Monday, September 12, 2011

Government as the Good Guys

What was refreshing about the movie Contagion, which I saw over the weekend, was that it did not indulge us with Hollywood's usual sinister conspiracy theories involving shadow governments or evil corporations. Instead it presented a scary but plausible real life scenario involving an extremely deadly virus, and imagined how the world would react to the epidemic. The heroes of the movie are dedicated public servants working for the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. Government workers are shown as fallible human beings who make some mistakes, but who ultimately prevent the collapse of civilization when we are faced with an overwhelming emergency.

Meanwhile the villain is an irresponsible blogger who spreads chaos, rumor, and false information for his own profit and self-aggrandizement. I only wish I had that kind of power (which of course in contrast to the evil Jude Law character, I would only use for good purposes).

This seems to be exactly the sort of anti-conspiracy theory movie we need now, while we are in the midst of a debate about the proper role and size of government, because it might help us appreciate essential government functions like public health and emergency preparedness. When irresponsible politicians talk about cutting wasteful government spending, without identifying what they plan to cut, they always seem to end up going after discretionary budget items like scientific research and public safety operations. Watch this movie and you might have second thoughts about the wisdom of cutting that kind of spending. Or just watch the news reports about wildfires in Texas or floods in New Jersey, and you might wonder why politicians are even talking about reducing the fire department's budget, or cutting spending on weather forecasting.


  1. Great article on the "1000 Tables". I loved it. You hit a home run. Face to face conversation often brings out the best in people. You have to be motivated when sitting just a few feet away and in person. That supports civility. A town hall or blog doesn't do that and people tend to sink into anger. The people at the tables probably don’t call one another thugs.

    I saw the movie "Contagion" as well. I didn't see the political lesson that you apparently did. I just watched and enjoyed it. Perhaps because I don’t see the government as an enemy or that there is a huge ground swell that does or that the left are socialists. I don't see the CDC or WHO under some giant attack by the right. Similarly, I don't often think about the fact that Obama is half white and half black; certainly not when it comes to his politics. Like we said last week, I wonder if we may think too much sometimes. I have a hunch the far left and far right consider themselves exceptionally thoughtful. I think they are a bit obsessive, compulsive. I am closer to the middle and know I am. Perhaps that is why I post :-)

    I am watching the California public sector grocery workers union’s decisions. If they strike for being asked to contribute about $23 dollars a week toward health care I may set up a few roundtables outside a store so that I can hear their opinions.

  2. You've put your finger on one of my problems, Kevin. I can't even watch a movie without thinking about the political implications of it. I wonder if there is a cure for that.

  3. You are in good company, friend. How we express who we are varies from person to person. There is an attenuated dopamine system in the brain. If dopamine is low the same set of variables that lead someone else (more "normal" whatever that is) to experience pleasure may not register pleasure for another. Some of us need to go near over the line to find similar pleasure. That may serve us well in business, when serving clients, seeing patients, seeking control, saving the world or when pursuing athletic success. However, those expressions may look extreme to someone else.

    Our pleasures are either virtues or vices. Interestingly, generosity and exercise impact the same areas of the brain as gambling, alcohol and marijuana. Medically, this is proven by brain scans. Likewise, uncertainty stimulates the medial forebrain and the dopamine circuit; the same brain center that is stimulated while waiting for the flop card when playing blackjack. So, we are who we are; to an extent.

    You would enjoy the video on quantum physics titled “What The Bleep: Down the Rabbit Hole” which describes the plasticity of the brain!

    I exercise twenty hours a week for pleasure and that looks crazy to some. Getting drunk or gambling to pass time is probably extreme. To some of us, arguing the far ends of the political spectrum looks excessive. I chose to defend more of what I believe is the center. The act of defending -- is the issue. Not the issues themselves. The acts all serve the same centers of the brain for pleasure.

    David Linden has written a book titled “The Compass of Pleasure”. In it he describes normal pleasure as water, food and sex. Most everything else we obsess about is the dopamine circuit gone a bit awry. His advice: take your pleasures wisely; take your vices moderately and mix in some virtuous pleasures. In other words, raise dopamine on purpose. It may not make us happy but it may keep us out of trouble. You do a great job of that here.