Our exit strategy is death

Craig Newmark founded Craigslist in 1995. A dozen years later – at which point Craigslist was a senior citizen by venture-capital-fueled Internet standards – Newmark was asked for the umpteenth time, “When are you going to sell your company and cash out?” In other words, what was his “exit strategy?”

His response was (more or less) “My exit strategy is death.” He’s repeated that sentiment many times since. He retired from day-to-day operations at Craigslist in 2016 to focus on his philanthropic efforts (Forbes estimated in 2017 that the company was worth $3 billion, making Newmark – who’s assumed to own at least 40% of the company – worth around $1.3 billion or so.) He has no plans to sell Craigslist to any of the many suitors who’ve come calling over the years, nor is he interested in further monetizing the site, which remains pleasantly archaic in appearance and functionality in 2021, yet likely brings in several hundred million dollars per year.

Newmark’s approach continues to be refreshingly offbeat in a world where the quick buck is treasured. But his plan was based on real information, which we used to call “facts,” and led him to make the decisions that turned Craigslist from a San Francisco-based mailing list helping locals find Bay Area arts and entertainment events to a global company that was truly one of the Internet’s first “social networks.” (Fortunately, his stewardship of Craigslist meant it didn’t turn into a platform with the power to destroy American democracy itself, *cough* “Facebook” *cough*.)

On the other hand, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the endless misinformation campaign, led by right-wing media such as Fox News, OANN, and Newsmax, as well as *cough* “Facebook” *cough*, against the COVID-19 vaccines has been wildly successful in convincing nearly half of Americans that the vaccines are part of a widespread government plot to steal their guns, make pedophilia legal, and turn the U.S. into a freedom-hating socialist state. COVID cases are rising nearly everywhere as we’ve seen vaccination rates taper off and everyone, including the non-vaccinated who should still be wearing masks, tossed those masks away and started hanging out in crowded restaurants and bars again. Only this time, nearly everyone who is being hospitalized or dying from COVID-19 is unvaccinated:

Appeals to reason and common sense haven’t worked. Most of those who say they still won’t get vaccinated overlap very neatly with those who think the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. Despite all the evidence that the vaccines are safe and effective (and that there was no “steal” to be stopped when it comes to the presidential election), these folks are sure that’s all “fake news.” Until it isn’t:

Maybe if enough unvaccinated people start becoming seriously, even permanently, ill – or perhaps even dying from COVID-19 – it will start to convince the doubters that the only way we can escape endless waves of COVID-19 infections is by getting shots in the arms of everyone who can be vaccinated. Nothing else seems to be working to change minds.

It’s a morbid thought, but perhaps our best shot at an exit strategy from COVID is death.

COVID-19 and the flu, revisited

COVID-19 isn’t the same as influenza. But the way we end up dealing with it long term may be.

As I’ve noted previously, the Rt number, representing the the average number of people who will become infected by a person infected at time “t”, is falling nearly everywhere in the U.S., due to our nation’s superior access to vaccines. (This is not happening in other parts of the world, though, which will allow the coronavirus to potentially continue to evolve into new variants over time.) Not all Americans are willing to get vaccinated, unfortunately, and it now appears that it’s unlikely we will reach the “herd immunity” numbers (whatever level that might be, since it’s inconsistent from one expert to another) if only vaccinated people are counted. (Since those who’ve already had COVID at least once also have some immunity – though it’s not clear yet how effective that is or how long it lasts compared to a vaccine – some calculations of “herd immunity” include those people, which brings us a lot closer to the typical 70 to 75 percent number.)

But as long as Rt continues to fall and remain low, many of our restrictions should be able to be relaxed or lifted. The risk will remain, especially for those who refuse to get vaccinated, but our social lives could return to something close to normal this summer.

The risk of not reaching “herd immunity,” though, is that there will still be a large number of people who potentially could contract COVID, and particularly an existing or yet-to-emerge variant that is more contagious and possibly more resistant to the existing vaccines. Our therapies for COVID patients have improved, so if there isn’t a huge spike down the road that overwhelms our healthcare system again, COVID could become endemic in a similar way to many viruses that haven’t been eradicated but are largely controlled thanks, in large part, to vaccines. This includes measles, chickenpox, and (in most years) influenza. An annual COVID shot seems likely.

The other similarity between COVID and flu, even now, is the reluctance of people to get a vaccine that promises to protect us from illnesses that, while often mild and annoying, can become serious or even deadly. Historically, only about half of Americans who could get a flu shot each year do so. Nobody likes getting the flu, which can last from hours to days or even weeks. Yet we don’t take the time to get even the partial protection offered by the seasonal flu vaccine. I’m guilty of this myself; for years, I never bothered to get the shot, not because I didn’t believe in the science, but because I didn’t think I really needed it. I was (relatively) young, healthy, and figured I’d just ride out a case of the flu if I got it. There’s a word for that: arrogant. And an even better one: stupid.

Are we absolutely sure that the various vaccines are safe in the long run? That there are no side-effects? Well, no. But I think it’s adorable how many people are suggesting that the vaccines aren’t safe who are still smoking, or overeating, or over-drinking… while also taking other over-the-counter drugs or eating packaged foods without knowing exactly what the ingredients are or how they were manufactured. We have a lot of faith in the production of our food and pharmaceuticals otherwise, and justifiably so. What’s so different about the COVID vaccines? They’re tied up, unfortunately yet inextricably, with our current political civil war.

Update on COVID statistics

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post that included a lot of maps showing the infections per 100,000 persons throughout the United States. A month ago, on April 1, Michigan was glowing white as the worst state in America for COVID infections:

COVID-19 infections per 100K persons as of April 1, 2021

Here’s where we are a month later, on May 4 (maps from covidestim.org):

COVID-19 infections per 100K persons as of May 4, 2021

The Rt number in Michigan is up slightly from April 26, from 0.68 to 0.71, while the Rt number in St. Clair County has fallen to 0.46 from an adjusted 0.54 on April 26. The estimate of those who’ve already had COVID in the county is up to 45 percent, compared to our neighboring counties of Macomb (50%), Sanilac (49%), and Lapeer (38%).

Do you ever listen to yourself talk? Let’s try a real-life aircheck.

When I worked in radio a long time ago, I had to pop a cassette tape into a recorder at the start of every shift. It would turn on every time I switched the microphone on, so I could review my show, either on my own (if I’d been diligent, which I was not) or with my program director (which was supposed to be weekly, but since he wasn’t any more diligent than I was, tended to be every month or so). When I did take the time to listen to my “aircheck,” though, I usually discovered speech tendencies that I wasn’t aware of, so I could try to stop doing them.

Since I eventually left radio after seven years, with the largest market I worked in being Mount Pleasant, Michigan, you can see how that turned out.

I thought about airchecks the other day when I caught myself expounding at some length on some topic of great importance (to me, anyway). There are times when such a detailed discussion is appropriate, but I’m pretty sure this wasn’t one of them. I’m also pretty sure I was talking in circles and probably repeating things the person I was talking to had already heard from me before. In other words, I was likely overbearing, and worse, boring.

Do you ever listen to yourself talk? Maybe we need airchecks in our everyday lives.

A change is gonna come

I was born by the river in a little tent
And just like the river I’ve been running ever since

It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will

It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky

It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will

From “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke (1964)

Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd this afternoon.

A white police officer was convicted of killing a Black man. That happens so rarely in the United States that, even in 2021 and even after watching the incontrovertible video footage and emotional eyewitness testimony, there was no guarantee that the jury would return a guilty verdict. But they did, and justice wins – this time.

As a white man approaching the end of six decades living in America, it may be that my satisfaction over the outcome isn’t important. I grew up in Pontiac, Michigan, in the 1970s, just as the schools were desegregated by court order. Since third grade, I’ve watched as my Black friends, despite Congress passing and the legal system attempting to enforce laws designed to promote their civil rights (and by extension my own), continued to face discrimination and racism. I’ve seen us slide backwards over the past decade or so, from the election and re-election of Barack Obama (which was so hopeful and was, frankly, something I didn’t expect to see in my lifetime) to the nakedly nationalist and xenophobic Trump presidency.

I’ve tried throughout my life to remain an ally for civil rights of all people. Unfortunately, white people are often self-satisfied by their symbolic gestures of support while not really doing very much of substance to change things in America, which leaves a justifiable skepticism on the part of those who have been repeatedly let down by the system. As Stevie Wonder sang in “You Haven’t Done Nothin'”:

But we are sick and tired of hearing your song
Telling how you are gonna change right from wrong
‘Cause if you really want to hear our views
You haven’t done nothin’.

Stevie recorded that song in 1974, 47 years ago. Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” was ten years before that. And here we are in 2021, still wondering whether a jury will find a white police officer guilty of murder, even though we could all see it as it actually happened. Even now, Chauvin’s attorney thought criticizing George Floyd for not being perfect, for having character flaws and personal demons, for being, you know, different and not worthy of respect, might just get Chauvin off in the eyes of the jury. At least this time it didn’t work.

A change is gonna come. Perhaps a small step in that direction happened today. But not if we – and particularly white Americans – think the job is finished because of a single verdict. President Kennedy, almost sixty years ago, said “[T]his nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.”

This is not an ending, but instead another chance to begin.

Question authority

It’s good to question authority. Accepting someone’s right to tell you what to do without question is an abdication of your rights and your responsibility as a good citizen. There are often unspoken reasons behind someone in authority wanting you to behave in a certain way, and trying to figure those reasons out illuminates the policy in question, giving it either legitimacy or exposing it as nonsense.

This doesn’t mean that “question authority” automatically means “don’t follow any rules,” though. Many laws are needed to maintain an orderly society, to keep us from robbing and cheating and assaulting each other. Personal freedom has limits, often defined by the line where my actions begin to have an effect on you. But we do willingly give up – or at least grudgingly accept that we must give up – some of our individual freedom in exchange for living relatively safe lives in communities full of other human beings.

Those in authority sometimes have the maintenance or even expansion of their authority as a motivating factor when proposing new rules. The current attempt by Republican politicians around the U.S. to pass restrictive voting laws is primarily motivated by the fear that, left to their own devices, voters would elect people who would make decisions that would cause the existing authority to lose power. So asking “why?” is not just worthwhile, it’s critical.

But we also need to ask “why?” even when laws or rules or policies that we initially agree with are proposed. Why is this person suggesting that? What do they hope to gain by putting this in place? Is it as simple as they say, or are there unspoken costs? The answers to those questions may reinforce your support for their idea, or it may expose underlying issues that may make you less interested in seeing the policy implemented. But the questions need to be raised.

Historically, much of the work of asking those questions has been done by journalists. Unfortunately, journalism – especially at the local level – has been diminished over the past few decades as digital technology has replaced print and that model has proven difficult to support financially. It’s also possible that some media companies benefit politically from less intensive coverage; if they are allied with a particular political point-of-view, less rigorous investigation into the activities of that group are likely to produce a more favorable result.

While “question authority” is a good starting point when making informed decisions about what your government/employer/church/social group is asking you to accept, there’s someone else you should be questioning.

Yourself. Especially if you’re in a position of authority. Especially if you’re someone who by their gender, age, skin color, economic status, or other factors have some automatic authority. Are you making decisions based on the facts of a specific situation or simply reacting with the same old answers, using traditional or “that’s just the way it is” as your reasoning? Instead of immediately going into defensive mode, questioning ourselves is crucial to understanding why those we lead are upset and moving from a selfish use of authority to one that provides a broader benefit.

It’s tempting to just follow along, because it’s so much easier. But “questioning authority” is an essential part of a healthy democratic system. Ask some questions today.