During the 2008 financial crisis, it was fairly common to blame experts. It was widely acknowledged that it was the “expertise” of economists, financial markets people and regulators that had gotten us into the crisis in the first place. So criticising and mocking them were part of normal discourse.

For example, most of my learning about the 2008 financial crisis came from following blogs written by journalists, such as Felix Salmon, and generalist academics such as Tyler Cowen or Alex Tabarrok or Arnold Kling, rather than blogs written by financial markets experts or practitioners. I don’t think it was very different for too many people.

Cut to 2020 and the covid-19 crisis, and the situation is very different. You have a bunch of people mocking experts (epidemiologists, primarily), but this is in the minority. The generic Twitter discourse seems to be “listen to the experts”.

For example, there was this guy called Tomas Pueyo who wrote a bunch of really nice blog posts (on Medium) about the possible growth of the disease. He got heavily attacked by people in the epidemiology and medicine professions, and (surprisingly to me)  the general twitter discourse backed this up. “We don’t need a silicon valley guy telling us epidemiology”, went the discourse. “Listen to the experts”.

That was perhaps the beginning of the “I’m not an epidemiologist but” meme (not a particularly “fit” meme in terms of propagation, but one that continues to endure). For example, when I wrote my now famous tweetstorm about Bayes’s theorem and random testing 2-3 weeks back, a friend I was discussing with it advised me to “get the thing checked with epidemiologists before publishing”.

This came a bit too late after I’d constructed the tweetstorm, and I didn’t want to abandon it, and so I told him, “but then I’m an expert on Probability and Bayes’s Theorem, and so qualified to put this” and went ahead.

In any case, I have one theory as to why “listen to the expert” has become the dominant discourse in this crisis. It has everything to do with politics.

Two events took place in 2016 that the “twitter establishment” (the average twitter user, weighted by number of followers and frequency of tweeting, if I can say) did not like – the passing of the Brexit referendum and the election of President Trump.

While these two surprising events took place either side of the Atlantic, they were both seen as populist movements that were aimed at the existing establishment. Some commentators saw them as a backlash “against the experts”. The rise of Trump and Brexit (and Boris Johnson) were seen as part of this backlash against expertise.

And the “twitter establishment” (the average twitter user, weighted by number of followers and frequency of tweeting, if I can say) doesn’t seem to like either of these two gentlemen (Trump and Johnson), and they are supposed to be in power because of a backlash against experts. Closer home, in India, the Modi government allegedly doesn’t trust experts, which critics blame for ham-handed decisions like Demonetisation and pushing through of the Citizenship Amendment Act in the face of massive protests (the twitter establishment doesn’t like Modi either).

Essentially we have a bunch of political leaders who are unpopular with the twitter establishment, and who are in place because of their mistrust of expertise, and multiplying negative with negative, you get the strange situation where the twitter establishment is in love with experts now.

And so when mathematicians or computer scientists or economists (or other “Beckerians“) opine on covid-19, they are dismissed as being “not expert enough”. Because any criticism of expertise of any kind is seen as endorsement of the kind of politics that got Trump, Johnson or Modi into power. And the twitter establishment (the average twitter user, weighted by number of followers and frequency of tweeting, if I can say) doesn’t like that.

Why Trump Will Retain Power

One piece of news that might have gone unnoticed in the middle of all this Covid19 news is that Bernie Sanders has suspended his campaign to be the Democratic nominee for this November’s American Presidential elections. So it looks highly likely that Joe Biden will take on fellow-septuagenarian Donald Trump.

Thinking about it, it doesn’t matter which Democrat takes on Trump. He is going to win. I suspect that Sanders realised this as the covid crisis was panning out, and so decided to fold.

Essentially what the Covid-19 crisis has been largely positive to things that American conservatives traditionally value, and showed the perils of some of the things that American “liberals” have traditionally valued. As a consequence of this, we will find that people who are on the margin (I’m told there are very few fence-sitting voters in the US, compared to India for example) are likely to shift more conservative.

In fact, everyone will become a little more conservative (in the American sense) after this crisis is over (though most Americans have such extreme political opinions that this won’t matter). And that means that in this year’s elections at least, the Republicans are going to win. So assuming he remains healthy, Trump has four more years in the Oval Office.

So what are these “conservative and liberal values” that influenced by this crisis? Let’s make a laundry list.

  • Borders: Open borders, at state and national level are a favourite of liberals (except, in the American context for some strange reason, for skilled labour immigration). They are great for economic growth, but also for pandemic growth. We are surely likely to see tougher border controls (maybe Brexit will be followed by Nordexit? Can’t be ruled out) continuing post this crisis.
  • Cities: Conservatives are all about urban sprawl, owning McMansions and commuting by car. Liberals bat for high density cities and public transport. The tail risk of high density cities as being higher risk for pandemic spread (which had largely been hidden following the rapid advances in medicine in the first half of the 20th century) has been exposed.
  • Families: When you are isolated you would rather be living with your family (“near and dear ones” as some like to put it). The lockdown has been hardest on people living alone or living “with roommates”. American conservatives are all about marrying early and staying married and “two parent families”, which means fairly low chances of living alone. On the margin, people are likely to rediscover “family”.
  • Individualism: Sort of related to the previous one. This is something that is likely to affect me as well. Liberals have been about “breaking free of the community” and living by and for yourself. Crises like this one make you realise the value of having a community, and cultivating relationships in good times that might come of use in bad. So we are likely to see less individualism.Related to this, liberals are far more likely than conservatives to cut ties with families on account of their political leanings. The pandemic might force a rethink on this.
  • Privacy: Countries that have managed to suppress the disease to great extent (such as Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea) have done so by increasing surveillance on their citizens. As Raghu SJ wrote in this excellent blogpost, countries are facing an “impossible trilemma” in terms of protecting citizens’ privacy, containing the disease and protecting the economy.
    And he wholeheartedly agrees that privacy is the one thing that should be sacrificed now. I’m thinking he’s not alone. Moreover, instruments like Aadhaar and Aadhaar-linked bank accounts, which was vociferously opposed by privacy fundamentalists, can be of excellent use for fast direct transfer of benefits now (that India, which has this infrastructure, is only doing a tiny stimulus is another matter).
    Going forward, people will be more willing to trade off privacy (which a lot of us are already doing with Facebook, etc.) for superior service, and privacy fundamentalists will get less attention.

There are some mitigating factors as well.

  • Church attendances will go down, since religious gatherings have been shown to be a reliable source of infection spread.
  • The health crisis can mean that some sort of Obamacare might make a comeback.

On the balance, though, at least in the social sense, you can expect Americans to become more conservative. Move to smaller towns and suburubs (greater remote working will aid this), keep factories in the US (a favourite Trump theme) and become more family oriented. While all this may not last for too long, it should be enough to win Trump this year’s election.

It doesn’t matter how well or badly his government handles Covid-19.

I deliberately decided to not talk about India, since I’m not sure there’s that much of an ideological difference between political parties here. But similar trends, at the personal level, are likely to happen here as well.

One axis politics

Historically, political leanings have ben described on two dimensions – economic freedom and social freedom. In the American scenario, the Republican Party has historically been supportive of economic freedom and restrictive of social freedom. The Democratic Party has been liberal on social freedom but illiberal on the economic freedom front.

While other major Western democracies occupying these two opposite quadrants, the other two quadrants have been largely empty. The libertarians occupy the “free on both fronts” quadrant, but nowhere is there a party to represent them – giving people freedom on all fronts means lesser power for the government and no politician wants that. And being restrictive of both kinds of freedom means people won’t vote for you – at least this was the way historically.

Of course things have been different in India. While we did have a series of governments between 1991 and 2004 that were reasonably economically liberal (“liberalisation” happened in this time period), all Indian political parties are required to swear by socialism, and they swear by it in spirit as well. So the difference on the economic freedom front between different Indian parties is marginal (in 2014, many of us thought the BJP might be supportive of economic freedom, given its record in the 1999-2004 period. Instead, it gave us demonetisation).

So in effect, in India we have a one-axis democracy, where parties try to differentiate themselves on one axis, which is the kind of social freedom they allow. Even there, it is not so much of an axis, but different ways in which they control social freedoms.

The BJP doesn’t want you to eat beef. The AAP doesn’t want recorded music in restaurants. The Congress and JDS don’t want live music in restaurants. The BJP puts cow welfare over human welfare. The Congress enacts and supports laws that allow suppression of Muslim women (by Muslim men). Many parties want to ban liquor, despite it having been repeatedly shown that such bans don’t work. No party wants to legalise marijuana, despite our rich tradition in the substance (heck, its scientific name is Cannabis indica). And we all seem to vote based on which of these social freedoms are more precious to us than others – economic freedom is a battle already lost.

In any case, it seems like other countries are also moving towards one axis democracy.  A chart posted on Twitter today describes results from a survey in the US on voters’ attitudes towards social and economic freedoms, and how they voted in the 2016 presidential elections (which Donald Trump famously won).


A large part of America seems to lie in the left half of the economic freedom spectrum. Yes, the republican voters are still more towards the centre than the democratic voter, but the bigger separation here is on the social rather than the economic dimension. And the Trump administration has been pursuing several policies cutting economic freedoms, such as tearing up trade deals and imposing tariffs.

So it seems like the world is following India in terms of enacting one axis politics – where voters vote more on the social dimension rather than the economic dimension. Then again, I don’t expect this to last – with parties moving left economically, soon you can expect economic freedoms to be crushed to the extent that it becomes advantageous for a party to signal economically right and still get votes.

PS: We don’t need to limit ourselves to two dimensions.  A few years back, Nitin Pai had proposed the Niti Mandala which has three dimensions.


The problem with “civil society” people

is that they can’t work with people with whom they have minor differences – which is where politicians easily trump them. Politicians are expert in the art of working out compromises and working with people with whom they have divergent beliefs. Of course, it creates “unholy coalitions” but you have to give it to the enterprise of the politicians (let’s not question their motivation here) to come together as a group and get stuff done.

With civil society types, however, as soon as they discover that there is something disagreeable about the other party, they’ll cry hoarse and refuse to work with them. So for example, if for some reason I come together with these “civil society” worthies for some cause, I’m sure they’ll all ditch me as soon as they come to know that I was a member of the RSS when I was eight years old.

Because of this, it is rare that civil society types come together for a cause, which is what makes people believe that the Anna Hazare-led protests of two weeks back were such a significant success. That this magnificent coalition hasn’t really lasted, and cracks are already coming up in the “civil society” half of the draft committee just goes to illustrate my point.

There can be exceptions to this of course – civil society people drawn from an extremely homogeneous distribution ARE capable of “getting things done”. Think National Advisory Council!