Exponential Growth in Pandemics, the Economy, and Escalation


Guy Burgess

This is the fourth of a series of posts that explore the danger that the United States' hyper-polarized political environment might suddenly erupt into large-scale political violence.  Links to the full series plus other escalation-related materials can be found on the Conflict Fundamentals Seminar/Blog page on Escalation.


This post is part of the Constructive Conflict Initiative Blog



The one book that I required my sons to read as part of their college education was John Kenneth Galbraith's Short History of Financial Euphoria  which traces the history of bubble markets and associated crashes back to the Tulip Mania of the 1600s. [1] Galbraith explains how economic bubbles have been so successful at luring succeeding generations to financial ruin.  

It is now clear that the COVID era is producing yet another bubble market with stocks being grossly overvalued in a kind of natural Ponzi scheme. As long as everybody thinks the markets going up, everything's fine. However, at some point, the notion that the boom is over will enter the popular consciousness and, in moments, panic will spread through the financial system producing a frantic race for the exits and associated market collapse. 

The crisis takes a much longer time coming than you think, and then it happens much faster than you would have thought. -- Rudiger Dornbusch

This dynamic is, perhaps, most famously described by Rudiger Dornbusch: "The crisis takes a much longer time coming than you think, and then it happens much faster than you would have thought." 

We should all now, unfortunately, understand the basic dynamic behind Dornbusch's statement – exponential growth systems. In addition to financial panics, such systems are also the principal driver behind pandemics. 

In the case of COVID, we have seen what happens when one infected person infects approximately three other people — people who, after a roughly week-long incubation period, can infect approximately an additional three people (bringing the total infected to 12 (3+9)). These nine people can, in turn, each infect three additional people over the subsequent week bringing the total 27 in a process that, left unchecked, will multiply the number of new cases each week by a factor of three.  In theory, this can infect over a billion people in 20 weeks!  

Fortunately, due to the preventative measures that people are taking, the reinfection rate (more properly called R0 or R naught) is, in most places, much less than three. In many places, it is less than one, meaning that the number of new cases declines from week to week.  Still, the explosive potential of this disease should not be underestimated. I highly recommend that you watch this animated 30 second infographic (if you haven't seen it already) to get a sense of how fast the number of infections is expanding. [2]

As fast as COVID-19 infection rates are growing, social system reactions (such as protests or violence) and "infectious ideas" can spread much faster.

My purpose here is to illustrate the power of exponential growth systems, not predict the course of the COVID pandemic.  More importantly, I want to emphasize how much faster exponential growth can occur in social conflict systems. Consider, for example, how quickly the nation might react to an inflammatory political event. When Martin Luther King was assassinated, cities all across the country exploded into widespread violence in a matter of hours. Similarly, the killing of four antiwar student demonstrators at Kent State University led to gigantic protests all across the country within a day.

An infectious idea can reach hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people virtually instantaneously. These people can, in turn, spread the idea instantly to their networks — people who can, in turn, spread the idea to their networks. This is a process that can be further amplified by large media companies and nefarious players using armies of trolls and bots. This is what we mean when we say that something has gone "viral." 

The difference between this and COVID is that the reinfection rate is much, much, much higher and the incubation period is much, much, much shorter. The speed with which the global political landscape changed in response to the heart wrenching video of George Floyd's death demonstrates the power of this effect. At this moment (mid-August 2020), it seems like, on balance, the effect has been positive in this case, in that it has awakened the United States (and, to some degree, the rest of the world) to the grotesque injustice of racially-motivated police brutality.  

Unfortunately, there is absolutely nothing to say that the next viral moment won't push society in more destructive directions that could take us closer to catastrophic levels of civil unrest with widespread instances of crimes like looting and arson.  In addition, such an event would almost certainly lead to acrimonious confrontations between increasingly hostile political factions, between citizens and law enforcement officers, and, most worryingly, between law enforcement personnel with contradictory orders or differing personal beliefs about the proper role of the police. 

The bottom line is that, as we hover near the edge of political violence we must remember that the viral potential of the global communication system means that inflammatory incidents could get out of hand with astonishing rapidity. A lot more people need to be devoting themselves to making sure that this doesn't happen.


[1] John Kenneth Galbraith. A Short History of Financial Euphoria. Penguin Books, 1994. https://www.amazon.com/History-Financial-Euphoria-Penguin-Business/dp/0140238565

[2] Tony Nickonchuck "Global Deaths Due to Various Causes and Covid-19." https://public.flourish.studio/visualisation/2562261