This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Soon after, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.
Question of the Week
Say you received $1 billion to spend on improving the world. How would you spend it? Why?
Email your thoughts to email@example.com. I’ll publish a selection of correspondence in an upcoming newsletter.
Conversations of Note
After so many phases of the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve stopped trying to predict what the future holds, but I can attest to the splintering perspectives that Americans have about the present, as the United States closes in on 1 million deaths related to COVID-19, with hundreds still dying every day. “We have vaccines. We have boosters. Hospitalizations and deaths are way down from their peak. But this virus doesn’t appear to be done with us,” Nicholas Goldberg writes in the Los Angeles Times:
We all want our lives back.
So we tell ourselves there’s a level of ongoing death we can live with. That COVID is like the flu—endemic, not pandemic. That we’re vaxxed, and better yet boosted, and therefore we’re kind of, sort of, invulnerable. But eager as we may be for this to be over, now is a time to move slowly and avoid complacency. For one thing, only 66% of the country is fully vaccinated; only 45% has received even one booster. (In L.A. County, some 1.7 million people over age 5 haven’t received even a single shot.) As long as the virus is raging, the possibility of new, more dangerous mutations remains real. If we’re careful, perhaps we can slow the process and keep 1 million from becoming 2 million.
A worthy goal! And there are so many ways to pursue it. There are promising approaches to vaccinating more people that the U.S. hasn’t yet tried. There’s the proven utility of deploying better ventilation. The economist Alex Tabarrok urges investment in rapidly developing nasal vaccines:
Operation Warp Speed was the highest benefit to cost ratio of any government program since the Manhattan Project. Amazingly, despite having now seen the benefits of the program and the costs of the pandemic, a government that spends trillions every year can’t get behind millions for a nasal vaccine. To be sure, the emergency is over. The risk[s] to the vaccinated are now tolerable and the benefits of further investment are much less than before vaccines were available. But the costs are also lower. Much of the research on nasal vaccines has already been done—what is needed is funding for clinical trials. A nasal COVID vaccine will also pay off in future vaccine programs.
And Columbia University flags technology that appears to make indoor air as safe as outdoor air:
A new type of ultraviolet light that may be safe for people took less than five minutes to reduce the level of indoor airborne microbes by more than 98%, a joint study by scientists at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and in the U.K. has found. Even as microbes continued to be sprayed into the room, the level remained very low as long as the lights were on. The study suggests that far-UVC light from lamps installed in the ceiling could be a highly effective passive technology for reducing person-to-person transmission of airborne-mediated diseases such as COVID and influenza indoors.
But rather than pushing to develop and deploy new technologies and approaches, Americans are still focused on arguing about masks, a debate that intensified this week as a federal judge struck down the Biden administration’s mask mandate, freeing airplane, train, bus, and other public transportation passengers to travel unmasked.
Roni Caryn Rabin of The New York Times rounded up criticism of the judge’s decision:
“If this ruling stands, it could put the American public at great risk,” said Dr. Richard Besser, president and chief executive of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and a former acting director of the C.D.C. He added that his concerns were less to do with the immediate consequences for mask mandates than with “the implications for future crises, of the ability to put in place simple public health measures to keep people safe.” Dr. Lakshmi Ganapathi, who teaches pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, pointed out that the ruling coincides with a recent rise in Covid cases nationally, driven by a rise in cases on the East Coast.
“I think it’s extremely shortsighted and, if I were impolite would say, kind of stupid,” Dr. Ganapathi said. “This ruling is ill-timed, and it’s not commensurate with public health principles.”
She noted that low booster rates among seniors and other vulnerable groups, including low-income people who rely heavily on buses and trains for transportation, make them susceptible to infection, and there is still no vaccine for very young children. Banking on immunity from previous infections and vaccinations for protection may be overly optimistic, as emerging new variants could evade immunity, she said. Moreover, the widespread use of home testing kits, the results of which go unreported, means that official case counts do not reflect the true number of new cases. A rise in hospitalizations is not a reliable or timely indicator of severity either, Dr. Ganapathi said, since hospitalizations rise several weeks after cases begin to increase. “Once hospitalizations start rising, it’s baked in—you haven’t done anything to stop it,” she said. “And a proportion of those hospitalized will die.”
Whereas Josh Barro argues that this is a step in the right direction:
I think Delta CEO Ed Bastian is right that lifting mask rules is an important step toward re-establishing pre-COVID behavior norms where people weren’t so much trouble all the time. It’s good for people to see each other’s faces—it helps us relate to each other as people, remember that we are all human, and maybe not get into stupid-ass arguments … A lot of liberals, at least on Twitter, seem to have had a lot of emotional investment in the mask rule—emotional investment that I think makes little sense on its own terms. If you’re worried about transmission, you should be wearing a high-quality mask like an N95 or a KN95 on the plane. A rule that made other people wear low-quality masks for only part of the flight was doing little to help you, and if you were already wearing a good mask, you didn’t need that rule—one-way masking with good masks is highly effective. Mourning the rule we lost yesterday only makes sense if your interest in masks is more about how we should regard COVID than how we should prevent it. That is, if you just liked seeing people forced to make sartorial expressions like your own about how much they care about COVID, then yesterday was indeed a sad day for you.
The public health establishment still has not grappled with the damage it’s done to its reputation by failing to respect the fact that members of the public have different values and preferences than their own, or to place any value at all on individual freedom. There is a cost to ordering people around all the time, and if you’re too obnoxious about it, your powers to do so will be taken away. This is part of why leaving the transportation mandate in place so long was such a mistake: The more capricious an enforcement measure looks, the more likely it is the courts will find some justification to throw it out.
Libs of TikTok
A Washington Post article by Taylor Lorenz stirred controversy this week by revealing to millions the person behind the pseudonymous Twitter account Libs of TikTok, which finds and amplifies videos posted by leftists in an effort to mock and discredit the left with its own posts. Fans argue that it is exposing alarming excesses that are ignored or even suppressed by the mainstream media. Critics understand it to be “nutpicking,” or amplifying the most extreme members of a group as if they were representative of the whole group. Here’s how Lorenz described it:
Libs of TikTok reposts a steady stream of TikTok videos and social media posts, primarily from LGBTQ+ people, often including incendiary framing designed to generate outrage. Videos shared from the account quickly find their way to the most influential names in right-wing media. The account has emerged as a powerful force on the Internet, shaping right-wing media, impacting anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and influencing millions by posting viral videos aimed at inciting outrage among the right.
The anonymous account’s impact is deep and far-reaching. Its content is amplified by high-profile media figures, politicians and right-wing influencers. Its tweets reach millions, with influence spreading far beyond its more than 648,000 Twitter followers. Libs of TikTok has become an agenda-setter in right-wing online discourse, and the content it surfaces shows a direct correlation with the recent push in legislation and rhetoric directly targeting the LGBTQ+ community. “Libs of TikTok is basically acting as a wire service for the broader right-wing media ecosystem,” said Ari Drennen, LGBTQ program director for Media Matters, the progressive media watchdog group. “It’s been shaping public policy in a real way, and affecting teachers’ ability to feel safe in their classrooms.”
While some readers debated the merits of those characterizations, the bigger controversy, or at least the one that most interested me, concerned whether publishing the name of the person behind the account was newsworthy and prudent. Under long-standing news-industry practices, the default is to name names. I take a different view: Since the Federalist Papers, pseudonymous commentary in the U.S. has repeatedly demonstrated its value; and there is attendant value in norms against outing pseudonymous authors, as doing so has a chilling effect, causing an unknown number of others to refrain from writing. So respecting pseudonymity should be the default. That doesn’t mean journalists should never out pseudonymous authors, just that before doing so, they should have a solid account of why the public interest in exposing the person’s name outweighs the public interest in respecting pseudonymity.
Libs of TikTok was worth reporting on. Were it run by an elected official (for example), I would have thought the public interest in disclosing a name outweighed the interest in respecting pseudonymity. As it turns out, it is run by a real-estate salesperson. That’s mildly interesting. Does knowing her name, in addition to her occupation, tell us anything more of substance or relevance?
I don’t think so. James Fallows, one of America’s most astute media commentators, has a different opinion. “If you are using the modern tools of communications and social media to attack other people, including those you call out by name, you are fair game to be named as well,” he commented. But what’s fair to the creator at Libs of TikTok is not the only relevant question here. It may be that Libs of TikTok has no moral claim to pseudonymity as an individual, but that the public interest is best served by rules on pseudonymity that turn not on moral desert, but rather on judgments about whether revealing a name adds anything of value. For one account of why a once-pseudonymous blogger preferred pseudonymity, see here.
Is Morning in America Over?
James Piereson harkens back to 1980, fondly recalling the past four decades of declining inflation and interest rates that “rewarded investors, entrepreneurs, homeowners, and consumers,” in sharp contrast to the period from 1965 to 1980, “when erratic and ineffective policies were the norm.” He worries that due to high federal deficits and loose monetary policy, those days are gone:
The Federal Reserve increased the money supply by 19 percent in 2020 and 16 percent in 2021 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, increases that far out-stripped real economic growth. Meantime, Congress passed a series of massive, trillion-dollar relief bills. With such policies in place, it should come as no surprise that inflation is increasing, with interest rates soon to follow. The end of a policy era may also signal the end of a historic bull market in stocks. In 1982, few expected the swift turnaround that took place in the stock markets at that time. Fewer still expected the historic rise in share prices to continue through almost four decades until the present day … The federal debt is much larger today than it was in 1979, so government will have more difficulty in the future servicing its debt while maintaining other expensive programs. The U.S. economy is growing at a slower rate than in the 1970s. Demographic changes mean that close to half the population depends on government support in one way or another, including government employment, welfare, and old-age assistance, compared with roughly 20 percent in the 1970s—leaving the federal government little room to cut budgets.
Provocation of the Week
The venture capitalist Katherine Boyle channels John Galt:
Silicon Valley is no longer a place in Northern California. It is an idea, one that every city and community must embrace in this country if we truly believe in building American Dynamism. Insurmountable problems in our society—from national security and public safety to housing and education—demand solutions that aren’t just incremental changes that perpetuate the status quo. And these solutions will come from serious founders, those who are willing to build something new from nothing.
Building is a political philosophy. It is neither red nor blue, progressive nor conservative. It is averse to the political short-termism and zero-sum thinking that permeates our aging institutions that won’t protect us in this era. There is no fixed pie when it comes to building. Building is an action, a choice, a decision to create and move. It is shovels in the dirt with a motley crew of doers who get the job done because no one else will. Building is the only certainty. The only thing we can control. When the projects we believed were Teflon strong are fraying like the history they toppled, the only thing to do is to make something new again.
Build housing for the middle class. Build schools for the kids who want to learn math. Build next-generation defense capabilities with young people who grew up coding. Build PCR tests so that a nasal swab stops the nation from closing businesses at the mere sight of Covid case increases. Build trade schools. Encourage men and women to work with their hands again. Cut the red tape that stops us from building infrastructure fast. Build factories in America. Build resiliency in the supply chain. Build work cultures that support mothers and fathers so they can have more children.
We do not need aging institutions to pave the way for American dynamism. But we need American will. And this will comes from ordinary, extraordinary people—the builder class—who’ve chosen to stop whining on Twitter. Who’ve chosen to turn off the news and to believe that this country is not only capable, but unquestionably and undeniably serious.
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