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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.