Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 16, 2007

Ready for an Epidemic?

In the latest City Journal, Peter Huber offers a must-read essay on our society’s acute and growing vulnerability to infectious disease. As he notes, it is a problem that many at the highest levels of government are downright obsessed with these days, and rightfully so.

In recent years, that obsession has been most evident in federal efforts to prepare for a potential epidemic of the “bird flu.” Avian influenza, we’ve been told, could be the next major global pandemic, on par with the deadly flu outbreak that killed tens of millions worldwide (including about 675,000 Americans) in 1918. Our government has devoted enormous energies and funds to the effort to prepare: undertaking exercises and “war-games,” producing a massive response plan, sending top officials to brief state and local leaders on what they would need to do in the event of an outbreak, and spending billions on the effort to stockpile both vaccines and treatments.

Among the key lessons of that process (a process in which I played a tiny part as a White House domestic-policy staffer) is one Huber does not address in his piece: the unprecedented vulnerability of our way of life to any disruption that causes large numbers of Americans to skip work. Staying home, especially if your job involves travel, is a logical reaction to an infectious disease outbreak, and public health officials are inclined to recommend doing so in the case of a serious epidemic.

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In the latest City Journal, Peter Huber offers a must-read essay on our society’s acute and growing vulnerability to infectious disease. As he notes, it is a problem that many at the highest levels of government are downright obsessed with these days, and rightfully so.

In recent years, that obsession has been most evident in federal efforts to prepare for a potential epidemic of the “bird flu.” Avian influenza, we’ve been told, could be the next major global pandemic, on par with the deadly flu outbreak that killed tens of millions worldwide (including about 675,000 Americans) in 1918. Our government has devoted enormous energies and funds to the effort to prepare: undertaking exercises and “war-games,” producing a massive response plan, sending top officials to brief state and local leaders on what they would need to do in the event of an outbreak, and spending billions on the effort to stockpile both vaccines and treatments.

Among the key lessons of that process (a process in which I played a tiny part as a White House domestic-policy staffer) is one Huber does not address in his piece: the unprecedented vulnerability of our way of life to any disruption that causes large numbers of Americans to skip work. Staying home, especially if your job involves travel, is a logical reaction to an infectious disease outbreak, and public health officials are inclined to recommend doing so in the case of a serious epidemic.

But the miraculous American economy we have grown used to is made possible by a stunningly efficient “just-in-time” supply chain, in which raw materials and finished products are always on the move. Suppliers and sellers tend not to keep much in stock, since we can always rely on timely delivery of just what we need just when we need it. This makes for efficiency and productivity, but it also makes the whole system terribly vulnerable to disruption. If, say, a quarter of UPS’s workforce or of the country’s eighteen-wheeler drivers failed to come to work one day, the consequences would be swift and horrendous.

Think of it this way: unless you happen to live in the heart of the Midwest, it’s unlikely that much of your food came from anywhere near where you bought it. And wherever you live, only a small portion of the products in your supermarket were there a week ago, or will be there a week from now. That means that after a week without truck drivers, much of the country would be in genuine danger of running out of food and supplies, astounding as that may seem. And you can bet that a serious outbreak of infectious disease would keep drivers home—even those who were not actually sick would be scared of exposure.

This is why the kind of preparation the government undertook when a bird-flu outbreak seemed imminent was warranted. And even if the threat of avian influenza itself was exaggerated (which some commentators have plausibly argued), these preparations will serve us in the event of another serious infectious outbreak. As Huber notes, if history and epidemiology are any guides, it’s a not question of if but of when.

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Auf Wiedersehen, Alban Berg Quartet!

Sign and Sight has translated a long article by Die Zeit‘s music critic Volker Hagedorn on the Alban Berg Quartet, one of the world’s pre-eminent string quartets. After a career spanning 40 years, the quartet will be retiring from the stage at the end of the next performance season.

Founded in 1967 by the Austrian violinist Günther Pichler and comprising Pichler, violinist Gerhard Schulz, cellist Valentin Erben, and violist Thomas Kakuska, the quartet made championing the work of 20th-century composers its fundamental principle. (Though the group did not, by any means, neglect the work of past masters, producing important recordings of Beethoven’s string quartets.) The quartet soon became one of the most widely heard and well-beloved in Europe.

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Sign and Sight has translated a long article by Die Zeit‘s music critic Volker Hagedorn on the Alban Berg Quartet, one of the world’s pre-eminent string quartets. After a career spanning 40 years, the quartet will be retiring from the stage at the end of the next performance season.

Founded in 1967 by the Austrian violinist Günther Pichler and comprising Pichler, violinist Gerhard Schulz, cellist Valentin Erben, and violist Thomas Kakuska, the quartet made championing the work of 20th-century composers its fundamental principle. (Though the group did not, by any means, neglect the work of past masters, producing important recordings of Beethoven’s string quartets.) The quartet soon became one of the most widely heard and well-beloved in Europe.

Hagedorn’s article is full of insight about their playing but also contains several interesting anecdotes. This one in particular should attest to the quartet’s early prowess and seriousness:

The very first modern composer to be included in their repertoire was not able to hear them anyway. Their namesake Alban Berg died in 1935. His widow, Helene, wanted to hear the four young musicians herself before giving the quartet her blessing. “We had to play the ‘Lyric Suite’ in the room where Berg composed it.” [says Pichler.] In this piece Berg gave musical expression to his despairing love for Hanna Fuchs, the married sister of Franz Werfel. Laden with symbolic motifs and a concealed subtext, which at one point breaks out quite openly in a quotation from Tristan and Isolde, it is one of the most passionate declarations of love in the string quartet repertoire. “That was really exciting for us,” says Pichler, relating how all the big names on the Vienna music scene came to hear them play. “Helene listened very intently and with great interest”—and she was taken with them.

The death of the quartet’s violist, Thomas Kakuska, in July 2005 was a major loss to the world of music. The group’s departure from public performance is another. Auf wiedersehen.

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Nicolas Sarkozy

Next Sunday, France will hold its first round of balloting for a new president. This is the first of three posts on the leading candidates by the French editor and journalist Michel Gurfinkiel. A longer and more in-depth look by Gurfinkiel at the condition of present-day France will be coming out in the May issue of COMMENTARY.

Nicolas Sarkozy is the candidate for the presidency of France best known in America—and the most popular, since he is as pro-American and as knowledgeable in all things American as a French political leader can be. A short, thin man with an angular face, ribbed eyebrows, and big dark eyes, he looks a bit like a character in an El Greco painting. French cartoonists, however, tend to portray him as a turbulent, devilish little figure. In spite of being born and raised in the affluent West End of Paris, he speaks with a hoarse, almost working-class, accent. But his command of the French language and his talent as a debater are truly astounding: he was trained as a lawyer and graduated at the Paris Institute for Political Science. No less astounding is his meteoric political career: mayor of Neuilly, a posh suburb of Paris and one of the wealthiest townships of France, at twenty-eight; member of the National Assembly at thirty-three; budget minister at thirty-eight. Before the age of forty, he had achieved membership in the charmed circle of French political leaders thought to have un destin national—a real shot at the presidency, in American English.

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Next Sunday, France will hold its first round of balloting for a new president. This is the first of three posts on the leading candidates by the French editor and journalist Michel Gurfinkiel. A longer and more in-depth look by Gurfinkiel at the condition of present-day France will be coming out in the May issue of COMMENTARY.

Nicolas Sarkozy is the candidate for the presidency of France best known in America—and the most popular, since he is as pro-American and as knowledgeable in all things American as a French political leader can be. A short, thin man with an angular face, ribbed eyebrows, and big dark eyes, he looks a bit like a character in an El Greco painting. French cartoonists, however, tend to portray him as a turbulent, devilish little figure. In spite of being born and raised in the affluent West End of Paris, he speaks with a hoarse, almost working-class, accent. But his command of the French language and his talent as a debater are truly astounding: he was trained as a lawyer and graduated at the Paris Institute for Political Science. No less astounding is his meteoric political career: mayor of Neuilly, a posh suburb of Paris and one of the wealthiest townships of France, at twenty-eight; member of the National Assembly at thirty-three; budget minister at thirty-eight. Before the age of forty, he had achieved membership in the charmed circle of French political leaders thought to have un destin national—a real shot at the presidency, in American English.

But the closer he came to the inner core of French politics, the stranger he appeared. Sarkozy is best described, perhaps, as a neo-Frenchman: he is the son and the grandson of immigrants. His father, Pàl Sàrközy de Nagybocsa, was for years depicted as a Hungarian grandee, the “scion,” according to a Wikipedia profile probably written under his own supervision, “of an aristocratic family who owned lands and a castle in Alattyàn and a domain with 200 peasants.” In reality, he seems to have been a poor relation of the Alattyàn lords who somehow, after a number of unexplained vicissitudes, ended up after World War II in the French Foreign Legion. Honorably discharged in 1948, he soon married Andrée Mallah, a French girl of Salonikan-Jewish descent. Nicolas, born in 1955, was “baptized and confirmed as a Catholic.”

This is a rather convoluted pedigree, a far cry from what was until very recently the unwritten, unspoken, and yet inescapable prerequisite of a bid for the presidency: being connected from time immemorial with a French Christian family, or, at the very least, being the heir of some long-settled Christian or Jewish immigrant dynasty. As a matter of fact, Sarkozy’s swift ascent among French conservatives in the 1980’s and the 1990’s—he became the Gaullist party’s top boss in 1999—elicited many xenophobic and anti-Semitic reactions.

Then, in 2002, after Jacques Chirac’s reelection, the landscape suddenly changed. The Right’s dissatisfaction with Chirac—who was busy recasting himself, after his duel with Le Pen, as a left-of-center liberal—burgeoned explosively. Chirac loyalists countered by forming the UMP, the Union for a Progressive Majority. But their would-be champion, Alain Juppé, was indicted for minor financial crimes committed as Chirac’s former deputy in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, and barred from politics for three years. In the ensuing vaccum Sarkozy took Juppé’s putative place as the UMP’s favorite politician (having meanwhile secured for himself the long-coveted ministry of the interior). He became immensely popular, and immensely controversial, for his abandonment of politically correct rhetoric and for his handling of the riots in the Paris suburbs in 2005.

Although Sarkozy is seen in France as a rightist, his politics are—by American standards—only mildly conservative, with occasional liberal outbursts: somewhere between Britain’s Tony Blair and California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger. He stands for law and order, an important concern in a crime-ridden country. He intends to curb illegal emigration and defend France’s “national identity” while at the same time favoring affirmative action for ethnic or racial minorities and providing French Muslims adequate mosques and other facilities. These are not just words: as minister of the interior, he promoted Muslim prefects (state commissioners) and organized a National Council of the Muslim Religion (since taken over by radical groups). Sarkozy also stands for lower taxes and a dismantling of the welfare state’s most rigid and costly provisions, although he dares not advocate, at least in public, outright elimination of the 35-hour work week. In international affairs, he opposes Turkey’s accession to the EU but would grant it the status of a “special partner.” To the dismay of many of his advisers, he quite openly supports the United States and Israel, his only concession being to state that Chirac was right to oppose the Iraq war.

For the past three years, Chirac loyalists have done their utmost to block Sarkozy’s rise. In 2005, they nearly succeeded: A new prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, suddenly overtook Sarkozy in approval ratings. In 2006, however, Villepin disintegrated almost overnight, because of an ill-conceived reform bill on juvenile employment and the “Clearstream affair,” an attempt to bring Sarkozy down through the publication of forged documents purporting to incriminate him in shady financial dealings (the matter is still awaiting judicial determination). All to no avail: on January 14 of this year, the UMP unanimously endorsed Sarkozy for president. The entire conservative camp had suddenly realized that it had to unite against a major threat: the socialist Ségolène Royal.

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