Archive for April, 2020

Political Darwinism?

Social Darwinism comes in many flavors, most of which emerged in the United Kingdom, North America, and Western Europe in the 1870s, and which attempted to apply biological concepts of natural selection and survival of the fittest to sociology and politics. Basically, Social Darwinists argue that the strong should see their wealth and power increase while the weak should see their wealth and power decrease.

The considerable flaws involved with applying natural selection to explain individuals’ success or failure in society have been documented in depth, but there’s one aspect of the issue that troubles me, and that’s the definition of “the fittest.” Is fitness determined by physical strength, by intelligence, by biological resilience… or by something else?

What if, in terms, of natural selection, fitness isn’t intelligence or strength? What if it’s something we’ve not considered before? And what if it applies to politics?

Over the past seventy years, the voters of the United States have historically been wary of overtly intelligent Presidential candidates, and those of high intelligence who have been elected have, for the most part, gone out of their way to downplay that intelligence. Then, there have been presidents who obviously had no need to downplay their intelligence.

When a President asks seriously about whether there are any benefits to ingesting strong disinfectants – any later fallacious claims that he was baiting the press notwithstanding – this certainly isn’t a display of intelligence. Nor is contradicting himself day after day, or denying he said something that millions have heard and that is recorded world-wide. Nor is asserting “facts” that have consistently proven to be untrue.

So what factor does Trump have that overshadows his considerable and obvious faults? What factor is so great that even when he’s botched the handling of the coronavirus crisis that forty percent of the U.S. population still supports him?

Could it just be that the characteristic that spells out fitness in natural selection, or political natural selection, is simply the ability to convince people of the most improbable and factually incorrect explanations of anything?

That would certainly explain Trump… although it doesn’t say much for forty percent of the American people.

Rugged Individualism

Conservatives tend to be fond of the myth of rugged individualism. So does a certain small subset of fantasy and science fiction writers. The irony of “rugged individualism” is that no individual will long survive out in the wilderness or in the middle of his or her thousand acre spread without the fruits and results of human concentration and cooperative effort.

Even the frontiersmen and mountain men required the products of a citified culture. They didn’t personally forge their rifles, piece by piece, or tan the leather and carve the frame for their saddles, or cast the bullets for their weapons (well, perhaps a few did). They didn’t forge their axes and knives. And against all that city-built technology, agrarian and indigenous cultures didn’t stand a chance.

It’s no accident that the far less cooperative Neanderthals died out. Despite having what appears to have been equivalent cognitive skills and greater physical strength; they couldn’t compete and survive against the fractious but cooperative homo sapiens. Economists and historians have long known that innovations come out of cities and communities, not from lone individuals or single families living alone. Even with modern technology, single family farms struggle…and they certainly don’t create and mass-produce new technologies.

The tiger is the most fearsome of solo predators, certainly an animal analogue to the mythical rugged individualist. A single unarmed human being doesn’t stand a chance against a tiger, but tigers are an endangered species.

And for all the exaltation of great inventors and creators, the vast majority of them were actually only improving earlier and cruder devices in a form of competitive cooperation, hoping to make a better device, and thereby a better life. Sometimes, they even stole each other’s ideas, but they couldn’t have done that without a community from which to steal. History shows that societies that reward cooperative-creators, and, yes, sometimes idea/device thieves, tend to progress and thrive.

So why is there all the nostalgia, all the conservative support, for rugged individualism? Why do so many support the myth of rugged individualism? Why all the ridicule for the idea that it takes a village to raise a child? Why doesn’t anyone champion productive, if competitive, cooperation? Why do so many Americans revere “rugged individualism” and reject the idea of a competitive (if sometimes cut-throat) but cooperative society when that society has created so much for so many?

Freedom… or Murder?

Here in Utah, as well as elsewhere in the United States, we’ve had demonstrations by generally right-wing individuals, who are demanding that government open up the economy – immediately!

These individuals claim that the government has taken away their freedom to work, to go to school, to travel, to shop, and to do as they please. And they’re correct. Government has largely limited those rights… for a reason. They also cite that our laws allow people to smoke and drink, and those practices kill over half a million people annually. Obesity kills even more, but, with the exception of second-hand smoke [which is now why most public places forbid smoking], all of these practices primarily harm the individual indulging in them. Rights are what we’re allowed to do that won’t harm other people, but laws are restrictions on those rights designed to protect people from harm caused by other people.

And that’s why there are lock-downs all over the country. People walking around with the virus, knowingly or unknowingly, can kill other people. Coronavirus is one of the more contagious viruses to appear. And it kills lots of people. Individuals can spread it for days, if not weeks, without even knowing that they’re doing it. At present, there’s no effective treatment for it, and no vaccine against it. The fatality rate ranges from slightly less than one percent to well over five percent, depending on the age and health of those infected. In just the United States, in less than one month, the coronavirus has killed over 40,000 people – and that’s with social distancing and lock-downs.

In major cities, bodies are piling up faster than they can be buried. Police, firefighters, medical response personnel, doctors, and nurses continue to get sick. Virtually every reputable scientist who’s looked at the data shudders at the idea of “opening up the economy” any time soon.

There’s little doubt that an “open-economy” right now would be a medical disaster. As I write this, the official count of U.S. coronavirus cases is approaching 800,000 known cases, with over 42,000 known deaths. That’s a fatality rate of five percent, or one in twenty people, but, of course, there are likely more than a hundred thousand, if not more, minor cases of coronavirus that aren’t being reported or included. But there are more than 52 million Americans over age 60, and the mortality rate for this age group from coronavirus is running over 5%, as it also appears to be for minorities and those with certain medical conditions.

But what the “freedom lovers” don’t seem to understand is that even a million cases of the coronavirus would only account for 1/3 of one percent of the population. Because this is an extremely contagious virus, if social distancing and lock-downs are abandoned too soon, the virus will definitely reach more than one third of one percent of the population.

Let’s be really conservative and say it that with “immediate freedom,” the coronavirus reaches only 17 million people – five percent of the U.S. population and as half as many people as the seasonal flu infects. Even if fatality rate is “only” two percent, the death toll would be 340,000 people, but given the number of minorities and people over 60, the fatality rate is unlikely to be as low as two percent.

So… the cost of the “immediate freedom” these demonstrators demand would likely start at 340,000 deaths, and require medical care for several million Americans. If the coronavirus really got out of control and infected a quarter of the U.S. population, the death toll would be well over a million, and the U.S. public health system can’t handle anywhere near those numbers… or bodies.

Now… these protestors claim that they just want freedom where there aren’t many known cases. Great. That’s just fine for a month or two… until the contagion flares up in dozens of hotspots… and we have to start all over again.

Then, there’s the basic moral question – should these demonstrators be granted “rights” that can and will kill and or hospitalize hundreds of thousands of Americans, if not more? And if they are, shouldn’t they also be held legally responsible for the deaths they cause?

Privileged Cluelessness

I know more than a few successful people who are where they are because of privilege of some degree… and who would violently dispute the point. In fact, when I made the point to two of them, to one semi-diplomatically, and to the other more directly, one dismissed the possibility as impossible, given her humble background, and lack of formal education, and in the case of the other it strained the relationship for months. Now these two, as well as many other privileged people [both male and female] I know are basically good people, hard-working and successful people, but they deny that their position in education, business, or society had anything to do with success.

That is, of course, complete and utter bullshit.

Position influences everything. That’s not to say that a few people don’t transcend where they’re born and the economic circumstances into which they’re born – but statistics show that’s at most a handful out of every thousand for those unfortunate to be born into the poorest of circumstances. The odds improve, of course, with the greater degree of affluence and education into which a child is born. Again… this isn’t phony social science. There are very hard numbers behind that point.

Now… I’m not saying that the acquaintance who got so upset with me didn’t work his ass off for years to get to where he eventfully became the head of a small but significant music industry company. He never went to college [but had the advantage of a prestigious prep school education] and started out in the mail room. I have no doubt that he was allowed that mail room job because his father was extremely well known. That was all he needed. But it was in fact a form of privilege.

There’s no doubt in my mind [now] that I got my first paid political job because the man who hired me knew my father and respected him – even though I had no idea at all that they knew each other until several months later, and the man who hired me never talked to my father about it until years later. I thought I’d been hired because of the effective volunteer political organization I’d done and because I’d written some decent briefing papers and speech drafts… and because I was young, desperate… and cheap. And I was good at it, better than most for twenty years… but a certain privileged connection sure as hell didn’t hurt, even if I didn’t know about it at the time.

And who you know, and those who know about you – the connections – are indeed a form of privilege. That’s why networking works. It also might be why all of the current U.S. Supreme Court Justices come from Ivy League law schools.

I’m NOT saying that all success is due to privilege, because it’s not. Privilege often gives one a chance to be interviewed or hired for a temporary position, even a menial one, that can lead to success. I never thought about “privilege” when I suggested that I could handle a paid position on a campaign [and it was a VERY low-paid position]. I just needed a job, badly. If I’d failed, someone else would have been hired to replace me and would have had a chance at the permanent job I was offered in Washington, because the candidate, and later Congressman, I worked for was strictly a pragmatist.

So…where one lives, goes to school, and who one knows can offer certain advantages – or none whatsoever. Yet so many successful people I’ve known have tended to ignore the circumstances from which they benefitted. Some will recognize people who’ve been influential in their lives… and some not even them.

And this cluelessness about unconscious privilege is a real factor in why intelligent, hard-working, and often brilliant minorities just might tend to get angry at clueless successful, “self-made” white males who talk about their struggles to succeed.

President Know-Nothing

The American Know Nothing Party, which began as an anti-Catholic, anti-immigration, and xenophobic, (and also violently anti-elite) secret society, later formally known as the Native American Party and the American Party, dominated large sectors of U.S. politics in the early to mid-1850s. Its supporters were eerily similar to those Republicans who currently support President Trump, in that their strong beliefs were anchored in values often totally at variance with science.

Over the past three years as President, Trump has exhibited no real understanding of science, using or discarding it at will. He also has demonstrated a total lack of mathematical or statistical ability or comprehension, substituting his “hunches” for judgements based on science and calculations. So far, he’s been wrong most of the time. When he has been correct, and there are times when this has been so, it’s usually been in the political arena [excepting with Putin], not in science, technical expertise, or statistics. The problem isn’t just that he’s weak in those areas, but that he refuses to admit any weaknesses in any of those areas, and he is reluctant, at best, to defer to experts, or, at worst, intransigent and insists on shouting down and denying anyone who questions his failures.

Lately, he’s been insisting that he, as President, has “ultimate authority” over state governors, which he doesn’t. The Constitution reserves a great many powers to the states and their governors, and even extreme Conservatives are balking at this assertion.

What’s even more astounding is that, only a week or so ago, he was insisting that he couldn’t order the governors to issue stay-in-place orders. This is a President who not only knows less and less, but can’t even remember what he said yesterday… or worse, holds the American people in such contempt that he feels he can say anything and never be held accountable.

Remember, he did once say something to the effect that he could shoot someone in plain sight and get away with it. You thought he was merely exaggerating?

Yet the Republicans in Congress blindly back their President Know-Nothing as if it were normal for a chief executive rail on for hours because the media caught him denying statements he made previously… and not just one or two, but scores. Tens of thousands of Americans are dying, many unnecessarily, because, first, he, as chief executive, abolished the pandemic task force. Then, second, in early January, he declared that coronavirus cases would be down to zero in weeks and did essentially nothing for two months. And he throws temper tantrum after temper tantrum on national news when questioned about his continued failures.

This is normal? And we’re accepting it?

Cheapskates or Chiselers?

When I was a teenager and not old enough to drive, there weren’t many jobs open, first because even back then very few were hiring fourteen year olds, and, second, the places that might hire youngsters were a goodly distance away, and there was no public transportation. At that time, my parents lived in an area that could easily be called ex-urban, rather than suburban. Across the street was a forty acre farm, run by a retired fellow who’d made a lot of money selling pipe to the oil industry, and he had a small herd of cows. What he did with them, I never could figure out.

But there were junior and mid-level executives moving into the area, and I asked my father if I could use the lawn equipment to mow other people’s lawns. He said yes – with two conditions. First, my younger brother had to be part of the deal, and we had to pay for oil and gas… and for any repairs necessitated by our carelessness or incompetence. It wasn’t ideal, but, as the only gig in the area, it was better than the alternatives.

We actually did a pretty good job, but I hated it. First, it was Colorado, and Colorado summers were hot. Second, I had hay fever and had a runny nose most of the time. Third, my brother turned out to be lousy at trimming, and the trimming is what makes a lawn look bad or good. And remember, this was long before string-trimmers and the like, and I often had hand cramps by the end of the day. Now, in terms of today’s services, we weren’t straining. We did one or two lawns every weekday. Did I mention that most of them were an acre in size? And yes, our father held us to paying for the maintenance and the time my brother ripped out a sprinkler head in a customer’s lawn.

But so far as I was concerned, when I got my driver’s license and my senior lifeguard badge, I left the lawn business. For me, the one true luxury was when I finally made enough money to hire a lawn service without stinting anything else in the budget.

We’ve had a very good lawn service here for ten years, and I was always careful to pay the monthly bill as soon as it came in. Those guys were worth every dollar to me.

Except, this spring, when they started mowing, I got an invoice for the first mowing, requesting either a credit card for continuing service or to pay for the mowing before the next mowing was due. At first, I wondered if it had anything to do with coronavirus economic slowdown, but I sent off a polite email asking about the change in billing policies.

The owner answered promptly, saying that I’d always paid on time, but that a lot of people hadn’t, and that at the end of the lawn care season in early November of the previous year, over $5,000 in services were unpaid… and were never paid. So they had to switch to almost a pay-as-you-go service.

I know what hard work lawn care is. I’ve never forgotten. And while it’s easier now with self-propelled mowers and string trimmers, it’s still no piece of cake, especially where certain parts of our lawn have close to a thirty degree slope.

So I find not paying lawn care people particularly reprehensible [not that I don’t find cheating people out of income they’ve earned through hard work reprehensible in all fields]. And whether these deadbeats are cheapskates or chiselers, they ought to spend a summer doing lawn care. But then, most of them couldn’t hack it. Two years was more than enough for me, and I was essentially only doing it half-time.

Procedures… and Common Sense

All large organizations have procedures. They couldn’t work without them. The vast majority of procedures govern routine tasks, and generally work moderately well, but there are also emergency procedures.

When I was a Navy pilot, many long years ago, I had to learn emergency procedures which detailed what to do in each of the many possible ways in which a complex military aircraft could malfunction… or be caused to malfunction. Knowing these procedures was absolutely necessary, because when an aircraft malfunctions, for whatever reason, a pilot has very little time to react. In one of the more noted recent events, U.S. Airways pilot Chesley Sullenberger lost both engines of his A320 due to a bird strike at an altitude of about 3,000 feet. In less than four minutes he and his copilot made a successful water landing on the Hudson, with no loss of life and largely minor injuries. Such emergency procedures are not only useful, but vital, in instructing pilots, or those in other fields, what to do – in situations that are known to be possible and where remedial emergency procedures can be implemented.

But procedures, even emergency procedures, sometimes can’t deal with the situation.

When I was a junior helicopter pilot learning how to become a helicopter aircraft commander of the now antique H-34, a senior lieutenant commander and I were flying over Oahu on our way to Kauai. Sixty-three miles of deep water separate the islands. We were perhaps four or four miles away from the ocean, when the lieutenant commander said, “Something’s not right with the engine.” All the engine read-outs were normal. The sump light [to detect metal] in the oil, a sign that all was not right with the engine, showed nothing was wrong.

The chief mechanic couldn’t hear anything, but the lieutenant commander immediately executed a precautionary emergency landing in a field. Later examination of the engine, once the H-34 was hauled back to base, revealed that the engine was in the early stages of cracking and failing. If the lieutenant commander had followed “procedures,” we likely would have faced engine failure in the middle of the Kauai Channel. As it was, he took a certain amount of flak until the analysis of the engine confirmed his decision. It also saved the aircraft.

I was reminded of this by the recent decision by the acting Navy Secretary, Thomas B. Modly, to remove Captain Brett E. Crozier from command of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, because Captain Crozier sent letters to between twenty and thirty senior officials asking for speedier and more effective measures to protect his crew of almost 5,000 from the rapid spread of coronavirus. Officially, Captain Crozier was relieved for failing to follow official procedures and the chain of command, when he felt that the “chain of command” was failing his crew.

Coronavirus is one of the most contagious diseases on the planet at the moment, and one that has no vaccine and no proven treatment for remediation. Every hour and every day that the “chain of command” dithered over what to do meant more crew members would be infected, given the close quarters aboard any Naval vessel. Speedy action would not only have spared more crew members from the coronavirus, but also would have allowed the Roosevelt to return to duty sooner.

Modly’s action is exactly why the military gets ridiculed for being hide-bound and stupid. Most times, the procedures work just fine, but there are times when they don’t, and it’s time to throw out the procedures. This was one of those times.

Musings on Covid-19 in Utah

The state of Utah is currently under a gubernatorial “directive” – rather than a mandatory order – to stay at home, and all schools and universities have closed their physical facilities to students, while restaurants are limited to carry-out and drive-by food service, and non-essential businesses are supposed to be closed. But the mayors of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County have issued mandatory stay-at-home orders, as has Summit County (essentially Park City).

In our part of the state, what’s an essential business seems rather loosely defined. Gun shops are open, as are dollar stores and at least one or two furniture emporiums, and a significant percentage of university faculty are still using their offices daily. I don’t see large groups in public places, but there’s a feeling that I can only call surreal, because it seems to me that, with the exception of the lack of toilet paper, flour, and pasta in the grocery stores, most people here are acting as if nothing really bad is going to happen.

Maybe, in a state with a great deal of open space, matters won’t get as bad as in New York and all the larger cities – except that the Wasatch Front, a hundred miles of suburban and urban sprawl sandwiched between two mountain ranges containing two million people, doesn’t exactly qualify as open space, as the two Salt Lake area mayors seem to realize, unlike the suburban municipalities surrounding Salt Lake. With a 1,000 known cases and only seven deaths in Utah at the moment, matters don’t seem that bad. Except, only 20,000 people have been tested.

Cedar City and its principal suburb contain roughly 45,000 people, plus whatever college students are remaining here out of 11,000, but St. George, 50 miles south, contains over 150,000 people, and I have my doubts that this part of Utah will remain unscathed, although at present there have only been less than 50 known cases and two covid-19 deaths in the two counties. The first testing locations became available in this area just today.

One aspect of this that I find troubling is that all too many people here have no idea how bad things are elsewhere, as evidenced by something like fifteen commissioners of rural counties here who wrote the governor demanding that he remove the directive and prohibitions because there was no danger of a pandemic here and those prohibitions were strangling the local economies. Or by the university student who couldn’t believe that she wouldn’t be able to attend a summer program in Berlin. Or some friends who continue to live “normal” lives.

And most people don’t seem to realize that, while we have a very new and modern small hospital, it only has 48 beds… and it’s 250 miles to Salt Lake or 50 miles to St. George, a small city with a population containing large numbers of retirees.

It could be that southwestern Utah will escape relatively unscathed, but I’m not betting on it… especially since too many people here seem to think it won’t happen.