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Podcast: How human history is shaped by disaster, according to Niall Ferguson

Podcast: How human history is shaped by disaster, according to Niall Ferguson

TRANSCRIPT: How human history is shaped by disaster, according to Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson:

We've been dealing with pandemics from the earliest recorded history. Thucydides' writes about a pandemic in the history of the Peloponnesian War. So the last thing, 2020 was, was unprecedented.

Ian Bremmer:

Hello and welcome to the GZERO World Podcast. Here you'll find extended versions of interviews from my show on public television. I'm Ian Bremmer, and today we are looking at the geopolitics of catastrophe from earthquakes and hurricanes to famines and pandemics, the inevitable media strike. Where do we draw the line between what we consider natural disasters in those caused by humans? And as some parts of the world put COVID-19 behind them or try to, how do we stop it from happening again? I'm talking to Stanford historian and bestselling author Niall Ferguson. He also has a mean Scottish bro who just is out with a surprisingly chipper new book about the history of disasters that's called DOOM the Politics of Catastrophe. Let's get to it.

Announcer:

The GZERO World Podcast is brought to you by our founding sponsor, first Republic. First Republic, a private bank and wealth management company understands the value of service, safety and stability in today's uncertain world. Visit firstrepublic.com to learn more. This podcast is also brought to you by Walmart. Walmart has spent over 15 years working to reduce emissions in our operations and collaborating with suppliers, scientists, and community leaders to reduce emissions across the global supply chain. In response to the growing climate crisis, we're targeting zero emissions across our global operations by 2040 without carbon offsets. Learn more at walmart.com/sustainability.

Ian Bremmer:

Niall Ferguson, global historian of some repute. How you doing, my friend?

Niall Ferguson:

Very well, Ian. Great to see you.

Ian Bremmer:

So the new book is DOOM. Did this come purely out of the pandemic or had you been planning this a topic beforehand?

Niall Ferguson:

I spent 2019 thinking about a book on disasters and dystopias and spent a lot of that year reading science fiction because as a historian, I started to worry that I wasn't thinking enough about discontinuities of the sort that science fiction writers are good at thinking about. So I'd actually been plotting a book about the history of future disasters when one arrived, and that meant that the book could shift its emphasis from science fiction to reality.

Ian Bremmer:

And things don't really change right incrementally, they really change when suddenly a crisis occurs. And then all of the incremental change manifests in decisions that are taken.

Niall Ferguson:

Well, from my vantage point, history is one disaster after another. And it's extraordinary the extent to which human history is shaped by these enormous interruptions, which often nearly off always take people by surprise. It's one of the reasons you can't really find a cycle of history, though people are always looking for those things because there's something random about the incidents of disaster, whether it's manmade or natural. And as you say, Ian, when the disaster strikes, even if people have been predicting it for years, it's suddenly a very surprising thing at the time. And that causes a strange acceleration process in at least some domains. And I think we all experienced that in 2020 and into this year. What I wanted to do was to write a book that would put this disaster, the one we've been living through in some historical perspective, because I got a bit sick of journalists saying it was unprecedented or a year like no other, because from a historian's point of view, it was quite the opposite.

We've been dealing with pandemics from the earliest recorded history. Thucydides' writes about a pandemic in the history of the Peloponnesian War. So the last thing, 2020 was, was unprecedented. In fact, it was very familiar to a historian, just surprising to most of us because we don't really remember anything like this. It's been a while since this pandemic struck. Of course, we had HIV/AIDs not so very long ago, and yet this seemed surprising because we'd forgotten what a pandemic of a respiratory disease is like. And for that you have to go back to the 1950s and most people don't remember that.

Ian Bremmer:

And the Spanish flu epidemic, I mean when I hear people talk about it, I would say the thing I hear most frequently is that the basic guidance that was being provided by political leaders at that point stay away from people, wear a mask. I mean, these are the same sorts of guidance that we're giving people 100 years later. The technology around vaccines has improved, but not so much how to deal with the pandemic.

Niall Ferguson:

It's actually quite remarkable when you read accounts of the 1918, '19 pandemic, which was called the Spanish Influenza for no very good reason. It just happened that the Spanish papers were reporting-

Ian Bremmer:

They were writing about it.

Niall Ferguson:

Accurately. Everybody else had censorship because they were involved in World War I. If you look at how the US handled it's actually very strikingly familiar. There's extraordinary decentralization. Some cities do significant amounts of social distancing and what we would probably call lockdowns today, and others do a lot less. And the outcomes therefore vary hugely from city to city and state to state. But you get familiar reactions too. In San Francisco, there was an anti-mask league, which objected to mask wearing in the city as a violation of civil liberties. Throughout the 20th century, influenza posed a problem. It struck again in the 30s. It struck globally in 1957, '58, and the story was pretty much the same in the sense that there was a scramble to find a vaccine.

They failed in 1918, '19 signs still really hadn't got to the point that you could figure this out, certainly not rapidly. By 1957, they were able to put a vaccine together for the then Asian flu in just a matter of months. And it's interesting that in '57, '58, they didn't do much in the way of social distancing and nothing in the way of lockdowns. In fact, they left schools and pretty much everything else open and just focused on the vaccine. It's worth adding one thing which I think was often lost in last year's discussions, 1918, '19 was a lot worse than COVID-19, even if you accept the very highest estimate for deaths, and you may have seen some pretty eye popping figures in the Economist recently, COVID is still going to be an-

Ian Bremmer:

Going to the single millions. Yeah.

Niall Ferguson:

Look, COVID is still going to be an order of magnitude smaller in its impact than the Spanish influenza of 1918, '19. And it's worth also adding that killed young people and people in the prime of life. This is a very unusual pandemic in the sense that it's ageist and we really haven't had an ageist pandemic before. Nearly all the pandemics in history have been equal opportunity killing the very young as much as the very old, and in 1918, '19, killing people in the prime of life.

Ian Bremmer:

Now, one thing I thought was really interesting about the book and actually quite counter conventional wisdom, is you say that the political leaders, the top of the pyramid, are typically not the ones to blame for response to catastrophes when they go amiss. It's usually inside the system. It's usually mid-level technocrats and bureaucrats. Explain that because that's certainly not the way we've been pointing the finger in response to coronavirus over the past year and a half.

Niall Ferguson:

Well, of course it's very easy, tempting and perhaps irresistible to blame the person at the top when a disaster strikes. And last year it was pretty much the default setting for most journalists, certainly liberal journalists, to blame Donald Trump and their counterparts, in Britain blame Boris Johnson and their counterparts, in Brazil blame Jair Bolsonaro. It was the simplest way to tell the story that you had a populist in power and that was why there was excess mortality. But there are a few problems wrong with this theory. I mean, one is that there were plenty of countries that didn't have populist leaders that did just as bad or worse. And that I think was often overlooked in some of the coverage. There was a problem with the counterfactual.

Are you telling me that if Joe Biden had got the job a year early, that somehow the US would not have had excess mortality? That seems implausible, and I don't even think people in the Biden administration believe that. I mean, Ron Klain has acknowledged that if in 2009 the swine flu had been as bad as COVID, then the Obama administration would have had a public health disaster. But the most important argument, Ian, that the book makes is that in most disasters of when people are inclined to blame the person at the top on closer inspection, the point of failure is not there.

When the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up, initially the press wanted to somehow pin it on Ronald Reagan, who was then president. It was 1986, and they wanted to say, "The thing blew up because they rushed the launch because Reagan wanted to reference it in the State of the Union." And this was total nonsense. There was no such story. It turned out that the real problem was that the NASA engineers knew there was a 1% probability the thing would blow up on launch, but that had been turned by the NASA bureaucrats into one in a hundred thousand. And that was the point of failure. In reality, the engineers knew how dangerous the shuttle was.

I tried to show in the book that that's often the case. That although the buck stops with the president, in reality when a disaster occurs, it's not really the president who's the key person or the key institution. In the case of COVID, if you ask the thing what the things were that caused excess mortality, north of half a million in the US, presidential decisions don't come near the top of the list. CDCs failure to ramp up testing was very little to do with President Trump's decision making. The failure to develop any contact tracing that works didn't happen because the president veto did. It was big tech that decided not to do it. We were terrible at protecting the elderly in care homes as they were in Europe. That wasn't presidential.

And then of course, quarantines just weren't enforced in any efficient or effective way. That's not got to do with the president. So in the book, I argue, the president said a whole range of very dumb things. He misunderstood, he miscalculated. He misled the public. He became more and more reckless as 2020 went on and the election got nearer. But that's not reason, time, reason why.

Ian Bremmer:

He wasted time though. No, I mean you were asking before, you said what was happening in February and March. I mean the Americans, especially compared to Europe. The Americans had time. That time was wasted. Was that a systemic issue or was that a presidential issue?

Niall Ferguson:

Oddly enough, if one goes back to January, Trump understood and some of his advisors understood that there were things that could be done. And it was Trump who argued for a ban on travel from China in January for which he was roundly criticized in the media for overreaction and of course xenophobia. I mean, if one thinks back to the debates right at the beginning of 2020, they hadn't fallen into their neat partisan compartments as they later did. There were people in the Trump administration who understood very well what was going on. Matt Pottinger at the National Security Council, for example, in Senator Tom Cotton, a number of others, even Peter Navarro, who was not widely respected on a range of issues on this issue was-

Ian Bremmer:

On this one, he was actually ahead of the curve. That's right.

Niall Ferguson:

And I think Trump's instincts as a populist were in fact to do travel restrictions and to close the borders he was top to-

Ian Bremmer:

But to tell the American people that there was nothing to worry about, it was going to go away magically. Let's keep them on the cruise ship because that'll keep the numbers down. I mean, come on. You have to admit those, Niall.

Niall Ferguson:

Absolutely. And I make the point repeatedly that Trump went worse and worse off track. But the initial impulse I don't think was completely wrong. What happened was that other people in the administration said, "But hang on, we've got an election coming up." You can't do anything to derail the economy. And Trump knew that this was bad. I mean, at least we understand this from some of the people who talked to him last year, but was persuaded by some people in the administration who won the argument that it was better to gamble that it was just the seasonal influenza rather than to risk the election by derailing the economic recovery, which was what he was going to run on. So I think if you look at the decision making processes that happened in democracies around the world, similar things went on in other countries. The story in Britain where I am, that was a bit different because they didn't have an election.

Ian Bremmer:

Before you go to the UK though, I just make the point because on this point, at least that decision of whether or not to gamble the economy because the election is coming up or to say heavy on we, this isn't a big deal, that decision ultimately is made by the President of the United States.

Niall Ferguson:

Absolutely. But remember the key failures that led to the excess mortality. As I said earlier, if you're trying to ask what really caused the excess mortality, those weren't presidential decisions. And it's hard to say what percentage of the deaths you could attribute to presidential decision making, but it's certainly not as high as, say Jim Fallows argued when he said in the Atlantic last year, "This is like pilot error when a light aircraft crashes." I'm here to tell you that being president of the United States is not flying a light aircraft. And the decision making process in an emergency isn't at all like that process. It's a decision making process that influences multiple agencies. Ian, there's even an assistant secretary for pandemic preparedness. There's a guy whose one job this was, Robert Kadlec inside the Department of Health and Human Services. And his role reminds me a bit of NASA and the space shuttle because he was involved in producing a pandemic preparedness plan in 2018, which was one of the reasons that the Economist Intelligence Unit and others said that the US was better prepared than any other country.

So on paper, the US was really well-prepared, but the people doing the preparation, the bureaucrats knew, as Kadlec admitted in a lecture that I quote in DOOM that we'd be SOL, I'll not spell out the acronyms. We would be s out of luck, if there really was a pandemic. So I think the point of failure really doesn't lie at the top. It lies with the people whose one job it was to do pandemic preparedness who did it on paper, but suspected rightly that in practice the pandemic preparedness plan would be a very little use at all.

And I think there's a certain myopia that has crept in that I think we both experienced in January last year at the World Economic Forum when the entire agenda was dominated by climate change, even in the first inning of a global pandemic. And pandemics had fallen out of the risk report that the World Economic Forum publishes each year. So one of the arguments of DOOM is sure worry about climate change, but remember it's a relatively slow moving threat to humanity compared with some of the other threats that we face. And a contagious coronavirus was just one of those. A lot can happen much faster than climate change, including manmade disasters.

Ian Bremmer:

Having said that, you just said that the impact of COVID has been much, much lower, much more limited than all of these other crises we're talking about. I mean, if you want to take the long view, and that's what the risk report from the WEF for example is trying to do. Wasn't it correct that they should be focusing much more on climate change than a pandemic?

Niall Ferguson:

Well, I thought it was a bit surreal to be talking about climate change when a pandemic was just getting underway and to have forgotten about that threat. But let me not downplay the significance of this disaster, although it's not one of history's big, disastrous pandemics, it's nowhere close to the Black Death of the mid 14th century. The economic consequences of this pandemic have been much greater than of past pandemics because of the way that we chose to deal with it. And we administered the huge shock to the global economy, which really has no precedent by imposing lockdowns on major economies. And then we sought to offset those with massive fiscal and monetary expansion. What's interesting to me about COVID is that it's public health impact, which will probably kill, let's see, 0.1% of the world's population tops by the time this is done is going to be a lot less than its global economic impact, which was to cause a huge shock.

Larry Summers estimated last year that the cost to the US economy of COVID could be something close to 90% of gross domestic product, which I think that calculated was multiple years of climate change all administered in the space of, well, 18 months so far. So I don't want to downplay COVID. It's not the Black Death, it's not the Spanish flu, but it was a really big shock and we'd taken our eye off that ball despite numerous warnings because global climate change had become the issue that Greta Thunberg said would bring the end of the world. But the point I make in DOOM is that we can end the world in a lot of other ways much faster. A nuclear war still would be a way of causing massive, massive damage to humanity in a really short timeframe. And it's not as if that risk has evaporated. In fact, it's conceivably that going up,.

Ian Bremmer:

Hasn't gone away at all. And it is interesting that, I mean, nobody talks about the US-Russia nuclear balance today, even though there's not been any meaningful reduction of risk in terms of nuclear confrontation compared to where we were before the Soviet Union collapsed. Why do you think that is, Niall?

Niall Ferguson:

Well, I think partly because with the end of the Cold War, we all told ourselves, we don't need to think about that anymore. I'm old enough to remember anxieties through the 1980s that there might be either through miscalculation or aggression, a nuclear war. After 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, most people stopped worrying about that even although the nuclear arsenals were not entirely scrapped. On the contrary, they remained intact. And I think the other reason is that the geopolitics has shifted so that if there's a Cold War in our time, it's going to be between the United States and the People's Republic of China, which has a much smaller nuclear arsenal.

Though of course it's building it very rapidly up, and I would say the risk that is very near term that we don't think enough about is that what feels like a Cold War at times between the US and China could escalate into a hot war quite quickly. And that wouldn't be a war like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The wars that we've experienced recently as Jim Stavridis has pointed out in his recent book, this was a war that potentially escalate to a nuclear conflict. So I think we mustn't ignore or dismiss climate change as a threat, but we have to recognize that there are lots of different forms of DOOM that we face, and that's just one of them.

Ian Bremmer:

So before we close, you just mentioned China and I did find it very interesting in the book when you talked about the fact that the United States emerges in a better power position coming out of Coronavirus, not only than its allies, but even than China. And of course China, despite its coverup of Coronavirus for the first weeks, responded quite quickly after that their supply chain was back up and running well over a year ago. They were one of the only major economies in the world to have significant growth in 2020. The United States certainly did not. In the context of China, given all of that, why would you say the US emerges in better position?

Niall Ferguson:

Well, I was writing this and finishing this book around a year ago when it was conventional to argue that the US had really screwed it up and China had won 2020, but I think it was overlooked by most commentators. Firstly, that the Chinese economy had suffered some quite severe damage, whether you look at the demographics or consumer demand, that the way they kept the show on the road was the old model of fixed asset investment, more coal burning power stations, more debt. And you can see already in recent easing by the Chinese government that they're aware that it's softening. So I don't think the economic story was ever going to be that great, and I never bought the 9% growth in 2021 projections.

But I think more important, Ian, was the loss of reputation that China suffered. If you looked at the Pew surveys from late last year, and again, the most recent ones, the world has turned against China. It's not just the US that has done this, all across the developed world as well as in countries such as India in the emerging world, China has suffered massive reputational damage and wolf warrior diplomacy, far from improving matters has made it worse. So I think that's the reason that China's actually in a worse position than it was 18 months ago, despite having apparently weathered the public health storm.

Ian Bremmer:

Niall Ferguson, the book is DOOM, and he's the right person to be talking about it. Niall, thanks for joining today.

Niall Ferguson:

Thanks so much, Ian.

Ian Bremmer:

That's it for today's edition of the GZERO World Podcast. Like what you've heard, come check us out at gzeromedia.com and sign up for our newsletter signal.

Announcer:

The GZERO World Podcast is brought to you by our founding sponsor, First Republic. First Republic, a private bank and wealth management company understands the value of service, safety and stability in today's uncertain world. Visit firstrepublic.com to learn more. This podcast is also brought to you by Walmart. Walmart has spent over 15 years working to reduce emissions in our operations and collaborating with suppliers, scientists, and community leaders to reduce emissions across the global supply chain. In response to the growing climate crisis, we're targeting zero emissions across our global operations by 2040 without carbon offsets. Learn more at walmart.com/sustainability.

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

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