In Plagues and Peoples, published in 1976, William McNeill argued that human history can be thought of as the co-evolution of our societies and the “microparasites” to which we are prone. The emergence of settled agriculture, major historial movements of people, and industrialization all brought with them new or more intense diseases. Eventually, most societies figured out how to survive – but of course some didn’t (see Jared Diamond‘s work for details) and many people died young along the way.
You don’t need to buy McNeill’s full view in order to take away the following point. We have to invest and innovate to stay ahead of disease – there is no sense in which these are likely to be completely “conquered” – because they change as we do. Investments are needed not just in the relevant science, but also in how it is used to combat potential epidemics – as well as more general endemic disease.
As I argue this morning on the NYT’s Economix, regarding the current swine H1N1 flu outbreak, global public health officials are doing much better than our friends who watch over financial systems. In terms of reaction speed, communications, and the legitimacy of response agencies, economics has much to learn from the people who fight against epidemics.
But more broadly, in terms of reducing vulnerability in the system, both public health and economics need to do better. We let endemic conditions fester and global risks build up. We haven’t found ways to think clearly enough about what causes major crises – particularly, how do apparently stable systems suddenly face the prospect of collapse? (OK, the biologists are ahead on that one also.)
And, of course, if we continue to run up massive amounts of public debt – through various forms of financial sector misadventure – it becomes harder to fund sensible investments in and around the medical sector (note to Larry Summers: how are we going to afford the big push on public investment you are advocating?) On top of everything else, unrestrained Big Finance is bad for your health.
By Simon Johnson