Entropy Always Increases
As you know Bob, I am the District 12 Representative on the Otsego (NY) County Board, which means that I spent more time than you might imagine thinking about public policy and the systems we build in order to have something resembling a functional1 society. No system can be all things to all people but they should be able to do the bare minimum we need them to do.
Many of these systems were failing long before there was a pandemic but they were falling apart in ways that were easy to mask, usually by asking those in charge of them to do more with less. Take, for instance, rural addiction and mental health services. Why bother funding them fully when you know that the do-gooders who run them will continue to lead with their soft hearts despite the lousy pay and terrible conditions? This is a calling, not just a job.
Apply that same mentality to education or child welfare or the office for the aging. The people2 who choose to work in these fields will do their best to make it work because they believe in what they’re doing.3 The problem is that entropy is always increasing. Systems that go unmaintained fall apart — and when they start falling apart (which they will) the very small problems that could have been quickly fixed just keep growing and growing and growing.
Witness public health. Keeping track of threats to human bodies is a good idea in a society. While I’d argue that there is a moral/ethical reason to give a shit about the health of people who are not you, there’s a perfectly cromulent4 economic argument to be made. When humans aren’t healthy or perceive a risk to their health, they don’t spend money or produce goods. Capital stops moving around in useful ways and markets shut down. Things get weird. A functional government — one where all of the sub-systems have what they need to do their jobs — is there to ensure things don’t get too weird .5
There are a couple ways to achieve this via policy. Codes are there to offer reassurance a workplace won’t kill you, because no one with a choice6 wants to be mangled by an industrial washing machine or immolated in a factory fire. Offices like OSHA are key when it comes to giving individuals the sense that they are safe enough to go to work.
In the US, we’re actually doing OK on this front.7 Where we fall apart is in funding public health offices and programs.
*imagine a .gif of me gesturing at the last two years here*
The writing was on the wall well before 2020, mind. But we could limp along because all of the microscopic beasties who will harm human health hadn’t managed to make a big impact in our economic output in years. Sure, there’d been small outbreaks of, say, Ebola but they could be contained.8 Public health budgets kept getting cut, then cut some more, then a little more. When Covid came, the system had essentially been stripped for parts and couldn’t hold together.9
Which is how you wind up with a tech start-up run by the bro-iest bros who have ever bro’ed handling vaccines in a major American city. We may never know the full story of how it happened, but the WHYY podcast Half-Vaxxed lays out what is known about Philly Fighting COVID and why the health department turned to them in the first place.10
Our current pandemic11 has laid bare how important these systems are to our economic well being. Much of the volatility we see now — from high inflation to the Great Resignation — all stem from our public health system’s inability to work on a global scale, mostly because it wasn’t given the resources and agency to do so.12 Because I’ve chosen to be optimistic today, I believe this is a wake up call and we’ll start to give public health the attention it requires.13
Couple quick hits14 before I let you go:
Arkady Martine (a.k.a Dr. AnnaLinden Weller) is a Hugo-winning science fiction writer whose two books are amazing and good. BUT what’s pertinent here is that she also works in government, public policy, and city planning, which makes her twitter feed a joy for all systems nerds.
If you love books and stories and feel both are vital to getting through this crazy thing called life, pick up Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land. I know I shouldn’t be shocked that a Pulitzer winner can write like this15 but here we are. It’s one of those books that you are sad you’ve reached the end of, despite being 100% satisfied with how it wrapped up. So good.
And speaking of being surprised by something’s unexpected emotional weight, Untold: Breaking Point on Netflix is a documentary about tennis player Mardy Fish, whose rise and fall and rise again16 was brought about by an anxiety disorder, which is not the usual arc for a sports star. The filmmakers had access to Fish, his family and coaches, and Andy Roddick17 — and all were ready to disclose all of the details that the pubic never saw. It’s not salacious, mind, but it is harrowing. We don’t talk about mental illness nearly enough in general, much less when we are talking about professional athletes. Fish’s story illustrates why we should.
Define “functional” as you will.
Mostly women — and the Venn diagram of “jobs done by women” and “most underfunded in county government” is nearly a perfect circle. But that is a different rant for a different day.
I’ve never once heard a highway maintenance worker say that he believes in roads and will keep doing his job because asphalt is his life’s calling.
This seems to be an old word all the kids are using now. I’ll allow it.
One of the main selling points of a government, in fact, is that it keeps life predictable, which makes risk possible. But this is a different conversation for another day.
And there’s another conversation here about always needing a desperate underclass who will take any job but, again, different day.
Not necessarily easily but still contained.
Frankly? It wasn’t much, much worse because the people who do public health work worked themselves to the bone despite the lack of support. Those folks are exhausted, btw, and people keep making choices that make their jobs a million times more difficult.
HINT: it’s because of money
There will be another one. How soon is largely up to us.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t link to this NPR story about syphilis making a comeback because of course it is.
These didn’t fit with the above but I still wanted to sing their praises because I am a giver.
Kurt Vonnegut, the patron saint of never wasting a word, would be proud. The language is simple, concise (despite the book having 600+ pages), and deep.
not in the rankings, mind, but where he is now is greater than being #1 in the world at hitting a ball
I had no idea how close he and Fish were. And I’m now even bigger fans of both.