Sunday Reading – 12/27/2020

The following links are just news items and opinions that pass my desk throughout the week. I don’t necessarily support or advocate any of the items, they are just interesting reads.

God and the Pandemic – Although hardly as lethal as the ancient plagues, the current pandemic has taken an enormous toll on our sense of wellbeing. Gallup reports the highest levels of mental anguish for 20 years in the United States, a phenomenon also evident in the United Kingdom and Europe. Yet, historically, religions have expanded during periods of extreme stress, a trend that provides grounds for a spiritual rebirth. As church attendance has plummeted—two-thirds of US Protestant churches have suffered a decline this year of 50 percent or more—virtual church attendance is booming. According to Pew, a quarter of Americans say the pandemic has bolstered their faith, a finding confirmed by Gallup. Today, many online churches are flourishing, some with as many as 70,000 virtual attendees. Google searches for “prayer” and “Christianity” have “skyrocketed,” not only in the US but around the world. Danish researcher Jeanet Sinding Bentzen found requests for religious sources and prayers has grown dramatically, even in heavily secularized Europe. Similarly, one of the UK’s largest online Christian bookstores, Eden, saw physical Bible sales rise by 55 percent in April.

This reprises past experience. During the plague-ridden days of the late Roman Empire, Christianity gained over pagan cultures by offering counsel, comfort, and philosophical explanations.2 Historian William McNeill speaks of the “sublime capacity” of the early Christian to cope with plagues and offer hope that was critical to the Church’s rise.3 Those making the transition tend to be focused on addressing the pandemic-caused dilemmas faced by the vast majority of people. The evangelical group Global Media Outreach has gone from reaching 350,000 people per day to upwards of 500,000 globally. A GMO leader told the Christian Post, “People are coming to us saying, ‘I need hope. Where can I find hope in the face of tragedy, anxiety, bankruptcy?’” He added, “When people are in pain, we offer encouragement and hope. They’re coming to us looking for answers.” Read More > at Quillette

How $10 Million for Gender Programs in Pakistan Got Tied to a COVID Relief Bill – During a year in which tens of millions of Americans were forced out of work and hundreds of thousands of businesses were destroyed, lawmakers could not even vote on clean relief legislation.

Hours before lawmakers voted on a multi-trillion dollar government funding package that included a $900 billion COVID-19 relief bill, congressional aides were spotted wheeling in the legislation.

It ran 5,593 pages.

“You’d have to read 560 pages an hour to finish it before midnight,” observed NBC News correspondent Garrett Haake.

Lawmakers did not wait until midnight to pass the legislation, however.

“The Senate passed the massive year-end legislation combining $900 billion in pandemic relief with $1.4 trillion to fund federal agencies through fiscal 2021,” Bloomberg reported. “The House passed the legislation earlier Monday night. The total bill is worth more than $2.3 trillion, including support for small businesses impacted by the pandemic, $600 payments for most individuals, supplemental unemployment insurance, regular funding for federal agencies and a bevy of tax breaks for companies.”

So how did lawmakers read 560 pages an hour before voting on the bill? The answer is simple: they didn’t. In fact, there was a great deal of confusion—in both media and Congress—on what precisely lawmakers were voting on.

…So while the Pakistani gender programs were not technically included in the COVID relief bill, the end result is much the same. US senators could not vote for COVID relief without voting for gender programs in Pakistan, $35 million for abstinence programs, and tax changes for owners of race horses. (The process in the House was a bit more complicated.)  Read More > from the Foundation for Economic Education

Why I’m Losing Trust in the Institutions – Who should be first in line to get the vaccine against Covid-19?

These kinds of decisions are never easy, and there are many competing considerations. Highly trained moral philosophers can have deep disagreements about them. Though I myself have studied ethics and political philosophy for much of my academic career, I am deeply grateful that I don’t have to make those judgment calls. But for all of those difficulties, there are also some bedrock principles on which virtually all moral philosophers have long agreed.

The first is that we should avoid “leveling down” everyone’s quality of life for the purpose of achieving equality. It is unjust when some people have plenty of food while others are starving. But alleviating that inequality by making sure that an even greater number of people starve is clearly wrong. The second is that we should not use ascriptive characteristics like race or ethnicity to allocate medical resources. To save one patient rather than another based on the color of their skin rightly strikes most philosophers—and most Americans—as barbaric. The Centers for Disease Control have just thrown both of these principles overboard in the name of social justice.

In one of the most shocking moral misjudgments by a public body I have ever seen, the CDC invoked considerations of “social justice” to recommend providing vaccinations to essential workers before older Americans even though this would, according to its own models, lead to a much greater death toll. After a massive public outcry, the agency has adopted revised recommendations. But though these are a clear improvement, they still violate the two bedrock principles of allocative justice—and are likely to cause unnecessary suffering on a significant scale.

Since states will now have to decide whether to follow the CDC’s recommendations, the fight for a just distribution of the vaccine is not yet over. At the same time, the past days have already taught us two lessons that sum up some of the most worrying developments of the past years: The attack on philosophically liberal principles has by now migrated from leafy college campuses to the most important and powerful organizations in the country. And, in part as a result, it is getting harder and harder to trust institutions from the CDC to the New York Times.

On November 23rd, Kathleen Dooling, a public health official at the CDC, gave a presentation to the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), which is tasked with developing the recommendation on who should first get access to the vaccine against Covid. In a stark departure from the course of action adopted in virtually every other developed democracy, Dooling recommended that 87 million essential workers—a very broad category including bankers and movie crews as well as teachers or supermarket cashiers—should get the vaccine before older Americans, even though the elderly are much more likely to die from the disease. The committee unanimously accepted the recommendations. Read More > at Persuasion

Protecting Cops—and Citizens – Primed by the Covid-19-induced fiscal shortfall and catalyzed by the “Defund the Police” protests over the summer, the Los Angeles City Council will reduce the city’s police force by 350 sworn officer positions. This reduction comes after a planned $150 million cut from the LAPD’s budget, announced earlier this year. Officials have been scrambling to reorganize the force since.

Police forces across the country have been hit hard by layoffs, early retirements, and resignations. Seattle’s police chief resigned after the city council voted to reduce her force by 100 officers. Chicago’s police department saw its retirement rate jump to twice the normal level this year compared with the last five. Smaller cities weren’t spared: Asheville, North Carolina, had lost 13 percent of its force by September.

Officer ranks have been steadily declining. Between the late 1990s and 2016, the number of police officers per capita nationally dropped by more than 10 percent. Filling vacancies is not easy, as applications for sworn officer positions have dropped by more than half since 2010.

Most Americans—including 81 percent of black Americans—want a strong and effective police presence in their communities. But recent tragedies have shaken trust in policing, leading to widespread support for reform. Policymakers should back measures that refine accountability procedures and make data on police activities more accessible without hamstringing the police’s ability to manage crime. For example, with so much media attention paid to police brutality, little data exist on the details surrounding police use of force. The lack of nationwide, standardized reporting means that the public relies on sometimes-misleading mainstream and social media reports to fill in the gap.

One commonsense reform would require departments to collect and report use-of-force data in a standardized format to a central repository. Departments should also make data available on locally. Comprehensive and localized data can reveal where structural or recurring problems exist, or where well-performing departments are being unfairly blamed. Read More > at City Journal

New Federal Lawsuit Accuses Gov. Newsom of ‘Gross Abuse of Power’ and Violation of Due Process Clause – “It is time — past time — to make plain that, while the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues and mosques,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch recently wrote, overturning New York’s church closure restrictions.

With a recent court win over Los Angeles County regarding the outdoor dining ban, California attorneys Mark Geragos, Harmeet Dhillon, Mark Meuser, Alexandra Kazerian, and Matthew Hoesly, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Gov. Gavin Newsom, representing Los Angeles restaurant owner Angela Marsden who made the recent tearful, now-viral video as she was forced to close down her restaurant, Pineapple Hill Saloon and Grille. She was forced to close down even her outdoor dining, while a Hollywood film production was allowed to provide the same outdoor dining across the shared parking lot. The message: Hollywood “essential” and necessary, Pineapple Hill Saloon and Grille, not.

This is the 17th lawsuit against the governor by the Dhillon Law Group since he ordered the state locked down for COVID-19 in March.

The lawsuit opens up with the Great Barrington Declaration, which the Globe has reported on extensively:

Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health. The results (to name a few) include lower childhood vaccination rates, worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings and deteriorating mental health- leading to greater excess mortality in years to come, with the working class and younger members of society carrying the heaviest burden.

…. The most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity, is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk. We call this Focused Protection.

…. Those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal…

~The Great Barrington Declaration – signed by over 51,970 medical and public health scientists and medical practitioners from around the world and across political ideologies. Read More > in the California Globe

Scientists solve key mystery of the human immune response – For the first time, scientists have observed the technique that dendritic cells use to inform T-cells about the threat of disease.

The breakthrough, detailed Monday in the journal Nature Immunology, could help medical researchers develop new immunotherapy treatments for cancer and other maladies.

Dendritic cells are a type of immune cell responsible for presenting evidence of an invading pathogen to T-cells, which perform a variety of immune-related functions, including the recruitment of other types of infection-fighting antibodies.

When a cell is infected, its proteins are transformed to signify the problem. For the body to deliver an immune response, dendritic cells must show the altered proteins to T-cells.

Until now, scientists weren’t sure how dendritic cells accomplished this task. Read More > at UPI

Toyota CEO Agrees With Elon Musk: We Don’t Have Enough Electricity to Electrify All the Cars – Let’s stipulate a couple of facts right at the top: Toyota makes a lot of cars, so many that it’s the world’s largest or second-largest auto manufacturer every year. Toyota makes a lot of good, reliable cars. The Corolla, for instance, may not be flashy but the little things will go for a quarter-million miles or more and they mostly just run without breaking down much. Change the oil when you’re supposed to and you’re probably good to go.

Let’s stipulate one more fact: Whether cars keep burning gas or run on electricity, Toyota is poised to make and sell millions of electric vehicles. It already has the game-changing solid-state battery coming on line. It launched the Prius way back in 1997. Toyota has not only not resisted the adaptation of EVs, it has led the way. Fundamentally, Toyota does not care if cars are powered by gas or nuclear fusion engines as long as it maintains its position and sells millions of them.

So Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda’s comments at the company’s year-end press conference deserve notice and no little amount of respect. He knows more about cars and their economic ecosystem than just about anyone else on the planet.

The Wall Street Journal was in attendance and noted the CEO’s disdain for EVs boils down to his belief they’ll ruin businesses, require massive investments, and even emit more carbon dioxide than combustion-engined vehicles. “The current business model of the car industry is going to collapse,” he said. “The more EVs we build, the worse carbon dioxide gets… When politicians are out there saying, ‘Let’s get rid of all cars using gasoline,’ do they understand this?”

CarBuzz has mischaracterized Toyoda’s comments. It’s not “disdain for EVs” he’s expressing. It’s disdain for the failure to count the cost of what politicians are proposing. More EVs will demand more electricity. Read More > at PJ Media

Apple targets car production by 2024 and eyes ‘next level’ battery technology – Apple is moving forward with self-driving car technology and is targeting 2024 to produce a passenger vehicle that could include its own breakthrough battery technology, people familiar with the matter told Reuters.

The iPhone maker’s automotive efforts, known as Project Titan, have proceeded unevenly since 2014 when it first started to design its own vehicle from scratch. At one point, Apple drew back the effort to focus on software and reassessed its goals. Doug Field, an Apple veteran who had worked at Tesla, returned to oversee the project in 2018 and laid off 190 people from the team in 2019.

Since then, Apple has progressed enough that it now aims to build a vehicle for consumers, two people familiar with the effort said, asking not to be named because Apple’s plans are not public. Apple’s goal of building a personal vehicle for the mass market contrasts with rivals such as Alphabet’s Waymo, which has built robo-taxis to carry passengers for a driverless ride-hailing service.

Central to Apple’s strategy is a new battery design that could “radically” reduce the cost of batteries and increase the vehicle’s range, according to a third person who has seen Apple’s battery design. Read More > at CNBC

Yes, Follow the Science – in Every Field – Repeatedly this year we have heard the admonition, from acolytes of Covid-19 lockdowns, to “follow the science.” Many of the admonishers presume that lockdown skeptics are myopic, “anti-science” miscreants infected with a reckless disregard for human health, safety, and life. Yes, some people are so emotional, phobic, religious, or political that they cannot reason right; but can there be no rational, healthy skepticism about the health effects of Covid-19 or the health-wealth effects of lockdowns? Nothing can be farther from the truth – nothing farther from . . . science.

Yes, of course we must follow science, but we must do so in every field, not only in epidemiology but also in politics, economics, and philosophy. The last-mentioned field – which means “love of wisdom” – teaches mankind to follow his nature, to be rational, logical, objective, and contextual. To be scientific in every field means to incorporate both theory and practice, to assess all real and relevant factors, not just a select few of them; it means cultivating a perspective that is likewise impartial (not biased), comprehensive (not narrow) view, and proportional (not imbalanced).

In Economics in One Lesson (1946), Henry Hazlitt distinguishes between scientific and nonscientific methods in economics, but his distinction applies as much to other fields. “The bad economist,” he writes, “sees only what immediately strikes the eye,” while “the good economist also looks beyond. The bad economist sees only the direct consequences of a proposed course; the good economist looks also at the longer and indirect consequences. The bad economist sees only what the effect of a given policy has been or will be on one particular group; the good economist inquires also what the effect of the policy will be on all groups.” Likewise, I’d say, competent epidemiologists, political scientists, economists, and philosophers must look beyond what strikes their eyes or fits their predilections; they must consider also intermediate and longer-term effects, and effects on all types of people, groups, and livelihoods, not just those which bureaucrats favor as “essential.” Read More > at AIER

Overdose deaths far outpace COVID-19 deaths in San Francisco – A record 621 people died of drug overdoses in San Francisco so far this year, a staggering number that far outpaces the 173 deaths from COVID-19 the city has seen thus far.

The crisis fueled by the powerful painkiller fentanyl could have been far worse if it wasn’t for the nearly 3,000 times Narcan was used from January to the beginning of November to save someone from the brink of death, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Saturday.

The data reflects the number of times people report using Narcan to the Drug Overdose Prevention and Education Project, a city-funded program that coordinates San Francisco’s response to overdose, or return to refill their supply. Officials at the DOPE Project said that since the numbers are self-reported, they are probably a major undercount.

Last year, 441 people died of drug overdoses — a 70% increase from 2018 — and 2,610 potential overdoses were prevented by Narcan, a medication commonly sprayed up the nose to reverse an opioid overdose, according to data from the city Medical Examiner’s office and the DOPE Project. Read More > from the Associated Press

Surprise Medical Bills Cost Americans Millions. Congress Is Finally Set to Ban Most of Them. – After years of being stymied by well-funded interests, Congress has agreed to ban one of the most costly and exasperating practices in medicine: surprise medical bills.

Surprise bills happen when an out-of-network provider is unexpectedly involved in a patient’s care. Patients go to a hospital that accepts their insurance, for example, but get treated there by an emergency room physician who doesn’t. Such doctors often bill those patients for large fees, far higher than what health plans typically pay.

Language included in the $900 billion spending deal reached Sunday night and headed for final passage on Monday will make those bills illegal. Instead of charging patients, health providers will now have to work with insurers to settle on a fair price. The new changes will take effect in 2022, and will apply to doctors, hospitals and air ambulances, though not ground ambulances. Read More > in The New York Times

Can a Virtual Legislature Be a Real Legislature? – When America’s state legislators begin meeting for their 2021 sessions, the blunt fact is that many of them won’t be meeting at all. They will be sitting at Zoom screens, talking on their iPhones and looking for other ways to simulate the bill-writing and deal-making that they are supposed to do face-to-face.

Not all the states have made up their minds yet, and all the plans are subject to change, but it’s already clear that there will be at least a fair amount of virus-driven separation. Virginia’s House of Delegates expects to hold all of its sessions virtually. Washington’s legislature is talking about voting in person but running its hearings and markup sessions by remote control. Vermont will call its lawmakers together once, but only to authorize virtual meetings after that. New Jersey, which actually passed a worker-assistance bill this year entirely by phone, will be doing some of that again. There seems almost no doubt that other states will be following suit.

Will remote-control legislating have a significant effect on the nature and quality of what gets passed? A better question would be, how it could not have a significant effect? Listen to Aubrey Layne, the Virginia state finance director, describe his experience with virtual consideration of serious issues. “I’ve watched committees where speakers have thirty seconds before they’re cut off,” Layne told a reporter recently. “This is not the environment to write the budget. Regarding risk and fiduciary responsibility, I might as well talk to the wall.”

…All legislative bodies, state, federal and local, need relationships to do their job well. Most of the time they need physical proximity. That doesn’t mean lawmakers have to stand together side by side in the thousands, as they did in ancient Athens, to make crucial decisions by majority vote. It does mean they do a better job when they have ordinary conversations, read each other’s facial expressions and noodle over crucial policy choices, and that process just isn’t the same when they are all at home staring at individual computers.

…We are already confronting an atmosphere of alienation and mistrust that has made many of our legislative bodies unproductive. I can’t say for sure that virtual legislating will make the situation a great deal worse. What I can all but guarantee is that it won’t make things any better. Read More > at Governing

About Kevin

Manager of Mainframe Operations and Optimization – USS-UPI, Co-Founder and Board Member - Friends of Oakley A Community Foundation, Trustee RD 2137, Advisory Board – Opportunity Junction
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