The Current Lockdown, Security Theater, and Second-Order Effects

We’ve been under “full” lockdown here in the Bay Area for almost a week. The rules have been much more lax than they were when we first went into lockdown in March. Understandably so — we know a lot more about the virus now than we did when it started. However, the changes have barely been evident to me. All the retail stores are open, and people seem to be out and about just as much as they were two weeks ago.

Outdoor dining, however, isn’t allowed. This smells like security theater. If you can spend 30 minutes in a poorly ventilated store with others — admittedly, with everyone masked — is it really less safe to eat outdoors spaced from others?

I get that you have to do something different (3,000 people dying every day is absolutely horrific), that sometimes it’s the second- or third-order effects that result in the changes you want, not the first. But I feel for folks who are most impacted by these rules (such as restaurants) when it’s not clear that the rules are addressing what most needs to be addressed. It’s also just confusing for everybody, and you have to wonder if the confusion is undermining the point of the order in the first place.

Apparently, this past Thursday, San Francisco changed the rules again, now allowing people to meet with one person outside of their household for an outdoor, spaced and masked walk. Again, this feels safe, but if this is now allowed, what is the theory of change of this whole lockdown again?

It will be interesting to see which way the numbers are trending in a few weeks.

Operation Sea-Spray

Last night, some friends and I were talking about conspiracy theories and the U.S. government, which led my friend, Greg, to tell us about Operation Sea-Spray. In September 1950, the U.S. Navy sprayed a cloud of the microbe, Serratia marcescens into the air two-miles off the coast of San Francisco in order to see how susceptible we might be to germ warfare.

Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on this logic. In order to see how susceptible we were to germ warfare, the U.S. government decided to unleash germ warfare on its own citizens.

In fairness to the government, they chose a “harmless” microbe. You’ve probably seen Serratia marcescens before. It’s the same microbe that forms pink streaks in your toilet and shower when you neglect to clean them.

Except that Serratia marcescens isn’t harmless. Not quite, at least. As this 2015 Discover Magazine article explained:

A week after the spraying, eleven patients were admitted to the now defunct Stanford University Hospital in San Francisco with severe urinary tract infections, resistant to the limited antibiotics available in that era. One gentlemen, recovering from prostate surgery, developed complications of heart infection as Serratia colonized his heart valves. His would be the only death during the aftermath of the experiment.

Stanford University Hospital doctors culturing the patients’ urine on petri dishes found an unusual and unexpected discovery: microbes blushing with a cherry red pigment. Infection with Serratia was so rare that the outbreak was extensively investigated by the University to identify the origins of this scarlet letter bug. Though the source of this unusual organism could not be located despite an exhaustive epidemiological search, Stanford published a report on the outbreak, noting that “the isolation of a red pigment-producing bacterium from the urine of human beings was of interest, at first, as a curious clinical observation. Later, the repeated occurrence of urinary-tract infection by this organism, with bacteremia in two patients and death in one, indicated the potential clinical importance of this group of bacteria.” It was the first recorded outbreak of Serratia in the history of microbiology.

The government didn’t disclose these experiments — a clear violation of the Nuremberg Code — publicly for another 27 years.

There’s a reason why people don’t trust institutions and are susceptible to conspiracy theories. If you want to undo the damage from incidents like these, you have to acknowledge what you’ve done in the past and work intentionally to rebuild trust

On Markets, Government, and American Exceptionalism

On Election Day, Carmen Medina outlined ten beliefs underlying her views on the world and on politics. Read her whole post. It’s short, sharp, and thought-provoking.

Here’s what she wrote about regulations:

1. More often than not government (all) regulations do not entirely achieve their intended effects. Their unintended effects can be positive or negative. This is due to the world’s and society’s infinite complexity. Thus, I am skeptical of most grand efforts to “fix a problem”.

and a few points later on climate change:

4. Climate change is real and it is currently driven by humans. Given that regulatory approaches are often flawed, solutions should be emergent and market and locally-based. (See point 1) Thirty years ago I was debating pollution and energy with a friend in an English pub. He was advocating a large government program. I asserted that the first successful electric car would be created by a private company.

I don’t know enough about public policy to know whether her first point — specifically, “more often than not” — is true, although Carmen, as a long-time civil servant, would know infinitely more about this than me. I’m curious, however, what she means by “market-based solutions” in this light.

All markets are regulated, in the sense that someone gets to define the rules by which a market plays. Those rules impact how those markets work and whom they benefit. We saw this play out on Tuesday. Elections are a kind of market that serve as the cornerstone of our democracies. All elections are also regulated. Someone decides who gets to vote, the mechanisms by which they vote, and how those votes are counted. Subtle differences in those rules can have massive effects on their outcomes. This is true of all markets.

This complexity plays out in her electric car example. I assume she’s talking here about Tesla, whose founder, Elon Musk, has loudly endorsed market-based solutions to climate change (such as a carbon tax) and opposed government subsidies. However, he also happily accepted a $450 million loan from the federal government in 2010, which enabled him to scale up production of Tesla’s Model S (and which Tesla paid back with interest three years later). I’m also willing to bet that a good portion of the scientific and technological foundations on which Tesla and other electric cars are based were funded by the government. One might argue that these are all examples of market-based interventions rather than regulations. I’m not sure that the distinction is that clean or that it matters at all.

I think the more important point is that there’s no such thing as the perfect structure. Whatever you put into place will have unintended consequences (a point that Carmen makes right from the start). Without alignment around the desired consequences and a fair, equitable system for making adjustments (i.e. regulations), that structure will fail. Therein lies the rub, especially when it comes to elections. Elections are supposed to be that fair, equitable system for making adjustments, but if they start off flawed (the way all intentionally-designed systems in a complex world do), we are now relying on a flawed system to fix a flawed system. Messy, right?

(This is also what galls me about the current capitalism / socialism rhetoric. Most of the time, when I hear someone railing about one or the other, I have no idea what they’re talking about. Is the U.S. capitalist or socialist? It’s both, and it always has been, although the degrees have shifted over the years. The challenge is in finding the right mix, whatever you want to call it in the end, not in replacing one with a more “pure” version of the other and calling it a day.)

Earlier this week, Stephen Bates published a piece in Lawfare on Reinhold Niebuhr, where he wrote:

For Niebuhr, [Charles] Merriam-style complacency is all too common in the United States. Americans like to ascribe their success to moral virtue rather than good luck. Thanksgiving, he once remarked, is a time for “congratulating the Almighty upon his most excellent co-workers, ourselves.” Americans smugly presume that they have the gold-standard democracy against which all others must be measured. The framers, they think, fashioned stable, incorruptible, self-correcting institutions. Whenever part of the system goes haywire, the other parts compensate, and constitutional homeostasis prevails.

Not so, according to Niebuhr. “There are no such natural harmonies and balances …[,]” he wrote in a Hutchins Commission memo. “Whatever harmony exists at a particular moment may be disturbed by the emergence of new factors and vitalities.” In his view, the price of liberty isn’t merely eternal vigilance; it’s also eternal trial and error. New solutions create new problems. Virtues in one situation become vices in another. Measures to suppress abuses of freedom can end up suppressing freedom. Reason advances justice in some circumstances and camouflages injustice in others. The expansion of knowledge sometimes fuels global understanding and other times fuels imperialism. A free society, Niebuhr believed, demands ceaseless recalibration of unity and diversity, freedom and order, mores and mandates, state power and corporate power. The challenge is “a perpetual one,” he told [Henry] Luce, “for which no single solution is ever found but upon which each generation must work afresh.”

In this vein, I enjoyed how Carmen reframed American Exceptionalism:

10. America is the world’s most multicultural nation. That is its only true exceptionalism. We will prove to be either a successful example or a tragic one.

George Washington’s Warning About Political Parties

From George Washington’s farewell address at the close of his second term:

I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.

There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.

White House Year in Photography

Pete Souza, the official White House photographer (who also served a similar role under Reagan) posted his Year in Photos on the White House website this week. I loved poring over these! As you might expect, Souza’s photos tell a powerful, insider’s story of President Obama’s 2014. They also serve as a primer on masterful photojournalism.

The photo above offered a brief look at Obama’s propensity to be present. Souza’s caption:

Surrounded by Secret Service agents, the President views the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Rather than immediately board the Marine One helicopter at Crissy Field, the President instead walked right past the helicopter to see a better view of the bridge on a clear summer day.

Here are some other nice examples of this.

Masterful photography and storytelling is nothing new. What I especially love is how the White House uses the Internet and social media to share these pictures. All of the pictures above (and many more) are shared more or less in real-time on Flickr. If you click through on any of the photos, you’ll notice that all of the camera metadata is there. (Souza uses a Canon 5D Mark III, often with a 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom.) Lots of professional photographers hide their metadata, a ridiculous, misguided attempt to maintain some kind of competitive edge.

You’ll also notice the licensing: U.S. Government Works. By law, federal work is not protected by copyright. However, that does not mean the work is in the public domain, as federal work is protected by other government statutes. For example, you cannot use government work to imply endorsement by a government official. No such luck with public domain or even Creative Commons.

I had never seen the U.S. Government Works statement before. It has very nice language around publicity versus privacy rights, an issue that has flummoxed me.

Souza also maintains an excellent Instagram account, where he shares iPhone photos and insider stories, including his thought process behind how he curated his 2014 photo essay. He also recently gave an excellent interview about his process.

This is what working openly looks like. This is what getting it looks like.

Happy New Year, everyone!