Interesting new articles on mass hysteria and medical morality

While the hysteria marches on here in Europe, an interesting economics article came out in a decent journal on the political economy of that mass hysteria. Their abstract:

In this article, we aim to develop a political economy of mass hysteria. Using the background of COVID-19, we study past mass hysteria. Negative information which is spread through mass media repetitively can affect public health negatively in the form of nocebo effects and mass hysteria. We argue that mass and digital media in connection with the state may have had adverse consequences during the COVID-19 crisis. The resulting collective hysteria may have contributed to policy errors by governments not in line with health recommendations. While mass hysteria can occur in societies with a minimal state, we show that there exist certain self-corrective mechanisms and limits to the harm inflicted, such as sacrosanct private property rights. However, mass hysteria can be exacerbated and self-reinforcing when the negative information comes from an authoritative source, when the media are politicized, and social networks make the negative information omnipresent. We conclude that the negative long-term effects of mass hysteria are exacerbated by the size of the state.

The main claim I find interesting is that they think a large state makes the hysteria worse, with the essential idea being that a monopoly provider of authoritarian knowledge has more potential to lock its population into false beliefs without a clear mechanism to get out of that, which raises the question of whether one should deliberately split the information-provision role of the state into competing camps.

In the same week, a rapid response comment on a pro-lockdown editorial by the British Medical Journal took that journal to task for its morality, anti-scientific views, and cosying up to power. While I totally agree with that comment, I do find it rather brave of the BMJ editors to put such a scathing critique of themselves on their website. They are certainly displaying tolerance of dissenting opinions! The short letter by a retired GP that doesn’t pull any punches and that names many instances of covid-congestion effects is over the fold. Continue reading

Posted in Coronavirus crisis, Death and taxes, Democracy, Health, History, Science | 34 Comments

The rise of moral bubbles?

We may be headed for a world of endless moral bubbles, where targets for outrage can be identified and turned into bogeymen in record time, with record audiences. It would be QAnon, but for anything you can think of and some stuff you can’t.

Author’s note: What follows is speculation. It may very well be wrong. I’m thinking out loud. Let me know if it prompts any thoughts at your end.

Now that technology has democratised authorship and boosted signals about audience response, we are finding out where mass demand for narrative really lies. And it lies with not with nuanced storylines but with something else: simple moral tales.

Simple moral tales are powerfully attractive to a wide audience. The US film industry learnt this in 1977 with George Lucas’s Star Wars, and didn’t look back: these days, superhero flicks have taken up permanent occupation of the US box office.

But these are stories. The interesting new development is this:  the hunger for black-and-white stories is infecting the real world.

Black and white in the real world

The most remarkable characteristic of two remarkable real-world 2021 events is this: large numbers of people have been ready to put themselves on the line for stories that are black and white and dumb all over. They are silly almost beyond comprehension.

Most of the people involved in them have been watching black-and-white morality tales most of their lives, and they evidently have developed a powerful urge to take part in one.

First QAnon believers stormed the US Capitol in disorganised insurrection, convinced that then-president Donald Trump was leading a secret movement to root out election-stealing paedophiles from the top levels of US government.

Then a crowd of Redditors from the /WallStreetBets forum tried to do the same in the world of investment, convinced that by taking down one small US investment house in a short squeeze they could demonstrate their power over the same Wall Street that was busy selling them wildly overpriced shares. They said, loudly, that they just wanted to prove a moral point.

The bubble

These two episodes, and a few others in recent history, display a brand of dumb that we haven’t seen much before, certainly not in this quantity.

True, these affairs make suddenly more comprehensible all those puzzling quests in the history books, from the Grail to the communist paradise.

But the big dumb moral quests of 2021 have lacked any big idea like communism or fascism or even the prospect of vast profit.

Continue reading

Posted in Cultural Critique, Democracy, Economics and public policy, Political theory | 5 Comments

Covid-congestion effects: why are lockdowns so deadly?

Consider the picture below of two hypothetical Accident and Emergency departments (A&E), one that has no covid-regulations and simply has the available nurses trying to help all comers as fast as possible. In the other one the nurses try to prevent mingling by testing newcomers (or do some other form of screening) in one part of the A&E and then funneling the patients, causing a queue that is an ideal infection place for covid.

In this picture, the covid-infected are the ones with little green dots floating around them. The red figures are the nurses. In the left-hand side situation patients come and go, helped relatively quickly by the three nurses who do nothing but help patients. You see that using the whole space as much as possible means most patients are spaced relatively widely anyway, so there will be some close-encounter mingling but not much.

The right-hand side situation depicts the same hypothetical A&E where they got extremely worried about being criticised for mingling patients. So the manager of that A&E decided to become ‘responsible’ and demand all comers get a covid-test (or questionnaire) administered by one of the nurses behind the red line. The covid-infected are then subsequently put in one sealed part of the hospital whilst the uninfected go to another part, helped by different nurses.

Note the congestion effect in this hypothetical example (which is inspired by the eye-witness account of an actual nurse: see this nurse statement Jan 29th lockdown sceptics): because the test (or questionnaire) takes time, you now have a much longer mingling of patients before being helped, whilst there are also fewer nurses actually helping, which further increases the queue. So that waiting room becomes smaller, more crowded, and exactly full of the wrong people: infected and non-infected bunched up for a considerable length of time. The total infection numbers are far higher in the right-hand side situation than the left-hand side as a result of the ‘covid-safe’ policies of the A&E manager. This is an example of covid-congestion effects: congestion caused by well-meaning rules designed to prevent infections in fact cause more of them.

Of course you can think of counter-reactions to the problem in the A&E example: move the queue outside, have tests done off-facility, ask everyone to wear masks, tell people not to come to hospitals, stop treating people altogether, etc. Each of these counter-reactions has actually been implemented in the UK but have simply caused other types of congestion problems that I will explain more fully later on. For now, just consider that in winter weather you cannot let very ill patients stand outside in the cold rain, whilst masks at best reduce the inflow of infections a bit but don’t count on them when people are exposed for any length of time. Also, telling people not to come to A&E means infected people are untested, getting worse without early treatment (so more likely to die) and also infecting people elsewhere. The congestion effects hence simply cannot be avoided if you reserve a large slice of your health space and health staff for covid-avoidance activities like testing and re-organising: however you slice it, you are then reducing the productivity of the health system which means less care and a larger queue somewhere of people getting more and more ill, hence more vulnerable and infectious.

If you look closely at the way the health system operates in the UK, but also in other countries, you see an awful lot of these kinds of congestion effects: the creation of bunched up patient groups because some part of the system has become very concerned with being seen to fight against infections in a way that reduces their productivity and their available space. This is my suggested explanation for the curious phenomenon that the more stringent the lock-downs in Europe and the Americas, the higher the covid death toll often is. Over the fold I unpack this phenomenon in greater length and give more examples of covid-congestion effects at many levels. I thus set out the case for the importance of covid-congestion and what the insights would mean for the efficacy of the policies followed in different regions of the world at different times, and for what optimal policy would look like in various circumstances. Obviously, nothing in the below is certain (if you want certainty, go see your favourite astrologer).

Continue reading

Posted in Coronavirus crisis, Death and taxes, Education, Health, Science, Society | 29 Comments

The sound and the fury signifying nothing: some observations on the new politics

Back in the day, (which is to say for most of the 20th century until things began changing in the 1980s, each of the major political parties had a few percentage points of the population as members. In addition to the intrinsic rewards of being part of one’s country’s social and political fabric, the ultimate point of membership was to influence your party’s political platform and through that to influence government policy.

Correspondingly, mass movements such as the civil rights movement would pare back their platforms to the specific issue they wished to highlight. It took Martin Luther King most of the 1960s to come out against America’s involvement in Vietnam because widening his movements platform was seen to compromise the size of the civil rights coalition. 

Since then politics has famously been ‘hollowed out’. The membership of mainstream political parties has plummeted with those left tending to be careerists, the stooges they attract to stack branches and occasional naïve blow-ins. Political parties still go through some of the motions of members determining policy, but senior party professionals understand themselves as a fighting force which will need to improvise its way through the news cycles through to the next election and that makes member determined policy a potential liability.

And something similar has occurred in mass movements. Their campaigning is increasingly focused on people’s expressive side. And policies are increasingly seen through that lens. Thus Black Lives Matter wants to defund the police or says it does. This is a ridiculous slogan, but one treated with great toleration by our media and commentators. Brexit might mean Brexit, but defund doesn’t really mean defund. It means … well something else – reallocating funds to community building and all that stuff. Likewise, the BLM platform plans to overthrow capitalism and all the rest of it. And it turns out that next to none of the coverage that BLM gets is about its policies. So its policies can be aimed at expression rather than the outcomes that those policies might produce.  

I began writing a post on this back in the days of France’s Yellow Vests. They knew they were pissed off, and, for all I know they were right to be pissed off. They knew they didn’t like certain taxes which they felt targeted them. But what did they like? What policy changes were they after? That was less clear.  Continue reading

Posted in Democracy, Philosophy, Political theory, Sortition and citizens’ juries | 8 Comments

The Toyota Production System: a milestone and revelation in human affairs, or just a rightward shift of the supply curve?

About a year ago, I happened upon the video above and it reminded me of the revelation that the Toyota production system was to me when I first encountered it in 1983. I was working for Industry Minister John Button and reviewing Australia’s car industry and wondering how to reform the hornet’s nest of protectionist regulation that the industry had been entangled in since local content plans were first introduced in the 1960s. (One of the main instigators was Sir Charles McGrath who – from memory – combined his chairmanship of major car parts manufacturer Repco and the Victorian branch of the Liberal Party to great effect. But I digress.)

In any event, the Japanese had quadrupled labour productivity in a decade or so with this new socio-technical system. Toyota was a major influence on much of the language of management we still hear today – flat structures, empowering workers and so on. But it’s easy to say these things. They demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that they had made them work.

The Toyota production system was for me – a pragmatic step up in human evolution – a step on the ‘high road’ which plays to the better angels of our nature, and shows how this can give us lives that are better in every respect – more respectful, purposeful, intelligent, autonomous and productive than the alternative, previous Fordist or Taylorist model of production. This was Adam Smith’s aspiration for economics. I’m still amazed that economists took so little interest in it. They simply note it’s a rightward shift of the supply curve and move on.

Anyway, if you bother to watch the video (and I sympathise as I don’t like watching videos – you can at least listen to it while you do something else) I hope you’ll find it as compelling as I did. You may not, but I liked its ‘daggy’ quality. There’s no hoopla about this guy and indeed some unease about talking about ‘leadership’ in the vacuous and hyped up way we do now.

I think the ideas implicit in the Toyota production system represent a synthesis of ideals and practicality that is incredibly rare and hugely valuable.

As is my recent practice, I’ve got my robopeeps to do a transcript of the talk which I’ve reproduced over the fold (mistakes and all) in case you want to zip through it to find what might be of interest to you a little faster. Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Science, objectivity and the separation of knowing and doing


Given its astonishing success, modern minds are mesmerised by science. So much so that various disciplines adopted certain mannerisms of science in order to make themselves more ‘scientific’. This is the intellectual sin Hayek and others called ‘scientism’.

Having come to understand why this was mostly a dead-end in the discipline of history, I’ve always been wary of scientism in economics and public policy. But having tried to solve problems in these areas on their own terms, I’m often taken aback that what I’ve come up with really is in the spirit of science. The difference is that, as Michael Polanyi put it, science is “a sphere of thought which can only live in pursuit of its own internal necessities”.[1]

If one has lived in pursuit of those internal necessities, and gained some insights, then Polanyi is suggesting that that process is itself science. Polanyi’s view was that the quest to systematise science – to police some demarcation between science and non-science – could never be brought off, a view that has been vindicated so far.

In the introductory section of this essay, I want to highlight two things that I’ve discovered are fundamental to good policy and practice in the field – that have direct counterparts in the natural sciences.

  • First, I was once on a panel with Peter Doherty and talking about the importance of building ‘bottom-up’ knowledge in social programs (as I do!). Peter Doherty piped up and said “Science is bottom-up”. Quite.
  • A second, but closely related idea is Richard Feynman’s. The “first principle” of science is that “you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool”.

Note that these are aspirations. And because they are difficult, science has developed methods that help scientists achieve them. I don’t think we’ve done that in public policy.

The next section provides a vignette from natural science which illustrates the two points above. The third, concluding section circles back to policy, broadly considered to mean the study of, and attempts to improve the human world. It looks at ways in which, policy practice will look different from the natural sciences if it is to “live in pursuit of its own internal necessities”.


Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s book Objectivity provided the initial impetus for this essay. The book shows how scientific atlases – or visual representations of scientific knowledge – illustrate the transition between three different kinds of scientific knowing. It traces three ideal types of scientific knowing – Truth-in-nature, Objectivity, and Trained Judgement. Though the presence of one doesn’t always exclude the other, each ideal type was at its apogee around the middle of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries respectively. Continue reading

Posted in Economics and public policy, Science | 1 Comment

Are the covid lights going on in the States?

An important rule in politics is that you adopt the best policies and slogans of your opponent only after you have destroyed that opponent. Till that moment you pretend he is the devil, but afterwards you re-label his best ideas and call them your own. A great Australian example is how John Howard in 1995 ran on a ‘never ever GST’ platform, and then introduced it himself in 2000.

Are we now seeing the same happen in the US when it comes to covid? Are the Democrats adopting Trump’s attitude to the virus now that he is no longer around and temporarily muzzled in the media as well? It would be the best news on the covid-mania front in months. Where the US leads on this, many will follow. Consider the signs.

The biggest sign is from the biggest state, California, where its Democratic governor has just lifted all stay at home orders and is allowing restaurants to open, despite very low vaccination and high case numbers. The Democratic New York Governor has similarly stopped talking doom and gloom and is demanding re-opening despite rising active case numbers.

Montana’s governor has done away with nearly all Covid restrictions and has now joined Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and South Dakota that abandoned covid-mania months ago or even managed to avoid it almost entirely in the case of South Dakota.

In smaller steps, Massachusets’ governor Charles Baker, is opening up restaurants and businesses; Washington, D.C. is going to allow indoor dining; Maryland’s governor said schools will reopen no later than March 1;  Michigan is going to allow indoor dining on February 1; Chicago’s mayor is announcing an immediate opening of restaurants and bars, and threatening teaching unions to resume teaching.

The mainstream media is also showing a dramatic shift in tone. The New York Times ran a long piece on the cost to children from lockdowns and school closures; National Radio claimed the peak of covid was over, and the Washington Post is starting to talk about T-cells and natural immunity as if they are important things people should discuss rather than fringe theories by holocaust covid-deniers.

One suspects all this is Joe Biden at his best: a consensus figure who worked out a long time ago that the lockdowns were a nonsense but had no political alternative than ride the line that Trump was an evil idiot and that he hence could not possibly be right about covid-mania. Now that Trump has been silenced, at least temporarily, Biden and the Democrats can take his most sensible ideas (as they have also done on such issues as defense spending in the EU, btw) and claim them as theirs. By signing high-profile but largely symbolic low-impact orders related to covid (on vaccine production and such, again copying Trumps’ playbook of commanding private companies) he can claim the ‘tough on covid’ mantra while on the substance doing the opposite.

Most tellingly perhaps, Biden said on Fox news (yes, formerly the media home of Trump) that “There’s nothing we can do to change the trajectory of the pandemic in the next several months.”

Note that ‘nothing we can do’ includes both vaccinations and lockdowns! Imagine if candidate Joe Biden had said the same words before the elections. How the covid-maniacs would have howled, but interestingly they are remarkably silent in the US now. As is normal in many wars, once one is clearly lost and found out to be entirely inappropriate in the first place, its generals quickly develop amnesia and find some new target to distract us with. The howling hangers-on find something else to howl about.

Let’s hope the signs are right and that we’re not looking at another false dawn as we’ve had last summer in this saga. If it is a new dawn deliberately brought to us by the new POTUS, then well played, Joe! And what a delicious irony for Trump. I was never a Trump fan but you’d almost feel sorry for the guy that his most sane insight should be the one related to his downfall and then usurped by his opponent. There is a Greek play in that.

Posted in Coronavirus crisis, Cultural Critique, Death and taxes, Democracy, Economics and public policy, Geeky Musings, Health, Humour, Politics - international, Social, Social Policy | 30 Comments