My pet theory of history is that the rationality, efficiency, openness and prosperity that we associate with modernity (and of course their many attendant problems) are not, as commonly supposed, the product of the rise of representative government, but rather of the rise of absolutist monarchy in the 16th and 17th centuries.
I have put the idea forward here and there, notably my Recap of the Fall of Monarchism post, but I cannot pretend to be enough of a historian to have a serious theory.
Nonetheless, I get the impression that I am not out of step with serious historians as much as with the popular narrative. As it happens, I have been reading (for silly reasons) some history of military strategy lately, and I just came across this:
Doubtless this sustained effort to systematize and order the structure of the army reflected what was taking place in other spheres. Throughout French political life traditional rights and confusions sanctified by long usage were being attacked in the interest of strengthening the central power. This cult of reason and order was not merely an authoritarian expedient, nor just an aesthetic ideal imposed by the prevailing classicism. Impatience with senseless disorder, wherever encountered, was one expression, and not the least significant expression, of the mathematical neorationalism of Descartes, of the esprit géométrique detected and recorded by Pascal. It was the form in which the scientific revolution, with its attendant mechanical philosophy, first manifested itself in France. And it resulted in the adoption of the machine—where each part fulfilled its prescribed function, with no waste motion and no supernumerary cogs—as the primordial analogy, the model not only of man’s rational construction, but of God’s universe. In this universe the cogs were Gassendi’s atoms or Descartes’ vortices, while the primum mobile was Fontenelle’s divine watchmaker. We often speak as though the eighteenth or the nineteenth century discovered the worship of the machine, but this is a half-truth. It was the seventeenth century that discovered the machine, its intricate precision, its revelation—as for example in the calculating machines of Pascal and Leibnitz—of mathematical reason in action. The eighteenth century merely gave this notion a Newtonian twist, whereas the nineteenth century worshiped not the machine but power. So in the age of Richelieu and Louis XIV the reformers were guided by the spirit of the age, by the impact of scientific rationalism, in their efforts to modernize both the army and the civilian bureaucracy, and to give to the state and to the army some of the qualities of a well-designed machine.Henry Guerlac, “Vauban: The Impact of Science on War”, collected in “Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age”, ed. Peter Paret, 1986
(Actually, that citation is more confusing, the essay was published in the earlier “Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to Hitler” in 1943, and republished in the 1986 version I am reading.)
Anyway, there we have it — representative government is not a cause but a (misplaced, in my view) response to the rise of rationalism that went with the shift from feudal to absolutist monarchy.
Tweetable link: https://t.co/BoCMreyLtX?amp=1
The change in owner of the “richest man in the world” spot triggered some spluttering about inequality.
There was an interesting point emerged about the last three occupants: Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. While none of them inherited their great wealth, all of them came from families that were rich (but not super-rich).
There was a conservative narrative, “Isn’t equality of opportunity wonderful — the richest people in our society are self-made. Yay equality of opportunity”
The opposing socialist narrative was “Yes, anyone can be successful so long as they have parents who own an emerald mine or can lend them $200,000 to help start their business”
On the merits, I would say the socialists had the better of the argument. However, nobody seemed to notice how self-defeating that argument is for any kind of moderate socialism.
My reactionary narrative is, “if rich parents were a vital ingredient in creating Microsoft, Amazon and Tesla, surely we would all benefit enormously from there being more rich parents. Down with inheritance taxes”
I expect to see a bunch of reflex responses along the lines “Microsoft, Amazon and Tesla are Bad, Actually”. Yes, I’m taking a somewhat economistic attitude, and yes I could make a long list of bad things about Microsoft, Amazon and Tesla. There are long lists of good things, too. This piece is not relevant to arguments against any kind of capitalist economy. Within a capitalist context, I believe we all benefit if that economy produces more innovation and more efficiency. There are arguments against a capitalist economy, but none for “capitalism but with less entrepreneurship”.
The relevant argument is between fairness and the common good. It is not fair that Bill Gates was born rich and I wasn’t. It is good for all of us that someone young and ambitious was able to raise a modest amount of capital in the 1970s to make software for microcomputers. If the mechanism for making that happen was the inequality of birth, then in that instance it benefitted us.
Digging into that mechanism, the key fact is that it is hard to convince people to lend you money when you are twenty-two and have no track record. There are people who would be willing to do so if they knew all about you, but for a professional investor finding out all about you will take more time and money than is available to make a small investment. This is the exact problem that Paul Graham wrote about repeatedly for years before attempting to solve it with Y Combinator. Parents know their children far better than any venture capitalist could without spending thousands of dollars worth of work. If the parents are also investors, the impossible becomes possible.
There may be parallel mechanisms: the networking opportunities available to rich families, and the self-confidence that comes from being brought up in privilege. It might be more feasible to reproduce these benefits without sacrificing equality. But the concrete fact of being able to borrow six months to a few years of a basic working person’s income from family to take a risk seems to me to be the largest one, and no egalitarian policy can reproduce that. A funding bureaucracy will inevitably mirror existing VCs, and favour those with sales flair and longer track records.
I went a bit further on Twitter, suggesting that Britain’s economy might have benefited had the aristocracy not been deliberately impoverished by inheritance taxes. That’s admittedly a much more debatable proposition — the titled British have not been conspicuous for their entrepreneurship. But such was not always the case, I think: in the very early stages of the Industrial Revolution it was landowners that were investing in the inventors for steam-powered mining pumps and so forth.
In substance, my central argument here — that the privilege of wealth provides a unique opportunity to take risks — is identical to the one I made about science in 2010. That’s because real science of the most valuable kind is the same kind of risk as starting a business. There might be treasure here, and there probably isn’t. The only people who can devote serious resources to looking for it are those who can afford to lose them — to devote years of work to looking for something that was never there.
Tweetable link: https://t.co/t5qlk2FaZG?amp=1
The Internet began somewhere around 1970
The World Wide Web began somewhere around 1990
Mass participation in the internet was reached a little before 2000
With that, anyone could communicate with anyone else, or with any group, easily and free of charge.
That did not mean that anyone could whip up ordinary people with ordinary interests into political hysteria like Black Lives Matter or QAnon. Ordinary people with ordinary interests would not pay attention to that stuff.
Facebook hit a billion users a bit after 2010. It is Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube that meant that anyone, if they pitched it just right, could reach a mass audience. And that sent politics insane.
The Trump presidency was a glorious carnival, but a carnival is all that it was. When the Saturnalia ends the slaves go back to work. I said when he was elected that it was a setback for neoreaction, and it probably was.
I got a lot wrong though. I did not expect the anti-Trump hysteria to endure. Facebook-era politics was too new, then, for me to have understood how it works.
The Facebook era of politics ends today. As with the Trump presidency, I will miss the fun and excitement. I miss eating a packet of biscuits a day too. But man was not meant to eat that much sugar, and democracy was not meant to exist with uncontrolled access to mass media. From the invention of journalism until the twenty-first century, ability to reach the public with your propaganda was power, and power had its say on who could do it. A decade of unconstrained mass media gave us Trump and Brexit and the Gilet Jaunes1, and it also gave us Open Borders, Trans Rights, Russiagate2 BLM, PornHub, and QAnon. It was destroying our society, and it was going to be stopped sooner or later.
We only really had one thing to say to the normies – that democracy was an illusion, and they were not in charge. I don’t think we need Twitter to tell them that any more. The events of the last week have exposed the relationship between government and media much more obviously than weird technical blog posts.
I spent the night bitching about the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the censors. I suppose I had to get it out of my system.
The pogrom will go a bit wider at first, but in the end I don’t think it will do more than roll back to 2005 or so. I do not expect to be censored, because I do not speak to voters. It was the frictionlessness of the Facebook news feed that pulled normies into these games — if you have to go out of your way to find me, then I am doing the regime no harm, and I expect to be ignored, at least if I get through the next few months.
This, of course, is also the system in China. And I admire the Chinese system. When I tried to imagine neoreactionary victory, I struggled a bit with how a monarchical regime could exist in a world of uncensored internet. I don’t have to worry now.
Some practical resilience steps are sensible. Back up everything. Try not to depend on the Silicon Valley giants (GMail is nice, but you’re not the customer you’re the product). It’s possible that something like RSS could make a comeback if it’s awkward enough to use that the normies aren’t included, but don’t chase after the holy grail of a censorship-resistant mass media because that’s a coup-complete problem. Keep your head down, keep the channels open. I had this blog working as a Tor hidden service once, I’ll revisit that but I don’t expect to need it.
Tweetable Link: https://t.co/3kz8iBBsRm?amp=1
People die. Of old age, of illness, of accidents, of violence.
In some cases it’s good that the person died, but more often not.
On the whole though, people are OK with the idea that death happens, particularly to old people. At the margin, they’d prefer it happened less, and we do a lot of stuff to try and reduce deaths, but we don’t do everything we could.
There is a school of thought that this is a terrible scandal. The Fable of the Dragon Tyrant is the classic text. There is a chance we might be able to prevent aging and death — a slim chance, perhaps, but real — and it scores very low on the priorities used for resource allocation.
I instinctively shy away from that point of view. As a materialist, I don’t really have any sensible way of choosing ultimate priorities, but I still kind of feel like there might be some. And if there are, maximising human life seems almost as stupid as minimising pain and suffering.
In the same irrational, hand-wavy way, preserving the human race and human civilisation seems like a more plausible aim. The nice thing from a practical point of view about adopting a long-term goal like that, is that I don’t have to worry too much about the fine details of the goal. You achieve a long-term goal by enhancing the power of those who would advance the goal, whatever the goal is. I wrote about that ages ago, it’s called Instrumental Convergence. The reason that matters is that pursuing the abolition of death in the medium term, and the flourishing of civilisation in the long term, are at least arguably in conflict — there is plenty of mid-twentieth-century speculative fiction concerning the pitfalls of premature immortality.
The fact that the nutter who wants us to try to abolish old age, and the thinker who exquisitely defined and described Instrumental Convergence, are the same person is… I’ve no idea what it is, frankly. But it is so. I can’t just not notice it.
Anyway, my point in bringing up the “abolish death” position is not to refute it. These guys make their case, and they do it pretty well. That’s fine. I just observe that it is not mainstream. Nobody with power is adopting it, nobody with a large platform is calling for it. Most of us share the alternative position — the “Deathist” ideology — that people get old and die, and that’s something we have to accept. Pushing at the margin, living longer and healthier, is desirable, but even that not at the expense of everything else.
Also, we accept that accidents happen, that diseases happen. We do quite a lot to reduce them, but not everything we could, and if we did do everything we could, we might do worse in the long run, since we could be sacrificing future capability.
And taking this out of the realm of the precise, we are making all these decisions under great uncertainty. We don’t have all the information, and we are drawing conclusions from the information we do have. We don’t know the best way of extending life, we don’t know the best way of preventing accidents, we don’t have very much idea at all of the best way of increasing our future capability so as to be able to do a better job in the long run. These arguments are the normal stuff of theoretical politics.
Most importantly they are not just theoretical politics, they are practical politics. And in practical politics, you are not just working with incomplete information, you are working with adversarial information. Much of the information you are trying to make decisions from is crafted by your adversaries in order to push you towards the decisions they want.
This is just politics. That is what it is — trying to advance your goals, by cooperation and conflict, with very incomplete information, and in the face of adversarial disinformation. The mechanisms we use to make decisions are supposed to function in the face of this incomplete information and adversarial input.
This, incidentally, is why all moral thought experiments are worthless. Take your prisoners’ dilemmas, your trolley problems, and burn them. They have no applicability in a world where you don’t trust what you are told, and the more you rely on anything today, the less you can trust it tomorrow. Every “cognitive bias”, I strongly suspect, bottoms out as the experimental subject, consciously or unconsciously, going “but what if you’re lying?” We are built to fight for power and resources in an endless war of deception, not to play pretty mathematical games with rules.
In some fictional future where we’ve eliminated conflict, we can use all that logic. Fixing aging will happen first.
So my starting position, when looking at the pandemic and the response, is that this is still politics as usual. Yes, it’s a matter of life and death, but politics is always a matter of life and death.
(insert: Sailer claiming 2400 extra murders in the US in 2020. He has a theory as to the policy causes. It makes sense to me, but who knows? This is a normal political question)
To make policy for the pandemic, we have to weigh those deaths. We have to give them a value, and a finite value. We have to estimate the costs of the measures we take, in terms of other things we value besides saving lives. We can say half a million deaths is bad, and quarter of a million is less bad. We can say that quarter of a million in a year is bad, but it’s worse if all of them would otherwise have lived healthily for years, than if half of them would have died in the next three or four anyway.
Now if somebody else thinks the long-run impact of lockdowns and economic disruption are likely to be smaller than I do, or that the value of saving the lives of thousands of young people and tens of thousands of old people is higher than I do, that’s fine. I don’t have very firm positions anyway, and since I’m not a policy maker, don’t want to be, and would prefer not to even be a citizen of a democracy, it doesn’t matter at all. But I am disturbed by people I respect ranting about the inhumanity of doing this weighing.
(Of course, I’m also disturbed by people cherry-picking random tiny factoids and using them as if they decide the issue one way or the other. But that’s debate as usual.)
When I wrote today that Covid-19 was “a false alarm”, what I mean is we didn’t have to do anything this severe about it. Probably we have saved tens of thousands of lives1, and possibly it was worth it, but as a society and a civilisation we would have coped anyway. My baseline back in March of “this could be really bad” is death rates doubling. The estimates in the existing UK government “Pandemic Preparedness” plan were along those lines. We’ve seen maybe a sixth of that, and if we had followed the plan we might easily have seen half or two thirds. That still, to an ordinary person, would not change their life. The hospitals would have been full. If in a normal year one elderly relative dies, maybe two or three this year. If a person you know died of shocking disease of accident a couple of times a decade, it’s quite likely there would be one this year. Lots of extra deaths — many more even than Sailer attributes to changes in policing — but not an impact on normal life.
Again, I’m not saying that saving those lives wasn’t worth it, or even that saving more might not have been worth it. I’m actually very happy that that wasn’t my call to make. I do think a person could justifiably feel that it wasn’t. This is normal politics.
I kept no diary. The arguments online were so stupid I just got sick of them and checked out. The social history — well, I’m one of the lucky ones who just did my work from home instead of commuting to an office, and so the main impact on me was to become even more divorced from what the rest of the country is experiencing.
It’s slightly premature to be summarizing, but on the other hand I’d like to start committing to a few things before a standard narrative is established.
The big picture summary is that this was a false alarm. I wrote back in March that lockdowns were justified by the tail risks of the pandemic being really bad, but it’s clear with the hindsight we didn’t have then that they weren’t needed. In terms of spread and lethality, this is well within the parameters of the pandemic preparedness plans that had been worked out in advance and were ditched in March.
Again, we couldn’t have known that at the time. What we could and did know was that the “flatten the curve” slogan was bollocks. That was obvious as soon as you tried to put scales on the axes. If we needed to flatten we would still have a decade to go.
That’s moot of course because of the vaccines. It seems obvious that, having endured the reduction measures this far, we should continue them a couple more months to minimise the damage this winter, since by next winter it will be all over. (The extreme seasonality seems like a huge deal. Like, the virus doesn’t work in summer but we don’t know why not. Wouldn’t it be spectacularly useful to know? UV light? Vitamin D? Central heating turned off? How hard can it be?)
It seems obvious, but it might not be. I think to the global catastrophe I was closest to, the 2007 crash, where most of the damage was caused by the last few months of the fake boom. But I have no handle on the economic impact, I only mention the possibility.
As to the social impact — I can’t help thinking that it’s been a huge dose of realism. Disrupting a year’s schooling for a generation of children surely can’t be anything but positive: one of the biggest problems of our education system is that it trains its victims to believe that everything is under control and their job is just to fit in. A huge dose of chaos is exactly what I would have prescribed. The same goes for society at large. We can’t go on without asking big questions about what is essential or important, and what we can give up in an emergency. The pandemic should give us a much broader perspective on what is thinkable or possible. It might also shake a lot of people, like the schoolchildren, out of their general complacency. People (in Britain at least) who lived through World War II tend to be nostalgic about it. The economic damage aside, an injection of chaos and the unexpected into people’s lives might stimulate them and benefit them.
Even though this was a false alarm, anyone can see it might not have been. There are all sorts of possibilities. If we didn’t get natural immunity to the virus, for instance, it would have to fundamentally and permanently change our whole society. If it had been ten times more lethal, anyone bitching about their freedoms would have been blatantly insane. We would have had to weld doors shut China-style, or die. If it killed children the way it killed the elderly, we would have had to be much more effective, or we would lose a generation. The signs do not suggest that we would have coped with any of these worst-case scenarios very well. Possibly next time we will be more realistic.
We also need to think a bit better about death. But I doubt we will, and that’s worth another post anyway.
Tweetable link: https://t.co/7PSFTs8pdw?amp=1
We are at a very interesting stage in the Coronavirus crisis.
Most of the big important questions are still not answered.
How many people will it kill if left unchecked? Anywhere from about 0.1% to about 10% of the population.
How long until we have a vaccine? Anywhere from six months to never.
Will it die out once enough people are immune, or stick around for ever, or come back from time to time as it mutates? Don’t know.
How much effect does intensive hospital treatment have on the death rate? Definitely some. Maybe a lot. Don’t know.
Will we have treatments that will significantly reduce the death rates? Don’t know.
Will it have similar impact all over the world, or is its geographic range restricted? Don’t know.
What does it take to stop it spreading out of control? Can it be done by just being careful, wearing masks in public, and quarantining detected cases, or do all group activities need to be drastically curtailed? Not sure.
In spite of this, governments need to act. Policies need to be made, and, with all this democracy malarkey, people are getting attached to policy proposals and arguing very strongly for one or another. In fact, people often are getting more strongly and emotionally attached than usual, I assume because this more obviously is a life-or-death issue than most political questions.
I am not (yet) really attached. Given all this ignorance, policy choice is very sensitive to estimates of the probable answers to all the open questions, as well as being sensitive to all the values and principles that make other political questions controversial. With a few exceptions, I don’t think any government has acted in a way I can say is very bad. The exceptions are very widespread — all governments were caught underprepared. Most governments ought to have been quicker to impose restrictions on movement of people into the country — by far the most efficient way of protecting from any infectious disease is to stop it getting in. But once we hit the pandemic phase, I can see good arguments for any policy we have seen, from doing very little and letting it run its course, to temporarily shutting down all non-essential activity until we know more. It might even turn out that the optimal policy is to let it rip, falsify the statistics, and pretend that it’s gone away (as some are accusing the Chinese government of doing). Governments actively discouraging masks seems almost definitely a bad idea, and the tendency to let the perfect be the enemy of the good is obstructing execution of policy in the matter of equipment, treatments and testing. But beyond that most governments have responded in reasonable ways.
Where I am getting a bit excited is where people, in attempting to argue for one policy or another, are claiming that facts are established that really aren’t.
The big one is the impact on hospitals. I wrote on March the 12th that what we were expecting was:
The government view is that [Italy] is just the beginning. It is going to get that bad. And then it is going to get worse. And then it is going to carry on getting worse. What they are concerned with is just how much worse it’s going to get.
That’s still probably the most likely projection: currently the UK is getting about 6000 confirmed cases per day, that could well go up tenfold: we could have a million people sick at once and there’s no reasonable way to put them in hospitals and treat them, so mostly they will be on their own.
But we absolutely do not know that. No population we know of has reached that stage, not even the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
What is getting me upset is that some people are saying this is already happening. I’m pretty sure it isn’t. It’s a reasonable projection, based on our limited knowledge, but I’ve seen no evidence anywhere has actually got to that yet, and there should be evidence. I’ve had arguments on twitter with people claiming a few breathless TV news reports from Italian towns prove it, but TV news is always stripped of context and presented to give a strong impression. Certainly, a few hospitals have been reduced to states of chaos, but that actually happens from time to time. Britain’s health service is notorious, but I’m sure it’s not the only one where a much smaller shock than that which we are anticipating from the peak of the pandemic can temporarily throw a single hospital into chaos.
(I’m also getting upset by people saying “the pandemic is a nothingburger”, but that is not generally coming from people I otherwise respect).
This really does bring up the parallel with climate science. Because it was once in the same place. My view is that the original modelling of the greenhouse effect in the 1980s was good science, and the idea that rising CO2 concentrations could affect the climate in a very damaging way was very much worth worrying about. But by say 1990 that is where we were. We had some models, some very questionable historical data, and a threat that demanded we take precautions and find out more.
Then it got political. The oil companies, very unwisely, tried to get the idea dismissed. Anti-capitalists got very excited about a reason to suppress industrial civilisation. And everyone claimed the facts supporting their position were known. In reality, we still didn’t know anything.
Over the last 30 years, the alarming climate models have been completely invalidated, the paleoclimatology claiming that current conditions are unprecedented has been debunked, but none of it matters because it is now simply a political question. People lined up on one side or the other of the open scientific questions because their enemies were on the other side, and no new information would have shifted them. Most strikingly, there are people claiming that the climate has already changed by so much that it is obvious to direct personal experience, when the officially measured change in average temperature over a human lifetime is way below what anyone could actually notice.
That’s what the claim that COVID-19 is already causing health system collapse reminds me of. Now, if it does get to that point in the next 4 or 8 weeks, which of course is quite likely, then it doesn’t matter. Some people just anticipated it. But what if it doesn’t? How do we persuade somebody that it isn’t going to happen, when they’ve been defining themselves politically by the claim that it happened already? The big question in climate, the only one now that really interests me, is what it will take for the alarmists to give in. If the Coronavirus fizzles out, which as of today is still a possibility, what will it take for people to admit it?
Very insightful point by @mnwoodhouse on twitter:
the slatestarcodex post about masks points out that the “masks don’t work” propaganda goes back several years, so it can’t be entirely related to current supply concerns for medical workers. instead i think it might be an example of the notion in contemporary liberalism that any “fears” or risk/harm avoidance — with some specific exceptions — are necessarily irrational
You can see how this happened. Egalitarians do not want us to fear the other. The natural tendency of humans is to fear the other. Liberalism started in the 1700s (if you like) in the environment where there was exaggerated fear of people who were different. They argued that the fears were incorrect, that people of other countries, other races, other religions were not nearly as dangerous as people thought. They were right! Society became less fearful, more accepting, and saw concrete benefits as a result.
But in the late 1900s that process stalled. As reduced fearfulness came closer to actual equality, the concept that fears of the other were exaggerated ceased to be true, to the point that today, “FBI Crime Statistics” is a far-right slogan in its own right.
It was easy to argue against irrational fears. You used facts. How, though, do you argue against rational fear?
Well, I skimmed for arguments against John Derbyshire’s piece, but I couldn’t find any — just pointing and sputtering. And I think that’s the answer. You argue against rational fear by not even beginning to engage with it, but by ruling it out-of-bounds from the start. Derbyshire is wrong to tell his children to fear blacks, because it is bad to argue that some people are dangerous. We won’t even go into detail about exactly what is and isn’t bad to fear: we don’t want to get into tricky questions over FBI crime statistics, or anything, we will just say “stuff like that is bad” and leave it at that.
If Derbyshire is factually wrong, which he might be, that doesn’t actually change the argument. The important point isn’t that he is right, it’s that his critics do not dispute him on factual grounds, only on vague moral grounds. Everything else follows.
If someone had posted on Twitter that, in the fight against the novel Coronavirus, the World Heath Organisation had decided to take the side of the virus, I would have taken it as a joke, and a rather feeble and unfunny one. But I would have been wrong. The result of having a bucket of “ideas that are bad”, which you aren’t allowed to reason about in detail, is that “wear a mask to protect yourself from viral infection”, or “don’t let planeloads of people from an area with a dangerous epidemic land in your country” end up in the same bucket as “If planning a trip to a beach or amusement park at some date, find out whether it is likely to be swamped with blacks on that date”
Internationalists are literally defending the virus from prejudice in the same way they would defend minorities from prejudice. They are doing so in spite of the indisputable fact that the virus is dangerous, because you’re not allowed to get into facts when defending minorities from prejudice. They are doing so without having any actual desire for the virus to flourish, because you are not allowed to consider whether you desire specific oppressed minorities to flourish when combating prejudice. “You must protect yourself from this dangerous thing” makes liberals feel immediately uneasy, and they are conditioned to avoid even digging into that unease.
There is one exception. If the thing you are warning against is rich white people, or if you can at least claim it’s rich white people, you are safe. nobody is uneasy about that. So if you are in, say, the World Health Organisation, founded to fight infectious disease, your whole life is a little bit uncomfortable until you can shift attention to something where the only fear is directed at rich white people. Like, say, climate change.
“The evidence is overwhelming: climate change endangers human health. Solutions exist and we need to act decisively to change this trajectory.”
Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General
Climate change is the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century.
28 March 2020
We’re about a month in to a one-in-a-lifetime happening. I want some kind of record of what I was thinking and doing. Most of my thinking is out loud on Twitter, so I’ll be dredging that for material.
“Plague Year” is probably a misnomer. I don’t expect this to be over in 2020.
It started for me in January. An epidemic in Wuhan wasn’t terribly interesting, but @MorlockP on Twitter posted that he saw it as likely to become a global pandemic, and was making preparations for a prolonged isolation. I followed his reasoning, and told the family after dinner that it looked like getting bad, and we should make sure we had long-term stocks in the house for food, water and cleaning equipment. Over the following couple of weeks we bought large plastic boxes and filled them with emergency supplies.
Several other people have said they were spurred into preparations by MorlockP’s tweets. Twitter locked him out of his account a week ago, ever careful to protect us from misinformation.
I remember when I was planning to go to London on January 31st, to celebrate Brexit, I contemplated whether it was safe to head into crowds and underground trains. I decided that it was still early and we could go without worrying, but it might be the last time. I haven’t been in London since.
Things moved slower than I expected through February. We built up our stocks, I mentioned it to friends and colleagues, who thought I was a bit silly. Curtis Yarvin’s American Mind piece asserting that globalism would be ended by pandemics like this one was 1st Feb.
On February 22nd I retweeted a UK government notification, that 9 positive cases of COVID19 had been found in Britain.
By the end of February it was still only a minor subject on Twitter: @thespandrell had already started calling it “boomerpox”, one or two others were saying they had stocked up, Nick Szabo was complaining that the FDA was preventing testing from happening in the US.
By March 2nd, I’d stopped going swimming. It seemed an unnecessarily easy way to catch a virus. I kept going to the gym for a few days more. I’m now back to my pre-gym self: not exercising and living on bread and biscuits. I’m going to put on 20lbs and lose a lot of strength before this is over 1.
The virus was still behind the US presidential primaries and Georgina Bloomberg’s horse novels in volume of discussion on my twitter timeline
I heard a friend of a friend story that the NHS was putting testing pods in every hospital, and were generally gearing up for a major crisis.
By March 9th, the argument had started about whether the British Government was doing enough, or whether it should be closing schools and stuff. “Flattening the curve” had appeared as a concept, illustrated with what I consistently refer to as the graph-with-no-scale.
Gregory Cochran posted his “nuke the curve” piece on the 10th, arguing that it was necessary to eliminate the virus, not just slow the spread. I expressed scepticism over the feasibility, given that if infection rates were kept very low, it would keep reappearing for a long time.
On March 11th, I saw a tweet by @vaughanbell. “If you want to make sense of why the UK government are making the decisions they are making with regard to coronavirus: they have prepared over the last decade for a pandemic (focusing on pandemic flu) and the strategy and evidence based is public”, with a link to the Pandemic Flu planning information document. I studied this. I noted that the plan anticipated a lot of deaths — it advised local authorities to be prepared for “210,000 to 315,000 additional deaths across the UK over a 15-week period”. I noted that the focus of the plan was on keeping government going, not on minimising deaths, and not at all on preventing infections. I tweeted, Most of the strategy document is explicitly ‘we’re all going to get it, so just carry on’. I noted that COVID19 was spreading faster and causing more hospitalisations than the government plan had anticipated, writing What I hope is that behind the summary strategy document, there’s a range of contingency plans that includes this fast-spreading high-hospitalisation extreme. But they’re not showing it. At time of writing, 28th March, these points are still the centre of the arguments.
The 12th of March was the last day I went to work. I find I work more effectively in an office with my colleagues, but I always was able to work from home on occasion, and I’ve been doing it now for two weeks.
The evening of 12th of March, before I left the office for (so far) the last time, I watched Boris Johnson’s press conference. This was where it really became clear that the government was expecting at the very least tens of thousands, and possibly hundreds of thousands of deaths, didn’t believe it could prevent the virus spreading through the entire population, and wasn’t going to try. I wrote a blog post on my understanding.
Though shocked, I believed, and still believe, that that was a sensible position. As I had suggested to Cochran, though some countries in Asia had reduced the size of the epidemic, nobody had proved that it could be eliminated, or that the measures taken to reduce it could be sustained for the duration that would be required.
I was in a minority, at least within my twitter community. I spent the next four days largely arguing with people who believed the UK strategy was insane or was being changed.
The strongest objection is Taleb’s. His central point is the one that made his name, that mathematical modelling of unknown situations will systematically underestimate the probability of extreme outcomes. He is right. His deduction from that is that governments should take extreme measures to combat the pandemic, because nobody knows how bad it could get. My objection to that is that the outcome of the extreme measured being taken is also an unknown situation, where we do not know how bad it could get. I don’t think it will lead to the collapse of states and a new dark age, but I don’t think the virus will kill two million people in Britain either. How to model the probability of either of these outcomes? Taleb’s whole argument is that you can’t.
Still, it is the best argument for trying to put the brakes on and at least buy some time to get better information. And it seems that my claims through the weekend of 14-15 March that the UK government was not changing course were wrong. Though they are being obfuscatory about it, the models from Imperial College they are using are now modelling “suppression” rather than “slowing”. Unlike under the previous, clear, strategy, there is now no long-term outcome described.
Here of course we are into the realm of politics. “We do not really know what is going to happen, so we’re trying to keep the disease under control for now and we’ll make more decisions later” may be the most rational position, but it doesn’t sound good on TV.
The other news was that a revision of the Imperial College model had shown much more demand on hospitals than had been foreseen earlier, and that therefore different measures would have to be taken to ensure patients could continue to get care. I was and am mystified by this. Firstly, that was obvious from the start — I had tweeted on the 11th that the hospitalisation rate was going to be the really nasty bit, and my interpretation of the announcement on the 12th was that the government knew that hospitals were going to get much worse than even the horror stories we had already heard from Italy. At the same time, if they believed on the 12th that it was not possible to prevent the virus spreading through the population, how did that become possible on the 13th just because the hospitalisation rate was worse? My guess is that in reality there was an ongoing division in the cabinet and the cabinet office over whether to slow or suppress, and Boris Johnson gave in under pressure produced by the revised model.
This is all Britain-centric, but the same thing has been playing out throughout the West. The UK strategy was not an outlier, it was the standard pandemic response used by international organisations and governments, just presented a bit more transparently than in other countries. Most governments have backed away from it, and are in this no-mans-land of lockdowns and no long-term prognosis. Sweden seems to be the only place going ahead with it at this point. To this day, the government is only officially talking about slowing down the spread, but is happy for people to think it is trying to prevent it.
The critical question, from the 12th March, was whether the Asian countries that appeared to be “winning” against the virus could sustain that. As of 28th March, that still isn’t clear. South Korea and Taiwan still seem OK. Japan and Hong Kong are getting a bit of a resurgence of cases. Nowhere is fully back to normal except parts of mainland China away from Hubei province.
Anyway, it was the following week that the masks thing started to really come up with a vengance. From the beginning, we were told not to wear masks, that they didn’t help, and they were in short supply for hospitals so we shouldn’t disrupt supply. Most of my twitter timeline has settled on the theory that masks are the one vital difference between Asia and the West that has enabled the former to get numbers down, where they are still growing throughout the latter. This is pretty plausible, but I note it is a long way from proved.
I need to mention somewhere that there is an amazing split between twitter and the outside world. Both Trump and Boris are at all-time highs in popularity, while twitter is 90% screaming at them — even from their supporters — for being evil and incompetent.
20th of March was when @MorlockP got locked out of his twitter account. From reports, it was not an actual suspension, it was the same thing as happened to me — they demanded confirmation by SMS, but he no longer has the phone number.
I think I’m the only one making the case that half a million extra deaths in the UK would not be all that big a deal. It would be about double the normal rate for the year, mostly elderly. I mentioned that I think I’ve had one elderly relative die, generally of respiratory disease, every year for the last few, and if it were two or three one year that wouldn’t show up as a catastrophe. Yes, younger people die of it too, but rarely. It is unlikely that anyone you know under the age of 60 would die, though quite likely that you would know someone who knew someone who died.
Related, I’ve expressed scepticism about the “health system breakdown” stories. Not that it’s unlikely — it’s likely to happen. I just don’t think it’s happened yet, anywhere. We have detailed stories from one hospital in Lombardy and one in New York. Meanwhile both systems are publishing statistics that show they are not (yet) overloaded. See for instance this March 13 report from Lombardy. That was two weeks ago now, but the first “collapsed” stories I saw were from before that. The reporting I’ve seen saying there is a collapse has been Damien Day style TV, with no detail or authority comparable to that JAMA session.
The other part of this is that people are jumping to conclusions about things they don’t know about based in implications of media reporting, which is a very dangerous thing to do. As I have repeatedly observed, Triage is standard practice in the NHS, and hospitals frequently get overloaded and don’t have beds for everyone. Enormous emphasis has been put on supply of ventilators. From early on, we were told that was the critical factor, that there would not be nearly enough ventilators in intensive care units for every COVID19 patient that needed one.
My experience, that I mentioned above, of relatives dying is that elderly patients with respiratory problems are never put into intensive care. I don’t know if with an infection like this one they generally would be, but nobody has actually said that they would — it’s just been left as an unstated implication of news reports. It’s hard to find the answer, because it’s not something people talk about. Anyway, I don’t know.
However, the reality is, if you just find extra space and beds for patients until they die or get better, then my expectation is that the effect of this pandemic would be otherwise not noticeable to the general population. It would be a very distinct peak in any statistical treatment, but in concrete terms all it would mean that if you knew of twenty old people who died over a ten year period, three or four of them were in 2020. Stalin was exactly right: one million deaths is a statistic. If spread over months and a big country, it’s not a directly observable event.
(One other possibility is that for many, none of them would be in 2021. One reason why this pandemic is more deadly is because we are able to keep people alive for whom every breath is an effort. Were our lives less easy, there would be many fewer in that state).
Also for these reasons, I expect the pandemic to be a non-event in the third world.
This last week (from March 22nd), the conversation has mainly gone to the economic effects (“Money printer go Brrrrr”) and outrage over the still-continuing anti-mask propaganda from Western agencies, as well as the past anti-travel-restriction propaganda from media, governments and NGOs that was continuing well into February. The Lancet condemned travel restrictions on 13 February
There was a bit of a fuss on the 24th over a model published by an Oxford epidemiological group suggesting that possibly over 90% of infections are asymptomatic and that therefore we could be already halfway to herd immunity. This was quite useful as a reminder that we don’t really know how many people will suffer, but there’s no reason whatsoever to assume that it’s that low. The model used only early case data from Italy and the UK to calibrate. Inevitably, media reporting of the publication was absolutely execrable.
On the 25th, in response to completely non-existent popular demand, I published my own pandemic modelling code on GitHub. While the actual model is of little relevance, some of the conclusions I drew from the process may be: “
Of course, nobody would really rely on such crude mathematical treatments when planning for unlikely events, would they?”
So that’s where we stand today. This isn’t a series, it’s a record. I will append to this piece as I go along. As such I don’t think it’s a useful focus for discussion, so comments should go on Twitter or under other posts with more focus.
I watched the British Government press conference this evening, and now I understand the government’s view of the epidemic, and where it differs from those who are accusing it of not taking the situation seriously enough.
In the view of the government, its critics have a significant misunderstanding of how bad the epidemic is.
It’s much worse than we think.
People are pointing at Italy, and saying “look at that — it could be like that here, don’t you understand?”
The government view is that that is just the beginning. It is going to get that bad. And then it is going to get worse. And then it is going to carry on getting worse. What they are concerned with is just how much worse it’s going to get.
Conversely, when people point at South Korea, or Taiwan, the response is that they are only putting the problem off. Korea has had 8,000 confirmed cases. Maybe 80,000 actual infections (probably less given their heavy testing) out of a population of 50 million. The measures they have taken to prevent a rapid spread will have to stay in place basically indefinitely. Only one in a thousand of the population has had the disease, so there is nothing other than their protective measures stopping it. They can carry on having a hundred new cases a day for years. They can wipe it out with even stronger measures, but it will come back.
Italy has 12,000 confirmed cases, maybe 150,000 infections, out of a population of 60 million. Again, that’s only the start. 0.25% of the population. It’s going to get much worse than that. It’s going to get much worse than that everywhere.
The government’s view is that this isn’t going away until most of the people who are going to get it have got it. They don’t know how many that is — anywhere from 10% of the population to 80%. But they’re very clear that whatever that number is, it is not something they can affect. It’s going to spread until enough people have had it that it can’t spread any more. So the policy is not aimed at reducing the spread — only at slowing it over a longer time and protecting the vulnerable. In general, if you’re a young or middle aged healthy person, the government thinks you’re probably going to get it and that’s OK.
They also say the fatality rate is up to 1%. So if 80% get the virus and 1% of them die, we are looking at half a million dead this year in Britain. They spelled that out, explicitly stopping just short of doing the multiplication, because the 80% is just a worst-case estimate: it may be a quarter of that and half the death rate, and only 60,000 deaths.
If 60,000 are going to die, mostly over about 90 days at the peak of the epidemic, that means a minimum of hundreds of deaths a day, day after day after day. That’s what the government is telling us to expect. (On top of the thousand or so who die every day normally).
Are they right? How the hell should I know? If they’re wrong, there’s only a few ways they could be wrong.
Maybe the disease can just be wiped out. Nuke the curve, push the R0 below one, and hold it there until the virus doesn’t exist any more. That’s basically what happened to SARS. But even the places where they seem to be doing well are still getting a steady drip of new cases, and there are large regions where it is not under any control, so halting the spread would need a Moldbug-esque abolition of globalisation, which whatever its merits is not politically on the cards.
Maybe we could hold it off until there are better treatments, or a vaccine. The general view is that a vaccine is at least a year off, while treatments might improve over the next couple of months, but the government is already aiming to keep the peak a couple of months away.
Maybe most people just aren’t susceptible for some reason, so the total infections to expect is much lower, and snuffing the epidemic out is much more feasible.
Maybe the virus will just go away somehow. I’m not clear on how that would happen, but I’m no microbiologist.
Note that now it is the government that is taking the pessimistic view, and the critics that are clinging to the hope of a way out.
This is the most important question. If you want to know the future, the most important thing to look at is the places where the virus seems to be on the decline. Is it really finished, or is it just temporarily suppressed? If you can actually get rid of the disease with less than 1% of the population having suffered, then the government has got this completely wrong.
The other side of things is that, aside from protecting the weak and elderly, the government is expecting a big chunk of the population to get sick and doesn’t care whether you or I are in that chunk or not. But you and I can care. In this view, trying too hard to avoid catching it is antisocial: disrupting society and endangering the policy of having the virus burn out in a controlled way over a season, with well-timed interventions to smooth the worst of the peak. But a little selfishness is allowed. Frankly, I’m OK with being ill for a couple of weeks, but I have a close family member with respiratory issues, and I am prepared to go well beyond official advice to avoid introducing the disease to my home. That’s good policy for me even if it doesn’t help the government achieve its goals.
I went down to London last night to mark Britain’s exit from the European Union. I no longer see it as a vitally important thing — I neither voted in nor blogged about the referendum — but for many years, through the nineties and the oughts, leaving the EU was at the centre of my political position. That includes the early stages of blogging, with posts like this and this and this, and by joining in the celebrations I was, in a way, acknowledging my younger self.
I also wanted to be able to say I was there, to stand on Parliament Square and cheer and sing songs and generally larp at being part of a movement for a couple of hours. It was cheaper than going to a Luton Town game.
Also, while my opinion is that the exit doesn’t change anything fundamentally, it’s worth noting that I have claimed first that the referendum is a bad thing because the establishment media will so dominate that Remain is bound to win and they’ll just use it to shut up debate for another generation, and then that even though Leave won, they wouldn’t actually leave, they’d just hold it up and eventually drop it. With this track record of being consistently wrong, I have a slight lack of confidence in my current pessimistic projections.
My explanation for being wrong is that I have been overestimating the competence and power of the establishment. The atomisation of society is now degrading the strength of the political parties themselves, being media-driven and bioleninist is reducing the competence of establishment leaders, new media is making democracy more real and less fake in a very damaging way.
The central event of last night’s celebration, after the terrible singing and before the countdown to 23:00 GMT, was of course the appearance of Nigel Farage. People were calling his name from the time the lights went on, and every warm-up speaker remarked that none of this could have happened without him.
That is surely true. And that says something very interesting about the way democratic politics works. Because Farage does not really seem to be a “Great Man” of the kind who are supposed by some theories to be able to shift history by themselves. He can speak on television OK, but he is no great orator or demagogue, or even an entertainer like Boris or Trump. He is intelligent and competent but he is no master strategist, or prophet, or technical genius. Anyone who could successfully run a corporate department with thirty employees could have done what he did. But without him there could have been no sustained UKIP. UKIP caused the referendum by costing the Conservative Party seats. The referendum led to Brexit.
Why say UKIP could not have sustained itself without Farage? Because every time it tried, it failed. Other than him, all the leadership of the party after the Alan Sked pressure-group era were insane, stupid, or lazy. Farage was competent enough to run the party, worked very hard on it, and caused it to continue existing.
It is truly remarkable that there were over four million people1 willing to vote for UKIP, but there was only one capable person willing to run it.
Farage devoted most of his adult life to the cause, out of idealism. Many of the other four million would have been as capable as he was, but they had better things to do with their lives. None of the other few dozen people who were in the leadership of the party were of the two or three percent of people who have the abilities needed to do it successfully.
Many politicians are idealistic, but it is easier to be idealistic where there is a career path. There is no career path to being a fringe anti-establishment politician. Farage got an MEP’s salary for thirty years, but that was by no means guaranteed. Victorious, he will pick up some media bucks, but he will never be treated as an elder statesman. Nobody else with the “corporate department head” level of ability showed up to discard their career and do the work.
There are strong echoes here of the situation with academia. For every competent right-wing intellectual working full time with donor funding or their own money, there are hundreds of left-wing intellectuals with a stable academic career. Tens of thousands of people shouting Nigel Farage’s name on Parliament Square give a hint of how important that fact is.