Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

TiB 107: Will coronavirus lead to US-China conflict; debunking the Blitz spirit; and the limits of cost/benefit analysis

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Does coronavirus make US-China conflict more likely?

One under-discussed element of the coronavirus pandemic is the extraordinary strain it is putting on US-China relations. Last year, we discussed several times Graham Allison’s important book, Destined for War, which looks at the history of conflict between dominant and rising powers. One of the key ideas is that conflict is often sparked by the rising power choosing a volatile moment to assert its growing strength on the international stage - and the dominant power reacting violently.

Coronavirus might be such a moment. China is expelling US journalists, visibly asserting soft power and, most importantly, pushing the claim that the US is the source of the outbreak (see here for a good summary). It may be a miscalculation, as Tanner Greer says. The US is, of course, pushing back, most obviously in Trump’s repeated use of the "Chinese Virus” label.

Most of the West is in firefighting mode, so it’s still underappreciated how geopolitically significant attributions of blame will be once the pandemic is under control and attention turns to the economic destruction it’s wreaked (see this thread for a sample). Blaming China will be perfect fodder for Trump’s re-election campaign, which mean tensions will be amplified (and Democrats who hope the President pays a political price for his response may be disappointed). Many China watchers fear it's a dangerous moment - Bill Bishop calls it a 40 year low. It’s one to keep an eye on. 

Pandemics, cost/benefit analysis and moral uncertainty

As the world locks down, the idea that the "remedy is worse than the cure" is gaining (mostly disreputable) followers. But we are set to have one of the worst economic quarters in modern history and, of course, GDP per capita, for all its flaws, proxies real human welfare. This is one of the better arguments that the world’s response has been vastly harmful, though read this counterpoint by Rob Wiblin. It’s also worth looking at this piece, which considers the question from the opposite direction: how much should we be willing to pay to shorten a lockdown, given its enormous cost? (Spoiler: a lot.) 

Personally, I’m with Rob, but I’m intrigued by the number of people who say we shouldn’t even ask about the cost/benefit analysis (see, for example, the replies to Robin Hanson’s tweet on the topic). It’s understandable. There’s a certain icky-ness to utilitarianism. People recoil at the idea that you can put a price on a human life, even though public and private actors have to do so all the time (There’s an analogue here with arguments about the moral limits of markets). 

It’s too easy, though, to frame this as smart utilitarians and their irrational critics. The pandemic is fraught with radical uncertainty. We barely know what’s actually happening, let alone what second- and third-order effects to count (How much weight do we put on China’s lower emissions in February?) And, of course, even choosing the right ethical framework is fraught with difficulty. Whenever I feel especially sure of a moral intuition I re-listen to this excellent podcast and downgrade my confidence a little. 

The much-needed end of the Blitz spirit?

I mentioned last week the idea of “social scripts” - the practices and mindsets that a society is well prepared to adopt - as an explanation for the (so far) better outcomes of some Asian countries in managing coronavirus. Until last night, the UK was embarrassingly non-compliant with “social distancing” and other best practices - to the exasperation of our leaders. I wonder if it’s partly because, for reasons of historical accident, we lack any social scripts for dealing with real catastrophe.

Or, rather, that we have only one - "the Blitz spirit" - and it’s proven to be almost perfectly counterproductive (see this amusing tweet). It’s admirable, perhaps, when you have a human enemy whose actions might be influenced by defiance, but - like so many of our defence systems - it’s futile against a virus. This piece in the New England Journal of Medicine is a useful summary of the case against the “stiff upper lip”.

It’s also worth debunking the mythology of the Blitz spirit. As this piece by historian Richard Overy shows, the only serious contemporary investigation of the Blitz's impact showed a population that "developed serious psychosomatic conditions, including involuntary soiling and wetting, persistent crying [and] uncontrollable shaking” (That said, as Overy notes, admissions to psychiatric hospitals were lower in 1940 than 1939; there’s a good discussion of this in Sebastian Junger’s Tribe - this interview with the author is worth a listen). Time to refresh our history - and our social scripts. 

Quick links

  1. Bad times, bad VCs. I wrote a short piece for Sifted on startup investors behaving badly - and why its counterproductive.
  2. Only 500 years late... Against the backdrop of coronavirus, the Pope reconciles with Martin Luther (sort of)
  3. Overconfidence kills. Great 2017 paper that shows that not only do people underestimate exponential growth, but they're overconfident about their understanding of it...
  4. No cushion. Fascinating / terrifying graphic of average firm cash buffer by industry.
  5. The greatest Bush? Excellent thread on Vannevar Bush, R&D leadership and national emergency

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Until next week,

Matt Clifford