Cancel culture? Internet culture? Human culture?

Not all innovation makes things better. I doubt that WWI would have been as bad if not for the invention of guns. If soldiers had still used swords in 1914, it seems unlikely that trench warfare would have dragged on for 4 years, with nearly 10 million deaths.

At the same time, war has been around for thousands of years, and the percentage of humans dying in war seems to be trending downward over the very long run.  So technology is not the primary problem.

This story on cancel culture in China made me wonder whether social media is sort of like guns, a dubious form of “innovation”:

Censors have not only kept their grip on entertainers with rules. Lately, the very nature of the modern Chinese internet, a hyper-commercial place patrolled by thin-skinned bullies, is helping them succeed. This is a perilous time to be famous in China. In the first few weeks of 2021, fans, prominent bloggers and state media have united to rebuke so many celebrities that a recent item on Tencent News, an online platform, was headlined: “The era of stars saying sorry is upon us: whatever you did wrong, apologise.” Those who have said sorry this year include an actress accused of abandoning two infants born via surrogacy in America and a comedian who made a sexist advertisement for women’s underwear. Other apologies have come from a comic actress who posed in a cardigan over the caption “husband-snaring gear”, leading to charges of objectifying women; and from a 20-year-old Tibetan horseman caught smoking on camera. Months earlier his good looks and shy smile had shot him to fame and helped him into a job as a goodwill ambassador for his hometown.

When market forces help the Communist Party to rule

Chaguan spoke recently to entertainment-industry veterans. They described famous friends on medication for depression, and explained why. Once, stars were on show only when they made a new film. Now, fans want to scrutinise every detail of actors’ lives on social media, and expect perfection from their idols.

Back in 1968, there were massive student protests in places as diverse as the US, China, Mexico, France and Czechoslovakia.  Within each country, people focused on the specific factors motivating domestic dissent, and thus missed the bigger picture of how modernization was reshaping society.

Within the US, cancel culture is often seen in narrow parochial terms.  Woke people trying to impose their definition of anti-racism, or conservatives trying to cancel professional athletes for insufficient patriotism.  But I wonder if that misses the bigger picture.

People have always wanted to physically harm other people, and guns provided a more effective way of doing so.  People have always wanted to verbally bully and shame other people, and social media gives them a more effective tool for doing so.

It’s not surprising that the US and China have cancel cultures; what would be surprising is if there were a country that did not have cancel culture.

PS.  Tyler Cowen links to a study suggesting that things are getting worse in America:

The worsening physiological and mental health profiles among younger generations imply a challenging morbidity and mortality prospect for the United States, one that may be particularly inauspicious for Whites.

I’m agnostic on the question of whether happiness in America is increasing, decreasing, or staying about the same.


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Comparing Apples to Oranges: America versus Europe in the Response to COVID

I have listened to pundits and medical experts on networks from PBS to DW speak at length on the failures of America to adequately deal with the pandemic in comparison with European countries. Most recently, one of these sources cited Americas high fatality numbers as compared to other western European countries and specifically criticized the American system of states and federalism as presenting an unworkable patchwork of policies. One cited the per capita death rate as the highest of all. In both cases the point is misleading.

The direct nation to nation comparison of the US and specific European countries, without any differentiation as to their economic condition or level of population, is the most invidious of the two assertions. Setting aside concerns about how the counting is done, America, taken as one undifferentiated mass, does look worse in absolute numbers, but such one-to-one comparison commits the classic error of contrasting apples to oranges.

To make a meaningful comparison, we need to construct a proper basis by looking at countries that are similar in terms of economic organization and development. Then we have to combine those into a unit of population similar to the US. When that is done the figures don’t look all that different.

The US has a population at roughly 330 million people. Of the most advanced economies comparable in development, none of the western European countries separately comes anywhere close to that figure, but if we cobble together what could be called the big five, we can arrive at a unit that is acceptably close:

Germany : 83 million

UK: 68 million

France: 65 million

Italy: 60 million

Spain: 47 million

Total: 323 million

Now let us look at each country’s separate COVID death numbers:

US: 542,000


And each of the big five European countries:

Germany: 75,000

UK: 126,000

France: 92,305

Spain: 72,900

Italy: 105,000

Total: 471,205


If one then runs the per capita number that gives results for the US at approximately .0016 and for the European big five, .0014, a difference of only .0002. And now consider that in the US, the rate is slowing as we approach herd immunity through natural exposure and vaccination. Europe is again on the increase and has significantly botched its vaccine delivery. This doesn’t speak particularly well for the central administration in Brussels.

As for the per capita rate, the UK still has that record at, .0018 despite very severe lockdowns. New York has one of the highest rates in the US at .0025, and it was one of the sates with comparably severe lockdown policies.

From the numbers, it is hard to be happy with any country’s performance, but they do not indicate a failure of federalism. As we approach the end of the pandemic, there will be plenty of data to run through, but I suspect the more centralized forms of command and control will leave a lot to be desired. I for one would not advise putting all our apples in one basket—nor our oranges for that matter!



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The Pandemic in Europe and America

The pandemic evolution now appears to be more worrying in Europe than in America, as illustrated by the graph below reproduced from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (Marcus Walker, Bertrand Benoit, and Stacy Meichtry, “Europe Confronts a Covid-19 Rebound as Vaccine Hopes Recede,” March 12, 2021). In France, for example, after two very long and restrictive (even tyrannical) national lockdowns, ICUs are close to 80% capacity. The Wall Street Journal explains:

Europe’s efforts continue to suffer from the EU’s slowness in procuring and approving vaccines, production delays at vaccine makers, and bureaucratic holdups in injecting available doses.

The “production delays at vaccine makers” are most likely due to the fact that the EU government has not purchased them in time while, of course, there as in America, individuals and private organizations cannot purchase them.

Those who have read Ayn Rand’s famous novel may wonder if Atlas is shrugging more visibly in Europe than in America. As for those Europeans who put all their faith in an omniscient and all-powerful welfare state, they seem deeply disappointed (although they may be asking for more). In Germany, 30% don’t trust the competence of Angela Merkel’s center-right government and trust even less her center-left parliamentary allies.

The progression of new covid variants in Europe may be an immediate culprit, but a major reason for that is that European governments, under the punctilious EU government, have been slower than the US government in making vaccines widely available to the public.

Yet, the vaccine rollout in America has not been a marvel of federal or state planning. Four months after Pfizer announced the completion of its clinical trial, three months and a half after it started delivering doses to the United States, and three months after the vaccine was approved by the FDA, only 10% of Americans are fully vaccinated and another 10% have received a first dose (according to data from the Wall Street Journal). As far as we can see, this was, although not exactly warp speed, fast enough to prevent the variants from outrunning the building of herd immunity. This relative American success was achieved with much fewer restrictions to individual liberties than in most European countries. Federalism and popular resistance have been a big advantage.

It is notable that Pfizer and its partner BioNTech were not full-fledged participants in Operation Warp Speed. Pfizer did not accept research funding to develop its vaccine. The New York Times explained (“Was the Pfizer Vaccine Part of the Government’s Operation Warp Speed?” November 10, 2020):

In July [2020], Pfizer got a $1.95 billion deal with the government’s Operation Warp Speed, the multiagency effort to rush a vaccine to market, to deliver 100 million doses of the vaccine. The arrangement is an advance-purchase agreement, meaning that the company won’t get paid until they deliver the vaccines. Pfizer did not accept federal funding to help develop or manufacture the vaccine, unlike front-runners Moderna and AstraZeneca.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla made that clear (see “Leading Covid-9 Vaccine Makers Pfizer and Moderna Decline Invitations to White Summit ‘Vaccine Summit’,” Stat, December 7, 2020):

Bourla later defended the decision to decline federal research and development funding, citing a desire to “liberate our scientists from any bureaucracy” and “keep Pfizer out of politics.”

Except perhaps for that, the pandemic does not provide a strong confirmation of the benefits of American free enterprise. There may be more free enterprise in America than in Europe, but it’s a matter of degree. In America too, the distribution of the vaccines has been basically a governmental affair. And think about the “price-gouging” laws that have prevented market price adjustments in 42 states, not counting the Defense Production Act at the federal level. (See Rik Chakraborti and Gavin Roberts, “Anti-Gouging Laws, Shortages, and Covid-19,” Journal of Private Enterprise 35:4 (2020), pp. 1-20.)

Perhaps the administrative-welfare state, in both Europe and America, is not as good as we thought?


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Why is the UK doing so much better?

In absolute terms, the US has vaccinated more people for Covid-19 than any other country. But in relative terms, the UK is doing far better. I see three reasons for the success of the UK:

1. The UK has provided about 34 total doses per 100 people, vs. about 26.5 per 100 in the US.

2. First dose first. In the UK, almost all of the jabs have gone to people who have not yet received any doses. In the US, a substantial share of the shots are second doses.

3. The UK has focused very strongly on vaccinating old people first. The US has a mixed system, where the old are just one of many groups that are prioritized.

In recent weeks I’ve been told by friends and family of many cases of young and middle aged people receiving Covid shots. None of these were people with pre-existing conditions or essential workers.  I’ve heard of far too many such cases to assume these are flukes—the system is clearly flawed.  (And this isn’t sour grapes on my part; I was vaccinated way back in January.)

The US decided to create a complex bureaucratic system. In this sort of rationing regime, those who are well connected or good at gaming the system go first. Here’s is my view of the various systems for rationing:

First: Free market. The high prices induce a much stronger and more rapid supply response.

Second: Old people first. This sort of simple system is harder to game.  In the UK, roughly 94% of people over 65 have been vaccinated.

Third: A complex bureaucratic system.

Fourth: The European system, where little vaccine is even available.

I guess the US can take comfort from the fact that we are not last on the list.

PS.  Deaths are falling faster in the UK, but only part of that is due to their superior vaccine role out.  Covid naturally tends to come in waves, and then people (or governments) respond to surges by changing behavior.

Deaths in the UK are likely to continue falling rapidly, as by mid-April everyone over 50 who wants to be vaccinated (and under 50s with pre-existing conditions) will have already received a jab.  At that time, life should return to normal.  But will it?  A year ago I argued that we under-reacted at the beginning of the epidemic and that we would overreact at the end.  I’m sticking with that prediction.  I expect excessive precautions in many countries this summer, including the US.


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Reciprocal Externalities: A Refresher

A key insight of the Coase Theorem is that externalities are reciprocal.  Yes, a polluter imposes a negative externality on his neighbor.  But if the neighbor insists on clean air, he imposes a negative externality on the polluter.  While common-sense morality may urge you to take the side of the neighbor, economic efficiency urges you to keep an open mind.  If the polluter’s cost of reducing pollution greatly exceeds the neighbor’s cost of enduring pollution, the Coase Theorem tells you to tell the neighbor, “Tough luck.  Suck it up.”

This Coasean insight is deeply relevant to COVID policy.  It’s also been almost entirely ignored.  Yes, people who don’t wear masks impose negative externalities on others.  But people who insist on masks impose negative externalities, too.  Efficiency requires both sides to consider the burden they’re imposing on the other.

Is the cost of wearing masks ever actually lower than the cost of enduring COVID exposure?  Definitely.  Suppose ten healthy young people all work in an office from 9-5 on weekdays.  Once a week, an immuno-compromised senior citizen stops by for five minutes.  The unmasked workers definitely impose a tiny negative externality one senior.  But if you require everyone to wear masks all the time, you impose a large negative externality on all ten young workers.  The efficient outcome would probably be to tell the senior to stay home if he’s nervous – not tell everyone else at the office to remain masked forty hours a week to accommodate him.

You might reply, “Forcing everyone to wear masks is inefficient, but we should still follow common-sense morality.”  I’m sympathetic, but is common-sense morality really on the senior’s side?  Not really, for two reasons:

1. Voluntary assumption of risk.  Every job has problems, including a bundle of risks.  The risks are unacceptable?  Common-sense morality’s standard reply is: “If you don’t like your working conditions, quit.”

2. De minimis. Even if you don’t voluntarily assume a risk, common-sense morality says that the expected severity of harm matters.  If the expected harm is trivial, you’re free to inflict it.  Example: I risk your life whenever I drive in your vicinity.  You don’t consent, but common-sense says I’m still entitled to drive.  Why?  Because the expected severity is low.  You could protest, “Only because you’re liable for any harm if it occurs.”  But in the real-world, imposing such liability is easier said than done.  After all, a lot of people are judgment-proof.  While you could heavily restrict the freedom of everyone who fails to post a $1M bond, common-sense morality strongly condemns such measures as tyrannical.

To state the obvious, I respect not only the individual right to wear a mask, but property-owners’ right to require a mask as a condition of entry.  But not only do I have a strong presumption against any stronger legal support for mask-wearing.  I also think that informal norms should take Coase’s notion of reciprocal externalities seriously.



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Reflections on the Yucatan

I just got back from two weeks in the Yucatan.  Overall, a fantastic trip.  Though Tyler told me we were crazy to go to Mexico during COVID, I’m sticking to the life course I set last June.  And since almost all our activities were outdoors, we felt very safe.  After factoring in the lower quality of Mexican health statistics, I’m still a little more nervous here in Texas.  In any case, here are my thoughts on our Yucatanean odyssey.

1. We stayed in Cancun for five nights, then spent two nights in Chichen Itza, two nights in Mérida, and four nights in Playa del Carmen.  Partly due to COVID, we drove in Mexico for the first time.

2. I was expecting to witness dire COVID-related poverty, but Chichen Itza and Xcaret were hopping.  Throughout the peninsula, I witnessed ample desperate peddling, but less begging than you’d see in almost any American city.   Even the poorest areas between Cancun and Chichen Itza were coping tolerably.

3. Almost all of the major attractions were open.  General rule: The smaller the attraction, the greater the COVID theater.  There were no more than 25 tourists total at glorious and immense Uxmal, but park employees barked when we took off masks for a photo or strayed from their prescribed one-way path.   All the ruins on the Puuc Route were closed, even though they’d be lucky to get 25 tourists a day.  My Spanish-speaking sons tried to smooth-talk our way into Kabah for just five minutes, but all we could do was look over the gate.

4. When I toured the Caribbean, I could at least understand thinkers who attribute differences in development to the virtue of the inhabitants.  The islanders really did seem disorganized and fatalistic; the level of broad-daylight public drunkenness shocked me.  If I were an investor, I would worry about my ability to build a team of reliable workers in the Caribbean.  In the Yucatan, on the other hand, the idea that lack of a “Western work ethic” impedes development is preposterous.  The people were model workers.  Everywhere I looked, I saw Mexicans energetically and cheerfully doing hard jobs.  Almost everyone I dealt with seemed to take pride in his work.  I’m not just talking about resort workers; wherever I looked, the population was hard at work.  The Yucatan is a can-do land.

5. If you have any sympathy for the “agorist” ideal of universal self-employment, the Yucatan should change your mind.  As Bloom and van Reenen’s work on international management highlights, even model workers flounder without sagacious management.  Big business, especially international corporations, fuse their Mexican workforces into crackerjack teams.  Most self-employed Mexicans, in contrast, are floundering.  On every beach, I saw lone peddlers trying to sell hats to tourists, yet never saw a single hat sold.  While old-school Chicago economists might insist that this desperate business model was somehow “optimal” given their complex constraints, I seriously doubt it.  The problem is that high-quality business management is too scarce in Mexico to give every Mexican the opportunity for high-productivity formal employment.

6. We toured four major Mayan sites: Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Coba, and Tulum.  Each filled me with a sense of alien wonder, but the ubiquity of human sacrifice in Mayan religion weighed on me the whole time.  The mere fact that a major civilization embraced human sacrifice so thoroughly and durably makes me shake my head at not only religion but humanity itself.

7. Our Chichen Itza tour guide insisted that human sacrifice was “voluntary.”  He also embraced the view that the winners, not the losers, of the Mayan ball game were sacrificed.  At minimum, I’d say, “How could you possibly know that?”  The fact that official accounts claim that the victims saw death as an honor is hardly probative.  It’s scarcely better than saying that the Jonestown massacre was voluntary because Jim Jones said so.  Nor should we retreat to agnosticism.  Darwin alone should give us a mighty prior that human beings want to live and reproduce, not drown in a sacred cenote or have their living hearts ripped out.

8. Chichen Itza has the most ubiquitous desperate peddling of any tourist site I’ve ever seen.  When I grilled my tour guide about how these businesses work, he explained that every peddler has an informal property right to his location in the park.  The peddlers near the front almost certainly do the best, while those in the remote sections of the park eke out a bare existence.  According to my guide, peddlers can bequeath their spots, so the same vending table we see today was probably once run by the current vendor’s parents and grandparents.

9. Driving in Mexico was much better than I expected.  The roads are probably better than in the U.S., though the number of roads is far fewer, with almost no gas stations in remote regions.  The biggest problem is the extreme inequality of vehicle quality.  Even on the highways, many of the cars are too frazzled to go 100 kph.  If you have a modern car, as I did, you have to either slow down to a crawl or continuously pass struggling vehicles, usually on the wrong side of the road.  Fortunately, Mexicans driving low-performance vehicles were extremely courteous.  While many American drivers speed up when you try to pass them, Mexicans drive half-way off the road to make passing easier.

10. While we’re on the subject of Mexican inequality, my experience convinces me that official statistics greatly understate it.  Wikipedia reports after-tax/after-transfer Gini coefficients of .38 for the U.S. and .48 for Mexico.  Looking at the Yucatan, though, I’d say about 10% of the people are living on under $2000/year and about 10% are living on over $50,000 a year.  About 70% of the people at fancy resorts were Mexicans.  I know that COVID distorts these numbers by scaring off foreign tourists and depressing prices, but still.

11. Growing up in Los Angeles, I was raised to be terrified of Mexico.  The implicit model was: The typical Mexican is extraordinarily prone to both property and violent crime.  In 1990, this was a severe exaggeration: Mexico’s murder rate was only 50% higher than America’s.  Now, however, the disparity is far greater: In 2017, Mexico’s murder rate was almost 400% higher.  How do I reconcile this with my direct observation of the hard-working, respectful, and frankly docile people of the Yucatan?  My best story so far: While the median Mexican is wonderful, high Mexican inequality extends to virtue as well.  Mexican crime gangs are like wolves among the sheep: A handful of villains terrorizing a vast, gentle population.

12. If true, this story sheds new light on the tragic history of violent revolution in Mexico – and presumably the culturally similar nations of Spanish America as well.  Socialist and nationalist revolutionaries are Latin America’s most successful criminal gangs, augmenting sheer brutality with fanatical ideology.  The average person in these countries, however, craves tranquility and opportunity.  Revolutionaries are a handful of wolves who make daily life hell, all the while vainly promising a heaven-on-earth that never comes.  Unlike ordinary criminal gangs, however, Latin America’s revolutionaries have global legions of defenders and apologists.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Some men just want to watch Mexico burn.

13. Best easy-to-overlook place in the Yucatan: Choco-Story across the street from Uxmal.  They call it a “museum” but it’s really a chocolate jungle park and a place of wonder.  Try one sip of their bitter authentic Mayan hot chocolate, then add sugar and spice to enjoy the best hot chocolate you’ve ever tasted.  Hand-feed the monkeys.  And if you go to Chichen Itza, stay at the Hacienda Chichen.  Our first night, we were the only customers in this wonderful resort, where the staff’s response to every request is “¡Claro!”  During non-COVID times, you can even walk straight to Chichen Itza.  Do yourself a favor and book today.


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It Pays to be Positive?

Hong Kong will give $645 dollars to all those who accept to be tested for Covid19 and are positive. The number of cases, and deaths, are on the rise in Hong Kong but everything seems under control, given the fact Hong Kong’s population is 7.4 million. Lombardy, where I live, is the home of 10 million people and since the start of the pandemic we have had more than 180.000 cases and some 20.000 deaths.

Yet this is understandably an outcome the Hong Kong authorities want to avoid, and so they are putting in place a system that incentivizes testing in this way. We will see how it goes. Income per capita in Hong Kong is around $ 50,000. I suspect that, everywhere, higher-income people, as they tend to be more exposed to the media, are eager to test no matter what. If there is a certain reluctance in lower-income people to test, perhaps because they fear the consequences of quarantine in terms of their work and their social life, perhaps subsidies such as Hong Kong’s might well counteract this wariness (I suppose it was designed with that goal in mind).

One wonders why Western democracies didn’t try to do the same. After all, they have all distributed a staggering amount of money in the last few months. Linking some of it to testing would not have hurt – though of course if the subsidy was too high you could imagine some opportunistic behavior (including attempts to playing with the test’s results to score positive, to the extent that’s possible). I fear that’s because the testing capacity wasn’t there. Now it seems a similar approach might be enacted in Italy, too. Perhaps in the hope of saving the upcoming skiing season, the province of Bozen, in South Tyrol (a German-speaking region of Italy), has tested 70% of its population (over 350.000 people) in just a few days, with antigenic tests. People there are notoriously very law-abiding, but that’s not the same everywhere. Why should we rule out the idea that a monetary incentive could help?


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The relationship between identity and politics is complicated

Back in 1976, I drove from Wisconsin to the Canadian Rockies. In North Dakota I drove past endless miles of wheat farms, with some sunflower farms thrown in. The countryside looked much the same after crossing the border into Saskatchewan, Canada.

But one thing changes dramatically at the border. Just south of the border the farmers tend to vote for right wing candidates that are strongly opposed to Obamacare. To the north, the farmers vote for candidates that support Medicare for all. A system that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would love.

A person’s political views can never be understood in isolation, only in the context of the broader society in which they are embedded. Based on numerous comments that I’ve seen in the press, I don’t believe that either party understands the role of “identity” in politics. Republicans sometimes suggest that their party would have won states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan if not for the votes of cities with large black populations, such as Detroit, Philadelphia or Milwaukee. Democrats suggest that America will gradually become a country where a majority of the population is “people of color” and that this will help their party in the long run. Both are wrong.

If having lots of black voters made a country more left wing, then you’d expect America to be more left wing than Canada, and you’d expect the Deep South to be the most left wing part of America. What both parties miss is that the existence of racial minorities changes the voting behavior of white voters.

There’s very little evidence that a majority of the population will ever become non-white, because the category “white” is so fluid. Watching the NBA draft on Wednesday, I was struck by how many of the first round draft picks came from bi-racial families. Admittedly this is a skewed sample that is not representative of the broader population. But both Hispanics and Asians intermarry at a surprisingly high rate. My Asian wife gave birth to a daughter that our society views as white.

Race won’t go away, but there is no realistic prospect of whites becoming a minority in the US in the foreseeable future. Reason magazine reports that one Washington school district has already declared that Asian-Americans are white:

One school district in Washington state has evidently decided that Asians no longer qualify as persons of color.

In their latest equity report, administrators at North Thurston Public Schools—which oversees some 16,000 students—lumped Asians in with whites and measured their academic achievements against “students of color,” a category that includes “Black, Latinx, Native American, Pacific Islander, and Multi-Racial Students” who have experienced “persistent opportunity gaps.”

Expect much more of this in the future.

Then there is the “Latino” population:

Though not everyone in the Rio Grande Valley self-identifies as Tejano, the descriptor captures a distinct Latino community—culturally and politically—cultivated over centuries of both Mexican and Texan influences and geographic isolation. Nearly everyone speaks Spanish, but many regard themselves as red-blooded Americans above anything else. And exceedingly few identify as people of color. (Even while 94 percent of Zapata residents count their ethnicity as Hispanic/Latino on the census, 98 percent of the population marks their race as white.) Their Hispanicness is almost beside the point to their daily lives.

It is foolish to use ethnic identity to predict the future course of politics.


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Non-linearities in Covid outcomes

Recent trends in Covid-19 fatalities in Western countries are quite unusual, with a wide range of outcomes. We know that these highly divergent results can be explained with a model where long run outcomes are highly sensitive to whether the replication rate “R0” is above or below 1.0 (after social distancing.) I will argue that a country’s complexity plays an important role in determining that replication rate. Obviously the term ‘complexity’ will require some unpacking, but first let’s look at the number of Covid deaths thus far in November:

EU: 34,276 deaths (76.56 per million)

USA: 14,637 deaths (44.12 per million)

Canada: 658 deaths (17.38 per million)

Australia: Zero deaths (0 per million)

New Zealand: Zero deaths (0 per million)

I will argue that in the list above, countries with higher recent death rates are places with higher levels of complexity. And I’ll also argue that a slight difference in complexity can make a huge different in long run outcomes. And finally, I’ll argue that these results can be affected to some degree by policy choices, but mostly for countries near the “tipping point” (i.e. places like Canada and Australia.)

Before going further, let me address the concern that these results only show recent rends, and thus for instance the US has been hit harder than Europe if you look at the entire pandemic, not just November. Or that Australia and New Zealand had some deaths before November. That’s all true, but I’m interested in current trends because I feel they better illustrate the direction to which countries tend to migrate in the long run.

There are many possible reasons why Australia and New Zealand might have done better than other Western nations. For instance, Australia does not have particularly cold weather. But you could say the same about Texas, which had over 200 deaths yesterday. Or perhaps Australia was just lucky; the virus missed this remote continent.

But the Melbourne area was hit by a huge surge in cases a few months ago, with hundreds of new cases every single day during July and August. Perhaps they avoided “superspreaders”, but how likely does that seem when total cases are in the tens of thousands? There’s the “law of large numbers” to consider. How was Australia able to get things under complete control in a short period of time, and why weren’t other Western nations able to replicate that success?

Consider a model where Covid is easiest to control in an isolated village of 100 people, where everyone knows each other. As societies become more “complex”, Covid becomes progressively more difficult to control. But what exactly does the term  ‘complexity’ mean in this context?

I’m open to suggestions, but I’d start with density. Next I’d add the total population of a country. Then I’d add the ease of movement between population centers. Highly populated and dense countries with lots of movement between regions are highly complex.

Then I’d add cultural heterogeneity. That factor may be negatively correlated with civic cohesion, or willingness to cooperate for the public good. You might want to add administrative complexity; are the governmental lines of authority clearly demarcated?

Here’s another way to make the distinction. Travel in New Zealand is both much more convenient and much less interesting than travel in Italy. Italy is complex, while New Zealand is “simple” (no pejorative intended.) I’ve lived in both the UK and Australia, and Britain seemed like a much more complicated and confusing country. Less “legible” if that term has any meaning when applied to countries. I suspect that the UK’s greater density plays a big part in that difference. And notice that while hard hit Belgium is a small country, it’s also quite densely populated and culturally diverse, with a confusing governmental structure.

Although Australia has a population roughly comparable to Texas, and also has some metro areas that are only a bit smaller than Dallas and Houston, it differs in one important respect. The Australian population centers are more isolated than in Texas. In a sense, Australia is sort of like five New Zealands cobbled together—with population centers that are pretty isolated from one another by vast distances. People don’t typically just get in the car and drive from Adelaide to Perth. So when commenters tell me what Australia did differently, such as interstate travel bans, I want you to also reflect on the extent to which these policy differences are partly endogenous, reflecting geography and culture.

You might argue that Canada is kind of similar to Australia, both being continental size English-speaking countries with modest populations. But Canada is more diverse, with a French area that was hit far harder than the rest of Canada, including more than 60% of Canada’s Covid deaths. Right now, the four Maritime Provinces have a grand total of 43 active Covid cases, while Quebec has 13,463. Canada may also have more links to the US, despite recent travel bans.

In this model, even a slight difference in complexity can have big long run consequences if it puts two countries on the opposite side of R0 = 1.0. Canada had the misfortune of having a bit too much complexity to control Covid (or perhaps a bit less effective government policies). Over time, the two countries diverged more and more, with Australia going to zero deaths and Canada to a position somewhere between Australia and the much more complex US/EU regions.

The big policy question going forward is whether in a future global pandemic there is a set of policies that if pursued early and aggressively could get us to the Australian equilibrium. I don’t believe that any one policy could do that for the US or the EU, but I wouldn’t rule out a set of policies in combination. These would include a much earlier travel ban from the country where the virus originates. And a much more aggressive test-trace-isolate regime for the few cases that sneak though the travel ban.

It’s much easier to control an epidemic if you don’t first allow it to get out of control, but (and this is important) Melbourne showed that it’s possible to eliminate a pandemic even after it’s out of control. That’s very good news.

My suggestions might lead to an overreaction to less serious threats, such as the earlier SARS virus from 2003. But in a sense what I think doesn’t really matter. The reality is that future SARS-type outbreaks will be accompanied by some pretty draconian travel bans, at least until scientists can figure out the exact risk associated with the new virus. That’s the new world we live in, for better or worse. And for the few cases that do sneak through, expect countries to try very hard to replicate what Melbourne did.

PS.  I hope it goes without saying that I am not recommending that countries become less complex.  Complexity also confers huge advantages.  It helps explain why industries like Hollywood and Silicon Valley locate in the US rather than New Zealand.

PPS.  When examining the following graph, pay attention to the log scale:



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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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