority of workers, and certainly the majority of well-paid workers – earn our living addressing problems. A problem-free world would represent a major crisis for modern social-capitalism. (Yet standard economic theory continues to present the productive economy as a mechanism for ‘satisfying wants’, as distinct from ‘addressing problems’.) We also note that while much income is earned addressing problems, the problems being addressed are rarely solved. (Examples of problems actually being solved were the elimination of horse manure street pollution at the beginning of last century, eradication of smallpox at the end of last century, and the elimination of SARS in 2003.)
One issue here is the macro-micro problem. In the case of many ‘games’, such as legal disputes, two (or more) parties have problems. Both hire ‘good lawyers’. Eventually, one party wins – meaning its problem is largely solved, though it still has the lawyer’s bill to pay. The other party loses. On balance, this may be a ‘negative-sum game’; the overall problem may be even bigger than before, though the burden of the problem will have been redistributed. We tend to say things like ‘the lawyers were the winners’. Though, from a macro perspective, if the combined efforts of lawyers mainly result in a burden-shifts rather than lasting solutions, then the productivity of the lawyers’ collective labours will have been rather low.
Generalising, we may say that, for much of the time, the social productivity – ie productivity broadly defined – of professional problem solvers (such as lawyers) is rather low. (The productivity of soldiers is an extreme example of the same issue; soldiers – when waging war – destroy rather than produce. Nevertheless, so long as ‘they’ have soldiers, then ‘we’ must have soldiers too; from a micro point of view, soldiers are necessary for each country.)
Commonly, problems are not solved because they are defined too narrowly. When a problem is defined too narrowly, then the problem may in fact be being made worse, even if the problem, as defined, is being solved.
Examples relate to road-safety and to public health. Before looking at these examples, however, we may note that these kinds of problem may be represented through the imagery of concentric circles. The micro perspective is represented by the inner circle(s); the macro by the outer circle(s).
Just about any problem can be understood both narrowly and broadly; in many cases there are degrees of ‘broadness’. This can be visualised as ‘concentric circles’, with the narrowest specification of the problem represented by the inner circle, and the broadest measure of the problem represented as the outer circle.
The issue here is that solving the problem at the narrowest level of definition may, to a lesser or greater extent, shift the problem to the next level or levels. An inner circle solution may spill the problem into the next circles out. And, indeed, as the second circle problem is addressed, the actions undertaken may further broaden the problem, rather than closing it. (We should acknowledge that there may also be ‘spillover’ benefits, as well as costs. Narrow vision occurs when the spillover effects are biased towards costs over benefits.)
We should note the role of time. A problem, narrowly perceived and addressed, may be able to yield relatively immediate fixes. However, the broader aspects of the problem may take much longer to show up, let alone to address. (These broader problems are often assigned to the ‘too-hard basket’.)
Interesting examples are where literally ‘saving lives’ is presented as the key ‘solution metric’. In a public health context, it will be easier to save more older lives than younger lives within a ‘political attention-span’ timeframe, because more older people will die ‘this year’ than younger people. But highly focused political actions taken to save older lives may place burdens on younger people. Such burdens cannot be easily assessed within a short period. If younger people’s lives will be shortened as a result, it will always be hard to prove in the future the extent that this life shortening was in any way due to an overly narrow understanding of the initial problem. A problem solved, politically, may be, unknowingly, a problem exacerbated in reality.
In our context here, ‘external’ costs and benefits are new costs and benefits in the outer circles which result from activities undertaken within the inner circle (or circles). Such narrow ‘inner-circle’ focus can be appropriate if we can reasonably expect that external costs will be balanced (or more than balanced) by external benefits. Scientists – including social scientists and others with a ‘scholarly’ bent – are, by the nature of their work, narrowly focussed. (They are ‘dot-makers’ rather than ‘dot-joiners’.) Although these expert contributions are very important, they need to be balanced by intellectuals and realists with broader focus. By and large, in this regard we are not well-served by politicians and mainstream journalists; two of the groups we look-to to communicate broader ‘joined-up’ thinking to the populace. They, in recent times, have been more under the thrall of narrow-sighted experts than since the ‘rogernomic’ and ‘ruthenasia’ times (in New Zealand) in the 1980s and early 1990s.
One way of addressing the ‘existential’ problem of climate change is to subsidise certain types of ‘clean’ motor vehicle. This is the central focus of the New Zealand government’s latest policy to address climate change. (Refer to On The Emissions Reduction Plan Non-Event, Scoop, 17 May 2022.) This policy acknowledges that cars are dangerous in a very broad sense, in that they contribute to emission-caused global warming. But the Minister for Climate Change has a different brief from the Minister of Transport; specific car safety policy is formulated within the narrower brief of the transport ministry.
This is not our first attempt (eg in New Zealand) to subsidise certain types of car. Until a few years ago, the price of car registration was the same for all private cars. Then the New Zealand government introduced a system of registration subsidies, based on car-safety assessments.
The concept of car safety was narrow. A safer car was a car that would be less likely to lead to the death or serious injury of its occupants in the event of a crash. This meant that bigger cars were ‘safer’, because, in the event of a collision with a smaller car, the occupants of the bigger car would on average suffer less harm than the occupants of the smaller car. So safer bigger cars were subsidised.
The flaw in the logic is quite obvious. The second concentric circle (counting out from the inside) relates to non-occupant road-users; ie occupants of other cars, motorcyclists, cyclists, and pedestrians. For these road users, it is clearly more dangerous to be struck by a big car than by a small car. Macro thinking about road safety leads to bigger subsidies to smaller cars, not bigger cars. (Yes, there will always be some big vehicles on the roads, especially trucks, but the fewer big vehicles the better, from the point of view of private-car occupants.) Smaller cars can be as safe as bigger cars, even to their occupants, in a world with few bigger cars.
There are third and fourth circles, further out. It is almost universally accepted that car exhaust emissions have an adverse impact on human health, as well as creating visual pollution in the form of haze. Thus, the issue of air pollution in cities has long been a classic textbook example of the ‘negative externality’ problem. I remember Mexico City in 1976.
The fourth circle is that of ‘climate change’. It is generally accepted that the adverse consequences of climate change are worse for humans – and most other species – than are the beneficial impacts. At the worst end of these possibilities is the extinction – or near-extinction – of humans and most of the other species we know and love. Bad indeed. Though the worst of the harm is not immediate; or at least not immediately immediate.
This last issue is of course much bigger than an issue of road safety. But it does show that the subsidisation of large cars – something done in the recent past to facilitate road safety – is counterproductive both in terms of the narrower issue of road safety and the wider issue of public health. Experts have narrow views of ‘safety’; views which are generally (and appropriately) confined to their focussed areas of expertise. Fortunately, experts are not policymakers.
Policymakers are assigned, by the people in a democracy, the task of problem-addressing using a wider field of vision. When policymakers simply defer to those with narrow expertise, then they are negligent in the performance of their duties. When a problem is at an acute phase, narrow expertise may need to prevail, but not without question. As a problem moves into and through its chronic phases, the policy fields of vision need to broaden.
Street immunity and other health defences
Last week I heard the term street immunity for the first time, in relation to the immunity (or otherwise) to infectious diseases in the domestic dog population (ref to Vet Council warns about kennel cough spreading around NZ, RNZ, 18 May 2022. The narrow way in which humans have addressed and evaluated the Covid19 pandemic has created a loss of ‘street immunity’ in our domestic dogs, and, almost certainly, our domestic humans. (Whether the current ‘monkey pox’ scare is related to this, we do not know, and will never know if the question is not addressed.)
When it comes to a new infectious disease, the inner defensive circle is for governments – local or national – to establish barriers between the new pathogen and its prospective host population; with particular concern by humans, naturally, for humans as prospective victim hosts. This response can most succinctly be described as ‘quarantine’, and it involves international and domestic border closures, ‘lockdowns’, and facemasks. Barriers. Barriers which may include barriers to people – people stranded, people without permissions to travel or work, private-sector innovators – who could help save lives.
The second circle is the human immune system, narrowly defined. Immunity to particular viruses is derived from exposure to those viruses, or to agents (such as vaccines) which mimic them. For some pathogens (such as viruses), immunity is long-lasting; for other pathogens – and human coronaviruses have been long known to be in this category – specific immunity is short-lasting. Pathogen evolution, where viruses etcetera ‘learn’ to evade host immunity, is part of the reason for waning immunity, but not the only reason. An optimal immunity balance may develop, whereby both pathogen and host achieve an infection equilibrium that confers benefits, as well as costs, to both micropredator and human (or animal or plant) host. Barriers, by their very nature, compromise immunity; vaccines may counter compromised immunity.
The third circle is that of cross-immunity – or co-immunity, or street immunity – whereby occasional exposures to less dangerous (and more endemic) pathogens may raise levels of host defence to new and more dangerous pathogens. This is the circle of street immunity, which is a more general – less specific – type of immunity. An important part of this circle is the need to avoid germophobia (also called ‘mysophobia’); germophobia limits individuals’ opportunities to acquire street immunity.
The next circle out is nutrition. Balanced nutrition, including vitamins which by definition must be consumed (because the body cannot synthesise them), is part of this level of self-help health. Different health threats may require different nutrients in order to be able to mount bodies’ best possible defences against those threats. Advice by some dietary experts can be counterproductive if it encourages less balanced diets. Likewise, expert recommendations to avoid vitamin supplements can be counterproductive to disease immunity. Much dietary expertise suffers from the same narrow-vison as other forms of expert advice.
The next ‘disease defence’ circle out is general happiness, including as many people as possible being able to live lives in ways that minimise their risk of incurring mental illness, or of experiencing substance dependence.
A final circle is that of existential population dynamics. It is indeed natural, and under some circumstances, appropriate, that populations sometimes get smaller rather than bigger. For example, unsustainable economic growth can create a situation whereby population decline becomes necessary. Such declines can happen in an orderly and organic way, through preventative rather than positive checks. In history though, the declines of civilisations have generally been disorderly and tragic affairs. In science fiction, it’s usually the elites who seek the lifeboats when the follies of their narrow-thinking ways are eventually exposed. (I cannot but help thinking of the final scene from the Netflix movie Don’t Look Up.)
Policies to address health threats
To address a problem of a single new virus within a narrowly-defined inner circle of understanding, there will almost certainly be impacts on each of the outer circles, for better or worse. Back in the winter of ’20, we thought that we were adding to our health by keeping out all respiratory viruses (ie not just the Covid19 coronavirus). Many thought we were improving general health, as well as protecting ourselves from Covid19. Early in 2021, information was coming out suggesting that knowledge of (and even infection by) familiar viruses could help protect us from the covid virus.
(Note Coronavirus: How the common cold can boot out Covid, BBC, 23 March 2021. And note how a single paragraph in the midst of this recent article refers to, but without emphasis, common specialist knowledge of human “common-cold coronaviruses”. Still, after nearly 29 months of covid, very few narrators – narrative-pushers – seem to be aware that human coronaviruses have always been part of our lives, or that Covid19 is not the first coronavirus pandemic. The problem appears to be that the epidemiologists who most pronounce on Covid19 have very little specialist knowledge of the history of the common cold.)
The problem was that too few of us noticed – or commented publicly – on these findings, including too few epidemiologists. During the pandemic, especially its early stages, we became poor at discriminating between useful narrative-critical information and useless narrative-reinforcing chatter. The mainstream Covid19 narrative, which is presented as our best ‘truth’, suffers from too many omissions; omissions resulting from expert narrow-vision, and uncritical responses by those who we pay to evaluate narratives, rather than from any conspiratorial intent.
Important findings that questioned aspects of narrow narratives were rarely identified, let alone emphasised. Concerns about mental health consequences arising from extended emergency mandates were too readily dismissed as conspiratorial. Particular problems faced by, for example, stranded people were glibly dismissed. Overreach, as in the 1980s, was once again normalised.
The second circle is the still-narrow epidemiological circle, which focuses on vaccines and pathogen-specific natural immunity. As such, this narrow focus of scientific attention sees few problems with the prolonged use of the quarantine (barrier) approach. Here, too much attention to covid leads to too little attention to the more general problems of immunity, and viral side-effects and after-effects. Conditions like ‘long-covid’ are seen as highly specific to Covid19 infection, and not as a new variant of chronic fatigue syndrome. Less narrow vision could have led us to better examine the general problem, and to help all sufferers of chronic fatigue rather than just those who could show a past positive covid test result.
The third circle is where the loss of street immunity takes place, thereby leaving human hosts subject to massive uncertainty about how they will fare in future under previously familiar viruses, while leaving them more exposed to evolving new viruses. The third circle, especially, suffers unestimable external costs from the prolonged use of the quarantine (barrier) approach. The immune system can be more than the sum of its parts, and – like a car – the immune system may benefit from regular and not infrequent tune-ups.
The fourth circle recognises that immunity is enhanced by a healthy and varied diet; and indeed through the taking of such supplements as ascorbic acid (Vitamin C). Having a store of nutrients helps the immune system to ‘do its stuff’; it’s one thing for the system to be educated, it’s another for it to have the capacity to execute its lethal defensive military operation. While Vitamin C will never be the sole means to good health, it is an essential part of the immune system’s armoury which has been over-downplayed by the medical science establishment. We may think of Vitamin C as necessary but not sufficient to good health. Reserves of this vitamin are particularly helpful in mitigating many types of infection.
The fifth circle emphasises general happiness; contentment with life, including fulfilment through experiences such as travel, fulfilling relationships, and being able to contribute under pressure in a field that a person has some passion for. Under these conditions of happiness and public purpose, mental illness may be minimised, and the desire to indulge in unhealthy pastimes (such as substance abuse, reckless gambling, comfort eating, passivity) is unlikely to be present. Happiness itself may create some degree of protection from disease. This means that any autonomy-reducing actions taken (and narratives perpetuated) by narrowly-focussed public problem solvers may have health repercussions, especially in overly constraining the choices of young people. (I note that the most recent edition of the New Zealand Listener has a feature subtitled “How Covid has scarred an entire generation”.) Harm here can take a long time to manifest itself, and, when such harm happens, it may be especially difficult to prove these connections of cause and effect.
It’s not much use protecting some of us from severe health problems if the means of doing so actually make others of us more vulnerable to substantial health problems.
The final circle is population dynamics, whereby certain environmental ‘crises’ may require lower population levels to maintain the overall health of the species. Here plagues and the like ‘cull’ host populations in ways that may be necessary to maintain the health of those populations. These are positive checks. Preventative checks are generally preferred. We know – and have known for many years – the kinds of social security and education that are the means to facilitate orderly reductions in population sizes. General education (with emphasis on abstract skills and civic awareness), apprenticeship (broadly defined), and a universal approach to social security, are indeed the best recipes for much more than demographic sustainability.
While it can never be good public policy to let nasty pathogens ‘rip’ through populations in order to rapidly reduce unsustainable populations, it is as well to remind ourselves that we are subject to the same laws of biology as are other species. In this regard, weakened long-term defences are probably more of a problem than are novel threats. Narrow vision too easily leads to short term ‘solutions’ which, if allowed to persevere, weaken human resilience.
Technocrats and Bureaucrats
Ultimately, good policy is policy that leads to happy people (as defined above) and sustainable outcomes. One form of unsustainability is the cost of carrying well-paid problem solvers (often but not always in the public sector) who – due to systemic narrow-vision – do not, and cannot, actually solve the problems that we expect them to solve. Better – though less orderly – solutions come from the educated masses rather than from the elite; from capable people living good lives, rather than from a blind-citizen reliance on technocrats and bureaucrats.
Nobody really believes that we are safer driving bigger cars. Public safety is multi-dimensional. And there’s more to happiness and sustainability than safety. Experts and managers have important jobs to do. But not to rule, overtly or covertly.
Keith Rankin (keith at rankin dot nz), trained as an economic historian, is a retired lecturer in Economics and Statistics. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.