Posts tagged: coronavirus

Against (Most) Religious Exemptions for Worshippers

I’m on record supporting a wide range of religious exemptions for all kinds of people. And I only sometimes oppose them. But I am now concerned, quite concerned, that demands for religious exemptions from lockdown policies risk imposing harms on others. When religious worshippers gather together in large numbers, they can easily spread the virus, and risk infecting hundreds and thousands of others.

In other posts, and some articles, I’ve outlined what I take to be the principles that license religious exemptions. I think religious exemptions from a law morally ought granted whenever the following four conditions are met:

(1) The law is endorsed by the subset of the population whose support makes the law democratically legitimate (something like a majority).

(2) The law places a substantial burden on the integrity or conscience of religious citizens (or secular citizens), or considerably sets back their fundamental interests.

(3) The exemption is feasible. Government can detect burdened citizens, exempt them without enormous costs, and typically root out fraudulent exemption claims.

(4) The exemption economizes on third party harms.

All of these principles are fairly straightforward (but if you want more clarification, see the post linked above). The key in this case is principle (4). On my view, religious exemptions can be restricted if they impose third-party harms or significant risks of third-party harms. The trouble for religious exemptions for large church gatherings is that, under current conditions, such gatherings impose risks of third-party harms because they create sites for transmission of COVID. By refusing to engage in social distancing, these worshippers put others at risk. Now, people of faith have extremely strong reason to worship, but they don’t necessarily have strong reason to worship in physical proximity to one another during a pandemic since they can worship in other ways, and the leaders of many religious organizations have created other ways for them to do so (such as drive-thru services and online services, both of which I have benefited from) and strictly directed them not to attend services in person.

So it is not clear to me that people of faith have sufficiently strong reasons to reject these restrictions because their faith does not require that they meet. So, strictly speaking, the restrictions are a substantial burden, but the risk of infecting people, at least in certain areas, is a much greater burden.

But here’s the trouble: we don’t know exactly how much risk we’re imposing on others by gathering to worship, but we have a much better sense of the concrete losses to churches and parishioners for not being able to worship. Churches, like any other institution, can lose money, but the bigger issue is that there’s an enormous loss in being isolated from fellow believers. So the challenge for covid policymakers is to try and figure out whether restrictions should be applied broadly or targeted by region.

I can see a case to be made that in certain sparsely populated parts of the country that the restrictions on church gathering be more modest, whereas in large cities, the rationale for restrictions is stronger. I’m not in a position to make those calls, of course, but I think the principles I’ve laid out are the right ones. In general, we default in favor of religious liberty, but when exemptions pose third-party harms and when the legal restrictions don’t strictly violate the conscience of adherents of the faith, restrictions on church gatherings can be justified rather straightforwardly.

Why are Trump Supporters Demonstrating Against the Economic Lockdowns?

We are starting to see more polarization of opinion about the lockdowns, with Republicans returning to their original skepticism about the dangers of the virus. If a Democrat were President, this would be unsurprising. But Trump is in office, and people tend to approve and trust government more when their favored presidential candidate is in power. So what’s going on? Here are some hypotheses. I’m not satisfied with most of them.

1. Trump supporters trust the government and public health officials less than non-Trump supporters, and so are less likely to believe in official recommendations. Problem: there’s lots of skepticism about public health in minority communities, especially in the black community (and with good reason in some cases). But we don’t see protests there.

2. Trump supporters are disproportionately bearing the economic costs of the lockdowns, given that they tend to hold jobs that do not require college degrees. Problem: this is also a feature of many minority communities, and minority communities are getting harder hit by fatalities than rural whites.

3. Trump supporters sense Trump’s displeasure with the lockdowns, and hypothesize that he’s being misled by experts. This is where all the #fireFauci stuff is coming from. In general, Trump is sending mixed messages, at best, and people in his tribe are responding accordingly. Problem: I’d expect more ambivalence in their views if this were true.

4. Trump supporters are deeply anti-elitist in general, moreso than people on the left, and since elites are supporting lockdowns, Trump supporters are opposing them. Problem: there are anti-elitist leftists. Heard of Berniebros?

5. Trump supporters are seeing others members of the red tribe protesting, but the protests are being driven by political groups looking to expose weaknesses in Democratic state governors and create a groundswell of support for GOP candidates. Trump supporters then infer that their group is generally skeptical of the lockdowns and concerned with the economic costs and act accordingly. Problem: But why are people so eager to agree with the protestors in the first place? The resentment seems genuine, not like astroturf.

Hypotheses I’m more satisfied with:

6. Conservative and libertarian intellectual and policy elites chafe more at the greatly expanded power of government and the restrictiveness of the lockdowns, and have been challenging a lot of the flawed models and data shaping elite opinion. This is trickling down to grassroots people on the right through right-wing media.

And:

7. Distrust of Mass Media: Trump supporters disproportionately distrust mass media, which is to say they don’t really trust it at all. But non-Trump supporting anti-elitists, vaccine-skeptics, etc. tend to trust what the mass media tells them. Since mass media is largely conveying a pro-lockdown message, Trump supporters are inclined to disbelieve them or even believe the opposite.

Anything I’m missing?

Will the Virus Make Us More or Less Religious?

Some are starting to speculate about whether the virus will affect American religiosity, which as we know, is abnormally high for a developed democratic country. Religious affiliation and practice in the US has been slowly declining for a few decades now. So we might think that pattern will intensify. In this post, I want to see if this is likely to be true.

Before I begin, let’s understand religiosity as adherence to some kind of religious belief, combined with a modest degree of religious observance corresponding to those beliefs. There are lots of ways to make these ideas more precise, but they won’t matter much for the purposes of this post.

The main way to predict the effects of the virus on religiosity is to ask how the virus affects the relative costs and benefits of religious belief and practice. I’ll assume that most churches have or will have services online, and that most of their adherents will be able to attend if they wish.

Factors Favoring Increased Religiosity:

  1. Increased Uncertainty and Poverty: according to a common secularization thesis, people become less religious as they become more secure in their possession of worldly goods. To the extent that the virus deprives people of security and prosperity, they are most likely to form religious beliefs and engage in religious practices that they feel provide them with a balm for their suffering.
  2. Decreased Costs of Attendance: it is much easier to “attend” church from home than to get up, get dressed, and drive to services.
  3. Decreased Opportunity Costs of Religious Practice: people are working less, if they’re working at all, and so they have more time to devote themselves to religious practices like worship, prayer, and study.

Factors Favoring Decreased Religiosity:

  1. Fewer Social Benefits: one of the advantages of religious observance is the ability to form close social bonds with members of one’s faith, and that is easier to sustain with personal contact in church and in church activities, like worship and charity work.
  2. Less Social Punishment: a lot of religious observance is driven by the fear that others will disapprove of us if we are not sufficiently observant. But without social contact, it is harder to monitor whether people are observant or not, and this leads to slacking off. I admit I’m more distracted when I worship from home than when I worship in church, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
  3. Less Religious Instruction: a lot of religious belief and practice comes from religious instruction, like Bible studies, that are much more easily carried out in person than over the internet, so the dissemination of religious knowledge and inspiration might be decreased.

These factors apply to existing religious belief and practice. But we should also not discount innovations in religiosity, both in the delivery of religious services (like drive-in worship) and in the nature of religion itself (a sufficiently bad global pandemic could lead to the creation of new religions or new variants on old religions).

My suspicion is that, on balance, a prolonged viral infection will favor a modest increase in religiosity among those who feel most negatively affected by the virus, and that religious observance will be partly facilitated by innovation in service delivery.

Is Social Distancing Big Brother?

Many conservatives and libertarians are complaining that our practice social distancing is objectionable because it is a form of government control. I’ve not been too sympathetic to this line of criticism because I think the vast majority of social distancing is voluntary, with little by way of threats of government coercion. I engage in social distancing because I think it protects me and my family, that it is my duty to my fellow citizens, and, frankly, because I’m afraid of being reprimanded by other people for violations. I’m not so worried about the police, going to jail, or being fined. I bet most people in the country feel similarly.

Social distancing is not primarily the result of government power. Instead, high-status persons are functioning as trendsetters in establishing new social norms, like hand-washing. Some people feel more constrained by those new norms than others, but that is not primarily because of government action. Instead, social distancing is a largely  spontaneous order of social norms, which do indeed restrict freedom, but not in a big brother kind of way

Here’s something odd about these complaints. Conservatives and libertarians traditionally argue that many public goods can be provided through ostracism and social norms. Government coercion isn’t required. But our present predicament is that people are providing a public good (safety from the virus) through ostracism and social norms, by and large. Yet conservatives and libertarians are complaining about this state of affairs rather than lauding it. I’m delighted because social distancing is coming from people’s own hearts and self-interest, and not through violence. People are mostly doing the right thing for the right reasons.

This suggests that we might be able to provide lots of other public goods through social norms. Cool! Why aren’t we hearing more about this?

My guess is that conservatives and libertarians are focused on the economic costs of social distancing, which are gigantic. I get that. I’m feeling it. My wife has been furloughed, I’ve lost thousands of dollars because of speaking honoraria that aren’t coming my way. We’re fine, and blessed to have what we have, but it is unfortunate and difficult all the same.

People are also understandably upset about the fact that we’re making big social decisions based on bad data and worse models. If conservatives and libertarians were simply upset that we’re being told things that aren’t true, then I would completely sympathize. But the truth is that we have bad models and bad data in large part because there are so many unknowns, such that the degree of social distancing we’re adopting may well be reasons. And, as I’ve said here before, it’s really hard to know how to make these trade-offs, and so people are defaulting to extremely risk-averse behaviors. I don’t see why that reaction is especially less reasonable than alternative plans of action. As a result, the spontaneous order of social distancing is a reasonable, moral, and local reaction to the virus. It is not a matter of mere top-down planning.

Economic vs Human Costs Under Conditions of Uncertainty (Not Risk)

We are presently suffering from a once-in-a-lifetime viral pandemic, and the only way to keep millions from dying is to shut down large parts of the economy. The economic costs are staggering, but we might keep hundreds of thousands of people alive, and millions more from bad health, lung damage, and the like. A lot of people, especially some conservatives and libertarians, are chafing under the restrictions. Their concerns are reasonable: the costs of the shutdowns are staggering! But I fear this is tempting many into conclusion-driven reasoning: “Oh, the reasons for the shutdown are based on bad models, but the economic costs are real, so let’s relax and stop freaking out before we destroy ourselves economically.” People are desperate for some degree of certainty so that we can figure out how to avoid paying all of these costs.This is part of what has driven the recent, severe, and frankly well-earned embarrassment of Richard Epstein for making predictions. He was almost certainly reasoning backwards: economic destruction and lost liberty are bad, and so the viral threat necessitating those costs must be being overblown. I’ve seen this all over Facebook as well.

But there’s also an error in the other direction. “Economic” costs are human costs. Human beings suffer, and often die, when they are poorer and out of work (though oddly it looks like human morality in the US has fallen off a cliff this year). Folks mocking people for caring about the economic costs aren’t taking the economic costs seriously enough and seem to prefer dehumanizing their opponents to figuring out a constructive solution.

Here’s the trouble for both sides, though: we lack the information necessary to determine, or even begin to determine, who is correct. And that’s because there’s a lot we don’t know about COVID-19, in particular its true fatality rate and how widespread it is at present. Because of that, we don’t have a sense for how many people could die, with estimates between a few thousand to millions. If we knew that social distancing would save a million lives in the US, the “economy” side of the debate would be wrong, and if we knew social distancing would only save ten thousand lives in the US, the “human” side would be wrong.

But we not only lack certainty, we don’t even know the probabilities of these outcomes. We are in the condition that Frank Knight dubbed uncertainty. We don’t know that there’s, say, a 20% chance of 1 million people dying, a 60% chance of 100,000 people dying, and a 20% chance of 10,000 people dying. Even in that case, we could make trade-offs, and we could debate which trade-offs were correct.

Until then, we’re all going to desperately grasp for knowledge of probabilities, but we must be careful not to manufacture probabilities without the very best information available. Until then, well, we should … Well, I’m not exactly sure because I don’t know the probabilities. I guess extreme caution is called for? Precautionary principle, save us all!

 

Why Won’t Trump’s Approval Ratings Change?

Wars are known to create a rally around the flag effect, where presidential approval skyrockets, as does trust in government. This was true for George H. W. Bush, and for George W. Bush after 9-11, so in political conditions not wholly unlike ours.

So far, Trump’s approval rating seems locked in, though we saw a bit of an uptick yesterday. Regardless, few people approve of him more or less than they did before the virus shut everything down. It seems like our political tribalization is preventing any movement in approval ratings. Remarkably, we were fairly polarized in 2001, but W still got a huge effect, and now Trump gets next to nothing.

So what’s going on? Why did 9-11 help W but the new coronavirus hasn’t helped Trump much?

Here’s my best guess. In the case of 9-11, everyone came to have the same beliefs about it pretty quickly (and this months before 9-11 was falsely tied to Iraq). The human death toll was immediate and visible, and the culprits were visible in many ways as well. Moreover, it was expected that there would be a military response, and so people geared up to support the troops and whomever was going to lead them.

Things are different with the virus. First, beliefs about the virus remain somewhat polarized. Second, the human death toll is not immediate and is far less visible, and cannot easily be tied to a human culprit. Moreover, while we all have to change our behavior to beat the virus, we aren’t going to war. People aren’t going to get shot and killed fighting against an enemy so the bonding effect is smaller.

And yet, you would still expect something of a rally, right? What else is going on? Trump was already quite unpopular, far moreso than W, and people’s beliefs about him are extremely polarized, more than they were about W, even following the 2000 election. Further, Trump has had an inconsistent response to the virus, which I think has dampened the rallying effect as well. But if his behavior is more consistently seen as positive, then we should expect a modest rallying effect. I can imagine his approval rating getting up to 60% or s0, though that would surprise me somewhat. But it could go above 50% for a few weeks. It might be enough to win the election depending on how things go, but right now both Trump and Biden are below 50%!

“The Chinese Virus”

I posted this on Facebook the other day, but I thought I’d share it on the blog. I thought it might be worth offering some thoughts about why Trump and now many conservatives are calling the new coronavirus the “Chinese” virus. In my view, it is not *because* of racism, even if the term has racist consequences by leading Americans to, say, harass Chinese Americans. And the term wasn’t picked because it is “accurate” because Trump could have picked a bunch of other accurate names, like the CCP virus.

Here are a few possible reasons, some of which have occurred to Trump, but all of which have likely occurred to his elite supporters:

1. One of Trump’s longtime fears is China’s growing economic power. He’s been talking about this for decades. I think Trump and elite Trumpers want us to commercially decouple from China because he thinks it is bad for the US. By blaming China for the virus, he makes decoupling more politically viable. It was unthinkable a month ago. Now things are different. Fox is talking about being all pharma production back to the US. And some on the left seem sympathetic.

2. Trump and elite Trumpers wants to isolate China politically and weaken Xi because they think China isn’t a mere economic threat, but a political one too. If the world blames China for the virus, and indeed there are some grounds to blame the Chinese government, then that could weaken them greatly.

3. Trump and elite Trumpers recognize that Trump can win re-election if there’s a rally around the flag effect over the virus. If he can get the country to blame China rather than him, or to blame a visible foe rather than just an invisible virus, he may make the rally around the flag effect more likely. It might work too. If some of the blue tribe can be convinced that China is a bigger threat right now than the red tribe, they might be willing to vote for Trump.

Along these lines, I expect Trump is going to go after Biden hard for purportedly pro-China trade policy under Obama. Biden wants to remind us of Obama-era normalcy to boot Trump, but now Trump’s most potent line of attack is that Biden and Obama made us more dependent on China than we should have been. I’m not saying I agree with that, but I can imagine it being an effective line.

I want countries to be economically interdependent because I think it promotes peace and prosperity. But I sort of get not wanting the Chinese Communist Party, one of the most evil organizations in the world, to be able to deny us all our pharmaceuticals if they decide they want to. I don’t think they’d do it, but they’re engaged in mass murder and concentration camps right now, so maybe we should mistrust them.