Categories
society

The Challenge of Open

Shutting things down is hard, but minimizing transmission of pestilence in anything approaching normal conditions is at least an order of magnitude harder. Avoiding it entirely would require far more than what society is willing (perhaps able) to do.

We must recognize that opening up a bit means the containment will be less than it has been. It means some people will get sick, and some of those will die. It’s the nature of opening things up, just as some fraction of cases today still occurred under the relatively closed conditions we have.

The trade-off of opening up a bit is to be prepared to test and trace and isolate cases. Not doing so, and not planning to do so, invites uncontrolled spread and a fast retreat to stay-home.

A good mental model is cars. We have done a ton to make cars safer. Seatbelts, airbags, licensing, crumple zones, and so forth. They aren’t completely safe. People still die from car crashes. But we’ve tried to minimize that harm. The plans being worked on by businesses and governments are similarly designed.

They are weighing all sorts of options and considering the logistics, acceptability to customers and the public. Like on the Apollo 13 mission, trying to connect a square CO₂ scrubber to a round air exchanger takes a lot of thinking through. Unlike that mission, the danger is mostly contained as long as people stay home and the clock is more about trying to get people where they can work safely.

For example, if you went to a fine dining establishment, how would you feel about having the wait staff instruct you how to bus your own dishes or wipe your own table? Is that something we can comfortably ask the public to do? Or do we stick to take-out only, depriving work from those who would normally be in the dining rooms? Or do restaurants switch to disposable tableware and some easy way to biohazard the entire table in one fell swoop? Or some other option? What are the risks? What are the costs? How do we balance it all?

For example, with grocery delivery in-demand, can stores work with delivery services to streamline the process, to minimize transmission, improve contact tracing, and increase service throughput?

There are tons of businesses and they all need solutions that fit their business and the community. Some of them will make mistakes.

But the number one tool we have is technology. All manner of businesses need to look at how they can use phones and computers to rework their business so that contact is minimized. And that’s going to require new software. Now more than ever it should be built with standard interfaces, where one app can be used by multiple businesses rather than requiring every last business to have a custom app built. We simply do not have the developer bandwidth to do the latter.

It’s a heavy lift. But the alternative of an unprepared reopening—something some states might try (and something that, unfortunately, many on the right media are urging)—will see another spike and more death than necessary. And the economy will still be worse off for those states, after they have to tuck tail and deal with another round of stay home. Their citizens will be less willing to trust those governments, and they will be watching on TV as the slow-and-steady states see slow-and-steady improvements.

Society has been wounded by the virus. We are convalescing and have fresh stitches. Communities that try to get up and run will tear their stitches and have to be rushed to get themselves sewn back up and then back to bedrest. Places that take it slow, cautious, will heal faster and be back on their feet.

Unfortunately, with interstate travel, there’s always the risk of the stitch-tearer bungling into another patient, tearing her stitches too. The virus can bloom in a foolish state and infect a smart state anew.

As things do open up a bit, remember that you have the right to say no. If you think the precautions are inadequate, you should seek alternatives. If a business is asking you as a customer or worker to do something you think is unsafe, you should speak up.


In some other universe, Americans are seeing a coordinated federal response to the pandemic and, for the first time in decades, they are seeing what the machine, firing on all cylinders, is capable of. It must be a thing to behold, but sadly we are deprived it and its comfort in these trying times.

Categories
society

A White House that Practices Harm Production

We recognize the harms and risks in the world. Whether it’s the dangers of automobiles or pollution or living in flood plains, the general goal is to manage risk. To reduce it, to hedge against it.

But this administration does the opposite. It orders child-separation and full intolerance policies. It welcomes trade wars and healthcare premium hikes. It invites worry and doubt among allies while praising the brutal.

Repeatedly, the administration has lied without compunction. Baldly lied to allies and to the public alike. Has made indefensible and unmerited statements. Even some before the courts.

Abuse. The administration has made statements that serve absolutely no other purpose beyond petty abuse of public employees, of political foes and allies, of public figures.

This administration has failed to act on crises. From Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, to opioids, to the mental health of farmers, to protecting the country against the Russian Federation’s interference, this presidency has been asleep at the switch.

There has been an utter joke on ethics practices. Scandal after scandal in cabinet-level positions. Repeated refiling of financial disclosures from the president’s own advisors. The president himself double-dipping like it’s the early 18th century, paying his inaugural largesse to friends and God knows whom. Making the Secret Service rent his golf carts. Having foreign countries stay at his hotels to ingratiate themselves.

Immigration, which needs to be made orderly and regular by changes to the law, has become even more chaotic thanks to poor planning and lack of any attempt to compromise or improve on the status quo. The White House’s rhetoric only serves to inflame and to whip into a frenzy those who believe immigration is a sin.


Leadership means guiding the nation forward, avoiding or minimizing risks in the process. Instead, this failure of a leader sends the nation toward folly on a number of fronts simultaneously. And no attempt is made to explain. No questions are taken at his rallies. The questions taken from the press are regarded with scorn.

Good government means reducing harm, not accruing it. Whatever the intentions of this president may be, he is making the nation worse.

Categories
society

Making Capitalism Care

People often lament the capitalist view of economics (which itself is a corruption of the underlying mechanics, but still a better explanation than any other yet writ), claiming it imposes certain dire outcomes upon the world. These harms include social parasitism by the dominant cohort, wage slavery, ecocide, and advertising.

Indeed, Upton Sinclair, the famous socialist muckraker, said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” To expect a coal company or a Koch-head to understand the risks of pollutive terraforming (also called climate change) is like expecting a mailman to understand the Internet. Once we establish the problem, willful blindness caused by an insensitive incentive scheme, the solution seems to present itself: change the incentive scheme.

How do we make capitalism care? Or first, can we or should we? Many liberal people believe it is a lost cause. Indeed, some of their own paychecks depend on them believing that abolishing capitalism is the ticket. But for the majority, we can see both the good and bad in capitalism. We can see it in the relatively cheap foodstuffs and relatively short lines to buy them. We can travel coast to coast mostly unmolested by the state or privateers (depending on our mode of transport).

And the downside is equally apparent. Many services are encumbered with adroit legalese that burdens us with high prices for anything from mere entertainment to life-sustaining medical care. To quote the Tao Te Ching, “The more legal affairs are given prominence, the more numerous bandits and thieves.” And yet we are a legalistic society, where the capitalist aesthetic has invaded even the criminal justice system; the rich are free to go, the poor charged to stay.

(It is entirely common to see Internet discussions devolve to the bare legal issues and seem settled from these alone. The legality is never the whole story, though. Legal discussions are an appropriate subdiscussion, but such threads should acknowledge there is a bigger picture.)

So, it seems, we should make capitalism care about the pain it exacts from us. There is every reason to think the system can be improved in this way. After all, the care of capitalism, the sensitivity that makes it effective at all, is already fictive. Adding more lies upon the existing successful lies can improve it, if they are the right lies.

Lies is not the precise word. We already care, truthfully. But to make capitalism budge, it requires formally telling capitalism that some value now exists where capitalism did not see it before. And we have been very successful in this maneuver in the past. We, at one time, cared not for clean rivers or streams. Not even to drink from. And then we told capitalism we did.

Capitalism may develop something akin to antibiotic resistance over time, as the sensitivities we try to impose on it erode. Our waterways became somewhat less adulterated, at least for a time. Some are worse now than ever before. But only because capitalism became insensitive again, or because it was never sensitive to the particular pollution form.

The question arises, can we make capitalism care without resorting to the sorts of artificial constraints it may desensitize itself to?

Categories
society

Harm Reduction: a List

This is a rather short list of instances of harm reduction in the world around you (there are probably enough instances that no one human could ever list them all).

Roadway Safety

  • Seatbelts
  • Airbags
  • Licensing of Drivers
  • Bicycle Helmets
  • Crash Tests
  • Guard Rails
  • Speed Limits
  • Medians and Divided Roadways
  • Signage
  • Reflectors
  • Middle Brakelight
  • Anti-lock Brakes

The safety of roadways has mainly focused on technological improvements, which are plenty, to both the vehicles and the roadways. This has undoubtedly influenced the direction of attempting to reduce pollution from road-based transport (at least in the USA) via technology (i.e., reducing mileage, rather than limiting driving).

Other technological progress has lagged, though. Making self-servicing easier has not been a priority, for example. Changing signal bulbs or the oil or brakes often requires special knowledge, tools, and equipment. This actually can increase harm, as the cost of vehicle maintenance (in both time and money) may deter some amount of otherwise-necessary work.

Building and Home Safety

The refrigerator door provides a nice counterpoint to roadways. Car companies have largely embraced technology-based solutions, where the refrigerator companies, at least initially, were opposed.

Some systems such as HVAC were initially designed for comfort, but nonetheless can be essential to maintain life under extreme temperatures.

Food and Drugs Safety

  • Child-resistant Containers
  • Lollipops with a Soft, Loop Handle
    See: Saf-T-Pops.
  • Cooking Attire
    • Hairnets
    • Gloves
    • Aprons
    • Mitts
  • Restaurant inspections
  • Drug Labeling
  • Dosage Utensils (e.g., specialized measuring spoons)

Many (most?) professions have some required or suggested garb. The older the profession, the more likely that the particulars were originally developed through experience rather than through particular association rules or governmental regulation.

It is noteworthy that child-resistant caps are not required to avoid 100% of opening attempts by children, but only some majority of attempts. Like many other things, the best harm reduction for children is keeping things away from them, rather than trying to lock them up enough that children can, e.g., play with dynamite safely.

Disease and Contaminant Prevention

  • Hand-washing
  • Attire
    • Surgical Masks
    • Face Shields
    • Scrubs
    • Gloves
  • Protocols and Procedures (e.g., counting implements before and after surgery)
  • Single-use Needles

There are often specialized procedures or protocols developed to avoid mistakes and prevent malfeasance. Imagine how different roadway safety would be with a two-driver minimum per vehicle.

On the other hand, how would outcomes change for medicine if a double-blind second-opinion system were instituted for at least some subset of ailments.

Occupational Safety

  • Attire
    • Work Boots
    • Eye and Face Protection
  • Protocols and Procedures
    • Chain of Custody
    • Two-man Rule

Some harm reduction techniques, such as chain of custody, are equally effective at avoiding malfeasance as protecting other properties (e.g., ensuring medicine maintains its conditions in transport).