Napkin calculation #5 follows. Unlike previous calculations, it requires political preface.
The plan is scientifically sound and politically risky. Roughly a third of the electorate march to the beat of a primitive drum, eschewing the obligations that come with the rights of citizenship. The triviality of secession from masks and vaccines, the small stakes, evidence deep division.
This was last diagnosed in 1858, when the stakes were much higher, by a senatorial candidate in Illinois, in this speech:
…“A house divided against itself, cannot stand.” I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided…
The speaker, Abraham Lincoln, was optimistic. The house did divide; discordant reunion followed, touched upon a century later by JFK in his inaugural speech: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
Is wearing a mask too much sacrifice? A mask is noninvasive. It makes no change to the body of the wearer. Not so for a vaccine. Since I am fervently in favor of vaccination, and my viewpoint is not primarily legal, I can only watch with nervous awe as this plays out, and do a little diagnosis of the body politic.
The geography of the U.S. is a blessing and a burden. The Northeast Megalopolis and California are dense and cosmopolitan. The Rustbelt and the agrarian center have different ethos-es. Population densities and travel distances foster illusions of autonomy, versus the interconnectedness of a megalopolis. This is the origin of red states versus blue.
The illusion of regional autonomy is old, implicit in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, implicit also in the divisive doctrine of states’ rights. These are old wounds, periodically picked open in politics. In the latter half of the 20th century, network television may have promoted unity and civility, with projection of moderated politics into the heartland, minus extremism. A credible external threat, communism, also contributed.
The vertical dominance of TV networks has been replaced by myriad lateral connections of social media. As one extremist explained to me, “It’s so easy to find people who think like you do.” Every region of the interior has its own web, selective towards regional attitudes, exclusive of the cosmopolitan coasts. External threats exist, but lack obvious-to-the-electorate appearance.
This is a good part of why COVID is political. There is more in the way of explanation, but it isn’t as complicated as Spengler would make it. In 1976, during the 1976 swine flu outbreak, people lined up and got and their shots — or didn’t, but it was not political. During the 1918 influenza pandemic, some refused masks, and there was some organization to it, but there wasn’t a national schism.
Rejection of masks and shots figure as tragic proxies for a national malaise, a loss of purpose and responsibility that threatens the very existence of American democracy. Vaccine mandates put more stress on weak joints in the structure. Why, then, has Biden chosen this course? The answer comes as napkin calculation #5.
Napkin calculations are not to be trusted, though #1 through 4 have done pretty well. The fatality rate of all COVID variants remains informed guesswork. For the original strain, one estimate is 1.7%. For delta, double that. So a napkin calc shows what is possible. Assume:
- 80 million hardcore never-vaxers.
- 85% eventually contract delta.
- 3.4% die.
This is 2,312,000 fatalities over an unspecified time frame. The progression could be diminished or interrupted by changing attitudes towards vaccination, or the development of really effective antiviral therapy for later stages of disease. It could be increased by mutations. Impossible? The Black Death dwarfed this number.
This is not the kind of thing you talk about on CNN. Joe Biden must have asked his advisors, what’s the worst it could do? And they told him, in hushed tones, “unlikely but possible.” Then there was a little meditation, and a choice. He made the choice because he is a moral person. The choice, not to save his presidency, but to save a lot of people, mostly members of the other party. That takes guts I haven’t seen in a long time.
In other quarters, soulless political operatives, in note of the resulting acceleration of the demographic shift, may reconsider the value of some voices.