Three things lockdown critics just don’t get

Here in England, the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is under fierce attack from his backbenchers over both the four-week lockdown that is coming to an end, and the system of tiered restrictions that will replace it, which means that almost everybody will still be subject to heavy restrictions. These critics are, for the most part, very muddled. While I would not suggest that Mr Johnson’s management of the pandemic has been particularly competent, I do think his overall strategy is the right one.

Still, the critics are right about a couple of things. The first is that lockdowns will not eliminate the virus, which has been a realistic objective in Asia and Australasia. This is because, unlike them, we cannot seal off the country from people coming in. That would mean closing almost all airports, ferry ports and the Channel Tunnel. The trickle of people allowed in (including returning Britons) would be quarantined under guard. Goods would have to be picked from ports by drivers based in this country. It would make Brexit look like a walk in the park. No European country, or American one come to that, can enforce such a regime. It is remarkable that so many Asian economies, as well as Australia and New Zealand, are able to do this. Without having to deal with such a volume of incomers, it is possible for a rigorous test and trace system to stay on top of the virus. New Zealanders can now go to rugby matches and concerts without social distancing. The economic cost is substantial, but this regime seems to be popular with those that live there.

The second thing that the critics get right is that the costs of an effective lockdown are huge, in both jobs and wellbeing. and that the longer the lockdown goes on for, the greater the cost. But no supporter of lockdown suggests otherwise. They simply say that the alternative is worse. That is because of three things in particular that the critics mostly fail to grasp.

The first is that infectious diseases grow exponentially, and not arithmetically, unless you can impose restrictions that reduce the reproduction rate down to one or less. And that means being very restrictive: the virtual cessation of social life (England’s Tier 1 is not enough, current evidence suggests). If the reproduction rate is above one, then the disease keeps on getting worse, and will accelerate. The critics seem to suggest that there is some form of equilibrium to be found between the level of restrictions and the prevalence of the disease. So, for example, a high level of lockdown means, say, one hundred deaths a day, but a looser one means a thousand. If R is above one, however, there is no such equilibrium. The equilibrium is not a function of lockdown restrictions, but the achievement of herd immunity – which means that 70% or more must be immune (the widespread assumption being from having already caught and survived the virus), and so breaking the chain of infection. The cost of that is massive. In Europe levels of significant herd immunity have only been observed in Italian towns were the disease has killed 1% or so (see this article in the Economist).

And the second point that few critics grasp is that the damage wrought when the virus shows high levels of prevalence is about much more than a few extra dead bodies. The disease will reach a point where it is be seriously disruptive. That people can’t see this was driven home to me when a senior Conservative MP Mark Harper was interviewed on the radio. He trotted out the familiar trope than people were underestimating the costs of lockdown, which had to be weighed against the benefits. He gave star billing among the costs to reduced access to healthcare services during lockdown. And yet there will be no access to such services once the epidemic starts to overwhelm them, and it is fear of just that which is the main driver of lockdowns; without lockdown health services will be overwhelmed as sure as night follows day. And it won’t be just health services that suffer. Absenteeism will rise dramatically, disrupting all manner of services. And fear will keep at least 40% of the population at home, with the inevitable toll on mental health and the economy. Covid-19 is much deadlier than flu (or at least the strains of flu normally seen each winter), and cannot be weathered in the same way.

And the third point? It is simply not feasible to shield the vulnerable while letting those with a low risk of being seriously ill to get on with life as normal. The disease will strike down even younger and apparently healthy people; and it can inflict lasting damage even if you survive it. But the chances of serious consequences for most people are quite small (and for them comparison with flu has more validity). But the flip side to this is that many others are at serious risk: anybody over 60 or with many quite common health conditions such as diabetes or heart disease. I have seen an authoritative estimate that these are about 20% of the population. But these people don’t live isolated lives: they depend on contact to some degree with healthier people. These people also have to shield, to protect those they are close to. This group is not only very numerous (somebody has plausibly suggested another 20%), but it is much harder for such people to successfully shield themselves form the outside world. In the second wave of the epidemic, where vulnerable people have been much more successfully shielded than the first, there has been a clear pattern. Firstly younger people catch it, largely without serious symptoms. Then it is passed on to working people whom they interact with (shop staff, security guards, and so on). and from these it moves on to the seriously vulnerable. It is not enough to suggest that people should simply take the level of precaution that is appropriate to themselves. That would mean that many working people would have to furloughed and somehow replaced at the front line.

There really are no alternatives if you cannot seal the country’s borders Personally I placed high hopes on rigorous test-and-trace systems, such as those operated in Germany. We have not attempted anything like German rigour in the UK, instead going for massed centralised families with a high theoretical volume but almost no impact on the course of the disease. But even in Germany the system gets overwhelmed once the virus reaches a certain level, and you are back to lockdowns. Sweden’s rather laxer regime is sometimes mentioned as an alternative, but that is breaking down too. Its advocates had suggested that infection levels would fall in the Autumn as herd immunity started to impact. But it hasn’t, because in fact Swedes had been exercising social distancing to such an extent that not enough people were being infested (and with the economic and other damage that followed). If enough people had been infected their health systems wold have collapsed.

All of which is very grim, were it not for one thing: the fact that vaccines are on the way. We don’t know much about the various vaccines, beyond basic safety and efficacy. In particular we don’t know how much they would slow transmission of the virus. But they are enough to make huge difference and allow lockdowns to be eased. Quite why Conservative critics are still banging on with their complaints about lockdowns when relief is at hand is one of the pandemics’ many mysteries.

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.

September: the virus strikes back

I still have not yet recovered blogging groove, as I settle down in my new home, and with family caring issues taking priority. So I am doing a consolidated look-back on the last month’s news again. If last time the central theme was the rise of Great Power politics, this time the theme is the virus.

After the Spring crisis passed, more or less, in the developed world (not so much in the US), people relaxed in the summer (or winter depending on your hemisphere). But the virus is coming back, with the world both better prepared, but less psychologically and economically resilient. The stress is showing.

The virus’s most spectacular victim was the US President. This drama is still playing out. What has emerged is interesting, though. Donald Trump has made a great show of not allowing the virus to affect him, being rarely seen in a mask. But in fact huge efforts are made to screen anybody that comes near him, with extensive use of a quick-turnaround test. But such measures only work so far, and if enough people come into proximity, the test is bound to have miss a few. A reception for his nominee for the Supreme Court appears to have been too hubristic.

Once Mr Trump was infected his behaviour stands in complete contrast to our own Boris Johnson. Mr Johnson soldiered on valiantly, did what the doctors told him, and went to a public hospital only when he had to, with treatment recognisably similar to any member of the public. Such a passive approach was not for Mr Trump. He quickly ordered the most aggressive treatment possible, and checked himself into and then out of an elite hospital. He now claims to have conquered the virus in days. We shall see. This probably reflects cultural differences between our two countries as much as personality. Many Americans, and especially the rich and powerful, struggle with the idea that they can’t take full control of their treatment, as is often the case with the UK’s NHS. Private treatment is available here, but, quite often the best expertise is tied to the public service, and Britons don’t like public and private to mix. It is one reason why nationalising health care is unpopular in the US, even if less well-off Americans have little practical control.

But what effect will this have on the US election campaign? Democrats continue to have reason for quiet confidence. A month ago they seemed a bit rattled, as Mr Trump had forced the narrative onto his own agenda: law and order. But the Democrats’ candidate, Joe Biden, is a seasoned campaigner, backed up by a solid team. He held his nerve. The riots subsided and soon the news was dominated by the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the unseemly haste to replace her before the election. Mr Biden refused the invitation to stoke up the culture war on abortion, but instead moved the narrative on to court challenges to President Obama’s health care system, which many working class Americans now depend on. This was followed by the first TV debate, dominated by Mr Trump’s hyper=aggressive behaviour. Mr Biden was not given the rope to hang himself with, and the focus became the personality of the President, which the Democrats are quite happy with. And now Mr Trump’s infection has put the virus centre stage. Mr Biden’s poll lead seems to be holding up, and perhaps even increasing. Most Americans have chosen who they will vote for, and not a few have voted already. Everything that is happening seems to reinforcing those choices, on both sides, and making each side more motivated. As in the mid-term Congressional elections in 2018, that is mainly working for the Democrats. Can they seize the Senate?

But the biggest question to me is what will happen after the election, with the country so bitterly divided. Mr Trump doesn’t seem to care. But if Mr Biden wins, he will have a big job on his hands. He does seem to be aware of this.

Here in Britain, the UK government’s reputation is floundering. There is something curious about this. After its initial fumblings, and the appalling early death rate that resulted, the country’s record bears comparison with many of its peers. The record of the US is worse, and so is that of France, since June. Also the records of England (directly under the control of the UK government) and Scotland (mainly under the control of the devolved SNP government) is pretty similar. But Mr Johnson’s Conservatives have suffered much worse damage to their reputation. Mr Johnson’s style is ill-suited to the occasion, and, worse, he has surrounded himself with weak ministers, while more competent people remain on the sidelines criticising his record. There is a lot to criticise, of course, especially with the government’s failure to understand effective process management (with vastly inappropriate and over-centralised structures), and the lack of a clear strategy, as different factions vie to be heard. But others are making the same or worse mistakes and getting away with it. Mr Johnson is failing at the sorts of things politicians are supposed to be good at, as well as the ones for which they have little expertise. Many of theConservatives that voted Mr Johnson into office last year seem surprised; but most others are not.

So far the big winner from the crisis appears to be China. Although they too fumbled the early stages, with dire consequences for the rest of the world, their brand of totalitarian government has stamped out the disease and kept the virus at bay. Meanwhile everybody else is struggling: as they ease restrictions to let life go on as it should, the virus comes back, and the exponential dynamics of infectious diseases stoke. Still, some countries seem better able to handle the challenge than others. But it is hard to generalise. Herd immunity can be bought only at a very high price, in direct and indirect deaths, and debilitating “long-covid”, and may not last long-term anyway. But containment comes at a very high price too. A vaccine seems the best hope.

Why localism is key to test and trace

Sometimes you have to keep banging away about something. For some time I have been complaining that the government’s system for providing tests for Covid-19, and then for its approach to contact tracing, suffers from a fundamental flaw of process design. I see this being occasionally mentioned by others, but the idea hasn’t caught on. So I will say it again.

This is relevant because the testing regime seems to be in a state of complete dysfunction. The government is not being transparent about what is going wrong, a an issue which is not unrelated, so I’m having to join some dots, based on a flood of anecdotal evidence from people at different levels in the system that have popped up on the news. The system has been overwhelmed by a surge in demand. Whether or not this should have been foreseen is one question, but taking a step back and looking at the outcome prompts another. This excess demand seems to have caused the whole system to fail, so that while testing capacity is very high (the government claims it is higher than in most other countries), all, or most, of the tests are taking far too long to return results, which completely undermines their usefulness. I have heard experts suggest that if results take longer than 48 hours to be returned, then they are of little practical use. That sounds about right. Results seem to be taking much longer than this in the official system, or at least that which serves most users (I think hospitals are linked to a different one, which might be working a bit better). The problem seems to be at “Lighthouse” labs where samples are analysed. The government suggests that this is just a numbers game: these labs have a capacity and demand is in excess of it, leading to delays – which is perfectly plausible explanation and doubtless at least part of the problem. There are other stories of staffing issues as these labs are losing temporary workers as the university terms start, and finding them hard to replace.

How to manage this? The first response is to stop people taking tests through the booking system, by telling them that they are unavailable, or only available hundreds of miles away. One story is that the only way that people living in the London suburb of Twickenham can get a test locally, rather than one in Aberdeen (in the north east of Scotland), is to say that they are living in Aberdeen. This is causing an immense amount of distress, which is feeding back in complaints to MPs. The government is now trying to impose some form of prioritisation on tests to give this more rationality. But that will be hard going, with goodwill in short supply. There is a least one new Lighthouse lab in the pipeline, and the government doubtless is placing its hopes on this. Alas any relief is unlikely to last for long. The whole thing gets much worse when the need for contact tracing is brought into the picture, where similar problems are emerging, though not, excess demand. The whole damn system is flawed.

What’s gone wrong? The designers of the government system are bewitched by the idea of scale economies. The unit cost of a large scale system operating at full capacity is generally very low. And because covid tests are basically quite standard, at first sight the building of such high volume facilities looks like a sensible way forward. When the government suggested that the system would be “world-beating”, this is doubtless what lay behind it, as many countries have gone for a much more artisanal approach. But that is only one aspect of process design. The problem comes from how you manage the whole process from end to end (i.e. from the moment somebody decides that they need a test to the moment they get the result). The more steps there are in the process, and the more disconnected their management, the less efficient the whole becomes. This can seem quite paradoxical. Each part of the system can seem to be operating well, but the whole can be dysfunctional, and doesn’t seem to be anybody’s fault. The problem is compounded by the the government’s preference for the use of mass-sampling facilities. People are sent to drive-in centres that are able to process large volumes. But these are often idle and simply make the whole process more disconnected. The symptoms of such a disconnected “silo” based process design are very familiar. Bottlenecks, queues, delays, lost files, and all the while managers working frantically hard at their own little section in the knowledge the the problems are all somebody else’s fault. And managers blaming users for making unreasonable demands. There is so much at stake in the overall design that nobody dares point out that it might be better to scrap the whole thing and start again. Instead they work on fixes that ameliorate the worst problems but make the whole process more cumbersome. In this case designing systems to prioritise demand.

What’s the alternative? It is to create local facilities that do the whole job end to end, or as much as possible. Best of all is if the testing function can be integrated with a similarly localised system of contact tracing, all accountable to a local director of public health, part of local government. Where possible staff should be able to cover multiple jobs, rather than specialising in just small parts of it. This is more or less how it works in Germany, among other places. Such a system cannot solve all problems. It may not be able to overcome shortages in critical supplies (reagents for tests, and so on), though managers are more empowered to find work-arounds. How would it cope with excess demand, as is happening at the moment? It is superior in several ways. Firstly because managers are likely to have a better overview of the whole system, problems are more likely to be foreseen. Secondly bottlenecks are more easily fixed. It is easier to recruit two or three extra staff in a local centre than a couple of hundred in a centralised facility. And where there are problems, they will not bring the entire country to a halt. And finally communication with the end user is likely to be far superior, as they are much closer to a knowledgeable, human interface.

These principles have been well-understood since the 1990s (when I used them to reorganise processing operations that I was managing). Alas the government, and those it appoints as advisers, are far too wedded to the imperial silo-based model and seem incapable of understanding that they are dealing with poor systems design rather than a few teething difficulties. Doubtless the silo approach works well in some contexts. But not here. But quite why the lessons of the 1990s are so widely forgotten in 2020 remains something of a mystery to me – my guess is that managers and politicians have been distracted and beguiled by new technology.

Deadly and contagious, this virus is reshaping our society

When the pandemic started to seriously intrude into our daily lives, in March, my view was the it might accelerate some changes, but it was being overplayed by some commentators as a society-changing event. My view is changing. And it is changing because the virus is proving so hard either to beat or to live with. It just won’t go away. In this week’s statement the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, made some steps towards acknowledging this. But many people are still in denial.

It is too early to develop a clear view of how this pandemic is evolving. But I can see at least three phases. The first phase is over. This saw the initial emergence of the disease, and immediate hard lockdowns to try and contain its spread, alongside the mobilisation of the health systems. In East Asia and Europe, and in some parts of America (such as New York) this strategy has succeeded in preventing or stemming a rapid advance. Elsewhere weak health systems or perverse political leadership means that the disease is still spreading rapidly. But that aside we are now in an awkward second phase. The lockdowns are being eased, but alongside this the disease is making local breakouts. It is becoming clearer that restrictions on our daily lives cannot be relaxed fully. Even if the disease can be stamped out in some areas, it remains prevalent in neighbouring ones, and the threat of it returning ever-present.

We still don’t know enough about the virus that is causing all the trouble, how it spreads, and its effects on the human body. But some aspects are becoming clearer. The first is that it is deadly. It does not seem to affect many of the people it infects, and some people seem to think that it merely hastens the demise of people already at death’s door. And yet 20-30% of the population appears to be vulnerable in most places, and it has the capacity to double the death-rate, or more. Hospitals become overwhelmed and unable to deal with other health conditions. The second aspect is that it is highly contagious, much more so than other viruses that are deadlier to the infected (such as ebola). Just how contagious is unknown, but we do know that super spreading events occur, where dozens of people are infected by a single individual at once. Being indoors seems dangerous, as does being in proximity to people who are exhaling heavily, such as people singing, shouting or exercising. Wearing masks seems to be a significant help in reducing infection risk. What makes the virus so much of a problem is this combination of lethality and contagiousness. We are conditioned to deal with diseases that are highly contagious but not so deadly (like most flu) or deadlier but much less contagious. To these two known aspects there is an important unknown. Does catching the disease confer immunity to it? There is a widespread assumption that it does, meaning that we can expect herd immunity to arise at some point, when most people can’t catch or spread the virus. But the emerging evidence is troubling. Antibody tests show low rates of prevalence even in places where the disease has been widespread. And there are reports of people being infected multiple times. A second unknown is how quickly we can get an effective vaccine. There has been impressive progress, but plenty of reason to be cautious.

So where does that leave us? Developed societies have no choice but to try and contain the disease. This means changing behaviours to reduce the risk of catching it. This arises partly through public policy and partly through private choice. As I said in my previous post this means that many people are going to avoid social gatherings indoors, including going out to pubs and restaurants. The more prevalent the disease at any time and place, the more such measures have to be taken. The best we can hope for is containing the disease to low prevalence, allowing quite high levels if freedom, but stamping on local outbreaks as they occur. This is being done most successfully in East Asia; in Europe Germany is the main large exemplar. But even this is far from normal. The big problem is that we are going to have to live with this disease for a year at least and probably a lot longer. This has profound consequences.

The main consequence is in the world of work, and in the economy generally. There are two main aspects to this. First is that sectors that rely on close social contact and free movement are going to shrink, perhaps drastically. This includes hospitality and travel. The second is that productivity in most sectors is going to be dented as health precautions take effect. This will inevitably reduce the standard of living. Prices will rise faster than pay; taxes will probably have to rise to curb excess demand and inflation. All this is too much for most people to take on all at once. Many are still trying to negotiate with the virus. I hear owners of indoor gyms complaining about not being allowed to open, like other businesses are. And yet an indoor gym must be one of the best spreading environments conceivable, after a mass indoor choir.

So how did Mr Sunak face up to this huge challenge in his budget statement this week? Pretty well in the circumstances. The most important thing is that he is pivoting from trying to keep old jobs alive (e.g. through the furlough scheme) to creating new ones, in particular focusing efforts on younger people, whose livelihoods are most at risk. His generosity towards the hospitality sector with his VAT scheme and meal discounts may look hopeless against the tide of events – but it does demonstrate some empathy towards one of the sectors most under pressure, which could reduce the short-term trauma somewhat. His £1,000 bonus for firms that retain furloughed staff until January looks harder to justify. It is hard to believe that it will make much difference to job retention, and yet it is estimated to cost huge sums. Surely it would have been better to top up benefits for the out-of-work. His reduction of stamp duty on property purchases looks like an expensive sop to party donors – though I personally stand to benefit.

But, as most people see, this is only a start. In the pipeline are more job losses and business failures, which will bring more problems in their wake. There is also an upcoming crisis in local government finance, as central government support to meet the extra costs of the crisis is woefully inadequate, and the role local government needs to play in combatting the virus is becoming ever larger. This will be the third phase of the pandemic, as the economic crisis deepens, while the struggle to contain the virus continues. Conventional economic management tools are not going to help as much as they should be. A lot of the problem is restriction to the supply side of the economy, while demand is suppressed by fear as much as lack of funds – so boosting demand simply risks creating inflation or a currency crisis. However job creation in public services: health care, social care and education, looks like a sensible way forward. Lower productivity means more people will be needed in these sectors. A rebalancing of the economy from private to public sector will surely mean tax rises in due course, but with no shortage of liquidity in financial markets the government can probably defer some of the hard decisions.

And meanwhile the public will have to confront some hard truths. The virus shows that the free-wheeling individualism at the core of western societies has its limits. It is not sustainable to suggest that individuals can judge the health risks for themselves, since by spreading a lethal disease the consequences of their actions will mainly be felt by others. The failure of so many people in Britain and parts of America to wear masks in public shows how far we have to go. We have something to learn form the East Asians. But not China. That is another story.

The two worlds of post-lockdown Britain

Joss Bay Broadstairs 31 May 2020
Joss Bay Broadstairs 24 June 2020

On Monday the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, happily announced a tranche of relaxations of England’s lockdown restrictions, to be timed for 4 July. The public weren’t going to wait, flocking to the country’s beaches to take advantage of a few days of sunshine. I took the first picture here in Broadstairs, Kent on 31 May, thinking it was crowded (we had become used to this beach being deserted), but look at yesterday by comparison. The country seems to be making a dash for normality. Disappointment lies ahead.

The relaxations come after some hefty lobbying by businesses, who are experiencing huge strains. They highlight a legitimate concern, as many jobs are under threat as businesses face the danger of folding. Public finances are under strain too, though by how much and why remains a matter for debate. But the problem is a deadly virus for which there is no vaccine or cure, not overzealous lockdown regulations. So if you don’t want to risk catching the disease, and the prospect of a horrible death, just how safe are you being made to feel? The country is dividing on this question.

I have heard quite a few lobbyists for the hospitality industry on the radio. For the most part they do not inspire confidence. They are anxious to abolish the two-metre social distancing rule, but are reluctant to explain how they can still be safe. Some of them even grumble about the idea that they would have to keep records of all those attending their establishments, even though this is an obvious quid quo pro to relaxing distancing requirements in the high-risk settings that most of them obviously run. One expert offered a list of potential mitigations for reduced distancing: not facing people, masks, reducing time of contact, low noise levels so that people can talk softly. Not much of this helps if you are indoors in a pub or restaurant, although if customers are seated at tables only with members of their isolation group, then at least you won’t be facing others. To be fair some hosts on television are doing a better job of explaining themselves: instead of whinging about the rules they are showing viewers all the precautions they are taking to make people feel safe.

But a lot of people don’t really care. They are fed up with confinement, and note the reduced prevalence of the disease, and therefore the reduced risk of catching it. Many are younger and fitter people who feel less at risk of suffering badly. Many also draw confidence from other countries where restrictions have been relaxed. They miss two aspects of these overseas examples. First is that in the more successful countries they applied relaxation after they had beaten back the disease further than England has, and that even then they have had to identify and manage local outbreaks. And England’s track and trace infrastructure inspires little confidence that it is up to this task. The second is that in other countries that have relaxed (notably in some states of the USA), they are moving headlong into a relapse. Two things about the epidemic strain our intuitive way of understanding the world. First is the time lag between picking up the disease and diagnosing it, then between diagnosis and hospitalisation, and finally between hospitalisation and death. The second is the exponential nature of the spread, and the way a small number moves very rapidly to a big one and so the need to intervene when it feels too early. This is what led to some countries failing to take the disease seriously enough until too late. It is clear that the US President Donald Trump, ever the intuitive leader, struggles with both these things.

But while one, very conspicuous, group are making a headlong dash for normality, another, usually older and more vulnerable, group remain very frightened. They are staying indoors, so remain nearly invisible. But this applies to my household and many others that I know. This is both good and bad news. The good news is that if this group stays out of trouble, then the most vulnerable people will be protected, keeping hospitalisations and death rates down. The bad news is that this large number of often quite high-spending people will not be the free-spending agents needed for a full economic recovery. And if infection rates start to rise, they will become even more scared.

All of which gives an impressive of a government that doesn’t think things through. If it wanted to tempt older people back into shops and other facilities it needed to work a bit harder to reassure them. The words are there but the body-language isn’t. For example the government says that the 2-metre rule is replaced by “one-metre plus”. The plus is meant to suggest alternative mitigation, and yet this has been totally drowned out in the messaging. If it had been combined with a clear directive for people to wear face coverings in virtually all indoor settings, then it might have been easier to convey this. Instead they promote the idea that the risks are reduced so you don’t need precautions like masks; of course they don’t say that, but observing people around me that seems to be what is happening. And the problem about masks is that everybody needs to wear them for it to work. It is no use if just the worried people do.

Still, the government has probably bought itself a month or two before any obvious problems emerge. And then it looks likely to face a twin threat. A faltering economy as the worried sit on their savings while government support schemes, like furlough funding, run their course. And rising infection rates working their way slowly but surely through the system, beyond the country’s capacity to contain it on a local level. I really hope I’m wrong.

Henry Ford’s shadow: from France 1944 to Covid-19

A Sherman tank of the US Third Army in WW2

In September 1944 the US Third Army under General George Patton approached the Eastern French city of Nancy. Its vehicles, notably Sherman tanks, had driven there under their own power after landing in Normandy in July. And not by the most direct route: the army pushed south from Normandy before turning east. This journey of hundreds of miles, with rail networks unavailable, had taken a very low toll on the army’s vehicles, including the Shermans. The Germans were organising a counterattack. But their Panther tanks had to make the trip mostly by rail, subject to Allied air attacks, and a third of their strength broke down while driving the 30 or so miles from the railhead to the jump-off point.

This was a triumph of US engineering and industrial organisation. The Panthers had a much better gun and thicker armour than the Sherman, but that was no use if they couldn’t make it to where they were needed. American industrial superiority was repeated everywhere: air, land and sea. Robust, well-designed weapons were put into combat in overwhelming numbers. The Germans produced clever designs in all these fields, but their artisanal industrial organisation led to unreliability, limited production capacity, and often, as in the case of the Panther, designs that were hard to fix when they went wrong. The Americans outshone their German and Japanese enemies and their British allies. Only the Soviet Union could compare. The Russians could not match the Americans’ production quality or sophistication, but their designs were robust and factory output reached the battlefields in vast numbers. They didn’t need to last long when they got there. Only for lorries did the Soviets crave those vehicles made in Detroit.

It is often assumed that the way the Americans and Russians outproduced their enemies was just a matter of scale and resources. But that is not so: superior industrial organisation was necessary for those nations to respond with the speed that they did to the German and Japanese onslaughts. They also needed strong military organisation and tactics: and both nations also had these, though the German methods continued to outshine both until mid-1944. But the lessons of military organisation were quickly forgotten when the war ended, whereas industrial organisation was needed to win the peace. It is no wonder that the way their industry won the war so dominated public policy in America and the Soviet Union, and in Britain too, as it tried unsuccessfully to emulate American prowess.

And what was the American method, successfully used also by the Russians? It was the production-line, developed in the motor industry by Henry Ford. Its key features were the use of standardised designs (“Any color as long as it is black”), simplified as far as possible, high technical specialism in the workforce, segregating human tasks so that minimal skill was needed, and a highly centralised, hierarchical command and control structure. And above all it celebrated economies of scale, the expectation of which became the standard for business and political elites Small was regarded as necessarily inefficient. It is an approach suited to those with an imperial frame of mind, so it is not hard to see why it was popular with Russia’s Communist leaders, and even in post-imperial but backward-looking Britain. It is interesting that it took such hold in democratic America, but the scale of that country invited imperial thinking too amongst it is business leaders.

But the Henry Ford method has weaknesses. It is slow to respond to change, and becomes very inefficient where a feedback loop is needed between user and supplier, or any area where complexity is built-in. Bottlenecks, delays and queues become routine. Furthermore organisations built around the production-line mindset, especially outside the urgencies of wartime, become ossified, divided into fiefdoms that fail to cooperate. But leaders remain locked into its thinking. When things go wrong, the management response is to tinker, by adding bureaucratic controls that slow things down and promises that lessons have been learned that always disappoint in their results. That the Henry Ford method was failing first became apparent when Japanese manufacturing started to outcompete American and British firms in the 1960s and 70s. At first this was put down to “cheating”: underpaid workers doing excessive hours, and so on. But then managers started to realise that the Japanese had been adapting their manufacturing techniques using an idea referred to as “Total Quality Management” (TQM), which involved much more delegated decision-making, and organisation-undermining cross-departmental teams. This realisation came too late for most of British manufacturing industry, with the motor industry weighed down by mediocre management and bad industrial relations, often driven by demarcation disputes, a common outgrowth of Fordism. The new ideas were beyond the imagination of management and union leaders alike. America embraced the new ideas more successfully, notably by Jac Welch’s General Electric in the early 1990s.

But the world was moving on, as Baumol’s law started to diminish manufacturing industry’s economic importance, just as it had done to agriculture a century before. Service industry became critical, and services are less easy to fit into a standardised mould. At first management thinkers adapted their manufacturing techniques, arguing that services were just another product. But by the mid 1990s thinking had moved on to an idea that was centred on a service mindset, where manufacturing products were seen as just another service. This was Business Process Reengineering (BPR). The user experience became central to business organisation, delegated decision-making critical, and layers of hierarchical management were dismantled. This was catching on just as I was taking responsibility for a mediocrely performing organisation administering savings plans. I used it to reorganise everything, doubling productivity and improving quality of output too (actually, that was linked). This was a heady time in management thinking, with optimistic “both and”, and “win-win” ideas taking hold. In Britain the most eye-catching business using BPR was Virgin Atlantic, offering a superior travelling experience at a reasonable cost. It even infected Tony Blair’s New Labour, who took on the heady optimism of leading business people, with the idea of “Stakeholder Capitalism”. Mr Blair’s subsequent period in office showed that he had no idea about what all this actually meant, however.

But then things turned darker. The rise of the internet was the most eye-catching aspect of this: but there is no reason that this should have undermined BPR thinking. A bigger issue was the rise of cheap labour in Asia, which new technology could help tie into longer supply chains. Meanwhile managers were bewitched by the idea of “Shareholder Value”, which quickly pushed away the fuzzier and more inclusive thinking of Stakeholder Capitalism. This legitimised management and shareholder greed and corporate empire-building.. The customer experience was given lip service but not priority. Ryanair replaced Virgin as the airline success story.

And Henry Ford made a comeback, with a twist. That was that businesses embraced outsourcing (Ford wanted his organisation to do everything itself), which improved communications technology now enabled. But hierarchical management, standardisation, deskilled work (preferably done by robots) and economies of scale reestablished themselves in the way managers thought about organising work. New technology, it was thought, could make up for Fordism’s defects (more recently with high hopes being placed on artificial intelligence). Conservative ministers in Britain accepted this without question as the remade public services by reorganising and outsourcing to firms that embraced the new Fordism.

Which brings us to Covid-19. A lot of the way Britain has organised itself to meet the challenge reflects Henry Ford thinking. This particularly applies to testing, but also to PPE procurement and the contact tracing system, which has been outsourced to one of the usual large-scale suppliers. And the weaknesses of the Henry Ford approach have become evident. Queues, delays, bottlenecks; promises made by management that cannot be kept; bureaucracy being added in to try and make a broken system work better.

But some countries never fell for Henry Ford ideology. Service efficiency is legendary in Switzerland partly because they never embraced large-scale thinking, and they know instinctively how organise and delegate decisions so there are no delays and queues. Germany stuck with its artisanal, delegated approach, with much of its modern industrial prowess driven by medium-sized companies, which Forders would dismiss as being sub-scale. In German Covid contact-tracing is done by small local and professional multi-functional teams who carry out their own tests; in Britain newly recruited tracers helplessly sit by their computers waiting for referrals to come through, while their German counterparts are kept busy, using local knowledge to solve problems. British political and business elites fail to comprehend. It is probably too much to hope that Henry Ford’s ghost will be one of the casualties of Coronavirus.

Are buoyant stock markets a sign of financial trouble ahead?

I have written before about how well many stock market indices have performed, notwithstanding the pandemic. That good performance has continued, with the US S&P 500 reaching record levels last week. This is puzzling, and might be a sign of a crisis in the making.

What is clear is that few, if any, of the world’s economies are going to shake the crisis off quickly. A rapid partial recovery from the depths of the lockdown is more than plausible, but it is hard to see things getting all the way back to normal. Consumer demand, the main driver of modern economies, looks to be dented for the long term, as many of the public, older people in particular, remain cautious, even if most lockdown restrictions are completely lifted – which they won’t be. You can take a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. And, of course, a lot businesses are going to fail because of the lockdown, meaning that a lot of people will be put out of work. Meanwhile many businesses and public agencies will suffer a significant loss in productivity as safety measures continue to be in operation. While that might benefit jobs, it implies reduced living standards too, which will also make it hard for businesses to bounce back. The prospect of a vaccine being universally available is distant. The whole world cannot eliminate the virus like New Zealand has done, at the expense of cutting itself off from the rest of the world.

So if the economy is unable to bounce back to where it was in December 2019, why are stocks doing so well, after they fell so far earlier in the year? The obvious answer is that investors have taken leave of their senses, falling for optimistic stories peddled outside the mainstream media. Well I have seen such craziness take hold, back in the late 1990s with the tech boom, but this does not look like it. There must be a more rational explanation. I can think of two, and neither are good news.

The first is that not all companies’ share prices are doing well, and the rise in well-publicised indices is based on large companies who are expected to do well out of the crisis. Companies like Amazon, Microsoft or Alphabet (i.e. Google). When businesses fail, others benefit. The crisis will provide stronger companies with opportunities. The stock market indices are not a representative cross-section of businesses in the economy, but a collection of the bigger ones. But for this to justify such a high level of price gain, it means that investors think these businesses will be able to take advantage of their market dominance to raise prices. In other words, the wreckage left behind by the crisis will lead to widespread price-gouging, which will benefit the companies represented in the indices. This would be bad news because it means that yet another dent in productivity that will reduce living standards of everybody except the lucky. I don’t think this is very likely, but it is plausible that this is what many investors think will happen. There would be parallels with the tech boom of the 1990s if so.

The second possible explanation for high stock prices is an idea I have read in quite a few commentaries. It is that investors “have nowhere else to go” except to put money into shares. In other words, there is a savings glut, and the alternatives to shares look a worse prospect. There is plenty of reason to think that there is a savings glut. Many people are saving more as a result of the crisis, because there are fewer opportunities to spend, while incomes are being propped up by government support schemes. Meanwhile businesses, with a few exceptions like pharmaceutical companies, are cutting investment due to uncertainty. More saving plus reduced investment means a glut. And many people have suggested the world economy has been stuck in a chronic savings glut for the last couple of decades anyway.

The main alternative investment to shares, if you are are looking for a home for trillions rather than mere billions of dollars, is bonds. But interest rates on public debt have been cut to minimal, even negative, levels as part of the monetary response to the crisis. This means almost no prospect of a positive return either from interest payments or capital gains (which would require interest rates to fall even further). Some private companies have bonds offering higher yields (i.e. ratio of interest to price), but that is because of a higher risk of default. These do not look an attractive prospect in the current environment.

Which leaves either keeping the money uninvested in bank accounts, or investing in shares. A lot of people are keeping their money in cash, but this suffers a similar problem to bonds: low interest and no capital gain. Which leaves shares, whose price then rises because demand exceeds supply. That does not necessarily mean that shares offer a better return in the long run. Most investment decisions are not made by people for their own money, but by middle men such as investment managers. They need a good story rather than a sober assessment to justify their decisions. One advantage of shares is that it is very easy to spin a story, and picking crisis winners, as well talking up a rebound, might be just such stories.

But the savings glut explanation is bad news. It is not a stable situation because it implies that demand is being sucked out of the economy. This is one of the standard principles of Economics that is taught in undergraduates’ first year (the so-called Economics 101). It is what caused economic depressions before the economist Maynard Keynes showed that governments could offset this with deficit spending. Governments are indulging in deficit spending to an extent that is unprecedented in peacetime, but the rise in stock markets seems to be showing that they are not doing enough, or rather that their interventions are being parked in savings rather than spent.

How might this play out? The financial system is under a high level of stress. Levels of private and public debt are very high in most of the major economies. Private debt is the most likely breaking point, both in terms of bond default and bank bad debts. This vulnerability plays out in different ways in different countries, but the USA, the EU and China all look vulnerable this time in their different ways. Britain has its own vulnerabilities too, with a high current account deficit, a badly managed epidemic and full departure from the EU about to impact later in the year. This could then lead to a more widespread financial calamity.

The Great Financial Crisis of 2008-2009 was preceded by over a year of unreality, when the nature of the crisis was exposed, but markets were in a sort of stunned disbelief. It was like a supersaturated solution waiting for speck of dust to start a mass crystallisation: the Lehman Brothers collapse was the speck of dust. I was scared enough in 2007 to move my pension fund into index-linked government stock – so I’m not using hindsight here. The situation now is different, but I think the same sort of unreality is present. This will be a very different crisis if it comes.

I don’t think that most countries will suffer a 1930s style depression. Governments will have to intervene big, but they can and look ready to do so, though this will be more complicated in the EU. My prediction is that this will not just take the form of measures to stimulate demand, but interventions to keep businesses going.A lot of wealth will be destroyed. It will be a great moment to be a socialist.

Have I finally succumbed to cabin-fever? I have noticed more than one columnist I respect going a bit off the rails (look at Matthew Parris in The Times this weekend). I will have to leave that to you to judge!

We need to escape 2m social distancing. We are going about it in the wrong way.

Joss Bay, Broadstairs, Kent 30 May 2020

The UK government, in its capacity as the English government, has been easing the Coronavirus lockdown steadily over the last couple of weeks. Generally the public has been one step ahead. The picture shows the scene yesterday at one our nearby beaches yesterday; you would be pushed to find any difference from a normal day half-term week in May. The public toilets were open (big queues, no social distancing), and you could hire a windbreaker, buy ice creams and no doubt many other things too. Is this all happening too quickly?

Meanwhile, the scientific advisers seem to be behaving more and more like economists, and not always in a good way. They are very attached to their models predicting how the out break will develop. Abstract aggregated measures, especially the Reproduction or R-rate, are treated as if the are real, tangible things, rather than statistical abstractions. In one way they don’t behave like economists, though. They accuse our leaders of taking political decisions because they go against their advice. On probing them, it turns out that what the scientists mean by this is that the politicians are weighing up factors like the economy and mental health. Stuff that is somebody else’s problem for the scientists. Economists need no excuse to barge into somebody else’s field.

But even taking a broader view, the scientists have a point. The prevalence of Covid-19 is greatly reduced, though it is very hard to get a decent fix on this, given the weaknesses in the testing regime. This means that the risk of catching the disease is now quite small, depending on where in the country you are (though apparently the regional variations aren’t that great). But this low risk is precisely what led to complacency at the start of the epidemic. The countries that locked down early (i.e. before they had a visible problem) are the ones that have suffered least; Britain has one of the worst Covid-19 death rates on any country in the world.

The problem is this: living with the virus is very hard if it means maintaining 2m social distancing. So many activities become impossible: restaurants and bars for example, unless customers can stay outside. Reducing this distance to 1m, as I heard former Chancellor Norman Lamont suggest, is a bit of a nonsense. If you are indoors and with somebody for more than 15 minutes, then the risks escalate. This is what bars and restaurants are for, and you can’t mitigate them by getting everybody to wear a mask, as you can on a bus or aeroplane. 2m is probably not enough in this environment. Which is very bad news not just for those us dying to eat out again, but for the huge numbers of people employed in hospitality. At the same time shops, factories and the businesses can’t maintain their previous productivity.

The aim has to be to not have social distancing rules at all. How do you achieve this? The first step is to get infections down to a very low level. Much lower than is prevalent in any part of the UK at the moment. Then you implement a rigorous track and trace system, to identify and isolate anybody who has the disease. Extra regulations are required where people congregate in an enclosed space period of time, so that everybody can be rapidly identified if one of them turns out to be infected. People coming into the country need to be tested on arrival, with results coming back in 24 hours while they wait somewhere safe. This is all well-trodden territory for countries like South Korea, for example. This is not life returning to normal by any means, but it is much better than trying keep everybody 2m apart.

The loosening of the lockdown being implemented in England (and at a slower pace in other parts of the UK) may well not lead to a rapid escalation, as many fear. There seems to be a lot less danger associated with being outdoors, especially if it is sunny (and also, for different reasons, I suspect, if it is wet). 2m social distancing may be impossible all the time on beaches like the one in my picture (the family groups sitting and sunbathing are OK – but the problems are when you are moving around), but the risk is probably very low. Shops and schools, now opening up, are probably not very risky either, with the mitigation measures in place – though we need to be careful about people that work there. But if there is no major escalation, it seems unlikely that the opposite will happen either: that we can get infections down to the level where social distancing can be dropped. The danger is that Britain will be stuck in a no-man’s land between emergency levels of the disease and being on top of it.

Alas Britain’s problems don’t end there. The government has still not mastered the logistics of mass testing, and of large-scale track and trace operations. The press is full of things going wrong, and especially of test results taking a very long time to come through, as well as difficulties in getting the tests to people that need them. To me it smells very strongly of an over-obsession with economies of scale – which lead to problems in linking the bits together. Much can be learned from the decentralised organisation of Germany, for example. Getting this infrastructure working properly is critical to moving beyond the world of social distancing. The bad news is that the people in charge don’t show any real grasp of what is causing the problems, and assume they can be solved by working a broken system harder.

Which means that the UK’s dismal record on tackling the Coronavirus is likely to continue. Well at least we aren’t Brazil.

Suddenly then gradually is how the economic downturn will be

On Friday (1 May) I was astounded to hear that the US stock market index S&P 500 had its best month since 1987, after its dramatic fall in the earlier months of the year. I was aghast when I further thought I heard that it had recovered practically all its lost ground in 2020. That reinforced an impression that many people are in denial about just how bad things are, especially in America.

Some notes of caution before readers rush to sell their American shares, or short the index. The S&P 500 was in fact still 13% below its starting point at the end of April, and fell nearly another 3% on that Friday. I probably misheard a comment about the tech-heavy NASDAQ, which was just 2% down. The movements of share prices arise from dark forces, whose nature only becomes apparent long after the event, if ever. Newspaper headlines attributing movements to some coincidental event (on Friday it was trade relations with China) are just speculation. There may well be a much more rational explanation for the stock index level other than delusion. Though it still looks like a long-term “sell”.

The impression of delusion was heightened by statements, from the President among others, that the USA is past the peak of the virus outbreak, and many states are relaxing their lockdowns. In Britain the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has been saying the same thing about being over the worst, though still very reticent about relaxing the lockdown. Economically at least, however, the world’s troubles have only just begun. The troubles are in several layers.

The first issue is that the virus has proved itself to be both very infectious and deadly, and it is still very far from beaten. The relaxation of restrictions in the USA is most likely to result in a surge of infections that will overwhelm the hospitals in the states where it happens. This is a complex business, and some US states may not in fact be very vulnerable, because their populations are very dispersed and populations relatively static. But that does not apply to many of the states relaxing restrictions, such as Georgia. In Europe each country is wrestling with how to relax the lockdown, without reigniting the crisis. Only a small number of states (and not in Europe) seem to be able to relax lockdown significantly, and that only by drastically limiting travel in and out. It will be impossible to get back to normal until a freely available vaccine or cure is found and distributed en masse. That’s a long way off.

The second issue is that this crisis is a global one; no country will be able to bounce back and lead the recovery. In the Great Financial Crisis, a relatively small number of countries took the initial brunt (the USA and Britain mostly); others (in particular other European countries) suffered in the aftershock, but while the initial impacts had stabilised. Across the globe countries were able to launch a massive stimulus to use up the spare capacity created by the crisis, with particular credit to both the USA and China. This will not happen this time; both of these countries have had suffered severe shocks to the supply sides of their economies, which limits their ability to carry out effective stimulus. States across the world are intervening massively to limit the economic damage of the pandemic, but this is strictly damage-limitation. Reversing much of the damage already done is another matter.

And this leads to a third problem, which is the biggest of all. The world is coming to the end of one of its 40-year growth cycles, and the crisis is about to cause a deep unravelling of the growth model that drove it. They old tricks don’t work any more, just like Keynesian stimulus did not work in the 1970s.

The current growth cycle began to take off in the 1980s. It was driven by three main things. The first was continued productivity growth by developed world businesses, partly through the application of new technology, and partly by a ruthless cutting away of “slack” regardless of whether this represented waste or sensible resilience. One feature was the extensive use of outsourcing, and the stretching of supply chains. The main problem with this steady transformation of business was that the rewards were skewed towards the owners of capital and the top managers and their advisers, and not most of their workers. The second growth driver was steadily increased consumer spending, driven by steadily increasing private sector borrowing, in turn linked to increasing property valuations. This allowed the mass of consumers not benefiting so much from the productivity gains to nevertheless keep growing their consumption. The problem with this is that it is not sustainable in the long term – but as the saying goes, tomorrow never comes. The third factor was the entry of the less developed Asian economies as a source of cheap labour. Japan was the first, followed by Korea and Taiwan, and then China and India. It is important to note that this development was not exploitative for the most part. Those Asian economies benefited hugely, which allows those taking a world view to say this 40 year cycle has been by far the most beneficial to humanity (if you gloss over environmental impact). What was happening is explainable using the ancient economic principle of comparative advantage, and benefited both sides. What people did not appreciate at the time, and for the most part still don’t, is that these gains are time-limited. As the developing nations catch up, their labour increases in price, and so the developed world ceases to benefit. And so it has been as China in particular closes the gap.

The whole system is now unravelling at speed. Just how much developed world industry has been relying on reduced resilience to get next year’s increase in profits is only now becoming clear. As an illustration this Economist article on the US meat industry shows how scary it can get. And, of course, reliance on cheap foreign labour to keep prices down looks like a bad bet too, as hospitals scramble to find masks and gowns to protect their workers. But the most worrying development in terms of its potential impact is that the shock will puncture the ever growing cycle of consumption, debt and property values.

What this amounts to is a prolonged and almighty economic slump. Demand management through government stimulus will only help so far because the crisis is killing productivity and supply. What will emerge from this is hard to say. Many hope that it will be a kinder, more sustainable and more equal economic system. But there are other possibilities of course. I have written before that there will be a huge impetus to get back to familiar world of before, and this will undo many of the short-term hopes raised by the crisis. But over the longer term something better is possible.

“Gradually and then suddenly,” is the famous Ernest Hemingway quote about bankruptcy. With this crisis it will be the opposite.