In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been numerous discussions with regard to the impact it will have on the sphere of international higher education. Recent decades have witnessed a rise in the number of international students pursuing higher education in the US, the UK, and Australia (in recent years, Chinese and Indian nationals have been the two largest groups within the international student community in these countries).
According to UNESCO, there were over 5.3 million international students in 2017. This was nearly thrice the number of 2000 (2 million). The rise of globalization, which has led to greater connectivity and more awareness through the internet, have contributed towards this trend. It would be pertinent to point out that the global higher education market was valued at a whopping $65.4 billion in 2019.
In a post-corona world, a number of changes are likely to take shape in terms of higher education.
Likely changes in a post-corona world
The first change likely to occur in a post corona world is a drop in the number of Chinese students seeking to enroll at higher education institutions in not just the US, but also in Britain and Australia.
In the case of the US, a number of changes have been introduced with regard to student visas for Chinese students. In 2018, certain changes had already been introduced for Chinese students enrolled in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Management (STEM) courses. Only recently, further changes have been made in the context of student visas for Chinese nationals. According to the new policy, F1 and J1 visas cannot be issued for graduate level work to individuals involved with the People’s Republic of China’s military-civil fusion strategy.
China has warned students planning to pursue higher education in Australia to reconsider their decision given both the COVID-19 pandemic and instances of racism against Asians. Chinese students account for a staggering 28% of the total international community (estimated at 750,000).
And, in Britain, where students from China were issued a total of 115,014 visas in 2019 (a whopping 45% of the total), recent tensions with China after the imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong could mean a significant drop in the number of Chinese students enrolling at British universities.
Second, given the disruptions in international travel, a number of students have revised plans with regard to pursuing higher education overseas. According to estimates, international student enrollment in the US could drop by 25%, which will have a significant impact on the economy (in Britain and Australia too, there is likely to be a drop in the number of students enrolled).
Third, universities have made concessions in terms of entrance tests, waiving application fees and even financial assistance, so as to ensure that there is not a drop in take. A number of universities have already confirmed that they are shifting to an online mode of education for the academic year 2020. This includes top universities like Harvard (USA) and Oxford (UK).
Fourth, countries that have an open door immigration policy, like Canada, are still likely to be attractive for international students — especially from India.
Importance of international students
What has also emerged from recent developments is that while governments may not be sensitive to the concerns of international students, universities (and companies) realize the value which international students add by way of talent and skills. Two US institutions, Harvard and MIT, filed a law suit against the US government (Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Custom Enforcement) for bringing out a notification which stated that international students studying at institutions where classes were being held online would either need to transfer or return home.
All Ivy league institutions and 59 other private colleges signed a court brief supporting the law suit. The Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, which includes 180 colleges, also lent support to Harvard and MIT. As a result of this law suit, the Trump Administration had to rescind its decision, which would have impacted 1 million students.
Commenting on the judgment, Harvard University President Lawrence Bacow said:
“We all recognize the value that international students bring to our campuses, to this nation, and to the world.”
In recent decades, the free movement of students has been taken for granted. Higher education was an important bridge between countries. In the aftermath of the pandemic, and the souring of ties between China and the rest of the world, international higher education is likely to witness major changes. At the same time, the use of technology also provides opportunities, and there is space for greater collaborations between higher education institutions in the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and those in the developing world.
When COVID first started spreading more widely in the US, I began worrying that this would lead to an upsurge of anti-immigrant sentiment. I worried that people would draw the wrong lesson from this experience and return to the isolationism of the 1920s, closing our borders on a more permanent basis to both people and goods. This would slow economic growth and lead to a poorer nation. It seems particularly ironic that just now Americans are becoming the unwelcome foreign visitors abroad, particularly from my home states of Texas and California.
Nowrasteh and Forrester at CATO discuss some papers by Giuliano and Tabellini on the question of if increased immigration moves the median voter to the left. They also add a few suggestive regressions of their own. Their summary is interesting and nuanced. First, they find that closing the borders to immigrants in the 1920s encouraged much greater government spending (as a percent of GDP) while allowing more immigrants in the 1960s has slowed the growth of government spending. This effect seems to work both ways: American voters are more willing to vote for welfare benefits, etc, when there are fewer immigrants getting them, and the larger the welfare state is, the more concerned voters are about allowing immigrants into the country. So it may not be so much that adding immigrants from more left-leaning countries shifts the median voter as much as it moves native voters further to the right? (See also Rosenthal and Eibner 2005, who also conclude that “a voter of a given income is less eager to redistribute given that redistribution has to be shared with the non-citizen poor.”)
This suggests an interesting line of argument, that these feedback effects can work in the opposite direction as well. I imagine a friend who is very concerned about the size of government and also would prefer to have fewer immigrants. To that friend, I would suggest that allowing more immigrants can help slow or even reverse the growth of government and the welfare state. Using their aversion to one issue could potentially reduce their aversion to the other. <epistemic status: highly speculative>
[This is a guest post by Dr Wesley Key, Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Lincoln.]
The announcement on 8th July 2020 by Chancellor Rishi Sunak that the government will refund 50% of the cost of meals out during Mondays-Wednesdays in August 2020, at an estimated cost to the taxpayer of £500m, will, for many reasons, be hard to stomach for low paid working age taxpayers who cannot afford to eat out themselves. For such people, paying the rent, heating their homes and feeding their children will often leave little or nothing left over for dining out.
This new ‘summer eating allowance’ is likely to disproportionately benefit affluent older people with high levels of disposable income, whose custom typically helps to sustain many eating outlets during the mid-day/afternoon periods of the working week. The very same affluent older people who have qualified, with no means test, for free prescriptions aged 60-plus, for a free TV licence if a household member is aged 75-plus (up to August 2020), for a Winter Fuel Payment if a household member has reached state pension age, and for free local bus travel if they have reached women’s state pension age, regardless of their gender. The very same older people to benefit from the seven-fold rise in UK private pension income during 1977-2016.
Low paid and benefit dependent parents may also wonder why Chancellor Sunak is splashing out such a large sum of taxpayers’ cash, given that it took the efforts of Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford to change government policy on 16th June 2020 to ensure that children eligible for Free School Meals continued to receive the relevant food vouchers during the elongated summer vacation period. This ‘COVID Summer Food Fund‘ was eventually set up at an estimated cost of £120m, less than a quarter of the cost of Sunak’s ‘Eat out to help out’ scheme, a.k.a. the ‘summer eating allowance.’
In the longer term, when the reality of tax rises and/or spending cuts to pay for the COIVD-19 bailout begins to bite, the government needs to focus on intergenerational fairness and ensure that well off pensioners pay their share of the nation’s debt. It is time that a government made non-poor over-60s purchase their medication via a Prescription Prepayment Certificate (PPC), which in 2020-21 costs younger adults £29.65 for 3 months or £105.90 for 12 months, sums well within the reach of people in receipt of private and state pension payments. It is also time to make employees aged 65-plus pay a tax of the same rate as the employee National Insurance Contributions paid by younger workers, in order for older workers to fully contribute to the funding of the public services that they use more extensively than their younger colleagues. Such moves to cut the benefits received by, and increase the tax taken from, healthy, active people in their 60s and 70s would help to increase the funding of the social care services that are largely used by people aged 80-plus who are no longer able to undertake paid work and are entitled to face lower user charges for the social care that they require to ensure a degree of dignity and independence in old age.
In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, the increasingly belligerent behaviour exhibited by China in South Asia and South East Asia, and China’s imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, it is interesting to see the tone of the English language media on China.
Yet a genuinely comprehensive peek into the Chinese view on crucial political, economic, and geopolitical issues requires a perusal of the Chinese language papers. This is imperative. The Global Times, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, is important because it covers the views of Chinese academics and strategic analysts who, through their opinion pieces, provide a deep insight into China’s approach towards those aforementioned crucial issues.
From the opinion pieces at the Global Times over the past few months, one thing is evident: that with the US becoming increasingly unpredictable under Trump, China is virtually invincible. There is a growing belief that Beijing is formidable both in the economic and strategic context. Strategic analysts and journalists writing for the English language daily have also tried to drive home the point that Beijing is in a position to take on the US and its allies, and that any attempt to isolate China would not be taken lying down.
Other articles in the Global Times warn against anti-China alliances, and explain why these alliances will not be possible due to the fault lines between the US and other countries. It has also not refrained from using strong language against countries like Australia and Canada by insinuating that they are acting as mere appendages of the US.
Aggressive stance vis-à-vis countries which blamed China for lack of transparency with regard to the outbreak of the pandemic
Beijing has been scathing in its criticism not only of the US, which took a firm stand against China in regards to the suppression of crucial information pertaining to the pandemic, but also Australia, which had the temerity to ask for an enquiry into the origins of the deadly pandemic. The Global Times lashed out and labelled Australia as a mere appendage of the US, even dubbing it a ‘poodle’ and ‘dog of the US’.
It has also warned other countries, especially Australia, of the economic consequences of taking on Beijing. An article titled ‘Australia’s economy cannot withstand Cold War with China’, written by Wang Jiamei, concludes by saying:
‘…..If a new Cold War leads to a China-Australia showdown, Australia will pay an unbearable price. Given Australia’s high dependence on the Chinese economy, an all-around confrontation will have a catastrophic effect on the Australian economy’
China has followed this harsh rhetoric with sanctions on imports of certain Australian commodities, like barley, and suspended the import of beef. China has also issued warnings to students and tourists that ask them to reconsider travelling to Australia.
This was done days after China’s envoy in Australia, Cheng Jingye, in an interview to an Australian media outlet, had warned of strong economic repercussions (the envoy was referring not just to the impact on Australia-China trade, but on Chinese students pursuing education in Australia and tourists visiting Australia) if Australia continued to adopt a strong stance against China on the issue of an enquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic (Australia reacted very strongly to this threat).
Beijing unsettled by emerging alliances?
One interesting point is that while commentaries and reportage in the Global Times try to send out the message that China’s rise is inexorable and that Beijing is not daunted by emerging alliances and emerging narratives of reducing economic dependence upon China, it seems to be wary of partnerships and alliances which seek to challenge it. The newspaper repeatedly warns India, the UK, Australia, and various EU member states about the perils of strengthening ties with the US. Even in the midst of recent tensions between India and China, Global Times tried to argue that India would never openly ally with the US and if it did so, this would be damaging. An article in the Global Times states:
It won’t be in the interest of India, if it really joins the Five Eye intelligence alliance. The role of a little brother of the US within a certain alliance is not what India really wants.
The article also tries to dissect differences between the US and India over a number of issues, which are not wrong, but the piece forgets that the two countries do not have differences over strategic and economic issues.
Strong language against Canada
It is not just the US, Japan, Australia, EU member states, and India that the English-language daily has recently threatened. The Global Times has also adopted an aggressive posture vis-à-vis Canada. One article, titled ‘China-Canada ties wane further as Ottawa becomes Washington’s puppet over HK’, suggests that Justin Trudeau was in the ‘pole position in the circle of bootlickers pleasing the US’ and castigates him for the measures he has taken after China tightened its control over Hong Kong via the imposition of National Security Law. Steps taken by Trudeau include suspension of the extradition treaty with Hong Kong and a decision to end the export of sensitive military items to the region.
Cracks in the bilateral relationship had begun to emerge between Canada and China after Canada detained the CFO of Huawei, Meng Wanzhou, on a US extradition warrant (at the end of May, a Canadian court had ruled that Wanzhou could be extradited to the US, much to the chagrin of the Chinese), while Beijing in return has detained two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavlor (both were charged with espionage in June 2020). It would be pertinent to point out that Beijing has signaled its displeasure with Canada by reducing imports of Canadian products like pork and canola oil.
While Beijing itself is becoming more aggressive and belligerent, it cannot expect other countries to stick to their earlier position on crucial strategic issues. It is somewhat unfair to assume that the Global Times, the mouthpiece for China’s Communist Party, can cover the fact that China is on the defensive. Other countries are now finding common ground in the strategic and economic sphere. While the results may not come overnight, partnerships are likely to concretize and gather momentum, because Beijing seems in no mood to give up on its hegemonic mindset and patronizing approach. Yet, other countries and regional blocs also need to have a clear vision to counter China and divergences over minor issues will not help. It is true that a zero-sum approach vis-à-vis China is not beneficial, but for that to happen Beijing too needs to act responsibly, which seems doubtful given its behavior on a number of issues.
Just to inform all NOL-readers out there, if you like the subject, please register and join the IEA webinar I’ll give next wednesday, 13.00 hours, London time.
Institute of Economic Affairs > Events
13:00 – 14:00
Although it was never the subject of a book, Friedrich Hayek wrote a lot about international relations during his long career and had rather firm views on international order and how it could be achieved. In this webinar, these Hayekian views are presented in the context of the current COVID-crisis. What was Hayek’s opinion about the existence and the role of international governmental organizations, such as the World Health Organization?
Dr. Edwin van de Haar (www.edwinvandehaar.com) is an independent scholar who specializes in the liberal tradition in international political theory. He has been a (visiting) lecturer at Brown University, Leiden University and Ateneo de Manila University. Van de Haar is the author of Classical Liberalism and International Relations Theory. Hume, Smith, Mises and Hayek (2009), Beloved Yet Unknown. The Political Philosophy of Liberalism (2011, in Dutch) and Degrees of Freedom. Liberal Political Philosophy and Ideology (2015). Among others, he contributed to The Oxford Handbook of Adam Smith (2013) and a forthcoming book on The Liberal International Theory Tradition in Europe, while his articles on liberal ideas and liberal thinkers appeared among others in Review of International Studies, International Relations, International Politics, Independent Review and Economic Affairs.
Van de Haar got his PhD in International Politcial Theory from Maastricht Universit in 2008, and holds master degrees in international relations (London School of Economics and Political Science) and in political science (Leiden University).
The United Kingdom’s post-corona foreign policy is likely to be driven by some crucial economic factors. On the one hand, it will continue to work closely with countries like the United States, Japan, Australia, and India to reduce its dependence upon China. On the other hand, the UK cannot totally bank on the US for achieving its economic goals, given the unpredictability of US President Donald Trump.
The UK needs to look at new Free Trade Agreements (FTA’s) and also be part of multilateral arrangements, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership, which will enable it to diversify its supply chains.
Important upcoming economic decisions
Given the changing environment of the post-corona world, London now has an eye on enhancing self-sufficiency and reducing reliance on China.
The Boris Johnson government has set up a committee — ‘Project Defend’ — which seeks to study the UK’s economic dependence with hostile countries (with a specific thrust on China), especially for sensitive imports. Based on the findings of Project Defend’s report, for example, the UK will work towards the relocation of pharmaceutical companies. While changing supply chains overnight may not be an easy task, the Boris Johnson Administration has made an important decision.
The UK’s recent decision on Huawei
The Boris Johnson Administration has also recently decided to reduce Huawei’s participation in the 5G network to zero by 2023. In January 2020, Boris Johnson had given a go ahead to Huawei’s participation in the ‘non-core’ element of the 5G network, with important restrictions, as well as a 35% market share cap. This decision drew flak from a section of Conservative Party politicians, who for long have been arguing that the UK needs to be cautious with regard to close economic ties with China, since this has serious security implications. The Trump administration had also expressed its displeasure with the Boris Johnson administration. The US President and senior officials in his administration have publicly expressed their unhappiness, saying that this decision could have an impact on security cooperation between both countries.
In the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, ties between the UK and China have gone downhill (senior officials of the Johnson administration have criticized China for suppressing information with regard to the outbreak of the pandemic), and Johnson’s decision was driven by two factors: 1) increasing pressure from Conservative MP’s who had threatened to vote against the government’s decision, and 2) the fact, that the UK is keen to go ahead with an FTA with the US (there have been differences between the US and UK, however, on the issue of the FTA, with the US urging the UK to make a choice between China and the US).
Apart from this, the recent US sanctions imposed on Huawei have also played a role in Johnson’s decision of reducing Huawei’s participation by 2023 (the Trump administration has made it compulsory for foreign manufacturers using U.S. chipmaking equipment to obtain a license before being able to sell chips to Huawei).
Interestingly, the UK has also proposed that a group of 10 countries, dubbed as D10, joins hands to provide an alternative to Huawei’s 5G network and other technologies with the aim of reducing dependence upon China. The proposed grouping would consist of the US, Italy, Japan, the UK, South Korea, India, Germany, France, Canada, and Australia.
The UK has thus taken the lead in providing an alternative to the now bipolar status quo. Significantly, Trump has also stated that he is keen to expand the G7 and include not only India and South Korea but Russia as well.
UK also keen to play an important role in the TPP
While on the one hand the UK is trying to reduce its dependence upon China by joining hands with the US and like-minded countries, on the other the UK is also seeking membership within the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which consists of 11 members (Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam).
While the idea of the TPP was proposed by former US President Barack Obama, the first decision taken by Trump after his electoral triumph in 2016 was to withdraw from the agreement. Japan has been playing an important role in the TPP, and efforts are being made to expand its membership so that democratic dependence on China is still further reduced.
The UK faces numerous challenges and while it does need to reshape its economic relationship with China, London recognizes that this cannot be done overnight, so enhancing FTAs and joining the TPP are important steps in geopolitical context.
From a purely strategic perspective, the UK-US relationship has been important and with Johnson and Trump at the helm, and increasing convergence on attitudes vis-à-vis China, this is likely to get further strengthened (though of course there will be differences on both economic and geopolitical issues). The idea of the D10 grouping mooted by the UK has also sent a clear message that in spite of numerous economic challenges, the UK is keen to emerge as an important player, in its own right, in the post-corona world order.
I know everyone is buried in COVID-19 news, updates, and theories. To me, that makes it difficult to cut through the opinions and see the evidence that should actually guide physicians, policymakers, and the public.
To me, the most important thing is the ability to find the answer to my research question easily and to know that this answer is reasonably complete and evidence-driven. That means getting organized access to the scientific literature. Many sources (including a National Library of Medicine database) present thousands of articles, but the organization is the piece that is missing.
That is why I launched StudyViz, a new product that enables physicians to build an updatable visualization of all studies related to a topic of interest. Then, my physician collaborators built just such a visual for COVID-19 research, presenting a sunburst diagram that users can select to identify their research question of interest.
For instance, if you are interested in the impact of COVID-19 on pregnant patients, just go to “Subpopulations” and find “Pregnancy” (or neonates, if that is your concern). We nested the tags so that you can “drill down” on your question, and so that related concepts are close to each other. Then, to view the studies themselves, just click on them to see an abstract with the key info (patients, interventions, and outcomes) highlighted:
This is based on a complex concept hierarchy built by our collaborators and that is constantly evolving as the literature does:
Even beyond that, we opened up our software to let any researchers who are interested build similar visuals on any disease state, as COVID-19 is not the only disease for which organizing and accessing the scientific literature is important!
We are seeking medical coinvestigators–any physician interested in working with us, simply email email@example.com or contact us on our website!
Paid sick leave is something I want more people to have. Of course it’s a good thing. Sick leave is valuable, but it’s not free so we have to ask it it’s worth it.
Right around the 11:30 mark is a tragic and hilarious line: “Dildos are not essential items. Books for kids, yes, but dildos? … No!” Good for John Oliver noting that deciding what is essential isn’t straight forward–apparently frivolous things might keep people inside and so serve the public health.
This is a classic Austrian point: prices (are supposed to) communicate information about how urgently people want a product. We run into trouble trying to prevent prices from reflecting the underlying economic crappiness of a crisis. Price gouging should be allowed for toilet paper and especially for grocery/Amazon workers. And the price of grocery workers should be passed on to consumers.
What we’ve got now requires each of us to not only ask “am I willing to pay this price?” but also engage in a moral calculus that is hard. I have to ask (as a person striving to be moral) if it’s really worth ordering X, Y, and Z from Amazon. But as a person who has to strive to be moral, it’s entirely too easy to fall for bad rationalizations.
So how do we help these essential-yet-replaceable* workers? Paid sick leave sure sounds good. And given the externalities involved in a pandemic, there’s a strong argument for mandating it.
But it’s worth remembering (particularly as a long run policy) that if we push on one part of a compensation bundle, something’s going to give. If we require employers to provide a company car (or simply encourage company cars through preferential tax laws), we shouldn’t be surprised to see monetary compensation fall. The same logic applies to paid sick leave.
But I’m my own devil’s advocate, so let me make a counter argument. I rarely use my sick days. I think I’ve taken 2 or 3 in the last 6 years. (I’m absolutely reevaluating that position now!) There’s this idea floating around in the back of my head that tells me to just tough it out and keep working. This isn’t because I carefully weighed pros and cons, it’s just received “wisdom” picked up by osmosis from the broader culture.
American culture values work over value. There’s no shortage of bullshit work because we’re in a work-too-hard equilibrium. This is not to say that hard work doesn’t have benefits. I’m happy when ambitious entrepreneurs work “too” hard to provide greater value. But there are a lot of cases where we create work for its own sake (especially in the higher ed racket, but apparently we’re not alone).
Essentially, we’re all playing a coordination game where we choose between “[appear to] work to make things better” and “stay home instead of passing your illness to other people.” Given American work culture, the Schelling focal point is <work, work>.
On the compensation end of things employers have to decide between offering more sick leave or some other compensation (like money). In this end, there is some benefit to zigging where other employers zag. If I’m running the only business to offer paid paternity leave, I get my pick of the best family-oriented workers while my competitors have to outbid each other to get the best of the other workers. But any mid-level HR manager is more likely to play the risk-averse strategy of following “best practices.”
So we’re in an equilibrium that underrates sick leave. We want to be in an equilibrium where it’s just good business sense to offer sick leave during a global pandemic. But coming from our current equilibrium, offering sick leave is a costly decision to privately provide a public good; it’s unlikely to happen unless the culture already promotes it.
I think we can get that equilibrium. I think we’re already moving towards it (ask yourself: would the board of the East India Company be more likely to offer sick leave than Amazon?). But we’re not there yet.
Paid sick leave should be good business sense right now**. But it depends on a culture where such behavior is widespread. I’m not convinced we could flip a switch and get that culture over night. Given that, I’m at least somewhat okay with contradicting my libertarian priors and calling for emergency mandates for paid sick leave. 2020 America isn’t likely to coordinate on the “right” short-term solution and coercion is probably the most efficient*** way to deal with this common pool problem. But outside of a public health emergency we shouldn’t allow top down mandates about the mix of compensation offered in markets (certainly not with the sort of people we elect to be on top).
(A couple rhetorical points: First, John Oliver isn’t speaking the language of those on the right. They won’t even be convinced that the issues he’s talking about are important. I think that’s a shame. Second, this is a tough time to try to argue against paid sick leave. In 2020 America, mandatory paid sick leave is probably required because we’re at the wrong Schelling point. Again, I don’t think conservatives or right-libertarians will find Oliver’s motivations convincing, but I believe that they could be persuaded. But that’s another blog post.)
(Two important counterpoints to the above: first, price increases hurt the poor. The way to solve that is to give charity money to the poor, not to try to make markets communicate information about relative scarcity and act as charity–that’s half-assing twice and it’s bound to be more inefficient than the charity would be costly. Second many people categorized as “essential” aren’t in a position to demand higher wages*. I don’t have an easy solution to this issue. Let’s talk about it in the comments.)
*Which is to say, workers who are in the same position as water in the diamond-water paradox.
**Not to say it would be cheap or easy.
***There you go. Now my friends on the left can accuse me of being a bloodless economist for opposing paid sick leave in general, and my friends on the right can accuse me of being a bloodless economist for supporting
- The challenges of lending to Main Street George Selgin, Alt-M
- What Sweden has done right on Coronavirus Joakim Book, AEIR
- The State Has Seized Many New Powers. It Won’t Let Go of Them Easily. Andrei Znamenski, Mises Wire
- When disease comes, rulers grab power Anne Applebaum, Atlantic
I haven’t written for a while – other duties get in the way – but I’d like to suggest this reading list in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics for the present time of crisis and perplexity. The main reason is that everyone seems to be an expert in Economics, Epidemiology, and Political Philosophy these days, assuming that from “facts” we can easily derive “values” and answer the question, “what is to be done?” I think this is at best a naïve attitude and at worst the same rationalistic hubris we experience everytime a political issue is simplified and reduced to a matter of “science”. Yes, there are facts and they shouldn’t be ignored, but it’s not easy to decide what is to be done, morally and politically, in light of those facts.
The first item on the list is Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. A classic, and a reminder that people choose all the time to sacrifice some degree of liberty in the altar of survival (or a chance to survive), but also a reminder that Leviathan may turn from friend to foe, from protector to persecutor – and there is very little we can do about it. The second item is John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, which then explores this topic in light of the fact that civil government shouldn’t have absolute power. It makes an attempt to show us how that power can, or should, be limited within a certain sphere of responsibility. Though it’s still there to protect us.
In this time of pandemic, people feel tempted to panic. People and politicians are calling for dramatic measures, and one reason is that the use of government coercion – which, according to Locke, ought to be limited – might be necessary to force people to cooperate, for example, by staying home. This is a proposed solution to the dilemmas of collective action posed by the problem that some may “free-ride” on the rest, and, as a result, the disease will keep spreading, frustrating any attempt to slow it down. Against dramatic, desperate and, perhaps, arrogant, use of political power, and in favor of prudence and wisdom, Edmund Burke’s collection of writings from the period of the French Revolution can be a beacon of light. On the other hand, explaining the dilemmas of collective action and suggesting ways of solving them, Mancur Olson offers an insightful look at incentives and group behavior in The Logic of Collective Action.
However, the idea that government coercion is the only solution to dilemmas of collective action (such as imposing a quarantine, for example) doesn’t hold water. In fact, other economists follow Olson in saying the problem is real and challenges a strict individualist way of thinking, but, adding to Olson’s point, they also acknowledge the role of private action and sanctions in fostering cooperation. Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons is a wonderful study that opens up a number of possibilities for private enforcing of collective action to preserve and promote the frugal allocation of common goods. This can be complemented by The Quest for Community, an overlooked work by sociologist Robert Nisbet, where it becomes clear that, between individuals, the state, and the market, there’s room for other associations and communities that strengthen civil society – particularly in this challenging time. Nisbet’s lesson invites liberty-loving people to reflect on whether a hyper-individualistic view of the world ends up pitting helpess individuals against Leviathan instead of offering the buffer zone of community in between. This is something Alexis de Tocqueville discussed in the 19th century.
And just for the sake of dealing with the issue that “is” doesn’t easily lead to “ought”, and that science might have facts and an explanation for them, but does not easily conduce to a proper discussion on values policy, I must finish this PPE pandemic reading list with F. A. Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty. On Chapter 4, for example, Hayek introduces a constrast between “rationalist liberalism” and “anti-rationalist liberalism”. Rationalist liberals assume too easily that knowledge of the facts on the ground will give them what they need to re-design a society governed by reason. Hayek warns us against this technocratic assumption and offers a defence of “anti-rationalist liberalism”. Anti-rationalist liberals understand the importance of spontaneous order and of constraining power (even at a time of crisis) while prudently balancing the values of liberty and safety in light of past experience and tradition.
Three Additional readings:
Buzan, Waever and De Wilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis (1997). In a liberal democracy, the state steps in suspending some civil liberties only if it can persuade citizens that there’s a threat that justifies it. This book offers a framework to interpret how such threats are constructed in official and non-official discourse, and to what extent this construction of a threat can be effective.
Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan (2013). 25th anniversary edition. Looks at US history and how government employed crises to its advantage and the advantage of the ruling elites. In particular, security and economy related issues are dealt with.
Sanford Ikeda, Dynamics of the Mixed Economy (2002). Shows that a time of crisis might be a time for further interventionism in the economy, as Higgs (see above) suggests, but might also be a time for disintervention, as seems to be the case with part of the agenda today (FDA deregulation, etc.) This is based on Ludwig von Mises’ view that interventionist economies are not very stable and are always swinging as a pendulum between socialism and capitalism.
As COVID-19 continues to spread, fears and extraordinary predictions have also gone viral. While facing a new infectious threat, the unknowns of how new traits of our societies worldwide or of this novel coronavirus impact its spread. Though no two pandemics are equivalent, I thought it best to face this new threat armed with knowledge from past infectious episodes. The best inoculation against a plague of panic is to use evidence gained through billions of deaths, thousands of years, and a few vital breakthroughs to prepare our knowledge of today’s biological crises, social prognosis, and choices.
Below, I address three key questions: First, what precedents do we have for infections with catastrophic potential across societies? Second, what are the greatest killers and how do pandemics compare? Lastly, what are our greatest accomplishments in fighting infectious diseases?
As foundation for understanding how threats like COVID-19 come about and how their hosts fight back, I recommend reading The Red Queen concerning the evolutionary impact and mechanisms of host-disease competition and listening to Sam Harris’ “The Plague Years” podcast with Matt McCarthy from August 2019, which predated COVID-19 but had a strangely prophetic discussion of in-hospital strategies to mitigate drug resistance and their direct relation to evolutionary competition.
- The Biggest Killers:
Infectious diseases plagued humanity throughout prehistory and history, with a dramatic decrease in the number of infectious disease deaths coming in the past 200 years. In 1900, the leading killers of people were (1) Influenza, (2) Tuberculosis, and (3) Intestinal diseases, whereas now we die from (1) Heart disease, (2) Cancer, and (3) Stroke, all chronic conditions. This graph shows not that humans have vanquished infectious disease as a threat, but that in the never-ending war of evolutionary one-upmanship, we have won battles consistently since 1920 forward. When paired with Jonathan Haidt’s Most Important Graph in the World, this vindicates humanity’s methods of scientific and economic progress toward human flourishing.
However, if the CDC had earlier data, it would show a huge range of diseases that dwarf wars and famines and dictators as causes of death in the premodern world. If we look to the history of plagues, we are really looking at the history of humanity’s greatest killers.
The sources on the history of pandemics are astonishingly sparse/non-comprehensive. I created the following graphs only by combining evidence and estimates from the WHO, CDC, Wikipedia, Our World in Data, VisualCapitalist, and others (lowest estimates shown where ranges were presented) for both major historic pandemics and for ongoing communicable disease threats. This is not a complete dataset, and I will continue to add to it, but it shows representative death counts from across major infectious disease episodes, as well as the death rate per year based on world population estimates. See the end of this post for the full underlying data. First, the top 12 “plagues” in history:
Note: blue=min, orange=max across the sources I examined. For ongoing diseases with year-by-year WHO evidence, like tuberculosis, measles, and cholera, I grouped mortality in 5-year spans (except AIDS, which does not have good estimates from the 1980s-90s, so I reported based on total estimated deaths).
Now, let’s look at the plagues that were lowest on my list (number 55-66). Again, my list was not comprehensive, but this should provide context for COVID-19:
As we can see, the 11,400 people who have died from COVID-19 recently passed Ebola to take the 61st (out of 66) place on our list of plagues. Note again that several ongoing diseases were recorded in 5-year increments, and COVID-19 still comes in under the death rates for cholera. Even more notably, it has 0.015% as many victims as the plague in the 14th Century,
- In Context of Current Infectious Diseases:
For recent/ongoing diseases, it is easier to compare year-by-year data. Adding UNAIDS to our sources, we found the following rates of death across some of the leading infectious causes of death. Again, this is not comprehensive, but helps put COVID-19 (the small red dot, so far in the first 3 months of 2020) in context:
Note: darker segments of lines are my own estimates; full data at bottom of the post. I did not include influenza due to the lack of good sources on a year-by-year basis, but a Lancet article found that 291,000-645,000 deaths from influenza in a year is predictable based on data from 1999-2015.
None of this is to say that COVID-19 is not a major threat to human health globally–it is, and precautions could save lives. However, it should show us that there are major threats to human health globally all the time, that we must continue to fight. These trendlines tend to be going the right direction, but our war for survival has many foes, and will have more emerge in the future, and we should expend our resources in fighting them rationally based on the benefits to human health, not panic or headlines.
- The Eradication List:
As we think about the way to address COVID-19, we should keep in mind that this fight against infectious disease builds upon work so amazing that most internet junkies approach new infectious diseases with fear of the unknown, rather than tired acceptance that most humans succumb to them. That is a recent innovation in the human experience, and the strategies used to fight other diseases can inform our work now to reduce human suffering.
While influenzas may be impossible to eradicate (in part due to an evolved strategy of constantly changing antigens), I wanted to direct everyone to an ever-growing monument to human achievement, the Eradication List. While humans have eradicated only a few infectious diseases, the amazing thing is that we can discuss which diseases may in fact disappear as threats through the work of scientists.
On that happy note, I leave you here. More History of Plagues to come, in Volume 2: Vectors, Vaccines, and Virulence!
|Disease||Start Year||End Year||Death Toll (low)||Death Toll (high)||Deaths per 100,000 people per year (global)|
|Plague of Justinian||541||542||25,000,000||100,000,000||6,250.0|
|Japanese Smallpox Epidemic||735||737||1,000,000||1,000,000||158.7|
|Smallpox (Central and South America)||1520||1591||56,000,000||56,000,000||172.8|
|Cocoliztli resurgence (Mexico)||1576||1576||2,000,000||2,000,000||444.4|
|17th Century Plagues||1600||1699||3,000,000||3,000,000||6.0|
|18th Century Plagues||1700||1799||600,000||600,000||1.0|
|New World Measles||1700||1799||2,000,000||2,000,000||3.3|
|Smallpox (North America)||1763||1782||400,000||500,000||2.6|
|Cholera Pandemic (India, 1817-60)||1817||1860||15,000,000||15,000,000||34.1|
|Cholera Pandemic (International, 1824-37)||1824||1837||305,000||305,000||2.2|
|Great Plains Smallpox||1837||1837||17,200||17,200||1.7|
|Cholera Pandemic (International, 1846-60)||1846||1860||1,488,000||1,488,000||8.3|
|The Third Plague (Bubonic)||1855||1855||12,000,000||12,000,000||1,000.0|
|Cholera Pandemic (International, 1863-75)||1863||1875||170,000||170,000||1.1|
|Cholera Pandemic (International, 1881-96)||1881||1896||846,000||846,000||4.4|
|Cholera Pandemic (India and Russia)||1899||1923||1,300,000||1,300,000||3.3|
|Cholera Pandemic (Philippenes)||1902||1904||200,000||200,000||4.2|
|Cholera (International, 1950-54)||1950||1954||316,201||316,201||2.4|
|Cholera (International, 1955-59)||1955||1959||186,055||186,055||1.3|
|Cholera (International, 1960-64)||1960||1964||110,449||110,449||0.7|
|Cholera (International, 1965-69)||1965||1969||22,244||22,244||0.1|
|Hong Kong Flu||1968||1970||1,000,000||1,000,000||9.4|
|Cholera (International, 1970-75)||1970||1974||62,053||62,053||0.3|
|Cholera (International, 1975-79)||1975||1979||20,038||20,038||0.1|
|Cholera (International, 1980-84)||1980||1984||12,714||12,714||0.1|
|Measles (International, 1985)||1985||1989||4,800,000||4,800,000||19.7|
|Cholera (International, 1985-89)||1985||1989||15,655||15,655||0.1|
|Measles (International, 1990-94)||1990||1994||2,900,000||2,900,000||10.9|
|Cholera (International, 1990-94)||1990||1994||47,829||47,829||0.2|
|Malaria (International, 1990-94)||1990||1994||3,549,921||3,549,921||13.3|
|Measles (International, 1995-99)||1995||1999||2,400,000||2,400,000||8.4|
|Cholera (International, 1995-99)||1995||1999||37,887||37,887||0.1|
|Malaria (International, 1995-99)||1995||1999||3,987,145||3,987,145||13.9|
|Measles (International, 2000-04)||2000||2004||2,300,000||2,300,000||7.5|
|Malaria (International, 2000-04)||2000||2004||4,516,664||4,516,664||14.7|
|Tuberculosis (International, 2000-04)||2000||2004||7,890,000||8,890,000||25.7|
|Cholera (International, 2000-04)||2000||2004||16,969||16,969||0.1|
|Measles (International, 2005-09)||2005||2009||1,300,000||1,300,000||4.0|
|Malaria (International, 2005-09)||2005||2009||4,438,106||4,438,106||13.6|
|Tuberculosis (International, 2005-09)||2005||2009||7,210,000||8,010,000||22.0|
|Cholera (International, 2005-09)||2005||2009||22,694||22,694||0.1|
|Measles (International, 2010-14)||2010||2014||700,000||700,000||2.0|
|Malaria (International, 2010-14)||2010||2014||3,674,781||3,674,781||10.6|
|Tuberculosis (International, 2010-14)||2010||2014||6,480,000||7,250,000||18.6|
|Cholera (International, 2010-14)||2010||2014||22,691||22,691||0.1|
|Malaria (International, 2015-17)||2015||2017||1,907,872||1,907,872||8.6|
|Tuberculosis (International, 2015-18)||2015||2018||4,800,000||5,440,000||16.3|
|Cholera (International, 2015-16)||2015||2016||3,724||3,724||0.0|
|Measles (International, 2019)||2019||2019||140,000||140,000||1.8|