Alexander Fleming, the Scottish bacteriologist who discovered penicillin, the first antibiotic, served in the military during World War I. According to Happy Accidents (2007) by Morton Meyers, soldiers in that war often died from infections in relatively minor wounds. Rather than conclude that something was wrong with their immune systems, and wonder why, Fleming — unsurprisingly for a bacteriologist — began to think we needed more substances that killed bacteria. A hundred years later, the blind spot still exists. A few years ago I noticed that a wide-ranging course on epidemiology was being taught in the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. I knew the professor. I asked him, “Will the course cover what makes the immune system weak or strong?” “No,” he said. You will look in vain for that topic in any epidemiology text. To call it a blind spot is being nice. Half the subject — the more important half — is being ignored. And Schools of Public Health favor prevention. Medical schools are worse.
In an editorial in today’s Financial Times, Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Mark Spitznagel point out that debt is inherently destabilizing because it creates less room for error. Financial professionals and economists, including those at the very top, don’t realize this:
Alan Greenspan, former Federal Reserve chairman, tried playing with the business cycle to iron out bubbles, but it eventually got completely out of control. Bubbles and fads are part of cultural life. We need to do the opposite to what Mr Greenspan did: make the economyâ€™s structure more robust to bubbles.
Taleb and Spitznagel note that the dotcom bubble, when it burst, had only minor consequences. That’s because it was an equity bubble rather than a debt bubble. The stimulus package is just more debt: public rather than private. It doesn’t reduce the source of the problem: A too-fragile system. A great point — fascinating how rarely I hear it.
Just as Greenspan failed to understand the problem and chose the wrong lever to pull, so did Fleming and a million doctors and medical/drug researchers. They have tried to deal with a too-fragile system by killing bacteria. Bacteria, like financial bubbles and fads, are part of life. We need to make our bodies more robust to them. Fermented foods do that. By killing off bacteria inside our bodies, antibiotics do the opposite: Make us even more fragile.