The Moral Heroism of Our Coronavirus Response

Our actions defy so much of the glib rhetoric about America.

Dear Reader (Including those of you on a daring mission to retrieve the Titanic’s fabled hoard of luxury toilet paper. Congrats on the economics finally making sense!),

Greetings from quadruped quarantine. 

My wife and daughter left this morning for an undisclosed location to shelter with other members of our family for a while. I am alone, to help man The Dispatch, watch over our four-legged family members, protect our property, eat over the sink and perhaps to so wallow in my own crapulence that I eventually replay Martin Sheen’s hotel room scene from Apocalypse Now

Something interesting is happening among my readers and listeners. Some can’t get enough corona-content. Others are already sick of it. I can understand both attitudes. 

It’s understandable that some people worried about their own health or the health of their family are eager for any news they can get. The same goes for people perhaps equally worried about their livelihood, or their business, or their mortgage. 

But I also sympathize with people who have adopted a more passive approach to the whole thing. It is what it is, and watching the news like it’s a pot of water taking too long to boil won’t hasten events. It’s not like you won’t hear about the big developments if you tune out a bit. In fact, like that pot of water, the fastest way, psychologically, to wait out the process is to focus on other things. I think people should behave responsibly and charitably, but beyond that, the best thing an average person can do is spend most of their time on other stuff, like playing Monopoly with your kids or, if you live alone,  finally sculpting that giant mashed-potato replica of Devil’s Tower or counting the F-bombs in Scarface

Spoiler alert: it’s 207 (A buddy and I counted in high school). 

Amazingly, that places Scarface at only 56 out of the top 100.

Adopting this attitude doesn’t mean you, uh, don’t give an F about what’s happening, it just means you’re adapting to what’s happening.

In defense of The Dispatch and yours truly, we have no choice but to err on the side of over-covering this story. Even if this pandemic isn’t as terrible as some in the past, it’s still the Ron Burgundy of stories—kind of a big deal. But, we won’t take our eye off all the other balls out there. 

Un-QUALY-fied pro-life America. 

I am not where the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal is on the pandemic, but I’m more sympathetic than some of my friends and colleagues. The economic toll all of all of this really can’t be exaggerated (though some will try!) or dismissed (though others will try!), and that will have profound consequences too. 

A friend of mine said to me he’d rather have a 5 percent greater risk that his mom might die than a 25 percent risk that his kids may have to suffer through a Great Depression. I don’t see it that way, but I don’t think that’s an insane position, either. There are tradeoffs in all government decisions, because there are tradeoffs in all decisions. It’s not immoral to consider the scope of the sacrifices being asked of people.

But whatever the right course of action is—and I basically support what the government is doing, if not in how it helped get us here—it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate how this course of action defies so much of the glib rhetoric about America one hears bandied about. 

While there’s some contrary data, for the most part we know that this virus is predominantly a threat to very old people and a few younger people with secondary ailments. If America was the land of unfettered capitalism where ruthless efficiency and productivity were the only things that mattered, this is not what we would be doing. 

If we were some Capitalist Sparta, we’d be putting old people on figurative ice floes to fend for themselves or pushing them off cliffs, like Paul Ryan in that heinous ad. People older than 80 are not, as a rule, vital cogs in the capitalist machine. If one were to apply the butcher knife of Peter Singer’s ethical pragmatism, we might even be setting up death panels. 

But forget Singer—I know I try to. It’s interesting how the progressive health care reformers aren’t talking about QALYs. This is technocrat-ese for Quality-Adjusted Life Years. A technique used to justify life-saving interventions based upon how many good or “productive” years you have left. Here a good explanation of the approach and here’s another from the Wall Street Journal. This idea, if not this precise technique, was discussed a lot during the fight over Obamacare. In countries with single-payer systems, it’s just a fancy way of talking about rationing health care, based on the perceived need of the rationers, not the patients. And you can be sure that if we had Medicare for All, this would be precisely how we’d handle health care. Many progressive health care economists routinely talk about the benefits of a QALY approach—when there isn’t a pandemic. 

Well, here’s some back-of-the-envelope math. Say the U.S. economy is $20 trillion. Let’s also estimate that we’re looking at a 5 percent hit, which equals $1 trillion. Now suppose that we save 1 million lives, instead of the, say, 2 million we might lose if we did nothing or less than what we’re doing now. That would be $1 million per life saved. If the hit to the economy is greater than 5 percent, the cost per life saved—overwhelmingly the lives of old and sick people—the higher the cost would be. 

Now, I don’t think we should let this kind of thinking be our guide, and apparently neither do all the progressive health care wonks, because none of them have dared to say anything like this. And neither have all the supposed fetishists of the free market. Even the Wall Street Journal is merely saying that the current approach is not sustainable indefinitely—and they may be right. 

And, yeah, I understand there are other reasons to respond the way we have. An overwhelmed medical system is bad for everyone. But if we just ordered all the old folks into quarantine, fewer Americans would be inconvenienced and we’d see less economic damage. We’re not doing that. 

The simple fact is that this country is doing something morally heroic. I hate metaphorical war rhetoric, but we’re taking the “millions for defense, not one penny for tribute” approach to this. 

It may not work. It may not last. It may not make the most sense economically. But we’re doing it anyway. And that is something that should be appreciated not just for the “We’re all in it together” platitudes but as a rebuttal to the slanderous way many Americans describe this country. 

Movements shmovements.

There’s another interesting takeaway from all of this. Readers may be aware that I am increasingly convinced that American nationalism and, to a lesser extent, socialism are paper tigers. These supposedly resurgent movements increasingly strike me as intellectual dress-up games. In the great war for nationalism and socialism there are  a lot of generals but not that many soldiers. 

It’s sort of like Star Trek. In the show(s) the captain and the top officers go on all the dangerous away missions while the vast crew stays behind to be props and walk through the hallways like the cast of West Wing. I’ve long joked that if Gene Roddenberry wrote the story of World War II, FDR and Ike would parachute behind enemy lines to take out Hitler and Himmler all by themselves. 

Eggheads and activists on the left and right have been telling us for years that the masses, particularly the youth, crave some grand new transcendent cause that allows them to leap out of the pits of despair, alienation, and anomie that late capitalism has exiled them to. On the left, they’ve tried again and again to make climate change into the moral equivalent of war to mobilize the masses to their preferred policies. On the right, more and more people are using the culture war the same way. 

Well, President Trump is right that this is as close to a war as you can get. And yet, we see videos of young people refusing to forgo the opportunity to pound Jäger shots at a Fort Lauderdale Chili’s or get Chinese character tattoos on their lower backs (that probably say “I have syphilis” or “Kung Pao Chicken—extra spicy.”). 

In fairness, there’s little evidence that young people as a group are especially likely to be slackers in the Great Patriotic War against COVID-19. The truth is people of all ages have responded in different ways to the threat. 

I think the folks who are blowing it off are wrong. But what does their attitude say about efforts like socialism and nationalism that don’t have anything like this kind of threat to galvanize them? A pandemic literally gives government officials the constitutional and legal authority to order people to radically disrupt their lives—and people are still defying it. I think Evangeline Lilly is insanely hot, but that’s not important right now. I also think she’s making an ass of herself. But how many more Evangeline Lillys will there be in America where the government bosses people around based on some abstraction like nationalism or socialism?

Sure, you can say that the socialists and nationalists don’t want to boss people around. But if that’s the case, what is the point? If it’s just a slogan to throw around, you’re making my point. If it’s something real, it necessarily involves imposing one vision on the whole country.  At least the post-liberal Catholic integralists (there’s a banner for the masses!) are honest about wanting to impose their definition of the Highest Good on everyone. One of their generals is actually furious that the Catholic Church is canceling masses out of a desire to save lives. One has to wonder how mad he’ll be if the wrong “one-size-fits-all” ideologue gets in power. 

The people who want some new, post-liberal reorienting of society need to offer an answer for what they will do when the cats refuse to be herded. 

Still, I am very worried about the damage being done to capitalism during this crisis—even if I think it is necessary. Progressive economic planners used the statism of Wilson’s “war socialism” to massively transform the American order once they had a chance. “We planned in war!” they cried during the 1920s until they seized the reins and planned in peace. I am positive I’ll spend the rest of my life arguing with people who will offer some version of “We planned during the pandemic!” You can be sure that once we’re through with all of this, both the AOC and Rusty Reno types will use the steps being taken now as proof that the government can simply will into existence whatever economic system they want. And it will fall to members of the (classically) liberal remnant to point out that income inequality isn’t like a pandemic—and neither is Drag Queen Story Hour. 

Various & Sundry

Dispatch update: As I said above, we’re all working through this pandemic full speed ahead. But that doesn’t mean it’s business as usual. Social distancing is not a friend of shoe-leather reporting. But we’re adjusting. We’re even going to be rolling out some new wares in the weeks ahead. (We’ve also gotten some good write-ups in the professional press.) 

Also, we’re not going to hector you as much about becoming a paid member of The Dispatch because we understand that peoples’ budgets are being squeezed (though if you can afford it, we’d love to have you). But if you like our stuff, we’d be grateful if you forwarded it around to folks you think might appreciate it too. Word of mouth is the best kind of marketing, and we appreciate anything our members can do to help. Consider it a birthday present for yours truly. 

Homefront and canine update: Also as I mentioned above, the bipedal ladies are gone. It’s a bit sad, but for a bunch of reasons it made sense. They made me an early birthday cake last night, which is good because I’m suffering from a bout of diverticulitis and soft foods are my friend. Anyway, the doggers were very, very angry about all the luggage moving around this morning. Many a Dingo “arroooo” filled the air. But once they realized I was staying behind they calmed down a bit. Many of you have asked why Pippa doesn’t have her brace yet. The short answer is the vet dropped the ball, and we dropped the ball following up with them. She should have it next week. In sad news, one of Zoë and Pippa’s best friends is very sick and we’re all very appreciative of the kindness shown by folks on Twitter. Anyway, with me flying solo, and with so many people looking for a good canine (or feline) distraction, you can be sure there will be many videos of the beasts on Twitter in the days ahead, including some greatest hits. Stay safe and healthy everybody. 

ICYMI

Biden shouldn’t let Sanders push him around

The first Remnant of the week, with fan-favorite Chris Stirewalt

Biting political commentary from … the Top Chef guy?

The second Remnant of the week, with cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand

China’s weaponizing something, and it isn’t COVID

And now, the weird stuff

Modern problems require modern solutions

Musician forced to cancel tour, makes new music from home instead

Memes, for science

I won’t let them take this away from me, too

Photograph of the Castro Theater in San Francisco by Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images.