Since nothing else interesting is happening, I thought I might catch up on some news items that slipped through the cracks at the end of the year.
Oh, wait, something interesting is happening? Don't I know it. I had planned the sleepy two-month period between the election and the inauguration as an opportunity for me to finish updating and rebuilding my website and adding a few functions, and instead the whole country has gone insane and it is my lot in life to write about it. So I'll have more to say soon on the continuing election turmoil.
In the meantime, there really are some other stories that have been pushed to the back burner that should not be forgotten. Here they are.
1. Our Inactive "Acting" Executive
One of the hallmarks of the Trump era is the president's almost exclusive reliance on "acting" officials—temporary replacements put in positions of authority after the regular holder of the office is fired or quits, and then kept there indefinitely. This is partly because Donald Trump wanted to avoid Senate confirmation of his cabinet officials by the easy expedient of never appointing anyone to a permanent position on his cabinet. (Barack Obama tried to do the same thing with "czars.") But he has also used it for vital roles that require no congressional input, such as his chief of staff, and he likes it because he thinks it makes officials more obsequious to him by virtue of being less secure in their jobs.
The upshot, though, is that huge numbers of executive appointments remain unfilled or filled by a temporary "acting" official who is often just a flunky. And so the actual act of administering the United States government has been abandoned—particularly since the election, with the president preoccupied with his own bizarre melodrama of conspiracy theories.
That brings us to news about the consequences of having an inactive "acting" administration, as sketched out by Jim Geraghty back in December.
Back in 2015, I quoted an unnamed defense contractor's assessment of the hack of the US Office of Personnel Management: "The OPM hack was just the start and it won't be the last." That hack was widely described as the "cyber Pearl Harbor" and yet most Americans didn't notice. A bunch of Russian ads on Facebook stirred more Americans to anger than hackers—believed to be affiliated with the Chinese government—stealing personnel data and Social Security numbers for every federal employee.
This morning, we awaken to the sequel:
The Trump administration acknowledged on Sunday that hackers acting on behalf of a foreign government—almost certainly a Russian intelligence agency, according to federal and private experts—broke into a range of key government networks, including in the Treasury and Commerce Departments, and had free access to their email systems.
Officials said a hunt was on to determine if other parts of the government had been affected by what looked to be one of the most sophisticated, and perhaps among the largest, attacks on federal systems in the past five years. Several said national security-related agencies were also targeted, though it was not clear whether the systems contained highly classified material....
Protecting government systems is part of the job of the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.... You probably heard that President Trump fired CISA director Christopher Krebs on November 17, after Krebs publicly declared that the election systems were secure and that there was no evidence that Venezuelans or anyone else had gotten into the software and changed votes from Trump to Biden.
Beyond CISA, almost the entire top level of the Department of Homeland Security is operating in an acting capacity right now, and has done so for many months. DHS has an acting secretary, an acting deputy secretary, an acting chief of staff, an acting general counsel, an acting undersecretary of management, an acting undersecretary for science and technology, an acting undersecretary for intelligence and analysis, an acting director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, an acting commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection, and an acting director of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. As of September, at least 15 officials in the executive branch had served in 'acting' capacity longer than the time allotted under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act—210 days. The president doesn't care about who is in these jobs, and it shows. Apparently, no one around him can get him to care, either.
The one thing I will look forward to in the Biden administration is the expectation that there will actually be someone identifiable in charge of the various operations of the US government. I'm sure I won't like all the appointees, but at least someone will be running things. But not quite yet, because it appears that this Senate will not be confirming Joe Biden's appointments prior to his inauguration. Such confirmations are a long-standing custom meant to keep the US government from being blindsided during a gap in leadership between administrations—but it looks we are going to have such a gap this year.
2. Leveling Down
The item above describes the hidden crisis that is not being dealt with because of Trump's ongoing, artificially created election crisis. The bigger and more obvious one is the next wave of the COVID pandemic. We're in that awful period in which the vaccine is ready, approved, and on it way—but infections and deaths are spiking to their highest levels yet. It's a race against time, and against the McKeown Hypothesis: the tendency of medical interventions like vaccines to arrive only after a disease has run it course, so that they prevent its recurrence, but not the initial outbreak.
We have a chance to break that cycle and shut down this outbreak in the middle. That's why it's so disappointing to see reports of vaccines being discarded without being administered, thanks to inflexible bureaucratic rules.
First, let's recognize that vaccine distribution is a hard thing to do, particularly because the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines require two doses administered three or four weeks apart. So part of the holdup is that it makes no sense to jab someone with one of these vaccines unless you have a good idea that he's going to come back for the second round, and that you will have a second round available to give him. Of course, it also makes sense to prioritize health-care workers first, since they are the most at-risk and among the most likely to spread COVID to others.
That said, there is growing evidence that excessive red tape has been slowing down the vaccine rollout. See a good analysis of what's happening in New York, where Andrew Cuomo has imposed a strict centrally planned regime: "[I]n the name of fairness and avoiding vaccine fraud, Governor Cuomo has claimed that any provider who breaches the state's distribution plan could be liable for fines up to $1 million, and risk having their license revoked." So any extra vaccine doses left after vaccinating people in the top priority categories have to be thrown away. This is classic bureaucratic thinking. It is more important to enforce the rules and make sure no one gets the vaccine before they're supposed to than it is to get the vaccine out as soon as possible.
Fortunately, the rules are already being relaxed to solve the problem.
As COVID rips through the population and states struggle to vaccinate residents with limited supplies and a paucity of federal assistance, some governors are opting for radical solutions. Rather than giving initial vaccines only to the elderly and front-line health workers, they're offering shots to a wide swath of people to quickly reach the maximum possible.
Any resident of Georgia, Florida, Texas, Delaware, or Ohio who is 65 or older can now sign up for a shot. California has opened mass clinics in places like Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and Petco Park in San Diego. New York City is offering vaccines in schools and post offices, among other sites, and will have 24-hour centers in each of its five boroughs.
That has led to a dizzying patchwork of rules—strict hierarchies based on risk or need in some states, and more freewheeling approaches in others—that create variations in access to the potentially life-saving shots....
"There is a trade-off between efficiency and the ideal categorization of who gets the vaccine when, and making sure there isn't line-cutting," said Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. "All of that is important, but has the potential to slow things down. What we need is to start getting people vaccinated. It's a mistake to try to get it perfectly right."
Some are going so far as to claim that this is a form of deliberate social engineering, that "we're still waiting for vaccinations to filter their way down through the hierarchy of social strata established by governors." Like I said, putting health care workers and the elderly first actually makes sense, but there was an attempt to bring in another criterion, as Yascha Mounk has detailed.
[F]or all of those difficulties, there are also some bedrock principles on which virtually all moral philosophers have long agreed.
The first is that we should avoid "leveling down" everyone's quality of life for the purpose of achieving equality. It is unjust when some people have plenty of food while others are starving. But alleviating that inequality by making sure that an even greater number of people starve is clearly wrong. The second is that we should not use ascriptive characteristics like race or ethnicity to allocate medical resources. To save one patient rather than another based on the color of their skin rightly strikes most philosophers—and most Americans—as barbaric. The Centers for Disease Control have just thrown both of these principles overboard in the name of social justice.
In one of the most shocking moral misjudgments by a public body I have ever seen, the CDC invoked considerations of 'social justice' to recommend providing vaccinations to essential workers before older Americans even though this would, according to its own models, lead to a much greater death toll. After a massive public outcry, the agency has adopted revised recommendations. But though these are a clear improvement, they still violate the two bedrock principles of allocative justice—and are likely to cause unnecessary suffering on a significant scale.
On November 23rd, Kathleen Dooling, a public health official at the CDC, gave a presentation to the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), which is tasked with developing the recommendation on who should first get access to the vaccine against Covid....
Dooling emphasized that "racial and ethnic minority groups are underrepresented among adults > 65." In other words, America's elderly are too white to be considered a top priority for the distribution of the vaccine against Covid. It is on this basis that ACIP awarded three times as many points to prioritizing the more racially diverse group of essential workers, making the crucial difference in the overall determination. Astonishingly, the higher overall death toll that would have resulted from this course of action does not feature as an ethical reason to prioritize older Americans.
Mounk draws the right conclusion:
The attack on philosophically liberal principles has by now migrated from leafy college campuses to the most important and powerful organizations in the country.
Fortunately, this is not what is currently holding up the vaccine. Instead, it's just good old-fashioned American red tape and bureaucracy.
3. "We're Out of Touch"
There are going to be some big lessons to draw from this pandemic, and one of the biggest is the failure of the public schools, many of which proved unable to adapt and have essentially abandoned children for the better part of a year. Despite the fact that the young are the least at risk from COVID, many have been relegated to fully remote schooling, which is an obvious and predictable failure.
Remote education over the Internet makes perfect sense for motivated college kids, who are old enough to pay attention and keep themselves on task without in-person instructors. It does not function at all for five-year-olds. So naturally, that's what we're getting for five-year-olds—while the college kids flock to the campuses where they can display the poor judgment for which they are famous and spread COVID by going to parties.
The result could be a long-term discrediting event for public schools, as detailed here.
Teachers unions, and the (largely Democratic) politicians they back, have relentlessly limited parental choice in the name of maximizing the autonomy of teachers to opt out of classrooms while still getting paid. No other country in the industrialized world has closed schools down to this degree.
Public schools in Los Angeles—mild, outdoors-friendly Los Angeles—have been 99 percent shuttered since March, with no opening in sight. What few big cities that have allowed for in-person instruction, such as New York, operate on maddeningly unpredictable hybrid schedules, subject to the ever-changing whims of a union-feting mayor who 'hates' (typically non-unionized) charter schools, even though they educate 10 percent of the children in his system. The remote learning that tens of millions of kids are suffering through nationally is broadly understood to be a disaster.
The results are as predictable as day following night: Parents are pulling their kids out of public schools.
"The school boards association estimated that as many as three million students—about 6 percent of the public school population—are not taking classes right now, and that number could grow," the New York Times reported in a December 22 piece. "That is potentially a major drain on public school budgets because most states base school funding at least in part on enrollment numbers."
If this just means an exodus to private schools, so much the better. But some of this impact is much worse.
"In some cases, the charter schools are taking them, in some cases privates and parochials," said Glenn Koocher, who heads the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. "The bigger tragedy is that some kids aren't getting anything, because they've fallen off the map."
Mr. Koocher said he believes a third of the students that left public schools this year are in that category. "The districts have lost touch with them," he said. "They're staying home, probably doing nothing, and we're out of touch with them."
He could have just shortened that to "we're out of touch." So much for the "caring" and "compassionate" option of government-run schools.
To be sure, some places (and most other countries) are doing a better job keeping their public schools open, and nobody has been able to keep them open all the time. (I am currently hunkering down with my kids at home as COVID numbers surge.)
But there is still a broad lesson here about the pitfalls of government-run programs, because thanks to teachers' unions, the schools have turned out to be run for the benefit of the teachers—to make sure they keep getting paid without having to do much work—rather than for the benefit of the students.
4. How to Win the Culture War
We all talk about how much we hate lawyers, but sometimes lawsuits can be a powerfully clarifying tool. They can take certain factual claims, drag them out of the lawless jungle of politics and punditry, and bring them into a courtroom where they are subject to objective rules of evidence. It's amazing how quickly they tend to wither under that kind of scrutiny.
The biggest recent example of this is the failure of the Trump campaign's election lawsuits, where extravagant claims made in press conferences evaporated in the courtroom. Similarly, one manufacturer of voting software managed to force the most propagandistic right-wing media outlets into a groveling retraction when faced with a lawsuit they were certain to lose—and now Trump's craziest lawyer, Sidney Powell, faces a massive defamation suit from a manufacturer of voting machines. Falsely accusing someone of a criminal conspiracy can have some pretty severe legal consequences.
But the left has suffered its own setbacks in the courtroom. Campus "cancel culture" was dealt a blow when Oberlin College was required to pay massive damages for jumping onto the bandwagon of a defamation campaign against a local business.
Similarly, I've been speculating for a while that the transgender social contagion, and particularly the practice of giving puberty-blocking hormones to confused young people, is a vast constellation of malpractice suits waiting to happen.
This has already materialized in Britain, but in a less harsh form: Bell v. Tavistock, a lawsuit intended, not to punish anyone, but to produce an official ruling that children are incapable of consenting to radical medical interventions.
Keira Bell is what is known as a "detransitioner." Now 23, she struggled in adolescence. At 14, this daughter of an alcoholic single mother was anxious and depressed. Always uncomfortable with her femininity, she had masculine interests, was horrified by her periods, and felt like a freak. She began spending time online and so discovered trans influencers. She formed the view she, too, was transgender and was referred to the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust. She was prescribed puberty blockers at 16, then proceeded to cross-sex hormones, before a double mastectomy aged 20. Significantly, she had already begun to experience doubts about the wisdom of her transition before the double-mastectomy, but persisted in part thanks to the one-way nature of her treatment path, on which the court expectorated at length.
When Bell litigated, she sought judicial review of Tavistock's treatment regime. She did not bring a claim in medical negligence.... A victorious claimant in a judicial review case, by contrast, receives not a penny. Instead, she gets a declaration that certain rights, rules, and procedures are to be upheld or followed in future. However—and this is the sting in judicial review's tail—if the defendant does not comply with the declaration then the tortious floodgates are opened. This is the reason, since the judgment was brought down, the Tavistock GIDS has effectively ceased to function. It also suggests Bell was not only ably advised but is a person of sound and generous character. The court (comprising three senior judges including the President of the Queen's Bench Division, Dame Victoria Sharp) was emphatic:
The conclusion we have reached is that it is highly unlikely that a child aged 13 or under would ever be Gillick competent to give consent to being treated with [puberty blockers]. In respect of children aged 14 and 15, we are also very doubtful that a child of this age could understand the long-term risks and consequences of treatment in such a way as to have sufficient understanding to give consent.
Incidentally, the transgender mania is one of the examples that has been used by nationalist conservatives to argue that Politically Correct insanity cannot be countered through the dispassionate rational mechanisms of political liberalism and can only be confronted through the exercise of raw power. Yet the massive explosion of transgender treatments for confused adolescent girls was always based more on political and ideological posturing than on any kind of evidence from the sciences of medicine or psychology. That made it a ripe target for being brought to heel by a means that epitomizes rational political liberalism: the rules of evidence in the courts.
It's a small but potent lesson in how to win the culture war—because especially now, having hitched their wagon to the falling star of Trumpism, the nationalist conservatives are showing us how to lose it.
5. Pathological Altruism
A few years ago, I latched on to a psychologist's identification of "pathological altruism"—a first, halting step toward a much bigger and much needed re-examination of conventional morality. So naturally I've been on the lookout for other instances in which mainstream intellectuals stumble upon this big truth.
Consider the latest example, a British literary magazine's review of an early 20th novel warning against the corrosive affects of pity and self-sacrifice.
No, it's not the novel you're thinking of right now.
Anyone reading Stefan Zweig's Beware of Pity—the Austrian author's 1939 novel about the catastrophic effects of pity in human relations—will be amazed at how modern it seems....
The story itself is very simple. In the last months before the First World War, a young lieutenant in the Austro-Hungarian cavalry is kicking his heels in a Central European border town like any other. One afternoon the monotony is broken up by the entry into a café of an unfamiliar young woman, all social poise and sensuality. Her name's Ilyona, and to get to know her better Hofmiller attends a soiree at the castle of her uncle, a wealthy local industrialist. To his surprise he finds himself seduced by the castle and its atmosphere. There's music, dancing, a "rainbow of liqueurs" to drink and "cigars as thick as asparagus," Hofmiller dances cheek to cheek with his Ilyona, the world seems to say yes to him, and all is perfect.
Then he makes a catastrophic error. There is another girl there, his host's daughter Edith, whom Ilyona is keeping company. Wouldn't it be simple courtesy to ask her to dance, too? Hofmiller does so, but is floored to find that at his invitation the girl breaks down in a storm of accusatory tears. Edith, unknown to him, is crippled by polio from the waist down, and even watching the other dancers causes her anguish. Hofmiller is mortified and Ilyona immediately rescinds her interest in him: "Are you out of your mind?... Don't you know?... Didn't you notice?... You callous...."
It's in his desperate attempts to make it up to Edith that Pity—the novel's real protagonist—makes its malignant first appearance. Soon it will dance them both in an awful tarantella which, it's clear from the outset, is going to end badly. Edith and Hofmiller become horribly entangled with each other. She's addicted to him. He's addicted to Pity, that emotion which seems benign and charitable at first but ends up as a toxic passion. Hofmiller feels little for Edith; but pity for her, which humiliates them both, forces him into ever more compromising situations. Pity quickly becomes like a devil on Hofmiller's back, commanding all his choices, brooking no reluctance, and riding him mercilessly onto the next mistake....
Many have termed it "weaponised empathy," and we now see it everywhere. It's at the heart of offence-taking, victimhood, buzzwords like "vulnerability," the aggressive demand to feel "safe."... Increasingly the word ["compassion"] is being used to shame or shut down reasonable debate. Label someone lacking in compassion and you no longer have to engage with their motives or reasoning. They are out of the game.
To list the ways in which Pity has corroded national dialogue, to name all the institutions into which it has seeped, would make this article an unreadable checklist of gutted or demoralised estates. There is virtually no institution in the country now which doesn't seem to have forgotten its first principles—from the British Library, to the Metropolitan Police and even (God help us) to "Doctor Who."
We are killing ourselves with "kindness."
Note, however, that the author is unwilling to accept the new perspective he has stumbled upon and hastens, as usual, to reaffirm the moral necessity of altruism: "None of this is to deny the sanctity of genuine compassion and kindness, without which we are lost." There is a level beyond which he cannot or will not carry his analysis—and it's revealing, in this respect, that he can write an entire article on this vital topic without mentioning the other novelist of the same era who offered the most thorough and unsparing examination of this issue.
There are a lot of people who are ready to begin nibbling around the corners when it comes to recognizing the pathologies of altruism. Someday, they will be ready to take the issue more seriously.