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Peter Robinson: A worldwide plague, the American economy shut down, schools closed, masks, social distancing. Now that it all may finally be ending, how did it happen? The historian Niall Ferguson in his new book "Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe", on "Uncommon Knowledge" now. Welcome to "Uncommon Knowledge". I'm Peter Robinson. A fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, Niall Ferguson has taught at Oxford, Cambridge, the Stern School of Business, the London School of Economics, and Harvard. The author of more than a dozen works of economics, military history, and diplomacy, Professor Ferguson has just published "Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe". Not the cheeriest of titles, "Doom".
Niall Ferguson: Well, there's a certain irony in there, which I think the dust jacket also makes clear. the US edition depicts a golfer sinking a putt with a wildfire raging behind him. Part of the point of this book is to explore our very strange ambivalent relationship to doom, which fascinates us and often leads us to exaggerate the scale of a disaster. I wanted to write the book to put our current or recent disaster into some kind of historical context. And part of what I do is to show that, by historic standards, COVID-19 is not a really massive disaster. And so, in a way, "Doom" is a kind of reassuring, comforting, and at times I find even amusing book.
Peter Robinson: Reassuring taking the very long view. But you have some very sharp things to say, particularly about public health officials. And you described the response in this country and in Britain, of course, we'll spend most of our time in this country, as a straightforward failure. "Doom", on events a year ago this spring: It was all a circus in which journalists and Trump made believe that it was all about him. In truth, what happened was a disastrous failure of the public health bureaucracy at the Department of Health and Human Services, and particularly at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a subject much less discussed in the press. Close quote. So, there's a double failure, there. One is of the public health bureaucracy and the other's of the press. Let's take them both. What should, honestly, we've been at this for 14 months now, and I myself reading as much as I try to read to stay, I'm not quite clear, I don't even, I don't have a crisp idea aside from your argument which I'm going to ask you to put, a crisp idea of what they ought to have done.
Niall Ferguson: Well, we know that there was a better way because there were countries much closer to China that handled it far better. Taiwan and South Korea spring to mind, but there were others that avoided the really very high excess mortality of, well, now more than half a million people that we've witnessed in the United States. Taiwan's total death toll from COVID-19 stands at 11. What did they do right? First, they ramped up testing as soon as they were able to, to devise a test for this new coronavirus coming out of Wuhan, China. Secondly, they are used a system of contact tracing so that once they identified an infected person, they could then see who else that person had been in touch with. And the third thing they did was to then isolate, quarantine people who were suspected of being infected. Those three steps taken together in an integrated way made it possible to limit the spread of the virus. We took none of them. We not only failed to ramp up testing, CDC managed to make it harder to get tested by intervening to prevent any non-government entity from providing testing. I came back from a trip to Asia in January suspecting that I had this new coronavirus, but I couldn't find out if I had it or not for weeks, indeed months. As for contact tracing, even although we have the biggest and most powerful technology companies in this country, they opted not to make available an effective nationwide system of contact tracing. It was a deliberate choice by Google and Apple. And as for isolating people who were infected or suspected of being infected, we didn't even try. So, it was very easy during 2020 to tell a story about Donald Trump because he, of course, wanted it to be all about him, that blamed it all on him. This is partly his responsibility for putting himself front and center, but it was obviously what the media wanted to say. So, it all became his fault, and that meant that we didn't really ask the question, what's gone wrong with the public health bureaucracy whose job it is to deal with a pandemic? Why was it that the undersecretary for pandemic preparedness was essentially missing in action throughout last year? And I think part of what I try and do in "Doom" is just to show that it's too easy to say, "The president's to blame. "If we'd had another president, "none of this would have happened." I'm not saying Donald Trump didn't make mistakes. He made a great many. But they don't explain all of the excess mortality. For that, you have to look much further afield.
Peter Robinson: Niall, there's a theme, here. We'll come back to it, but I want to touch on it right from the get-go. Well, let me just quote you. Actually, you quote the Stanford political scientist Frank Fukuyama. Quote: The overall quality of American government has been deteriorating for more than a generation. The apparently irreversible increase in the scope of government has masked a large decay in its quality. Close quote. What did the pandemic teach us about the federal government that we didn't already know? We already knew it was bloated. We already knew it tried to do too much. What new information has this pandemic given us?
Niall Ferguson: Well, we did know that the federal government was a bloated administrative state with a diminishing effectiveness in nearly every domain. It wasn't just Frank Fukuyama who'd made that argument. My old friend, Christa Muth had made it, indeed, wrote it into an article about the administrative state. I made an argument about this in a book called "The Great Degeneration" almost 10 years ago. But what was fascinating was the way in which the pandemic shed lights on CDC and HHS which I don't think many of us had thought much about before, except to assume that they were quite competent. But it turned out that they were every bit as bad at their job as, let's say, California state government is at doing infrastructure or TSA is at getting people through airport security. So, I think that was really the critical point. Now, if you go back in time, and remember, the point of "Doom" is not to write a history of COVID, but to write a history of disasters generally. You can see that when a comparably dangerous respiratory virus, respiratory disease caused by a new virus struck the United States in 1957, the federal government operated altogether more nimbly, and I think much more efficiently. The public health officials under the Eisenhower administration said, this new Asian flu is not something we can stop from spreading. We're just going to have to accept that there will be people who will fall ill and some will die. Let's focus on getting a vaccine and minimizing the disruption to daily life. What happened in in 2020 was almost completely different. We dithered around in January, February, and the first half of March when there was ample evidence to go into rapid action. And then we did something that would never have crossed the minds of officials in 1957. We decided to shut the economy down to try to stop the disease from spreading. And this was the worst of both worlds because it meant that we went from complacency when we should have been acting to using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, which I think many of the measures taken last spring were. To me, this is interesting more because of the light that it sheds on the state of our government than for the specific public health problems that it reveals. As I've said, we know from Taiwan and South Korea that there was a way to deal with it. The public health bureaucracies there had learned lessons from SARS and MERS that their counterparts in the US and the UK and many other Western countries simply hadn't learned. But I think there's a more general point to be teased out of this, and it's one that came to me from a completely unexpected source as I was researching the book last year. A colleague said to me I should read Richard Feynman's account of the space shuttle disaster. And you'll remember this very vividly. You may even have played a small part in the story. I don't know, because there's a part of the story that involves a Ronald Reagan speech. What happened was that in the run-up to the launch of the space shuttle Challenger, there was a good deal of public interest because a young woman, a teacher, was going to be aboard the shuttle. And there was discussion of including that in President Reagan's State of the Union Address. When the shuttle blew up, the media attempted to pursue the line that the launch had been accelerated in order to get the timing to coincide with the State of the Union.
Man (video): Obviously a major malfunction.
Niall Ferguson: In other words, they sought to blame Reagan.
Peter Robinson: Right.
Niall Ferguson: In just the same way that the media's impulse last year was to blame it all on Trump. This turned out to be a red herring, that there never had been any serious intention to use the space shuttle launch in the speech. And what Feynman discovered as he became involved as a physicist from Caltech in the investigation was that the point of failure wasn't at the top at all. The reason that the challenger blew up was that while the engineers knew there was a one in 100 chance of a failure, a fatal failure because of a defect, the so-called O-rings in the launching rockets. The bureaucrats at NASA fudged that by turning it into one in 100,000 in order to keep the program going and not fall behind schedule with the launches. And Feynman's key insight is that the point of failure was in middle management. It was in the bureaucracy. For me, this was an epiphany because I suddenly realized that there was a similar kind of failure within the public health bureaucracy not only in the US, but elsewhere. And that failure must've been somewhere in the midst of CDC or HHS where nobody really learned the lessons of SARS and MERS and they remained ready for an influenza pandemic, but not for a coronavirus pandemic. And that's one of the lessons that I think we haven't learned in our excessive focus on Trump's role last year.
Peter Robinson: The other bit of that opening passage that I quoted was that the press were being lazy and they were, well, here's another quotation. The press, from "Doom". "If a population is to make good choices, "good information is vital." Vital. "The fact that President Trump retweeted a video "of a hydroxychloroquine claim, "a clip that was viewed "more than 13 million times in social media, "neatly encapsulated the nature "of the dual plague the world confronted in 2020." Close quote. First of all, just remind us about that hydroxychloroquine, if I'm pronouncing it correctly. Could you just remind us about that incident? What was that all about?
Niall Ferguson: Hydroxychloroquine was supposed to have some effect prophylactic or possibly also as a remedy against COVID-19. President Trump heard about this. The story did the rounds. There were some very shaky, I believe French studies suggesting that there might be some benefit. And he began, along with a great many people on social media and elsewhere, to recommend it as a prophylactic or as a treatment.
Donald Trump (video): I happen to be taking it. I happen to be taking it.
Reporter (video): Hydroxychloroquine?
Donald Trump (video): I'm taking it, hydroxychloroquine.
Niall Ferguson: As soon as any rigorous studies were done, it turned out that there was not only no benefit, but in fact, potential harm from taking hydroxychloroquine. And that was just one of a great many fake stories that did the round. Now, the fact that Trump did what he did and endorsed it repeatedly was one of just many mistakes that he made. And let me be clear, this book does not defend Trump. But what it tries to show is that you can't explain it all in terms of his missteps. First of all, let's remember that the mainstream media did a poor job of covering the pandemic. Example, at the end of January, Trump did something right, which was that he recommended a restriction on travel from China into the United States. The only things wrong with this were A, that it was too late, and B, that it didn't include American passport holders and green card holders. It should have been a blanket restriction and it should have been imposed at least a week sooner. But leaving that aside, the direction that he was going in was right. You had to limit travel if you possibly could. The criticism he got from the "New York Times" or the "Washington Post", from Vox in January of 2020 was deafening because, of course, this was racism, xenophobia, the usual populism. And that was, I think, a good example of of where the media went initially. Initially, anything that Trump did was overreaction because, in truth, COVID was no worse than the seasonal flu. It wasn't just people on the right who said that. It was people on the left who were trying to have a go at Trump. Then we shifted in the course of the subsequent weeks into, "The black death is back," or, "It's the 1918-19 influenza calamitous scenario." And the press was equally good at at spreading alarm, fear, and misinformation and disinformation. The second piece of this, which harks back to my last book, "The Square and the Tower", was that social media, the Internet broadly defined, did a huge amount of harm in propagating crank remedies. You know, quack medication, all kinds of crazy notions, of which hydroxychloroquine was by no means the craziest. And therefore, we had dual plagues. We had an actual plague, an actual contagion of a novel pathogen, but we also had a plague of disinformation and misinformation about it. And this made it very difficult for ordinary people to know what to do. They didn't even know whether to believe the public health bureaucracy because it flip-flopped on the issue of masks in a way that I think was very harmful. But altogether, the ordinary man and woman were being bombarded with confusing messages both from public sources, mainstream media sources, and online. And not surprisingly, that made it very hard for people to act in a sensible way.
Peter Robinson: Could I, I want to pursue that just a bit. There's a passage here that struck me. Again, I'm quoting from "Doom": As with the real pandemic, the infodemic could not be understood apart from the network structure that spread it. Facebook's decisions not to change its algorithms to suggest a wider range of Facebook groups than users would ordinarily encounter to reduce the influence of supersharers, the online equivalent of superspreaders, proved highly consequential. Close quote. Okay, here's why that got my attention. Because as I read it, I put all this to you tentatively simply to see what you do with it. As I read it, we got there was a tension from the get-go that continues to this day between two norms. One is the scientific norm of any scientist gets to raise any question he or she wants to raise, to publish, in circumstances like these, to publish very quickly, perhaps even without full peer review as long as that's noted. We push forward information, we raise questions, we challenge the status quo. We challenge the consensus. That's the way science proceeds. The other norm is that in a crisis, the public health authorities must not be gainsayed. Because public health is at stake, we must not risk confusion. And so, there's a far greater deference granted to public health authorities. The notion is that it should be limited, that what they are doing rests on well-established science, and so forth. And this, of course, trips us right into this whole question. I'll put it crudely. I know you're not suggesting it, but I want to ask you to draw these distinctions. You say Facebook should have adjusted its algorithms. It should have gone in there and twisted the dials. And of course, the word that I'm about to use is censorship. And I'll give you a story, and then I'll just see how you respond to this whole bundle of concerns that I'm putting rather crudely, but trying to put as well as I can. Early in the pandemic, I interviewed Scott Atlas, who was then our, is again our colleague at Hoover. And he made a number of points about the virus. In particular, that studies were already suggesting that students, children, were very unlikely to suffer severely from the disease. This was 1000 times more likely to prove fatal 65 and over than it was, say, 18 and younger. And that schools actually ought to be opened. We ought to be far more reluctant to keep schools closed than we were proving.
Scott Atlas (video): There is a minimal, if any, risk of children transmitting the disease even to their parents. It's not just that children are not at risk at all from this disease. They also do not even transmit the disease. It is literally irrational to not only close school-
Peter Robinson: Okay, he said that. Several months passed. He became an advisor to the president, and YouTube took the video down at the very moment one would have thought when it was most important for Americans to understand what his thinking was because he was now advising the president of the United States. It was, as far as I can tell, a straightforward act of censorship, although the argument would be, wait a minute. He may have been advising the president, but he was saying things that violated the norm of deference to Birx and Fauci and the CDC and so forth. All right, you get, you see the tension I'm trying to illustrate, here. And just say, what do you make of all that? Where were the failures there?
Niall Ferguson: Well, in "The Square and the Tower" I made the argument, this was back in 2018, that the network platforms like Google and YouTube and Facebook were far more powerful than was healthy for our democracy, and that that power which had arisen from the increasing centralization of the Internet, the increasing concentration of traffic and of content into a relatively few platforms had given them a potential power of censorship that they would be likely to abuse. And sure enough, in the period after that book came out, there was a steady increase in the amount of censorship that they did. We moved from removing child pornography and terrorist propaganda and clearly First Amendment-violating threats of violence to political censorship. That really kicked off in the wake of events in Charlottesville, when suddenly it became a matter of urgency to remove anybody suspected of white supremacy or Neo-Nazism from the Internet. And this increasing politicization of the terms of service was a clear feature of the Internet landscape prior to 2020. And I think it was a major mistake, actually, that conservatives made in the Trump administration not to address this problem, which they could have done. And I remember making this argument in a paper called "What Is To Be Done?" Firstly, by revising or scrapping Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which essentially exempts the tech platforms from any meaningful constraint. It's a sort of catch-22 that allows them to censor when they like and to let bad stuff go online. Whenever they miss it, it's a kind of free pass, and to create something like a First Amendment in cyberspace. But we didn't do that. The opportunity was let slip, and I don't think it'll ever happen now because we're gonna go down the blind alley of antitrust actions. Okay, part one of my answer. So, we failed to fix something, and we should not therefore been surprised, particularly in an election year, when companies like YouTube began to feel empowered to take down content that was produced by a presidential advisor. And then ultimately, of course, at the beginning of 2021 to cancel the president himself while he was still in office. An astonishing thing, which was the real coup, by the way, of January the 6th 2021. Part two of my answer is under those circumstances-
Peter Robinson: That was such a beautiful bundle of political incorrectness. You sound so august. People should just reflect on how outrageous you are, actually, Niall.
Niall Ferguson: It's more outrageous that we should have been, that it was now possible for a handful of tech companies to shut down the president of the United States. But so completely befuddled the liberals by all that has happened in the last four years that they're willing to cheer on censorship of the president himself as if it could never, of course, happen to them. Well, we'll see if that proves to be true. But there's a whole set of issues there which I think are highly relevant here, because in the conditions of a public health emergency, if that stuff becomes politicized, then the public is in even a graver difficulty. Because if every issue, whether it's mask-wearing or vaccination is politicized and the tech companies feel it's in their interests and it's their somehow responsibility to act as censors on behalf of the side that they consider to be right, then the public's trust in the concept that it's actually given is going to be diminished. And that's very dangerous, because as the public becomes mistrustful, it turns, actually, to the more peripheral and often fringe, lunatic fringe providers of content. And this is a very dangerous cycle. One of the very striking features of 2020 was how many quite educated people began to believe quite mad things about the virus. And I think most of us probably encountered this. A friend would suddenly turn out to be convinced that vaccination was a dangerous thing. A large number of people got in touch with me to ask if it would be dangerous to get vaccinated for their future fertility, young women, often in healthcare who were amongst the first people to be offered the vaccine. The idea that there was a greater danger from a vaccine than from COVID to a pregnant woman, or to, indeed, any person was mad. But it was very widely believed. And as people like Renee DiResta have shown, anti-vaccination networks online have already been pretty well-established for years. COVID was a gift to them and they've greatly expanded their reach. So, part two of my answer to your excellent question is that the network, the Internet-dominated public space, is a very difficult place for scientific truth to flourish and the public to believe in it because the algorithms are not only incentivized to promote attention-grabbing fake news, but the people who run the companies are at the same time intervening to engage in political censorship. Okay, final point. Science is messy. This is something that we sometimes forget. And there's no such thing as The Science, especially when a novel pathogen is sweeping around the earth. I am fortunate enough to be able to spend, if I choose, many hours of my day consuming scientific literature to try to understand what is going on in the world. And I sat down beginning in mid-January feeling something of a historically great moment was happening. I began reading very avidly. It is impossible to read even a fraction of the relevant scientific literature that is generated every day. And heaven knows I've tried. And it is coming from multiple disciplines all the way from the cutting edge of the genetic structure of the virus to the network analysis of how a disease spreads. So, reading even a fraction of the material that was coming out based on what had happened in China and then in Northern Italy, one could begin to see the outlines of this disease. One could begin to guess its infection fatality rate or could begin to think about how it might spread. But you couldn't be sure of very much at all. Public health officials' problem is that they had to make rules and give recommendations to the public under a state of uncertainty that one almost doesn't want to admit to the public. And therefore we got a kind of faux, fake certainty. And we also got told lies. "You don't need a mask." Well, that was a lie because they were worried that they didn't have enough masks for people in the hospitals. And so, they told the public that actually, there was no need to wear a mask, which was not true. It was very, very likely the case that wearing a mask would reduce your risk of spreading or catching the disease. Likely, but not certain. And that was the beginning, I think, of a really unhappy sequence of events in which messaging, of which there was probably too much, and rulemaking ran far ahead of what we really knew. The right approach at the very beginning, and this was something that my old friend Nassim Taleb said early on was, "Act as if it's a really, really dangerous virus "that can be spread in every which way." Begin with an abundance of caution, which is what we failed to do. We began with complacency. If we'd begun with the really risk-averse approach, assuming the worst, we could have been Taiwan or South Korea. By the time we finally realized that it was pretty bad, if not quite as catastrophic as 1918-19's influenza, it was too late. It had already spread to every state by the time we got serious. And that's when we resorted to what were, in fact, very blunt instruments. And let me give you one example of how public health messaging ran far ahead of what was even half-settled science. I remember the moment they announced in California that they were closing the beaches and parks was the moment I realized that people of almost no competence must be making the rules. Because it was obvious to me, an amateur historian reading the literature, that it was very hard indeed to get COVID-19 outdoors, that almost no cases were found in China of outdoor spread in the early phase of the pandemic. In fact, it was an indoor-spreading virus, so the worst thing you could do was to prevent people from going to public parks and beaches. That was the kind of really stupid regulation, regulation for its own sake, regulation decoupled from any scientific understanding of the disease that I think led many people in public to become disillusioned and skeptical about what they were being told.
Peter Robinson: Niall, the lockdown. We've touched on this, but let's take on the lockdown in and of itself. "Doom": Were the lockdowns a mistake? A growing body of research indicated that containment of the contagion was a function of social distancing. If social distancing was done effectively, lockdowns were more or less superfluous. All right. Thought number one, thought number two. Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton developed this concept of deaths of despair. You're familiar with their work.
Niall Ferguson: Of course.
Peter Robinson: And it turns out that we know, there are heuristics that every X increase in unemployment in a given region, they studied areas that de-industrialized. Southern Ohio, Western Appalachia. Every X increase in unemployment leads to suicide, drug overdoses, alcohol-related liver disease, and on and on. So, we know that shutting down the economy, first of all, you would argue the public officials had good reason to suppose that it was unnecessary. Social distancing would have been enough. But shutting down the economy, Fauci says, "Shut down." Trump shuts it down. Birx says, "Shut it down." I understand now that Dr. Birx went to all 50 governors with a kind of Project Fear presentation about all the deaths that would take place in their states if they didn't shut down. Why did the public officials, from Trump to Fauci to Birx, and why did the journalists fail to ask about the costs? Cost benefit analysis is public policy 101. It's the first concept that students like those that you teach at Stanford learn. And there was no, even now you very seldom hear any effort to balance the high costs of shutting down the economy with any gain from saved lives as a result of COVID. Just that simple, why did the journalists say, "But what about suicide? "What about drug overdoses?" What happened? Why was there such a total breakdown there in weighing the costs?
Niall Ferguson: This is an immensely complex question that kept getting oversimplified. And the oversimplified version was, we should just let the virus rip and we'll get to herd immunity and we can save the economy. Now, this was wrong because if you really had done nothing and let the virus rip, we'd certainly have got to a million American dead. And countries that tried that quickly found that the costs in terms of excess mortality were too high. But not many countries really did try that. Sweden didn't because Sweden actually had all kinds of limits on public meetings. Social distancing was practiced.
Peter Robinson: They did the social distancing without the lockdown. That's what the Swedes did, isn't it-
Niall Ferguson: The choice wasn't between do nothing and shut everything down.
Peter Robinson: Got it.
Niall Ferguson: Lockdown itself is a rather blanket term and it can be split up into a variety of different measures. Let me, for the sake of simplicity, put it this way. A nice paper by Austan Goolsbee, who of course served in the Obama administration, confirms John Cochrane's hypothesis. Our colleague John Cochrane early in the pandemic wrote a brilliant blog post saying we should expect behavior to adapt. Public behavior will adapt to data about illness and hospitalization and death, and that will be something that will cause people to alter their behavior spontaneously. And Goolsbee showed that that in fact did happen, and that often before shelter-in-place orders, people were reducing the amount of movement, the amount of travel they did to retail or leisure locations. So, there was adaptive behavior ahead of regulation happening in most places. A lot of what was done in the spring was very much more economically disruptive than it needed to be because you couldn't make everybody work from home. Clearly there were a lot of people who could work from home, including us, and we're doing it now. But to essentially shut down manufacturing, which for a time happened, really didn't make sense because the places where the virus was likely to spread were identifiable. We knew where the superspreader locations were from very early on. Cruise liners, definitely not a place to be. Jails, a place where the virus spread very easily, indeed. Crowded restaurants, bars, don't go to karaoke. We actually had pretty good data early on about where the virus, which has this really low dispersion factor, I.e., a small number of people do a lot of the infecting. We could also see where those are, those superspreader locations were. At weddings, funerals, manufacturing plants. The only places where there really were big superspreader outbreaks were meat packing factories. So, instead of a kind of targeted approach that would have aimed at getting rid of superspreader events, crowded stadiums, for example, in the spring, back in March, April, and particularly in New York and California, there were these blanket lockdowns, the costs of which were probably in excess of their public health benefits. I say probably because we haven't really rigorously sat down and figured this out. But the research that's been done so far basically tells us that people would have adapted their behavior even if there had been no shelter-in-place orders to reduce their exposure, because people are not stupid in a pandemic even if they're being bombarded with misinformation. And secondly, and we see this in the later part of 2020, there were ways of reducing social interaction that were much less disruptive than the lockdowns of the spring of 2020. So, although we did restore restrictions in the later part of the year in Europe in particular, it was much less economically disruptive that second time around. So, I think it's pretty clear that there were a great many costs associated with lockdowns that were left out of the policy calculation. So far, we do know that there wasn't a spike in suicides, but there was a spike in overdoses. That's clear. And so, we're gradually seeing the true costs of the lockdown filtering through. The cost in terms of educational loss.
Peter Robinson: Stacking.
Niall Ferguson: And something Scott Atlas was talking about last visit, is absolutely huge and will be very, very hard to calculate because a generation has lost a year of education. And unfortunately, it's been in the public schools that the disruption has been greater, so it's poorer kids who have lost the most in the past year. And it's just as silly to pretend that that isn't a very meaningful cost. Does that mean that schools should just have been left open as they were in 1957-58? I think if we'd done that, a great many more elderly people would have got infected, because the problem is that children, although they didn't get sick in large numbers at all, could spread the disease, especially teenagers. Less the really young children. So, there were some really tricky policy trade-offs, no question, last year. And I think it would be a great mistake to simply say we should have done nothing. But that, I think, would have led to a much higher death toll than we saw. But the right counterfactual is to go back to where we started. Early action, early detection and early action on the Taiwanese or South Korean pattern would have led to a much, much lower death toll. And the real question to ask is, why was that not even considered? And it wasn't just, remember, in the US that this mistake was made. And it wasn't just by populist leaders, though they've had, of course, a great deal of the blame. Not only Trump, but also Boris Johnson in the UK. Belgium had as bad if not worse an experience as the UK and US. In terms of excess mortality, it was actually worse. But Belgium didn't have a populist leader in 2020. The liberal woman was the prime minister. So, I think we we've ended up with some very simplistic narratives about what went wrong because they were simply the line of least journalistic resistance.
Peter Robinson: The new Cold War. "Doom", "The COVID-19 crisis is widely regarded "as dooming the United States to decline relative to China. "This is probably wrong." That "Probably" causes me great distress, Niall. But would you explain? Explain the proposition and why it's probably wrong, and then explain why it's only probably wrong.
Niall Ferguson: Well, remember, there are other disasters out there than just pandemics or climate change, the two disasters that we tend to talk about these days. Part of the point of writing a general history of catastrophe is to remind people that disaster can take multiple forms. A pandemic is one. Climate change is another. That's the one that elites prefer to talk about. But war comes pretty close to pandemics when it comes to causing excess and premature mortality. And so, if the US and China were to have a war, that is not inconceivable, that would have a far more clear and present impact on humanity than climate change. So, I've been thinking a lot about this for a while. And it was striking to me that even before the pandemic we'd already kind of entered Cold War II, only with the People's Republic of China taking the place of the Soviet Union. And I remember asking Henry Kissinger about this in late 2019. And he came up with a great phrase. He said, "We're in the foothills of a Cold War." Well, I think in 2020, we left the foothills and we ascended into full-blown hills, if not mountains. Because A, the pandemic originated in China and in murky circumstances reminiscent of the Chernobyl disaster, only with far, far higher casualties around the world, B, because the Chinese sought to bend, if not wholly break the narrative by denying that the virus had originated in China, and C, because in the course of 2020, China sought to flex its muscles even more visibly than before, whether on its border with India or with respect to Taiwan. And it's interesting, isn't it, that the Trump administration's tough line on China one of the really most important things about that administration, is being carried on by its successors almost uninterruptedly. So, we are entering a very fraught period in US-China relations, and it could escalate at any point, most obviously over Taiwan. And I think that will be one of the most important consequences of this pandemic, not only in the US, but in many other countries. Scales have fallen from eyes about the nature of Xi Jinping's regime. Sentiment on China moved in the US quite dramatically. And by China, I mean the Chinese government. And the same is true in most European countries. It's also true in India. Most democracies have a far dimmer view of the regime in Beijing than they did at the end of 2019. I think ultimately China's inner weaknesses are far greater than we realize. The fact that the population is shrinking. Aging is only one of the many problems they have to contend with. The fact that the system produced the catastrophe of COVID-19 tells its own story. But the reason I say that it will probably fail rather than certainly fail is that we seem in much worse shape than we were in Cold War I. In Cold War I, the US could win with a strategy of containment that assumed that eventually the Soviet Union would succumb to its own internal contradictions. That was George Kennan's argument, and it was right. But is this United States, the United States of 2020-21, able to pursue that same strategy against a much economically stronger opponent? And for me, the most troubling thing about writing "Doom" was realizing that decay of our strength as a society and the decay of the federal government's competence. Compared with its predecessors in the Cold War, in Cold War I, this seems a much less formidable opponent for China.
Peter Robinson: Last questions, Niall. "Doom", I'm quoting you again. "If institutions," institutions, "are shaken up by this disaster, "there's just a chance we will see a return to progress "in places where, up until 2020, "the most striking trend had been degeneration. "In line for disruption should be," you named several entities. You name, I'm quoting, as you will already have recognized, from your closing passage. You of course name the government. We've talked about the government. "Next in line should be those universities "that were more interested in propagating woke ideology "than in teaching all that can profitably be learned "from science and the human past." Close quote. And as you demonstrate in "Doom", there is a great deal that could be profitably learned, but it requires reading and thinking, and of course, teaching. So, you say those universities that put woke ideology first, can you name a university that didn't? We have an entire sector, speaking of Cold Wars, heavily funded by the federal government that's a relic of the first Cold War when it was supposed that research done in universities would help us in the struggle. The funding continued, heavily funded by ordinary taxpayers, and yet embracing this strange woke ideology, which is not the same thing as passing on the inheritance of Western civilization, and still less the same thing as teaching genuinely critical thinking. Okay, so what's your solution? Cheer me up, would you please? Doom, we've been talking about doom, doom, doom. Cheer me up. "Universities can be turned around and here's how."
Niall Ferguson: Well, I do think that we're doomed if we allow our entire educational system to be taken over by an ideology which is profoundly illiberal and hostile to free thought and free speech. We don't need to belabor the point, but I think it is clear from surveys of faculty and of students that something terrible has happened on the great majority of campuses, a chilling of the atmosphere and narrowing of the scope of possible conversation, and a political skew that is unprecedented. This is not an old problem that we were talking about in the 1960s. Relative to the 1960s, the ratio of liberal to conservative faculty is far, far higher, and indeed, as was recently observed in "The Harvard Crimson", conservative professors at that august institution are an endangered species. So, I think we have a problem, and it's a profound one. Going back to the last thing we were discussing, it's hard to see how you win Cold War II if your educational establishment that educates the elite is filled with a kind of self-hatred, a hatred of the United States, a determination to teach its history as essentially a succession of crimes against humanity. So, there's a problem and it's a profound one. I mean, I think the ultimate doom is a world that succumbs to totalitarianism. Because as I try to show in the book, totalitarian regimes have been responsible for excess mortality like no other form of disaster in the past century or so. So, how do we fix this? I don't think it's easy to fix it from within. My experience and judgment is that once a university's humanities departments have been taken over by the woke left, there is no winning them back. And that's partly because of the systematic political discrimination that is practiced against anybody even slightly to the right of center. I think the answer must be, Peter, that we build new institutions. Ultimately, American history is full of examples. Stanford's one of them. So is Chicago. Relativity recent foundations that rapidly rose to be in the very top flight. But the billionaires of our time and not quite like the billionaires of the Gilded Age. They're less good at starting new institutions, and I think it's time that changed. I think we need new institutions at all levels of American education, and the process of funding them has to begin soon. Otherwise, Peter, we really are doomed. Not in the sense of the end of the world, not in the sense of the extinction of humanity, but just in the sense that the things that a free society should value will sputter out and die.
Peter Robinson: "Doom", I promise I am coming down to the last questions. I know you've got the duties of fatherhood peeking up behind from over your shoulder every so often. But indulge me, if you would, just a few more moments: I would hope, too, that the contagion will at last prompt a challenge to the current combination of monopoly and anarchy that characterizes the American public sphere. The East India Companies of the Internet have plundered enough data and caused enough plagues of the mind. Finally, the pandemic ought to force some changes on those media organizations that insisted on covering it childishly, as if it were all the fault of a few wicked presidents and prime ministers. Close quote. All right, so here's what, you and I are of an age when we can remember when newspapers were still vigorous and competitive. And in Britain today, you've still got "The Sun" in the center or right of center, and you've got, among the tabloids, you've got the range from "The Guardian" to "The Times" to "The Telegram" still. But the rising generation doesn't read the newspapers. And even in Britain, the old business model of advertising has collapsed. So, you could think about starting a new newspaper, but how would you pay for it? And then what we do have, of course, is these gigantic tech companies that you've already talked about. But they are so, the news this morning in "The Wall Street Journal" is that Google expects to produce a historic quarter of profits for the last quarter. I mean, to put it bluntly, these are machines for producing money. Not just the founders are billionaires, but the ordinary people in the tens of thousands who work at Google and Facebook, these are extremely well-paid people. So, it feels as though Niall saying, "Let's hope for some changes," is just a little short of banging your head against a wall.
Niall Ferguson: Well, I've spent much of my adult life banging my head against walls, metaphorically.
Peter Robinson: And with immense elegance and erudition, I may say. You're the best headbanger in the trade.
Niall Ferguson: I may have some lasting damage from doing this. But I do think that there is unfinished business. We can't simply let a reform of big tech degenerate into a bunch of antitrust actions that I suspect will be about as successful as the action against Microsoft all those years ago. We have to keep reminding people that the reason these companies are so profitable is that they are more or less able to function with complete impunity under Section 230 of the Communications and Decency Act. Because when they engage in censorship, they can simply say, "Ah, but that's our right as private companies. "First Amendment doesn't apply to us." And when they let egregious material appear on their website, harmful material, they can say, "Well, we're not publishers, "so we're not liable, either." You can't really sue them. And if you have no real legal downside, yeah, you can make a lot of money as a media company. And I think that has to be fixed. And we're no closer, as far as I can see, to fixing it than we were when I published "The Square and the Tower". I think that the key here is to keep talking about this issue. The public is aware that there is something wrong, though it can't articulate very clearly what it is that needs to be done to fix it. But disillusionment with social media is certainly out there. And what has happened in the last year has been a very powerful illustration of the pathologies that I'm talking about. I mean, 20% of Americans are probably never gonna get vaccinated against COVID-19. They've absorbed enough disinformation and misinformation to refuse the vaccine. And this is crazy, especially as many of them are in minorities that are very vulnerable to the disease or are aging conservatives who are especially vulnerable to the disease because of their age and pre-existing conditions. It's gonna be very hard to end this pandemic completely with a fifth of the population refusing the vaccine. We have an obvious harm and it has emanated from groups on Facebook and other social media platforms that propagate crazy notions about vaccines. I think there needs to be, ultimately, some legal downside to carrying this kind of harmful content. I am not in favor of censorship by Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos determining what makes it into the public sphere. Let me make that very clear. And I don't think we should be doing anything to encourage the big tech companies to do more censorship. On the contrary, they should be obliged to uphold some kind of First Amendment standard because, as the Supreme Court itself said just a few years ago, they are the public square. I mean, it's no longer viable to say that they're just private companies and the First Amendment doesn't apply to them. They are the public square. And if that's the case, then there has to be some meaningful freedom of speech. And not just for Scott Atlas, for everybody, including the right to say crazy stuff. But from the point of view of the companies, if they are going to be not just the hosts of crazy stuff, but the vectors propagating crazy stuff, there must be some liability involved. It's the same as with woke academic institutions. Until there is a major lawsuit that imposes serious costs on a university for implementing woke ideology in ways that clearly limit academic freedom and discriminate in other ways, this stuff will continue in the same way. Until we can really land some legal punches on big tech companies, they will continue to feel that they are the masters of the universe. That's how things get done in the United States. Until you have some meaningful legal liability, you're gonna carry on doing things that can be extraordinarily harmful to the wider public. So, I do think there needs to be legal change. I think the way to do it is scrap or reform Section 230 and create a First Amendment in cyberspace. Do those things, and it will suddenly cost an awful lot more to be Facebook, just in lawyers' fees.
Peter Robinson: Niall, last question. I promise this is the last question. We've been talking about COVID, but you've also been talking about the foothills and then some of a new Cold War. Let me quote the diplomat George Kennan in the '50s. This is at the beginning of the first Cold War. You'll be familiar with this because of your first volume on Henry Kissinger. Quote: The thoughtful observer will experience a certain gratitude to Providence which, by providing the American people with this implacable challenge, has made their entire security as a nation dependent on their pulling themselves together and accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear. Are you optimistic that we can do it again?
Niall Ferguson: I'm just optimistic. Otherwise I wouldn't be here. It tends to be the immigrants, the legal ones, anyway, who have the most faith in this country. And if one looks at the challenge that we currently confront, then it ought to be the case that the US can come together as, of course, a pretty divided America did back in the 1950s to confront the challenge. Ultimately, there's a couple of reasons to be optimistic. The first is we won the vaccine race and we won it handily. Now, that wasn't predictable. But in writing the book, which remember, I had to finish about six months ago, I said, "I think we'll win this vaccine race "and I think the Chinese will lose it "because I don't think that they're anywhere "nearly as good as a Western companies in doing vaccines." And that's proved to be right. So, we still have an edge. Secondly, I think we also have an edge when it comes to the new technologies like artificial intelligence that are clearly gonna be crucial not only in the economy, but in national security terms. It's really the enemy within that concerns me, that sort of self-defeating impulse that I wrote about 10 years ago in "Civilization". And the fact that that is so entrenched in our educational system, that seems to be our biggest problem. And it's interesting, isn't it, how much Chinese talking points now include woke talking points.
Peter Robinson: They send us.
Niall Ferguson: They've spotted our vulnerability on this, on this critical race theory, ideas of, quote, "Equity and social justice," anti-racism. These are much more toxic ideas than meets the eye. And it will require the courage of public intellectuals and politicians, journalists. Often, journalists forced to write for Substack because they can't write for the "New York Times" anymore. Step forward, Bari Weiss and Andrew Sullivan, to speak out against this stuff and remind Americans that the reason Cold Wars are worth waging and winning is that the other side stands for unfreedom and our raison d'etre is individual liberty. If we lose sight of that, we might as well not contest Cold War II, because Cold War II won't be a meaningful choice between freedom and unfreedom.
Peter Robinson: Niall, thank you. Niall Ferguson, author of Doom: "The Politics of Catastrophe". Thanks again, Niall. For "Uncommon Knowledge", the Hoover institution, and Fox Nation, I'm Peter Robinson.