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US Congress shutsdown CDC, also other unimportant agencies

So the US government is likely being shutdown, which will suspend the work of many government agencies, including the Center for Disease Control (CDC). But, fair citizens, I reassure you – in its wisdom, the US Congress has decided that the military’s salaries will be excluded from the shutdown.

With all due respect to military personnel, this is ludicrous. The US military is by far the world’s largest, there is little likelihood of any major war (the last great power war was in 1953), and no sign of minor wars starting, either. Suspended salaries may be bad for morale and long term retention, but they aren’t going to compromise US military power.

Contrast with the CDC’s work. The world’s deadliest war was the second world war, with 60 million dead, over a period of years (other wars get nowhere close to this). The Spanish flu killed 50-100 million on its own, in a single year. Smallpox couldn’t match that yearly rate, but did polish off 300-500 million of us during the 20th century. Bog standard flu kills between a quarter and a half million every year, and if we wanted to go back further, the Black Death wiped out at least a third of the population of Europe. And let’s not forget HIV with its 30 million deaths to date.

No need to belabour the point… Actually there is: infectious diseases are the greatest killers in human history, bar none. If any point needs belabouring, that’s one. And a shutdown would have an immediate negative impact on public health: for instance, the CDC would halt its influenza monitoring program. Now, of course, this year’s flu may not turn out to be pandemic – we can but hope, because that’s all we can do now! And if we have another SARS starting somewhere in the United States, it will be a real disaster.

We’re closing our eyes and hoping that the greatest killer in human history will be considerate enough to not strike while we sort out our politics.

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4 Comment on this post

  1. It strikes me that there’s something about having a military that makes you think you really need it. Matt Yglesias wrote a compelling column, back when we were discussing bombing Syria, that non-violent means of humanitarian aid (such as bed net distribution) are much more cost-effective than tactical strikes. And yet we seem perfectly comfortable letting foreigners die from Malaria than from chemical weapons, despite all the uncertainties that come from warfare.

    When you have a military, you convince yourself you have to use it. Perhaps this is because the terrible costs of war couldn’t be justified if war weren’t really important, and to resolve the cognitive dissonance we over-estimate the importance of military action. Unfortunately, there are no such cognitive pressures to keep the CDC open.

  2. One can make the libertarian argument that the CDC is as legitimate in a minarchist order as the military, since it protects citizens from pathogen attacks. And pathogens are far more dangerous than terrorists in terms of actual deaths, and even the national interest (which I’m less certain a minarchist would care for) is benefited by having fewer sick people. Insofar the CDC doesn’t infringe on the rights of people (this is of course where various libertarian views start to part way) it might be far *better* than a military since it targets moral non-agents without rights while protecting rights-holding agents.

    But fighting against and coercing moral agents is far more salient to us than fighting mere replicators. Hence we overestimate the importance of the military (and other anti-agent measures), and underestimate the importance of measures against dangerous non-agents. This is why we have a War on Terror and not a War on Slipping in Bathtubs.

    Changing this would require a rather profound change in mindset among decision-makers and voters.

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