Risk Mitigation, Political Ineptitude, and the Failure of Public Health Policy

Various reactions to the coronavirus pandemic in mid-to-late May raise a disquieting thought: What if the logic model of public-health policymaking is structurally flawed? I don’t claim to have an answer or a solution, but I think the question requires meaningful discussion.

Let’s start the conversation by reviewing CDC guidance about preventing the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Then we’ll explore individual and social risk mitigation, followed by the long-term political risks of over-reliance on public health guidance.

Public Health Guidance: The Dirty Secret

Everyone’s heard the CDC guidelines for staying safe during the Coronapocalypse — 

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water or use a hand sanitizer of at least 60 percent alcohol before you touch your eyes, nose and mouth
  • Avoid close contact and practice “social distancing” of at least 6 feet
  • Wear a cloth mask at all times when you’re around others
  • Do not wear an N95 mask; that model should be reserved for healthcare workers only
  • Clean and disinfect frequently-touched surfaces daily
  • Take your temperature

Simple, right? But the devil’s in the details.

Public-health officials reduce the management of complex diseases and medical conditions into a small set of easily comprehended behavioral norms. These rules, because they’re intended to be fully intelligible even to people with below-average cognitive repertoires, often elide the details and the counterfactuals. Doctors and public-health bureaucrats issue directives intended to serve as maxims — as a catechism of sorts — that everyone memorizes and observes. Deviation from the catechism is bad, either for your own health (as with chronic-disease avoidance) or for others. When others come into the equation (as with Covid-19), deviation may even be accompanied by legal sanctions or social shunning. In most cases, though, the maxims are useful and benign.

All these rules offer broad generalizations that won’t be applicable in all circumstances, however. That’s the problem with broad-based, simplistic rulesets: They work at a 60,000-foot level, but sometimes prove incoherent at a 6-foot level of social distancing. But because they’re The Rules™ they’re inviolable, even when a proportion of the population recognizes that a specific application of those rules proves absurd. The reaction in Michigan to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer forbidding big-box stores from selling gardening supplies or from people engaging in recreational boating offers an excellent case in point. She invoked restrictions about essential and non-essential business activities that might, at first glance, enjoy some grounding in Science™ but in context stood in almost perfect contradiction to the best available clinical evidence.

(Turns out, you actually should be outside, and both gardening and boating are great environments to get some sun and to get some fresh air while not being in close proximity to others.)

Let’s go back to those CDC guidelines, developed by public-health officials to serve as an easily understood catechism. What are their vulnerabilities?

  1. Wash frequently: Frequent hand-hygiene is default best practice. The CDC guidelines for frequent hand-washing with soap and water (normal soap, not the antibacterial kind, I might add) is always called for, as is alcohol-based sanitation in the absence of soap and water. This is a good guideline, but it’s universal — not just applicable to SARS-CoV-2. You should always practice good hand hygiene, pandemic or not!
  2. Social distancing: Useful in principle, useless in (some) practice. Social distancing has been invoked as some sort of magical talisman to ward off infection, but it isn’t. The six-foot exclusion zone is just an average. Given what we know about the way SARS-CoV-2 spreads, in some cases six feet isn’t enough, but in other cases, it’s superfluous. To be infected, you must be exposed to a certain number of active virus particles. At a clean, well-lit and well-ventilated supermarket, passing within two feet someone who isn’t coughing isn’t likely to materially increase your risk of infection. However, it’s several orders of magnitude worse to stand cheek-by-jowl for 10 minutes to buy Michigan Lottery tickets in a dank liquor store with no active ventilation. And the risk of infection outdoors is almost zero; the infinitesimal number of confirmed outdoor-infection cases in China relate to people who stood in close proximity and talked face-to-face, unmasked, for an extended period of time. Keeping eight to 10 feet of distance from unmasked people in a dark and poorly ventilated space makes a ton of sense; keeping six feet away from masked people in a bright, breezy public park offers comparatively less value. But because the rule must be simple and universal, it doesn’t admit to context-sensitive refinement or prudent situational enforcement.
  3. Cloth masks: The CDC tweaked its message; nowadays, the rule is to wear a cloth mask to prevent the infection of others, not to avoid infection yourself. To be clear: Wearing a cloth mask doesn’t stop you from being infected. Rather, those masks minimize the transmission of virus particles by infected but asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic carriers. That being the case, after you’ve been confirmed to have antibodies and aren’t symptomatic, you aren’t a transmission risk. Yet the “thou shalt wear masks” rule is considered an absolute, with some stores refusing service if you don’t wear one, even when any individual person presents literally zero risk to others or the environmental context is not favorable to virus transmission. In fact, the CDC recommends masks only when “other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.” When you read the fine print, you discover that the recommendation is not for all people to wear masks in public at all times.
  4. Avoid N95 masks: From the beginning, CDC said N95 masks weren’t necessary. This lie (and it was a deliberate lie) was intended to minimize runs on these masks, preserving supply for frontline healthcare workers. And as someone who’s worked in health care for two decades, I totally get it. But an N95 mask, if properly fitted and used according to spec, not only reduces your outbound infection risk, but also your inbound infection risk. Everyone should be using N95 masks, not homemade cloth masks. But because the supply chain proved fragile, the CDC offers guidance that is deliberately inaccurate to distort the market for these masks. No matter how noble, a lie is a lie, and when people know it’s a lie, then why should they trust any of the other guidance? Especially when it breaks down within a specific context? It’s difficult to understate the credibility hit that public-health officials took over this about-face on masks.
  5. Clean and disinfect: CDC recommends daily cleansing of surfaces. However, different pathogens react differently to different surfaces in different contexts. For example, on copper, SARS-CoV-2 has an estimated life of just four hours. On cardboard, it’s 24 hours. On glass, it’s up to five days—but not glass exposed to direct sunlight. But you don’t get infected from a surface; SARS-CoV-2 doesn’t enter the body through hands or skin. If you practice religious hand hygiene, you will not become infected from surface contamination. That said, obviously you should not allow your stuff to become a petri dish of pathogens. But the practice of ostentatiously disinfecting, say, shopping-cart handles doesn’t really matter as long as you wash or sanitize your hands after shopping but before you touch your eyes, nose or mouth. This surface-disinfection practice certainly helps to a degree (what if you involuntarily touch your eye to remove an eyelash? or absently re-adjust your cloth mask and touch your lips?), so it’s not a useless exercise, but it’s an adjunct practice to limit transmission of the virus through the respiratory tract. Fetishizing the cleansing of surfaces brings diminishing marginal utility, but it creates a false sense of security that makes other precautions seem less urgent. (“I won’t bother with hand sanitizer because the nice lady sprayed my cart handle with something, so I’m safe.”) So, yes, clean your surfaces — but understand that surface contamination in itself isn’t an infection risk.
  6. Take your temperature: Something like 40 percent to 80 percent of all transmission events are estimated to occur from people who are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic. That’s the big reason for the “wear a mask” rule — you’re highly contagious early in the infection, before symptoms manifest (if they manifest at all). But you only show a fever when you’re symptomatic, and fevers aren’t restricted to SARS-CoV-2 infections. The practice of some healthcare organizations, TSA and some retail establishments of taking surface skin temperatures is therefore odd. If you’re sick enough to be symptomatic, you’re likely not traveling anyway, and even if you are traveling, an elevated temperature (unmanaged by a fever reducer like acetaminophen, which will fool the thermometer in low-grade cases) could source from any of hundreds of infections, not all of which are transmissible. You’ll get a fever if your appendix is about to burst, but you’re not going to mass-infect people with appendicitis if you’re out in public. Public temperature reads are very obviously kabuki theater — no different from TSA “randomly screening” an 85-year-old grandmother.

Put differently: CDC guidance is directionally useful at a population level, but the value of the guidance — because it must be simple enough for low-IQ people to understand — diminishes as you move from the general to the particular.

This phenomenon always applies to the management of any disease condition. Public-health officials focus on the herd, not the individual. Public-health guidance is replete with “rules” that don’t make sense in specific situations but reduce herd risk in the aggregate. Perhaps the classic pre-coronavirus example relates to HIV transmission. The official guidance is to not engage in unprotected sex (without a condom or pre-exposure prophylaxis or both) with someone who is HIV positive or who is uncertain about his HIV status. Yet a person can be HIV positive but maintain clinically undetectable levels of the virus thanks to modern antiretroviral therapies. There’s almost no risk of contracting HIV through unprotected sex with someone with an undetectable viral load. But that kind of asterisk doesn’t fit on a bus poster and it’s not easily digested by a low-IQ audience, so the high-level rule remains unchanged.

(Obviously, unprotected sex can generate other infections beyond HIV, but that’s beside the point.)

Plenty of problems arise when individuals and politicians maximize the 60,000-foot advice at the expense of useful context, though. People cannot properly account for risk through universal rules, and when they experience the disconnect between the universal and the particular, they may dismiss the universal guidance wholesale as “fake news” or “political posturing.” 

This 60,000-foot-to-6-foot scale problem may be a fatal structural flaw with the entire discipline of public health management.

Risk Mitigation for Individuals and Groups

In the WEIRD world, transparent and open access to information is crucial. With information, individual actors price risk effectively. That’s why we’ve got laws against insider trading. The pricing of risk — actuary science — can be arcane, but it’s a critical skill for thriving in a complex environment. Every action entails some degree of risk, from which we protect ourselves with insurance or with behavior modification. High-risk activities tend to require higher premium payments, because the insurer is likely to experience higher or more frequent payouts, or more elaborate safety mechanisms. It’s well known that humans tend to suffer loss aversion and retroactively rationalize predicable but low-frequency loss as a black-swan phenomenon. In other words, by default, we tend to suck at accurately estimating risk on the fly. Actuaries are simultaneously boring and critical.

Risk mitigation works on an individual level, too. We all take various steps to reduce potential harm, often when the mitigation step is minor and the potential cost is very high but the risk is very rare — as with wearing a seatbelt to prevent ejection through the windshield after a high-speed impact. Other forms of risk mitigation incur minor costs when the risk is high but the cost is low, as with frequent handwashing during cold-and-flu season. And sometimes, as with Covid-19, we don’t know enough to estimate cost or risk.

Each person must judge risk for himself, though. The relative risk-to-reward ratio is a subjective assessment. One reason the “don’t tread on me” types rejected both the Affordable Care Act and the wear-masks-in-public rule stems from a sense that they price risk differently from the authorities; mandates that overrule a person’s innate risk threshold are seen as an infringement of liberty. They don’t like that their choice to act or not-act has been taken away from them, that someone else imposed a risk-reduction cost that they wouldn’t have voluntarily accepted. And in a tort-happy legal system, the dial seems to turn ever more tightly into a health-and-safety framework that nowadays results in CPS referrals if a kid plays alone in the front yard. A big part of the modern populist movement is, in a sense, a reaction against costly or invasive mandates arising from irrationally low risk tolerances in public policy.

Think of it this way. Assume that two years from now, a new respiratory virus spreads across America. We know that if you venture into a mass public gathering, you have a one-in-five chance (20 percent) of acquiring the illness, and if you’re infected, you have a 1 percent chance of dying. A public-health expert says that in a nation of 300 million, half the people venture out in public once per year. Thus, they estimate that 300,000 people will die in a year from this new virus without interventions. They deem this risk unacceptable, so they ban public gatherings, driving both the infection rate and the case-fatality rate to very low numbers. 

A win for the experts, right? All it cost was 1 percent of GDP from lost economic activity arising from the banning of those gatherings, including the loss of 1 million jobs. (And no one calculates the secondary effects of the solution, including increased rates of alcoholism, drug addiction and diseases of despair that arise from the economic dislocation of the public-health intervention.)

But what if instead of ordering a banning of those events, officials laid out the risks? If you as an individual realized that each mass public gathering you attended translates to a 0.2 percent morality risk, would you still go? Would your opinion change if you realized that the only people who died were those with a defined set of risk characteristics that you either did or did not share? It’s likely that these events would shrink, but they wouldn’t be banned. Some people would likely die that wouldn’t in an outright ban, but the secondary economic and health risks wouldn’t materialize, either. It’s not an easy choice, but it’s a necessary one.

The structural bias of public-health policy is that the average citizen is too disengaged, or simply not capable, to make an informed decision in light of these facts. Thus, they set rules — intelligible at a fourth-grade reading level, and often accompanied by pictures — that easily distill to a few slogans that anyone can understand. Even, significantly, people with an IQ that’s more than one standard deviation below the mean, which therefore necessitates the removal of a lot of context in order to preserve the universality and intelligibility of the rule. Plus, they favor population-level interventions (mandatory masks and social distancing, quarantines) in lieu of targeted strategies for clinically relevant sub-populations. 

Perhaps, though, public-health officials ought to focus on risk identification and quantification and risk-cohort stratification, and let the mitigation strategy fall to individuals and elected leaders. Because when the experts in a very narrow field gain control of the levers of power, too much goes awry.

The Long-Term Political Risk of Public Health Kabuki Theater

Remember in March when the primary justification for state-level quarantine orders rooted in a fear of over-stressing the health systems and running out of ventilators? Turns out, people across the ideological divide got behind that argument. Then, when the feared stresses and ventilator shortages failed to materialize, some governors changed their tunes. Now, emergency orders were justified to “bend the curve” or to prevent people from becoming ill.

It doesn’t take a constitutional genius to realize that neither state nor federal governments labor under an affirmative duty to prevent individual citizens from acquiring a respiratory infection, even a particularly nasty one. Offer high-level advice? Sure. Pen emergency orders requiring people to remain in their homes and, in many cases, to lose their livelihoods? Maybe not.

Public health officials throughout this pandemic did what they always do: They offer a maximalist case for applied epidemiology: “To minimize harm, engage in these activities and refrain from these other activities.” Too many political leaders simply parroted this advice without translating it into a broader risk profile that included considerations far removed from the public-health officials’ domain of competence. Like, for example, economics. Political leaders who outsourced policy to the most risk-averse public-health expert didn’t effect a good kind of balance. This dynamic played out — in part, from partisan-media laziness — in a red-vs-blue divide among the governors. The reality is a bit more complex; after all, Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia (a Republican) was targeted by the media for opening Georgia while Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado (a Democrat) did pretty much the exact same thing at the exact same time and the media didn’t pounce.

A better example might source from a pair of Democrats. In Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer cloaked herself in the righteousness of public-health virtue even as some of her directives offered no meaningful effect on public health but scored Democratic Party talking points. Meanwhile, the attorney general, Dana Nessel, publicly argued with President Trump over wearing face masks at the same time that Whitmer herself appeared at a news conference without one. In Colorado, however, Jared Polis reopened the state using a model that balanced emerging cases relative to economic risks. (So did Brian Kemp. And a few other governors, Republican and Democrat alike, didn’t shut down their states at all.)

It’s not red-vs-blue; it’s holistic vs. outsourced. Governors most averse to pandemic risks tended to maximize vague public-health rules and talk about “safety” while governors most averse to long-term economic and secondary public-health costs tended to blend expert advice from many disciplines into a more comprehensive plan of action. 

The effect of the safer-than-thou governors may prove catastrophic in the long run — not from Covid-19 morality figures, but from public rejection of the “we’re in this together” argument that makes early, strong action uncontroversial. If, two years from now, a new coronavirus appears with significantly “worse” clinical profiles to SARS-CoV-2, and Gretchen Whitmer invokes emergency powers to shut down the state, will she get an early bipartisan consensus and public support like she did in 2020, or will a non-trivial chunk of the population trot out the “fool me twice” canard and actively resist from Day One?

Worse, ostentatious compliance or non-compliance becomes a form of virtue signaling. Security guards have been killed because they refused admittance to non-masked store patrons; some store patrons have chased un-masked shoppers out of stores. It’s dangerous that a face mask, which is only contextually useful, absolutizes into totemic status. Yet here we are.

You get one chance to deploy public-health emergency powers. Screw it up politically, and you don’t get a second chance, even if the second occurrence justifies the emergency more strongly than the first chance did. I’m terrified of the long-term repercussions of Gretchen Whitmer’s deferral to public-health authorities and her refusal to work effectively with the Republican-led state legislature. Because the next crisis will be worse. And now, we’ve potentially lost a vital tool because we misused it the first time.

But Whitmer’s fecklessness isn’t the whole problem. Perhaps our public-health officials, who are so sure of themselves and of the principles of their discipline, ought to take a long look at whether they made things worse by offering systemic policies that source from one domain of knowledge only, and which didn’t allow for reasonable tailoring at the 6-foot level where ordinary citizens reside.

A Pandemic of Opinions About the COVID-19 World Order

What a difference a month makes. Just 30 days ago, the Wuhan Coronavirus seemed like a distraction from the seriousness of the Democratic beauty pageant. Partisans sniped about whether COVID-19 represented an existential threat to the species or a hoax to get Trump. The Dow was looking to crest 30,000 points. Life offered predictability.

In fact, just six weeks ago, I remember sitting on the porch of our rented apartment in Bonaire, overlooking the Caribbean Sea, enjoying rum and a cigar and talking to Dave (who frequently travels to China) about whether he had been to a place called Wuhan, because the news stories out of China were looking scary. He told funny stories about his travel adventures in China and India.

Now? No one’s laughing. No one with working synapses thinks it’s a hoax.

Where to begin?

The Epidemiology

Let’s start with the science. 

The novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan likely originated with a wet market. That’s a market serving slaughtered animals, many of them exotic. The Chinese government made motions to shut them down after the SARS epidemic but let them persist. 

Some terms: The virus, called SARS-CoV-2, sometimes leads to a disease called COVID-19. People can be infected by the virus and, because they’re asymptomatic, not actually manifest the disease. The math about the dangers of COVID-19 are based on reported cases of people whose infections have morphed into the disease. However, some unknown proportion of the country has acquired and defeated the virus without developing the disease. Keep that distinction top-of-mind when you think about population-prevalence statistics. A good deal of reporting has mixed, willy-nilly, cases of infection and cases of disease.

It’s difficult to get a good sense on how wide the disease has spread, in part because people with very mild cases are likely under-counted in the denominator and in part because some of the worst outbreaks occur in countries with regimes that shade the truth (China, Iran, possibly Russia and Venezuela). For people with mild-to-moderate infections, the disease symptoms are so similar to influenza that only a specific test yields a concrete diagnosis. In general, though, the danger signs of COVID-19 include dry (often extreme) coughing, shortness of breath, and fever.

The CDC offers an online symptom self-checker that helps put your mind at ease about what your best course of action may be. In general, if you experience trouble breathing, become confused or lethargic, show a bluish tint to your face or lips, or feel persistent pain/pressure in your chest, seek immediate medical attention. Those are signs of hypoxemia—low blood oxygen—and is caused by, among other things, acute respiratory distress syndrome, which is a serious complication from COVID-19.  Basically, your lungs fill with fluid, preventing oxygen absorption in your tissues, which is why the number of ventilators is important. (If you’re a worry-wort and you merely think you’re having difficulty breathing and then hyperventilate and then generate the same symptoms of respiratory insufficiency … get yourself a pulse oximeter and learn how to use it.)

However, those big-three symptoms everyone talks about aren’t the only ones that manifest with COVID-19:

 

When you consider how COVID-19 differs from the cold or the flu, two statistics matter:

  1. The R0. The R-naught of a pathogen marks its replication multiplier. A pathogen with R0 = 1 generally results in one infected person infecting a single other person, in the long-run average. Diseases with an R0 of less than 1 generally self-contain; not enough people get them to cause a pandemic. Diseases with R0 above 2 spread like wildfire. It’s easy to see why: One person infects two. Those two infect four. Those four infect 8, who infect 16, who infect 32. Imperial College London estimates the R0 of COVID-19 to be 2.4. That’s code for “a lot of people will get exposed to this thing in the normal course of business.”
  2. The case fatality rate. The case-fatality rate is the proportion of people infected by a pathogen who will die from the pathogen or complications related to it. A study published 24 February in JAMA suggests a case-fatality rate, as represented by official Chinese statistics, of 2.3 percent. That rate, however, is highly dependent on the age and chronic comorbidities of the afflicted. Relatively few young-and-healthy people die of COVID-19, for example, although they can and do. In Italy, the official case-fatality rate is somewhere above 8 percent, but Italy’s population skews older and they’re classifying any cause of death that looks like COVID-19 to be COVID-19, so that number is almost surely overstated. In the United States, it appears to hover around 1.45 percent with statistics current as of 26 March.

People sometimes ask: Is all this drama worth it? After all, more than 80 percent of infected people experience no or very mild symptoms. In fact, absent clinical testing, doctors can’t tell the difference between COVID-19 and the flu. So why worry?

The best way to answer that question is to look at the interplay between the case-fatality rate and R0. The flu’s case-mortality rate is around 0.05 to 0.1 percent with an R0 of 1.3. Compared to the flu, it appears COVID-19 kills 15 to 75 times more people and infects twice as many people. Although it’s true that for a broad swathe of people, COVID-19 infection proves utterly anticlimactic, the public-health concern isn’t with the 80 percent. It’s with the 20 percent who require hospitalization. Of those, 5 percent will die, and a proportion will only survive acute respiratory distress syndrome through the use of a ventilator—and many those extreme survivors will never regain full pulmonary function.

If we leave the disease unmanaged, the prospect that 1 million or more Americans could die from COVID-19 isn’t scaremongering—it’s science. Given that there’s presently no vaccination or treatment, the only tool in our toolkit becomes an artificial reduction in R0 through tactics like enforced social isolation. Because even though the virus might have an average “natural” case-fatality rate of 1 percent in optimal-care settings, if a large chunk of that 20 percent who require hospitalization can’t get a ventilator, the case-fatality rate increases. Sometimes dramatically. In an overstretched healthcare system with inadequate ventilator supplies and fewer healthcare providers (because they, themselves, are sick!), that death rate climbs. And climbs. And climbs.

Are these broad shutdowns scary? Sure. Unprecedented? Yup. Necessary? Absolutely!

In a perfect world, by mid-summer, we’ll all look at these shutdowns and wonder if it was all a let-down. Much ado about nothing. If that’s the case, then congratulations to us all—these measures worked. And if mid-summer comes and the world feels like Thunderdome—well, then, they didn’t. And may God have mercy on our souls.

Shining Points of Light

Resist the urge to see only the bad and the scary, though. Use this moment as a ready-made excuse to connect with old friends (remotely, of course) and to practice random acts of kindness. Stories abound of people doing good things—like people who organized a drive-by celebrating a 7-year-old’s birthday. Or the teenager who delivered dinner and offered an impromptu trumpet performance for an isolated elderly couple. Or the students who use their 3D printer to help create face masks for healthcare workers. You can be the hero of such a story, too.

I’ve been eating my own dog food. The last few days, I’ve been sending occasional text messages and emails to folks I haven’t seen in a while, or who I know might be struggling, or who happen to live in a hot zone like NYC. We each enjoy our web of networks. Now’s as good of a time as any to make sure the strands connecting each node remain active and strong.

Some institutions are doing their best and thereby demonstrating their resilience. My home parish, for example, has followed the orders of the bishop and the governor to suspend public services, but the church stays open for private prayer and individual confession remains available. Plus, the parish has called every registered parishioner to check in, and the pastor has been releasing daily YouTube videos with Lenten reflections on the readings of the day plus a blessing. (And the bishop live-streams Sunday Mass from the Cathedral.)

Arts institutions have offered creative online performances. Even Sir Patrick Stewart has been tweeting a sonnet a day. Because Shakespeare. And corporations are helping, too—Xfinity/Comcast is, for the next few months, waiving all Internet usage caps to accommodate work-from-home activities.

When you’re part of the solution, you’re not part of the problem. You can be a shining point of light. And when enough points of light glow in the darkness, the darkness shall not overcome it.

The Problem of Information

Speaking of darkness, let’s turn to the media.

The most significant gut-churning lesson from the last 90 days isn’t about the virus or the economic aftereffects of it. Rather, for me, the big story has been the utter failure of the press to be serious about, well, anything. Consider:

  • Reporters have repeatedly asked President Trump if it’s racist to call the disease the “Chinese Coronavirus” or the “Wuhan Coronavirus” despite that it’s common practice to name new diseases after the location they first appeared. Think about that. You’re a reporter. It’s a pandemic. You have access to the President of the United States. And your primary goal is to try to dunk on him about terminology? Seriously?
  • The conservative media went on, and on, and on, about how COVID-19 is just the flu and complaining about it is like impeachment all over again. Then they decided it was serious and Trump’s response has been perfect.
  • The progressive media attacked Trump for not locking the country down, days after attacking him for locking down the borders, despite that the president has no authority to lock down parts of the interior—let alone the entire country—except in specific instances of armed insurrection. No matter what Trump does, it’s too little, too late, too corrupt. Even Governor Cuomo has found nice things to say about Washington’s response, for cryin’ out loud.
  • The centrist pundits tried to prognosticate their way into relevance, only to be proven wrong (in the aggregate) at every step of the way.

For a long time, China lied about the respiratory illness arising from this virus. Chinese authorities at all levels suppressed information. None of this information is in dispute. As recently as this week, China maintained that a U.S. Army athlete brought the virus to China last November. To mention the duplicity of the Chinese Community Party in allowing the disease to spread isn’t racist. It’s truth.

A Gallup poll taken March 13 to March 22 shows that of nine polled entities, the U.S. news media was the only institution underwater in its approval rates. Overall approval for the media stood at just 44 percent, with 55 percent disapproving. Contrast that to the media’s foil, President Trump, whose approval rate for the coronavirus crisis stands at 60 percent. Even Congress is at 59 percent approval

For an excellent case study in the utter lack of self-awareness “infecting” the media, consider Damon Linker’s March 27 column in The Week in which he wrote:

Over and over again, those who report on and analyze politics at close range have documented the president’s lies, exposed his schemes to enrich himself, taken note of his errors and their consequences, and highlighted his incompetence and cruelty — and at every step of the way they have assumed this would make a political difference. But it hasn’t.
 
Maybe it’s time to recognize that it won’t.
 
Accepting this is hard. Journalists, academics, and intellectuals tend to be idealists. They went into this line of work not because they wanted to be rich but because they wanted to make the world a better place in some way. This doesn’t mean their ideas on improving things would always have positive outcomes if they were enacted, or that their favored policy proposals deserve to take priority in our public life. Not at all. But it does mean they tend to assume that most people will recoil from outright lies, deception, malice, injustice, sleaze, and thuggish imbecility when it is exposed and demonstrated to them.
 
But maybe that isn’t true.

It’s isn’t true at all, but it’s a perfect encapsulation of the tendency of the modern commentariat to loathe Trump and the Republicans so much that bumper-sticker slogans substitute for truth and moral catastrophizing reins supreme. Nassim Nicholas Taleb defines the Intellectual Yet Idiot as “the inner circle of no-skin-in-the-game policymaking ‘clerks’ and journalists-insiders, that class of paternalistic semi-intellectual experts with some Ivy league, Oxford-Cambridge, or similar label-driven education who are telling the rest of us 1) what to do, 2) what to eat, 3) how to speak, 4) how to think and 5) who to vote for.” Sounds a lot like the press corps, from top to bottom, and their fellow travelers in Twitter’s Blue Check Mark Brigades.

I think there’s a lot of truth to Taleb’s framework. And—forget the coronavirus a moment—the prevalence of the IYI crowd in the media and in the commanding heights of academic administration and cultural institutions hints at the weakness of the elite worldview that’s part of the current repatrimonalization of Western institutions. Individual people cannot make prudent decisions about life-or-death choices, let alone inform their economic and political beliefs, when the primary gatekeeper of information is across-the-board corrupt. How much of the populist resurgence roots in some way to a reaction against IYI narratives?

Yet that’s where we’re at. I’ve dreaded this conclusion for a while now, but the systemic failure of the press seems inescapable

Preparing for Tomorrow

Pundits churn out prediction stories like the genre’s en fuego. Every single one of these predictions is utter horseshit. No one knows what lies ahead. No one knows how long it’ll take to get Wuhan Coronavirus under control; no one knows the final death toll; no one knows the secondary toll taken from loss of livelihood in the shutdown; no one knows how long the economy will take to return to pre-crisis levels; no one even knows if the economy will ever fully recover given the presently unquantifiable risk of radical social disruption that renders the Washington Consensus moot.

So I’m not going to offer predictions.

Instead, I do two things:

  1. Hope for the future. Humans tend to rally in the face of adversity. I’m generally bullish on the short-term prospects. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a bit of a renaissance in organized religion and in the strengthening of the “little platoons” in hyperlocal contexts. I believe we’ve got it in us to come out ahead. I remain hopeful that human ingenuity will find a way to defeat this virus and that by mid-summer or autumn, we’ll have something like a solution that allows for a significant degree of a return to normalcy. I’m betting that by Thanksgiving, we’ll be giving thanks for the CoronaCrisis receding in the rear-view mirror.
  2. Plan for the apocalypse. I also remain aware that things can always get worse. How much worse? No one knows. But just as the best-case scenario isn’t likely to materialize, neither is the worst-case scenario. That said, if you plan for the worst-case scenario, you’re prepared for everything. So I’ve been slowly working on stocking some non-perishable food items and jugs of water. I’ve made sure all my first-aid kits have been re-stocked and that stuff that’s expired got rotated out. I’ve added recurring tasks to my to-do list to swap and recharge the batteries in my radio and flashlights. I’ve re-inventoried my hiking-and-camping gear. I’ve been making checklists in case I need to get out of Grand Rapids in a hurry—Where will I go? What will I bring? How shall I provision for, and transport, the cats? If I’m traveling by car, what else might I toss in my bags if I’m not sure how long, or ever, it might be before I return home? 

Think about these things. Being prepared for the worst while hoping for the best means that you’ll take whatever happens in stride.

All that said: Stay safe and healthy. 

Why @kattimpf is Wrong about @justinamash

N.B. — Sometime between when I accessed Timpf’s referenced story, and after I posted mine, the story at NRO updated. The content didn’t shift much, but some of the stridency of tone amped down and the H2 subhead changed. There was no editor’s note indicating a change from the version as published the day before, however.

Edit — the paragraph after “two complexifying factors” was modified to change verb tense throughout, to better represent Amash’s stance as a now-former Republican.


 

In a January 17 piece published on NationalReview.com, NRO reporter Kat Timpf claims that major funders of U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (I, MI-3) have backed away from Amash, and that this behavior proves that “there is no place for an independent in politics” and that because “Amash makes his political decisions based only on his principles,” the fact that he’s being de-funded is proof that “the people in power over us are not interested in searching for the truth.”

I disagree.

Myriad substantive questions about politics, ideology and pragmatism weave through The Annals of Amash MMXIX—indeed, throughout the man’s entire Washington career. I suspect a book-length treatment might actually make for compelling reading, but even in the short-opinion-journalism realm of NR and NRO, readers deserve a more intellectually honest treatment of Amash’s complicated story than what Timpf’s piece provides.

I’m a fan of Timpf and, on the whole, I enjoy her work. It distresses me, though, that with this Amash story, she saw fit to focus on FreedomWorks, Club for Growth and the DeVos family without any recourse whatsoever to the people who actually cast ballots in the Third District. Did it not occur to her that other stakeholders matter and might therefore create a feedback loop to FreedomWorks, Club for Growth or the DeVos family? Did she not realize that the Chamber has long opposed Amash? Perhaps, despite her Detroit heritage, she didn’t enjoy access to boots-on-the-ground Republicans in West Michigan through whom she might have done some on-the-record reporting. Maybe Jay Nordlinger could have lent his Rolodex.

So contra the hints that Amash is some wise, noble leader “guided by something greater than the thoughtless partisan hackery” that suddenly infested FreedomWorks, Club for Growth and the DeVos family starting the day before yesterday, I’d like to lay out a series of reasons why Amash has never been an effective steward of the interests of the Third Congressional District.

My comments follow from the perspective of a lifelong resident of the Grand Rapids metro area and as a person who’s repeatedly won election as a precinct delegate, state convention delegate and even (two terms) a member of the Kent County Republican Executive Committee. In other words, as Amash’s constituent. These comments are my own and do not reflect the opinions of local Republican leaders or the county party as a whole.

Contra Amash

So, five specific arguments. Buckle up.

Background: Amash has never been especially popular with local Republicans.

In the 2010 race to succeed retiring Rep. Vern Ehlers, Amash earned 40.4 percent of the vote in a five-way primary. That result was good for first place, but the conventional wisdom at the time was that the next two figures (Bill Hardiman and Steve Heacock) were stronger candidates; they ended up splitting the “business establishment” vote roughly evenly.

One reason Amash succeeded in 2010 stems from a nexus between the Kent County Republicans and the College Republicans at Grand Valley State University, who’ve consistently taken a more libertarian worldview than rank-and-file precinct delegates across the district. Those CRs, in turn, tended to be the people door-to-door canvassing and even working as interns or paid employees of the county and state party. Amash didn’t enter 2010 with incumbency (although he was a state representative at the time), but he came from substantial family money, early DeVos support and the support of a swath of ideologically committed quasi-libertarian door-knockers full of youthful enthusiasm. And all this, at the dawn of the Tea Party era, which would have elected a ham sandwich if it promised to cut the deficit. What’s surprising isn’t that Amash won a five-way race in those circumstances; what’s surprising is that he only earned 40.4 percent despite these structural advantages. Had either Hardiman or Heacock withdrawn and all of his votes transferred to the other, Amash would have lost the primary in a landslide, because together, Hardiman and Heacock drew 51 percent of the vote. (Of course, elections don’t work that cleanly, but if there had been only one conventional-wisdom candidate, it’s easy to see pathways by which Amash never made it to Washington.)

The Gentleman from the Third District of Michigan didn’t face a primary opponent in the presidential election year of 2012. In 2014, he beat businessman Brian Ellis, 57-43. Ellis was backed by several national groups frustrated with Amash’s role in the Freedom Caucus and his public undermining of Speaker John Boehner. That primary was nasty enough that Amash famously refused to take Ellis’s concession call. In part because of the Amash-Ellis grudge match and the outside money that flooded it, no one wanted to primary him in 2016 or 2018 despite several people expressing lukewarm interest. Yet despite all of his structural advantages including incumbency and big outside money and a litany of puff pieces from libertarian journalists inflating his national stature, Amash only netted 57 percent of the Republican vote in the Ellis primary.

Other considerations matter, too. Local Republicans aren’t as sensitive about what the national groups are doing, but some local dignitaries exercise considerable sway. Not just the DeVos family, but also people like Peter Secchia—the U.S. Ambassador to Italy for Bush 41—and members of the Meijer family. And Ellis himself allegedly played a will-I-or-won’t-I game with an eye toward a rematch that foreclosed realistic alternatives over the next two cycles. (He never put his hat in again, though.)

Timpf: “[T]he people in power over us are not interested in searching for the truth.”

A clue about why Amash isn’t quite as loved relates to his imperfect ideological fit for the district. Amash doesn’t shy away from touting himself as a constitutional conservative who exercises fiscal restraint and believes in the separation of powers. Fine and well; on paper, I’m all in. But he also says and does other things that are inconsistent with the principles of the Republican base in his district.

For example, he voted present on bills defunding Planned Parenthood because he claimed that they were unconstitutional bills of attainder. Forget how obscure—and how subjective—his assertion landed. He told the displeased Michigan Right to Life that despite its revocation of his endorsement, he’s the most pro-life member of Congress and that his votes were policy whereas their preferences were merely politics. It’s like Sheldon Cooper Goes To Washington. Amash enjoys a rich history of well-actuallyism in lecturing the rubes on Facebook about hyper-technical aspects of the Constitution that justify him ignoring local priorities. If gaslighting RTL about being the most pro-life member of Congress represents searching for the truth, I dread to contemplate what a dishonest Amash might say or do.

(Relatedly, one is tempted to ask why, if he believed the defunding bills were unconstitutional, he voted present instead of nay as the Founders intended. Surely it wasn’t political cowardice thwarting him searching for the truth?)

West Michigan is a deeply pragmatic place. Observers including Timothy P. Carney in his Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse and Salena Zito and Brian Todd in their The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics have visited, inter alia, various West Michigan communities. They attest, as do others, that the region embodies a salt-of-the-earth Protestant Principle valuing hard work and straight talk. We’re the home of Gerald R. Ford, for cryin’ out loud. Our conservatism has always bent an ear toward justice, and our love of the Constitution is second to none.

We also expect that stuff gets done without needless drama, and we understand that the Constitution is a governing framework and not a part of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. On one hand, most of us nod and smile when we’re lectured about bills of attainder, as long as things get done. On the other hand, we don’t welcome virtue-signaling over Constitutional arcana when the alternative is more dead babies (had his protest vote not been, as usual, utterly irrelevant, he’d have incurred a lot more back-home wrath over that situation). Amash’s balancing act is more tolerated than loved.

Combine this incongruence with two complexifying factors.

First, he wasn’t often present among the rank-and-file Republicans. As in, you never saw the guy. He rarely attended county executive-committee meetings. At state conventions, he mostly hid in the corner. When I was a College Republican at Western Michigan University, I saw Fred Upton all the time. When I volunteered on the youth committee in Ottawa County, I saw Pete Hoekstra all the time. As a member of the Kent County executive committee, I almost never saw Justin Amash—in fact, I see Bill Huizinga, whose district includes a nibble out of the side of Kent County, an order of magnitude more often than I saw Justin Amash. Maybe I’m not important enough to warrant the Congressman’s attention. And that’s fine and probably true. But when a broad swathe of precinct delegates thinks that your congressman thinks that you’re not important enough—well. It’s not clear why groups like FreedomWorks and Club for Growth should fund a candidate whose support among the rank-and-file local activists has always been softer than it looks. Especially now that Amash’s reputation among stalwarts has been deeply poisoned by his blithely leaving the party that sacrificed so much for its long-absentee landlord.

Second, the considerable and uncritical fluffing he gets from libertarian-leaning journalists distorts a reasonable assessment of Amash’s legacy. The running joke among some conservatives in Kent County is that we don’t have a member of Congress, but rather we host the member representing the editorial board of Reason magazine. Timpf is on the record that she’s a libertarian. She’s also a journalist, with the NRO byline of reporter instead of columnist. Her suggesting that the libertarian-leaning Amash is “searching for the truth” comes off, tonally, like Sean Hannity “reporting” that Rudy Giuliani is “searching for the truth” in Ukraine.

Timpf: “Although Amash remains the most fiscally conservative member of Congress, his departure from the Republican party and support of impeachment have apparently made him a leper in the eyes of the exact same groups who claim to want to fight for fiscal responsibility.”

Like it or not—and I very strongly don’t like it—today’s GOP structurally aligns with Trump-style populism that treats deficits with as much seriousness as Elizabeth Warren’s Medicare For All plan does. Relatively few people care about the deficit and budgetary restraint in the current economic environment. It’s surely to Amash’s credit that he does, but it’s not obvious why fiscal conservatism is the only lens that matters. Timpf surely understands that complex situations arise from, and result in, complex causal relationships. Distilling Amash’s fall from grace as a sign that Club for Growth and FreedomWorks don’t care about fiscal restraint is Vox-level concern trolling.

One thing that bugs people at home: Amash is perfectly willing to forego nine-tenths of a loaf if he can’t have the whole thing. For example, he voted against Paul Ryan’s budget program because he didn’t think it went far enough. Regardless of one’s sympathy for Amash’s instinct on the matter, he was quite willing to be part of a cadre of House Republicans whose resistance to John Boehner and Paul Ryan forced the House to incorporate more Democratic demands to pass the House. In other words, active opposition led to a more strongly adverse outcome than merely accepting a partial victory would have. It’s not clear why ideological inflexibility leading to worse fiscal outcomes is truly the mark of a fiscal conservative.

Timpf: “Like him or not, you really should respect the fact that Justin Amash makes his political decisions based only on his principles — which is truly refreshing in our hyper-partisan era.”

If Justin Amash were truly the One Honest Man In Washington™, as he’s so often deified by libertarian-leaning journalists, he wouldn’t have voted present on the Planned Parenthood bills. Period. If he were a man of deep political integrity, he would have resigned his office before he resigned the party that sent him into office, freelancing against our will. I totally understand that he’s come to an anti-Trump space. I don’t own a #MAGA hat, so I get it. But surely Amash understands that for all practical purposes, he’s deprived the people of the district with effective representation. It’s not obvious which principles support a member of Congress undermining the voice of his district because he lacks the grace to resign when his own beliefs meaningfully evolve to contradict the beliefs of the people who elected you.

A principles-based approach to leadership aims to get the best possible result in light of your ideological lens. Amash has proven, time and again, that he’d rather be pure than effective. I understand why, tempermentally, some members of the libertarian-leaning commentariat would rather rhetorically liquidate the kulaks than nibble on half a loaf of bread. Ultimately—as Amash’s own implosion has shown—inflexible ideology inevitably leads to the loss of even that half a loaf. If given the choice, I think most people in the district would rather eat something than gloat about nothing.

Timpf calls this rigidity principle. I think she and I entertain very different understandings of what that word entails.

Timpf: “[t]here is no place for an independent in politics.”

Surely a political reporter has heard of a dude from the People’s Republic of Vermont named Bernie Sanders. (She may have heard of Joe Lieberman, too. Or Ross Perot. Or Ralph Nader. Or Teddy Roosevelt’s second go-around. Or even that one guy with the wooden dentures named George Washington.) I know what she meant, but what she meant, she didn’t write.

Rhetorical precision matters.

Amash, In Perspective

The foregoing suggests, correctly, that I won’t be at the head of the parade celebrating the legislative career of Justin Amash. Yet I’m not anti-Amash. I think he’s done a better-than-average job and really does take his role seriously. I don’t think he habitually lies about his beliefs, and he has the courage to stand up for his perspectives. These are all admirable yet rare traits for a congresscritter.

However, he’s never been well-aligned to the zeitgeist of the district. Some of us back home have grown weary of the self-important thorn-in-the-side shtick so loudly trumpeted by Reason editors and their fellow travelers. Some of us back home have eaten our fill of arcane lectures about constitutional provisions that long since crumbled under the moss of desuetude. Some of us back home would rather see our political beliefs supported by our representative than to be told that our politics is subordinate to his policy.

Justin Amash left the Republican party and he abandoned the president that his district did—and still does—support. If he were truly the man of virtue that he and his disciples position him to be, he’d have resigned his office and simply stood again this November on the Libertarian ballot. 

But power corrupts, and it corrupts most viciously those most convinced of their own far-seeing rectitude.

Vote Nov. 3 — And Write Me In, If You Live in Grand Rapids!

Greetings, friends.

So picture it — a few months or so ago, the local newspaper noted that the filing deadline had passed for two open seats on the Grand Rapids Public Library’s Board of Library Commissioners, yet only one candidate had filed. And in addition, a vacancy had opened, leaving potentially two unclaimed seats.

I filed the form necessary to seek appointment, but the GRPL team suggested submitting the paperwork to earn a write-in seat in the Nov. 3 election. So I hoofed it to the city clerk’s office and filled out the necessary forms to be a lawfully recognized write-in candidate. And I also filed, later, appropriate forms with the county clerk’s office for the Citizens for Jason Gillikin campaign committee. (We have a $0 budget, as it happens.)

I believe GRPL can do more to grow the local writing culture. If you vote for me, you’ll see a stronger push for programming that supports G.R.-based writers and more ties to the programming offered by Kent District Library.

So on Nov. 3, if you reside in the City of Grand Rapids, don’t overlook those municipal races. Instead, search for the section for the Board of Library Commissioners and write “Jason Gillikin” on a blank line, with a filled-in oval.

Thanks for your support!

 

Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch — and Ideology for Dinner

On my drive into the Caffeinated Press office this morning, I flipped around the FM dial, searching for nothing in particular. I settled, grudgingly, on the local Michigan Public Radio channel, wherein NPR’s Weekend Edition was already in full swing.

Apart from some brief news about Sen. Bernie Sanders and his trek to South Carolina, the segment I heard featured the host speaking to an academic about the allegations of a rape culture at St. Paul’s, the elite boarding school that has prepared many of America’s top political and financial leaders.

The part of the interview that caused an involuntary, Spock-like eyebrow raise came when the guest asserted something to the effect that all of the stakeholders at St. Paul’s must band together for a “discussion” about ways to stop male upperclassmen from treating “girls like currency” in their competition to “score.”

Golly.

So let’s stipulate two things from the outset. First, that St. Paul’s — a 150-year-old institution that only recently allowed the admission of females — consists of teen-aged students from the upper-upper-crust of American society. And second, that if the stories about the schools are true, the school’s culture permits or even celebrates young males targeting even younger females for sex, yet there’s been only one allegation of rape. And that allegation is disputed.

Two points follow.

The first, and the more minor, point is that there appears to be a curious disconnect between the broad, left-leaning culture that mocks sexual abstinence training — see, for example, John Oliver’s take on sex ed in the U.S. — and the reaction to what happens when teenagers actually do what the sex educators encourage. Because the salient point at St. Paul’s is that even if older male students seek sex with younger female students, there’s been but one allegation of coercion in an environment where the occurrences of such liaisons is probably very high. In other words: The sex-ed folks say: “Do it, safely, and with consent,” and except for a single reported occurrence to the contrary, the kids seem to have followed their education. So what, exactly, is the problem that requires “discussion?”

Perhaps I’m cynical. But we should not be surprised when the left-leaning consensus is that we should train middle-schoolers to enjoy the fun of sex responsibly, that when those middle-schoolers pass the puberty mark, they’ll behave as they’ve been taught. If one student raped another student at St. Paul’s, then prosecute that occurrence. But to probe a deeper cultural problem? It’s not clear what such a problem could be, given that the students of St. Paul’s by and large seem to stick to the syllabus.

The bigger point, I think, is that the desire for a “discussion” about “treating girls like currency” in a male-on-male competition to “score” speaks to something quite unrelated to the current sexual mores of the students at St. Paul’s. Granted that in today’s ideological climate, any allegation of rape will find a chorus of professionals claiming a deep-seated cultural problem — hey, sociologists gotta pay the bills, too, even if every problem they see is a nail and the only tool they own is a hammer. Put that knee-jerk reaction aside long enough to reflect on just how curious it is that people assume that with the right degree of consciousness raising, we can consistently rise above hormones and instinct to be a New Soviet Man better person.

Peter Drucker said that culture eats strategy for lunch. What he meant was that the collection of habits and pre-rational behaviors that directly affect how people interrelate will always undercut an agreed-upon strategy that doesn’t square with that culture. For example, Microsoft’s strategy of unifying its software under one common codebase was, for a long time, hampered by an organizational culture that tied employee compensation to different internal business units sabotaging the success of other business units to improve their own relative metrics. When that sort of adversarial culture thrives, you have roughly zero chance of achieving a strategy that conflicts with it.

Let’s introduce the Gillikin Corollary: Culture eats ideology for dinner. In other words,  the highfalutin maxims of both the Far Left and the Far Right so often fail in the real world, because the real world is a messier place with a culture much more firmly rooted in the principles of evolutionary biology. The Gillikin Corollary is why both liberals and conservatives are mistaken in their pronouncements on sex ed: The conservatives are wrong because an abstinence-only training program (or worse, a “let’s pretend parents will teach their kids about sex” get-out-of-jail-free card) conflicts with teenage hormones. The liberals are wrong because on balance human males are sexually aggressive and human females are sexually receptive, so training everyone to be a metrosexual contractarian is doomed to failure. We’ve been wired over thousands of generations of pre-history that sexual dominance meant reproductive success and that human social frameworks were optimized for relatively small tribal groups. (See, e.g., the writings of E.O. Wilson.)

To quote Barack Obama: “Now, let me be clear.” I condone neither rape nor cultural norms that subtly compel people to engage in sexual behaviors they might have avoided but for engagement with that culture. If the student accused of rape at St. Paul’s is found guilty of rape, he should be punished.

Yet I cannot help but shake my head in amazement as the folks at NPR look at the story out of St. Paul’s and bemoan the fact that young males at an elite school engage in allegedly predatory sexual practices. Do all the left-wing sociologists and anthropologists out there really think that what they need is the right mandatory consciousness-raising program and that with it, a quarter-million years of evolution will therefore dissipate into a warm and loving enlightment completely untethered to hormones and pre-rational instinct? That a half-day seminar about “no means no” will perfectly empower testosterone-driven, highly competitive teenage males to default to asking, “May I unbutton your shirt now? May I kiss you? If your BAC is above 0.05, can we wait until we both can provide informed consent? Are you OK if we always use condoms until marriage?”

Riiiight.

The culture of an elite school serving elite families revolves around succeeding in a socially competitive world. That’s the culture. And a strategy of sexual egalitarianism will never thrive as long as that culture — and its supporting cast of hormones and instinctive behaviors — continues to imperfectly align with it.

I suspect there are ways to more effectively frame sexual education for both males and females — but those methods must be rooted in the human condition as it is, not as we’d wish it to be.

So for me, the most fascinating part of the whole St. Paul’s story isn’t the “Senior Salute” or the rape allegation; rather, it’s the putatively earnest belief that something like the “Senior Salute” could have been avoided with the right combination of training, seminars and consciousness-raising events. It’s pretty obvious that left-wing nostrums about hyperinformed and explicit consent are just as untenable as right-wing nostrums about virginity until marriage — and they’re both off-base for exactly the same reason.

Culture eats ideology for dinner.

A Consequential Month

What a month it’s been. Our black-robed overlords rescued Obamacare (again) and wrote same-sex marriage into the Constitution. Charleston continues to mourn even as the Confederate battle flag suddenly disappears from the public square and from retail shelves. Pope Francis decided he’s an environmentalist. The surviving Boston bomber got the death penalty, as did one of two prison escapees from New York, and police continue to be recorded while mistreating blacks. And it turns out the IRS has been playing games with Lois Learner’s emails — just as Hillary Clinton has played games with hers. All while Republican presidential candidates pretend that gay marriage really isn’t a thing and no one seems too concerned that the Office of Personnel Management suffered one of the most catastrophic, and most damaging, security breaches in U.S. history.

Sigh.

I survey all of this, but am relatively unmoved by most of it; the one truly touching moment was the way Charleston as a community and the families of the victims as a group came together after the church shooting to be, well, adult in the face of evil.

Perhaps my lack of engagement is a twofold function of my disappointment in the reflexive groupthink increasingly ingrained in public debate, and my belief that deep down, Fukuyama is right and the real crisis facing America isn’t the Red/Blue divide but rather the conflict between various elites seeking to colonize the country’s commanding heights. “Partisanship” is a chimera used to render into the binary a sociocultural struggle that crosses many different subpopulations and many different interest groups.

Take the twin colossi of Obamacare subsidies and gay marriage. On the outcome, I am satisfied with the high court’s conclusions. But in both cases, I think the majority opinions are dangerously wrong-headed, and it doesn’t take a law degree to understand the danger in both majority holdings. The chief justice’s dissent in Obergefell outlines why: It wasn’t the conclusion, but the logic model, that sets us up for more of the same. Kennedy’s majority opinion is filled with trite slogans that retrofit a hodge-podge of vague metaphysical assertions about human nature to justify a foreordained policy preference. And despite the acid of his dissent, Scalia’s rebuttual in King v. Burwell highlights that the majority elected to finesse a partially dishonest read of Congressional intent instead of agreeing that words have meaning and that it’s not the court’s job to pass laws that are internally coherent.

Distilled, my discomfort lies with the regrettable predictability of the political process, leavened with my increasing disdain for activists of any stripe. (Yes, I even loathe activists for my own causes. Do, or do not; there is no protesting.) More and more, I care less about the what and more about the why, and it’s an extrapolation of all these little whys that leave me slightly bearish about the future.

A lot happened this month. Inasmuch as some of what transpired might feel definitive, I cannot help but wonder whether all of these matters — gay rights, Obamacare subsidies, pulpit environmentalism, police aggression — aren’t truly concluded, but rather enter a new phase of social discord.

Like I said: Bearish.

The Moral Assumptions Within Income-Inequality Arguments

Throughout all the Sturm und Drang of the politics of wealth redistribution — intensified since the 2008 financial crisis — various groups assembled to review options to moderate the gap between rich and poor. Usually, such groups issue reports filled with dismal statistics and urgent demands for sweeping economic change, couched in language that suggests, but never justifies, a moral imperative to act.
Case in point: Laura Kiesel, writing for MainStreet, quotes a recent Oxfam International report alleging that the wealthiest 1 percent of the world’s wealthy now control 48 percent of the world’s wealth, and that the 85 wealthiest people on earth control as much wealth as the 3.5 billion people on the bottom end of the scale. Let us assume, prima facie, that the Oxfam International report is accurate. Many commentators immediately jump to the assertion that such an imbalance of wealth is politically and morally objectionable.
Question: Why is wealth imbalance morally objectionable?
One common rhetorical strategy is to assert that a specific cohort of people find imbalance to be unfair. And if it’s unfair, then clearly it’s unethical. Recent polling suggests that Americans making above $70k favor redistribution methods by about 54 percent, but for households below $30k, the rate jumps to 74 percent. The less you have, the more you resent those who enjoy plenty, and the more you’re excused for your resentment. A delicious interplay of argumentum ad misericordiam and argumentum ad populum.
Resentment, though, isn’t a compelling moral justification for the confiscation of another’s assets. (Although, I suppose, it could be a perfectly valid political justification, depending on the health of the state.) We haven’t really gotten to the heart of the question, yet, so let’s come back to Oxfam. Kiesel’s article addressed the group’s “Seven Point Plan” to reduce income inequality by clamping down on tax dodging, offering free/universal health and education, shifting tax burdens from labor/consumption to wealth, moving toward so-called living wages, introducing equal-pay laws, guaranteeing a minimum basic income and agreeing to “a global goal to tackle inequality.”
The ideologically astute will no doubt observe that Oxfam’s laundry list hews astonishingly close to the default policy preferences of the Far Left and includes major policy points that aren’t central to the goal of significantly flattening the distribution curve. Either Oxfam and its coreligionists have cornered the market on the best way to make everyone’s life better, or they’re singing to the Marxist-Leninist choir from The Hymnal of the Righteous.
Righteous. A curious term. An interesting tidbit about moral philosophy: It’s the twin to aesthetics. Go to any Philosophy 101 textbook worth its salt and look at the various trees of specialization beneath philosophy as a discipline. You find theories of fact — metaphysics, epistemology, ontology, etc. — and theories of value. There are only two value theories in philosophy: ethics and aesthetics. The first addresses the question of what is right, and the second, what is beautiful. But their approaches are largely similar, and they deal with similar concerns about universality and interpretation.
Within the discipline of moral philosophy, several paradigms assert themselves. None really offers a compelling, immediately obvious justification for the assertion that income inequality is, ipso facto, a morally blameworthy scenario:

  • Divine Command: In the Christian world, the highest commandment is to “love God with all your heart, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” In practice, this commandment preaches individual generosity to the poor and the avoidance of ostentatious consumption. Significantly, Biblical norms address an individual person’s responsibility to assist the poor, not a state’s obligation to prevent poverty. It’s a big leap to claim that Scriptural injunctions to alleviate the suffering of the least well-off requires the coercive power of government.
  • Natural Law: This approach is probably the least favorable to wealth distribution among all the main ethical paradigms.
  • Deontology: A good deontologist is a slave to duty. Although a person can assert some duty to help the poor, someone else can assert a counter-duty to maximize the efficiency of capital. Duty-based ethics is more about process and intent rather than outcome; a duty-based claim in favor of redistribution can be countered with a duty-based claim against it.
  • Consequentialism: In the mode of moral reasoning that elevates the outcome above all other considerations, the moral nod goes to the person who can make the most sound and convincing claim about what will follow if some action is or isn’t undertaken. As such, consequentialism itself — like deontology — is indifferent to the plight of the poor, except in those cases where a person advances an argument related to the poor that’s more compelling than the counter-argument.
  • Egoism: If you’re a “have not,” you want to become a “have;” if you’re a “have,” you want to avoid becoming a “have not.” Because the locus of moral reasoning is on the self, egoism does not readily admit to compromise positions for sweeping social issues.

So the point of the bullets, above, is to merely indicate that there’s no obvious, inherent moral imperative to support wealth redistribution. Many, many arguments pro and con litter the rhetorical landscape, some more convincing than others, but the fundamental point is that redistribution is a conclusion, not a premise, within the broader economic debate.
Question (again): Why is wealth imbalance morally objectionable?
Many worthy arguments both favor and oppose the significant redistribution of capital. I think, though, that the real question here isn’t moral, it’s aesthetic. People look at the juxtaposition of a wealthy person like Bill Gates or Carlos Slim or a prince of the Saudi royal family, relative to an emaciated child living in the slums of an Indian metropolis or in a camp in the East African desert, and find the comparison to be not beautiful.
It takes a callous soul to argue that it’s beautiful that some people live in palaces, dining on endangered species, while other people live in rape tents, dining on a few bugs and table scraps. Inequality, in its extremes, is ugly. And because it’s ugly, we are tempted to flip from the aesthetic to the ethical side of the philosophical coin and therefore conclude that it’s also inherently immoral. (Such a move is common: Think of how many book and movie villains aren’t just evil, they’re also deformed in some physical or psychological manner.)
The thing is, many ugly things are perfectly OK from an ethical standpoint. Controlled burns of national parks, for example. And many beautiful things are morally repugnant: Look at the formal photos of a child bride on her wedding day for a case study.
The moral dimension of wealth inequality cannot be trumped with the “ugly” card. We need reasonable debate to ensure that the self-righteousness that comes from privileging our moral positions as assumptions instead of arguments, yields to a degree of good-faith pragmatism that keeps us from demonizing the Other. Even when the Other is a guy worth billions of dollars and you’re left paying for a useless graduate degree in puppetry.
Because when your aesthetic sense tricks you into thinking that your moral preferences are normative, you won’t stop at income inequality. You will, like Oxfam International, subsume a whole list of policy preferences under the pristine banners of Progress, giving you the joy of righteousness while guaranteeing your efforts will come to naught.

On Bakeries, Pizza Shops, Florists and Same-Sex Nuptials

Dismay.
I can’t think of any other word to describe my impression of the brouhaha sweeping the country about the collision of same-sex marriage and the religious beliefs of small-business owners.
Off the bat, I’ll declaim what I believe to be self-evidently true: The radical monoculture of the Totalitarian Left tears at our shared social fabric. I could go on at length about the subject, but there’s not much I can add to what’s already been published by conservative commentators the last few weeks. Even for conservatives like me, who are supportive of gay rights, it’s difficult to be allies when the most prominent spokespeople of the Left have gone Full Alinsky on us, adopting hate-filled rhetoric and violent intimidation along the You Will Be Made To Care axis of “argumentation.”
That said, I am skeptical that a plain and faithful reading of Scripture justifies a small-business owner refusing to supply a same-sex wedding. There’s plenty in both Scripture and Tradition to bar a faithful Christian from being one of the spouses in a same-sex marriage … but serving as a contractor? One could, I suppose, elucidate a fairly subtle theological argument to justify non-engagement with a same-sex wedding in any capacity, including as a vendor, but it’s an argument — an interpretation of religious norms, not a plain-text reading of one. And the nature of many of these arguments I’ve encountered recently suggest that there’s not much theological nuance there; the arguments have all the superficiality of a post-hoc rationalization, a thin veneer disguising overt discrimination.
In other words: I throw the bullshit card on the idea that there’s a specifically religious reason compelling enough to justify the denial of service to same-sex clients. Especially when the very folks who argue their religious rights are violated by acting as vendors for a same-sex wedding also argue that those weddings are invalid in the eyes of God. So what’s the religious problem, then, in catering a make-believe wedding? The only way the religious-exemption logic holds is if the objector conceded that same-sex marriage (even civil marriage) is divinely sanctioned — but then, divine sanction erases the claim for a religious exemption. The mind boggles at the irrationality of it all.
To be sure, many Christians profess significant problems with homosexuality and the expansion of marriage to same-sex partners. Those problems are rooted in valid readings of Christian theology. I believe very strongly that Christians should not be targeted or persecuted for adhering to those beliefs. I also believe very strongly that gays and lesbians should not be ostentatiously refused public accommodation by businesses, through the self-serving and open-ended assertion of religious liberty.
These Christians are also Americans. The civil law has recently opened a gulf between what’s legally permissible and what many Christians view as being morally permissible, regarding the institution of marriage. Squaring the circle between private faith and the public Constitutional order isn’t easy, but there are ways beyond public foot-stomping to remain true to your faith while fully participating in even today’s more permissible social climate.
In fact, the real problem here is the perfect storm of a brand of Evangelical conservative Christians who want to make a stand, and be seen making a stand, for their disapprobation of gay rights — in opposition to far-Left ideologues eager to pick a fight with the “bitter clingers.” So we’re left with the rank idiocy of the Indiana and Arkansas RFRA bills but also uncharitable lawsuits against bakers and florists who prefer not to celebrate that which they morally oppose. The veiled threats of the far-right blogosphere contributes, too, with its denunciations of the “caving” by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, while far-left activists delight in vitriolic denunciations of alleged intolerance that are untethered to reality. All of this drama constitutes a self-inflicted injury for Christian conservatives.
Let’s look at this from the perspective of a devoutly Christian baker, caterer, florist or wedding planner. You’re behind the counter, conducting your trade in peace. You go to church on Sunday, you tithe, you pray. And then Adam and Steve sashay into your storefront, ready to place an order for a sheet cake for their upcoming wedding. What do you do?
When you walk the Path of Martyrs, eager to be seen as making a stand for Jesus, you tell Adam and Steve that you can’t support them because you’re a Christian and won’t be a party to their sin. Cue the raging public shitstorm. (And, in a sense, the religious hypocrisy — viz Matthew 6:5.)
In a more reasonable world, when Adam and Steve cross your threshold, you smile at them, congratulate them on their engagement, ask friendly questions about their color choices, and enquire about the date of their ceremony. Then you appear crestfallen when you say that you can’t accommodate that date because you’re already booked solid that weekend, but you’d be happy to refer Adam and Steve to Jane’s Bakery across the street. And wouldn’t you know it, Jane just came back from a confectioner’s conference and she has some really great designs for contemporary his-and-his cakes!
Better yet, you mark that date on your calendar and genuinely take it off as a day of prayer, thus protecting you from the accusation of lying while deepening your relationship with Jesus. Sure, you’ll lose some revenue, but consider it as an investment in your treasure in Heaven. Net result: Happy customers, happy proprietors. You have rendered on to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and onto God that which is God’s.
The cynic view, of which I’m increasingly persuaded, is that all of this drama has very little to do with gay marriage. If Adam and Steve want to get married, fine; you’d think they’d find vendors who support them, instead of compelling vendors who don’t. Human decency, and all that. And you’d also think that small-business owners would recognize that baking a cake isn’t a sin, even if you don’t like your customer.
What we’re seeing is, I think, less a genuine question of gay rights or religious freedom, and more a paradigmatic question of whose orthodoxy will govern the terms of engagement in the naked public square. So in a sense, all of this drama is small-small potatoes skirmishing in a much larger and more significant cultural war, a conflict wherein certain modes of thinking that contradict the Authoritarian Left must be rooted out, suppressed, denounced — while certain practices that conservative activists despise must be de-legitimized in the name of “freedom.”
Don’t be distracted. None of this is really about a nuanced view of Christianity, or about gay marriage. Rather, it’s about competing claims to the power to coerce normative values on the larger body politic.
Hence, dismay.

What a Month!

January is already a memory. Wow. Let’s recap some highlights.
Auto-Mania
Around Thanksgiving, I started my GMC Jimmy one morning and heard a bit of a squeal and smelled an odd aroma reminiscent of a mix of oil, burning rubber and ozone. It came, it went, life went on. But Jimmy started to act a little funny — eventually, I’d experience intermittent periods where the charging system would fail. Then it would come back to life, as if by magic.
Over my Christmas vacation, I vowed to fix the problem myself, if I could. I popped the hood and voila! — it was immediately obvious that the pulley on the belt tensioner was broken. As in, chewed to pieces. The entire serpentine belt was chafing and parts, like the alternator, weren’t being properly driven.
“I can fix that!” I said to the cats. So I did. I bought a replacement pulley from AutoZone (1.04 miles from my house by foot) and replaced the damaged part. In single-digit temperatures. Outdoors. Without gloves. Woohoo. So I got that part replaced and what happened? You guessed it — sitting for a few days, in the cold, after having had intermittent charging, left the already worn battery too weak to soldier on. So on one of the snowiest days of early January, I trudged to AutoZone on foot, bought a replacement battery, carried it home through drifts as high as two feet — and, after I installed it, thought, “Geez, why didn’t I just call a cab?”
Battery worked. But still no charge. Damn it.
So back to AutoZone for a replacement alternator. When the weather got a little nicer — as in, the upper 20s — I swapped alternators. Only hard part about that process was getting the bolts aligned on the new unit. So I fired up the ol’ girl and watched the voltmeter go from 11 volts to about 14 over the course of a minute. Then I flipped on the defroster and the system immediately dialed to 11, never to recover.
By that point, any other fixes would be guesses, because I lacked the tools and expertise to diagnose what might have been an odd fault somewhere. I took Jimmy to Community Automotive, whereupon I was informed that the problem was that the alternator wasn’t putting out a charge. Translation: They said AutoZone sold me a defective replacement part.
They also told me that the tensioner was screwed up and the serpentine belt was super worn. So I said, “Fine. Replace the entire tensioner assembly and the belt. I’ll deal with AutoZone on my own.”
I picked up Jimmy from the shop — and lo and behold, the charging system works. I’ve been driving it for a week and my voltmeter is fine and I’m clearly not driving on the battery alone.
My guess? Community Automotive determined a bad charge on the alternator with a misaligned belt. After the belt was replaced and the tensioner re-aligned, the alternator was good to go. But I’m still keeping my eyes peeled for a while for signs of charging-system faults.
Food Deserts, Public Transportation and Good Health
While Jimmy was undergoing repairs, I opted to play it safe and keep it parked until I knew the problems were fixed. That left me to find alternative transportation to work. Daily cab fare runs $50 between my house downtown and the office on the far northeast side of the city. But, I live near a bus stop, and there’s a stop about an eighth of a mile from the office. So, problem solved — for $3/day, I can just Ride the Rapid.
I don’t mind the bus. The Rapid buses are clean and run mostly on time. My biggest gripe with the system is that the metro area consists of an urban core surrounded by inner-ring suburbs that aren’t well connected to each other. The transit system uses a hub-and-spoke model that routes most buses through the downtown Central Station; there are just a handful of crosstown routes that don’t connect through Central. In a practical sense, then, getting most places takes longer than it needs to. My drive from home to office is about 15 minutes; my bus commute, door to door, takes a full hour. We really need more ring routes and crosstown routes to connect disparate parts of the metro area without having to head downtown so frequently.
(I think a shuttle service between Standale Meijer and the Grandville Library is essential, as is a park-and-ride lot at Plainfield and the Beltline where Route 11 extends all the way to the Beltline, then a crosstown route connects that lot with Knapps Corner, Meijer Gardens and then Woodland Mall. If the Rapid folks were super clever, they’d run a two-way square ring route starting at Leonard and Alpine, proceeding on Leonard to Plymouth, south to Franklin, west to Godfrey/Market, then follow Wealthy to Straight, Seward and back to Alpine — thus crossing a whopping 19 routes without actually putting in at Central Station, a potential time-saver for folks who just want to get from one part of the periphery to another. But I digress.)
My location, in the South Hill neighborhood, puts me within reasonable walking distance of a small Family Dollar and the small Wealthy Market. Neither establishment stocks an assortment of healthful foods. Family Dollar, for example, offers no fresh fruits or vegetables and the freezer section consists of pizzas, burritos, ice cream and such. Were I to aim for healthy eating, my only real option is to trudge a few blocks to a bus stop, head to the Kalamazoo Ave. Meijer, buy groceries, then trudge back. That’s a lot of time and effort — moreso than most would undertake.
I’m not a huge activist for Michelle Obama’s “food desert” propaganda, but I do note in passing that if I were permanently confined to public transportation, I’d either need to radically re-think my daily routines or acquiesce to less healthful foods. Puts the “chronic co-morbidities” question into a different lens, methinks.
Caffeinated Press
I’ve mentioned it before, but perhaps not in adequate detail. So here goes.
In mid 2014, a group of colleagues and I established Caffeinated Press, Inc., a for-profit S corporation organized in Michigan. Our mission as a small independent publisher is to connect authors and readers in the West Michigan market. I serve as chairman of the board and chief executive officer; in that capacity, I also oversee the acquisitions and editorial processes. The company includes five board members and several outstanding associates who are working hard to build the company.
I’m putting the final touches on Brewed Awakenings, the first of what we intend to be an annual house anthology. Production has been labor-intensive. I’ve had to proofread roughly 85k words, manage layout, design the cover, develop the front matter, etc. Takes a lot of time — indeed, the bulk of my month has been spent on anthology production. Eight local authors contributed novelettes to the anthology; I’m in it too, with “Providence,” a story set on Lake Michigan. Our very loose theme was “all goes dark,” but the work we’re publishing includes some humor, some gore, some romance, some speculative fiction. Good stuff. We’re producing the anthology in both paper and e-book formats; the paper version will appear in the Ingram catalog and the e-book versions on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Overdrive, etc.
The board recently authorized the production of a quarterly literary journal, called The 3288 Review. More details on that, later.
Health Data Analytics; State Leaders Team
I’ve wrapped up most of my work on the Health Data Analytics project for the National Association for Healthcare Quality. With my colleague Tricia, executive director of outcomes for an Illinois hospital, we led a team of health quality practitioners from across the country on an exercise to define the emerging competencies necessary for the next generation of practitioners. Our charge focused on health data analytics — i.e., Quality pros who specialize in analytics. Interesting work. Our report goes next to the NAHQ board of directors.
And on the subject of NAHQ, this year’s president asked me to move my cheese a bit. Instead of rotating into the second-year lead role for the Special Interest Group team, she asked me to begin a new two-year cycle as co-lead of the State Leaders team. That puts me and my new colleague, Andrew, in front of the presidents and presidents-elect of the various state-level health care quality associations across the country. Andrew is a top-notch fellow and our assigned staffer at NAHQ and our board liaison are very easy to work with. Looking forward to this new opportunity.
Surgical Site Infections
With one of our physician medical directors, I recently authored an internal white paper about the costs associated with surgical site infections for patients who are fully embraced within a particular accountable-care organization. The numbers were low — but we recognized that part of the problem was identifying SSIs correctly amid a paucity of accurate physician documentation that works its way into an administrative claim record. Looks like this early report will fuel a broader review of how healthcare acquired infections are managed within our ACO. Potentially publishable research!
Texas, Ho!
Still on track, in a few weeks, for a brief excursion to Texas. My plan is to drive from Grand Rapids to Shreveport, LA, and spend the night at a casino there. Then, drop of my friend Duane’s stuff in East Texas, then push through to the Dallas Metroplex to catch some of the Thinline Film Festival shenanigans. I’ll head back to The Mitten by means of Oklahoma City, so I can catch some prominent casinos along the way. Basically, killing three birds with one minivan.
Miscellaneous Updates
Some other tidbits of interest —

  • Enjoyed a lovely podcasting marathon yesterday with Tony. We had sushi at Maru, enjoyed some Japanese whiskey and cigars at Grand River Cigar, and then retreated to my dining room to push out four episodes. The cigars came to us courtesy of Famous Smoke Shop, an online retailer, that’s partnering with our podcast.
  • I get to hire a new intern and a new senior analyst this fiscal year. Yay!
  • One of my contract clients had a change of leadership in my area; the upshot is that I’m being invited to do more management stuff, as a contractor, that had formerly been the sole domain of company personnel.
  • We’ve got a severe winter warning right now. As I write this, I see heavy, blowing snow creating white-out conditions at a quarter mile. Beautiful. If only I had thought to buy firewood so I could have a fire tonight.
  • Looking forward to the county convention next week, in anticipation of the 2015 Michigan Republican state convention.
  • My next writing project might be a textbook about health care quality.
  • Fleshing out my author page on Goodreads reminds me of how little time I have to actually read. That said, I’m about 60 percent done with Francis Fukuyama’s Political Order and Political Decay, the second of two volumes dedicated to revisiting and extending the groundbreaking research of Samuel Huntington into the origin and evolution of political institutions.
  • I cut the cord. After paying Comcast $220 per month for years for TV I rarely watched, a phone I never used and Internet that sometimes crawled to a halt, I gave them the boot and now rely on AT&T DSL for $40 per month. I still have Netflix and Hulu Plus, and Skype and my cell phone, so … yeah.

Hoist Upon Chait’s Petard
Some concluding thoughts about this week’s pundit nerdfight over Jonathan Chait’s essay, “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say.”
The back-and-forth over whether Chait makes a good point or whether he is some sort of hypocrite or whether he is locked in his own view of privilege — well, it’s all already been said. The most fitting coda, I think, is merely to observe that the dour puritanism of today’s Left will, perhaps inevitably, engender a systemic backlash from within the Left itself.
The human mind enjoys a finite capability to accept cognitive dissonance, let alone the doublethink that lets people hold mutually inconsistent assertions to be true without it even triggering that dissonance. Indeed, the New Soviet Man was a creature of this doublethink. But even with relentless propaganda, nuclear missiles and Kalashnikovs, the spark of truth couldn’t ever really be repressed. The events of 1989 bore that out. Yet the Left today is increasingly reliant on authoritarian systems of psychosocial control that require doublethink to avoid cognitive dissonance. At some point, the average Man of the Left will ask: Is this really what I believe? And when that happens, the bottom will fall out.
There’s something odd, for example, in holding that the concept of a gender construct is sufficient to change reality. Were I to announce that I identify as female and henceforth want to be known as Jane, most on the Left will applaud my bravery, call me Jane and use “she” as a pronoun. All that, despite inconvenient reality of my XX chromosomes (and sexual organs). One would think the “science is settled” about biological sex at least as strongly as it’s allegedly settled about climate change, but ….
So, again — the mind’s ability to square the cognitively dissonant circle isn’t without limit. Regardless what you think of Chait, or his arguments, the Thermidor he points to may dawn more swiftly than some expect.

On the Proactive Avoidance of Relationship Regret

Posted on my Roadmap is my one-sentence mission: “I will be a contented and healthy man who, upon his 70th birthday, can look himself in the mirror free of the sting of regret.” Easier written than done, perhaps, but thinking about the question 32 years early opens the door for opportunities to avoid incurring regret in the first place.
I’m sometimes asked whether I get depressed about not having married and “settled down” with a brood of crumb-crunchers and a little suburban house with a white picket fence and a used minivan and a slightly dopey golden retriever. Usually well-intentioned, the question nevertheless is curious, insofar as it rests on two rickety assumptions: First, that marriage and family are normative, from which deviation signifies loss or defect; and second, that I am ignorant of what I’m missing so therefore I should pine for it.
As to the first assumption, I can only say that I’ve seen many people marry and remain happy together for a very long time. I’ve also seen friends younger than I who have already divorced. I am aware, through my own family’s experience, of what divorce does to family dynamics. A few years ago, when I more actively searched for a partner, I was dismayed to discover just how many women in the 25-to-35 age cohort are either single or divorced … but with at least one small child. Marriage isn’t the institution it used to be, and most families I know have so absorbed the individualist Gestalt that “family” is perhaps more meaningful as a tribal affiliation than as blood-kin identification.
I am not unaware of the benefits of marriage and child-rearing. Should the right situation arise, I’d get married. But I’m not drawn to the institution and I don’t feel incomplete because I live in an apartment with no one except my feline overlords. I’ve seen too many elderly people in the hospital who bet on a spouse and children or grandchildren to look after them in their dotage — and then see those bets fail. No one is guaranteed a loving family surrounding you on your deathbed when you’re in your late 90s. People die; they grow apart, they feud, they have different priorities. When I did pastoral care rounds in the hospital, years ago, it wasn’t all that rare for the older patients to want me to stick around. To talk. Sure, they had families — but, you know, they were busy. Seems odd to structure a life, beginning in your 20s, on the gamble of what you’ll need or want in your twilight years. Yet that’s the message, fundamentally, of family: They’re the ones who will take care of you when you’re back in diapers. Good luck with that.
Life is a series of trade-offs. There’s no such thing as a perfect existence — just a never-ending churn of decisions balanced against each individual person’s proprietary blend of needs and wants. With marriage and kids, you get better income stability, regular affection, family bonding, life milestones. Without marriage and kids, though, I retain the freedom to make major life choices without getting them approved by someone else — I can come and go as I wish, buy or save as I wish, avoid having to live with the inevitable compromises that come with marriage, and if I needed to take care of my mom when she gets old, I’m not subject to the whim of a spouse who may resist or resent it. And certainly not least, if I were to retire to a sailboat and see parts of the world, no one will try to stop me.
The other argument for marriage and family follows from a basic human need for companionship. To which, all I can say is that I do not want for friends. I have a long-term stable core, a middle-ring network that comes and goes, and a large flock of friendly acquaintances. I occasionally have weeks where I think to myself: Self, you need to start declining some social invitations so you can get some work done. So I’m not exactly a lonely recluse.
The second assumption — that I should pine or grieve for what I lack — flows from the first. When you accept the normativity of marriage and procreation, then not having it becomes an emotional struggle, a challenge of self-worth, a grave problem requiring resolution. I think there’s a fairly strong Christian Reformed, West-Michigan-culture thing at play, there, too: If you’re not married by a certain age, then there’s something wrong with you. I know quite a few people who unduly stress out over their lack of a spouse. Anyone who’s spoken to the aspiring MRS candidates at Cornerstone University or Kuyper College or even Calvin College knows the fairytale: You wait for your prince or princess then live happily upper-middle-class forever and ever, amen. Lots of those women end up, several years after their graduation and their weddings, with OKCupid profiles that feature them with their infants. I know; I’ve dated some of them. That toxic culture has wreaked incalculable chaos on the lives of the young and the innocent thanks to the tyranny of impossible expectations.
But I digress.
My biggest frustration with friends who do lust after marriage is that the longer they search in vain, the more out-of-whack their thinking becomes. It’s as if there’s some magical ratchet in their heads that, as the months and years slip away, creates ever-more-unreasonable demands for what they expect in a mate — until they come to obsess after an idealized spouse who could not possibly exist in the real world. In a sense, that ratchet is a defense mechanism, with a twofold task of protecting them having to engage in serious self-examination while precluding relationships that might be “good enough” but are nevertheless avoided because they won’t be perfect. The fairytale always trumps, but the drama never ends.
As for me, I guess I have nothing to pine over because there’s not much related to interpersonal intimacy that I haven’t experienced. I’ve loved people. I’ve woken up smiling with someone else’s head beside mine on the pillow. I’ve known the thrill of a first date, the pain of a break-up, the emptiness of a drunken bar hookup and the joy of bonding with someone over drinks. My closest friends have been with me for going on two decades. If I ever woke up at 2 a.m. with a crisis, I can think of at least five numbers to call off the top of my head where the person on the other end of the line wouldn’t hesitate to leap to my assistance.
I am content. So, having weighed the merits and elected my current path, all I can say is — I think I’ve avoided incurring a regret that would otherwise haunt me in late 2046.

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