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Sunday, June 07, 2020

A Short Announcement

My apologies for the silence on the blog.  I  have not been well.  Things will resume when they can.  In the meantime, Black Lives Matter.  Stay well and healthy during the pandemic.

Friday, May 22, 2020

More Covid-19 Era Thoughts:On Gender Roles, The Role Of The Media And Trump's Masks

1.  I am not a fan of rigid gender/sex roles, because they are one of the main channels which have historically been used to keep women second-class citizens.  I would love such roles to be reduced to the absolute minimum.  Indeed, I see no alternative to that if we are actually ever to create a world where male and female people have roughly equal opportunities.

One recent example highlights the effects of the traditional division of labor at home, when combined with the covid-19 pandemic:

In April Dr Elizabeth Hannon, deputy editor of the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, noticed that the number of article submissions she was receiving from women had dropped dramatically. Not so from men.

“Negligible number of submissions to the journal from women in the last month,” she posted on Twitter. “Never seen anything like it.” The response was an outpouring of recognition from frustrated female academics, saying they were barely coping with childcare and work during the coronavirus lockdown.

This particular anecdote is about academic work from home but the same concerns would apply to all who now must work from home and who also have minor children to care for and educate under the lockdown conditions.

More generally, the pandemic-related job losses are hitting women particularly hard because women are more likely to be concentrated in the kinds of jobs which deal with people*, and those jobs are the ones most affected by the lockdowns.  At least some of that sex segregation in employment is linked to societal gender roles and beliefs about the most suitable occupations for men and women.**

2.  It's astonishing how much attention the various protest movements wanting instant reopening of the economy have gotten in the media.  Or at least I find it astonishing, given that clear majorities of people are opposed to the very idea.  Even the most recent Fox News survey found 55% of its respondents agreeing with the statement that the US should wait before reopening the economy, even if this means that the economic crisis will last longer.

I mostly blame the media's need to create angry debates in order to keep getting the most clicks on the stories that are published.  Advertising revenue goes up with clicks and, sadly, most of us are vulnerable to click-baiting.  Given that the ad-based business model is the only one that seems to work at all to fund journalism the situation is not easily remedied.

But still.  I find the outrage-based news media extremely irritating and depressing.  Social media, in general, is even worse.  Twitter, for instance, seems to monetize rage.

3.  Our Supreme Leader refuses to wear a Coronavirus mask in public.  I don't care why he refuses so adamantly.  It could be because of his narcissistic vanity or because of some belief that when a tough 100% manly warlord president glares at the virus the virus will disintegrate without any sissy masks needed.  Or because he wants to stick it to the media.

But in judging Trump's choice not to wear a mask, we should remember this: 

The Coronavirus masks we wear in public, when in contact with others, are there to protect those others, and their masks are there to protect us.  Should Trump catch the virus and not yet know that he has it, he would be somewhat less likely to pass it on if he wore a mask***.   So he is choosing not to care about that.

*  These are also often low-pay jobs.  Even women with children who don't work in traditionally female jobs depend on the traditionally female job category of child care workers to be able to continue their own work outside the home.  (Or so it looks if we wear the traditional gender role blinders and see child care as the responsibility of mothers first and of all female people second).

**  For more on this wider question, see this 2018 article.

*** And considerably less likely if the others coming into contact with him were also masked.


Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Trump And Hydroxychloroquine:Another Game

Remember my earlier post about the games Trump, as a great narcissist, plays?  One of narcissistic tricks is to start a new game when it looks like another, still ongoing game is not letting the narcissist win.

That is the best way of understanding why Trump suddenly tells us that he is taking hydroxychloroquine.  Journalists can't ignore this new game, for obvious reasons, and so the media attention moves away from the game Trump no longer wants to be played.

That earlier game is about Trump firing four inspector generals in the last two months.  The most recent firing, that of the State Department's inspector general, Steve Linick, is the most controversial of these.  Trump really doesn't want the media to focus on whether the fired inspector general was investigating Pompeo and whether Pompeo then asked him to be fired:

The State Department Inspector General who was fired by President Donald Trump late Friday was investigating his administration's use of emergency powers to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia despite congressional opposition, according to a senior Democratic lawmaker.

Inspector General Steve Linick is the latest federal watchdog removed by Trump and the latest impeachment player who may have faced some form of presidential retaliation. Pompeo recommended his dismissal and supported the president's decision, a senior State Department official told ABC News Friday.

The watchdog office was also looking into whether Pompeo used staff to run personal errands, according to a congressional aide.

That game doesn't look great for Trump.  So he starts one of his "scandal" games.  Those won't bother his base much at all but will keep the media, and the public,  occupied.



Thursday, May 14, 2020

Kerala And Covid-19.Lessons for the US.

This Guardian story about the "coronavirus slayer" of Kerala makes for interesting reading.  Kerala's fight against covid-19 has so far been near-perfect, and the credit for that goes to its health minister, KK Shailaja:

On 20 January, KK Shailaja phoned one of her medically trained deputies. She had read online about a dangerous new virus spreading in China. “Will it come to us?” she asked. “Definitely, Madam,” he replied. And so the health minister of the Indian state of Kerala began her preparations.

Four months later, Kerala has reported only 524 cases of Covid-19, four deaths and – according to Shailaja – no community transmission. The state has a population of about 35 million and a GDP per capita of only £2,200. By contrast, the UK (double the population, GDP per capita of £33,100) has reported more than 40,000 deaths, while the US (10 times the population, GDP per capita of £51,000) has reported more than 82,000 deaths; both countries have rampant community transmission.

I recommend reading the linked article to find out why Shailaja stresses the importance of proper planning and how she went about achieving it in quite a poor Indian state.  Kerala's decentralized public health care system (every village has a health center) and its relatively strong education system (which guarantees high literacy rates) were also crucial in Kerala's success against the virus, because they allowed information and mitigation efforts to reach almost everyone in a short amount of time.

Though Kerala has won this battle in the war against covid-19 the war, of course, is ongoing, and nobody knows how the future battles will go once India lifts the current lockdown.  But there are lessons we all can learn from Shailaja Teacher's proper planning.

One is that the war against the covid-19 indeed might best be viewed as a war when deciding on how to best defend against it:   That defense must start with plans from the very top government levels, it must be properly coordinated all the way down to local government units, and citizens everywhere must be made active participants on the side of the defenders.

From that angle the Trump administration has really bungled this.  But then, of course, Trump doesn't see himself as the Commander-in-Chief of this war.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Political Tribalism And The Pandemic

Joe Lockhart asks why so few editorial boards of newspapers are calling for Trump to resign.  He contrasts that silence to what happened in the Watergate era:  Nixon's resignation was demanded by most major newspapers.

Why the current silence?  The central reason seems to be this:

I put this question to more than a dozen experts, media columnists, editorial writers, academics and White House reporters. What emerged was not one simple explanation, as journalism professor Jay Rosen of New York University explained it, but a number of factors that have discouraged editorial pages around the country from taking this bold step.
Central to these, according to John Avlon, a senior political analyst at CNN and the former editor in chief of the Daily Beast, is that "the reality of the hardened partisanship is beyond reason. We've become really unmoored from our best civic traditions." And one of our best civic traditions used to be holding political leaders to account -- demanding, inextreme situations, that they resign.
Put in simpler terms, Trump won't resign, whatever the demands for it might be, and Republicans won't demand his resignation, because politics has grown increasingly tribal.

It's not just "my country, right or wrong," but "my party, right or wrong."*   And as the mainstream media itself is viewed by the right (and also by some parts of the left) as a member of the "other" tribe and not neutral, it's pretty easy to see why few editorial boards would bother to demand a resignation which will not happen.  Indeed, the recent no-consequences impeachment is still fresh in our minds.

When did American politics become this polarized and tribal?

Many would argue that polarization has always existed, of course.  Still, there is something different in the most recent version of it, and that is because legal and technological changes have enabled extensive polarization in what was once called the media or the press and in what now is simply all the different sources of information, rumor and hearsay that consumers use.  Those same changes have made fighting against this trend much harder.

The end of the FCC Fairness Doctrine is perhaps the starting-point of the current polarization epidemic.  Once the Fairness Doctrine was buried, Fox News could be launched**, with its policy of presenting one-sided and selective information as if it were completely neutral.  The era of the Internet now offers almost limitless opportunities for the replication of that Fox News foundational principle.  

The proliferation of politically biased news sites, on both sides of the political aisle though more on the right,  makes staying in the same tribal information bubble easier, and even the comment-ability that the Internet has provided for all of us serves to strengthen feelings of tribal belonging and also to self-police the borders of the tribe***.

This particular topic seemed to me barely worth writing about in these pandemic times, until I thought about the fact that we have Donald Trump leading the effort against the pandemic at least partly because of the new political tribalism and despite the fact that most everyone knows he only cares about his own re-election chances.

* Or whatever ideological group you might wish to see as the relevant tribe if "party" doesn't work in that context.

** An erudite commenter (Alby) noted that Fox News itself wouldn't have been subject to the Fairness Doctrine which covered only public airwaves, though the end of that doctrine did make right-wing radio shows possible (Rush Limbaugh and the like).  But Fox certainly was a sign of the changing times.

*** That is because to truly feel that one belongs to a tribe there must be interactions with the other members, and those interactions must reward opinions which strengthen the tribe and discourage opinions which weaken the tribe.

Now we can have those interactions with total strangers, not just with those whom we meet outside the cyberspace, and that has both good and bad outcomes.

Though being able to talk with strangers online creates many good outcomes, including community building, excess tribalism is one of its bad outcomes.  As an aside, it's much easier to recognize "excess" tribalism than it is to define it, but I think it is operating whenever tribal membership is more important than what a particular person is actually stating in how that person's message is received.

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

The Pandemic And The Deconstruction Of The Administrative State.Or Did Stephen Bannon Get His Way?

Eons ago, in 2017, president Trump still had his own Rasputin standing behind the throne and whispering in his ear:  Stephen Bannon.

Bannon was Trump's chief strategist and the architect of the president's ideological strategies.  Bannon may have disappeared from the Trump administration and also largely from the public view, but one of his most important goals has not: The deconstruction of the administrative state.

What did Bannon mean by that term?   The answer:

The process, he explained, began with Trump's first presidential hires.
"If you look at these Cabinet appointees, they were selected for a reason and that is the deconstruction, the way the progressive left runs, is if they can't get it passed, they're just gonna put in some sort of regulation in -- in an agency," Bannon said. "That's all gonna be deconstructed and I think that that's why this regulatory thing is so important."
So did Bannon get his way in this respect?

I think we are learning the answer while watching, in real time:  The way this administration stumbles around in its responses to the current pandemic, how it seems to be passing the proper tasks of the federal government* to individual states without apparently coordinating that change with such federal institutions as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Or compare the US pandemic policies to those practiced in countries which seem to have the pandemic under better control:

While statistics show that this wave of the pandemic in the US is nowhere near peaking, our Supreme Leader wants it to be over so he has decided that it is more or less over.

He wishes to refocus on opening the economy**, whatever the resulting cost in lives lost, because he sees a booming economy as necessary for his re-election.  And that is why he earlier today told us that he will wind down the coronavirus task force, though he has now had to walk back that statement a little bit.

I think Bannon should be pleased with the current state of the federal administrative state, even if some of the destruction has come from the uncertainty and dizziness caused by all of us having to live inside Trump's personal and weird worldview.

*  Even the most conservative of economists would agree that the fight against a globally spreading infectious disease  is the duty of the federal government.

**  It is not wrong to focus on both the pandemic and the economy, of course.
We need to be able to produce food and to get it to consumers, for example,  and even more generally the economy cannot stay in a lock-down forever.

But Trump's plan is not the kind of careful and considered "re-opening in stages" which some other countries are pursuing once it is clear that the peak of the first Covid-19 wave has passed in that country.  It's just a general re-opening, as if the pandemic has left the USA, when it is actually just checked into the second hotel in its tour around the place.

Sunday, May 03, 2020

How We Talk about The Pandemic:A Slightly Different Slant

1.  Those who vociferously protest against the stay-at-home-orders are a small minority.  They are not representative of any large group of Americans.  The media should clearly state this when they cover the protests, and we should all take care that we are not viewing that group as representative of, say, all Republicans in the US.

I get that covering the protests is great click-bait, but to pretend that we are seeing a giant wave of citizens protesting the orders distorts facts.  The media has the responsibility not to distort facts.  Neither should the media allow itself to be used as a PR machine for the groups raging and ranting at various state houses.

2.  In fact, most Americans (and most citizens of almost all countries) have been almost exemplary in their willingness to obey the various mitigation efforts governments have introduced against the Covid-19.  To see this has been heart-warming and has made me slightly more optimistic about the future of humankind.

It is easy not to see the good news when so many news are frightening.  But good news also exist.*  The willingness of ordinary people to work together in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic is good news.

3.  I once read, in a book about birds, that crows take care of their elderly and sick.  I have no idea if the story was true, but reading it made me think that taking care of those community members who are of no obvious immediate use value might be one marker of what we call civilization.

Contrast those crows to the opinions of one Northern California city official:

A Northern California city official has been ousted after he suggested on social media that sick, old and homeless people should be left to meet their “natural course in nature” during the coronavirus pandemic.
City council members in Antioch, a city of about 110,000 people 35 miles east of Oakland, voted unanimously Friday night to remove Ken Turnage II from his post as chairman of the city’s planning commission.
NBC Bay Area reportsthere was a swift uproar after Turnage characterized people with weak immune systems as a drain on society.
He wrote on Facebook: “the World has been introduced to a new phrase Herd Immunity which is a good one. In my opinion we need to adapt a Herd Mentality. A herd gathers it ranks, it allows the sick, the old, the injured to meet its natural course in nature.”
As for homeless people, he added that the virus would “fix what is a significant burden on our society and resources that can be used.”

Mr. Turnage was not writing about a triage situation in some hospital where ventilators might be so scarce that health care providers must decide who can get them**.  Rather, his comments appear to be about everyday life***.  But our resources are not so scarce that we would have to make terrible choices about who can get them.

As an aside, I love him calling that view "a Herd Mentality!"

* For pretty obvious (mostly psychological) reasons, what we call "news" tends to mostly consist of "bad news." We want to know about possible future risks and how to avoid them.  But good news are also news, and trying to see them serves to keep us more mentally balanced.

**  The usual examples where Mr. Turnage's views would be mentioned are all about truly catastrophic situations:  People in a life boat with enough water or food for only a few of them, an isolated tribe facing mass starvation if it tries to feed all members of the tribe, only one available ventilator remaining in a hospital and three patients needing it, and so on.  But Mr. Turnage extended that way of thinking to everyday society, perhaps so that the economy could be quickly re-opened.

***  Even if we all adopted Mr. Turnage's callous world view, it is unlikely that even he would like the world thus created.  That's because almost everyone, including, Mr. Turnage, would one day fall into the category of individuals with no remaining immediate use value while still having some life years left. 

This, in turn, would change the incentives of all individuals about how they would behave toward others in the same community.  Altruism, for instance, would be much rarer because at least some altruism is based on the expectation that if one helps others then one day those others will return the help.  Nobody would be willing to serve in the armed forces if returning wounded or disabled veterans would just be thrown away.  And so on.

Mr. Turnage also ignores the fact that the coronavirus is disproportionately affecting black and Hispanic communities.  Although many of the reasons for the higher infection and death rates among black and Hispanic communities are directly or indirectly linked to poverty (which correlates with race and ethnicity) and (especially) for the black communities also to the impact of historic institutional racism, some are due to the fact that many of the now-essential workers come from exactly these racial and/or ethnic groups:

On the first, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in NYC is a useful and disturbing example. As the New York Times reported last week, bus and subway workers have been hit hard by the coronavirus: 41 dead and more than 6,000 either diagnosed with Covid-19 or self-quarantining because they have symptoms that suggest an infection, as of April 8.
Who works for the MTA? Black people and Latinos. They account for more than 60 percent of the agency’s workforce in New York City, according to estimates from 2016.
Black people in particular are overrepresented in the MTA; they are 46 percent of the city’s transportation workers versus 24 percent of its overall population. (White people, on the other hand, make up 30 percent of local MTA employees but 43 percent of NYC residents.)
This is, again, true across cities and sectors. As Devan Hawkins wrote in the Guardian, black Americans are more likely than white Americans to be employed in the essential services that have been exempted from state stay-at-home orders, and they are more likely to work in health care and in hospitals. In America as in other countries, health care workers make up a disproportionate share of Covid-19 cases.
 Being an essential worker is exactly the reverse of how Mr. Turnage depicts the victims of the coronavirus pandemic.  These are the people we really need right now, and they are dying at higher rates.

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