Unfriendly skies. Photographer: Koen van Weel/AFP/Getty Images
“I just want my life back,” said the singer Britney Spears on Wednesday.
In 2008, Ms. Spears’s father was granted a conservatorship over her because of concerns about her mental health. According to her testimony last week, the arrangement has been used to force her to go on tour, to undergo psychiatric evaluations and to take medication.
“I don’t feel like I can live a full life,” she told a Los Angeles judge. She could not even visit with friends who lived “eight minutes away.” The conservatorship was doing “way more harm than good,” she said.
The parallel is not exact, I admit. But one woman’s desire to be free of conservatorship sounded to me a lot like the rest of humanity’s desire to be free of Covid-19. Since the novel coronavirus began spreading throughout the world nearly a year and a half ago, we have all, to varying degrees, been subjected to regular evaluations of our health (tests) and encouraged if not required to take medication (in the form of vaccines). As for not seeing our friends … Well, I think we all want our lives back.
It would probably be wrong to conclude that lockdowns did more harm than good in the developed world, though they could certainly have been avoided or shortened by earlier reliance on testing and tracing. But a new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research strongly suggests that lockdowns did do more harm than good in developing countries. “In low-income countries,” the authors argue, “a lockdown can potentially lead to 1.76 children’s lives lost due to the economic contraction per Covid-19 fatality averted.”
There was an “intergenerational tradeoff” in the developed world, too, in the sense that younger people suffered significant educational and economic losses because of restrictions imposed mainly to limit sickness and mortality among the older age groups most vulnerable to the pandemic.
Regardless of our age, we all want this to be over. But it so isn’t. I knew when I was finishing my book on the history of disasters late last summer that the pandemic had some way still to run.
There was a chance, I wrote, that it might be over by Easter 2021, and that “the world economy would snap back to life once this became clear.” However, “there was a worse scenario, in which we would spend years playing whack‑a‑mole with an endemic, evolving SARS-CoV‑2, with no vaccine that really worked and no immunity that really lasted. By the standards of past pandemics, this one might still be at an early stage — perhaps not even at the end of the first quarter.”
I wrote those words nearly a year ago, on July 6, 2020. It turns out that the vaccines (well, some of them) work better than I had dared to hope, and the world economy is indeed snapping back. And yet we may still be languishing in the second quarter of this pandemic — or maybe it’s early in the second half.
My struggle last week to get from northern California to South Wales to see family and friends after 18 months of separation has convinced me that the return to normality is going to be a lot slower than most of us would like to believe — and not only because of this virus’s shape-shifting character.
I have a bad feeling that even if we succeed in containing the spread of SARS-CoV-2 — to the extent of bringing mortality rates back down to normal levels everywhere — we may be unable to get rid of many of the pandemic-induced constraints that now restrict our freedoms as much as Britney Spears’s conservatorship restricts hers.
Let me illustrate the point with some personal experience, which I offer here not as a Britney-style lament but as an example of what most international journeys are like these days. My wife and I have been fully vaccinated since March. Our sons, who are both under 10, have not been. In order to fly to the U.K., of which three of us are citizens, we had to fill in a great many online forms, take PCR tests, and arrange and pay for two further rounds of testing during the 10-day quarantine imposed by the Welsh government.
We arrived at the airport very early, bearing a file full of documents that were carefully scrutinized by airline staff before we could board the aircraft. During the entire 10-hour flight, all of us — including our 3-year-old — had to wear face masks. The cabin crew insisted that we could only remove these momentarily to sip a drink or take a bite of the rations that were served. (Warning: When it comes to food and drink, all flights appear now to be operated by EasyJet.) Following our arrival at Heathrow, the documents were once again examined by U.K. border officials.
To say that this was fun would be a lie. It was in fact quite stressful. At each stage of the process, we saw other travelers fall foul of the health bureaucracy.
One couple were prevented from checking in at San Francisco as they lacked the correct documentation for a connecting flight to Croatia. At the departure gate, another woman’s test results were found in some way deficient. I heard more oaths and saw more tears than I can ever remember on such a trip.
Since arriving at our vacation home, we have been quarantined. This is supposed to be for 10 days but, as one’s arrival day is “day zero,” it will in effect be for 11. We have all passed the first test; our noses and tonsils will be swabbed again later today. When the landline rings, it is nearly always a polite lady from the Welsh test-and-trace service making sure we’re still there and not gallivanting around the fleshpots of Swansea.
Even when we get out of Covid jail, government rules will limit how many of our relatives and friends we can see in our remaining time here. Restrictions on social life that were supposed to be lifted on June 21 were extended, just before we set off, for another four weeks.
Masks are still required in many indoor settings and on public transportation. Outdoor gatherings of up to 30 people are allowed but, if you want to meet indoors, the maximum number is six, unless you restrict the gathering to members of just two households.
The police can break up gatherings that violate these rules and impose fines up to $14,000. At first sight, the “rule of six” poses a significant challenge to the planned rehearsals of the jazz septet to which I belong.
In short, if you are thinking of taking a long-haul flight anywhere in the world right now, my advice is: stay home.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that all these restrictions are unnecessary. True, the U.K. Office for National Statistics recently confirmed that daily Covid deaths have fallen to the lowest level since last September (the seven-day average is just 16). But daily cases, which fell below 2,000 last month, have surged above 16,000, due mainly to the rapid spread of the more contagious Delta variant.
Paradoxically, the U.K. now leads Europe in terms of both vaccine doses per hundred and cases per million. Hospitalizations are also up.
My 22-year-old son and his friends have spent much of their university careers at Bristol in a shared house, studying remotely and observing the social distancing rules. But the end of exams (cue parties, albeit outdoors) coincided with the arrival of the Delta variant. Last week he and several of his friends tested positive. Maddeningly, he had only just had his first of two vaccine shots.
In his case, as for many other young Britons, vaccination came too late. The U.K. not only left the 20-somethings until the later stages of its vaccination rollout. It also prioritized getting first shots to as many adults as possible, rather than aiming for earlier full vaccination of a smaller proportion of people.
At first, this seemed smart. The problem is that, compared with earlier variants such as Alpha (B.1.1.7), the Delta variant is significantly easier to catch if you’ve had only one shot. Indeed, it turns out to be easier to catch even if you’ve had both shots.
A new study published in the Lancet — based on 19,543 confirmed infections and 377 hospitalizations in Scotland between April and June — shows that implied vaccine efficacy 14 days after the second dose fell for both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines. For the former, efficacy fell from 92% to 79%; for the latter, from 73% to 60%.
Nevertheless, these are still pretty good efficacy numbers. I therefore remain skeptical that fully vaccinated people need to be confined to barracks for 10 days, especially when they fly in from a country like the U.S. where the Delta variant is (as yet) not very widespread. The rule of six also seems excessively restrictive for fully vaccinated Britons.
When both clinical trials and real-world data point to high vaccine efficacy, especially for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and when governments are keen to persuade people to get vaccinated, why on earth make the social benefits of being vaccinated so negligible?
The answer is clear. Such restrictions persist not because they have any foundation in scientific research. They are the products of one of history’s most powerful but often underestimated phenomena: bureaucratic inertia.
The medical reasons why the pandemic could drag on much longer than we would like to face are obvious enough. First, the virus simply cannot be eradicated because we are not its only hosts. Good luck vaccinating the minks. Second, to quote a sobering new piece co-authored by the great American epidemiologist Larry Brilliant, “The world will not reach the point where enough people are immune to stop the virus’s spread before the emergence of dangerous variants — ones that are more transmissible, vaccine resistant, and even able to evade current diagnostic tests.”
Looking back on last year’s published research, I would say that nearly everyone underestimated just how much this virus could mutate in ways that would cause problems. It is only a couple of months ago that I was worrying about how fast B.1.1.7 would spread from the U.K. to the U.S. Then there was B.1.351 (now Beta) in South Africa. Then P.1 in Brazil (Gamma). Now it’s time to worry about Delta (formerly B.1.617.2), which was first detected in India and is now dominant in the U.K.
Delta illustrates the problem of new variants very well. In the U.K., first doses have been administered to 64% of the population and both doses to 47%. But this has not sufficed to prevent the latest wave of infections, even without a full lifting of “nonpharmaceutical interventions,” or NPIs. Delta presents two challenges. First, the mutation to its spike protein allows it to attach to human cells more effectively, thus increasing transmission. Second, as we have seen, it reduces the efficacy of existing vaccines, especially the first dose.
Both of these factors push up the reproduction number, i.e., the number of people to whom an infected person will typically pass the virus. Imperial College London has published an estimate of the basic reproduction number for the Delta variant of 7.8, compared with 4.5 for the Alpha variant. Lockdowns plus vaccines can bring that number down, but to get it below 1 is not easy.
India had a disastrous spring because very few people had been vaccinated. Delta spread like wildfire, killing hundreds of thousands. The U.K.’s 2021 experience has been much less severe thanks to a very successful vaccination rollout, but the effective reproduction number still rose from 0.9 to a peak of 1.48.
In the U.K., according to estimates by J.P. Morgan Securities (published on June 21), a further 4.9 million people need to be fully vaccinated to bring the effective reproduction number back down to one, which will take 19 days at the current pace of vaccination, assuming that the current levels of mobility and NPIs are held steady. In the U.S., 47 million more people need to be fully vaccinated to hold the reproduction number at one if the Delta variant spreads as it has in the U.K. That will take 54 days.
It will take another 11 days of sustained vaccination to allow the U.K. to return to pre-pandemic levels of mobility (less in the U.S., because mobility is already nearly back to normal). With around 60% of the total population vaccinated, a new normal is achievable — with current nonpharmaceutical interventions remaining in place. But to get to the old normal with pre-pandemic mobility and no NPIs, we would need to see vaccination rates of around 86% to 88% of the total population.
Bear in mind that the Greek alphabet has 24 letters, and Delta is only the fourth. We already have Kappa (B.1.617.1), first identified in India, now spreading in Australia — but did I miss Epsilon, Zeta, Eta, Theta and Iota?
Bear in mind, too, that there are certainly other variants out there that have yet to be identified. Whereas in the past month the U.K. has sequenced over 27% of its recent positive Covid-19 tests, in Italy that figure is less than 1%, according to Gisaid, a global public-private effort for sharing information on viruses.
As I said to a medical friend last week, it’s Omega I really worry about. Do we seriously think Delta is the worst variant of this virus we’ll see?
It is in this context that governments all over Europe are bowing to public pressure and easing restrictions. Outdoor mask-wearing is ending in France and Switzerland. France will lift its 11 p.m. curfew. Americans will be allowed into the European Union, and Europeans from the 26-nation Schengen area into Switzerland. Italy will re-open nightclubs by early July. In Hungary, the government has lifted all restrictions on crowd sizes.
Followers of European soccer will have noticed that stadiums are filling up. If, like me, you love the sound of football fans chanting, this has been exhilarating. But it also probably means that the Delta variant will spread even faster across Europe this summer.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., with restrictions rapidly being lifted, the delusion is widespread that Covid is over. That seems most unlikely. Daily vaccination rates have declined from a peak of more than 4.6 million doses given in a single day in mid-April to just around half a million daily doses last week. According to Centers for Disease Control data, 80% of adults older than 65 had been immunized by May 22, compared with just 38.3% of 18- to 29-year-olds.
The variation is also enormous between states. The South and West are far behind New England. In Bristol County, Rhode Island, 95% of over-65s have been fully vaccinated. In Billings County, North Dakota, the figure is 21%.
The principal obstacle is a suspicion of vaccines that has been recklessly fueled by misinformation and disinformation on social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube. Over a quarter of Americans are unvaccinated and unwilling to get vaccinated (more than twice the U.K. share); another 11% are unvaccinated and uncertain. Case numbers are already surging in Missouri (the seven-day average is up 65% in the last month), Arkansas (up 61%) and Oklahoma (45%).
According to the latest projections from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, there could be at least another 25,000 American deaths by Oct. 1 — and that leaves out the possibility of a further wave in the fall and winter. Yet the projection for the world as a whole is a terrifying 1.1 million additional deaths by the end of September. This reflects much more than vaccine hesitancy. Just as significant are vaccine insufficiency and vaccine inefficacy.
The U.S. and other developed countries bought many times the number of doses they needed from several manufacturers. At the same time, some countries imposed restrictive export regulations. Lack of support means that Covax, the international initiative to accelerate global vaccination, is far short of its goal to get a billion doses of vaccine to 92 poor countries.
Only 22% of the world’s population has received one shot and just 10% is fully vaccinated. A third of vaccine shots have gone to high-income countries, 52% to upper-middle-income, 14% to lower-middle-income, and just 0.3% to lower-income.
True, China has exported more than 200 million doses of its four homegrown vaccines to 90 countries. But recent outbreaks in Mongolia, Bahrain, Chile and the Seychelles — even after majorities of their populations have been vaccinated — are raising hard questions about how well the Chinese vaccines work. Funny how the Chinese pharma companies never published Phase 3 trial results, isn’t it?
The longer all this goes on, of course, the harder it will become to peel away the layers of regulation that have accumulated in the past year and a half. I fear that, as in the years after 9/11, we are already getting used to restrictions that at first seemed intolerable. Nearly 20 years on, I can still remember how irksome those first Transportation Security Administration checkpoints were. Now I go into a kind of trance, doomscrolling on my iPhone or reading a paperback, whenever required to form an orderly line at an airport.
And the spirit of today’s bureaucracy — “out of an abundance of caution” is the key phrase used by officials who have been taught that even a 0.01% risk is too much — will ensure that at least some rules and regulations stay in place even when they do little or no good (or even net harm).
This, as the government-reform advocate Philip K. Howard has long argued (most recently here), is one of the most distinctive features of the modern era: the ratchet effect that means new regulations are easy to add, very hard to subtract. Does a state of emergency such as the one declared last year ever end? True, many governors are formally ending the emergencies in their states (including New York on Thursday). But at the national level it’s a different story.
According to a Mercatus Center paper published last year by Weifeng Zhong, Christos Makridis and James Diddams, “The eight presidents since 1976 have declared a total of 64 national emergencies under the National Emergencies Act, 35 of which are still in effect to this day and most of which outlasted their motivating emergencies.” The oldest of the 35, “Blocking Iranian Government Property,” was declared in 1979. I was 14 years old.
In short, get used to the online forms. Get used to the tests. Get used to the test-and-trace calls. You probably should get used to the vaccines, too, as you’ll doubtless need a booster shot before the year is out. Above all, get used to the increasingly elaborate regulations because, let’s face it, there are hundreds of thousands of people employed for the sole purpose of generating such rules and almost none whose job it is to scrap them.
The good news is that, if you have the patience to struggle through the bureaucratic jungle, you will every now and then find a precious loophole. In Wales, renowned the world over as the “land of song,” it turns out that choirs and brass bands are now permitted to rehearse in groups of up to 30, albeit with somewhat stricter rules for wind and brass players than for pianists and bassists.
I am now printing out the relevant pages and look forward to presenting them, stapled together and with appropriate highlighting, to any police officer who attempts to interrupt our septet on Saturday night. For one British jazz band, if not for Britney, the Covid conservatorship is over.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,’ George Orwell famously observed. He was talking not about everyday life but about politics, where it is ‘quite easy for the part to be greater than the whole or for two objects to be in the same place simultaneously’. The examples he gave in his 1946 essay included the paradox that ‘for years before the war, nearly all enlightened people were in favour of standing up to Germany: the majority of them were also against having enough armaments to make such a stand effective’.
Last week provided a near-perfect analogy. For years before the 2020 election, nearly all American conservatives were in favour of standing up to big tech: the majority of them were also against changing the laws and regulations enough to make such a stand effective. The difference is that, unlike the German threat, which was geographically remote, the threat from Silicon Valley was literally in front of our noses, day and night: on our mobile phones, our tablets and our laptops.
Writing in this magazine more than three years ago, I warned of a coming collision between Donald Trump and Silicon Valley. ‘Social media helped Donald Trump take the White House,’ I wrote. ‘Silicon Valley won’t let it happen again.’ The conclusion of my book The Square and the Tower was that the new online network platforms represented a new kind of power that posed a fundamental challenge to the traditional hierarchical power of the state.
By the network platforms, I mean Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Google and Apple, or FATGA for short — companies that have established a dominance over the public sphere not seen since the heyday of the pre-Reformation Catholic Church. FATGA had humble enough origins in garages and dorm rooms. As recently as 2008, not one of them could be found among the world’s largest companies by market capitalisation. Today, they occupy first, third, fourth and fifth places in the market cap league table, just above their Chinese counterparts, Tencent and Alibaba.
What happened was that the network platforms turned the originally decentralised worldwide web into an oligarchically organised and hierarchical public sphere from which they made money and to which they controlled access. That the original, superficially libertarian inclinations of these companies’ founders would rapidly crumble under political pressure from the left was also perfectly obvious, if one bothered to look a little beyond one’s proboscis.
Following the violent far-right rally at Charlottesville in August 2017, Matthew Prince, chief executive of the internet service provider Cloudflare, described how he had responded: ‘Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the internet.’ On the basis that ‘the people behind the [white supremacist magazine] Daily Stormer are assholes’, he denied their website access to the internet. ‘No one should have that power,’ he admitted. ‘We need to have a discussion around this with clear rules and clear frameworks. My whims and those of Jeff [Bezos] and Larry [Page] and … Mark [Zuckerberg] shouldn’t be what determines what should be online.’
But that discussion had barely begun in 2017. Indeed, many Republicans at that time still believed the notion that FATGA were champions of the free market that required only the lightest regulation. They know better now. After last year’s election Twitter attached health warnings to Trump’s tweets when he claimed that he had in fact beaten Joe Biden. Then, in the wake of the storming of the Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters, Twitter and Facebook began shutting down multiple accounts — including that of the President himself, now ‘permanently suspended’ from tweeting. When Trump loyalists declared their intention to move their conversations from Twitter to rival Parler — in effect, Twitter with minimal content moderation — Google and Apple deleted Parler from their app stores. Then Amazon kicked Parler off its ‘cloud’ service, effectively deleting it from the internet altogether. It was a stunning demonstration of power.
It is only a slight overstatement to say that, while the mob’s coup against Congress ignominiously failed, big tech’s coup against Trump triumphantly succeeded. It is not merely that Trump has been abruptly denied access to the channels he has used throughout his presidency to communicate with voters. It is the fact that he is being excluded from a domain the courts have for some time recognised as a public forum.
Various lawsuits over the years have conferred on big tech an unusual status: a public good, held in private hands. In 2018 the Southern District of New York ruled that the right to reply to Trump’s tweets is protected ‘under the “public forum” doctrines set forth by the Supreme Court’. So it was wrong for the President to ‘block’ people — i.e. stop them reading his tweets — because they were critical of him. Censoring Twitter users ‘because of their expressed political views’ represents ‘viewpoint discrimination [that] violates the First Amendment’.
In Packingham vs North Carolina (2017), Justice Anthony Kennedy likened internet platforms to ‘the modern public square’, arguing that it was therefore unconstitutional to prevent sex offenders from accessing, and expressing opinions on, social network platforms. ‘While in the past there may have been difficulty in identifying the most important places (in a spatial sense) for the exchange of views,’ Justice Kennedy wrote, ‘today the answer is clear. It is cyberspace —the “vast democratic forums of the internet” in general … and social media in particular.’
In other words, as President of the United States, Trump could not block Twitter users from seeing his tweets, but Twitter is apparently within its rights to delete the President’s account altogether. Sex offenders have a right of access to online social networks; but the President does not.
This is not to condone Trump’s increasingly deranged attempts to overturn November’s election result. Before last week’s riots, he egged on the mob; he later said he ‘loved’ them, despite what they had done. Nor is there any denying that a number of Trump’s most fervent supporters pose a threat of further violence. Considering the bombs and firearms some of them brought to Washington, the marvel is how few people lost their lives during the occupation of the Capitol.
Yet the correct response to that threat is not to delegate to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and their peers the power to remove from the public square anyone they deem to be sympathetic to insurrection or otherwise suspect. The correct response is for the FBI and the relevant police departments to pursue any would-be Trumpist terrorists, just as they have quite successfully pursued would-be Islamist terrorists over the past two decades.
The key to understanding what has happened lies in an obscure piece of legislation, almost a quarter of a century old, enacted after a New York court held online service provider Prodigy liable for a user’s defamatory posts. Congress then stepped in with the 1996 Telecommunications Act and in particular Section 230, which was written to encourage nascent firms to protect users and prevent illegal activity without incurring massive content management costs. It states:“
1. No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.
2. No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of … any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable.
In essence, Section 230 gives websites immunity from liability for what their users post if it is in any way harmful, but also entitles websites to take down with equal impunity any content that they don’t like the look of. The surely unintended result of this legislation, drafted for a fledgling internet, is that some of the biggest companies in the world enjoy a protection reminiscent of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Try to hold them responsible as publishers, and they will say they are platforms. Demand access to their platforms and they will insist that they are publishers.
This might have been a tolerable state of affairs if America’s network platforms had been subject to something like the old Fairness Doctrine, which required the big three terrestrial TV networks to give airtime to opposing views. But that was something the Republican party killed off in the 1980s, seeing the potential of allowing more slanted coverage on cable news. What goes around comes around. The network platforms long ago abandoned any pretence of being neutral. Even before Charlottesville, their senior executives and many of their employees had made it clear that they were appalled by Trump’s election victory (especially as both Facebook and Twitter had facilitated it). Increasingly, they interpreted the words ‘otherwise objectionable’ in Section 230 to mean ‘objectionable to liberals’.
Throughout the summer of last year, numerous supporters of Black Lives Matter used social media, as well as mainstream liberal media, to express their support for protests that in many places escalated into violence and destruction considerably worse than occurred in the Capitol last week. One looked in vain for health warnings, much less account suspensions, though Facebook says it has removed accounts that promote violence.
Compare, for example, the language Trump used in his 6 January speech and the language Kamala Harris used in support of BLM on Stephen Colbert’s show on 18 June. Neither explicitly condoned violence. Trump exhorted the crowd to march to the Capitol, but he told them to ‘peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard’. Harris condemned ‘looting and… acts of violence’, but said of the BLM protestors: ‘They’re not going to stop. They’re not. This is a movement. I’m telling you. They’re not going to stop, and everyone, beware. Because they’re not going to stop. They’re not going to stop before election day in November, and they are not going to stop after election day. And everyone should take note of that on both levels.’ What exactly was the significance of that ‘beware’?
Earlier, on 1 June, Harris had used Twitter to solicit donations to the Minnesota Freedom Fund, which posted bail for people charged with rioting in Minneapolis after the death of George Floyd. It would be easy to cite other examples. ‘Destroying property, which can be replaced, is not violence,’ Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times told CBS in early June, at a time when multiple cities were being swept by arson and vandalism. Her Twitter account is still going strong.
The double standard was equally apparent when the New York Post broke the story of Biden’s son Hunter’s dubious business dealings in China. Both Twitter and Facebook immediately prevented users from posting links to the article — something they had never done with stories damaging to Trump.
You don’t need to be a Trump supporter to find all this alarming. Conservatives of many different stripes — and indeed some bemused liberals — have experienced the new censorship for themselves, especially as the Covid-19 pandemic has emboldened tech companies to police content more overtly. In the UK, TalkRadio briefly vanished from YouTube for airing anti--lockdown views that violated the company’s ‘community guidelines’. A recording of Lionel Shriver reading one of her Spectator columns on the pandemic was taken down for similar reasons. Carl Heneghan and Tom Jefferson, two Oxford academics, fell foul of Facebook’s censors when they wrote for this magazine about a briefly controversial paper on the efficacy of masks in Denmark.
You might think that FATGA have finally gone too far with their fatwa against a sitting president of the United States. You might think a red line really has been crossed when both Alexei Navalny and Angela Merkel express disquiet at big tech’s overreach. But no. To an extent that is remarkable, American liberals have mostly welcomed (and in some cases encouraged) this surge of censorship — with the honourable exception of the American Civil Liberties Union.
True, during last year’s campaign the Biden team occasionally talked tough, especially about Facebook. However, it is increasingly clear that the most big tech has to fear from the Biden-Harris administration is protracted antitrust actions focused on their alleged undermining of competition which, if history is any guide, will likely end with whimpers rather than bangs. Either way, the issue of censorship will not be addressed by antitrust lawsuits.
It is tempting to complain that Democrats are hypocrites — that they would be screaming blue murder if the boot were on the other foot and it was Kamala Harris whose Twitter account had been cancelled. But if that were the case, how many Republicans would now be complaining? Not many. No, the correct conclusion to be drawn is that the Republicans had their chance to address the problem of over-mighty big tech and completely flunked it.
Only too late did they realise that Section 230 was Silicon Valley’s Achilles heel. Only too late did they begin drafting legislation to repeal or modify it. Only too late did Section 230 start to feature in Trump’s speeches. Even now it seems to me that very few Republicans really understand that, by itself, repealing 230 would not have sufficed. Without some kind of First Amendment for the internet, repeal would probably just have restricted free speech further.
As Orwell rightly observed, ‘we are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality.’
Those words sum up quite a lot that has gone on inside the Republican party over the past four years. There it was, right in front of their noses: Trump would lead the party to defeat. And he would behave in the most discreditable way when beaten. Those things were predictable. But what was also foreseeable was that FATGA — the ‘new governors’, as a 2018 Harvard Law Review article called them — would be the true victors of the 2020 election.
Give Proust a chance — as an audiobook. Photographer: THOMAS SAMSON/AFP via Getty Images
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was previously a professor of history at Harvard, New York University and Oxford. He is the founder and managing director of Greenmantle LLC, a New York-based advisory firm.
Maybe you stayed safe in the plague year. Most of us have. But did you stay sane? A growing body of research shows that the damage to our health caused by COVID-19 went far beyond the disease itself. In addition to multiple physiological conditions that have claimed lives because people eschewed medical care they would normally have sought, a great many of us have suffered psychologically — some from fear of infection, some from protracted incarceration with their nearest and dearest, many from the enforced isolation that does not come naturally to our species. Survey data from the United States, China and other countries point to a pandemic of depression, anxiety and stress.
I’ve had the good fortune to avoid both physical and mental illness in 2020. As a repressed misanthrope — who for many years was forced by circumstances to be much more gregarious than I really am — I have positively relished nine months in one place with a social circle confined to my wife, my two youngest children, and a handful of local friends. (I cannot speak for the other inhabitants of my bubble.)
As the year nears its end — and with the plot twist of a new and more contagious U.K. variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, as if to reconcile the Europeans to Brexit — I feel duty bound to share some tips for maintaining mental health. In honor of the process formulated in 1935 by Bill Wilson and Robert Holbrook Smith, the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, here are my twelve steps to staying sane (or at least getting no more insane) in a pandemic:
Step One: Drink tea, not booze. I began 2020 with my first ever trip to Taiwan, where I was cured of making tea like a Brit, i.e., chucking a teabag, boiling water and some milk in a mug. Sitting cross-legged in the Shi Yang Shan Fang tea house, which perches on the side of Yangming Mountain to the north of Taipei, on a night of torrential rain, I experienced my first gong fu tea ceremony. A young man conducted the ceremony, which involves multiple pots and cups, all made of delicate, unglazed clay. “Are you a tea master?” I asked him, somewhat crassly. “No,” he replied serenely. “I am the servant of the tea.”
Ever since that evening, I have served tea this way three times a day, beginning with Taiwanese gaoshan (high mountain) tea in the morning, followed by Wazuka Yuki Oolong Cha at lunchtime, and concluding with Japanese sencha (green tea) in the afternoon—all ordered from the wonderful Sazen Tea. More than anything else I have done this year, the tea ceremony has kept me sane in the solitude of my study.
Step Two: Read Walter Scott (ideally with your mother). I had been thoroughly put off the novels of Scott as a schoolboy by adults who dismissed him as boring and stuffy. They lied. By some strange telepathic process, my mother and I—separated by nearly five thousand miles— decided to set aside prejudice and simultaneously begin reading “Waverly” (1814), the glorious, gripping tale of an ingenuous young Englishman who gets mixed up in the Jacobite Rising of 1745. As we progressed, at the rate of roughly one novel every three weeks, we found Scott as gifted a writer as Dickens, but funnier and shrewder. There are unexpected anticipations of Wilkie Collins and R.L. Stevenson in his darker characters — for example, the magnificent madwoman Meg Merrilies in “Guy Mannering” (1815) who recurs as Madge Wildfire in “The Heart of Midlothian” (1818), or the diabolical, dastardly Rashleigh Osbaldistone in “Rob Roy” (1817).
Reading Scott in tandem provided my mother and me with a desperately needed topic of conversation other than the pandemic. Our weekly calls became literary seminars rather than lamentation sessions. By this route of printed pages, each of us was able to revisit our native Scotland in our imaginations and to understand, for the first time, how much that country used to be Scottland — for it was Scott, more than anyone, who made its emergence from Afghan-like misery into Enlightenment dynamism both intelligible and irresistible to the Victorians.
Step Three: Have Proust read to you. On at least four previous occasions, I have tried and failed to get through the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu. The solution was to listen to “Swann’s Way,” in the C. K. Scott Moncrieff translation, read exquisitely for Audible by John Rowe. If you have ever struggled with the ineffably sensitive Marcel, as I once did, then this is the way. For me, the breakthrough came with Swann’s all-consuming infatuation with the unsuitable but enthralling Odette and his descent into green-eyed jealousy.
Step Four: Listen to Bruckner. This was also the perfect year to immerse yourself in the work of a composer you had previously failed to appreciate. I chose the self-effacing Austrian genius Anton Bruckner, whose Symphony No. 4 in E Flat Major, “Romantic,” provided exhilaration and exaltation — both in short supply in the world at large. Other plague-year discoveries have included Mendelssohn’s “Lieder ohne Worte,” Schubert’s exquisite Piano Sonata No. 18 in G Major, D. 894, and, as I wanted to hear music from the time of the Black Death, the plangent Messe de Nostre Dame of Guillaume de Machaut.
Step Five: Practice a musical instrument. Since I took up playing the double bass at the age of 18, I have learned two important life-lessons. First, ensemble playing is very good for the mind and the soul, though not necessarily for the liver. Second, being mediocre is fine — you really don’t need to strive for perfection in everything you do (just in one thing). The jazz band of which I have been the mediocre member since we played at Oxford back in the 1980s, A Night in Tunisia, has a tradition of performing together twice a year. The plague put a stop to that this year and our experiments with online collaboration risibly failed. (You cannot jam on Zoom.) The solution was to try to practice in new ways — not easy to sustain through the long days of internal exile, but the payoff will come when the band strikes up again next year. I may rise above mediocrity.
Step Six: Watch “Doctor Who” with your children or grandchildren. I more or less gave up watching television at around the same time I took up bass-playing. There is one exception to this rule: “Doctor Who,” without a doubt the greatest television series of them all, which predates me by a year, having begun in 1963. The revival of “The Doctor” in 2005 was the single best thing the BBC has ever done. With my son Thomas, who turns nine this week, I’ve been catching up with 15 years of the series’ exceptional science fiction — which magically combines time travel, terrifying aliens and British irony — though we still cannot decide who was the best Doctor: David Tennant or Matt Smith? Or was it actually Tom Baker?
Step Seven: Step. Do not fail to go for a walk every day, regardless of the weather. I write these words after an hour in a fully-fledged blizzard. A walk is infinitely preferable to any gym. If no one will come with you, take Proust.
Step Eight: Improve your curry making. If you haven’t been cooking this year, shame on you. I recommend applying some turmeric, cumin, red chile and coriander seeds to some of that leftover turkey.
Step Nine: Dress like an Oxford don, every weekday. Back in the spring, the beard, T-shirt and sweatpants combo was not conducive to the production of great thoughts. And yet I found it hard to take seriously the people who donned suits and ties to broadcast from their bedrooms. After months of slovenliness, I hit on the solution. I purchased a Fair Isle sleeveless sweater and dug out some maroon corduroy trousers, once part of the costume of an Oxford professor. This restored self-discipline and enabled me to finish writing a book. (I couldn’t quite bring myself to go full Tolkien by buying a pipe, but I was sorely tempted.)
Step Ten: Disable notifications on Twitter. It occurred to me with a flash of insight that I don’t in the least care what the people I don’t follow on Twitter think, otherwise I would follow them. “Would you let all these other people into your garden?” I asked my wife one day. “If not, why would you let them inside your head?” Goodbye, snark!
Step Eleven: Do not watch sports. Just don’t. To me, soccer and rugby without fans is about exciting a spectacle as two dozen men playing blind man’s buff. When we watch sport on television, we are imagining ourselves in the crowd, which is the real source of the adrenaline surge — not the flight of the ball from foot to goal. Without the ebb and flow of singing, cheering and booing, there’s just no thrill.
Step Twelve: OK, drink booze, too. But only after 6 p.m., otherwise you’ll end up like Agnes in Douglas Stuart’s “Shuggie Bain” (without a doubt the best book published this year). Tea’s all very well during the day, but I couldn’t have retained my sanity after dark without the following liquids: Bent Nail IPA, a delicious beer brewed by Red Lodge Ales; the Veneto winemaker Inama’s smooth yet peppery Carmenere Più; and Laphroaig, my favorite peat-infused Scotch, which they began making the same year Scott published “Guy Mannering.”
As I pointed out eight months ago, “all the great pandemics have come in waves.” This one has managed three in the United States and two in Europe, and we’re still at least four or five months away from herd immunity. So, while you await your vaccination this holiday season, don’t go nuts. My twelfth step would have appalled the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. But just as there are no atheists in a foxhole, there are precious few teetotalers in a pandemic.
Happy New Year!
It has been nearly 4½ years since I began writing this column, which works out at roughly 240,000 words altogether. As these will be my last words in these pages, it’s time to look back and take stock. If part of your job is to be a pundit then, as the Pennsylvania University political scientist Philip Tetlock argues in Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, you need to keep score.
As Tetlock had a dig at me in that book — which was published in 2015, before I began writing for The Sunday Times — this is also a good opportunity to settle a score.
Tetlock was, of course, quite right about most public intellectuals (a term that always makes me think of public conveniences). They seldom hold themselves to account. Nor do they get fired if their predictions are consistently wrong, as long as they are entertaining enough to engage readers.
Since I set up an advisory firm nine years ago, though, my approach has been different — out of necessity, as fund managers differ from newspaper editors in their attitude to predictions. Not only do they notice when you’re wrong, because one or more financial indicators make that clear; they also let you know about it (with grim relish, usually). If you’re wrong too often, it’s goodbye.
So at the beginning of each year we at Greenmantle make predictions about the year ahead, and at the end of the year we see — and tell our clients — how we did. Each December we also rate every predictive statement we have made in the previous 12 months, either “true”, “false” or “not proven”. In recent years, we have also forced ourselves to attach probabilities to our predictions — not easy when so much lies in the realm of uncertainty rather than calculable risk. We have, in short, tried to be superforecasters. And with some success.
Now it’s time to apply the same retrospective scoring to this column. So as to meet my deadline, I’ve picked my first full year at The Sunday Times, which was the annus mirabilis — or horribilis, depending on your politics — beginning on November 1, 2015, the date of my first column.
Three minor themes are worth mentioning. I argued repeatedly that the twin problems of Islamic extremist networks and mass migration from the Muslim world were not likely to go away: “Think of Isis as the Facebook of Islamic extremism” (March 27, 2016). I also began warning, as early as May of that year, that the rise of Silicon Valley’s big tech companies was not an unmitigated boon: “What the state knows is just a fraction of what Facebook knows about you” (May 15). I also noted the dire implications for Labour of the antisemitism of Jeremy Corbyn and his circle (May 1).
But by far the biggest issues of my first year on this page — and subsequent years too — were Britain’s vote to leave the EU and the election of Donald Trump. How did I do?
On Brexit, I was wrong. From the outset, I was a remainer. “The idea that we can . . . separate ourselves from Europe is an illusion,” I wrote on February 21. “For the future of Europe without us would be one of escalating instability.” Impolitely, I called Brexiteers “Angloonies” and “happy morons”. When the remain side lost, I predicted a “stairway to hell”— or at least a recession (June 26). Wrong.
At the end of the year, on December 11, 2016, I made a confession. I had been motivated to back remain more because of “my personal friendship with [David] Cameron and George Osborne” than out of any deep allegiance to the EU. I regretted — and still regret — not urging Cameron to reject “the risible terms that the European leaders offered him back in February on EU migrants’ eligibility for benefits”. That was the moment he should have called their bluff by backing Brexit.
Yet the humiliation of Brexit gave me an advantage over American commentators on the 2016 presidential race. I had moments of doubt, admittedly. I compared Trump to unsuccessful Republican candidates Wendell Willkie (December 13, 2015) and Barry Goldwater (January 31, 2016). On April 3, 2016, I predicted the bursting of the Trump bubble in the Wisconsin primary. Ted Cruz won that, but it didn’t burst the bubble. Far more often, I went against the conventional wisdom that Trump was doomed to lose.
“Trump has the face that fits the ugly mood in America,” was my headline on November 1, 2015. “Trump has both the resources and the incentives to press on. In the current national mood of disaffection with professional politicians, he could seem an attractive alternative to Hillary Clinton . . . The point about Trump is that his appeal is overwhelmingly a matter of style over substance. It is not what he says that a great many white Americans like — it is the way that he says it.”
I was against Trump. I was a signatory of a “never Trump” letter. I repeatedly condemned his “open expressions of racial prejudice and xenophobia”, his isolationism (December 13, 2015) and his fishy bromance with Vladimir Putin (May 8 and October 16, 2016). I regretted that Mike Bloomberg chose not to run (October 23).
But I also saw clearly the strength of his appeal. “Trump is winning,” I wrote on February 28, 2016, “because no other candidate has a more convincing explanation of why so many Republican voters genuinely are worse off today than in 2000 . . . But no one can rule out Democratic defections to Trump when it comes to the crunch on November 8.” On March 6, I imagined Trump winning and running for an unconstitutional third term in 2024. “Trump can beat Hillary Clinton,” I wrote on May 8.
“Can Trump succeed where [Mitt] Romney failed?” I asked on July 21. “Yes . . . many young voters will fail to show up for Clinton. Meanwhile, the white lower class, especially the older cohorts, will turn out for Trump in droves, just as their English counterparts turned out for Brexit.”
The choice between Clinton and Trump was a choice between “snafu” and “fubar”, I wrote on September 18, “but wouldn’t you risk being fubar . . . if it was your only shot at avoiding four more years of snafu?”
“This rage against the global,” I wrote a week later, “is why Trump could win this election. It is why Brexit happened. It is why populists are gaining ground wherever free elections are held.”
I marked my first anniversary at this paper with a column that compared Trump to the Chicago Cubs, the outsiders who had just won the baseball World Series. “He can win,” I wrote, “if there is a differential in turnout between his supporters and [Clinton’s] in the battleground states comparable to the age and ethnicity-based differentials in the UK referendum” (November 6).
Now, dear reader, you are burning to know what I think will happen this November. Bad luck. You will have to seek my superforecast in another publication.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, and managing director of Greenmantle