America Deserves a Second Opinion

Dr. Fauci’s latest admission of a noble lie to the New York Times — that he has “slowly but deliberately been moving the goal posts” of his public herd immunity estimates “partly based on new science, and partly on his gut feeling that the country is finally ready to hear what he really thinks” — drew apt comparisons to the disappointing elite described in Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public.

Antonio García Martínez tweeted in reaction, “I see @mgurri and the unsustainability of elite authority everywhere I look now.”

Dr. Fauci is the perfect archetype of Gurri’s Olympian technocrat, an elite man of the “center” whose mastery of esoteric knowledge has granted him the privilege of distance from the public. His foil, President Trump, is the perfect archetype of Gurri’s tribune of the deplorables, a man of the “border” whose mastery of communicating sectarian rage won him the bully pulpit in order to take the Faucis of the world down a peg.

Dr. Fauci is a good man. He has devoted his life and estimable technical gifts to the public weal. His role in PEPFAR alone, not to mention Operation Warp Speed, should seal his place in the book of noble public servants. Nonetheless, he is a leader elevated in a bygone era whose virtues are wrong for the present age.

In a world of institutional monopoly on technical knowledge and societal narrative — the industrial information ecosystem of the 20th Century — the license to tell the noble lie was one of the highest badges of elite merit. Aspiring technocrats day dreamt in Ivy League libraries of the public crisis during which they might be called upon to lie to the naive face of Joe Public for his own good, all while feeling a warm glow of both intellectual superiority and moral rectitude.

Yet in a world where the flow of information is less like that of a unidirectional command through an industrial hierarchy and more like that of a leaking industrial solvent corroding the pipes that carry it, the noble lie (once revealed) is a grave threat to what shred of public trust in institutions remains.

Revealing the noble lie at this juncture, when public trust in authority is not an abstraction but an essential prerequisite to the widespread adoption of world-saving vaccines, is a devastatingly bad judgment call that can only come from someone as bright and well-intentioned as Dr. Fauci when he is being loyal to an institutional value system that made the noble lie a key feature of his public-health ministerial portfolio.

If we want a “legitimate hierarchy” — the kind that might be able to achieve the requisite buy in for a world-saving vaccine — we now require new virtues and values among our leaders.

As Gurri himself writes, “The qualities I would look for among elites to get politics off this treadmill are honesty and humility: old-school virtues, long accepted to be the living spirit behind the machinery of the democratic republic, though now almost lost from sight.”

I leave it to the reader to determine whether the clinical mien of Dr. Fauci evinces humility.

Needless to say, the noble lie is not honesty. Since Dr. Fauci is a good man loyal to public well-being he should use his technocratic perch to communicate to our budding next generation of elites that the time has come for a new ethic of elite truth-telling that aligns the esoteric and exoteric narratives.

The development of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines is a triumph of the elite — a technical problem solved. While the elite are competent at solving technical problems, they mistook this ability for the capacity to solve social problems. As Gurri puts it:

Modern government’s original sin is pride. It was elected on a boast — that it can solve any “problem,” even to fixing the human condition — and it endures on a sickly diet of utopian expectations. We now know better. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, we have understood that even the most brutal application of power cannot redeem the human lot.

Martin Gurri, The Revolt of the Public (Stripe Press 2018), 424.

It is revealing that Dr. Fauci’s noble lie centered around the concept of herd immunity. Given the development of multiple safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines, herd immunity in large part becomes a function of public adoption of the inoculation, which in turn is in large part a function of public trust in authority.

Fauci’s increasing confidence in the public’s willingness to get the jabs led him to reveal that herd immunity was further away than he previously told. The logic of this communication strategy — to this observer at least — is not immediately obvious. Presumably Fauci’s thinking was that the public should not be demoralized by a goal that is too far away as to appear unattainable, as that demoralization would lead too many citizens to forego the vaccine, effectively thinking “since we’ll never get to 90%, what’s the use in me bothering to get the vaccine at all” — call this the “demoralization theory.” This theory of human reasoning, however, is also not obviously correct. One can imagine — and in fact has observed — public health communications that make the picture look worse to the public than it actually is in order to inspire action; this approach with respect to herd immunity would make one offer a higher estimate in order to scare the public into getting vaccinated in droves if we’re to have any hope at all of beating this thing — call this the “scared straight theory.”

Public health communicators have lied on both sides of the ledger — making the problem seem more manageable than it is and worse than it actually is in order to inspire desirable public action. This inconsistency in the strategy of the noble lie reveals a belief in the value of noble lying itself that is stronger than a belief in either the demoralization or scared straight theories of public action. Again, the elite are competent at solving technical problems (developing a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine) but incompetent at solving social problems: nudging public behavior in the right direction.

In discussing herd immunity, Dr. Fauci is essentially discussing how much longer we have to live in fear and a state of suspended animation. He acted the part of the parent driver on the road trip who fibs “just a little farther” in response to “are we there yet” in order to forestall a tantrum (or mutiny).

Query, however, what the appropriate metric for the end of our lives in fear and suspended animation actually should be. When a safe and effective vaccine is in the offing, high levels of caution and risk aversion are eminently rational — as we may actually slay this dragon. This observer endorses this approach based on the belief that the dragon will actually be slain by the technical miracle of our COVID-19 vaccines. Yet if the dragon were somehow not likely to be slain, by this observer’s lights, life in the bunker would still need to end at some point nonetheless. Reasonable precautions like masks and rapid at-home testing would remain eminently sensible and essential in a world of an extant dragon and reemergence from the bunker, yet all dreams deferred would not remain sensible: we can sacrifice one Thanksgiving and one Christmas with loved ones, but any more beyond that and what life really are we preserving in the bunker? Noble lies avoid this question. A healthy and competent society should not be in the business of avoiding difficult questions, nor should its leaders.

Coverups, Corruption, and inCapacity

China has some impressive institutions. One can decry the immorality of the CCP’s concentration-camp-building surveillance state and obfuscation of a burgeoning global pandemic while also acknowledging, for example, that China’s disease tracing program bore impressive results. (Query whether the U.S. or any Western state would or should (!) tolerate the involuntary commitment of babies and the publishing of an infected person’s entire post-infection whereabouts on a municipal WeChat account.)

Repeatedly, intellectuals in Western democracies embarrass themselves salivating over the perception of uber-competence in authoritarian competitor states. Nonetheless, it can be true, for example, that the Soviets both built Potemkin props to seduce Western useful idiots and also built a genuinely impressive roster of mathematicians (though query whether the Soviets or a deeper Russian civilization did the latter).

While there is something to admire in the speed with which China can stand up a new rail station or construct an airstrip on an artificial island, there is also reason to believe the edifice of CCP state capacity has cracks in its foundation. Literally.

Interesting analysis by Ian Storey in The Diplomat argues that the runways on China’s ostensibly fearsome forward operating bases in the Spratly islands may be too poorly built (hastily laid and at risk of subsidence) to sustain a viable jet fighter presence to establish local dominance.

In addition to inherent engineering challenges with artificial islands, corruption may have hurt the strategic project. Storey writes:

Doubts about the structural integrity of the artificial islands are amplified when the issue of corruption is considered. Despite President Xi Jinping’s anti-graft campaign, corruption in China remains endemic, including in the military-industrial complex. For instance, in July 2019 Su Bo, who oversaw the construction of China’s first domestically produced aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was convicted of corruption and jailed for 12 years. And in May 2020, Hu Wenming, the head of China’s aircraft carrier construction program, was arrested and charged with corruption and passing secrets to foreign powers. Corruption in the building industry leads to short cuts and shoddy construction.

Ian Storey, “Why Doesn’t China Deploy Fighter Jets to the Spratly Islands?,” The Diplomat (Aug. 14, 2020).

While there is much to admire (and perhaps fear) in the glittering hardware markets of Shenzen, do not underestimate the extent to which corrupt institutions will bring down even the most technically competent civilizations. Even the most positive interpretations of China’s failure to warn the world about the COVID-19 outbreak pin the blame on the perverse incentives within the CCP regime. As the New York Times reports, “Local officials often withhold information from Beijing for fear of reprisal, current and former American officials say.” This is a manifestly unhealthy and unsustainable information conveying mechanism. Much is made of the Chinese surveillance state’s panoptic omniscience — and yet at best the story of COVID-19’s escape is one of Beijing’s inability to discern that middling bureaucrats from the provinces were hiding the onset of one of the greatest human crises in a century.

There will always be dark truths within a society. In many (if not most, if not all) cases, acknowledging and handling that reality is the best path forward. A civilization with institutions too corrupt to detect, surface, and mitigate internal and global threats in a timely fashion is not one that anyone desiring a healthy future should wish to emulate.

The Transience of Memory: Let’s Remember Where We Parked

In a win for innovation, Eric Schmidt apparently helped the U.S. Air Force apply software to mid-air refueling. The New York Times reports:

At an Air Force facility in Qatar in 2016, Mr. Schmidt visited officers who scheduled flight paths for the tankers that refueled planes. They used a white board and dry-erase markers to set the schedule, taking eight hours to complete the task.

Mr. Schmidt said he recalled thinking, “Really? This is how you run the air war?” Afterward, he and others at the Defense Department worked with the tech company Pivotal to ship software to the officers.

This sounds like a welcome efficiency gain. I just hope we remember how to use the white boards. I would bet there is accumulated knowledge and cognitive skill embodied in the expert flight path whiteboarders that we can’t fully understand or replicate without either carefully recording the current state of knowledge or having to retrace over time the same slow path by which the knowledge evolved in the first place.

Don’t underestimate our incapacity to recall how to perform complex and essential processes following a periodic lapse in use. There was a period when we lost the knack for manufacturing a key ingredient in nuclear warheads. At one point, there were fears we lost the capacity to manufacture F-22s. While those fears proved unfounded when an audit uncovered the necessary tooling, the concern itself proves the difficulty of regaining embodied knowledge that goes missing.

This is where Schumpeter meets Hayek. Creative destruction can birth a better way, but it also means that gradually-accumulated and embedded knowledge will be razed.

Even elephants can go missing from the historical record. In the jaws of the COVID-19 pandemic, historians and economists ponder how much civilization forgot about the 1918 flu, not to mention the 1957 flu, not to mention our 2006 preparations for pandemic flu.

Given the difficulty of holding onto low-frequency, high-amplitude knowledge, one might expect competent civilizations to produce and then hold sacred value-laden documents, such as constitutions, religious texts, and commandments.