What The Great 1850s New York Horse Manure Problem Can Teach Us About The Great 2020 Coronavirus Problem.
By Norm Robins
In 1850 or so the streets of New York City were clogged with horse manure. They were also filled with the bodies of dead horses that were worked to death, left in place, and replaced on the spot with fresh horses. London had the same problem, but to tell it would be to repeat the New York story. Of course, all movement of people and goods were in horse-drawn vehicles.
When the “swells” wanted to cross the street, street urchins with brooms would sweep a path through the manure so the “swells” wouldn’t sully their shoes, trousers, or dresses. A tip was required.
Alarmed by this, the city fathers decided to take corrective action before it became a huge problem. They hired a team of the most credentialed scientific reasoners to tell them what all this horse manure meant. It should be noted beforehand that economic forecasting was invented to make astrology look respectable. (Neither one is. One is more obvious than the other.) The economic thinkers measured the ratio of horses to people and measured the manure produced by each horse. Based on population growth trends they then forecasted the amount of horse manure New York would have year by year into the future. They reported the results to the city fathers. They forecasted by 1935 New Yorkers would be slightly above their nostrils in manure.
Okay, what was wrong with this forecast? It looked solid based on the data at hand. But the problem with taking a set of data, a straight edge, and a pencil and drawing a straight line from the data on hand way out into an unknown future is that this assumes nothing will be different in the future than it is now. It assumes nothing different will happen between now and then. Considering the inventiveness, the innovation, the dissatisfaction with things as they are, and the freedom we enjoy this is really a dumb assumption. We are the most innovative people anywhere anytime. In New York’s case they could not have forecasted the end of the horse and carriage, the invention of the internal combustion engines, diesel, and gasoline, which gave rise to cars, buses, trolley cars, trucks, and subways that New York has in prodigious numbers. Horse-drawn conveyances went the way of the dodo bird. Who knew?
And that was The Great 1850s New York Horse Manure Problem. It was that what we know now is insufficient to figure out what the future holds. We simply cannot know. But we can know history. We can know how we responded and then got out of the Asian Flu, Ebola, SARS, MERS, AIDS, and the Zika virus. China also has African Swine Flu that has forced the slaughter of half their swineherd. They also have the Army Worm, that’s not really a worm but a caterpillar, eating prodigious amounts of their grain crops. Rains in East Africa’s and Yemen’s locust breeding grounds have averaged 150% to 400% of normal breeding hundreds of billions of locusts. They have been blanketing East Africa in swarms tens of miles in length and width. Each square kilometer of the swarm has 40,000,000 locusts that eat enough to feed 35,000 people.
So, what are we going to do with the coronavirus now threatening people all over the world? So far, we have instituted draconian, hysterical means to control it. Okay, we are human. We do that sort of thing when we don’t have good data when we aren’t sure of the results of our actions. But, take for example a column that appeared in the Wall St. Journal of March 14, 2020, by Robert J. Hariri, founder, and CEO of Celularity Company. He says, “Celularity has submitted an Investigational New Drug application for NK-cell treatment of Covid-19. Once it’s approved, we could scale up manufacturing within 45 days.” On March 13, 2020, the Swiss pharma company Roche got emergency FDA approval for a coronavirus test. We are getting there.
This new virus sprang on us with lightning speed and devastating virulence. We learned about it despite the Chinese Communist Party’s attempt to conceal it. Remember Dr. Li Wenliang, the 34-year-old doctor who warned his colleagues to suit up because this thing is dangerous. He was arrested and jailed for spreading rumors and disrupting the peace (or whatever they call it), both felonies. He died at age 34 in a Wuhan hospital. That’s communism. Kill people or pay any other price. Keep the narrative of happiness and tranquility and economic progress going because to do otherwise is to threaten their hold on power. Mercifully, with the WHO (World Health Organization) and the CDC (Center for Disease Control) breathing down their necks we are giving the Chinese Communist Party no choice but to give us good, valid data…finally.
Okay, for the moment we are going to avoid people, hide out at home, beat our chests, set our hair on fire, empty the shelves of toilet paper at Costco (really? toilet paper? We should be emptying the shelves of good wine.), put in a 6-month supply of frozen dinners (yuck), and generally defy every social norm we have ever lived by. But this will not last. Our infections and infections in Europe are on the rise. But the infections in China, ground zero for this plague, have peaked and are on the decline. As ours start to decline, as they inevitably will, please go back to a normal life. Our performing arts, restaurants, and tourist places need you. And our souls need them. After all, without beauty in our lives what else is left but work. What an impoverished people we would become if this happened.