A test of common sense, civility and courage

The harm to our economies and our way of life because of the over-reaction to the Corona Virus is discussed today by Henry Ergas in The Australian: Coronavirus: It will be unhealthy to ignore the cost of all this.

While the response of federal and state governments to the spread of COVID-19 is understandable, there must be a danger of going too far.

To say that is certainly not to recommend an attitude of benign neglect. Nor is it to ignore the fact these are decisions being taken in the depths of uncertainty, where risks are hard to measure and errors could lead to disaster.

But it is no less a fact that some 430 people die in this country every day, so that since the beginning of the year there have been almost 37,000 deaths, of which 12 are due to the coronavirus.

And it is also a fact that, every day, decision-makers around Australia take decisions that balance life and death: not merely by determining how much we should spend on public health but also by assessing whether to spend taxpayers’ funds on making roads safer, reducing the risk of fires or strengthening the emergency services.

Inevitably, those decisions involve trade-offs: they require us to assess how much we are willing to give up so as to prevent a person dying sooner than they otherwise would.

He puts his finger right on the problem, that every life matters and if we can save but one life, etc etc etc.

It is undoubtedly true that decisions that involve balancing lives and costs are far easier to take when the life at issue is not likely to be your own. It is one thing to think in terms of trade-offs when those who will be affected are anonymous draws from a large population and quite another when it is a matter of family and friends.

But that is precisely why we so often delegate these decisions to others, from the physicians who assess whether it is worth undertaking a procedure on a grievously ill patient to the institutions that select, out of the many who desperately need them, the few who will receive donated organs.

These are tragic choices, and we know that they will be better taken at a distance, dispassionately weighing the consequences.

He finishes with this:

This crisis is … a test of common sense, civility and courage: the common sense to avoid taking decisions that we may regret for decades to come; the civility, in the term’s old meaning of “civil righteousness”, to be mindful of what we owe each other and prudent before inflicting costs on people who will struggle to bear them; and most of all, the courage to calmly confront, and ultimately defeat, an enemy who, as the Treasurer put it, flies no flag and has no face.

That enemy is deadly enough. It would be a disgrace if we made the harm it wreaks even greater than it needs to be.

Whenever this panic comes to an end and we return to something like normal, this will be remembered as a very odd episode in our history, along the lines, I believe, with the Salem Witch Trials from the supposed Dark Ages of our past.

Woody Allen is the best director of comedy in our time

From Cut&Paste in The Oz: A truly great director could make a great film of all this but he wouldn’t, Woody. More slagging of the greatest comic movie director of our era.

Woody Allen has been consistently funny since I first came across him on late night television and I still remember fondly his What’s Up, Tiger Lily?. To go back a year, I saw his What’s New, Pussycat first when it came out, and then in German in Germany around 1972, as Was ist neues, Pussykatzen?, which made it even more hilarious. There was also a time when I would say that my favourite movie of all time was Crimes and Misdemeanors which is described at the link as “a 1989 American existential comedy-drama film“. Whether I would still think it as good as I once did half a life-time ago I’d have to watch it again to find out. Here is part of one of the reviews made when it came out:

The wonder of Crimes and Misdemeanors is the facility with which Mr. Allen deals with so many interlocking stories of so many differing tones and voices. The film cuts back and forth between parallel incidents and between present and past with the effortlessness of a hip, contemporary Aesop. The movie’s secret strength – its structure, really – comes from the truth of the dozens and dozens of particular details through which it arrives at its own very hesitant, not especially comforting, very moving generality.

And if that doesn’t interest you, try this:

The chief strength of the movie is its courage in confronting grave and painful questions of the kind the American cinema has been doing its damnedest to avoid.

Whenever his movies would come to play, I would see it in the very first week since very few of his films would last for even two. It may take a special view of the world to enjoy his films but I definitely have whatever that is. And if I filtered out movies based on the politics of the producers and actors, I would hardly have made it to a single film over the past thirty years.

On the left though he may be, he is no longer in because of the claims made by his former wife. Once again, if I chose my films based on the morality of the actors and producers who made them, I would have seen hardly a film over the past thirty years. In any case, I have followed this story from the start and believe Woody’s side sounds infinitely more plausible. On this, I am on the same side as his son: Woody Allen’s son Moses Farrow defends father over sexual assault claims.

Sadly for Allen, he has fallen on the wrong side of the thought police. This comes at the very end of the C&P.

The Boston Globe, July 19, 2016:

Whether or not he’s the devil incarnate off screen I simply don’t feel I can say. But I can say this: He’s likely the most overrated film director working … I truly believe that in 50 years audiences will look at most of these ­movies and wonder what in hell we were thinking.

He says “in 50 years” because he knows that if you watched any of Allen’s best films today, you would enjoy them and see how much fun they are. So he punts for half a century, but in my view, come back in fifty years and Woody Allen will be among the very few directors from our era who is still remembered.

A clash of ideologies

I have just picked up from the local op-shop for a mere $2 a quite prescient book published in 2008 written by someone named Dan Gardner whose title is: Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear. Have so far only read the back cover, but it’s quite interesting of itself.

We are the safest and healthiest human beings who ever lived, and yet irrational fear is growing with deadly consequences…. In part this irrationality is caused by those – politicians, activists and the media – who promote fear for their own gain. Culture also matter. But a more fundamental cause is human psychology.

[The book] sets out to explain in a compulsively readable fashion how we make decisions and run our lives. We learn how the brain has not one but two systems to analyse risk. One is primitive, unconscious, and inyuitive; the other is conscious and rational. The two systems often agree, but occasionally they come to very different conclusions. When that happens, we can find ourselves worrying about what the statistics tell us is a trivial threat … [while at the same time] shrugging off serious risks.

Then there are the ideological differences between individuals. There is then the political differences which may themselves be psychologically driven. I quoted Peter Hitchens on dealing with the coronavirus the other day, and now James Delingpole has entered the debate in support of Peter: Coronavirus — Peter Hitchens Is Right….

Just like in war, the great coronavirus plague is bringing out the best in people and the worst in people.

So far, the petty tyrants, the tell-tales, the ignoramuses, the rule-takers and the finger-pointers are having a field day; the more original, clear-eyed thinkers meanwhile, are having to take care about what they say for fear of being judged and found wanting by the self-righteous mob.

Already the battle lines are starting to make themselves clear.

There are, roughly speaking, two opposing camps.

“I for one welcome our new insect overlords”. This contains the control freaks; the authoritarians; the snitches; the panickers; the killjoys; the ‘trust the experts’; the curtain-twitchers; the leftists; and the catastrophists.

The Awkward Squad. This contains the liberty-lovers; the libertines; the grand strategists; the rebels; the sceptics; the mavericks; the contrarians; the misfits; the deplorables.

Obviously it’s not quite as simple as that. Though I’m mainly in the Awkward Squad camp, I’ve certainly had my headless chicken moments. (At one point, I even went so far as to retweet approvingly a tweet from our current Hysteric In Chief Piers Morgan).

Equally, I know that there are plenty of people I respect who are currently in the “I for one welcome our new insect overlords” camp. This is not because they are stupid or are dangerous leftists with fascistic tendencies or are invertebrates who like being walked all over by the authorities, but simply because they are understandably scared, inadequately informed and haven’t (yet) seen the bigger picture.

Generally, though, what we’re seeing writ large in this pandemic is a clash between two ideological positions — one essentially authoritarian, one more or less libertarian. I think this conflict is going to get more bitter and nasty as the pandemic progresses.

Beyond that, what was once politically near impossible is rapidly moving towards near normal. There are always emergencies which for many open ways to take our freedoms which once gone will never come back.

I’ve just opened a sub to The Age and Paul Kelly is a large part of the reason why

This kind of analysis really is a disgrace: Coronavirus: The West’s civil disobedience — it’s a trend to die for. There is a social divide in the West between left and right, authority and freedom, Pelosi versus Trump. It is having grave consequences for our ability to govern ourselves according to the liberal values that have made the West great. That said, this is how Kelly’s article opens:

For 50 years, popular culture in Australia and the West has mocked authority, glorified rebellion, sanctified the individual’s quest for ever deeper self-realisation and told us that Western governments are dishonest, corrupt, wicked and primarily act as agents of racism, colonialism, sexism, economic exploitation and environmental despoliation.

All this is reinforced by academic culture, which sheets all these sins home not only to Western governments but to Western civilisation generally.

Is it any wonder that these societies are having so much trouble in the coronavirus crisis responding to essential lifesaving directions from their respective governments?

That is, because we are a society whose ethos is based on individual freedom, there are many amongst us who will not immediately do whatever the government tells them to do. Oddly, in his analysis he does not mention China. This is so simple-minded that it is frightening.

The most successful societies in tackling COVID-19 through social distancing and similar suppression measures are Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea. The widespread elements of their success are well known — large-scale testing, contact tracing, tough travel restrictions, strict social distancing, strict isolation for those infected or possibly infected, and above all co-operative societies that take what governments say seriously.

Here is the centre of his concerns about our wayward independent ways in the West:

Popular culture in Anglo-American societies, and in most of Western Europe, demonises every traditional institution and demonises government itself, while glorifying the existential rebellious individual who makes a heroic stand, typically against a designated set of pantomime villains: government agencies, corporate greed, property developers, organised religion et cetera.

If you want a tell, here he is quoting David Brooks from The Atlantic. To someone from the more conservative side of the fence, you could not choose a name and a magazine I’d be more ready to ignore than these two.

In a brilliant piece in this month’s Atlantic magazine, David Brooks describes how the American family has collapsed in the past 70 years. Its collapse doesn’t hurt rich people too much because they can buy replacements for family — therapists, carers, tutors. And they can buy assistance to keep their own small families functioning. But it has been a disaster for poor people, who are left with nothing. Brooks argues that over the past 70 years life has become freer for individuals but more unstable for families, better for adults and worse for children. The move from big extended families to ever smaller nuclear and sub-nuclear, so to speak, families has meant the poor have fewer people to help with bad economic times, rough psychological passages, the ups and downs of childhood. Rich folks buy this assistance. Families are also sources of authority and social capital. When they go, the authority and social capital go.

Here’s how he ends.

One difference with Confucian societies is that their governments do everything they can to support families and to promote traditional family structures. Both sides of politics make this impossible in societies such as Australia. The left hates tradition and works to destroy it, the libertarian right can’t stand anything that smacks of government social engineering.

I am inexactly connecting an immediate crisis with long-term cultural trends. But the inability of large numbers of its citizens to accept and yes, obey, simple government directions that are literally lifesaving is a sign of a relatively recently acquired, grave weakness in our culture.

We don’t OBEY government directions. Our cities are ghost towns. If you wander over to the supermarket, everyone you pass, which is hardly anyone, shifts to their side of the pavement to the greatest extent possible. I would not expect anything as stupid in The Age, but for now I am going to spend some time finding out.

Trying to grow a flower by watering its petals instead of its roots

This is the best article on Keynesian economics I have ever come across, by David Weinberg and published in The Federalist: Why Economic ‘Stimulus’ Only Makes The Economy Worse. His summary statement captures his point perfectly:

While it remains a favorite policy prescription for politicians eager to appear as salvific heroes in times of need, it is untenable as a serious idea to stimulate anything except our national debt.

I could not recommend any article more. You should read it all, every word. There is a lot in it, but this was my favourite part:

The reality is that Keynesian policy fails for the simple reason that it targets the wrong problem. Production drives economic growth and creates an equal flow of demand. Demand is thus the consequence of production, not the other way around.

Successfully growing an economy, then, requires targeting production, not aggregate demand. Indeed, trying to grow the economy by targeting demand rather than production is like trying to grow a flower by watering its petals instead of its roots.

Here’s how his article relates to current policy.

In light of these numerous historical blunders, it is a wonder anyone takes Keynesian fiscal policy seriously anymore. Yet policymakers and politicians remain wedded to the model, as the current fury to rush through spending packages attests.

Now, lest the message here be misconstrued, this is not necessarily an argument against relief as a humanitarian measure in the midst of an economic meltdown resulting from governments around the world forcing businesses, communities, cities, states, and even entire countries to close down. This is a government-created economic disruption to deal with a public health concern.

Under these unique circumstances, there is certainly a case for providing targeted assistance. But we must not be fooled into believing that relief serves as economic “stimulus,” and nor can we ignore the fact that, beyond humanitarianism, there is no shortage of advocates calling for plain old demand-side fiscal stimulus. In that regard, there is little doubt that any Keynesian bill will blunt its drill on the same hard economic truth that stymied past demand-side exercises.

I can only hope the message spreads wider and deeper. It ought by now be obvious given the universal failures of public sector spending in the past.

John Stuart Mill on Laissez-faire

This is John Stuart Mill in his Principles of Political Economy, Book V, Chapter XI, Para 7 [Ashley edition p 950]:

Laissez-faire, in short, should be the general practice: every departure from it, unless required by some great good, is a certain evil.

This is William D. Grampp in his Economic Liberalism: , Volume II: The Classical View, Chapter 3, titled “Liberalism in the Great Century” [New York: Random House 1965]. The chapter begins:

The nineteenth century usually is thought to have been the greatest age of economic liberalism, greater than any other, from its origins in Stoicism down to the present time. Economists think of the century as the long afternoon of the ideology. They believe it then meant laissez-faire and that laissez-faire was the policy of Great Britain, the major economy of the world. In fact, the century was not like that, and historians have tried to tell us so. They have reported the many ways in which the British government intervened in the market. The historians also have said the intervention was inconsistent with liberalism. In this, they are in my opinion, mistaken. (Grampp 1965: 73)

From the introduction to the chapter he continues with his first section on “The Importance of the Nineteenth Century”. He lists six reasons, this is the fourth:

“(4) The first effort to make a comprehensive statement on its principles was in 1848.” (Grampp 1965: 74)

1848 was the date of publication of the first edition of Mill’s Principles. He makes what he means absolutely clear on the following page:

“John Stuart Mill was the first to do this – to enunciate a theory of policy – and he did it in his Principles, which was published in 1848.” (Grampp 1965: 75)

He makes clear its significance in the very first para in which he discusses the notion of laissez-faire.

“1. The idea of economic liberalism, which had been gathering force for centuries, came to their full power in the nineteenth century…. Liberalism had many different meanings to these people. But one generalization can be made. To almost all who believed in it and to some who did not, liberalism did not mean laissez faire – that is, it did not mean a policy of non-intervention by the government and of allowing the major economic decisions to be made on unregulated markets. The rejection of laissez faire was one of the few ideas on which there was nearly complete agreement among the economists and between them and the political leaders.” (Grampp 1965: 74)

In that quote from Mill, the most important word is “unless”, “unless required by some great good”. His Book V is “On the Role of Government”, and in the 185 pages that follow he makes clear just how extensive he believed that role is.

Not the end but is it the beginning of the end?

Did Nancy blink? Pelosi delays her coronavirus bill, says will try to pass Senate’s without most members present .

Is this why? Gallup: Trump Up to 49% Approval; 60% Approve of His Handling of the Chinese Flu

Is the Great Corona Virus miasma coming to an end? Dow Posts Record 2,100-Point Gain as Trump Sets Tentative Deadline to Reopen America

Are things coming right because of the President? Trump: Coronavirus crisis vindicates my policy arguments on immigration, trade and China policies

Would this have anything to do with it? Reflections on a Century of Junk Science

During the last few weeks, I had made a point of not watching or following the news. I trusted none of it. A TV at the pizza place, however, was tuned to CNN. It showed the Coronavirus death toll: 12,000-plus worldwide and 285 in the United States.

The numbers stunned me. Not following the news closely, I presumed, based on the hysteria in the air, that the numbers had to be at least ten times that high both nationally and internationally.

285? According to the Centers for Disease Control 185 Americans died of drug overdoses every day in 2018. According to the CDC, 315 people died of the flu every day during the six-month 2018-2019 flu season….

In my 2009 book, Hoodwinked: How Intellectual Hucksters Have Hijacked American Culture, I documented a century’s worth of scientific misinformation, disinformation, half-truths, and lies disseminated almost inevitably to advance a progressive agenda.

The book, btw, is an antidote to quite alot of what’s been going around and not just of late.

You’ll just have to get used to it

Jack Cashill: Reflections on a Century of Junk Science. He begins:

On Saturday evening I drove to a local pizza joint to pick up a pizza. This was the only way to get pizza. In Kansas City, all bars and restaurants have been closed for a week.

During the last few weeks, I had made a point of not watching or following the news. I trusted none of it. A TV at the pizza place, however, was tuned to CNN. It showed the Coronavirus death toll: 12,000-plus worldwide and 285 in the United States.

The numbers stunned me. Not following the news closely, I presumed, based on the hysteria in the air, that the numbers had to be at least ten times that high both nationally and internationally.

285? According to the Centers for Disease Control 185 Americans died of drug overdoses every day in 2018. According to the CDC, 315 people died of the flu every day during the six-month 2018-2019 flu season.

Not a lot, you would think, in a country of 350 million.

No sooner did I get home with my pizza than the news broke that the bi-state metro Kansas City would be subject to a stay-at-home order effective Tuesday morning. “After 30 days,” the TV News station reported matter-of-factly, “the jurisdictions will consider whether to extend the order.” That is how easy it is in 2020 America to suspend the U.S. Constitution and wreck the economy.

I would feel better about the order and my fellow citizens if some horrible plague were ravaging the metro. That is not exactly the case. As of Saturday night, there had been a total of four Covid-19 deaths in all of Kansas and Missouri, only one of which was in the KC metro area, a “man in his 70s with underlying health conditions.”

Did people agree with him? You must be kidding.

In sharing my skepticism on Facebook, I have been met with a hail of naysayers, some of them fellow conservatives, who insist the science justifies the state of alarm. I do not know enough about this particular phenomenon to enter that debate, but I know enough about American history to know that science often needlessly justifies a state of alarm.

Moreover, he has written a book about it.

In my 2009 book, Hoodwinked: How Intellectual Hucksters Have Hijacked American Culture, I documented a century’s worth of scientific misinformation, disinformation, half-truths, and lies disseminated almost inevitably to advance a progressive agenda.

One subject covered was the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century. Those promoting the science and paying for it were not the grand wizards of the Ku Klux Klan but America’s academics and progressives, notable among them Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Progressives have always worked in crisis mode.

Any examples? Here’s his first.

“The most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective,” wrote Sanger in 1922. “Possibly drastic and Spartan methods may be forced upon American society if it continues complacently to encourage the chance and chaotic breeding that has resulted from our stupid, cruel sentimentalism.” As we are seeing today, progressives rarely shy from “Spartan” methods.

Here’s another.

In 1968 Dr. Paul Ehrlich began his massively popular book, The Population Bomb, with the startling claim, “The battle to feed all of humanity is already lost.” In the book Ehrlich laid out three possible scenarios that could define the earth “in the next decade or so.” In the most “cheerful” of these scenarios, Americans assume an unexpected “maturity of outlook,” a new Pope “gives his blessing to abortion,” and only half a billion people die of famine.

And after denying that AIDS was a disease that attacked mainly gay men, there were then these.

The science establishment was just warming up. In the decades ahead, they would serve up global cooling, nuclear winter, the alar scare, second-hand smoke, global warming, climate change, and a host of other contrived doomsday scenarios. When the predicted doom failed to materialize, the prophets of doom shifted the date of doom forward and bought more beachfront property.

The real answer is that we will just have to get used to it.