The havoc chronicles

It is a nice question, what has caused more havoc in rush hour traffic this morning: a prematurely-exploded pipe bomb in New York City, or snow and black ice in London? At the time of writing, headlines from both sides of the Atlantic suggest a growing consensus on behalf of the pipe bomb. Either, however, could have a dampening effect on Christmas shopping, thus potentially inhibiting consumer confidence insofar as it is measured by the trend of daily sales: though by less than one dollar in a million.

Some snow in Greater Parkdale, too, but we’ve seen precipitation in this form before. Not enough to impede traffic. The merry bells of Christmas are ringing, or would be ringing at the cash registers all around town, except that new technology has obviated that delicious old “ching-ching.”

Now, if the North Koreans were to succeed in exploding an EMP device (that’s electro-magnetic pulse, I gather) high over our heads, I should think the consensus for “story of the year” would be overwhelming. The difficulty would be in reporting it, however, with the electrical grid out, and powered machinery at a standstill. This would be a serious inconvenience, and according to one frequently repeated estimate, 90 percent of the population would die as direct or indirect consequence of the blackout.

This estimate came from a science fiction novel, but entered media consciousness via USA congressional testimony nearly a decade ago, and has since become “a thing.” It is like the climate change estimates, though easier to trace.

My guess is that it would be good for the economy; perhaps even better than a hurricane or earthquake. The blackout would take days to overcome; weeks in some places. A certain proportion of electronic baubles would be knocked out, a proportion of those would be permanently fritzed, then consumers would be queueing for new baubles in EMP-hardened shells. Over time there would be very expensive infrastructure improvements. Add a few permilles to annual GDP.

This is a curious thing about economics. The “science” (a term that now connotes self-flattery) is amoral. The pornography industry, for instance, adds handsomely to our Gross Domestic Product; and much other enterprise that is gross indeed. Speculation conjures billions in “Bitcoin” with no backing at all. In the absence of (unquantifiable) moral considerations, the good is expressed as economic growth.

I sometimes wonder what a man of the thirteenth century, magically transported to the present time, would think of our fast-paced, high-tech “civilization.” The received notion is that he would be mightily impressed. This is not what I imagine, though. As a man at least sympathetic to what I can reconstruct of thirteenth-century mindsets, I think even without the pipe bombs and the EMP, our time traveller would be under the impression that he had died and gone to Hell.