Beating covid-19: Compulsion or Persuasion and Guidance

March 31, 2020

The number of deaths in the U.S. from covid-19 have doubled every three days over the last 22 days amounting to 3,141 by the end of March 30. At that point there were 163,788 confirmed cases (those testing positive for the virus).  The actual number of cases is thought to be considerably larger but remains undetected because of limited viral testing.  America’s overall strategy for containing the virus is to isolate those infected in order to stop or slow its spread until a vaccine can be developed, tested for safety and effectiveness, manufactured and administered (one to two years after the discovery of the vaccine, with luck) or until enough of the population has acquired immunity as the result of surviving from the disease (herd immunization), i.e., almost everyone who gets it. The details of the approach vary from community to community.

The virus that causes covid-19 is spread from person to person. It can be picked up from surfaces touched by a sick person, coughed or sneezed into the air within six or so feet or by direct contact, but it can only enter one’s body via the month, nose or eyes.  “Prevent-getting-sick/how-covid-spreads”  “Protecting-yourself-from-coronavirus”  Thus those who test positive for the virus should be isolated from the rest of us (quarantined) and the rest of us should self-isolate if we experience symptoms of the disease. To protect ourselves from picking up the virus and bringing it to our faces we can reduce our social interactions (work from home, avoid public gatherings such as religious services, and restaurants, bars and public entertainment). Two measures are more important than any others: test as many people as possible in order to detect and isolate those with the virus and wash our hands with soap frequently.  The President’s coronavirus-guidelines for American

These measures can be imposed by government decree and enforcement by the state or can be urged by public education and voluntary individual actions. On March 17 the Governor of Virginia explained why he had not ordered restaurants and bars to close. “Northam said too many Virginia residents rely on restaurants for their meals to justify ordering they shut down.”  “Northam-adopts-10-person-standard-opposes-closing-restaurants”  For the United States as a whole and for most communities (public health services are administered by cities and states) the restrictions on our activities are voluntary. The specific guidance or rules are determined locally, thus providing useful data on which approaches work best.

As in Singapore, S. Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Sweden and a few other countries, business closures in the U.S. have generally been voluntary until March 30. But unlike these countries, which have successfully kept death rates relatively low, the U.S. failed to undertake significant testing for the virus for more than two months after the outbreak of the disease in Wuhan, China. After the tenth death, the death rate from covid-19 in the U.S. has doubled every three days and passed the number of 9/11 deaths on March 30. On March 30, the Governor of Maryland, followed by the Governor of Virginia and the Mayor of the District of Columbia, made shelter in place mandatory: “We Are No Longer Asking Or Suggesting That Marylanders Stay Home, We Are Directing Them To Do So.” “As-covid-19-crisis-escalates-in-capital-region-governor-hogan-issues-stay-at-home-order-effective-tonight”

There is general agreement that testing should be pursued vigorously and those testing positive should be quarantined and their contacts tested, etc. This buys time to better prepare for the increased demand for medical care that will be needed and to develop treatments and vaccines. Though many will die needlessly in the U.S. because of a several months late start with such a program, the question remains which policy to follow for everyone else going forward.  Should it be government mandates to shut most things down and keep everyone home (or at least try to), or should we rely on the choices of each individual for how best to protect themselves and their loved ones while carrying on with their lives? What are the matrixes by which that choice should be judged? “This-pro-trump-coastal-community-in-florida-hit-early-by-virus-sits-at-emotional-nexus-of-national-debate-over-reopening-economy-amid-health-crisis”

In my opinion maximizing individual choices about how to respond to the epidemic is both more effective and more in keeping with America’s freedom loving culture. By more effective I mean that it will best slow the spread of the disease with minimal damage to the economy and the quality of our lives. We each have a strong incentive to protect ourselves from contracting the virus. We also care about protecting others from exposure (most strongly our families and loved ones) but can be deterred from that goal by the loss of income if we stay home. The CARES Acted signed into law a few days ago is meant to compensate firms that shut down temporarily and workers who stay home temporarily and thus to better align the incentives to protect others with the financial consequences.

We protect ourselves and others by diligently adhering to enhanced hygiene practices (frequent hand washing) and by reducing unnecessary social contacts (no hand shaking etc.). As with most everything else in life we are each better able to determine how best to balance the risks of social interactions (whether to work from home or in the office) with safer isolation, than are government officials making general rules for everyone.  The countries that have adopted this approach have left their citizens free to go to work or restaurants but undertaken extensive educational programs on the best practices to protect against transmission of the virus. “South-korea-keeps-covid-19-at-bay-without-a-total-lockdown”

South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and other countries taking this approach provide their citizens with honest information needed by them to evaluate the risks of different choices. This includes information on who is infected and identifying infection hot spots. In the U.S. a person’s health status is private. But when a person carries a contagious disease into the public, his/her condition should be made known to those who risk exposure.  “Coronavirus-data-privacy”

Government mandates to shelter in place or cease many business activity will become increasingly difficult to enforce (have you watched the “Steven Soderbergh movie Contagion”). Persuading the public to adjust their behavior in ways that slow the virus’s spread and providing helpful guidance on how best to do so until a vaccine is found or most of the population becomes immune would be both more effective and more politically popular.

Socialism as seen by Millennials

“Seventy percent of millennials in a new poll say that they are somewhat or extremely likely to vote for a socialist candidate.” “70-percent-of-millennials-say-theyd-vote-for-a-socialist”  That, and the current lead of Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed Socialist, for the Presidential nomination of the Democratic Party, means that those of us who believe that capitalism is the foundation of our freedom and prosperity have a job to do to convince millennials that they are wrong about Socialism.  If Sanders wins the Democratic Party’s nomination, which I doubt, his long history of support for Soviet communism will be marched out by the Republicans. “Bernie Sanders support of communism is a moral failing”  As recently as a few days ago, Sanders was praising Fidel Castro. “Bernie-sanders-didnt-mention-the-dark-side-of-education-in-castros-cuba”  Sanders is not even a registered Democrat. But my concern is that so many millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and Gen Z’s (born between 1995 and 2015) are attracted to Socialism. We need to convince them that it will not deliver the better society that they think it will.

We need to start with the recognition that these new generations, like all of their predecessors, want to do the “right thing.” “The-search-of-purpose”  They are searching for how best to address the deficiencies of life in America today. While dire poverty has been reduced from over 90% to less than 10% by capitalism, there is still that 10%.  Adult literacy has been at 99% for a few decades but the quality of public school education has been declining.  Only half of elementary school students in California are proficient in English (i.e., performed at grade level). “California-school-test-scores-2019”  And so on. The question is how to address these problems? What should we do to further improve our lives economically and culturally? Should we increase the role of government in directing resources and making our decisions or reduce it or adjust it? Do we need more Socialism or more Capitalism?

In 1919 the “Old Bolsheviks,” Nikolai Bukharin and Evgeny Preobrazhensky, wrote in the widely read The ABC of Communism, that the communist society is “an organized society,” based on a detailed, precisely calculated plan, which includes the “assignment” of labor to the various branches of production.  As for distribution, according to these eminent Bolshevik economists, all products will be delivered to communal warehouses, and the members of society will draw them out in accordance with their self-defined needs.  I urge my young friends to read the fuller account in Ralph Raico’s  “Marxist-dreams-and-soviet-realities”

The theoretical and historical/empirical cases against Socialism are overwhelming, at least to those of us who lived through the cold war and the decline and fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s and the Israeli kibbutzim more gradually in the 1960s through 1980s.  Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela provide contemporary examples.  Sanders and many millennials reject these examples (sort of) as reflecting the bad luck of state capture by bad guys (I am not aware of any bad girl examples). But the centralization of the power to direct businesses and people that is the essence of Socialism, is a natural and powerful magnet for bad guys.  No socialist regime has escaped the opportunities and temptations to favor its friends and relatives with government contracts or protections from the horrors of competition. “Crony capitalism”  Venezuela is a particularly shocking example of the rapid deterioration of one of South America’s wealthiest countries.

Sanders often points to the Scandinavian countries as examples of the softer democratic Socialism he now says he has in mind.  But he is fifty years out of date. The experiment with “democratic socialism” by, for example, Sweden in the 1960s and 70s was a failure and abandoned in recent decades. “Bernie Sanders’s Scandinavian fantasy”

Socialism has failed historically because it lacks incentives (financial rewards) for hard work and the development of better mouse traps, provides incentives for corruption, and is really hard to “get right.”  National Socialism (Nazism) and other versions of socialism involved top down control over many aspects of society.  But the central allocation of resources and decisions about what we may and may not do–central planning–suffers from serious informational challenges even when made by smart and totally honest people. Friedrich Hayek had much to say about the importance of prices in a market economy for providing critical, decentralized information on people’s preferences and thus on the optimal allocation of resources. “The Road to Serfdom”

But we are not likely win over the younger generations to capitalism just on the bases that it has given us standards of material well-being and individual freedom unimaginable several hundred years ago.  We also need, I think, to defend its moral superiority while offering promising remedies to its remaining deficiencies.

The morality of capitalism rests, in my view, in its capacity to give us, and to protect, our ownership of the fruits of our own labor. This means also the freedom to decide how to live.  It is a system in which we bear the primary responsibility for our own decisions and actions and their consequences.  It is a system that flourishes in a culture of trust and mutual caring and thus encourages such values. It is a system that rewards and thus encourages virtuous behavior. The top down, central planning, central control of socialism tends to have the opposite effect.  A common saying in the Soviet Union (USSR), while it still existed, was that “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.”

America was unique in its time (exceptional) in establishing a constitution and government in which the people gave up limited authority to their government to protect their property and liberty, rather than, as with the Magna Carta, the sovereign giving up some of its authority to the people.  See American Exceptionalism.  In the personal freedom this provided and the accompanying responsibilities it imposed, Americans flourished in every sense of the word more than most. Those who fall behind or floundered were not ignored.  It was a country of free and virtuous people and as Thomas Jefferson said at the end of his presidency in 1809: “the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government.”[1]  Seymour Martin Lipset in the middle of the 1990s used the concept of this exceptionalism to explain “why the United States is the only industrialized country which does not have a significant socialist movement or Labor party.…”  I would hate to see that change.

Countries differ in the balance of personal freedom and security (safety net, police, army) they seek. But in the most successful ones the provision by the government of security is limited and well targeted to minimize its infringements on personal freedom.  Here are my earlier thoughts on improving the government’s role in and contribution to an orderly free market, capitalist system: “My-political-platform-for-the-nation-2017”

Let me end with a quote from Winston Churchill to drive my point home: “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.”  Indeed, Capitalism has its flaws, but Socialism has no success stories that we should strive to emulate. The way to move forward is to repair the flaws in a Capitalistic free market society.

[1] Quoted in Tucker and Hendrickson, Empire of Liberty p 7; see John P. Foley, ed. The Jeffersonian cyclopedia (1900).

Our Unsupportable Empire

Most of you are grudgingly aware that the U.S. government has promised us more than we want to or can easily pay for.  China is no longer willing to fill the gap knowing that we will not be capable of repaying it.  This is on top of the existing national debt from past borrowing to cover the government’s current and past spending in excess of its revenue of $16 trillion, about the same as the United States’ total annual output.  These numbers pale in comparison with the government’s unfunded commitments (those not covered by the revenue expected from existing tax laws and user charges) to future retirees and recipients of medical care (social security, medicare and Medicaid). The present value of the revenue short fall to pay for these future commitments (the government’s unfunded liabilities) is currently around $50 trillion for an astonishing total debt of around $66 trillion, which is larger than the total annual output of the world per year.

Naturally, these promises must be pared back because they can’t be paid for. To some extent a healthy, growing economy will also increase our capacity (lighten the burden) to pay for them but by itself growth will not be enough. This is one, but only one, of the reasons that we also need to reconsider our military promises around the world, while reducing and reorienting our military budget and modestly increasing our diplomatic (State Department) expenditures.

Our promise to provide security to most of the world suffers from the same moral hazard as does an overly generous welfare state.  Incentives matter. When access to welfare is easy and the level of support is generous, more people will choose it over taking a job that doesn’t interest them much.  When President Bill Clinton signed “The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996” (PRWORA) on August 22, 1996 (with strong Republican support), he fulfilled his campaign pledge to “end welfare as we have come to know it.” The law ended welfare as an entitlement by introducing tighter conditions for receiving it. Welfare costs dropped following adoption of the law. “A broad consensus now holds that welfare reform was certainly not a disaster–and that it may, in fact, have worked much as its designers had hoped.”[1] While some people remain skeptical, Sweden’s welfare reforms of the last two decades have demonstrated very similar results.[2]

The United States spends more on its military than the next 14 largest military spenders combined (China, Russia, UK, France, Japan, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, Brazil, Italy, South Korea, Australia, Canada, and Turkey). We are policing/protecting most of the world. This has two negative effects. The first, similar to chronic welfare recipients, is that other nations spend less on their own defense, taking a free ride on the United States’ ability to keep the world safe for everyone else. The second is that by diverting so much of our productive resources into the military, we reduce the resources available for developing and strengthening our economy. It is our powerful economy that underlies our influence in the world as much, if not more, than our military power. Moreover, our military might is made possible by our economic power. So we need to get the balance right. I urge you to read David Ignatius’ recent discussion of this issue in The Washington Post, (“The foreign policy debate we should be having”, Oct 21, 2012, page A15)

But there are more reasons that our military adventurism and spending should be reduced and more resources given to diplomacy. Our national security and the freedoms America was founded to establish and protect will be strengthened as a result.

American hegemony rests largely on our economic and military power, but also on widespread respect for the American way of life (our respect for human freedom and dignity and our prosperity). Our efforts to promote democracy via military interventions have generally not gone well.  The talents and spirit of enterprise that have served us so well at home have not generally contributed to success in building new democratic nations where we have militarily intervened. Books like Joseph Heller’s, Catch 22 (about WWII) and movies like Robert Altman’s Mash (about Viet Nam) entertainingly introduced us to the bureaucratic problems of fighting and/or governing in foreign lands. We have the best trained and most well equipped military history has ever known, but it has failed for the last ten years to win in Afghanistan, which is now the longest war in American history. Our powerful military is not good at nation building, nor should we expect it to be. The military is not the right tool for promoting the values we believe in around the world. That is a job for diplomacy (with our powerful military well in the background).

We have been more successful at promoting our values and our economic interests through our promotion of and participation in international organizations like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization and a wide range of international agreements and cooperation that facilitate free trade, and capital movements, and that extend the protection of property and human rights internationally. These organizations and agreements have developed the international legal frameworks for telecommunications, patents, financial and product standards, etc. that underlie the explosion of globalization that has dramatically raised the standard of living for much of the world’s population.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, has written an excellent exposition of our military efforts in Afghanistan, which I urge you to read “Afghan security forces rapid expansion comes at a cost as readiness lags” (The Washington Post, Oct 21, 2012, page 1). Every few years America’s military strategy has changed: from counter terrorism, to counter insurgency, to building and training (and equipping) an Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. As each approach fails, the Joint Chief’s extract the lessons learned and try a new one until it fails. In recent years, our military commanders have correctly emphasized the fact that “success” cannot be achieved by the military alone (it amazes me that anyone could have thought so – no wonder they are so eager to start wars).

But those are far from the only reasons for reducing our military footprint and budget. I believe in keeping government relatively small and encumbered with the organizational and political checks and balances meant to replace the role of competition in the private sector in bending self-interest to the public good. People are influenced by their self-interest whether they are in government or the private sector. However, in the private sector success comes from serving the needs of others in the market. This exerts a strong incentive on individual behavior. (Dishonesty can exist in either sector and can only be addressed by embracing appropriate moral standards and consistent punishment of breaches of those standards) In place of market discipline (acceptance or rejection), government must rely more on checks and balances to ensure that government officials behave as intended and they can only go so far to keep government honest and impartial in serving the public. The power of the government to coerce, and the expenditure of large sums of money by the government create enormous temptations for personal gain by those in positions of power in the government. The bigger government gets the more difficult it is to prevent some in government from yielding to the temptations to direct its power and money to their own good rather than the general good.

The firms in our large and important military support industry (Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrup Grumman, General Dynamics, Raytheon, Halliburton, United Technologies, Computer Sciences, BAE Systems, General Electric, Bechtel, and Honeywell International, to name a few), do not have a disinterested view about the most appropriate and cost-effective military technology the defense budget should provide for. The millions of dollars they spend attempting to influence the choices of the services and congress are, in a sense, “honest” efforts to promote their self-interested view of what best serves our national security. The growing behemoth of the industrial military complex of which Eisenhower warned us over fifty years ago now both defends and threatens our liberties. See my earlier comments on Ike’s famous farewell address:

The risks of the misallocation of our resources and waste are directly related to the size of our military (and government more generally). The boundary between honest differences of opinion over the best military equipment and systems and simple cronyism is fuzzy.  Consider, for example, the recent award of a large contract to build 100,000 homes in war-torn Iraq to HillStone International, a newcomer in the business of home building. When its president David Richter was asked how the newcomer swung such a big deal, he replied that it really helps to have “the brother of the vice president as a partner” (James Biden).[3] It would not be fair to disqualify bidders because they are friends or relatives of high government officials (As Afghan President Karzai’s brother Mahmoud said to us with regard to the shares of Kabul Bank given to him by its founders. The Bank is now in receivership as the result of the bank lending 95% of its deposits to its shareholders), but how can you tell what is merit and what is cronyism?

My point is that the defense budget needs to be on the table when our elected officials finally confront the cuts that must be made to the government’s expenditures to save the country. Defense spending needs to be cut not just because we can’t afford it, but also because our oversized military is weakening our economic base on which both our military and our political power in the world rest. And perhaps most important of all, over reliance on military power to the exclusion of diplomacy has actually weakened our security and standing in the world.

[1] The New Republic, editorial September 4, 2006, page 7.

[2] The Economist, “Sweden: The New Model” October 13, 2012.