Relative Tragedy

We live in strange times. Or perhaps all times are strange.

Giving something a name grants magical hypnotic power. “Coronavirus” or “Covid” are names that immediately occupy all attention and short circuit normal brain function.

I imagine newsrooms today:

Editor: “Any tragedies to report?”

Lackey: “A few sir”

Editor: “Shoot”

Lackey: “An airplane suddenly veered off course and crashed into a mountain killing all 200 people aboard”

Editor: “And…”

Lackey: “None of them tested positive for the Coronavirus”

Editor: “Meh. Not a tragedy. Run of the mill. Anything else?”

Lackey: “An elderly disabled war hero was driving home from saving his daughter’s kitten when he got stuck on the train tracks and suffered a horrible collision”

Editor: “And…”

Lackey: “His car burst into flames and he died a very terrible death as onlookers couldn’t reach him in time despite heroic efforts”

Editor: “And…”

Lackey: “He tossed a hand scrawled will out the window just before he perished, revealing a secret fortune he donated to the poor”

Editor: “And…”

Lackey: “We can’t be sure because we can’t verify he was tested, and the tests are ridiculously inaccurate, and he had no symptoms, but he may have had Coronavirus”

Editor: “MY GOD THE HUMANITY!!! Why didn’t you tell me we had a lead story!”

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Neither Pandemic nor Panic Supersede the First Amendment

Rodney Howard-Browne, pastor of The River church in Tampa, Florida, strongly believes that God wants his church to continue holding live services for hundreds of parishioners even in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hillsborough County sheriff Chad Chronister and state attorney Andrew Warren strongly believe that they’re entitled to threaten Howard-Browne with arrest for holding those services, then follow through on that threat.

Howard-Browne is obviously willing to go to jail for his belief. Are Chronister and Warren willing to go to prison for theirs?

Whether Howard-Browne is correct in his assessment of God’s commands isn’t something I’ll pretend to know. But Chronister and Warren are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, incorrect in their claims of authority.

The First Amendment to the Constitution protects both the “free exercise of” religion and the right “peaceably to assemble.” While that amendment initially bound only Congress, the 14th Amendment has generally been construed to extend its strictures to the state and local levels of government.

And then there’s 18 United States Code, Sections 241 and 242.

Section 241 provides for up to ten years of imprisonment if “two or more persons [for example, Chad Chronister and Andrew Warren] conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any person in any State, Territory, Commonwealth, Possession, or District in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having so exercised the same.”

Section 242 adds another potential year of imprisonment for doing the above “under color of any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom,” including “stay-at-home” or “lockdown” orders issued by local and state political officials.

I double-checked, just to make sure. Neither the First Amendment nor either of those US Code provisions include an “unless someone jumps up and down and screeches that there’s an emergency” exception.

Rodney Howard-Browne may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer (many churches are holding services online and I haven’t heard of any divine smite-downs over it), but he’s within his rights.

Chronister and Warren may be genuinely concerned about the spread of COVID-19, but they’re also lawless hooligans operating well beyond any reasonable claim of legitimate authority.

Sadly, they’re far from unique. Once the immediate danger is past, we should proceed immediately to Nuremberg-type tribunals to deal with them and the hundreds or even thousands of temporarily over-empowered scofflaws like them.

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Yes, the COVID-19 Panic Does Call for Drastic Measures

As an old saying goes, it’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the sudden stop at the end.

The world’s politicians are innovating on the fly (pun intended) by trying to combine the fall — the COVID-19 epidemic — with the sudden stop, bringing life and commerce to a halt through draconian travel restrictions, business closures, etc.

We don’t yet know what the COVID-19 death toll is going to be. In the US,  based on current numbers, it looks like we’re going to see quite a few more deaths than occurred in the 9/11 attacks, more even than from the usual seasonal flu, but not nearly as many as predicted by the “I know the word exponential! I know how to draw a hockey stick on graph paper! Quick, hide under the bed, or COVID-19 WILL GIT YEWWW!” social media crowd.

What we’ve not yet seen is anything remotely justifying the declarations of dictatorship coming from politicians at all levels of government.

Everyone from mayors to governors to the president himself is getting in on the act, claiming authority to shut down businesses the politician doesn’t consider “essential” — and at the federal level to centrally plan and manage those businesses’ operations — to clear the streets of anyone and everyone whose activities the politician hasn’t listed as “approved,” etc.

On the back end, those same politicians are trying to figure out how to cushion the economic blow of their own authoritarian stupidity with bank and corporate bailouts, individual stimulus checks, and other voodoo rituals that threaten to turn a short, mild recession into a Greater Depression.

I do agree that the situation calls for drastic measures, and I have one to offer:

I propose a 90-day total quarantine, effective immediately, on all elected or appointed government officials.

By “total,” I mean they are to be restricted to their homes without telephone or Internet access, and physically restrained if they try to leave, have a communication device smuggled in, or speak to anyone through an open window.

As compensation (and to keep ringers from smuggling out proclamations), the taxpayers should provide for grocery delivery.

Three months without politicians exploiting panic to enhance their own power would reduce both the short-term death toll and the long-term problems of economic recovery.

Alternatively, we could all just start ignoring them and their edicts and get back to living again whether they like it or not.

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Villages to Cities to Villages?

Humans used to mostly live in villages. Clusters of families where the adults did work and the kids roamed and observed and played and learned work by being around it.

With specialization, mass scale production, and technological advances the arrangement changed. People lived in neighborhoods or cities that were often much larger, adults commuted to cities during the day vastly larger still, and kids were shipped off to huge age-segregated clusters, before smaller immediate families came back together for dinner in the evening.

The benefits of technological progress are astounding and I wouldn’t trade them. The benefits greatly outweighed the costs, which is why just about everyone who had the chance chose it. But shifting living arrangements were (often) one item on the cost side of the ledger. It was sometimes necessary, not necessarily optimal.

With increasing automation, software, robotics, and information access, the equation is changing again. Humans don’t need to cluster together en masse for economic production. That means one of the costs we had to pay to get the benefits of economic progress has been removed. Now there is choice. You can do the commute to cities and office buildings while kids commute to age segregated schools thing if you want. But you don’t have to.

This is a pretty new choice. And so far, only a handful of early adopters see an seize it. People can now live where they want with who they want with kids and adults alike doing their work and play near the home. Most people still do not realize this is an option. They are wedded to the status quo by inertia, not necessity.

Recent voluntary and forced quarantines are waking some people up to this possibility. More people than realized can work from anywhere. People also realize how they might want to change their living arrangements if they were to continue this more flexible, work and learn from home arrangement. For example, you might want to choose your neighbors more deliberately if you’re spending more time in a village-like setting. If you and your kids social life and work life and learning will be more local, spontaneous, and collaborative, you might change the kind of natural environment you’re in. Climate, house type, access to outdoors, etc.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see a slow steady uptick in deliberate village-like communities. Clusters of families with some shared interest, ideology, religion, or profession who have adults who can work from anywhere on flexible hours and kids roaming around learning through mixed-age play and imitation.

It’s possible the reason few people do this now is that few prefer it. It’s also possible the reason few do it now is because they’ve been conditioned for several generations into the assumption that it’s not on the table. More short-term experiments in this type of arrangement could inspire more to do it.

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A Proposal for Real Coronavirus “Stimulus”

On March 12, the New York Federal Reserve announced a $1.5 trillion injection of money into the US financial system. Three days later, it cut its benchmark interest rate to zero and announced it would be buying at least $500 billion in government bonds and another $200 billion in mortgage securities.

The Fed is returning to a policy of “Quantitative Easing” in response to the COVID-19 panic. The idea behind these moves is that throwing money at the banks and the government will “stimulate” the economy by keeping credit easy for consumers and business borrowers.

I have a better idea.

The Fed’s new QE announcements already top $2.2 trillion.

For Fiscal Year 2018 (the year your last tax return covered), the US government only collected $1.6 trillion in individual income tax.

The projected amount for Fiscal Year 2019 is probably more than that, but not a great deal more, and almost certainly not as much as the Fed is already planning to throw into the mix.

If the US government is serious about “stimulus,” it should announce that instead of accepting tax returns this year, the IRS will immediately (no waiting for April 15, no questions asked) cut and mail refund checks for every dollar of income tax it collected in Fiscal Year 2019.

Instead of the Fed magically creating a bunch of new money out of thin air and giving it to banks and the government, just give Americans our own money back.

We’ll take that money to stores and buy things with it (that’s “actual economic demand”), which will stimulate the economy a whole lot more, and a whole lot faster, than the Fed’s magic money sitting in bank balances waiting to be loaned out (that’s “prospective economic supply”).

Yes, my proposal would result in an even bigger federal budget deficit this year than usual, adding more to the government’s debt. But that was going to be the case even before the coronavirus. And both major American political parties have made it clear — in action even when they don’t admit it — that they don’t believe deficits matter.

If the COVID-19 panic is the economic equivalent of a heart attack, and that’s pretty much what it is, the Fed’s response amounts to slapping the patient’s face and urging it to wake up while praying loudly and fervently.

Actually putting people’s tax money back in their pockets would be the equivalent of a direct adrenaline injection to the patient’s heart.

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What You and the Pandemic Virus Have in Common

What can the COVID-19 virus teach us about philosophy?

With any virus – but particularly with an especially infectious one – we get a perfect working metaphor for the relationship between individual actions and society.

Namely: the only thing that spreads as far and as fast as a pandemic are the consequences of your moral actions.

If you contract a virus – say, for instance, the COVID-19 coronavirus – you immediately become a member of a great chain. Someone before you had the virus. Now you have it because of them. And more likely than not, someone else – multiple people, really – will have it because of you. When you become a carrier for a virus, everything you do becomes a potential vector for infecting people. And you alone can infect hundreds or thousands of people if you do things badly enough.

As a member of a chain of infections, though, your contribution to a pandemic can be far worse than just infecting a dozen or a hundred or a thousand other people. Those people you infect aren’t just sick because of you – they’re carriers too because of you. They can now infect dozens or hundreds or thousands more.

It is in this way that a single human being – a “patient zero” – can be responsible for infecting hundreds of millions or billions of people.

This viral example brings home the significance not just of personal hygiene but of all personal ethics and personal action. We live in networks and chains, and all of our actions “transmit” something to the people around us. If we transmit fear, that fear “infects” the people around us, then the people around them. If we transmit

These networks are how an abusive father’s actions can lead eventually to mass prison camps, or how a friend’s faithfulness can lead to the defeat of a great tyrant. The content of our actions transmits virally, and at scale it can become something very dangerous and destructive, or beautiful and healing.

Take time during this time of pandemic to reflect on the vast significance of your own actions and your connectedness to others – not just in health, but in everything.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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