Category: History

The Political-Economic Causes of the Soviet Great Famine, 1932–33

This study constructs a large new dataset to investigate whether state policy led to ethnic Ukrainians experiencing higher mortality during the 1932–33 Soviet Great Famine. All else equal, famine (excess) mortality rates were positively associated with ethnic Ukrainian population share across provinces, as well as across districts within provinces. Ukrainian ethnicity, rather than the administrative boundaries of the Ukrainian republic, mattered for famine mortality. These and many additional results provide strong evidence that higher Ukrainian famine mortality was an outcome of policy, and suggestive evidence on the political-economic drivers of repression. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that bias against Ukrainians explains up to 77% of famine deaths in the three republics of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus and up to 92% in Ukraine.

That is a new NBER working paper by Andrei Markevich, Natalya Naumenko (my colleague at GMU), and Nancy Qian.  The paper represents a significant advance in terms of basic data, and the core hypothesis of ethnic favoritism is strongly validated.

Within one hundred years the future is going to get very weird

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

The notion that the future will be weirder than we think, and come sooner, is a possibility raised by Holden Karnofsky, the co-chief executive officer of Open Philanthropy. It’s an intriguing and provocative idea.

I consider genetic engineering, longevity research, finding signs of life on other planets, neural engineering, and AI as possible developments, plus a bit more.

…these changes are far more radical than those that occurred between 1921 and today. Compared to 1921, we are much wealthier and more secure — but a lot of basic structures of the world remain broadly the same. I don’t think that much of what we can do now would strike our 1921 predecessors as magical, though the speed and power of our computers might surprise them. Nor would visitors from 1921 think of us as somehow not human.

Of course none of these developments are inevitable. Another very weird future is entirely possible: that we humans use our creative energies for destruction, causing civilization to take some major and enduring steps backwards.

Either way, the future is not just more and nicer suburbs, better pay and new forms of social media. All those are likely to happen, but they won’t be the biggest changes. When it comes to the future of the human race, we — and our children, for those of us who have any — may turn out to be especially important generations. I very much hope we are up to this moment.

Recommended.

What should I ask Claudia Goldin?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, so what should I ask?

Here is part of her Wikipedia page, which perhaps ought to have emphasized economic history more?:

Claudia Goldin…is the Henry Lee Professor of Economics at Harvard University and director of the Development of the American Economy program at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Goldin was the president of the American Economic Association in the 2013–14 academic year. In 1990, she became the first woman to be tenured at the Harvard economics department. Her research includes topics such as female labor force, income inequality, education, and the economic gender gap.

Here are her pieces on scholar.google.com.  And I will take this chance to plug her new, forthcoming book Career and Family: Women’s Century-Long Journey Toward Equity.

*Home in the World: A Memoir*

That is the new Amartya Sen autobiography, and it is well…a biography.  You learn that he loves Sichuan duck and “hilsha fish” (if done properly with the mustard), his thoughts of enduring military service, Sen’s study of Sanskrit, his self-description as a hypochondriac, his bout with mouth cancer at a young age, and that Calcutta (!) is a great walking city, at least when Sen lived there in the 1950s, among other matters.  The readers definitely gets his or her “biography money’s worth.”

But should you care?

The name “Tagore” appears so many times in the text that it takes up 3/4 of a page in the index.  This is very much a Bengali memoir.

I learned that Sen’s family lived for a few years with him in Burma, he is sympathetic to Buddhism, he was ten at the time of the Great Famine and it had a major impact on his thinking, and that Sen was greatly influenced by Maurice Dobb and thought Marx was unjustly excluded from the economics curriculum.  Piero Sraffa was his Director of Studies at Cambridge, and introduced Sen to the wonders of ristretto.  Sen also stresses the import of Sraffa for converting the early Wittgenstein into the later Wittgenstein.  He has great praise for P.T. Bauer, both as a thinker and as an instructor.  He describes Buchanan as a “…very agreeable but rather conservative economist” who got him thinking about whether the notion of collective preference made sense at all.

This doesn’t have enough coherence to be a great book, but there is enough in here of interest to satisfy anyone curious about Sen.

You can pre-order here, I got my copy from the UK.

My excellent Conversation with Niall Ferguson

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

Niall joined Tyler to discuss the difference between English and Scottish pessimism, his surprise encounter with Sean Connery, what James Bond and Doctor Who have in common, how religion fosters the cultural imagination to produce doomsday scenarios, which side of the Glorious Revolution he would have been on, the extraordinary historical trajectory of Scotland from the 17th century through the 18th century, why historians seem to have an excessive occupation with leadership, what he learned from R.G. Collingwood and A.J.P. Taylor, why American bands could never quite get punk music right, Tocqueville’s insights on liberalism, the unfortunate iconoclasm of John Maynard Keynes, the dystopian novel he finds most plausible, what he learned about right and left populism on his latest trip to Latin America, the importance of intellectual succession and building institutions, what he’ll do next, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If you had been alive at the time and the Glorious Revolution were going on, which side would you have been rooting for and why? Speaking of counterfactuals.

FERGUSON: I think everybody should ask themselves that question each morning. Whig or Tory? Are you a Jacobite?

COWEN: Do you want Dutch people coming over to run your country? That’s another part of it, right? I would have been quite worried. Nothing against Dutch people, but you might think, “Well, they don’t have a stable ruling coalition, so they’re going to be all the more tyrannical.”

FERGUSON: Yes. I wrote about the Dutch takeover in Empire. It’s bizarre that the British Isles just get taken over by a Dutch monarch at the behest of a faction mainly motivated by religious prejudice and hostility to Roman Catholicism. At the time, I would have been a Whig on religious grounds. I’m from the ardently Protestant Lowlands of Scotland. I’m like all people from that part of the world, drawn to the romanticism of the Jacobites but also repelled by what it would have been like in practice.

If you want to understand all this, by the way, you have to read Walter Scott, which I hadn’t done for years and years. I’d never really read Scott because I was told he was boring. Then during the pandemic, I started reading the Waverley novels, and it’s all there: all the fundamental dilemmas that were raised, not just by the Glorious Revolution, but prior to that by the Civil War of the 17th century, and that were raised again in the 1745 Jacobite rising.

Scott’s brilliant at explaining something that I don’t think is properly understood, and that is that Scotland had the most extraordinary historical trajectory. It went from being Afghanistan in the 17th century — it was basically Afghanistan. You had violent warring clans in the north, in the mountainous parts of the country, and a theocracy of extreme Calvinist zealots in the Lowlands. This was a deeply dysfunctional, very violent place with much higher levels of homicide than England. Really, it was a barbaric place.

And something very strange happened. That was that in the course of — beginning really from the late 17th century — in the course of the 18th century, Scotland became the most dynamic tiger economy in the world. Also, it became the cradle of the enlightenment, had really all the best ideas of Western civilization, all at once in a really short space of time with a really small number of people, all sitting around in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

I still don’t think a book has been written that properly explains that. You certainly wouldn’t have put a bet on Scotland behaving that way by the late 18th century, if all you knew about it was Scotland in the mid-17th century. If you look at it that way, then you kind of have to be a Whig. You have to recognize that the institutions that came from England, including the Dutch institutions that were imported in the Glorious Revolution, really helped Scotland get out of its Afghan predicament.

Recommended, interesting throughout.  And again, here is Niall’s new book Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe.

The Farrago of International Travel Restrictions

International travel restrictions are a farrago built on fear, statistical confusion, and out-dated information. The US, for example, is still requiring a virus test to enter the US but not proof of vaccination. In other words, a fully vaccinated citizen can now fly to Canada (with Canadian requirements) but if they want back in they need to have had a virus test. Ridiculous.

Even more ridiculous, Chinese, European and British citizens are still not allowed into the United States. Why? China, for example, has almost no COVID cases–thus there is no reason to restrict Chinese citizens from traveling to the United States. Indeed, President Trump rescinded these restrictions at the end of his term but Biden reinstated them immediately. Why?  Travel is now banned from many countries with low COVID and high vaccination rates while allowed from many countries with high COVID rates and low vaccination rates.  There is no rhyme or reason to the travel bans and restrictions.

I propose we eliminate the farrago with a simple rule. Anyone vaccinated with a full dose of any WHO approved vaccine should be allowed to visit the United States without restriction. People on twitter responded “but even a vaccinated person could still be a carrier!” No kidding. So what? We cannot eliminate all risk. The logic of allowing vaccinated travelers into the United States is simple–a fully vaccinated visitor is safer than the average US citizen. Thus, allowing more vaccinated people into the United States is not especially risky and is having beneficial effects on the economy.

“Vaccine passports” became politically charged but what we have now is a bizarre combination of “testing passports” and “no passports.” In contrast, a vaccination requirement for travel is simpler, cheaper, more convenient and more effective than a test and it creates greater freedom than no passport at all. A vaccine requirement is no more difficult to enforce than a testing requirement. Indeed, the United States has in the past required vaccination prior to arrival so this would hardly be unprecedented. For special cases, a test could be allowed in lieu of a vaccine, especially if it was followed up with an airport vaccination but vaccination should be the primary requirement.

To recap: Anyone vaccinated with a full dose of any WHO approved vaccine should be allowed to visit the United States without restriction.

Addendum: A mix and match from any two WHO approved vaccines counts as a full dose!

The 1991 Project

In 1991 on the verge of bankruptcy, India abandoned the License-Raj and freed its economy from many socialist shackles. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao announced to the nation:

We believe that a bulk of government regulations and controls on economic activity have outlived their utility. They are stifling the creativity and innovativeness of our people. Excessive controls have also bred corruption. Indeed, they have come in the way of achieving our objectives of expanding employment opportunities, reducing rural-urban disparities and ensuring greater social justice.

And he was serious–in the plan, tariffs and controls were lifted, thousands of licenses eliminated, entire departments undone. A No Confidence motion was mounted in parliament but the opponents made a tactical error and walked out, leaving just enough votes for Rao’s government to survive and the plan to pass. The result was an economic revolution. Economic growth increased and millions were lifted out of poverty. Yet, the 1991 Project was incomplete and many young Indian’s today have little appreciation of the gains that have been made or why they happened.

The 1991 Project is about understanding the history of economic liberalization in order to better chart the future. It begins with a superb essay by Shruti Rajagopalan on living under India’s socialist system. Did you know that under the License-Raj you needed a government permit to own a bicycle in some parts of the country?

Bicycles saw increasing demand as urban populations increased. Steel was government controlled and, given the heavy demand from the construction industry, only limited allotments were made to bicycle manufacturers. To increase their allotment of steel and meet the increasing demand for bicycles, they needed an expansion permit, which was rarely approved by the government given the shortage of steel.

The license and permit system for steel also created a shortage in bicycles, which was followed by the inevitable price controls. To ensure that demand was legitimate and all available bicycles were used, owning and riding a bicycle required a government-issued token in some parts of the country. Inspectors thrived on the bribes paid when they caught anyone riding without the requisite permit.

The middle class didn’t escape the problem, either. Through a collaboration with Vespa, Bajaj manufactured scooters in India, and they became popular with the middle-class. Denied permission to expand to meet the rising demand, the waitlist for a Bajaj scooter was ten years by the late 1970s.

Even though dowry is not just illegal but is a crime in India, the entrenched dowry culture in the arranged marriage system enables grooms to make outrageous demands of the bride’s family. A Bajaj scooter became a top dowry ask. Given the decade-long waiting period, parents took to purchasing them on the black market, and by the late 1970s the price of a secondhand/used Bajaj scooter available immediately was much higher than that of a brand-new vehicle with a 5- to 10-year waiting period.

It got so bad that when a girl child was born, well-wishers would – only half in jest – suggest to the parents that they should immediately book a scooter so it would arrive in time for the wedding. This was reminiscent of the old Soviet Union joke about a man paying for an automobile. The clerk tells him it will be delivered in ten years. The man asks, “Morning or afternoon?” “What difference does it make?” responds the clerk. “Well, the plumber is coming in the morning.”

Check out The 1991 Project and Rajagopalan’s essay.

Photo Credit: Manmohan Singh with PM Narasimha Rao in 1994. Photo: Sanjay Sharma/Hindustan Times

Why humans will perish rather than become grabby aliens

It turns out that Homo Sapiens is not all that different from other, early proto-human species, such as Neanderthals.  They are the “closest things to us.”  Denisovans, etc.  We killed them off.  (We also are likely to mostly kill off chimpanzees, zoos and research labs excluded.)  Therefore the best prediction is that we kill us off too.  The other species like us died through mass violence at the hands of humans.  We don’t have many data points, but they all seem to end the same way.

You might think a) “we are really good at killing off other species,” rather than b) “we are really good at killing things off.”  Therein lies some hope.  Signs of cross-national solidarity thus should make you much more optimistic about the future.

How’s that African vaccine distribution program coming?

Why the post-1960 divergence for Haiti and the Dominican Republic?

Here is a very good post from Noah Smith on that topic, opening excerpt:

As recently as 1960, the two countries had similar standards of living. Today, the D.R., by some measures, is eight times as rich as Haiti, while Haiti’s standard of living hasn’t advanced at all since 1950.

The D.R. has already surpassed Brazil and Colombia; if Covid doesn’t knock it off its growth trend, it’ll soon pass Mexico and Argentina.

A forensic exercise then follows, for instance:

When Haiti won its independence from France, France sent warships to demand reparations for Haitian expropriation of French property (i.e. slaves and land). Haiti agreed to pay a considerable sum, and to give France cheap exports as well. Some people blame this monumental act of extortion for Haiti’s poverty. It makes a simple, intuitive sort of sense — if someone takes your money, it’s hard to get rich right?

But there are some big problems with this thesis. First of all, Haiti finished paying back this debt (which France reduced) in 1947. That’s at least a decade before Haiti and the D.R. started to diverge economically, and four decades before the divergence became pronounced. Furthermore, Haiti’s total external debt in 2019 was only about 15% of GDP, while the D.R.’s was about 40%! The D.R. is far more indebted to foreign countries now than Haiti is.

I agree with the points made by Noah in the longer post, and would add a few factors.  First, Haiti’s moments of extreme political weakness happened to coincide with a major increase in drug trafficking in the region.  Second, the DR has done an especially good job of mobilizing Special Economic Zones to support its economic growth, at least relative to Haiti.  That in turn had broader feedback effects on subsequent political economy and thus economic growth.  Haiti, in contrast, ended driving out its MNEs — Disney manufacturing was once in the country, baseball production was once significant, and so on, but none of those gains have compounded and mostly they went away, due to bad governance and infrastructure.  (And the massive corruption at Haiti’s main port is a striking contrast with DR export procedures through the SEZs.)  Third, and this one may be as much symptom as cause, but the DR managed to decentralize its power structures somewhat through economic growth on its peripheries, through both tourism and SEZs.  In Haiti, the second- and third-tier cities have not developed, and have turned into backwaters, while centralization in Port-au-Prince has continued unabated, thereby intensifying the logic of Haitian rent-seeking.

Why did Portugal decline?

Davis Kedrosky and Nuno Palma blame Brazil:

As late as 1750, Portugal had an output per head considerably higher than those of France or Spain. Yet just a century later, Portugal was Western Europe’s poorest country. In this paper we show that the discovery of massive quantities of gold in Brazil over the eighteenth century played a key role for the long-run development of Portugal’s economy. We focus on the economic resource curse: the loss of competitiveness of the tradables sector manifested in the rise of the price of non-traded goods relative to traded imports. Using original price data from archives for four Portuguese regions between 1650 and 1800, we show that a real exchange rate appreciation of about 30 percent occurred during the eighteenth century, which led to a loss of the competitiveness of national industry from which the country did not recover until considerably later.

Via Ilya Novak.  Oh Thiago!

John Aubrey’s account of his own life

In part:

Born at Easton Piers, march twelfth, 1621, about sun-rising: very weak and like to die, and therefore christened that morning before prayer.  I think I have heard my mother say I had an ague [fever] shortly after I was born.

1629: about three or four years old, I had a grievous ague.  I can remember it.  I got not health till eleven, or twelve: but had sickness of vomiting for thirteen hours every fortnight for…years…This sickness nipped by strength in the bud.

1633: eight years old, I had an issue (natural) in the coronal suture of my head, which continued running till twenty-one.

1634: October: I had a violent fever that was like to have carried me off. ‘Twas the most dangerous sickness that ever I had.

About 1639 (or 1640) I had the measles, but that was nothing: I was hardly sick.

1639: Monday after Easter week my uncle’s nag ran away with me, and gave a very dangerous fall.

1643: April and May, the small-pox at Oxford; and shortly after, left that ingenious place; and for three years led a sad life in the country…

1646: April — admitted of the Middle Temple.  But my father’s sickness, and business, never permitted me to make any settlement to my study…

1655 (I think) June fourteenth, I had a fall at Epsom, and broke one of my ribs and was afraid it might cause an apostumation [abscess]…

1656: December: Veneris morbus [venereal disease]

1657: November, twenty-second, obiit domina [died Lady] Katherine Ryves, with whom I was to marry; to my great loss

Nor were those the end of his troubles…

That is all from John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, the autobiographical section, an excellent book more generally.  Progress Studies!

China fact of the day

By 1978, Han constituted 42 percent of Xinjiang’s population, up from a mere 6 percent in 1949.  The flow was reversed in the reform era, as many Han who had been forcibly relocated to the province returned to China proper.  In 1990, the Han share of the population was down to 37.5 percent, and official estimates of the time projected a decline to 25.0 percent by 2030.

That is from Adeeb Khalid’s excellent Central Asia: A New History from the Imperial Conquests to the Present.

Is Haiti Governable Right Now? (at all)

More generally, might there be some countries that simply are not viable nation-states any more, no matter what we do?  That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

In other words, at the moment there doesn’t seem to be any way to govern Haiti. One problem is that foreign flows of money, whether from the drug trade or from Venezuelan foreign aid, have overwhelmed the domestic incentives to play by the rules. Haiti’s political institutions are mostly consumed by bribes and rents, with no stable center. The news, so to speak, is that such problems do not always have solutions. At all.

It is fine to suggest that Haiti invest in building up its political institutions — but those institutions have been unraveling for decades. I was a frequent visitor to the country in the 1990s, and although the poverty was severe, it was possible to travel with only a modest risk of encountering trouble. Government was largely ineffective, but it did exist.

These days the risk of kidnapping is so high that a visit is unthinkable.

And:

The buildup and rise of nation-states has become so ordinary that the opposite possibility is now neglected: their enduring collapse. It’s not history running in reverse. It’s that modernity has created new forces and incentives — drug money, kidnapping ransoms, payments from foreign powers, and so on — that can be stronger and more alluring than the usual reasons for supporting an internal national political order. If the rest of the world gets rich more quickly than you do, it might have the resources to effectively neutralize your incentives for peace and good government.

So where else might the political order soon unravel? In parts of Afghanistan, external forces (Pakistan, China, Russia, the U.S.) have so much at stake that the conditions there may never settle down. Other risks might be found in small, not yet fully orderly nations such as Guyana, Equatorial Guinea, and Eswatini (formerly Swaziland). El Salvador and Nicaragua seem to be consolidating their political orders, but at the cost of losing fair democratic political competition. The nation-state as we know it might not survive in every part of Nigeria, where the recent surge in kidnappings is striking.

In the Baltics and Taiwan, dangers from larger, aggressive neighbors lurk. In spite of generally good governance in these places, the pressures from outside powers might be too much to bear, reflecting broadly similar destabilizing mechanisms — namely, that the internal rewards for coordinating support for a status quo might not be high enough.

Recommended.

Book Review: Andy Slavitt’s Preventable

Like Michael Lewis’s The Premonition which I reviewed earlier, Andy Slavitt’s Preventable is a story of heroes, only all the heroes are named Andy Slavitt. It begins, as all such stories do, with an urgent call from the White House…the President needs you now! When not reminding us (e.g. xv, 14, 105, 112, 133, 242, 249) of how he did “nearly the impossible” and saved Obamacare he tells us how grateful other people were for his wise counsel, e.g. “Jared Kushner’s name again flashed on my phone. I picked up, and he was polite and appreciative of my past help.” (p.113), “John Doer was right to challenge me to make my concerns known publicly. Hundreds of thousands of people were following my tweets…” (p. 55)

Slavitt deserves praise for his work during the pandemic so I shouldn’t be so churlish but Preventable is shallow and politicized and it rubbed me the wrong way. Instead of an “inside account” we get little more than a day-by-day account familiar to anyone who lived through the last year and half. Slavitt rarely departs from the standard narrative.

Trump, of course, comes in for plenty of criticism for his mishandling of the crisis. Perhaps the most telling episode was when an infected Trump demanded a publicity jaunt in a hermetically sealed car with Secret Service personnel. Trump didn’t care enough to protect those who protected him. No surprise he didn’t protect us.

The standard narrative, however, leads Slavitt to make blanket assertions—the kind that everyone of a certain type knows to be true–but in fact are false. He writes, for example:

In comparison to most of these other countries, the American public was impatient, untrusting, and unaccustomed to sacrificing individual rights for the public good. (p. 65)

Data from the Oxford Coronavirus Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT) show that the US “sacrifice” as measured by the stringency of the COVID policy response–school closures; workplace closures; restrictions on public gatherings; restrictions on internal movements; mask requirements; testing requirements and so forth–was well within the European and Canadian average.

The pandemic and the lockdowns split Americans from their friends and families. Birthdays, anniversaries, even funerals were relegated to Zoom. Jobs and businesses were lost in the millions. Children couldn’t see their friends or even play in the park. Churches and bars were shuttered. Music was silenced. Americans sacrificed plenty.

Some of Slavitt’s assertions are absurd.

The U.S. response to the pandemic differed from the response in other parts of the world largely in the degree to which the government was reluctant to interfere with our system of laissez-faire capitalism…

Laissez-faire capitalism??! Political hyperbole paired with lazy writing. It would be laughable except for the fact that such hyperbole biases our thinking. If you read Slavitt uncritically you’d assume–as Slavitt does–that when the pandemic hit, US workers were cast aside to fend for themselves. In fact, the US fiscal response to the pandemic was among the largest and most generous in the world. An unemployed minimum wage worker in the United States, for example, was paid a much larger share of their income during the pandemic than a similar worker in Canada, France, or Germany (and no, that wasn’t because the US replacement rate was low to begin with.)

This is not to deny that low-wage workers bore a larger brunt of the pandemic than high-wage workers, many of whom could work from home. Slavitt implies, however, that this was a “room-service pandemic” in which the high-wage workers demanded a reopening of the economy at the expense of low-wage workers. As far as the data indicate, however, the big divisions of opinion were political and tribal not by income per se. The Washington Post, for example, concluded:

There was no significant difference in the percentage of people who said social distancing measures were worth the cost between those who’d seen no economic impact and those who said the impacts were a major problem for their households. Both groups broadly support the measures.

Perhaps because Slavitt believes his own hyperbole about a laissez-faire economy he can’t quite bring himself to say that Operation Warp Speed, a big government program of early investment to accelerate vaccines, was a tremendous success. Instead he winds up complaining that “even with $1 billion worth of funding for research and development, Moderna ended up selling its vaccine at about twice the cost of an influenza vaccine.” (p. 190). Can you believe it? A life-saving, economy-boosting, pandemic ending, incredibly-cheap vaccine, cost twice as much as the flu vaccine! The horror.

Slavitt’s narrative lines up “scientific experts” against “deniers, fauxers, and herders” with the scientific experts united on the pro-lockdown side. Let’s consider. In Europe one country above all others followed the Slavitt ideal of an expert-led pandemic response. A country where the public health authority was free from interference from politicians. A country where the public had tremendous trust in the state. A country where the public were committed to collective solidarity and the public welfare. That country, of course, was Sweden. Yet in Sweden the highly regarded Public Health Agency, led by state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, an expert in infectious diseases who had directed Sweden’s response to the swine flu epidemic, opposed lockdowns, travel restrictions, and the general use of masks.

Moreover, the Public Health Agency of Sweden and Tegnell weren’t a bizarre anomaly, anti-lockdown was probably the dominant expert position prior to COVID. In a 2006 review of pandemic policy, for example, four highly-regarded experts argued:

It is difficult to identify circumstances in the past half-century when large-scale quarantine has been effectively used in the control of any disease. The negative consequences of large-scale quarantine are so extreme (forced confinement of sick people with the well; complete restriction of movement of large populations; difficulty in getting critical supplies, medicines, and food to people inside the quarantine zone) that this mitigation measure should be eliminated from serious consideration.

Travel restrictions, such as closing airports and screening travelers at borders, have historically been ineffective.

….a policy calling for communitywide cancellation of public events seems inadvisable.

The authors included Thomas V. Inglesby, the Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, one of the most highly respected centers for infectious diseases in the world, and D.A. Henderson, the legendary epidemiologist widely credited with eliminating smallpox from the planet.

Tegnell argued that “if other countries were led by experts rather than politicians, more nations would have policies like Sweden’s” and he may have been right. In the United States, for example, the Great Barrington declaration, which argued for a Swedish style approach and which Slavitt denounces in lurid and slanderous terms, was written by three highly-qualified, expert epidemiologists; Martin Kulldorff from Harvard, Sunetra Gupta from Oxford and Jay Bhattacharya from Stanford. One would be hard-pressed to find a more expert group.

The point is not that we should have followed the Great Barrington experts (for what it is worth, I opposed the Great Barrington declaration). Ecclesiastes tells us:

… that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

In other words, the experts can be wrong. Indeed, the experts are often divided, so many of them must be wrong. The experts also often base their policy recommendations on factors beyond their expertise, including educational, class, and ideological biases, so the experts are to be trusted more on factual questions than on ethical answers. Nevertheless, the experts are more likely to be right than the non-experts. So how should one navigate these nuances in a democratic society? Slavitt doesn’t say.

Slavitt’s simple narrative–Trump bad, Biden good, Follow the Science, Be Kind–can’t help us as we try to improve future policy. Slavitt ignores most of the big questions. Why did the CDC fail in its primary mission? Indeed, why did the CDC often slow our response? Why did the NIH not quickly fund COVID research giving us better insight on the virus and its spread? Why were the states so moribund and listless? Why did the United States fail to adopt first doses first, even though that policy successfully saved lives by speeding up vaccinations in Great Britain and Canada?

To the extent that Slavitt does offer policy recommendations they aren’t about reforming the CDC, FDA or NIH. Instead he offers us a tired laundry list; a living wage, affordable housing, voting reform, lobbying reform, national broadband, and reduction of income inequality. Surprise! The pandemic justified everything you believed all along! But many countries with these reforms performed poorly during the pandemic and many without, such as authoritarian China, performed relatively well. All good things do not correlate.

Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic make it easy to blame him and call it a day. But the rot is deep. If we do not get to the core of our problems we will not be ready for the next emergency. If we are lucky, we might face the next emergency with better leadership but a great country does not rely on luck.

*The Volga: A History of Russia’s Greatest River*

The author is Janet M. Hartley from LSE, here is one excerpt:

…the religious composition on the Volga is complex.  Finno-Ugric settlers originally followed shamanistic beliefs, although many converted, at least nominally, to Orthodoxy after they became subjects of the Russian Empire.  The ruler and the elite in Khazaria probably converted to Judaism sometime in the early ninth century.  Kalmyks in the south and south-east of the Volga were Buddhists (the only Buddhists in Europe).  The Bolgar state, the Golden Horse and the khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan were, or became, Muslim.  the Russian and Soviet states were conscious of the potential threat of Islam in the Volga region from the time of the conquest of Kazan in 1552.  The history of the Volga is, in part, the history of (often forced) conversion to Orthodoxy by the Russian government and the reaction to this of the local inhabitants.  In many cases, the conversion process was incomplete or, in the case of Islam, could be reversed.  The remoteness of much of the Volga countryside attracted Old Believers — that is, schismatics from the Russian Orthodox Church who did not accept the changes in liturgy and practice in the middle of the seventeenth century.

Recommended.