Reality and Public Relations

Reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled

– Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman
Personal observations on the reliability of the Shuttle” (1986)
Appendix F. Report of the Rogers Commission

When you have a political movement almost entirely built around assertions that any expert can tell you are false, you have to cultivate an attitude of disdain toward expertise, one that spills over into everything. Once you dismiss people who look at evidence on the effects of tax cuts and the effects of greenhouse gas emissions, you’re already primed to dismiss people who look at evidence on disease transmission.

– Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman
Covid-19 Brings Out All the Usual Zombies” (3-28-2020)

This week’s featured post is “How the Economy Restarts“.

This week everybody was talking about spending $2 trillion

After some difficult negotiations, the bill passed the Senate 96-0 and the House by voice vote. It was a striking example of bipartisanship, and yet Trump only invited Republicans to be present for the signing ceremony that officially made it a law.

When a bill is this big and complex, it’s hard to know exactly what’s in it. ABC lists a few of the more prominent measures:

  • Individuals making less that $75K (or couples below $150K) get $1,200 ($2,400), with $500 extra per child.
  • Unemployment benefits are increased, last longer, and apply to more classes of workers.
  • Small businesses who pledge not to lay off workers can get emergency loans, which are forgiven if the workers do indeed keep their jobs.
  • Hospitals and health systems get $100 billion.
  • $500 billion is set aside for loans to big businesses, including $75 billion for airlines and hotels.

I’m sure we’ll find out over the next several months that all kinds of special-interest provisions got inserted.

Former Obama advisor Ben Rhodes makes the obvious comment:

So weird how the Tea Party isn’t rising up in opposition to all this government spending.

Obama’s stimulus proposal was about 1/3 the size of Trump’s, but it had right-wingers talking about revolution. Now they’re silent. It’s almost enough to make you think they had some other reason for not liking Obama.

There was also little bipartisan support then, despite Republican economists virtually all calling for a major stimulus. No Republican House members and only three Republican senators voted for the bill.

Thanks, Malacandra:

“My country and its economy aren’t working for the people.” Tech Support: “Have you tried turning it off and back on again?”

and the virus

First, the numbers: As of this morning, the US had 140,393 cases (compared to 33,018 a week ago) and 2,437 deaths (428 a week ago). We now have more cases than any other country in the world, though our death totals are still behind Italy (10,779), Spain, China, Iran, and France.

Dr. Anthony Fauci is now talking about between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths eventually. In his Sunday briefing, President Trump seemed to accept those numbers and move the goalposts to make them a measure of success. He quoted an estimate of “2.2 million … if we did nothing”, implying that he would take credit for any total less than that.

Wired sorts out the rumor that people shouldn’t take ibuprofen to deal with possible coronavirus fevers.

The ibuprofen furor left researchers and physicians exasperated over the distress it caused people already frightened by the virus, and also for the apparent lack of evidence. … When they’re being cautious about associating phenomena and diseases, epidemiologists will say something represents “correlation, not causation.” In other words, just because two things occurred at the same time doesn’t mean that they’re linked. But to this point, the connection between ibuprofen and severe Covid-19 may not even be a correlation, since no statistical relationship has been found.

One of the mysteries of the pandemic is why different countries have such different death rates.

In Italy, 9.5 percent of the people who have tested positive for the virus have succumbed to covid-19, according to data compiled at Johns Hopkins University. In France, the rate is 4.3 percent. But in Germany, it’s 0.4 percent.

In the US, the fatality rate is around 1.3%. Those numbers would make sense if the Germans had discovered some magic treatment that they wouldn’t share with anybody else, especially the Italians. But that seems not to be the case; nobody has come up with any treatment better than to give people lots of fluids, keep their temperatures down, and help them breathe. Germans also aren’t all that different from other Europeans, either genetically or in lifestyle.

But think about what the fatality rate is: a fraction. It’s the number of deaths divided by the number of cases. The difference seems to be in the denominator, not the numerator: Germany has done a better job than any other country of identifying all the people who are infected.

The biggest reason for the difference, infectious disease experts say, is Germany’s work in the early days of its outbreak to track, test and contain infection clusters. That means Germany has a truer picture of the size of its outbreak than places that test only the obviously symptomatic, most seriously ill or highest-risk patients.

Now consider the implications: If the death rate in the US is really the same as Germany’s, it means that we have three times as many cases as we think we have.

OK, after that thought you deserve some amusement: the Coronavirus Rhapsody.

In the same way that the record of Trump clueless tweets continues to exist, tweets exist that show his “nobody saw this coming” excuse is false. Here’s Senator Murphy (D-CT) on February 5:

Just left the Administration briefing on Coronavirus. Bottom line: they aren’t taking this seriously enough. Notably, no request for ANY emergency funding, which is a big mistake. Local health systems need supplies, training, screening staff etc. And they need it now.

Last week I told you about an ad that assembles a number of quotes of Trump minimizing the virus. Now the Trump campaign is threatening TV stations that run the ad.

[Y]our failure to remove this deceptive ad … could put your station’s license in jeopardy.

This is how authoritarianism snowballs: What might (in another administration) be a controversial-but-toothless cease-and-desist letter from a campaign is now far more ominous, because Trump freely uses the power of his office for personal benefit. A station owner has to worry that there may be no distance between the Trump campaign and the FCC.

Another example of how authoritarian regimes work: Trump tells governors that they should “be appreciative” of the great job he’s doing, and implies that his administration may stop cooperating with the ones who aren’t.

[Vice President Mike Pence] calls all the governors. I tell him — I mean, I’m a different type of person — I tell him “Don’t call the governor of Washington. You’re wasting your time with him. Don’t call the woman in Michigan. … You know what I say? If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.

The phrase “wasting your time” tells you what Trump thinks his administration should be trying to achieve: “appreciation” for the President. If he’s not going to get that appreciation, then what’s the point of doing his job and saving American lives?

Similarly, the Sunday briefing began with executives from a variety of corporations describing how they’re contributing to the virus-fighting effort — after doing North-Korean-style tributes to the “great leadership” of the President. I get tired of pointing this out, but we can’t let ourselves lose sight of it: This kind of ego-stroking has never happened in any previous administration of either party. Obama would have thrown people out of the room for trying to butter him up so blatantly, but Trump requires it.

and sacrificing lives for the economy

Tuesday, Trump floated the idea of re-opening the economy by Easter, envisioning “packed churches”, though yesterday he backed off and extended the social-distance guidelines until April 30. (More about all that in the featured post.)

His argument at the time was that shutting down the economy was a cure worse than the disease. A number of Trump supporters then came out and said the part Trump merely implied: A higher death toll is a price worth paying for a higher GDP. In an interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick put it like this:

No one reached out to me and said, as a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance for your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren? And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in. … I just think there are lots of grandparents out there in this country like me — I have 6 grandchildren — that, what we all care about, and what we love more than anything are those children. And I want to live smart and see through this but I don’t want the whole country to be sacrificed.

What’s really perverse about this is that Patrick is also a climate-change denier. So he’s willing to risk death to make a better future for his grandchildren, but not willing to limit fossil fuels. I’ll resolve this paradox with a wild guess: Patrick’s grandchildren are just a rhetorical device here; his true loyalty is to big business.

Eventually, you’d think Republicans would learn: You don’t want to be out in front of Trump, because he’s likely to switch directions and leave you hanging. I’m sure we’ll soon hear that Trump never suggested risking lives to save the economy.

OK, another amusement break: “Stay the F**k At Home” by Bob E. Kelley. (NSFW – duh):

While we’re talking about packed churches: Most of the time, I think we should respect other people’s prerogative to believe whatever they believe, even if it seems like nonsense to us. This wine has become the blood of your god? All the languages of humanity derive from the Tower of Babel? Fine, whatever. As Thomas Jefferson put it: “It does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

But during a public health emergency, religion can be dangerous. This happened a week ago yesterday in Louisiana:

The Life Tabernacle Church hosted 1,825 people at their Sunday morning service. 26 buses were used to pick people up from around the Baton Rouge area and transport them to Sunday service. … Throughout the service parishioners could be seen touching each other and closely gathering, very few wearing masks or gloves. [Pastor Tony] Spell says if anyone in his congregation contracts covid-19 he will heal them through God.

Another megachurch in Tampa is doing something similar, and likewise promising divine healing. And I’m sure lots of otherwise sensible Christians will find it hard to stay home on Easter Sunday.

Some people look at this from an individualistic point of view and think, “It’s their choice to make. If they’re wrong, they’ll be the ones to suffer from it.” But they won’t be the ONLY ones. As they spread the disease, their friends and family and neighbors and caregivers are also at risk. And when they show up at the ICU, they’ll compete for scarce resources with people who were more careful.

If someone in your life is making the God-will-protect-me argument, remind them of the temptation of Jesus in Luke 4 verses 9-12:

The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”

I interpret this to mean: It is fine to call on God when you have no way to save yourself. But don’t show off by taking unnecessary risks and creating situations where God needs to save you.

In the same way that Trump is shifting the blame for his own blunders to China, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is shifting blame to New York: Ignore the bad decisions he has made; focus on New York.

Josh Marshall:

The future is FLA Gov. DeSantis today. The governor who left the beaches and almost all commerce open as the virus spread like wildfire across the country is now blaming his state’s outbreak on New York and New Yorkers fleeing to Florida. This is the new political message.

Trump’s briefing yesterday was a festival of blame-shifting and excuse making: He doesn’t admit that the US has the most coronavirus cases, because China is lying. There’s no shortage of ventilators, hospitals are hoarding them. There are plenty of masks available, but someone is stealing them.

And as I noted above, he’s also moving the goalposts: 2.2 million Americans would die if the government did nothing, so 200K deaths would be evidence that he has done a great job!

Watch: If anybody at all is still alive by November, Trump will expect them to thank him.

Friday, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey denied the need to issue a shelter-in-place order, saying:

We are not Louisiana, we are not New York state, we are not California. And right now is not the time to order people to shelter in place.

Next door in Mississippi, Governor Tate Reeves’s executive order undid any local order that interfered with

airports, medical and healthcare facilities, retail shopping including grocery and department stores, offices, factories and other manufacturing facilities or any Essential Business or Operation as determined by and identified below.

The Jackson Free Press reports:

One of the immediate consequences of Reeves’ order is the formal declaration that most of Mississippi’s businesses qualify under it as “essential,” and thus are exempt from restrictions on public gatherings. As of press time, the Jackson Free Press has received reports from businesses in the Jackson area that have, as of today’s executive order, scuttled plans for work-from-home and ordered their employees back to work on-site.

Also included among essential services in the executive order were religious facilities, just days after the Mississippi State Department of Health told Mississippians to skip churches, weddings and funerals to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

Up until now, it’s been possible for Trump’s base to imagine that COVID-19 is a Blue America problem: New York, California, Washington, and other liberal places. When a red state like Louisiana does get hit, the epicenter is a cosmopolitan city like New Orleans.

So if you’ve been sitting in Little Town, USA and watching Fox News, the whole crisis probably seems overblown. I think that’s about to change. Viruses are a lot like fashions; they hit the big cities first, but they make it everywhere eventually. States and towns that wait to take action until the problem is local and serious will regret the delay.

and you also might be interested in …

I keep hearing people ask where Joe Biden is. And physically the answer is that he’s at home in Wilmington, doing what we all should be doing.

Of course, what people are really asking is why he isn’t on their TVs, providing a counterpoint to Trump’s incessant nonsense. And the answer to that is that he’s giving interviews and telling people what a real president would do in this situation, but it’s almost impossible for him to break into the news cycle.

Think about it: He doesn’t have any current office, so he can’t announce an action, like Governor Cuomo does nearly every day. Primaries keep getting cancelled, so he can’t win them. He can’t hold rallies. Just about anything he says from Wilmington leads editors and producers to ask “Why is this news?”

Now, of course, if Trump were in this position, he would have no trouble making news. He’d do it by being an ignorant asshole: crudely insulting someone who did nothing to deserve it, saying something provably wrong or bigoted, or violating political norms in some other way. And the same thing could work for Biden as well — he could call Mike Pence a faggot or something; that would make news — but it would also break the brand he’s running on.

Lots of people (including me) have been wondering how to safely bring home food that has been handled by other people, either in the grocery or at a take-out restaurant. Here’s one healthcare professional’s response.

Interesting lecture Heather Cox Richardson gave in 2018 on “How the Gilded Age Created the Progressive Era“.

It looks for all intents and purposes in 1890, 1893, 1894 that the Gilded Age is here to stay, that a few rich guys are going to run everything. They have gamed the system. They’ve stolen a presidential seat. They’ve changed the mechanics so that you can’t possibly ever take the Senate again. They’ve gamed the census, so that they’re doing all the counting. And then when even still it looks bad, they’ve packed the Supreme Court for eternity. And the Supreme Court is handing down idiotic decisions, all of which have been either overturned or modified since then. …

So it looks like it’s time for everyone to pack up and go home.

And yet things changed. And it’s somewhat embarrassing for a non-violent history professor to admit how big a role assassinating President McKinley played.

Curly Neal, arguably the greatest dribbler in basketball history, died this week at 77. The Harlem Globetrotters assembled this collection of highlights in honor of his 74th birthday.

and let’s close with some suggestions for the housebound

Oddly relevant again is the Statler Brothers’ “Flowers on the Wall” from 1966. Don’t tell me I’ve nothing to do.

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  • Abigail A. Hafer  On March 30, 2020 at 2:15 pm

    The video from the doctor is in parts, dangerous. One should not wash produce in soap.

    • El Portero  On April 7, 2020 at 12:05 pm

      Ingesting soap in concentration might cause diarrhea or vomiting, but residual traces of soap on produce is probably not a problem. I wash my “hard-skinned” vegetables and fruits (tomatoes, zucchini, oranges, avocados, etc.) with soapy water and then rinse them thoroughly.

  • Dan  On March 30, 2020 at 2:46 pm

    Flowers on the Wall has, I suspect, a completely different context for those of us only familiar with it from Pulp Fiction. Bruce Willis was singing it right before his very disturbing scene with Ving Rhames.

  • Guest  On March 30, 2020 at 3:35 pm

    Thanks, Doug, lots to ponder here and lots left on the cutting room floor I’m sure. I think the “Where is Biden?” concerns may be somewhat unfairly leveled, and may be better directed at democratic leadership at large. There just hasn’t been much leadership from that side of the aisle, particularly for whats to be done to directly aid working families and other vulnerable people, from Biden or anyone else (Sanders being an exception, as usual, but ignored by the party elites). Feels like another wasted opportunity with resources going mainly to big businesses, as the first picture in the piece implies. I could have sworn Obama and McCain were publicly involved in crisis response leadership in 2008, but perhaps that was only after their nominations were secured. So maybe we should give a pass to Biden for not stepping up the plate in a moment of crisis…

    Some other factors on hiding Biden that weren’t mentioned come to mind though. One is, when he does make an appearance, either pre-recorded or live streaming with a big media outlet, inevitably there are cringe-worthy moments of incoherence, losing trains-of-thought, etc. Secondly, and this was touched on above, but there doesn’t seem to be any substance or meaningful forward looking vision to offer. There’s only so many times you can run out there with empty platitudes and obvious points like “we need more tests” clumsily delivered. Lastly, there has been a credible allegation of…maybe I should be euphemistic…non-consensual penetration, from one of his former staffers. Why risk the possibility, however remote, that CNN or MSNBC would bring up the name Tara Reade to him? Maybe this would be a bigger deal if there wasn’t a global pandemic, but once again, female victims of sexual assault by their bosses get short shrift. The Sift has typically been pro Me Too, so the silence here feels out of place, even if it’s to be expected from the legacy media outlets.

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