I spent the past two weeks worrying aloud that I thought literally slamming the door on the US economic engine was nearsighted, silly and an idiotic move. Sadly, the economic news over the last 72 hours exceeded even my worst projections – along with those of almost every economist. Most figured the US economy would teeter at around 6 or 6.5% unemployment through April, with growth shrinking by about 10% for Q2 after zero growth in Q1. Instead, we now know that we’ve already bled almost 10 million jobs and the unemployment rate has already zoomed to 9.5 or 10%. We also know the economy contracted by about 0.8% in Q1. Along with those (now rosy) projections about how the economy was doing in March, we can also expect the similarly anticipated “V-shaped” recession is about as unattainable as the Ark of the Covenant.
I could sit here and angrily type my frustration that the government decided to shut everything down in the middle of the best economy I had experienced since I was in my mid-20s. (Trust me, I’m tempted!) But as my grandmother loved to say, “There’s no sense crying about the spilled milk. Better to get a mop and clean it up.” So how do we clean up the mess we created?
When I first started writing this yesterday, I planned on including lots of charts and tables, relying on data to drive my points home. But nothing seemed to grab my attention. Then I remembered something when I first started in sales all those decades ago. People rarely make decisions based on data. Oh, we all love to pretend we do. We convince ourselves that we are supremely rational beings. Reality is different: we are emotional creatures first and foremost. When confronted with a decision, even the most clear and concise arguments will get overwhelmed by our strongest emotions: love, hate and fear.
Last week, I wrote “How many people will end up dying from COVID-19 vs. how many people will die from starvation and other diseases of poverty if the economy slips into another massive depression?” That is still the question we should be focused on. People are afraid. They’re afraid of dying. They’re afraid of their parents dying, they’re afraid of their children dying, they’re afraid of their spouses dying. But the narrative spun by both the media and the punditry is that because of COVID-19, the deaths we fear are more immediate. They’ve taken everyone’s fear of death and added the element of immediacy, and then told us the only way to eliminate the immediacy is to wall ourselves off in our homes.
This is as much a political crisis as it is a medical and economic one. As much as the media is distrusted these days (and for good reason), it’s important to note that they are getting their cues from the political class. When the governor of New York is on television daily, declaring he needs tens of thousands of non-existent ventilators or else people are going to start dying in the streets, we sit up and take notice. When the governor of Pennsylvania takes to the airwaves to declare that this is the gravest crisis we have ever faced, people heed his words. When the President of the United States begins a daily briefing by reciting the litany of the dead, we are left with the impression that our lives are about to be snuffed out.
Now, imagine if our political leaders were to go back to the original premise of “which is worse: the deaths that will result from an economic depression plus COVID-19, or just the deaths from COVID-19?” Well, then we still understand the immediate effects of COVID-19, but we’re also asked to consider the long-term effects. Why? Because unless we’re completely irrational our psyche is now forced to realize this is a life-and-death decision no matter which way we decide. People, maybe even people we love, maybe even ourselves, will die. The only question then becomes how to balance the equation so that as few people die as possible.
It’s rare that a moral question can be summed up with an equation, but this one can:
Cnm ⸫ Cm+D
Where C stands for deaths from COVID-19, D for deaths from an economic depression, and m for mediation. What is the relation between those three factors? How do we mitigate the number of deaths in each scenario, and at what point does Cm+D cross to become less than Cnm?
(Sorry. The old data guy couldn’t resist throwing mathematics into the pot.)
We know our current approach is definitely going to result in D, and we also know the human toll of D – in famine, malnutrition, abuse, and exposure – will be dreadful. Here’s what else we’re finding out: countries that shut down even further than the US and then tried to “return to normal” – like China, South Korea and Singapore – have had recurrences of COVID-19 that are even worse than their initial outbreaks. So does that combination mean we’re just screwed? We can’t restart and try to to return to normal without killing more people, and we can’t stay in our current stance without killing more people?
No. Not at all.
The key is we can reopen our businesses, pray they return to solvency and that replacements for those that disappeared come alive quickly, but with a couple of caveats.
- First, we need to understand that normal has changed. Medical science has shown that coronaviruses are, in general, highly mutable: that is, they make up for the fact they are not difficult to destroy by mutating, often quickly, meaning most treatments are not terribly effective. It’s why the “flu shot” is rarely more than 50% effective, and why nobody has yet come up with a cure for the common cold. The mediation efforts we put in place now are likely to remain with us for a long, long time.
- Second, those most at risk from COVID-19 should be isolated from the rest of the population as much as practicable. If you have bad lungs or a compromised immune system, you should stay at home as much as possible. When they fall ill and require hospitalization, they should be moved to separate wards from the remainder of the population.
- Third, the nature of white-collar work should change. I understand many jobs require you to be onsite in order to perform your tasks. Most white-collar work does not. I never understood the resistance to telecommuting; I was doing it 15 years ago and hardly ever “went to the office” for the last 6 years of my career. I think most companies are now realizing that the phobias they had about telecommuting were not well founded and having already put in place the systems that allow remote work, will stick with the model going forward.
- Fourth, the nature of school should change. Just as white-collar workers don’t need to be in a cubicle to do their job, students needn’t be tied to a desk in a building to successfully learn. Yes, there are details that would need to be worked out so far as socialization goes. Yes, it might impose a secondary hardship on families that think both parents need to work. But in an era when school districts across the country are spending billions on trying to maintain crumbling school buildings, buildings often inadequate to meet current needs, continuing with teleschool only makes sense.
Finally, our society needs to accept that some portion of the population will contract the COVID-19 disease each year. It is the nature of the virus. Every time I hear a politician, doctor or commentator talk about “defeating coronavirus,” I cringe. It’s not that eradicating the virus isn’t a worthy goal. It is, however, ridiculous to set that condition as a benchmark for returning to living.
This will probably be the hardest adaptation for our society to make. After all the hype, the shutdowns, and the panic, the idea that this is a new reality – one with yet another dangerous disease – in our midst will be difficult for many to accept. We like to think man is invincible and master of his environment. The idea that nature sometimes refuses to be tamed is a concept that we haven’t truly dealt with for nearly a century.
But if we don’t, we will have destroyed the economy that powers modern civilization. And we will have forgotten that most important of American traits: liberty. A free people do not willingly chain themselves and they are not willingly chained. It’s time we remembered that which makes us strongest and unique, and put those principles into action.
I finished re-reading Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers the other day, and it got me thinking. Now, those of you who are only acquainted with the story via the rather dreadful Hollywood version probably think it’s just another space opera. While the backdrop to the story is an intergalactic war between humans and aliens who look spiders and act like ants, in reality Heinlein used the story to convey a message about societies and how they govern themselves. The world Heinlein has created, some 200 years into our future, is one in which humans have abolished our two competing philosophies of governance (democracy and socialism) after a great, cataclysmic war. Instead, there is a global republic – but the only way to obtain citizenship in this republic is by completing a term of service to the government. Not everyone who wants to be a citizen is accepted for service, though.
Throughout the novel, Heinlein lays out who is accepted for service and why, and how this society came to be ordered. Despite being originally published in 1959, much of what he wrote as regards the symptoms of a dissolving democracy seems as though it were ripped from the headlines of today. He describes rampant crime in the cities, gangs of youth preying upon the weaker members of the community, rising substance abuse, joblessness, aimless citizens and ineffective (and often corrupt) politicians. But for Heinlein, the greatest cause of societal collapse was that while virtually everyone was granted the privileges of citizenship, few exercised the duties. He wrote,
“…their citizens (nearly all of them counted as such) glorified their mythology of ‘rights’ and lost track of their duties. No nation, so constituted, can endure.”
The principle reason that only those who have completed a term of government service are granted citizenship (and the stringent standards for acceptance into said service) is to ensure that the citizens of the Terran Federation will exercise not only the privileges, but duties of citizenship.
It was this point that got me thinking. As I mentioned, much of what Heinlein wrote about as the symptoms of societal decay are prevalent in today’s society. But something I’ve thought for quite some time is that we have cheapened the value of citizenship to the point that for many of our number, citizenship is even less important than residency. Indeed, we no longer consider granting citizenship as a privilege to a select company of our number. Rather, most of us think of it as a right guaranteed by… something. Stop to think about that for a moment.
We have people here who were never granted residency demanding the same rights as citizens, and others (including those in elective office) defending their “right” to do so. We have people claiming the rights of citizens who have never so much as stepped foot in this nation. Further, the number of citizens who actually exercise the duties of the citizenship given as a birthright is depressingly small. YouTube and Facebook are filled with videos of educated citizens who cannot name the Articles of the Constitution, the rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, or define any of the inalienable rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Spend more than a few moments on Twitter and you will be verbally accosted by droves of people who cannot tell the difference between a parliamentary democracy and constitutional republic. Visit the local courthouse, and you’ll see most people called for jury duty doing their level best to avoid said duty. And sadly, barely half of us bother to cast a vote when the time comes (and even fewer when the election isn’t tied to a national referendum). Given the sorry regard my fellow citizens have for their duties, I am sorely pressed to say the majority of those casting a vote even know who or what they are voting for – too often, they’re simply checking the box under “R” or “D”.
In the nearly 60 years since Heinlein published Starship Troopers, the condition of our society has deteriorated to the point he foresaw, even if it’s taken perhaps a bit longer (he placed the dissolution of the United States in 1987). The question that’s been nagging me for days is this: Heinlein saw no way out of this mess except to restrict the right of governance to a select few, based on a criteria that placed an innate drive for public service above all other factors. In short, he was of the opinion that our current attempts at including more and more people into the governance of society was exactly the wrong tack. His society works because a caste of elites run things, but not elites as we’re given to thinking in our age. Indeed, the protagonist in his novel quite literally throws away a fortune in order to begin public service (later, his father does the same).
Heinlein is not alone in his thinking. Since the very founding of our republic, we have constantly watered down the requirements for citizenship, as well as the duties thereof. Consider that the men who created the nation saw citizenship as being open only to land owners who had established themselves. Over the intervening years, we have so cheapened citizenship that we now grant adolescents those same rights – and more.
It is something to think about. Why is it we require those not born on our soil to pass an exam and take a loyalty oath before granting citizenship, but not those who are native born? Ask yourself: could you pass the citizenship exam? Would you be willing to take the Oath of Citizenship? Bear in mind, once subscribed to this oath, you will be freely granting the government the power to require unpaid service of you, in both military and civilian positions. Did that last sentence cause you to go “whoa” for a moment?
That sentence is the crux of Heinlein’s argument: the vast majority of our citizens are not willing to truly sacrifice for the privilege of citizenship and prove it daily. He thought human nature being what it is, that such fallibility meant the end of democracy. I hope he was wrong. But I’m not as sure today as when I first read that book some 40 years ago.
There are idiotic ramblings from both sides of the political spectrum, but there is one in particular that just simply will not die. There seems to be a hard-core group of nutcases who insist that President Obama does not meet the legal definition of citizenship and therefore, is ineligible to serve as President. They don’t realize that their infatuation with the President’s citizenship is a large part of the reason that the TEA party is looked on with disdain by nearly 70% of the country – including wide swaths of the electorate who would otherwise agree with most policy positions. But since the nutcase fringe, the people who once exiled themselves to the Jon Birch Society and the like, has taken up residence in the TEA party, it’s time the rest of us told them “Enough!” We care about the direction of the nation, not conspiracy theories.
Look, I do not care for the President’s policies. I certainly can’t stomach his approach to governance. I don’t even really much care for him as a person. As far as I can tell, the only difference between him and Richard Millhouse Nixon is that only one was actually convicted of lying. But none of that has any bearing on whether or not he is a citizen.
The latest bit of drivel contesting not only the President’s citizenship, but that of Senator Marco Rubio and Governor Bobby Jindal, comes from some hack named Joseph Farah. In a blog post that I’ve now seen passed around Facebook and Twitter like candy (not to mention had emailed to me three times), Farah demonstrates either willful ignorance or absolute disregard for the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution. Farah states, without equivocation, “To be a natural born citizen means to be the offspring of U.S. citizen parents at the time of birth.” Really? Where in the US Constitution does it say that?
The 14th Amendment states, verbatim, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
In Farah’s bird-brained opinion of Constitutional law, anyone who cannot prove their lineage to the Mayflower is ineligible for federal office. It stands to his inexorable reason that unless you can prove your parents were born to his interpretation of “natural born citizens,” that they aren’t full citizens, either – and on down the family tree you go. Fortunately or us, the Constitution only acknowledges three types of citizens:
- Born: pretty simple – born in the US? You’re a US Citizen.
- Naturalized: Not born here, but you’ve met all the requirements and sworn an oath of allegiance to the United States.
- Here at the nation’s founding: If you know anyone still kicking after 240 years or so, let me know. We’ve got a story.
The version of citizenship pushed by the Joe Farah’s of the world doesn’t exist anywhere except in their imaginations. I don’t like defending the President against the peevish insults of men of that ilk – it makes me feel, dirty – but denigrating a person based solely on lies and misinformation should be well behind us as a nation. That it isn’t; that so many people insist on denouncing the President’s citizenship, demonstrates a side to our nation that should give anyone with a brain and more than a 2nd grade education pause.
I’ll make this simple, so that even the bird-brained “birther” conspiracists can understand it: bring us proof that Barack Hussein Obama was born outside the USA and we’ll listen. Otherwise, let those of who truly care about the future of the nation debate the issues and policies while you spend your time taking a civics course. Or two.