Branching points

by Chris Bertram on January 23, 2021

Thinking back over the past two decades, which of the following events that took place since the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) are the important moments when something different could have been done that might have saved us from being in the situation we are in? How might history have unfolded differently? Are there key events to notice in Asia, Africa and Latin American that ought to be on the list? What is cause and what is merely symptom? Please suggest additional key moments in comments.

  • The decision of the US Supreme Court to award the Presidency to George W. Bush instead of Al Gore (2000)
  • The attacks on the Twin Towers (2001)
  • The decision by Bush, supported by Blair, to invade Iraq (2003)
  • The failure of policy-makers to anticipate and avert the financial crisis (2008)
  • The failure of European leaders to manage the Eurozone crisis so as to avert mass unemployment etc (2009- )
  • The Arab spring (2010- )
  • The “migrant crisis” in Europe (2015-)
  • The Brexit vote (2016)
  • The election of Donald Trump (2016)



Sumana Harihareswara 01.23.21 at 12:04 pm

2002, Gujarat, India.

2010, the Citizens United ruling from the US Supreme Court.


Phil 01.23.21 at 12:08 pm

1994: Tony Blair becomes leader of the Labour Party

Back in the 1970s and 80s, mainstream political discourse treated the far Left as eccentrics whose ideas were wrong but interesting, and the far Right as dangerous subversives who should be dealt with by the police. The two have changed places now, in an ideological pivot which I think has been the single most baleful development of the last quarter-century (not least because it gave us both Brexit and Boris Johnson). I date it to 1995-2005, and I blame Tony Blair for it more than any other individual. Plus no Blair means no Coalition of the Willing and quite possibly no War on Terror, which would also be a big plus.


nastywoman 01.23.21 at 12:15 pm

”Please suggest additional key moments in comments”.

Obama making fun of Trump at the 2011 Correspondence Dinner?


Pittsburgh Mike 01.23.21 at 12:15 pm

Haha, as my kids would say. You can’t even tell what the effect of Comey’s cowardly last minute non-revelations in the ’16 election, or Raffensperger’s bravery in standing up for truth in the 2020 election, much less the effect of the 2001 attacks, or the Eurozone crisis.

Would Obama have been elected in 2008 without the financial elite’s disgracing themselves in their behavior during the 2008 financial crisis?


Matt 01.23.21 at 12:48 pm

Summer 1999 – With the support/encouragement/backing of Boris Berezovsky, who expects to dominate him, Putin is elevated to Prime Minister of Russia, and the 2nd Chechen war is …brought about. Putin and associates quickly out maneuver Berezovsky, forcing him into exile, push Yeltsin aside, and control Russia for 20+ years, with most bad consequences for most of the world.

Early 2001 – John Ashcroft decides that resources devoted to counter-terrorism should be instead devoted to moralistic concerns. Bush II is not interested in counter-terrorism and dismisses warnings that Bin Laden is preparing an attack on the US.

(Here half joking, have wild fancy: Some time in the late 90s, Cass Sunstein breaks up with Martha Nussbaum, leaving her for Samantha Power. This leads to Power having much more influence on Obama via her connection with Obama’s former senior University of Chicago colleague Sunstein. This in tern allows Power to have the opportunity to put into effect her naive and disastrous version of the “Responsibility to Protect” in Libya, destroying any hope that might have come with the “Arab Spring”.


Philip 01.23.21 at 12:59 pm

It seems to me that by the time the attacks on the twin Towers and global financial crisis happened the responses were already limited to different flavours of neoliberalism. The 1990s were my formative years so I’m probably biased to seeing them as having a bigger opportunity for doing things differently.

Rwanda and the break up of Yugoslavia gave more legitimacy to military intervention and set up the response to 9/11, and also the continued policy of international relations with Saudi Arabia. The failure to fully learn lessons from the South Asian financial crisis and bubble led to the global financial crisis and not knowing how to respond to it. Blair and Clinton turning to a soft version of neoliberalsim might have been pragmatic and even necessary in the short-term but has limited what left wing responses are seen as legitimate. For Clinton it could be the ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ slogan and for Blair getting rid of clause 4.


snuffcurry 01.23.21 at 1:17 pm

1994: Tony Blair becomes leader of the Labour Party

Back in the 1970s and 80s, mainstream political discourse treated the far Left as eccentrics whose ideas were wrong but interesting, and the far Right as dangerous subversives who should be dealt with by the police.

Wow, is this satire? Are we pretending the scapegoating of the loony left was actually affectionate rather than a successful campaign enabled by a Tory-friendly press to bring Kinnock further to heel? That meek as kittens, thread the needle New Labour branding of neoliberalism, privatization, and the weakening of local government was some kind of novelty or departure as opposed to a continuation of the very same under Thatcher and Major, albeit with some minor and not so minor market-friendly welfare tweaks?


Matt 01.23.21 at 1:24 pm

Another one that is a more “butterfly flapping its wings” point than an (at the time) obvious branching point: 1977: Newt Gingrich is denied tenure in the history department (rightly, it seems) at West Georgia College, and puts all of his energy into a narrowly won race for congress in 1978. (This is obviously pre-Berlin wall, but the impact of Gingrich in congress are not really felt until the 1990s.)


CP Norris 01.23.21 at 2:14 pm

Everything above about Tony Blair is a direct result of John Smith’s heart attack, isn’t it? That seems like a major branching point.


SamChevre 01.23.21 at 2:24 pm

Three major turning points for the US that I’d add:

The bi-partisan amnesty for illegal immigrants in 1986-1987: the deal of legal status for those here, and sharply lower rates of further illegal immigration, wasn’t kept and soured the working class on any further immigration deals.

Allowing China to have MFN status in 2001

Not sure what moment, but the homos-exuality/gay marriage fight–from the conservative side, it highlighted that the left did not believe in either stability of law or democracy, and really shifted the right away from caring about those topics.


J.Elsome 01.23.21 at 2:54 pm

I find it interesting you miss the 1990s where so much of what is happening now is laid out:

NAFTA – Democrats (Clinton wing) sell out labor
Welfare “Reform” – Democrats (Clinton wing) sells out the less fortunate
China and the WTO – Democrats (Clinton Wing) sells out labor
Glass-Stegall Repeal – Democrats (Clinton Wing) deliver again and sell out their base


engels 01.23.21 at 2:54 pm

Two things that came back to bite Blairite left-neoliberalism:
-marketisation of HE and the 50% target
-no moderation of FoM after 2004 EU enlargement
Arguably the first gave us the “millennial left” and the second Brexit.


JimV 01.23.21 at 3:07 pm

I personally remember the Reagan Administration and Republicans in general learning they could buy votes (cheaply, from middle-class voters, a few hundred dollars was enough) and campaign contributions (more expensively, from rich voters) by cutting taxes.

Massive lying campaigns such as the swift-boating of Kerry was the next big step in the evolution of conservatism which I noticed. Politicians have always told self-serving lies, but not on that scale (previously in my lifetime).

Those are minor compared to the ones listed in the post, but I was struck by them at the times. As in, this is going in a very bad direction.


Tim H. 01.23.21 at 3:26 pm

Nice selection of branching points, each of which would’ve ameliorated conditions had another decision been made, but perhaps not as much as might be without wealthy reactionaries vigorously stirring the pot.


CHETAN R MURTHY 01.23.21 at 3:26 pm

The Immigration Act of 1965. Three points:
(1) at the time, the legislative history shows clearly that proponents argued it would never significantly change the culture and character of the United States. But it did [albeit, we have to define “culture” as “skin color” to get there, but that’s what racists all do, after all.]

(2) And how did this Act come about? From what I’ve read, it was the Civil Rights campaigners. I have Martin Luther King, Jr, John Lewis, and a host of other Black people who gave their lives and bodies, for my being an American today. [My great-grandfather came to the US in 1915 for engineering school: he was told that afterwards, he must “go back”. My parents came in 1968, and they came to stay.]

(3) And because of that Immigration Act [and the things that came after it, including that amnesty in the 80s that SamChevre so decries] eventually many parts of America started becoming majority-minority. And finally, we can start addressing White supremacy.

I could be wrong about this history, and about the importance of that Act. But it sure seems like, that Act is what brought in the allies that Black America needed, to finally be able to confront White supremacy.


Phil E 01.23.21 at 4:35 pm

Most catastrophic single event since the end of the Cold War that could easily not have happened – 1995, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Without it, possibly a real end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and no 9/11.


Gorgonzola Petrovna 01.23.21 at 4:48 pm

The fall of the Berlin Wall (i.e. collapse of the Soviet Union) is, in a way, the cause of several of these events. Without it, no “what we say goes”: no Iraq war, no Libyan, Syrian atrocities, and therefore no migrant crisis (with or without scare quotes).

Other events are caused, imo, by the new complex phenomenon of globalization, the rise of global financial capital and resistance to it. Ongoing.


Chris Bertram 01.23.21 at 5:06 pm

@Chetan, the 1965 is enormously important in deracializing the pattern of old world immigration to the US, but the cost was the closing of the southern border and the creation of a “problem” of unauthorized migration from there.


rick shapiro 01.23.21 at 5:13 pm

Number 2, as worded, has nothing to do with actions in the US. However, it should read: Incoming Trump administration ignoring warnings from the outgoing Obama administration specifically about Bin Laden, thereby facilitating 9/11


Chris Bertram 01.23.21 at 5:42 pm

“Number 2, as worded, has nothing to do with actions in the US”

I’m not in the US either, and the post isn’t specifically about the US. (And presumably you’ve had a brainfart about the Obama and Trump administrations, both of which post-date 9/11 by several years.)


Tim Worstall 01.23.21 at 6:04 pm

“The Brexit vote (2016)”

I’d argue that was an effect, not a cause. The cause there was the Lisbon Treaty.

If the closer union thing hadn’t been pushed along, as it was, there wouldn’t have been a Brexit vote, and even if there were it most certainly wouldn’t have been won by Leavers like me.

Just to make my position.background clear, yes, I used to work for Ukip, doing the PR over an election campaign. This might mean that to some my views are to be anathematised – but it might also be a small guide to my knowing this subject, even if from the wrong side.

It’s somewhere from Maastricht to Lisbon that caused the Brexit vote. That last is an effect of those earlier.


Sumana Harihareswara 01.23.21 at 7:05 pm

I presume SamChevre has mentioned that extremely eyebrow-raising and unusual view of the LGBT rights movement in previous threads; can anyone point me to past threads where I can get an understanding of it without derailing this particular thread?

Also: 1991, the assassination of the prime minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi. I haven’t looked into this closely, but I imagine that in a world where this did not happen, India’s national politics might not be as right-wing as they are now.

And: was there anything that could have happened to change, delay, or prevent the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China?


SusanC 01.23.21 at 8:01 pm

Some reputable historians are really skeptical about counterfactual history (e.g. of the sort we find in science fiction). We can (just about) know what did happen, but as to what might have been otherwise, who knows?

But that aside, how about government regulation of social media? There’s a plausible argument that regulating Facebook et al would have prevented several of the items on your list.

And given that, we could take the (U.S.) Commuications Decency Act as the branch point.


CHETAN R MURTHY 01.23.21 at 8:09 pm

CB @ 18: I’m not a expert, but at least from this:
“Racial/Ethnic Demographics
of [flag icon, seal of US] (1912-1959) Greater coat of arms of the United States United States (1910–2010)”
it appears that the white percentage of the population held steady until 1970, and went into steady decline thereafter. The Black population increased by about a percentage point. The Hispanic population started increasing dramatically too, after 1970.

Something changed around 1970: it seems like there was an “inflection change” so that from a White nation in 1970, we became a most decidedly multicultural nation, in 2020. That multicultural nation has sufficient numbers of nonwhite allies, and also white allies who are comfortable with, and happy with, nonwhite people. And those people are now allies of Black Americans, and it seems to me that that is new.

There is a majority in this country who now want to end White supremacy, and this is new, and it would seem to me, something we can chalk up to that Act. Again: I’m no expert, and would welcome any thoughts you had on this.


notGoodenough 01.23.21 at 8:40 pm

At the risk of being boringly predictable, might I suggest a contender:

Climate change (cont.) 2000 – present day

One can certainly argue it goes back longer and so should not qualify, but I think it is fair to say these last two decades of dithering have exacerbated issues.


P O'Neill 01.23.21 at 9:12 pm

There are up to 4 items in your list with arguably a common preceding event, which is Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in July 1990. I know it’s not useful to talk about what Saddam could have done differently, but it’s a highly salient event.


CasparC 01.23.21 at 9:16 pm

@Tim Worstall

Yes, but the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties were themselves responses to the perceived risk that a united Germany would pursue its own policies. Hence the creation of a distinct European identity with state like features to provide a vehicle to contain German interests. So the trail leads further back to where Chris starts in 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall.


nobody 01.23.21 at 9:26 pm

Inside Trumpistan (formerly the United States of America):

The opening of Fox News, which normalized the existence of media networks that exist not to inform viewers about reality but instead to distribute centrally-created right wing propaganda that has a deeply tenuous connection to reality.

The decisions by Clinton and Obama administrations not to prosecute any of the numerous legal and democratic violations, including the Brooks Brothers Riot, perpetrated by their respective predecessors. These failures to prosecute established to the Republican party that it is free to act with utter impunity.


The opening of Facebook (and the rest of the social media industry), which provided a tool of unparalleled effectiveness to deliver right wing propaganda directly into the unthinking brainstems of the ignorant. Neither Brexit nor Trump would have happened without Facebook’s radicalization pipeline or political dark advertising platform.


hix 01.23.21 at 9:42 pm

The sad thing about the Twin Tower Terror is that it should not have been a big thing in terms of policy. Yes many people died, it was evil and pointless, it also was at least strongly encouraged by evil and stupid American foreign policy etc… And still the most reasonable response to that would have been to do (almost) nothing. If only Americans had just shrugged off the one time September 11 death toll like they do a higher number now on a daily basis with COVID-19.


Minor 01.23.21 at 10:42 pm

At the end of July, 1990, John Kelly, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, testified before the House International Relations Committee. The chair, Lee Hamilton, asked him whether we had a mutual defense agreement with Kuwait that would obligate us to come to their defense if they were invaded by Iraq. Kelly truthfully answered no. Hamilton should have known the answer and shouldn’t have asked the question publicly. That was the final green light for Saddam Hussein.

April Glaspie got scapegoated for it later.


Alan White 01.23.21 at 11:22 pm

Has anyone mentioned the coming of Google and Facebook and Twitter? Without them many movements would have not been so prominent, I suspect.


Matt 01.23.21 at 11:38 pm

I don’t have any firm opinion on whether China should have been given MFN status in 2001 or not, but I think it’s necessary to point out that SamChevre’s characterization of events in relation to immigration reform and same sex marriage/rights for gay people is somewhere between 100% wrong and deeply contestable.


DCA 01.24.21 at 12:25 am

I’ll pick the first, since with Gore as president there might not have been a 9/11, and if there had been one it is very very unlikely Iraq would have been invaded in response. And after that, who knows, but it would be different. But the butterfly ballot flapped its wings……

[Without the ballot the margin for Gore would almost certainly have been large enough not to be seriously contestable.]

My understanding (quite possibly wrong) is that “family reunification” was put into the 1965 Immigration Act to maintain the bias towards European immigrants (since that was the bulk of the US population). Didn’t work out that way, though.


J-D 01.24.21 at 2:38 am


blockquote>Thinking back over the past two decades, which of the following events that took place since the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) are the important moments when something different could have been done that might have saved us from being in the situation we are in?


blockquote>I remember reading some commentary on the genre of fiction where it is imagined how history might have turned out differently in which the writer asserted that in English-language fiction of the same kind it is most commonly imagined how history might have turned out worse (for example: the Axis wins the Second World War; the Confederacy wins the Second World War) whereas in French-language fiction of the same kind it is more commonly imagined how history might have turned out better (for example: a Napoleonic triumph): the commentator suggested that Anglophone writers might imagine that we live in an ideal world (so alternatives would be worse) while French writers know that we don’t (because English and not French is the globally dominant language).

If there are all kinds of situations where different choices were available to people, surely it’s reasonable to suppose that includes both choices which would have produced better outcomes and choices which would have produced worse outcomes? The stated question is framed to envisage the former possibility and exclude the latter.

Right now we are observing that different countries are experiencing widely differing COVID-19 outcomes, and it seems reasonable to suppose that this is at least partly because of different choices about preparation and response; doesn’t it follow that in most countries, if not all, considered individually, there were other choices available, both some which would have produced better outcomes and some which would have produced worse ones?

Anyway, the outbreak of SARS-COV-2 certainly merits a place on the list of key events.


Jake Gibson 01.24.21 at 3:04 am

@SamChevre #10
What the fucking fuck are you even talking about.
Even if you were correct about your first point (I think you’re wrong), the hurt feelings of reactionary ethno-nationalists should not stand in the way of just policies.
The same about the feelings of bigots on your third point.
I might partially agree with your second.

Two things that no one has mentioned.
The “Powell Memo” which, if nothing else signaled the growth of “Movement Conservatism” as a destructive political force.
The repeal of the “fairness doctrine” which opened the way for political talk radio and Newt Gingrich’s weoponizing of political lying.


albert 01.24.21 at 3:37 am

SamChevre @10

“homos-exuality/gay marriage fight–from the conservative side, it highlighted that the left did not believe in either stability of law or democracy”

uhhh, what?


S. 01.24.21 at 4:24 am

(1) Perhaps the concentration of media, and the introduction of private TV channels in Europe, from the mid-80s merits inclusion. The “deregulation” of the media landscape for the benefit of media barons fundamentally derailed ordo-liberal (and even value conservative) Meinungsbildung, Brexit (and the making acceptable the performative character of fascistic world views in the public sphere, see the German study Vom Rand zur Mitte) being a downstream consequence.
(2) Looking back further, the failure of de-nazification after WW2: that particular cancer went into a short remission and subsequently sprayed malignant cells everywhere in European and South American politics. (From memory Hillberg’s The history of the destruction of the European Jews gives a v. clear overview of what “de-nazification” meant in practice; Thomas Harlan’s Hitler war meine Mitgift gives an unsparing insight into this leading up to the 1960s trial in Germany).
Certainly in the central European context that failure also led to leftwing terrorism (so-called) and the opportunity for government coalitions to form a protective circle around the industrial right.

Matt’s post @5 seems quite astute.

A couple of other items:
(3) The Chernobyl disaster fundamentally changed many Germans’ attitude toward nuclear power, the Green aim to abolish all nuclear power generation became socially acceptable. (3b) Merkel’s (disingenuine) clever change of heart leading up to the federal election, following the Fukushima disaster–she had planned to extend nuclear power generation beyond the state-treaty (SPD/Greens) sanctioned exit from nuclear power, probably saved her chancelloric bid: a smart political opportunist if ever there was one. Flow-on effect in OP: failure of Euro leaders in monetary crisis (Schäuble).


Alex SL 01.24.21 at 4:55 am

It is a bit vague what is meant with “we” in this case. I assume what is meant is the political situation in the USA and UK, specifically? (As opposed to Germany, France, Australia, China, India, and as opposed to economic situation?)

Funnily enough, my personal view is that the two are very different.


There has been a radicalisation of the right wing of the political spectrum since at least the Clinton administration. At that moment even the Republican leadership decided that they would not consider governments led by Democrats to be legitimate, and to sabotage and block them with every possible means. I therefore do not believe that any event along the line was pivotal, be it 9/11 or Trump’s election. If those had not happened, something else would have happened and made it onto the list without changing the overall malaise because, well, crises and elections happen from time to time.

In that alternative universe we might look back upon the US-Iran war, the economic downturn of 2011, and outgoing President Walker trying to cling to office with claims of election fraud despite handily losing the popular vote in 2016, but there is no reason to assume alternative Fox news and Facebook would be havens of reasoned and evidence-based discourse, nor that alternative Republican party would be seeking compromise and bipartisan solutions and value competence over allegiance. Those problems have long become too deep and systemic.


Despite decades of anti-EU propaganda in the UK media, hardly anybody seems to have cared very about leaving a few years before the referendum. Yes, the propaganda had laid the groundwork that the Leave campaign was able to build upon, but I believe that Cameron could have got away with not calling the referendum. Even when the referendum was called, it came out very close, and may well have gone the other way if held a few months earlier or later, if Remain messaging had been a bit more competent, or if the European refugee crisis had not happened right around that time.

The Brexit referendum therefore feels like a pivotal event, a make or break decision point that set the UK on a new course and was not simply the great wheels of history inexorably moving towards a near-unavoidable destination.

Conversely, it was pivotal precisely because the new destination then quickly became near-unavoidable. Once the decision to leave was made, only two local optima were left, revoking the decision or something very much like the present outcome. That is because any intermediate solution of staying in Single Market and/or Customs Union would have meant obligations without influence, to proud nationalists the worst of both worlds and therefore utterly unacceptable. But it would also have been politically extremely difficult to revoke, because that would have produced enormous frustration among Leavers who would have felt disenfranchised. That leaves only something very much like the present outcome, which was therefore effectively decided on 23 June 2016.

(Or accidental No Deal followed by hasty resumption of the negotiations to arrive at something close to the present outcome anyway, but IMO that is splitting hairs because both outcomes are near-equidistant from EU membership.)


christian_h 01.24.21 at 6:24 am

Tim @21 the Brexit vote had absolutely nothing to do with the Lisbon treaty. It was never about a single real concern with the EU, and always a creation of the worst media on the planet driven to new heights of spite and vileness by the increasing reduction of their customer base to embittered old people.


Andres 01.24.21 at 7:10 am

While I’m obviously not a believer in predestination, I’m also not enthused by the idea of key breakpoints that send the train of history onto different rails. What look on the surface like key points that shifted the course of events turn out on closer inspection to have been the all-too foreseeable consequences of previously visible trends; the 2016 election in the U.S. is a case in point; so is the 2008 financial crisis. Over at ProjectSyndicate, Robert Skidelsky has a similar summary on Brexit.

Better candidates are the “known but unpredictable unknowns” events whose exact timing could not be foreseen ahead of time even if we had some idea that they were becoming more likely. These include not just pandemics like COVID19 but also individual, specific terrorist attacks like 9/11.

Over the longer canvas of history, and ignoring politics in favor of technology, I think the following “known possible but timing-unpredictable” events will prove to be key turning points:

1970’s: previous key breakthroughs in electronics, including transistors, integrated circuits, etc. lead to computers becoming household items as well as required for every commercial business. While the most immediate effects are on business and economics, biotech would also not be possible without computers.
1980-2011. Accidents at 3-Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, in combination with spiraling fixed costs in order to enact safety measures, end the prospect that nuclear fission reactors can substitute for fossil fuels.
Early 21st century: improvements in wind and solar power efficiency, plus the beginning of battery improvement, result in fossil fuels being no longer the only practical alternative for energy.
2010’s. Epidemic of opioid addiction either (a) leads the U.S. and other governments to exert much tighter control over the pharmaceutical industry or (b) becomes the first, likely unintentional, step that allows the U.S. and other national oligarchies to exert Brave New World-like control over their populations.

COVID19 pandemic either (a) leads national governments to overhaul emergency pandemic reaction procedures, so that COVID19 becomes the last large-scale pandemic for several centuries or (b) becomes the first of a series of 21st-22nd century pandemics that governments are incapable of dealing with and that exacerbate a period of political and economic crisis similar to the pandemics that helped bring down the western Roman empire between the 2nd and 6th centuries.


nastywoman 01.24.21 at 7:11 am

“The Brexit vote (2016)” –
I’d argue that was an effect, not a cause”.

The famous Worstall Effect?
”If it talks like a trump
walks like a trump
it’s a…


bad Jim 01.24.21 at 7:50 am

Without question, a Gore presidency would have been much different than the Bush presidency. Whether the events of September 11 could have been prevented is hard to say; that Gore would not have invaded Iraq can be asserted with confidence.

It’s hard to draw a line connecting the Bush tax cuts and the administration’s lax regulatory stature to the 2008 financial collapse. Had the set up been different, the result may have been different; however, the market is always bubblicious.

Regarding the responses to that financial crisis, I was proud that the American response was automatically Keynesian and appalled that the UK and EU response was not. We seem to be doing a little better this time around, but not as well as we should. A lot of misery could have been avoided then, and could be now, and there’s scant hope that anyone’s response will be adequate, but some signs that the powers that be are no longer quite so bone-headed.

What’s to say about the Arab Spring? Galbraith said “All successful revolutions are the kicking in of a rotten door.” Clearly the rottenness is not a sufficient condition; see the first and second French republics.

The 2016 election turned on a whisker. Considerable misery could conceivably have been avoided if somewhere a certain butterfly had landed on a different flower. The turmoil we’ve endured has a familiar flavor, though. It has not so much revealed as reminded us of who we are.


J-D 01.24.21 at 10:26 am

What is cause and what is merely symptom?

Most if not all events are both effects of preceding events and causes of subsequent events.


nastywoman 01.24.21 at 12:11 pm

now really deeply thinking about it –

What if Trump never would have come out as ”a Birther”?
Would Obama have made fun of Trump?
Would Trump then have decided to run for President?
Would I -(ME) have won?
And so –
wouldn’t we have had the first female US President already?


Jake Gibson 01.24.21 at 1:49 pm

There is something that seems to be rarely noted, but surely had a lot to with the trajectory of the “Western World” and its effect on the rest of the world. That Rabbi Yeshua’s egalitarian social justice movement being coopted by self-loathing reactionary authoritarians from Soul of Tarsus through Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas to Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.


steven t johnson 01.24.21 at 3:47 pm

I’m so far behind, I’m confused as to what the situation we are in, is, as well as who “we” are.

Alternate history can be delightful (my favorite example is Terry Bisson’s Fire on the Mountain.) But the notion that somehow the same sperm are going to fertilize the same eggs so that the cast of characters in the alternate history remain the same is preposterous. There’s only a roughly 50/50 chance the supposed alternate version of any given person is even the same sex. (And given the work of the Great Abortionist, God, there is a significant probability any given conception can fail, ranging from 20% to 50%—-this is an issue scientists seems to be reluctant to make estimates on.) So, no, alternate history stories are as artificial as a locked room mystery: Something everybody gets even though it has never happened.

Paul Kagame’s invasion (with Ugandan support) of Rwanda and the subsequent Congo war would count as an underestimated event?

Deng’s Southern Tour?

The interventions into Haiti?

The peculiar events surrounding the fall of Bo Xilai?

The Telecommunications Act of 1996?


Barry 01.24.21 at 4:52 pm

Sumana Harihareswara: 2002, Gujarat, India.

Good point, but I’ll take the 9/11 attacks as the ultimate flipping point. It empowered so much evil on the Right, in so many countries. Take that one act away, and:

The USA remains a freer country with a less powerful right-wing,
One to two million people are not killed in Middle Eastern wars,
Several million Middle Eastern refugees are not created,
Europe doesn’t get hit by a refugee crisis,
Blair remains Bush’s poodle, but has less evil to support,
The 2008 Great Financial Crash might be less (?),
The Gujarat pogrom becomes something which the government of India takes flack for, rather than blending into the whole war on Islam.

And that’s just what I can think of, off of the top of my head.


Barry 01.24.21 at 4:54 pm

Tim Worstall:

“Just to make my position.background clear, yes, I used to work for Ukip, doing the PR over an election campaign. This might mean that to some my views are to be anathematised – but it might also be a small guide to my knowing this subject, even if from the wrong side.”

Well, considering the vast amount of flat-out lies which the Brexit movement told, even unto this time as ‘Project Fear’ becomes ‘Project Reality’, just why would be consider your account as being worth hearing?


MisterMr 01.24.21 at 5:04 pm

@Jake Gibson 45

Why would Saul, Augustine and Thomas be reactionary, given their relative timeframe?


roger gathmann 01.24.21 at 5:37 pm

It is a little peculiar that all of those points are about the West. It is like missing the rise of the U.S. in the 19th century or something. Surely it is China’s economic policy, with its amazing success, that is the major point to consider. Especially as the plague has been sort of a real-time experiment in hugely incompetent, even criminally imcompetent western governance. With slightly passing grades for Germany. Norway and Finland. I guess there isn’t one moment of South Korea’s history, I guess, that made it the most prepared, the most tech ready, or of Vietnam, which showed how community could be militated. All the emphasis in the neolib decade in the West seems to have enriched a vanishingly small sector and fucked over the rest. And there’s no change in sight.


novakant 01.24.21 at 8:41 pm

I also think that 9/11 was the tipping point, but the question is what the motivations were – actually it’s not that difficult to answer since the attackers were quite open about it:


Timothy Scriven 01.24.21 at 9:11 pm

I know this view isn’t popular, but I regard Occupy as an important (and positive) branching point.


Anders Widebrant 01.24.21 at 9:21 pm

Going back a bit further than two decades, the transition from Desert Shield to Desert Storm looks pretty pivotal to me.


PatinIowa 01.24.21 at 9:56 pm

@J. Elsome at 11

I’d put it a bit less … ahem … aggressively, but the decision taken by center left parties (Labour, the Democrats) to become center right/neo-liberal parties seems to me to be a crucial feature of how we got here. My take on that in the US is that Reagan’s appeal to disaffected white supremacists–not just working class ones, either–scared the hell out of the Democratic Party in the US. YMMV.

Meanwhile to follow up #50, surely China’s decision in 1992 to return to 改革開放 and accelerate counts as huge.

The end of South African apartheid in 1994 has a case also.


Theophylact 01.24.21 at 10:02 pm

If Ralph Nader hadn’t been on the ballot in Florida in 2000, or if the infamous butterfly ballotin Palm Beach hadn’t thrown 2000 presumably Democratic votes to the reactionary Pat Buchanan, or if Joe Lieberman hadn’t insisted that late-arriving absentee military ballots be counted, Gore would have won Florida and the election.


Alex SL 01.24.21 at 10:24 pm


I don’t really see that 9/11 was that important. It was not a cause of things, merely an opportunity for trends that were already underway anyway to become more visible.

The evil on the right was already there, and it could, and would, have found another opportune event to express itself, which we could then consider pivotal, demonstrating that neither is pivotal.

The right wing in the USA was already powerful.

Middle Eastern refugee problems and the Arab Spring were not created only by the Iraq war. Although I do not for a moment doubt that it played part in destabilising the region, from what I have read water shortages and failed harvests in combination with population growth were a big factor e.g. in Syria. Or in other words, most likely global heating and unsustainable use of resources, and we will see more of that.

The 2008 crash was, to the best of my understanding, mostly due to deregulation enacted by Bill Clinton’s government.

I agree, obviously, with your point on the suffering and loss of human lives in the Iraq war, but that is not directly relevant to where the political situation in places like the USA and the UK goes, because (as morally devastating as that is) the relevant electorates collectively just don’t care that much.

roger gathmann,

I guess the question is whether the OP was about the West or not. If it was, then the main point regarding China (and India) might be to what degree behaviours in particular of the US leadership are about trying to maintain US hegemony in the face of those nations becoming more prosperous and powerful.

I find it fascinating, by the way, how many people can with a straight face write pieces to the effect of “we should be worried, because soon half of the world’s economic activity and wealth will be in Asia”. Do they realise that more than half the world’s population is in Asia?

Now I would understand if it were something like, “I am worried because a dictatorship is getting more and more influential”; at least that argument makes some kind of sense, even if one might want to point out that the democratic hegemon of the past few decades did not necessarily foster democracies and peace when making its influence felt and protecting what it saw as its interests (Latin America, Africa, Middle East, Southeast Asia…). But complaining merely because Asian nations become more prosperous? That implies that the authors of such pieces see everybody but Europe and North America being powerless and impoverished as a natural order that should be defended at all costs.


CHETAN R MURTHY 01.24.21 at 10:27 pm

roger gathmann @ 50: Roger, we all pay attention to what’s right in front of our eyes, I guess. But you’re right, and just to expand a little: the pandemic really has shone a bright light on the …. individualist “you’re not the boss of me” Western citizen and his [b/c it’s so often a male, ugh] privilege and selfishness. There are a number of real democracies in East Asia that have done so much better, all for being right next-door to China, having dense trade networks with China. In the West we invent all sorts of pretexts for why we mustn’t take lessons from these democracies (SK, TW, JP), from “inscrutable Asian [a half-beat away from stark racism]” to “island nation” (when the trade links are so dense, and in order to make that claim, you’d need to document paltry human travel; besides, exponential growth means you don’t need that many cases when combined with shitty public health systems) to “they don’t prize freedom [sigh] like we do”. Then there’s AU and NZ, which ought to serve as some sort of corrective to these bullshit hypotheses, but thye don’t.

Something’s gone wrong in the West, and especially in the heart of the Anglosphere. But really, all over Europe too. I don’t know what it is, but it’s pretty distressing. I want to blame the citizenry, but really, after a year, how can you blame people for getting tired of the discipline.

I remember reading Bret Devereaux’s (his writings about the production of grain for bread, specifically). He wrote about how one of the unwritten contracts was that the large landowners would share their stores with smaller farmers in lean times, and in exchange, got a good profit from milling, storage, transport, in good times. This (to me) is a metaphor for the duty of elites to ensure the survival of the body politic in bad times: a duty that they’re really, really botched this time.

I guess we’ll need to wait a few years for historians and political scientists to analyze what happened. But it seems like we’re seeing the after-effects of some sort of elite failure that happened a number of years ago, all over the West.

And especially in the heart of the Anglosphere.

What impartial observer, seeing all this, would NOT think: “East Asia is rising” ? It’s so obvious that we in Europe and North America are completely screwing this up.


Kurt Schuler 01.25.21 at 2:25 am

Echoing the first couple of sentences of Roger Gathmann (#50), possibly the most significant event is the rise to power of Xi Jinping and his turn to a harsher dictatorship. It’s too early to gauge its long-term significance, but certainly it is one of the events that has affected the most people: more than a billion Chinese now have less freedom of expression (or a much worse fate, as with the Uighurs), and China has ceased traveling the road that other East Asian countries have trod from dictatorship to democracy. China has become less free even as it has become more influential in world affairs.


J-D 01.25.21 at 4:49 am

Some reputable historians are really skeptical about counterfactual history (e.g. of the sort we find in science fiction). We can (just about) know what did happen, but as to what might have been otherwise, who knows?

Causal explanations are inseparable from counterfactual implications. A historian who explains an increase in traffic accidents as a result of a decline in road maintenance cannot avoid the counterfactual implication ‘if roads had been better maintained, there would have been fewer traffic accidents’; a historian who explains a decrease in traffic accidents as a result of improved driver education cannot avoid the counterfactual implication ‘if driver education had not been improved, there would have been more traffic accidents’.


Andrew Hamilton 01.25.21 at 6:23 am

Your asking what was cause and what was symptom reminds me of something that puzzled me about the 9/11 incidents, why was the reaction so spectacular? I woke up and saw it on the morning news and thought, that’s bad, all those poor people dead, like a train-wreck in India or a ferry-boat turning over in Brazil. Not as bad as the Union Carbide plant poisoning, maybe, but bad, and those buildings shouldn’t have collapsed like that, what the hell? I packed a sandwich and went to work at the federal building but within an hour they told us to go home and there were television cameras outside and pretty soon the town was full of pick-up trucks with jumbo American flags fraying in the back and seemingly intelligent people were signing into the Army to battle with who knows who? And a few weeks later when we were back at work behind locked doors I saw a vaguely Arab-looking guy lost in the halls and I helped him toward the right door and then realized that I was supposed to be afraid of him or maybe muscle him toward the rent-a-cops, but come on, man, you don’t turn your back on a lost hallway man just because Peggy Noonan is scared and the President ran like a rabbit and the stand-up guy was crazy Rudy Giuliani.

I could never understand why the whole country freaked out so hard and became so weak and flailing and unable to write it off as a lucky hit by random punks. I’m thinking that the reaction, and our living conditions that developed, are symptoms of something that was ripe for happening. Being on old person, I suspect that the root cause was fifty years of watching television. But I can’t be sure, because I watched a certain amount of television myself, and got a little confused.


J-D 01.25.21 at 6:38 am

1994: Tony Blair becomes leader of the Labour Party

Back in the 1970s and 80s, mainstream political discourse treated the far Left as eccentrics whose ideas were wrong but interesting, and the far Right as dangerous subversives who should be dealt with by the police. The two have changed places now, in an ideological pivot which I think has been the single most baleful development of the last quarter-century (not least because it gave us both Brexit and Boris Johnson). I date it to 1995-2005, and I blame Tony Blair for it more than any other individual. Plus no Blair means no Coalition of the Willing and quite possibly no War on Terror, which would also be a big plus.

Which different choice of leader do you think Labour could have made, and what different things do you think that person might have done as leader?


bad Jim 01.25.21 at 9:16 am

Some rather consequential errors were made during the definition and implementation of internet protocols. Let me make clear my bias at the outset: my professional career mostly involved embedded systems, 8 bit microcontrollers with little memory, for which the prospect of a buffer overflow was practicably inconceivable.

And yet the following scenario presented itself time and again: one party would say to the other, I’m going to send you 64 bytes, and, after acknowledgement, say here are 64k bytes, overwriting the buffer and the stack and enabling execution of the malefactor’s code.

One might think that mighty Microsoft, which touted itself as a software factory, could rapidly armor itself against such a trivial error. Surely the process of negotiating the receipt of a message and matching the sizes of the offered and transmitted traffic would be handled by a standardized software component.

Hah! Fat chance. It took years for them to fix nearly innumerable vulnerabilities. Apparently they were running a corral full of cowboy programmers coding each instance by hand.

The problem, though, lay in the excesses in the protocols which allowed incompatible exchanges to be set up: expect N bytes … here are M bytes. Or vice versa, in the case of the Heartbleed exploit, adroitly memorialized by XKCD


JPL 01.25.21 at 10:33 am

A moment, for the US, where there was freedom of choice and branching paths of consequences was when in 2016 the Republican Party decided to waive the normal rules and not require Donald Trump to release his tax returns as a condition for running as the Republican candidate for president.


Fergus 01.25.21 at 1:29 pm

Interesting to me that there are two quite different kinds of ‘branching points’ being talked about here. The 2016 election, and maybe Brexit/Bush v. Gore, is one sort: where in actual history it could easily have happened that they went differently, and things would be different now as a result.

The other sort is obviously major events, with huge consequences, that don’t strike me as obvious ‘branches’ in that they were already pretty much baked in by prior events. What would it mean to imagine, for example, ‘the same world’ except that policymakers anticipated and prevented the 2008 crash? You’d have to go back a lot further to change the trends that made the failure to stop that crash semi-inevitable, wouldn’t you?


Hidari 01.25.21 at 3:02 pm

In 1981 John Hinckley attempted to assassination Ronald Reagan, and nearly succeeded.

In 1984 the IRA attempted to assassinate Margaret Thatcher and all her cabinet. And nearly succeeded.

If one or both of these had succeeded, our present day situation might well look quite different.


Frank Wilhoit 01.25.21 at 3:19 pm

From a [narrow] US perspective, the most important event of the period was the start of universal surveillance of domestic communications in February 2001, i.e. long before 11 September and literally G. W. Bush’s first act in office. This has been completely memory-holed.

But the real point is that where we are is the product of everything that has ever been done, even all of the insignificant things. What you are talking about is not changing the timeline, but changing the narratives around the timeline. This tacitly assumes that the narratives are more real than the timeline itself. Insofar as they are, that points to the real problem, which is not that mistakes (pick your favorites!) were made, but that the body politic has been infantilized to the point where no mistake can be learned from, or its implications understood, or its consequences processed, still less remedied.


nastywoman 01.25.21 at 4:25 pm

Or it was the day when Andy said:

”Yeah – you could see it like that”?


engels 01.25.21 at 6:56 pm

Agree with Fergus. Branching points ought to mean decisions with clear alternatives that were not taken imo rather than world events of unclear causal provenance.


Thomas P 01.25.21 at 7:31 pm

I’d mention the 1993 Russian constitutional crisis when Yeltsin called in the military to attack the parliament, and the way the West generally supported this. It created a very strong presidency and paved the way for Putin and a more nationalist Russian policy.


Edward Gregson 01.25.21 at 8:09 pm

Looking for specific branching points us towards the Great Man theory of history. It’s often criticized, but it can be a useful framework when you change it to the Terrible Man theory of history. In most times and situations, there’s only a narrow set of decisions and actions that make up good leadership, and good leaders therefore act pretty similarly, but like the Tolstoy quote about families there’s infinite ways to be a bad leader. We can say that social and economic forces meant Germany in the 30s would inevitably elect some sort of authoritarian demagogue, but the fact that it was specifically Hitler with his specific personality defects had a huge effect on 20th century history. So the best candidates for branching points probably involve decisions and individuals that represent particular incompetence or amorality, and those do indeed seem to be the sort of candidates people here are leaning towards.


Daragh McDowell 01.25.21 at 9:38 pm

If we’re talking about inflection points that were caused by individual decision makers rather than structural factors there isn’t a huge list, but for UK politics I’d put Brown’s backing down from the 2007 election, and Jeremy Corbyn stepping back from the brink of resigning in 2016 as major steps on the road to the current Tory hegemony. In the first case the outcome of the hypothetical 2007 election is of course, unknowable, but there’s a good chance that Brown goes into the financial crisis with at least some political authority and four years of Keynesian policy to revive the economy. Under these circumstances Corbyn, of course, remains an historical footnote. If our inflection point is 2016 and Corbyn resigns and people don’t have to pretend Owen Smith is the change the UK is crying out for, Labour goes up against Theresa May with a competent leader and has a fighting chance in the 2017 – or more likely, 2020 – general election.

Internationally there’s a lot of things that could have happened differently, from Gaddafi not threatening to exterminate an entire city to David Frum not deciding he needed three members of his ‘axis of evil’, but in terms of my area of knowledge – Saakashvili shows greater restraint in the face of Russian provocations in Summer 2008 and is able to hold the line without triggering a Russian invasion until after Bush’s lame duck presidency expires, or at least doesn’t put himself in the position of having fired the first shot. Makes the next decade of Russia-Western relations a lot different.


MisterMr 01.25.21 at 10:33 pm

@Hidari 65

In Italy, 1969, a group of left leaning terrorist attempted to kidnap, hold hostage for many days and finally assassinate the centrist premier Aldo Moro ( ).
Moro himself was from the Christian Democrats party, but he was willing to do bipartisan reforms with the italian communist party. More extremist groups both from the extreme left (who tought the communist party was losing its way) and from the extreme right (who tought Moro was giving too much space to the commies) hayed him; the ones who actually killed him were commies but there is a lot of suspicion that they were helped by far right groups and from “deep state” guys (the gladio organisation or similar).

So what changed? What would have been different if they failed?

I think not much in the end.

The killing of one single politician in itself isn’t very important, unless it happens in very specific conditions.


MisterMr 01.25.21 at 10:34 pm

Attempted and succeeded, obviously.


MisterMr 01.25.21 at 10:35 pm

And this happened in 1978, damn smartphone.


Barry 01.26.21 at 1:05 am

roger gathmann 01.24.21 at 5:37 pm
“It is a little peculiar that all of those points are about the West. It is like missing the rise of the U.S. in the 19th century or something. Surely it is China’s economic policy, with its amazing success, that is the major point to consider. Especially as the plague has been sort of a real-time experiment in hugely incompetent, even criminally imcompetent western governance. ”

This is a very goodpoint.


Harry Mallard 01.26.21 at 1:51 am

The game is beguiling. I offer a far earlier date: 1948, when Lyndon Johnson was able to secure the Democratic nomination to the US Senate (in Texas, election was assured). What might have happened to the Vietnam adventure, but also to the civil rights movement?


zillow 01.26.21 at 2:54 am

The so-called ‘Black Hawk Down’ battle in Mogadishu in 1993, where 19 US soldiers were killed. This cratered the Clinton administration’s political capital and willingness to send US troops into harms way for humanitarian reasons.

The Rwandan genocide took place the following year; ask Romeo Dallaire or Samantha Power how differently that might have been for more than half a million souls with an urgent and robust international response. 25+ years on, the security environment for tens of millions of people across eastern DRC, Rwanda, Burundi nw Tanzania is still in the shadow shaped by this event.


Dave 01.26.21 at 3:32 am

Bush v. Gore
2008 financial crisis
Arab spring

Iraq invasion
Eurozone crisis
migrant crisis

The nos are either effects of the yeses or products of systems beyond human control imo


nastywoman 01.26.21 at 12:16 pm

and do you guys know – that this question what branch -(or road? – or… squirrel?) –
to take –
AND THEN ending up as US President is one of the utmost fascinating question in magical movie history?

From ”What a Wonderful Life” to the ”RatRace” – we’re ALL ON!!

AND I -ME once too – had the chance to change Americas –
(and thusly ”the Worlds”)
destiny – forEVER – at a Gucci Party in New York – where Trump made eyes at me –
and let’s say – I would have sacrificed myself and made sure that he NEVER EVER would have had a chance to become President –
(by – for example – and just ”for example” – biting his… his…
y’all know what – off? –
As for sure – my fellow Americans never would have voted for a castrated ‘
UUUuuuh? –
did I now go too far? –
and you guys probably won’t let such ”branching” through – okay? – so just for ”moderation” and me – as from time to time I HAVE to justify my handle –
Don’tya thunk?


oldster 01.26.21 at 1:17 pm

Climate change seems like a pretty ideal case of something that is not the result of a tipping point phenomenon, but the rolling result of millions of small cumulative steps. None of the steps is indispensable to the outcome; change any five or ten of them and the results are the same. It’s a very robust, resilient catastrophe, not a fragile one.


oldster 01.26.21 at 1:35 pm

Proper historical tipping points, in my view, should be able to be cast in the form of the old poem about the nail and the shoe: for want of [this insignificant thing], and then a chain of consequences, and then [this momentous thing].
Not that it has to be causation by absence, of course — it could be the presence of an insignificant thing that sets off the amplifying chain.


Hidari 01.26.21 at 3:57 pm

The passing of section 230 seems like a big deal in retrospect. Without it, arguably no social media. Perhaps no Trump, therefore.


notGoodenough 01.26.21 at 4:05 pm

oldster @ 80 and 81

You make a fair point, though I think it depends (to a certain extent) on your perspective and how much you are willing to entertain counterfactuals.

This is not to say I necessarily disagree, but what I had in mind (and this is merely to offer my thoughts, and not to say anyone should share my perspective) is that climate change has been like a motorway, and there have been big exits at certain points which have then subsequently been driven past. For example, had the US maintained commitment to the Kyoto protocol, would it then have not only driven more substantial action decades earlier and also driven China to cap emissions leading to an inflection point? Would we be sitting here, saying “that was the moment the tide began to turn”? I don’t know, but I suspect it is possible. Of course, you could equally argue we would be sitting here, saying “that was the time the world paid some brief lip service to the issue and then moved on”. shrugs there’s a reason I stick to sci- rather than sci-fi, I suppose.

To be clear, though, if I understand you correctly (and please correct me if I am wrong) you wouldn’t classify points 4, 5, and 7 in the OP as branching points either?


roger gathmann 01.26.21 at 4:13 pm

80, that is an interesting point. I suppose the counterpoint would be the ozone hole. We 0 scientists, businessmen, politicians, etc. – found out that it was happening, if I have the history right, in the seventies, after James Lovelock invented a device that made it clear that cfcs were destroying the ozone. CFCs were massively related to refrigeration systems, as I know from being the son of an HVAC man. And there was a lot of industrial pressure to do nothing. But as the extent of the problem became unignorable, In the U.S. and elsewhere, the responses in the 70s were incremental, but by the late 80s that was obviously not working. So the U.S. under Bush did the common sense thing and simply banned the ozone destroying substances:,of%20chemicals%20that%20destroy%20ozone.

Of course, it wasn’t just the U.S. The Montreal Protocol worked pretty well. Even though there were thousands of outlets of cfcs, they were, actually, muted by concerted action. And in the U.S., this was done not by a Jimmy Carter like president, but by an otherwise ineffectual rightwinger, Bush. I don’t know what the world would be like now if we were thirty years into ozone hole expansion, but I am imagining disaster.

So there is a convergence between worldwide problems and collective planning. There, I’ve said it – collective planning. Imagine that! The horror! But it worked.


oldster 01.26.21 at 9:30 pm

It’s my fault, really, for introducing “tipping point, ” when CB’s post talks about “branching points.”

Here’s CB’s formula:
“the important moments when something different could have been done that might have saved us from being in the situation we are in? ”

It’s that “could have been done” — I took this to refer to minimal changes, butterfly flaps, i.e. “could have been done easily.”
But it doesn’t say that, and if we allow much larger changes, or changes that would have taken many years, then all of CB’s examples count as branching points.


AWOL 01.27.21 at 11:04 pm

The internet. Giving an entity, a la Sam Chevre, a nanosecond of attention to spew his hate on a platform has caused exceptional pain.


nastywoman 01.28.21 at 2:23 pm

Some German called ”Spahn” after being FIRST concerning vaccination – handing ”the ordering” to the EU commission – out of solidarity with the other EU countries.

As from the NYT:

The situation has increasingly angered Germans who were promised an efficient immunization campaign. Even the most vulnerable have struggled to get access to the potentially lifesaving shots.

The German government helped fund development of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine with 738 million euros, or about $895 million, only to see it first administered in Britain. But many immunization centers set up across Germany stand empty, and older adults who were to be among the first to be vaccinated have been turned away.

“We are facing at least 10 hard weeks, given the lack of vaccines,” Mr. Spahn said on Twitter on Thursday.

Instead of approving and purchasing vaccine doses on its own, Germany chose to band together with 26 other European Union countries to ensure equal access across the bloc. But the process has been slowed by squabbling between members over sluggish vaccine production. This week, it became further bogged down by a dispute with the British-Swedish pharmaceutical maker AstraZeneca, after the company announced that it would not be able to meet its delivery quotas to the European Union”.


afeman 01.28.21 at 4:43 pm

roger @84

Several years ago I attended a seminar presenting results from modeling experiments that explored a non-Montreal Protocol world, and as I recall one of the concrete examples of what might have been was the potential, in current times, for getting sunburn at mid-latitudes from five minutes of exposure to direct sunlight.

Another path not taken that I’ve heard of is the use of bromine-based compounds instead of chlorine-base ones. Supposedly the choice of industry to use predominately one and not the other was something of a matter of chance, and bromine-base compounds are far more effective at attacking ozone, depleting it far more before we understood what was happening. So that could have cashed our collective check, apparently.


notGoodenough 01.29.21 at 12:35 pm

Mind you, given that Thomas Midgley Jr. was arguably responsible for both CFCs and tetraethyl lead additives it might be interesting to consider the impact one person had on the environment…

(but then again, I suppose one could argue it isn´t as though humanity´s track record has been markedly improved by his absence)


engels 01.29.21 at 1:03 pm

I think you’ve all missed a big one: the bat that started it all.


nastywoman 01.29.21 at 2:09 pm

”I think you’ve all missed a big one: the bat that started it all”.

before the bat was ”the Flying” –
and as we are talking about ”branching points” –
it was ”the Flying” – which brought it ALL in NO time –


by the bats –
AND thee planes – into the towers and the Viruses…
So –
actually I think it’s YOU who missed the big one: –



afeman 01.29.21 at 2:12 pm

Midgley also seems to have died from strangulation in the rope-and-pulley device he devised to help himself out of bed (due to polio). A prof I worked for wanted to coin “The Midgley Effect”.


CHETAN R MURTHY 01.29.21 at 6:56 pm

nastywoman@ 87: I saw that last night:
(1) AZ’s UK plants producing at speed
(2) AZ’z Belgian plant not producing at speed
(3) AZ reneging on production promises to the EU, but not to UK
(3) EU officials wondering if doses were being diverted from the Belgian plant to the UK
(4) UK officials saying “sorry, all the doses from AZ’s UK plants are promised to us, hahaha!”
(5) EU officials talking about export embargos from AZ and Pfizer (to the UK)

And in the meantime, there’s no such thing -inside- the EU, b/c hey, the EU agreed to an equitable distribution internally.

I remember as a kid learning that one of the reasons the Japanese declared war on the US, was that the US imposed an export embargo on oil.

Less than a month since the end of the transition, and already bad blood. Amazing. Or, well, not amazing, but …. predictable and impressive. Or, well, not impressive, but depressing.


nastywoman 01.30.21 at 7:50 am

”Less than a month since the end of the transition, and already bad blood

Very much so –
as it is such a simple ”branching point” – the choice between ”solidarity” and unsolidarisches ME-ME-ME –
and so –
perhaps? –
when the Germans bought all the British car companies –
years ago –
they shouldn’t have left some of the production in Great Britain?
They should have moved ALL production to Great Britain –
and then our British friends never would have had a ”Brexit”?


CasparC 01.30.21 at 11:11 am

Another branching point… The EU commission’s handling of vaccines.

I’ve no wish to rehash arguments made on other threads about Brexit but I’d be interested to hear what commenters based on the continent make of this. What are the consequences for the arguments about nation state vs federal state?


Tom Slee 01.30.21 at 4:19 pm

My Dad died in 1985 and I’ve often thought that the two things that he would be absolutely gobsmacked by in today’s world are:

Gay marriage (date depending on your country), which was unthinkable at that time,
Ubiquitous computing and all that goes with it(if we need an event, the iPhone launch in 2007).

Of course, the cause/event question has no answer, and I’m NOT saying these were causes of subsequent things, but as symbols of certain changes they stand out for me.


nastywoman 01.30.21 at 10:38 pm

”but I’d be interested to hear what commenters based on the continent make of this. What are the consequences for the arguments about nation state vs federal state”?

I’m so glad that you asked this question as I always wanted to be ”British” –
because you guys not only have a ”nation” state –

Right? –
you also still have a ”Monarchy” – and I absolutely LOVE Monarchies…
and ”Queens” –
and the consequences for the arguments about Monarchies vs federal state” – is that in a Monarchy – you can have Queens from all kind of ”Federal States” – like when all the British Queens where Germans –
and did you see ”Bridgerton”?
as in Bridgerton Great Britain even has a ”Black Queen” and the ”Duke of Hastings” is ”Black” too –
AND wouldn’t that solve ALL of our Problems? – as with a Black Queen and a Black Duke of Hastings the question about:
What are the consequences for the arguments about nation state vs federal state”?
would even NOT come UP anymore –
If the British Queen finally would stand to her (federal) Germanness –
and give her German ”subjects” -(if that is the right ”wording”?) –
their Vaccines back?

Do you understand what I mean – Caspar?
– ”Kant-wise”?!


CasparC 01.31.21 at 9:48 pm

@nastywoman. No.


Guano 02.01.21 at 9:59 am

The decision by the Clinton administration in the early 1990s to favour expansion of NATO over seeking an overall scurity agreement with Russia. This decision created a tension between NATO and Russia that is the background to much of what happens today, but probably could have been avoided. Yeltsin was favourably disposed to the West, and an opportunity was lost.

In general – many opportunities that opened up by the rapid changes in eastern Europe and the ex-USSR from 1989 onwards were squandered by decisions like the imposition of harsh economic reforms, blind support of Yeltsin and expansion of NATO. We need to understand more about why these decisions were taken as they were.


Zamfir 02.01.21 at 11:38 am

@casperc, here from the continent. My impression is that your particular question plays stronger in the UK than here. “But what does {thing X} mean for Brexit” is obviously a more relevant question for Brits. Here is gets more lumped on the great stack of stuff we wish (and expected) that governments had done better. That might still change.

A lot of leaks and and articles come from Germany. I think the Germans are most confident that they would have gotten vaccines faster on their own. Many countries do not have their own vaccine factories, and the current mess is an object lesson that they could have been in a Europe with multiple UKs and little hope of vaccines anytime soon at all.

Here in the Netherlands, the debate is over our own internal vaccination rate, which is yet again slower than the deliveries (though I think this partially and indirectly due to the delivery date). Brexit is just not that high on the agenda at the moment


nastywoman 02.01.21 at 5:52 pm

”nastywoman. No”.

and that’s why I love the British Monarchy so much –
as the Monarchy never ever could have done any type of ”Brexit” – as leaving – Britain and going back – to where they all came from (Germany) –
nobody of my British friends would have understood that either?

So – isn’t if far GREATER –
in order to go back to the GREAT Times of GREAT Britain –
forgetting all the ”nation” or ”federal” stuff and just solve the problem by marrying each other?

And I once nearly hooked some ”GREATER British Dude” but then he went for Swede who lived on the Bodensee – and my Grandfather ”Opa Walter” always looked so much like Prince Philip that it very well could habe been that they had the same father –
and if Caspar doesn’t believe me I gladly can send a photo…?

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