Friday, March 22, 2019

The Misery of Others

Thirty years ago this spring, I got the chicken pox. The disease is never fun, but I got a particularly bad case and my body still bears scars, especially on my scalp. I was sick a lot as a kid, including two hospitalizations for asthma, but nothing I endured was worse than the chicken pox, with the ceaseless itching from hundreds of sores covering every inch of my body, even the most tender areas. I spent hours every day crying, wondering with a childish intensity whether I would ever feel comfortable again. Amanda Marcotte (1)
Ms Marcotte was responding to the announcement by Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin that he deliberately allowed his nine (!) children to develop chicken pox rather than inoculate them against the disease. This is in contrast to the view of the young Amanda Marcotte, who, when the vaccine came out six years after her bout with the disease, “was overjoyed that children would never have to suffer that way again.”

Gov. Bevin has joined an unfortunately growing list of modern-day immiserators—those who believe that suffering will make others better people. (2) 

One of the loudest voices among the modern-day immiserators is Darla Shine, the wife of White House communications chief Bill Shine. Tweeting recently she 
lamented the fact her children had received the MMR vaccine, which guards against measles, mumps and rubella. She added that people of her generation -- the Baby Boomers -- were healthier now because they had measles as children."I had the #Measles #Mumps #ChickenPox as a child and so did every kid I knew - Sadly my kids had #MMR so they will never have the life long natural immunity I have," Shine tweeted, adding, "Come breathe on me!""The entire Baby Boom population alive today had the #Measles as kids," Shine tweeted later. "Bring back our #ChildhoodDiseases they keep you healthy & fight cancer.” (3)
"The entire Baby Boom population alive today”—well hurray for them, the survivors. What about those children who had measles or mumps and didn’t survive? Here’s what the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] has to say about measles:
Some people may suffer from severe complications, such as pneumonia (infection of the lungs) and encephalitis (swelling of the brain). They may need to be hospitalized and could die.
As many as one out of every 20 children with measles gets pneumonia, the most common cause of death from measles in young children.
About one child out of every 1,000 who get measles will develop encephalitis (swelling of the brain) that can lead to convulsions and can leave the child deaf or with intellectual disability.
For every 1,000 children who get measles, one or two will die from it. (4)
The fallaciousness of Ms Shine’s reasoning is obvious; you can’t base an argument on good outcomes while ignoring the bad. That’s like advancing the notion that the sinking of the Titanic did a lot of good because it made stronger people of the survivors—while neglecting the souls who sleep in Davy Jones’ locker.
Hadley Freeman, a columnist at the Guardian (UK), suffers from epilepsy and is concerned—like many other people who are dependent upon a steady supply of medicines—about the possibility of losing access to her pills as a result of Brexit. She asks:
just how self-centred do you have to be to think the risk of making it harder for people to get necessary medications is an irrelevant niggle while you achieve your masturbatory fantasy of “sovereignty”? (5)
Ms Freeman quotes what is probably the clearest pronouncement of political immiseration:
someone called Ant Middleton from Channel 4’s SAS: Who Dares Wins . . . said last year in a tweet (since deleted): “A ‘no deal’ [Brexit] for our country would actually be a blessing in disguise. It would force us into hardship and suffering which would unite & bring us together, bringing back British values of loyalty and a sense of community!” 
I am reminded of a dispute about equality between his faction and another group in the early days of the Soviet Union that Victor Serge mentions in his book Memoirs of a Revolutionary: how his desire was to raise the lot of the underclasses to that of those above them, while the desire of his opponents was to lower everyone to an equal level of immiseration. (6)


But to give the devil his due, perhaps there is some value in allowing diseases to flourish without medical intervention. David Routt in his article “The Economic Impact of the Black Death” (7) estimates that the plague killed between seventeen and twenty-eight million people during the 14th century. But looking at the catastrophe from an immiserator’s point of view what could be so bad? With a smaller number of workers available, the survivors were able to force an increase in wages:
the rural worker indeed demanded and received higher payments in cash (nominal wages) in the plague’s aftermath. Wages in England rose from twelve to twenty-eight percent from the 1340s to the 1350s and twenty to forty percent from the 1340s to the 1360s. Immediate hikes were sometimes more drastic.
Summing up the economic outcomes of the Black Death, Routt says:
In the long term, the demographic restructuring caused by the Black Death perhaps fostered the possibility of new economic growth. . . . Viewed from another perspective, the Black Death was a cataclysmic event and retrenchment was inevitable, but it ultimately diminished economic impediments and opened new opportunity.

 So . . . why stop at bringing back measles, chicken pox, and the mumps? Let’s go for the plague. With an all-out onslaught of the Black Death we would have rising wages for the workers and new economic opportunities for the entrepreneurs.

What politician wouldn’t want to run on a platform like that?

(2) The great La Rochefoucauld: “We all have enough strength to endure the misfortunes of others.”

(6) I regret not making a note of the exact details as I was reading the book.