Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Black Plague

 I promised the Black Death to a friend of mine, once. Tim Jenks is an awesome guy, so if you're reading this, and you're over there in Greenville, North Carolina, take his courses. (And you're an Internet ninja.) I told Tim that the Death would be a good thing, and that it would be too late to sweep away the old professors and make work for us.

And now we're in yet another Canadian election. And blah blah blah, medicare. The Tories, the party I very diffidently favour, are constantly in trouble for just not being pro-Medicare enough. That's what they get, you will probably say, for hanging with their American cousins, who just can't seem to get enough of hitting poor people in the nuts with rifle butts. (It's hilarious, and it'll start winning elections Real Soon Now.) The predictable response is that all Canadian party leaders have joined in a promise of "More Cash 4Evr" to Medicare.

Look. I don't disagree. But, you know, Black Plague. You've heard of it, no?

See, her name is Rebecca Black, and she's everywhere! Hilarious! So, anyway, some medical historian of the 1830s looked at chronicles of Medieval European epidemics and decides that the 1347--9 Black Plague/Death was a big thing. Which it was. See, back in 1631, the King of France backed rebels against the Emperor of Germany, and the Pope backed the King of France. This had been going on for enough centuries that you'd buy the Realist School in foreign relations except that they're a bunch of dickheads (not completely wrong, but dickheads). When it happened in the 1500s, it all came all unglued and then there were Protestants, and then there were Jesuits. Fight now! Except that the Jesuits threw in with the King of France, so the pro-Emperor Catholics turned to Cornelius Janszen, who explained why they were wrong. More fight now! And what a fight. By 1750, everyone hated either Jansenists or Jesuits, but mostly Jesuits. Eventually the whole thing got so bothersome to the King of France that he expelled the Jesuits, which was promptly followed by this Revolution of which you may have heard. So when they got over that (or thought they did), the Kings of France decided to bring the Jesuits back. The Black-robed Jesuits. That's what the Black Death was about. Not ancient history: the Jesuits were coming back. If you're an American, same era, I don't have to spell it out, right? The fact that there was an epidemic in 1347 that killed a bunch of folks? That's one fact that's out there in history. The fact that the Jesuits are coming back, and you hate Catholics and the Pope and especially Jesuits? That's another fact. Put them together and you have whatever people did back before they had Internet memes.

Yes, there's a real disease, an opportunistic infection that people sometimes get from flea bites, called Yersinia Pestis, which can break out into a real epidemic when too many immune-compromised people are exposed to fleas, and spread as far as an infected small mammal can make it in a lifetime. So speed up rat shipping and pack too many sick people in unsanitary ghettos and you get ...well, you get an epidemic outbreak of Y. pestis in India that spread to Hong Kong in 1893. Give the Brits credit for getting it under control. Then it spread to Russian-administered Harbin. With the genius that always strikes a certain frame of mind, the Russians decided that they were going to beat Y. pestis by kicking its ass. Which, since microbes don't have asses, didn't work. So off Y. pestis goes across the Pacific, reaches Honolulu, where the locals read about how Great Fire cleansed London and run off to burn down Chinatown. (Because "foreigners=disease," that's why, though the hilariousness of Whites burning down the homes of Chinese "foreigners" in the Kingdom of Hawaii went strangely unmarked. It didn't work. Instead, Y. pestis proceeded to go native in the Californian bush. And then --nothing. In spite of there still being foreign foreigners threatening our North American purity! But it will! It totally will! So here's another story about how we use history, and also a poser. What's taking it?

It happens that there is another way of telling the story of epidemics in the past. Which is that epidemics come and go on their own cycles, but their impact is determined by the internal cycles of human history; specifically, economics. By this argument, Europe was tipping towards a humdinger of a depression in 1347. Everyone was immune-compromised because they didn't have enough to eat, and that's what made the plague such a big deal. I'm not sure I buy that as the history of 1837, but as the history of 2031, it's spot on.

Now, the way people talk these days, you'd think that we're all so tired that we're overdue for the Black Plague. Or the Zombie Plague, although I hear that that's less medically plausible. No. We're not. Where we're headed is Generation X retiring. At that point, we get two things: i) lots of people needing Medicare money; and ii) lots of immune-compromised old people.

Now Medicare, at least in non-crazy countries works like this: the Ministry of Finances decides how much money there will be to spend, and then the Ministry of Health decides how to spend it. So "yes" to vaccinations for kids; "no" to liver transplants for alcoholics.. Then people whine, and we have an election. The Ministry can't pay unlimited money because an inflationary spiral will eat up the value of the spending. So what happens when the money runs out, and the choices get a little harder? I've been through it, so let me segue to my experience of that, so that you young folk today will learn from the wisdom of your elders.

How do you deal with a transient demographic peak. Say, in school enrollment? In my high school, they didn't have magic, so they just kept on incompetent, alcoholic and burnt-out teachers for a few extra years. Now, workplaces have expected outcomes. How do you hit those outcomes with incompetent staff? In my high school there was one academic track: maths and sciences. It had lots of science electives, and looking back, I don't think that it's a coincidence that my principal taught the Algebra 11 Honours course. The boss does himself what absolutely can't be screwed up. And Gordon Burleson was a good principal. In a perfect world, my school would have offered humanities prep courses, too. And that's where the resources crunch stings a little more.

 I did get into university, so it worked. If,  as it happened, one or more of my core science courses was taught by a guy on the edge, there was redundancy. My high school may not have taught me to write (I swear I'm going to learn one of these days) but it did deliver us at the door of the next stage up. What happened then? My (eventual) alma mater says what happened right on its coat of arms, or so I was told in those long lost days of 1982. It has a motto, and that motto is "Tuum est." As it was explained to me many times, the strictly literal translation was "it's up to you." But what it meant was that I was on my own.

Now, it happens that I was not ready to be on my own in 1982. I did not go to class. I did not do my homework. For the first and last time in my life, I slept in in the mornings. I have some suspicion that some of my fellow students living on the first floor of Salish House at Totem Park Residence were similarly unprepared for it to be "up to them." Call me crazy, but that's how I read multiple pools of vomit on the low-rise pile of the hall carpets every morning. And so we flunked out; a little more than 50% of us, was the factoid that I heard.

What happened? Why was I "on my own?" Teenagers, who are often just a little immature, aren't left on their own, and not all of us turn the Magic Corner of Maturity in their 18th/19th year. (And let's not forget that there was a 5% age variation back in the old days when everyone went into their class year, with no parents intervening to make sure that December kids weren't in with January ones. And isn't that a fact worth exploring?) If you've ever watched TV, you might have the impression that there was a slightly older, slightly wiser, slightly goofier Resident Advisor who took care of these things.

There wasn't. There had been such people, and technically there still were, but the university couldn't afford real residence advisors. Now, when I say "afford," I mean something a little odd. Clearly the University could afford to have someone steam clean the carpet every morning. It was looking for savings a little deeper. That 50% flunk out rate wasn't a horrible mistake. It was overshooting the target. The system we were actually in was this: graduate high school; go to university; flunk out quickly and painlessly; get yelled at by your parents, go to a community college, learn to grind (or, you know, just grow up a little), and come back, get into med school. No biggy.

Only, getting into med school was easy as long as there were few applicants and lots of demand. That describes what it was like for people born up through the early part of the Baby Boom --the same ones taught by my high school teachers when they were young. Through the 80s, as tuition and residence fees sky-rocketed, summer jobs became harder to find, parents got laid off, and grad and professional school admission requirements got tougher, and/or classes got larger. That's a convergence of events. The monetary, opportunity, and preparation loss of that time got greater, and we could only watch it recede in the rear view. Not all of us had lost an insurmountable lead in the time when only those with the right school and came from the right parents were actually in the race. But some of us did.

Now here's the thing. I was a good student in Algebra II Honours. But not the best. Two kids enrolled in our school's Heavy Duty Apprenticeship programme got better grades than I did, for the perfectly good reason that they were better at math than I was. (That was why I should have been learning to write.) But they weren't in the academic stream. They were going to be heavy duty mechanics. It happened that Mike von Schilling and Ron Whatsisname came from working class families in a working class town, and someone had whispered into their ears that they weren't good enough, that they would never be doctors.

How dispiriting! How classist! And now they're heavy duty mechanics  and I'm a grocery clerk. At least I assume that they're heavy duty mechanics and making a great deal more money than I am. Because life could have gone wrong for them, too. I'm writing a parable here, and I don't need any stinking facts. And since I am writing a parable, I now need a moral:

Which is that the earlier you learn the first lesson of not being seen, the better off you are. Attend to your cover, never trust the authoritative-sounding announcer (or your neighbour), and you might live to the end of the sketch.

But that was then, and this is now. Good thing the world has changed, and it's fair now, and we don't have to worry about it happening again! Hmm. Let me give that campaign ad one more listen: "ruining the environment while you pay the highest gas prices ever."

No, I don't think that we should start listening to the announcer.  I'm laying odds on the same thing happening again; society walking into the demographic wall again and again until the last Generation Xer is laid into the grave.

And that'll happen sooner than we expect. The Black Plague won't come and sweep the Lost Generation away. There aren't enough of them, and they have good health care. It'll hit Generation X like that pool of vomit lying in wait as we stagger towards the bathroom, too late for even the "continental breakfast" once again. If you're Gen X like me, you need to find the Heavy Duty Mechanics Apprenticeship solution unless you're very, very sure that this time you'll dodge the bullet.

Oh. Yeah. The solution. Have kids. That's the thing about the Heavy Duty Mechanics Apprenticeship solution. It's an obvious, low-yield solution. You think that investing in real estate and voting for politicians who promise to keep Medicare strong will work for you because it worked for your parents? You're wrong. It'll fail. There are just too many of us. You might be smart enough to see the non-obvious solution that will work. For example, I'm planning on being a famous author/blogger, myself.  But you sure as Hell better think about having a backup plan.

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