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Oh, oh, and there's no map
This week: whether the UK government got COVID-19 wrong, why Bernie Sanders failed, and reasons to be cheerful in a dark time.
SCYLLA AND CHARYBDIS
Has the UK government screwed up its response? The Imperial College report published earlier this week led some to conclude that the government's strategy to date had been mistaken. Well, maybe. But note that the Imperial scientists are aware of the limitations of their own analysis: "We do not consider the ethical or economic implications...here, except to note that there is no easy policy decision to be made. Suppression, while successful to date in China and South Korea, carries with it enormous social and economic costs which may themselves have significant impact on health and well-being in the short and longer term." All that got lost in the reporting, of course. The first thing to say is that it's too early to draw firm conclusions about the best way to handle this virus. We don't know how many peaks there will be, in which countries, or how high, over the year to come. We won't know for months or even years who was right and wrong or what that means. The second thing is that, unlike epidemiologists, who model the spread of disease, the government has to take into account a whole other level of complexity - economic and social effects, which also devastate lives. The horrible problem for decision-makers is that measures needed to suppress the virus destroy the economy, and measures to support the economy keep the virus going. At the very least we should have some sympathy for their impossible position and lay off the simplistic judgements. Like Tyler Cowen, I'm concerned about the epidemic yo-yo - that we end up in a cycle of suppress, release, and suppress again. That's what the UK government has been trying to avoid although it may not be avoidable. I guess it's possible, however, that as more of the population becomes immune and the health service increases its capacity and knowledge, those bounces get shallower and shallower over time.
A related point: there's been a lot of criticism of the government's use of behavioural science to inform its response. Why not just listen to the hard scientists? Well, as the sensible hard scientists will tell you, the epidemiologists and virologists can tell us how the disease spreads, but it's human behaviour that will slow or stop it. So if you think psychology isn't involved, you're wrong. Given that's the case, why would you rely on your intuition over evidence, however imperfect? One of the perennial problems with the way government policy is made is that almost no thought is given to human behaviour, which means that clever plans drawn up in the corridors of power go awry when they make contact with actual people. Whatever your opinion on the wider philosophy of "nudging" the important thing to recognise about the Behavioural Insights Team is that until it was set up there was nobody in Whitehall with the explicit remit of looking at policy from the perspective of the end user rather than the system. We should be glad that the government's decision-making process includes soft science.
THE UNDERDOG PROBLEM
My latest New Statesman column develops some of my thoughts in the last Ruffian on Bernie Sanders's demise. He had this thing in the bag and threw it away because he's incapable of adapting to his new circumstance of being the front-runner, or overdog - he couldn't move into that more expansive, conciliatory, reassuring mode. I look at the psychology of insurgent political movements and why it's so hard to make the transition from underdog to overdog. By the way, although it's quickly receded into the past, I think the sudden consolidation of the Democratic electorate behind Biden, from South Carolina onwards, was one of the most extraordinary examples of collective decision-making ever seen and will be studied for a long time to come.
REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL
Yes, the whole thing is awful and I know it's much worse for many than for me, and I don't wish to minimise any of that. However given that most of the news is about how bad things are, I hope it's OK to identify some glints of positivity amidst the gloom. Here are a few thoughts that have given me succour during what is inevitably a time of anxiety for everyone.
Unlike in a war, we are not about to see a massive destruction of productive capacity, so much as its temporary suppression. The technology, machines and human knowledge on which the economy runs are not going away, and will come back. The only question is when. The investor Morgan Housel writes elegantly on this theme here.
Also unlike in a war, every nation is on the same side, with a common enemy. You don't have to be a dreamer to see that there may be some lasting benefits of the international cooperation this bastard virus is forcing us into.
Trotsky described war as the locomotive of history and this crisis will hasten some positive technological changes that were underway, like the use of social media and video for work, medicine, and education. A lot of individuals are picking up skills they wouldn't otherwise, a lot of organisations are learning fast too. This is a jolt into the future.
Under threat, people tend to come together. I know we're all tired of hearing about the Blitz spirit but there's no doubt WWII contributed to the social cohesion of Britain and the U.S. in the post-war years. My own perfectly friendly but not terribly communicative suburban street now has a Whatsapp group with everyone on it, people are printing leaflets offering assistance and distributing them to every house and flat. A lot of social capital is being built now and it won't all disappear after the emergency has passed.
The race is on for a covid-killer: there are already many promising lines of research into treatments and vaccines underway. I don't think the world has ever seen a collaborative quest for answers happening on this scale and at this speed. Over a thousand papers published already, all of them public access. This kind of effort wouldn't have been possible pre-internet. Lead times are long for mass produced remedies but we'll get there faster than we have any right to.
As Nate Silver points out, if the epidemiological projections turn out to be too pessimistic it will be because the world is fighting this thing on four fronts at once. (Silver also now thinks Trump will lose in November).
At least there will be more time to read (for some of you). This is a great pandemic reading list, and it even includes suggestions to cheer you up, like Wodehouse. I'm so glad they picked Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map, which is one of my all-time favourite books. It's the story of how a mysterious cholera outbreak in Soho, London, in 1854 was solved by a brilliant doctor, and how this gave birth to the science of epidemiology, and how this enabled the survival and growth of modern cities. It combines a thrillingly told story with fascinating London history and big ideas, just about my ideal combination. You can also you use any extra time to learn something new or begin a new enthusiasm - how about getting into modern classical music?
If you''re enjoying The Ruffian, please be a super-spreader. Propagate this benign virus through your networks online and off, telling your friends and colleagues to sign up. If you share any links from here, make sure you share this one: https://tinyletter.com/IanLeslie
Now that we are finally moving to a podcast-only economy, here are a few I've enjoyed recently. This is a wonderful conversation with the linguist and all-round great mind - and great talker - John McWhorter. It covers so much, from why Estonia has one of the most complicated languages in the world to why Shakespeare needs translating to what Americans get wrong about racism. There is a new episode of the previously retired podcast Screw It We're Just Going To Talk About The Beatles, mainly because the gang had nothing better to do. For more Beatles podding try this on how the strings on Eleanor Rigby were influenced by Psycho, or this on the gender roles of Paul and John. Finally, since many of you will have the horrifying responsibility of teaching your children over the next few weeks I suggest listening to this interview with the amazing Barbara Oakley on the science of learning. It includes plenty of practical tips and inspiration. Strongly recommended.
I'd like to see people practicing good info hygiene to go along with our physical hygiene: only share information that comes directly or at one remove from experts in the relevant fields; don't share rumours; promote fact-rich articles. I shared a few good sources in the last Ruffian, here's another: the U.S. medical news website STAT. Its reporting, from first-rate science journalists like Helen Branswell and Sharon Begley, is detailed and deeply informed. It obviously has a US-centric perspective but wherever you are you'll find plenty of interest.
From 1997: Malcolm Gladwell's piece on the Spanish Flu is a great read, as you'd expect.
THIS BITTER EARTH
The full story is on this podcast but in short: Robbie Robertson (founder of The Band, also Martin Scorsese's regular music director) was listening to Max Richter's On The Nature of Daylight when he had a crazy idea. What if he cut it together with This Bitter Earth, as sung by the incomparable Dinah Washington? (Washington was Amy Winehouse's favourite singer, by the way). So he tried it, and it worked. Robertson sent the tape to Richter, who approved. It's used at the end of Shutter Island, but as that film was not very successful, the resulting track isn't as well known as it should be. It's stunning. Something about the combination of Richter's pensive strings with the carved-in-stone quality of Washington's articulation is weirdly moving, and very, very sad.