You-read-it-here-first department, ctd

Last week, I remarked on history’s verdict on Donald Trump.

The world is going to be telling the stories of Trump’s screw-ups — and laughing — for 1000-years. And marveling that America elected such a corrupt and incompetent pile of sewage.

Now, a bona fide historian tells CNN the same thing.

At the epicenter of the nation’s and the world’s pandemic, Cuomo has been reminding us that the worst of the crisis is just beginning. The same is true for history’s assessment of President Trump. The coronavirus is immune to his manipulation and spin. It is the defining challenge of his presidency and of his life. Compared with other presidential crises, like the 9/11 attacks or Hurricane Katrina, it has occurred slowly, with ample warning, giving the president many opportunities to act and, we see now, fail.

The accounting will continue. And like the pandemic, it will be devastating.

Some of the MAGA-cult may have begun to fall away, but probably not many. Most of them are in the grip of the same psychological need that turns people into Moonies, Scientologists, Southern Baptists; they aren’t animated by reason, but by perverse psychological impulses.

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Great moments in the history of stupid

Jerry Falwell, Jr., a regular chip off the old block, stupidly reopened Liberty University to students last week. Now — What do you know? — he’s got coronavirus all over campus, and abruptly-departing students are taking it home.

“We’ve lost the ability to corral this thing,” Dr. Thomas W. Eppes Jr. said he told Mr. Falwell. But he did not urge him to close the school. “I just am not going to be so presumptuous as to say, ‘This is what you should do and this is what you shouldn’t do,’” Dr. Eppes said in an interview.

So Mr. Falwell — a staunch ally of President Trump and an influential voice in the evangelical world — reopened the university last week, igniting a firestorm. As of Friday, Dr. Eppes said, nearly a dozen Liberty students were sick with symptoms that suggested Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. Three were referred to local hospital centers for testing. An additional eight were told to self-isolate.

[ … ]

Of the 1,900 students who initially returned last week to campus, Mr. Falwell said more than 800 had left. But he said he had “no idea” how many students had returned to off-campus housing.

Never — Never. Ever. — allow Holy Men to go messing with grown-up stuff; their minds can’t be trusted.

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Pious stupidity

There is at least one good thing about the coronavirus pandemic: For anybody who is paying attention and has a properly functioning mind, the anti-social lunacy of too many believers is now in plain sight.

Some Megachurches Are Still Packing In Crowds

Congregants of megachurches in Louisiana, Ohio and Florida attended services in defiance of social distancing orders on Sunday morning, even as politicians and doctors took to weekly news shows to warn of coronavirus’s spread in the U.S.

[ … ]

Pastor Spell told local news outlet NBC15 earlier this month that he didn’t believe his congregation was in danger of infection. “It’s not a concern,” he said. “The virus, we believe, is politically motivated. We hold our religious rights dear and we are going to assemble no matter what someone says.” The church did not respond to request for comment.

[ … ]

The pastor [Howard-Browne] condemned scientific reports about the virus and said that the pandemic was of less concern than the flu, a view that medical experts have disputed. The church did not respond to a request for comment.

You might think that a seminary graduate would have enough sense, or aversion to looking like a fool, to know he isn’t competent to hold a meaningful opinion about the transmissibility and severity of a new virus. You’d be wrong. I wouldn’t care much if the idiots who listen to these fools harmed only themselves; after all, Darwinian natural selection applies to homo sapiens, too. Unfortunately, they also harm the trusting bystanders in their life.

UPDATE: Hillsborough County, Florida, has issued an arrest warrant for Pastor Howard-Browne.

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Malicious tweet of the day

There is something seriously wrong with Donald Trump.

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Cost-benefit analysis and public policy

Engineering design is, in no small part, the art of the trade-off. Including feature X means the cost goes up, excluding feature Y means sales go down. How do you balance considerations like these and find the sweet spot?

Engineers are taught to use cost-benefit analysis, to weigh and assess design alternatives preferring the most profitable financial outcome. Cost-benefit analysis got a severe black eye when it was learned that Ford engineers knew that the Pinto gas tank could fatally explode in certain rare collisions and proceeded with a design that they knew might kill some small number of people.

This was not so cynically amoral as it may sound. Engineers could easily design and build an automobile that would infallibly protect passengers in the event of any reasonably foreseeable collision — but nobody could afford to buy it; such calculations must be made.

There are two profound difficulties with cost-benefit analysis. The first is the difficulty of assigning a probability to a particular event, and the second is the difficulty of assessing the cost. What, for instance, is the statistical likelihood of an automobile collision that exerts a particular magnitude of force at a particular location on the automobile body? And what is the likely settlement cost of such an accident to the manufacturer? It’s one thing if the accident kills the parents of three young children, and it’s quite another if the accident kills the unmarried high-school dropout who delivers pizzas.

Again: It’s unpleasant to think about, but engineers do and must think about such things because nobody could afford an automobile that would infallibly protect passengers against any reasonably foreseeable collision — ‘reasonably foreseeable’ itself being a slippery notion.

I am thinking about these things because, at this exact moment, New York Governor Cuomo is conducting his daily coronavirus briefing and insisting that there is no point at which restoring the economy is more important than a life, contra Donald Trump, who seems to think that we’ve spent enough battling coronavirus and it’s time to get back to work. Cost-benefit analysis is all but impossible when it comes to social policy, because there are billions and billions of activities and transactions that can’t be foreseen and whose costs can’t be evaluated. Even so, cost-benefit analysis is what Trump and Cuomo are disagreeing about, and each is assuming a cartoon-character posture.

Ironically, millions of Americans are informally, intuitively, making such calculations a dozen times a day right now. Go to the store, and risk infection, or wait 2-days to have SuperMart put that item in the trunk of the car? Few of us would hesitate to go to the pharmacy to pickup a prescription for a sick child, but few of us would go out to buy a bag of potato chips.

Risk, statistics, cost-benefit, even when assessed informally, are at the center of all decision-making, and the idea that they can be evaded is naive.

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