May 25, 2020

The Dialectics of Liberty: Camplin Colloquy Published on Medium.com

Medium.com has just published an edited version of a colloquy that was featured on The Dialectics of Liberty Study Group, devoted to the systematic discussion of the essays in The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom, co-edited by Roger Bissell, Chris Matthew Sciabarra, and Ed Younkins.

Chapter 18, "Aesthetics, Ritual, Property, and Fish: A Dialectical Approach to the Evolutionary Foundations of Property," by Troy Camplin, was the subject of discussion from March 29th through April 4th.

It has now been published as a self-contained piece on the Medium.com site and can be viewed here.

The inclusion of Camplin's essay in this trailblazing anthology is yet one more illustration of the book's wide scope and Big Tent approach to the dialectical-libertarian research project.

Much more exciting news about the book, forthcoming reviews, and symposia to come... stay tuned!

May 23, 2020

The Dialectics of Liberty: McCloskey Colloquy Published in Poroi

Poroi: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Rhetorical Analysis and Invention has just published "Rhetoric, Dialectic, and Dogmatism: A Colloquy on Deirdre Nansen McCloskey’s 'Free Speech, Rhetoric, and a Free Economy'" [pdf link] in its May 2020 issue (vol. 45, no. 2), as part of its 45th anniversary edition. This is the final, edited version of the discussion that emerged from the Dialectics of Liberty Facebook Study Group.

Thanks to all of our participants, who are credited in the article, and to Deirdre McCloskey for facilitating the publication of this colloquy, extending the reach of The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom, the anthology I co-edited with Roger Bissell and Ed Younkins.

May 20, 2020

Song of the Day #1788

Song of the Day: Stuck with U features the words and music of a host of writers, including the two who duet on this tune: Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber. The song debuts at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart this week. It's got a retro doo-wop feel, and an adorable video that is a sign of the times [YouTube link]. All the proceeds from the song are being donated to the First Responders Children's Foundation.

May 15, 2020

Coronavirus (25): Joseph "Joe Pisa" Sanfratello, RIP

On May 12, 2020, our neighborhood lost the proprietor of Pisa Pork Store on West 6th Street and Kings Highway in Brooklyn, New York, a block or so from our home. He was Joseph "Joe Pisa" Sanfratello, a "legend" to all those who knew of the wonderful store he helped create and sustain all these years to serve loyal customers who came from near and far because they were grateful for the A+ quality of the foods he sold and the A+++ hospitality of Joe, his family, and his workers.

Where else could you get a piece of fresh mozzarella or a rice ball---handed to you by Joe himself---while you waited on line to finally put in your order? You'd go into that store figuring you'd purchase a few items, only to walk out with bagfuls of Italian delicacies, cold cuts, and homemade meals prepared with love.

Joe was one more casualty in our Brooklyn neighborhood from COVID-19. Today, there will be a private family visitation at Cusimano and Russo Funeral Home and a committal service at Saint John Cemetery in Middle Village, New York. We wrote in his online memory book:

Our hearts are broken to read of the passing of Joe. Our deepest condolences to all his family and friends; we will miss him very much. Our neighborhood and community are greatly diminished without him.
Love always,
The Sciabarra Famly

Outside Pisa Pork Store, a makeshift memorial has formed; the sign outside the store promises that they'll be back before too long. And I might add: So will all of New York!

RIP, Joe.

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May 14, 2020

Song of the Day #1787

Song of the Day: Elegy for Barbara [YouTube link], composed by Roger E. Bissell, was written in memory of writer and lecturer Barbara Branden. Today is the 91st anniversary of Barbara's birth [YouTube link]. Having passed away on 11 December 2013, she left behind a wonderful personal and intellectual legacy. I was proud to have written the Foreword to her posthumously published book, Think as If Your Life Depends On It: Principles of Efficient Thinking and Other Lectures. You remain deep in my heart, dear friend.

May 12, 2020

Coronavirus (24): Three Cheers for the Ol' Folks

Having previously addressed one of the more absurd episodes during this Corona-Crisis with regard to calls for old folks to sacrifice themselves for the common good, I was happy to read three human interest stories that I found uplifting in the extreme.

Submitted for your approval: the case of one Maria Rodriguez, 87 years old:

When Brooklyn great-grandmother Maria Rodriguez realized she was losing her fight with coronavirus at home, she braced herself for the worst. She checked into NYU Langone Hospital-Brooklyn on Monday. And then she told her daughter, Norma Collado, to be strong and to be patient if she couldn’t be buried right away. She asked that her great grandchildren be taken to the cemetery to see her off when the time came. And she put fresh nail polish on her fingernails so the mortician wouldn’t have to. "The color was purple, like a lilac," Collado said. But as it turned out, the 87-year-old Rodriguez was stronger than the coronavirus that put her in the hospital. Rodriguez, of Borough Park, is now recovering at her daughter’s home in Perth Amboy. Three days after she entered the hospital---eight days after she first fell ill---Rodriguez became the 850th patient who tested positive with coronavirus to be discharged from NYU Langone Hospital-Brooklyn.

I'm all the more happy to hear about how well NYU Langone is handling this situation; I was due to have a lithotripsy there in mid-March, for a stone that has taken up residence in my left kidney since the summer of 2018. Right now, "elective" surgeries are still not available in NYC. But even if they were, as long as my stone continues to defy the laws of gravity, I'm electing to stay as far away from any medical facility in this city for as long as I can. Yes, hospitalizations and intubations are down in the state and in the city, and for two straight days, we have had death toll tallies of under 200 per day. Given a plateau of nearly 800 deaths per day... there is cause for some optimism.

With the gradual improvement of the situation here in the Big Apple, there was another news item in the New York Daily News that was just as nice to read. Score another one for the Ol' Folks.

Submitted for your approval: the case of Tony Vaccaro, 97 years old, famous war photographer:

Tony Vaccaro's mother died in childbirth, and at a tender age he also lost his father to tuberculosis. By age 5 he was ... orphaned in Italy, enduring beatings from an uncle. As an American GI during World War II he survived the Battle of Normandy. Now, a celebrated wartime and celebrity photographer at age 97, he is getting over a bout with COVID-19. He attributes his longevity to "blind luck, red wine" and determination. ... Vaccaro lives in Queens, a New York City borough ravaged by the novel coronavirus, next to his son Frank, his twin grandsons and his daughter-in-law Maria, who manages his archive of 500,000 photographs. He might have caught the virus in April from his son or while walking in their neighbourhood, his daughter-in-law said. He was in the hospital for only two days with mild symptoms and spent another week recovering. Then he surprised everyone by getting up and shaving. "That was it," she said. "He’s walking around like nothing happened."

Since this virus has ravaged the elderly, news about an 87-year old great grandmother and a 97-year old celebrated photographer beating the virus is an inspiration. But they're practically kids next to this next victor!

Submitted for your approval: Frances Abbraciamento, who turned 107 on May 9th:

Centenarian Frances Abbracciamento of Queens had caught a cold in late March during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic in New York. Days later the 106-year-old was diagnosed with pneumonia, and her four children prepared for the worst. "We really thought we were going to lose her," her daughter, Alda Spina, told the Daily News. But by the end of April, Abbracciamento ... had made a near-full recovery---and it was only then that her family learned she had survived coronavirus. "We couldn't believe it," said Spina, who received her mom's COVID-19 test results on April 21. "I never thought in a million years she would survive it. People don't survive it."

I am reminded of that 1962 third season "Twilight Zone" episode, "Kick the Can," wherein Rod Serling reminds us, in his closing narration "that childhood, maturity, and old age are curiously intertwined and not separate."

Three cheers to these three ol' folks for having "kicked the can" down the road... and survived their respective bouts with COVID-19. Here's to kicking the can down the road for the thousands of others affected by this pandemic.

May 11, 2020

Coronavirus (23): Mutual Aid During a Pandemic (or Three Cheers for the Volunteers!)

There is a really wonderful, thought-provoking article in New Yorker magazine: "What Mutual Aid Can Do During a Pandemic: A Radical Practice is Suddenly Getting Mainstream Attention. Will it Change How We Help One Another?" by Jia Tolentino. It heralds the greatness of the "Invisible Hand" that guides mutual aid among caring, human beings, in the midst of a pandemic.

Here are a few takeaway points from the article---a rather extraordinary piece to be found in such a mainstream magazine. Of special attention to freedom-lovers is its citing of journalist Rose Wilder Lane, whose book, The Discovery of Freedom, was published in the same year as Isabel Paterson's The God of the Machine and Ayn Rand's novel, The Fountainhead.

In the midst of World War II, these three women, whose books were all published in 1943, heralded the birth of the modern libertarian movement. From the Tolentino article:

We are not accustomed to destruction looking, at first, like emptiness. The coronavirus pandemic is disorienting in part because it defies our normal cause-and-effect shortcuts to understanding the world. The source of danger is invisible; the most effective solution involves willing paralysis; we won't know the consequences of today's actions until two weeks have passed. Everything circles a bewildering paradox: other people are both a threat and a lifeline. Physical connection could kill us, but civic connection is the only way to survive.
In March, even before widespread workplace closures and self-isolation, people throughout the country began establishing informal networks to meet the new needs of those around them. In Aurora, Colorado, a group of librarians started assembling kits of essentials for the elderly and for children who wouldn't be getting their usual meals at school. Disabled people in the Bay Area organized assistance for one another; a large collective in Seattle set out explicitly to help "Undocumented, LGBTQI, Black, Indigenous, People of Color, Elderly, and Disabled, folxs who are bearing the brunt of this social crisis." Undergrads helped other undergrads who had been barred from dorms and cut off from meal plans. Prison abolitionists raised money so that incarcerated people could purchase commissary soap. And, in New York City, dozens of groups across all five boroughs signed up volunteers to provide child care and pet care, deliver medicine and groceries, and raise money for food and rent. Relief funds were organized for movie-theatre employees, sex workers, and street venders. Shortly before the city's restaurants closed, on March 16th, leaving nearly a quarter of a million people out of work, three restaurant employees started the Service Workers Coalition, quickly raising more than twenty-five thousand dollars to distribute as weekly stipends. Similar groups, some of which were organized by restaurant owners, are now active nationwide.
As the press reported on this immediate outpouring of self-organized voluntarism, the term applied to these efforts, again and again, was "mutual aid," which has entered the lexicon of the coronavirus era alongside "social distancing" and "flatten the curve." It's not a new term, or a new idea, but it has generally existed outside the mainstream. Informal child-care collectives, transgender support groups, and other ad-hoc organizations operate without the top-down leadership or philanthropic funding that most charities depend on. There is no comprehensive directory of such groups, most of which do not seek or receive much attention. But, suddenly, they seemed to be everywhere.
On March 17th, I signed up for a new mutual-aid network in my neighborhood, in Brooklyn, and used a platform called Leveler to make micropayments to out-of-work freelancers. Then I trekked to the thirty-five-thousand-square-foot Fairway in Harlem to meet Liam Elkind, a founder of Invisible Hands, which was providing free grocery delivery to the elderly, the ill, and the immunocompromised in New York. Elkind, a junior at Yale, had been at his family's place, in Morningside Heights, for spring break when the crisis began. Working with his friends Simone Policano, an artist, and Healy Chait, a business major at N.Y.U., he built the group's sleek Web site in a day. During the next ninety-six hours, twelve hundred people volunteered; some of them helped to translate the organization's flyer into more than a dozen languages and distributed copies of it to buildings around the city. By the time I met him, Elkind and his co-founders had spoken to people hoping to create Invisible Hands chapters in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, and Chicago. The group was featured on "Fox & Friends," in a segment about young people stepping up in the pandemic; the co-host Brian Kilmeade encouraged viewers to send in more "inspirational stories and photos of people doing great things." ...
Radicalism has been at the heart of mutual aid since it was introduced as a political idea. In 1902, the Russian naturalist and anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin---who was born a prince in 1842, got sent to prison in his early thirties for belonging to a banned intellectual society, and spent the next forty years as a writer in Europe---published the book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. Kropotkin identifies solidarity as an essential practice in the lives of swallows and marmots and primitive hunter-gatherers; cooperation, he argues, was what allowed people in medieval villages and nineteenth-century farming syndicates to survive. That inborn solidarity has been undermined, in his view, by the principle of private property and the work of state institutions. Even so, he maintains, mutual aid is "the necessary foundation of everyday life" in downtrodden communities, and "the best guarantee of a still loftier evolution of our race."
Charitable organizations are typically governed hierarchically, with decisions informed by donors and board members. Mutual-aid projects tend to be shaped by volunteers and the recipients of services. Both mutual aid and charity address the effects of inequality, but mutual aid is aimed at root causes---at the structures that created inequality in the first place. ...
Historically, in the United States, mutual-aid networks have proliferated mostly in communities that the state has chosen not to help. The peak of such organizing may have come in the late sixties and early seventies, when Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries opened a shelter for homeless trans youth, in New York, and the Black Panther Party started a free-breakfast program, which within its first year was feeding twenty thousand children in nineteen cities across the country. J. Edgar Hoover worried that the program would threaten "efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for"; a few years later, the federal government formalized its own breakfast program for public schools.
Crises can intensify the antagonism between the government and mutual-aid workers. Dozens of cities restrict community efforts to feed the homeless; in 2019, activists with No More Deaths, a group that leaves water and supplies in border-crossing corridors, were tried on federal charges, including driving in a wilderness area and "abandoning property." But disasters can also force otherwise opposing sides to work together. During Hurricane Sandy, the National Guard, in the face of government failure, relied on the help of an Occupy Wall Street offshoot, Occupy Sandy, to distribute supplies.
"Anarchists are not absolutist," Spade, the lawyer and activist, told me. "We can believe in a diversity of tactics." ... The day-to-day practice of mutual aid is simpler. It is a matter, she said, of "prefiguring the world in which you want to live.” ... In her book Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America, the Harvard political scientist Nancy L. Rosenblum considers the American fondness for acts of neighborly aid and cooperation, both in ordinary times, as with the pioneer practice of barn raising, and in periods of crisis. In Rosenblum's view, "there is little evidence that disaster generates an appetite for permanent, energetic civic engagement." On the contrary, "when government and politics disappear from view as they do, we are left with the not-so-innocuous fantasy of ungoverned reciprocity as the best and fully adequate society." She cites the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, who helped her mother craft classic narratives of neighborly kindness and became a libertarian who opposed the New Deal and viewed Social Security as a Ponzi scheme. ...
All the organizers I spoke to expressed a version of the hope that, after we emerge from isolation, much more will seem possible, that we will expect more of ourselves and of one another, that we will be permanently struck by the way our actions depend on and affect people we may never see or know.

Whether or not you like the politics of some of the folks cited, the whole article is worthy of your attention.

And three cheers for the volunteers.

May 10, 2020

Song of the Day #1786

Song of the Day: Mother features the words and music of Billy Walsh, Ryan Tedder, Louis Bell, Andrew Watt, and Charlie Puth, who released this song in September 2019 [YouTube link]. Check out the video single [YouTube link], with its shuffle beat, and then check out a host of remixes by Fedde Le Grand, Codeko, CPEN and Meridian [YouTube links]. This song has absolutely nothing to do with Mother's Day, but it gives me an opportunity to say Happy Mother's Day to all the mothers out there!

May 09, 2020

Song of the Day #1785

Song of the Day: Tutti Fruiti features the words and music of Dorothy LaBostrie and Little Richard (aka Richard Wayne Penniman), who died today at the age of 87. His flamboyant, charismatic showmanship combined the "sacred" shouts of gospel the "profane" sounds of the blues. He would be dubbed "The Innovator, The Originator, and the Architect of Rock and Roll." His influence on American popular music has been felt across musical genres from rhythm and blues to rock, soul, funk, and hip hop. A Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Little Richard opened this signature song with that classic cry of "A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-bom"---practically announcing, in 1955, that a new era had arrived. Ranked as #1 on Mojo's "Top 100 Records That Changed the World," the song was later included on the artist's 1957 debut album, "Here's Little Richard". Check out this rock and roll classic [YouTube link]. RIP, Little Richard.

May 08, 2020

Coronavirus (22): Spring Cleaning (Or Three Cheers for Sanitation Workers!)

In July 2019, I was still clearing up the last 50 boxes of over 250 boxes of papers and other items that had been packed by a professional cleaning service in the days after October 10, 2013---when a fire, which nearly consumed our apartment and took our precious lives, was extinguished by the heroic efforts of the FDNY.

Yes, my sister and I grieved for all the treasures that we lost---gifts from our parents that could never be replaced, and objects of great sentimental value. But we count our blessings that we were alive to grieve those losses! I also counted my blessings that, after six years of reorganizing my entire file system, restructuring my entire library, I finally completed the task of going through those 50 boxes last July. I generated over 25 bags of recyclable paper each week for four straight weeks, and was in touch with the Sanitation Department workers at the B11 Sanitation Garage, which services the neighborhoods in South Brooklyn (Bath Beach, Bensonhurst, and my very own beloved Gravesend), to give them a heads-up that they should expect a large haul from our address. Each week, I came to expect the best service from these guys, who break their butts day-in, day-out to keep our streets clean.

During this Coronavirus crisis in NYC, I haven't heard a single public official give a shout out to the "essential workers" of the Sanitation Department who face great personal risk every day, picking up garbage from every neighborhood in the city. I had the occasion to call BK11 last night, before they picked up our garbage in the wee hours of Friday morning, and the supervisor was informed that they should expect yet another large haul from our address. Indeed, we've been doing a little spring cleaning.

As the worker on the phone told me: "Everybody is home and it seems that everybody is doing spring cleaning at the same time! So I don't know how much we can handle, but we'll do our best." He expressed frustration over the fact that his coworkers were among the "unsung heroes" during this crisis in our city, and I couldn't agree with him more. I told him that I'd be proud to give them a shout-out on my blog, and he told me, "I don't do social media." I told him, "Well, I do, and I will be happy to express my appreciation to you guys for all the hard work you do." He chuckled, before hanging up, and said: "Well, hold off on that buddy... let's see if they pick up your garbage. But I'll inform the supervisor!"

When I awoke this morning, all of the recyclables and regular household garbage had been picked up, and I just smiled.

So, this is not a post filled with statistics or political theorizing. It is a simple expression of gratitude to the folks who continue to haul our trash away, twice a week, during a time when cleanliness is next to godliness.

Thanks guys!

May 06, 2020

I'm Alive!

If one more person asks me to please post a pic so that they can judge for themselves whether I'm alive or not ... sheesh... well, here it is. Haircut self-administered... throwing caution to the wind!

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Of course, one of my FB pals wanted further proof... with the front page of today's "New York Daily News". The headline "OLD-AGE HOME OF HORRORS" does not refer to either me or my home, thankyouverymuch.

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May 05, 2020

Coronavirus (21): Lockdowns, Libertarians, and Liberation

[On Facebook, I posted the following introduction to this essay: This is the twenty-first installment in my discussion of the Coronavirus and its implications. It is as much a self-critique as it is a critique of other points of view; it is also an examination of the fault lines I have witnessed over the years that have torn at the soul of libertarian thinking. It started out as a piece that aired my disgust with some of the attitudes I've encountered; it ended as an appeal to human empathy.]

On February 16, 1967, NBC aired the twenty-second episode in Season 1 of "Star Trek"; it was called "Space Seed," known to Trekkies as the episode that introduced the world to the character Khan Noonien Singh, he who would come back with fury in the 1982 film, "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan."

For those who aren't familiar with this episode, the Starship Enterprise intercepts the SS Botany Bay, a spacecraft with 84 humans aboard, in suspended animation. Only 72 of them survive, including Khan, all of them products of a selective breeding program that led to the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s. Khan led these genetic superhumans to conquer one third of the world, until they were driven to abandon planet Earth.

Toward the beginning of the episode, when all the facts of the unfolding mystery of Botany Bay have not yet been made clear, there's an interesting exchange between Captain James T. Kirk (played by William Shatner) and the ever-logical Vulcan, Mr. Spock (played by Leonard Nimoy):

Kirk: So much for my theory. I'm still waiting to hear yours.

Spock: Even a theory requires some facts, Captain. So far, I have none.

Kirk: And that irritates you, Mr. Spock?

Spock: Irritation?

Kirk: Yeah.

Spock: I am not capable of that emotion.

Kirk: My apologies, Mr. Spock. You suspect some danger, then?

Spock: Insufficient facts always invite danger, Captain.

Kirk: Well, better get some facts.

I recently saw this episode after many years, and just shook my head, thinking of how timely that advice is in the midst of the current coronavirus pandemic.

While I'm going to do my best to deal with "some facts," I am not a Vulcan. As a human being, I am very much prone to feeling "irritation." This post is going to express a lot of irritation. But it is a cathartic exercise, one that I hope will go a long way toward healing some of the divisions I've seen among many people who call themselves "libertarians." Rather than "disown" such an emotion, I'm just going to get it off my chest. A wise psychologist once told me: "Don't keep anything in! Give the other guy the ulcer!"

Well, I don't wish any ulcers on anybody, anymore than I wish that the "naysayers" among us get coronavirus and die just to prove a point.

Since I started blogging explicitly about coronavirus (and this is the twenty-first post on that subject, beginning with a March 14, 2020 entry), I have lost count of the number of times that I have found myself irritated---or downright outraged---over the kinds of things I have heard coming out of the mouths of self-described libertarians.

In this post, I am focused primarily on libertarian responses to the virus because that is the community with which I've been associated for the bulk of my professional and intellectual life, albeit advocating a "dialectical libertarianism" that has always tried to push my colleagues and friends toward a greater understanding of the larger context within which human freedom flourishes---or dies. But this confession of my irritation with some folks is as much a therapeutic exercise that I urge everyone to embrace, no matter where you stand on the current debate. Better self-understanding goes hand-in-hand with a better understanding of those with whom you disagree. It also tends to shed more light than heat. And, Lord knows, we've had a lot of heat over these last two months.

For the record, I'll just state the obvious: As a radical libertarian (or radical liberal, in the classical sense), I am typically irritated with folks on both the socialist left and the nationalist right who have never met a crisis they would not use as a means of increasing government power in the spheres of their respective interest for "the common good." But critique must begin at home. And since I find so much discord in my libertarian home, I feel the need for even greater self-examination. I won't allow irritation with others to cloud my vision of their humanity or their very real concerns.

Pandemics as the Pretext for Advancing Statism

Nevertheless, as part of this therapeutic exercise, I wish to make explicit the very first time I began to feel a level of irritation with some of my libertarian colleagues. It came from those who first declared it a hoax or an exaggeration, being used by those in power who sought to augment the power of the state over our lives. To be generous, many of these folks come from a "good" place; they are understandably concerned with the history of corrupt entanglements that mark the state-science nexus, which has given us every instrument of mass terror and every weapon of mass destruction in the modern era. They see that with advancing government control over our society in the name of an emergency, there comes a form of militarization that starts to infect the body politic in ways that are just as insidious as the virus itself.

I am deeply aware of the importance of this issue. As I pointed out in my second Notablog entry on the coronavirus, "Disease and Dictatorship":

First, there is a need to put all this into a larger context with regard to the policies of the Chinese government [which dealt with the first outbreak of the virus in the city of Wuhan]. This is the same government that has maintained concentration camps (euphemistically described as "re-education camps") for nearly two million Muslims, while waging war on those seeking freedom from Beijing's control over the people of Hong Kong. So the "Chinese model" continues to be an authoritarian one, whether it is used to contain people or pandemics. I don't know all the answers on how to confront a pandemic, but clearly the draconian measures enacted by some of those in power will have an impact that far outlasts the containment of any disease. Most governments have referred to this as a war, but all wars have always been accompanied by a vast increase in the role of the state in ways that never quite go-back to "pre-war" levels. This isn't a call to anarchy (at least not yet...)---but it is a call to vigilance on behalf of human liberty, even in the face of a dreaded disease.

Indeed, as my friend Pete Boettke recently reminded us, it was in volume three of Law, Legislation, and Liberty that F. A. Hayek warned:

"Emergencies" have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded---and once they are suspended it is not difficult for anyone who has assumed such emergency powers to see to it that the emergency persists.

The Problem of Confirmation Bias

But there was something about the early response to the coronavirus as a "hoax" or an "exaggeration" that was eerily familiar to me. Back in the 1980s, when HIV/AIDS was killing off a generation of gay men in the West (while ravaging a largely heterosexual population in Africa), some libertarians (including those influenced by Ayn Rand), ever fearful of those who proposed a growing governmental role in both medical research and in locking down bathhouses that were transmission belts for promiscuous, unsafe sex, grabbed onto the work of the molecular biologist Peter Duesberg, who played a major role in what became known as the AIDS denialism controversy. Duesberg was among those dissenting scientists who argued that there was no connection between HIV and AIDS, and that gay men were dying en masse because of recreational and pharmaceutical drug use, and then, later, by the use of AZT, an early antiviral treatment to combat those with symptoms of the disease.

If the scientific community had accepted Duesberg's theories, hundreds of thousands of people would be dead today. The blood supply would never have been secured, since HIV screening of blood donors would never have become public policy, and countless thousands of people receiving blood transfusions would have been infected by HIV and would have subsequently died from opportunistic infections. A whole array of "cocktail" drugs were developed that have targeted HIV, the virus that causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, and they have been effective in keeping people alive, reducing their viral load down to undetectable levels, boosting their T-cell counts, and allowing them to go on to live normal, productive, and creative lives. Still, safe sex remains the mantra of the day.

So, while many libertarians have been at the forefront of rolling back the state's interference in people's personal lives, advocating the elimination of discriminatory anti-sodomy and marriage laws, there were some libertarians who, early on, in the AIDS epidemic, grabbed onto Duesberg's theories as scientific proof that the whole HIV/AIDS thing was a pretext for the expansion of the state-science nexus. Confirmation bias is an especially strong urge for anyone with strong convictions. All the more reason to constantly check one's premises, as Rand once urged.

My own libertarian approach has always had a dialectical hue---which means that I try not to jump to conclusions with ideological blinders, without first addressing the real conditions that exist, and placing them within a larger context. No state can wipe the canvas clean; the historical attempts to do so have left oceans of human blood in their wake.

And yet, each of us is part of the very canvas on which we wish to leave our mark. This must be recognized especially by those of us who offer a political vision for a noncoercive society free of oppression.

So I can't wipe my own canvas clean. Just as I remain a hard-core libertarian, I am also a New Yorker to my core. And I've seen up close and personal the death and destruction that this virus has caused to the people in my state and in the city of my birth, the city where I will stay until the day I die---because no terrorists, no viruses, will ever drive me away from the place I call home. It is deeply saddening to see my hometown re-discovering, yet again, what it means to be crowned "Ground Zero."

When New York first earned the "Ground Zero" distinction, back on September 11, 2001, the ideological fissures in the libertarian movement were just as apparent. Neoconservatives were leading the way, not merely to strike back at those responsible for the terrorist attacks, but to begin a "nation-building" crusade, with no regard for the cultural or historical context of the countries impacted by their wrongheaded policies. What followed was a vast expansion of the National Security State through the Patriot Act (opposed by only three Republicans in the House of Representatives), which continues to be used in ways unrelated to "Homeland Security," further eroding civil liberties in this country. An unjustified war in Iraq destabilized the entire region, leading to unintended consequences that will be with us for generations to come.

At the time, I found myself at odds with many libertarians of a more "Objectivist" bent who wanted to annihilate the Middle East with nuclear weapons, unconcerned with the side effects of, say, a nuclear winter. Times were tough for any libertarian, like myself, who argued that 9/11 was primarily a blow-back event brought about by years of brutal US intervention abroad, but who also condemned the mass murder of thousands of innocent civilians by Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda in their terrorist attacks on that tragic day. I supported targeted strikes against Al Qaeda, while also arguing that the United States should get the hell out of the Middle East and the rest of the world's hot spots. I was called a "traitor" by many in Objectivist circles. It never phased these folks that Rand herself had opposed US entrance into World War II, and actively opposed US wars in Korea and Vietnam, the latter, while troops were on the ground, even counseling draftees to get good attorneys, because she was also opposed to military conscription. Unlike her progeny, she saw that there was a highly toxic, organic relationship between domestic interventionism at home and "pull-peddling" interventionism abroad.

Ironically, one of those Objectivists who favored the war in Iraq was Robert Tracinski. Today, I find myself in greater agreement with Tracinski, especially in a recent, wide-ranging essay, which dissects the arguments of those who downplay the impact of COVID-19, people like Richard Epstein, Michael Fumento, Tucker Carlson, Britt Hume, Glenn Beck, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick (whom I excoriated here) and various Objectivists. Tracinski criticizes those who argue that

"there are no libertarians in a pandemic,” the idea that the coronavirus response proves how much we need Big Government. ... But there has also been an attempt to portray the pandemic as an overblown hysteria, a hoax designed to impose dictatorship on us in the form of mandatory social isolation. The unstated premise is that if the pandemic were real, it actually would make the case for Big Government, so therefore it cannot be admitted to be a genuine threat. ... The basic facts are that this virus spreads more quickly and easily than the flu and is about ten times more deadly, with a mortality rate in the neighborhood of one to two percent. ... This is not the Black Death or Ebola, diseases with mortality rates of about 50%, and I have no doubt there are eras in history when a mortality rate of 2% would barely have been noticed. But we are very fortunate not to live in one of those eras. Given our high standards of medical care and low death rates from other causes, COVID-19 produces dramatic increases in mortality to levels far above the norm. And just in terms of absolute numbers, a morality rate of one to two percent means that its unchecked spread would be likely to produce a death toll in the millions in the US alone, in the span of just a year. By comparison, a little over 400,000 Americans died in all of World War II. I don't know by what standard a potential death toll greater than that of a major war would not be considered a catastrophe. ... The point is that this is not "fake news" coming from the left-wing media. It is really happening, and people we know are trying to tell us about it.

Facing Facts

In the face of growing evidence, it does seem that the "hoax" theory has ebbed in most libertarian circles. But there are still those who hang onto the belief that this whole "pandemic" (in scare quotes) is overblown and nothing to worry about, except for those older folks with pre-existing conditions (like me, for example), who are going to die at some point anyway (aren't we all?). It's the kind of stance that leads people to view libertarians as not having a single empathetic bone in their crippled bodies.

And some of these folks have claimed further that the New York statistics in particular are being artificially "inflated" to prolong the current lockdown. I addressed that issue directly in this post, and I have yet to receive a satisfactory response to it.

While it may take years to truly understand the full story of this virus, in the end, I must begin with the evidence of my own senses. As I related in that "Reality Check" post cited above, it was on the last day of February that I sat in an Emergency Room at Mount Sinai Brooklyn, dealing with some complications from a lifelong medical condition, and could not believe the growing volume of patients being ushered in for immediate care. The EMTs, doctors, and nurses, all expressed astonishment over the number of people who were reporting upper respiratory distress. The warning signs for COVID-19 precautions were plastered all over the ER that night; it was only a preamble to all that was to come. As it turned out, this was the day before the very first reported death in New York state attributed to COVID-19. Since that date, Mount Sinai Brooklyn has been overwhelmed.

I have spoken to scores of doctors, nurses, EMTs, and first responders, and neighbors from all over the tri-state area. The horror stories I'm being told by people I trust implicitly make the statistics pale by comparison. The bodies are piling up faster than the hospital morgues or the funeral homes can handle. In the Flatlands section of Brooklyn, not far from my neighborhood, friends of mine have complained about the odor of decomposing bodies being stored in U-Haul trucks outside the Andrew Cleckley Funeral Home on Utica Avenue. The news has reported that between "30 to 60 bodies were being stored in two U-Haul trucks outside the funeral home" in "unsanitary and undignified" conditions. This is the reality in New York.

But anecdotal evidence does not take the place of raw statistics. So let's discuss those statistics, because they will sober-up even the coldest utilitarian minds among us.

Today, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in New York state are at a staggering 320,000+ and rising; the number of deaths attributed to the virus nears 25,000. And, of these, New York City accounts for nearly 19,000 deaths. New York state has a death rate of 126 per 100,000 people; the city itself has a death rate of 219 per 100,000. Even if some of my libertarian colleagues wish to dismiss 20% of these casualties because they are typically listed under the category of "probable" rather than "confirmed" deaths, that still means that in excess of 20,000 people in my home state are dead from this virus in two months. We need to put this in perspective because I'm tired of hearing how accidents kill more people in a year or how influenza and pneumonia kill more people in a year, and nobody talks about it. In a typical year, like, say, 2017, 7,687 people died in accidents and 4,517 people died from the flu and pneumonia in New York state. COVID-19 has now killed more than the annual total of these two leading causes of death combined in this state in just two months. It is therefore astonishing to me how any person would indict the state's healthcare system as somehow to blame for the horrific death toll---whatever problems that are inherent in that system---especially when it has been stretched to its limits, and its doctors, nurses, and first responders have worked heroically to treat and save so many lives.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, throughout the United States, there are over 1.1 million cases, and over 67,000 deaths. But Ryan McMaken drives home a crucial point that is fully cognizant of the catastrophe that has befallen New York and New Jersey, in particular. As of April 25, 2020, New York and New Jersey accounted for more than 51 percent of the COVID-19 deaths in the United States. All the other states combined constituted less than 48.5 percent. "The difference becomes even more stark as we move west and south. New York's death rate is now 22 times as large as Florida's and 25 times that of Alabama. Many states now report total deaths per 100,000 that are one-thirtieth the size of New York's toll. ... Were New York a foreign country, the US's total death rate from COVID-19 would be cut by 36 percent." McMaken argues persuasively that "[t]his wide variation means that other variables---like population density or subway use---were more important. Our correlation coefficient for per-capita death rates vs. the population density was 44%. That suggests New York City might have benefited from its shutdown---but blindly copying New York's policies in places with low COVID-19 death rates, such as my native Wisconsin, doesn't make sense."

McMaken asks an important question, though: "Indeed, these numbers are so high that one wonders if deaths are even being counted properly, or if there is something about New York's medical infrastructure that is especially inferior. Perhaps New York is home to a particularly virulent strain of the disease. Perhaps the disease was in circulation for far longer than the experts insist is the case. The experts don't know the answers to these questions."

Sadly, some of the comments following McMaken's essay only escalated my irritation. Some commentators were practically gleeful that NYC was experiencing such a terrible loss of life---punishment, it appears, for allowing "illegal immigrants" into our domain as a "sanctuary city."

It should be noted that the first hotspot in New York state was not even in New York City proper. It was at a synagogue in New Rochelle. Cases swiftly navigated toward "Jew York City" (yes, that's what one "libertarian" told me before I hung up on him). So let's Blame the Jews! Or blame those damn Italians who came here in droves during and after the holidays to visit their families in New York City! Or blame the gays---who were also responsible for bringing us HIV/AIDS. Or let's just blame New York City itself and its "New York Values"---you know, values such as openness, cosmopolitanism, acceptance, tolerance.

When people attack this city for its virtues, they are attacking the American dream. They speak of liberty but they'd prefer to extinguish that Torch in the Harbor. New York has taken the brunt of this crisis because it is the city that people from all over the world want to visit. It is among the greatest cultural and economic accomplishments in human history. For this New Yorker, it's the greatest city on earth.

So let's examine some more facts that might help to explain why New York has been so badly hit. As we all know, the virus was first manifested in the city of Wuhan, China (and scientists continue to debate whether this was a transmission from another species or some kind of laboratory experiment gone wrong). The CDC reports that "after Chinese authorities halted travel from Wuhan and other cities in Hubei Province on January 23, followed by US restrictions on non-US travelers from China issued on January 31 (effective February 2), air passenger journeys from China decreased 86%, from 505,560 in January to 70,072 in February. However, during February, 139,305 travelers arrived from Italy and 1.74 million from" other European countries, "where the outbreak was spreading widely and rapidly." The pandemic first hit Italy at the end of January, ramping up in February. (Interestingly, northern Italy has the largest concentration of Chinese people in all of Europe, many of them involved in business travel between China and Italy.) The vast majority of travelers from Italy and other European countries came to New York City. Gotham attracts an average of 65 million tourists each year---seeded primarily through the three major airports in the metropolitan area: Newark, JFK, and LaGuardia---and of these over 13.5 million came from overseas last year alone. During the holiday season, about 800,000 tourists per day flood into Rockefeller Center. Citing the CDC study, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo stated: "When you look at the number of flights that came from Europe to ... New York and New Jersey during January, February, up to the close down, 13,000 flights bringing 2.2 million people" came into the metropolitan area. From February 5 through March 16, 2020 alone, nearly 4,000 flights from Europe landed in JFK and Newark Airports, a sobering statistic, given that the vast majority of coronavirus strains were identical to the ones from Europe. And there is growing evidence that mass transit (especially the subways) became one of the chief transmission belts for the spread of the virus. The subways handle between five and six million riders per day, and given that many Latinos and African Americans work at jobs that are least likely to be resituated remotely, it is no coincidence that these communities, which depend on the subways for transit to and from their places of employment, have been disproportionately hurt by this pandemic.

But during this pandemic, as in the days following 9/11, we are seeing once again how New Yorkers are helping their neighbors in every way they know how, and as safely as they can. We are not sheep being led to the slaughter. We are a rowdy bunch. And it didn't take a political lockdown for the vast majority of New Yorkers to respond to the facts of this pandemic. The overwhelming majority of us are social distancing or self-quarantining when symptomatic because it is the most rational thing to do under the conditions that exist here. But through it all, from the growing networks of mutual aid that deliver food to those in need to those working on the healthcare frontlines, this city is showing the guts for which it is known.

Through the concerted efforts of local authorities, healthcare workers, first responders, and the people of this city, things are improving. We are no longer seeing daily deaths hovering at the level of 800 per day. Hospitalizations are down. Intubations are down. New cases are down. And we are now seeing fewer than 300 individuals dying each day. Will there be a second wave? If I had a crystal ball, I'd be able to answer that question.

Opening Up

Moving forward, one of the key principles that must guide our commitment to fully re-opening our communities is that one size does not fit all. The New York "model" is not applicable to Alaska, where only 370 confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been identified and only 9 people have died. Given that there are at least vestiges of federalism still in effect in this country, and that centralized institutions at the federal level often cannot respond with as much immediacy to the situation on the ground as do localized institutions (a Hayekian insight, so-to-speak, applied to governmental entities), different localities will muddle through in different ways, with different timelines. Some regions, like the Northeast corridor, will work in concert because they are far more interconnected in such ways that the actions of one state will invariably impact on other states within that region.

Yes, everything in this world is interconnected in the wider context. If somebody had told me that a December 2019 virus in Wuhan, China would have led to 25,000 deaths in New York by May 2020, I would never have believed it. But contexts are continually evolving over time.

Paying attention to context means paying attention to changing contexts. This is not some NORAD computer playing “Tic Tac Toe” (as in the 1983 film, "WarGames"), where the context never changes and the outcome is always a stalemate. Politicians on both sides of the aisle, who have bungled this from the very beginning, understand that they cannot kill the host, the social economy, upon which their very existence depends.

As Pete Boettke argues, a genuinely realist approach must navigate between the false alternatives of "Romance" and "Cynicism"---the Scylla and Charybdis---that we typically face in all crises that have led to an augmentation of government power:

Romance lead[s] us astray by framing political leaders as saintly geniuses, whereas Cynicism leads us astray by framing the system as completely corrupt and devoid of any hope for improvement. Nothing in the Humean dictum that in designing institutions of government we should assume all men are knaves is either descriptive or hopeless. In fact, the hope in that dictum comes from ... minimizing the loss function in the design from the possibility of knaves ascending to power. It is from constructing the institutional rules of our governance such that bad men can do least harm, rather than assuming that only the best and brightest among us will rise to leadership, or that whatever system of governance we talk about it will devolve into corruption and immorality.
Realism forces us to reason through the tricky incentives that actors face in making their decisions. Realism also forces us to place the theorist in the model itself. Why do theorists choose the theories that they do, why do they make the statements that they do. The old political science "law" that where you stand is a function of where you sit, is just as true for scientists and academics as it is for Senators and Congressmen.

I fully agree with Pete that this pandemic has become a "testing ground" for our biases and ideas. The first step toward freedom is liberation from our ideological blinders. That doesn't mean a renunciation of our core values and convictions. It is an admission that human beings are

fallible yet capable creatures that when given freedom from the oppression of servitude (Crown), dogma (Altar), violence (Sword), and poverty (Plough) ... unleash their creative energies and lead to improvement in not only the material conditions of humanity but physical, spiritual and interpersonal. True radical liberalism is an emancipation doctrine, and seeks to cultivate a social system that exhibits neither discrimination nor dominion, and promises a social system that strives to minimize human suffering while maximizing the chances for human flourishing.

***

On the wall next to my desk, I have a small plaque, gifted to me by my family doctor when I was a young boy, who had emerged from life-saving surgery, after suffering for fourteen years without any diagnosis. It's an "Indian Prayer" and it says: "Grant that I may not criticize my neighbor until I have walked a mile in his moccasins."

I have seen the pain caused by this pandemic on every level, though as someone who has had 60+ surgeries in his life to combat the side effects of my own illness, I naturally share an affinity with those who become sick, for any reason. I have seen neighbors to the right of me and neighbors to the left of me who are sick, dying, or dead.

But I am not oblivious to the other pain that is being experienced by people who are not sick. They too are my neighbors. They are out of work, their unemployment checks are held up, some of them are too "proud" or ashamed to even apply for food stamps, until they realize that they can't afford to feed their own children without some help.

The human costs of this pandemic run deep, among families that are grieving over the loss of loved ones, among those whose businesses may never recover, whose jobs may never reappear, and whose dreams have been aborted. I have seen too much suffering on both sides of this divide.

But if we are to make the case for a new radicalism, each of us must be willing to engage in self-critique, to make transparent and examine our own biases. This must be coupled with a willingness to embrace the very real human need for empathy, the ability to truly share and understand the struggles of other individuals, especially those with whom we may disagree.

Without that empathy, I fear that the things that divide us may become irreparable not just to the libertarian project, but to the ideal of human freedom that we seek.

Postscript: Thank you to Rad Geek for mentioning the Jeffrey Harris study cited here.

Also my thanks to Amir Abbasov for translating this blog essay into Azerbaijanian.

Postscript (12 May 2020): A few additional points were raised by this post on the Facebook Timeline; below are some of my comments in response to reader's questions. One reader wrote that the claim by Boettke and Hayek was "over stated. If there are plenty of ordinary cases where government handling of emergencies is not intended simply to augment state power, we can’t conclude that that’s the case in large scale extraordinary emergencies." I responded:

I would say that this is why we need to study history. Once again, it's evidence that must guide us, not an ideological blueprint. When I look at large-scale events in the twentieth century like World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II, for example, it's pretty clear to me that each of these augmented state power enormously in the United States, and left institutions in place that allowed for further expansions of state power when the crises were over. In fact, the War Collectivism of World War I (part of the War Industries Board, which basically put in place a corporate state of sorts, while the country was on war footing), laid the basis of the corporatism of the New Deal programs, which were further centralized by the War Production Board in World War II. And the policy of "permanent war for permanent peace" throughout the post-war, Cold War era is what ultimately led even Dwight Eisenhower (hardly a radical libertarian) to warn of the excessive influence of a vast military-industrial complex. His 1961 farewell speech is worth quoting at length, for its insight into the ways in which this complex was distorting American social life:
"Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense. We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security alone more than the net income of all United States corporations.
"Now this conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet, we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved. So is the very structure of our society.
"In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together."
Pretty good for a Republican...

I added:

My post certainly sees the current pandemic as a large-scale extraordinary emergency, and it specifically warns against viewing this through the lens of "hoax" and "conspiracy" theories, which reduce this to a power-grab by the state. It also accepts the possibility that, like any emergency, this can be used as a pretext by political and economic actors in ways that could augment state power in the long-run, something that requires our vigilance. Still, it's clear to me that Boettke does not adopt the kind of strict dualism that one finds in too many libertarian discussions of this kind. He himself makes clear that we can't be led "astray by framing political leaders as saintly geniuses," or "by framing the system as completely corrupt and devoid of any hope for improvement," and that to assume that all political actors are "knaves is either descriptive or hopeless." He explicitly rejects the assumption that "whatever system of governance we talk about ... will devolve into corruption and immorality." Yes, he would prefer an institutional order "such that bad men can do least harm"---but who wouldn't?
I think that natural catastrophes certainly fall under the category of large-scale extraordinary emergencies; I think of things like earthquakes, Hurricane Katrina, even Superstorm Sandy, which devastated the tri-state area. And I think that given the conditions that exist, it was necessary for the institutions in place to step-up actions to save populations and property. I don't think it is necessarily the case that state action under those circumstances is a power-grab. I also think that a lot can be said for the extraordinary efforts made voluntarily by individuals and through networks of mutual aid, which saved the lives of countless numbers of people.

April 25, 2020

Coronavirus (20): A Light-Hearted Moment in the Post Office

I have not ventured out much since the Coronavirus pandemic deepened here in New York City. But I did have a chance around the time that I went grocery shopping (three weeks ago) to stop by the Post Office to mail a small package to a friend. I have truly marveled at the hard work---and courage---displayed by all of the men and women who are delivering the mail during a period of high stress and high volume, whether from the USPS, Fed Ex, UPS, or any number of other delivery services, not to mention the folks who deliver from restaurants, pizzerias, and other eateries in the neighborhood.

But my last visit to the Post Office gave me a chuckle. Three postal workers are sitting behind thick plexiglass windows, and the line is short. A window opens as the customer just ahead of me departs. I walk over to the window.

Here's a dialogue worthy of Plato:

She (the postal worker): Oh, I was just going on break.
Me: Oh, I'm sorry. That's okay, I'll just wait for the next window to open.
She: No, no, it's okay, sweetheart. Hand it over.
Me: Are you sure? I can wait, it's not a big deal!
She: No, no, I'll be happy to take care of this quickly... it's just that I gotta pee like Seabiscuit!
Me: (Convulsed in Laughter... happily handing the package over to the postal worker) -- At least I'm old enough to know who Seabiscuit is!
She: Don't make me laugh, sweetheart, or there's gonna be a problem!

Only in New York! :)

April 23, 2020

Coronavirus (19): Reality Check

As many readers know, I have a whole lot of pre-existing medical conditions, including a lifelong congenital intestinal disorder. To enumerate all of the pre-existing medical problems, it would take up a bit more of this post than is necessary. But I am taking two prescribed drugs to control high blood pressure, and on that count, I'm doing quite well. And yet, though there has been no noticeable spike in my blood pressure, I have to say that there are fewer things that make my blood boil than the ongoing stream of naysayers who seem to be completely blind to the stubborn facts of the current Coronavirus pandemic.

The CDC is now combining confirmed Coronavirus deaths and probable deaths related to COVID-19 in its total casualty count. Some of the naysayers argue that this is artificially inflating the numbers.

I can only speak to the situation in New York state, with nearly 270,000 confirmed cases of Coronavirus. It is the state with which I am most familiar, because I've lived here my whole life. If anything, from what I see, the number of cases is vastly underestimated. It is highly likely that most people are asymptomatic. And while many businesses have closed---having a disastrous effect on the local and national economy---most people seem to be acting quite rationally in the current context. Most of those who are symptomatic are voluntarily self-quarantining and practicing social distancing. Indeed, to my knowledge, nobody is being arrested in NY state for coming out of their homes whether they are symptomatic or asymptomatic. New Yorkers are taking the most prudent actions, under extremely stressful, extraordinary circumstances, without anybody putting a gun to their heads. This is clearly having an effect on slowing the spread of the virus. The state reached a plateau of over 700 deaths per day and for the last few days, there has been an average of 400+ confirmed cases of Coronavirus-related deaths per day.

But there is growing evidence that the number of confirmed cases vastly underestimates (rather than inflates) the number of those who have been infected with the virus. A new random statistical survey of people out and about in public, typically coming in and out of grocery stores, was conducted in New York state, and it is reported that 13.9% of those tested had antibodies for Coronavirus. Some have suggested that up to 2.7 million people in New York may have become infected with this virus. If one could find a silver lining in the cloud hanging over us, that's actually a "good" statistic. It means that the great bulk of people who have been infected are either asymptomatic or have not had symptoms severe enough to require hospitalization. Perhaps some kind of "herd immunity" will eventually arise, but that remains to be seen. There is still no "cure" for this virus and no vaccine.

It should be noted, however, that up to this point, New York state hasn’t been doing much mass testing (though New York City is finally opening testing centers in some hot spots, especially in minority communities). Tests have been conducted almost exclusively on people who are symptomatic---but many of those who are symptomatic don’t even get tested. Their voluntary self-quarantine typically allows the virus to run its course---or not. The "not" refers to those who never make it to a medical facility---and who die at home. They may never have been tested for the virus; hence, they are counted by the CDC as among the "probable" deaths from COVID-19.

What kills me, no pun intended, about the naysayers who doubt the extent of the death and destruction of this pandemic is that even if there are significant pre-existing conditions that predispose many folks to becoming infected with---and dying of---the virus, something about this virus therefore becomes a crucial factor that has led to a horrifying spike in the number of deaths being recorded in the state of New York. Perhaps it becomes the straw that breaks the camel's back, so-to-speak, for people who would not have died otherwise.

So the naysayers need to explain why in hell there have been 20,000+ deaths in less than two months in my home town. Why are so many people dropping dead at the same time? If not COVID-19, then WTF! I'm all ears.

It is almost irrelevant at this point how accurate the statistics are. You cannot deny the evidence of your senses. This is beyond belief. As a resident of what has become the epicenter of this disease in the United States (and certainly one of the hottest spots in the entire world), I feel like I'm living in some sick surreal apocalyptic sci-fi movie or some new incarnation of an epic Biblical film. Indeed, as a fan of "Ben-Hur," I've started referring to this place as the Valley of the Lepers [YouTube link] and to Brooklyn as one of the five Leper Colonies of New York City. (And before the epidemiologists start jumping all over me: Yes, I know the difference between an infectious bacterial disease such as leprosy and a viral infection, such as COVID-19. It's just a metaphor in the spirit of gallows humor.)

But let me speak a bit anecdotally for just a moment.

Due to that lifelong congenital intestinal illness I mentioned above, I had to be rushed to Emergency Rooms five times between December 7th and February 29th. My hospital of choice for such visits has been Mount Sinai Brooklyn, closest to my home in the Gravesend section of the County of Kings.

While ERs are typically overcrowded with people suffering from all sorts of illnesses and accidents, there was a distinct difference between my first visit to Mount Sinai Brooklyn in December and my last visit on the afternoon of February 29th. On that Leap Year Day, the ER was utterly insane, completely inundated by an astounding inflow of patients. It was as if some earthquake had struck, and the place was being flooded by survivors in need of immediate medical attention. I was stuck in there for nearly six hours, even though I'd been rushed passed triage and right into the ER proper. I couldn’t believe what was going on around me. It was, ironically, the day before the first confirmed COVID-19 related case was reported in New York state and fourteen days before its first reported death. But something was clearly wrong.

Most of the incoming ER patients were suffering from acute respiratory distress. The hard-working EMTs, nurses, and doctors I spoke with that night were telling me that they’d never seen anything like this in their lives. That was then. But this is now---and that Mount Sinai ER, like virtually every ER across the tri-state area looks like a battle zone. Just check out the observations of Dr. Peter Shearer at Mount Sinai Brooklyn, way back on March 26th. Since then, the situation has only gotten worse. Yes, the rate of hospitalizations are going down throughout the state. But this is mass death on a scale that none of us has seen in our lifetimes.

So let's return to those controversial numbers of "confirmed" versus "probable" deaths from the virus. From New York magazine:

As of Thursday morning [23 April 2020], there have been more than 263,754 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in New York, including more than 138,435 in New York City. More than 15,740 people with COVID-19 have died in the state, not including the deaths of people with probable cases.

The CDC lists 20,000+ COVID-19-related deaths here in New York state, so let’s just throw out the 4,000+ "probable" (rather than confirmed) deaths from the virus here in New York. And I mean that with the utmost respect to the families whose 4,000+ loved ones have died suddenly and without full confirmation of cause of death. We’re still talking about close to 16,000 confirmed deaths related to Coronavirus infection, in less than two months. I won't even address this issue globally. So what in hell could possibly account for this spike in mass death in this state?

I have read some persuasive theories about what may have happened here in New York though I know that it is going to be a very long time before this crisis can be fully understood on any number of levels, from the epidemiological to the political to the economic. There is growing evidence that the virus was most likely manifested here as far back as January. And that would make some sense. After all, from mid-December until mid-January, New York City in particular typically attracts millions upon millions of tourists from all over the world. They come here to see the Christmas Tree in Rockefeller Center or to see the Ball Drop in Times Square (and I'm not even considering the possibility of the millions of folks who came to NYC at the end of November for the Thanksgiving Day weekend). And most of them make use of a mass transit system that typically transports over five million people per day. I can't think of a more perfect petri dish for the transmission of an infectious disease. In fact, Dr. Jeffrey E. Harris maintains in a new study (pdf document) that the subways most likely became a key component in the deadly spread of COVID-19 throughout New York City and the tri-state area.

I already know too many people who have been infected by this disease and several who have died, including one of my sister's former students. My immediate family remains okay, but I would not be surprised if we all test positive for antibodies at some point. Neighbors to the right of me, neighbors to the left of me, remain on ventilators in Intensive Care Units in various local hospitals. We may have reached a plateau. And we will surely come out of this pandemic better than before.

But this "reality check" remains a sobering reminder that something terrible has impacted too many lives.

Postscript (24 April 2020): I wanted to thank Irfan Khawaja for linking to this entry on his Policy of Truth blog. He states there, in an installment of his "Coronavirus Diary (51): Reality Check with Chris Sciabarra":

As philosophers from Plato to Popper have argued, there's enormous value in the dialectical clash of divergent opinions: we learn, and arguably converge on the truth, through the process of disagreement. But there's also something to be said for the solidarity produced by agreement on basic facts and values, as well as a sense of shared purpose. Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, I've relied on different people for one or both of those things, but relied consistently on Chris Sciabarra for the latter: for whatever reason, Chris and I basically agree on how to think about the COVID-19 crisis, as well as what to do about it.
To that end, I highly recommend his most recent blog post (the nineteenth in his series), Reality Check, on life and death in New York as a result of COVID-19. And check out the links, especially the paper near the end by Jeffrey Harris of the National Bureau of Economic Research, "The Subways Seeded the Massive Coronavirus Epidemic in New York City." Arguably, the problems Harris describes there haven't yet been resolved, and won't be until New Yorkers deal with the problems of homelessness and housing in their city---yet another indication of the interconnectedness of what are often thought of as discrete "topics." Among other things, Harris’s paper raises a practical question for me: what do I do with my old MTA subway cards? Get them the hell out of my house, or donate them to science?
I have two maps on my office wall, one of Palestine and one of the New York-New Jersey metro area; I think of both, in some sense, as "maps of home." I've often found myself musing on the fact that the one-horse "transit hub" where I live in Jersey, Whitehouse Station, is located at almost exactly the same latitude on the map as Sciabarra's neighborhood in the Gravesend part of Brooklyn. I don't know that that really explains anything, but as far as COVID-19 is concerned, it’s a metaphor that captures what matters.

And while you're at it, check out Ilana Mercer's newest column, "The Ethics of Social Distancing: A Libertarian Perspective."

Postscript: On another thread I posted the following comment:

All crises are used by governments to expand power over our lives---including nightmarish events, like 9/11, which also struck my hometown in a way that made our everyday lives into a total nightmare for months on end... and for years on end---for those who are still dying from diseases contracted while working on "The Pile" at Ground Zero. I've had disagreements with people on this very thread about how the US government used 9/11 as a pretext to make some of the worst foreign policy mistakes in the history of this country---coupled with a never-ending attack on our liberties at home.
Still, for the benefit of those who are reading this thread, several things need to be acknowledged:
First, though flu and pneumonia have killed people in NY state (as they do every year in every state), they have never taken this many lives in this short a period of time the way COVID-19 has done. And in my post, I'm fully cognizant of the fact that people who have pre-existing medical conditions are particularly susceptible to this virus, and that it may be just the "straw that breaks the camel's back" for such individuals. Regardless: The hospitals almost reached the breaking point here in trying to meet the overwhelming flow of patients into emergency rooms. The flu and pneumonia don't even register as a BLIP on the radar compared to what has happened here in the past two months.
Second: I clearly recognize that One Size Does Not Fit All. I do not recommend that Alaska (with 339 cases and 9 deaths) follow the same social distancing policies as New York. In this state, and especially in this city, I am hunkered down in my apartment to preserve my very life---and I'd venture to say that most people are doing this voluntarily and willingly. In my own neighborhood, I don't know a single family that has not been affected: Every person knows somebody who is sick, dying, or dead.
Finally, this crisis does not give local, state, or federal authorities a license to take away any of my rights to liberty, property, or the pursuit of happiness---and there is not a liberty-minded person among us who should not remain vigilant against the very real threats to our freedoms that a crisis like this has ignited.
But at this time I'm far more concerned with preserving the most basic right of all: my right to live. And I'm trying to preserve that the best way I know how.

Postscript (5 May 2020): Thanks to Amir Abbasov for translating this blog essay into Azerbaijanian.

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