Sunday, December 28, 2008

What the Government Used to Do

One problem with our government today is that there is so much oversight, there are so many rules and regulations, sensitivities, that the government is pretty timid in actually solving problems. I was reading Temple Grandin's Animals in Translation, and she notes the following example of a successful government program that would be inconceivable today:


livestock were being attacked by screwworms all over the West, Southwest, and Mexico. Screwworms are the larvae of a fray that lays its eggs in open wounds. The wounds can be from anything--a cut, a tick bite, or even a newborn's navel. When the eggs hatch the maggots come out and eat the animal alive. Other maggots eat dead flesh, bu screwworm maggots eat live flesh and they are deadly.
...
The USDA field workers figured out how to get rid of the screwworms by taking advantage of a quirk in their reproductive system. The screwworm's developmental sequence goes from egg to maggot to pua to fly, and the USDA bred a bunch of screwworms and irradiated the males when they reached the pupa stoage, making them sterile. Then they put the pupae in little paper boxes, like a Chinese takeout box, and dropped the boxes out of airplanes. The flies would come outt of the boxes and mate with lots of females, and the females they'd mated laid eggs that didn't hatch.

The program was a huge success. It started in 1959, the United States working with Mexico, and the last case of screwworm infestation was recorded in Texas in 1982
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This was the original biotechnology and it worked. The government saved thousands and thousands of animals, maybe millions,. They just did it; they didn't get everyone's permission. Today the government could never get a program like that off the ground. Some environmental activist would say 'we have to protect these flies', and you'd have people who'd never seen a screwworm in their lives advocating to save them from extinction


It's depressing to note the pathetic incompetence in sub-Saharan African countries, as very little has been built there since the colonialists left. Similarly, much of Cuba is from 50 years ago. Unfortunately, America doesn't measure up to its past either because we are so worried about violating something's rights. No one could ever build the interstate highway system again, or major subway systems. California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger sponsored a bunch of bond initiatives that passed in 2006. But two years later, they still aren't 'shovel ready'. The problem with the government is that people hold it to such a high standard of not hurting the environment or getting buy-in from every locality that failure implies a massive liability, so instead we have redefined government's role, which is now mainly to patch roads, redistribute wealth, and pass laws with all sorts of good intentions like No Child Left Behind.

7 comments:

Quadrivium said...

Hmm...are you saying that we should disregard others' rights in doing something that demonstrably benefits the nation as a whole? Acting unilaterally or ex cathedra may be efficient and important at times, but to declare it "normative", if you will, strikes me as undemocratic. I'm not sure Robert Moses comes out well in the grand sweep of things, for example.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, well, hopefully the new regime also helps prevent things like the Tuskegee Airmen experiment. I'd trade that for the screwworm.

randian said...

Hmm...are you saying that we should disregard others' rights in doing something that demonstrably benefits the nation as a whole?

Since the only demonstrable harm, even under today's extreme definitions of "harm", of letting loose sterile male screwflys was to the screwflys, I'd say unilateral action was OK in that case.

J said...

I am not sure there is a constituency for the screwworm reproductive rights. On the other hand, the US is doing well in space exploration, no one is yet protecting Martian bacteria, should they exist.

Anonymous said...

20 years to eradicate on short reproductive cycles? not sure that was the true cause. but the argument is valid even w/o it.

Pete S said...

Eric, I'm getting ideological whipflash reading your blog. Make up your mind! In a a few posts you argue that the government should do nothing about the economy. Here you argue for government is too limited ... and should take whatever dramatic action some central planner deems important.

Eric Falkenstein said...

I'm not an anarchist. There are some things government should do. Unfortunately, it seems less effectual than before, so even in those limited cases where I think government action would be a good thing, it is less able than it was previously.