An occasional review of technology, markets, and ideas.

Zeal for Zeroism

Zeroism here. Zeroism there. Zeroism everywhere?

Zeroism is an inability to conceive of public-health measures in cost-benefit terms. The pandemic becomes an enemy that must be destroyed at all costs, and any compromise could lead to death and is therefore unacceptable. – Jonathan Chait

Back in March, Jonathan Chait wrote a piece in New York Magazine about 'Zeroism' which is the human tendency to react to a major catastrophe in a way that seeks to bring the risk of another iteration of the catastrophe down to zero.

This – it should be noted – is a phenomenon not limited to pandemics. Chait cites the "One Percent Doctrine" as zeroism manifested in foreign policy. The phrase "One Percent Doctrine" comes from an anecdote from the Bush administration post-9/11 in which then VP Dick Cheney stated: "If there's a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It's not about our analysis ... It's about our response." If you treat an event with a true probability of 1% as an eventuality, one will have a radically different policy response than if it's treated as a tail event.

Today there is no better example of zeroism than in New Zeland where the government announced that they will enter into level-four lockdown for 3 days after a single case of the Delta variant of COVID-19 was discovered in Auckland.

Delta has been called a game changer and it means we need to again go hard and early to stop the spread. We have seen what can happen elsewhere if we fail to get on top of it. We only get one chance. That's why cabinet has met this afternoon and made the decision that New Zeland will move to alert level 4 from 11:59pm tonight. Level 4 will be for an initial period of three days except for Auckland in the Coromandel Peninsula where we anticipate will likely be at level four for seven days. – NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

Given the 17% inoculation rate, going back into lockdown seems like a more dramatic step than simply trying to boost the vaccination rate on the island of 5 million.

Across the pond, one is reminded of FDRs 1933 inaugural address which was delivered three years into the Great Depression. In this speech, FDR delivered the famous line "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Today, for the vaccinated, this rings true.

However, less well known was that in that same speech FDR said that in the event that the "national emergency is still critical" he would ask Congress for "broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe." Everyone wants to turn the page on the pandemic, but we need to be on guard for situations where a zeal for zeroism leads us down a dangerous path from which there is no turning back.

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Jamie Larson