Namo amitabha Buddhaya, y'all.
This here's a religious establishment. Act respectable.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Bring Out Your Dead!! Bring Out Your Dead!!

Playing in the background: An episode of "Good Eats" on the Food Network
Smelling delicious in the background: Joan's Schadenfreude Pie (recipe)
Meters swum today: 1400

For some reason, my posts about child abuse don't seem to be all that popular. I can't imagine why that is. Since my blog might get axed by The Network if I'm not bringing in the ratings, let's talk about something more palatable to the general public: The Black Death. A couple of days ago, The History Channel ran a fascinating special on the only thing to kill more Europeans than Adolf Hitler. Here's the link. I stayed up way too late watching this thing. It was utterly fascinating and terrifying.

This is an electron-microscope picture of Yersinia pestis, the little bacterium that caused this big near-extinction-level event in the 1340s. If you read your history books, you know that the little bugger hitched a ride on rats by way of fleas, which infected humans by biting them. It causes three diseases, bubonic plague (30-70% mortality rate), pneumonic plague (same disease but you catch it from an infected person instead of from a flea bite; 95% mortality rate) and septicemic plague, the Black Death (100% mortality rate). The septicemic version may be the end stage of the first two, or it may be its own disease. Whatever, it kills you very fast, sometimes within a day. You probably know that half of Europe (and Asia and the Middle East) died of this thing. I knew that, too, but the implications hadn't really dawned on me.

I started thinking about that while I was watching the program. Here in Dallas we have about 1.3 million people, give or take. If even 10% of those folks dropped dead (and this would be within a matter of days, or maybe weeks on the outside), that would be 130,000 people. How in hell do you bury (or cremate or--whatever) 130,000 people? Where do you find enough gravediggers, enough fuel for the funeral pyres? That number was staggering enough, but half of Dallas? Dead within weeks? Good God, that's over half a million humans. That's just about unfathomable.

Let's try something smaller. There are about 50 people working at my law firm. 25 of them would die. Joan works at the big library downtown which has about 400 employees. 200 of them would die. You can fit roughly 3,000 passengers onto the typical cruise ship. 1500 of them would die. My typical OA meeting has around 20 people. 10 of them would die. Start crunching these numbers and you get an idea of how utterly devastating this disease must have been for the people who were alive then. Everybody lost loved ones, friends, children, parents. What's worse, they had no idea what was causing it, and if you didn't get better by yourself, there was nothing anybody could do for you. Weirder still, nobody knows if the disease finally went away because there weren't enough humans left to spread it effectively, or if it just mutated into a less virulent form. Waves of bubonic plague went through Europe roughly once a generation until the 1700s, when rat control and better sanitation put the brakes on transmission. None of them were as deadly as that first wave, and again, nobody knows why.

This got me to thinking about the stock market. (Bear with me, it'll make sense in a minute.) Like pretty much every other person who had any money in a 401k, I've lost roughly a third of its former value. At least on paper. In real life, the stock market always comes back, real property always appreciate in value, and investments always gain over time. The question is, how much time? A year? Twenty? Fifty? If you bought stock in Ford Motor Co. in the 1920s and held onto it since then, you'd be a multigajillionaire today. Unless, of course, Ford Motor Co. tanked in the meantime and its stock became worthless. This can and does happen, which is why those financial gurus are always saying to Diversify Your Investments.

What's interesting about this particular market crash, though, is that everything is losing value. Not just stocks but also commodities (plunging gas prices may be great for consumers, but they suck for petroleum futures investors), bonds and other bland, boring, supposedly-safe investments. Across the board, everybody's losing money. At least on paper. Like Europe during the plague years (aha! There's the connection!) everybody knows somebody who's lost their life savings, their job, their house or all of the above. And just like in the plague years, people are losing faith in their institutions - the banks and financial houses instead of the Church, but it's the same sort of deal. If J.P. Morgan and Merrill Lynch can't give us good advice during a crisis of this magnitude, then what the hell good are they? Why bother listening to 'em anymore?

Though many priests acted heroically during outbreaks, a fair number also behaved badly, refusing to help the sick or give last rites for fear of catching the disease. Likewise, many financiers are behaving badly now, committing fraud, grabbing bonuses and bailing out with what they can. The end result after the plague years was the Renaissance as people began to think in radical new ways, and, eventually, the Reformation, when the whole Church got upended in the name of different views on divinity. I dunno what the end result will be when the economic plague finally goes underground, but it would be cool if it could be a different kind of Renaissance, based on commodities that actually hold value and not mortgages that never should have been made in the first place.

Horrible as it was for the human race, the survivors of the plague picked up and moved on. In fact, in a lot of ways the plague had a happy ending. With so many folks dead, a lot of land changed hands. In Italy for the first time, there was enough food to go around, and people were able to plant luxury crops like tomatoes and olive trees, leading to what we think of as Italian food. Labor shortages led to the inventions of things like the Gutenberg press. Survivors and their ancestors also had a kind of limited immunity to a number of diseases, such as smallpox and AIDS.

I'fact that last deserves its own paragraph. Even though AIDS scared hell out of everybody in the early 80s, it's really not that easy to catch, at least, if you're of European stock. You can get it, theoretically, by sleeping with an infected person once, but in real life most people catch it through multiple encounters or by injecting it directly into a vein, ie, through a shared needle. Condoms prevent transmission most of the time. (Hysterical pronouncements of God's wrath on the homosexual community aside, as far as I know, no woman has ever given AIDS to another woman. Every lesbian who has it got it from a man, or from blood. Does this mean lesbians are God's chosen people? Hmm.) However, if you live in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of India, none of the above is true. AIDS has burned through communities like a bush fire and the death rate is ridiculous. It's highly communicable and some scientists even theorize it's gone airborne. Why? No one knows, but one theory is that sub-Saharan Africans never got the plague. That Sahara Desert being in the way thing. They didn't get the immunity that us northern European plague survivors have.

So, financially speaking, what does this mean? Well, I'm hoping it means we'll be a little more immune to bullshit financing schemes. That we'll ask a lot more questions about the regulation of the banking industry. That we'll invest in sustainable crops, energy that doesn't kill us, hybrid cars (or better yet, mass transit) and other things that people need to live decent lives. That instead of kneeling and praying when the flagellants come through town, flogging themselves into hysterics, we'll actually stop them and say, "Guys, you're making yourselves weaker and you're going to be easy prey for an infection. Cut it out, now." Or, more directly, "Guys, don't bail out of your 401k. You won't do any better on your own and ten years from now you'll feel like an idiot."

Beats hell out of burying 600,000 bodies, or, harder still, figuring out how to take care of millions of adults living to the age of 106 with no income and no Social Security.

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