Category Archives: Economics

The Fourth Reich — It’s Them or Us

Disclosure: Much of this post depends on information from the Bob Woodward- Robert Costa book, Peril. Woodward and I were friends in college and have had sporadic contact since then. I still consider him a friend, though we do not communicate regularly. Back in the day, a national magazine (not to be named) briefly suspected I might be Deep Throat. As everyone now knows, I was not Deep Throat. I never was.

This post is also inspired both by the column in the Washington Post by Margaret Sullivan [https://wapo.st/3v4LeMv] that asks the question why the “news” has largely ignored or downplayed the revelation that John Eastman, a Trump lawyer (and thus, legally, Trump himself), produced an outline for the steps to overturn the 2020 election and replace the real winner, Joe Biden, with Donald Trump.

The third inspiration is a line in Steven Pinker’s new book, Rationality:

Many facts, of course, are hurtful: the racial history of the United States, global warming, a cancer diagnosis, Donald Trump. Yet they are facts for all that, and we must know them, the better to deal with them.

So we must.

Since I began thinking deeply about this, we have also learned that Trump’s Department of Justice deliberately sat on its hands and did not brief Congress or others in the administration about what it apparently understood could be a day of violence against the government. https://bit.ly/3npJLON

We have also become aware that,

Republican leaders loyal to Trump are vying to control election administrations in key states in ways that could drastically distort the outcome of the presidential race in 2024. With the former president hinting strongly that he may stand again, his followers are busily manoeuvring themselves into critical positions of control across the US – from which they could launch a far more sophisticated attempt at an electoral coup than Trump’s effort to hang on to power in 2020.

… in recent months Trump has emerged as an unashamed champion of the insurrectionists, calling them “great people” and a “loving crowd”, and lamenting that they are now being “persecuted so unfairly”.

A poll released this week by the Public Religion Research Institute found that two-thirds of Republicans still believe the myth that Trump won. More chilling still, almost a third of Republicans agree with the contention that American patriots may have to resort to violence “in order to save our country”. [https://bit.ly/3ckbwlq]

As Donald Trump Jr has asserted, the Republican Party is now the Party of Trump. He owns it. His army of sycophants are as loyal to him as ever. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, his people believe the 2020 election was stolen, just as Trump continues to claim.

This is so despite Trump’s admitted bungling of the response to COVID that added significantly to the death toll, his incessant grifting and lying and treasonous acts of disloyalty to the United States, and, of course, his many “ordinary” crimes, such as giving secrets to Russia, extorting the president of Ukraine and a multitude of documented obstructions of justice, among many others. Evidence of cultish blindness to Trumpism is everywhere – mainstream media, Fox Propaganda, Twitter, Facebook, even LinkedIn and more.

Even with all that, the Eastman memo, unearthed in Woodward and Costa’s book, is shocking. As explained by Sullivan,

Written by Trump legal adviser John Eastman — a serious Establishment Type with Federalist Society cred and a law school deanship under his belt — it offered Mike Pence, then in his final days as vice president, a detailed plan to declare the 2020 election invalid and give the presidency to Trump.

In other words, how to run a coup to overturn the election in six easy steps.

Yet, Sullivan reports, the mainstream media largely ignored it at first. She rightly asks why this was not the multi-alarm firestorm – a presidential advisor casually informing him of the steps needed to undermine the outcome of a national election and claim the presidency that he had clearly lost.

The answer, it turns out, is as disturbing as the memo itself.

As reported by Sullivan, network executives thought the story unworthy because it was “crazy” and unsurprising. In effect, Trump has so normalized the idea of overthrowing the election that evidence of actual work to do so is not important enough to report. Another didn’t address it because “There’s no indication that Pence considered it seriously.” Others responded that there was much other news that seemed more important. What would be more important than an attempt to overthrow the government?

The normalization of the Trump-Republican attempt to subvert the Constitution and reinstall Trump as president, and de facto dictator, is being enabled by publications as venerable as the Wall Street Journal. The Journal published a letter from Trump on October 27. It did so without comment or any attempt to address the truth or falsity of his claims. The grotesque problems with the letter and the Journal’s decision to publish it are addressed in detail by Philip Bump in the Washington Post. https://wapo.st/3GTiYCg

The obvious and logical, and profoundly disturbing, conclusion is that WSJ supports Trump’s claims of election fraud and his belief that he was denied re-election by widespread vote fraud. Thus, the Wall Street Journal joins the campaign to undermine American democracy and replace it with a Republican autocracy led by Trump and his family.

At the same time, Trump is desperately fighting to prevent the release to the House committee investigating the January 6 insurrection/coup attempt of a large trove of documents that would reveal his role, and that of his key enablers, in the attack on the Capitol. https://nyti.ms/3wgXYAc His claims of executive privilege have been rejected by President Biden, but Trump maintains he can assert the privilege even though no longer in office. Trump’s claim of privilege fails on multiple grounds, not least of which is that most of the documents sought have nothing to do with this execution of the job of president – they are related to his personal political objective to remain in office despite the electoral outcome.

Thus, Trump continues to maintain his thoroughly debunked claims of election fraud while resisting efforts to uncover facts that might expose his role in trying to overthrow the federal government.

What else does the Woodward/Costa book contribute to our understanding of all this? A lot.

  • The chair of the Joint Chiefs, Mark Milley, after plenty of chances to observe Trump’s thinking and behavior as president, agreed with Speaker Pelosi’s observation that Trump was “crazy” and had been “crazy for a long time.” Peril at xxii. Colin Powell, former Chair of the Joint Chiefs described Trump as a “f*cking maniac.” Peril at 106.
  • Pelosi characterized the Oval Office under Trump as an “insane snake pit.”Peril at xxiii.
  • Referring to the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, and under pressure from then-Speaker Paul Ryan, Trump refused to criticize the marchers because “These people love me. These are my people. I can’t backstab the people who support me.” Peril at 8.
  • Trump was often unaware of his own actions. He did not know that the money for the border wall in the early 2018 spending bill was an amount he had approved. He finally agreed to sign the bill to prevent a government shutdown. Marc Short, Trump’s legislative advisor told Ryan this chaos was typical of “every day around here.” Peril at 9. Bill Barr, who was committed to run the Justice Department in Trump’s best interest to promote his re-election thought Trump’s big problem was his “pigheadedness and his blindness.” Peril at 71.
  • Trump failed to grasp the nature of the threat posed by COVID-19 and refused to accept information that conflicted with his view. Peril at 82.
  • Trump rejected advice of Gen. Milley and other senior advisors to rename military bases from Confederate traitors to Medal of Honor winners. Peril at 108-109.
  • Even as the U.S. pandemic continued to escalate (approaching 4.9 million cases and more than 160,000 deaths), Trump insisted that it was “disappearing. It’s going to disappear.” Peril at 113.
  • Trump tweeted that the “deep state” was interfering with the development of vaccines. When his own appointed head of the FDA tried to explain the process, Trump changed the subject. “the president had no idea how the FDA operated and had made no effort to find out.” Peril at 113-115.
  • Aware of his failing election campaign, Trump primed his followers for the possibility of defeat by repeatedly claiming that the only way he could lose was a rigged election. Peril at 131.
  • As soon as Trump’s defeat was reported, he announced from the White House that the election was a “fraud on the American public.” Peril at 133.
  • Even Michael Pompeo, one of Trump’s most loyal sycophants, told Gen. Milley that “The crazies are taking over,” referring to Giuliani, Sidney Powell, Michael Flynn and Mike Lindell, the key players on Trump’s legal defense team. Peril at 150.
  • On November 10, following Trump’s firing of the Secretary of Defense, Gina Haspel, the CIA Director, presciently predicted, “We are on the way to a right-wing coup.” Peril at 152.
  • Mark Meadows made repeated efforts to install a Trump super-loyalist into a leadership position at the FBI and, stymied by Barr, later at the CIA, stymied by Haspel. Peril at 154-156.
  • Trump acknowledged that Giuliani was “crazy” but claimed that “sane lawyers” would not represent him in attacking the election. Peril at 164. Trump’s AG Barr referred to Trump’s legal team as a “bunch of clowns.” Peril at 170. See also Peril at 180.
  • Trump’s team of incompetents had no plan to efficiently distribute COVID vaccines. Peril at 187.
  • Steve Bannon advised Trump to focus on January 6, the day the Electoral College votes would be certified by Congress, the last step to elect Joe Biden as President:

We’re going to bury Biden on January 6 …. If Republicans could cast enough of a shadow on Biden’s victory on January 6 … it would be hard for Biden to govern. Millions of Americans would consider him illegitimate. They would ignore him. They would dismiss him and wait for Trump to run again. “We are going to kill it in the crib. Kill the Biden presidency in the crib… [Peril at 207-208]

  • Trump directly threatened VP Pence if he refused to reject the Biden Electoral votes and hand the election to Trump. Peril at 229-230.

The above references are just a small taste of the astonishing revelations in Peril. Most of the rational people in the White House at the time of the election and its aftermath appeared to believe that Trump was mentally unstable, incapable of and uninterested in the complexities of governing and focused only on retaining power. There was palpable fear, even among some Republican leaders, that Trump was so unhinged and desperate that he might start a war or try to use the military to retain power. His distraction likely played a role in the continued spread of COVID and  his administration’s failure to respond appropriately.

These concerns, which continue in the wake of the January 6 insurrection that Trump inspired and encouraged, raise the gravest questions about the capacity of the American democratic republic, and the Constitution on which it is based, to survive the presidency of an incompetent psychopath like Trump.

Thus far, the only action against the insurrectionists has been to arrest just over 700 of the perpetrators out of what appeared to be several thousand involved in the assault. No charges have been leveled against anyone in Congress or the Trump administration in relation to the attempted coup. Trump continues to claim in every available forum, without any factual basis and in the face of more than 60 defeats in legal proceedings, that the election was stolen. His supporters in Congress continue to obstruct President Biden’s efforts to end the pandemic and restore the economic health of the country.

Republicans around the country continue to alter election rules, gerrymander districts and prepare to overturn the results of any election defeats they may experience in 2022 and 2024. The Doomsday Clock on American democracy is ticking down and, as far as can be told, more than a year after Joe Biden’s election, no meaningful actions to hold the real leaders of the January 6 coup attempt accountable has been made.

Watch this video, produced by Don Winslow Films, listing 19 critical questions central to the January 6 insurrection, that remain unaddressed as far as anyone can tell.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z2cG1PIhLIA

We are told we must be patient, that building a solid criminal case against a former president requires time. To a lesser extent the same “principle” is offered regarding the members of Congress who actively promoted the insurrection and have worked very hard to sustain a ludicrous phantasmagorical version of what occurred on January 6.

I understand the need for careful preparation, but in a little over a month we will have reached the one-year anniversary of the attack on Congress. I ask what evidence of conspiracy, perjury, sedition and obstruction of justice, to mention just a few of Trump and team’s major crimes, is missing? Has a grand jury been impaneled?

As Don Winslow’s video compellingly asks, why have so many key witnesses not been subpoenaed by the House Select Committee and placed under oath? What kind of investigation is this? Are we going to get another version of the Mueller Report that says we can’t find enough evidence to indict but neither do we exonerate? How could such a conclusion be reached without a full investigation? Mueller failed to fully investigate, as revealed in Andrew Weissmann’s book, discussed at length in an earlier post in this blog, “Lawless White House” – the Mueller Report – “Oh! What A Tangled Web We Weave …” https://bit.ly/32GUDA1

Trump is infamous for using legal processes to stall and delay investigations and actions against his multi-various criminal activities and civil offenses. If the government takes much longer, there will be no chance for meaningful action while Republicans scheme to undermine the democratic process whose survival is central to a full accounting from Trump and his enablers. I am encouraged, not much but more than zero, by the fact that the Biden administration has not announced that it is closing any investigations but that is not sufficient.

Winter for American democracy is theatening and once it is here, there may be no chance for a renewal.

 

 

 

What If There is No End to the Pandemic?

We are all naturally inclined to think about important events as having relatively clear beginnings and ends. Especially when the subject is troublesome, our innate desire for clarity and safety often leads to unrealistic expectations. This is likely part of our psychological conditioning throughout life.

Summer, like the other seasons, starts and ends. Bad weather can be terrible, but it comes and then ends. We get comfort from knowing that it will.

We also know that illnesses “recycle.” We know we can catch colds and the flu. So, most normal people bundle up against the elements, take cold medicines (mostly to relieve symptoms until the body’s systems kill the cold virus), get flu shots. Other illnesses are different. Cancer, emphysema, kidney failure and many others do not just go away after a simple medical intervention. No one is immune to them.

We also know that the weather is changing, driven by climate change. Storms in many places are more frequent and more severe. A few people, some never heard from again, decide to “hunker down” and “ride out” such storms. Most run when told to evacuate and live to run another day. We don’t want the bad weather to return but we know that it will. We want it to go as soon as possible. Many people thus drive their cars immediately after a bad snowstorm, apparently just because they think they can. I suspect it’s their way of reassuring themselves that the bad news ends.

This phenomenon is present in the response to COVID. We desperately want it to “end” and to have life return to “normal.” For most of us, the year 2020 will be the worst in our lives, one we desperately don’t want to repeat. Unfortunately, the evidence indicates that may be an illusion when it comes to the COVID pandemic.

It is now reported, https://n.pr/3c0G5fF, that the COVID virus is present in the nation’s vast and widely dispersed white-tailed deer population (estimated 30 million in US alone, equivalent to about 10 percent of the US human population). The story is getting relatively little attention in mainstream media, compared, for example, to the “gripping” story of NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ lying about his vaccination, then contracting COVID, then being forced to sit out a game that his team lost – oh, yes, the story was extensively reported. Even Forbes covered it. An entranced nation awaits Rodgers’ return.

Meanwhile, back in the world where human lives and the national/global economy is under threat, and as reported by NPR:

A recent survey of white-tailed deer in the Northeast and Midwest found that 40% of them had antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. Now veterinarians at The Pennsylvania State University have found active SARS-CoV-2 infections in at least 30% of deer tested across Iowa during 2020. The study, published online last week, suggests that white-tailed deer could become what’s known as a reservoir for SARS-CoV-2. That is, the animals could carry the virus indefinitely and spread it back to humans periodically….

During April to December of last year, about 30% of the deer that they tested were positive for SARS-CoV-2 by a PCR test. And then during the winter surge in Iowa, from Nov. 23, 2020 to Jan. 10, about 80% of the deer that they tested were infected. At the peak of the surge … the prevalence of the virus in deer was effectively about 50 to 100 times the prevalence in Iowa residents at the time.

The COVID variants in the deer matched those in humans.

The deer species in question is native to North American, Central America and the northern part of South America. Their capacity to move into and thrive in new habitats is well known.

The NPR article notes that the important questions raised include whether COVID can be transmitted from the deer back to humans or to other animal categories such as livestock. And, of course, the presence of COVID virus in such a large population creates the conditions for further mutations, as has been found in the Netherlands and Poland.

The article does not mention what seems an equally or more important question. Deer are apparently not sickened and do not die from COVID-19 infection. WHY NOT? That issue surely ranks as a critical subject to study. Is there something unique about the deer immune systems that mutes the devastating effects the virus has had on millions of humans? If so, that understanding could be the source of new vaccines to combat what seems like the inevitable persistence of COVID-19 for the foreseeable and perhaps indefinite future.  No matter how much we may wish it were otherwise.

 

Dear Mayor Bowser

I am inspired to publish this now because I received your News message of October 15 entitled Accelerating Roadway Safety Projects. You stated a planned “acceleration of roadway safety improvements across DC,” driven by a wave of “traffic violence.” One of the primary solutions was the reduction of the default speed limit to 20 mph, although you recognized that speed is not the only problem – it’s also “distracted driving or a refusal to share the road.” Indeed.

One of the major “solutions” proposed is your request to DDOT “to move forward with a campaign to accelerate the construction of roadway safety improvement projects that will better protect pedestrians. This includes the installation of speed humps, stop signs, and right turn hardening measures. Starting this week, and continuing annually, DDOT will target 100 intersections that are within the District’s high-crash, high-injury corridors.”

Before going further, I suggest that solving the “traffic violence” problem is not achievable by placing obstacles in the path of already frustrated drivers. Speed humps may slow a car temporarily but if they lead to rapid acceleration after driving over one, the purpose seems defeated. Similarly, stop signs work if drivers stop and look before proceeding. If not, they can create more of a hazard as people in a hurry run through them. This happens every day all over the city.

While it may appear otherwise initially, rest assured that I am on your side. You have a difficult job for reasons too well known to reiterate here. Take what I offer as a good faith effort to help. As background, I moved to the District in December 2020, following three years in New York City. Before that, I lived in Northern Virginia (Falls Church, Reston, Alexandria) beginning in 1967, so I am no stranger to this area.

It is useful to begin with consideration of some general principles. The government is essentially a joint effort, funded with community money, to establish some rules within which a civilized society can function safely and fairly. This includes rules designed to establish order in what would otherwise be a chaotic, every-person-for-himself madhouse with high risks for everyone. Without such rules, the situation would resemble the Tragedy of the Commons in which each person would act in a manner designed to benefit him alone even though the result is destruction of the common good and losses for everyone. Today, DC roads resemble the Tragedy of the Commons because gross and serious violations of the laws, rules-of-the-road and common sense are rampant.

To be clear, I am not referring to “law and order” in the Republican/Tea Party/right-wing sense of the term, nor do I want to live in a “police state.”  The goal is a regime that, with reasonable compliance, benefits everyone – drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians. Everyone enjoys the benefits of more order, smoother traffic flow, less stress and more safety. There is an irreducible minimum of order that must be maintained to prevent chaos and avoidable harms.  DC appears to be well beyond that threshold.

For context, most days I drive two roundtrips from the West End (Washington Circle area) to the east end of town (10th & K), using L Street and returning west on I Street. When the traffic is unusually slow on I Street, I often move up to K Street for the return leg. Total roundtrip distance is exactly 4.1 miles. What occurs around me almost every day borders on unbelievable but it’s all true. A very select example includes:

Just this morning, we were confronted by a car traveling the wrong way on a one-way street (11th Street NW). The driver just kept coming, veering away at the last minute and turning the corner behind us. He was either completely oblivious or determined to place himself and us at risk to avoid turning around and driving in the proper direction.

Later, as I sat waiting for the light to change at Pennsylvania and 25th Street NW, two people, at least in their 30s, walked across Pennsylvania in reliance on the “walk” sign that was clearly lit. A car headed east on Pennsylvania ran the red lights facing west, passing between the pedestrians. Apparently, neither of them was aware of the danger – each had his nose buried in a cell phone and never looked up as the car raced between them.

A white Range Rover on K Street going west abruptly moved into the right lane in front of me with no signal, then a few blocks later, drove through a red light, turned left in front of the cars in the left lane and continued down the cross street, thereby also illegally crossing the service road on the other side.

A red truck in Washington Circle stopped at a red light, then drove thru it.

A driver ran three red lights in rapid succession in Dupont Circle.

It is routine to encounter drivers on M Street in Georgetown going 40 mph and more with impunity.

Illegal parking during rush hours is rampant. By taking up what would be traffic lanes, these parkers restrict the driving space for cars, leading to congestion, anxiety and angry, reckless driving behavior. Many sections of L Street are down to one lane in many places due to rush hour parking on sections already narrowed by construction sites. Many days a week the van in the photo below is illegally parked during evening rush in front of 1100 L Street NW:

Speaking of narrowed streets, the decision to block the left lane of the L Street/20th Street corner with pylons while allowing parking along the right side has reduced L Street at that intersection to one lane.

The result is that many drivers are surprised to find the left lane blocked and struggle at the last moment to enter the traffic flow in the one remaining lane of traffic. Conflict!

Worse yet, the complexity of the pylon arrangement misleads many drivers who then make a left turn from the remaining traffic lane, crossing the bike lane and the actual left turn lane, defeating the purpose of the pylon arrangement to provide additional protection to bicyclists.

The apparent absence of law enforcement in the city has led to other dangerous practices:

Pedestrians routinely slow-walking through intersections with nose buried in can’t-wait-to-be- read cell phone messages

Scooters/motorcyclists/bicyclists lane-splitting among cars in traffic lanes, zigzagging among the cars to get ahead

Scooters suddenly flying off the sidewalk at intersections to enter traffic

Red-light violations everywhere – by cars, trucks and bicyclists – often without even showing down

Left turns on K Street across multiple traffic lanes to enter the service road going the opposite way, in effect a risky U-turn, causing much sudden lane shifting

Turning from the wrong lane, usually with no signal – failure to use turn signals is rampant everywhere

The city’s installation of bus-only lanes, sometimes changing every block or two, has created additional parking space for trucks and cars alike. Buses for which the lanes were intended are forced to veer into car traffic lanes to get back. There is no apparent enforcement.

The most egregious and often-repeated violations of good driving practices are (1) failing to use the turn signal to indicate lane-changes/turns on the streets and in the roundabouts, and (2) turning from the center lane in either direction across the actual turning lane. These happen every day on my short roundtrip.

Then there is the matter of noise. As noted, I have lived in New York City and am no stranger to the realities of compacted urban living. There is, however, a difference between the unavoidable sounds of a city, cars and buses, aircraft overhead, etc. and the entirely preventable racket made by people who get some bizarre satisfaction from drawing attention to themselves by making unnecessary noise. These include motorcycles with punched-out mufflers, or no real mufflers at all, and cars with mufflers designed to make huge bursts of sound during acceleration and braking. These cars often display spoilers on the trunk and are in the style of “muscle cars.” The drivers who race the engines in traffic, do high-rpm “jack rabbit” starts and engine-assisted stops are trying to draw attention and they do, along with a large dose of irritation at the unnecessary noise they produce. Their behavior screams “look at me, look at me!” It is irritating and distracting.

The city has, apparently, determined to address these issues by trying to force traffic to slow down, as noted in the Mayor’s news message above. Reducing speed limits may seem an easy and appropriate defense, but speed limits that are too low likely cause more problems than they solve. Take a drive on the 40 mph GW Parkway, for example. Anyone trying to comply with that speed limit on the four-lane divided road will find other drivers speeding around them, frequently showing anger, impatience and dangerous driving. Average actual speeds in those areas are vastly higher whenever traffic volume permits and often even when it doesn’t.

It seems most drivers most of the time assess the risk of getting a ticket or being involved in or causing an accident as vastly lower than the costs of being a few minutes later at their destination. There is little question that this happens on DC streets every day all day everywhere. My casual but repeated observation of DC driving behavior suggests a widespread belief among drivers that there simply are no meaningful constraints on their behavior – no laws, no rules, no risk of being caught while endangering others.

Studies in the Netherlands support the idea that higher speeds, both generally and in relation to other cars, produce more crashes with greater damage to drivers and others affected. https://www.littlerock.gov/media/2484/the-relation-between-speed-and-crashes.pdf [the Institute for Road Safety Research] But US studies suggest that may not be the whole story and that “posted limits are not the cause of auto accidents – reckless driving is.” https://www.hg.org/legal-articles/the-effects-that-speed-limits-have-on-auto-accidents-30226

The last cited article states that

A method known as the “85th percentile” is used by traffic engineers to establish speed limits. This tactic operates under the assumption that most drivers will travel at a speed that is reasonable, sensible and comfortable to them on any given roadway, regardless of the posted limit. Speed limits are set at a number that separates the bottom 85% from the top 15%. For example, if the speeds of 100 vehicles are measured and 85 vehicles are traveling at 37 mph or less, the speed limit for the road could be set at 35 mph. [emphasis added]

A California study,

showed that higher speed limits set in 1995 and 1996 did not increase the rate of fatal or injury traffic crashes. In fact, actual travel speeds on roads with increased speed limits barely changed. People were already traveling faster than previous speed limits, and once speed limits were altered they generally did not speed faster than their comfort zone…. Although findings across the country are conflicting, they have shown that drivers are by-and-large practical and cautious. In essence, posted limits are not the cause of auto accidents – reckless driving is. [emphasis added]

At the risk of exposing my confirmation bias, those US observations are consistent with my day-to-day experience in DC. Lowering speed limits to levels that most drivers will find unreasonably constraining and putting speed bumps and stop signs in more places, will not change that. Such policies simply make more people into scofflaws, but they won’t likely change outcomes much if at all.

What then to do?

First, identify some of the main drivers of the problem and put resources against them. These would certainly include illegal parking in rush hour and in places where such parking materially increases congestion and conflict. The return on investment to DC from a well-managed team of “meter monitors would likely be very high.

Second, hire, train and deploy small teams to monitor driver behavior on problematic streets and intersections. Take videos of excessively dangerous practices and have another team member stop the car and issue tickets. This is not much more complicated than fielding teams of police to use radar and then flag down speeders. Observation of vehicles in the “circles” alone would likely more than pay for the costs of the teams.

Third, use the email addresses of DC-licensed drivers to remind them of certain rules-of-the-road. Explain in stark terms that certain behaviors will no longer be tolerated and that if stopped after being notified, the consequences will be serious.

I do not suggest these steps will solve all the problems. Even a 25 percent reduction in aberrant driving would be a worthy achievement and city revenues would increase significantly.

As for noise, the solutions are similar. There is no reason that the city should put up with people who deliberately make noise just to attract attention. Horn honking by automobiles (and frequently by impatient bus drivers) should be outlawed unless essential in an emergency. You get what you tolerate. DC has a Noise Ordinance.

Section 20-2700 of the DC Municipal Regulations states,

It is the declared public policy of the District that every person is entitled to ambient noise levels that are not detrimental to life to life, health, and enjoyment of his or her property. It is hereby declared that excessive or unnecessary noises within the District are a menace to the welfare and prosperity of the residents and businesses of the District. It is the declared public policy of the District to reduce the ambient noise level in the District to promote public health, safety, welfare, and the peace and quiet of the inhabitants of the District, and to facilitate the enjoyment of the natural attraction of the District.

This regulation reflects a serious quality-of-life problem in the city. Enforce it.

The cars in question usually are Mustangs or sports cars/muscle cars that look like them, often fitted with a rear spoiler. The noise they emit is usually coincident with moving at high speed through crowded streets in places like Georgetown’s M Street and less-crowded (at least now) thoroughfares like Pennsylvania Avenue. Even casual observation by enforcement would readily identify locations where deliberate noise violations, and often related dangerous driving, occur daily. This past Sunday I observed a motorcyclist riding twice through the same Georgetown neighborhood gunning his unmuffled engine for no purpose other than making noise.

In addition to the obvious benefits to safety and good order, active enforcement of traffic safety and noise control would also benefit the city’s finances. The cost of a reasonably trained force of meter monitors, traffic monitoring teams (all of whom do not have to be police officers) focused on serious violations and repeated noise ordinance violations would contribute significant revenue to fund the city’s other obligations. Everyone wins.

 

 

 

The Road Not Taken

Kudos to President Biden for taking the hard but right path to restoring the physical and economic health of the country. Shame on those who continue to harp on the ignorant and irrationally resistant themes of “my rights” at the expense of the health and welfare of others. ENOUGH!

We’re at the fork in the road. Nothing short of a full-on frontal attack on the virus is going to get us out of this mess. The great American poet Robert Frost captured the idea in his famous poem, The Road Not Taken:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Biden has taken the road that many politicians would eschew – the one that will, and has, inevitably create another furor. Rather than the “safe path,” Biden has shown the courage of a leader by doing the right thing rather than the safe or easy route. You can hide from destiny only so long, as this great story reminds us:

A merchant in Baghdad sent his servant to the market.
The servant returned, trembling and frightened. The
servant told the merchant, “I was jostled in the market,
turned around, and saw Death.

“Death made a threatening gesture, and I fled in terror.
May I please borrow your horse? I can leave Baghdad
and ride to Samarra, where Death will not find me.”

The master lent his horse to the servant, who rode away,
to Samarra.

Later the merchant went to the market, and saw Death in
the crowd. “Why did you threaten my servant?” He asked.

Death replied, “I did not threaten your servant. It was
merely that I was surprised to see him here in Baghdad,
for I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra. 

The choice we face now, that we must face, is between aggressively striking at the virus with all the tools at our disposal or continuing to beg the irrational and uninformed to do the right thing. The former has a chance to stop the pandemic, to take advantage of the astonishing opportunity that the rapid deployment of vaccines has provided. The latter approach has virtually certain terrible consequences: more illness, more death, more permanently damaged bodies.

The reality is that the vaccines are safe and effective. The reality is that the rapid spread of the Delta variant has again overwhelmed the nation’s medical capabilities. COVID infections that are mainly in unvaccinated individuals are denying needed medical services for people with other medical conditions.

I have read some of the insane rantings of primarily right-wing and libertarian “authorities” who claim to have inside knowledge that the virus was released deliberately by agents of the federal government who are cashing in on the vaccines. These people claim that the vaccines contain various poisons, microchips and who knows what else.

It seems that one can always find someone who claims to have the inside track on awful secrets and conspiracies that are constantly being plotted against the rest of humanity. These sometimes include people with “medical credentials,” but often they are former workers in the pharmaceutical industry who are certain that they have inside information to expose the crimes being perpetrated in the name of … whatever. They readily accept the plausibility of conspiracies involving many thousands of people around the globe, no one willing to spill the beans, all in the name of “follow the money” or some other cliché that substitutes for actual thought.

We see this same theme played out in science fiction movies and what I call “caper movies” in which bad guys pull off, at least temporarily, extraordinary schemes to steal, blow up, capture huge sums of money, power over the world, etc. Movies like Air Force One, Die Hard and so many others. I have struggled through a few episodes of a TV series called Eureka that is loaded with utterly implausible, preposterous concepts and science-like doublespeak and gibberish. Some people apparently take such stories to be true. It’s an easy shift from one phantasmagorical storyline to another. Harry Potter is real, flying broomsticks and all.

Reality is more mundane. Two kinds of sickness pervade the country. One is the COVID-19 virus. We’ve learned a lot about it and about how to prevent its worst manifestations. Vaccines, masks, social distancing – that’s pretty much the essence. Study after study confirms the validity of these measures, if, at least, they are applied broadly and consistently.

But it’s damned inconvenient and mighty annoying. COVID has shuttered many businesses, interfered with our fun and instilled a deep-seated fear in many people that they and their loved ones, including children for whom they are responsible, are being exposed to an invisible, highly transmissible and deadly disease. More than 648,000 dead from a disease that our former president assured us would “soon disappear like magic.” Damned annoying.

The other sickness is the resistance to the solution. We know what to do but for many Americans, the disease isn’t the real enemy. The real enemy is the government. Many people appear to believe the government unleashed the virus. Why would the government do that? Did the government want to destroy the economy? Weaken our national defenses? Reduce the population? End civilization? Apparently, many believe so.

Logic and reason have little to do with this mindset. It’s analogous to those who argue that the January 6 insurrection was actually the work of the winners of the election who wanted to stop the certification of their win so that the loser, whom they hate, would be installed as the winner. That make sense to you? If so, take two giant steps to the right.

Along comes the new president who starts an unprecedented and initially successful campaign to deliver life-saving and pandemic-ending medicine into tens of millions of citizens without any meaningful adverse consequences and at no cost. And yes, yes, I understand we can’t prove that ten years from now there won’t be some inexplicable adverse outcome for somebody. There is no scientific or medical reason to suspect that could or would happen, but we can’t predict the future with 100% certainty, so ….

But, you know, in the long run we’re all dead anyway. In the meantime, we can return to “normal life.” All we have to do is get vaccinated and comply with a few annoying but otherwise trivial practices a while longer with a few minimal restrictions on our behavior.

But, no, this is apparently asking too much for millions of Americans. They have their “rights” to protect, regardless of the consequences. “Freedom” is their watchword. Don’t tell me what to do even if it’s for my own good. Sounds like a teenager who thinks he knows everything already and is invulnerable. Or the guy with the boat who insists on going out in the hurricane because he can “handle anything.”

Many of these people end up in the ICU, begging for the vaccine, only to be told by doctors, “it’s too late for you. You should have taken the vaccine earlier. It can’t help you now. Nothing can help you now.”

The solution is in our hands, if only our minds will allow us to see it. I despair of it, after engaging yet another person who on first encounter seemed reasonable and thoughtful, but then insisted “we are being lied to” and that the vaccines contain deadly poisons that make them magnetic. She argued with me that the vaccination program was unnecessary because “natural immunity” was superior protection to the vaccines and lasted longer. How she knows this: read on the internet.

I end where I began. History will record that Joe Biden acted justly and rightly in ordering mandatory vaccination programs, with, in most cases, very generous opt-outs for people with true medical conflicts and genuine religious objections (I don’t know what religion that is, but the exemptions are available).

I find some inspiration in these closing words from Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

 

First, Nothing – Then ….

In the beginning, the Earth was a void. Just a roundish rock, really. Lots of volcanoes and other nasty things in the early times. How it came to exist, or more importantly, why it came to exist is a question to which mankind will almost certainly never have the answer. Some people are happy to simply believe that some spirit put it here and then planted humans and all the other biological forms. Whatever.

In my worldview, over an unimaginably long time, evolution took its course. Single-celled “creatures” formed, evolved … you know the story in general outline. That’s more than enough for most of us. We could continue to struggle with the question of how to reconcile those biological facts with the spirit mythology but, for me at least, that’s a waste of time. It turns out that evolution gave humans the ability to believe two or more inconsistent concepts at the same time. We live with the cognitive dissonance, partly by compartmentalizing. You can pray on your knees in your worship space on Sunday to the spirit of your choice (there are many to choose from) and then drive in your high-tech car or search for information on your computer/smart-phone and never give a thought to how both are valid. So be it. It’s who we are.

But on this day, this day of terrible memories, on which many say they are inspired to new hope, we should be reminded of the intersection of inconsistent ideas and what that can mean. Men claiming to be men of faith who believed we were evil incarnate decided to teach us a lesson. They used their “faith” to justify killing almost 3,000 people and had hoped to kill many more.

In truth, the actions they took on 9/11 led to many, many more deaths and much, much more suffering. The words of the prince in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet come to mind:

See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,

That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love!

And I, for winking at your discords, too

Have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punished.

Evolution produced the cerebral cortex in the human brain. Over millennia, homo sapiens became the Earth’s dominant species. With that came the capacity to change everything. We could do much more than just kill another animal or eat another plant to survive. We were way smarter than that. We learned agriculture, invented tools and machines, built enormous cities, how to fly in machines, how to write and share knowledge.

But there were hard times too. Times when food was scarce. Times when another “group” had access to resources other “groups” wanted. Dominance rather than sharing was apparently critical to survival and thus the prime instinct, to live on, led to competition, fighting, killing. More for me, less for you. I win, you lose. Too bad. At least for today.

Mankind evolved to be the smartest and dumbest creature on the planet. Able to perform miracles of learning and healing and loving, mankind also learned to hate, to fight even when the fight was self-defeating. To change the planet in ways that now make it likely to become uninhabitable. Yet, we continue. The same mistakes. The same hates.

Compartmentalizing.

Love your fellow man. Love nature. Then kill them both if you think it’s necessary to survive … or maybe just to have more. Acquisitiveness – another human trait. Get more stuff because more stuff is better than less stuff, and it shows other humans your superiority. Your dominance in the hierarchy. Humans are very invested in hierarchies. Animals, too, are invested in hierarchies and one might conclude that hierarchies are essential elements of life. But, of course, animals generally don’t just go invade their neighboring animals’ territory.

Is there another way? I don’t know. As a species, humans have the capacity to do the right thing. We’ve created countries, nation-states, wrapped ourselves in “national identity,” “ethnic identity,” “cultural identity,” “sexual identity,” take your pick. So many identities.

Identities help us know who is in our group and it doesn’t take much thought to see how this can be important in the world we have made. But identities are, by their nature, separating. Categorizing. If you’re X and I’m M, we’re in different groups and never the twain ….

So, here we are. Smart and stupid at the same time. Victims of our own intelligence. Suffering now from an unseen enemy, the coronavirus. Most of us are grateful for the science and scientists who brought us a life-saving vaccine. We are grateful for the healthcare workers who put themselves at risk when we are most desperate for their help and comfort. And some of us, a remarkably large number, believe in conspiracies, in dark images of evil people doing insane and immoral things. This group turns away from vaccines and other established public health measures and consumes instead known poisons and unknown other substances, placing their faith in politicians rather than scientists.

Those people walk among us. Many are our friends and neighbors. Many are dying. Yet they persist in believing the unbelievable. Compartmentalizing to prevent being told what to do or to have their “rights” diminished. These people don’t care much about the rest of us, though many often attend religious services and say many prayers. When there is a mass shooting, they send “thoughts and prayers,” but they resist meaningful measures to control violence, and the poverty and desperation that often precedes it, because … they have “rights.”

I am rambling so I will stop soon. I am distraught, I confess, at the idea that years of my inevitably shrinking future life are being stolen by ignorance and deceit. I’ll never get those years back. Neither will the victims of 9/11, the dead and the families and friends of the dead. Never get them back. The permanent silence that awaits us all draws closer by the day, and I wonder why it is that the smartest creatures on the planet continue to be the dumbest. I wonder why we can’t see and correct the self-destructive paths down which our evolutionary history has driven us. We can look back and see history. Other animals can’t. We can look ahead and predict the future. Other animals can’t. We don’t have to wait until the planetary water hole has completely dried up before figuring out a way to stop the loss. What is holding us back from using our intelligence to do what intelligence demands?

Maybe we’re just not intelligent enough. I don’t know.

 

Facing the Abyss – What Should CDC Do Now?

The COVID-19 virus that Trump predicted would “just go away” has now killed More than648,000 Americans out of more than40 million cases. https://wapo.st/38PnK3N

The leading states in new deaths are, unsurprisingly, South Carolina (+36%), Florida (+32%) and Texas (+24%). As cooler weather approaches and more people stay indoors more of the time, the cases/deaths toll can be expected to rise, especially in places with low vaccination rates and persistent refusal to follow national health guidance on masking and distancing. It is what it is.

Predictions now always face opposition from the determined crowd of COVID deniers, anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers who are doing their best to ignore reality and push the country closer to the abyss. This is happening despite the overwhelming evidence that the vaccines are safe and effective and that masking works to reduce infection rates. The excuses offered for rejecting vaccines, masking, etc. are too well known to warrant recital.

The CDC and the leaders of the healthcare community that know the most about all this have, to be sure, made “mistakes” during the runup from early 2020 to now. Those mistakes are an inevitable part of the steep learning curve during a novel virus epidemic, especially when combined with inept and corrupt national leadership promoting bogus cures and inspiring resistance to promising candidates to contain the spread. We are where we are.

The question now is what could be done to change the national narrative. I address this with full awareness that millions of Americans would rather risk a horrible death than be seen to “comply” with national health guidance. There may be nothing we can do about them, but I think there are some things we haven’t tried yet.

Starting with the CDC, setting aside the chaotic approach in the early days when Trump’s political pressure seemed to influence CDC’s public posture, I have been troubled by what I label “website data bloat.” The CDC Data Tracker [https://bit.ly/3hd72A0] is the object of my derision. The site is an extraordinary trove of information for Job and others with much patience, consisting of a multitude of boxes and lists and maps, many of which are redundant or require some study to fully understand what is being shown.

I speculate that the site is the product of turning over the communication function to programmers who believe more is always better and just don’t know where to stop or how to organize information to tell a story rather than “show what we’ve got.” But, whatever the root cause, the site, for all its robustness, does not communicate the story as dramatically as it could. And if anything cries out for dramatic storytelling, it is the continued, and avoidable, rampage of COVID through America.

It should come as no surprise at this late date that, having been blunted in impact among most older people (who, generally, have a higher percentage of vaccinated individuals than other cohorts), is turning its mindless “attention” toward other groups, including children, many of whom are too young to be vaccinated according to the latest protocols.

In my view, parents of young children who refuse vaccination should be prosecuted for child endangerment, but we know that’s not going to happen. We can, however, more effectively communicate the danger.

This is how. It will require a fundamental change in the way the government does things.

Instead of presenting a vast array of charts/graphs/pathways to still more charts/graphs and offering data in various formats (gross, per capita, per this and that), focus on one thing: the message. This is a situation in which the data should be used not just to inform but to persuade. To teach. To affect.

So, what to do?

First, move all the “just data” charts/graphs to the back of the site with a simple index of what’s there.

Second, in the front, using graphs backed by data, show the key facts in a direct comparison of, for example, deaths of vaccinated versus deaths of unvaccinated people over time. Include data on adverse effects of vaccinations to the extent it exists.

Third, add to the data on cases and deaths, the data on known cases of adverse health impacts (heart, lung, brain, etc.) for COVID “survivors,” information that has largely been ignored.

Fourth, stop focusing on the number of people with one shot. We know that for the main two vaccines, two shots are essential and that’s the key number to show. Focusing on one shot is misleading.

Fifth, show the damn videos!

A wealth of videos exists showing, especially, the end stage of COVID experience in hospital ICUs: the ones where the unvaccinated, wired and tubed beyond recognition, are facing intubation and medically induced comas and are begging doctors and nurses for vaccination and “do anything to save my life.” Show those videos in TV ads in lieu of the bland “please do the right thing” messages now in use. Show the healthcare providers, dressed like aliens from Planet X, saying, “I’m sorry but it’s too late. Vaccines can’t help you now.”

 Some people will see this as unacceptably harsh. To them I say, if you don’t like it, don’t watch. But if done properly (get some experts in this kind of dramatic communication on the task), this stands some chance of jolting resisters into doing the intelligent thing and rushing to get vaccinated.

Make the message simple and clear and unmistakable – if you don’t get vaccinated, this is what may await you. Or your family. Your children. Do it now.

We know from experience that presenting the public with vast quantities of unconsumable statistics is not achieving the level of success we need to stop the pandemic. It is time to pull out all the stops. Stop acting like the government and act like you’re trying to sell something: public health. Survival.

Do it now. We’re almost out of time. The abyss is nearer by the day. It doesn’t have to be this way. Act like it’s the emergency it really is. Just do it.

An Uncensored View of Facebook “Censorship”

I have no problem with a social media platform that, having given the multitudes free rein to publish their views for others to see, has finally decided to address the use of the platform for promoting false information about, among other things, public health, politics, public policy issues (guns, for example). The attempt to prevent the use of these generally free platforms to spread disinformation is not subject to “free speech” principles under the First Amendment that only relates to government action. In fact, and in law, attempts to have the government interfere with the content-control policies of private platforms are themselves, in most cases, in conflict with the First Amendment.

The issues are complex, obviously. To some of us, there are some “opinions” that simply are based on false ideas and platforms do not have to serve as passive instruments for the spreading of such information. Examples abound but certainly include the QAnon conspiracy theory, the claim that the 2020 election was rife with fraud and the claim that the January 6 attack on the Capitol was not actually Trump supporters but was BLM and other left-wing groups pretending to be Trump supporters.

On that latter issue, I cannot fail to note the “reasoning” behind the Trumpers’ argument that the winners of the election, disguised as Trump supporters, tried to stop the certification of the Biden victory and install the person those left-wing groups despise the most as president and dictator. As one Twitter meme notes, to believe that takes a special kind of stupid.  Nevertheless, it appears that many Americans have convinced themselves that the claim is true. Facebook, in my view, has no obligation to allow the propagation of such nonsense by permitting postings containing that claim.

Now, considering what I’m about to tell you, you may chuckle to yourself and think, “well, wise guy, you got hoisted by your own petard,” because Facebook has “censored” one of your posts. Ha ha ha.

It is true that Facebook “unpublished” one of my posts. It was this one: Time for Strong Action Against Unruly Air Travelers, https://bit.ly/38m76Zb Facebook said the post violated its Community Standards because it was “spam.” Facebook defines “spam” this way:

We don’t allow people to get likes, follows, shares or video views in a way that’s misleading to others.

We define spam as things like:

·      Repeating the same comment

·      Getting fake likes, follows, shares or video views

·      Coordinating likes and shares to mislead others about the popularity of something

At that point in the Facebook process, you are given two choices: Back or Continue. Choose Continue and you get this gem:

You disagreed with the decision

We usually offer the chance to request a review, and follow up if we got decisions wrong

We have fewer reviewers available right now because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. We’re trying hard to prioritize reviewing content with the most potential for harm.

This means we may not be able to follow up with you, though your feedback helps us do better in the future.

Thank you for understanding.

Here you have one “choice:” Close.

So, Facebook has blocked the post but has no process by which to question that action. But, hey, thanks for understanding.

There are many aspects to this. First, the post was placed on my blog on May 25 and was placed on Facebook manually by me that same day per my usual practice. The notice from Facebook announcing my “violation” arrived August 26. I have no idea when the public’s view of the post was blocked. Facebook doesn’t know, doesn’t care.

Second, there is no plausible way that Facebook’s “system” could rationally conclude that the post in question was a repeat comment (I post each blog post manually on Facebook in two distinct places – my timeline and, if and only if relevant to the purposes of the group, to a private group of which I am a member; I have done this dozens of times and never been challenged by Facebook for duplicate postings).

Third, the post in question was simply placed on Facebook by inserting the link to it. No rational inference could be drawn that doing so was for the purpose of “Getting fake likes, follows, shares or video views,” whatever that means.

Fourth, there is no evidence, because it did not happen, that I tried “coordinating likes and shares to mislead others about the popularity of something.” I would have no idea how to do that even if I wanted to. And I don’t. The item was posted to be read by those interested.

It is a fact, however, that the post about unruly air passengers is the third most-read post since I started the blog. The explanation for that is simple: air travel is a popular subject, many of my followers are in the travel industry and … never mind, it’s just too obvious.

So, what are we left with as the explanation for Facebook’s delayed “decision” to “unpublish” my post is one thing: INCOMPETENCE. The so-called artificial intelligence that manages the Facebook censorship process is simply unable to do its job properly.

Is this better or worse than the purposes attributed to Facebook by many on the political right and the political left who claim every day that Facebook is engaged in some pernicious politically motivated campaign to stifle the views of the [insert ‘right’ or ‘left’ here]? I don’t know.

It’s dangerous, of course, to generalize from a single experience, but the Facebook action to bury my post seems blatantly unreasonable and downright stupid. It would be silly to think that Facebook’s algorithms were written to promote dangerous behavior on airplanes. Not even the most dedicated QAnon believer would …. well, those people might believe it but no one else would.

The action could not be the product of conscious thought by a rational person or “reviewer” as Facebook calls them. The post related to a public policy problem – a growing number of air travelers refusing to comply with flight crew instructions and airline policies regarding, among other things, wearing of masks to combat the spread of COVID. The passengers in question have engaged in various acts of violence that have, among other things, threatened the safety of aircraft in flight. Serious stuff. Some of them are being visited by huge fines for their misconduct. My argument was that the government should crack down even harder on that behavior. I proposed several additional policy actions that could help.

For some inexplicable reason, Facebook rates that as “spam.”

The most disturbing aspect of this, beyond the plain stupidity of it, is that Facebook has essentially said, “we’re too short-handed here to review your objection to our action, so… get lost. Thanks for understanding.” Not a chance.

Facebook’s financial statements for 2020 show more than $85 billion in Gross Revenue, an increase of 22 percent over 2019; Income from Operations up 36%; Operating Margin of 38%; Net Income up 58% and Provision for Income Taxes -58%. That’s right. Taxes down 58% with income up 58%.

If it chose to do so, Facebook can afford to hire more reviewers so that it’s “decisions” to block content are not merely arbitrary and capricious, yet it chooses to say, “so sorry, we’re short-handed so drop dead.” This strategy may work in the short term – it is in fact working now – but I question whether it’s viable in the long-term. On the other hand, this approach to business has worked for many giant companies in the past for extended periods. See Climate Change. Until, usually, competition did them in or forced major changes in how they do business. See American Automobile Companies. Time will tell about Facebook.

Meanwhile, yes, I am posting this post on Facebook. We’ll see what happens.

Afghanistan

Republicans are ecstatic that the mess in Afghanistan has given them another excuse for deflecting attention from the treasonous insurrection of January 6. Afghanistan is a mess, of course, and little that the White House can say about it is going to fix it in the near future, or ever. Understanding full well that the President is “responsible” for what happens on his watch, the sudden awakening of Republican and media angst over the plight of Afghan citizens is more than a little hypocritical and nonsensical.

That noted, I am not here to defend the seemingly failed planning by our military and intelligence people around the final departure of American and allied troops. I will just note before getting on with my points that the departure of Western troops from Afghanistan was never going to be met with the Taliban stepping back, popping some champagne, and waiting for the last troops and fleeing citizens to depart. The handwringing over this is, in my opinion, beyond absurd. And, after twenty years, it is simply ludicrous to suggest, as someone on CNN just did, that, ‘we promised them democracy – how can we just abandon them now?’ I will leave it to others to sort that out. Given the response so far, the media will have a lot to say about it.

My mission here is to place some context around the Afghanistan scenario, observations that some may find objectionable but which, I firmly believe, are reality.

Whatever the actual thinking was in sending American forces into Afghanistan, we were apparently trying to achieve two goals: (1) deny a base to Al Qaida-like terrorists, a task thought to be achievable by applying broad and constant military pressure against any “group” thinking of launching attacks against the United States in the vein of the September 11, 2001, and (2) while we were there, engage in some Western-style nation-building by promoting democratic political values and processes for adoption by the tribes and warlords that had dominated Afghan society for a very long time.

What could go wrong?

The one essential thing that went wrong, in my view, safely ensconced in my living room, is the same thing that went wrong in Vietnam, the first war officially “lost” by the United States since the country’s founding: we underestimated our adversaries. Déjà vu all over again.

Incidentally, “lost” in this setting doesn’t mean we were defeated. It means we didn’t win.

Americans have, I believe, been underestimating our adversaries since before the country was founded in 1787. The westward expansion from the original colonies followed the repression and subjugation of native populations east of the Mississippi River. Encounters with the Indians of the Western Plains met a formidable collection of adversaries, particularly the Comanche and Apache tribes. Underestimation of the native people, who were regarded as savages by white settlers and government/military alike, led to many deaths, until the white man’s superior firepower and ruthless violence finally overcame the natives’ resistance to expansion into their territory. Suggested reading: Empire of the Summer Moon.

The invincibility of the United States military was well-established in the American mind by the beginning of World War I and proved itself in World War II, albeit with many setbacks, not least of which was, of course, the Day of Infamy, the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that led to our entering the war in the first place. Not long after WWII ended, and after renewed isolationism reduced our military capabilities, the U.S. was caught by surprise again by the invasion of North Korea into South Korea. We suffered huge setbacks in that conflict as well, basically fighting to a draw, but coming away with some sense of having prevailed. North Korea did not get South Korea. We didn’t win, but neither did they.

Then there was Vietnam. Undeterred by the dismal failure of France to overcome resistance to the continued colonization of the country, the United States crept its way into full-throated engagement against the army of “little men in black pajamas” (a common way at the time of denigrating the enemy that was, in truth, winning the war). South Vietnam ostensibly was critical to U.S. interests in preventing communism from “taking over” Southeast Asia, a continuation of the “red menace” thinking of the 1950s. Accustomed to “winning” and to maintain the myth of American fighting superiority against all enemies, the U.S. government lied its way into an impossible situation: an unwinnable jungle war in which superior technology (total air superiority, napalm, carpet bombing, Agent Orange and more) failed to break the will of the resistance.

In January 1968, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese armies stunned the world with the Tet Offensive, launched country-wide on the Lunar New Year festival when many of the South Vietnamese forces were on holiday leave. https://bit.ly/3z0psuw While the battle(s) were ultimately won by Western forces, the cost was staggering. As the Wikipedia article notes,

The offensive had a strong effect on the U.S. government and shocked the U.S. public, which had been led to believe by its political and military leaders that the North Vietnamese were being defeated and incapable of launching such an ambitious military operation; American public support for the war declined as a result of the Tet casualties and the ramping up of draft calls.

The war went on for seven long years more, leaving us with the Pentagon Papers and the now iconic scene of an American helicopter airlifting terrified Vietnamese from a building in Saigon (not the American embassy).

Much happened thereafter even before the 1991 Operation Desert Storm to drive Iraq back out of Kuwait. Most of the details are lost to memories, but you can review them here. https://bit.ly/3sE6UxR Prepare to be jolted. Desert Storm did not take long and “victory,” once again, belonged to the Western coalition led by the United States. We were once again winners.

The confidence of Americans was then shaken to the core by the attacks of September 11, 2001. The enemy, it seemed, was roaming free within the country and, armed with boarding passes and box cutters, was able to murder thousands in a few minutes. The furious response at yet another Day of Infamy was not short in coming.

Undeterred by history, and fully aware of the failure of Russia to subordinate the country, the United States entered Afghanistan in 2001 and in 2003 invaded Iraq. The U.S. left Iraq “officially” in 2011 but military engagements continued largely outside the interest of media and the public. See https://bit.ly/2W8W8nt for a short history.

We remained in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban, and others, until President Trump, in what was to be his final year in office, negotiated an agreement with the Taliban (not including the Afghan government, our putative ally) to withdraw U.S. forces by May 1, 2021. President Biden, following up Trump’s prior decision and based on his own long-standing opposition to continuing a futile fight not strongly supported by the Afghan government or its people, decided to end the American military presence and ordered the final removal of U.S. troops. In about a week the Taliban launched a remarkable takeover of the country, leading to scenes of chaos at the Kabul airport as fleeing Afghans and Americans, who were warned of our imminent departure some time ago, tried to escape.

Chaos reigns in Afghanistan and the Republicans here have something new to cheer and deflect about. Officials in other countries are also quick to scoff at the “embarrassment” of a U.S. retreat in the face of the total collapse of the Afghan army that the U.S. spent 20 years training and funding and supplying. That’s not going to change.

The question remains — Why are we reliving, yet again, the tragic scenario of having fought a long and, in the end, futile war at staggering cost in treasure and, more importantly, human suffering?

There are, as always, many likely factors that contribute to the repetition of this behavior, but I believe there is one predominating force that drives the others. That is the core belief in American Exceptionalism.

Americans seem to have a compelling need for the myth of American Exceptionalism no matter what the evidence shows. It appears to be an essential element of national identity. The belief is reinforced regularly – in school lessons, in the celebration of July 4 Independence Day, in (at least in theory) Memorial Day celebrations and the formal ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery (Arlington gets 3 million visitors a year; many of them witness the changing of the guard at the Tomb) and the periodic national obsession with domination of the Olympic Games medal count.

A critical component of American Exceptionalism is that the country is invulnerable to invasion by foreign troops. America is especially blessed, I was taught at an early age, by its geographical position on the planet. It is “protected” on the north by Canada and in the south by Mexico, neither of which is a threat as a haven for an invading army. Of course, the advent of the airplane and the aircraft carrier changed the threat scenario as we learned on December 7, 1941. The well-worn aphorism, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” became popular despite our unusual place in the world. https://bit.ly/3AX01dS During the 1950s period of the nuclear arms race, people in my generation were constantly reminded of the new peril to our very survival. We literally stood on the brink of nuclear holocaust in what became the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.

We survived that threat, narrowly, and we “showed” the world in our response to the 9/11 attacks that the United States was still not to be trifled with. We were prepared to destroy entire countries and their civilizations to preserve our own.

But it was a shocking realization that we were not as secure as we thought, not as invulnerable to foreign or domestic threats after all and, after revelations like the torture in the Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq, not as pure of heart as we had been told.  Nevertheless, the insecurity fostered by changes in the world situation enabling our enemies to reach us with horrifying violence, of which we had been convinced we were immune, actually reinforced the commitment to the idea of American Exceptionalism. The more vulnerable we became, the more determined we were to believe in and act out the mythology of American Exceptionalism. If we weren’t so great, after all, why would they keep coming after us?

If we are the “best” of people, the purest example of the success of the Enlightenment, the people most committed to the preservation of democracy around the world, leaders of the Free World, then it follows we are not only exceptional but also entitled to special deference because of “who we are.” We hear this in political speech, among many other places, all the time. This mind-set primed many Americans to believe in the Fortress America idea, that we are essentially alone, that our very salvation as a nation and culture depends on “America First.” We are so special, so powerful, we don’t need other nations; America can go it alone. Trumpism.

Except that it’s just not true. We don’t much like to hear about it, but the fact is that the country was formed by taking, through force and artifice, the land of the natives who were here before the “white man” arrived. The evolution of the body politic led to a national constitution that, as an essential condition to its creation, formally embraced the idea that some people, brought here against their will and whose labor was taken without compensation, were less than fully human.

That ugly compromise with colonies whose economies and lifestyles were dependent upon human slavery conflicted with the moral fabric that underlay the national idea and eventually led to the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet I was “taught” in junior high school history class in the 1950s that the Civil War had nothing to do with enslaved people and we were not to discuss the subject in class. We now see that many Americans believe that the Confederacy was an honorable undertaking that gave rise to some abstract idea of “heritage” justifying, among other things, the continued display of the Confederate flag as a symbol equal, if not superior, to the Stars and Stripes of our national flag.

And while the war was won and the enslaved people technically freed, much of the country refused to accept the idea of equality. Jim Crow laws and decades of other forms of discrimination produced a huge and possibly permanent economic underclass. Recall that school desegregation was not officially ended in this country until 1954 and violent resistance to it continued long after.

The country has continued whistling by the graveyard, pretending to be something it is not, thereby preventing the national reckoning that, in the long run, could unite most of the population around a common set of principles. If you have not seen the marvelous scene from the TV series, The Newsroom, in which Jeff Daniels, playing the anchor man, appears on a panel discussion and is asked, “what makes America the greatest country in the world?,” you really owe it to yourself to watch it. You can see it here: https://bit.ly/3AUkQXt If you’ve seen it, watch it again.

It’s a bit out of date (2012) and a touch misogynist (though I suspect/hope the writers meant “men” to refer to humans) and some of the data has changed. Nevertheless, in many respects, it sounds in the present moment. It’s a powerful statement of reality that conflicts with the mythology that has built up around the history of the United States.

That truth is complicated, and complication is something the human mind tries to avoid. Myths are more attractive. They’re easy to articulate and easy to believe. You can read all about that in any good book on behavioral economics. You could start with Thinking, Fast & Slow by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, one of the originators of the concept.

Lest you think this is apologia for Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan, let me disabuse you now. That slogan presupposes something that is blatantly false and plays on fear: fear of losing, blaming others for the perceived loss while simultaneously giving the national treasure away to the already wealthy and to the corporations whose lust to consume at any cost our precious resources is boundless.

The MAGA slogan is a scam, perpetrated on the willing (74 million voted for Trump in 2020 despite everything known about his grift, incompetence, dishonesty and failure to be courageous when courage was the only currency that could have saved the country from more than 600,000 deaths to COVID-19). No, if you’ve read any of my prior posts in this blog, you should be clear that I am not about MAGA.

Let’s look at some facts. These are, like science, true whether you believe them or not.

The U.S. economy is large, with the highest Nominal GDP. https://bit.ly/3sEPzFa [all cited data is pre-pandemic; the economic and social devastation caused by COVID-19 is staggeringly large but not yet measured.] Our economic “system,” measured by GDP, is thus a huge success. But not without cost. The United States ranks second only to China in delivering carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (we are fourth in per capita emissions). https://bit.ly/3B1NFB9 The United States is a prototype example of the Tragedy of the Commons on a global scale. We’re big but not the best.

And, before you start chanting “we’re No. 1, we’re No. 1,” recall that we don’t produce nearly as much stuff as we did in the good old days, while we consume enormous amounts of almost everything imaginable and then some. Much of that “stuff” comes from other countries, as we learned to our chagrin during the pandemic when many supply chains failed. Thus, while “the U.S. economy is at the forefront of technology in many industries … it faces rising threats in the form of economic inequality, rising healthcare and social safety net costs, and deteriorating infrastructure.” https://bit.ly/37VcSB5 Let’s review just a few details.

Based on the “the percentage of people between the ages of 25 and 64 who have completed some kind of tertiary education in the form of a two-year degree, four-year degree or vocational program,” the United States ranks only sixth. https://cnb.cx/3xWa2pW  We lead the world in persons incarcerated per 100,000 population [https://bit.ly/3z7HEm4] There are more guns in private hands in the U.S. than in the next 9 countries combined. https://bit.ly/3iZwc6d The U.S. literacy rate ranks 125th in the world. https://bit.ly/3svc8Me Of the 37 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development (OECD), the U.S. had the third highest poverty rate. https://bit.ly/3sB0rnh Finally, the U.S. ranks 15th on the U.N. Education Index. https://bit.ly/2WdIu2g

All that said, most people with some awareness of world affairs and conditions would not trade places with citizens of other countries. Viewed in its entirety and all things considered, the United States remains a pretty good place to live for most of its inhabitants, especially the white population. But we cannot have a realistic view of our place in the world, let alone within the country, if we have a glassy-eyed fantasy version of reality about the country, its values and what we can expect or demand of it. One can always say, “we could do better,” but the Afghanistan situation was a long-term losing proposition. Our chances of accomplishing the original goals were limited to non-existent and after twenty years of trying, there is no point to pretending otherwise.

Maybe we could have prepared better, but let’s not forget that the outgoing administration refused to cooperate with Biden’s transition team. We can’t know for sure what the implications of that non-cooperation were, but it’s not an unreasonable speculation that they had an effect. In any case, the idea that there was a clean simple way to exit Afghanistan is pure fantasy.

The Taliban weren’t going to let a power vacuum exist after we left. The speed of their advance through the country, facing little to no opposition from the Afghan government forces, is the clearest indication of the inevitability of the chaos that ensued. All the handwringing and political theater isn’t going to change that.

It’s curious indeed that Republicans who were all in on Trump’s desire to seal the U.S. borders to prevent immigrants from entering are now all about admitting huge numbers of Afghans fleeing the Taliban. Or are they just expecting other countries to take them? Politics and mythology can easily confuse one’s thinking. It would be interesting if Republicans applied their newly discovered empathy for Afghans to the COVID-19 pandemic that is ravaging their states, overwhelming their healthcare systems and killing their children.

Afghanistan is lost. The central issue is not whether we could have done a better job with the exit of military forces. We could have. The real issue now is whether we will simply reinvent the history to say that we “won,” and continue the fantasy of American Exceptionalism while not actually doing much to make the fantasy a reality. How, for example, will the Western international community of nations relate to Afghanistan under Taliban control? What happens regarding the seemingly inevitable human rights issues that are going to arise immediately regarding women there? What will United States policy toward a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan be and how will it be enforced?

Everything reasonable that can be done to avoid unnecessary bloodshed during the continuing evacuation should, obviously, be done but the focus must now be on the future. That future is as uncertain as it has ever been. That’s not Joe Biden’s fault. It’s not even Donald Trump’s fault. At this point the idea of fault is beside the point. It falls to President Biden to try to fashion a workable answer in a country that still lives in a fantasy dream of who we are and what we can do in a modern world.

Norwegian Cruise Line Fights the Right Fight Against Ignorance

The case is Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, Ltd., et al. Plaintiffs, vs. Scott Rivkees, M.D., Defendant, in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida. The opinion was written by U.S. District Court Judge Kathleen Williams acting on the Plaintiff’s Motion for Preliminary Injunction. The defendant is the Surgeon General of Florida and the head of the Florida Department of Health.

The lawsuit was brought to enable Norwegian to protect its customers to the maximum extent possible in the face of directives from the Republican “small government” Governor of Florida who has forbidden cruise lines operating there on international itineraries to require use of face masks, vaccinations and proof of vaccinations.

Judge Williams’ thorough and carefully crafted 59-page opinion grants the plaintiff’s motion. This allows Norwegian to establish its own COVID health protocols, including requiring proof of vaccination as a condition for cruising. The opinion skewers the defense for its failure to present evidence on key issues. While it’s always tempting to blame this on the lawyers, the reality in this case is that the evidence for the defense simply doesn’t exist. The state’s attempt to prevent cruise lines from adopting safe health standards is a political maneuver, not a rational health policy decision with demonstrable roots in local health needs or medical science.

Judge Williams’ opinion should stand up well in the appeal that Governor DeSantis, known on Twitter as #DeathSantis, has announced he will file. DeSantis’ statement about the case included this gem, “A prohibition on vaccine passports does not even implicate, let alone violate, anyone’s speech rights, and it furthers the substantial, local interest of preventing discrimination among customers based on private health information.”

That suggests the good governor did not read the District Judge’s opinion or lacks understanding of the legal principles involved. His lack of awareness extends to the growing public support for “vaccine passports,” and he is also unaware of federal ventilator resources sent to his state by the federal government to help relieve the crisis caused by the Delta Variant and his refusal to recognize the challenges it poses. Delta threatens to overwhelm the health facilities of multiple, mainly southern, states, including Florida, that have largely ignored the danger still posed by COVID-19. Florida’s governor is earning his moniker as #DeathSantis every day.

Norwegian Cruise Line is on the right side of health science, health policy and rational business behavior. Kudos to NCL’s management for standing up to the Florida Governor’s rejection of all of those as he plays to his right-wing political audience, the same base that thrives on adoration of Donald Trump (you remember him, speaking about Democrats: “the virus is their new hoax.”)

In an op-ed in TravelMarketReport, https://bit.ly/2VKcfri, way back in October 2020, long before anyone had heard of the Delta Variant, I argued that the path to travel industry recovery required restoration of consumer confidence but that the path then in play was more chaos than order. I suggested an approach that, in those troubled times, I thought might work:

I suggest that the atomization of the industry’s approach must be replaced with an across-the-board cooperative regime of joint decision-making to which individual firms commit to total compliance for a significant period into the future. For example, and as a great beginning, the cruise industry players (of which there are relatively few independent entities) have undertaken a collective effort to establish firm rules about how ships will be sanitized, how masking and social distancing will be applied and so on. Obviously, the science behind this is still evolving, but much is already known about how to manage indoor environments. I believe that the new rules should be vetted with a representative sample of cruise travelers to evaluate whether the rules are understandable, practical and reassuring. The likely outcome is not a return to full-on unlimited cruising and many economic challenges will remain. The concept is not a cure-all but an attempt to establish a common and trustable arrangement that will permit business to resume on some scale.

Call me a dreamer if you like. We are not close to what I had envisioned. Nowhere is this clearer than in the battle Norwegian Cruise Line is fighting, alone, with Florida. Downloadable CDC data for Florida, from August 6, paints a grim picture. https://bit.ly/3lU94rX This will not deter Florida’s governor from resisting science and common sense as he continues his efforts to stop the cruise lines from using the best defenses available to control the virus and resume safe cruising.

The chaos will thus continue for a while longer. I am confident Norwegian Cruise Line will continue the fight and hopefully will succeed, however long it takes.

 

 

 

Lost in Space

I am harping a bit about the failure of the mainstream media to recognize the peril in which the country, and the MSM itself, finds itself. This failure is reflected in numerous ways, the latest being the decision of favorite New York Times to publish on page 21 of Sunday’s edition a story about the astonishing direct efforts by Donald Trump to suborn the Department of Justice to support his unfounded claims that the 2020 election was invalidated by fraud. Not only is Trump guilty of this effort to subvert the election, but compelling evidence has been produced that he had secured the support and active cooperation of Jeffrey Clark, the acting head of the Justice Department’s civil division. https://nyti.ms/3iy3Gsw

This story is related to the on-going attempts of Trump and his enablers in Congress and the Republican-controlled states to overturn the lawful election of Joe Biden for President. That is the most important story of our time, right up there with the pandemic. If Trump had succeeded (or succeeds in the future), the democratic republic known as the United States of America would be finished. Seriously, is there a more important story than that?

As usual, the key players at the Justice Department have gone dark, refusing to comment substantively. But the testimony of Jeffrey Rosen, who was Acting Attorney General at the time, indicates that despite being directed otherwise, Clark continued having private conversations with Trump while Trump was still president. Clark even “drafted a letter that he asked Mr. Rosen to send to Georgia state legislators, wrongly asserting that they should void Mr. Biden’s victory because the Justice Department was investigating accusations of voter fraud in the state.” The proposal was rejected but the apparent fact remains that Clark engaged in multiple violations of DOJ policy, and possibly federal law, in working collaboratively with Trump to overturn the election.

Clark has a spectacular resume. https://bit.ly/2VG7yi4 That fact does not mean that he was incapable of the acts to which Rosen, with a similar resume (https://bit.ly/37vlgqu), has testified. The story mentioned almost in passing the suggestion by one of Trump’s lawyers that Trump “might take some undisclosed legal action if congressional investigators sought “privileged information.” That is, of course, a huge issue, but privilege (executive or attorney-client or whatever) cannot be used to coverup conversations about the commission or attempt at commission of a crime.

I well understand that there are many other big stories afoot at the same time. The Times front page this morning covers some of those: the Cuomo scandal, Republicans supporting infrastructure legislation, problems attributable to children being denied in-classroom learning, restaurant struggles in New York City and, of course, the Olympics. But page 21 for the inside story of attempts to defeat the lawful transfer of power?

Meanwhile, my other favorite publication, the Washington Post, has once again elected (it clearly had a choice) to publish an op-ed that undermines the effort to rid the country of COVID-19 through vaccinations and other public health measures. https://wapo.st/3iwpgxx This piece was written by Drew Holden, a public affairs consultant in D.C. and a former Republican congressional staff member. There is no surprise, therefore, that he objects to the recently re-established mask mandate in Washington, including those already vaccinated. Typically, he downplays the significance of the Delta Variant that is sweeping the country and overwhelming medical resources in numerous states. He focused on a “slight uptick in local cases” and “only three deaths from the coronavirus in the past two weeks and with a positive test rate hovering around 1 percent.Only three dead in two weeks, so who cares?

The author’s data, however, is massively contradicted by the Center for Disease Control’s COVID Data Tracker, https://bit.ly/3Cs8qrt. And, of course, the author dredges up the usual Republican talking points about overbearing government (ignoring, for example, the new Red Hero, the Governor of Florida, who has worked around the clock to defeat public health measures in his state that might help control the virus — #DeathSantis doesn’t hesitate to overrule local officials and to prevent Florida jurisdictions from following CDC guidance). So much for the principle of limited government.

Apparently no fan of logical consistency, Mr. Holden argues that while indoor mask mandates will reduce viral transmission, they will undermine the effort to persuade more people to vaccinate. He argues that more vaccinations are the “best way” to prevent more deaths, a view that most rational humans would accept, but Holden argues that vaccination is the only viable path forward, so the solution is to use the “best message” by repeating over and over again that vaccines are safe and effective.

Mandating masks even for the vaccinated sends a clear (if unintended) message to the contrary: Even when you have the vaccine, you aren’t really safe to yourself or others, even if we just told you the opposite was true. How can those already deservedly distrustful of the medical wisdom of the government overcome their skepticism if the government itself can’t seem to get the story straight?

Wow. If the author were really paying attention, he would understand that no one has claimed that vaccines were 100 percent security against COVID infection. This has been clear since the earliest public disclosures of the vaccines. The author also confuses mask requirements with other forms of incentive to vaccinate.

I could go on and on about this piece, but the real issue I want to raise is: why does the Washington Post continue to give credence and exposure to views like this? Is the Post’s commitment to truth tied to both-sides-ing issues of public health? Does the Post really believe that this type of message is essential to understanding the public health risks of another, and perhaps yet another, surge in COVID cases? If the Post is going to continue both-sides-ing COVID messaging, should it not explain its editorial policy to its readers?  If the issue were whether it is in the national interest to maintain a union of 50 states or whether we’d be better off as a nation by having multiple states secede, would the Post also both-sides that issue? How about smoking? Does the Post intend to publish both-sides commentary on the benefits and detriments of smoking tobacco? Wearing seat belts? How is this different?