Tuesday, September 16, 2014


David Brooks says we can't fight Ebola properly because we as a society like plucky upstart tech corporations -- or something like that:
... it’s not just a failure of governance in Africa. It's a failure of governance around the world. I wonder if we are looking at the results of a cultural shift.

A few generations ago, people grew up in and were comfortable with big organizations -- the army, corporations and agencies. They organized huge construction projects in the 1930s, gigantic industrial mobilization during World War II, highway construction and corporate growth during the 1950s. Institutional stewardship, the care and reform of big organizations, was more prestigious.

Now nobody wants to be an Organization Man. We like start-ups, disrupters and rebels. Creativity is honored more than the administrative execution. Post-Internet, many people assume that big problems can be solved by swarms of small, loosely networked nonprofits and social entrepreneurs. Big hierarchical organizations are dinosaurs.

The Ebola crisis is another example that shows that this is misguided. The big, stolid agencies -- the health ministries, the infrastructure builders, the procurement agencies -- are the bulwarks of the civil and global order. Public and nonprofit management, the stuff that gets derided as "overhead," really matters. It's as important to attract talent to health ministries as it is to spend money on specific medicines....

When the boring tasks of governance are not performed, infrastructures don't get built. Then, when epidemics strike, people die.
We don't have an adequate infrastructure to fight Ebola because the culture favors "start-ups, disrupters and rebels"? Haven't we structured the economic recovery so that more than 90% of the gains went to the already rich? Hasn't William Deresiewicz been telling us lately that huge percentages of elite college graduates go to work for the Masters of the Universe on Wall Street? Didn't we, as a society, just go into paroxysms of ecstasy after a new-product launch by a company that used to be a plucky start-up but is now the #5 corporation on the Fortune 500?

We don't have a problem with big and hierarchical. We have a problem with relatively big, relatively hierarchical organizations that don't kick anyone's ass. Specifically, we have a problem with governmental and quasi-governmental organizations.

Relevant here, perhaps, is a tweet I spotted this morning from Ted Cruz's chief speechwriter:

Omigod! We're going to use the military to offer Ebola aid to Africa (the same way we deploy the military after tsunamis and other natural disasters)! How appalling! Dammit, why aren't we using those troops to start another land war in Asia?

Oh and, obviously, we didn't fight Ebola effectively until now because outbreaks of the disease primarily affected rural black people. We care now because Ebola is spreading to the cities, and to white Western doctors. We also worry because we care more now about exploiting Africa's natural resources, an economic pursuit that's threatened by political turmoil, some of it instigated by jihadist groups with global ties. But until now, Ebola seemed like just a problem for, y'know, them.

As Gregory Cowles of The New York Times Book Review, noted over the weekend, there was some concern about Ebola in the West years ago, but there was also a belief that the concern was a tad overheated. Cowles pointed to Colin Harrison's 1997 Times dismissal of the work of science writer Richard Preston:
Nobody, it seems safe to say, wants to have his or her face slide off like overcooked oatmeal. This was something we were all supposed to be worrying about -- remember? Three years ago, Richard Preston's best seller, "The Hot Zone," appeared, a nonfiction reconstruction of an outbreak of Ebola virus in a Virginia monkey quarantine installation, and, like a germ dropped into a ready petri dish, Ebola bloomed in the cultural consciousness. Although the outbreak in Virginia resulted in exactly zero human cases, the idea of an exotic virus that savages its victims effectively replicated itself in newspaper stories, copycat novels, television fright-fests and at least one movie, "Outbreak." The happy frenzy showcased our mass media at their recombinantly contagious worst: it was the first time that everyone knew about a disease that nobody had. It was the first time that a virus was famous for being famous.
Well, the virus is famous for more than that now. We could have sustained that "frenzy" back then, but hey, why bother? Nobody here was dying, right?

When all hell is about to break loose, we don't really do a very good job of responding until the breaking loose is actually well under way -- if then. Ask a climate scientist about that.


Victor said...

Bobo was bad enough before.

But now, he's almost at the point where you can't parody him - only mock him.
And it's not nice to mock the mentally challenged.

Ebola is like AIDS.
When AIDS was just a disease that gays and Haitians got, no one worried too much.
Certainly not Reagan.
It wasn't until his Hollywood pal Rock Hudson got AIDS that St. Ronnie got up off his wrinkled old butt, and asked for money to do something.

And yeah, climate change will bite our asses soon.
Maybe then, if it's not already too late, the politicians and their corporate sponsors around the world will be motivated to do something.

Leo Artunian said...

Gee, it's almost like Brooks is saying there is a need for governmental and non-governmental institutions that can look beyond the next quarter's earnings and impose regulations on those people and institutions that can't. It's almost like people need to band together for the common good and fund generously the work that promotes the common good. But he doesn't actually say that and I suspect he doesn't really mean it.

Porlock Junior said...

Forgive me, World, for I have sinned. Picked up the Times today, scanned the front page, saw at the bottom a box with David Brooks in boldface, and reacted with pleasure thinking it might be an obituary, before seeing that it was an ad for his op-ed. This is immoral, and I did penance by reading some of the piece. But not all; not like I'd killed somebody, you know.