The Rationalist Papers (9): Trump, COVID, risk, and opportunity

Donald Trump has announced that he and his wife have tested positive for COVID-19. I’ll look at the question of how we got to this point in the broader context of risk — and describe the unlikely opportunity it creates.

Just a reminder: these Rationalist Papers posts are for the group I call the deciders: conservative, moderate, undecided, and third-party voters considering their choices in the 2020 US Presidential election.

The Trump approach to risk

We have a full term’s worth of experience now to evaluate how Trump governs. One little-discussed but fundamental principle guiding his decisions is how his administration treats risk, always prioritizing short-term gain over long-term safety.

Part of government’s job is to reduce risks to the nation. These risk-reducing programs generally have a monetary cost.

Take, for example, Trump’s rollback of environmental regulations. His administration weakened greenhouse gas standards for passenger cars and light trucks. He weakened regulations on coal and coal-powered plants. These rollbacks have the net effect of making it easier to do business and make money in the short term, while increasing risks from pollution in the long term.

Similarly, the USDA now will let meat slaughterhouses monitor their own safety, rather than inspecting them. This is cheaper for the government and easier for the meat producers, but increases the risk of contamination in the food supply.

Reducing these types of programs makes the government less capable of dealing with crises. Take the economic crisis we are now grappling with. Trump has encouraged the Fed to keep interest rates low and his administration passed a tax cut that doubled the size of the budget deficit. These policies created much stronger growth and contributed to the run-up in the stock market. But they also deprived the nation of tools it could use in case of an economic criss. It’s impossible now to cut interest rates any lower, and the economic consequences of further expensive stimulus packages — in terms of higher government debt and inflation — will be with us for decades.

There are a few exceptions — for example, Trump magnifies the risk of migrants from central America and the risk of housing rules to suburbs — but as a general rule, his philosophy is to invest in growth over risk-protection.

When it comes to COVID, the same logic applies. Last September, Trump cut its pandemic readiness program and removed CDC virus monitoring staff on duty in China. The haphazard and inconsistent approach to coronavirus when it appeared was due in part to the dismantling of these programs.

It’s tempting to attribute Trump’s own infection to some sort of karmic retribution. But there’s no need to resort to such superstitions. Consistent with his own governing principles, Trump dismantled safeguards that removed protections, and those actions allowed the virus to spread. On a personal basis, Trump’s failure to take precautions regarding wearing masks and social distancing at his campaign rallies and events surely had an impact. He says he takes hydrochloroquine, which has no actual protective effect. While he denigrated Biden for hiding in his basement, he himself was out and about meeting with people and flying on planes. This increased his risk for getting COVID-19.

I don’t rejoice in Trump’s illness, any more than I would for the other millions of people suffering from this disease. But I see all of those infections, including his, and the resulting economic devastation, as a clear consequence of a reckless failure to invest in risk reduction and crisis readiness.

Trump’s unique opportunity

Trump’s illness will generate sympathy — his supporters will be concerned and heartbroken. And it will curtail his ability to conduct his usual vigorous mass rallies leading up to the election. But he has an opportunity to take this misfortune and turn it into leadership.

Before he becomes too sick to do so, he could address the nation. He could explain what has happened. And he can explain the lesson that can be drawn from it: that we all must wear masks, avoid gathering in groups, maintain social distancing, and get tested. He could also direct Senate Republicans to embrace the compromise plan recently passed by the House to improve the economy and help schools and businesses to deal with the pandemic.

That type of communication is very much the approach that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson took when he was infected, and it went a long way towards creating sympathy and solidarity in the nation he led.

I don’t think this will happen with Trump. The speech I have described would require Trump to admit he had made a mistake in his previous approach to COVID-19. And he never admits a mistake.

What it all means for you

If you feel sympathy towards Trump, that’s great. No one deserves to suffer from a deadly disease. Trump’s weight and age put him at risk. This will be a serious health challenge for him.

But do not vote out of sympathy. The office of President of the United States is not awarded to the person we feel most sorry for.

What matters is how the person we choose will lead the nation. Trump has shown that he leads by prioritizing the short-term at the expense of readiness and risk-protection. I don’t believe this philosophy serves us well as a nation. He may deserve your sympathy, but he does not deserve your vote.

Feel free to post comments about salient parts of the debate. However, I will delete comments that insult or demean me, other commenters, or groups, or state supposed facts without evidence. Vacuous cheerleading and catcalling is also prohibited; this is not a sporting event. No one persuades anyone by creating a hostile environment.

For the origin of the Rationalist Papers, see this. All Rationalist Papers posts available here.

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  1. Josh – I’ve been enjoying your series, especially the one on socialism, which taught me a great deal. Thank you for writing this. I am wondering, though, if this all isn’t just a little too easy for you? Seems like you get served a fresh, compelling narrative every day. 🙂 Just sayin’.

  2. I remember hearing talk after the 1972 election that George Wallace- running as an Independent candidate, got a lot of sympathy votes after his being shot at a speech. Still others were saying that many of the votes for him were in fact- not out of sympathy. There was enough bad press about McGovern/Eagleton to make for a paltry number of votes cast for them. So votes in the direction of Wallace- due to sympathy or not, did not stop Nixon from winning his second term. The point is- people will vote in large numbers due to sympathy and can’t be stopped from doing that. If this a a ploy by Trump, it is a very good and well-planned one.

  3. In summary:
    1. The country is at risk.
    2. Each of us is individually impacted by that risk.
    3. We have a real, timely opportunity to impact the future opportunity of that risk.
    4. “Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results.” Albert Einstein.

  4. “Consistent with his own governing principles, Trump dismantled safeguards that removed protections, and those actions allowed the virus to spread.” Yes, well put.

    I watch for how he reacts to personally experiencing the fallout of his own policy. He is fortunate to have health care.

  5. Republishing with sources, as requested:

    I thought Trump had a valid point in the debate (1) about the pollution “rollback,” which likely will reduce the amount of actual pollution generated. He said that his efforts will allow folks to buy new cars replacing older cars, which are worse polluters. That is an interesting, innovative market approach. (2)

    This approach is something that does seem to occur to folks like Biden. Obama did the Cash for Clunkers program, but I do not remember (nor can I readily find out[see note below for update]) who thought of that program. It sounds like something from the free-market playbook. (3)

    BTW, a quick look into the USDA program, you have mischaracterized the changes. All meat (to be sold to humans) is still inspected by the USDA FSIS program, the companies do a first pass look… And the changes were looked into for 20 years…(4)

    So, those are not good examples of Danger, Will Robinson cries of wolf.

    I am interested, professionally, in a case study of the infection of folks in the inner circle. Conflicting information has been reported on testing, protection, and timing (5). It would be interesting to see the contact tracing efforts laid out for professional review. It is too early to attribute the path or the causes.

    So scare tactics aside, this open-minded, undecided voter is likely to vote once again for the lesser of two (last time it was three) evils aka for Trump. Just like in 2016, 2020’s choices suck, but just as Hillary and Bernie were the worse choices, choosing Biden is the worst choice.

    (1) https://www.rev.com/blog/transcripts/donald-trump-joe-biden-1st-presidential-debate-transcript-2020
    Vice President Joe Biden: (51:38)
    Why have you relaxed fuel economy standards that are going to create more pollution from cars and trucks?

    President Donald J. Trump: (51:44)
    Well, not really because what’s happening is the car is much less expensive and it’s a much safer car and you talk it about a tiny difference. And then what would happen because of the cost of the car you would have at least double and triple the number of cars purchased. We have the old slugs out there that are 10, 12 years old. If you did that, the car would be safer. It would be much cheaper by $3,500.

    Chris Wallace: (52:06)
    But in the case of California they have simply ignored that.

    President Donald J. Trump: (52:08)
    No, but you would take a lot of cars off the market because people would be able to afford a car. Now, by the way, we’re going to see how that turns out. But a lot of people agree with me, many people. The car has gotten so expensive because they have computers all over the place for an extra little bit of gasoline. And I’m okay with electric cars too. I think I’m all for electric cars. I’ve given big incentives for electric cars but what they’ve done in California is just crazy.

    (2) https://www.resourcesmag.org/common-resources/effect-fuel-economy-standards-new-vehicle-sales/
    As the standards make new vehicles more expensive, some households opt to hold on to their less fuel efficient used vehicle longer, what is known in the literature as the “Gruenspecht effect.” This effect has been shown to be empirically significant, motivating its inclusion in analyses of CAFE standards.

    “The Gruenspecht effect was at the center of the most recent analysis of the Trump administration’s proposal—the Safe Affordable Fuel Efficient Vehicle Rule—to roll back the 2021–2025 standards to 2020 levels. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently published a preliminary analysis of the proposal and found that the rollback will reduce traffic fatalities. This effect stems from the impact the agencies claim the rollback will have on new vehicle sales: the rollback is anticipated to increase new vehicle sales (i.e., safer vehicles) and reduce the size of the entire (new and used) vehicle fleet, decreasing the number of accidents.”

    Norman: The general thought is newer cars equal better fuel economy, so the more the ratio of New:Old shifts to New equates to less emissions. So, Biden is correct in the ideal if folks were to buy all new cars; Trump is right in reality. Bonus points to Trump for the safety increase.

    (3) the idea is old, but it was popularized by Allan Binder in this NYT article: https://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/27/business/27view.html?ex=1374811200&en=a19470300b516a2f&ei=5124&partner=permalink&exprod=permalink
    Note: the program was praised and criticized a prior and post-implementation

    (4) https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/home/!ut/p/a0/04_Sj9CPykssy0xPLMnMz0vMAfGjzOINAg3MDC2dDbwsfDxdDDz9AtyMgnyMDf3dDPQLsh0VAcy6FX0!/?1dmy&page=gov.usda.fsis.internet.topics&urile=wcm%3Apath%3A%2FFSIS-Content%2Finternet%2Fmain%2Fnewsroom%2Fnews-releases-statements-and-transcripts%2Fnews-release-archives-by-year%2Farchive%2F2019%2Fnr-121919-01
    WASHINGTON, Dec. 19, 2019 – Over the past year, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has moved forward in its goal of modernizing the agency from top to bottom while fulfilling its mission to prevent foodborne illness and protect public health.

    “It’s all about the science,” said Dr. Mindy Brashears, Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety. “Science and data inform every decision we make.”

    In fiscal year (FY) 2019, FSIS inspected more than 164 million head of livestock and 9.83 billion poultry carcasses. FSIS inspection program personnel also conducted 7.1 million food safety and food defense procedures across 6,500 regulated establishments to ensure meat, poultry and processed egg products are safe and wholesome.

    In FY 2019, FSIS continued its initiative to modernize operations and inspection systems.

    FSIS finalized a rule that modernizes swine slaughter inspection to foster innovation in the industry and increase FSIS offline inspection tasks that have a direct impact on public health while maintaining 100 percent carcass-by-carcass inspection. The rule is comprised of two parts – mandatory microbial testing requirements at all swine establishments and the New Swine Slaughter Inspection System, which establishments can choose to operate under or, they can remain under the traditional slaughter inspection system.

    The Agriculture Department issued a final rule in September, completing a process 20 years in the making that will allow pork processing plants to increase the line speed of their slaughter operations and exercise more control over the food safety involving their animals.

    Starting later this month, when the government begins implementing the changes, company employees will sort healthy pigs from unhealthy ones and identify defects on carcasses after slaughter, allowing USDA to slash the number of federal inspectors it maintains on site. The rule sparked pushback from consumer advocates, plant employees and government food safety inspectors alike, and is the subject of three different lawsuits alleging violations of various workplace and food safety laws. The administration, however, says the change will save taxpayer dollars, speed up slaughter operations and lead to consumer savings.

    (5) This is fluid still. Multiple sources reported that everyone at the debates were tested and others reported that Trump’s team arrived late and was not tested. Reports conflict on who was wearing masks when and the thought processes behind such decisions. Reports conflict on the USSC nominee’s COVID status; some say she had the disease at some point in the summer. WSJ on 04OCT20 is reporting Trump had a positive test Thursday, did a Fox interview, and then had another positive test, all a while having no symptoms. Reports conflict on symptoms that Trump has had since the tests. Trump likely had the virus (and was likely contagious) in a Wednesday rally in Duluth, MN and possible that Trump had it or got it at the Debate. It will be educational for history to see the contact tracing efforts.