What does the future hold?

War with China? California secession? My readers write.

I have an excellent selection of reader letters today.

First, Adam Garfinkle, editor emeritus of The American Interest, sends us the email below, from Singapore.

Come the Whirlwind

Think the US Federal government screwed up the response to the Covid-19 pandemic, revealing shortcomings many years in the making? Think the President’s behavior has made him the laughing stock of the known world, but that he may well get reelected anyway? Think the Chinese government, despite its lying and its clumsy public relations stunts, is apt to come out of the viral haze with a significant net advantage? Well you’re right to fret about all that, but wait for the silver lining … wait … wait: That is the silver lining, compared to what autumn may bring.

Only fools and unreconstructed idealists think that when things are bad they cannot get worse. They can, and often do, for the simple reason that waves of irrationality and bad luck are not by nature self-limiting. In that cheerful light, consider this scenario. 

During the coming summer, the hardest-hit areas of the world gradually ease their way out of danger. Infection curves flatten. More remote areas of the planet mercifully escape cataclysmic Covid-19 ravages. Economies begin to revive, unemployment and related economic hardships begin the trek back toward normal, and a general sense prevails that the worst is over. 

The Trump reelection campaign takes credit for a great success and focuses its message on a “blame China” theme. The Big Lie that the virus came out of the Wuhan bat research lab, and the Bigger Lie that it was man-made, become staple campaign talking points. What worked well enough with the Trumpenproletariat shard of the electorate before—inventing out of whole cloth the misdirection that it was the Ukrainians who tried to hack the November 2016 election in favor of the Democrats, instead of the Russians hacking it in favor of Trump—appears to be working again. Even the completely fabricated claim that Barack Obama illegally directed a surveillance operation against the 2016 Trump campaign, an antique insinuation left to lie fallow for three and half years, has legs. Just as 2016 saw the successful scapegoating of mainly Latino immigrants, now the target is East Asians. Hate crimes against ethnic Chinese rise as the summer heat bears down. 

Then, as some models are projecting, an early September cold snap brings the Covid-19 beast back just as the normal flu season begins. During the warmer weather, Americans let their guard down on social distancing and masks—and bang, we have a big new public health emergency. This would conform to the pattern we saw when the bad winter of 1918 became a hopeful spring and summer, then a disastrous autumn and early winter of 1919.

We tried to gear up production of personal protection equipment and ventilators, and we tried to devise effective treatments and find a vaccine, but the White House discouraged cooperation with other countries, and time runs out on mostly unpracticed and underprepared state and local governments. The federal government’s efforts to get ahead of the problem are stymied by its chronic bureaucratic and administrative sclerosis, worsened by the the White House’s persistent politicization.

By mid-October, the US death toll approaches 310,000. Trump denies the numbers and blames the Deep State for the rise in infections and deaths, obliquely implying that Democratic sympathizers in the government, trying to sabotage his campaign, are to blame.

China, too, suddenly faces massive reinfection, both from local cases and from North Korea into Jilin Province, despite scarce border traffic. President Xi Jinping finds himself under virtual political siege. With each day, his political weakness becomes more obvious to his slighted rivals. Meanwhile, rabid Wolf Milk nationalists cause chaos in the manner of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution: Insisting the CIA deliberately re-infected China to prevent China from accruing the reputational advantage it deserves for its handling of the pandemic, they demand decisive action.

On October 17, 2020, an accident occurs during a routine US Navy freedom-of-navigation operation in the South China Sea, in international waters near Palawan Island. Half a dozen US sailors are killed and two dozen are injured. Some reports attribute the incident to renegade anti-Xi elements in the PLA Navy, but the Trump White House blames President Xi and demands an apology. Xi does not offer one.

Within a week, US and Chinese naval forces are shooting at each other across a swath of ocean near China’s littoral. The US Navy, demonstrating the consequences of years of poor maintenance for its ships and aircraft and a corrupt acquisition process, fails clearly to get the better of the fight. Chinese YJ-19 anti-ship missiles, along with newly-deployed UAVs and submersible drones, exact a harrowing toll. The White House orders naval air attacks against anti-ship missile batteries on Chinese soil. Escalation seems inevitable, but not a US victory.

On October 24, a preternaturally quiet Russian President Vladimir Putin takes advantage of American and Chinese distraction to send significant numbers of “little green men” across Russia’s border with Latvia, claiming a need to protect Russian speakers from Latvian fascist thugs. Having much earlier fortified Kaliningrad, Gogland Island, and the Suwalki Gap, Putin has been preparing such a tentative attack for months. 

Putin has already succeeded in suborning Russian politics to his benefit. He has vivisected the European Union, diminishing its international power and unity, in part by turning more than a million Syrian refugees into political weapons in the autumn of 2015. He now sees the ultimate goal of the time-honored Soviet-era KGB hat trick in reach: stunning NATO into irrelevance and collapse. He reasons that his chances will never be better, since Trump will soon be gone from the White House. 

Putin reasons correctly. Trump does not condemn the Russian invasion. The rest of the alliance fails to summon any significant common response. Poland leads the effort, but the German Russland verstehen big business factions resist a weak, new, post-Merkel Bundeskanzler. The Turkish government, in Russia’s pocket because of leverage Russia holds in the protracted Idlib crisis, foils every attempt. 

Trump then uses the war and health crises as a pretext to “postpone” the November election, which polls show he’s going to lose. Most Republican governors say they will obey. Democratic governors unanimously refuse. Some Republican state chairmen encourage Republican voters in states with Democratic governors to boycott the polling.

Meanwhile, the fight with China widens. The 7th Fleet, with aid from USAF bombers based in CONUS, has sunk virtually the whole Chinese surface navy. But on November 1, the Chinese PLA Navy attacks a US aircraft carrier, with major loss of life. The political optics of the carrier disaster are terrible in the days before the United States—or half of it, anyway—is scheduled to vote. Trump orders a nuclear weapons attack against five Chinese cities. Reports of China moving to nuclear launch alert status are unverified and uncertain.

The Secretary of Defense doesn’t know what to do. DOD lawyers split over whether the President’s order is illegal, since no NSC meeting has been held to debate it and no declaration of war has been requested or granted. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, which have no line authority in the US system over the military chain of command, demand to speak to the President to persuade him to remand the order. Trump refuses to see them. He repeatedly addresses the nation from the Oval Office. All the major commercial media outlets, as usual, fawn over him for the sake of market share. 

Rumors of invoking of the 25th Amendment bubble up as the President’s behavior grows even more alarmingly bizarre and his speech becomes even more frequently and noticeably slurred. Signs that Trump may have suffered a mild stroke catalyze furious disagreement. Vice President Pence is still too debilitated from Covid-19 to take over. Republicans and their supporters refuse even to consider allowing power to pass, as the Constitution instructs, to the Speaker of the House. 

The President’s supporters then claim to have uncovered plans for a military coup. Scattered organized violence erupts in more than a dozen major cities between pro-Trump “Liberty Militias” and impromptu platoons of Antifa and assorted anarchist groups. Many Democratic and Republican governors call out their National Guards to quell the disturbances, but Guard commanders split over which rioting groups to quell, or quell first. 

Gun sales, petty crime, and urban looting skyrocket. 

The Estonian, Lithuanian, and Belarusian regimes succumb to indirect Russian control. 

The still-young Israeli coalition government hastily annexes most of the West Bank. Anti-Semitism, already rising, acquires boost-phase energy, showing up in all the expected and many unexpected places.

Rolling chaos erupts in Beijing and other major Chinese cities as PLA units seize several local and two provincial government offices.

And then Kim Jong-un ...

My purpose in laying out this scenario is not to audition for prophet of doom. There’s no day-job prospect in that (and I do need a day-job). It’s to encourage a rehearsal of an improbable—but not impossible—perfect storm so that relevant minds become nimbler and better attuned to prevent it. It is therefore not meant as a point prediction, but a tool for a heuristic planning exercise, a provocation to be interrogated, to wit: Where are the clear logical flaws in the causal sequence laid out above?

Let me know when you find them, please.

Adam Garfinkle, founding editor of The American Interest, is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. 

I recently discussed my pseudonymous correspondent Bilibin’s assertion that the the European Union was dead, an argument he began by noting the EU’s failure to prevent the secession of one of its largest constituent states.

Several readers wrote immediately to suggest I was focusing on the wrong geopolitical entity.

Here’s one such letter, from a correspondent at the heart of the Deep State, who decided reluctantly it was best he remain anonymous.

Greetings from DC and work-from-home land. Enjoyed your discussion of Europe and the HCA. Perhaps it’s time to turn your attention from the breakup of Europe to the breakup of the US.

It has long been clear (at least to me) that another Trump minority victory would (or at least should) lead to strong secessionist movements in the northeast (United Atlantic States; first president: Bernie Sanders) and the West Coast (California and friends; first president: Kamala Harris or Arnold Schwarzenegger).

The argument, basically, is that minority rule can only work if the President hews to the center, and if there are strong institutions and behavioral norms that ensure continued cohesion—things like rule of law, some level of fiscal equalization (as was helped by the deduction of state taxes), and at least an attempt to craft a common national story. Obviously, we are growing further and further from any of that. As the Financial Times put it, “In a country with no ethnic or religious basis, equal subjection to the law is the stuff of nationhood.” That’s the kind of “stuff” that Barr has barred. As that editorial points out, this is hard to rebuild. The glue that holds the country together is dried, cracked, and all but disintegrated.

The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted not only the cultural divides between urban and non-urban, science believers and “true” believers, but also the democracy gap, wherein 45 percent or less of the population holds 53 percent of the Senate. It is not incidental that a state or region that secedes could implement border controls to keep out folks from regions that have not instituted adequate test-and-trace regimes. Nor that a minority of the population, led by a Kentucky Kracker, is choosing the unqualified
judges who will preside over the rest of us.

But more to the point, Republicans have long been blunt that if everyone could vote, Republicans would lose. So their main task with respect to “democracy” is gerrymandering and voter suppression (see, e.g., the Wisconsin elections, D.C. statehood, Georgia voting rolls, and mail-in votes).

Now, with Republican senators basically coming out against support for hard-hit states and cities because they vote Democrat, the pocketbook cost to the Northeast and West Coast regions of being part of the US becomes ever-clearer. Implementing Hamilton’s plan to nationalize the states’ debts was a key factor not only in making the new country investible but in demonstrating a shared destiny. Refusing to share the burden of the pandemic unlearns that early lesson in nation building. (Note to Rick
Scott: Maybe funds for hurricane recovery should be limited because they mostly go to Red States ... )

I had thought before it would take a Trump re-election by a minority to demonstrate how broken the system was, and that secession would be the only recourse (unless threats of secession resulted in a fix—but that didn’t happen in Europe, did it). But we now have conclusive demonstrations outside the electoral college, be they politicized justice and judicial appointments, differences in approach to pandemic prevention across a borderless country, or the willingness of some states to bankrupt others because they vote differently. That is simply not the stuff of unity. It was an interesting experiment in continental-scale federation, but it just hasn’t worked. Lasted a bit longer than Europe, now time to unwind.


Texas. It’s a Whole Other Country

Let me briefly interject. Several years ago, to amuse my Texan friends, I entertained this thought experiment. Since we’re seriously talking about secession, I reproduce it here in full:

I promised the Texans a post just for them. Others may participate, of course, because we all have to decide what our policy toward the Sovereign and Independent Republic of Texas will be. Because today, Texas seceded.

Before deciding whether that’s good or bad, I figured I’d ask my Texan friends to explain the details. I myself don’t know exactly how it happened, but I assume it went something like this: The rest of the Still-United States (SUS) couldn’t be bothered. (I doubt anyone’s thinking enough about history these days to have a strong emotion when they consider things that sound like “the South seceding.” So the SUS response was, “Whatever,” and obviously the rest of the world said, “Whatever,” too. Probably a lot of it said, “Great! Divide and conquer.” Anyway, it all went fine.)

Texans, I’ve visited your fine country more than a few times—back when it was mine, too—and frankly, I loved what I saw. As far as I’m concerned, the Sovereign and Independent Republic of Texas now has complete, total, and unencumbered political, cultural, and economic independence. Welcome to the United Nations! (I assume you want to be in the General Assembly, at least, for prestige purposes?) Anyway, congratulations. You’re the 14th largest economy in the world by GDP. You’re oil rich.

And you’re on your own.

Of course, as a foreign policy analyst, I have to think of Texas in a slightly different way. So I want to know all about you. Here are my questions for the Texans among us. If anyone else is curious, of course, jump in with your own.

  1. Texans, I’d love to know about your political institutions. How are they similar or dissimilar to those of your neighbor to the north? Would I be correct in assuming it’s the country with the most cultural influence on you? Yours have got to be different in some really important ways, though, or no point in being independent. I assume you’ll also be influenced by your neighbor to the south. Any parts of this you’d want? Have you modeled your institutions on some other country with a better system of governance? Which? I don’t want to offend you, so tell me if you have a president, a prime minister, a congress, a parliament, proportional representation, first-past-the-post, D’Hondt system—whatever it is, of course I respect it, but I need to know, it’s my job. You’re now a foreign country; that means I have to study you and your political system. You don’t have to tell me everything, but help me out: Wikipedia’s out of date. Says you’re part of the United States. That’s why you shouldn’t believe everything you read on Wikipedia.

  2. Are you a threat to the SUS or friendly? I figure you’re friendly, kind of like Canada: “No, really, we’re a sovereign nation. We’re Americans too, but we’re not the United States,” and everyone basically laughs and says, “That’s cute, Canada.” But I don’t want to get that wrong. Finding out you’re not friendly would be plenty embarrassing for a foreign policy analyst. So give me a hint: What’s your defence policy, basically? I’m sure you’ve thought through the problem of some idiot in the SUS waking up one day and deciding he wants to do something ridiculous like “save the Union.” I can’t imagine it in this day and age, but sovereign states have to worry about worst-case scenarios. And you’re oil-rich. So if you’re not thinking, “Someone’s going to try to invade us,” you’d be a bit loopy. Texas is anything but loopy. The Texas Department of Defense (or whatever you call it, you tell me–I want to use the right terminology) is no doubt planning for worst-case scenarios. Or in the case of an oil-rich country, “likely scenarios.”

  3. Should I worry about a miscalculation that leads to war between the SUS and Texas? Do you have a plan for signalling to the SUS that they’d best not invade you–but not signalling it so hard that things gets out of hand and you get invaded? (I think the SUS would win, as things stand now.) In my professional opinion, it probably won’t happen, so you probably don’t need nuclear weapons. But you do need a plan: Independent, sovereign nations need long-term plans, especially with neighbors like yours. You’ve got a superpower or at least a regional hegemon to the north and lots of oil. Sounds to me like you don’t trust the SUS one bit. So what’s the plan?

  4. What’s your immigration policy? If I want Texas citizenship, what do I have to do to get it? I don’t have Texas ancestry, alas. Do I have any kind of advantage if I have SUS ancestry? Are some SUS states better than others, in that regard?

  5. Would I be allowed to work in Texas as a legal resident of some kind and keep my SUS citizenship? If so, would I face a lot of prejudice against Americans? Would I be dealing with a lot of unpleasant questions and suspicions about my dual loyalty? (Question for my fellow Americans in the SUS–would I get that from you?) Suppose you say I can’t keep my SUS passport if I want a Texas one. Say I decide I want a Texas passport, immigrate legally, do everything I need to get Texas citizenship, and become a Texan. Would other Americans think I was a traitor? What about non-Americans: If you’re visiting the formerly United States, do you want to get a visa both for the SUS and Texas? If it’s too much of a hassle to get both, which would you choose?

  6. Texans, what’s your immigration policy toward Mexico? Toward other countries? How about trade policy? And this one’s super-important: What’s your currency? Do you have your own or are you still using the dollar? It’s tricky to be totally sovereign without your own currency—just ask the EU. Though not impossible—just ask France. But to do it you need to do a lot of make-believe and be highly motivated to pretend you’re independent and be independent and still kind of not be, too. It gets messy.

  7. How about the tax regime—if I worked there and paid SUS taxes, would I get slammed with Texas taxes, too?

  8. Americans, how do we feel about Texans who want to come to the SUS? Do we give them priority, because they used to be Americans? Or make them stand in line like everyone else? Texans, do you think you’ll want to visit America for any reason? Have you worked out this problem properly? Getting an H1B visa to work in the SUS is no joke. Have you negotiated some kind of visa-free travel regime? Problem with that is the moment the SUS gets worried that you may have a problem controlling your borders–well, fair or unfair, they’re going to stick you with the problem. I figure even one terrorist slips through the Mexican border and gets through Texas to Albuquerque–no less New York–“visa-free travel for Texans” is going to sound insane to American voters.

  9. What’s your foreign policy, generally? Are you in NATO? I figure not. I don’t see Texas signing up for defending countries they do not want to defend. Or admitting that maybe they’d need the SUS to defend them if they got themselves in big trouble. So I’m guessing you’re not in NATO. Would I be right?

  10. What other parts of the established sovereign state system are you aiming for? Are you aiming high? I think you should, you’re Texas–you want to be a star performer in that system, not a lone star performer. So you want a seat on the Security Council. (I’m assuming you’re definitely not interested in the UNESCO part of the UN. Don’t blame you.) Problem with that is you basically do have to nuke up to get there. I’m just not sure the SUS is going to be comfortable with that. It means you didn’t sign the NPT. So I figure that’s causing a lot of headaches in Washington. “Surgical strikes on Texas” will not sound right–at all–to anyone in the SUS, so I bet you’re right to think they’d never stop you. Just curious how it all works. Getting nuked up comes with its own hassles. You don’t have access to a lot of the Triad anymore, so if you want the whole shebang, you’re going to have to work like stink. To do it fast, you’d probably have to be on the phone with North Korea. You don’t want to get your hands that dirty or be one of those countries the Still-United States has to go all “pariah state” about. You could do it on your own, but it definitely won’t be overnight.

  11. Next thing, obviously (you’re Texas) is OPEC. Are you a moderate in OPEC pricing policy, or will the SUS have to do some serious arm-twisting? Just curious.

  12. You’re doing great on warm-water ports. The SUS has plenty, so of course it won’t get all fussy about yours. Enough to go around for everyone. I don’t foresee any spats about that. Just wondering which part of the Navy–if any–you kept. I assume some negotiations happened (don’t know the details, you tell me) and you kept some of it. I’m thinking you probably got to keep the Coast Guard–yours fair and square–but SUS taxpayers would have been highly unamused if you tried to make off with the expensive stuff. Lackland? Probably the SUS just flew the important stuff out (it flies, after all, that’s the point) and let you complain all you like. So I just can’t see how you kept the really expensive parts of the SUS military. You don’t want to be a small, oil-rich country without that. You could rebuild a lot of it on your own–I mean, obviously, you’ve got a few divisions of Lockheed-Martin and Boeing and Raytheon and etc. But once you go totally sovereign, you have to worry about things like whether they people working there are loyal. Total bureaucracy nightmare–background checks, security clearances. I’ll bet tons of the people who work there would have a serious dual-loyalty problem.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally pro-Texas. I love Texas. I figure if you love something, you set it free, if it comes back, it’s yours, if it doesn’t, it never was. (Either that or I’d be as berserk about the Constitution as that madman Lincoln.) But we are mature. So mature that we can even discuss this without a hint of incivility, no less a civil war.

Texas, you are free.

I’m just curious. How?

That sums up my views on the secession of any American state. If you’re thinking about it seriously, you’re a traitor, and besides, you’re just out of your mind. It cannot work.

It’s a grim sign, however, that so many Americans are now talking about this, half- seriously, even. Another friend—a Texan, as it happens; I’ll call him Elmo—sent me this email on the very same day as Deep State sent me the email above:

Texas gets tagged with the “most likely to secede” label, and many Texans are happy with the perception. But it isn’t so: all we have going for us is a nearly unique state-level political culture and history, and not much else. We don’t have defensible borders, we are reliant on commodities and trade, and there isn’t a single natural lake in the entire state. When it comes down to it, the strategic logic that led us to seek annexation by the United States in 1845 holds: We require the external resources and access. So, in this time of rapidly weakening federal bonds, with state blocs coalescing and state governors seeking to evade federal controls, it isn’t Texas at the fore.

The real secession threat is California.

California’s strategic position is superb. Flush with natural resources, easily able to self-sustain in nearly every sphere, and a de facto island: look at the population patterns, with thousands of miles of effectively uninhabited land from the hundredth meridian to Sacramento. California is nearly the only state that could go it alone, with ample trade, access to international commerce, and — this is important — independent branding.

The only element hitherto missing for California has been an alienation from the federal center. That exists now, and it quickly runs deep. So we see California setting its own standards. So we see California forming its own state-based alliance. So we see that alliance communicate to DC with its own demands.

So we see these things accrete momentum.

Let the reader understand.

Finally, Newt Gingrich took issue with my response to his views of the pandemic:

I am very disappointed in the rhetorical overkill and sophistry of your attack on my newsletter. I never object to a good argument and I love your iconoclasm and unusual ability to find unique insights.

I will simply give you one example of overkill and sophistry in your newsletter: The Imperial College 2.2 million number for potential American deaths was very widely reported in the United States. You may assume Trump did not read the report but do you also assume Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx were equally uninformed?

Furthermore, the American President, whether Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Harry Truman or the current occupant, are not normally in the business of reading detailed papers. Eisenhower insisted all decision memos be one page, which was a lesson he learned running the Anglo-American coalition in Europe during World War Two.

The response to the virus has been overkill driven by fear and focusing on only one indicator or public policy. There are counties with zero deaths in the United States being treated as if they were New York City.

Furthermore, the New York City disaster is a function of the failure of Governor Cuomo and Mayor De Blasio. Check when they began cleaning the subways every night. They to this day do not have an accurate sense of how many senior citizens their policy of returning Covid-19 patients to the nursing homes ended up killing.

Italy was a unique case driven by 100,000 Chinese workers living in northern Italy, direct flights from China and the politically correct decision to continue the flights even after the pandemic was obvious. In northern Italy they had to go to mitigation because they had lost control.

Outside of New York City, northern New Jersey, and a few hot spots, most of America resembles southern Italy, not northern Italy.

We could have coped with this virus with a lot fewer economic costs and with a lot fewer people dying from second-order effects—people dying because they were denied hospital care (most places in America never came anywhere close to exceeding their hospital capacity, yet cancer patients and heart patients were being put at risk; furthermore, the effect of prolonged isolation and economic dislocation leads to physical and mental damage, including suicide in some tragic cases.)

Anyway, I am glad I recommended your blog and I look forward to future dialogues and even diatribes.


I disagree in many points of fact and interpretation, but rather than going through things point by point, I’ll just say that if you’re keenly interested in modeling the epidemic—as we all are, I’m sure—I’ve found the following models quite useful. I imagine Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx consult them regularly, since they’re all cited by the CDC:

Auquan’s modified SEIR model

Columbia University (Transmission dynamics simulated for all US study counties)

Covid Act Now (Based on a traditional SEIR model)

IHME (They are now using a traditional SEIR model)

Iowa State University (Modified SEIR)

Johns Hopkins

DELPHI Epidemiological Case Predictions (Another modified SEIR model)


Los Alamos

University of Texas

University of Geneva

Northeastern (here are their projections for today—they’re extremely accurate)

They all converge on a similar portrait. The only disagreement is in the details.

There are many more—at least a hundred good models came up with very similar predictions. Italy wasn’t a unique case, as anyone living in the UK, France, Spain, or Russia could assure you.

Social distancing has, so far, saved far more lives than it has cost. It’s unclear what the long-term effects will be: It is possible that the long-term economic and political costs of the economic slowdown will be even more catastrophic, but it’s too soon to say. They haven’t been, yet.

The response to the pandemic has not been hysterical. The disease is a killer. It would have cost millions of Americans’ lives had we not taken the drastic measures we did.

And many could have been saved had we taken those measures sooner.

Rest in Peace, Gaby Charing

On the loss of a friend

My dear friend Gaby Charing has died. You will remember her from the letter she sent me in mid-March, “Abnormal times.”

I already have my death booked. After living for seven years with bowel cancer, I’m no longer having treatment. An end-of-life care package is a phone call away. I’m just stopped at the lights.

Death doesn’t frighten me. I’m past all that. Truly.

You, by contrast, weren’t expecting this. Yes, anyone can be cut down in their prime, but that isn’t what’s happening here. You’re all, understandably, scared out of your wits, afraid that, in spite of being, maybe, in rude health, you will catch the virus and die. This is not normal. It isn’t normal for an entire nation to feel that way.

Even though I knew she was dying, and had known for years the disease would kill her, I can’t escape my astonishment that it really happened. She had beaten the thing back so many times. I suppose part of me thought, irrationally, that she would keep defying all the odds and just keep staying alive.

She was a lion. Her mind remained razor-sharp until the end. She never succumbed, at least in front of me, to self-pity. She faced death with an extraordinary dignity. She wished, I know, to be remembered for that, and I will never forget it. She left me with an ideal I would like, when it is my time, to emulate. I don’t know if I can: None of us know until we find out.

She was not strong in the manner of someone in denial, or someone putting up a brittle façade. She was truly strong. Just plain courageous.

In our last conversation, she told me that dying was more pleasant than she expected it to be. She was, in a sense, lucky. She died of cancer, not Covid-19, and she did not die alone. Her pain was well-managed, she reassured me, and the window of her hospice overlooked a glorious heath in spring bloom. Her beloved wife Liz was with her until the end. Theirs was a great and romantic love story. She said she felt surrounded by the love of her friends, and she was.

Liz, too, faced their shared ordeal with a courage and dignity that I will always seek to emulate in my own life—although nothing so far suggests I’m capable of it.

In October, Gaby sent me this email.

Liz’s cousin Mike died today. Diagnosed six weeks after me with the same cancer … Fuck cancer. Jack Nathan, lovely guy, was diagnosed five weeks ago—yes, weeks—with pancreatic cancer, died on Friday. He loved winding people up and was the initiator of the disastrous discussion about the Armenians at a party last summer which led to Helen’s Turkish sister-in-law storming off. I’m sure she had no idea I was family. I hope we don’t meet again. Fuck cancer.

I suspected this was a terrible—and demoralizing—blow for them both, and replied, “I am so sorry. What a lot of terrible news. How are you and Liz holding up? You must both just be floored by this.”

“Nothing. Floors. Us. But yes, Liz is upset.”

“I hope that’s the inscription going on your tombstone,” I wrote.

She was quite pleased. “It’s perfect,” she replied.

I can’t go to the funeral, of course. I am not sure whether she’ll be able to have a proper funeral. In one of our last conversations, she told me they had made plans for a funeral online, if need be. Her description of the rehearsal was hilarious, but I can’t remember why. (It involved having a friend play the role of “Gaby’s corpse.”) I will miss her so.

I feel such sadness for Liz. Socially distant is no way to endure a loss like this.

I’ll take a day to compose myself, and then the newsletter will return as normal. I wanted just to say these few words in her memory, and let my readers know why I’ve been quiet these past few days. That is why.

I can’t offer you any advice. I can’t focus on any of this. I can feel myself gradually withdrawing from the world, cognitively and emotionally. I am desperately concerned and frightened for my beloved partner, Liz, and other people I love and care about. I’m just as frightened as you are. But I can’t engage with the wider issues, such as people’s absurd and irresponsible behaviour, or government policy on the virus. You deal with it. I’ve done my bit of living. I’m off.

I have no religious faith and I don’t believe in an Afterlife. I believe when I’m gone, I’m gone.

If it turns out I’m wrong, I’ll make sure that when you arrive, I’ve got the kettle on.

I hope she’s putting on the kettle right now.

Reports of the EU's Demise are Somewhat Exaggerated, Part II

It's nothing a fantasy America couldn't fix

Bilibin Redux

The other day, I wrote of the pseudonymous Bilibin’s assertion that the EU is dead. I ended by promising to take up the subject again “tomorrow.” I must stop promising that. I consistently underestimate how long it will take me to write the next newsletter and how apt I am to be distracted, before the day passes, by the latest catastrophe in the news. It has taken me so long to return to the subject that by now, you’ve surely forgotten what I wrote in the first place. So let’s review.

Bilibin wrote,

The project of a united Europe has never been objectionable to me, despite its status as an object of reflexive loathing on the American right. We’ve forgotten just what a bloody and dangerous font of violence Europe used to be—costing hundreds of thousands of American lives in the process—and so we forget that a deadening bureaucracy suffocating the Continent is a much preferable alternative to the historical precedent. 

Nonetheless, he argued, the EU was dead. He noted:

  1. The European Union was unable to prevent or persuade against the secession of one of its largest constituent nations. 

  2. The European Union was unable to play any meaningful role in a pandemic that ravaged several of its member states. 

  3. The European Union was unable to prevent or preclude a Russian military mission entering one of its major member states. 

  4. The European Union was unable to prevent, or bring consequences for, one of its member states from sliding from democratic liberality to authoritarian dictatorship. 

  5. The European Union was unable to muster the political will to withstand pressure from the Communist Party of China. 

  6. The European Union was unable to provide credible security guarantees to its member states as NATO went into precipitous decline. 

He concluded: “The European Union is dead. Something will arise in its place. But this is Europe: we should be prepared for the possibility it will be something worse.”

I agreed with some, but not all of his observations. Above all, I agreed with his key point: Our best hope for Europe, within the confines of reality, is something like the EU. The realistic alternative, I wrote, was not a continent of peaceful and thriving independent liberal democracies allied enthusiastically with the United States. Nothing in Europe’s history suggests this is possible.

The future of Europe—whether it is the same, better, worse, or much worse—depends upon the answer to this question: Can Europe can preserve the essential aspects of the EU while ridding itself of the reflexes and weaknesses that have led Bilibin to declare its demise?

The future of the United States, like it or not, depends upon Europe getting this right. If you’re a new subscriber, please refer to this post to understand why I say this. You need to read the whole post (remember, this is a book, it builds upon arguments I’ve made previously), but if you’re in a hurry, this is the key paragraph:

If you look at a map and calculate shares of the world’s population, firepower, and wealth, [it] is perfectly clear. A United Europe—and the United States—are together strong enough to sustain the liberal democratic tradition and Western values. Together with Australia, New Zealand, and our partners in the Far East, we could credibly contain Russia and China, and defend free outposts in Asia and the Middle East.

Separated? No.

Have a look at the maps I used to illustrate these points. They make the situation very clear.

The United States could, in principle, play a significant and positive role in shaping Europe’s future. It should. It is very much be in our interest to do so. The Trump Administration is incapable of this and won’t. But a Hypothetically Competent Administration—hereinafter an HCA—would grasp that preserving the Transatlantic Alliance and promoting Europe’s cohesion, economic recovery, stability, and friendliness to the United States must be among its highest priorities. An HCA would, moreover, understand why the European Union has fallen upon hard times. Having the right diagnosis is essential if you’re to form the right policy response. (If you’re familiar with Anselm’s ontological argument, you will understand my faith in the existence of the HCA—I’m afraid there is no other evidence for it.)

Let’s inspect the points Bilibin has made more carefully, because in places they are overstated and his diagnosis is off. We can improve upon it.


Deadening bureaucracy

Bilibin takes as given that a deadening bureaucracy suffocates the Continent. This notion is common among Americans, but misplaced. I don’t know quite where it emerged or quite why. Or actually, now that I think of it—I do. Let’s look at the origin of the notion that Europe is stultified by its bureaucracy; that’s important.

The charge suggests there was a Europe, prior to the EU, where bureaucracies were lean, mean, sleek and streamlined; or even a Europe with no bureaucracy at all. But why would we think this?

Claire: Class! Who is the greatest sociologist ever to have lived?

Class: (In unison) Max Weber!

Claire: Very good. Now, class, what is the greatest essay ever to have been written about bureaucracy?

Class: “Bureaucracy,” by Max Weber, in his magnum opus, Wirtschaft Und Gesellschaft!

Claire: Very good. Now, class, where did the idea of bureaucracy as as a threat to individual freedom come from?

Class: Max Weber!

Claire: Good. And to whom do we owe the image of a bureaucracy that leads to a “polar night of icy darkness” trapping humanity in a soulless “iron cage?”

Class: Max Weber!

Claire: Excellent. Now, class, do you see a relationship between these images and that of a deadening bureaucracy?

Class: … Ach so.

Claire: Class, can you tell me when Weber wrote this essay?

Class: 1921!

Claire: And where?

Class: Germany!

Claire: Very good. And when was the European Union founded …. ?

You see where I’m going.

For those of you who raised your hand to offer the answer, “Ludwig von Mises,” and suggested the image might be related to the words, “straitjacket of bureaucratic organization [that] paralyzes the individual’s initiative”—Yes! I’m in a good mood: You get an A today, too. But he wrote that in 1944, having grown up in Austria. He was not inspired by the European Union.

The etymology of the word “bureaucracy” is another clue about Europe’s former bureaucratic condition. The word—literally, “government by desks”—was the satirical invention of the French civil servant Jacques Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay. He was appointed France’s intendant du commerce in 1751, well before the founding of the European Union. De Gournay was best known for his belief that government regulations stunted commerce—that they were, one might say, deadening. (He also invented the terms bureaumania, laissez-faire, and laissez-passer.)

What might have inspired him to think this way?

For anyone poised to object that “deadening bureaucracy” must, surely, have been a problem confined to the Continent and unknown to Britain in its halcyon days before the arrival of the busybodies from Brussels, I commend to you this fascinating study by Peer Vries: “Public finance in China and Britain in the long eighteenth century.” You won’t be able to put it down.

Now, there may be a country, somewhere in the EU, that has had a different experience, but having lived in France before and after the EU, I can say with authority that the amount of deadening bureaucracy in France has declined, not risen. If France is now less dead, bureaucratically-speaking, this is in many ways because the EU urged more rational bureaucratic standards upon it; if it is more commercially vibrant, this too may be attributed in some measure to EU regulations.

The EU’s Consumer Rights Directives, in particular, had a salutary effect. The stereotype of France as a rude and miserable country with terrible customer service was once absolutely warranted, but is now laughably outdated. I’ve written about this—the mysterious death of French rudeness. It’s a sociologically complex phenomenon and the reasons for it are hard to disambiguate, but the adoption of the Consumer Rights Directive played a role. Customers became entitled, by law, to return faulty or defective goods. This, along with the experience the French obtained in conducting commerce across a broad region where customer service is generally pleasant—and expected to be pleasant—transformed French commercial culture, and much for the better.

So “deadening bureaucracy” isn’t quite the right starting assumption.

One of my readers, by the way, Xavier Lewis, recently wrote to say the same thing. He works as a legal advisor to the European Union, so this rejoinder comes straight from the murderous heart of the deadening bureaucracy:

There are a bunch of us beavering away in our incommodious and thoroughly depressing offices in Brussels. Bilibin is semi-correct that the bureaucracy is a deadening one, but he selects the wrong target. It is a bureaucracy that blunts national bureaucracies, clearing the way for folks to go about their business without let or hindrance (or at least, much less bureaucratic grief than before). Consequently, you can buy stuff from abroad without filling in endless forms, queuing in remote, dismal customs offices, and paying dues, charges, fees, taxes and duties. You can choose phone operators and call for nothing. You can cross borders, pop up to Brussels (you’re welcome to come when that’s possible again, by the way) without being searched, questioned, searched again.

That’s why, when Britain first joined the EEC back in ‘73, roughly 800,000 trucks per year carried goods the Brits needed or wanted from the Continent. I remember stories of truck drivers detained for days in Dover as their merchandise rotted and perished while the paperwork matured. Now, over four million per year cross between Calais and Dover alone, a fact of which the British minister conducting the Brexit negotiations was blissfully unaware. The Brussels bureaucracy has reigned in the national bureaucracies, so that people can do more as they please: a living experiment in Berlin’s (Isaiah, that is) negative freedom.

All true.


Let’s now consider the rest of Bilibin’s observations. “The European Union,” Bilibin writes, “was unable to prevent or persuade against the secession of one of its largest constituent nations.” Indeed.

Again, one of my readers, the author Nicholas Sumner, sent me an insightful comment:

Britain’s mistake was not treating the EEC/EU as the French treat it. To the French, Europe was always à la carte, never prix fixe. The French had the measure of the thing, the British did not and slavishly tried to follow the rules. When Cameron went to Europe in 2016 to ask for aspects of Britain’s sovereignty back, he demonstrated only that he was merely another in a long line of British Prime Ministers (the exception was Thatcher and possibly Blair) who did not understand how Europe worked. If he had simply announced that Britain was taking back what it wanted, the rest would have had no choice but to sweep it under the carpet and say “Move on, nothing to see here.” Et voilà! No referendum. No Brexit. British sovereignty restored. He might even still be PM ...

Absolutely right.

The UK’s vote to secede represents, I think, the stupidest thing any country has ever done to itself in a mindless fit, and it’s profoundly damaged the EU, too. The most extraordinary aspect of the story is that the whole thing happened in a fit of carelessness. No one wanted it to happen. The Brexit vote represented brinksmanship in negotiation gone too far.

But the thing to note is that Britain has not, in fact, seceded. Everyone knows that the Britain must be declared “out of the EU,” one day, so that all parties to this imbroglio may save face. And so the talks go on. But it’s unclear whether anything will ever result from these talks, particularly now that the coronavirus has emerged from reality to slap all parties to this nonsense in the face.

Now no one in Europe can quite remember why they were so adamant about the free movement of people. Everyone in the UK is too embarrassed to admit they just didn’t really think much about the difference between trading with Europe for things like pharmaceuticals and trading, say, with China. Only open supply chains to the Single Market prevented the UK from confronting empty supermarket shelves during the pandemic. A taste of food shortages in late March reminded everyone in the UK that supply chains are no joke. No one can now, seriously, imagine that the government will just cut them at the end of the year if the EU doesn’t bend to its will. Similarly, no one in the UK can quite remember why they objected to having so many immigrants from Europe, given the NHS is staffed by them, and columnists in Britain are now asking, in all seriousness, how Britain will solve the challenge of attracting enough immigrants to make up for the loss:

The National Health Service is buckling under the weight of rising demand as is faces a severe staffing shortage.

With recruits from the European Union beginning to leave the NHS in greater numbers, the question of how to staff our hospitals and care homes becomes more acute.

More than 40,000 nursing roles are currently unfilled amid a sector-wide crisis.

Note: That was published in The Telegraph, hardly an anti-Brexit voice.

So in practice, “Brexit” no longer means “secession,” it means, “negotiations that may well last into the 26th century toward a goal no one cares about anymore, so long as it never really happens.”

A new round of talks began yesterday. This sums up the situation:

Britain and Brussels embark on a third round of trade talks Monday with little hope for a breakthrough, amid the far more urgent challenge of dealing with the coronavirus crisis. The new negotiations will begin with a virtual head-to-head between Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, and his UK counterpart, David Frost—both of whom have recovered from a bout with the virus.

The object of these negotiations, though no one can say it, is just to negotiate forever, because it is well understood that if Britain were to secede, the costs would be intolerable. The very last thing anyone actually needs or wants during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression are high tariffs and customs barriers between the UK and EU.

Nonetheless, Britain may manage to secede for the very same reason it voted for Brexit—through sheer carelessness. It would be traditional, after all, for Europe to sleepwalk right off a cliff because no one had the good sense to stand down.

“Business groups” in Britain, as Politico reports, “harbor quiet hopes that the UK government will backtrack on its refusal to request an extension to the Brexit transition period.” So does everyone else, except those too proud to admit it.

Ultimately, if everyone is sensible, what will emerge is a Britain that is, basically, mostly in the EU, but very insistent that it is not. The EU will accede to a few of the UK’s original negotiating demands, which it should have done in the first place. The UK will agree to most of the EU’s demands, while losing all of its influence over EU policy. All of this could have been negotiated without Brexit, and should have been, because this has been an entirely needless drain and an embarrassment to all parties—as well as a long-running torture to EU citizens who live in the UK, and vice-versa.

But in the end, the UK will not really “secede.” It will just proudly call itself “out of the EU” while maintaining a renegotiated but roughly similar relationship to it. Many citizens of the UK and the EU, however, will be mutually hostile and estranged. This weakens the West, which is an unfortunate outcome.

Under a Hypothetical Competent Administration, we would have prevented this in the first place. We would have been actively involved in negotiating or finessing some kind of compromise between the EU and the UK before Cameron got it into his head to roll the dice on a referendum. We would have done this quietly, tactfully, and diplomatically.

It was neither quiet, tactful, nor diplomatic—nor remotely intelligent—to do what Obama did and tell the British public how to vote. Note to the HCA: Never tell people in another country how to vote. It is stupid and counterproductive. No one, anywhere, even if they like the United States, enjoys being reminded that the United States is more powerful than they are. No one likes the idea of the United States meddling in their domestic affairs.

An HCA would preside over the most powerful country in the world and do plenty of meddling—don’t get me wrong. But it wouldn’t be stupid about it. Of course that speech would backfire. Does anyone remember the Guardian’s misbegotten “Letters to Clark County,” when readers of the Guardian took it upon themselves in 2004 to write patronizing letters to voters in Iowa, urging them to vote for John Kerry? I believe the Guardian played an under-appreciated role in Bush’s reelection.

Obama was correct to say the UK would go to the “back of the queue” for trade talks. It has. He was also right that UK citizens should have voted against Brexit. It was and remains in the interest of all concerned—the UK, Europe, and the United States—for Europe to be whole and free. But the time for intervention—quiet intervention—was in 2014. American diplomats should have quietly urged their counterparts in Brussels to send Cameron home with enough of a victory to get the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party off his back. (They tried to, very earnestly, but they needed to say something more sympathetic about allowing Britain to control its own levels of immigration.) Failing that, the HCA would have quietly advised Cameron against holding a referendum; first, because you can’t govern a parliamentary democracy by referendum; second, because an HCA would have done its own polling, realized Cameron was playing with fire, and quietly shared that information with him. Had Cameron insisted upon holding the referendum nonetheless, an HCA, realizing that Russia planned to be involved in its outcome, would have countered these measures—quietly.

Yes, an HCA can do such things. Once upon a time, we had real administrations that were competent enough to do things like that. It was so long ago that few of us who remember it are still alive.

Failing even that, we would now be pushing the UK back into some kind of integrated trade and defense structure with Europe, face-savingly renamed, for its own benefit—and for ours. Our diplomats would be all over this, helping to find face-saving formulas, offering incentives to cooperate, helping to tamp down irritated feelings.

There is a reason we wanted a Europe “whole, free, and united.” It wasn’t a passing outbreak of altruism or idealism. It was because, after two world wars, we realized we would be dragged into the conflict, again and again, unless Europe was “whole, free, and united.” The formula animating our foreign policy toward Europe was, for generations, “enlightened self-interest.” But now, it is just “self-interest,” and this cannot work for long.

If through some error or lunacy Britain really secedes—which will happen by default on December 31, unless a new deal is ratified or the negotiation period extended—it would give us enormous diplomatic leverage, which the Trump Administration would surely use to strategically and economically to enslave the UK—but an HCA would not.

Peter Zeihan is good on this. (He’s good on many things: he’s a canny observer.) As he points out, the British are now desperately vulnerable:

The only market with the proximity, size, institutional capacity, and complementary needs and capabilities to be a meaningful trade partner is the United States. … and their eventual post-EU membership trading partner will be able to pick them clean. … Post-EU domestic economic regeneration was always a near-impossibility, but with this sort of political chaos the post-Brexit Brits will be desperate for any sort of lifeline. Only an American lifeline will be on offer, but that comes with conditions. Many conditions. …

If the Brits thought that tussling with the French over aerospace or the Germans over automotive was a frustrating experience, it’s nothing compared to dealing with the colossal, tangled networks of North America where mammoth economies of scale can drown the Brits out. ….

Most of the pro-Brexit crowd voted the way they did because they don’t like faceless European bureaucrats deciding issues for Britain. The reality is that Britain’s only way forward post-Brexit is to assign even greater levels of authority to American bureaucrats.

I agree with Zeihan that what we’re likely to do, if Britain actually secedes, is bleed them dry. That’s the logic of America First. Our Washington bureaucrats will step right in to replace the bureaucrats from Brussels. Submitting to our bureaucrats will work out better for the UK, in the short term, than autarky, but worse than a reasonable deal with Brussels. In the long term, it will work out poorly for all concerned, because it will weaken the EU and lead to dramatic resentment in the UK. An HCA would have the foresight to see that it is not in our long-term interest to reduce the UK to our vassal while allowing the EU to collapse. It would use its immense negotiating leverage to ensure a face-saving settlement between Britain and the EU that basically preserves the relationship now in place.

Our short-term benefit here should be subjugated to the long-term benefit of a Europe whole, free, and united, because the alternative is a Europe fragmented, unfree, and in many parts subjugated to Russia and China. That will not make our lives easier.

The Pandemic

Bilibin says, “The European Union was unable to play any meaningful role in a pandemic that ravaged several of its member states.”

Certainly, the EU failed to cover itself in glory. But it has done more than people realize. It shoveled 3.8 billion Euros toward the Western Balkans, for example, and it accelerated 5.2 billion in loans from the European Investment bank. It spent three billion Euros, from its own budget, the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, for medical equipment, and the Emergency Support Instrument, which finances and coordinates the cross-border transport of medical equipment.

The EU has certainly done a great deal more than China—not just for Europe but for its neighborhood; the extent to which China, which was responsible for the pandemic, managed to position itself as Europe’s savior is not proof that China is a more effective actor, only that it is more adroit in publicizing itself.

But in the real world, “adroit at publicizing oneself” matters more, to most citizens, than reality, and the initial, panicked response—in which EU countries both hoarded supplies and stole each others’—won’t soon be forgotten. Nor will the debacle over coronabonds, revealing not only a “lack of European solidarity,” as the phrase goes, but an extraordinary lack of economic foresight among the northern countries. Their economies are export-based, to whom do they imagine they'll export their goods if Spain and Italy collapse?

This is where “right populism” appears in its most destructive form; this is precisely the moment when Germany should have the foresight that led American planners to arrive upon the Marshall Plan (and for the same reasons). But Merkel is stuck. If she does the sensible thing, she runs the risk of riling up Germany's far-right. This is what I mean when I say that Europe is (and will always be) blackmailed by its own history. Here, again, is where adroit American statesmanship—or just a heavy American hammer—could do so much good.

But we’re so far from having even the capacity to do this now that it scarcely matters that we haven’t the will or the foresight. I assume by this point we’ve got rid of every diplomat who knew anything about Europe at all. Even if we wanted to play a condign role, I don’t think we’d have the institutional resources to do it.

The Reds in Rome

Europe was indeed unable to prevent the Russian military mission from entering one of its major member states. I’m afraid this is Power 101: When the United States precipitously leaves—anything or anyplace—it does not leave behind “a peaceful and sovereign thing or place.” It leaves a vacuum. Had we been there, visible, and doing what a global hegemon is supposed to do, that wouldn’t have happened.

It was never reasonable to expect Europe to be anything but junior partner to a global superpower. Europe will never be capable of acting as a united superpower in its own right. It is blackmailed by history. The United States can choose whether it wishes, as it has since the Second World War, to work with Europe as a useful, indeed an essential junior partner, or hand its fragments to China and Russia. 

Authoritarian Dictatorships

The European Union, Bilibin notes, was “unable to prevent, or bring consequences for, one of its member states from sliding from democratic liberality to authoritarian dictatorship.” Indeed, and this—along with its failure to prevent the same thing from happening in Turkey, over which it had considerable leverage that it never used—is the strongest argument against it.

If it can’t do that, what’s the point. Truly, what’s the point.

Some day, I would like to explore the archives and try to figure out why Europe failed at this, the most obvious and imperative of tasks, even though there was and is nothing to be gained—strategically, economically, diplomatically, morally—from allowing this to happen.

I suspect the answer lies less in any specific moral failing and more in the ungainly structure of the EU, which was poorly designed from the outset because it had to be. No country would have accepted the project if it had been clear from the beginning that it involved a massive compromise of sovereignty, so enforcement mechanisms with teeth were never built into the thing.

At this point, it would be worth a shot to try fundamentally rebuilding it. A politician who was radically honest about the EU’s failings, but had a better idea to offer than “shambolic right populism” or “shambolic left populism” might be able to exploit this crisis to transform the architecture of the EU and make it a more effective entity. Macron has hinted—more than hinted, said explicitly—that this is his ambition, but has gone about it in a way that’s alarmed rather than inspired too much of Europe, particularly in his opening to Russia. What’s more, he doesn’t have the domestic capital to sustain this kind of foreign policy vision.

The real problem

Of course the EU was unable to offer credible security alternatives to NATO. None of this—not NATO, not the EU, not a peaceful Europe that has ceased to export its violence to the rest of the world and even contributed much of use to it—can work without American power and hegemony. That's always been the case and it always will be the case. We designed it this way. We designed it this way because we learned, at incalculable cost, that this was the reality of the world.

When Americans say, indignantly, that it’s time for Europe to “grow up,” it reveals the kind of insensibility to history only possible among citizens of a very young nation. The problem isn’t that Europe hasn’t “grown up,” it’s that it has been “growing up” for four blood-soaked millenia, of which only the past three-quarters of a century have been tolerably peaceful. Expecting more of Europe is absurd. This is the best it has been and the best it will be, and it is very good indeed compared to what we might call its “natural state.”

All that said …

The Europe of today is different, demographically, than any Europe of the past. This is true of the whole developed world (China included), but I am less concerned about “what comes next” than I might be if Europe’s population were larger and younger. The EU is stricken, but it is not dead. It will continue to exist in some form; it may perhaps even be an improved form. It is hard to say.

But Europe is now facing an economic crisis that dwarfs ours. Again, Zeihan is very good on this:

Europe’s young cadre is thin and getting thinner by the year. Most European countries—Italy and Germany most notably—have already aged to the point that any sort of demographic rebound is now impossible. They simply don’t have enough people who could even theoretically have children. There certainly aren’t enough people of the right age demographic to drive a consumption-driven rebound.

Which makes mitigating the economic damage of coronavirus structurally impossible. The sort of consumer stimulus which is the backbone of consumer-focused, anti-recession efforts in the United States simply wouldn’t work in Europe. On the whole, the European Union has aged into being little more than an export union. And in a time of global travel restrictions and virus-forced collapses in income and consumption, there just isn’t anyone to export to. All Europe can do is shelter in place, pray their health systems hold, and wait for the world to restart. So long as the coronavirus is impinging activity anywhere, a sustained European economic recovery is impossible.

Bilibin is obviously right to say, “This is Europe: we should be prepared for the possibility it will be something worse,” if only for the reason that this is a rule that applies to every human experience. We might rephrase: “This is humanity: we should always be prepared for the possibility of something worse.”

But what kind of “worse?” should we expect?

The problems will not be the same as before. The EU has already fulfilled its destiny, in some sense: France and Germany have experienced several generations of peace, prosperity, cooperation, and economic integration, allowing a certain forgetfulness mercifully to blanket the Continent. If these days I said to a French student, “Pensons-y toujours, n’en parlons jamais!” it is fully possible he’d have no idea what I was talking about.

It’s hard for me to imagine the recrudescence of the acute Franco-German animosity that characterized the period from the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War to the end of the Second World War. The Furor Teutonicus has been tamed—permanently, I think. One never knows for sure, and certainly, given their last performance, you can’t blithely say, “Germany? What could go wrong?” But in my great hierarchy of global geopolitical worries, I can honestly say that I lose no sleep imagining that France will be invaded by Germany.

Solo voyage

What does cause me concern is that without a healthy, united, and economically vibrant Europe, allied to the United States, liberal democracy has no future. Again, it is a simple matter of addition. The free world either hangs together or it hangs separately. (Remember, this is a book, not just a newsletter; if my argument to this effect—On Life Support—is not fresh in your mind, read it again.)

Zeihan, alas, has put his finger on the problem. Europe is in grave trouble. But it is not quite for the reasons Bilibin suggests. The trouble lies here:

  • Europe’s demographics make consumption-led growth impossible, even as coronavirus blocks export-led growth.

  • The Americans were backing away from the global security rubric that makes Europe’s export-led growth model possible before coronavirus, and the virus is only accelerating America’s turning-inward.

  • Europe lacks the institutional capacity to manage crisis response.

  • Europe lacks the financial capacity to cope with the crisis, much less apply the sort of financial fire-hose the Americans did almost reflexively.

  • Dealing with the virus’ spread has already forced the Europeans to abandon the free movement of people.

  • Dealing with their financial shortfalls will force them to abandon the free movement of capital.

  • Dealing with mass nationalizations and the loss of export markets will force them to abandon the free movement of goods.

That’s three of the four freedoms upon which modern Europe relies. The fourth freedom—movement of services—was largely something that only the UK cared about, and the Brits are gone. [Editor’s note: They’re not gone, just much less influential.]

He is also right that there is only one possible solution: Dropping the Euro.

If the Maastricht Treaty were abrogated (or at least suspended) and national control over monetary policy reintroduced, individual European countries could then engage in unlimited quantitative easing, both to mitigate the current crisis and to help manage the subsequent damage and recovery. This would (obviously) hold (many) downsides, but if the goal is to have the necessary capital required to address the current crisis, this is the only path I see that still results in salvaging Europe’s current economic and social structure. …

Regardless of the path forward (or down) coronavirus is just the beginning of Europe’s problems. Demographics, economics, financials, supply chains, none of it works under coronavirus—and coronavirus is going to be with us until we either get a vaccine, herd immunity or mass serological testing, none of which is particularly likely to happen in 2020. Even then, it is far from clear that Europe as we know it can reconstitute in the world after coronavirus. …

An end to the concept of “European” being singular represents more than simply the return to the norm of European history, it removes one of the central pillars of the world we know. 

Indeed. And while Europe is no longer the world's center of gravity—that would be the Pacific—it matters quite a bit whether Europe survives in some liberal, democratic, and friendly form.

So far-sighted US policymakers, in some alternate universe that not only doesn’t exist now, but will probably never exist again, would be all over Europe now, helping to negotiate the unraveling of the Euro, creating incentives to cooperation toward that end, and ensuring that Europe stays whole, free, and allied toward the United States. The alternative will be a Russian and Chinese race to colonize Europe, which will put us in an even worse strategic position than we are already. 

But I am now longing for a fantasy United States that no longer exists, and "fantasy" isn’t a practical policy suggestion.

So there we are.

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Welcome, Friends of Newt!

Come for the culture war, stay for serious reflections on the future of liberal democracy

Welcome, new readers!

I was pleasantly surprised—if puzzled—to see a recent surge in subscribers. Then I saw why. Newt Gingrich had recommended my newsletter on Fox News:

Claire Berlinski writes an amazing blog called “Claire’s Invariably Interesting Thoughts.”

She recently wrote a series headlined “The Years of Living Hysterically: Reflections on Joe Biden, Tara Reade, #MeToo, and our Hysterical Culture.”

The concept of “the hysterical culture” explains much of what I have been wrestling with living in Rome during the pandemic. …

Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker! That was kind of you. I appreciate very much the recommendation and the new readers you sent my way.

But I disagree so strenuously with the rest of your article that I spent the weekend fretting about what to do. Should I simply say, “Thank you,” and ignore it? Should I respond? Would it be ungrateful and ungracious to explain, at length, why I think you’re absolutely right about how terrific this newsletter is but absolutely wrong about the pandemic and our response to it?

I was so torn up about this that I didn’t send out a newsletter at all. I didn’t want to bite the hand that fed me, but it seemed disingenuous to say nothing.

Finally, I decided that Newt Gingrich has been reading this newsletter for a while; indeed, he’s been reading my work for a while. He knows that I often disagree with him—strenuously, at that—and besides, he has thick skin. Perhaps he even enjoys a lively debate. So he will, I hope, take the following comments in the spirit intended.

I am concerned your readers will be swayed by your arguments. We can see that they take your views seriously because many of them signed up for this newsletter on your say-so. So I feel a responsibility to lay out the counter-argument. After that, they’re adults. They can make up their own minds.

Speaker Gingrich takes my concept of the “hysterical culture,” and applies it to our reaction to the pandemic. He thinks we—that is, I presume, the United States—have grievously over-reacted to Covid-19:

The concept of “the hysterical culture” explains much of what I have been wrestling with living in Rome during the pandemic. I have had the opportunity (requirement) to avoid meetings and travel and have had the time to watch and reflect.

Two generations of over-protecting our children, seeking safe places, announcing “trigger warnings,” hyperventilating on social media, and having radio and TV starving for things to fill continuous 24/7 cycles have all built up to a crescendo of noise.

“If it bleeds it leads” is an old rule of local news. You can add to that the need to create suspense and to hype each event as big, bigger, the biggest ever (just think of weather reports during hurricane season).

The bigger the threat the better.

The larger the number the better.

Well, perhaps. Some of this is true, some of it is irrelevant. Many Americans, I agree, over-protect their children. Just as many under-protect them. The United States has the highest rate of child mortality among the world’s twenty most developed countries. Some of this is owed to a higher rate of mortality among infants born prematurely. The rest is owed to a high rate of accidental injuries—caused by burns, drowning, falls, poisoning and traffic accidents. Although, mercifully, the rate of childhood death from accidents has been sharply falling, it is still needlessly high. The data does not suggest we are over-protecting our children. If anything, it suggests we are still too cavalier.

I find the phrase “trigger warning” odious. I also find the objection to the phrase “trigger warning” odious. They have both become mindless markers of one’s status in the Eternal Culture War. And the claim that alarm about SARS-CoV-2 devolves from two decades of trigger warnings is a non-sequitur. It fails, moreover, to account for global alarm about this virus. No one in Indonesia has ever heard the phrase “trigger warning,” but the hashtag #LockdownOrDie is trending there and Indonesians are terrified. Is this because Americans have retreated to safe spaces?

It is true—and I’ve said so in this newsletter many times—that sensationalism drives the news cycle. “If it bleeds, it leads” is an ancient newspaper maxim. The news and entertainment industries are hopelessly conflated. Fear sells newspapers. No argument from me.

But now and again, genuinely terrifying events happen. The pandemic is such an event. To suggest that the media’s response, and ours, has been hysterical, and to draw an analogy between this and the argument I make about our morbid fear of sexual harassment, implies that Covid-19 is not, in reality, worth worrying about. But it is.

There are many sources, in our culture, of disproportionate alarm. We overestimate the risk of sexual harassment, the kidnapping of children, terrorism, airplane crashes, and becoming the victim of a mass shooting. Survey after survey shows that Americans’ perception of these risks is exaggerated. But we consistently underestimate other sources of risk: motor vehicle accidents, influenza, obesity, suicide.

The novel coronavirus is now the leading cause of death in the United States. If you fear that you or one of your loved ones will die from this virus, it is not irrational at all. In April, more Americans died from Covid-19 than from accidents, chronic lower respiratory disease, cancer, or heart disease. Particularly if you live in New York State or New York City, you would be insane to be unconcerned:

It is not rational to be excessively concerned for yourself if you are quite young and healthy. But if, like the great majority of us, you are not, or you have parents or grandparents, it would be heedless to be unconcerned about this illness; and if you are reckless about transmitting it—which is all too easy to be, because it is frequently asymptomatic—you are irresponsible.

No, Speaker Gingrich’s argument that our reaction to the pandemic has been hysterical, and relevently akin to our hysteria about sexual harassment (as defined by the Supreme Court in Bundy v. Jackson and Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson) doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. If you are over the age of 50, and particularly if you overweight, you are far more likely to die or be severely sickened by Covid-19, or to know someone who has been or will be killed or severely sickened by Covid-19 than you are to be sexually harassed.

Speaker Gingrich proceeds to say,

When the Imperial College of London reported in mid-March that its model predicted the COVID-19 virus could kill as many as 2.2 million Americans and more than 500,000 Britons if governments did nothing to control the spread of the virus, it became the benchmark for radical policies that were unbelievably destructive to society.

The fixation on this Imperial College report, which I’ve noticed now in many quarters, at first baffled me. Why, I wondered, were people suddenly ravening on about this? Then I realized the report and its author—Neil Ferguson—had been the object of a deliberate media hit by the Telegraph. I don’t understand the politics of this, but they are peculiar to the UK and they have nothing to do with the United States, or any other country.

The vilification of epidemiologists is a populist deflection designed to distract from the real failures of governance we’ve witnessed. The conceit that the ivory-tower eggheads, with their abstruse models, have caused undue panic is not only a misrepresentation of reality, but a dangerous one. It is easy to stir up and exploit populist sentiment at a time of crisis, but the reality, first, is that this is a crisis; and second, the only people who can get us back out of it are the epidemiologists, data, models, molecular biologists, mathematicians, and experts—not “supposed” experts, but real experts.

The notion that our problems are owed to elite, pointy-headed academics—as opposed to a novel, single-stranded, positive-sense RNA virus—is sinister. We are not in this mess because of “expert modelers.” The mess is far worse than it needs to be because we ignored them. I have no brief for scientism. But I have a great deal of time for science. Without it, we may as well be medievals confronting the Black Death.

Nor do I believe for a moment that Donald Trump was influenced by reading Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID-19 mortality and healthcare demand. I do not believe he read it at all. I do not believe he reads anything. In the unlikely event that someone tried to explain it to him, I do not believe he listened. We are talking about Donald Trump, here. The idea that he read and carefully considered projections made on March 16 by the Imperial College Covid-19 modelling team is, frankly, ludicrous:

The Imperial College study was influential and widely publicized in the UK, but it was not “the benchmark” for “radical policies.” Arguably, it changed policy in the UK. It had little impact elsewhere. By the date it was published, Europe was already center of the pandemic, reporting more cases and deaths than the rest of the world combined, China apart. That is what changed policies.

The World Health Organization had already urged the following guidance upon “government authorities, health workers, and other key stakeholders” in every country:

Allowing uncontrolled spread should not be a choice of any government, as it will harm not only the citizens of that country but affect other countries as well. 

We must stop, contain, control, delay and reduce the impact of this virus at every opportunity. Every person has the capacity to contribute, to protect themselves, to protect others, whether in the home, the community, the healthcare system, the workplace or the transport system. 

The advice they issued was based on long-established traditional models for containing pandemic influenza and reflected longstanding scientific consensus about the best way to control epidemic disease. It was uncontroversial, as it should have been. You may download the document here.

Far from having “no scientific rationale,” the guidelines derive from the germ theory of disease. The science behind it was no more controversial than the suggestion you refrain from injecting yourself with Lysol.

It’s worth your time, if you are tempted to believe that “radical” policies around the world were based upon a single study from Imperial College, to read this advice in full. These suggestions are based upon years of careful, empirical study of pandemic disease. The research has been widely corroborated and replicated. There are genuine controversies in science and medicine; this is not one of them.

While many questions remain to be answered about Covid-19, there is no disagreement among anyone familiar with basic hygiene and epidemiology that the policies Speaker Gingrich describes as “radical” are, in fact, the standard of care. They are described in detail in all of our national pandemic strategy documents:

See also:

These policies are, unfortunately, the only remedies available to a society once a lethal and contagious disease, without a vaccine or a cure, has escaped initial surveillance and spread widely throughout a community that possesses no natural immunity to it.

It is true that some countries reacted swiftly enough to the threat to contain the disease by means of the “test, trace, and isolate” strategy. This is what East Asian democracies such as Taiwan and South Korea did. So did Germany.

But once that initial window of opportunity was lost and the disease had spread, there was no viable strategy but the “radical” option Speaker Gingrich deplores. Had we reacted swiftly, as our allies in Asia did, it would have been different. Had we used the past months wisely—by implementing a massive testing and contact-tracing regime—we would now be able safely to emerge from this quarantine and begin the slow process of economic recovery.

But we did not.

We squandered this time. Americans’ immense personal and economic sacrifices have been for nothing. We are no better prepared, nor are we less at risk, than we were when these policies went into place. This is scandalous—it is beyond scandalous—and I hope Mr. Speaker will be persuaded by my argument and henceforth use his influence and prominent position to say so.

The Imperial College study was but one of many. Far more influential were facts on the ground. On March 16, before the publication of the study in question, French president Emmanuel Macron announced mandatory home confinement, along with the closure of schools and universities. The next day, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe banned gatherings of more than 100 people. The following day, the prime minister ordered the closure of all non-essential public places, including restaurants, cafés, cinemas and nightclubs.

France clearly was not responding—it could not have been responding—to the Imperial College study, which had not yet been published. It was responding to the rapid spread of the virus between February 17 and 24 throughout eastern France, which threatened to overwhelm the capacity of the French medical system. It was an incredibly close-run thing. Only heroic, last-minute improvisation prevented the Parisian hospital system from collapsing entirely.

You can see from this timeline that the Imperial College’s projections—again, published on March 16—had nothing, but nothing, to do with France’s response:

To the contrary, the French government was reacting to the terrifying reality of an exponentially-rising death toll:

Unfortunately, France reacted too late. Had the lockdown gone in place a week earlier, thousands of lives, perhaps tens of thousands, might have been saved.

(If you’re curious about the French response, I recommend this superb five-part analysis in Le Monde; it is perfectly accessible, even if you don’t read French, via Google Translate. If you’d prefer an English-language summary, try this synopsis by France24: Pandemic disarmament: Why France was ready for Covid-19 a decade too soon.)

Well before the publication of the Imperial College report (again, on March 16), Italy’s coronavirus death toll surpassed China’s. This, not a mathematical model from Imperial College, is why Italy issued “radical, draconian public health restrictions.”

Also well before the publication of the report, California issued a shelter-in-place order for its 40 million residents. It is unclear whether California’s lower death toll, compared to New York, reflects this early measure. It is possible the strain of the virus in California is a less lethal one. But inarguably, California’s death toll has not been as high—nowhere near as high, in total or per capita—as New York’s.

Well before the the publication of the Imperial College report, Haiti entered a full lockdown. So did Belgium. The European Union closed its borders. So did Russia. So did Bolivia. San Francisco closed its public schools. Malaysia introduced a movement-control order. Colombia closed its borders. Germany closed its borders. So did Sudan. Hungary and Spain closed their borders. Egypt suspended all flights. Switzerland closed its borders, banned public events, and closed its shops. None of this had a thing to do with two decades of trigger-warnings and safe spaces on American college campuses.

Two days before the publication of that report, Austin banned large gatherings. Italy suspended all civilian flights. Colombia closed its border with Venezuela. New Zealand mandated self-quarantine for everyone entering the country. Turkey suspended flights to Europe.

On March 13, Utah and Massachusetts banned large gatherings. Denmark, Poland, Ukraine, and the Czech Republic closed their borders. Sixteen American states closed their schools. Louisiana postponed its primary elections. Spain declared a state of emergency.

On March 12, Montana, Virginia, Tennessee, and New York City declared states of emergency. Portugal closed its schools. Greece closed its entertainment venues. Ohio, Israel, and France closed their schools. New York and Oregon banned large gatherings.

On March 11, Arizona and Washington, D.C., declared states of emergency. The NBA suspended its season. Austria closed its schools. Italy closed all commercial venues. The UN reported that the schooling of 20 percent of students globally had been suspended.

By March 9, Italy’s emergency medical facilities were so overwhelmed that doctors were forced to perform a kind of triage seen previously only in wartime. This, not the advice of Imperial College, is why Italy declared a nationwide lockdown. Italian doctors and citizens begged the world to learn from their experience and do the same before it was too late. Some did. Spain closed its schools. Israel imposed a quarantine upon incoming travellers.

Before that report was published, on March 6, SWSX cancelled its festival. On March 3, Iran freed 54,000 prisoners. On February 29, Washington State declared a state of emergency. On February 27, the United States and South Korea postponed critical joint exercises. Saudi Arabia suspended visas for the hajj. Iraq barred public gatherings.

On February 25, US senators received a classified briefing on the Administration’s coronavirus response. This was infamously followed by the curious rearrangement of the stock portfolios of Senators Richard Burr and Kelly Loeffler.

Not a bit of this had anything to do with Imperial College. It was not “the benchmark” for policy, nor the cause of it.

The policies implemented to contain the virus have, indeed, been economically ruinous, and as Speaker Gingrich says, “unbelievably destructive to society.” But Imperial College is not to blame—nor, indeed, was anyone who conveyed the accurate message that this virus posed a massive danger to public health.

The attacks on Imperial College, and upon Neil Ferguson in particular, have been scurrilous. They represent nothing more than the ancient instinct to shoot the messenger.

What has destroyed our economy is a virus. If you are looking for people to blame, don’t look at the scientists who told us what anyone watching the carnage in China and Italy already knew. Blame the governments that ignored these warnings, allowed stockpiles of critical equipment to atrophy, and failed to impose quarantines quickly enough. In the case of the United States, blame the government that has squandered month after month after painful month without building anything like the minimum necessary public health infrastructure to contain the virus’s spread.

We had the plans. We did not follow them.

We knew how lethal this virus was. We ignored the warnings.

We knew what we needed to do. We did not do it.

Americans would have died from this virus under the most organized and competent of administrations. But had we done anything right—had we simply gone by the book, and followed the plans we ourselves wrote—we would not now face the utter catastrophe of 80,574 dead Americans—a number that will be much higher by the time I press “publish.”

We would not be facing tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of deaths still to come. We would not face economic ruin. We would not be experiencing the permanent loss of our prestige and our status as the world’s uncontested premier power and the leader of the community of free nations.

We would not have lost an unfathomable 20.5 million jobs almost overnight. We would not face levels of unemployment unknown—unimagined even—since the Great Depression. We would not be confronting the greatest political and economic calamity we have faced in a century. We would not be looking at a dangerously destabilized world and a long, terrifying period of sheer global anarchy.

Americans would not—rightly—be terrified to return to work. We would not face years, perhaps decades, of social turmoil, discord, division, and bitter recriminations.

Young Americans would not be entering a bleak and hopeless job market and a lifetime of depressed earnings. The United States would not now be synonymous with incompetence and death, a global object of fear, horror, and pity; and an object lesson the world around in the perils of populism. Nor would older Americans be terrified—or dead.

This is not Neil Ferguson’s fault. It is ours. Nothing stopped us from doing what Taiwan, South Korea, and Germany did. Nothing.

The virus is as diabolical as people believe. The Imperial College study was based upon sound assumptions. So far it has proven roughly correct.

I strongly recommend reading it. Trust no one but yourself. Read the study to see what it really says. It is not too difficult for lay readers to understand, particularly if you read it along with this introduction to viral reproduction numbers.

Global reactions to the pandemic were not chiefly motivated by this paper. But to the extent the UK’s policy was based upon it, it is only a pity the UK didn’t take these warnings seriously sooner.

The Imperial College model was not faultless—an unreasonable expectation—but it was fine. It was based on the standard epidemiological SIR models that have been used since the early 20th century. No voodoo involved.

Speaker Gingrich claims that Covid-19 is a disease akin to the 1957-1958 Asian Flu, the 1968 Hong Kong Flu, or the 2009 H1N1 flu, during which time “economic and social life proceeded with minimal disruption.”

No. SARS-CoV-2 is significantly different in its etiologic agent, epidemiology, and severity. The key numbers are the reproduction number, the lethality, and the number of cases. Those flu viruses were pikers compared to SARS-CoV-2 .

In the most severe wave of the 1957 pandemic, the Asian flu caused 16.59 deaths per 10,000 among the elderly. Covid-19 causes 340 deaths per 10,000 among the elderly. It is twenty times more lethal. As Speaker Gingrich notes, H2N2 led to 116,000 American deaths. These deaths occurred, as he notes, without drastic social distancing measures. They took place over a period of several years. Covid-19 is on track to kill the same number of Americans within a matter of months, despite drastic social distancing measures.

R values represent the difference between an epidemic that is controllable and causes moderate illness, and those that cause a significant number of illnesses and can only be controlled through intensive mitigation strategies. The median R value for 1918 was 1.80. The median R value for 1957 was 1.65. The median R value for 1968 was 1.80. The median R value for 2009 was 1.46. Any number above one is dangerous. The basic reproduction number associated with the Covid-19 Italian outbreak? Somewhere between 2.43 and 3.10. A/H2N2 and A/H3N2 were, by comparison, barely contagious at all.

What’s more, we had both a degree of herd immunity to seasonal influenza—and we had vaccines. We have neither in the case of SARS CoV-2. We are completely immunologically naive. We have neither a vaccine nor effective therapies.

Between 2009 and 2010, the H1N1 flu virus infected some 1.4 billion people. The mortality rate was about 0.02 percent. The mortality rate of Covid-19 is closer to 3.4 percent.

In 2009, we responded appropriately. Nine days after the detection of H1N1, the CDC uploaded the genetic sequence of the virus and began developing a vaccine. Four weeks later, the CDC began releasing supplies from their stockpile to prevent and treat it. Most American states had the laboratory capacity quickly to diagnose H1N1 without verification by a CDC test. 

Not Covid-19. American labs received faulty kits from the CDC. For weeks, the virus spread, undetected, through the entire population.

“Today,” Speaker Gingrich argues, “the combination of news media desperation for something about which to be hysterical, the Chinese Communist Party’s role in hiding and then lying about the new virus, and absurdly overstated claims of supposedly scientific modelers has led to the greatest self-inflicted economic disaster in history.”

No. The virus has led to this disaster. The CCP’s role was malign. It unquestionably delayed our understanding of the virus by six days. But every subsequent day of failure is our own.

There have been many efforts to model the spread of the virus. Those that have been taken seriously are not “supposedly scientific,” but scientific. I have seen no evidence that the Imperial College model had any effect upon the White House, but some reporting suggests Trump has been influenced by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. Other reports suggest the White House has built its own models. (These models appear to be absurd.)

The Imperial College model was hardly an outlier. Modeling is, of course, imperfect. But it’s all we have. The disease is entirely new. It is nothing like the flu. It causes an entirely new disease that we don’t understand. The models improve as data comes in. But we don’t have enough data, because we haven't done enough testing.

Modeling an epidemic is not “a scandal.” The “extraordinary influence of supposedly expert modelers” is not “the second great scandal.” It is not a scandal at all, and holding congressional hearings into their “destructive impact” would be about as useful as holding congressional hearings into the “destructive impact” of engineers on the building of bridges. Models did not “completely [misinform] government leaders, the news media and ultimately the public about the scale of the threat.” The tragedy is that to the contrary, if they informed our government at all, they did so far too late. If government leaders are unable to understand these models, it is because they did not take the time to read them—not because the project of epidemic disease modeling is sinister.

Infectious disease models have been growing in accuracy. They are not like climate models, which are enormously complex. They are easy to understand. We are quite good at SIR models. Every year, some two dozen American labs model the flu season. They’re getting better and better at predicting its timing, peak, and lethality. Holding hearings to investigate the “destructive impact” of scientists who use a well-established and useful disease forecasting method would not only be a spectacular waste of taxpayer time and money, it would distract from the hearings that should be held to investigate why no one paid attention to the Covid-19 models.

The Imperial College model, Speaker Gingrich writes,

estimated more than 500,000 Britons would die and more than 2.2 million Americans would die if governments did nothing. The model projected that in both countries the hospitals, intensive care units and ventilators would be overwhelmed.

This is not correct. I can’t strongly enough advise my readers to read what Imperial College actually wrote: You don’t need to take my word for it. They examined a range of scenarios, from “people changing their behavior in no way whatsoever” to “severe modification of behavior.”

In the (unlikely) absence of any control measures or spontaneous changes in individual behaviour, we would expect a peak in mortality (daily deaths) to occur after approximately 3 months (Figure 1A). In such scenarios, given an estimated R0 of 2.4, we predict 81% of the GB and US populations would be infected over the course of the epidemic.

Note: In the unlikely absence. Speaker Gingrich writes that “too few people examined the assumptions behind the Imperial College model,” and says that “the Imperial College predictions were based on a model of taking zero precautions. Of course, this is an entirely irrational assumption based on basic human behavior.”

This is not at all what it says. They say that this scenario is, just as Speaker Gingrich writes, unlikely. It is one of many assumptions they tested to see what the results would be. They entered a range of behavioral modifications into the model, from “stopping mass gatherings,” to “household quarantine or school and university closure.” They did not say—at all—that 2.2 million Americans would die if governments did nothing. They found that 2.2 Americans would die in the event no one did anything at all, which they explicitly said was “unlikely.” The only reason they did not say “impossible” is because such reports tend to eschew language like that as “unscientific.”

It is unquestionably true that in the event no one did anything at all, hospitals and ICUs would have been overwhelmed and ventilators would have been insufficient. We did not need a model to know this. By the time this report was published, it had already happened in Italy. It happened in Spain, and came within minutes of happening in France.

Nor is the model, as Speaker Gingrich says, “based on a model of taking zero precautions.” (Again: It’s based on a standard SIR model. But again: Please read the report. You will see for yourself that what you’ve heard about this sinister model simply isn’t so.) This, in fact, is what it says:

… the impact of many of the NPIs detailed here depends critically on how people respond to their introduction, which is highly likely to vary between countries and even communities. … it is highly likely that there would be significant spontaneous changes in population behaviour even in the absence of government-mandated interventions.

It says, in other words, exactly the opposite of what the Speaker claims. If “too few people examined its assumptions,” this can only be because they didn’t read it in the first place. They add, moreover,

… there are very large uncertainties around the transmission of this virus, the likely effectiveness of different policies and the extent to which the population spontaneously adopts risk reducing behaviours. This means it is difficult to be definitive about the likely initial duration of measures which will be required, except that it will be several months. Future decisions on when and for how long to relax policies will need to be informed by ongoing surveillance.

“So,” Speaker Gingrich continues, “projections that were disconnected from common sense and reality were able to guide public policy. The truth is, we should have immediately expected these dire predictions to be complete bunk.”

No, there’s no disconnection between common sense and this report. Nor did it guide policy, for that matter—certainly not in any country but the UK.

Finally, alas, the dire predictions were not bunk. They were remarkably accurate, given the limited data with which the team was working.

Nor did the team seek to dictate policy. They are quite clear about this:

We do not consider the ethical or economic implications of either strategy 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. Mitigation will never be able to completely protect those at risk from severe disease or death and the resulting mortality may therefore still be high. Instead we focus on feasibility, with a specific focus on what the likely healthcare system impact of the two approaches would be. We present results for Great Britain (GB) and the United States (US), but they are equally applicable to most high-income countries.

The model is offered as a tool. They note, rightly, that it is the job of policy-makers, not modelers, to evaluate the economic and ethical implications of pursuing the various strategies they assess.

Nor has “the chief author, Neil Ferguson … become famous for making wildly absurd predictions about public health issues.”

This is a smear, and his colleagues have rightly objected to it.

Apart from that, I agree completely, Mr. Speaker, with you: This is a great newsletter.

My new readers may, however, be confused. I would guess you subscribed for the bracing fusillades of shot and shell in our ravening culture war. Don’t be sad—you’ll get them! I want to keep my new subscribers! Welcome! Please don’t unsubscribe because this newsletter isn’t what you thought it was. Just come along for the ride.

I should let new readers know that strictly speaking, this is not just a newsletter. It came into being because I crowdfunded money to write a book, Stitch by Stitch:

Stitch by Stitch argues that threat to liberal democracy comes in the form of a distinct, rival ideology that is at once historically familiar and genuinely novel: the New Caesarism, or illiberal democracy—a hollow form of democracy that spreads mimetically and consolidates itself through the new technologies of the 21st century.

When I finished, I began writing this newsletter, thinking I could use it to publicize the book. Then I realized, to my surprise, that more people were reading my newsletter than any book I’d ever published.

Surprised, I thought, “Well, if people like receiving newsletters more than they like buying books, why not publish the book as a newsletter? After all, Dickens published Great Expectations as a serial.”

So that’s what you’re reading. If you just subscribed, you might find it helpful to read, or at least skim, the archives. Begin on September 13, with the post titled, “Is Democracy Doomed?”

So stay tuned. We’ll find out.

You Fools! You Scoundrels!

The Sexual Counterrevolution. The end of life as we know it. A Covid-19 reading list. And the Rolling Stones ...

The lady doth protest too much

If you were curious about that long essay—The Years of Living Hysterically—but not sure you were curious enough to pay to read it, here’s another section to help you decide. Part five: “The Turn of the Screw.”

It’s about the Kavanaugh hearings, the notion of affirmative consent, and the legal principle lex retro non agit. I thought all of this had long since been overtaken by events, but I was wrong.

It’s preposterous that we approach the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes, probably the most consequential since 1860—at a moment we all understand to be a hinge point not just in American history but in human history—we’re devoting a significant amount of time, thought, newspaper column inches, research, conversation, and public debate to the claim that Vice President Joe Biden sexually affronted or assaulted a woman named Tara Reade in 1993.

It’s nothing short of astonishing that the Democratic Party has backed themselves into a corner such that they cannot run any candidate against Donald Trump, because no candidate can pass the purity test they themselves have established.

Consider this column in the Washington Post:

Our presumptive nominee stands credibly accused of sexual misconduct. It’s a nightmare in an election cycle that has already seen the impeachment of the sitting president and a global pandemic that Trump is utterly unequipped to handle. Lives hang in the balance of the outcome in November.

And yet Democrats should still insist that Biden step aside. Democrats must apply the standards we elaborated during the Kavanaugh case to our own side.

That’s just too insane—too weird, too striking—to brush aside. That’s not “just another day of nuthatchery in the nuthouse.” How did the Democratic Party, in many ways a sophisticated and well-oiled machine, manage to lay such a cunning and elaborate political trap and then spring it on themselves?

Lyz Lenz, the author of the this column, genuinely does not understand that no matter the nominee, it is inevitable that someone will rise up to accuse him of sexual harassment. That the Kavanaugh hearings would boomerang in this manner was absolutely predictable, and as you can see—here it is, in writing—I predicted it. Yet such is the passion of the anti-priapism crusade that she can’t figure out where it went wrong, or even that it went wrong. She’s willing to follow its logic to the very end.

It would be so healthy, so refreshing, for Democrats now to admit, forthrightly, that their treatment of Kavanaugh was lunatic, that #MeToo has been a mass hysteria, and its political exploitation has been disaster for American democracy, and we have serious problems to solve. Would you not weep with relief to hear someone say that?

One of my readers recently sent me this email:

I actually can answer your set-up questions—and I’ve been meaning to. 

Why is liberal democracy in retreat? 

Because a lot of the post-Cold War extrusions were shallow-rooted, because of affluenza in the more advanced ones, the elite failure at myth maintenance, and the accompanying erosion of deep literacy accompanied by the media-abetted specticalization of politics.

Why is the West divided? When has it ever not been absent American leadership? 

Caesarism?  See The Republic, Book VIII. 

There, that was easy.

I agree, yes.

Opinions are infinite, but time is finite. We have a limited amount of time before we choose our next government. We have 181 days to hold a national debate about what we collectively wish our country to be, and which of the two presidential candidates is best-suited to make this vision manifest. We have a finite number of minutes to discuss the fate of our lives and livelihoods, and even the union itself. It is an open question whether the American Republic will survive another four years of Donald Trump. We need to use this time to ask ourselves if we even believe in liberal democracy anymore—and if not, what do we believe? If we still believe in it, how will we sustain it in a world where the lights are going out one by one?

Yet we’re spending our time on—Tara Reade? Seriously?

Journalists are lending over their entire columns—precious vehicles for commanding the very limited and fragmented attention of American citizens in the year 2020—to luxuriate in this insanity.

Tara Reade’s allegations against Joe Biden demand action,” writes Elizabeth Bruenig in our newspaper of record:

Democrats who subject Ms. Reade’s allegations to a level of scrutiny not widely applied to accusers in similar circumstances—such as Christine Blasey-Ford, who famously came forward during the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court to allege that he had sexually accosted her in high school—also open up past and future cases to reproachful disregard. Conservatives, like my colleague Bret Stephens, can see the plain gulf between how Democrats have approached sexual assault in politically advantageous cases versus Ms. Reade’s, and the evident hypocrisy threatens to discredit the entire enterprise.

She concludes that to protect the “entire enterprise,” that is to say, #MeToo, Democrats should “start considering a backup plan for 2020,” the nature of which she doesn’t specify, but which obviously would mean ignoring the clear verdict of Democratic Party voters—who, recall, after a long and vigorous primary contest and in a presumably free and fair series of elections, chose Joe Biden to represent them.

Rather than admit there is something about this movement that has been in error, something that has not been on the up-and-up, something that is not getting us anywhere we want to go, she proposes in seriousness that Democrats knife themselves in the gut, jettison their commitment to democracy, and willingly sacrifice the election. All to protect “the enterprise.”


Social and Cultural Rites of a Weird, Long-Perished Ancient Kingdom

If you were to pick up a dense ethnographic study of some weird, long-perished ancient Kingdom and read about the ritual in which we’re now engaged, what would you make of it? Imagine the tome, covered in dust: “Social and Cultural Rites of a Weird, Long-Perished Ancient Kingdom.”

“Little is known about the origin of the Ritual of the Singing Woman,” says the introduction, “but chroniclers of the Kingdom’s last days have left us with detailed accounts … ”

Okay, let’s learn!

You’d read about this civilization with curiosity, to be sure, but you’d think it very weird. What did it mean? Why did they do this? How did they understand this behavior—literally, metaphorically?

“Ceremonial life was a central preoccupation of the inhabitants of the Weird, Long-Perished Ancient Kingdom. In its final decade, the Ritual of the Singing Woman provided a sense that inhabitants lived in a Festgemeinschaft. Recent scholarship has challenged the notion that the Ritual of the Singing Woman originated as a fertility rite. As Smythe and Beanermaster argue in their magisterial “MeToo and Taboo: The Downfall of a Weird Ancient Kingdom,” the Ritual of the Singing Woman typically began when a challenger arose for prominent public office. Recent scholarship indicates, however, that the ritual was also performed in honor of aged entertainers with no clear connection to the throne or the court, which must be understood in the context of the complex and often entwined relationship between the Kingdom’s hereditary entertainer caste and its hereditary ruling caste. …

Weird, you’d think.

“The Singing Women often emerged from the marginalized retail-and-hospitality caste, and were chosen not for their beauty and fertility, as some 19th-century scholars surmised, but for their perceived embodiment of the quality of ರ್ಣಾಟ ಭಾರತ ಕಥಾಮಂಜರಿ, a notion that has proven particularly challenging for modern linguists and scholars to interpret. Literally translated as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty” …

“That is a challenging concept,” you’d think.

… this fails to convey her status, simultaneously scorned and sacred, an object of fear and fascination among the public. Travellers to the Kingdom noted, with astonishment, that every member of the Kingdom understood his role in the ritual. The Kingdom’s residents believed the Singing Women were inhabited by the spirit of MeToo, a goddess hatched in a mysterious egg in the forest. The ritual Song of Denunciation was often elaborate and allegorical, but always faithful to the same motif—the challenger was accused of an Unclean and Taboo Act.

You flip a few pages and skim through the chapter by the ethnobotanist who wonders if perhaps the Singing Woman’s trance state was induced by the deliberate ingestion of grain fungus. Then you’d read that upon hearing the Song of Denunciation, the challenger would faint and repair to his chamber, thereupon he would emerge with a whole chorus of women, carefully selected to represent every caste in the kingdom, to sing in his defense:

So pure is his heart/

That we cannot conceive/

Nay it is an abomination/

to besmirch the name of this honorable man/

with the suggestion of an Unclean and Taboo Act.

That’s one weird, ancient kingdom, you’d think.

Then you’d learn that the man whose position of power had been challenged was expected to present a counter-chorus of women and eunuchs to taunt the challenger and sing bawdy tales of the Unclean and Taboo Act. The complete ritual took weeks, even months, to complete, during which the business of the Kingdom came to a standstill, warriors laid down their swords, ploughmen ceased to till the fields, and discussion of critical matters of state and commerce came to a halt. (You’d wonder if perhaps this was the very point of the ritual, but a distinguished anthropologist would assure you this speculation is “an inappropriate use of a modern lens to view a culture whose sacred beliefs must be understood on their own terms.”)

Indeed, the Singing Woman Ritual demonstrated the power of ರ್ಣಾಟ ಭಾರತ ಕಥಾಮಂಜರಿ as a unifying ideal. Elite and popular classes joined, in turn, the Chorus of Denunciation and the Chorus of Incredulity, the opposing songs growing louder and more frenzied, accompanied by the sound of pounding drums, until the contender collapsed in exhaustion and shame and admitted to the Unclean and Taboo Act.

Only ಆಕರ್ಷಕ, alone among the chroniclers of the era, registered frustration with the ritual, noting that because the crops went unharvested and the warriors put down their arms, the Weird, Long-Perished Kingdom starved and was overrun by another Ancient Kingdom, which is exactly why it perished.

For those of you who want to return to the modern world, here’s an outstanding Covid-19 research guide:

Presented below are links to a selection of research papers and articles pertaining to SARS-CoV-2 and the current crisis. The links are organized into four categories: the chemistry, molecular biology, or virology of SARS-CoV-2; the epidemiology of COVID-19 transmission; the political, economic, and social consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic; and the therapeutic options for the treatment of COVID-19. These lists will be updated regularly as new publications appear. They are offered here as a resource for researchers and interested readers.

This is a masterpiece. The anthem of the era.

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