COVID’s effects on Europe

This article by Wolfgang Streeck for the New Left Review will be disturbing to many. But it is an interesting article, and well worth reading. I would take issue with one claim Streeck makes: that the “supranational extension of the debt state” he rightly considers the Corona Recovery Fund to be, does not entail a change in European institutions toward more “solidarity”. These transfers are financed by issuing European debt, but the way in which member states will have to contribute to their repayment will make a difference. Perhaps Brussels would claim some more tax base for itself (a European tax, or similar?).

Streeck has a few interesting points. He deems “imperial systems”, as he considers the European Union to be, to be dependent “on a successful management of peripheral by central elites. In the EU, peripheral elites must be staunchly ‘pro-European’, meaning in favor of the ‘ever closer union of the peoples of Europe’ as governed by Germany with France through the Brussels bureaucracy.” If they are not, they become worrisome and have to be punished one way or another, even by twisting the letter of extant treaties.

Streeck is critical of the way in which the Polish and Hungarian governments are being “nudged” by Brussels to exhibit some more respect for the rule of law. He writes:

Under the Treaties, member countries, all of them, including Hungary and Poland, remain sovereign, and their domestic institutions and policies, for example, family and immigration policies, are for their electorates to decide, not for Brussels or Berlin. When it comes to a country’s legal institutions, the only legitimate concern of the EU is whether EU funds are properly spent and accounted for. Here, however, Poland has an immaculate record, and Hungary seems still on or above the level of ‘pro-European’ Bulgaria and Romania, not to mention Malta. So what to do?

In Brussels there is always a way. The Commission has for some time tried to punish Poland and Hungary under a different provision in the Treaties that forbids member countries interfering with the independence of their judiciary. But this is such a big bazooka that member states hesitate to let the Commission activate it. (It also raises uncomfortable questions on the political independence of, say, the French Conseil d’Etat.) Now, however, comes the Corona Fund, and with it the idea of a so-called ‘Rule-of-Law Mechanism’ (ROLM) attached to it, on the premise that if you don’t have an independent judiciary, including a liberal constitutional court, and perhaps also if you don’t admit refugees as a matter of human rights and in obedience to EU distribution quotas, there is no assurance that your accounting for your use of European money will be accurate.

I am not a fan of either the Polish or the Hungarian government but I think this year has been terrible for the rule of law all through Europe. Due to the pandemic, constitutional rights have been dismissed, and very often the judiciary seemed silent or inert. Freedom of movement, a pillar of the European project we purportedly have to defend against populist rulers, was suspended everywhere. I am afraid this will constitute a precedent that will be hard to dismantle. Streeck suggests there is little concern with the rule of law in Brussels and more interest in power games. I hope he is wrong, but the point can hardly be dismissed as the ravings of a lunatic.

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I, Vaccine: How to Appreciate the Beautifully Simple

What a marvelous spectacle we have enjoyed this week, as the first wave of Covid-19 vaccines began shipping from Pfizer’s facilities in Michigan. Watching the news with my pre-teen son, as those box trucks rolled away carrying such precious frozen cargo, he said, “Wow, I bet that truck driver feels pretty good about his job right now.”  I nodded and replied, “Well said, son. I think maybe this is something we can all feel good about.”

Who can’t feel good about the mind-blowingly short duration it’s taken to develop a safe and effective vaccine? For the same reason, we should also be amazed at the complexity of its distribution. The Wall Street Journal captures the point

The effort to vaccinate the nation relies on chemists, factory workers, truck drivers, pilots, data scientists, bureaucrats, pharmacists and health-care workers. It requires ultracold freezers, dry ice, needles, masks and swabs converging simultaneously at thousands of locations across the country. To work, every one of the many and complicated links of the chain has to hold.

 

The distribution has been widely described as the biggest mobilization since World War II. Bravo!, I say. We need some awe-inspiring words to befit this marvelous spectacle. 

And yet, the vaccine itself is a relatively simple compound. It consists of Pfizer’s modified mRNA plus seven inactive ingredients as common as table sugar. The mRNA itself stands as an unprecedented achievement. Yet the compound is ordinary, even elegantly so. And it will save millions. What beauty in the simple!

For many, this facet of the story evokes the classic essay with the curious title, “I, Pencil: My Family Tree as Told to Leonard Reed”. Originally published in 1958, this essay skillfully describes the materials that comprise an ordinary pencil, and the far reaches of the world whence those materials source. It also artfully describes the innumerable people around the world whose daily work contributes crucially to putting ordinary items such as pencils on nearby stores’ shelves.

That’s exactly how the WSJ describes the Pfizer mobilization. The vaccine must arrive at the right time in the right condition at thousands of locations around the country. And the efforts of myriad numbers of people from faraway places contribute to the mobilization. When you start to think about it, the amount of human coordination being achieved is astounding. It makes my son and me want to ask: Who designed such a marvelous plan? Who deserves credit for taking charge of this? The surprising answer that comes to us from the pencil is: no one! Leonard Reed’s ordinary little friend conveys the idea himself.

I, Pencil, am a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, graphite, and so on. But to these miracles which manifest themselves in Nature an even more extraordinary miracle has been added: the configuration of creative human energies—millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire and in the absence of any human master-minding!

 

And again, the WSJ informs us exactly how this applies to how this week’s vaccine mobilization.

‘Everything has to come together—the packaging, the dry ice, the vials, the material itself. It all has to come together to the same place and have enough of it and exactly the right people there ready to take it,’ said Yossi Sheffi, director of the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics. ‘Right now, there’s no conductor to the symphony,’ just many parts that each need to work.

 

This reflects the time-tested idea in economics that great things for humanity can be the result of people self-organizing through markets because they’re free to do so. Reed is channeling economics Nobel Laureate F. A. Hayek, whose 1945 article, “The Use of Knowledge in Society” describes market prices as a mechanism of human coordination that deserves to be marveled at.

I have deliberately used the word “marvel” to shock the reader out of the complacency with which we often take the working of this mechanism for granted. I am convinced that if it were the result of deliberate human design, and if the people guided by the price changes understood that their decisions have significance far beyond their immediate aim, this mechanism would have been acclaimed as one of the greatest triumphs of the human mind. Its misfortune is the double one that it is not the product of human design and that the people guided by it usually do not know why they are made to do what they do. But those who clamor for “conscious direction”—and who cannot believe that anything which has evolved without design (and even without our understanding it) should solve problems which we should not be able to solve consciously—should remember this: The problem is precisely how to extend the span of our utilization of resources beyond the span of the control of any one mind; and therefore, how to dispense with the need of conscious control, and how to provide inducements which will make the individuals do the desirable things without anyone having to tell them what to do.

Hayek is in turn channeling Adam Smith who pioneered the idea that people’s liberty to specialize and trade explains much of the wealth of nations. When people are free to truck, barter, and exchange according to their own terms, markets tend to happen, and price coordination tends to follow. For Smith, an invisible hand channels individual self-interest toward these broader gains. Toward a better life. 

This old idea is discussed in today’s economics textbooks with section headings like “comparative advantage” or “gains from trade,” and in some books as “price coordination”. Critics count the idea as dogma, but most economists take it as one of the cornerstones of our trade. This is why, for example, most economists oppose tariffs.

If that doesn’t impress you, try this other facet. Consider that each recipient of the vaccine has effectively harnessed the myriad efforts of the scattered multitudes. Imagine it is your turn next. Now imagine for a moment what it would feel like to employ millions of workers around the globe and to funnel all their efforts directly toward you in the form of a single and concentrated dose of betterment to your own well-being. See, that didn’t hurt at all. Congratulations, you’ve just received your Covid-19 inoculation, thanks in part to the invisible hand.

 

My pre-teen son has a long life ahead of him, I hope. How much better will it be than mine? If you ask our ordinary little friend the pencil, the recipe for human flourishing is pretty simple. Just add one part specialization according to comparative advantage, add a bit of faith in free people, and let the good stuff rise as people better themselves through price coordination. Economic freedom is amazingly complex, and so is the vaccine marvel.  Yet they both are beautifully simple, too. That’s something we can all feel good about.

 

Don’t get me wrong. Central planning is a major player in the success story we’re watching unfold. Vaccines are classically known to have inefficiencies on both the production and consumption sides, and non-price rationing is determining their allocation. It’s not like Pfizer is harnessing price-induced information to decide where shipments go. But still, there is pretty intense competition among vaccine suppliers. And there is something we can all feel good about here. Maybe even marvel at here. And much of it owes itself to the social coordinating force of market prices and globalized trade.

 


Edward J. Lopez teaches economics at Western Carolina University, where he is also director of the Center for the Study of Free Enterprise. His research focuses on the dynamics of legal and political institutions. His recent publications include “Informal Norms Trump Formal Constraints: The Evolution of Fiscal Policy Institutions in the United States” (Journal of Institutional Economics, 2017, with Peter T. Calcagno), and Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers: The Economic Engine of Political Change (Stanford University Press, 2013, with Wayne A. Leighton). He is Executive Director and Past President (2012-2014) of the Public Choice Society.

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Lockdowns and Political Realignment

A few days ago the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed of mine, on the new Christmas restrictions that the Italian government passed for coping with Covid19. Here’s a link (gated).

I am not a fan of the restrictions. Italians are no longer free to move through the country; they may travel only within their respective regions or between regions rated as having a similar risk status. Regions are classified according a “color code”, depending from their infection rate and an assessment for their healthcare capabilities and response. On the webpage of Istituto Bruno Leoni, you can see the “barometer of liberty”: how constitutional rights are curtailed in different areas, and how the situation has changed over time. No region is free of restrictions and we have a national curfew. Movie theaters, theaters, and gyms are closed everywhere; most schools and all universities have adopted a regime of remote teaching.

The government is forecasting that in a matter of days, since the contagion situation is improving, all regions will be “yellow” (the lower level or risk) but they’ll be all treated as red (the higher level of risk). Between December 20th and January 6th nobody will be able to leave their own regional territory. On top of that, on December 25th and 26th and on January 1st, regardless of the level of risk in their region, Italians will be confined to their respective municipalities.

I was impressed by the comments by WSJ readers, and found rather amusing the one that pointed out it was clear I wasn’t a good Catholic, since I did not figure out that Midnight Mess should end 3,5 hours ahead of the usual time and not 2 (indeed, I did not account for people going back to their places). More generally speaking, however, from comments and Twitter I got the impression that the people sympathizing with my irritation were more right-leaning.

For once, I do not think that this has to do with the WSJ readership. In the last few months, people critical of lockdowns and many other Covid19 restrictions tended to be mostly from the right. The left has been generally supporting restrictions. Perhaps some left-wingers (the cosmopolitan or “well-read” left?) are more confident in expert judgment than conservatives are, re perhaps because the discussion has been framed as a conflict between “health and the economy” and do-gooders of all persuasions couldn’t possibly side with the economy.

Before Covid19, I was beginning to believe those who were foretelling a political realignment (for example, the always insightful Steve Davies) were right. The old coalition between conservative leaning and  libertarian leaning people was about to collapse, after Trumpism and Brexit. Many distinguished between “anywheres” and “somewheres-” people with roots and people with cosmopolitan attitudes, country and city. Identity politics was also making things more complicated, but seemed a force to reckon with – and, for the few libertarians, to compromise with.

Has the pandemic changed that? Will Covid19 be a defining moment, politically speaking? If so, what about political realignment? Will lockdowns and restrictions become the defining issues, dividing us politically according to our degree of enthusiasm for them? It seems to me that people on the conservative side were both more skeptical of experts and more hostile to restrictions to their own personal liberty. Is this an attitude libertarians share? Will it affect the way in which any of us sees herself politically? Or we will all be so eager to forget about Covid19 that we will go back to the same old political agreements and disagreements we had before.

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The Great Reset: Between Conspiracy and Wishful Thinking

I’ve promised to write a post on Klaus Schwab’s “great reset” but the truth is that I’m a bit uneasy about writing it now. The term has elicited the attention of people willing to see cabals and plots everywhere, as Oliver Kamm aptly writes here. Kamm is certainly right: the global economy is too complex a matter to be managed by whatever malign elite.

And yet a well-meaning, and good-hearted, elite sometimes may speak in ways that suggest they would love to be able to manage the global economy themselves.

Consider this article by Professor Schwab for Time magazine. Here’s a passage that sounds exactly like Rahm Emanuel’s “we should not allow a good crisis to go waste”:
Since those early moments of the crisis, it has been hard to be optimistic about the prospect of a brighter global future. The only…

…immediate upside, perhaps, was the drop in greenhouse-gas emissions, which brought slight, temporary relief to the planet’s atmosphere. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that many started to wonder: Will governments, businesses, and other influential stakeholders truly change their ways for the better after this, or will we go back to business as usual?

Looking at the news headlines about layoffs, bankruptcies and the many mistakes made in the emergency response to this crisis, anyone may have been inclined to give a pessimistic answer. Indeed, the bad news related to COVID-19 came on top of the enormous economic, environmental, social and political challenges we were already facing before the pandemic. With every passing year, these issues, as many people have experienced directly, seem to get worse, not better.

It is also true that there are no easy ways out of this vicious cycle, even though the mechanisms to do so lie at our fingertips. Every day, we invent new technologies that could make our lives and the planet’s health better. Free markets, trade and competition create so much wealth that in theory they could make everyone better off if there was the will to do so. But that is not the reality we live in today.

Schwab is a spectacularly capable intellectual entrepreneur, who put Davos on all the world grandees’ map. He provided corporate CEOs and politicians with an important forum to meet at and had great success in developing a staggering network and exporting his own model. I should confess I am not familiar with his first book, published in 1971, but Wikipedia (not always the best of sources) describes it as foreshadowing the now popular idea of “stakeholder capitalism”.

I think that is the key point of Schwab’s great reset.

Schwab is the siren of a world where “rather than chasing short-term profits or narrow self-interest, companies could pursue the well-being of all people and the entire planet. companies must be freed from economic calculation”. Their performance ought then to be measured not only on profits but also on “nonfinancial metrics and disclosures that will be added (on a voluntary basis) to companies’ annual reporting in the next two to three years, making it possible to measure their progress over time”.

For Schwab, the rethinking of the capitalist system is not necessarily more urgent because of the pandemic crisis, but it becomes easier, more within our reach, because of the growing role that governments have taken on in recent months. So, let’s not waste a good crisis.

While seeing this as a conspiracy just because “it comes from Davos” is ridiculous, I would appreciate if people could read Schwab with a bit of realism.

Profit is not only a motive but also a yardstick. It is the yardstick against which shareholders can measure directors’ actions. The latter know the company much better than the former. Having to make a profit, having a clear objective, makes it easier for the owners of companies to evaluate their performance. We know this is never easy: scandals and fraud remind us of it. But what would happen if the directors could really say that they are operating, not to make a profit for the benefit of their shareholders, but in the name of some higher ideal?

Why should those “nonfinancial metrics” benefit the company as a whole? It is not clear. If a company is profitable, it is more likely to be able to maintain employment levels and afford to constantly renew its technologies, thereby reducing its environmental impacts. But if a director claims to have given up a share of profits today in the name of a desirable social purpose, who can be sure that this is true?

It seems to me that Schwab’s “improvable capitalism” is above all a more manager-friendly capitalism: managers like those who attend the Davos meetings and who certainly, like each of us, prefer to have a free hand in their decisions as much as possible. “Stakeholder capitalism” sounds nicer than “managerial capitalism” but it is difficult to tell the difference between one and the other. Increasing shareholder value is certainly a clearer formula: it gives you something to assess management’s performance against. But what is stakeholder value? Who are the most relevant stakeholders; whose interests should be prioritized? What if the interests of one group of stakeholders (say, suppliers) are actually in conflict with those of another (say, all those who inhabit a given territory, that risks depletion because of the above-mentioned suppliers)? Why should the managers of a corporation play the umpire between such conflicting interests?

I would be content with this point being clearer in the public debate: if you prioritize other objects than profit, you are actually giving more latitude to managers. This should not ignite crazy conspiracy theories but help us in having a more vigilant public opinion. It is quite bizarre that we tend to divide the world between awful private interests and those who use glowing words. Perhaps glowing words can be aligned with some private interests too.

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Communities in the pandemic

Our Covid19 predicament has been compared to many historical episodes: some consider it on the same order as a war, others a crisis of the magnitude of the Great Depression. I think these comparisons are fitting in the sense that the lasting legacy of Covid19 has been the dominant narrative that will emerge, once the pandemic is (happily) over. So far the dominant narrative has been that an orderless, too economically integrated, and therefore reckless world has been rescued from the wreckage by almighty governments.

This might have worked, rhetorically, earlier on. Now, in so many places, the government is failing in mitigating the pandemic. Bureaucracies act on the presumption of knowing things, and there are still many things that scientists, let alone government officials, do not understand about this virus. Plus, with unprecedented success, the private sector is coming to the rescue with new vaccines.

Of course, the success of a narrative is not necessarily based on it fitting the facts better. It could just be that it is a nicer story, that it sounds better to people that it is better crafted by politicians and their spin doctors.

But here’s an interesting article. On the Guardian, John Harris remarks that in England communities have been self-organizing in the last few months:

…droves of volunteers who were gripped by community spirit coming together to help deliver food and medicines to their vulnerable neighbours, check on the welfare of people experiencing poverty and loneliness, and much more besides. From a diverse range of places all over the country, the same essential message came through: the state was either absent or unreliable, so people were having to do things for themselves.

Rather predictably, Harris thinks that if “the key story of the Covid crisis has been that of town and parish councils enabling people to participate in community self-help”, now “the next chapter is about moving in the opposite direction, and trying to get people who have been involved in mutual aid to start running the places where they live.” You get the gist of it: it is a Tory government, and years of austerity, which let communities down (forget the fact that David Cameron’s “welfare society” was all about community empowerment and that neither Theresa May nor Boris Johnson have been very austere).

Now, this begs the question. Are local communities self-organizing because politics is being unduly constrained, limited in its spending capacity, and disempowered, or are they self-organizing because, in spite of consuming more than a third of GDP (in England), governments are simply lacking the flexibility and the responsiveness to deal with people’s demands, particularly when they are new and when they are changing?

In the short term, I think it is Harris’s view that is going to stick: people will try to move on from activism and that will be justified because they ought to reclaim their government for themselves. Could it be that in the longer run they’ll realize that the public administration is simply governed by different incentives and rules, than the ones which allowed them, as privatize citizens, to work together for a shared purpose?

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Dogs, Mountain Lions, and COVID-19

How dangerous are mountain lions? The data tell an interesting story. Since 1980, there have been only 13 attacks in all of California (where David and Charley live) and three people have died as a result. Compare this with attacks by dogs. Each year in California, about 100,000 dog attacks cause their victims to get medical attention. This means that California residents are approximately 180,000 times as likely to be seriously attacked by a dog as by a mountain lion. But to really compare dogs and mountain lions, we need to check our base, because there are a lot more dogs than mountain lions. With so many more dogs running around, a reasonable person would expect more dog attacks. With about 8 million dogs and 5,000 mountain lions in California, we see that there are approximately 1,500 dogs for each mountain lion. Once we check our base and correct for the numbers of dogs and mountain lions, we see that dogs are still more dangerous, and in fact, the risk of serious attack from an individual dog is about 120 times that of the risk from an individual mountain lion. Mountain lions present a daunting and ferocious image, but with so few attacks, they must have very little interest in attacking people.

This quote is from David R. Henderson and Charles L. Hooper, Making Great Decisions in Business and Life, Chicago Park Press, 2006.

The picture above is of me at the entrance to Stanford University yesterday. It reminded me of maps I saw of Germany divided into 4 zones after World War II. My friend and co-author Charley Hooper and I walked on the campus and notice a whole lot of 20-somethings walking around wearing masks even though they were typically walking alone and were not closer than 30 feet to anyone else.

They seem to fear COVID-19 the way some people fear mountain lions. My guess is that it’s a mixture of their fear and the fear of the administrators of Stanford, who seem to have taken an extremely anti-intellectual approach to the issue.

Either way, the risk to the young is extremely low. Here are data from the Centers for Disease Control as of November 12, 2020. They are for the number of deaths between February 1, 2020 and November 7, 2020. (The CDC notes that there is a lag because death counts are somewhat delayed.)

The number of Americans of age 15 to 24 who have died of COVID-19 is 410.

The number of Americans of age 15 to 24 who have died of all causes is 26,662.

Watch out for dogs, not mountain lions.

If you’re young, watch out for deaths from other causes, not COVID-19.

Postscript: What brought us to Palo Alto is my 70th birthday, which I celebrate on Saturday. Because it’s impractical right now to do what Governor Newsom did but tells the rest of us not to do, I’m not having a 70th birthday party. Instead, I’m seeing individual friends for outdoor lunches and conversation. Charley, Jay Bhattacharya, and I had a wonderful almost 3-hour outdoor lunch and conversation.

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Italy’s second lockdown

This short piece by Vaclav Smil asks why we do talk so much about the Spanish flu, as a benchmark for Covid19, whereas we do not compare it with influenza pandemics after WWII. Smil’s crucial argument is that, if we do not have good numbers for the Spanish flu, we do have very good numbers for more recent pandemics. He points out that:

these more virulent pandemics had such evanescent economic consequences. The United Nations’ World Economic and Social Surveys from the late 1950s contain no references to a pandemic or a virus. Nor did the pandemics leave any deep, traumatic traces in memories. Even if one very conservatively assumes that lasting memories start only at 10 years of age, then 350 million of the people who are alive today ought to remember the three previous pandemics, and a billion people ought to remember the last two.

But I have yet to come across anybody who has vivid memories of the pandemics of 1957 or 1968. Countries did not resort to any mass-scale economic lockdowns, enforce any long-lasting school closures, ban sports events, or cut flight schedules deeply.

Today’s pandemic has led to a deep (50 to 90 percent) reduction in flights, but during the earlier pandemics, aviation was marked by notable advances. On 17 October 1958, half a year after the end of the second pandemic wave in the West and about a year before the pandemic ended (in Chile, the last holdout), PanAm inaugurated its Boeing 707 jet service to Europe. And the Boeing 747, the first wide-body jetliner, entered scheduled service months before the last wave of the contemporary pandemic ended, in March 1970.

Why were things so different back then? Was it because we had no ­fear-reinforcing 24/7 cable news, no Twitter, and no incessant and instant case-and-death tickers on all our electronic screens? Or is it we ourselves who have changed, by valuing recurrent but infrequent risks differently?

I am afraid that  24/7 cable news, Twitter and incessant case-and-death tickers on all our electronic screens will not only twist memory, but they are also having a strong impact over political decision making.

Take the Italian case. After a very severe lockdown (schools were kept closed for six months), we had more or less a good summer, with progressive reopening and small numbers of contagions, grave hospitalizations, and deaths. With the fall, we have been hit by the much-awaited “second wave”. The government’s preparations have been lacking if not altogether paradoxical: school hours have not been changed, and the supply of public transport has not been varied (in spite of the fact private bus companies are being kept idle, whereas they could have been contracted to help cope with the rush hour traffic). Swab tests were strictly monopolized by hospitals and pharmacists; doctors and private healthcare structures have not been mobilized in order to increase test capacity. Now, the numbers of contagions are rising sharply and doubling once every seven days. They will be around 30,000 a day by the end of the month. Alas, deaths seem to double every week, too.

What has the government done? At first, it went for a dripping of closures, with new measures coming up once a week: a couple of weeks ago it made wearing facemasks mandatory, then we introduced curfews. Now gyms and swimming pools and ski resorts have been closed and restaurants won’t be free to serve dinner. The country is entering a lockdown, though softer than the first one.

“There are no libertarians in a pandemic;” but somehow that is a problem. One of the key insights of modern libertarianism is that a complex society is a tangle of knowledge problems, which central authorities are not very good at unraveling. This has been lost on decision-makers, who think they can win the “war against the virus” with top-down decisions, irrespective of continuous and abrupt change. They are always lagging a step behind.

A few days ago Federico Giugliano has written that somehow, in this second wave, Europe has quietly “turned Swedish”: “Governments are happy to impose more stringent measures on cities and regions with bad outbreaks (as Sweden itself is starting to do) but they’re extremely reluctant to crack down too heavily on social interactions, as they did in the spring.”

That was hardly sustainable, politically speaking, with, as Smil put it, “24/7 cable news, Twitter and incessant case-and-death tickers on all our electronic screens”. With cases quickly rising, we see stronger pressure for a new lockdown: the media are breeding anxiety and anxiety elicits a call for political resolve.

When it comes to Italy, the numbers are way above Italy’s test and tracing capacity. The lockdown is an implicit admission of the inability of doing anything else. In an article on Politico.eu, I asked “Why did the Italian government, after navigating one of the first and fiercest coronavirus outbreaks earlier this year, not learn from the experience?” My answer is: ideology. The government spent lots of energy and political capital in negotiating European aid and has planned great advancement in its building of an “entrepreneurial state”.

I do hope that these new measures will be able to flatten the curve and reduce stress on the national health care service. But if the government is capable only of using the hammer, how can we expect it to be able to “dance” with the virus?

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Viral Silence

This semester I volunteered to teach both of my classes in-person.  I’ve also given four public talks in Texas, and one at GMU.  All of these venues had mask mandates.  And in each case, I noticed an eerie pattern: Almost no one talks to each other anymore!  In the past, I had to ask classes to quiet down so I could start class.  Now I usually face dead silence.  Public lecture halls used to overflow with the chatter of the crowd.  Now you can practically hear a pin drop.

From what I’m told, I’m not alone.  When I talk to other faculty who teach in-person (rare, I admit), they too remark upon this viral silence.

What’s the explanation?  Here are my leading candidates.

1. Health fear. People avoid talking to others because they think it increases their odds of getting sick.  If you initiate a conversation, the other person might move closer to hear you better, or even remove his mask to speak more clearly.

2. Social anxiety. People avoid talking to others because they’re worried about upsetting others.  Maybe the other person will feel that you’re standing too close or wearing your mask improperly.  Maybe they’ll even bite your head off for your offense.

3. Poor audibility. Conversation is always a gamble.  If masks make it hard to hear and be heard, the gamble looks worse.  So fewer people place bets by opening their mouths.

4. Lack of normal social cues.  Human beings rely heavily on facial expressions to guide conversation.  So if you can’t see other people’s faces, you don’t know how to talk to each other.  This in turn usually leads to no talking at all.

5. General depression. People are so sad they don’t feel like talking.

6. The social multiplier. An extra factor to consider: Perhaps the preceding factors are all small, but when everyone has the same problem, the total effect remains enormous because humans feed off each other.  My social anxiety amplifies your social anxiety which in then further amplifies my social anxiety.

Other stories?  What’s the truth of the matter?

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Krastev on Pandemic and Politics

On “Persuasion” (the newsletter-think tank launched by Yascha Mounk after the Harper Letter) there is an excerpt of Ivan Krastev’s forthcoming book, Is it Tomorrow Yet? Paradoxes of the Pandemic. Krastev struggles with the impact of the pandemic of different political regimes.

His starting point is that “more than any other crisis, a public-health emergency can induce people voluntarily to accept restrictions on their liberties in the hope of improving their personal security. Invasive surveillance systems and bans on freedom of assembly have been introduced and accepted around the world with little public pushback.” It seems we should think that these kinds of crises are healthy for authoritarian leaders, who thrive on fear.

Yet Krastev points out that such authoritarian leaders typically are “problem solvers”, but of problems of their making (up).

As a seemingly unstoppable crisis that has riveted the attention of the global public, Covid-19 deprives authoritarian and authoritarian-minded leaders of the chance to manufacture a “better crisis.” Far from citing the coronavirus crisis to justify an increase in power, a high-profile slew of populists and autocrats have strenuously and ridiculously denied the very existence of the pandemic. …
Political leaders in general prefer “enemies” who can unconditionally surrender to anonymous “threats” that need to be managed over time. Would-be dictators, in particular, find it more rewarding to pose as “deciders” than to do the hard work required of “problem-solvers.” The former allows them to vaunt their I-alone-can-solve-it unilateralism, while the latter requires them to cooperate with others, to freely admit their own mistakes, and to spend the time needed to master complex and evolving situations. Flashy stunts by men-of-action must give way to slow and laborious efforts by anonymous professionals.

It is not only that authoritarian leaders despise crises that they do not freely choose and which require them to stake their prestige on cooperatively resolving problems that, at the outset, are difficult to understand. They also spurn “exceptional situations” that compel them to respond with standardized rules and protocols rather than with ad hoc, discretionary moves. Mundane behaviors such as social distancing, self-isolation and washing hands are the best way to stop the spread of the disease. The leader’s strokes of genius, inviting thunderous applause, are perfectly irrelevant. Worse still, the palpable courage of ICU doctors and nurses makes phony heroics in presidential palaces appear even more pathologically narcissistic than before.

Another point Krastev makes is that the global nature of the crisis, “the ubiquity of the disease”, “makes it possible for people to compare the actions of their own governments with the actions of other governments around the world. Success or failure at flattening the curve provides a common metric, making cross-national comparisons possible and putting strong pressure on governments that had previously succeeded in insulating themselves from public criticism. The opening provided by easy government-to-government comparisons gives citizens the capacity to grade their government’s performance. This is a problem for authoritarian regimes and authoritarian-minded leaders, who previously got away with staged “performances” supplemented by the silencing of whistle-blowers and critics.

 

The whole thing is well worth reading, and I look forward to the book. What Krastev writes about authoritarian regimes is, in fact, a problem for political leaders in democracies, too: perhaps spectacular decisions in tackling the epidemic (the kind that politicians tend to favor) are not as effective and important as leaders believe. Perhaps containing the virus is an exercise in self-governance that some people are more adept at conducting than others, because of their history and their institutions. Krastev rightly points out that it is too early to say: success and failure in dealing with Covid-19 will be properly assessed years from now. I look forward to his books to see how he develops these views presented in the “Persuasion” excerpt.

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Costco Joins the COVID Fight

There has been a lot of debate during this pandemic about the effectiveness of mask wearing, the risks involved with social contact and school reopenings, whether or not Vitamin D helps with COVID, and how much of this is all President Trump’s fault.  However, everyone seems to agree that more testing, particularly more available at-home testing, would be a huge step forward.  The problem, of course, is that the government hasn’t been able to provide the necessary testing capacity on a nationwide basis.

 

What the government is unable or unwilling to do, Costco will happily do.  You might remember early on during the pandemic that Costco was one of the first businesses to require indoor mask wearing at its stores.  Now they are taking another bold step – Costco is now offering at home COVID tests on their webpage.  They aren’t cheap – 129.99 – but neither were the first flat screen televisions 20 years ago.  Costco sells more wine than anyone in America, and I wouldn’t be stunned if they became our biggest seller of COVID tests pretty soon.

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