Thursday, April 30, 2009

Going Viral

Swine flu isn't only a health emergency. It's a test for how we're going to organize the 21st century. Subsidiarity works best, says New York Times columnist David Brooks.

The response to swine flu suggests that a decentralized approach is best. This crisis is only days old, yet we've already seen a bottom-up, highly aggressive response.

In the first place, the decentralized approach is much faster, says Brooks:
- Mexico responded unilaterally and aggressively to close schools and cancel events.
- The United States has responded with astonishing speed, considering there are still few illnesses and just one hospitalization.

The decentralized approach is more credible:
- In times of crisis, people like to feel protected by one of their own.
- They will only trust people who share their historical experience, who understand their cultural assumptions about disease and the threat of outsiders and who have the legitimacy to make brutal choices.

If some authority is going to restrict freedom, it should be somebody elected by the people, not a stranger.

Finally, the decentralized approach has coped reasonably well with uncertainty:
- It is clear from the response, so far, that there is an informal network of scientists who have met over the years and come to certain shared understandings about things like quarantining and rates of infection; it is also clear that there is a ton they don't understand.
- A single global response would produce a uniform approach; a decentralized response fosters experimentation.

The bottom line is that the swine flu crisis is two emergent problems piled on top of one another, explains Brooks. At bottom, there is the dynamic network of the outbreak. It is fueled by complex feedback loops consisting of the virus itself, human mobility to spread it and environmental factors to make it potent. On top, there is the psychology of fear caused by the disease. It emerges from rumors, news reports, Tweets and expert warnings.

The correct response to these dynamic, decentralized, emergent problems is to create dynamic, decentralized, emergent authorities: chains of local officials, state agencies, national governments and international bodies that are as flexible as the problem itself, says Brooks.

Source: David Brooks, "Globalism Goes Viral," New York Times, April 28, 2009.

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This is not 1918

The swine flu outbreak in Mexico is disturbing, and fears of a pandemic are justified. But the best advice on Monday came from President Barack Obama. "This is obviously the cause for concern and requires a heightened state of alert," Obama noted. "But it's not a cause for alarm."

As of Monday afternoon, swine flu was believed to have killed 149 people in Mexico and sickened more than 1,600.

There have been at least 40 cases in the United States, including 28 at a high school in New York City.

The outbreak in Mexico recalled the horrific worldwide pandemic that killed 50 million at the close of World War I and sickened millions more. But this is not 1918. In the 91 years since those terrible days, the understanding of infectious diseases has grown far more sophisticated.

This is a serious situation and alarming because so little is known, including whether the virus is mutating into a more lethal form. But state and the local health departments appear to be well prepared if an outbreak occurs.

Monday, April 20, 2009


A cure for a country beset by government bureaucracy and incompetence may be some old-fashioned corruption. In countries with robust institutions, corruption decreases efficiency. But in weak states, graft and bribes can "grease the wheels" by enabling intelligent investors to circumvent a crooked, incapable government and invest money directly in the private sector, say researchers.

Testing whether corruption can be viewed as "efficient grease in the wheels of an otherwise deficient institutional framework" the researchers analyzed the interaction between aggregate efficiency, corruption and other dimensions of governance for a panel of 54 countries. They found:

-Both the weak and strong forms of the grease the wheels hypothesis are present.

-Corruption is always detrimental in countries where institutions are effective, but that it may be positively associated with efficiency in countries where institutions are ineffective.

-For each of the five dimensions of governance taken into account, there is evidence of the strong grease the wheels hypothesis in at least one estimation.

Thus, they find evidence of the grease the wheels hypothesis.

A possible policy implication of these results might be that countries plagued with a very inefficient institutional framework may benefit from letting corruption grow. However, this interpretation is extreme and risky. A country that would let corruption frolic may find itself stuck later on with an even worse global institutional framework, and thus end up in a bad governance/low efficiency trap.

Encouraging countries to fight corruption while also striving to improve other aspects of governance, mainly government efficiency, constitutes perhaps a safer advice. Indeed, successful policy package should be multifaceted, while narrower reform programs may instead prove counter productive, say the researchers.

Source: Editorial, "Black-Market Efficiency," The Atlantic, March 2009; based upon: Pierre-Guillaume Méon and Laurent Weill, "Is Corruption an Efficient Grease?" Bank of Finland/Institut d'Etudes Politiques, February 2008.

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