Quote of the Day
“In establishing the rule of law, the first five centuries are always the hardest.”
- Gordon Brown, cited by Paul Romer.
The Immoral Equivalent of War
Bracing essay by Deirdre McCloskey. It’s a long read, so make some coffee, mute your phone and tell everybody that you will Zoom them later.
And so, if the government has failed to do the epidemiologically and economically rational coercion early in a plague with a high R-naught—which is to jump on it early, as Korea and Singapore and even Hong Kong and Iceland and Vietnam did, and to test, test, test, and trace, trace, trace—then all that can be done even approximately rationally is mass quarantine. It’s the medieval technique. It works, with the horrible result of further impoverishing the poor. For it to work, if you are in the Middle Ages or if the testing has been mismanaged for two months running as it was under Skeptical Trump and his incompetent Centers for Disease Control, quarantine has to be imposed on everyone. In the absence of quick and cheap testing (let us again pray), everyone is suspect. The reasoning implies that the belated state apply the coercion as quickly as it can muster the political will, a reasoning which in April 2020 escaped the governors “opening the economies” of Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, and South Carolina (South Carolina “too small to be a nation, too large to be an insane asylum”). Even rationalist France was not quick enough.
It’s like a goalie handling a tough shot. The coaching advice is, “Cut off the angle. Don’t let the attacker play you.” That is, step towards the attacker, to limit him to a narrower angle for the shot. Don’t hang back on your line. The US and France hung back. Some fellow democracies such as South Korea did not, and therefore have not had to adopt the medieval coercion of mass quarantine. Tyrannies like China and the Russian Federation tried early on to get away with suppressing the truth, as is their nature, and so did their friend Trump. (Vietnam, also a tyranny, did not.)
It would be like the goalie claiming that the ball never came close to him. Hey, as Trump said, I don’t take any responsibility. Or that the shot is fake news, or a conspiracy by CNN or other enemies of the people. In 1954 on returning from the Soviet Union Jean-Paul Sartre declared, “Liberty of criticism in the USSR is total.” Ha, ha. Eventually China, as will Russia next month, reverted to comprehensive coercion, as tyrannies do, forever. But now even reasonably liberal democracies like the US and France have to coerce, “for the time being,” they say.
I was particularly struck by this sentence later in the essay:
“The war criminal, Nobel peace laureate, and wit Henry Kissinger used to say that France was ‘the only successful communist country.'”
And was then reminded of Tom Lehrer saying that “Satire died the day that Kissinger got the Nobel Peace Prize” after bombing the shit out of Cambodia.
The essay is forthcoming (I think) in Le Grand Continent.
A no-deal Brexit amid the pandemic would be a disaster
I regularly talk to middle-rank to senior civil servants and therefore have known for three years that the government has effectively been drained of cognitive and policy bandwidth by the fumbling of negotiations and preparations for Brexit by the May and later the Johnson cabinets . There were times when it seemed that the entire Whitehall system was occupied by the complications surrounding departure from the EU. When one asked civil servants about, say, regulation of Internet companies, the most one got was a regretful shrug.
But if the Administration had little capacity for thinking about anything other than Brexit before Covid struck, imagine what it’s like now. It seems absolutely clear that they are not going to be capable of negotiating a sensible exit before the effective deadline — which is around July. The implication is that the UK will leave the EU without any kind of deal.
“This would seem inconceivable”, writes Martin Wolf in the Financial Times “if the government were not led by Boris Johnson. The idea seems to be that, in the midst of the pandemic, nobody would notice the additional disruption imposed by an overnight break in economic relations with the country’s most important partners and eternal neighbours”.
Wolf then sets out seven reasons why this is disgraceful.
In summary, they are:
- It’s not what the Leave campaign actually promised. The country was repeatedly told it would be easy to secure an excellent free trade agreement, because it held “all the cards”.
- The notion of some economists that Brexit would lead to unilateral free trade has also proved a fantasy. The UK has published a tariff schedule that is far from free trade.
- The UK is breaking its word. In order to reach his exit deal last October, Johnson agreed that Northern Ireland would remain in the EU’s customs area and single market. But standard customs and regulatory checks must be imposed in the Irish Sea if the EU’s customs area and single market is not to be vulnerable to transshipment via the UK. Either Johnson does not understand this, which would be stupid, or he does, which means he has wittingly lied.
- The political declaration accompanying October’s exit agreement accepted the EU’s condition that the future relationship must ensure open and fair competition — including appropriate mechanisms to ensure effective implementation domestically, enforcement and dispute settlement — on regulatory and trading standards.
- The globalising world economy assumed by Leave in the referendum campaign no longer exists.
- We are in the grip of a pandemic-induced depression of vast magnitude and unknown duration. It is a good bet that, at the end of 2020, the UK economy will still be very depressed, with damaged businesses and frighteningly high unemployment. That would hardly be a good time to add to the shocks already crippling the economy.
- The longer-run outcomes of the pandemic will probably include permanently lower output, as happened after the financial crisis of 2007-08. Over and above that will now come a huge trade shock from an ultra-hard Brexit.
If we want evidence that Johnson really has grown up, then seeking an extension of the negotiations would be the proof of it. But I’m not holding my breath. We are governed by a combination of fanatics, amateurs and the odd imbecile.
Clapping for the NHS is fine but…
I’ve been uneasy from the outset about the ‘clapping for the NHS’ ritual. Although many people who participated were undoubtedly sincere — it looked suspiciously like virtue-signalling or gesture politics — the moral equivalent of ‘liking’ a moving Facebook post on human rights abuses without being willing to take some personal action to help contest the abuse.
The questions I want to ask people clapping are, for example, whether they will stop purchasing the Daily Mail, the Express, the Sun and the Daily Telegraph — newspapers which for generations have pumped out unfounded, opportunistic and mischievous stories designed to undermine the NHS while still pretending to admire it as ‘a great national treasure. Or whether they will stop voting for right-wing Tory MPs whose dearest wish is to privatise the NHS under cover of ‘modernising’ it. Or will they now support higher taxes to ensure that lowly NHS staff who are as important to making the service work (junior doctors, nurses, lab technicians, porters) as well-remunerated consultants (many with extensive private practices) get paid properly.
And the same goes for all those other ‘critical’ workers we have recently discovered — many of whom live one pay check away from financial crisis.
What NHS staff and all those other critical workers deserve is less sentiment and more political action.
Do you know enough to get a job as a contact tracer?
After all, it’s not rocket science. And it’s got nothing to do with apps, really.
ProPublica has an online quiz to see how well you know the fundamentals of contact tracing.
My answer: Not very well :-(
But then I’m under lockdown, so I couldn’t offer my services, anyway!
Quarantine diary — Day 63
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