Palladium senior editor Wolf Tivy holds a digital salon with William Eden, Matt Parlmer, and a few select audience guests, to discuss the coronavirus pandemic, why we took it seriously early on, and what we’re doing now for the public good.
William Eden is an entrepreneur-in-residence at Ulysses Diversified Holdings and a former biotech investor at Thiel Capital. Prior to that, he worked as an economist at the Federal Reserve.
Matt Parlmer is a software engineer, who is now dedicating his time to the Open PPE Project, a venture to re-shore N95-style mask manufacturing in the U.S. as fast as possible and is looking for an infusion of capital. He can be reached at Twitter or his website.
Watch the video on YouTube.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Wolf Tivy: Hello and welcome to Palladium’s first Digital Salon. I’m your host, Wolf Tivy, Senior Editor at Palladium Magazine. We’re joined today by Matt Parlmer, and Will Eden, and a selected audience of friends and governance futurists. Hi, guys. Welcome to the show. For a bit of explanation before we get started, we’re all in quarantine, so we’re unable to run proper in-person events. Instead, we’ve decided to do online events for the foreseeable future. This is our first foray into that world doing a digital salon. The salon will be recorded and released like a podcast. You may be listening to this as a podcast. The plan basically is I’m going to moderate a discussion between Will and Matt about our topic for about half an hour and then we’re going to open it up to questions from our audience.
Before we get started, I’d like to introduce our participants. First of all, we have Will Eden, who has previously worked at the Federal Reserve as an economist. He’s previously worked at Thiel Capital doing biotech venture capital and he’s been one of the loudest and earliest alarm raisers on this whole coronavirus situation. He’s been at the forefront of a lot of the key advocacy points: social distancing, hospital capacity, a bunch of stuff like that. We’re all very grateful to Will for helping to raise the alarm on this and help contain the issue. And I think as a point of pride. He’s been in quarantine much longer than the rest of us.
William Eden: Yeah, I started about two weeks before I was supposed to.
Wolf Tivy: Excellent. Yeah, I think I was perhaps a week after you but yeah, we’re all in it now. Anyway, so then we have Matt Parlmer. He’s a software entrepreneur who’s been loud and early talking about supply chain risk and stepping up to actually start working on a project in that space working on manufacturing personal protective equipment in the United States, by any means necessary. And so, Matt. Anything else you want to add before we get started?
Matt Parlmer: Yeah, right now we’re—so I’ll be transparent. I’m just going to pitch everybody. I don’t know if there’s anybody on here who can deploy six figures of—
Wolf Tivy: Well, we’re also broadcasting. I mean, the podcast. So the audience is potentially much larger than just the immediate audience.
Matt Parlmer: Alright. Good deal. Well, to everybody listening: I’m working with several colleagues to spin up an N95 mask manufacturing facility in Grand Rapids, Michigan, using spare capacity at a couple different plants they have there. We have identified a supplier of the extremely scarce and extremely difficult to find meltblown polypropylene filter material, and we are currently in need of capital from anybody who is feeling like they want to be effective with their altruism—
Wolf Tivy: Anyone who wants to be a hero, basically.
Matt Parlmer: Yeah, pretty much. Our goal is to on-shore as much PPE manufacturing capacity as possible because we consider this to be both a national defense priority, in my opinion, and also a bit of a national disgrace that this doesn’t exist in the first place. So if that’s something you’re interested in helping out with please reach out to me or one of the organizers of this stream on Twitter, and we’ll go from there.
Wolf Tivy: Well, yeah. So we’re all very grateful to you for running that kind of project is something we need right now.
Matt Parlmer: Don’t thank me yet. We haven’t done anything yet.
Wolf Tivy: Well you’ve been trailblazing and showing the way for a lot of people.
Matt Parlmer: I appreciate it.
Wolf Tivy: The reason I wanted to bring you guys together is to talk about generally the disconnect between the online community of epistemically astute amateurs and the official experts. I think we’ve seen a fairly significant disconnect there that’s been showing up in multiple ways and I want to talk about. Additionally, what we have and have not been able to do, despite the lack of institutional power. So there’s a lot of people who have been really calling this the way it was going to play out and knew what was going to happen and were unable to move through official institutional channels, but a lot of stuff was done nonetheless.
This is the general topic that I wanted to get you guys to weigh in on. So how did this look from our perspective in these strange circles on the internet to seem to know everything before the experts do and what we’ve been doing? So Matt, you’ve given us your little pitch on what you’ve been up to. Will, can you give us kind of an overview of some of the advocacy that you’ve been doing and how it how you saw it play out? When, when did this first really become your thing? When did you start “coronaposting,” Will?
William Eden: I probably should have checked when I actually changed my name on Twitter to say that, which I think was probably in late February or early March, but yeah I started following the situation in China mid-to-late January. It’s a little bit hard to remember what was going through my head at the time, but I think the thing that really tipped me off was that it was spreading asymptomatically. And as soon as I heard that, my first thought was, wow, this is going to be really hard to contain.
At that time, it was still pretty much only in Wuhan and there were only a few hundred cases. And so it started a little bit as a curiosity. The first thing I did is I was like, okay, so this is pretty similar to SARS. How did SARS play out? Well, SARS spread to quite a few countries, but it ultimately did get contained. So for a while my thinking was: it’s bad that this is happening, but we’re probably going to be okay because I basically thought that institutions were a little more capable than they turned out to be.
Wolf Tivy: Yeah.
William Eden: The other thing too, though, is SARS was mostly only transmitted symptomatically. And so right off the bat we knew that this would be harder to contain. It didn’t make it impossible to contain but just much, much harder. It started as this intellectual curiosity. Even after it started to get bad in China, but it hadn’t really spread throughout the world in a serious way yet. By the middle of February, it was clear that China had really cracked down and was actually turning the corner on it. It was, it was clear by mid-February that maybe China was actually going to get this thing under control. Look, I thought then like, okay, we have a model that works. It’s not that widespread yet; we’ve got this under control. That turned out to be very, very wrong.
Wolf Tivy: When did you realize you were wrong?
William Eden: Yeah, so it started taking off in South Korea, right? It still sort of felt like, okay, that’s unfortunate, but probably still containable via similar methods. Still at this point, Singapore had contained it, Hong Kong had contained it, Taiwan had contained it. It started to blow up in South Korea but even then it was, okay, well, we still have this playbook. South Korea did end up doing different things, but it still seems to be effective, even though their strategy was somewhat different. Which again, sort of gave me hope, right? But then basically seeing the complete sort of failure of the West to respond and then starting to see this exponential take off. Someone in the chat says I changed my name on March 3 [on Twitter to include “coronaposting”] which feels right.
I would say the other really big flag for me was finding out that it was in Iran, and that it was going uncontrolled spread in a country without the best health care and monitoring. At that point, I became very, very, very concerned because even if every other country in the world successfully contained it if you have one that’s basically this viral reactor that’s throwing off tons of cases.
Wolf Tivy: Where they’re still licking the shrine. (Laughs.)
William Eden: Yep, exactly. And very soon after it became obvious to the outside world that it was in Iran. Every country that borders them showed cases just going like this [gestures up in a rising curve]. Every single country. After Iran came out, that’s when I thought this could be much, much worse. And probably, we’re not going to contain it at least there [in Iran], right? But yeah, a lot of countries just continued to drop the ball, and with each increasing week I was more frantic, and I’ve been pretty much only posting about it non-stop for two weeks or more now.
Wolf Tivy: What did it look like with respect to—you’re watching the situation develop on the ground in these other countries like China and Iran and South Korea. And then how did that contrast your level alarm contrast with sort of the stories you’re hearing domestically here in the United States?
William Eden: Yeah, zero correlation. I mean, as recently as one month ago, you had the media making fun of folks in Silicon Valley for starting to do some social distancing measures. Right? Which, in retrospect, is a very bad look. I think obviously a lot of people are going to have a lot of egg on their face—or should.
Wolf Tivy: Yea there’s a few screen cap comparisons going around now of the media making fun of the issue, like a month ago, and then now calling the people who are denying it conspiracy theorists when they were denying a month ago. And yeah, it’s been interesting to see the sort of official information institutions, just like flip flopping manufacturing narrative real-time in ways that that in retrospect have seemed extremely irresponsible.
William Eden: So, in fairness, I think we started to see this the most blatantly with Trump, who can just turn on a dime and just change his story and then pretend he talked that way the whole time. And I think everyone in the country has basically just become this, if they weren’t before. I’m not totally convinced that it didn’t always work like this. It was just never so blatantly obvious and maybe to have so many people online calling out how inconsistent and how just completely hypocritical this whole thing has been.
Wolf Tivy: Yeah. So Matt, how did it look from your perspective? I remember I looked; you had one very important tweet I think on the 23rd of January or something, where you were talking about the supply chain implications of this whole thing. And that’s been pretty well borne out and more. What did this look like from your perspective, kind of, how did you get onto the issue? How has your thinking changed and how has that contrasted with the narratives you see?
Matt Parlmer: Right. So a lot of this goes back to me sort of obsessively following open-source intelligence channels for the last several years. My interest in things like Bellingcat and various other open ways of aggregating a bunch of information, such that you have, for Twitter at least, something comparable to a nation-state intelligence agency just happening in there in the feeds. That was always an appealing and interesting thing for me. So those organizations started to target the Hong Kong protests in the middle of last year. They started aggregating tons of information and started distributing it all over the place, and I had been obsessive really following that, and those same channels started to report in late December lots and lots of viral pneumonia among relatives in central China. Anybody who follows epidemiological channels knows that whenever you hear about an interesting spike in viral pneumonia in central China, it’s generally not a good sign.
Basically the alarm bells were going right around then. We now know based on Caixin’s excellent reporting that it was indeed spreading all the way back then; that the PRC government knew about it and was hiding information on it. So that started to break out into the Hong Kong channels for the OSINT open-source intelligence world.
After that, one of the first people on that was a guy on Twitter who goes by the name Comparativist, so I definitely recommend following him, Trey. That started to break out and it became clear to me that given the fact that PRC since the opening has been a huge exporter of people all over the world that COVID would start moving along those networks, very quickly in a way that was very difficult to contain, if we didn’t start taking measures immediately. So around that period of time I started that—
Wolf Tivy: Let me just interrupt you here, Matt.
Matt Parlmer: Go ahead.
Wolf Tivy: What was the Twitter account you just mentioned, it was a little bit unclear?
Matt Parlmer: Comparativist. Yeah, yeah. Yep. Tanner just linked to it in the [chat].
Wolf Tivy: Great. Excellent. Okay.
Matt Parlmer: Yeah, how’s it going, Tanner? Tanner’s feed also if you want to follow interesting things in China is also quite good: @Scholars_Stage.
So I started seeing that sort of thing, pop up all over the place. And yeah, it was interesting because our first line of defense for a lot of these for a lot of these outbreaks is the quite excellent international sort of biological perimeter defense that the various different virology organizations out there have established. That’s how we can figure out that some random village in Uganda has a novel relative of Ebola popping up all over the place.
We’re getting awfully good at finding random hemorrhagic fevers in the jungle so it shouldn’t be that hard to find a new coronavirus in a developed country like China.
It was from that point onward that I started trying to raise the alarm bells and whatever minimal way that I could. And it’s been awfully frustrating to watch all of the institutions— particularly the press, whose job it is to be ahead of the curve on stuff like this—just ignore it completely as it continued to get worse every single day.
Wolf Tivy: Speaking of the press not being ahead of this thing and not catching everybody up to how serious the situation was. What are both of your estimations on how much of that was narrative management, like deliberate planned sort of narrative management, and how much of that was just that they were not good enough at their job?
William Eden: I personally think it’s because they were not very good at their job. It’s the kind of thing that without a little bit of expertise in the subject, it’s a little bit hard to see just from looking at a headline number. Like, oh, how many hundred people have it? How many countries, is it in? It just continues to sound like a small deal without having the kind of underlying causal model of how these things actually spread.
Wolf Tivy: Yeah, I guess if you’re not used to thinking about sort of the exponential process spreading through a network and thinking through the process of how it’s actually going to get stopped.
Matt Parlmer: Yeah.
Wolf Tivy: You look at, oh, there’s a couple hundred cases in China of this novel pneumonia. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, right, and then some hated tech bros in Silicon Valley are making a big deal out of it and refusing to shake hands. And of course, this becomes a point that you can make fun of them on.
Matt Parlmer: Yeah, I think the press is just bad at relaying specialist information—or frankly just understanding specialist information—in general. And that is, in the sense that they’re conditioned to do a lot of just regurgitation of people who are considered to be experts. In this case, the expertise that they were turning to were a bunch of public health bureaucrats who absolutely do have an incentive to claim that all as well and that everything’s under control. And they just continue to do that again and again.
Yeah, I do think there was some narrative management, though. I do absolutely think that’s the case, I think that I think that there are a lot of people who have a—particularly ever since the 2016 election—this orientation towards explicit attempts to prevent actors that they see as destabilizing to the current order from spreading what they consider to be disinformation.
You can see that with Twitter’s active Weibo-style spiking of communications about coronavirus yesterday. You literally cannot link to certain websites. Your tweets and DMs will get deleted. It’s an active attack on the informational immune system that people like Balaji [Srinivasan] and other folks who were raising the alarm bells about this constitute. So yeah, I do think there’s some active narrative management going on there. There are a lot of people who really like the idea that the authorities are always right, and those people have blood on their hands.
Wolf Tivy: Yeah, I think by now it looks fairly clear that they are definitely trying to manage public perceptions here, especially with stock market worries and election worries and all the general kind of political order concerns that you were talking about—and sort of perception of political order concerns. And I’m wondering, sort of, when it flipped from incompetence to narrative management or whether it sort of had elements of both the whole time?
Another thing I’d like to raise here, actually, is that we need to desegregate official institutions and official experts here a bit because from what I understand the epidemiologists and the actual scientific community was quite on top of the thing—
Matt Parlmer: Right! Totally!
Wolf Tivy: —And it was the bureaucrats that were not, or were keeping it under wraps, and the journalists.
Matt Parlmer: I was literally getting into flame wars with people telling them, listen, there’s absolutely evidence that this is going on. And I would get a reply like, no, the public health authorities say that this is fine. I would link directly to a virology paper or directly to the interview that Caixin, the very excellent independent news agency in China, did with the guy who managed the SARS response in PRC saying that this was the worst outbreak of his lifetime. And I would get blocked or poo-pooed
Matt Parlmer: It’s ridiculous. People can’t— there’s so much conditioning around what people want to—
Wolf Tivy: Yeah, I see what you’re saying. And, yeah, there’s this big disconnect. One of the ways this was put well and articulated well is that there’s this big disconnect between people who are reasoning directly about the evidence, and directly about the models, and directly trying to model the situation. And people who are reasoning, primarily, in terms of authorities and established lines of information flow and so on. We’ve seen this big disconnect. The Silicon Valley, a lot of technical people, a lot of people who are really pressed up against reality with their companies and the things that we’re working on tended to be more on the side of raising the alarm because they were directly reasoning about the problem, and the established informational channels tended to be dominated by people who were thinking in terms of the informational authority and the sort of top informational authorities were not raising the alarm for whatever reason. And so, that whole system kind of ended up failing.
But if I can briefly defend the idea that there ought to be a lot of people taking the official information authorities seriously. It is kind of necessary in a society that you have someone somewhere like sorting through all the possible discourse that’s happening and saying, here are the things that are important, here are the things you need to be paying attention to.
There’s a reason that a lot of people kind of end up following those authorities. The situation we’re in is we end up having a crisis of either competence or will or good intention among those authorities. Right now, something’s gone wrong there.
William Eden: Though I do think that my thinking has changed on this a little bit, just sort of seeing how folks have started to respond, now that the public health authorities are more kind of on board. I’m starting to think the government was actually more constrained than I had thought by the people. I basically think there’s sort of a feedback loop here where the government can’t really tell people that they have to take drastic action until the people are panicking.
Wolf Tivy: Yeah.
William Eden: Yeah, and then to some degree the people aren’t going to panic until they’re told something is wrong. So my read of the last couple of weeks has actually been this slow unrolling of, like, hey, public, it’s a little more serious. Hey, it’s a little bit more serious. Hey, it’s starting to get really serious now. Hey, it’s really serious, we need to take drastic action now.
Wolf Tivy: Right, yeah. And so there’s sort of the interlocked very constrained system hypothesis that you’re laying out. Another hypothesis I’ve heard for sort of explaining that slow rollout is that it’s actually part of the narrative management: you don’t want to just say, like, okay, the government is going to take decisive action to limit and contain this issue before anyone has any clue what’s going on. You know, that’s very authoritarian, that’s very China, we’re not like that. We sort of do things as a public discourse and so we take it much slower. Just as a matter of our ideological precepts. And perhaps those are related.
Matt Parlmer: That may be the case, but I do think that they should have been telling people to panic back when back when a modicum of public alarm would have actually done a lot of good and kept this crap out of the country. Or not really out of the country—that’s not the big thing to worry about—more like out of the out of the air transport network.
If people had actually been listening to extremely credible scientific minds working on this back in the very beginning of January, and been making sensible policy on the basis of that, we would have had closed flights to China in mid-January. We would have basically done everything that the Singaporean government has done, or at least giving people the opportunity to respond in a collective fashion like the people of Hong Kong.
Matt Parlmer: It’s not that that either of those models are wrong. It’s that we need to have an information infrastructure that allows us to actually drop into one of those models quickly during crises, and right now we just don’t have that in any way at all.
William Eden: I will note that Trump did close air traffic to China and everyone gave him a ton of crap for it, right? He was doing it later than we probably should have stopped that traffic, and the public was not ready for that. I think that’s some evidence for this theory of mine that like people needed to be a little bit more scared before we could actually take serious action.
Then, on the flip side, I’ve been really surprised, actually, how much supposedly half the country that hates Trump and thinks that he’s Hitler, but they’re waiting for him for guidance about what to do during a pandemic.
Wolf Tivy: Yeah. And that’s the Democratic politicians included. I remember hearing some rumors about that. That was interesting.
William Eden: Yeah, like he still is, for whatever reason, the national figure that everyone expects to be sort of taking point on how we respond to and think about this crisis.
Wolf Tivy: Yeah, and the interesting thing is he didn’t change his mind until—well, one story is that Tucker Carlson went and talked to him and said, look, this is actually really serious and actually got him to change his mind, which is interesting.
There’s this question of how constrained are the public authorities by the degree to which the public just wouldn’t accept or sort of decisive action here. We see this with the sort of Spring Break types, and you’ve seen a lot of people with these sort of narrowly libertarian kinds of responses to the thing of like, oh yeah, we don’t need the government to help us with this, this is not something that they should be doing. Or, I don’t care; I’m not worried for myself or whatever.
There’s just been quite a bit of public disobedience, though, orders have not actually been given as well because of the possibility of public disobedience. But just general disarray in the sort of natural chain of command there. And, Will, I think that’s what you’re bringing up is the government is actually constrained by the people and has to bring them along, which is a slow and painstaking process in a crisis like this.
Another issue that sort of speaks to how much this is just an informational system problem versus a general institutional decay problem is the testing and personal protective equipment availability problems. We have not been able to spin up testing, and we have not had the supply chains worked out on personal protective equipment. These are not matters of politics or information or anything; it’s just the capability there institutionally and in the hardware.
Matt Parlmer: I would push back against that a little bit. I do think that the libertarians, they do get a lot of flack. One thing they’re absolutely right about is that the regulatory state has been one of the primary impediments to this.
William Eden: A hundred percent.
Matt Parlmer: From the very beginning.
William Eden: A hundred percent.
Matt Parlmer: You know, the CDC rolling into labs and the University of Washington telling people that they can’t run a PCR test because, you know, because paperwork. It’s like something— you know, it ended up in a Reason Magazine profile—but it is something out of a Reason Magazine profile. It is such an obvious textbook case of bureaucratic proceduralism imposing itself on people actually trying to do things in the public interest.
William Eden: I just have to point out the parallels with the U.S. story and the China story. In China, there was a doctor that realized there were clusters of patients, tried to publicize it and raise the warning, and got suppressed. There’s a doctor at the University of Washington who thought she had a patient, ran a COVID-19 test in her own lab, published the results when the CDC was telling her not to, which finally got people to wake up and take this seriously. Which one is the totalitarian state here, right? They look the same.
Matt Parlmer: It’s almost like there are tons of functional similarities between big sclerotic land empires.
Wolf Tivy: Yeah.
Matt Parlmer: Yeah, and then meanwhile, supposedly authoritarian Singapore has been the most open and the most transparent actor in this whole thing. It’s absurd. You literally go to the Singaporean health authority’s dashboard, and they publish all these charts and graphs that are updated like instantaneously from their excellent unified data infrastructure for all their healthcare workers so that the public can see precisely what’s going on. At all times. This is a supposedly authoritarian state and yet they have a level of transparency that puts nominal democracies to absolute shame. I mean, it makes you wonder about the language we use to describe these sets of systems.
Wolf Tivy: Yeah, exactly. And this has been one of our ongoing points of Palladium, as we examine different regimes around the world. One of the major and most important dimensions is just the competence of the regime and a lot of the other stuff that we say about regimes, you know, democratic, authoritarian, etc., tend to just be branding of the sort of high level narratives that actually don’t weigh very much on the day-to-day actual competence of the regime.
So before we get too much further into continued discussion here, which is very interesting, let’s start answering some questions from the audience. There has been some great discussion in the chat and some great questions. I want to start with Misha’s question for Matt.
Wolf Tivy: If you had 100K right now, how much would that accelerate or how long before the first masks would be rolling off the production line?
Matt Parlmer: I can answer that very specifically; we don’t know how long it would take to roll off a production line because we’re still waiting on quotes from a couple different suppliers of ultrasonic welding equipment. Part of the issue with that is that this is a very limited infrastructure with a lot of dependencies on expensive German toys and we can get into that another time. Wolf, I think I owe you a piece on industrial civil disobedience. That’s going to be a point—
Wolf Tivy: Yeah. That’d be awesome, we’d love to.
William Eden: I would love to hear that.
Matt Parlmer: Yeah, absolutely, it involves breaking IP law aggressively. But what we could do right now is place an order with Lydall, which is I think the second largest manufacturer of N95-grade meltblown polypropylene. And right now, we’ve been shaking all the trees to see if we can find a hundred grand or so to just go place an order with those guys so that we can at least get in their production pipeline for early April.
That would secure our ability to get this done. That is what we would be able to do, and we’re probably going to start crowdfunding early next week or over the weekend, but we really could use a $100,000 check right now. I know exactly where I’m sending it. It would sit in our bank account for about 10 minutes. We can deploy capital effectively right now: I want to really underline that to anybody who’s listening.
Wolf Tivy: Great and another part of that question is, are you doing this as a for-profit or nonprofit kind of venture?
Matt Parlmer: We’re, we’re not planning on making any money off of this. Look, I’m a software engineer. I might go do manufacturing work down the road, but personal protective equipment is not something I find intensely interesting beyond its ability to make sure that my dad isn’t walking into the ICU he runs with a bandana around his face next week. My interest in this is primarily wanting to ameliorate an immediate need.
As far as the vehicle we’re using right now, we have several very excellent lawyers trying to figure that out, working on a pro bono basis for which we should thank them. They are working on figuring out what sort of vehicle that would be appropriate for this. If push comes to shove, I’ll just end up bringing this to my consulting LLC and I’ll take the hit on taxes, but I’d rather not. And I’d rather that people that people who would like to donate to this be able to in a tax deductible fashion. It definitely smooths things out quite a bit. But yeah, stay tuned to my Twitter feed and then the @OpenPPEProject’s Twitter feed as well for official updates on this.
Wolf Tivy: About the intellectual property aspect in particular, during wartime mobilizations there’s these interesting provisions for the government to just basically seize IP for the war effort. And this is really the case or that that kind of thing needs to be happening.
William Eden: And I think we’re officially in that state of the world as of a few days ago.
Wolf Tivy: Right, where they’re officially on wartime footing?
William Eden: Yeah.
Wolf Tivy: Yeah, they invoked that Act.
Matt Parlmer: I’ll be honest, we actually looked at 3M’s design, and I don’t think that’s IP we want to steal. (Laughs.)
William Eden: Ouch.
Matt Parlmer: No, I’ll be honest, disposable respiratory personal protective equipment is a category where there’s been near-zero consequential innovation in the last several decades.
Wolf Tivy: That’s pathetic, unfortunate.
Bonnie asks how long do you think life will be disrupted and how long are we going to have to be doing the social distancing thing? Is it going to be a few months? Is it going to be a year? What do you guys think?
William Eden: That really depends. In the situation where we choke this thing off effectively with our current lockdown—if we do that for a month, it’s burned out of almost every host. There’s still going to be a few floating around, but it’s going to greatly shrink the numbers that we have to deal with. Then we could maybe do a South Korea/Singapore solution where we don’t actually have to be all that careful.
Wolf Tivy: Assuming we have the testing capacity.
William Eden: Yes, the testing capacity is currently ramping up quite quickly I’ll note.
Wolf Tivy: That’s great.
William Eden: It’s suffering a number of significant bottlenecks, largely because we don’t build anything here, such as reagents and even cotton swab. Literally, we’re running out of cotton swabs to test people. I’m so furious about this whole thing and, Matt, you’re absolutely right. Supply chain ended up totally killing us. It totally killed us.
Matt Parlmer: I’m a committed wide-eyed ideological neoliberal. I like globalization. I think it’s good. I think it’s here to stay, but I really do hope that the next wave of globalization is not driven by Third World sweatshops; I’d like it to be driven by American robots.
William Eden: I totally hear you there. So anyway, if we manage to actually close this off. If we get almost everyone uninfected and then start to do contact-tracing with phones and widespread testing, I think we actually don’t have to change life that much, and we will contain it.
If we don’t contain it, then the question becomes, do we have lifelong immunity or is this a seasonal virus. If this becomes a seasonal plague that we have to go through every single winter, it could be a lot longer than a year. It could be every year.
Matt Parlmer: That’s what the WHO and CDC people have been saying in private communications or internal communications. They do think it’s going to go seasonal and that this is here to stay.
Wolf Tivy: That would be quite concerning. So far it hasn’t quite reached the level even of the flu. We’re still actually in the early stages where this is the major impact is still pretty hypothetical, but there is nothing particularly stopping it from getting quite big.
William Eden: Yeah, if you look at syndromic surveillance, where you just like to find the number of people that are having flu like symptoms at a given point, there are certain parts of the country where it’s now above peak flu season. So it’s not going to be just the flu for any longer if it’s not already.
Wolf Tivy: Yeah, and we’re off of peak flu season, aren’t we?
William Eden: Oh, well off now. Yeah.
Matt Parlmer: Yeah, that’s early February.
Wolf Tivy: Yeah, I remember seeing a graph with flu symptoms and there’s usually a spike in the winter, basically. And we had that this year with a big spike of flu symptoms in the winter. But then we’re having a second spike of flu symptoms that starting to, again like you said, Will, overtake that peak, and that must be the coronavirus which is actually spreading more than we’re testing. I think that was specifically in New York, and I’m not sure how much that generalizes at this time.
William Eden: Syndrome surveillance across the country shows there are a number of regions in the country where you still don’t really detect symptoms above baseline, but in several parts of the country, they clearly, clearly are. And the ones where they’re not are still kind of marginal, and it looks like the flu season’s flattening off rather than falling. So those will almost certainly go like this over time.
Wolf Tivy: Yeah. I mean, well, we’ll see how it all plays out. This thing getting seasonal could get—I mean, eventually, we would have to just go on a fairly serious campaign to squash it because otherwise I think it would become a very serious inconvenience if we just let it go.
Matt Parlmer: One thing I’ve heard floating around public health circles is mask month, so we pick some period of time every year where we just all wear masks all the time. And that would drive basically every respiratory disease down close to zero if we started to do that. I’m beginning to think that that might end up being a good idea. You know, every October, or whatever, that’s mask month and everybody’s got the surgical mask on whenever they’re in public and we just drive that down to zero along with the common cold.
William Eden: Yeah, totally. The “it’s just the flu” has made me now think we need to get rid of the flu with these same methods, right? Let’s end the flu. Why do we put up with the flu?
Matt Parlmer: Yeah, absolutely.
Wolf Tivy: This reminds me of the Hong Kong numbers where—
William Eden: Yes, where every disease is falling.
Wolf Tivy: Because they did an effective hygiene approach to this, the flu actually tanked as well, as soon as they got word of coronavirus, which is sort of hartening right? It’s like, okay, well maybe if we get good at crushing these things, this won’t be the only one we crush.
Matt Parlmer: Yeah, and to everyone who who’s still got residual like you know
“masks don’t work” propaganda in their decision tree somewhere, that that is objectively not true. Masks work great. What masks do—surgical masks of the type that you see commuters wearing in Asian countries, quite wisely. What they do is they protect you from direct droplets spread, but they also catch a bunch of viral matter if you are sick or if you are an asymptomatic carrier, so when they’re catching all of that viral matter it starts to drive things down to zero. I will also say that with all of the facial recognition technology coming out these days, the civil libertarian in me really likes the idea of a lot of people masking up in public. But we’ll see.
Wolf Tivy: What do you guys think about whether this has given us enough of a wake up call that we’re going to be much more effective in the next pandemic, or are we going to substantially change our procedures here? This is a question from Jessica Dang.
Matt Parlmer: You want to take this one, Will?
William Eden: God, I don’t know. I had, which is so tragic, right? I think some of it depends what the, what the shape of the pandemic looks like, to a certain degree, though, probably respiratory viruses are the thing that would spread the fastest anyway. This is not quite the maximally bad condition. I think the strategic reserve will have more stockpiles which will help. I don’t know whether international institutions are going to be better. The World Health Organization definitely seemed to be driven by politics and trying to keep relationships with China happy. China didn’t let the U.S. CDC in early, which was another sign that this was more political than about stopping the crisis. It’s tough to imagine all of these political concerns going away. I think it’ll be easier to convince the population that something’s more necessary and the media might be more on board with treating it more seriously sooner. I do think pieces of it will be easier and pieces of it won’t. It’s a hard question.
Matt Parlmer: Yeah, I think our existing perimeter defense systems are very good. Very, very good. Like I like I said, we are typically outbreak of, say, novel hemorrhagic fever in the jungle in Uganda to MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières, i.e., Doctors Without Borders) on the ground, CDC and WHO, on the ground attacking the problem, we’re incredibly good at that.
Where that doesn’t work is central China where the CCP won’t let people go in and operate that extremely good epidemic surveillance infrastructure. The perimeter defense stuff I think is quite good. I’m not very optimistic, though, about our ability to actually contain large scale outbreaks once they do get past that perimeter defense infrastructure. If you look at the Ebola crisis, which was very terrifying and should have been the wakeup call that prevented this, or if you look at the response now, the issue isn’t even at the level of our public health authorities, it is at every level of Western governments. We are screwing the pooch at an enormous scale.
It’s obvious that under this level of pressure, every facet of our institutions is crumbling like a paper airplane hitting the ground. It’s so obvious that we just don’t have the institutional gas to respond to pandemics right now. If you just play out the institutional decay that has been happening at an accelerating rate for the last forty years, you play that out another twenty, to when you see something come out of Brazil or whatever. I don’t think that ceteris paribus (i.e., all else equal) we actually do a better job after this.
Wolf Tivy: A lot of it really depends on what kind of larger institutional reform this spurs, right? This actually gets into another question from Gabriel, which is what are the possible upsides in terms of institutional rebuilding as a result of this thing. I mean societies get hit by these shocks occasionally. It really sucks in the moment, it’s going to be awful, but they are also a shock that forces a renewal often. What do you guys think about the chance that this whole crisis spurs more widespread institutional renewal that can get us ready for the next one—not just the next one, but renew other aspects of the system?
William Eden: I think that it might. Something that’s tricky about a complex system that it’s hard to predict in advance what’s going to cause damage and what’s going to cause an adaptive response. My fear is that this could end up being damage, instead of adaptation.
With a particularly sort of sclerotic bureaucracy, I think if there’s a positive movement, adding another layer of bureaucracy that just overrides the other ones. Not that the other ones are going to go away. Both the CDC and the FDA massively dropped the ball. You really believe either the CDC or the FDA won’t exist after this, right? That’s hard to imagine. Maybe what we get is like the executive branch really puts its foot down and just like cuts a ton of laws. That I can see maybe happening. Something like if there’s ever any emergency pandemic situation, the FDA has to automatically grant the authority to run a test or something. You could imagine something like that gets enshrined, largely by taking away existing regulations. But I think, given our current state, we’re much more likely to just layer on something else than we are to actually fundamentally fix the parts that are broken.
Wolf Tivy: So that’s the ethos of the current system. Matt, were you going to say something?
Matt Parlmer: Well, yeah, I think that we will attempt to layer something on, but I think that credibility of federal public health authorities, both in the eyes of the public and in the eyes of municipal and regional health authorities, is completely spent. I do not see university research hospitals, I do not see municipal or state level public health authorities, taking anything that comes out of the CDC’s mouth seriously ever again, nor should they.
I think when something like this comes down the pike again, it’s going to end up being a much more distributed response, which means it’s going to be worse in some places and better than others. Frankly, I think that’s probably the outcome that’s optimal.
William Eden: I’m actually less sure than you that the state and local authorities aren’t going to listen to the national authorities. Again, I’m just updating in that direction so hard, seeing this whole thing play out now. Like none of the localities wanted to take action before they got a higher up on board.
Matt Parlmer: Right.
Wolf Tivy: Yeah, they were all fairly timid in this thing even though the force of moral righteousness is definitely with them and the force of necessity.
William Eden: Certainly, there were one or two notable examples, like here in San Francisco. The mayor declared a state of public emergency before there was the first confirmed case in San Francisco, because it was obvious to everyone that was spreading in the Bay Area.
Matt Parlmer: Yeah.
William Eden: We got the first confirmed community spread a couple of days after she did that. That’s the kind of foresight someone who’s actually in touch with the situation should be showing here. Also, New York State—not New York City—New York State. Their governor has actually been on top of this thing.
Wolf Tivy: I was impressed by New York.
William Eden: Yeah, absolutely. They’re leading the charge. But I will say something that both the Bay Area and New York are two of the hardest hit places currently. Seattle’s maybe the outlier of being even harder hit, but still not really getting ahead of the problem.
Matt Parlmer: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the future governor of California, current Mayor of San Diego Kevin Faulconer was ahead of the curve on the coronavirus situation, but also was ahead of the curve on housing situation, and ahead of the curve on homelessness situation months ago. You are starting to see a much more effective—(Mayor of San Francisco) London Breed’s as you said early state of emergency declaration. You’re starting to see a lot more state and regional authorities or state and local authorities take this sort of thing seriously. I can’t stand Andrew Cuomo, but credit where it’s due. He is doing a good job.
Wolf Tivy: So, Matt. So to answer your prediction that the state and local authorities might stop listening to the higher ups and start doing more independent action. I think the counterpoint is that it’s very easy to imagine when the thing is happening, things are changing, it seems like a very powerful situation to change your mind, but these changes tend to need to be institutionalized for there to be a lasting consciousness of the thing.
And the default really is that public memory fades away, everyone forgets about it and goes back to the standard operating procedure, whatever that is. I think any kind of institutional change in behavior really depends on institutional reconstruction, changing how things work a bit.
William Eden: I would put one caveat on that which is I agree that the institutions, ideally should get this figured out and change themselves. But even if something like the 2008 financial crisis, a number of people gained status and a number of people lost status, largely because of if they saw it coming or not and what they did.
William Eden: We talk about, like, Nassim Taleb. Who wouldn’t give him any time of day at all if he didn’t sound the alarm in 2007, right? No one likes that guy. No one would listen to that guy.
Wolf Tivy: Yeah, his point is much more powerful, given the 2008 actually happened.
William Eden: Yeah, so I think we could see something like that coming out of this, where like a small number of people get listened to and have a platform that didn’t before.
Wolf Tivy: Yeah, I think that’s a very important prediction of how this actually affects things. I think one of the things I’ve been seeing here and that I’ve been calling and talking about is the degree to which this is really causing the victory of certain themes in the discourse and certain people who have been saying things about state capacity, who have been talking about the dangers of offshoring the entire supply chain, of institutional decay. A large number of issues that people have been talking about, and that have been addressed in certain circles and not others.
Right now, this situation is really resulting in a transfer of credibility that I think will be partially permanent. It won’t necessarily just fizzle out. There will be a lot of it that fizzles out, but there will be some things that, with this salient in the public imagination, certain ways of thinking are going to be seeming a lot more natural over the next couple decades.
So Tanner Greer has asked a very long and complicated question, so let me just try to read through that and see what we think of it: He’s currently writing a history of the United States in the 21st century. One of the extraordinary things he’s noted is the amount of time elected officials spent with crisis management. And “crisis management” really means public relations, or as we’ve called it, “narrative management.” Many weeks, the National Security Advisor or the Secretary of State spend more of their hours trying to shape the narrative and coverage of events and actually trying to shape facts on the ground. The majority of these crises are not meant not remembered two months later. So this is the pattern of public action. Put more effort into knowledge management than crisis resolution. It’s been going like this for two decades. What do we need to do to change that? Is it just an inevitable feature of democracy caught in the grip of the news cycle or is it possible to incentivize and focus on action instead of spin?
That’s a very deep question. I’m very curious to hear what you guys have to say about that.
Matt Parlmer: Tanner, when that book comes out, I will absolutely preorder it. In fact I’d like to read a preprint if you’d be willing to share. That sounds absolutely amazing.
I think we need a greater degree of independence for essential institutions. The Fed can go and act rapidly and without having to ask anybody. And that has been what has kept us from having a complete and total financial system collapse as opposed to a 75%—
Wolf Tivy: Partial—
Matt Parlmer: Partial financial system collapse, right? But you need ideological unconstrained, ideologically low voltage, expert institutions that can do things effectively quickly and impactfully. And when you don’t have that you get what we have right now. You can think back to, for example, what the British Foreign Office was able to do back in the 1800s, without ever having to go check in with Parliament.
They were able to conduct Britain’s foreign policy almost as a peer to Parliament, rather than as a subject institution, even though Parliament could ultimately just take the funding from them. So I think a greater degree of institutional independence is how we avoid that trap, but I don’t think that’s going to happen under the under American political regime. I don’t think that’s going to happen at all.
William Eden: It sounds like the answer is yes, this is an inevitable feature of a democracy, and therefore we need less democracy, this sounds kind of like the answer.
Wolf Tivy: To put some nuance on that, we recently published a review of the book 10% Less Democracy on Palladium. And the idea there is that we don’t necessarily just have to write-off democracy, we can just look at the successes of institutions like the Federal Reserve and say, well, maybe we just need more of that kind of thing. What are the areas where people are getting too caught up in this narrative management stuff, and free those institutions from those pressures. It doesn’t have to be something radical, though perhaps radical things are called for, but you can imagine this just 10% less democracy version of that.
Matt Parlmer: I think a system of government changes are called for at this point, but that’s another thing.
William Eden: It’s interesting to use the Fed as an example because what actually makes the Fed work? Why can it be independent? And it seems like there’s this one feature that folks have decided gets to be handled by someone else. I mean, there’s a lot of unaccountable bureaucracy in the Executive Branch in general. We don’t seem to treat it as independent. We don’t seem to treat it as ruled by technocrats either, but what’s the difference between the Fed and the entire rest of the government?
Wolf Tivy: That’s a very important question. I don’t know the answer.
William Eden: Why is the Fed different than the CDC?
Matt Parlmer: Well, the Fed has a very important set of customers, the banking system. And I think that part of why they’re able to move independently. Now, should it necessarily be that way? Should we have that sort of monetary system? That’s a point for debate. But you could do a lot less a lot worse than the setup that we presently have for the monetary system.
William Eden: Yeah, I mean, something like having a CDC that was as independent as the Fed, but had the ability to shut down the entire US economy in order to stop a virus, I sort of have a hard time imagining that we would do that.
Matt Parlmer: Right, but they don’t necessarily need to have the authority to shut down the economy if they do have the authority to, for example, institute temperature checks on flights without having to go through Homeland Security.
They could conceivably have the ability to go and essentially commandeer parts of the federal infrastructure in the public interest during emergencies. And I think that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to have. There’s plenty of precedent. There’s this great book called Contagion. It’s an academic work on the spread of trade and disease from the Plague of Justinian onward. It talks a lot about how Italian city states, during times of epidemic, would appoint some independent counsel of usually a couple merchants and whatever past for doctors: usually a priest or two. And they would go take over the import-export policies of the port of Genoa, or whatever, and start putting people in the lazaretto for fourteen days so that they can see if they had buboes popping up all over their body—that sort of thing. I think it’s clear that that sort of institution is required in this specific instance in addition to the perimeter defense stuff that we have.
Wolf Tivy: Let’s move on to another question. Byrne Hobart asks if we do tests and traces, is that something that will be done by the private sector or the public sector? And does this kill HIPAA?
William Eden: It should kill HIPAA, but it probably won’t, is the sad thing. Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I mean, testing absolutely can be done by the private sector. Tracing is an interesting question. There’s this very real question going on right now around who do we trust with our data because cell phone tracking has been one of the major things that every East Asian country that has successfully contained this has used. They know where every single person is because we have one of these [holds up a smartphone] on hand at all times. That does contact racing for you. This can be a fully automated system right like Palantir could just solve this problem tomorrow, right?
Wolf Tivy: Right, given the data.
William Eden: Given the data indeed. We’re already having this whole preexisting debate around the role of privacy and tech companies. I’m a little bit worried that just because of the political implications, the private sector is not going to want to do it. And for a lot of reasons, I think the public sector isn’t necessarily going to be able to swallow that and people just go along with it.
Wolf Tivy: Even if you could swallow it and had the mandate to do it, just negotiating the transfer of data between agencies. Who actually has the data, right, who has access to that surveillance data and I guess police can subpoena it?
William Eden: We know the NSA has access to a lot of data. Or at least it did.
Matt Parlmer: For “foreign entities only.”
Wolf Tivy: But do they have channels of information sharing with the rest of the government?
Matt Parlmer: They shouldn’t.
Wolf Tivy: Right, but there’s a lot of institutional barriers there that aren’t just will, I think.
Matt Parlmer: I’m terrified of the security state implications of this. I think that they’re going to use this as a power grab, and I think they’re going to get away with it.
Wolf Tivy: Yes, as one does.
Matt Parlmer: As, as I said earlier, you have messages disappearing on Twitter right now as if we’re working on Western Weibo, and I think that’s an indicator of things to come, and I think it’s completely unnecessary to go do that. You can go look at Hong Kong where trust in government is basically zero and they were able to stop this completely with a bottom up implementation of everybody just going and wearing masks. You really don’t need to get a whole lot more complicated than people just practicing good sanitation.
Wolf Tivy: Good luck getting Americans to do anything sort of public spirited.
Matt Parlmer: Or coordinated. Well, it doesn’t even need to be public spirited, it can be panic or self-preservation driven. I think it’s incredibly naive to suggest that we need to knock down firewalls that we have against the security state extending its power to implement only one version of a workable solution to something like this. I think the people who suggest a massive deployment of the security state to fix this are clueless, and do not realize how many guns there are in this country.
Wolf Tivy: Yeah, so more and more restrained statement of what you’re saying is that there are—
Matt Parlmer: I don’t do restrained statements. (Laughs.)
Wolf Tivy: Yeah. Okay. Yes, but this is a responsible publication that we have to do very restrained students of all these things.
Matt Parlmer: Of course, of course.
Wolf Tivy: Just to rephrase, it’s that there are important barriers within the government and discipline about how we use the powers that we have that ought to be maintained. And related to what you’re saying is that some of these things, especially around the role of the security state domestically, those barriers and those sort of limitations and how we use the power may be more important than the expediency of the moment.
Matt Parlmer: Absolutely.
Wolf Tivy: We should be keeping a vigilance on the larger question of disciplined government, not just the immediate need and like you said there are many other ways to solve this, though. Yeah, I’m not necessarily sort of taking one side or the other. I’m just trying to rephrase, how I understand what you’re saying.
Matt Parlmer: That’s a good representation of it.
William Eden: Yeah. I guess I wonder, is there any way by which we can plausibly expect the government to hand this power back after they use it? Is there any way to shape or form any institution, any structure, we could set up that could actually guarantee that it’s just this once?
Matt Parlmer: No.
Wolf Tivy: Yeah, that’s the thing, right? It’s very difficult once you get a ball rolling to stop the ball from rolling. Once you have a bureaucracy that’s job is to go and surveil people for public health issues, then it’s going to find ways to continue operating.
And so that’s why I think it sort of discipline is and foresight is especially warranted in these things. Whenever you’re spinning up some new piece of machinery, you have to be careful. Is this something we actually want to be sticking around? And in many cases, you want to think very hard, the way we do—or at least we ought to—about laws and precedents.
William Eden: I do still wonder if there’s a purely private solution to the tracing problem that does rely on basically mass voluntary opt-in, and very selective reveal of necessary data, sort of, if and only if you’ve been exposed.
Wolf Tivy: Isn’t that the way Korea or Singapore did it? I thought I saw something to that effect that someone had actually done this voluntary thing where everyone downloads an app, the app keeps track of where you are. And I think somehow they notify you if you’ve been in contact with someone, and then it allows you to then upload your data. And so, it’s there in a way where the data is not being centrally collected, but is being submitted in a decentralized way that keeps it from being a central database of general purpose where everyone has been. I’m not sure whether that actually happened. But I thought I saw something to that effect.
William Eden: Yeah, I should probably look into the implementation details a little bit closer, but I didn’t think there were any that were voluntary, universal, and private. I could be wrong.
Wolf Tivy: Yeah, I’m not sure how these things work. It would be very good to look into that; we should definitely do that. Anirudh asks, do we think the media will face any repercussions for this? Will there be anything that’s going to change the journalism industry out of this?
William Eden: Nope.
Matt Parlmer: Nope.
Wolf Tivy: Yeah, I think that’s sort of a fair—
William Eden: That was our fastest answer yet!
Matt Parlmer: Yeah, I mean their incentive structure is chaos. They love chaos. The press is absolute trash, and has been absolute trashed throughout this whole process, and probably will continue to do so. When I say that I mean particularly the press release and hot take driven political press. Vox, for example, they really showed their true colors throughout all of this. So we’ll see.
William Eden: Yeah, I don’t think there’s anyone there that’s going to forcibly hold their feet to the fire.
Matt Parlmer: Of course not. Of course not.
William Eden: So why would they change?
Matt Parlmer: There have been zero internal repercussions for the stories that they wrote earlier on that which will have body counts.
Wolf Tivy: Another question from Peter. He’s curious about the backstory: what’s going on behind the split between testing capacity and personal protective equipment availability? The testing is at least ramping up, but the personal protective equipment is still quite scarce. What are the factors in American industry that are accounting for that?
William Eden: So I know the testing story pretty well. And I know pieces of the protective equipment story, but I think Matt can probably do that one better.
Matt Parlmer: Yeah, you do testing and I’ll do PPE.
William Eden: Sure. There are lots of labs throughout the U.S. that are very, very good. They basically could have gotten a test up and running at any point. And generally, the FDA is a little bit looser with a diagnostic test. Particularly, there are categorizations that are basically tests that are sort of only used by the doctor for informational purposes. Those are generally regulated much more loosely. So there are very, very broad certifications that the FDA can give you that will allow you to basically do whatever you want in the lab—if you aren’t handing someone a drug; if it’s literally just a test.
The problem is that once the CDC declared that this was an emergency situation it activated a different pathway inside the FDA. Something called “emergency use authorization.” That meant every time someone wanted to run a test for this virus, they had to get a waiver from the FDA that allowed them to do that. And the FDA—
Wolf Tivy: What’s the justification for that?
William Eden: Supposedly what they’re trying to do is they’re trying to stop just anyone off the street from selling their “COVID-19 Test” that is obviously false right, and just selling that to make a profit at expensive folks who are scared. So what the FDA did is they gave any emergency use authorization only to the CDC, So they gave a legal monopoly only on the CDC. Then it was up to the CDC to make all the test kits that we would need. They botched it. The CDC literally messed up the test. They didn’t get the reagents right for the test. They ended up particularly trying to make a much more complicated test. It wasn’t just “yes or no: do you have COVID?” it was trying to diagnose a whole range of different diseases, not just COVID, so that you could do one test and then say, oh, well you have the flu, or this, or that, or COVID. We just needed a “yes or no: do you have COVID?” test. So it was over complicated and they blew it.
It took about a month later, but the FDA finally said, alright, we’ll give emergency use authorizations to any of those labs that we’d previously allowed to just do diagnostic testing in general. And that’s it. All they had to do was just make that one change. And it took them a month. So now everyone is scrambling trying to get the testing up and running because they weren’t legally allowed to do it. And as we mentioned, a doctor at the University of Washington was the one who illegally did the test to inform people that COVID was spreading in the community.
Wolf Tivy: And they weren’t spinning up the tests in anticipation that they might be allowed real soon?
William Eden: I mean, a few people have “for research purposes,” which is how we started to find out about community spread at all because the CDC produced zero viable tests after a few hundred. So that was just an absolute horror show, the FDA finally changed their mind, and now every lab in the country is scrambling to get it up and running now that they can. And what we’re finding is we don’t make reagents in the country. We don’t make cotton swabs.
Wolf Tivy: Oh man.
William Eden: Every lab now is fighting for supplies. There are universities sending out emails to the alumni saying , hey, if you’re a tinkerer, and you have some of these tools sitting around, can you send it to the lab right now? Just crazy scramble in this system, which, quite frankly, should have been on this two months ago.
Wolf Tivy: Hmm, interesting. Matt, how’s the personal protective equipment side?
Matt Parlmer: The question is how did we get here right? Well, there’s the macro reasons for this, and then there are the specific reasons. So back in the 70s, 80s, 90s, obviously there was tons and tons of stuff going offshore. One of the things that got offshored is basically any sort of small single-use plastic widget. That sadly involves basically all disposable personal protective equipment. Yeah. So basically, all of that got moved overseas over the years. Kimberly Clark was one of the last companies to finally make the jump and they did so because everybody was feeling cost pressures, and everybody wanted to shave a few pennies off of the masks they were using. So they moved it all overseas.
The government made the determination that since, of course, we have this great perimeter defense infrastructure, you know, “pandemics don’t happen anymore; we solved that problem.” So they cut the National Stockpile down to 50 million of them sitting around, last I checked. Almost all of those are in the process of being deployed right now. They’ll run out very shortly here. Many of them won’t even make it to hospitals.
That’s the macro reason. We don’t make things here anymore. We’re an industrially hollowed-out country that decided at a strategic level, a while back, that it was a good idea to take manufacturing of almost everything—with the exception of aerospace components, some cars, and a few other little things—we decided to move it overseas. I think that’s a big discussion that we need to have after this: do we want American robots to be doing this or do we want overseas sweatshop workers to be doing this?
Wolf Tivy: Well, we’ve got a lot of B.S. jobs that could be redeployed into manufacturing.
Matt Parlmer: Yes, we do. I couldn’t agree more.
Wolf Tivy: We’ve got a lot of human workers as well available.
Matt Parlmer: 95% of the people working in HR would be of greater social utility on a factory floor. So there’s that.
In terms of the immediate problem, basically the outbreak started in China, and as soon as the outbreak started, PRC basically using a number of different laws that they have on the books nationalized just a ton of different production capacities all over the place. One of the things they also did is they went and bought up almost the whole world’s stockpile supply of N95-grade meltblown polypropylene, which is the primary filter media that people use.
So the machinery for turning meltblown polypropylene into masks is not that complicated at all, which is why my team and I are able to address this. But the problem quickly became lack of this material and most of the fabricators for this are in China. There are some European Union or some of the United States, but the lion share is in China. What we’re dealing with right now is as an upstream scarcity in addition to the lack of manufacturing capability here in the States. Beyond that, the macro situation and the immediate material scarcity, we just didn’t have enough of these things stockpiled. There was a conscious decision to be underprepared for something that people considered to be unlikely, and here we are.
Wolf Tivy: Oh, man. Wow, that’s a fairly good answer to that question as far as what happened here and what’s the comparison between the test kits and the personal protective equipment. Chris Gillett asks, how is this particular event going to drive change? How is this particular event going to drive change? A lot of people are optimistic that it’s going to, it’s going to change things. Why will this particular event change or not change things? I think we’ve touched on some of these aspects already—some of these questions. But I think there’s more to say there. Is this going to sort of break the camel’s back on things, or is this just another blip in the news cycle? One might hope. Even if it’s a big one. There were other things that have shown serious dysfunction: Katrina, the 2016 election, before that the Iraq War. It’s been becoming obvious that there’s something seriously wrong with the system for a while. Is this going to be the different one, or is it going to be more of the same?
William Eden: Yeah, I think with each of those examples, I could sort of come up with a story in each case why it didn’t result in change. With Iraq and Afghanistan, it was mostly volunteers. And these are mostly volunteers from parts of the country that the coastal elites have no exposure to. We took on more debt to fight those wars, but we seemingly have an infinite capacity to finance our state
Wolf Tivy: Debt is just numbers and some wizardry.
William Eden: Yeah, and it’s sort of horrible to say that, but I think that’s how it is to almost everyone in the country. Similarly, with Katrina, or more recently, there was a huge hurricane that destroyed Puerto Rico, and that just a blip for Trump. I don’t know if that’s just because it’s regional or something like that. Look, we were both pretty skeptical about how much this is actually going to change things, but I think my case for it changing things is that literally 100% of the US population is caught up in this now.
Wolf Tivy: Yeah, we’re all at risk.
William Eden: Things changed during 9/11. Things changed a little during the financial crisis, but not as much as they should have. So there are examples of profound change, though I think you can argue whether again that’s damage or an adaptive response.
Matt Parlmer: On the Puerto Rico point, actually, I do think it’s important to note that a lot of those people moved to Florida, and they all to-a-person think that Trump is incompetent buffoon. I think correctly. That could very easily cost him to state this year, all of the people who moved to Miami and changed their voter registration to a place where they’re no longer—despite being U.S. citizens—no longer second class citizens. So that’s going to be interesting to see.
Wolf Tivy: Basically this is in many ways a much bigger and harder to contain issue than a lot of these other things. This is going to be something that affects everybody. Certainly we’re all seeing the changes in our lives from it quite directly. Most of us haven’t had friends get sick yet. But we might get there. And then, yeah, that might have—
William Eden: I know a couple of people that are sick now.
Wolf Tivy: Okay, yeah. I’ve heard of a couple cases that fortunately turned out not to be the coronavirus. There are a few friends that had scares, but I don’t know anyone directly who’s stricken by this thing yet.
William Eden: I have one that has an actual positive test, and then a few people who think that they have it but haven’t been able to get a test and so they may never know.
Wolf Tivy: There’s definitely a lot of people who are not able to get a test.
Matt Parlmer: My dad’s going to get it.
Wolf Tivy: Right, because he’s frontline.
Matt Parlmer: He’s frontline in an ICU. Yeah, so I’m just, I’m mentally preparing myself for that. And I’m not going to lie, I’m pretty scared.
Wolf Tivy: Yeah, that’s hard.
William Eden: I hear you, man.
Wolf Tivy: Peter asks another question: Will the U.S. be able to enforce a lockdown? For how long? How will democratic lockdown be narratively distinguished from Chinese lockdown? Let’s make this the last question. There’s no way we’re going to get through everything, but let’s start wrapping it up.
Matt Parlmer: There’s no chance of actually being able to enforce a lockdown in this country. That’s absurd. I mean the only thing that’s going to actually happen is you’re going to do an enormous amount of unnecessary economic damage. This is another area where the libertarians actually probably deserve a little bit of credit, the whole Hayekian like you do not understand the economy; you cannot compute the economy. That whole thing is going to become evident to a lot of people when you realize that shutting down “non-essential businesses”—
Wolf Tivy: When you realize that they actually were essential—
Matt Parlmer: Yeah. How in the world are our hospital cafeterias going to stay open when the people who sell their napkins are shut down? It is classic managerial hubris to think that we can go and actively shut down an economy without causing enormous immediate, potentially politically destabilizing, harm.
The extreme lockdowns that we’re seeing right now. The one in Chicago they’re calling it the stay at home rule, but if you actually look at the implementation of it, it’s martial law with a friendly face. And there’s no way people are going to react well to that. When the economic implications of that starts pan out, you will have riots in places. We’ve already seen the first coronavirus riots on college campuses with kids drunkenly brawling with cops. I think when the chemical factor is not being able to buy food because your grocery store shelves aren’t stocked in a week or two from now—and not a bunch of ethyl-alcohol in your bloodstream—I think, I think we’re going to start to see a lot of extreme repercussions.
William Eden: It’s probably the first time I’m going to heavily disagree with Matt. We’ve been on the same page up until this point. I think the U.S. is going to successfully implement a lockdown. I don’t think that it has to be very long. Just given what we know about this virus, even doing it for a few weeks will help enormously and a month, I think basically almost all of us can get through that. I don’t think we’re going to see serious disruptions to food supply. I totally agree, if we did, then I would expect riots, but they’ve been rolling out over the course of this last week, and San Francisco is just quieter. I don’t think it’s going to be much different in the second week than the first week, or the third week, or the fourth week.
Wolf Tivy: People will get antsy and start going outside again. When enforcement starts having to happen, that might be the thing.
William Eden: I can see that. But the order, at least here in San Francisco, and now all of California allows you to go out for a walk. You just can’t hang out with people. I predict that it’s going to be pulled off and I think it will end up being pretty damaging to the economy; just what we’re seeing on unemployment rolls. But I think the policy response to that economic dislocation will be the difference between mass unemployment and a temporary blip.
Wolf Tivy: Yeah, totally.
Matt Parlmer: The factors at play whenever anyone’s looking at this—particularly from the perspective of somebody who has a remote-work friendly tech job or whatever; I’m speaking for myself in this case—I think that there can be a tendency sometimes to underestimate the extreme precarity in which many, many American workers actually live.
I also don’t think we’re going to have a month of lockdown. I think we’re going to have several months of badly enforced lockdown that will allow viral spread to continue. So I don’t know. I think if we didn’t keep it to a one month somewhat effective lockdown, the outcome that you’re talking about would come to pass. But I really don’t think that’s going to be what we’re going to get because I haven’t seen any indication that we have institutional capability to do that well. Whether it’s delivering meals to old people who are locked inside, or whether it’s, or whether it’s having consistent enforcement of quarantine rules by our famously excellent police forces.
Wolf Tivy: This is a good issue to end on, because it’s some bold predictions there, some controversy. I guess we’ll see where it all plays out over the next few weeks. Thank you so much guys for coming on. This has been a fantastic discussion. I’ve really enjoyed your perspectives here. This was very informative and I’ve loved the conversation that our audience has been having in the chat. Thanks as well to the audience for tuning in. And thanks everyone outside for listening.
Wolf Tivy: This was great. Thanks so much, guys.
Matt Parlmer: Thanks, everybody. Adios.
William Eden: Bye.