SNIPPETS 2 + Ask Me Anything
We should be encouraging a deal but our idiocracy wants the war to continue... PM's team thinks the war helps him politically... Strauss on Nietzsche...
I’ve stopped posting on Twitter for a while.
Instead I’m posting short things here. Here’s the previous one (free to all). I’ll do a rolling cycle of these, with the live one for subscribers and old ones free.
I’ll do an AMA, live Tues 29/3 6-8. As usual, I’ll try to answer some before/after but will focus during 6-8 on live stuff. Subscribers leave questions below, please try to make them short and specific.
This week I’ll post at least on The Kill Chain about military technology and procurement.
Within a month or so I’ll have finally finished a big project I’ve worked on for years, a detailed chronology of Bismarck 1862-66. I think the detailed study of this would be of great value for people who want to train to understand how to bring high performance management to politics/government. It would, for example, perhaps be the best possible training for dealing with situations like the UKR war. As I’ve argued since 2013, one of the things we urgently need is a replacement for PPE, which is bad training for would-be leaders. Such case studies should be part of this replacement, alongside, for example, study in quantitative reasoning under uncertainty and practical experience working with people leading high performance organisations. I’ll start posting stuff from this soon. I’d love to see the people who do games like Grand Theft Auto tackle Europe 1862-71.
The US/UK idiocracy is trying to prolong the war, not find peace
‘All Turkey, including the various people who live there, is not worth so much that civilised European peoples should destroy themselves in great wars for its sake.’
‘We are not here to consider the happiness of the Bulgarians but to secure the peace of Europe.’
‘Every great power that seeks to bring pressure and influence to bear on the policies of other countries and to direct affairs outside its sphere of interest, that plays Pericles beyond the confines of the area allotted to it by God, is pursuing power politics, not the politics of self-interest, and is in the market for prestige.’
‘Bulgaria, that little country between the Danube and the Balkans, is far from being an object of adequate importance ... for which to plunge Europe from Moscow to the Pyrenees, and from the North Sea to Palermo, into a war whose issue no man can foresee. At the end of the conflict we should scarcely know why we had fought.’
‘One must make these sheep stealers plainly understand that the European governments have no need to harness themselves to their [Balkans] lusts and their rivalries.’
‘I am opposed to the notion of any sort of active participation of Germany in these matters, so long as I can see no reason to suppose that German interests are involved, no interests on behalf of which it is worth our risking … the healthy bones of a single Pomeranian musketeer.’ (All of these comments are Bismarck.)
Before the war the US and UK encouraged Zelensky to play hardball with Putin, not negotiate. Year after year western politicians declined to take seriously what Putin said about Ukraine and NATO. Instead of listening and thinking our politicians hurled ignorant insults like ‘Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country’.
Now it’s clear that Biden and Johnson are trying to prolong the war.
They think, hope and argue that by fighting to the last Ukrainian and discouraging Zelensky from a deal, Russia will be weakened and [A] Putin replaced.
Further, No10 and the White House have been spinning the media (and other elites) that China will see the combination of international action and extreme sanctions then [B] join western sanctions and pressure Putin to withdraw and [C] decide it cannot use force to retake Taiwan.
I think A, B, and C are wishful thinking:
[A] is very unlikely (<5% this year). Base rates (crucial to forecasts like this) suggest successful palace coups in Russia are extremely rare. Putin’s single strongest political desire is to avoid a repeat of 1991 and the collapse of the Russian regime. He has spent a lot of time ensuring he is not vulnerable to such an event and, as an intelligence officer who came into politics in alliance with the mafia, he knows a lot more than most politicians about coups and how to avoid them. So far, despite western hyperbole, Russia has not tried to systematically destroy Ukrainian infrastructure such as big UKR power stations and their hard-to-replace transponders. All over UKR you see civilians with power and internet. He will certainly escalate in order to avoid being pushed out of UKR however many weapons we supply. There are many things he can do to hit Europe and America. (It’s interesting the surprise at his announcement that European central banks will have to sell euros and buy rubles to pay for gas.) And he has stated explicitly (e.g in his 2021 essay largely ignored in the west) that UKR/NATO is an ‘existential issue’ for Russia — and that existential issues justify nuclear weapons. Further, the hope that if the unlikely happens and Putin is removed then he would likely be replaced by some sort of BLM-supporting-NYT-friendly-mainstream-by-western-standards figure is laughable. He’s more likely to be replaced by someone who argues: ‘as many said for years, Putin let us down by not sorting out Ukraine earlier when we had the chance, he should never have let them re-arm.’ Russians support Putin in opposing UKR joining NATO. (See below)
[B] is very unlikely (<5%). China is winning in many ways from the current dynamics. American actions on central bank sanctions and SWIFT etc are undermining crucial features of its own long term power including the role of the dollar as reserve currency. Xi clearly has a deal to keep buying Russian commodities which NATO can do nothing about given geography. (The value of this will grow as Russia expands in the Arctic, little reported in western media.) The idea now being bandied around of threatening Xi with similar sanctions to Russia if China does not impose sanctions on Russia is deluded. China will reject such threats and NATO will not win support in Asia for trying to deal with Xi as they are with Putin. The pundits arguing that ‘global disapproval for China will make Xi re-evaluate’ are wrong about Xi and his regime. Contra the impression given by media in North America and western Europe, there are powerful countries all over the world not buying the US/Europe spin on events. India, for example, is buying Russian oil and telling us to get stuffed on sanctions. There are many more people in the world who see the West as intensely hypocritical than there are people supporting a NATO war against Russia. (An interesting detail on hypocrisy — in parts of his declaration on the annexation of Crimea, Putin took passages almost verbatim from the Kosovo declaration of independence.)
[C] is almost inconceivable (<1%). People who know China best, such as Lee Kuan Yew, have always stressed that Taiwan is existential for China, extending even to being prepared to see nuclear bombs fall. Are really serious China experts saying anything like ‘this will lead to a fundamental revision of attitudes to Taiwan’? Yes they will watch and adapt plans. No, China will not drop its consistent commitment to prevent Taiwan becoming independent in any circumstances. Unification will remain the goal. They will remain prepared to use force to achieve the goal. If anything, watching the UKR experience will lead to even greater military endeavours in China. It is an insane policy for the west to threaten China with nuclear war over Taiwan — we already accept it should not be independent! — but such insanity is popular among many in the policy/media world and, as current media dynamics show, we should expect more media demands for war with China too. The media are the biggest cheerleaders for war and it’s even worse in America than here.
Further by trying to prolong a war in Europe, many negative dynamics continue apart from the UKR civilians being destroyed.
Oil, gas, metal etc prices are mooning.
Food prices are mooning, which will push many millions of the world’s poorest towards starvation and put many regimes in jeopardy. Europe should remember 1848.
Supply chains of all kinds, already stretched or broken by covid, get worse.
Diesel is so bad people are warning there will be not just huge price increases but actual supply failures in Europe.
There’s lots of discussion about systemic credit risk in financial markets and possibilities for financial crises to add to our woes, particularly given the decade of unprecedented negative real interest rates. Easy to see dominoes tumbling. After a decade of unprecedented monetary policy, what does the west do if there’s a 1929/2008 level crisis now? There are many possibilities for radical left political entrepreneurs given the failure of conventional parties.
If western leaders panic that Russia is continuing towards its goals and try to embargo Russian oil and gas, as is being demanded by many, the economic shocks will be even deeper. (I suspect we will see the limits of politicians driven by media hyseria here and they won’t do this.)
Across Europe millions will suffer economically as the shock waves created by war and sanctions get stronger. I think that familes in western Europe will soon care more about their own worsening situation than about UKR.
Most importantly, the US/UK are prolonging a situation in which escalation dangers grow in an environment where many western politicians do not even understand their own nuclear policies, never mind Putin’s.
We have a humanitarian interest in UKR the way we do for the Congo — they are humans getting slaughtered. We have no significant interests in Ukraine itself nor are they part of the NATO defensive alliance.
Instead of encouraging the war to continue, it would be better for the UK to push NATO members towards supporting UKR in seeking a peace deal, and this means accepting the unpleasant fact that a) Russia is going to take territory in the east/south and b) UKR is never joining NATO (which we should have agreed before, and instead of, encouraging the war). We should drop all our nonsense about any new NATO members. No more trying to humiliate Russia by pushing it around regarding NATO encroachment on its own borders.
Instead of continuing with confused pointlessly destructive provocation over borders that are not of intrinsic interest to us relative to the stakes, our priority ought to be strengthening conventional deterrence viz Russia, so anybody sensible around Putin knows they cannot win a conventional war and therefore if they attack western Europe they would be clearly seen by the world as literally launching an aggressive global nuclear war. Our priority ought to be sorting out our own laughable energy policies. Our priority ought to be building intelligence and special forces capabilities to deal with Russia. Our priority ought to be undoing the role of London as the laundry for the mafia/KGB, as I’ve said for 20 years but which didn’t happen because it made a lot of the upper middle classes rich and the Tory Party got cash out of it. And, again as I said repeatedly before this crisis, we should actually prioritise our own nuclear enterprise which we let rot. Avoiding nuclear war ought to be the absolute priority, far, far more important than the terrible suffering in UKR. We tolerate terrible suffering across Africa constantly — we can do the same to avoid nuclear destruction which is measured on the scale of billions of lives, not thousands.
For 20 years we’ve had a mix of a) letting Russia use London as ‘the laundry’ and sometimes whack people here without serious repercussions, b) provocative, often ignorant and hypocritical, babble-in-the-media-bubble about NATO, c) failure to define and enforce clear boundaries. This combination of bluster, hypocrisy and weakness is the absolute worst way of dealing with someone like Putin. Instead we should be more modest and careful where we draw lines, but then take them seriously and enforce them. If you think Putin is mad (I don’t) then it’s even more important to avoid confusing signals over non-existential issues.
International politics often has no good choices short-term. This is one of those situations. Our governments have contributed to the war by babbling about UKR joining NATO and avoiding facing the reality of Putin’s ideas and character for 20 years. They discouraged a deal and encouraged Zelensky in his naive bluster. The current situation is bad but it could easily be much worse very quickly.
And those urging our leaders to ever more action have forgotten — these are the same governments that were utterly hopeless on covid last year, failing to do many obvious things to prepare for variants, and gave us the Afghan debacle. Why would anyone think these leaders/systems are capable of subtle statesmanship and delicate strategies viz Putin and nuclear escalation?! Many of our high status pundits are on record in 2022 to the effect: Boris is a shocking clown, he cannot be trusted with the simplest things, he should be drummed out of public life … and I demand he pushes for a No Fly Zone because Putin is ‘probably bluffing’ on nukes… How can this possibly make sense?!
Re our PM. He is simply trying to survive. He will sacrifice thousands of UKR civilians if it means he can keep riding his motorbike around Chequers. Those in the bunker with him think that the war is good for his survival because it distracts the Twitter-brained MPs and hacks. For Boris, it’s always about Boris. If you think war changes this, you don’t know him. Remember his contribution to the last national security crisis? He bumped people off UK flights so an animal charity could get its animals out of Afghanistan then lied about it. People we promised not to abandon then abandoned are being tortured in Afghanistan with their name tags melted into their chests pour encourager les autres. We should not encourage him to apply his government-as-media-entertainment-service to Ukraine.
Bismarck’s comments at the top are uncomfortable to read now but if politicians had thought more like that we would not have seen the catastrophe of World War I — Great Power escalation over the ‘lusts and rivalries’ of the Balkans that overwhelmed decision-making systems across Europe and plunged us into an abyss.
Our democratic politicians don’t know how to talk about interests and by default burble in the moralising tones of the junior common room that our journalists and MPs find soothing. Now the burble comes faster and faster thanks to Twitter-addiction. But when it comes to nuclear weapons, it is necessary to face uncomfortable truths or else our idiocracy will destroy much more than Ukraine. Nuclear-armed Russia must be treated differently to small countries that can be pushed around and trashed by our twitter-politicians with little blowback.
Ps. I wrote the above before Biden blurted out that Putin must be replaced and the White House had to ‘clarify’ his remark. I’ve been in the White House’s position many times, issuing statements to the media stating that the words expressed by the PM were not government policy ‘which is actually X’. It’s a ludicrous business but often has to be done because it’s more important to avoid a real problem than avoid some embarrassment. Anybody paying the slightest attention can see that ‘the west’ is dangerously clueless and there is no obvious force that can grip the idiocracy. Such forces must be created. If we survive 2022, avoiding Trump v Biden II is even more important.
Powerful myths about Cuba
As I wrote last week, JFK and RFK span many myths about the Cuban crisis in 1962. These myths are often cited now to justify ‘standing up to Putin’. This thread gives some interesting links to other sources. Almost everything most people think they know about Cuba is wrong.
JFK knowingly lied his way through the 1960 campaign attacking Eisenhower/Nixon for ‘missile gaps’ that he knew from classified briefings provided by Eisenhower not only did not exist but was actually the opposite of the truth (the US was clearly ahead). Nixon could not reveal such information to rebut JFK’s false claims (it would have blown one of the most highly classified secret capabilities of the time).
Having created this issue and having done so much to kill Castro and destroy his regime, JFK therefore had a huge political problem with the missiles appearing. JFK escalated. He got away with it. He and his brother span the crisis and the spin stuck so well that it affects debates today. They were both killed without ever realising what had happened on the nuclear submarine that was a whisker from launching nuclear weapons, but for the intervention of the hero, Vasily Arkhipov.
We ought to be trying to reduce the chances of situations in which billions of lives may depend on the heroism of an isolated frightened confused individual trying to do the best thing in chaos.
Leo Strauss on Nietzsche
One of the most important books to read to understand the modern world is Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. It’s hard to overstate the influence of Nietzsche, the most radical and shocking of modern writers. Oddly, much of his influence comes via the Left which he held in contempt but which, for complex reasons, nevertheless picked up, often ignorantly, his work. Much of modern writing is an attempt, usually unconscious, to say something that is an echo of Nietzsche, albeit more weakly and with less honesty or self-awareness.
I just came across this audio of Strauss lecturing on Nietzche. Highly recommended and I’ll blog on both BGE and this lecture.
After many years of some people warning re reliance on Russian oil, our idiocracy is now scrambling to deal with this question — because of a crisis, not because the system thinks ahead.
And here’s a lovely example. A critical piece of German infrastructure is 90% in the hands of Rosneft, part of the Putin system.
How did this happen?
UKR today as inverse of Donbass 2014
UPDATE TO THE NUKE BLOG
I’ve updated the blog on nuclear strategy with the chapter on Kahn v Schelling, HERE.
The Kahn v Schelling dispute is directly relevant both to the UKR/NATO situation and to Taiwan.
Kahn would point out that threatening China with assured destruction over Taiwan is not credible. Schelling’s argument would be — leave the situation ambiguous and Xi has to worry about what might happen. But given Taiwan is clearly an existential issue for China but is clearly not for America, and both sides know this, it seems a very bad gamble to back Schelling — and an insane act to actually trigger nuclear war if the gamble fails! Further, if the US could reliably defend against Chinese attacks on the US, then, Kahn would argue, US threats would be more credible.
Very foolish to ban free speech, shows how tenuous European commitments to human rights truly are despite all their laws/signaling, & good example of why it’s good for UK to be isolated from EU laws/courts on such fundamental issues
If someone wants to say ‘Putin is great the war is justified’, let them. Same as ‘Trump is great the insurrection was justified’ or ‘Blair is great the Iraq war was justified’.
NB. Whether such a law actually holds is not a matter for Germany, it is a matter for the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Ditto in UK. This situation is bad for us and we should remove ourselves from it. The ECJ also has influence over such things. (Further there is a complex and unresolved battle between the ECJ and Strasbourg over which court is truly supreme.)
Don’t think SW1 realises what a big deal this is, they’re so used to ignoring growth/productivity in favour of Twitter memes, but this will have big effects on politics and is further terrible news for chances of Tories winning GE2024 — average families had a lost decade after 2008, they’re going to have similar, and Tories will get the blame
UPDATE ON NUKES
I’ve updated the latest nuclear blog HERE.
Could see big increases in construction productivity with robots, 3D printing, digital tools.
Imagine direct air carbon capture pulling carbon out of the air and turning it into feedstock for 3D printing of building components.
How the Guardian invents news
This obviously tells the reader that the two sentences ‘Other NATO countries… We don’t want to…’ is a continuous quote.
This tells the reader that a very dramatic event has happened — if NATO countries put troops into UKR to fight Russia, the US will support them.
A lot of people started texting each other to the effect, ohmygod…
I googled for a transcript.
So the Guardian took the later phrase ‘Other NATO countries…’ and put it first, then took the earlier sentence ‘We don’t want'…’ and put it immediately after that, then pretended it was a continuous quote.
They’ve a) reversed the order of the statements and b) put them next to each other in a way designed to alter very significantly the meaning and significance of the quote, and generated thousands of clicks to their story from Twitter. The line about supporting NATO allies was in the context of them being attacked, not in the context of them sending troops to UKR.
Of course, the Guardian invents ‘news’ all the time as do all our newspapers. This should not surprise you. But it’s important to remember — and tell your friends and family — that newspapers which pompously and contemptibly praise themselves and their role in ‘reporting the truth during a war’ literally manipulate quotes for clickbait even on issues involving nuclear escalation.
Also notice how supposed experts — “DPhil/PhD Intl Relations @UniofOxford Assoc Fellow @RUSI_org” — are fooled by such things: this Ramani character, who seems keen on BREAKING klaxons, got thousands of retweets for spreading this fake quote on Twitter. And even after the Economist’s reporter (who seems to me one of the few MSM hacks trying to get things right) says he thinks it’s a mistake, Ramani doubles down assuming the Guardian report must be true:
Many educated people simply do not realise that media like the Guardian routinely invent stuff.
(The Guardian piece has subsequently been edited but this fake quote remains and nothing explains the error.)
If you have good examples of legacy media doing similar please post links…
Starmer: the optimal level of dudness, given a lot of dudness?
There is an enormous crisis in the NHS.
No10 is extremely vulnerable politically because, inter alia, the PM kept Hancock in summer 2020, wasted 2021 viz a plan to rebuild the workforce, recruit more, improve training and so on. Then it blundered into omicron without having organised procurement of anti-viral drugs that could have negated the vast majority of problems (it has still not done this properly), killing more unnecessarily and putting further huge strain on the NHS. Further there is no sign whatsoever of a plan to deal with the core incentives that program waiting lists.
Yet there is also no sign of Starmer’s team having a clue what to do.
For example, a modestly competent Labour PM would do things like organise a weekend conference in London for NHS staff where they explain problems and discuss solutions, hand over petitions to No10 etc. This would provide TV news with pictures of Starmer with NHS staff articulating their concerns and, crucially, ideas on what to do. Starmer could look like a possible PM with an actual plan. It would take minimal organisation.
Instead Starmer over and over cannot even answer questions like ‘what’s a woman?’ in a way that seems vaguely sensible.
There is a possible world in which Starmer’s dudness turns out to be the optimal level for him — so dud that Tory MPs don’t realise the folly of keeping Boris until it’s too late, but not so dud that he can’t still win back enough seats for a hung Parliament, therefore the immediate end of Boris as PM, in 2024.
I.e if Starmer were a bit better, the chances of the Tories replacing Boris this summer would rise, therefore the chances of Starmer becoming PM would fall. And if he were even worse, then he might be so dud he could not even take dozens of seats from Boris.
Perhaps he will prove to be the optimal level of dudness that helps him most, given he is a serious dud…
The amazing Tyler Cowen
Tyler is one of the most important economists in the world but he does a lot more than academic economics. He produces more progress for the world himself than probably any randomly selected 100+ social science academics (maybe 1000+!?) most of whom do little other than their academic careers that change little (and whining on twitter).
E.g Fast Grants, which he and Patrick Collison (one of the most able young CEOs in the world) set up during the first covid wave.
They were appalled at the sloth of public health bureaucracies. Researchers were told to apply via the normal funding mechanisms for money to do covid work — i.e, mechanisms that normally take months or years. Fast Grants started getting millions out to researchers in hours or days.
Of course, this idea has been almost totally ignored in the UK for all the reasons I’ve discussed before. Most of SW1 does not want to think about these things and actively prefer the old system. Look at Sam Freedman’s recent article for a representative view which explains why you see such cultural hostility in SW1 to things like Fast Grants. In Westminster there is widespread ignorance of how vital speed is to healthy institutions and how corrosive friction is. There are very few people, especially in the policy and think tank world, who have ever worked in a truly high performance organisation so they have never seen very able people make really quick decisions without lots of friction — the sort of culture that is widespread in places like Silicon Valley and ventures like Fast Grants. It’s hard to explain to businesspeople just how antipathetic Whitehall is to speed even when thousands are dying day after day.
In Q1 2020 I pushed our funding mechanisms to change. Many UK academics were, like in the US, screaming Feb-April 2020 that they couldn’t get the normal systems to move. Patrick Vallance, Ottoline Leyser and others in Whitehall moved fast to push these systems. Some things worked well, e.g the Recovery trial which figured out life-saving drugs fast (if SW1 were more interested in science, Jolyon would doubtless have brought one of his legal cases to have that declared illegal too)
Of course, as I’ve also pointed out many times, SW1 is closing down some of these successes and doing what it can to go back to the old system.
America for all its faults is more diverse therefore more open to the likes of Cowen/Collison doing new things.
Cowen also talks about things like the odd way in which tenure seems to discourage innovation in universities and encourage the worst kind of bureaucracy, anti-entrepreneur culture and so on. Another thing we urgently need in the UK is new research institutions outside the old universities to do things differently.
He also talks about his new book on TALENT and extreme talent — another vital subject that Westminster tries to ignore. I’ll blog about this separately.
Lessons from Operation Warp Speed (OWS)
Connected to the above on Tyler Cowen…
In America they had a program similar to our Vaccine Taskforce which was also a success.
Alex Tabarok (who co-writes the Cowen blog) is one of the interesting non-health researchers who consistently was ahead of the public health bureaucracy on covid, like Zvi. (These people illustrate a principle from the Tetlock experiments — thinking in the right ways is generally more important than specific domain factual knowledge.)
OWS did not innovate on basic science, the mRNA etc ideas had been developed over years including by DARPA.
Inevitably some bets failed and you must be prepared to accept failures if doing something like OWS.
Advance market commitments to buy lots of doses of approved vaccines. The normal process for procurement might leave companies ‘holding the bag with little to show for their investment’.
Lifting of FDA regulations to allow for accelerated clinical trials, for example, phase 3 trials could start before phase 2 trials were fully complete.
Government cash for larger, therefore faster, clinical trials (the most expensive part of the development process).
Government investment in manufacturing/distribution: building factories not just for the vaccines but also for the needles, vials etc, before vaccines were approved. This idea was one of the most alien in Whitehall when I discussed it Feb-April 2020.
This combination took years out of the normal timetable.
The entire economy was being hammered by covid so OWS could generate huge returns.
Most of the time, markets internalize externalities imperfectly but reasonably well which means that even if you accelerate something good the total returns aren’t so astronomical that you can’t overspend or spend poorly. Governments can spend too much as well as too little so most of the time you have to factor in the waste of overspending even when the spending is valuable – that problem didn’t really apply to OWS.
We can’t apply the Vaccine Taskforce / OWS approach to everything. The approach has to fit the type of problem. Also motivation is critical. Covid motivated people from scientists to entrepreneurs to bureaucrats, many of whom thought the next year could be the biggest deal of their lives. By definition you don’t get this normally.
What should happen is:
The political world should learn the tremendous value of speed and low friction.
These lessons could be applied to many ‘normal’ areas like NHS waiting lists, normal procurement etc.
We create new emergency protocols so that in similar situations to covid there is a legal framework thought out in detail in advance. We’ll not have enough time for complex discussion about human rights and tradeoffs if terrorists poison the water supply. A lot of this should be wargamed in advance with appropriate focus from No10 and funding.
In 2020 this learning started to happen.
The PM then killed it. E.g failure over anti-virals and variants in 2021, making the VTF a normal Whitehall entity etc.
And generally the SW1 culture focused more on attacking those who moved fast than attacking the old system that had failed so atrociously.
The justification was ‘corruption’.
Of course, what corruption there was happened under the old rules, much of it EU-based. The ‘corruption’ should have strengthened the argument for reform. Instead, it was used to attack the ad hoc approach we had to take because the old system imploded and could not be used (without saying ‘ok well we just can’t do procurement faster than 6 months so there just won’t be any PPE for the NHS’).
Overall the Westminster reaction has shown just how powerful inertia is and just how little learning is incentivised. Even after 150k deaths and economic carnage, the MPs and media want to live in the old world, not create a new one. The PM has delayed any ‘lessons learned’ for years. And Parliament is cool and the gang with this. They’re much more interested in arguing over ‘what’s a woman’ than how to create low friction institutions to keep millions alive in a crisis.
Ironically the ‘insider’ community most supportive of reform was the best elements of the civil service itself, the public servants who saw the horror and knew it must change. Many such public servants, including from the military, ran toward danger in spring 2020 to help. They saw the wreck of No10/Cabinet Office. They were extremely enthusiastic in Q2/Q3 2020 about huge changes. Those people are more disullisoned than ever and many have left. So the worst get promoted and sit around the table with the trolley…
Also in SW1 many social science academics and suposed ‘trade experts’ constantly bang on about how ‘regulation isn’t a big deal’. Everybody at the sharp end of government or running a startup knows this is rubbish. Covid demonstrated it on a vast scale. This debate is affected by Brexit as people feel admitting ‘regulation is a big problem’ is conceding something on Brexit…
Rapid testing — another lesson
Another interesting case study is rapid testing which I spent a huge amount of time on from July-November 2020, helping a network of mostly young scientists navigate the bureaucracy while trying to change it from No10. We went from almost nothing to a multi-billion pound project in weeks because we realised a) it would be a huge game changer, b) the same bureaucracy that had failed so badly in Q1 had suppressed this information and was blocking progress.
I started regular meetings in No10. A brilliant former commanding officer of the SAS helped drive it. We secretly started buying billions of pounds worth of stuff before the rest of the world’s governments realised what was happening and before another supply chain shortage (almost all governments outside East Asia had not realised the huge potential for rapid testing in August 2020). We also started building our own factory (which the PM shut down in 2021, before running out of tests again when omicron struck). Obviously much of this could be interpreted as ‘illegal’ under the EU procurement rules.
The Guardian ran a long campaign to persuade people that a) these tests did not work, b) were dangerous, c) the whole program was a cover for ‘Tory corruption’.
The data was already clear in Q3 2020 that lateral flow and LAMP tests were extremely effective in finding infectious people. But the media didn’t want to hear. Gradually this changed.
Over the course of 2021 Westminster opinion shifted on this just as it did on ‘closing borders is racist’ and ‘masks don’t work’. Lots of people around the ‘Independent SAGE’ network, a collection of people mostly from the left of politics who believed most of what they read in the papers, started off strongly opposed and were widely quoted in the Guardian but then shifted to strong support. They shifted, of course, without acknowledging the shift. Some of them who said in 2020 that rapid tests were ‘putting people at risk’ then pretended that people like me who had actually started the program had opposed it — cos Tory scum!
If you look at the Guardian coverage, you will see again this pattern of ‘truth’ being manufactured.
The situation on rapid tests was even more insane in America. In the UK the media debate was insane but we did manage to actually get it going and change a lot of the red tape and deploy many millions of tests and save lives. In America the CDC is still today blocking many tests that clearly work!
Ps. You will often see in the media the claim that ‘Cummings opposed the 100k testing target’. Not only is this not true it’s the opposite of the truth. Many weeks before this was announced I urged that DHSC policy — more testing is pointless because we’ll have herd immunity by the time we increase capacity — be dropped. I urged not just a 100k target but a 500k and 1m target. (To be fair to the trolley, he agreed but was weak in handling Hancock.) What I opposed was the way Hancock blurted out the target on TV without preparing the system, then things he did aimed at his end of April press confernece rather than actually improving testing infrastructure. The target was good, it should have happened earlier then scaled faster, but the way it was done was an ultimate case study in MPs putting media-reality first.
Happiness machines — great symbol of catastrophic failure of leadership in No10 and the Cabinet Office
The introduction of happiness machines is a perfect example of where No10 now is: the most contemptible aspects of HR culture combined with the collapse of leadership and a vacuum of moral courage among senior figures.
Over the last few days, many junior officials have been fined for attending an event that the PM’s PPS organised and attended and which happened in the Cabinet Secretary’s office. (Some of them very young women who were essentially told to attend.) The PPS, as I’ve said here before, was responsible for ensuring that events in No10 were consistent not just with the rules but with basic ethical standards. He is the person to whom I and others said in May ‘this BYOB event should not happen’. (Contra much media coverage, the PPS actually controls the No10 machine, not spads.) So the person actually responsible, in theory and actuality, is shuffled off to a plum diplomatic post while the most junior women have been fined. ‘Deputy heads will roll’ taken to an extreme…
Hannah Young was the PS in the No10 Private Office who has been named in the media. I worked with Hannah. She specialised in parts of the deep state system such as terrorism. When a terrorist incident happened, she was the hub coordinating the deep state response and briefing the PM. She did a truly phenomenal job. She made many sacrifices, including of her family life, to help this country. She made us all safer. During the covid meltdown she, like many other officials in No10, made supreme efforts and their efforts saved many lives. I have no hesitation in saying that if you replaced this PM with Hannah Young, you would have a 100X or 1000x improvement — and that nobody in this Cabinet could do nearly as good a job as PM as she would.
It is deeply, deeply contemptible that not just the PM but senior civil servants have allowed such people to have their reputations attacked in order to protect the sociopathic narcissist squatting in the No10 flat. Not just ‘allowed’ — everybody at the centre of events also knows that the PM encouraged the media attacks on junior officials in order to divert the lobby’s attention from him and Carrie breaking the law. Some very senior officials have turned a blind eye.
Everybody propping up this PM should feel ashamed, every one of them should be swept out of the entire street — 70 Whitehall not just Downing Street — by the new PM.
Ministers should realise they will have to defend their defence of the sociopath for the rest of their lives. Their last chance to escape this shame is to resign over the next 12 weeks.
A lot of senior high status well paid people around Downing Street either don’t know or won’t face that true leadership involves moral courage under pressure.
GWERN posts a story — how fast-takeoff AGI could happen then all of us get killed… Gwerrn’s blog is one of the very best and he’s one of the most followed people in Silicon Valley…
The UN making us poorer and contributing to the death of the poorest people, coming anyway thanks to much higher food bills (sanctions effects, fertiliser prices etc) but made worse by things like this…
All over Westminster, Washington, universities, well educated, sometimes very high status, people are tweeting variations of ‘Putin must be removed’.
Do people saying this ask themselves ‘what is the % Putin starts nuclear strikes to prevent this?’
Do they think ‘whatever let’s roll the dice it’s just intolerable to see him on TV’?
Do they think ‘I’ll probably survive’?
It’s interesting what a large fraction of the educated west is so impatient for politics to conform to their emotions that they no longer worry even about over a billion deaths, nuclear winter, starvation, second and third order effects…
It’s also interesting that people are triggered by civilian atrocities into demanding steps that could reasonably cause nuclear war when they are clearly NOT so triggered by constant year-after-year civilian atrocities in places like the Congo. Round up loads of civilians, rape, torture, kill… As long as it’s somewhere like the Congo nobody cares apart from a few relatively powerless people who are easily ignored. Do it in UKR with the media cheering for war and the graduates of our best universities are happy to ignore nuclear weapons and scream ‘regime change’.
You don’t demand action when there’s no threat of nuclear weapons and we literally could go and ‘bring them to justice’ something like 100,000X more easily than ‘bring Putin to justice’ — but you do demand action in the case of the world’s biggest nuclear power.
Why do people think like this? To what extent is it simply my repeated point that graduates are suckers for media propaganda?
Seinfeld on management: the right way is the hard way
This is funny.
But Seinfeld’s answer is also a management lesson unappreciated in politics: there are many endeavours where the search for ‘efficiency’ is at best misguided and often destructive, and the right approach is to have fanatical people being ‘inefficient’. Fanatical efforts create all sorts of unexpected value but often seem ‘inefficient’ especially to middle management in normal bureaucracies (corporate or government).
Drones drones drones
One of the things I worked on in 2020 with officials in No10, people in the armed forces, MoD etc was getting MoD to think about lots more drones. Drones for logistics. Drones to replace fighters. Lots of cheap drones that can be built and deployed really fast, rather than continuing the unsustainable time and cost curves we see across military procurement.
Watching some of the news and the propaganda battle in UKR:
It’s clear that those pushing drones will be empowered in bureaucracies across the west and some of the resistance will crumble.
With a serious effort, we could now deploy swarms of drones across some of these warzones to a) record what’s happening, b) create moving internet networks for people on the ground, c) provide unmanned logistical support.
This would not only help civilians, it would help us figure out the shifting frontier of combat and propaganda.
If Russian and UKR forces (regular or paramilitary of various kinds) thought they were much more likely to be recorded killing civilians, it might also change behaviour to some extent.
It would not trigger escalation per No Fly Zones.
If I were in No10, I would be speaking to those, including in special forces, who have been frustrated for years with the MoD and saying — develop plans for imaginative ideas on deploying cheap civilian drones at scale as well as military drones.
Also, it’s clear that we urgently need to think about building domestic drone companies. This is another thing where we don’t want to be reliant on China, America or the EU.
Drones and procurement were among the many things I prioritised in 2020 which the PM abandoned in 2021. The new PM should put these back on the list of No10 priorities in their first week on the job.