The Politics of Panic are Far Deadlier Than the Coronavirus

US president Donald Trump “Has a Problem as the Coronavirus Threatens the US,” assert the authors of a New York Times analysis: “His Credibility.”

In the tagline and elsewhere in the article, the authors imply that the spread of COVID-19, aka “the coronavirus,” constitutes a “public health crisis” and a “national emergency” which Trump’s “history of issuing false claims” handicaps him in selling plans to address.

If they’re right about Trump’s credibility, they’re pointing to a feature, not a bug. The last thing we need is an impetuous political response to COVID-19.

The coronavirus is neither a national emergency nor a public health crisis in the US. Absent heavy-handed government involvement it’s unlikely to become either.

What is COVID-19?

It’s a regional epidemic in China, with a fairly low — and continuously falling as more and more asymptomatic cases are discovered — mortality rate even there.

It’s likely to be far less deadly in the US, which has better air quality than, and about 1/5th the percentage of smokers as, China. Like other “common cold” type viruses, it’s more likely to kill those with compromised lungs and/or immune systems.

Yes, COVID-19 is coming to America. In fact, it’s already here, and it’s going to spread.

It will spread whether Trump appoints vice-president Mike Pence to stop it or not.

It will spread whether federal government and state governments impose draconian but ineffectual measures like travel restrictions and large-scale quarantines or not.

Political grandstanding over the coronavirus and “emergency measures” versus the coronavirus will almost certainly kill more people — in the US and abroad — than the coronavirus itself.

Every “emergency measure” imposes costs in the form of drag on economic activity.

We’ve already seen what happens to the stock market when business gets nervous about the Chinese nodes in its supply chains.

Travel and trade restrictions mean higher prices and lost jobs, both of which discourage Americans from seeing doctors when they get sick.

Treating COVID-19 as a genuine American public health emergency instead of as an understandable but unjustified panic means  medical resources get mal-invested in fighting COVID-19 instead of the other real, existing health problems they’re needed to fight.

Higher prices, lost jobs, and medical mal-investment are a recipe for dead Americans.

You probably won’t get the coronavirus. If you do get it, it probably won’t kill you. But politicians and bureaucrats trafficking in panic just might succeed where it fails.

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Moral Approximates

 “I urge you to beware the temptation of pride–the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.” – Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” Speech

During the Cold War, folks like Ronald Reagan accused their domestic opponents of believing in the “moral equivalence” of the United States and the Soviet Union.  Having lived through the era, I am confident that believers in moral equivalence existed.  Knowing the relevant history, I agree that this was an absurd belief.  However bad the United States was, the Soviet Union was vastly worse.

If you want to nitpick, admittedly, we never find literal moral equivalents in real world.  Why?  Because in a continuous world, one side in any conflict is bound to be at least a little worse.  Still, careful examination of real-world conflict does occasionally uncover not moral equivalents, but moral approximates.  Though the two sides’ moral status is not precisely equal, they are morally more-or-less the same.

It’s easiest to identify examples that are far away in time and place.  During the Wars of Religion, who was worse – the Catholics or the Protestants?  During World War I, who was worse – the Germans or the Russians?  During the War of the Roses, who was worse – the Yorks or the Lancasters?  You could plead ignorance.  Yet even if you studied the history for a year, you would plausibly conclude that the two sides were moral approximates – both sinned so egregiously that it really is hard to know who was worse.

For recent and ongoing conflicts, assertions of moral approximation naturally inspire far more pushback.  If we were rational, however, the opposite would be true.  The very fact that people have strong emotions about recent and ongoing conflicts is a strong reason to discount their judgment.  Furthermore, when a conflict is recent or ongoing, we usually lack a great deal of not-yet-released relevant information.  No one is likely to scare up shocking new revelations about the Lancasters, but in fifty years we’ll have a much better understanding of what the Trump administration actually did.

Those limitations in mind, here are the top three moral approximations I am willing to defend.

1. Communism and Nazism are moral approximates. Why?  Both movements were fanatical attempts to build dystopian societies – and both self-righteously murdered tens of millions of innocent people.  Contrary to much propaganda, Communists did not have noticeably better motives.  Both groups imagined that a totalitarian society would be a big improvement over the status quo – and recklessly embraced the necessity of mass murder to get there.

2. Socialism and fascism are moral approximates.  Why?  Socialism is a toned-down version of Communism; fascism is a toned-down version of Nazism.  As toned-down versions, they aim for much less, and murder far fewer people in the process.  Yet the vision of both movements – society as a big family with a common purpose – remains dystopian.  And while their methods are far less brutal than Communism or Nazism, socialism and fascism both casually advocate pervasive coercion for flimsy reasons.

(My main doubt here is that while I’ve repeatedly publicly debated socialists, I would not so engage a fascist.  Doesn’t that show that I think fascism is markedly worse?  Not exactly.  The main reason I don’t debate fascists is that avowed fascism is now so low-status that its adherents are low-quality and scary.  In a world where fascists were as mainstream as socialists, I would debate them).

3. The Democratic and Republican parties are moral approximates.  Why?  Both are dogmatic, emotional, and demagogic.  Neither party internalizes the maxim that with great power comes great responsibility – or dwells on the possibility that they might be mistreating people who don’t agree with them.  Both parties say they want various radical changes, many of which seem very bad.  The policies Democrats and Republicans actually impose when they have power are similarly mediocre, though that doesn’t stop them from rhetorically making mountains out of molehills.  On immigration, for example, the Democratic-Republican debate basically comes down to whether the border should be 98% closed or 99% closed.  Though I prefer 98% to 99%, it’s approximately the same.

I am well-aware that both Democrats and Republicans will protest angrily being lumped together; in their eyes, the differences between their parties are “huge.”  My question for them: In 200 years, how big will these “huge differences” look to historians?   Yes, during the Wars of Religion, Catholics and Protestants mutually called each other servants of the Antichrist.  Today, however, we can plainly see that both sides were unhinged.

Similarly, if you carefully studied the politics of, say, France in 1970, would you really conclude that the arguments that enraged contemporary French partisans were, in fact, a big deal?

Back in 2016, many Democrats told me that Trump’s election exposed the sheer evil of the Republican Party.  In a way, this understates.  I say that the mere fact that a man like Trump did well in the primaries shows that the Republican Party is rotten.  However, I’d say the same about Bernie Sanders’ success in 2016.  The mere fact that a man like Sanders did well in the primaries shows that the Democratic Party is rotten, too.

You could respond, “Suppose Democrats and Republicans really are moral approximates.  Shouldn’t an economist, of all people, still be eager to discover the slightly lesser evil?”  My answer: If I were America’s kingmaker, then yes.  But when I’m just one voice among tens of millions, no.  While I’m always happy to share my views with curious Democrats or Republicans, I’m too much of a puritan to ever join either party.

P.S. Lest anyone misinterpret me, I think the Democratic and Republican parties are markedly better than socialism and fascism, which are in turn markedly better than Communism and Nazism.  Mathematically: D≈R>>S≈F>>C≈N.

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Freedom for $5.30 — and This Time Mexico Really is Paying For It

Back in 2016, presidential candidate Donald Trump promised that Mexico would pay for his proposed border wall. Turns out Mexico wasn’t interested, so Trump eventually resorted to declaring fake emergencies and illegally misappropriating money from the military budget.

He’s spending tens of millions of taxpayer dollars per mile on a barrier that, Samuel Lovett of the Independent reports, migrants are scaling with $5.30 ladders (when the wind isn’t blowing it over for them, making ladders unnecessary).

Yes, based on the price of rebar at a local hardware store on the Mexican side of the wall, $5.30.

What a refreshing lesson! No matter how much money politicians like Trump spend trying to restrain and impoverish the people they stole it from, those seeking freedom and prosperity find ways to win through — and to do so for far less.

The wall was always a dumb and evil idea.

Dumb, because it was never going to “work.” The US has 95,500 miles of border and coastline. If people want to get in, they’re going to get in, even if every member of the armed forces and every sworn law enforcement officer in the country is re-assigned to nothing but “securing the border.” The only reliable way to keep people out is to turn America into such a crappy place that nobody wants to come here. Which, admittedly, is something our politicians are always hard at work on.

Evil, because even if it DID “work” the result would be less freedom, a slower economy, and worse lives for everyone on both sides of it. Capital — including “human capital,” aka labor — naturally flows to where it can be most profitably invested. If that flow is impeded, we’re all worse off.

Well, not all of us, I guess. The corrupt politicians doing the impeding, and their crony corporate welfare queens, make bank at the expense of the other 99% of us. Which is as good an explanation as any, and better than most, for Trump’s wall fetish.

Those $5.30 rebar ladders are, a huge practical benefit to their direct users. But they’re of double benefit — practical and political — to the rest of us.

As a practical matter, the immigrants who come over, under, around, or through the wall make our lives better.

As a political matter, the ease with which they’re exposing Trump’s multi-billion-dollar boondoggle for what it is makes it less likely that future politicians will waste our money on similar idiocy.

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Trump’s First Offer was a Better Deal for Palestine — and Israel

In early 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump pronounced himself “neutral” in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. He also expressed pessimism that a deal between the two sides was even possible: “I have friends of mine that are tremendous businesspeople, that are really great negotiators, [and] they say it’s not doable.”

It didn’t take Trump long to reverse himself — when it was explained to him that $100 million in campaign assistance from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson depended on such a reversal, he re-booted as “the most pro-Israel presidential candidate in history,” which in Adelsonese means “the most pro-Likud/pro-Netanyahu/anti-Palestinian candidate in the election.”

Nearly four years later — after numerous sops to Likud and favors to save Netanyahu’s premiership amidst his indictment on corruption charges, including moving the US embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — Trump unveiled his “deal of the century.” 

The deal, in summary: The Israeli regime gets everything it wants; Palestine’s Arabs get to keep some, but not all, of what they already have while giving up quite a bit.

They supposedly get a “state,” but that’s neither Trump’s nor Israel’s to give: The State of Palestine already exists and is already recognized by most other countries.

They get a “capital” in a sliver of East Jerusalem, but Israel will  annex even more Palestinian land.

The new, fake, quasi-state of Palestine will be required to “demilitarize” and trust Israel to defend it, and Israel will exercise veto power over both its foreign policy and its internal security policy.

Trump’s offer is quite a shift from his former “neutrality.” As Lando Calrissian said in The Empire Strikes Back, “this deal is getting worse all the time.” Worse for the Palestinians, obviously, but worse for Israel as well.

US aid and military support have turned Israel into a spoiled child among states. It does what it wants and gets what it wants, not because it deserves to or because it’s able to itself, but because it has a generous and muscular big brother doling out money to it and threatening to beat up anyone who questions its entitlement.

At some point, that relationship will end as all relationships do. The longer that relationship continues, the weaker, more vulnerable, and more over-extended Israel becomes.

If Israel’s regime was interested in peace, or even in its country’s survival, it would unilaterally withdraw to its 1967 borders, begin negotiating administration of Palestinians’ “right of return” to their stolen land, and recognize the existing State of Palestine.

And if Trump was really “pro-Israel,” he’d return to his position of “neutrality” in the matter. Even if it meant refunding Sheldon Adelson’s bribe, eating a little crow, and explaining another change of heart to his confused evangelical supporters.

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US v. Sineneng-Smith: Does Immigration Law Trump Freedom of Speech?

Are you free to express your opinions? The First Amendment says yes, but 8 US Code § 1324 says no. A case currently before the US Supreme Court, United States v. Sineneng-Smith, will presumably clarify the matter, hopefully in favor of free speech.

Evelyn Sineneng-Smith, an immigration consultant, allegedly cheated her clients by charging them $5,900 to file applications for a permanent residency program she knew they didn’t qualify for.

In 2013, a jury convicted  Sineneng-Smith on three counts of mail fraud and three counts of “encouraging or inducing illegal immigration for private financial gain.”

Under that US Code provision, “Any person who … encourages or induces an alien to come to, enter, or reside in the United States, knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that such coming to, entry, or residence is or will be in violation of law,” can be sentenced to hard time — five years in prison, ten years if it’s for financial gain, life imprisonment or even execution if someone is injured or put in jeopardy of death by that “encouragement.”

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit set aside Sineneng-Smith’s convictions on those “encouragement” counts, ruling that the law is “unconstitutionally overbroad in violation of the First Amendment.”

Federal prosecutors appealed the Ninth Circuit’s ruling to the Supreme Court because that’s what federal prosecutors do .  Their case seems to be that we obviously can’t just have people out there saying whatever they want to say.

But we CAN, and SHOULD — in fact, according to the Constitution, MUST — have people out there saying whatever they want to say.

I encourage anyone and everyone who wants to come to the United States in search of work and/or safety to do so, and to stay here for as long as they please, whether the US government likes it or not.

I just broke the law.

And I did so partly for purposes of “commercial advantage or private financial gain.” I consider unfettered immigration an economic boon to everyone, myself included.

As the late economist (and apparent scofflaw) Milton Friedman noted, “Mexican immigration, over the border, is a good thing. It’s a good thing for the illegal immigrants. It’s a good thing for the United States. It’s a good thing for the citizens of the country.”

The Supreme Court should affirm the Ninth Circuit’s ruling.

If it doesn’t, I guess you’ll be waiting ten years or so for my next column.

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It’s Not Just Trump Supporters: Politics is a Pile of Shared Psychoses

Dr. Bandy Lee, a psychiatrist affiliated with Yale University, posits a “‘shared psychosis’ among just about all of Donald Trump’s followers.”

Her claim came in the context of a discussion of Alan Dershowitz’s use of the word “perfect” to describe his sex life, mirroring Trump’s use of that word regarding a well-known phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.

Dershowitz has complained to Yale about the claim. He considers it an ethical violation of psychiatrists’ duty not to diagnose conditions absent personal examinations.

This particular version of the claim has a pretty thin basis, but it’s not incorrect. The big problem with it is that it’s too narrow. Donald Trump isn’t some lone Typhoid Mary of “shared psychosis,” nor are his supporters its only victims. Politics as we know it is made up almost entirely of shared psychoses.

The National Institute of Mental Health defines “psychosis” as “conditions that affect the mind, where there has been some loss of contact with reality. … Symptoms of psychosis include delusions (false beliefs) and hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that others do not see or hear). Other symptoms include incoherent or nonsense speech, and behavior that is inappropriate for the situation.”

If that doesn’t sound like the daily grind of American politics to you, you haven’t been paying attention to Trump’s Twitter timeline, the Democratic Party’s presidential primary debates, or Congress’s perpetual bickering.

The primary delusion of politics is the notion that someone out there is more qualified to run your life, or at least your neighbor’s life, than you or your neighbor.  In the advanced stages of the psychosis, the victim becomes convinced that he or she IS that someone and decides to seek political office.

By any measure, the psychosis is pandemic. In the US, more than  45%  — at a bare minimum, the entire adult population minus the half who don’t vote and the tiny percentage who vote Libertarian — clearly suffer from it.

To make a bad situation worse, the American political system is set up to ensure that the most delusional patients get put in charge of running the asylum.

While I’m a partisan Libertarian, I have my doubts that we can vote our way out of this epidemic by electing my fellow partisans to office and having them re-jigger the system to stop spreading the contagion and exacerbating its symptoms.

Perhaps we should consider adding clozapine to the water supply.

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