Friday, January 1, 2021

The COVID story is ideal political cover, regardless of the truth, which never mattered

NOTE: This post was written in November 2020. Some updates now included. 

What will I say to Mum?

When news of the first dozen COVID cases was broadcast my Mum panicked. Facts could not persuade her about the true scale of the disease. It didn’t matter what the proportion of deaths COVID was responsible for, nor the chance of even more deaths from our policy reaction. It was “bad news” and “something must be done”.

So when we gather for Christmas, the conversation will not drift towards this elephant in the room. The implications and outcomes of the biggest world event for decades will go unspoken when we normally reflect on the major events of the year.

COVID has introduced another tear in an already torn social fabric. No longer can we freely discuss the merits of our policy reaction, the cost of it, the human toll. You are a COVID denier or a COVID believer. There is nothing else.

I can predict that you, dear reader, are already judging me based upon the previous 140 words. That is the power of a story in human society; especially a scary one. The COVID story has changed your perception. It has changed my own conversations with my own family. The biggest effect of all—one that will be felt for years—is that this story will cover up the exhorbitant exercise of political power for the benefit of political mates. It is through this mechanism that the story of COVID, not the reality of it, will cost the world dearly.

Stories and power

One of the crucial ingredients to exercising political power in favour of one’s own networks is having a good story to justify it. One of my big mistakes in understanding the global response to COVID early on was to underestimate the power of the story. I predicted that the huge economic and health cost of locking down human society would be obvious within the first months of it occurring. I thought the story would change so that we would avoid the huge health costs of lockdowns.

What is truly scary is that the enormous costs of lockdowns are now obvious, but the lockdowns continue. Most frightening of all, most people want them!

Lockdowns are now a politically expedient response to a story that has been more infectious than COVID itself.

Partly, the use of lockdowns continues because it mostly affects the working class. The elites are insulated from this policy, at least to a degree. The main countervailing force is the small degree to which lockdowns apply to the political elite. Although politicians gain power with lockdowns and aggressive strong-man responses to COVID, like border closures, they must also personally suffer some of the consequences. That is why many elites flaunt their own rules, revealing that they are not creating and enforcing lockdown rules because they believe them to be effective, but because they understand the politics.

Harnessing the power of the scariest story yet invented

The obvious next move for the political elites is to capitalise on the virulent COVID story by transforming it into a justification for more substantial political power plays.

Normal oversight of major economic decisions is now almost non-existent, meaning favours for mates can be slipped into COVID-response policy decisions such as cash grants and subsidies to businesses who are unaffected, or rezoning and dodgy land deals. Indeed, the usual financial engineering of the central banks in response to economic shocks is mostly a giveaway in terms of insuring the risk of financial corporations.

Since first writing the above sentences the US passed the COVID stimulus bill, a monster of a document bundled together with various appropriations, that appears to be written by lobbyists and contains the exact giveaways and law changes that further consolidate power.

Those who fuelled the fear should be ashamed. This was the inevitable result. Does fear ever provide the environment for the dilution of power and the sharing of wealth and prosperity? No!

2021 predictions

Note: These were first written on 21st November 2020. Some updated comments are added.
  1. News media and big tech need to sell advertising, and fear sells. They will publish any story that is bad. Even vaccine news will have headlines like “The vaccine is 90% effective, but there’s a hidden catch.” Other routine medical and health data will be linked to COVID and made newsworthy to capitalise on the fear story.
  2. The useful idiots in cushy jobs desk jobs have found life to be better with COVID. Because of this, they will be subconsciously motivated to find reasons to argue to keep the new economic order of extensive control over the lives of others. Keep an eye out for that.
  3. New unrelated reasons to continue to be scared will emerge. The virus will mutate, and when the next strain arrives, the media will unleash fear-mongering headlines. Those in the game will promote it. When there are vaccine side effects, these too will be excessively reported. (Note that I wrote the previous sentences a month BEFORE the UK mutation and the vaccination approvals.)
  4. Rebuilding the economy will be the cover story for huge giveaways to mates. It already has been in many ways, with untargeted cash programs, and fast-tracked planning approvals, and more. These will continue into 2021.
  5. The result of this will be a rapid economic recovery. Lockdowns will mutate into sheer political theatre and behaviour policing, with limited effects on most economic production. As these lockdowns pass, macroeconomic performance will be supercharged by the huge fiscal response seen in many countries. The housing bubbles of the UK, US, Canada and Australia will continue for a few more years.
  6. The battle of writing the history of 2020 will be fierce. Further censorship of voices that reveal how irrational and costly the policy panic was in terms of human lives and livelihoods will continue to be shut out of mainstream distribution channels (universities, the mainstream press and social media). Technology companies have a huge incentive to police this official story because of benefits to them from the world now relying on them to an unimaginable degree. 

What are your thoughts? Just remember, the truth doesn’t matter. All major institutions will have to conform to the narrative that gets written by the powerful. As I have said before, no one in power will ever want a cost-benefit analysis of their policy choices—what is the incentive to prove yourself an idiot to the world? If anything, there will be some reports written that have obviously implausible counterfactuals and these will become the standard reference point for the official writing of the history of 2020. The story and the fear will live on through these. It will be decades before the true lessons are learnt. Such is the power of the story.

13 comments:

  1. Very well said.
    The only part I disagree with is #5.

    This whole thing is a textbook case in public choice theory.

    I find it curious that you see through the political lies, but still advocate for increased government action in various areas, instead of embracing libertarianism.

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    1. "I find it curious that you see through the political lies, but still advocate for increased government action in various areas, instead of embracing libertarianism"

      Interesting comment. What examples of my proposals/ideas do you have in mind here? I guess I see things differently. I see political lies, for sure. But that doesn't mean that, for example, a public institution that provides hospital services, or builds roads, is going to be less effective than a private system. In cases where public institutions perform badly and there are obvious better private systems, I would advocate for them. For example, although I think making housing cheaper requires more public involvement in housing, I don't say the same for food, even though both are basic life necessities.

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    2. Uh, only saw this now, sorry for the late reply.

      I'm referring to your proposals regarding public housing, as well as the one regarding increased healthcare spending.

      Government lies and the viability of say efficient public housing projects are not independent.
      As public choice theory teaches, public institutions have its own logic, and public players act according to their own incentives, that rarely correlate with the "public good".
      Government lies are one symptom of this, inefficient public sector is another symptom.

      Specifically, public housing distorts the market, creates dead weight loss. It is strictly better to pay would be public housing dwellers and let the market take it from there. (And as a libertarian I'd argue it is best just to keep the government away altogether).

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  2. Hi Cameron are there any studies you can share regarding the costs of the lockdown? And by that I mean relative to a non-lockdown scenario. Obviously the lockdown has had economic and health costs, but so would have a non-lockdown and we ought to be comparing these.

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    1. One simple cost example is that lockdowns inhibited normal global vaccination programs and increased poverty in the poorest countries. It has been estimated that this will cost around 2 million loves of children under 5 years old next year.

      On the counterfactual it seems clear to me that the non-lockdown scenario, which includes non-panic due to accurate media reporting, would be basically business as usual. If you look at people's actual behaviour, very few actually change it even if they say they fear COVID and don't want to spread it.

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    2. Would the counterfactual, a non lockdown business as usual (BAU) approach, be that of the USA? Or would the new Covid case numbers be higher than last weeks average of 253,958 new cases per day, due to the fact there is scattered lockdowns and changes to everyone's BAU approach?

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  3. Excellent article Cameron and completely agree; there's no way this power will be relinquished. Long covid, mutations, people who can't take the vaccination, low vaccination rates... all will be used as pretext to continue this authoritarianism long after the those actually at risk to disease have largely been vaccinated. Add in total surveillance through contact tracking, and censorship of any dissenting thought, and we are on a clear path to totalitarianism.

    One question... I've seen correlations between covid death rates and national GDP performance. Has something like this been done with the amount of stimulus and national GDP? Perhaps it is this spending that is being reflected in GDP increases (or least falls) rather than anything to do with covid death?

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  4. I find this post exceedingly strange. It conflates two TOTALLY distinct things: (1) SARS-CoV-2 being a novel, highly transmissible, and deadly virus and (2) political corruption influencing our response to (1).

    For some reason your post ends up insinuating to an unsettling degree that SARS-CoV-2 was never really a problem and was a mere pretext for political corruption. Frankly, that's unhinged and shameful.

    I will grant that lockdowns have costs. However, the word "lockdown" covers so many different kinds of public health measures that using it is extremely unhelpful when discussing "costs." Moreover, in many cases those costs have been extremely hard to measure (eg. whether suicides or overdoses increased as a result of "lockdowns" vs. what they would have been with uncontrolled spread). In addition, the "costs" of the lockdowns, might stem from political corruption or mismanagement and, at that point, is it really right to blame the "lockdowns" at all?

    All that to say, reading your post generously, you really want to harp on the badness of the political response. So do that, and stop being a fucking asshole pretending that a virus that has killed hundreds of thousands this year, if not more than 1 million people somehow isn't real.

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    1. Thanks for reading and being very mature about this issue.

      "I can predict that you, dear reader, are already judging me based upon the previous 140 words. That is the power of a story in human society; especially a scary one. The COVID story has changed your perception."

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  5. Comment by Min (Part 1):

    I am an occasional, but appreciative reader of this blog. :) I wouldn't pretend to judge you, but I was favorably impressed by this paragraph:

    "COVID has introduced another tear in an already torn social fabric. No longer can we freely discuss the merits of our policy reaction, the cost of it, the human toll. You are a COVID denier or a COVID believer. There is nothing else."

    This certainly seemed to apply to the US. (Pardon me for my American provincialism. :( ) But it applies to the US back in April, not November. By November we had few Covid deniers, because the infection and death toll were too pervasive. What we have now are Maskers vs. Non-maskers. I am not sure what story the Non-maskers have. During the recent invasion of the capitol, when many legislators were crowded together for hours in one place for their protection, one Congresswoman offered masks to her colleagues who were not wearing one. They refused. One said that he didn't want to be political, or words to that effect. Hello? Wearing a mask in public may currently be political, but so is not wearing a mask. Wearing a mask at least has a coherent story behind it. If there is one for not wearing a mask, not doing so because wearing a mask is political is not it.

    I also resonated with this phrase: "exercise of political power for the benefit of political mates". I ran into this when I moved to California some thirty years ago. California elections include legislative initiatives, which are subject neither to real debate nor to amendment. I soon discovered that initiatives that sounded like a good idea would usually include provisions that benefited certain relatively small groups of people. Even your friends will screw you. {sigh}

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    1. Comment by Min (Part 2):

      As for lockdown vs. no lockdown, that distinction is fuzzy. I suppose that we could say that not mandating any curtailment of economic activity at all is no lockdown and stopping all economic activity is lockdown, but there are a lot of alternatives in between. A while back I read to my surprise that in Japan, which was doing relatively well, their constitution prohibits lockdowns. I suppose that that means that they cannot mandate the closing of businesses, but I don't know about other restrictions. One advantage Japan has over the US is that wearing a mask when you have a respiratory illness is commonplace there. As for Anglo countries, the US and the UK are doing the worst to control the virus, while Australia and New Zealand are doing the best. I think that we could learn a lot from y'all. (OC, Americans think that we have nothing to learn from furriners. Sorry about that. :( )

      Obviously, the extreme end of lockdown in a non-agrarian society is fatal. It may prevent the spread of the virus, but people will starve to death. The other extreme of no lockdown and no public health measures is likewise dire. At least it has a coherent story of herd immunity. Covid may not be nearly as deadly as the Black Death or the great influenza of a hundred years ago, but letting it run rampant would overwhelm the health care system, causing other deaths and negative health consequences. Now that the Denier in Chief in the US has left office, many people are rejoicing that now we can "follow the science." The US has a long history of science denialism, and I welcome the change, but I am dismayed at apparently attacking the challenge of the virus only in terms of public health. I do not think that it is simply a question of balancing public health vs. economic activity. The two, although related, do not lie on a single dimension. It is not an either/or but a both/and. If you can control the spread of the virus you can have minimal economic restrictions. Japan has experienced a winter spike, as did Australia, IIUC, but, as I said, I think that you have a lot to teach us.

      It seems to me that, in addition to infection by non-symptomatic people, two important factors to consider are first, the exponential growth of the spread of the virus, until we approach herd immunity, and second, the limited time necessary for stringent public health measures, including some degree of lockdown, to bring the virus under control. Back in April, despite the unfortunate example of New York State, I had hopes that, at least in California and other "blue" coastal states, by acting decisively early enough, before the spread of the virus became too great, we could get the virus under control within several weeks and reduce the economic damage. But we blew it, and not because of Trump's denialism. We did it to ourselves.

      I don’t pretend to grasp the economic consequences for our early inaction. We have lost too many jobs and too many businesses, while putting a lot of money into the wrong hands, it seems to me. When the eviction bans are lifted, renters will not have enough money to pay the back rent. If they are all kicked out into the street, who are going to rent the vacant apartments? Will landlords be unable to pay their mortgages? If past is prologue, hedge funds will buy up rental property cheap and let it stay vacant until they can charge higher rents. Where are the new jobs? Are people going to be hired as live in servants?

      Now we are too far along in the spread of the virus in the US to get off of the path to herd immunity. Thanks to the vaccines, herd immunity may well be possible in a matter of several months, but given the givens, it could also take more than a year. It is too late to get the virus under control, but we cannot simply rely upon the vaccines. It seems like the quickest path to herd immunity and economic recovery involve strong public health measures to, as they say, flatten the curve of infections. It really is a both/and, isn't it?

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