By Scott Sumner
Back around 1900, Joseph Conrad wrote “Typhoon“, one of his best novellas. I recently reread this story, 42 years after the first time, and noticed a number of observations that relate to recent events. (By the way, many of Conrad’s stories have an eerily prophetic feel, which is odd given that he had little interest in politics. Alternatively, perhaps his social commentary holds up well precisely because he disdained political theories of any sort, and saw things more clearly.)
Near the beginning of Chapter 2, Conrad describes Captain MacWhirr, who is about to steer his ship into a major typhoon:
Had he been informed by an indisputable authority that the end of the world was to be finally accomplished by a catastrophic disturbance of the atmosphere, he would have assimilated the information under the simple idea of dirty weather, and no other, because he had no experience of cataclysms, and belief does not necessarily imply comprehension. [emphasis added]
One of the striking facts about the coronavirus epidemic is that advance notice doesn’t seem to have conferred any advantage. Italy was hit hard and went into lockdown before the other European countries (or the US). And yet today, the mortality rate in a number of other countries is almost as bad as in Italy. It seems like the other countries believed they might be similarly affected, but never really comprehended what that meant:
Spain and Belgium have now been hit harder than Italy, while France and Britain are rapidly approaching Italian levels of mortality.
Later on, Conrad suggests an explanation for what went wrong. Here Captain MacWhirr tells his first mate (Jukes) why he didn’t try to evade the typhoon in the East China Sea:
“About as queer as your extraordinary notion of dodging the ship head to sea, for I don’t know how long, to make the Chinamen [passengers] comfortable; whereas all we’ve got to do is take them to Fu-chau, being timed to get there before noon on Friday. If the weather delays me—very well. There’s your log-book to talk straight about the weather. But suppose I went swinging off my course and came in two days late, and they asked me: ‘Where have you been all that time, Captain?’ What could I say to that? ‘Went around to dodge bad weather,’ I would say. ‘It must’ve been dam bad,’ they would say. ‘Don’t know,’ I would have to say; ‘ I’ve dodged clear of it.’ See that Jukes? I have been thinking it all out this afternoon.”
That’s the paradox of leadership decisions that succeed in avoiding a catastrophe. It will often look like the steps taken to avoid the problem (which are often inconvenient) were in fact completely unnecessary. I can recall people saying that the Fed did not need to raise interest rates in the 1990s. After all, inflation stayed fairly low and stable after 1994. But if they had not raised rates?
I cannot resist one more quote, where Conrad shows how at least some Europeans viewed “the other”:
In the midst of all this stir and movement Captain MacWhirr, holding on, showed his eyes above the upper edge, and asked, “What’s the matter?”
“Swell getting worse, sir.”
“Noticed that in here,” muttered Captain MacWhirr. “Anything wrong?”
Jukes, inwardly disconcerted by the seriousness of the eyes looking at him over the top of the book, produced an embarrassed grin.
“Rolling like old boots,” he said, sheepishly.
“Aye! Very heavy—very heavy. What do you want?”
At this Jukes lost his footing and began to flounder.
“I was thinking of our passengers,” he said, in the manner of a man clutching at a straw.
“Passengers?” wondered the Captain, gravely. “What passengers?
“Why, the Chinamen, sir” explained Jukes, very sick of the conversation.
“The Chinamen! Why don’t you speak plainly? Couldn’t tell what you meant. Never heard a lot of coolies spoken of as passengers before. Passengers, indeed! What’s come to you?”