Archive for March, 2020

Coronavirus/Covid19: Don’t panic, it’s just flu

March 9, 2020

It may or may not be a pandemic, but it is certainly a panic. A huge chunk of Italy, including Milan and Venice, is locked down, as is much of Washington State. Financial markets have freaked out, anticipating economic damage (mostly not from disease but from measures combating it).

Our federal government’s response so far is shambolic. Test kits: too little too late. Moronic Trump spews misinformation and utilizes the occasion to bash enemies.

China’s draconian restrictions on freedom seem to have gotten the spread under control. One worries about countries with governments even less competent than Trump’s. (Yes, there are many.)

A problem is that an infected person is symptomless for a while, so can infect many others before detection.

Okay. Now let’s please get a grip.

So far, coronavirus has caused something over 100,000 illnesses and 3000 deaths worldwide. It’s an ailment much like ordinary flu, so most cases are relatively mild and clear up by themselves. Both illnesses kill mostly people already in frail health.

In the U.S. alone, ordinary common flu this season has thus far caused at least 32 million illnesses, 310,000 hospitalizations, and 20,000 deaths.

Coronavirus does seem to have a somewhat higher death rate, but it’s still a very small percentage and the vast majority of victims recover. Coronavirus also does seem somewhat more infectious. On both measures, researchers are still trying to get an accurate fix. But it’s clear that though, on a case-by-case basis, coronavirus is more dangerous, it is not dramatically more dangerous.

And even if coronavirus is more contagious than ordinary flu, your chances of catching the latter, in the U.S., are hundreds of times greater simply because there are vastly more carriers. That could conceivably change, but coronavirus would have to metastasize humongously before it would actually be a U.S. health threat rivaling ordinary flu.

So why the panic over coronavirus, but not ordinary flu?*

As ever, human psychology is very bad at rationally gauging threats. After 9/11, millions felt safer driving than flying, though the risk on the roads was hugely greater (even counting the terrorism factor). People feel safer driving because they imagine they have control, unlike on an airplane. In the case of flu, the control factor is represented by vaccines, though in reality their effectiveness is limited. Another factor is familiarity. Driving, and seasonal flu, are thoroughly familiar. Unfamiliarity makes airplane terrorism, and coronavirus, seem more scary.

So we have TSA, and drastic efforts to contain coronavirus. Similarly strong measures could prevent tens of thousands of deaths annually from car crashes and ordinary flu, not to mention guns, but most Americans just yawn.

Government might do better at calming the coronavirus panic by calling it just “flu.”

* Actually, measures combating coronvirus will probably prevent larger numbers of flu deaths as a side effect.

Contradiction: religion and results for U.S. blacks

March 8, 2020

In Jeremiah Camara’s film Contradiction: A Question of Faith, the question is whether blacks’ religiosity helps or harms them.

They tend to be more religious than other Americans, on average. Especially black women, far more than men. There are 85,000 predominantly black churches, roughly one for every 500 African-Americans. They’re less likely to question their faith, strongly inculcated down the generations. But if all that prayer did any good, blacks would be flush with God’s blessings. Obviously they’re not.

Camara sees religion as a misdirection of time, energy, and resources, that actually hinders black progress. There seemed to be little concept of “God helps those who help themselves.” Instead, worshipers are shown as mainly looking for miracles to lift them up. (Similarly, they’re suckers for lotteries.) Camara considers this a philosophy of powerlessness, of dependency rather than autonomy, indeed emulating the master-slave relationship. This is seen in the posture of prayer — on one’s knees, with hands positioned as though shackled.

As the film points out, Christianity is itself a legacy of enslavement, having been forcibly imposed to replace ancestral belief systems. Jesus was not a black man from Africa. Somewhat weird, really, that African-Americans still hold so firmly to this religion.

People were asked whether Jesus means more to them than the sacrifices of their own ancestors. Camara was nonplussed at their answering yes. They explained that Christ’s crucifixion washed away their sins. A powerful idea, if true. Of course it’s not – and would actually make no moral sense if it were.

Yet some people in the film claimed God gives them morality. Camara said that’s not being moral — merely obedient. Fear of Hell does play a big role. (For blacks growing up, religion is “a big woman with a belt.”) But in fact we do good because of our thinking brains, experience, and grasp of how to live amongst others. God is unnecessary.

The film was very negative about black pastors, calling this a lucrative career requiring no real qualifications except a talent for emotional manipulation. There was a tutorial on six basic techniques: 1) repeated phrases as a hook; 2) pointing up people’s tribulations; 3) assigning actions like “touch your neighbor;” 4) peddling hope; 5) claiming to convey messages from God; and 6) invoking the Devil to terrorize hearers. One pastor was shown using all six.

Camara observed that if these guys were really in communication with a supreme being, shouldn’t we expect more profound wisdom than the obvious claptrap they spout? It’s pathetic they’re taken seriously, rather than as disingenuous hucksters or deranged fools.

The idea of “faith” itself is an affront to human reason. Yet our society still so valorizes religious “faith” as commanding respect that it’s largely exempted from critical scrutiny like other ideologies. This film is a welcome departure, pulling no punches in its deconstruction of religious tropes and their social impacts.

But one thing bothered me. Most onscreen voices were black, and while some spoke with great intelligence and insight (including some “ordinary” folks), the religious ones did not, and the film focused mainly on them. Most were shown sounding pretty dumb. One could almost call this film racist. A Martian seeing it would think the pathology is black-centric, with no idea that legions of whites harbor the same beliefs.

Trump’s Afghan surrender

March 6, 2020

The story begins 40 years ago with a Communist coup. The Soviets invaded to protect the new regime, while Muslims rose in revolt. We supported and armed them. (One recipient was Bin Laden. A lot of thanks we got.)

The Russians finally pulled out after Gorbachev acknowledged defeat in Afghanistan and in the Cold War more generally. The Afghan Communist government fell, but then civil war ensued among various Muslim forces. Eventually it was won by the Taliban, who imposed their extremist, repressive version of Islam. They gave sanctuary to Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda which perpetrated 9/11. Which prompted America to invade to take down the Taliban. Which we swiftly did. But we eased up before wiping them out. Big fumble by G. W. Bush.

However, under our aegis, Afghans finally got some democracy. They first elected President Karzai, kind of a disaster, but then Ashraf Ghani, far better. Meantime our military involvement against the resurgent Taliban waxed and waned. Obama called this the right war and ramped it up, but then ramped it down, foolishly signaling the Taliban need merely wait us out. Then Trump, for all his spite toward Obama, reprised Obama’s trajectory.

He sent Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-American former Ambassador, to negotiate with the Taliban for our extrication. The negotiations excluded the Afghan government, which the Taliban refuses to recognize. Nevertheless, we now have a “peace” deal. If you can call it that.

We started the negotiations laying out three conditions for a U.S. troop withdrawal: a cease-fire; Taliban recognition for the Ghani government; and forswearing aid to terrorism. That was already halfway a surrender. And as the talks progressed, amid ongoing Taliban atrocities, the first two conditions fell away.

The cease-fire has been watered down into a vague pledge of “violence reduction.” The Taliban still won’t recognize the Ghani government, even though the deal calls for a supposed next phase of talks between them. (Indeed, no Afghans apart from the Taliban have yet been involved; the government rejects the deal’s Taliban prisoner release.) And, finally, as for the no-terrorism pledge  — how much is that worth, once U.S. troops are gone? (Indeed, integrated with the Taliban is the Haqqani Network, which the U.S. designates as a terrorist organization.)

It’s clear this “agreement” is a fig leaf for our just bugging out of Afghanistan, flushing away two decades of costly commitment. Mainly so Trump can claim some accomplishment. As always with him, it’s bullshit. The great negotiator will brag that he got our troops home, as though it’s a victory, having gotten bupkis in return. This “great achievement” comes conveniently before the 2020 election — and also conveniently before the inevitable blow-up, with Afghanistan collapsing in violence, and the extremist Taliban likely winning in the end.

True, Afghanistan has long been a graveyard of other-country aspirations. A benighted country with a squalid history. A playground for cynicism. And yet, our involvement there, for all our undoubted missteps, has been a very good thing for the Afghan people.* For half of them especially — the female half. As far as women’s education, empowerment, and role in society is concerned, we helped pull Afghanistan into the Twentieth Century. Well, maybe just the start of that century, but at least an advance upon the Twelfth.

All of that will go down the drain when we pull out and the Taliban triumphs. Returning women to the Twelfth Century.

*My daughter, who has lived in Afghanistan and travels there frequently, reports, “A lot of Afghans — whom I’ve spoken with — actually are very thankful and give the US a lot of credit. They don’t want US forces to leave”

Super Tuesday and American democracy

March 4, 2020

As Super Tuesday loomed, I hoped for a triumph of sanity — but feared its last stand.

Thank you, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, tribunes of sanity who did the right thing. And to voters who took a cold hard look at Sanders — and decided “uh uh.” It seems the moral imbecility of his praising Castro hurt him. Virtually everywhere, he got fewer votes than in 2016. Biden won states he hadn’t even campaigned in. He is now the clear leader in popular votes and delegates. This broad-based victory will strengthen his momentum. Sanders will continue to torment Biden, but cannot be nominated.

So enough already with this foolishness of wanting on “outsider” who will “shake things up.” We got that last time. Now let’s please put things back together, with a president who actually knows what he’s doing, actually understands the world, and is actually a decent honest human being.

Voter hatred for “politicians” had long been intensifying. Yet who elected those people? The real problem is politicians heeding the uninformed whims of voters who can’t say how many branches the federal government has or in what century the Civil War occurred. Politicians will do what they must, to coddle voters. Democracy would work a lot better without voters mucking it up.

A recent Michael Gerson column laments that the outsider shake-up fetish serves to encourage “unpleasant, ill-mannered loudmouths.” Trump unquestionably represents a collapse of civic decency. Sanders is not much better. Supporters may say they don’t like the nastiness, but wave it off as not really important. Gerson disagrees. The phenomenon, he says, has “blossomed into a crisis of democratic values.”

Here’s why. Democracy is not just voting. It’s a culture, with pluralism — different kinds of people getting along together — of the essence. This means respecting the legitimacy of opposing interests and viewpoints, engaging in rational persuasion, compromising with them, even accepting their victories.

That does not describe America’s political culture lately.

Trumpers blast Democrats as supposedly never accepting the 2016 election. But Republicans overplay that election result as a universal trump card. Meaning everyone with different views about anything should just shut up and go away. And any effort toward presidential accountability somehow disrespects Trump’s voters. As if Republicans don’t disrespect the greater number who actually voted against him. This is not how a democratic culture works. Elections do have consequences — but not the ending of debate and suppression of opposition.

Gerson comments that a politician’s promise “to burn down the house is visceral and emotional. That does not make institutional arsonists more sincere or wise.” Putting it mildly. The sad truth is that voters who want the house burned down are ignorant of what it’s made of. They do not understand democratic culture, nor the role of the institutions that sustain it. And what terrible consequences will ensue from their conflagration.

Call in the firefighters. That’s what Biden’s campaign is really mainly about, and I feel confident he can defeat Trump.

American Nightmare — Sanders versus Trump

March 1, 2020

American Nightmare” is The Economist’s latest cover story. This is an authoritative, extremely serious, sober publication, not given to hysteria. But this editorial is strong stuff. I copy it below, with some editing by me, mainly for brevity:

Sometimes people wake from a bad dream only to discover that the nightmare goes on. This is the prospect facing America if Democrats nominate Sanders against Trump. An appalling choice with no good outcome.

Sanders is so convinced he is morally right, he has a dangerous tendency to put ends before means. And, where Trump has whipped up politics into a frenzy of loathing, Sanders’s election would feed the hatred.

He is not a cuddly Scandinavian social democrat who would let companies do their thing and then tax them to build a better world. Instead, he believes American capitalism is rapacious and needs to be radically weakened. He puts to shame Jeremy Corbyn [hard-left British Labour party leader who recently led his party to electoral disaster] proposing to confiscate not 10% but 20% of the equity of companies and hand it over to workers [actually, the government]. On trade, Sanders is at least as hostile to open markets as Trump is. He seeks to double government spending. With unemployment at a record low and wages in the bottom quarter growing by 4.6%, his call for a revolution in the economy is an epically poor prescription for what ails America.

Sanders displays the intolerance of a Righteous Man. He embraces perfectly reasonable causes like reducing poverty, universal health care and decarbonising the economy, and then insists on the most unreasonable extremes in the policies to achieve them. Like banning private health insurance (not even Britain, devoted to its National Health Service, goes that far). He wants to cut billionaires’ wealth in half over 15 years. A sensible ecologist would tax fracking; Sanders would ban it outright. Making college cost-free is a self-defeating way to alleviate poverty, because most of the subsidy would go to people who are, or will be, relatively wealthy. Banning nuclear energy would stand in the way of his goal to create a zero-carbon economy.

His ideological bent gives him a habit of indulging autocrats, like in Cuba and Nicaragua, so long as they claim to be “socialist.”

Last is the effect of a President Sanders on America’s political culture. The country’s political divisions helped make Trump’s candidacy possible. They are now enabling Sanders’s rise. Leftist activists find his revolution thrilling. They seem to have almost as much hatred for his Democratic opponents as for Republicans.

This speaks to Sanders’s political style. When asked how he would persuade Congress to eliminate private health insurance (which 60% of Americans oppose), Sanders replies that he would hold rallies in the states of recalcitrant senators until they relented. Traveling around the country holding rallies for a far-left program he could not get through Congress would widen America’s divisions. Political realities blocking his revolution would frustrate his supporters. On the right, an actual socialist in the White House would generate even greater fury.

The mainstream three-quarters of Democrats have begun to tell themselves that Sanders would not be so bad. Some say he would not be able to do many of the things he promises. This sounds worryingly familiar. Trump has shown that it is unwise to dismiss what a man seeking power says he wants to do with it.

If Sanders becomes the Democratic nominee, America will have to choose between a corrupt, divisive, right-wing populist, who scorns the rule of law and the constitution, and a sanctimonious, divisive, left-wing populist, who blames a cabal of billionaires and businesses for everything wrong with the world. All this when the country is as peaceful and prosperous as ever. It is hard to think of a worse choice. Wake up, America! 

Postscript (this is Frank writing): Sanders could not be nominated were Obama still alive. Everything he worked for faces destruction. His weighing in would have huge impact. Yet he is inert. One commentator discussing this stressed the word “caution.” Reminds me of Obama’s anemic foreign policy. There are times for caution and times for taking a stand. This time, right now, is the latter.