I’ve been thinking for a long time that for all their merits as individual institutions, and all the advantages they offer to their faculty (like myself), students, and alumni (like myself), the hierarchical structure of tertiary education that defines their role, from which they benefit, and which they nurture, is fundamentally destructive.
I wrote an essay on this theme, and it has now appeared in the political magazine Current Affairs.
Many years ago I read to my daughter a children’s book in which a little girl learning to ride a bicycle keeps running into objects like trees and lampposts. A bicycle instructor explains to her that when you become too fixated on an obstacle it exerts a strong psychological pull, so that the very exigency of evading it leads to a crash.
I used to wonder whether this was a real phenomenon. I don’t anymore…
Actually, I’ve long thought the second Iraq War was an example of the same phenomenon. There was no possibility that there wouldn’t be a war, because once they’d started to consider it Bush and Blair couldn’t bare not to see how it would turn out.
Political leaders in many countries — but particularly in the US and UK — are in thrall above all to the myth of progress. Catastrophes may happen, but then they get better. And to superficial characters like Johnson and Trump, the improvements seem automatic. It’s like a law of nature.
So, we find ourselves having temporarily stemmed the flood of Covid infections, with governments laying out fantastic plans for “reopening”. Even though nothing significant has changed. The only thing that could make this work — absent a vaccine — would be an efficient contact tracing system or a highly effective treatment for the disease. None of which we have. But we still have a timeline for opening up pubs and cinemas (though less important facilities like schools are still closed, at least for many year groups).
It’s like we had been adrift for days in a lifeboat on the open ocean, carefully conserving our supplies. And there’s still no rescue in sight, but Captain Johnson announces that since we’re all hungry from limiting our food rations, and the situation has now stabilised, we will now be transitioning toward full rations.
My recent post suggesting that the government may have some reasonable thinking behind their go-slow-but-not-too-slow strategy had two underlying errors:
I assumed they knew what the NHS capacity is, and were trying not to linger too long in the period where there is plenty of spare capacity. In fact, resources already appear to be overstretched, particularly protective equipment (PPE), even though the epidemic has barely started, and there are just a few thousand cases in total so far.
I neglected to reckon with — what was otherwise obvious to me — Johnson’s Churchill complex. Johnson doesn’t have all that much in common with Churchill, but one thing the two do share is a mania for all manner of harebrained wheezes rather than careful dependable planning. Keynes famously said “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better to fail with the crowd than to succeed unconventionally”. Johnson is one of those rare individuals who would rather fail unconventionally — or, at least, is willing to hazard a strong risk of failure for the compensation of being seen as brilliantly unconventional.
Now the government says they miscalculated, after a paper from Imperial College’s Covid-19 Response Team found that the previous strategy would exceed available ICU capacity by a factor of 8! Did they misplace a decimal point? So suddenly the schools, gyms, and everything else that was announcing plans to cope with staying open through the epidemic is shutting down.
I find it genuinely shocking that the UK does not have a strategic reserve of PPE and ventilators, particularly the latter, as the shortage of ventilators was widely discussed in the press in 2009, in the context of the H1N1 pandemic.
It would be a drastic understatement to say that people are confused by the official advice coming with respect to social-distancing measures to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Some are angry. Some are appalled. And that includes some very smart people who understand the relevant science better than I do, and probably at least as well as the experts who are advising the government. Why are they not closing schools and restaurants, or banning sporting events — until the Football Association decided to ban themselves — while at the same time signalling that they will be taking such measures in the future? I’m inclined to start from the presumption that there’s a coherent and sensible — though possibly ultimately misguided (or well guided but to-be-proved-retrospectively wrong) — strategy, and I find it hard to piece together what they’re talking about with “herd immunity” and “nudge theory”.
Why, in particular, are they talking about holding the extreme social-distancing measures in reserve until later? Intuitively you would think that slowing the progress of the epidemic can be done at any stage, and the sooner you start the more effective it will be.
Here’s my best guess about what’s behind it, which has the advantage of also providing an explanation why the government’s communication has been so ineffective: Unlike most other countries, which are taking the general approach that the goal is to slow the spread of the virus as much as possible (though they may disagree about what is possible), the UK government wants to slow the virus, but not too much.
The simplest model for the evolution of the number of infected individuals (x) is a differential equation
Here A is the fraction immune at which R0 (the number that each infected person infects) reaches 1, so growth enters a slower phase. The solution is
Basically, if you control the level of social interaction, you change k, slowing the growth of the cumulative rate parameter K(t). There’s a path that you can run through, at varying rates, until you reach the target level A. So, assuming the government can steer k as they like, they can stretch out the process as they like, but they can’t change the ultimate destination. The corresponding rate of new infections — the key thing that they need to hold down, to prevent collapse of the NHS — is kx(A–x). (It’s more complicated because of the time delay between infection, symptoms, and recovery, raising the question of whether such a strategy based on determining the timing of epidemic spread is feasible in practice. A more careful analysis would use the three-variable SIR model.)
Suppose now you think that you can reduce k by a certain amount for a certain amount of time. You want to concentrate your effort in the time period where x is around A/2. But you don’t want to push k too far down, because that slows the whole process down, and uses up the influence. The basic idea is, there’s nothing we can do to change the endpoint (x=A); all you can do is steer the rate so that
The maximum rate of new infections (or rather, of total cases in need of hospitalisation) is as low as possible;
The peak is not happening next winter, when the NHS is in its annual flu-season near-collapse;
The fraction A of the population that is ultimately infected — generally taken to be about 60% in most renditions — includes as few as possible of the most at-risk members of the public. That also requires that k not be too small, because keeping the old and the infirm segregated from the young and the healthy can only be done for a limited time. (This isn’t Florida!)
Hence the messaging problem: It’s hard to say, we want to reduce the rate of spread of the infection, but not too much, without it sounding like “We want some people to die.”
There’s no politic way to say, we’re intentionally letting some people get sick, because only their immunity will stop the infection. Imagine the strategy were: Rather than close the schools, we will send the children off to a fun camp where they will be encouraged to practice bad hygiene for a few weeks until they’ve all had CoViD-19. A crude version of school-based vaccination. If it were presented that way, parents would pull their children out in horror.
It’s hard enough getting across the message that people need to take efforts to remain healthy to protect others. You can appeal to their sense of solidarity. Telling people they need to get sick so that other people can remain healthy is another order of bewildering, and people are going to rebel against being instrumentalised.
Of course, if this virus doesn’t produce long-term immunity — and there’s no reason necessarily to expect that it will — then this strategy will fail. As will every other strategy.
One of the newspaper covers promoting pro-Brexit celebration:
It’s hard to miss that the jubilant lady draped in the Union Jack has a US flag right behind her. A message to those who still suppose Brexit will bring “independence”. (In case they didn’t get the message when the Prime Minister stood up in parliament and pretended to take Jared Kushner’s Middle East “peace plan” seriously.)
And in case any Jews or Muslims might have thought they would be part of this “glorious new Britain”, they have a fucking CRUSADER in their masthead!
Boris Johnson obviously considers himself a master rhetorician. His fascination with striking words and images, combined with his inability to structure a sentence — perhaps out of indiscipline, perhaps attention deficit, perhaps just out of a general mismatch between high education and mediocre intelligence — makes his speeches read like something out of one of William S. Burroughs’s less successful cut-up compositions.
The clash of tone and images can be jarring, as in the quote on the cover of yesterday’s Daily Telegraph:
Given the leanings of the Telegraph, I’m assuming this was intended to flatter Johnson, not to mock him. And yet… Illustrating an accusation of finger-pointing with a photo of the accuser pointing his finger? And that’s before we even get to the hoary Labour is Stalinist accusation. In 2019? Really? So Johnson has to show that it’s not just a tired slogan by bringing some historical detail into it. With foreign words. So they’re persecuting kulaks. British kulaks should tremble! Before the horror of Jeremy Corbyn, who would be just like Stalin: a notorious scold!