Scorched Earth

Is an epidemic like a war?


  1. You have an identifiable enemy that is killing you.

  2. You have reasonably clear and achievable objectives. To be accurate, the USA has not fought with clear and achievable objectives for several wars now, but that’s because we’ve been idiots.

  3. You need collective action to achieve those objectives.

  4. Some of your people are going to die, and a lot are going to suffer, and the means you devise for the “fight” will cause some suffering, lots of opportunity costs, and probably some deaths.

  5. Reaching your objectives requires money. The more your economy is crippled, the harder it will be to reach your goal—and you will have additional deaths because people rely on that economy. For the USA that can mean crippled transportation systems that don’t provide cities the food/fuel/medicines they need; for a poorer country that can mean that farmers starve because the army has confiscated their crops.

  6. ”The enemy gets a vote.” You have to be ready to adjust your plans.

  7. You will do unhappy and unjust things: seizing goods, locking people up (“quarantine” comes from a 40-day detention)–and in war killing people.

  8. Your means need to be commensurate with the threat. Scorched-earth may be an appropriate tactic when Germans are invading the USSR, but it wouldn’t be appropriate if Mexico were invading the USA.

  9. Some people will get rich off the new requirements, whether drug or ammo manufacturers. You may have to intervene to keep this from getting out of hand, but you need them to benefit to keep supplies coming. “Useful profiteers.”

  10. Some people will try to use emergency powers to enrich themselves or entrench themselves in control. “Evil profiteers.” The tools and restrictions intended for defeating the enemy can be turned against your own people.

  11. Internecine quarrels about means and promotions and whatnot will be ugly, cause a great deal of damage, perhaps lose you your war—and are unavoidable.

  12. You need accountability for the results. If marching men out of the trenches into no-mans-land just gets them machine-gunned, somebody needs to be told to stop that.

  13. Wars are full of lies trying to nudge the population, cover up screwups, and prevent panic.

  14. You have to make decisions without enough information.

  15. You are afraid. Too much fear is bad–you lynch Germans during WW-I or fail to press on against the Confederates at Yorktown. Too little and the Barbarossa plan catches you by surprise.

  16. You can lose liberties for a time–forever if you aren’t careful.


  1. There is nobody who can surrender. You can kill enough human enemies to make them stop whatever they were doing. You can’t kill all the viruses. Smallpox was an exception—it was easy. Ebola is hard.

  2. As a consequence of the above, either the infectious agent or the treatment will keep on killing some number of your people forever. If you can reduce the rate to something small, your emergency is over. 0 deaths is not possible with dangerous disease.

  3. Everybody dies. You can defeat one foreign enemy, but one of the domestic ones (cancer, heart disease, murder) is going to get you sooner or later. The temptation for mission creep and battling the next disease (“it’s almost as dangerous!”) will probably be overwhelming.

  4. In a war, if you didn’t have a dedicated enemy when you started, you do now—you can’t just say “Oopsies” and stop. If you find a pandemic to be less of a problem than you thought, you can “just stop.” The hard problem will be getting the powers-that-be to admit they were wrong.

  5. Against an epidemic, your tactics will always partake of “scorched earth,” damaging your economy and future. In wars, that’s only sometimes true.

Yes and No

  1. It depends on the intensity. A mild disease is more like the random Muhammadans going on solo jihads in London. You can let the existing systems (police in one case, medical in the other) take care of the problem. A more dangerous disease is comparable to them being organized and funded, as with 9/11. You need to bring new tools to bear on the problem. Ebola would be like an invasion.

Extreme cases sometimes help define the boundaries of a problem.

Imagine an airborne virus with a 14-day incubation period, of which the last 4 days are contagious. It produces a hemorrhagic fever, with a 95% fatality rate. Suppose this breaks out in Brazil.

What should our reaction look like?

All travel to/from South America is frozen; not even citizens are allowed in if they’ve been there. Given the “4-day” asymptomatic contagious period, it may already be too late to stop it reaching Europe and the US, though it may take a few days to figure that out.

Divide the nation into small zones–NY metropolitan area, LA, etc–defined by the ease of internal traffic that you probably can’t stop from outside and the ease of blocking outgoing traffic. Lock down transportation between the zones–not even the military move from zone to zone. Shoot border crossers.

Inside a zone the local governments will have to lock down activity, and actively seal off infected areas. Remember the “weld the doors” claim from Wuhan? Plenty of people will die from lack of medicine or medical care, or even food, but 95% fatality is worse.

I wrote “4 days.” But are you sure if will always be exactly 4 days, and not sometimes 2 and sometimes 6? Your quarantine needs to be expansive, just in case.

Once it is spreading, count yourself lucky if only a third of the people die. The economy goes to hell, of course, but laissez faire would be worse. Remember what happened when European diseases hit the AmerIndians.

Carelessness is deadly.

Try another extreme. A plague, air borne, kills about 0.01% of the very old, though it sickens many.

There’s no emergency. Ordinary voluntary public health measures suffice. No new rules. It would be an overreach to try, since this is well within normal problems, and it turns out there’s no way to keep people from dying. This is more analogous to self-defense or police work than a war. Carelessness is no more than usually harmful.

Like most diseases, COVID’s danger lies between the extremes.

Granted, harmlessness may be in the eye of the beholder. I had a much younger friend die of the flu a few years ago. A disease that afflicts the very old won’t generate the same worry as one that afflicts children or pregnant women. And I would predict grave disagreements about the seriousness of a disease that only struck legislators.

Who gets to decide how serious a problem is, and what kind of information do they need? I have a strong impression that quite a few officials get their sense of danger from CNN and the other panic-mongers.

We have ways of estimating the economic dislocations of a “war on a plague,” though the officials in charge have apparently done some fudging in past years (no inflation??). The social dislocations eat into our social capital, and we have no good ways of measuring that. Loss of liberties tends to ratchet.

If we task a department with watching for dangers, it will have an interest in panicking, both to justify its existence and to avoid the blame it would get if it missed something. On the other hand, having nobody designated as responsible means your nation’s response will be sloppy and, as now, unaccountable.

Unfortunately, I can’t just set a bunch of thresholds and say “At 1% do this, at 4% start doing this too, etc.” What we need to do depends on the vectors–a fly-borne illness would need different methods. It would be useful to agree on some guidelines. Can we?

9/11 + 20

Only a few years after 9/11, I visited an old industrial facility that had been restored to operating condition.  One of the machines there is an attrition mill, which consists of two steel disks, rotating at high speed in opposite directions and crushing the substance to be milled between them. It struck me then that America…indeed, western civilization as a whole…is caught in a gigantic attrition mill, with one rotating disk being the Islamic Terrorist enemy and the other disk representing certain tendencies within our own societies…most notably, the focus on group identities, the growing hostility toward free speech, and the sharp decline of civilizational-self confidence.  The combination of the upper and lower disks of the metaphorical Attrition Mill is far more dangerous than either by itself would be.

It is now increasingly clear how much the ‘woke’ American Left has in common, at a deep level, with movements such as the Taliban–the suppression of free expression, the insistence that all aspects of life be subjected to an over-arcing ideological or religious framework, the hostility toward history and historical objects (remember the Bamiyan Buddhas?).

I have seen numerous articles and blog posts from people who are generally Left or “liberal”, who now express concern about the excesses of the Left and who blame these excesses on a reaction to Trump.  This is nonsense.  For anyone who has been paying attention, the increasing irrationality, illiberalism (‘illiberalism’ in the older sense of the word ‘liberal’), and outright hysteria of the American Left has been clear for a long time before Trump ever came on the political scene.

Within days of the collapse of the Towers, the true face of the modern American Left made itself fully visible. “Progressive” demonstrators brought out the stilt-walkers, the Uncle Sam costumes, and the giant puppets of George Bush. They carried signs accusing America of planning “genocide” against the people of Afghanistan.  Professors and journalists preached about the sins of Western civilization, asserting that we had brought it all on ourselves. A well-known writer wrote of her unease when her daughter chose to buy and display an American flag. Some universities and K-12 schools banned the display of American flags in dormitories, claiming that such display was “provocative.”  There were preemptive scoldings of Americans for the ‘Islamophobia’ that we were expected to demonstrate toward Muslim neighbors.

Attitudes such as those outlined above are no longer a niche thing; they have gone pretty much completely mainstream.  And we have a President the bizarreness of whose thought processes are illuminated by his proposal, immediately after 9/11 to send a check for $200 million to Iran with no strings attached.

And, while in 2001 the only serious external threat we needed to be concerned about was Islamic terrorism, today we need as well to be concerned about the pressures from China.  And, here again, there are behavior patterns internal to America that mirror their reactions to the external threat from the terrorists…see for example my 2018 post, So, Really Want to Talk About Foreign Intervention?    Just the other day, I saw a story about an American high school in Colorado which applied for some students to attend a meeting of a United Nations group (the Commission on the Status of Women).  The UN committee that accredits such groups emailed the school and said there was a problem: the school’s website used ‘incorrect’ terminology for Taiwan. The committee suggested modifying it to “Taiwan, Province of China.”  The school gave in to the request.

China has cited ‘improper’ Taiwan terminology to stall applications from at least six other groups, including the World Bicycle Industry Association and a French nature society called the Association of 3 Hedgehogs.  The tentacles of the Chinese regime now extent to all locations in the world and to activities of all kinds.  More here.

I can’t come up with a good visual metaphor for the three-way threat that now threatens  America’s continuance as a free and independent society, but that threat is very real.

There are a few signs of hope. As noted above, some publications that have been aligned with the Establishment Left are now starting to push back somewhat against aggressive ‘wokeism’.  The catastrophe of the Afghan withdrawal has educated some people, especially college-age people, about the fact that America is not the worst nation and the source of all evil in the world; that, indeed, hideous things can be perpetrated by people who are not Americans and also who are not considered White.  The supply-chain chaos of the past year and a half has educated many businesses about the dangers of excessive dependency on China.

And, somewhat remarkably, since 9/11 there have been no large-scale terrorist attacks remotely comparable to that one in scale.  Though how long this situation will persist, given the Taliban’s newly-established full control of Afghanistan, is an open question.

Things are not hopeless, but the hour is late and the situation is very serious.


Made for TV

You see the guy on the right? I call him “fasionable Afghan guy”.

FILE – In this Aug. 19, 2021 file photo, Taliban fighters display their flag on patrol in Kabul, Afghanistan. When U.S. President Joe Biden took office early this year, Western allies were falling over themselves to welcome and praise him and hail a new era in trans-Atlantic cooperation. The collapse of Kabul certainly put a stop to that. Even some of his biggest fans are now churning out criticism. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File)

Let’s talk about “fashionable Afghan guy” for a minute or two.

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There is no shortage of facile commentary about this disaster. It grabs attention like a bad car wreck, but attention and insight are two very different things. This post will mostly be a list of “dont’s,” gaps in our current knowledge, admonitions about epistemic humility, and reminders of stupefying incompetence exhibited by the ostensibly qualified. And I know about some of them because I’ve made the same mistakes as many of those reacting to events now.

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I am going to be stern here at times. I am (mostly) kidding. Maybe I should have waited to the end to tell you that.

The brilliant Scott Siskind* has a new post at Astral Codex Ten, Kids Can Recover From Missing Even Quite A Lot of School about how much effect there will be from children missing school because of CoVid. The short answer is Academically, not much. Children have gone through much worse in many times and places and caught up in a year or so. Social/cultural/moral/character development? This is hard to measure, but there may be something to that. Being Dr. Siskind and a bit obsessive, he cites a good deal of research, mercifully by linking to it. He is as cynical about schools and teachers as I am, except he’s smarter and more diligent about research.

I once thought I would be pleased if schools figured out that they aren’t there to teach academics and aren’t very good at it. (Nor have they ever been, even in the Good Old Days. I wrote about those days a decade ago, Part One and Part Two, in which I say a lot of things people will disagree with, but are nonetheless true. Schools were different but not better then. The reason you want to tell me why I’m wrong is likely something I have already heard.) The primary value of schools may always have been in their teaching of conscientiousness, group norms for behavior, and other things we would file under “character.” However, if we were to free current teachers up to teach character it would be one more excuse to teach anti-racism and other forms of How to Be a Good Liberal. Still, I can dream, because no school is going to take my advice anyway, no matter how right I am.

I mentioned that people will not much attend to what I say here, which I know because I have been in a thousand discussions about education in my life, and the same things always happen. Everyone is sure they are an expert and will tell you anecdotes about their grandfather who grew up on a farm with no electricity but went to a good old-fashioned school where they taught real content and became a chemical engineer. Damn kids don’t even know how to shoe a horse these days. Or they will give you examples of how bad things are now, or insist that things used to be better because…anecdotes. I have opinions which I will get out of the way now, which are that phonics is somewhat better than whole word, especially for poor students, and that drill in math is better than concept, especially for poor students. But it’s largely genetic and the good students are going to do fine anyway unless you beat them for stupid reasons. Whatever isn’t genetics is mostly family and neighborhood.

But it’s just oddly reflexive, that people just have to tell you these things whenever you say “education.” They have stored packets that have to be discharged.

The Teaching of Math

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