Safety First

I spent much of my time last week shepherding my 101-year-old mother through a medical procedure taking place some 125 miles down the Mass Turnpike in Boston’s amazing complex of famous hospitals. This has caused me to do more thinking than writing. I will offer some conclusions in this Daily Prophecy.

My mother is suffering from a stomach cyst that is crowding her other organs and causing discomfort. According to her physician, it is a “watermelon” sufficiently liquid to be deflated by simple suction without general anesthesia. In so elderly a patient, anesthesia is avoided as a cause of mental impairment.

It has been a poignant and fascinating experience, combining family memories and medical enigmas with the strange combination of medieval rites, modern superstitions, and legal liturgies that suffuse our society in this therapeutic age.

I found myself ruminating on the survivability of a constitutional republic in which the Supreme Court condones the decision of a Congress full of lawyers to permit essentially unlimited lawsuits against any business that opens up and occasions a coronavirus infection.

As former Justice Department officials J. Michael Luttig and David Rivkin observe in the Wall Street Journal, hundreds of such lawsuits are now pending against thousands of businesses, in a “system… driven by jackpot-justice incentives.” Anyone who has served on the boards of small businesses knows that lawsuits paralyze and stultify management. Under such circumstances, we can pretty much forget about a vigorous recovery.

I steer my Ford Fusion along the Charles River in Cambridge, where I encounter further food for thought. Under the COVID-rules promulgated by Republican Governor Charlie Baker, runners outdoors in Massachusetts have to wear masks, unless they get up so early in the morning that they are likely to meet no other people.

As we drove along the river, where I have run for thousands of miles during my life, I saw that nearly all the runners were dutifully masked. As a lifelong runner, for whom free breathing of the air is the point of the exercise, I find this rule beyond comedy. I burst out laughing, explaining to my mother, “We’re in Maskachusetts!”

I proceed on under the Prudential Center and down Huntington Avenue past the elegant contrarian cautionary cathedral of the Christian Scientists, who deny the very existence of illness. Having a number of Christian Scientist relatives, and noticing their tendency to die rather young, I have remained a skeptic. But their plaza on Huntington Avenue is magnificent, and in the face of the lockdown-laughables surrounding it, I had to admit that the Christian Scientists may have a point.

Then I pass the monumental Boston Museum of Fine Arts, empty as a cenotaph, and on into the belly of the beast near Harvard’s School of Public Health. This establishment has been an important source of epidemiological counsel used in the COVID-19 crisis.

According to most of the advice received by Governor Baker and his ilk, the key to meeting the crisis is “safety first,” imposed by detailed top-down rules, such as the four-phased opening up now very tentatively and timorously under way. Imposing detailed micromanagement on all the state’s businesses, epitomizing this program are the mandates that amusingly make runners wear masks, and extend a gloves rule to nail salons.

A Self-Defeating Prophecy

I believe in the contrary rule of the venerable Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of the Ethernet protocol that pervades all our networks. Bob’s rule is “Safety last.” I note that it is my third rule of the Cryptocosm: “Unless the system achieves its desired goals, safety is irrelevant. Requiring the system to be safe at every step of construction, results in a kludge: a machine too complex to use.”

The safety-first regime reliably engenders such complex rules that the resulting systems become unsafe. For example, the MAX737 Boeing airliner was rendered dangerous by its mechanism for preventing a pilot (or putative terrorist) from taking manual control when the software malfunctions.

Similarly self-defeating, it seems to me, is a worldwide COVID-19 “lockdown” program which according the UN threatens some 260 million people with starvation.

At the hospital where I brought my mother for the allegedly simple procedure the rule was “safety first.” My 101-year-old mother was tested and probed so persistently and often by a series of masked doctors and nurses that she suffered a heart arrhythmia. She did not even notice it. But that development prevented the minor surgery that would have relieved pressure on her heart and other internal organs.

I was not permitted in the building, but I called the nurse in charge from the street outside. She informed me that they now were taking a blood sample. “Don’t worry,” she said, “we are taking all precautions to make your mother safe.”

“Safety first” ultimately meant that the procedure could not be performed.

That is the lesson of this prophecy. Any action entails risk. If we attempt to have an entirely safe economy, we will produce an immobilized economy. Equilibrium is death.

Maybe we should have a class action suit about that, with a jackpot for everyone under the new monetary policy.


George Gilder
Editor, Gilder’s Daily Prophecy

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