Friday, April 17, 2020

And More Plague Thoughts. Or On The Politics of The Current Pandemic.

A. I see the law of the hammer ("I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.") in action in the way the current pandemic is treated in various political contexts (1).

Those who have always been activists of a specific type still try to do that activism (a hammerer looking for nails to hammer) even when the current problems don't fit into that framework.  Creepy-crawlies floating in the air can't easily be hammered down, but if all you have is a hammer, well, you are going to try.

This is easy to relate to.  We have all been yanked out from what we used to regard as "the way things are," into a new and somewhat frightening reality.  Reflex actions and old learned reactions will happen under those circumstances, even if they don't make that much sense.  We all have our favorite tools for understanding the world and for trying to influence it.  We also all have our favorite causes, and it can be tough to see that others currently pay no attention to them or what we say about them.  We then hammer even more.

Do not confuse what Our Supreme Leader is doing with just the law of the hammer.  Or at least do not think that he might, with time, learn to appreciate the seriousness of the situation.  He will not, because it's not just that all he has is a hammer:  He Is The Hammer.

That seemed like a good sentence at first but of course it's pure crap, and an example of my own hammering tendencies (2).

Trump is not a hammer but an extreme narcissist.  Because of that, he runs the pandemic in ways which protects his ego from all real and imaginary attacks (see this post for more).  He doesn't care about any other aspect of the pandemic. 

As part of that protection strategy, he starts several simultaneous games with the media and with various international organizations, all intended to take any blame away from him, and many intended to be so outrageous that the journalists will flock to play some alternative game to the one currently threatening Trump's ego (that he is incompetent).  His most recent alternative game is to cut payments to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The proper response to Trump's games has always been not to play them but to stick to the important questions about how he is dealing with the pandemic in this country.  And yes, that proper response is a hard one to stick to, given that this particular narcissist just might be the most powerful man in this world.

B.  Speaking of powerful men, an NYT briefing from ten days ago asked how the new global crop of populist right-wing dictators is coping with the pandemic (3).

That is a good question.  In theory, at least a benevolent dictator (should there ever be such a creature) should have all the powers needed to enforce quarantine orders, to allocate health care supplies properly to those areas needing them most and to create a testing plan which quickly gets the epidemic under control.

In practice a "benevolent dictator" might be an oxymoronic term (4). The new populist strongmen sound to me a lot like our own wannabe dictator, where many motives can best be traced back to narcissism.  One recent example comes from Brazil where the strongman dictator Jair Bolsonaro fired his health minister because the latter was far more popular than Bolsonaro himself.

C.  Returning to that law of the hammer, it is pretty easy to see that the Trump administration, and the Republicans in the Senate,  are still focusing on their real main task which is to build more and more pipelines to move the maximum amount of wealth into the back-pockets of the Rich Boyz.  Remember all those tax cuts?

Something similar is happening with the coronavirus relief package:

More than 80 percent of the benefits of a tax change tucked into the coronavirus relief package Congress passed last month will go to those who earn more than $1 million annually, according to a report by a nonpartisan congressional body expected to be released Tuesday.
The provision, inserted into the legislation by Senate Republicans, temporarily suspends a limitation on how much owners of businesses formed as “pass-through” entities can deduct against their nonbusiness income, such as capital gains, to reduce their tax liability. The limitation was created as part of the 2017 Republican tax law to offset other tax cuts to firms in that legislation.
Suspending the limitation will cost taxpayers about $90 billion in 2020 alone, part of a set of tax changes that will add close to $170 billion to the national deficit over the next 10 years, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT), the nonpartisan congressional body.
I don't get the Republican insistence on all this.  Any country with extremely skewed income and wealth distributions will be an unpleasant and dangerous place to live in, even for those who have money.  Why can't the Republicans be content with the current (already far too skewed) distributions?

I guess the answer is in short-term victories and short-term greed.

(1)  Both in official places and online. Twitter, Facebook, political blogs and so on are all demonstrating how difficult it is to suddenly shift one's focus.

(2)  Using my "elegant" sarcasm and my forked tongue and my "supreme" rationality (flaps eyelashes, looks down along the nose) to attack all sorts of crap in politics, including political tribalism, falsified data, lying and so on.  That hammer has long been useless as most other people are now equipped with nail guns which run on emotions, persuasion, shaming, greed and so on.  All those are more powerful in politics than the sort of stuff I used to do here.

(3)  For some reason the link didn't work for me today.  This is what it said:

In responding to the coronavirus pandemic, the world’s autocrats are turning to their tried-and-tested tool kits, employing a mixture of propaganda, repression and ostentatious shows of strength to exude an aura of total control over an inherently chaotic situation.
For Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, that meant deploying chemical warfare troops, clad in protective suits and armed with disinfectant, to the streets of Cairo, in a theatrical display of military muscle projected via social media.

Russia’s leader, Vladimir V. Putin, donned the plastic suit himself, in canary yellow, for a visit to a Moscow hospital for coronavirus patients. Then he dispatched to Italy 15 military planes filled with medical supplies and emblazoned with the slogan “From Russia with Love.”
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, a prodigious jailer of journalists, locked up a few reporters who criticized his early efforts to counter the virus, then sent a voice message to the phone of every citizen over 50, stressing that he had everything under control.
And in Turkmenistan, one of the world’s most repressive countries, where not a single infection has been officially declared, the president for life, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, promoted his book on medicinal plants as a possible solution to the pandemic.

(4)  Perhaps a hereditary ruler might in some rare cases qualify for that label?  I am not certain.

But those who come into power through some type of populist uprising tend not to be benevolent at all.  Indeed, several marks of narcissism appear to be common in the various strongmen rulers.  Also marks of misogyny, of course, but then a truly oppressive right-wing dictatorship cannot run without it.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Plague Thoughts

1.  The daily numbers about people dying from Covid-19 and about new cases found through testing are useful information, but when they are employed for international comparisons absolute numbers (counts) are not that informative.

That's because countries have quite different population sizes and because there are very few places where we have even an inkling of the TOTAL numbers of individuals who have had the virus, including those who had mild or asymptomatic cases.  Also, the level and type of testing which is done varies wildly.

I am not saying that we shouldn't also report the counts because they are crucial for making sure that the health care systems are prepared.  But relative counts are also needed.  For the most obvious example, the case casualty rate (mortality rate) depends on the total numbers of people who have been or are infected by the virus.  We don't know what those totals might be, except perhaps for countries like Iceland.

2.  Trying to get information on the etiology of Covid-19 is extremely difficult for everyone, even for the experts, because we are talking about a brand new virus.

There is no substitute for proper studies and doing those studies requires data which is not yet available. 

Until we get those studies my advice for us lay people is to take everything we read (about miracle cures or about abandoning all hope and so on) with a big pinch of salt (not real salt!) and to err on the side of caution in how we live our lives.

3.  I watched the Queen's Speech about this pandemic, even though I am not British, and it made me tear up a bit.  Mostly because she demonstrated moral leadership* only a day or two after Our Supreme Leader demonstrated its exact opposite in that face mask debacle:

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump announced new federal guidelines Friday recommending that Americans wear face coverings when in public to help fight the spread of the new coronavirus. The president immediately said he had no intention of following that advice himself, saying, “I'm choosing not to do it."

4.  Domestic violence rates are rising in many countries because of the policies encouraging or ordering people to stay at home.  The reasons for such increases are pretty obvious:  The pandemic causes extra stress, abusers use violence as a release valve for that stress, and the usual targets for that violence are conveniently nearby and unable to easily escape.

On the more positive side, several countries are aware of this extra risk and are working on solutions.

5. What do you do for your mental and emotional health under these very trying conditions?

I have upped my tai chi and qigong practice, baked Finnish cinnamon buns** and fixed a few things that annoyed me at Snakepit Inc, including a broken handrail in the staircase.  I even dragged out my old sewing machine (it's extremely old, bought used and I have had it for a long time) which I used to make lots of face masks and also several new throw pillows for the living-room.

Reading books which have nothing to do with today is also a good escape.  Or if you like to read something vaguely relevant, the Decameron*** might keep you busy for a few days.


*  Whatever your opinions of the monarchy and so on might be, you can't argue that Elizabeth doesn't know what her actual job is and I think she does it quite well.  Trump, on the other hand, cannot stop from centering himself in everything he utters.  Or does.  The latter is the more frightening part of him having all sorts of secret presidential powers.

**  Like cinnamon buns except also flavored with cardamom and, ideally,  with some nib sugar on top.  The way they scent up the whole house while in the oven is wonderful. 

***  I read it as a preteen for the first time (borrowed it from the local library not knowing what it was as I was going through the books methodically in alphabetical order).  It was exciting because of the sexual bits, but even at that age I knew that the sex wasn't described from the woman's point of view.

If you like to read something vaguely relevant but sad, Camus' The Plague might suit you.  I don't recommend it, to be honest, and neither do I recommend spending a lot of time on those online sites where the message is omygodweareallgonnadienow.

That's because protecting our mental health is also pretty important.