Why some still believe the Big Lie

Last Monday (May 3) Trump proclaimed that the 2020 election “will be, from this day forth, known as THE BIG LIE!” In reply Congresswoman Liz Cheney tweeted: “The 2020 presidential election was not stolen. Anyone who claims it was is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system. 10:27 AM · May 3, 2021·       “More on Trump acquittal”

The voter frauds loudly proclaimed by Trump spokesmen in public were generally not repeated in court where those making such claims had to speak under oath. Where specific charges of vote tampering were made against voting machine companies such as Dominion Voting Systems, the objects of such attacks were protected by libel laws, which required proof, which was totally lacking. Libel suits brought by Dominion and others led to retractions and apologies by Fox news and many others for their fabrications.

“The latest legal target to tuck its tail is the conservative cable news channel Newsmax, which released a statement Friday night apologizing to Eric Coomer, a top official at Dominion Voting Systems, who filed a suit against Newsmax in December.” “Slow painful death-trump allies voting machine conspiracy theories”

My favorite “apology” for falsely claiming voter fraud was from Sidney Powell, one of Trump’s shameless lawyers until even he had to distance himself from her.  “A key member of the legal team that sought to steal the 2020 election for Donald Trump is defending herself against a billion-dollar defamation lawsuit by arguing that “no reasonable person” could have mistaken her wild claims about election fraud last November as statements of fact.” “Sidney Powell-Trump election fraud claims”

I have struggled to understand how presumably decent people could continue to believe such obvious nonsense. The conservative Christian writer David French provides a partial explanation. “Prophecy is very important in Pentecostal Christianity…. Many millions of Americans spent the Trump era deeply loyal to Trump not because of policy arguments or political debate, but in large part because “prophets” told them he was specifically and specially anointed by God for this moment. These Americans were resistant to the election outcome because they were told—again and again—by voices they trusted that God promised Trump would win.”  “Making prophecy great again”  French is an interesting and thoughtful writer, and correctly notes that this belief is a problem for the Pentecostal church. 

But many more than these Pentecostals continue to repeat the big lie. According to Michael Gerson: “To be a loyal Republican, one must be either a sucker or a liar. And because this defining falsehood is so obviously and laughably false, we can safely assume that most Republican leaders who embrace it fall into the second category.” “Trump republicans big lie”

We have many serious policy issues to discuss. We seriously need to get beyond The Big Lie.

Vaccine Passports

Discussions of the pros and cons of mandated lock downs to stop (or slow) the spread of Covid-19 often miss the most important point. The key factor in restraining the spread of a contagious disease (beyond vaccines, basic public health measures, etc.) is the behavior of each one of us. Given our respective risk preferences the question is whether we adjust our behavior sensibly to protect ourselves and others from infection? Our behavior may be responding to government mandates to close restaurants, theaters, and factories or it may be responding to information provided by public health experts on the nature of the risks and measures to mitigate them. In the latter case our experience and that of our neighbors will depend importantly on the quality of the information provided and our trust in its efficacy. Our individual choices allow responses that are more suited to the individual situation of each actor.  “The unnecessary fight over covid-19”

In short, if governments were to say, “do whatever you want, but these are the risks as we understand them,” people would not necessarily rush to the concert hall, or baseball game, or hop on a plane. “Sports fans live attendance poll”  Offices, factories, restaurants and entertainment venues must convince their workers and customers that they have taken reasonable steps to be safe from Covid-19 (or other risks). Thus, comparing the results (infections and economic output) of lock down with no (or mild) lock down countries is not the right test.

We need to focus attention on the quality of the information being provided to the public, the public’s trust of such information, and the efficacy of the measures being taken by those offering reasons to gather in public places to enhance its safety. Those who have had Covid-19 or who have been vaccinated for it face minimum risk of catching it (again) or of spreading it and can pretty safely attend public events. Thus, a trustworthy way of establishing that fact would be very useful. I carry my vaccine certificate wherever I go but they are relatively easy to counterfeit if it became useful to do so. Thus, the reason behind the various projects to develop so called vaccine passports (better named vaccine certificates) is obvious.

The technical design, including privacy protections, raise more issues than you might at first imagine, including establishing interoperability standards and access to public records. However, the position taken by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis defies understanding by those of us who place our individual freedom in first place. He stated that: “We are not supporting doing any vaccine passports in the state of Florida…. It’s completely unacceptable for either the government or the private sector to impose upon you the requirement that you show proof of vaccine to just simply be able to participate in normal society.”  “Biden vaccine passports-DeSantis”  This is incredibly wrong. Restaurants now serving indoors already test our temperature before allowing us to enter. I visited my credit union in the IMF building in downtown Washington, DC today and they took my temperature as well. If gatherings are not convincingly safe, sensible people won’t attend. Countries requiring arriving passengers from other countries with a high incidence of Covid-19 infections to quarantine for two weeks would presumably wave that requirement for passengers with a credible vaccine certificate.

It is hard to imagine that the public accommodation clause of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would require a restaurant to admit and serve a customer with a contagious disease. But there are privacy and other technical concerns with implementing a reliable certificate of a covid vaccine. “The next front in the pandemic culture wars vaccine passports” The benefits to the economy and our freedoms are significant enough to make the effort to overcome them.

Hate Crimes

“The shooting deaths of eight people at Asian-run spas in Georgia this week triggered a vigorous national debate Thursday over whether the mass killing amounted to a hate crime.” “Georgia hate crime law-Atlanta shooting”  These deaths (and recent attacks on Asians more generally) raise several issues that I would like to explore. 1. What is the point of hate crime laws?  The poor ladies killed in this attack could care less what motivated Robert Aaron Long, the 21 year old shooter. 2. Whose fault is it? Let’s start with the shooter (and other attackers), please. 3. What should we do about it (beyond locking the shooter, and other attackers, up)?

What is the point of hate crime laws?

“Georgia State Rep. Chuck Efstration, a Republican who helped shepherd [Georgia’s Hate Crime] bill into law, said it was intended to allow for especially stiff penalties for crimes in which “the perpetrator’s prejudices and biases are attacks not only on the victims but on all of society.  Thank goodness law enforcement will have the ability to charge this as a hate crime if the facts support that,”   [op cit]

Georgia State University law professor Jessica Gabel Cino noted that: “The majority of the victims are women, and they are Asian. Those are two protected statuses.” And what if they hadn’t been?

Traditional laws do differentiate between first, second, and third degree murders, but if you plan to and succeed in killing someone, it didn’t traditionally matter whether you loved or hated the victim. I can understand why such information might be useful in exploring approaches to mitigating the risk of such future murders, but I don’t see its relevant to the guilt and punishment of the murderer. I do not support capital punishment, but Mr. Long should surely be put away for the rest of his pathetic life whatever motivated his killing spree.

According to Mr. Long, “he was on a mission… to stem his addiction to sex. The spas were ‘a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.’”  “What happened-Atlanta shooting”

In determining the length of a sentence, courts do pay some attention to the motive for a crime as well as the crime itself but a special category of “hate crimes” has always seemed troubling and unnecessary to me.

Whose fault is it?

In a free society of responsible citizens, we must never forget that in the first instance the fault for a crime rests with the criminal. But it is fair to ask what motivated the criminal. While Mr. Long’s horrible crimes do not appear to be motived by the hatred of Asian’s, there has definitely been an increase in verbal and physical attacks on Asians over the past year. Much of the press has been quite eager to point to the hate filled and divisive statements against China by former President Trump. While he is certainly guilty of poisoning public discourse on China, immigration, Muslims and related topics, it is an odd place to look first.

Animosity toward Asians, and Chinese in particular, arises in the first instance from the behavior of China (shorthand for the government of China — synonymous with the Communist Party of China). In fact, unfavorable attitudes toward China have skyrocketed around the globe over the last three to four years. “For our enemies we have shotguns explaining Chinas new assertiveness” Public attitudes toward China are lower in Australia and the U.K., for example, than in the U.S. and fell sharply well before the Covid-19 pandemic.  “China global reputation coronavirus”  Attitudes toward China began to deteriorate in the face of Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, violations of the one country, two systems agreement for Hong Kong, theft of intellectual property from the West, and treatment of the Uighurs in the Xinjiang region, to name a few. China’s suppression of information on the virus producing covid-19 pales in comparison to its bad behavior in other areas.

What should we do about it?

The world that objects to China’s behavior needs to stand together in pointing it out. Former President Trump’s stand-alone, bilateral approach was a failure. But it is very important when the U.S. and other governments criticize China to clearly differentiate the government of China from the Chinese people, whether citizens of China or the U.S. or elsewhere. It is the Chinese government–the Communist Party of China–that is misbehaving.

The distinction between a government and its people is important more generally. For example, those who criticize the misbehavior of the Israeli government toward the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, are sometimes mistakenly accused of anti-Semitism–i.e., of being against the Jewish people. It is likely that many are reluctant to criticize the Israeli government for fear of being accused of anti-Semitism. As the Biden administration joins with other countries to criticize the misbehavior of the Chinese government, it must, and it is, clearly distinguishing the Chinese government from the Chinese people. And we, each one of us, must speak out at the sight of rude or inappropriate behavior toward Asians, or anyone else. ALL LIVES MATTER.

Shifting Gears: The Way Forward

The Trump administration accomplished many good things and many bad things (especially in the trade and foreign policy areas). Trump himself belongs in jail in my opinion. Hopefully, with the new Biden administration we can turn our attention to policy issues and stop calling our policy opponents nasty names. We must state the positive case for why our policy views are more appropriate–why they are better for our country. These are the sorts of public debates that we have been missing for a while and to which we should return.

One of our most fundamental principles is America’s commitment to equal treatment under the law for everyone regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, or preferred hair style. Equal treatment is extended to everyone whether they or their ancestors came from Asia, Europe, Africa or Ireland (yes, even Ireland). We have never fully measured up to this principle, but it remains, and should remain, the objective to which we continually strive. It means that our accomplishments and “place” in society largely reflect our own talents and efforts. We are a nation of individual liberty. We are free (to a large extent) to make our own decisions. Our policy disputes often concern where to draw the line between what we decide for ourselves and what the government decides for us. My blog last week on our response to Covid-19 provides an example: https://wcoats.blog/2021/03/06/the-unnecessary-fight-over-covid-19/

Equity (equal outcomes) was the fundamental principle of the Soviet Union, though its outcomes fell far short of the principle. Between these extremes of equity (communism/socialism) and equality (equal treatment under the law) is our actual world of governments with more intrusive or less intrusive rules and dictates on our behalf, with broader or narrower social safety nets, etc.  America continues to debate where and how to set these boundary’s, but one of our great strengths, and a source of our broadly shared affluence, is undertaking the debate from the side of (and with the presumption of) self-reliance (with family and friends) and equality under the law.

The distinction between equity and equality is sharply contrasted in the following WSJ oped.

THE  WALL  STREET  JOURNAL.

Friday,  March  5,  2021.

Section A, Page 17, Column 1

‘Equity’ Is a Mandate to Discriminate

The new buzzword tries to hide the aim of throwing out the American principle of equality under the law.

By Charles Lipson


On his first day as president, Joe Biden issued an “Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities.” Mr. Biden’s cabinet nominees must now explain whether this commitment to “equity” means they intend to abolish “equal treatment under law.” Their answers are a confused mess.

Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton raised the question explicitly in confirmation hearings. Attorney General-designate Merrick Garland responded: “I think discrimination is morally wrong. Absolutely.” Marcia Fudge, slated to run Housing and Urban Development, gave a much different answer. “Just to be clear,” Mr. Cotton asked, “it sounds like racial equity means treating people differently based on their race. Is that correct?”

Ms. Fudge’s responded: “Not based on race, but it could be based on economics, it could be based on the history of discrimination that has existed for a long time.” Ms. Fudge’s candid response tracks that of Kamala Harris’s tweet and video, posted before the election and viewed 6.4 million times: “There’s a big difference between equality and equity.”

Ms. Harris and Ms. Fudge are right. There is a big difference. It’s the difference between equal treatment and equal outcomes. Equality means equal treatment, unbiased competition and impartially judged outcomes. Equity means equal outcomes, achieved if necessary by unequal treatment, biased competition and preferential judging.

Those who push for equity have hidden these crucial differences for a reason. They aren’t merely unpopular; they challenge America’s bedrock principle that people should be treated equally and judged as individuals, not as members of groups.

The demand for equal outcomes contradicts a millennium of Anglo-Saxon law and political evolution. It undermines the Enlightenment principle of equal treatment for individuals of different social rank and religion. America’s Founders drew on those roots when they declared independence, saying it was “self-evident” that “all men are created equal.”

That heritage, along with the lack of a hereditary aristocracy, is why claims for equal treatment are so deeply rooted in U.S. history. It is why radical claims for unequal treatment must be carefully buried in word salads praising equity and social justice.

Hidden, too, are the extensive measures that would be needed to achieve equal outcomes. Only a powerful central government could impose the intensive—and expensive—programs of social intervention, ideological re-education and economic redistribution. Only an intrusive bureaucracy could specify the rules for every business, public institution and civic organization. Those unhappy implications are why advocates of equity are so determined to hide what the term really means.

Americans have demanded that all levels of government stop giving special treatment to the rich and powerful. That is simply a demand for equality. Likewise, they recognize that equal treatment should begin early, such as with adequate funding for K-12 students.

Since the New Deal, most Americans have supported some form of social safety net for the poor and disadvantaged. But this safety net doesn’t demand that out-of-work coal miners receive the same income as those who are working. The debate has always been about how extensive the safety net should be and how long it should last for each recipient. There is broad agreement that no worker should be laid off because of his race, gender or religion. Again, that is a demand for equal treatment.

What we are seeing now is different. It is the claim that the unfair treatment of previous generations or perhaps a disadvantaged childhood entitles one to special consideration today as an adult or young adult. Most Americans, who are both generous and pragmatic, have been willing to extend some of these benefits, at the margins and for limited periods. They don’t want to turn these concessions into large, permanent entitlement programs, giving substantially different treatment to different groups, even if those groups have suffered historical wrongs.

One measure of how unpopular these unequal programs are is how often their proponents need to rename them. “Quotas” were restyled as “affirmative action.” The goal was still to give special benefits to some groups to achieve desired outcomes. Now “affirmative action” has also become toxic, rejected most recently by voters in deep-blue California. Hence, the new name, “equity.”

Instead of making their case openly and honestly, advocates of equity twist and turn to avoid revealing their radical goal of re-engineering society through coercion. If the results fall short, as they inevitably would, the remedy is obvious: more money, more rules and more indoctrination. Why not tell us who will receive these special benefits and for how long? At whose expense? Who will administer these programs? Who will judge whether the outcomes are fair enough? When will it all end?

Since the ultimate goal is achieving equal outcomes, these evasions raise the hardest question of all. Isn’t equity just a new brand name for the oldest program of achieving equal outcomes? Its name is socialism.

Mr. Lipson is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security.

The unnecessary fight over Covid-19

We American’s expect to be able to make our own choices about what risks we are willing to take. The limits on our behavior generally concern when it threatens to harm others. When state after state issued stay at home orders and mandated the closing of many businesses (restaurants and theaters, etc.) a year ago they violated this principle. Many people rebelled at this intrusion into their prerogatives, but sadly by often making foolish decisions of their own. Of course, those who contract a contagious disease, such as Covid-19, should be legally quarantined.  Otherwise, businesses and individuals should make their own decisions about how to respond to this pandemic on the basis of the best possible information about its risks and how to mitigate them. A role in which the government failed miserably.

As with economic decisions more generally, countries that give maximum scope to individuals about what to produce and/or buy have been far more prosperous than those in which more decisions are made centrally and imposed from the top (socialism). Among other things the CARES Act suspended debt payments (and associated defaults, bankruptcies, and evictions) for understandable reasons https://wcoats.blog/2020/04/11/econ-202-cares-act-who-pays-for-it/. However, it was part and parcel of centralized mandatory decision making and inferior to individual case by case decisions by lenders and borrowers (debt restructuring) and landlords and tenants (rent forgiveness or holiday or eviction). In normal times when a debtor is unable to service its debt, for purely profit maximizing reasons lenders evaluated case by case whether to allow temporary arrears (debt restructuring) or to invoke the default provisions of the loan (bankruptcy).

Restaurants that felt they could safely open with social distancing and other safety measures that would convince their customers to return should be allowed to do so. They should be free to decide whether requiring face masks when entering and walking about the restaurant would attract more customers than not doing so. Customers who were not comfortable in a restaurant that did not take these safety measure would not patronize them. The relevant government should decide whether to require them on public transportation, etc.  If you come to my house, be sure that you are wearing one.

The culture war we now witness over face masks and other aspects of appropriate public behavior with regard to Covid-19 was so unnecessary. The American government behaved like a parent dealing with children and many Americans responded by behaving like children. They didn’t choose not to wear face masks because they were convinced by medical data that they are not effective (most data shows that they are very effective). Rather they chose not to wear them because the government told them they must. Childish indeed. Almost a year ago I wrote that the government’s most effective role was to provide the best information available (and more was coming available every week) about the nature and risks of Covid-19 and how best to avoid or mitigate those risks. If restaurants felt that they could safely remain open, they would need to convince potential customers that they had taken measures to protect them from exposure to the virus. This was not the approach taken by the government and public trust in the statements of the government in recent years has been, to say the least, low.

I expressed these views almost exactly a year ago (March 31, 2020). I repeat that blog here:

https://wcoats.blog/2020/03/31/beating-covid-19-compulsion-or-persuasion-and-guidance/

Australia and Facebook

As reported in Bloomberg: “Australia’s parliament passed a world-first law to force digital giants such as Facebook Inc. and Google pay local publishers for news content…. The legislation was passed Thursday and will ensure “news media businesses are fairly remunerated for the content they generate,…  ‘We look forward to agreeing to new deals with publishers and enabling Australians to share news links once again,’ [Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs] wrote in a blog post dated Feb. 24.”  Got that???  Does this apply to content that Facebook generates or collects and shares or does it apply to news links Australians share? Perhaps both. Actually, I think that newspapers and other news sources pay Facebook to post their links. It’s called advertising.

But what about the links I post on Facebook and Twitter to articles in the Washington Post, WSJ, and Bloomberg (all of which I subscribe to)?  Facebook is the platform on which I post them. Is Facebook being asked to pay the Post and WSJ for my posts? What I do with what I buy from these news services should be between me and these services and should have nothing to do with Facebook. Should Word Press have to pay the sources I link in my blogs? Should AOL have to pay sources I send or link in my email? OK, OK, I am an older gentlemen and got my AOL email address over thirty years ago and I don’t want to change. !!!  Should the U.S. Postal service have to peak into my regular mail and pay for any source content that I might be sending someone? This is ridiculous and it should be opposed.   

More on Trump “acquittal”

Following the Senate’s failure to convict Donald Trump of inciting the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capital as part of his “Stop the Steal” campaign to overturn Biden’s election, Senator Mitch McConnell proclaimed that “There’s no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day….” Nonetheless, he voted against conviction on the grounds that according to some legal scholars the impeachment provisions of the U.S. Constitution applied only to a President still in office.  Since Trump was no longer the President, impeachment did not apply.  However, if that were so he should have voted to convict Trump and left it to the Supreme Court to sort out this issue if Trump challenged the conviction on these constitutional grounds.

In retrospect (for those of us who were eager to get all of this behind us and move on), it would have been wiser and more convincing to the doubters to have delayed the Senate trial by several months of evidence gathering and to provide for each side to bring and cross exam witnesses. The 9/11 type commission suggested by Rep. Pelosi might correct that mistake. But as Sen. McConnell pointed out in his post Senate vote speech that Trump will now be tried, and no doubt convicted, of many crimes in the courts. I am confident that justice will ultimately prevail.

“Out of office and without the protections that the presidency afforded him, Trump is now facing multiple criminal investigations, civil state inquiries and defamation lawsuits by two women accusing him of sexual assault.”  “Trump legal problems post impeachment”   

Georgia has launched investigations into calls Trump made to election officials in an attempt to overturn that state’s election results. We all heard Trump’s threats to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger if he could not find 11,780 votes for Trump in order to flip the election outcome.  I found the call truly shocking, even from Trump.

“In New York… the Manhattan District Attorney’s office is looking into whether the Trump Organization violated state laws, such as insurance fraud, tax fraud or other schemes to defraud….  Prosecutors are awaiting a decision from the US Supreme Court on whether it will continue to delay the enforcement of a subpoena for eight years of Trump’s personal and business tax returns and related records from his accounting firm.” Op. cit.

A potentially large number of people could charge Trump with various damages in connection with the January 6 attack of the Capitol.  For example, Mississippi Democratic congressman Bennie Thompson has accused Trump and others “of conspiring to disenfranchise millions of black voters by preventing Congress from certifying election results on January 6th.  A lawsuit, brought by the NAACP on behalf of Mr. Thompson, argues that they violated the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871.” “NAACP Rep Bennie Thompson sue Trump Giuliani over capitol riot”

As more and more of his supporters encounter the fact that Trump was unable to produce any credible evidence of significant voter fraud, they will hopefully increasingly give up believing it.  The multi billion-dollar defamation suits by Smartmatic and Dominion Voting Systems against Fox News, former Trump lawyers Rudy Giuliani, and Sidney Powell, and others who claimed that their voting systems switched votes from Trump to Biden should also help change some minds. Most of those making such claims publicly retracted them and apologized for them “Fox Business host Lou Dobbs and Fox News hosts Maria Bartiromo and Jeanine Pirro aired [multiple segments debunking false election claims made on their shows for weeks] that Smartmatic was involved in schemes to switch votes from President Donald Trump to President-elect Joe Biden….” “Fox news suddenly worried about a defamation suit-forced to debunk its own false election claims”  and Fox News fired them. Most people who believe fake claims eventually give them up when confronted with credible counter evidence (I hope).

But what if they don’t? “Some of the senators may have little sympathy for the former president, yet made the partisan choice to appease an increasingly extremist Republican base. A recent poll conducted by the conservative American Enterprise Institute found that nearly 4 out of 10 Republicans believe that political violence is justifiable and could be necessary in a troubled domestic future. Another poll found that three-quarters of Republican voters want Trump to play a prominent role in the party’s future.”  “Trump acquittal questions multiparty system” Most of the rest, presumably, will not remain in a party that includes Trump.

Is the Republican Party thus doomed to minority status for many years to come?  My hope is that multiple court convictions of at least a few of Trump’s many (presumed) crimes will significantly shrink his support and eliminate his role in the party. His refusal to help Rep. Kevin McCarty on January 6 (much less Vice President Pence) was one of the more damning pieces of evidence of Trump’s complicity with the Capital attackers. Yet, “Wary of inflaming tensions within his own party, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) is staying silent about his frantic Jan. 6 call to then-President Trump as rioters raided the Capitol.” “Riot probe to likely focus on McCarthy-Trump call” In my opinion, Republican leadership should push Trump out of the party as quickly as possible. An internet poll on February 17 found 75% of the responding Republicans thought that Republicans who voted to convict Donald Trump should be censured. This is not promising. The country needs two strong political parties.

The Party should start by squeezing out its radical loony extremists like Rep Marjorie Taylor Greene.  https://wcoats.blog/2021/02/04/cancer-in-the-republican-party/  The reactions by Republican Party leaders in states whose Republican senators voted against Trump raise concerns that hard core Trump supporters would rather destroy the Republican Party than abandon their Stable Genius. “The Republican Representative Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) was sent a scathing letter from eleven members of his own family just two days after he called for former President Donald Trump to be removed from office.” “GOP rep Kinzinger is blasted by his own family after calling for trumps removal” The Central Committee of the North Carolina Republican Party unanimously censured Sen. Richard Burr for voting to convict Trump. They said that the party “agrees with the strong majority of Republicans in both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate that the Democrat-led attempt to impeach a former President lies outside the United States Constitution.” Maybe, maybe not, but there was a proper way to find out while still confirming Trump’s guilt.

I do not wish to see the Republican Party destroyed. In my opinion, its survival and viability will depend on how quickly Trump fades from the picture and how successfully the Party marginalizes its lunatic fringe.  Reducing gerrymandering of congressional districts on the basis of the latest ten-year census would also help reduce the election of the most radical candidate from each party in primary elections.

Cancer in the Republican party

Does Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene really believe that “a plane did not hit the Pentagon on 9/11, the Clintons crashed JFK Jr’s plane and that the 2018 California wildfires were started by a space laser controlled by Jews”? “Karl Rove blasts GOP rep Marjorie Taylor Greene”  Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, stated Monday (belatedly) that her “loony lies and conspiracy theories are cancer for the Republican Party.” “Has Mitch McConnell been struck by Jewish space laser”

An even more disturbing question is why do so many people believe her and other obviously (to most people) false claims? QAnon is sadly not the only group espousing claims that even my grandmother (or maybe especially my grandmother) would find transparently laughable. QAnon “followers believe that a cabal of Satan-worshipping Democrats, Hollywood celebrities and billionaires runs the world while engaging in pedophilia, human trafficking and the harvesting of a supposedly life-extending chemical from the blood of abused children.”  “QAnon conspiracy theory explained” 

We live in a time in which sorting fact from fiction has become more challenging than usual. As a young man I had Walter Cronkite, who I could check against Huntley and Brinkley. If they reported it, we believed it. If they got it wrong (rarely) they corrected it the next day. The pronouncements of QAnon are so ridiculous that most of us don’t need a fact checker to reject them. Common sense is enough. But when the previous President of the United States lied to us more or less every time he tweeted, and claims to this day that his reelection was stolen without producing any credible evidence, sorting fact from fiction becomes more challenging.

Sometimes we are lucky enough to encounter contrary evidence directly, in which case we discard the lie and downgrade our trust in its source. This seems to be happening to some QAnon supporters–but unfortunately not to Congresswoman Greene. But this also raises the question of why those inventing and perpetrating lies do so. The specific example of Rep. Greene’s claim that 9/11 was a hoax and that no plane crashed into the Pentagon presents an interesting case.

Of course, the conspiracy theorists do not claim that planes didn’t crash into the World Trade towers, too many of us saw it in real time on TV (I watched in horror from my hotel room in Bratislava, Slovakia). They claim that the U.S. Government was complicit and that the buildings were brought down by planted explosives, etc. In short, they developed clever, even plausible but highly improbable arguments for not believing what the press reported.  https://www.serendipity.li/wot/911_a_hoax.htm

Some years ago, probably sometime in 2002 or 3, one of my children sent me a video claiming that the 9/11 crash into the Pentagon was a hoax. I no longer remember the details of the lengthy arguments it made to convince us that American Airlines flight 77 never crashed into the Pentagon that day and did not kill the 184 people the press reported, but it was well done and convincing. If I had not had directly contradictory information, I might have wondered whether these claims of hoaxes might be true.

First of all, I knew from an acquaintance (Lawyer Ted Olson) that his wife Barbara had died in that crash. Secondly, at the time, I lived next to the Pentagon in Crystal City and could view firsthand the crash site after returning home from Slovakia (the hole in the west side of the building and the plane wreckage laid out in the Pentagon parking lot). The impressive and potentially convincing story in the video was totally made up. But why? The video was expensive to make. Perhaps psychologists can shed light on why gullible people fall for these lies, but what motivates those who put up the money to propagate what they know full well are lies?

Who has an incentive to undermine the American public’s confidence in its government and institutions? Who has an incentive to weaken the United States via a distrusting public turning on itself? The devil himself, of course, but who else? Q? Followers of QAnon “believe that “Q” is a high-ranking government insider, presumably with a military or intelligence background, committed to exposing the hidden truth of what they see as an international bureaucracy scheming against Mr. Trump and his supporters.” “What is QAnon-what we know about the conspiracy theory” Russia? Russia has been playing both sides against the middle in the U.S. for years.

And what about Rep Greene, herself? Is she one of the gullible followers or knowing perpetrators?  In a private meeting of Republicans in the Capital Wednesday evening she apparently expressed “contrition for some of her most outrageous comments made on social media — including questioning the 9/11 attacks, blaming a space ray directed by a Jewish cabal for a deadly wildfire and doubting school shootings. She also, according to Republicans in the room, apologized for putting her colleagues in a difficult spot.” But she has not repudiated any of her outrageous claims publicly.  “’I won’t back down. I’ll never apologize. And I’ll always keep fighting for the people,’ she tweeted Saturday.” “Amid GOP paralysis democrats vow to force vote on rep Greene’s extremism”

“While McCarthy on Wednesday condemned Greene’s comments questioning the veracity of school shootings, encouraging political violence and promulgating anti-Semitic falsehoods, he said he would not bow to demands that she be removed from her committees.” [op. cit.] I have sympathy for McCarthy’s position but a tent big enough to include people like Greene is not one I am willing to reenter. Vladimir Putin must be smiling.

We will never be able to prevent the devil in one guise or another from manufacturing lies in efforts to keep us divided and at each other’s throats. But we can and should better educate our public to critically assess wild claims and more carefully choose more reliable sources of information.

Access to COVID-19 vaccines

In less than one year from learning of this virus, we now have two approved safe and effective covid-19 vaccines with at least one more on the way. Millions of doses have already been produced. This is a near miracle. Thank you pharmaceutical industry and the governments (and their tax payers) that are paying for it.

Getting the vaccine into our bodies is quite another thing. This has several elements. The first is distributing the vaccines to each state/county and site of vaccinations. The second (or first and a half) is staffing these sites with professions able to administer the shots with the necessary equipment (refrigeration, syringes and needles, etc.). The third is determining who can receive the shot this week and getting them to the right place. The need for these three elements has been known for as long as the need for a vaccine has been known. And officials have known the likely vaccines for at least half a year. But planning for delivering the vaccine to your arm (or the lack of it) has been totally botched.

Focusing on the United States, the federal government promised to vaccinate 20 million people by the end of the year (last week). “Of the more than 12 million doses of vaccines from Moderna Inc. and Pfizer Inc. with BioNTech SE that have been shipped, only 2.8 million have been administered, according to federal figures….  The federal government is sending vaccines to states based on their populations, and it has provided guidelines, but no rules, about how they should be distributed…. On Friday [Jan 1, 2021], Sen. Mitt Romney (R., Utah) criticized the vaccine rollout, saying in a statement that the lack of a comprehensive federal plan to be shared with states “is as incomprehensible as it is inexcusable.”  WSJ: Covid-19-vaccines-slow-rollout-could-portend-more-problems”

Priority

Beyond the above fiasco, it is necessary to determine the priority for receiving the shots and communicating that information to you and me.  As we have already seen it will take a while–many months–to vaccinate everyone even without the above mess. So, who should get them the first month and the second month etc.? I discussed this issue last May. https://wcoats.blog/2020/05/18/the-vaccine-who-gets-it-first/

One criterion for establishing inoculation priorities is to allocate the vaccines so as to maximize the lives saved. I suggest that a better criterion is to maximize the life saved. The difference between the number of lives saved and the amount of life saved can be explained with a simple example. If there is only one dose and it is given to an 85 year old woman otherwise in good health, she might live another healthy year. If given to a 40 year old nurse, he might live another 46 healthy years. In both cases only one life has been saved but in the second case much more life has been saved (46 years of life rather than only one). But this potentially understates the case for giving the jab (as the British call it) to the nurse. One nurse that has been immunized against covid-19 can safely treat more patients that have covid-19 thus saving even more lives and more life. An argument in the other direction of inoculating the elderly first is to flatten the curve (i.e., reduce the inflow of covid-19 patients into overflowing hospitals).

In my view there is a strong case for maximizing the life saved rather than the number of lives saved. We older people should not crowed out younger people who as a result of the vaccination might enjoy much longer lives, something we have already enjoyed. The case, in my view, is overwhelming for critical workers (healthcare workers, grocery store workers, delivery people, etc.) of all ages to receive priority. “Many states are following CDC guidelines to start with front-line medical workers and people in long-term care facilities, but not all. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Dec. 23 extended eligibility to people aged 65 and older.  Because each county and hospital in the state implemented its own approach, many people didn’t know whether to call, log on or show up in person to secure a spot.” [Same WSJ article] 

 A single dose of Moderna and Pfizer’s vaccines “appears to provide strong protection against the coronavirus…. With supplies of the vaccines limited — and hundreds of millions of people waiting for inoculation — this leaves epidemiologists grappling with a complicated question. Should the nation vaccinate fewer people with the best protection possible, or provide twice the number of people with a single shot, covering more of the population but with slightly weaker protection?”  “Coronavirus-vaccine-single-dose-debate”

But if the government can get itself organized (I know that that asks a lot) the existing and rapidly expanding supply of vaccines can be administered in a relatively modest number of months after which the priority issue vanishes.

Information

Whatever your priority turns out to be, how do you know where and when to show up? Do you need a prescription or approval and if so where do you get it? My insurance company is sending regular updates on what I should do. My Maryland county (Montgomery) website has information on the priority phase they are in (phase 1 at the moment) and that is about all (probably because every dispensary–hospitals, doctor’s offices, CVS–sets its own rules). I plan to contact my Primary Care Physician (PCP) for instructions next month when the situation might be a bit clearer.  What should people without medical insurance or a PCP do?  I have visited Kenya many times with the IMF and suspect that they are doing a better job with this than we are. How and why is this such a mess?

Conflicts of interest in government

I want my government to be run as efficiently as possible for the benefit of all of us. Appointing people to run it with experience in what they oversee contributes to that objective. Conflicts of interest–serving the interests of friends and former associates rather than the interests of the general public –detract from that objective. Hiring bankers to supervise banks, for example, draws on those most knowledgeable about the banking risks needing supervision, but they are also the most vulnerable to conflicts of interest. What should we do about this dilemma?

President elect Joe Biden’s choice to run his Office of Management and Budget: “’Neera Tanden has spent the last decade raising money from the top companies and highest-net-worth individuals in the country, which is a bit at odds with what Biden pitched during the campaign,’ said Matt Bruenig, president of the People’s Policy Project, a left-wing think tank that accepts only small donations.”  On the other hand, “Tanden’s experience leading CAP, which publishes policy recommendations for many domestic and foreign issues, has given her the policy chops needed to lead OMB, Ettlinger said.” Michael Ettlinger, is director of the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy and a former vice president for economic policy at CAP.  “Neera Tanden-Biden-OMB-CAP”

The authors of the above Washington Post article note with alarm that CAP (Center for American Progress) has received contributions from the likes of Facebook, Bain Capital, Blackstone, Evercore, Walmart, CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, defense contractor Northrop Grumman and for-profit college operator DeVry Education Group. Though I have not checked, I would not be surprised to find the same author’s urging such companies to shift from seeking shareholder value to stakeholder value by making just such contributions.

How can we maximize the benefits while minimizing the risks of appointing experienced people to positions in government? Our constitution provides one element of a resolution of this conflict by dividing the legislative function from the administrative function between Congress and the White House.  The administration’s regulators are implementing the laws passed by Congress, which provides some checks and balances. Nonetheless, the programs and financing approved by Congress can potentially benefit the friends of congressmen and women. Boeing moved its headquarters from Seattle to Chicago and disbursed its manufacturing facilities from the Seattle area to as many congressional districts as possible to increase congressional votes for its projects not because of economic factors.

Another element of protection is the adherence to transparent bidding and contracting standards when awarding government business to private firms. When designing the taxes to finance government, economist push the principle of economic neutrality (not favoring one market activity over another). Though the tax reforms of 2017 (the so-called Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017) made our income taxes more neutral, many special subsidies remain in our tax laws and the special interests that benefit lobby hard to keep them. “Next up-tax-reform”  “Tax reform and the press”

But regulation potentially offers the most corruptive powers of government to deliver favors to the private sector. We benefit from regulations that help keep products and working conditions safe. But it is easy for regulations to slide into protecting incumbents from competition from challengers. This is a pronounced feature of professional licensing. “Cato: Professional Licensure and Quality”

In short, keeping government activities in the service of the public interest is challenging and requires constant vigilance. By far the most effective approach is to tightly limit government involvement in the economy to the minimum truly necessary for a well-functioning free society. Hire people with the experience to know what they are doing and to do it efficiently but limit the government’s role in the economy to what only government can effectively do.  In establishing the legal and regulatory foundation for private economic activity, limit it to the essentials–the foundation–so that the superstructure can be competitively built by innovative private individuals.

Our national defense is clearly a necessary government responsibility. Thus the “military/industrial complex” is and will remain a problem. The incentives for this industry are particularly dangerous because these firms benefit from the wars we have been fighting all over the place.  It is rather like keeping off those extra pounds that those of us who enjoy good food must struggle with eternally. It is a never ending battle, but losing it would be the death of us.