And There Came a Generation That Knew Not the 1970s
Live and Let Die
The state of the COVID pandemic in the US has been pretty clear since early in the summer. The country has split, culturally, into two groups. About half of us rushed out to get the vaccine as soon as it was available, while the other half decided that they would simply accept mass death as the cost of going about their lives. The only thing that has really changed since then is the spread of the highly contagious delta variant, which made the death rate much higher.
Early in the summer, I described this as accepting a higher level of risk, but that's no longer appropriate, because "risk" implies uncertainty. It implies that you don't already know the results. But we've now had several months of watching the delta variant surge across the country and claim tens of thousands of additional lives. Almost all of these deaths were easily avoidable.
The pockets of resistance to vaccination tend to be among blue-collar types with a belligerent distrust of experts, the sort of people who talk about "doing my own research," yet somehow that doesn't mean reading scientific studies. Instead, they're watching videos by some random guy on YouTube or reading a tweet about Nicki Minaj's cousin's friend. (If you don't get that last reference, believe me, you don't want to know.) Consider the profile of a vaccine advocate in Florida who recently lost six members of her extended family to COVID because, "Everything was new, and they were just scared."
Or they are listening to politically motivated vaccine skeptics on talk radio. The pandemic has been a vast natural experiment to determine whether there are people who would literally rather die than admit they were wrong about politics. I would have speculated ahead of time that such people exist, and in significant numbers. But now we know for sure. Hence the drumbeat of stories about outspoken vaccine opponents who are deathly ill or have died of COVID, most recently a Catholic cardinal and a conservative radio host who used to mock AIDS victims. The name of his show? "Real Science Radio." Somewhere in that story, there's a kind of poetic justice.
The New York Times notes that there is little political will for a return to strong mitigation measures. "'No one's wanting to go back to fight-Covid mode,' said Andrew Warlen, the director of the Health Department in Cass County, Mo., who said some parents had resisted quarantining their students even after they were exposed to someone with the virus." This is partly because those who are most interested in protecting themselves have already done so by getting vaccinated, so they are less likely to fight for measures that would protect somebody else.
I suppose there is a certain grim resignation in taking a "live and let die" attitude toward the vaccine skeptics. But I am not so hard of heart that I can look complacently on cases like the California couple who died of COVID a few weeks apart, orphaning their five children, one of them a newborn.
People keep telling me that they are capable of making their own decisions about the risks to take. Well, they might have a right to make those decisions—more on that in a moment—but the capability is evidently lacking
These people's carelessness with their own lives is turning out to have significant costs for the rest of us. Leaving aside the fact that some of us still have children too young to be vaccinated and elderly relatives for whom the vaccine is not as effective. (The vaccine primes the immune system, but this is less effective when the immune system is already weakened.) These remaining risks are relatively small, though in a massive national wave of infections, small risks become larger. Yet there are more direct impacts. The unvaccinated are overwhelming hospitals, brutally exploiting overworked doctors and nurses and causing the vaccinated to have their care denied or delayed.
One modest proposal for dealing with this is simply to deny treatment to the unvaccinated—if they don't trust modern medicine, they can do without it. Such a rule is unlikely to be implemented and seems a bit harsh even for me. Yet it should serve as a reminder that browbeating the unvaccinated or having their employers require them to get the vaccine are the nice solutions to the problem.
This leads us to the Biden administration's loudly announced but still somewhat vague and unformed plan for a national vaccine mandate. Scott Lincicome gathers together a pretty good case for the dubious legality and constitutionality of such a mandate, and I expect the whole thing to get bogged down in implementation.
My own views are somewhat mixed. Even the most strident advocates of liberty have usually recognized narrow exceptions for public health. There is no right to infect, and spreading a deadly disease to others because you failed to take basic precautions is arguably a form of assault. A federal vaccine mandate is probably wrong simply because it is federal and thus impinges on public health powers that belong on the state level. But a state vaccine mandate would arguably be a legitimate power of government.
This is all a bit theoretical and can be saved for the Libertarian Debate Club, my catchall term for questions that are legitimate and worthwhile in some respects, but so far away from influencing the actual political debate as to be moot.
But speaking of libertarians, the one clearly wrong view on vaccine mandates is that refusing to take the vaccine is some form of heroic civil disobedience. No, refusing to protect yourself and others by taking an effective and widely available vaccine does not make you Rosa Parks. It makes you Typhoid Mary. Leave it to the libertarians to confuse a defense of whim-worship with a defense of liberty.
Like I said, this is far away from the actual political debate, which is likely to be dominated by those whose opposition to vaccine mandates is driven by a stubborn willingness to die rather than admit to being wrong about politics—versus mandates imposed by those, as one vaccinated person told the The New York Times, are frustrated that "you could see the light at the end of the tunnel, and then it was snatched away again."
"Live at let die" is not exactly the ideal way to respond to the pandemic, and it's harder to sell people on it when those who court death are still preventing the rest of us from fully living.
Millionaires and Billionaires
A social-media influencer who moonlights as a congresswoman was recently spotting wearing an expensive designer dress emblazoned with the motto "Tax the Rich" to the Met Gala—a big ostentatious party for preening rich people.
It is part of two patterns I have long observed. First, leftist activists types always think that it's OK to go along with the existing system and "live in the world as it is" only when they do it. Second, "the green-eyed monster rarely glares more viciously than when the well-off look upon the fortunes of those who make even more than they do."
In poking around on this issue, I came across a fascinating little observation that I somehow missed during the 2020 Democratic primaries. A reporter did an analysis of Bernie Sanders's stump speeches and debate performances, and found—well, just read it.
"In at least two of the debates against Hillary Clinton during the 2016 primary, Sanders targeted 'millionaires and billionaires,' according to transcripts....
"Sanders has targeted billionaires as often as ever in the eight 2020 Democratic debates that began in June. But he has not said 'millionaires' during the events, according to transcript searches.
"It's not just on the debate stage. Sanders' campaign Twitter account last tweeted about millionaires on July 31. It used the word five times in 2019, down from 10 times in 2015, the year before the last presidential election....
"The senator himself became a millionaire in 2016 as he vaulted into the national consciousness. Book deals drove more money into his pockets."
Ah yes, that mysterious category, "the rich," a group which is magically able to pay for everything and which is always defined to include only people who have more money than you do.
"The Housing Theory of Everything"
Sanders is by no means the only example. The left's rhetoric about "compassion" is notorious for being surface-deep and usually just a cover for envy, as opposed to an attempt to identify real solutions that would actually help people.
One such real solution is to make housing more available by reducing the vast network of government restrictions on construction, particularly at the local government level.
"Try listing every problem the Western world has at the moment. Along with Covid, you might include slow growth, climate change, poor health, financial instability, economic inequality, and falling fertility. These longer-term trends contribute to a sense of malaise that many of us feel about our societies. They may seem loosely related, but there is one big thing that makes them all worse. That thing is a shortage of housing: too few homes being built where people want to live. And if we fix those shortages, we will help to solve many of the other, seemingly unrelated problems that we face as well.
"Where you live affects nearly everything about your life—where you work, how you spend time off, who your friends and neighbors are, how many kids you can have and when, and even how often you get sick. Most people's most valuable asset is, by far, their own home. And housing is so important for the overall economy because it determines the location and supply of the most important 'resource' of all: people....
"As we've described above, better jobs drive up the price of housing when it's difficult to build more. But that works both ways: when housing is scarce in high-productivity areas, some people are priced out of the area altogether, so they can't move within range of better jobs.
"This means that many people are working in less productive jobs than they could if it was easier for them to move to more productive places. Their wages and productivity are lower and it's harder for highly productive businesses to hire them. That means people who do get to live in these high-productivity places are less productive than they could be, because they are less able to combine their skills with the complementary skills of the people who have been priced out.
"As a result, many businesses end up leaving highly skilled staff without assistance, spending their time on work that could be done by others, lowering the time they can spend on the tasks they're best at. This happens in people's private lives too: people often spend hours trying to fix their leaky pipes instead of just calling in a plumber, because the prices of plumbers near them have risen to cover the costs for plumbers to live there."
The whole thing is admirably thorough and extremely convincing, and it is causing me to upgrade my estimate of the importance of housing deregulation.
This is also why I was glad to see that California Governor Gavin Newsom, fresh off his recall victory—Newsflash: a Democrat is more popular in California than a conservative talk show host who was running against the media—signed a bill banning single-family zoning, one of the major restrictions on new construction in the state. It's not the full answer, but it's one of the few cases where a "progressive" politician actually did something progressive.
Bonus read on this issue: "How NIMBYs Almost Killed Disneyland."
And There Came a Generation That Knew Not the 1970s
In our great national re-enactment of the 1970s, the next step is going to be the return of inflation. But the advocates of runaway government spending have a plan to make us drop our defenses: They're trying to convince us that the inflation of the 1970s never really happened in the first place, or that it wasn't really a problem, or something. At any rate, it turn out the whole stagflation thing was all in our heads.
Here's Rick Perlstein trying to sell us this banana oil.
"I often wondered, when I was researching my most recent book on Reagan, why exactly 'double-digit inflation' became such a defining issue of the time—the top voting issue in the 1980 presidential election, in fact. A banana or a Buick costing one-tenth more every 12 months doesn't exactly seem the stuff of world-historic melodrama."
That's a line that can only resonate with someone who doesn't remember much about the 1970s. I first found my way to this piece through the recommendation of the crackpot New York Times economics reporter Binyamin Appelbaum, who despite looking ten years older than me is actually ten years younger, so at least he has some excuse. But this author, Pearlstein, appears to be almost exactly my age, and I can't imagine what he was doing back then.
Having hand-waved away ten percent year-over-year increases in prices, he then goes on to offer his crazy speculation about what the real issue allegedly was.
"What were these people really talking about when they talked about inflation?
"The conclusion I've drawn is that this was a form of moral panic. The 1970s was when the social transformations of the 1960s worked their way into the mainstream. 'Inflation spiraling out of control' was a way of talking about how more permissiveness, more profligacy, more individual freedom, more sexual freedom had sent society spiraling out of control. 'Discipline' from the top down was a fantasy about how to make all the madness stop."
So that's what parents were thinking when they used Hamburger Helper to pad out their kids' dinners because meat was too expensive, and that's what the elderly were thinking when they saw the value of their life savings go up in smoke: "Darns those girls these days with their short skirts."
This is almost unbelievably condescending and incredibly blinkered. He says, for example, that inflation helped homeowners by increasing the value of their homes—an illusory increase paid for by the fact that new homebuyers now had to take out mortgages with double-digit interest rates.
Or he makes this incredible observation that undermines his whole thesis. "There is, however, one conspicuous population hurt by inflation in the same way they might have been in the 1970s: investors, especially investors in bonds." Let's see, is there a large group of ordinary people who might depend on investments and be likely to hold those investments in bonds? Of course there is: retirees. A whole generation that lived through the Great Depression and bought war bonds during World War II had been conditioned over decades to keep their money in the safest possible investments and to view government bonds as that vehicle. Then the US government repaid their trust by inflating away the majority of the value of their savings.
But I guess it was all in their heads.
This all serves an obvious purpose: to unleash the magical thinking of the left, which believes that the government can just keep spending more and more trillions of borrowed money and never experience any consequences. Like I said, they can only put this over on younger generations who have no firm memories of what inflation looked like the last time around.
But there's plenty of time for them to form new memories. In fact, we may already be in an era of significant inflation which isn't quite being measured yet.
That's an intriguing argument offered by economist Alan Cole, who argues that we're already seeing a variation on "shrinkflation." That's when retailers try to hide price increases by offering their goods for the same price but giving you less in each package. In this case, Cole points to a decrease in the quality of good, which is notoriously difficult for official statistics to measure.
"Cars.com notes that used car prices are approaching new car prices, contrary to decades of conventional wisdom about lightly-used cars being a great bargain. So why are new car prices not rising just as much? The article offers a hint: 'the pricing trends listed above could tempt used-car shoppers to look for a new vehicle instead, but finding that exact vehicle in supply will likely be a challenge.' In other words, you might have to sacrifice on convenience or options, or you might not even get the car at all for months. These more subtle declines in the new-car customer experience are not picked up by inflation metrics."
Cole points out how this would explain figures showing that the economy has grown through the pandemic despite a massive decrease in actual work, which would imply an improbably large increase in worker productivity.
"If the official statistics miss quality changes and therefore understate recent inflation, then using those statistics for inflation adjustment will lead us to overstate progress in measures like real GDP per capita or real consumption per capita.
"This insight also casts doubt on the idea of a COVID productivity boom, discussed recently by both the New York Times' Neil Irwin and the Wall Street Journal's Greg Ip. If GDP is up, even though we have many fewer people working [than] before, then we must necessarily have become more productive.
"Ip argues that this is a story about the pandemic accelerating technological adoption and forcing out unproductive old habits. Certainly, consulting and finance professionals who were previously required to fly to in-person meetings rather than hop onto a Zoom meeting might see it that way. Irwin includes the technology argument in his piece, but he also includes this paragraph:
"'Sometimes there are tricky measurement questions. For example, if a hotel charges the same prices but, with fewer housekeepers on the payroll, no longer provides a daily cleaning service, that arguably is a worsening in the quality of the product and therefore a form of inflation, rather than higher labor productivity.'
"Irwin presents this as a caveat to an otherwise positive situation. But what if it's actually the bulk of the explanation?"
The pandemic economy is allowing the left the illusion of living in their fantasy land, in which fewer people are producing goods and more people are living off the government dole—yet this is still magically making everybody wealthier because the government is just printing money to pay for it all.
That fantasy is about to come crashing down.
The left is not the only one indulging a fantasy. The right is playing around with an even more dangerous one: civil war and secession.
Charlie links to a poll showing that "66 percent of Republicans living in the South say they'd support seceding from the United States to join a union with other Southern states." If only someone had ever tried this before.
I don't think this is remotely likely to happen. The people talking about secession are just, well, whistling Dixie. It's the conservative equivalent of lefties vowing to move to Canada whenever the Democrats lose an election.
The article on this poll notes, "It probably makes sense to read these results more as statements of political identity (e.g., 'I'm a proud Southerner, and I don't like Joe Biden!') than as signs of actual intent." But there's something more serious behind it. The reason pollsters ask about secession is that it "taps into respondents' commitments to the American political system at the highest level." And that's the real problem.
The Anti-Republican Party
The real issue behind the secession chatter is that the Republican Party has decided, not to try to win elections, but to circumvent them, preemptively discrediting election results and trying to figure out how to still rule as a minority party.
Sykes also points out how Larry Elder's campaign created a web page devoted to claiming that the California recall election was stolen before it was even held.
"How bad is it? Elder's campaign put up a website pre-emptively claiming that the election was fraudulent ('resulting in Governor Gavin Newsom being reinstated as governor')—and demanding an audit and a special session of the state legislature.
"Unfortunately, this is not a one-off. As the Times noted: 'This swift embrace of false allegations of cheating in the California recall reflects a growing instinct on the right to argue that any lost election, or any ongoing race that might result in defeat, must be marred by fraud. The relentless falsehoods spread by Mr. Trump and his allies about the 2020 election have only fueled such fears.'
"This is how we live now: increasingly, the GOP is primed to reject the results of any election they lose."
It was only the lopsided result that prevented Elder from pressing this claim, but as Jonathan Last argues, the default Republican response in any close race, even if it's not remotely close enough for a recount, will be to refuse to concede and to claim the election was stolen.
That goes back to a warning I gave last year when Trump first went all in on his "stolen election" conspiracy theories.
"Trump's attempt has failed because the ground was not prepared for it.
"But the current attempt is preparing the ground, getting the rank and file of Republicans to sign on to election conspiracy theories and be ready to demand a different result four years from now.
"It's not about this presidential election. It's about the next one."
I specifically warned that Republicans would start replacing honest state and local election officials with partisan hacks. And that's exactly what we're seeing. Trump Republicans—a redundant term by now—are nputting the mechanisms and personnel into place to overturn future election results.
"Trump's Monday endorsement of state Rep. Mark Finchem for Arizona secretary of state is the latest in a series of announcements that has alarmed independent elections experts. Trump has now backed Republicans who supported his lies about the 2020 election for the job of top elections official in three crucial battlegrounds—Arizona, Michigan, and Georgia—where the current elections chiefs opposed his efforts to reverse his 2020 defeat.
"If people who have sought to undermine the 2020 election are running things in 2024, when Trump might be a candidate again, experts and many Democrats fear that attempts to subvert the will of the voters stand a much greater chance of success....
"Finchem, who has also promoted QAnon conspiracy theories, has been an especially aggressive promoter of the lies that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump and rife with 'rampant' fraud....
"While a secretary's authority varies from state to state, many of them have power over critical elections processes—from who gets sent an application for a mail-in ballot to whose names are deleted from the registration rolls to how many ballot drop boxes are permitted to which voting technology is used to the certification of the results."
And it could get even worse. Another Republican candidate for the Arizona position has previously floated a bill "to allow Arizona legislators revoke the secretary of state's certification of the results at 'any time' until the presidential inauguration."
The Republican Party is quickly making itself a menace to our whole system of representative government, openly attempting to arrogate to its incumbents the power to negate the choice of the voters. I am increasingly becoming worried that it will be necessary to vote against all Republicans at all levels until they give up this madness (or are replaced by a new center-right party).
One last short link on one more topic: Here is one of the best commentaries on the Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos scandal, but honestly it's worth linking just for the title alone: "If Your CEO Talks Like Kant, Think Twice Before Investing." Solid advice.