Tuesday, September 14, 2021

BTRTN: The Search for Intelligent Life in the United States... Anti-Vaxxers, and How to Deal with Them

Today, BTRTN launches a new series, in which Steve will endeavor to periodically examine segments of the American population that exhibit an unusually robust capacity to resist factual information, process information logically, and make decisions based on an understanding of a concept we call the “common good.” Please enjoy our first installment of “The Search for Intelligent Life in the United States.”

Joe Biden’s latest effort to gain the upper hand on the coronavirus epidemic was welcome, although certainly long overdue – and still underwhelming -- to the many Americans who understand that we could throttle the domestic pandemic into complete submission in two months if only we had the will.

Biden finally began to use his power to assert central policy for government workers, Federal contractors, and even private sector employees to force vaccinations or require frequent testing. In a nation that already has a vast trove of vaccination mandates on the books at the state level for polio, small pox, and measles, the failure to act accordingly on COVID 19 is inexplicable.

One has to admire the way Joe Biden keeps trying to cajole America into sanity. But the address he gave Thursday, ratcheting up pressure on the vaccination-refusers, was not the usual Joe: he wasn’t sunny, upbeat, and constantly assuming a core sanity and good-heartedness in Americans. He was pissed off and frustrated.

Good for him. If Happy Warrior Joe is getting fed up, you have an inkling of the rage that vaccinated America is feeling after 538 days of constipated social lives and an ever-present angst that the next trip to the dry cleaner will be the time the wrong person sneezes on you.

Yes, Biden’s actions were progress. Some people – faced with the loss of a job that they value – will undoubtedly finally buckle under and get the shot.

But there will remain a segment of the population that is not only impervious to Biden’s latest initiative, they will undoubtedly double-down in the ferocity and certainty of their resistance. For many, opposition to vaccination is rooted precisely in anti-government mistrust and political opposition. It borders on a suicidal contrarianism: whatever Joe Biden wants, I will oppose, even if it kills me. Live free, or die… on a ventilator.

Don’t worry. This first installment in our new series, “The Search for Intelligent Life in the United States,” is not going to be another useless gaseous blowhard exercise in castigating the anti-vaxxers as ignorant, stupid, self-involved, and misguided in their view of “personal liberty.”

This time we have an idea for what to do about it.

Let’s assume for a moment that the anti-vaxxers are people who have, in the past year, been exposed to a mountain of scientific evidence about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines. The first step in getting serious is to stop playing “if only” games: If only they were confronted with the data. If only we could craft the right message. If only we knew the right messengers to deliver the message. If only they understood the science of vaccines.

In recent months, I have had a number of direct conversations with anti-vaxxers, and conversations with people who were very close to anti-vaxxers. The conversations were revealing, not merely for what was said… but perhaps much more so for what was never mentioned.

One was a very smart, extremely well-educated person who was deeply skeptical that the vaccines had been sufficiently tested, and was convinced that time would reveal catastrophic dangers to those who were vaccinated. Here is the only quote from that conversation you need to know: this person would “rather get COVID 19 than get the vaccination.”

Yes, this smart, generally highly informed person was more concerned about the unproven possibility of long-term dangers from the vaccine than of proven, horrific dangers – short and long term – of contracting Covid 19. There is no hint that the vaccines can kill you, damage your heart, or cause permanent loss of taste and smell… all just a few of the known, widely experienced, and proven possible consequences of Covid 19. At some level, the possibility of some unknown future ailment was a tough argument to counter: no, I guess I can't promise you that in twenty years you won't grown eight arms covered with tentacles. But I know that if you have not been vaccinated and contract Covid you could die or suffer debilitating maladies for months if not years into the future. 

A guitar-playing buddy of mine struggled to articulate a deep-seated fear of injections of any kind, even with the knowledge that he had received many vaccination shots early in life. He is not someone who appears inclined to spend hours online doing research on vaccine data. He is a very nice person… wouldn't hurt a fly.  But in the age of Delta, I am not going to spend two hours in a closed room with anyone who is not vaccinated.

A friend of mine describes a man she knows who, when pressed, will somewhat reluctantly express a rather dark and deeply rooted distrust of government as the cause of his vehement rejection of vaccines. He does not appear to be a full-blown or militant conspiracy theorist – he simply fiercely mistrusts medical and governmental authority. It is hard to imagine genial Joe Biden ever, ever reaching such a person.

A good friend of mine has a close relative who has actually been fully converted to the QAnon cult, where they believe that the vaccine causes the virus. That person is never going to get the vaccine… and it is terrifying to try to calculate just how many QAnon followers there are in the United States today. That block of the population alone can seriously reduce the opportunity for herd immunity and the resumption of normal life.

Not everyone who is avoiding the vaccine is an anti-vaxxer. One woman I know delayed vaccination for months because her doctor told her that she first needed to recover from Prednisone therapy. This underscores the necessity to resist demonizing the unvaccinated. As with so many things in life, there is nuance, and we must work to accept exceptions so that we do not punish people who have sound medical reasons.

But by far and away, what most fascinated me in my microscopic sample of interactions with the determinedly unvaccinated segment of our population was what does not come up in the conversation. None of these people ever brought up the idea of the “common good.”

This many months into the pandemic, people have to be aware that the decision they are making to not become vaccinated is having a direct impact on our society’s ability to fight the pandemic. It is well documented and abundantly available information: unless upwards of approximately 75% of the population gets vaccinated, there will continue to be a sufficient critical mass of virus transmission to generate more variants like Delta. The risk is that each new variant is ever more infectious and potent, and therefore trigger new waves of disease, hospitalization, and death.

What was so striking in my conversations with anti-vaxxers is this: they don’t care. They either have no concept of or some level of contempt for the notion of the “common welfare” of the society to which they belong. They feel no sense of obligation to the society that employs them, feeds them, and yes – in times of great need – provides them medical care. In this regard, the anti-vaxxers exhibit a seemingly unconscious flavor of sociopathy. The needs of the society – of the other human beings they share the planet with -- do not factor into their decision matrix.  

And sure, some people mistakenly believe that since they have already had Covid, they are immune. Wrong. Some people have decided that the odds of getting Covid are small, and some people think that if they were to get it, they would get a mild case. Huge bets, with bad odds… with Delta, refusing vaccination is less like betting against the New York Jets and more like Russian Roulette.

Sure, we read about the young people gasping for breath in emergency rooms who begin begging for the vaccine, proving that their anti-vaccination position was born of true ignorance and failure to have made any effort to understand the disease, how to prevent it, the treatment options, and the implications – both short and long term – on personal health, and the very real risk of death.

But the point remains the same: whatever reason people have for arriving at their anti-vax stance, we now know that attempts to cajole, educate, beg, or even bribe them with a chance at lotto millions are over. They don’t work. We all know Einstein’s rule that insanity is to keep doing the same things over and over and expecting a different result.

It is time to stop trying to convince people to take a vaccine that they are dead set against. Yes, Joe, it is time for mandates, and let’s push them as hard and as far as we can.

But even with mandates, we are failing to employ a critical weapon, which is to create very real consequences for the decision anti-vaxxers have made.

You see, part of the problem is that anti-vaxxers have had to face precious little by way of consequence for their stance.

Wow, Mr. or Ms. Anti-Vaxxer -- you don’t get to eat inside the restaurant! Big deal -- eat outside. You say that A-Vs can’t work at your company without a vaccine? Fine, they’ll go elsewhere and get one of the millions of jobs that is going begging, or just go on unemployment until this supposed pandemic blows over. No one is stopping any unvaccinated people from shopping next to you, breathing on you, sneezing on you, and grabbing the door handle in front of you at the CVS. You have absolutely no idea whether the person on line two feet behind you at the DMV is vaccinated.

But here is what should really steam us: if an anti-vaxxer actually does get Covid, no one is stopping that person from calling 911, breathing all over the first responders who come to their house to save them, and no one is stopping them from going to the hospital for expert care from medical professionals who are risking their own lives to save theirs.

Most outrageous: no one is stopping that person from tying up an ICU bed that is desperately needed by the person waiting to have open heart surgery, which cannot be scheduled unless it is certain that an ICU bed will be available for the recovery. Or an ICU bed that is urgently needed by someone who is in the hospital emergency room because of a grave, life threatening situation that was not the result of personal choice. The anti-vaxxer is in the ICU because of a choice they made. The victim of a heart attack, a traffic accident, a stroke, or a ten-year old’s horrific lawnmower disaster did not have the nearly certain option to avoid it. 

In America today, the anti-vaxxer gets to make an incredibly self-involved decision with absolutely no consequence … no trade-off, no nothing.

It’s time that we stop allowing refusing vaccination to be a decision with no consequence. 

The search for intelligent life in the United States brings us to Delta Airlines,a company that decided to add a $200 per month health insurance surcharge to employees who are not vaccinated. Brilliant! If you choose to create more risk for yourself, you should bear the expense! Delta has created real, difficult, tough consequences for anti-vaxxers. 

We need more consequences. Here's how we do it.

Let’s start by making unvaccinated people who contract Covid 19 go to the back of the line for urgent medical care.

Let’s require that a certain percentage of ICU beds in every publicly funded hospital in America be reserved for patients of trauma who are not in need of an ICU bed because they elected not to be vaccinated.

If you show up at a hospital with Covid and without proof of vaccination, you do not get to clog up every single bed in the ICU.  Some of you have to wait, so that there are beds available for people who are not there because of a freely elected choice.

And yeah, if you begin to choke and die waiting for that bed, who’s choice was that, really? The hospital’s? The government’s? No… it is time you come to grips with the fact that that choice was yours, entirely.

Why not take it further? If you don’t get vaccinated and you contract Covid, should you be automatically allowed to get treatment in a publicly funded hospital ICU?

Quite apart from the grave and needless risk you are imposing on medical professionals, and quite separate from possibly stealing an ICU bed from someone who didn’t have a choice, there is the matter that the rest of us are paying through the nose for your self-indulgence.

Our tax dollars helped fund the research that led to the vaccines… the vaccines that would have kept anti-vaxxers out of the ICU in the first place. Our tax dollars helped pay for the manufacture and distribution of the vaccine you opted not to take. Our tax dollars paid for a massive information program about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine that you chose to ignore. And we are now helping defer the cost of your ICU bed, because our insurance premiums will be raised to cover the medical cost of treating unvaccinated people in an ICU.

Wait -- it gets worse. We are all paying for your self-indulgence in the compromised education of our children, in our foundering economy, and in endless, needless constrictions to our right to live normal lives. What price do we put on that?

To be clear: if you get a “breakthrough” case of Covid – the cases that are occurring among the people who were vaccinated – none of this applies. Show your vaccine card at the emergency room and, if need be, go straight to the ICU. This policy only applies to people who chose to not be vaccinated, and now believe they are entitled to the full muscle of our medical resources to save them now that they are dying.

What, you say? Wouldn’t this idea be abhorrent to medical providers?

Well, let’s start by saying that a key reason to implement this as government and hospital policy is so that every ICU decision is not forced on a doctor who is simply trying to triage in a hospital overrun by unvaccinated Covid patients. Doctors are trained to give the best possible medical attention to all, regardless of circumstance or culpability. By making it hospital policy to cordon off a percentage of ICU beds, the doctors are relieved of a brutal decision that will likely prioritize the dying Covid patient over the person requiring planned surgery that is not deemed a life or death matter.

I suspect that virtually every doctor, medical provider, and first responder would tell you that they were more than willing to spend a year in grave danger, selflessly devoting themselves to the care of people who were sick and dying through no fault of their own. That’s what these good people signed up for, train for, and give of themselves selflessly for.

But now?

Yes, anti-vaxxer, have a really candid conversation with a medical professional today. I bet they are grinding their teeth as they recite the Hippocratic Oath. They didn’t spend eight years of their lives studying their brains out, working 72 hour shifts, and missing any semblance of social life so that some recklessly irresponsible, hopelessly self-involved, and willfully ignorant jerk can casually put their life at risk.

Sure, every doctor in America deals with patients who make bad decisions. They deal with it as their patients fail to lose the weight, forget to take the pills, refuse to quit the booze, and never get to the gym.

But that is different. A doctor’s own life is generally not put in jeopardy when his patient makes a foolish, selfish decision.

I would love to see real data on how doctors feel about treating unvaccinated people who contract Covid. I wonder if doctors are tired of putting themselves and their own families at grave risk so that people who do not believe in science have the opportunity to demand that science be at their beck and call in their moment of need.

Believe me: I am as ardent as anyone in my belief in the right of personal choice. But only in the right of choice that comes with acceptance of responsibility for those choices.

Yes, anti-vaxxers, if you are so certain of your view, are you really willing to accept the consequences?

As with so many issues in our country today, it is the hypocrisy that leaves us as dumbfounded as we are disgusted.

Anti-vaxxers are quick to invoke their country, claiming that it gives them the right to make decisions without government interference… all while failing to see any obligation to make decisions based in some measure on what is good for that country.

Anti-vaxxers decry the science of vaccination, but when they fall ill, they suddenly turn desperately to science as they hope it will save them. 

And, of course, there are the Republican leaders who are screaming bloody murder about the "government over-reach" of vaccine mandates, and yet you just know that if Trump said mandates were a good idea, they would all fold faster than origami rather than be seen as disloyal to the big orange gas bag.

I would have more respect for anti-vaxxers if they stood up and promised that they would not seek medical assistance if they contract Covid.

That would be having the courage of your convictions.

But that’s problem, isn’t it?

Anti-vaxxers have plenty of conviction, but they expect the doctors to have all the courage.



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Thursday, September 2, 2021

BTRTN: Is the Biden Afghanistan Bashing Overdone?

Tom with the BTRTN August 2021 Month in Review.

Perhaps nothing has signaled the return to normalcy so much in the Biden presidency as the reaction to the Afghanistan exit fiasco.  From the bipartisan excoriation of his Administration’s handling of the pullout, to the gleeful ranting from the mainstream media, we could have been back in the 20th century, when presidents were held accountable when things went south.


But while Biden certainly deserves critiques for the chaos of the exit, the intensity of the overall reaction was almost certainly overstated.  Biden made the right decision to finally withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and having made that decision, he was doomed to suffer though an unpopular endgame, because there was no easy exit solution  -- that was the problem all along.  And for all the savage criticism he has received for the bungled exit, the actual impact on his approval rating has been rather modest, certainly by historical standards.

To briefly review the bidding…President George W. Bush declared war in Afghanistan in October, 2001, in the aftermath of 9/11, when the Taliban was aiding and harboring Al-Qaeda, the terrorist group that carried out the attacks.  This was a popular move, and Bush vowed to track down Osama bin Laden.  At this he failed, allowing Bin Laden to slip away and hide out in Tora Bora.  Bush soon distracted himself with the War on Iraq, a war of vengeance (for the Gulf War and threats to his father) that relied on extremely faulty intelligence involving links between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, and the secret development of weapons of mass destruction by Iraq.  Neither claim carried a shred of truth.  Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan proved to be the very definition of “quagmire,” much like Vietnam in the 1960’s and 1970’s, with the war dragging on endlessly.


Bush had aggressively engaged in a “nation building” effort to create a modern Afghan state, protected by a well-equipped Afghan military capability with the will required to protect the country from a Taliban resurgence.  But, in time, it became clear, given continued fighting with an ongoing Taliban insurgency, this fantasy could only work with a deep, sustained U.S. military presence, one that Americans had little appetite to support, particularly after the killing of Osama bin Laden under the Obama Administration.  In time, over 2,500 U.S. troops were killed in the war.  The troop commitment waxed and waned under Bush and Obama, neither of whom saw a viable way to exit without Afghanistan returning to its former status as a breeding ground for terrorists.  During the war, under the propped-up Afghan government, there were significant advances in Afghan society, including more rights for women and far better public education.  And the Afghan army was trained and equipped by the U.S. and NATO allies, who fought alongside them.


But President Trump viewed an exit from Afghanistan as consistent with his "America First" foreign policy, and in April, 2020, he negotiated a U.S./NATO withdrawal with the Taliban, which essentially traded the U.S. exit on May 1, 2021, for no more killing of U.S. soldiers.  There was lip service to the requirement that the Taliban would ensure that Al Qaeda would not be supported on Afghan soil, but there were no material enforcement provisions.  Biden, long wary of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, chose to honor the deal upon his election, but pushed the departure date back to August 31.


Biden thus tacitly accepted all the downsides that would accompany the exit, since, as Bush and Obama had long ago concluded, there was no good withdrawal option.  The Taliban was widely expected to re-take the country after the U.S. and NATO were gone, the only question was how quickly.  Had Biden decided to evacuate all U.S. citizens before the military, he would have been widely seen as washing his hands of the matter, infuriating our Afghan partners, and demoralizing the Afghan military.  Biden’s true mistake was in failing to consider the old maxim, “hope for the best, plan for the worst.”  The optimistic operating assumption was that the Taliban would take a while to overthrow the state, perhaps 18 months, and in that time a more orderly (and under the radar) civilian exit might be possible.


Biden openly telegraphed the expectation of a slow Taliban takeover to the world, stating in early July, “There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of a embassy…of the United States from Afghanistan.”  This complete miscalculation – and his uneven initial performance as the crisis unfolded -- was a political disaster for Biden, undercutting a number of core strengths on which he was elected:  his deep experience, his foreign policy chops, his competence and even his empathy, which was, at first, notably subordinated to his intense frustration.


Biden and his team then righted itself and focused admirably on the withdrawal, and the kudos they began to receive for the massive and brilliantly executed airlift of over 120,000 Americans in a matter of days were well-earned.  Had it ended there, Biden might have easily rode out the criticism.  However, in the waning days of the airlift, an ISIS-K suicide bomber infiltrated the chaotic scene outside of Hamid Karzai International Airport, and the blast killed at least 170 civilians and 13 members of the U.S. military. 


This last blow, coupled with the inability to rescue every single America left in Afghanistan (a few hundred, at least, remain) as well as tens of thousands of Afghan allies who also want to leave, ensured a major ongoing U.S. stake in the region.  In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, Biden vowed to find and kill the ISIS-K terrorists (“we will hunt you down and make you pay.”), and drone attacks on ISIS-K and diplomatic efforts to extract those remaining were already underway.  Add to this the issues associated with welcoming Afghans who escaped into America and other Western nations, and the potential for terrorist activity emanating from Afghan soil, and it is clear that Biden will enjoy no clean break from our 20-year misadventure.


Throughout all of this, Democrats and Republicans alike castigated the Biden Administration, which was buffeted by wretched optics of Afghan would-be escapees falling off of rescue planes, babies being handed over airport walls and thousands milling around the airport perimeter, desperate for passage.  CNN and The New York Times seemed to take special delight in bashing Biden, eager for a post-Trump opportunity to provide 24-hour coverage of the missteps, and also to bend over backwards to demonstrate their non-partisan chops.


Lost in the Biden reprisals were the roles Bush and Dick Cheney played in instigating the senseless war in Iraq and stoking U.S. hatred to epic levels in the region, as well as Trump’s own abandonment of the Kurds, his even more accelerated exit timetable (May 1) and his cozying up to the Saudi’s, whose track record on women’s rights were nearly as appalling as the Taliban’s.  Not to mention countless other indignities Trump inflicted that diminished our standing in the world -- including sucking up to dictators and excoriating NATO – that certainly overwhelm this Biden misfire.

Biden took intense heat for his initial statements on the withdrawal.  His August 16 speech was vilified by CNN's Jake Tapper, who stated that "The President claimed the buck stopped with him but then proceeded to blame everyone else."  Biden had in fact pointed out that the Afghan military had not put up any fight at all and that the Trump Administration had negotiated a poor deal.  Somehow this was seen as being ungracious, even though both statements were, in fact, completely relevant and true.  The point here is not that Biden should escape blame entirely, but rather that the critiques were overblown and only partially deserved.


For his part, Biden borrowed a page from Trump in adopting a defiant, fiery and unapologetic posture in defending the exit, claiming that it was “the right decision for America” – and that the laying down of arms by the Afghan army proved that the American presence was pointless.  He defended the August 31 timetable for the exit and his unwillingness to extend it, saying that it was not arbitrary, and instead was predicated on saving American lives.  He also termed the evacuation effort as a “success.”  These statements are also true.


What is the true cost to Biden politically?  Time will tell, but in the short term Biden lost a mere three points in his approval rating in August (versus July), despite the daily headlines and miserable optics.  That is hardly a crisis.  Under Barack Obama, approval ratings flattened compared to those of his predecessors, as the country polarized, and the worst he suffered were a few four-point drops in a month.  Trump, who never seemed to be held accountable for his personal war on democracy, integrity and decency, never dropped more than three points in a month, which he did three times, once in May 2017 (the month he fired FBI Director James Comey), June 2020 (when the first COVID re-openings spun out of control) and in his infamous final month, January 2021, which included, of course, the January 6 insurrection.  The Biden drop is in line with these declines, and started from a higher level than Trump's.


None of which is to say that the impact to Biden was minimal.  Losing three points in this era is indeed a blow, especially when those points have dropped him “underwater”, that is, below 50%, for the first time.  Some swing state members of Congress up for reelection in 2022 have begun to distance themselves from Biden, at least on Afghanistan, with gusto.  Nevertheless, with a disapproval rating of 45%, he is still net positive (+3) – something Trump never achieved -- and in position to recover if he is successful on his two biggest priorities, COVID and his ambitious economic/legislative agenda, which is focused primarily on his two infrastructure bills.  Biden is also essentially playing a long game on Afghanistan, betting that Americans will remember the decision to exit, one they support on a bipartisan basis, and in time forget the reality (and the optics) of the messy exit.


The news on COVID for the month was not terribly good, as new cases more than tripled (from 1.1 million to 3.6 million), as did deaths (from roughly 9,000 to 27,000).  The percentages of fully vaccinated Americans only rose from 49.6% to 52.4% in the month, although the number of fully vaccinated Americans numbered 8 million in August, slightly ahead of the 7 million that became fully vaccinated in July.  Biden needs that figure to continue to grow, and it might, given a new set of incentives, including a  rising death toll, a greater percentage of new cases among children, the full FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine, and the increasing number of corporate and governmental vaccine mandates.


The economy continues to perform very well on the Biden watch, with unemployment dropping to 5.4%, second quarter GDP growing at 6.6%, and the Dow topping 35,000.  Biden’s path to reelection will continue to ride the twin rails of peace and prosperity.  To that end, Biden badly needs his infrastructure agenda to be passed in Congress.  That is clearly both the big win he needs to change the narrative of an Administration that has seen its approval rating steadily decline since the Inaugural, as well as the fiscal stimulus he needs to be the economy growing at a rapid pace. 


And on this front, Biden needs only to count on Democrats from here on in.  The Senate passed the $1 trillion “hard” infrastructure bill with 19 GOP Senators supporting it, and pass the $3.5 trillion budget plan required for a reconciliation vote on the “soft” infrastructure bill, scheduled for a fall vote, along party lines.  Nancy Pelosi then herded the cats to do the same, quelling a mini-revolt by a group of previously meek moderate Democrats, called the “Mod Squad.”


This sets up the potential for a fall comeback by Biden.  Keeping the Democrats together on the final “soft” bill will be a difficult challenge for Biden, Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, but it has literally become too big to fail for the Biden Administration.  It has also gotten too far, under the leadership of Chuck Schumer and Pelosi, for any Democrat to lightly oppose it.  This drama will begin unfolding soon, and the midterms, at the very least, will ride, at least in significant measure, on the outcome.




Joe Biden’s approval rating dropped 3 points in July versus August (it appears to be -4 points due to rounding, but the actual change is -3.4).  His net positive fell to +3.  Trump achieved neither the 48%level nor a net positive any month in his four years in office.


Biden showed slippage across every issue in the last months, dropping by 3-5 points across each.  He is still substantially outperforming Trump’s ratings at the time he left office on all measures except his handling of the economy, Trump’s strongest issue.     

While the “right track” measure has fallen a few notches, it remains far higher than where Trump left it in January, increasing from 20% to 34% under Biden.


The “Bidenometer” remained virtually unchanged in August, moving from +65 in July to +64.  A significant drop in the unemployment rate was offset by a decline in consumer confidence, while the other measures were virtually unchanged. 

As a reminder, this measure is designed to provide an objective answer to the legendary economically-driven question at the heart of the 1980 Reagan campaign:  “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  We reset the Bidenometer at this Inaugural to zero, so that we better demonstrate whether the economy performs better (a positive number) or worse (a negative number) under Biden than what he inherited from the Trump Administration.

With a Bidenometer of +64, the economy is clearly performing much better under Biden compared to its condition when Trump left office.

This exclusive BTRTN measure is comprised of five indicative data points:  the unemployment rate, Consumer Confidence, the price of gasoline, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average and the U.S. GDP.  The measure is calculated by averaging the percentage change in each measure from the inaugural to the present time.

Using January 20, 2021 as a baseline measure of zero, you can see from the chart below that under Clinton the measure ended at +55.  It declined from +55 to only +8 under Bush, who presided over the Great Recession at the end of his term, then rose from +8 to +33 under Obama’s recovery.  Under Trump, it fell again, from +33 to 0, driven by the shock of COVID-19 and Trump’s mismanagement of it.  Now we have seen it move upward to +64 under Biden.

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Notes on methodology:

BTRTN calculates our monthly approval ratings using an average of the four pollsters who conduct daily or weekly approval rating polls: Gallup Rasmussen, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist. This provides consistent and accurate trending information and does not muddy the waters by including infrequent pollsters.  The outcome tends to mirror the RCP average but, we believe, our method gives more precise trending.

For the generic ballot (which is not polled in this post-election time period), we take an average of the only two pollsters who conduct weekly generic ballot polls, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist, again for trending consistency.

The Trumpometer aggregates a set of economic indicators and compares the resulting index to that same set of aggregated indicators at the time of the Biden Inaugural on January 20, 2021, on an average percentage change basis. The basic idea is to demonstrate whether the country is better off economically now versus when Trump took office.  The indicators are the unemployment rate, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, the Consumer Confidence Index, the price of gasoline and the GDP.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

BTRTN: Can't Understand DeSantis and Abbott? Permanent Covid is Good for Republicans

The recent actions of the Republican governors of Florida and Texas are nothing short of stupefying. As the Delta variant rages in their states, Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott are aggressively taking stands against masking and vaccine mandates. Steve thinks there is an obvious explanation for their incongruous stances.


The latest convo topic on the bi-monthly college buddy Zoom cocktail hour is “Permanent Covid:” the growing belief that there will never be an “end” to Covid, and that our lives – and those of our children and grandchildren -- are destined to be permanently afflicted and constricted by a virus that will never go away.

One theory is that “Permanent Covid” will essentially lock in conditions, behaviors, and practices as they are settling in today. States that currently enjoy high vaccination rates will continue to be safer, and yet ironically more prudent.  Guided by science, these generally Blue states will continue to periodically re-impose masking and social distancing protocols to contain the virus during periods of increased risk. In Blue America, the pandemic will be managed much like a chronic illness is in an individual organism… through medication, behavioral modification, and vigilance.  

Meanwhile, the states that have low vaccination rates may benefit to a small degree from warmer climates, but will generally continue to voluntarily opt for higher rates of transmission rates, hospitalization, and death rather than take the steps necessary to contain the virus.

The refusal of the major population blocks in these states to submit to vaccination could create a breeding ground for an endless flow of variants, with some proving to be ever more virulent and contagious than the last.

Unless travel is restricted between states – a step that should now be seriously considered -- the failure to control the virus in the low vaccination areas will effectively cement a state of “Permanent Covid” for the entire nation. Of course, the nation must simultaneously ramp up efforts to contain Covid on a global basis, or risk Permanent Covid resulting from the spread of variants rising in low-vaccination countries.

There is no mystery about where the opposition to vaccination in the United States is concentrated: all you have to do is look at the most current data on Covid cases. The American South represents 34% of the U.S. population, but a whopping 56% of the weekly Covid cases. Sure, look at the vaccination rates by states, too – as we did in a recent post – as you will see that all the Southern states lag the U.S. average in vaccination.

                % Weekly Cases             % Pop        % Case/ Pop

West                 20                                24                    86

Midwest            14                                22                    65

South                56                                34                  162

Northeast           9                                 19                    48

Pick the data apart further, and you find a literally sickening statistic. Simply rank, top to bottom, the percentage of weekly Covid cases in the states that have a higher percentage of Covid cases than percentage of population. You see a national x-ray revealing the deep dark splotches of metastasized rejection of science. You see the Deep South.

                % Weekly Cases             % Pop        % Case/ Pop

Florida                18.1                               6.5                    278

Texas                   9.9                                8.7                    114  

Georgia                3.9                               3.2                    122

Tennessee           3.7                               2.1                     176

North Carolina     3.5                               3.2                     109

Louisiana             3.1                               1.4                     221

Alabama              3.0                               1.5                     200

Mississippi          2.9                                0.9                     322

Arizona               2.3                                2.2                     105

South Carolina    2.2                                1.6                    138

Oklahoma           1.8                                1.2                    150


You would think, of course – and hope and pray, while you are at it – that those states are doing everything in their power to control the killing wave that is surging through their populations.

They are not. They are doing pretty much the opposite.

The governors of Florida and Texas are waging war against mask mandates, haughtily dismissing the notion that an individual local school board has the right to implement a mask mandate as a means of mitigating transmission risk in their local school system.

Read the full text of DeSantis’s July 30 “Executive Order Ensuring Parents’ Freedom To Choose,” which contains these justifications for banning any school district from implementing a mask mandate:

WHEREAS, masking children may lead to negative health and societal ramifications; and, WHEREAS, studies have shown that children are at a low risk of contracting a serious illness due to COVID-19 and do not play a significant role in the spread of the virus; and WHEREAS, forcing children to wear masks could inhibit breathing, lead to the collection of dangerous impurities including bacteria, parasites, fungi, and other contaminants, and adversely affect communications in the classroom and student performance…”

This proclamation would seem to place DeSantis at the head of an odd “virus freedom” movement designed to ensure the right of the coronavirus is spread as widely and rapidly as possible, unfettered by government or scientific interference. Nowhere to be found in the Executive Order is a “WHEREAS” that mentions that children can and very much do get infected with this deadly virus, can and do bring it home, and can and do spread it to parents, grandparents, and adults who with compromised health conditions. On Friday, DeSantis upped the ante, pushing a plan to actually withhold state educational funds from municipalities that implemented mask mandates in their local schools.

Further evidencing his perversely political view of his own state’s precarious Covid situation, DeSantis recently directed this decidedly weird equivalency at Joe Biden:

“Why don’t you do your job, why don’t you get this border secure and until you do that, I don’t want to hear a blip about COVID from you,” the governor fired at Biden on August 3. What was his point? That immigration is a greater crisis than a pandemic that has killed over 600,000 Americans? Or – huh? -- that immigration was causing the rampant spread of Covid in Florida? Perhaps Ron DeSantis has access to Donald Trump’s map-altering Sharpie, but Florida is bordered by two U.S. States, an ocean, and a gulf of denial. Immigration – illegal or not – is not the explanation for why Florida has 18% of our nation’s Covid cases but only 6.5% of the population.

In a monument to hypocrisy, DeSantis appeared unaware that at the exact time he was declaring that he “did not want to hear a blip about COVID” from Biden, his own state had requested 200 ventilators from the Federal government. It’s fun to watch the video of DeSantis as he is first made aware of this fact by a reporter. DeSantis bears more than a casual physical resemblance to Fred Flintstone, and his hubada hubada response to the reporter’s question really makes you wonder if Florida is led by the patriarch of a modern stone age family.

Then there is the hypocrisy of DeSantis vigorously arguing that Federal policy and guidelines are not relevant or even welcome given some assertion of the unique conditions in Florida, while simultaneously issuing state edicts commanding that local municipalities have no right to determine their own local policies. Centralized policy and practice is apparently only ok if it is centralized under DeSantis’s command.

Hey, Ron, fine -- maybe all municipalities in Florida should be governed by a single policy on masking… you picked the wrong one! State policy should be to allow every municipality to institute a mask mandate if they believe that their local hospital ICUs are at the breaking point.  

Why, you ask, are the governors of Texas and Florida using their bully pulpits to bully doctors and scientists rather that fight a raging pandemic?

Sadly, it is becoming clear that Permanent Covid is very good politics for Republicans, who apparently see a lot of upside to a raging pandemic that preys most upon the poorest among us. It happens that the governors of Texas and Florida are two hyper-ambitious politicians who are eying 2024 and know that the path to the Republican nomination passes directly through Trump’s base. Permanent Covid is one key to successfully navigating that path.

There are five reasons why the Republican Party may believe that it benefits from the continuation of a horrendous pandemic that could be beaten if the Republicans actually wanted to.

1. Simply put, a permanent pandemic is bad for Joe Biden… and therefore good for Republicans.

In Joe Biden’s first six months in office, he was able to gear up production and distribution of the Covid vaccines far more rapidly than anyone had expected. As the nation rapidly signed up and lined up for the vaccines, Biden’s approval ratings were strong… particularly relative to Trump’s handling of the pandemic.

Biden now refers to Covid 19 as the “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” which is essentially labeling it the “pandemic of the Red States.” But it doesn’t matter if Republicans are largely responsible for protracting the pandemic…the failure to end the pandemic will have happened on Biden’s watch.

So Republicans may be making a simple calculation: the longer the pandemic rages, the more trouble it causes for Biden… the better the Republican chances in the mid-terms and in 2024.

2. The Delta variant will seriously erode economic recovery.

This is simply the economic implication of point #1. The upside is obvious: the more we eradicate Covid, the more the economy will roar back to life. A vital economy makes Joe Biden look good. The Republicans watched as the economy took off in the first months of the Biden administration, as businesses and investors throttled up in anticipation of a return to normalcy.

Republicans know that the health of the economy almost always is the most important factor voters use when casting ballots. Republicans can’t let Biden have a vibrant economy if they want to take back Congress and the White House.

So the health of the economy is another good reason for Republicans to fight masking and vaccine mandates… the more Delta roars, the worse the economy fares, and the harder it becomes for Democrats to retain Congress and the White House.

Moreover, it doesn’t take much to predict how the Republicans play this particular game of “heads I win, tails, you lose.” Just watch DeSantis in the coming months. If the economic recovery stalls, he will blame Biden and the Federal government's Covid restrictions -- not the virus itself -- as the reason for economic malaise. 

Of course, if the economy remains in an upward trajectory, he will ascribe success to the policies of Southern governors who removed all the Covid restrictions on the theory that their economies would thrive. 

3.  Donald Trump has actually found a way to link Permanent Covid to the “Big Lie,” and support his assertion that Joe Biden’s Presidency is not legitimate.

Just weeks ago, on July 18, Trump declared that “Joe Biden kept talking about how good of a job he's doing on the distribution of the vaccine that was developed by Operation Warp Speed or, quite simply, the Trump Administration. He's not doing well at all. He's way behind schedule, and people are refusing to take the vaccine because they don't trust his administration, they don't trust the election results, and they certainly don't trust the fake news, which is refusing to tell the truth."

Wow. According to Trump, the low rate of vaccination in the South is somehow further "proof" that the election was rigged. With this mind-blowing assertion, Trump can support three different politically advantageous narratives at once: (1) he grabs all the credit for developing the vaccine, (2) he claims that the failure of Southerners to take the vaccine is because they don’t believe Biden is the legitimate President of the United States, (3) he therefore can blame Permanent Covid on Biden.

Trump has been trying to play both sides of the vaccine war for a year, taking full credit for its development, while and now offering this looney explanation to justify the behavior of the anti-vaxxers in his base. His double talk is wearing thin: on Saturday, August 23, Trump urged the crowd at an Alabama rally to “take the vaccines,” and he was booed. That embarrassing video careened around the internet for a news cycle. Think Trump will ever again encourage his supporters to get vaccinated? He'd rather stick with permanent Covid than risk another humiliation like that.

4. Republicans care more about their messaging than about the health of their own voters.

Some readers will say that the thesis of this article is flawed, as intentionally protracting Covid in Red States would inevitably lead to more disease and death among Republicans than Democrats, right? Indeed, in private conversations, one hears a disbelieving, stunned amazement – “don’t these Republican governors realize that they are killing their own voters? Won’t Southerners realize that their governors are recklessly creating circumstances that will lead to the needless deaths of their daughters, sons, moms, dads, grandparents, and young children?”

Who would do that?

Well, Ron DeSantis would. Think about it.

I suspect that Ron DeSantis thinks that the decline in the number of Republican voters due to Covid deaths is not going to make as big a difference in the outcome of most elections in the South… and certainly not as much impact as his spirited anti-Washington, anti-Biden, antebellum rhetoric will help his cause.

But we actually needn’t go there. DeSantis is hedging his bets.  He steered Covid vaccines to his rich Republican buddies, creating a distribution strategy for the vaccines that made it more rapidly available and accessible to his Republican donors than to poorer sections of Florida that would lean Democratic. DeSantis was accused of setting up “pop up vaccination sites” in retirement communities that housed the donor class, essentially directing then-limited vaccine supplies to the well-to-do whites that he counts on for contributions.

So DeSantis is making sure that his Republican cronies get the vaccine first… and then attempts to shut down masking mandates intended to protect the less fortunate citizens.

5. By far the most important: in the coronavirus pandemic, the Republicans have found the perfect vessel for the ultimate culture war.

What we witness today in the “Covid-19 culture wars” are simply wildly different – and in some cases, dangerously foolish -- definitions of “freedom.”

Southern Republicans have somehow come to believe that the “freedom” they are guaranteed in the Constitution is freedom from government. Somehow, they have accomplished the pretzel of logic that the very government to which they pledge allegiance is promising them freedom from any limit to that freedom imposed by that very government.

Yes, our Constitution has a Bill of Rights, which secures important individual protections from interference by government. But to hear the braying south of the Mason Dixon line today, you’d think that the only purpose of the Constitution is to allow individuals to do whatever they damn please. Somehow, southerners have come to believe that it is their inalienable right to freely exhale a deadly virus into the faces of fellow citizens, and think that a requirement to wear a mask to reduce the risk of such a transmission is a violation of their freedom.

This view of freedom – now championed by the governor of Florida -- is a shallow, sophomoric, and immature definition.

A broader and more measured grasp of “freedom” is to realize that the freedoms in our Constitution are not merely preservation of individual rights from government, but our obligation as citizens to preserve the collective freedom of self-government. We are defending our nation from its enemies, foreign and domestic, who would steal that freedom.  

In contrast to the Southern Republican definition of freedom, Democrats seem to understand that we occasionally must accept that our individual freedoms are curtailed for the common good. Yes, the government is allowed to curtail individual freedom for the good of the society. You are not allowed to go to a bar, get sloppy drunk, run your car into the other lane and kill a pregnant woman and her baby. Want your kid to go to school? Yes, there are required vaccines. Is Adolf Hitler threatening to attack New York City? Yep, the U.S. government is going to put a gun in your hand and tell you to kill people.

Now please... tell me again about your belief that your government has no right to curtail your individual freedom in order to achieve a greater good and protect our collective freedom?

The government isn’t always right. Hey, if you didn’t agree with the war in Vietnam, you didn’t have to fight in it. You could try to secure a “conscientious objector” deferment, you could make a stand for civil disobedience and opt for jail time rather than military service, or you could – as many young men did – leave the country and seek asylum in Canada.

But you don’t get to say, “I want to enjoy all the benefits of citizenship in the United States of America but I don’t accept the requirements of that citizenship.”

Fortunately for Ron DeSantis, Republicans in the South don’t seem to think that hard, and prefer the sophomoric notion that freedom is just another word for nothing you must lose. Down South, freedom means my kid can bring his asymptomatic Covid-19 into your kid’s classroom, infect you, the teacher’s aging parent, and maybe even kill the neighbor’s ten-year-old as part of the package.

It’s horrendous, but boy oh boy, does Covid-19 provide the Republicans with Red State red meat talking points.

Being required by the government to take a vaccine? The government forcing my kid to wear a mask? The government trying to tell me that I must stand six feet away from the lady in front of me in the line at CVS?  Who the hell do these crazy radical commies think they are?

If this nation were to get the coronavirus under control, the Republicans would lose one of the most important and emotional culture war talking points they have in their arsenal. And if the coronavirus were to be tamed by a Democratic administration, that would be an electoral disaster.

Ron DeSantis wants to run for President in 2024, and he needs Donald Trump’s base to accomplish that. So fighting the culture war is far, far, far more important to him than dealing with the fact that Florida has 18% of our nation’s Covid cases but only 6.5% of the population.

And, yeah… that does mean that Florida will have three times the death rate as the rest of the country just so that Ron can preserve his talking points.

Some people will read this post and accuse me of an incalculable cynicism, accusing me of implying that Republicans allow Americans to die needlessly in order to achieve political objectives.

I most certainly am not implying that.

I am saying that, out loud, unambiguously, and emphatically.

That is exactly what Donald Trump did in his final year of the Presidency.

Donald Trump pretended that the virus was not dangerous, would magically disappear, and could be treated at home by ingesting bleach, all so that Americans would not listen to the scientists and doctors who were urging lockdowns, masks, and social distancing. Trump was desperately hoping that by minimizing the pandemic, there would be less disruption to the economy, which he viewed to be the key to his re-election.The result? Hundreds of thousands of Americans died needlessly, all sacrificed by Trump to better his chances of re-election.

Yes, I am accusing Republicans – then Trump, now DeSantis and Abbott -- of allowing Americans to die needlessly in order to achieve personal political objectives.

I am not the cynic here. The unfathomable cynic in this story is Ron DeSantis. You see, he is far from a stupid person. Tough-talking man-of-the-people Ron DeSantis went to Yale undergrad and Harvard Law. He knows full well the true meaning of “freedom” in a democracy, but he is shamelessly parroting the dumbed down, sophomoric, and utterly selfish notion that “freedom” means “freedom from government” so that he can stroke Trump’s base into a lather. 

Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott are just acting on Trump’s playbook.

The truth is that America is not fighting the coronavirus. We are fighting over it. The Republicans know that we could wrangle it to submission in months if we achieved national vaccination rates in the 75% range, and adhered to sensible masking and social distancing until vaccination rates are achieved and herd immunity is realized.

And then, yes, we would then have to turn our attention to helping the world’s nearly 8 billion people achieve the same level of safety and protection. In a nation -- and a world -- of bigotry, prejudice, and tribalism, the coronavirus alone seems to truly see no differences between all human beings. Preventing Permanent Covid in the United States is just a small step toward fending off Global Permanent Covid.

But good luck even achieving herd immunity simply in the United States if it is not really what Republicans want.

And that, friends, is one too many ironies in the fire.

You see, the only reason that Republicans claim to believe in “freedom from government” is so they can get back in control of it.


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