Event Tectonics: Quake, Shake, Bake & Fake
by
Black Swans (Phil Whitehouse/Wikimedia Commons)

Asked what would determine the course of his government, English prime minister Harold Macmillan (1957–63) answered, “Events, dear boy, events.”

One way to slice the impact of events is by four levels of salience regarding the attitudes of leaders and the public:

  1. quake: a monster event that fundamentally transforms bedrock perceptions;
  2. shake: a major event that alters perceptions somewhat, but not enough to change underlying views;
  3. bake: an event that generates lots of heat, little light, leaving perceptions and underlying views intact; and
  4. fake: an event widely perceived as important, that ultimately proves largely or entirely illusory.

Quake: COVID-19 is the perfect “black swan” event, one whose rarity means a low probability of occurrence, is thus unpredictable, and yet can have a catastrophic impact. The latest manifestation is China warning us that if we do not apologize for blaming China for the spread of COVID-19, China will block shipments of life-saving pharmaceuticals that America does not produce. Administrations of both parties have, for three decades, acquiesced in growing dependence on myriad products by outsourcing their production to China. Most prominent, from a national security perspective, is our dependence on 17 rare-earth elements essential to high-tech manufacturing. (Actually “rare earth” is a misnomer; they are classified by the U.S. Geological Survey as “moderately abundant.”) But these elements are difficult to extract from excavated rock and so are expensive to produce. Large deposits exist not only in America but also in Australia, Canada, Brazil, and India. The first two are close allies; the latter two are countries with whom we have generally friendly relations. In 2014, China stopped exporting these elements to Japan due to their ongoing dispute over the Senkaku Islands, but Japan got supplies from the black market.

Trump’s first action came on Jan. 21, eight days after China’s COVID-19 outbreak was disclosed by WHO to the outside world. Trump immediately imposed a 14-day quarantine on travelers returning to the U.S. who had been to Huawei Province, where Wuhan is located. (And as the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine heats up, recall that a single-payer health-care system, proposed by Hillary in 1993, would have frozen out private-sector contributions, essential to accelerating testing and vaccine development.)

Biden said at an Iowa Caucus event on Jan. 31, the very day President Trump imposed travel restrictions on China, “This is no time for Donald Trump’s record of hysteria and xenophobia … and fear-mongering to lead the way instead of of science.” (To be fair, some Democrats, such as Reps. Nita Lowey from New York and Rosa DeLauro from Connecticut, praised the president for his action.) The ACLU bluntly stated two days after Trump’s Jan. 31 announcement, “The measures are extraordinary incursions on liberty and fly in the face of considerable evidence that travel bans and quarantines can do more harm than good.”

A major roadblock to rapid response has been the leftist intellectual virus of political correctness. Incredibly, as Mark Steyn recently noted (1:52), the mayor of Florence called upon his constituents (not making this up) to “go and hug a Chinese person in the streets.” In the same vein, the day before President Trump declared a national emergency, likely Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden blasted Trump for “xenophobia” for calling COVID-19 a “foreign virus” — a term clearly intended as a descriptor of its geographic origin. Biden went on the say in the same speech, “Banning travel from Europe or any other place in the world may slow it, but, as we have seen, it will not stop it.” Yes: the putative Democratic nominee for president stated his opposition to a ban that he concedes may slow the spread of a pandemic, because it will not stop it.

Economic consequences will also be immense and lasting. Among the changes likely to last: telecommuting from home for work, even more shopping done online, manufacturing critical materials at home to ensure adequate emergency supply, new and stricter standards for hygiene in public and at home, and a much stronger push to replace the 19th-century model of mass public education with a 21st-century model based on distance learning. The Federal Reserve is opening a line of credit for short-term business borrowing, vital to small businesses. But a broader lending facility is needed to quell the panic. Lockdowns will impose large economic costs even if of short duration; long-term lockdowns could crater the economy.

Geopolitical consequences will also be huge. Free-traders on the right and government monopolists on the left both have been discredited. Trump’s economic nationalist agenda will get a boost. Paying a premium for security against catastrophes will gain, at the expense of an obsessive focus on lowest-cost production, regardless of locale. Indeed, the intellectual father of free market capitalism, Adam Smith, recognized that pure free trade can be subordinated to erecting tariffs to protect industries essential to a nation’s security.

Open borders advocates are going to have to explain how migrants can be screened for health issues. This was a notable feature of 19th and early 20th-century immigration. It was largely discarded during the Obama administration. Arguments insisting on screening will get a major boost. Similarly, tracking individual cases will restart pressure for more public use of information technology databases.

Perhaps above all, the largely optimistic bipartisan view of China as moving towards a freer, and thus friendlier, society will fall into history’s ash-heap.

Meanwhile, Iran, hardest hit after China and Italy, faces economic ruin, coupled with inability to cope with a massive outbreak. And Turkey, which has completely concealed the spread of COVID-19 — its numbers do not appear anywhere near the list of hard-hit countries — faces economic ruin if its pandemic outbreak kills tourism and investment.

Shake: In the immediate aftermath of the Al-Qaeda terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the largest loss of life for any attack on American soil, it seemed as if America had truly come together, united in its determination to defeat its mortal enemy, no matter what. The prevailing mood was perhaps best summed up by Sen. John McCain, who warned: “I say to our enemies: We are coming. God may have mercy on you, but we won’t.”

But we did. President Bush called upon Americans not to take out their anger against innocent Muslims. We didn’t. There were, even after 9/11, far fewer instances of attacks on Muslims than on Jews. America became split over such issues as treatment of captured terrorists, including methods of interrogation; possible profiling of passengers at airports; whether to use military or civilian tribunals to handle terror cases (both were used); and infiltration of Muslim groups — even those caught supporting terror. President Obama made outreach to the Muslim world a centerpiece of his presidential years, laced with serial apologies for sins of the West, real and imagined. He asked for no apology from the Muslim world for its past sins.

While we won certain signal victories — destroying al-Qaeda in Iraq, killing bin Laden, destroying ISIS — we have expended considerable blood and treasure without victory: nearly 10,000 killed, tens of thousands maimed, to say nothing the sacrifices our allies made; trillions tossed away without finishing off al-Qaeda or the Taliban in Afghanistan; the Russians allowed to gain a significant foothold in the Mideast for the first time in 40 years; Iraq left to fall under Iranian influence; and Iran given a potential path to becoming a nuclear-weapon state.

Bake: For much of the endless Democratic party presidential campaign season — before and during the primaries — Bernie Sanders, an overt admirer of communist regimes and avatar of socialism as superior to capitalism — topped the polls. Americans were told that Team Sanders was a juggernaut whose leader was almost certain to win the nomination. Yet in a period of one week, Sanders went from putative nominee to long shot. Biden, judged only one bad primary day from extinction, now appears nearly certain to be the nominee — even though he has openly admitted that he may not be healthy enough to serve two terms. Indeed, Biden’s choice for VP is especially important, as he seems far from a sure bet to complete even a first term if elected. While Sanders clearly has legions of supporters, it seems likely that his power to determine the future of the Democratic party was vastly overstated. Countless analysts did not see this, despite many being associated with powerful, well-funded, sophisticated organizations presumably capable of separating fact from fantasy. What we saw, then, was the rise and fall of a movement that generated lots of heat, but little light. Barring dramatic changes — such as Biden fading — Sanders may well wind up a footnote in political history.

Fake: Russian collusion was the theme, virtually nonstop, for the first two years of the Trump presidency. Yet the special prosecutor’s investigation laid an egg: no major indictments. Consider the resources expended:

  • 675 days
  • 19 lawyers
  • 40 FBI agents
  • 2,800 subpoenas
  • 500 search warrants
  • 500 witness interviews
  • 230 oral communication record requests
  • 50 “pen register” phone wiretaps
  • 13 foreign governments contacted
  • Two pre-dawn SWAT raids
  • $25 to $40 million spent

All that yielded but a few pleas plus process-charge indictments (perjury, obstruction of justice), without a single conviction for a substantive crime.

Bottom Line: Truly tectonic events are rare. In most cases, the perception that things have truly changed is eagerly fed by mass media and social media. The former evince what the French call déformation professionnelle towards sensationalist coverage, which attracts larger audiences. The latter medium is dominated by stupefyingly extreme online exchanges.

Of network news, in 1975, ABC News executive producer Avram Westin explained network news priorities in an interview with the New York Times: “One: Is the world safe? Two: Are my home and family safe? Three: If they are safe, then what has happened in the last 24 hours to make them better off?” This viewpoint creates an incentive for newscasters to focus on the gravest actual or potential threats. But it goes off the rails when media auguries of catastrophe stampede public opinion — and thus politicians.

Much of the difficulty stems from our endemic inability to predict events. Novices know not the lessons of history, and thus can miss events that track earlier episodes. Those truly experienced tend to project based on historical knowledge and can miss seismic shifts.

Let us give the final word to an English prime minister, renowned for being gifted with “far-sight” — in effect, an ability to see over the horizon — Winston Churchill. During his wartime years at 10 Downing Street, shortly after he ascended to power, he gave his Nov. 12, 1940, eulogy upon the death of his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain. In it, Churchill told the House of Commons:

It is not given to human beings — happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable — to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events.

John C. Wohlstetter is author of Sleepwalking With the Bomb (2d Ed. 2014.)

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