In between Donald Trump’s exit from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and the vice-presidential debate, let’s turn to an apolitical analyst to understand what’s happening. Vaclav Smil, 76, native of communist Czechoslovakia, University of Manitoba professor for four decades, has written 39 books on energy, technology, and demography. “Nobody,” says Bill Gates, who has read every one, “sees the big picture with as wide an aperture as Vaclav Smil.”
What he sees now, he writes in a characteristically terse IEEE Spectrum essay, he finds puzzling. The COVID-19 death rate per million is about one-fifth that of the 1957-58 Asian flu and one-third of the 1968-70 Hong Kong flu. Yet these earlier pandemics had only “evanescent economic consequences” and did not “leave any deep traumatic traces in memories” of the 350 million people who, like Smil (and me), were 10 or older during both. “Countries did not resort to any mass-scale economic lockdowns, enforce any long-lasting school closures, ban sports events or cut flight schedules deeply.”
Why not? “Was it because we had no fear-reinforcing 24/7 cable news, no Twitter and no incessant and instant case-and-death tickers on all our electronic screens?” asks the non-cellphone-owner Smil. “Or is it we ourselves who have changed, by valuing recurrent but infrequent risks differently?”
Some of both is my tentative answer. As I’ve written about previously, Americans’ child-rearing practices are increasingly risk-averse. But this is not entirely consistent. Kids are kept in car seats till age 9, then encouraged to ride bicycles in heavy traffic a few years later. And some Americans are more risk-averse than others. Polls show that political liberals are more likely than political conservatives to wear masks and support extended lockdowns (except for “mostly peaceful” demonstrations against police).
Partisan politics and personal distaste for Donald Trump plays a role. As ProPublica’s Alec MacGillis documented in a searing New Yorker article, teacher union members didn’t adamantly oppose reopening schools until Donald Trump called for it. A Trump tweet that the sun rises in the east would, it seems, move many Americans to head out to the Pacific coast and wait for it to rise there.
But one-dimensional risk-aversion has produced extended lockdowns with significant public health costs: reduced cancer and cardiac screening, fewer childhood vaccinations, undue skepticism toward any COVID vaccine. And it’s plainly damaging liberals’ own causes.
Thus Democrats, unlike Republicans, have been refraining from door-to-door campaigning — until Oct. 1, when Democrats decided they needed the personal touch. Similarly, Democratic pols encouraged their voters’ aversion to voting in person, until they realized that there would be many spoiled or undelivered ballots in states with voters and officials unfamiliar with postal voting.
Lockdowns, more stringent in Democratic than Republican states, have produced higher unemployment and greater drops in state revenues. Keeping unionized public schools closed is driving parents to private schools, homeschooling, and improvised pods.
As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat notes, public schools are now open for half of white pupils but only one-quarter of blacks and Hispanics. For many minority children, he writes, “a key legacy of 2020 may be a well-intentioned liberal betrayal of their interests, a hollowing-out of the institutions that protect and serve them, and the deepening of America’s racial inequalities.” But extreme risk aversion imposes few costs for affluent liberals who can work comfortably and at full pay on home computers.
Which leads back to Vaclav Smil’s question: why do we have economic lockdowns, school closures, empty stadiums, and empty airliners when we didn’t before? My answer is a paraphrase of Bill Clinton’s explanation for his sexual adventures in the White House — because we can.
In Clinton’s 1990s, we didn’t have smartphones, Wi-Fi, Zoom. Now we — the affluent we have been the lockdown’s biggest backers — do. In my email today, I got an ad for a $16 million house in the Hamptons, complete with home office, gym, and sauna. No need to go into Manhattan.
Meanwhile in Baltimore, 12-year-old Shemar, whom Alec MacGillis had been tutoring, is staying up late watching TV and sleeping in, unable to log into the virtual classes the city’s unionized public schools are providing. “Broadband Internet,” wrote a respondent on MacGillis’s Twitter feed, responded to MacGillis, “is actually sabotaging our kids. Without it, there wouldn’t even be ‘virtual learning’ as an option, and every school in the country would have no choice but to take every kid back and just make the best of it.”
Vaclav Smil is right in documenting how technological progress has vastly improved ordinary people’s lives. But excessive risk aversion can make for exceptions.