Tag Archives: virus

The Virus Is An Externality

Well, I see the “President” has restarted his pandemic “briefings,” and–wonder of wonders–said everyone should wear a mask. Whether that will convince any of the dangerous idiots who are refusing to do so (because “freedom”) remains to be seen.

My two favorite economists, Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, are both Nobel prizewinners. I find both to be logical and persuasive–and I’m sure that a great deal of their persuasive power is their ability to explain things clearly to non-economists, of whom I am definitely one. Krugman stepped up to the plate again in a recent column for the New York Times, in which he explained what is at stake in the mask controversy with an analogy to the economic concept of externalities.

Krugman notes that there are a number of possible reasons for rejecting the wearing of a mask.

Some of this is about insecure masculinity — people refusing to take the simplest, cheapest of precautions because they think it will make them look silly. Some of it is about culture wars: liberals wear masks, so I won’t. But a lot of it is about fetishization of individual choice.

Many things should be left up to the individual. I may not share your taste in music or want to do the same things you do with consenting adults, but such matters aren’t legitimately my business.

Other things, however, aren’t just about you. The question of whether or not to dump raw sewage into a public lake isn’t something that should be left up to individual choice. And going to a gym or refusing to wear a mask during a pandemic is exactly like dumping sewage into a lake: it’s behavior that may be convenient for the people who engage in it, but it puts others at risk.

The reference to “going to a gym” was prompted by the stubborn idiocy of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Krugman had opened his column with a discussion of Florida’s soaring Covid-19 case count, and the Governor’s culpability for that rise.

Florida has, of course, become a Covid-19 epicenter, with soaring case totals and a daily death toll now consistently exceeding that of the whole European Union, which has 20 times its population. But DeSantis won’t contemplate any rollback of the state’s obviously premature reopening; he even refuses to close venues that are perfect coronavirus incubators.

In particular, he insists on letting gyms — closed spaces full of people huffing and puffing — stay open. Why? Because “if you are in good shape you have a very low likelihood of ending up in a significant condition.”

As Krugman points out, this isn’t true–but the fact that healthy people can and do contract the virus is almost beside the point: gyms should be closed because the people we are trying to protect aren’t the people working out, but the people with whom they will come into contact. As he says, even gym rats have families, friends, and co-workers.

And that brings us back to externalities.

Unregulated free markets simply cannot solve the problem of externalities. Externalities are defined as costs imposed on non-consenting others, on people who have no say in the matter. Pollution is the classic example–the factory that dumps its waste in the local river in order to save the cost of proper disposal requires a government cleanup paid for with our tax dollars. Spreading a virus raises precisely the same set of issues yet, as Krugman notes, many conservatives seem unable or unwilling to grasp this simple point.

And they seem equally unwilling to grasp a related point — that there are some things that must be supplied through public policy rather than individual initiative. And the most important of these “public goods” is probably scientific knowledge.

The people who refuse to wear masks are clones of the lawbreakers willing to dump industrial waste into our rivers, and spew harmful chemicals into the air we all breathe.

The pandemic has simply allowed them to advertise what and who they are: self-centered and illogical ignoramuses polluting the environment we all must share.

 

Bolton’s Revelations And The Pandemic

Leaks from John Bolton’s book, The Room Where It Happened” have given the media lots of material. It’s hard to escape headlines trumpeting the “eight most stunning” revelations (or whatever number of “stunning revelations” has been chosen by the person writing that particular book review). 

Most of the commentary has accompanied the disclosures with the (obligatory and undeniable)  observation that Bolton’s refusal to share what he knew with the House impeachment managers was despicable–undoubtedly motivated by choosing anticipated profit from book sales over an opportunity to rid the country of a clear and present danger.

But it took Heather Cox Richardson to point out the single most horrifying disclosure, worse even than Trump’s encouragement of Chinese concentration camps.

Richardson points out that Trump’s desperate desire to protect the trade deal with China–a deal that he thought would  would “smooth the way” for his reelection–  delayed the administration’s response to the coronavirus and the pandemic that has now claimed the lives of more Americans than died in WWI.

She reminds us of the timeline: on January 15, Trump and Xi inked a trade deal that required China to increase purchases of U.S. products by at least $200 billion over 2017 levels. January, as we now know, was when the first signs of the pandemic arose.

At the same time, news of the coronavirus was spreading. Trump praised Xi’s handling of the virus and claimed it had been contained. On January 22, he tweeted: “One of the many great things about our just signed giant Trade Deal with China is that it will bring both the USA & China closer together in so many other ways. Terrific working with President Xi, a man who truly loves his country. Much more to come!” And on January 24, as the devastation of the novel coronavirus came clearer, he wrote: “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”

When the pandemic tanked the U.S. economy, the trade deal made less of a difference, and Trump’s close engagement with China just as the pandemic was breaking out suddenly became a liability that Biden was quick to hit. Trump turned on China, blaming it for the virus, and then took the US out of the World Health Organization, saying the WHO was responsible for the pandemic because it had been too willing to trust the Chinese.

Bottom line: Trump’s responsibility for the pandemic goes well beyond his (and, remember, Bolton’s) knee-jerk decision to eliminate the pandemic task force that had been established by Obama. It goes beyond Trump’s lies about the federal “cupboard” being “bare,” beyond the administration’s incredible mismanagement of the resources that remained at the federal government’s disposal, and even beyond the lies about phony “cures” and the likely, warm-weather disappearance of the virus.

Think about this: In order to protect his chances of re-election, Donald Trump was perfectly willing to ignore a deadly threat to the lives of American citizens. 

If people had to die in order to ensure his re-election, well, so be it. The other revelations pale in comparison.

This shouldn’t come as a shock, of course. Trump’s insistence on holding a rally in Tulsa–without masks and social distancing–confirms everything we suspected about Trump’s concern for the life and health of American citizens–even those who support him.

It’s non-existent.