Power Grab

  • The end of the U.S. as we knew it
  • “B.C.” takes on new meaning
  • Defining a “long” bike ride in Chicago
  • Social distancing is sooo yesterday
  • The 5’s “Pandemic Advisory System”
  • Will the TSA model become the norm? 
  • CDC and FDA: Shame on you
  • Habeas corpus at gunpoint
  • Idaho gets “weak in the knees.” 

We’re Not Going Back to Normal” is the title of an article by Gideon Lichfield, editor-in-chief of MIT Technology Review.

Maybe you already sense that intuitively. Or maybe your reaction is a sarcastic “Duh.” There was a “B.C.” era, before coronavirus… and everything after.

But what exactly is “after” supposed to look like?

We try to stay ahead of the curve here at The 5. Back on Feb. 24, the number of confirmed cases in the United States was a mere 48 and the World Health Organization was still in denial about a pandemic.

But on that day we introduced you to the term “social distancing”… we passed along the guidance about not touching your face in public… and we warned you about the possibility of “canceling mass events.” That was 2 and a half weeks before the NBA suspended its season and every other pro and college sport quickly followed.

Today, we peer into the future again… darkly.

We begin with a simple maxim: Governments and institutions inevitably fail us while a crisis is building. And once the crisis hits, those same governments and institutions grab more power and make matters worse.

The feds overlooked obvious clues in the weeks leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks. Whistleblowers like FBI Special Agent Coleen Rowley were ignored. After the attacks, we got the Patriot Act and an overweening surveillance state.

The feds allowed the too-big-to-fail banks to leverage up during the 2000s, setting the stage for the panic of 2008. Whistleblowers like Commodity Futures Trading Commission chair Brooksley Born were ignored. After the panic, the banks got bailed out while savers and retirees got pitifully low interest rates.

In the present crisis, New York City has recorded 23,112 coronavirus cases to date — more than a quarter of the U.S. total — with 365 deaths. To say the health commissioner and the mayor were caught off guard is the ultimate in understatement.

Coronavirus New York

On the federal level, it was one month ago today Donald Trump said, “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”

Yeah, that was then and this is now.

“You cannot go on long bike rides,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot decreed this week.

In most places under “stay at home” orders, exercise outdoors is still allowed. In theory.

But in practice? “Outside is for a brief respite,” the mayor commands, “not for 5Ks. I can’t emphasize enough that we abide [by] the rules.”

But what are the rules? What’s a “long” bike ride? A 5K is a hair over three miles. If you run an eight-minute mile, you cover the distance in about 25 minutes.

So how brief is brief? No one says, exactly. But violators of these vague diktats are subject to $500 fines; repeat violators are subject to arrest. And the Cook County Jail already has 33 coronavirus cases.

There’s no “social distancing” in jails and prisons, by the way, and the United States imprisons a far greater percentage of its population than any other nation on the planet. But that’s a topic for another day.

Yes, eventually the most extreme limits on our day-to-day activities will be lifted.

But those limits will probably be reimposed with little to no warning. “A single period of social distancing will not be sufficient,” says a group of Harvard researchers.

According to their statistical models, “there was a resurgence of infection when the simulated social distancing measures were lifted" — even after lengthy lockdowns of 20 weeks. "The social distancing is so effective that virtually no population immunity is built."

What they recommend instead is “intermittent distancing.” They have precise numbers that would trigger lifting and renewing lockdowns.

As summarized by Tiernan Ray, writing at ZDNet: “The authors suggest a threshold to be maintained is no more than 37.5 cases of the disease per 10,000 adult people in the population. That should be the ‘on’ switch to re-commence social distancing, they argue. That threshold, they estimate, would keep the number of patients needing critical care at 0.89 persons for every 10,000 people in the population, which should be adequate to not overwhelm the health care system.”

That’s 0.89. Apparently 0.90 trips the system into chaos.

It’s at this moment we recall Agora founder Bill Bonner’s dictum about how statistics become more suspect with the addition of each decimal place.

The headline on that ZDNet article likens the researchers’ recommendations to turning social distancing “on and off like a spigot.”

The problem, of course, is that schools and restaurants — and for that matter, sports leagues — can’t be turned off and on like a spigot.

But from the vantage point of a researcher’s ivory tower — or a bureaucrat’s comfortable office — that’s your problem, not theirs.

We’re staring into a near-term future where social distancing requirements will be stepped up and down on a whim, not unlike the government’s nonsensical “terror alerts” after 9/11…

Pandemic Advisory

Perhaps under that most extreme red scenario, the National Guard and Amazon would team up to deliver your rations of Soylent Green.

Creepy thought: The movie of that name was set in the year 2022.

The Harvard researchers’ statistical models line up with those from Imperial College London. It was the British numbers that prompted MIT’s Lichfield to conclude we’re never going back to “normal.”

“Social distancing and school closures would need to be in force some two-thirds of the time — roughly two months on and one month off — until a vaccine is available, which will take at least 18 months (if it works at all).”

And once this pandemic is over? Nope, still no “normal,” says Lichfield.

“One can imagine a world in which, to get on a flight, perhaps you’ll have to be signed up to a service that tracks your movements via your phone. The airline wouldn’t be able to see where you’d gone, but it would get an alert if you’d been close to known infected people or disease hot spots.

“There’d be similar requirements at the entrance to large venues, government buildings or public transport hubs. There would be temperature scanners everywhere, and your workplace might demand you wear a monitor that tracks your temperature or other vital signs.

“Where nightclubs ask for proof of age, in future they might ask for proof of immunity — an identity card or some kind of digital verification via your phone showing you’ve already recovered from or been vaccinated against the latest virus strains.

“We’ll adapt to and accept such measures, much as we’ve adapted to increasingly stringent airport security screenings in the wake of terrorist attacks. The intrusive surveillance will be considered a small price to pay for the basic freedom to be with other people.”

Oh great, the airport security model — because that works so well.

“Transportation Security Administration policies are the perfect parallel to many popular pandemic responses,” writes James Bovard at the Daily Caller.

“TSA screeners are far more effective at harassing and humiliating travelers than at protecting air transit; TSA screeners miss 80% of the mock bombs and weapons that testers smuggle through checkpoints. But as long as some frightened people are comforted by the sight of TSA checkpoints, nothing else matters.”

And make no mistake — it’s the failures of government that have gotten us to this sorry state of affairs.

We’ve previously cited the insanity of “certificates of need” (CON) in 35 states that effectively limit the number of hospital beds. The CON laws are a major reason America has 2.8 hospital beds per 1,000 people… while South Korea, widely considered a model for coronavirus response, has 12.3.

Meanwhile, the response of the CDC and the FDA has been “a failure of historic proportions,” says George Mason University econ professor Alex Tabarrok.

“The whole reason we have the CDC is precisely to prepare for pandemics like this,” he tells Reason editor Nick Gillespie. “They first tried to create their own tests instead of adopting the already-working WHO test. That delayed testing. Then the FDA compounded that error by not allowing private labs and state labs to do their own tests.”

The madness continues: No fewer than four companies have developed at-home coronavirus tests. But they’re delaying the rollout while the FDA drags its feet. Indeed, some customers who already sent in a sample for analysis have been informed those samples will be destroyed, the better to comply with the FDA.

The FDA is also responsible for the shortage of surgical masks and respirators. Both are FDA-regulated medical devices.

“Let's say that you're a garment manufacturer in NYC, but, of course, retail sales are down, so you're looking for another revenue stream. Why not make surgical masks?” writes Cato Institute researcher Paul Matzko.

Ah, but such a company has no chance navigating the FDA’s many obstacles, starting with “compositional side-by-side analysis” with masks currently on the market.

“There is no world in which any company not already deeply invested in manufacturing surgical masks could jump through these hurdles in time to mitigate the desperate shortage of [personal protective equipment] for medical professionals on the COVID-19 front lines. None.”

Only Wednesday did the FDA finally waive its “premarket notification rules.”

“That it took them more than two months since the first diagnosed patient to do so is unconscionable,” Matzko says by way of update, “but better late than never.”

And it’s in this crisis environment that the feds seek to further consolidate their power — threatening the one right that safeguards all the others.

From Politico six days ago: “The Justice Department has quietly asked Congress for the ability to ask chief judges to detain people indefinitely without trial during emergencies — part of a push for new powers that comes as the novel coronavirus spreads throughout the United States.”

So the right of habeas corpus is under threat — and remember, this emergency could last 18 months.

Without the right of habeas corpus, none of your other rights matter. How likely are you to exercise your right to freedom of speech, freedom of religion and so on… if you know you can be hauled off for any reason with no charge and no prospect of trial?

No, we’re never going back to “normal.”

We’ll give the last word today to our reader from Idaho, an ex-Californian now under lockdown orders by Gov. Brad Little only days after spotting the governor in a restaurant.

“Well, Dave, I'm not feeling much different toward Idaho, but I am toward the governor. He's apparently gotten weak in the knees or somewhere a foot or two above the knees. I understand that he'd been getting considerable pressure from the blue states to our west.

“As of yesterday, I still managed to get my new tooth installed by my dentist since I showed up for a scheduled appointment without knowing what the gov had done. After reading the notice on the door, I made sure no other patients were in the waiting room and then coughed loudly a couple of times as I entered, and the desk crew all just laughed. (Idahoans are not given to hysteria.) My dentist said that basically all they have to do is stop doing cleanings and exams because everything else from fillings on up comes under the heading of 'emergency services.'

“Albertsons, Walgreens, Dollar Tree and the state liquor store were all still open and business was a bit brisk. The biggest difference is that all the stores have taped ‘distancing’ lines every six feet leading up to the registers, and one chain store has slapped up plexiglass barriers in front of its cashiers. From what I've read, everyone can still go outside and hike, jog, hunt, fish, etc., but people who don't live in the same household are supposed to stay at least six feet apart, which considering that Idaho has the sixth-lowest population density in the U.S., is not too hard to do.

“I think my biggest problem is that my barber is closed and I'm going to be pretty shaggy in another three weeks.

“I live alone and am a bit of a prepper so I don't have much trouble shutting myself in for extended periods. I did it voluntarily for three weeks a few years ago during the winter that people around here have taken to calling ‘Snowmageddon.’ The difference is that then it was my idea. This time it's not my idea, and I don't like coercion. But I still like Idaho.”

The 5: What can we say? Other than hang in there…

Best regards,

David Gonigam

Dave Gonigam
The 5 Min. Forecast

P.S. Oh, the markets today? Deep red for the major stock indexes — not surprising after the three-day 20% run-up for the Dow. Gold is at $1,637 — much more, though, if you want the real stuff you can hold in your hand.

Thanks for indulging us what amounts to a single-topic episode of The 5. We’re back tomorrow with our weekly wrap-up 5 Things You Need to Know. Regular programming of the weekday 5 resumes Monday.

Dave Gonigam

Dave Gonigam

Dave Gonigam has been managing editor of The 5 Min. Forecast since September 2010. Before joining the research and writing team at Agora Financial in 2007, he worked for 20 years as an Emmy award-winning television news producer.

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