Sunday, January 17, 2021

Why Trump Shouldn't be Impeached

As best I can tell, while Trump is morally responsible for the recent riot he is not legally responsible, since everything he did that contributed to it was something he had a legal right to do. But requirements for impeachment, other than a majority vote in the House to impeach and two-thirds in the Senate to convict, are unclear, so that is not, in my view, the fundamental issue.

Our legal system has so far been pretty stable. One reason is an implicit rule: When power shifts, the winners don't punish the losers. Impeaching Trump after he has left office, as a punishment not a way of removing him from power, violates that rule. That would be a  dangerous precedent, one step further towards making political conflict something closer to a civil war. 

People will, of course, argue that this is a special case, that Trump is uniquely guilty. But once the precedent is established other people, in a polity already sharply divided, will find other special cases.

For the same reason I am bothered by people who gloat over the prospect that Trump, once out of office, will be prosecuted for things he did in business before he was president. Obviously having been president doesn't give legal immunity — anyone who wants to sue him will be, and should be, free to do so. But criminal prosecution is at the discretion of the prosecutor; Obama protected illegal immigrants who he didn't want arrested by instructing law enforcement not to arrest them. If Trump gets prosecuted by officials who are his political enemies for business dealings he did not get prosecuted for when they happened, it will be pretty clear that it isn't the dealings he is being prosecuted for. 

That again would be an unfortunate precedent.

Monday, January 04, 2021

Fauci, Lying, Greyhound Racing, and Trump

“When polls said only about half of all Americans would take a vaccine, I was saying herd immunity would take 70 to 75 percent,” Dr. Fauci said. “Then, when newer surveys said 60 percent or more would take it, I thought, ‘I can nudge this up a bit,’ so I went to 80, 85.”

“We need to have some humility here,” he added. “We really don’t know what the real number is. I think the real range is somewhere between 70 to 90 percent. But, I’m not going to say 90 percent.”

Doing so might be discouraging to Americans, he said, because he is not sure there will be enough voluntary acceptance of vaccines to reach that goal.

(NY Times, Dec. 24, 2020, “How Much Herd Immunity is Enough.”)

Poll information about how many Americans would take a vaccine is not evidence about how many people must be immune to achieve herd immunity. By Fauci’s own account, his changed statement reflected not what the scientific evidence showed but what he thought it prudent to tell people it did. He had just publicly admitted, in the New York Times, that he was a liar.

If he is not telling the truth, what is he doing?

Greyhound racing uses a mechanical rabbit, kept moving ahead of the dogs to give them something to chase. Too close and they might catch it, too far ahead and they might lose interest. The most plausible conjecture I can come up with to explain Fauci’s account of what he is doing is that he is following the same approach. In order to get people to do what he wants, whether that is getting vaccinated or wearing masks, he has to persuade them that it will do some good. If they believe the problem is almost solved, each individual may figure that others will solve it and he can slack off, or may decide to maintain precautions for a little while longer, at which point the pandemic will disappear and he can stop. If, on the other hand, people believe the solution is very far away, it is tempting to give up on it.

The solution, as for the greyhound race, is to keep adjusting the estimate, subject to what you can get people to believe and how close the rabbit has to be to motivate the dog to run.

In the short run this approach, like other versions of lying to people for their own good — telling them, early in the pandemic, that masks were useless to them, in order to save masks for medical personnel, or that a lockdown would be only for a few weeks, in order to get people to go along with it — looks attractive, a way of saving lives. In the longer run, it risks persuading an increasing number of people that they should not believe what authority figures tell them.

That is not a wholly bad thing, given that elite opinion, as filtered through the media, is frequently unreliable, sometimes, as in this case, deliberately dishonest. But there is a problem, currently illustrated by the number of Americans who believe Trump’s claim that he really won the election. The more people who distrust elite sources of opinion, the harder it is to get people to coordinate on a common view of reality. If you cannot trust the President’s advisor on the epidemic or, in other contexts, the New York Times, to tell you the truth, why should you trust the people who tell you that the election was, on the whole, honest, that although there were probably, as in most elections, a few glitches here and there, there was nothing nearly large enough to reverse the result?

If there are no elite information sources that you trust, you might as well believe what you want to believe, as people are very much inclined to do.

Postscripts on the Pandemic:

Fauci's quoted statements provide further evidence that what he says reflects what he wants to tell people, not his scientific opinion.

“If you really want true herd immunity, where you get a blanket of protection over the country ... you want about 75 to 85 percent of the country to get vaccinated,” Fauci, the longtime head of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a live-recorded interview with Rameswaram, the host of Today, Explained. “I would say even closer to 85 percent.” (Vox, 12/15/20)

Current estimates imply that more than 100 million Americans have had the disease already (91 million as of September, according to the CDC). The same mechanisms that make vaccines work also imply that those people are immune to the disease, at least for a while. If those people are put at the back of the queue for vaccines, vaccinating 70% of the population will make 100% immune, at least if immunity does not turn out to expire in less than a year. If we make no attempt to avoid vaccinating those who have had the disease, 70% vaccinated should mean about 80% immune. Fauci is  ignoring that, presumably because taking account of it reduces the percent vaccinated that he can claim we need.

There is, however, a reason to raise our estimate of the requirement for herd immunity, having nothing to do with changes in what people will believe. There are now two new and more contagious variants of the disease, one first detected in the UK, one in South Africa. The more contagious the disease, the larger the number of people who must be immune for herd immunity.