Fixing Problems, Not Treating Them
Cure the underlying disease is always better than spending trillions treating the symptoms.
Dear Reader (Including people who have previously been left out of the “Dear Reader” gag),
Let’s start with some good news: It looks like there’s a vaccine for malaria.
This is huge. Huge.
Claims that half of all humans who ever lived died from malaria are probably overstated. But a lot of people have been killed by malaria.
So many people have been killed by malaria that it has bent the course of not just history, but human evolution.
The prevalence of sickle cell anemia—a disease that killed my sister-in-law last December—has to do with the fact that inheriting just one sickle-cell gene provides added protection against malaria (you get the disease if you get the gene from both parents). Sadly, if you have sickle-cell disease, not only do you not get the protection, you are more likely to die if you contract malaria.
The Roman Empire rose, endured, and then fell for all sorts of reasons. But one of its earliest advantages was that swamps around Rome were so infested with malaria that they served as a kind of bio-defense system against invaders.
In North America, Europeans brought malaria with them, and it (along with diseases like smallpox) devastated Native Americans. I learned from Charles Mann that the Mason-Dixon line dividing northern and southern states wasn’t just a political or jurisdictional border; it was also a natural dividing line between two climates and two sets of average temperatures.
Above the Mason-Dixon line, it becomes more difficult for both the mosquitos that carry the malaria parasite, and the parasite itself, to survive or thrive. European indentured servants and Native American slaves were more likely to die from the disease. This was one of the factors that led to the use of African slaves in the South. They were more likely to carry that sickle cell-generated immunity. (Yes, there are obviously other issues involved. I’m just saying this was an important and underappreciated one.)
Also, the draining of swamps and wetlands as part of a malaria eradication effort changed the geography and environment in America and Europe in all sorts of ways. Even the environmental movement, launched according to popular lore by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, owes much to malaria, because DDT was largely developed to kill malarial mosquitoes.
If the combined millennia of mass death (including some 400,000 deaths per year in Africa today), the Roman Empire (which, recall, helped spread Christianity and Monty Python jokes), the African diaspora in the Americas (which led not only to the evil institution of slavery, but also its undoing in the Civil War, the civil rights movement and, well, lots of other stuff, like jazz and barbecue), and the environmental movement don’t altogether sufficiently show that malaria has had a big impact, I’ll also note we wouldn’t have the gin and tonic without malaria.
So again, this vaccine is huge—in a really good way.
I shouldn’t have to point this out, but the great thing about vaccines is that they don’t just treat a problem, they fix a problem. Treating problems—minimizing their effects, curtailing their growth etc.—is often important and necessary. But fixing problems is always better, in the same way that putting out a house fire is always better than containing it.
Consider this: Alzheimer’s costs America an estimated $305 billion per year. Medicare and Medicaid spent $206 billion on it, and similar forms of dementia, in 2020 alone. As the population ages, both the total cost to society and our government spending on it, could cross the trillion dollar line. Arguably, curing Alzheimer’s would do more for entitlement spending than any reform proposed by the left or right these days (to the extent anyone is proposing anything of the sort).
I listened to Joe Biden’s climate czar John Kerry yesterday deploy one of the most annoying arguments in politics. I like to call it the argumentum ad apollum, more colloquially known as, “If we can put a man on the moon…”
I should clarify. I have no shortage of patriotic—and human—pride about the moon landing. (We did that, Russkies. We did that, dolphins.) But my longstanding rule is that, whenever you hear a politician begin a sentence, “If we can put a man on the moon …” you’d better watch your wallet. People only say this when they want to spend a whole lot of money on some pet project. To paraphrase Steve Hayward, you never hear a politician say, “If we can put a man on the moon, we can cut capital gains taxes.”
Moreover, putting a man on the moon is simply a different kind of problem than 99 percent of the things people invoking the moon landing have in mind. “If we can put a man on the moon, we can…” eradicate poverty, abolish gun violence, make kale taste good etc.
My favorite usage was from the Wall Street Journal a few years ago: “If We Can Put a Man on the Moon, Why Can’t We Put a Man on the Moon?” (This is a great history of the phrase, by the way.)
But my most basic problem with the argumentum ad apollum is that, strictly speaking, “we” didn’t put a man on the moon—a couple thousand engineers and rocket scientists figured out how to do it. Sure, popular support was important, but the nature of the goal depended on the scientists, not our collective good feelings. This is an important point because, for the Apollo analogy to work, the goal needs to be similarly defined, technical, and immune to most of the problems of politics and economics.
Back to Kerry: He didn’t use the phrase, but he might as well have. Talking about reaching an incredibly ambitious carbon reduction goal, he said, “And think about it: We are the country that went to the moon. And we didn’t know how we were going to get there when President Kennedy announced that goal, but we did it.” (Note: We kind of did know how we were going to get there—with rockets.)
Ironically, climate change is one of the few policy areas where I’m okay with using the moon landing as an inspiration. I just have a problem with what Kerry and Co. want to inspire.
Work the problem.
Let’s stipulate that climate change is a real problem, roughly analogous to malaria. Why spend trillions on treatment rather than a cure? Nearly all of the proposals to deal with climate change involve simply slowing its advance and mitigating its worst aspects. CO2 spends a long time in the atmosphere—like 300 to 1,000 years. So a lot of damage has been done since the Industrial Revolution. We could curb our emissions drastically and the benefits will not only take decades or centuries to be felt, but we’ll have spent—both in terms of real spending but also in slowed economic growth—untold trillions.
Longtime readers know I am partial to geoengineering. I’m not proposing we do anything wild right now, or even in the near future, so spare me your Snowpiercer references. JFK wanted to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade (or “deck-aid” as he pronounced it). Setting a goal of launching an atmospheric clean-up operation by 2040 strikes me as something worth discussing.
Now, let me admit: I don’t know how to do it. Sure, I’ve got ideas. But Kerry’s we-didn’t-know-how-to-put-a-man-on-the-moon argument is better suited to my proposal than his, because my proposal is about actually working the problem.
If the planet has a fever, I’d rather cure the underlying disease than spend trillions treating the symptoms.
Still, I understand that lots of people think I’m wrong about this. There’s something about geoengineering that freaks people out so much they think it’s not even worth considering. They sincerely believe the only responsible course is the one Kerry advocates: We have to start radically reducing CO2 emissions right now, no matter what. That means dumping billions into electric car infrastructure, phasing out coal, and switching to solar and wind power. There’s no time to waste. This is an existential threat! An extinction level event! No time to argue!
I disagree, but fine. Let’s say they’re right. What I still can’t get my head around is why they also rule out nuclear power. If you want to stop depending on fossil fuels as quickly as possible, both for transportation and for power generation, nuclear power is the no-brainer solution. Yeah, I know nuclear power is icky. It’s all invisible and stuff. Three Mile Island, Fukushima, Godzilla, Lisa’s three-eyed-fish, Tromie, C.H.U.D.s, and all that. But I’m not the one saying that climate change threatens life as we know it and is an extinction-level crisis. Electric cars are cool, but if the electricity they use comes from coal or natural gas, they aren’t carbon neutral, they’re carbon-hiding.
Heck, you could even pursue a hybrid strategy where we don’t build a lot of safe nuclear reactors with existing technology. Instead, we launch an Apollo program for cold fusion. If we pulled it off, the nearly unlimited energy it produced might help power some new atmospheric CO2-scrubbing technologies (not to mention better desalinization, mass transportation, etc.) that are unimaginable today.
I’m not arguing for doing nothing. I’m happy to talk about policies like carbon taxes and investing in cleaner tech. But so much of the climate change stuff just happens to confirm progressive priors—many on the left suffered from petrophobia back when global cooling was still a concern. Oil is the lifeblood of capitalism and all that. The Green New Deal isn’t very expensive because Modern Monetary Theory and Keynesian multipliers can pay for it all with the right experts in charge.
But here’s the thing: Without capitalism—or at least the wealth that capitalism generates—you don’t get vaccines. You don’t get cures. You don’t get rid of poverty. You don’t get a man on the moon. The richer you get, the cheaper existing solutions become and the more possible as-of-yet unimaginable solutions become. Progressives are absolutely right when they say the pursuit of prosperity has had environmental costs—“negative externalities” if you want to sound wonkish—but prosperity is also the thing that can fix these issues. So let’s do that.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: As I’ve mentioned before, Zoë has had some really terrible breath of late. I mean melt-your-eyebrows-off breath. Our vet suggested getting her teeth cleaned, which we’ve always been reluctant to do, in part because it’s expensive and often seems like the veterinary equivalent of that extra undercoating they try to upsell you at the car dealership. Indeed, vet trade associations suggest that you do it once or twice a year, which I think is borderline outrageous, particularly given all of the legal boilerplate you have to sign about how dangerous anesthesia is (“Your dog could die.” “Do you approve CPR?”)
But we did it, and as our vet suspected, Zoë had some infected teeth and a cracked tooth as well. So they pulled three of her chompers. Fortunately, they were small and she didn’t use them for chewing. Still, that smile is her money maker, so we were sad about it. But not as sad as Zoë. I hate taking dogs to the vet almost as much as the dogs hate going. But dropping them off is even worse. Zoë, who spent weeks in an ICU as a puppy (see, “The Story of Zoë”) really doesn’t like going back there. She was terrified and acted like a scared puppy with me, which is just heartbreaking to see in a 75 pound dog.
When I picked her up almost 12 hours later, she was still super groggy from the anesthesia. While I know I anthropomorphize my dogs for a living, I was sure she was furious with me. She wouldn’t look me in the eye. She went with me because—well, when released from the gulag, you’ll go with just about anybody willing to take you home. Last night was the first time I heard her whimper from pain—or sadness. Again, I know there are people who say, “They’re just dogs.” I have no use for such sentiments and—often—for such people. I love them. They rely on me and put their trust in me (and Fair Jessica), and it just kills me when I can’t explain why we let things like this happen. She’s definitely on the mend, but still more than a little depressed and traumatized (which is apparently normal). Meanwhile, Pippa is definitely confused, but she’s being good about giving Zoë her space. Gracie, on the other hand, really enjoyed having Zoë out of commission.
And now, the weird stuff