Three economists have written a cracking book on the Covid affair. Gigi Foster is at the University of New South Wales. She and her colleagues have sought to explain the madness of the past nearly two years. The book should be required reading for those who value freedom and sanity. A public policy master class. It was an honour to review it.
Many have lamented the apparent absence of interest from academic economists in the fate of our economies in the age of Covid totalitarianism. A particular gap has been identified in relation to the economic and social costs of lockdowns imposed across the world in response to the Great Virus of 2019.
One might have expected governments to have sought, published and acted upon advice in relation to the costs and benefits to society of their various “non-medical interventions” aimed at slowing the spread of the virus. Think of the home detention, the quarantines, the mask mandates, the border closures, the social distancing, the crashed small businesses, the lost jobs, the brutal desolation of Main Street. Not to mention the health impacts of lockdowns – the mental health crisis, ballooning cases of sex abuse, suicide, substance abuse, and the rest.
Noah Carl at The Daily Sceptic, drawing on an article by Mikko Packalen and Jay Bhattycharya, noted recently:
… economists – like almost all professionals – are members of the ‘laptop class’ (i.e., people who sit around on their laptops all day). Lockdown didn’t affect their lives nearly as much as it affected those of small business owners, or workers who couldn’t access a furlough scheme.
… academic economics has formed a rather cosy relationship with big business, particularly the investment banks of Wall Street and the giant tech firms of Silicon Valley. It’s less surprising, therefore, that “the dismal science has had very little to say about how lockdowns have favoured big business”.
Very dismal, on the part of the dismal science.
Economists had, and still have, much to contribute to ending the madness of the Covid totalitarian state, through their professional specialty, “evidence-based policy”. It is especially disappointing that, as a profession, they are conforming to the theory of one of their most famous practitioners, James Buchanan, who, in formulating public choice theory, discerned that public actors, such as economic policy advisers, make decisions on the basis of their self-interest.
Economists are not alone among academics in this, sadly. The evidence is mounting that some of the leading Australian medical science academics and institutes rely for their research funding on Big Pharma, Bill Gates and the Chinese (Tik Tok and Ja Ma). This seems especially to be a Melburnian affliction. That they publicly luxuriate in these connections says much about the descent of public morality in the Australian public square.
We are fortunate, then, that at least some economists are on the case, and are willing to be seen in public pushing back against the Covid State narrative. The Great Covid Panic by Paul Frijters, Gigi Foster and Michael Baker (The Brownstone Institute, 2021) has just hit the bookshops, or at least the online bookshops. The authors are from, respectively, the London School of Economics, the University of New South Wales, and an Oz independent economic consultancy. The Anglosphere covered. They have stepped up to the plate.
The book begins:
“The year 2020 was above all a year when billions of people were very afraid of something they could not see.”
Like climate change, perhaps.
The authors refer to “zombie conformers” and “crowd psychology”. The madness of crowds. Low information crowds. This is a pretty apt description of the response of both the ruling class and their subservients to what (it has become clear to those paying attention) is a pretty normal virus. A threat to the very old, the obese and the multi-diseased, but a threat to almost no one else. The recovery rate from Covid is well above 99 per cent of those who get the virus.
Here is how the authors define their project:
In these pages we explain what happened, and carefully consider how to avoid a repeat next time — because of course there will be a next time and a next time after that. Only a fool believes that the memory of his own experience will protect future generations. Alas, new generations will be just like ours, subject to their own new terrors. Fresh-faced viruses and other threats will emerge that ambitious leaders will be willing to exploit to amass more power. Humanity has to learn to weather these coming fears without falling victim to the opportunism of the powerful.
This phrase, “the opportunism of the powerful”, situates these authors on the continuum between, at the one end, the naivete of the innocent who reflexively trust their governments, and the “plandemic” folks who believe that Covid is either fake, or created by governments to crush the people, or both, at the other end. The phrase “convergent opportunism” comes to mind in describing the positioning of the authors. This is the highly plausible theory that a bunch of political actors, following the sage advice of the Obama hit man Rahm Emanuel that you should never let a crisis go to waste, have seized the Covid moment to advance their agendas. It is neither conspiracy theory nor “nothing to see here”. They present, though, as adherents to the Hanlon’s Razor view of causation, favouring incompetence over organised conspiracy, but nonetheless recognising the many examples of corrupt collusion on a significant scale.
The book is published by The Brownstone Institute for Social and Economic Research. The Institute, based in Austin Texas, was established (in May 2021) to consider the “pandemia” (Alex Berenson’s descriptor) and its policy responses from the perspective of classical liberalism, a philosophy notably absent across the world since March 2020. Think Hayek and Von Mises. Think the admirable American Institute of Economic Research, a source of reason over the past eighteen months. This last is no coincidence, as the great Jeffrey Tucker of the AIER is also the founder of Brownstone.
Think also Rand Paul and Tom Woods, American heroes of the Covid freedom movement.
Think also the Great Barrington Declaration, proposed by Jay Bhattacharya, Martin Kulldorff and Sunetra Gupta (check), heroes all. Their stance emphasises “focused protection” – in other words, policy coherence, proportionality, targeting, maximising benefits and minimising costs. The declaration has been signed by over 860,000 people globally.
The authors tell the story of the emerging Covid hysteria of 2020 through three invented characters, Jane, James and Jasmin, and in three phases, the great fear (January to March 2020), the illusion of control (April to December 2020), and end games (January 2021 to the present/future). Who are the characters? They are defined by their responses to the virus. Jane is “the conformer”, James “the decider” and Jasmin “the doubter”. Their stylised person stories add colour and bring the Covid narrative to life during the book. We have all seen these types, and sub-types, like the aggressive conformer and the venal decision-maker, during the panic. There are also the stories of real people (some with pseudonyms, some without), known to the authors, to enliven the story.
The reactions of countries/states are also divided by the authors into three – the minimalists (Belarus, South Dakota, Tanzania and Florida, a “belated minimalist”), the pragmatists (Sweden, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Iceland and Estonia) and the Covid cults (most of Europe and the Americas, Southeast Asia, India, China, Australia, New Zealand and much of Africa). This book is very much a global study.
For the Covid Cultists, the government response meant:
These countries suffered enormous collateral damage, widespread abuse of power, and mass invasion of privacy. Their governments periodically acknowledged the existence of the damage being done to their own countries, but still dove compulsively into a fresh cycle of obsession with every new wave of Covid. They stuck stubbornly to the narrative that the future depended on sacrificing the present.
The device of personalised stories is part of the book’s genius, creatively fulfilling its purpose – to highlight the ways in which individuals act in terms of their interests and ideologies, whether in normal times or in times of perceived crisis. The book is, therefore very much in the venerable tradition of public choice theory.
Conditions became perfect for cronyism, corruption, counterfeiting and outright theft.
The authors’ stories of corruption are astonishing and instructive. Just look at schemes like Jobkeeper in Australia, or furlough in the UK. Governments were buying off vested interests with dollars from the magic money tree, in order to protect their own rumps. Gamers were doing what they do – gaming the system. Academics were getting their names in the papers and so advancing their careers. Bureaucrats were working from home and loving it. Everyone was having a holiday. Real estate went wild. Even decentralisation from the cities was happening at scale, as it had never occurred before, despite a century of substantial government effort to achieve it.
The story of the great Covid panic is a story of massive policy fail, with dire consequences. Policy failure on this scale and with such dire consequences requires explanations, and the Great Covid Panic sets out to do the deep dive that is needed.
Along the way, these three economists provide loads of massive insight into the behaviour of individuals, corporations and government (like the politician’s syllogism, “we must do something”), and the way they all respond to stimuli. There is good political science in this book, and good psychology, for example in the chapter on fear.
The authors are also wordsmiths of merit who have the gift of the pithy, perceptive phrase – “lockdown marketing”, “panic posters”, the “no evidence that it helps column”, “calm deliberation was off the menu”, “hygiene theatre”, “covistics”, “covid distribution centres”, “criminalising social interactions”, and “contagious social wave” are but several examples among dozens.
The authors cover a broad range of disciplines. They dip into the medical science as well, with useful information on viral behaviour and our immune responses. And understanding the science, which politicians and their advisers urged but (deceitfully) did not practice, has been critical to the decision-making disasters that Covid has delivered:
From a benevolent policy perspective, what matters is to keep people healthy by encouraging them to go outside and exercise a lot. The good policymaker would want to encourage behaviour that makes people happy, such as having an active social life, sleep, and sex, because a happier person has a better functioning immune system. A benevolent policy maker would also be encouraging people to eat a healthy diet with the right supplements, where needed. What should one not do? One should not tell people to stay inside at home, out of the sun and with constraints on exercise. One should not tell people to stay away from other people, thereby becoming disconnected and lonely. One should not make healthy diets less prevalent through setting policy that increases anxiety and depression, whose victims find solace in drink and fast food. All of these things lead to weaker immune systems. Yet still, many countries, ironically at the behest of their public health ‘scientists’, put out official advice — ‘stay home, save lives’ — that was the opposite of smart. Worse, after a short time such ‘advice’ usually changed into mandates backed up by draconian fines.
The section on the ubiquitous and iniquitous PCR tests is both fascinating and enlightening, as is the material on reasons for the regional variations of Covid spread. These authors have done their homework.
The authors nail the biggest canard of all:
Even well-intentioned governments had pretty much no chance of ‘controlling’ either the spread or the lethality of Covid once it became endemic in March 2020, but they could make matters worse with lockdowns …
In other words, every single piece of every single policy intervention was absolutely useless – and worse than useless. Brilliant! This must mean that all of the manifest harms done are the result of stupidity, evil or venality (aka political fear). No other conclusion can be drawn. And whichever theory is used to explain the policy fiasco, none has the politician emerging with the smell of roses.
Importantly, the conclusion is that no policy learning was done. Anywhere.
The genuine incompetence was ongoing and breathtaking, showing no signs of ending even in the second half of 2021 in the countries still caught in the Great Panic.
Moreover, the mistakes – like keeping people indoors – turned out to be lethal. This was, in effect, manslaughter on a grand scale. Committed by democratically elected politicians. Stop the sick and elderly from obtaining effective treatments and, instead, make them queue up indoors for useless tests where they might contract Covid. Make them wait for the vaccines that will allow OUR career survival. Threaten doctors who flout the rules. Idiotically, claim that untested and then untrialled vaccines would be eternal and omnipresent saviours of us all. “The salvation story of vaccines”, the authors note. And safe to boot. The vaccines are none of these things, nor could they be.
With complete eradication of Covid impossible anyway, Covid vaccination programs contained the seeds of their own ineffectiveness, while being costly, disruptive and riddled with side effects. They were in effect a mass medical experiment with unknown long-term costs and benefits.
Useless and worse, just like masks, track-and-trace apps, quarantines, school closures, and the rest. Politicians must always be seen to be doing something. Pull all the freakin’ levers at once! But what if EVERYTHING they did was wrong? Oops. They did one thing right. But we expected them to be good at propaganda. That is what they do.
In general, the authors conclude that, perversely (but not surprisingly to Hayekians), the more interventionist that countries were, the more deaths there were from Covid. This should surprise no one, but it will. And, most of the Covid deaths worldwide occurred well and truly AFTER the lockdowns were implemented. You could not make this stuff up. You just couldn’t. And the people who point out the outcomes of Covid-mad policy are the ones described as nutters, anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, dangerous, and the rest. The whole of the Australian Parliament condemned a politician (George Christensen) who questioned lockdowns and masks. The whole of the Parliament. The world, as Melanie Phillips once suggested in another whacko context, has been turned upside down.
Cultists like the fictional, stylised Jane have been hooked on Covid theatre, death porn and the like:
She understood the government’s use of words and sometimes enjoyed using them herself, throwing out phrases like ‘local lockdown’, ‘circuit-breaker’, ‘social bubble’, ‘office rotation’, ‘global pandemic’, ‘greater good’, and ‘rapid testing’.
They are on social media all the time, and in the comments sections of newspapers. You know who you are.
The authors have many great explanations of the big question that all the Jasmines of the world constantly ask – how the hell did this madness happen? Here is one:
It is thus due to the exaggeration of a very small piece of actual knowledge that untruths get to be the excuse for enormous policy decisions. Lots of insiders see that dynamic happening but have incentives to keep quiet.
It is an economist’s explanation, and to be valued for that reason. “Follow the money” is a wise place to begin in any investigation of the Covid panic. “Selective blindness plus commercial incentives equal bad outcomes”. Many have profited from the pandemia, and this explains much. Convergent opportunism at work. Cherry picking with purpose. So many became invested in the scam. This is precisely the story of the book’s character James. See also under groupthink, corruption, hubris and power. Very bad behaviour in the public square drove much of the Great Covid Panic.
There are many remote and proximate factors that have led to the disaster of 2020-21, and the authors impressively weave many of these elements into their story. There are insightful excursions into all sorts of Covid-linked topics. One relates to the corporatisation of party politics and the consequent “monoculture” that allowed singularly bad policy instruments to be accepted across the mainstream political spectrum. Here is but one example of the way in which the great Covid panic has crystallised and brought to the surface tendencies that had been bubbling away underneath, to our massive and possibly eternal cost. Another relates to the rise and persistence of all-powerful corporations.
The deeper point is that money really matters in modern politics and this practically forces politicians to be corrupt.
Again, follow the money. Just look at New South Wales, the Mates’ State, with an unholy alliance of politicians, party hacks, lobbyists, staffers and in-favour companies and industries, like “clean” energy.
In the last 40 to 50 years, a new class of barons has arisen virtually everywhere in the world. This trend has been resisted successfully in very few countries. The ability of barons to buy up the best lawyers, regulators, media outlets and international connections has allowed them to amass enormous political power.
There is a new element, though, adding to the inter-linkages between government and big industry that we have witnessed during the Covid period.
… The long post-politics careers over which they salivate make today’s politicians very susceptible to lucrative offers by the new barons…
All facilitated through supra-national institutions with global ambitions and progressive agendas. The authors find something very medieval about the current power structures, full of stench and corruption. Progress? I think not.
What do the authors think is going to happen next? The final section of the book posits three possible scenarios, favouring the first as the most likely:
- A gradual return to something approaching the old normal, without great punishment for the perpetrators of the great panic, and those who amassed ill-gotten gains largely keeping them;
- A new techno-fascist era with the newly acquired powers of the elites being used in new ways (a la the Great Reset); and
- An angry backlash from those who suffered during the Panic against those responsible, driven by forces such as hyper-nationalism.
I fear the second and know that there are many forces desiring it; I would dearly love the third and would willingly sign up for the relevant Nuremberg Two trials to execute harsh punishments; but I suspect that the authors are probably correct in favouring the first. Like the idiots described by James Thurber in The Day the Dam Broke, who all went for a crowd gallop out of town to escape a non-threatening, indeed, a non-existent flood, those who went along with the Covid hysteria because the “Gummint” and the papers told them to, probably won’t want much to talk about it.
The authors believe that any (limited) reckoning and re-learning will take many years, no doubt with something along the lines of the Thurber effect kicking in. Those who joined the flood stampede out of town simply NEVER spoke of the great run, ever again. Both good things arising from the Covid era (new, independent journalism and thinking/critiquing mainstream narratives and the efflorescence of new, “feisty”, localised democratic movements) and bad things (a few huge and influential companies running the show in a kind of neo-feudal/robber barons oligopoly) are likely to persist, in the authors’ view. They hope that what will emerge is some “systemic humility”, and we would all welcome this. No more bullshit. Period.
The authors yearn for “radical diversity”, and, yes, there are green shoots (South Dakota, Florida, Texas in the USA), but, currently, I don’t see too many around these parts. The Belgian psychologist Mattias Desmet’s analysis of current group dynamics during what he regards as a Covid “mass formation”, indeed, a hypnotic state, in which about 30-40 per cent of the population is effectively Kool-Aided, another similar proportion go along with the crowd to get by, and the remainder are decidedly grumpy about the loss of freedom. This is a variation on the quadrant of conformity and is not dissimilar to the authors’ view of the emergent fissures in society. Desmet’s view, though, is that given the vice like grip of the ruling class on information flows, and without more coordinated and more concerted counter-actions by the grumpy class, the hypnosis and therefore the tyranny may well continue. Watch this space.
The authors contend:
Totalitarian systems like fascism and communism fail for reasons well reflected in the events of the Great Panic. A system that adopts a single truth and then concentrates power in one like-minded group becomes very stupid very quickly. The countries and regions that turned into Covid cults became stupid in many ways. Not only did they adopt policies that were extremely self-destructive, but their single-mindedness gave them blind spots…
I, myself, am not so sanguine. Australians, in particular, seem either loathe to recognise the stupidity or reluctant to challenge it. Just look at mask-wearing approaching one hundred per cent in shopping malls. And as totalitarian systems go, the example of China suggests that totalitarian systems can adjust and still retain total power. In the West, no less, a totally corrupt legacy system run by idiots and cheered on by low information citizens still managed to pull off the greatest totalitarian coup of all time. No, I am not optimistic that we can easily “bake radical diversity into the system”. The authors are, indeed, alive to the dangers, and they roll out a number of useful suggestions at the book’s conclusion to achieve better policy outcomes in the future. Separating public health science from politics (as in Sweden) is but one, and citizen juries for institutional appointments is another. They are all worth pondering if we still remotely find it possible to cling to the rational actor model of politics.
A few specific words on the Australian experience.
One of the authors (Gigi Foster) is an Australian resident, so there is ample story-telling in the book about Australia. And what a story the Australian Covid experience has been. We are now known the world over, not only for our well-known prowess in sport and soldiering, but in new and unedifying ways. Think of Clive James’ line about us being descended not from convicts but from prison guards.
In 2020, the Australian story developed mostly in Victoria, when the maniacal Premier, Daniel Andrews, quickly created a police state:
In particular, Victoria — Australia’s second-most populous state — was to provide a stunning illustration of how leaders, fed a daily diet of ‘science’ by health bureaucrats, held the public in thrall, acquired dictatorial powers and used them to turn the screws on their populations as the year went on.
In Victoria, the opportunity for a quick power grab fell initially to the Premier, Dan Andrews, who relied for his advice on Covid countermeasures on Brett Sutton, a general practitioner with no PhD and an unflattering field record.
Sutton does have connections, though. He is the brother-in-law of Jane Halton, Bill Gates’ point girl for the roll out of the global vaccine regime. (The family connections keep coming up. The Queensland Chief Health Officer is married to an academic who has a relationship with Pfizer. This speaks to the broader inter-connections, mutual dependence and epic conflicts of interest among ruling class actors – bureaucrats, advisers, academics, university boffins, media flunkeys, and so on, in the era of turbo-charged crony capitalism and massive government).
Aaron Patrick has noted in the Australian Financial Review (the dear old Fin, once described as the most left-wing business newspaper in the world) that Gigi Foster has estimated the cost of lockdowns at $60 billion. In fact, the $60 billion figure is only the start of it.
University of NSW economist Gigi Foster said Australian policymakers were responsible for the “greatest economic policy debacle in a generation”, had succumbed to COVID-19 “mania”, and experts who challenged them had been subjected to intimidation and bullying.
“We have witnessed a mass sacrificial event on a global scale,” she said, according to slides of the keynote presentation she gave at the annual Australian Conference of Economists.
“Many parties today have incentives to keep the narrative going and to rationalise what has already happened.”
Indeed. Foster (a “noted lockdown sceptic”) has read her Buchanan. The bullying and/or silencing of dissenting opinion on the accepted Covid narrative – lockdowns work, and are good for society, and vaccines provide the only path back to the old/new normal – has been a feature of what passes for intelligent debate over Covid policy.
The Fin Review article noted that former Reserve Bank Governor Warwick McKibbin had predicted that Covid could kill 68 million people worldwide. Oops.
Last April, 265 economists, including Professor McKibbin, signed an open letter urging governments to prioritise healthcare over the economy and stating that “callous indifference to life is morally objectionable”.
Oh dear. The dismal performance of the corporatist economist class during this disaster demonstrates the need for this book.
“Rabid attempts to ‘cancel’ or discredit alternative viewpoints, highly emotive reactions, defamation, intimidation, silencing, bullying,” one of her slides said.
The response of the ruling class was entirely predictable. Aaron Patrick again:
The annual conference, which was held online, was organised by the Economic Society of Australia and sponsored by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Department of Finance, the Reserve Bank and the University of Melbourne.
Note the corporatist inter-connections, with (naturally) Government oversight, not-so-subtly nudging opinions and controlling debate.
The society’s president, Grattan Institute chief executive Danielle Wood, said she did not believe economists had been silent in the debate about the pandemic response but it was important the profession conducted its disagreements “in a respectful and constructive way”.
Ah, the Grattan Institute. No surprises there. The University of Melbourne (aka the Parkville Asylum) is front and centre of the Vaccine Cult.
The conduct of the “debate” in Australia and in other “liberal” democracies has been a disgrace and should be regarded by all thinking Australians (all three hundred of us) as an intellectual dark age. The almost total blackout of sane views, occasioned by government propaganda and implemented by a hopelessly compromised legacy media, endlessly spewing out Covid State infomercials, and in the pay of the commercial arm of the vaccine cult, has, at last, generated a counter-reaction.
In March, Professor Foster and economics commentator Adam Creighton were asked on the ABC’s Q&A show how they could “live with themselves” for arguing lockdowns do more harm than benefit.
Live with themselves? Inevitably, they have been labelled selfish, evil, or worse, dangerous. Granny killers (of course). This is hard totalitarianism, enforced by low-information ideologues and useful idiots who are incurious of mind and who do not read widely. These people, alas, can often be found in the audiences of Q&A, both in the ABC studio and at home.
As I said, the authors wish to ensure that we learn from this catastrophic policy disaster, so as to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. When the people seem only to care about, as Stuart Lindsay has described it, “Netflix, a full belly, and a warm place to defecate”, why on earth should we be confident that there will be a Nuremberg Two that will hold the perpetrators of the Covid atrocity to account? Or that those who have profited from pandemia, a group that makes up what the late Angelo Covevilla aptly termed “the ruling class”, will not, having gained further wealth and control, crush us afresh in the future. Here is where the diligent historian, typically prone to look beyond the visible and to find conspiracies, can add yet more to the admirable work of the rational economist.
Perhaps this is being unfair and compartmentalist. These folks are doing their own history work, as it happens:
Little can be achieved by thinking about Covid as a public health problem created by bats and solved by vaccines. If we really want to understand it as an historical phenomenon, to understand how we humans reacted to it in the way we did and to learn something useful for the future, we need to fit together many pieces of a puzzle. Some of the pieces repose in the heart, while some are in the mind. Some are at a micro level, some are macro. Some are good and some are unspeakably evil. This book aims to make sense of it all, to make these disparate strands coherent so we see clearly what happened and deduce what must be done to avoid a similar tragedy in future.
This statement makes very good sense.
This book is a bracing retort to the embedded “laptop class”, a corrective that will come to be seen in the future as being on the right side of Covid history. There are other books in this genre emerging. We already have John Stapleton’s excellent Unfolding Catastrophe and Alex Berenson’s Pandemia is coming in November 2021. We have, too, Jeffrey Tucker’s Liberty of Lockdown (2020) and The Price of Panic by Axe, Briggs and Richards (2020), each on the American experience of Covid tyranny. Laura Dodsworth’s A State of Fear (2021) catalogues the British madness. There will be others, no doubt, and they will all be important correctives to the propaganda and the false narratives we have been fed. They speak truth to the combined and inter-connected power of Big Tech, Big Pharma and Big Government, and all their useful idiots. They remind us all that we are only ever one generation away from losing our freedoms forever.
All power to the authors of this much needed book. And anyone who knows, understands and appreciates the humour of Yes, Minister goes straight to the top of the class.
Secondly, this book is a page-turner. Yes, a page-turner written by economists. Go figure. They CAN do it, after all.
Thirdly, I take the authors to be firmly in the liberal Enlightenment tradition of reason-based analysis, and they certainly are critical of many things medieval. Indeed, it is their view that the corrupt system of governance we now have resembles that of the medieval world. Another view of the pandemia, based on faith as well as on reason, is that there is real evil (more than mere self-interest) in the world, emanating from the ringmaster of evil, whatever you might call him, and that this evil is now well and truly manifest and active. Indeed, I suggest that it is profound, demonic and obvious. Call me a conspiracy theorist of sorts. All those of a Judeo-Christian bent ultimately are conspiracy theorists. Covid, I would contend, has increased massively the plausibility of a belief in deeper causes and phenomena than those that meet the eye. That I seem to differ from the authors on these matters in no way diminishes the power and great good sense of this epic and majestic work.
Finally, I learned one new word (“athleisure”, a hybrid type of clothing).