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Life after the Plague?

Have a Coronacast from me, over here in Blighty: borders are back, baby; universities are about to drown in their own debt; international commerce will wane; authoritarian governing styles will be popular. Yes, I know forecasts of this type have a nasty habit of making astrology look good, but when an event serves to hasten developments already in process, predictions get a smidgen easier.

In 1987, L. Ron Hubbard (wearing his novelist hat rather than his Scientology hat) invited a who’s who of science fiction writers to make predictions about what life would be like 25 years hence, in 2012. The authors—including such luminaries of the genre as Orson Scott Card, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Isaac Asimov, and Frederik Pohl—committed their forecasts to a time capsule that Hubbard opened with some fanfare at a 2012 convention.

And—unlike futurists, academics, and economists—they didn’t do too badly. Apart from the usual science fiction writer tendency to forecast too much in the way of manned space travel, they spotted the world’s population “8-10 billion” (Asimov); the rise of telecommuting and the “cashless society” (Zelazny); increased life expectancy, robots muscling in on low-skill jobs, and “vast orbiting telescopes” (Pohl).

None, however, forecast a pandemic, even though AIDS was already burning through global populations in 1987. This omission is striking, because disease certainly belonged to an earlier generation of science fiction writers: viruses and bacteria defeat the Martians in H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, while arguably the best “plague vision” is the work of a horror novelist, Stephen King, in 1978’s The Stand. Plague is still a science fiction standby, too: think Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy.

Like Hubbard’s literary notables, I also thought this kind of pandemic unlikely if not impossible. Humanity’s defeat of infectious diseases as a cause of death has been so complete as to make us seem invincible. The failure of terrifying new animal-derived viruses to cause more than a local or temporary impediment to the march of progress made me complacent. I should have paid more attention to HIV, and perhaps didn’t because developed countries have contained it. That said, I was in South Africa as recently as February this year and AIDS is still a national scourge there. I failed to see the evidence of my own eyes—coronavirus was already newsworthy, and I was in Cape Town toasting Brexit with my partner when it became clear the Chinese regime was making fast and loose with the truth.

We now know—in the words of zoologist Matt Ridley—that “the human race has been playing epidemiological Russian roulette” for a while. Ridley says it’s taken Mother Nature a long time to put the right sort of bullet in the right chamber (where she combines high contagion with asymptomatic carriers and considerable death rate), but she has done so and here we are.

In the last month, I’ve had a number of outlets approach me to comment on its implications or to write about coronavirus directly. If the latter, I’ve rejected the commission. While I am numerate and statistically literate, I haven’t studied science since A-Level. I’ve also become increasingly alarmed by behaviour across Britain’s “media class” as people who got the law wrong repeatedly during Brexit have switched from misunderstanding the UK’s constitution to fouling up epidemiology. The nation has been treated to punditry from individuals who cannot read log scales, do not know the difference between linear and exponential growth, and cannot calculate ratios. The nadir came last Thursday, when ITV’s Robert Peston—while interviewing the UK’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer—revealed that he not only did not know the difference between a viral DNA test and an antibody test, but when corrected proceeded to talk over his interlocutor.

Last week—while discussing Mark Koyama and Noel Johnson’s excellent Persecution & Toleration: the Long Road to Religious Freedom for another publication—I took the opportunity to observe that states around the world were enforcing quarantine in a draconian manner and that, although people (legitimately) object to lawyers and economists engaging in cost-benefit analyses in the midst of a pandemic, it’s still “useful to ask how much authoritarianism each saved life is worth.”

It takes a supply shock to expose one of comparative advantage’s few weaknesses.

When considering COVID-19’s possible longer-term implications, I think my novelist’s hat is likely to be better than my lawyer or policy wonk’s hat. This is because part of writing fiction is a willingness to entertain ideas with which one disagrees, and a need to create characters one does not like (“believable baddies, morally ambiguous goodies” for want of a better phrase). In Kingdom of the Wicked, my last novel, I took pains to depict a powerful authoritarian capitalist state, one that although based on speculation—imagine the Industrial Revolution happened in Ancient Rome—meant conceiving of a society that in many ways looks more like modern China than the modern West. It emphatically is not a place I would want to live (unlike, as I discovered, many of my readers).

I say this because—without naming names or pinning tails on the ideological donkey—a lot of people have made predictions about our post-coronavirus future that are essentially a list of all the things they’ve always wanted to see happen. I can’t think of a way to be more spectacularly wrong—wrong in the way swathes of British and American pollsters were in 2016. This is something of which both lots of pollsters are regularly reminded, and has been deeply embarrassing for them. Being publicly wrong and embarrassed thereby is unpleasant. In what follows, I hope to avoid both if I can.

My first observation is that even major things like coronavirus seldom change the course of history. While there are genuine “world historical” events—Constantine’s adoption of Christianity as a state religion, the fall of the Roman Empire, the collapse of China’s Song Dynasty, the 1347-51 Black Death, colonisation of the Americas, the Mughal conquest of India—they are few and far between. Instead, what serious but lesser happenings do is enormously amplify and accelerate trends that were already present. Of course, you often can’t tell the difference between a “serious-but-lesser” and a world historical event as it’s happening. Nonetheless, from where I sit, coronavirus falls into the former and not the latter category.

For that reason, I think the nascent nationalist resurgence currently underway will continue, but faster than it otherwise would have. This will have political consequences: if modern leftists and liberals don’t figure out how to tack right on culture, they will be out of office in most Western democracies for decades and—dangerously in governance terms—provide weak and divided oppositions. More seriously, however, will be the economic policy implications. It takes a supply shock to expose one of comparative advantage’s few weaknesses: the public fury that has erupted on discovery that, say, most of the world’s condoms come from just one place, or the specialised reagents needed for coronavirus test kits are plentiful in Germany but not elsewhere has been immense. We have systems that are efficient (maximally productive, particularly economically) but complex and brittle, lacking adaptability and resilience.

Relatedly, there will be a pronounced move away from single-supplier and just-in-time delivery and production systems. These were exposed badly in the initial weeks of the pandemic when people engaged in what was widely derided as panic buying and hoarding but actually wasn’t, or at least not entirely. What Britain’s supermarkets and grocery shops experienced was a rapid reversion across most of the population to the sort of weekly and fortnightly shops our parents did (and I still do, but then I’m a candidate for the title of “world’s youngest old fogey”). This was coupled with first voluntary, then mandatory quarantines, which meant all the loo roll people once used at the office had to be purchased for use in the home.

China’s role as “single supplier” or “the world’s workshop” is coming apart as we watch; its regime is also (deservedly) in bad odour with governments everywhere. Repeated lies, the silencing of medical whistleblowers, and manipulation of statistics has had the effect of compromising international institutions, particularly the WHO. People are turning to their national sovereigns for guidance and support in such a way that the “global rules-based order” is likely for the chop. Borders are back, baby, and in a big way. Widespread revulsion at common Chinese dietary habits plays into this, and it’s been fascinating to watch the emergence of an environmental movement entirely unrelated to concern about climate change (the latter has receded as an issue, exposed as less urgent than once thought). The focus now is on the use of rhino horns or tiger spleens in traditional Chinese medicine and eating endangered species like pangolins or disease vectors like bats. In true Brit fashion, people in these Islands have whipped themselves into a national lather over Chinese consumption of domestic dogs and cats.

There will be a marked decline in international travel and movement. I think the controls in place at the moment will stay in place for a long time; some may be permanent. I’ve long suspected that international air travel is under-priced; the airline industry, which was already fragile, is going to take a major hit. Business will simultaneously discover that a great deal of what it thought necessitated overseas travel no longer does, especially when this involves meetings in rooms rather than, say, technical inspections of plant and machinery or outdoors project management. This will go hand-in-hand with a major increase in home and distance working; coronavirus is more likely to kill “presenteeism” than any union, civil society, or government campaign for “work-life-balance.”

In countries like the UK and Australia—where government holds higher education’s purse-strings—demands from universities for a bailout because they will default on their mountains of debt without the ability to admit overseas students who can be charged two or three times the domestic rate may well fall on deaf ears. It’s not axiomatic that UK taxpayers should bear the risk of what was a self-inflicted revenue hit. Many universities have pursued a high-risk strategy of expansion, indebting themselves to attract overseas students’ fees, while treating young people as cash cows.

Instead of investing in teaching, many institutions racked up debt to build new facilities: sports halls, libraries, student flats, or to hire overpaid corporate-style administrators. Borrowing by universities trebled to £12 billion between 2010 and 2018, with more leveraging even after the Brexit vote in 2016. While policymakers turn in ever-tighter circles looking for a way to improve the chances of bright children from deprived backgrounds in the UK, the easiest way for institutions to improve their finances is to reduce the number of Brits admitted.

A quarter of all students at UK universities are now from overseas, which means they will only be able to make up the shortfall by charging students from the European Union higher international fees, ironically something only made possible by Brexit. Before Brexit, of course, EU students had to be treated in the same way as home students, including being charged at the same rate.

It will be enormously tempting for a heavily indebted Conservative government heartily sick of dealing with the innumerate, illiterate, and entitled “underpaid genteel class” produced by roughly two thirds of UK universities to pull the plug. It became clear during the lead-up to the December general election that many of the people who fall into the “precariat” category are only technically poor. They have degrees, and student debt is their main source of poverty. There is no way on God’s green earth they constitute a “new working class”, and—when joining en masse in 2015 and supporting Jeremy Corbyn—they catastrophically undermined UK Labour with their woke, Bizarro World nonsense, making it unelectable.

Australia’s higher education sector, meanwhile, has become something of a finishing school for well-heeled children of the Chinese Communist Party elite; without that added income all but the most asset-rich universities (known locally as the “Group of Eight”) are looking into the abyss. Chinese students aside, Australia’s universities are also heavily dependent on charging international students from many countries huge fees, and at least some have provided them a substandard education in exchange. Although US colleges—given the country’s federalism and heterogeneity—have not produced the sort of uniform response we’ve seen in the UK or Australia, it’s worth noting that the University of California system has dropped the major testing requirement for admission (SAT/ACT) in order to make up for an enormous Chinese enrolment loss.

The extraordinary indebtedness of tertiary institutions in many developed countries is emblematic of a wider debt crisis, and it’s no good trying to assign specific blame to governments, the private sector, or households. Debt is immense everywhere, and there’s a serious case to be made that a fair bit of the prosperity sites like Human Progress or Our World in Data document is partly or even wholly debt-fuelled. As coronavirus emerged, the Saudis and Russia also pointed their fuel pumps at each other, collapsing the price of Brent Crude. Whether Donald Trump’s recent interventions are enough to save all the shale oil paper out there remains to be seen. One suspects the merry-go-round is about to stop as a lot of debt becomes unpayable and even unserviceable (hence worthless).

Finally—and alarmingly—not only are borders back. So is authoritarianism. While it’s fair to laugh at sillier aspects of the UK’s “Smarties Stasi” as Police Constable Plod goes over the top with quarantine enforcement, the clamour for ever-more draconian measures from those who would normally be first in line to criticise state overreach has been alarming. Some people really are into “authoritarian glamour”: a coronavirus-borne phenomenon where they quite fancy a boot on the neck, and not for the reasons Donna the Dominatrix at your local escort agency does.

At time of writing, Boris Johnson is in intensive care with coronavirus. Everything is rather depressing. Although competent, none of the Prime Minister’s stand-ins have the ebullience that has allowed Boris to bring the nation with him thus far. A worldwide debt crisis coupled with authoritarian governance is a genuinely unattractive prospect. And we may be there some time.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on April 09, 2020 at 09:21:39 am

That's a very good article.

I don't think there's going to be much onshoring, although many fans of autarky would like it to be the result. There have been events that disrupted supplies for certain businesses before and they've factored that into their planning. Like the 2004 Tsunami affected the supply of NAND chips for computers. Many companies have alternative suppliers or split suppliers to deliberately remove dependency already. Many companies think about how they operate based on there being a market rather than locked into a supplier than can fail. The decision to onshore will probably happen where offshoring was already marginally profitable.

I think you're right about travel, and I back to how people were very anxious about terrorism after 9/11 and the London bombings. Flights to the USA went for a song in the months following 9/11 as many people were scared to travel for a while, and I think that may have effects on international travel for some time. It's also likely to lead to us bringing in longer-term changes about health screening of travellers, and that's going to introduce time delays and cost, in the same way that airport security has stayed with us.

And I think the biggest single change could be about people working remotely more. This was already a slow moving trend, and these things move slow because of gradual acceptance by businesses, not because it's not possible. Companies have been forced to use it and many will realise that it works fine for them. And it has benefits: you can rent less office space, you can cast a wider net for people to work for you. This may have huge changes. If you don't need to get people into an office, do you need a place with a lot of fast rail connections, or could you just have an office in a provincial town?

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Tim Almond
on April 09, 2020 at 11:34:16 am

Or perhaps when it comes to Church, State, and Society, our Salvational History will reveal that it all began with a woman scorned, and the desire to worship “mother earth”, also known as pachamama, even placing her in The Holy Place, making it appear as if she is “The Guardian Of Life”, when we can know through both Faith and reason, that when Christ, during His Passion, said “Behold your Mother”, He was illuminating the fact that our Blessed Mother Mary, Destroyer Of All Heresy, through her Fiat, affirmed The Unity Of The Holy Ghost (Filioque), And Thus The Fact That There Is Only One Begotten Son Of God, One Word Of God Made Flesh, One Lamb Of God Who Can Take Away The Sins Of This World, Our Only Savior, Jesus The Christ, Thus There Can Only Be One Spirit Of Perfect Complementary Love Between The Father And His Only Begotten Son, Who Must Proceed From Both The Father And His Only Begotten Son, In The Ordered Communion Of Perfect Love, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity.
Blessed Mother Mary, Please Intercede for us❤️

And for those who did not see the final red flag going off when they placed pachamama in The Holy Place, the anti thesis to Our Blessed Mother, they need to understand that denial of The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, is the source of all heresy, including the modernist heresy of a globalism that in denying Genesis, and worshipping “mother earth “, denies the fact that The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, Is The Author Of Love, Of Life, And Of Marriage.

“To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”
Thomas Aquinas

God Is The Author Of Love, Of Life, And Of Marriage, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, but we get to choose our final destiny.

“When The Son Of Man comes Will He find Faith on the earth.”

“Hail The Cross, our Only Hope”, For Love Everlasting.

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Nancy
on April 09, 2020 at 14:15:33 pm

Helen Dale is a hoot, not a hoot like a hoot from a bird of prey or like a Democrat's hoot to disrupt a Trump rally or like the chorus of hoots-cum questions from the White House press corps. Dale is a hoot as in a writer who makes you laugh, who is entertaining, whose writing gives you a good time reading, who lightens the load of life with the surprise and delight of metaphorical insight about the bad in life.

Her forays into political and cultural journalism offer sharp, witty perception the equal of the maddeningly lovable Tom Wolfe and the lovably maddening Norman Mailer, the engagingly smart likes of which I have not seen from a novelist since their controversial years.

And I just fancied reading every word Dale wrote while barely thinking about what she wrote.
I'll do that in my next comment. I just had to express my pleasure first, right away.

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Paladin
on April 09, 2020 at 23:40:10 pm

https://arxiv.org/pdf/2003.12191.pdf

https://www.google.com/search?q=iron+overload+and+respiratory+disease&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&hl=en-us&client=safari

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FrgD5TyJmrM

I am concerned that no one is investigating the relationship between hepcidin, ferritin, and iron overload in the elderly, those with immune complications, the obese, and those most vulnerable, people of Northern European descent with hemochromatosis. Did the Chinese know about this relationship or not? It would certainly be dangerous to proceed with a live attenuated vaccine for those most vulnerable. Why do we continue to do business with China as usual even though WHO and The United Nations refuse to investigate what is going on in China, not only for the sake of the innocent Chinese people but for The Common Good?

https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/magazines/panache/a-100-yr-old-vaccine-is-being-tested-against-the-new-coronavirus-can-it-work/articleshow/74982553.cms

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Image of Nancy
Nancy
on April 11, 2020 at 13:47:04 pm

And when this period of Time in Salvational History has passed, we cannot go back to business as usual, for many lives are at stake, and those responsible must be held accountable, least many more lives will be lost:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wM1DjkPWtj0

H/T Mirror Of Justice tweet

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Nancy
on April 11, 2020 at 16:12:48 pm

Worth reading for the prose. As an added bonus Dale is insightful. A special bonus: she's right.

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Jeffrey C. Apfel
on April 11, 2020 at 17:37:09 pm

It's all up in the air and for grabs as stuff falls back to earth. In the US I am especially alert to this Dale point,
"—a lot of people have made predictions about our post-coronavirus future that are essentially a list of all the things they’ve always wanted to see happen." as it pertains to the drive for power of the climate change authoritarians.

Signs abound in the US of growing crisis-control authoritarianism. For now, President Trump has acceded to that tendency by sharing the power of the bully pulpit, his daily corona podium, with two crisis-control bureaucrat/scientists from the CDC who eschew cost-benefit analysis and would rely on speculative models of morbidity and mortality that are as yet mathematically-unverifiable in large part due to prior needless restraints the CDC imposed.

How can we trust such people with what are in essence existential political decisions? Yet, it may be too late to control them. They are now media darlings and perhaps beyond presidential control.

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Image of Paladin
Paladin

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

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