How Far Up Shit’s Creek Are We?
I have many intelligent peers, including what seems like a majority of the most diligent and well-regarded sense-makers I know, who believe some or all of the following:
🔸On containment and flattening the curve: Forget about containment; even flattening, while very important, won’t come close to avoiding mass overwhelm of hospitals and other massive systems breakdowns. Buckle up.
🔸On markets: A total collapse of our financial system, not just a recession or even depression, is likely.
🔸On geo-politics: Whether the inception of COVID-19 was itself an act of warfare or not, the follow-on effects are already amounting to the economic and psychological beginnings of war.
🔸On psychology and human nature: A mass delusion is responsible for most people believing that this thing will flatten out by summer, and that business as usual will more or less resume after this thing blows over.
🔸On systemic fragility: A tremendous number of the institutions we’ve come to take for granted will not survive this crisis. For example: even though the stock market has rebounded from every major drop within a few years (and usually faster), this time is different. All institutions have a lifespan, and we are witnessing the end of this one and many, many others.
An important clarification about this first camp is that while these perspectives might seem doomsday, this camp tends to also believe that, in the long run, tremendous evolution is likely through this crisis. The narrative goes something like this:
“I am sad about the number of people who will die, and I often do wish that we could evolve as a species while enduring less pain. But I have less grief about losing the institutions. Every so many generations, patterns need to be reinvented to serve the changing realities of the time. The 21st century is extraordinarily more complex than any previous time in history — and is becoming more so, thanks to new variables like exponential tech (AI, automation, weaponry, etc), climate change, and internet-based communication — yet we are still running on 20th-, 19th-, and even 18th- and 17th-century programming throughout our economic and power systems. The fact that mainstay institutions like the health care system, the federal government, and Wall Street seem out of their depth in this crisis is a symptom of how obsolete they actually are. While it won’t be easy to create new patterns of engagement fit for this century’s complexity, it’s what we must do one way or the other, with the reward being a world that works better for everyone.”
Meanwhile, I have many other intelligent peers in a second camp, including several of my most trusted elders and mentors. This camp’s members agree with some or all of the following:
🔹On containment and flattening the curve: yes the COVID crisis will be rough, but it will peak in the next couple of months. Where I lack confidence in the federal government to stem the tide, the social distancing thing really is happening to a great degree, in part thanks to some aggressive choices being made at the state and local levels. The private sector is also mobilizing to get tests, masks, and even makeshift ventilator valves made and into the right hands. Then there’s the possibility of one or more of the drugs under trial proving to be an effective treatment.
🔹On markets: Declaring the demise of the financial system is an age-old tradition practiced in every recession, correction, and crash since long before we were around. Those pronouncements were wrong then, and there isn’t anything fundamentally different about this go-round, except perhaps by a matter of degree. I’m not saying that Wall Street will be around forever, but I have no reason to believe this is its last lap. And by the way, have you noticed the strength of the dollar in all this?
🔹On geo-politics: No doubt there are some tides shifting as a result of this pandemic. But America is still a well-regarded superpower that is not about to crumble. Same with the West generally. And war? Sure, that’s been a background possibility for the last few years, but it’s not heightened right now as a result of the COVID situation. In fact, this might be the first moment in a hundred years (maybe since the 1918–20 pandemic?) when most people in the world seem to have a similar mindset about something. I’m sensing greater global coherence, not less.
🔹On psychology and human nature: A mass delusion, or at least a collective cognitive bias, is responsible for many people freaking out and catastrophizing.
🔹On systemic fragility: I agree that there is a lot of f’d-up shit embedded in our systems of finance and governance. Has been for a long time, and it’s gotten worse year over year as far as I can tell. I also agree that our global interdependencies make for some unsettling vulnerabilities related to concentrated points of failure. But I see a lot of resiliency, too. When needed, supply chains can shift, bad leaders can get voted out, revolutions can start online. The human world is freer, healthier, and less violent than it’s ever been before. Now this COVID thing is a bitch, no doubt. A big storm. But it’s a storm, not an existential event.
Maybe camp #2 contains a couple of sub-camps: one that believes that our basic systems are reasonably strong and will endure for a good while (my uncle, my mom’s financial planner), and one that believes our systems are badly broken and need fundamental retooling for the true thriving of humanity (many of my libertarian and decentralist friends). But neither subcamps sees a reason to believe that right now is the moment of massive system failure, and neither are even sure that catastrophic breakage is necessary at all before being reinvented.
Camp #1 says: I don’t know exactly which straw will be the one to break, but there are so many vulnerabilities in our interdependent systems that there is likely to be a major unraveling one way or another.
Camp #2 says: I don’t know exactly where the savior will come from, but there are so many well-intentioned, well-resourced, and well-coordinated efforts underway that there is likely to be a turning point for the better.
Personally, I find myself straddling both camps. Maybe my own bias is to accommodate all rational arguments, or maybe I still don’t feel well-informed enough to have a strong leaning, even with all the information I’m tracking.
What about you?