Joe Biden: cometh the hour, cometh the man?

I greeted the defeat of Donald Trump in the US Presidential election with relief rather than joy. It was the most important thing to be decided in these elections: but otherwise it was a poor night for the Democrats. That bodes ill for the success of the new administration. But perhaps the new President, Joe Biden, will rise to the occasion.

The first Democratic disappointment was the failure to suppress Mr Trump’s vote more than it did. In fact “suppress” is not the word: Mr Trump’s vote was huge. Victory depended on a series of narrow wins in key states: very similar in character to Mr Trump’s victory in 2016. Based on polling evidence, most people had expected something more decisive. The next disappointment was the Democrats’ failure to secure the Senate. This game isn’t over yet: it will be decided by the double run-off section in early January in Georgia, but the Republicans are favourites. But the Democrats fell short in a whole series of contests where they were expected to do well, and that was the pattern of the night. The Democrats hung on to the their majority in the House in Representatives, but went backwards. They did not make breakthroughs at state level either: important because these elections will affect redistricting for the House. Down-ticket Republicans polled more than Mr Trump.

If the Democrats couldn’t win big this year, when can they? Looked at strategically it the Republicans are winning the battle to be the natural party of government, albeit by a narrow margin. This should worry Democrats a lot. They have long been expecting a demographic dividend, as America becomes less white, and as older, conservative voters die off. Instead Republicans are managing to recruit amongst ethnic minorities. I don’t know what data on younger voters is, but I suspect it follows educational attainment. Less well-educated Americans gravitate towards the Republicans, regardless of race and age, it seems.

This bodes ill for the Democrats in 2024, and of Kamala Harris’s chances in that election if Joe Biden steps down, as expected. There will be a lot of soul-searching. Some want to go down a left-wing populist route, stoking up anger over wealthy elites rigging the system to their advantage. Such a strategy has worked in Latin America (though whether it has done poor voters there any good is another question) – but I don’t think it has traction in America, not least amongst those of Latin American heritage, for whom socialism is often a toxic brand, based on the record of Latin American socialists.

Beyond that, Mr Biden is going to find it very hard to govern. He needs the Senate to unlock major spending initiatives, or legal reforms, for example to health care, or reforms to make it easier to elect Democrats. Nothing in these election results is going to discourage the dominant no-prisoners wing of the Republican Party, represented by the senate leader Mitch McConnell, as well as Mr Trump himself. Republicans will suddenly rediscover their fiscal conservatism and stoke up worries about public debt, conveniently forgotten when Republicans such as Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush or Donald Trump have been in charge. The new administration will be undermined at every turn. And on top of likely control of the Senate, they have stacked the Supreme Court with conservatives. Mr Biden’s appeals for Americans to unite to tackle the country’s problems are entirely futile. Further, Republicans are trying to undermine his legitimacy by saying the election was “stolen”. The extreme partisan nature of US politics will continue.

So what does Joe Biden need to do? The critical things are to revive the economy, get on top of the virus, and put pressure on the Republicans. The economy is critical. Until 2020 this was looking good for Mr Trump. The acid test isn’t the level of the stock market, so beloved of the President, but whether the economy is running hot enough to push up wages and well as create a plentiful supply of less skilled jobs. Mr Trump’s success there doubtless accounts for much of the strength of his support. How much he was actually responsible for this, and how much he was building on his predecessor, we will never know. The virus, of course, is the test Mr Biden has set himself. On both counts luck looks to be on the new President’s. side. The first of the vaccines is coming good, and other promising ones are behind it. This is already having a positive effect on confidence. This means that he is not as reliant as he might of been on Congress to provide funding for the states. The second piece of luck is that the Federal Reserve takes an expansive view of its role in keeping the economy going, and should not jack up interest rates at the first sign of success.

What do I mean by putting pressure on the Republicans? His life will be a lot easier if a small handful of Republican Senators break ranks. It will also be easier if Supreme Court justices also feel a bit of political pressure to appear non-partisan. This dos not mean indulging in the culture wars (on abortion and such matters), which tend to polarise politics and rally the Republican faithful. It does mean keeping the heat up on healthcare and support for “seniors” and veterans. The Republicans aren’t having it all their own way. MrTrump is not going to disappear; surely the party’s stalwarts are going to tire of bowing and scraping to their monarch. Mr Trump is also likely to face a blizzard of lawsuits – though this is unlikely to change public opinion much.

The interesting thing is that of all senior Democrats, Joe Biden seems to understand what needs to be done best. He has it in him to empathise with the average working class Trump supporter. His campaign was very skilful. He is going to need all of that skill in the years ahead. But he knows that. Cometh the hour, cometh the man?

It’s all about R. Lockdown critics don’t understand exponential mathematics

Quite early in the Covid-19 outbreak, policymakers told us that the critical thing to understand about managing the disease was something they called “R”. This is the reproduction rate: the average number of other people that anybody that catches the virus will infect. If it less than 1.0 the epidemic will fade away. More than one and the disease spreads exponentially. Discussion of R then dropped from view, with people focusing more on the absolute level of infection (usually given as cases per 100k). That’s a shame because R is central to understanding what has just happened here in UK, which also applies to most of the rest of Europe with small variations.

In those the dark days of March, R was a horrific 2-3. That meant the disease was spreading very rapidly through the population. For a moment people thought that might not be such a problem: that herd immunity would develop, and the disease would slow down as the number of potential carriers was diminished. But there are two major problems with this. The first is that if the disease spreads rapidly, then health services (and other infrastructure) become overwhelmed, and there s substantial collateral damage. And that is exactly what happened in the Spring. Hospitals started to fill up, requiring them to clear beds; people with other conditions suffered, and Covid-infected people were pushed into care homes to make room for others, with appalling results. The death rate across the country shot up, and not just because people were dying from Covid, though frightening numbers were. The second problem with the herd immunity strategy was that nobody knew whether, or for how long, catching the disease would confer immunity. It was quite an interesting example, incidentally, of how basing decisions on evidence is not quite as robust as it seems. What do you believe in the absence of evidence? In Britain people believed, absent evidence, that face masks were useless and that you would get long term immunity by catching the disease. There is no rhyme or reason to it being that way round. Too often people who ask where the evidence is are just sticking to their prejudices.

I digress. The only sensible response to an R of over 2 was strict lockdown, which was implemented in Britain on 23 March. This was remarkably successful (it is puzzling why some people suggest that it wasn’t). R came down to about 0.7, and the disease was beaten back to manageable levels in most places. But what next? The government eagerly implemented a general relaxation, while maintaining a certain number of rules on social distancing. By this time few people were talking about R, and it was hard to know what aim of it all was. I think it was felt that the relaxation would take the R back up to 1.0, but no further, thus keeping the virus at manageable levels. It is probable that a lot of faith was being put in the Track and Trace system to contain outbreaks as they occurred. And yet the system they built was not designed to achieve that level of rigour, which needs tough local leadership and timely data, both of which were practically designed out of the system from the start. The result was that R crept up to about 1.5. Much better than before, but also pretty useless in terms of managing the disease. If R is over 1, then the disease will rise up to overwhelming levels much more quickly than people will intuit, because of the exponential way in which the disease spreads.

The government’s next strategy was one of local local lockdowns. The hope was that these would reduce R to below 1 in areas were the prevalence had become high. Over the last few weeks two problems have emerged, though. First is that even with these stricter measures R is above 1, and health services are under imminent threat. Second is that R is rising scarily everywhere else, and to beyond 2 in some places. That meant that most of the rest of the country wasn’t in fact that far behind the hotspots. Just what was going on here will probably not be known for some time. Perhaps people in Tier 3 of the lockdown system felt bolshy because they were being singled out, and did not apply themselves properly to lockdown. Perhaps people in Tier 1 felt they could relax because they weren’t in trouble yet. Anyway, it is very clear that the regional response strategy has failed. And so we are back to national lockdown.

But schools an universities are still open, and weariness is creeping in as businesses fail and savings run out. The death rate is much lower than before (the rate of excess deaths remains negligible) and this is being used to suggest that we should just “live with” the virus. Some conservative newspapers (the Telegraph and Mail in particular) opposing lockdown, even though their recommendations would sentence many of their readers, more vulnerable than the average, to an untimely and horrible death, or perhaps just a long-term deterioration of health. Such critics have failed to understand the logic of R. It is not about choosing an acceptable level of disease and freezing it there: it is about stopping the disease before it overwhelms.

So how on earth do you live with the disease and retain a semblance of normal life? The only proven way is the Asian one (there are many variations, shown by China, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Australia and New Zealand). This requires the disease to be stamped out, mainly through strict lockdown, for inward travel to be heavily restricted, and for any outbreaks to be stamped on hard. For some reason Europeans, and not just the British, seem unable to do this (even the Germans are struggling). It’s even worse for the Americans. Asians, and interesting this includes Antipodeans of European heritage, seem much happier to comply with busybody regulations. Not all Asians of course: Indians struggle, as do Indonesians, Philipinos and a number of others.

Absent the Asian approach, thoughts turn to the use technologies that are not yet available. Vaccines may not be the silver bullet they are for diseases like polio, but they could still throw enough sand in the wheels of transmission to stop R getting above one. Mass testing, talked up by the Prime Minister Boris Johnson, offers ways of identifying infected people so that they can be isolated. That raises all sorts of questions.

Locally I have found the most informative source about the progress of the virus comes from the government’s interactive map. I have watched the infection rate steadily go up, with white ares (very low infections) moving to green, and green going moving to blue (over 100 per 100k); in my local patch it is 171. We’re keeping our heads down.

It’s all very depressing. The most important thing to understand about the spread of infectious diseases is that it is exponential. None of the lockdown critics I have heard or read seem to grasp that. And only a few understand that the critical thing isn’t the death rate but the stress on public infrastructure, including, but not limited to, hospitals. In the end it’s all about R.