First posted on Think Left as ‘Like heterodox economists, Semmelweis was ignored…’ 29th April 2013
In 1844, Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis graduated as a doctor, and was appointed assistant at the obstetric clinic in Vienna. At the time, the great scourge of new mothers was ‘childbed’ or puerperal fever. It was thought that the deaths were unpreventable… the result variously of overcrowding, poor ventilation, the onset of lactation or a dreaded ‘miasma’.
However, Semmelweis oversaw two maternity wards and couldn’t help but notice that the puerperal death rate was two or three times in one, to what it was in the other. In fact, the pregnant women were only too aware because they would go to all sorts of lengths, pleading to be booked in on the lower mortality ward.
The two divisions were apparently identical except that the first, with the higher mortality, was used for teaching student doctors, whilst the second was staffed with just midwives. Semmelweis noted that the student doctors were coming to the maternity ward directly from the dissecting room, having just completed autopsies on women who had died from puerperal fever…. he suspected that somehow (at that time no-one knew about bacteria or viruses) that the students might be carrying the infection to healthy mothers on the ward.
As an experiment, he ordered the staff to wash their hands in chlorinated lime water before each examination, and within the week, the mortality rate dropped from 18% to 1%. Furthermore, no women died on his wards between March and August 1848.
So with such an immediate, dramatic drop in the death rate, why was there no corresponding immediate and widespread acceptance of the practice of hand-washing?
Why did the editor of the Wiener Medizinische Wochenschrift write that it was time to stop the nonsense about the chlorine hand wash? Why did pregnant women have to wait over 25y for the importance of hygiene to be accepted; with Joseph Lister being credited as ‘the father of modern antisepsis’ instead of Semmelweis?
The reasons are still relevant not only in medicine but also in politics and economics …
Despite various publications of results where hand-washing reduced mortality to below 1%, Semmelweis’s observations conflicted with the established scientific and medical opinions of the time and his ideas were rejected by the medical community… Semmelweis’s practice earned widespread acceptance only years after his death, when Louis Pasteur confirmed the germ theory and Joseph Lister, acting on the French microbiologist‘s research, practiced and operated, using hygienic methods, with great success.
In other words, Semmelweis’s findings required a ‘paradigm shift’ but the old-guard ‘power elite’ were ‘invested’ in maintaining the status quo in spite of all the statistical evidence of the efficacy of hand-washing. The weight of authority stood against Semmelweis’s prophylactic practice.
Exactly the same is true of the ‘austerity’ which is being inflicted on the UK and across the Eurozone. The tenets of neo-classical economics are daily shown to be completely wrong, contradictory and ill-conceived. Furthermore, the policies (just like puerperal fever) are inflicting enormous damage on the most vulnerable in our populations. Nevertheless, our politicians and our media go on spouting the same mythologies and neglecting to see the obvious.
… the Tory/LD coalition government is borrowing £245bn more than expected in 2010 and the economy has grown by just 1.1 per cent, 4.9 per cent less than expected …
Sticking with TINA (monetarism) is clearly a madness akin to the rejecting of hand-washing on the labour wards of the 1850s.
There is an alternative!
However, just as the medical professors had not wanted to relinquish their status or their paradigm of miasmas, the 0.1% have too much to gain from pursuing the current paradigm. In this, they have been ably aided and abetted by the embedded assumptions of the so-called ‘free press’ and MSM which are owned and dominated by the ‘oligarchs’.
Mainstream economist Paul Krugman writes in the NY times:
… the average American is somewhat worried about budget deficits, which is no surprise given the constant barrage of deficit scare stories in the news media, but the wealthy, by a large majority, regard deficits as the most important problem we face. And how should the budget deficit be brought down? The wealthy favor cutting federal spending on health care and Social Security — that is, “entitlements” — while the public at large actually wants to see spending on those programs rise.
You get the idea: The austerity agenda looks a lot like a simple expression of upper-class preferences, wrapped in a facade of academic rigor. What the top 1 percent wants becomes what economic science says we must do.
The ‘Deficit’ is the new ‘miasma’ analogous to the flawed theories of puerperal fever causation.
But the deficit is just a reflection of the state of the economy. In a sovereign country like the UK with its own currency, it is not a cause of anything. If there is no problem of excess demand, there is no ‘deficit problem’ regardless of the magnitudes, short term or long term. The methodology of its calculation is wide open to dispute and in any event, one agent’s deficit is another’s surplus. As Professor Bill Mitchell writes
Similarly, with the so-called ‘debt’ problem …
but my intention is not to discuss economics but to show that disastrously ‘wrong thinking’ and manipulation can persist to our detriment and against all the evidence for extended periods of time… particularly when there is wealth and power to be gained.
As Paul Krugman concludes:
.. the years since we turned to austerity have been dismal for workers but not at all bad for the wealthy, who have benefited from surging profits and stock prices even as long-term unemployment festers. The 1 percent may not actually want a weak economy, but they’re doing well enough to indulge their prejudices.
And this makes one wonder how much difference the intellectual collapse of the austerian position will actually make. To the extent that we have policy of the 1 percent, by the 1 percent, for the 1 percent, won’t we just see new justifications for the same old policies?
Payam Sharifi quotes Mark Thoma, an economist who runs a popular economics blog :
“too many minds in the profession cannot be changed even when the empirical evidence is relatively clear…the politicization of the profession…plays a large role”. Could it be that this reflects a crisis in economics, which is a crisis in its method of analysis and even the subject matter itself?
That seems like good thinking .. there needs to be an Economic Reformation:
As Antonio Gramsci wrote from his Italian prison cell, sometime in the 1930s:
‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.
I think it is more than time for our politicians to ‘wash their hands’ of the ‘miasma of deficit reduction’ and act as ‘midwife’ for an economics which serves the 99.9% and the natural world.
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