The Illusion of Control

Here is a brief excerpt from the piece I am writing on avian flu:

…these policy recommendations go against the U.S. national character. They will not strike an intuitive chord of approval from all quarters. America typically responds to challenges by refusing to admit it can fail. We have a “can-do” mentality. We built the first atomic bomb, we put a man on the moon, we revitalized the American economy in the 1980s and 1990s, and so on. This trait is admirable and it has been responsible for much of our national greatness. Nonetheless it may hinder our progress in fighting avian flu. We tend to seek out options which offer some option, however unlikely, of apparent invulnerability. Our approach should be different. We should be admitting that at this point we cannot stop a terrible event but we can only make it somewhat less bad.

For an example of our national tendency, consider the response to Hurricane Katrina. It was immediately decided that we should rebuild New Orleans as much as possible. I am not questioning whether this is a wise decision; maybe yes, maybe no. The point is we made this decision for reasons of emotion and temperament, rather than wisdom. We refused to admit that a major American city would be wiped out by a mere act of nature. So we engaged in a large macro response, designed to overturn or reverse the initial calamity altogether. This way we do not have to admit defeat, at least not yet. We seek to control problems when we cannot. All human beings have this tendency, but it is perhaps strongest in the United States, due to our long record of exceptional achievement.

Such a tendency could influence avian flu policy in damaging ways. For instance systematic stockpiles, centrally directed, and military-directed quarantines both give the impression that we can control the course of the pandemic. We would be making a highly symbolic and visual stand of “We won’t just let this happen.” Nonetheless these are not the most effective measures. Preparing emergency rooms or instructing people to wash their hands is, in effect, admitting that the disease would spread and kill people. It is a partial admission of “defeat.” Yet we might need some national modesty to address the problem in a relatively effective manner.


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