- Glenn Sonnenberg
Musings from the Bunker 5/22/20
A bit of a long weekend read, but important…
Today’s musing was going to be more lighthearted, talking about books, sports, and movies. But then I started getting mail… So this response to several comments regarding a few points I’ve made during the past several weeks (TRIGGER WARNING—if you’re not happy with some criticism of the administration’s handling of this or the politicization of this crisis, you should pour yourself a drink and not read further):
1. This virus is very communicable, with no known therapies or preventative measures, other than social distancing;
2. We knew about this early, as we were warned by experts, clearly in January and by some reports earlier. Plus we all follow the news from elsewhere. For political purposes, we chose to ignore early warnings and the European experience, at our peril;
3. Sometimes experts should be listened to. They are not to make the “final decisions,” but their advice, based upon data, studies, and peer review, should be highly prized. By the way, this extends to the expertise of our national intelligence apparatus and our law enforcement personnel (both of which are being maligned by the administration because their recommendations are politically unacceptable).
4. Politicians ought not give medical advice, contradict scientifically accepted hypotheses and data, discourage citizens from following directions of public health experts, and quash official public health recommendations.
5. If our leader(s) choose to experiment with medications that show promise, that’s up to them. But encouraging a premature rush on medications needed by others for currently accepted therapies is foolhardy. As for suggesting the ingestion of cleaning fluid, is there anything more to say about this?
6. This crisis has now morphed into a “we” versus “them” polarized debate, as apparently all debates these days must. Fox News and others characterize the requirement to wear masks as an infringement on our freedom of speech, assembly, and religion. These people argue that the lockdown was unnecessary and we need to open everything up. Others seem intent on locking down in this “half in, half out” regime for an indeterminate time.
7. Some are now arguing that the “statistics” indicate the deadliness of this disease is overblown. They are wrong.
8. Some argue that this is some vast conspiracy of the deep state and others to bring down the President. But that would be one sophisticated and complex operation, involving legions of people. I’m not sure the conspiracy has yet been identified that is quite that sophisticated.
FIGURES DON’T LIE BUT…WELL, YOU KNOW…
People are being inundated with lies on social media and it is poisoning what should be a reasoned, thoughtful, debate on how we emerge from this crisis.
Please look at the following chart carefully. It was posted by a Facebook friend, purporting to show how non-lethal this virus is, argue for more broadly opening the economy and characterizing much of this shut-down as politically motivated:
The chart was accompanied by a link to the Johns Hopkins University website, apparently supporting the notion that this chart was generated by that institution, and intended to be interpreted as presented. It was not.
Sadly, the conclusions in the far right column are gaining traction. One would expect the numerator to be the number of people who didn’t die (infections minus deaths) and the denominator to be the number of people infected. That is not the case. Instead, the folks that want their readers to believe that the rates are so low are employing as the numerator the entire population minus deaths. The denominator they use is the entirety of the population. What this does, of course, is mix apples and oranges to deliver absurd and misleading statistics. In New York, for example, their percentage of deaths is listed at .14%. But if one divides the number of deaths by the number infected, it’s a whopping 7.9%.
By this reasoning, the risk of paralysis by polio is essentially non-existent (most people don’t get polio), when in fact 2.5% of all infections result in irreversible paralysis. The major fallacy of all of this (besides the dishonesty of the conclusion) is that the people arguing this isn’t so bad are getting the benefit of the stay-at-home order, which by definition must reduce (and apparently did reduce) the extent of infection.
Further, it is generally accepted that we are undercounting both cases (because we had insufficient testing regimens) and the death count.
Why this conscious attempt to reduce the gravity of the crisis? It’s a crisis. Let’s all agree. We may disagree on the next actions out of this, but manipulating data gets us nowhere.
ABSOLUTISM GETS US NOWHERE
If one accepts that some amount of social distancing makes sense, then the idea of opening up to mass religious services is absurd. This is not an infringement on religious freedom, any more than allowing the staging a revival service in the middle of a battlefield or on the New Jersey Turnpike. Public safety weighs in. There is no “absolute” right in all circumstances to all things. That’s what made the gun debate intractable. There should be limits there as well, as Ronald Reagan endorsed (and, at one time, the NRA). But now ANY infringement is seemingly unacceptable.
LISTENING TO EXPERTS
Here, verbatim, are the comments of a very dear friend, a bright and reasonable guy, in response to my comment about listening to experts:
“Experts are the new authority. Trusting experts has become the inability to laugh at (or even question) authority. Does then the opposite obtain, per Hitchens, that we are on the road to human slavery?”
In a word, “no.” I do not believe we are on the road to human slavery by heeding the advice of experts. I’m not suggesting that they take over the government. There is only one fellow with immense powers and authoritarian tendencies, whom I truly fear is leading toward a form of slavery of the mind (and without impartial inspectors general, that will only worsen). You can guess…
I’m not suggesting we make Anthony Fauci the de facto president in this time of crisis. It is perfectly reasonable to accept the scientific advice but apply it in a nuanced manner. No one (at least not I) is suggesting we go back to the stone age. Of course reasonable accommodations must be made and the advice of authorities should be viewed in the broader prism of society’s needs. But as we have learned, the primary motivator of the White House has been electoral advantage, not public health and not even the economy. Had we listened to the experts, we would have cut off travel from Asia and Europe earlier (not just of Chinese nationals), would have required lockdowns earlier (and made them less porous) and we might well have been past much of this pain. In fact, data now show that a significant number of lives would have been saved by locking down a week or two weeks prior to when we did. Over 36,000 lives were lost through a one week delay in this folly: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/20/us/coronavirus-distancing-deaths.html?referringSource=articleShare
In a further indication that serious testing needs to be done, the Lancet published this morning a report indicating that the drug hydroxychloroquine, hyped by our President (and apparently self-prescribed), was found (based upon a study of 96,000 patients) to increase abnormal heart rhythms and patients were more likely to die. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)31180-6/fulltext?referringSource=articleShare. I’m not suggesting the Physician-in-
Chief might not ultimately be right—just that perhaps his pronouncements and opinions should be subject to the same rigors as that of the rest of the scientific community.
Experts actually know what they’re talking about. One can disagree about responses based upon the data but one can’t simply dismiss or contradict the data. But we have now entered into the vilification of the experts. And why? Apparently because we fear the great “deep state” conspiracy.
CONSPIRACY OF WHOM, EXACTLY?
Who are the members of this conspiracy? People suggest the FBI and the intelligence services. The same James Comey who effectively threw the election to Donald Trump in the first place, by publicly speaking out about the investigations of Hillary Clinton’s emails (which, in this day of tweets and servers in this White House seems almost quaint)?
And how far does this deep state go? Well, apparently the mainstream media set on destroying Trump. Yet this is the same media that had given the Trump campaign wall-to-wall coverage of every rally and pronouncement during the campaign. The same mainstream media that has devoted countless hours to the press conferences.
But the best of this is that the conspiracy must also include most Western democracies and countries around the world, who are all coping with their own outbreaks. Is this really the world against America in some great conspiracy?
IT SHOULDN’T BE POLITICAL
Here’s a quaint story. We once had a present, Gerald Ford, who asked hit economic advisor, Alan Greenspan, for advice. Greenspan recommended tight monetary policy and no tax cuts, advising Ford that this could doom his reelection bid. Instead, he could have lowered taxes and gotten a short term bump. Given the close election, Ford may be right when he said that this cost him the election—and he’d do it again: https://nypost.com/2000/04/17/ford-my-pal-greenspan-cost-me-the-white-house/. Today, it’s all political; it’s hard to imagine the President acting in a way that might weaken his electoral prospects. There are those who would say that the Democrats are just as bad as the Republicans…and they may be right…but today we have only one president, and his bumbling incompetence and singular focus on polling numbers and his political prospects have made life worse for so many.
The fact is that we have to try to save our economy (or at least minimize the damage), while at the same time employing tactics to minimize and track the spread of the virus. Neither extreme is right—we can’t just “go back to normal” and we can’t ignore that we need to inch back there in a careful way that minimizes deaths and avoids undue strain on the healthcare system.
We were woefully unprepared (a failure of our system) and we were unwilling to address the issue promptly or rely upon expert advice (the failure of this administration). We have restricted clear direction to the American people that has been generated by the CDC and others (again, a political decision). But these are the cards we have been dealt. We need to make the best of it and move forward.
I only wish we could work together to get through this, rather than descend into the worst we are—polarized, selfish, and politically motivated. This is not a middle school student council debate. What is happening today has great significance to lives and livelihoods.