Category Archives: Economics

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?

Media Bias – Who Are the Victims?

“Conservatives,” or more accurately Trumpist sycophants, complain a lot about “media bias,” claiming they are being “censored” and otherwise discriminated against. They do this even though FOX “News,” OAN, Newsmax, Breitbart and others devote virtually their entire waking moments to spewing false and/or distorted information about elections, COVID-19 and other important public subjects, basically hewing to the Donald Trump fantasy line of the day.

A few days ago I was hunting online to determine how to watch President Biden’s speech regarding the new federal COVID—19 policy. I turned to Safari, the primary Mac search engine (I prefer Google but there are indications that it does not work well with the latest Apple OS) [Note for the record my sophisticated use of computer terminology – search engine, OS – some days I amaze myself]

I typed “time of Biden’s speech today.” And this is what I got.

I’m pretty sure this does not happen by random accident. I searched for specific news about President Biden and got a bunch of right-wing blather thrown in my face by Yahoo.

My curiosity piqued by this unexpected outcome, I did some digging. I turned to … search engines. Turns out Yahoo is owned by Verizon Communications. But wait, Yahoo is actually Microsoft’s Bing search engine. The plot thickens. Already, I know more about this than I think I want to know. But I plowed ahead.

I “learned” that Google, the search engine associated with the Chrome search engine, with a market share of 92+%, is bigger than all the other search engines combined. https://bit.ly/3C00spd Second in size is … Bing, with 8% share. The site cited above notes, “Unlike Google, Bing’s homepage always features a stunning image and news stories.” Hhmh … I can’t wrap my mind around the idea that photos of Dan Bongino and Marsha Blackburn are “stunning” except in the sense of “mind numbing.”

That aside, we must remember that “Google also powers other search engines – including Ask, which is the sixthlargest search engine in the world” and that Yahoo!’s search engine is really Bing and that Yahoo, as search engine, is the fourth largest search engine in the world. After that, the others listed on the ranking site are mostly country-specific with names like Baidu, Yandex, DuckDuckGo, Naver, Seznam, Ecosia (Bing again) and AOL (hahahahaha -AOL, yes, really, AOL).

ll this brings to mind the old Abbott & Costello routine, Who’s on First,” which as a very young child I thought was pretty funny. It now has its own Wikipedia page, https://bit.ly/2V7PWM2, and … well, enough about that. As applied to search engines, the Who’s on First is not very funny.

In the case of search engines, the answer seems to be Google but it’s hard to know who is actually providing you with search information at any one time. In the end, I suspect the real answer is that all the information you get from Internet searches is controlled by three or four people, about whom little is known except by doing Internet searches they control. You see the problem.

Frankly, madam, I don’t give much of a damn about these people. What I care about is the possibility that, contrary to what the Trumpists are claiming, the truth, yet again, is the opposite – that a nefarious process is under way in which I ask for information about the President of the United States and get promotional garbage about/from right-wing fools.

We are all, mostly, now aware of some of the principles of behavioral economics that emphasize how the order and manner of information presentation can control what we think. At the least, the Yahoo response to my query created cognitive dissonance when I realized what had happened (it might be worse if this occurred without my recognizing it!). Cognitive dissonance is explained this way by the folks at Psychology Today:

The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people are averse to inconsistencies within their own minds. It offers one explanation for why people sometimes make an effort to adjust their thinking when their own thoughts, words, or behaviors seem to clash with each other.

When one learns new information that challenges a deeply held belief, for example, or acts in a way that seems to undercut a favorable self-image, that person may feel motivated to somehow resolve the negative feeling that results—to restore cognitive consonance. Though a person may not always resolve cognitive dissonance, the response to it may range from ignoring the source of it to changing one’s beliefs or behavior to eliminate the conflict. [https://bit.ly/3C0QeVK]

Given that, for example, Bing reportedly gets 1.3 billion visits per month, you wouldn’t have to succeed at altering thinking patterns of a large share to affect a huge number of people.

To be clear, I am not advocating content control, which would create a multitude of practical and legal problems. But if my experience with my Biden speech search is a frequent occurrence, there is cause for (1) alarm and (2) some form of investigation/exposure, including ultimately some form of mandatory disclosure/warnings about the practices being used to deliver information. Yes, yes, I get that there are First Amendment issues there too, but it is unclear to me whether the issue is being examined outside the near-hysterical drumbeat of right-wing whining about censorship (for which little to no evidence appears to exist).

The termination of Donald Trump’s access to Twitter and Facebook was based upon blatant and repeated violations of the Terms of Service. Trump’s posts involved demonstrable lies and misinformation about matters of vital public importance. He had many opportunities to stop but, if anything, he escalated his misconduct with his continuing false claims about election fraud.

The major Internet platforms are, in my opinion, making a huge mistake with their cavalier approach to Terms of Service and enforcement. I understand that at their scale of operations, there is no simple solution. But to understand what is being done, a process of analysis of how the systems could be improved must begin, leading ultimately to public pressure for positive change. This is an essential process for the preservation of democracy in this country. Just imagine what would happen if control of one of these behemoths were to fall into the wrong hands. Indeed, it may have already happened.

Vaccinate or Else!

Somewhat, and only somewhat, like the Most Interesting Man in the World from the beer ads, I don’t usually curse but when I do, well …. run.

As the world crumbles around us, I am sick to f*cking death of the whining, immoral, selfish, ignorant, indifferent fools who refuse to get vaccinated because of … what? Their “rights?” Their “freedom to choose?” I am not interested. I don’t want to hear it anymore. We now have people seriously saying we should pay these people to vaccinate. Or just be nice and understanding of their concerns. Or just leave them alone because they’re Americans and have the right to decide how to protect themselves and their families, never mind the impact their intransigence and ignorance may have on others, including children who are, for all practical purposes, entirely at the mercy of decisions made by adults.

No, no and more no. I lost a relative to COVID. I lay her death at the feet of Donald Trump and the mob of lying, sniveling cowards who supported him while he knowingly downplayed the severity of the coronavirus, promoted the use of medically unsound remedies, and generally allowed the country to sink into near oblivion. More than 600,000 dead in the United States alone. Most of them On Trump’s watch.

In early 2020 we lived in New York City, the epicenter of the initial coronavirus explosion in the United States. Within days of my wife’s office in midtown Manhattan closing (in mid-March,) I experienced what turned out to be mild symptoms of COVID as then understood. A local clinic doctor, dressed like a spaceman, said, “You almost certainly have COVID, but we have no tests for people like you who are still standing. Even if we confirmed it, we would just send you home. So, go home, stay there and good luck.” Given my health history, this was a terrifying direction that felt like a potential death sentence.

My wife was not as lucky as I was. She had been incredibly healthy, worked out all the time, ate right and all the rest but within days was in extremis with every known COVID symptom except the very worst ones – she had no lung or brain involvement. Some days you just get lucky. It was terrible. No other words for it.

I did what I could to help her through long nights when she was unable even to walk unaided, fevered, with severe body aches and all the other horrors you have likely read about by now. We lived about 50 yards from the Emergency Room entrance to Mount Sinai West hospital and, on many nights, I thought we were on the verge of having to take her in, knowing that she would be alone under the “no visitors” policies. The horror went on for over two weeks around the clock. People were dying left and right. Many of those who survived had permanent heart, lung and brain damage. The sirens bringing victims to the hospital blared throughout the day and night, day after day. It felt like the end of the world.

We were among the most fortunate in that we both recovered, long before much was even known about the virus, long before there was any realistic suggestion that a vaccine might be developed in less than a year. We were, of course, in lockdown. Our essential needs, and a few luxuries, were met by a stranger in our building, with a big heart and a lot of courage. [See the text of Angels In New York reposted below, originally in my discontinued blog AutumnInNewYork.net]

COVID is thus not an abstraction for us. It has taken the life of someone we knew and loved. It destroyed our sense of security in life – that if we worked hard and subject to the usual ups and downs, all would somehow be well. The pandemic stole more than a year of my waning lifetime. We burrowed in like animals, waiting for an invisible monster to slide silently into our lives again and possibly destroy us. We were afraid of everything: the mail, the Amazon boxes, the concierge at the front desk, the neighbors.

But, as I said, we were among the very fortunate who survived, almost entirely intact. When we moved to Washington in late 2020, a flukish circumstance enabled us to be vaccinated in January-February of 2021. We joined the growing legion of the saved, eventually able to walk outside without masks, to eat outdoors in restaurants without feeling we were placing our lives on the line and generally to resume a semblance of normal life. This was true freedom.

Now, inevitably it seems, the Delta Variant of COVID has arrived, reaching the United States virtually overnight, and is rampaging through the country. And what happens? The former president, who downplayed the virus at the outset, called the virus a “Democrat hoax,” secretly had himself vaccinated and is focused entirely on promoting the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen. His voice could have been influential in altering the course of the Delta Variant infection but, no, he only cares about himself. One of his chief sycophants, Ron DeSantis, Governor of Florida, has taken up the mantle of COVID-denier-in-chief, while the Delta Variant ravages his state. His continuous mixed messages just end up reinforcing the resistance.

And on and on it goes. If this keeps up, we are facing another wave of avoidable deaths (almost all current COVID deaths are from unvaccinated people) and possibly nationwide lockdowns that would deal a death blow to the economy and to hope itself.

I am in no f*cking mood for more of this ignorant nonsense. This is like sitting in theater watching a group of fools enter the haunted house, knowing they are headed into dangers they don’t see even though the evidence is everywhere. The feeling of impending doom can be a high for fans of horror movies, but I always hated them. My new sense of impending doom is far more profound and realistic now.

And, so, what is happening? CHAOS. The Republican Governor of Alabama has awakened from her self-induced political coma to say “it’s “time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks.” https://wapo.st/3x2eOSo Why now? Here’s why: her state has had a “92 percent increase in coronavirus infections and a 72 percent rise in hospitalizations over the past week.” But just one-third of Alabamians are fully vaccinated, one of the lowest levels in the nation. Meanwhile, “exhausted health providers say they are bracing for case spikes that are largely preventable, driven by the hyper-transmissible delta variant.” And, once again, and totally predictably, “hospitals are becoming overwhelmed in states with low vaccination rates.” And, also predictably, “a number of prominent Republicans and conservative media voices continue to shower vaccines with skepticism, and social media disinformation continues largely unabated.”

Examples of failed strategies abound. The National Football League adopted new rules that a team

“could be forced to forfeit a game if there is a coronavirus outbreak linked to unvaccinated players. The move has both competitive and financial implications: Players won’t get paychecks for forfeited games, the NFL said. About 80 percent of all NFL players had at least one shot before the rules took effect, said league spokesperson Brian McCarthy, who credited seminars about the vaccines’ benefits, on-site vaccinations and other tactics.”

The operative word is “could,” because the policy has two conditions: a game must be canceled because of a coronavirus outbreak among unvaccinated players or staff members and cannot be rescheduled. In any case, many players among the college-educated vaccination holdouts may well be prepared to take the chance. The policy applies to mostly very well-off athletes and staff for whom the risk of financial sacrifice may be a small price they can easily afford to pay. If the NFL wants to stop the virus, it needs to tell the players: “vaccinate or you’re off the team.” More on that in a moment.

A well-meaning article in the New York Times, Should Vaccinated People Start Wearing Masks Again?  https://nyti.ms/3BBvaoq has a lot of nice advice and information about masking and distancing practice in the face of the Delta Variant, but the problem now is that the complexity of the situation has worsened.  People generally don’t do well with such complex decision-making. The article presupposes freedom of choice, deep understanding of risks, a multitude of factual situations and more. It’s just too much to expect.

Contrast that with the decision of more than 400 colleges and universities requiring returning students for in-person classes to be vaccinated. The schools have simplified the decision-making: vaccinate or study elsewhere. Period. Hospitals and health systems are now also lining up to mandate vaccination or strict testing regimens that could lead to being sent home without pay or termination of employment.

The federal government has stated, correctly in my view, that private companies may require vaccination to return to work in offices. Failure to return could result in loss of employment and unemployment benefits.

Meanwhile, the data on the benefits of vaccination is overwhelming:

As of July 12, more than 159 million people in the United States had been fully vaccinated against Covid-19. Of those, just 5,492 had breakthrough cases that resulted in serious illness, including 1,063 who died. That’s less than 0.0007 percent of the vaccinated population. Meanwhile, 99 percent of deaths from Covid-19 are among the unvaccinated.

 In this one instance, I find myself partially aligned with Dr. Leana S. Wen, a regular WAPO columnist who seems always to find grounds for disagreeing with Democratic health policies. https://wapo.st/3iK5ddB  Dr. Wen says, “the Biden administration needs to strongly urge a return of covid-19 restrictions.” She’s not referring to lockdowns, at least not yet. She notes that “the CDC’s honor system didn’t work” but that “vaccinated people are still well-protected” and thus “in settings where everyone is known to have immunity, no additional restrictions are needed.”

In all other contexts, however, where the risk of infection spread is present, “indoor mask requirements should be reinstated.”

The problem, yet again, is that urging jurisdictions to follow science is no longer a realistic option. Los Angeles County issued a new mask mandate, only to find that its sheriff declined to enforce it. At the risk of letting some reality creep in, Dr. Wen notes, correctly, that “the areas with the lowest vaccination rates are also the ones least likely to implement mask mandates.” Nevertheless, she sticks to the “Biden administration can make a difference” theme.

Then, Dr. Wen makes what I believe to be a classic mistake:

The federal government could also use this opportunity to — finally — incentivize vaccination. It could say that areas with high vaccine uptake do not need to reimplement mask mandates, and mandate vaccination on planes and trains and in federal buildings.

Incentives have been tried in various places and they don’t solve the core problem. And a random policy on travel will just confuse everyone even more and lead to further non-compliance. Wen gets its right with her next suggestion:

And [the Biden administration] can finally get behind a vaccine verification system that would allow restaurants, gyms, workplaces and universities to create safe, maskless environments where everyone is vaccinated.

But, it’s going to require more than encouragement and cheering from the sidelines to get this done. We need, must have, a nationally mandated policy on vaccination.

I’m with Max Boot on this. https://wapo.st/3i55mt4: “Stop pleading and start mandating.”

…. even as evidence grows that vaccines are safe and effective, resistance to them is also growing. A recent Post-ABC News poll found that 29 percent of Americans said they were unlikely to get vaccinated — up from 24 percent three months earlier. Only 59 percent of adults are fully vaccinated.

…. the biggest obstacle to vaccination is now Republicans who are being fed a steady diet of anti-vaxxer propaganda by Fox “News” Channel, Facebook and other social media, and reckless demagogues such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.).

This is madness. Stop making reasonable appeals to those who will not listen to reason. (According to an Economist/YouGov poll, a majority of those who refuse to get vaccinated say vaccines are being used by the government to implant microchips.) It’s a waste of time. Start mandating that anyone who wants to travel on an airplane, train or bus, attend a concert or movie, eat at a restaurant, shop at a store, work in an office or visit any other indoor space show proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test.

I understand the argument that Republican Governors may resist a national vaccine passport, but that’s too damn bad. The federal government has the authority under the Commerce Clause, among other powers, to compel compliance. It should act before it’s too late.

The argument that the federal government should step in with financial awards for getting vaccinated suffers from multiple problems. Principles developed in behavioral economics tell us that people are more concerned about loss than about gain. Offering some modest amount, declining over time, as recommended by Charles Lane in WAPO, https://wapo.st/3kSyfue, not only rewards the wrong behavior, it assumes that the recalcitrance of anti-vaxxers and COVID-deniers can be overcome with a few pieces of silver. For some, maybe that’s true, but it seems unlikely for the vast majority, and we have little time to lose with such experiments.

Adopting a strong, mandatory federal policy that supersedes all conflicting state laws, regulations and mandates (recall the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause), with significant consequences attached to non-compliance, is now the fastest path to assuring the bulk of holdouts are vaccinated in time to prevent the worst consequences of an uncontrolled pandemic resurgence. The mandate must be accompanied by clear and specific instructions on the acceptable proof of vaccination.

Anticipating the objections, yes, of course, the plan would require some form of exception for limited religious and demonstrable medical issues involving people with relevant co-morbidities, small children and the like. Compared to the consequences of an uncontrolled and continuously morphing viral pandemic, those are small problems. Some of those affected would, however, experience limitations on their behavior until we can be satisfied that herd immunity has been achieved.

Will this approach have implementation issues? Very likely. We have fiddled around so long that a rational, well-executed plan may be nearly impossible, but that’s not cause to shy away from trying. At this stage, we are grasping at straws, but it seems apparent that nothing of a “voluntary nature” is going to overcome the suicidal tendencies of, mainly, Republican anti-vaxxers. They are unmoved by the data showing that most of the deaths and other serious consequences of COVID infection are among the unvaccinated.

We must, therefore, remove the question from consideration: you want to drive, you get a license. You want to go to restaurants, movies, bars, travel, etc., you get vaccinated. Otherwise, stay home in lockdown. Our lives depend on it. End of story. If the vaccine resisters don’t approve, well, return to the first sentence of my second paragraph ….

************

Repost of Angels in New York [from April 20, 2020]

Just when you least expect it and are sinking into the despair of self-isolation with a sick spouse and extreme personal vulnerability to the coronavirus, someone appears as if by magic to save the day. It’s not magic, of course; it’s human kindness and generosity at its best. I referred to her as an angel in an email and, with no prompting from me, my wife used the same terms. It must therefore be true.

The story is simple enough. My wife has come down with what appears to be COVID-19. We don’t know how it happened. We’ve taken all the precautions. Nonetheless, a doctor in a televisit said she thought it was COVID. It fits the symptoms list perfectly. Fortunately, so far, there are no breathing issues. But you may take my word for it – this virus is mean as a junk yard dog. Everything bad you’ve heard about it is true.

Anyway, my own vulnerability has led my wife to vehemently object to my leaving the apartment. Since she became ill six days ago, I have left only twice to pick up food deliveries and packages at the concierge desk and that was over her protest. When she started to need some things we had consumed, like ginger ale, I found that it is impossible to order online at CVS for delivery of items sold “only in store.” We then recalled that a few people in our building (700 apartments in two towers) have volunteered through the resident portal to help people like us. One of them was recent. I found her message and we began to communicate.

Skipping some of the details, she instantly agrees to trek to the CVS around the corner to buy whatever we need. Faced with imminent store closure (it’s Saturday night at 8 pm and the normal “open 24 hours” has apparently been suspended), she makes them stay open until she gets everything we asked for and delivers it to our door. She exhibits no impatience whatsoever as we text back and forth about the options/brands, etc. She wants us to have exactly what we want, not just what is convenient for her to grab and go. I am a bit overwhelmed.

This leads to a second trip the next day when we discover other needs. She texts me from the store to recommend an over-the-counter medication that may help my wife’s nausea (it did) after consulting with the pharmacist about it. She sends photos of various options so I can choose specifically what she should buy.

She patiently helps me struggle to reimburse her through her website (standby re that), but refuses to accept anything beyond the actual cost of the purchases. She says: “no way I’m taking anything other than exact amount.  Grandpa, who stormed the front in Battle of Bulge, would be horrified and embarrassed if I were to dishonor family name during time of national crisis.”

Now, I know I’ve encountered someone very special. An angel in human disguise. In New York City. We exchange a bunch more emails and texts after I check out her website where she manages, as a hobby, a meditation/mindfulness training program for working people. My wife in particular is interested in this for her post-recovery work life. It turns out this new friend-by-text and I are both alums of Yale University (me, Yale College, she the Law School) and Harvard (me the law school, she the Business School). To respect her privacy, I will not identify her by name. Her resume is intimidating. I joke that I and members of my class often observe that we probably couldn’t get into Yale now and her background shows why. She finds this amusing. She has a sense of humor and an infectious positive attitude toward life. [Is it a pun to refer to “infectious positive attitude” during a pandemic?]

I explain that since there is an immutable rule of life that no good deed goes unpunished, there will be two consequences to her work as Good Samaritan for us: one is that my wife must make dinner for her when the lockdown ends and life returns to some semblance of normality. The other is that I will write about her in this blog.

This is a story that must be told and included in my tales of life in New York City. She demurs on the blog but we agree she will bring dessert of her choice to the dinner. She sends me a remarkable photo of a multi-color dessert cake she had baked and says, “be afraid.” Date to be determined but I am optimistic we will make this happen.

And, for sure, my wife and I will be made better by having known this generous, ebullient, kind-hearted person, an unexpected benefit from the pandemic. As I conclude this post at 7 pm, I hear the New Yorkers that have balconies applauding, banging pots and cheering for that other group of angels working in the Emergency Rooms and ICUs around the city. This happens every day and apparently has started a national “movement,” as well it should. Giants and angels come in all sizes and in many disguises. If you’re lucky enough, an angel will find you too. I hope so.

Time for Strong Action Against Unruly Air Travelers

Back in July 2020, when the pandemic was still raging around the country, the Association of Flight Attendants called on the Federal Aviation Administration to mandate masks be worn by passengers on commercial flights. https://bit.ly/3yGZqgm The AFA called the FAA’s failure to act “absurd,” and it was. One can easily imagine that the FAA was, like many other federal agencies, intimidated by Donald Trump and his overt resistance to admitting the seriousness of the pandemic which (despite his assurances it was under control and would soon disappear “like magic”) has been responsible for the deaths of what is approaching 600,000 Americans.

Frankly, madam/sir/whomever, I really don’t give a damn about your “rights” and your claim to “freedom” to put others at risk. Air travel has proved to be relatively COVID-risk- free, and the widespread implementation of vaccinations is making it more so.

Nevertheless, many remain vulnerable and while the federal mandate is now at long last in place, enforcement remains a problem. The union president noted that while airline crews were doing better in protecting themselves with masks, some customers continue to resist. Threatened bans on future travel were insufficient deterrents. Flight attendants were subjected to verbal abuse and even physical attacks, for which, apparently, the airline employees are left to their personal legal remedies.

Most recently, it was reported that a Southwest Airlines flight attendant was attacked by a passenger and lost two teeth, among other injuries. https://bit.ly/3hYwbjb  Once again the president of the local flight attendants union sent a letter to the airline’s CEO calling for more aggressive action, since this was “just one of many occurrences.” The letter said,

Today’s traveling environment requires a new level of firmness in both tone and direction to ensure proper control in the cabin of our aircraft as the attitudes and behaviors of the flying public have, unfortunately, declined.

Part of the issue is, as the union noted, “Oftentimes, appropriate actions to maintain a safe environment have been misconstrued as being unkind or inhospitable. As alcohol sales are added back into this already volatile environment….” Airline reluctance to engage passengers aggressively may be particularly affected now that the pandemic appears to be receding and national policy is opening the door to increase travel. Pent-up demand for travel is very strong, so a near-term major increase in both travel and incidents may be in the offing. Airlines are likely concerned about any action that will be seen as off-putting by some passengers.

If so, that’s no excuse for inaction. The union letter noted there were 477 incidents on Southwest Airlines alone in the five week period ended May 15. The total incident count nationally must therefore have been in the thousands.  This is not just a Southwest Airlines problem. According to USAToday,

The FAA has taken notice of a spike in passengers behaving badly, adopting a zero-tolerance policy in January and extending it in Marchso it’s in place throughout the pandemic.

Since Jan. 1, the agency said it had received approximately 2,500 reports of unruly behavior by passengers, including about 1,900 reports of passengers refusing to comply with the federal facemask mandate.

The agency has proposed hundreds of thousands of fines, including $258,250 so far in May.

That’s all well and good, but likely more must be done to stop the escalating attacks on flight attendants working to keep everyone safe in flight.

The union letter asked for three steps:

  • Better inform passengers that misbehaving could land them on Southwest’s restricted travelers list and result in potential fines, criminal charges and possible imprisonment:  “The flying public needs to understand that egregious behavior will result in being banned from flying with Southwest Airlines.”
  • Be consistent in policies: “No passenger should be removed from one flight only to be permitted to board the very next Southwest Airlines flight after a noncompliance incident. We ask that you take a strong stance to ensure that unruly passengers are not welcome to travel with us. Period. Full stop.”
  • Demand the U.S. government increase the number of federal air marshals on flights and request that they “get involved and take action” when crew members are threatened.

Those steps are all good, but I believe more is required. A number of possibilities come to mind.

  1. Give each boarding adult passenger a card that states unequivocally the mask and other pandemic-related rules, that these rules are requirements of federal law and/or airline policy and not subject to discussion or debate and will be enforced strictly throughout the flight. Failure to comply will result in arrest at the next stop.
  2. Anyone physically attacking a flight attendant will be sued on behalf of the attendant by the employing airline. Not may but will. For serious actual and punitive damages. Count on it.
  3. Any person physically attacking a flight attendant will be, not may be, will be banned for life from flying on that airline.
  4. The federal government should add a new policy that if a passenger is found guilty and/or liable for assaulting a flight attendant or other crew, other airlines will be notified of the identity of that passenger, so they can take whatever action they want to take in the circumstances. Such passengers are clearly unsafe for those around them, so safety considerations warrant such disclosures.

In short, adults will be expected to act like adults. If you can’t comply, don’t fly. If you do fly and you don’t comply, you will, not may, face severe consequences, guaranteed.

This will seem harsh to some and downright un-American to others. Too bad. It is intolerable and unconscionable that flight attendants should be subjected to the reported abuses by inconsiderate and violent jerks who think the laws and regulations should not apply to them. There is no doubt that flying commercially involves a degree of regimentation. This is done for the safety and comfort of everyone involved, not just the few who think they are above the law. This is not new.

If the union and my reforms are implemented, it seems most likely that violent incidents in air travel will decline swiftly and significantly. With any luck, in the slightly distant future, the masking rules may be relaxed. Until then, it’s time for the airlines and the government to act decisively to restore consumer confidence in air travel and to protect the people who are in place to protect the rest of us.