All posts by NuQum

Are democracy and freedom on the run?

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; March 17, 2022)

“Truth is what you get other people to believe.” — Tommy Smothers

Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and at the Freeman Spogli Institute at Stanford University, summarized the mainstream view of Vladimir Putin’s Russia by the American foreign policy and defense establishment in a 2016 article for The Atlantic:

“Since the end of World War II, the most crucial underpinning of freedom in the world has been the vigor of the advanced liberal democracies and the alliances that bound them together. Through the Cold War, the key multilateral anchors were NATO, the expanding European Union, and the U.S.-Japan security alliance. With the end of the Cold War and the expansion of NATO and the EU to virtually all of Central and Eastern Europe, liberal democracy seemed ascendant and secure as never before in history.

Under the shrewd and relentless assault of a resurgent Russian authoritarian state, all of this has come under strain with a speed and scope that few in the West have fully comprehended, and that puts the future of liberal democracy in the world squarely where Vladimir Putin wants it: in doubt and on the defensive.”

Replace the word “Russian” in the above excerpt with “Iranian” or “Venezuelan” or “Chinese” or “Islamic” and you’ve captured the essence of U.S. security policy since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991: Protect existing liberal democracies, guide others into becoming one, and isolate those that resist the transition.

And have we been successful?

Figure 1 shows democracy/freedom indices that summarize current freedom levels for a selection of countries — the sum of which account for over half of the world’s population.

If the existing freedom and democracy landscape is any indication, there are tremendous success stories on display. Taiwan, South Korea, Chile, Brazil, Poland, and Indonesia are good examples of countries who have made successful transitions to democracy since the 1980s. Many of these new democracies remain fragile; but, apart from China and Russia and their few confederates, variations in the liberal democratic model dominate the international order today. If our time frame is the last 40 years, the conclusion remains that it is autocracies that not only are on the run, but cornered and isolated.

Figure 1: Freedom/Democracy Indices for Selected Countries (2020/21)

Data sources:

Human Freedom Index 2021 — World Population Review (https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/freedom-index-by-country)
The Economist Democracy Index 2021 (https://www.eiu.com/n/campaigns/democracy-index-2021/)
Quality of Democracy Index 2020 — Univ. of Würzburg
(https://www.democracymatrix.com/ranking)
Global Freedom Scores 2021 — Freedom House
(https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2021/democracy-under-siege)
Corruption Perceptions Index 2020 — Transparency.org
(https://www.transparency.org/en/cpi/2020)

Combined Freedom Index computed by the author (K. Kroeger)

But if our time-frame is shorter, it is also apparent that liberal democracies aren’t thriving either.

As Figure 1 suggests, some countries often portrayed as “liberal democracies” in the news media are, in fact, significantly below the standards of full democracies. A noteworthy number of them are former Warsaw Pact countries (e.g., Hungary) and former Soviet Republics (e.g., Armenia, Ukraine, Georgia) — which are often called ‘hybrid’ systems as they combine characteristics from both authoritarian and democratic systems.

Common among their growing democratic deficiencies is increased governmental control of the justice system, civil society, and media, while rolling back many basic human and political rights, according to separate reports by the Civil Liberties Union for Europe, which is a Berlin-based civil rights advocacy group, and Economist Intelligence. The targeted harassment of migrant and minority groups especially has been on the rise in many of these countries.

Despite the sweeping goodwill generated by the international community’s near-unanimous condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, can it be interpreted as an endorsement of liberal democratic ideals? Given the recent backtracking on liberal democratic principles by many of the countries now censuring Russia, it is hard to conclude one has anything to do with the other.

Are full democracies a dying breed?

At the end of the original Cold War, political scientist Francis Fukuyama conjectured: “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War … but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological development and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Fukuyama has since pulled back from his original optimism, and as we stand on the brink of a new Cold War, it may be fair to wonder if we are witnessing the slow death of liberal democracies instead of their immutable primacy.

The Canadian government’s ability (and craven willingness) to freeze the bank accounts of truckers who organized or blocked roads in a three-week protest over the nation’s COVID-vaccine mandates indicates freedom and democracy are not immutable conditions.

According to Economist Intelligence (EIU), which ranks Canada as the 12th most democratic country out of 167 countries, Canada’s EIU Democracy Indexscore dropped 3 percent between 2020 and 2021 (i.e., during the pandemic).

If Canada can backslide on democracy, even if just in the margins, any country can. And, over the past 30 years, the world has witnessed cases many such cases: Democratic experiments that failed spectacularly include Egypt, Russia, and Venezuela, while some more successful new democracies like Brazil, Hungary and South Africa have experienced smaller, but significant, declines in civil freedoms — and add a disheartening coup in Tunisia last year, one of the few democracies in the Arab world.

We see these democracy declines in Figure 2 which shows changes in the EIU Democracy Index since 2006 for seven world regions. Since 2006, the EIU Democracy Index declined in every region except Asia/Australasia.

Figure 2: Economist Intelligence’s Democracy Index (2006 to 2021)

Data Source: Economist Intelligence

Democracy is on the run in many places…but not everywhere. Figure 3 offers some positive examples where democracy and freedom are on the rise.

Since 2006, the most consistent increases in EIU Democracy Index scores occurred in Israel (+0.7), South Korea (+0.3) and Taiwan (+1.2). And despite score declines since 2015, Indonesia and Nigeria nonetheless score significantly higher on the EIU Democracy Index today than they did in 2006 (+0.3 and +0.6, respectively).

Figure 3: Economist Intelligence’s Democracy Index— Selected Countries

Data Source: Economist Intelligence

Methodological issues

Are small changes (e.g., ±0.1)in the EIU Democracy Index truly significant? From a statistical perspective, the average margin of error (i.e., standard error multiplied by 1.95) for the 167 countries in the EIU dataset was ±0.16 — which is why, to be conservative, I only report changes of 0.3 points or higher in this essay.

However, before accepting the democracy/freedom indices discussed here, realize the substantial criticisms of these indices.

The criticisms include (but are not limited to):

  • Universalism versus relativism: Is democracy a universal concept understood the same way worldwide or is its understanding relative to the culture or context in which it operates? If it is a relative concept, summarizing it using one index across all countries is problematic.
  • Temporality: The concept of modern democracy has evolved over time. To the Greeks, it meant “rule by the people.” Post-American Revolution, the definition added consideration of constitution-based rights and protections, and post-WWII, the importance of free market liberalism became essential. And at what extent do these democracy/freedom measures consider the relevance of people’s freedom from worries over the availability of quality health care, housing and education? The point is that comparability over time, including potentially short periods of time, cannot be assumed for any democracy/freedom measure.
  • Non-normality: Most democracy indices are not normally distributed when all countries are tabulated. This is not necessarily a problem if that is how the world’s political systems are distributed, but if a researcher wants to use distribution-based statistical methods to test hypothesis, non-normality makes analyses somewhat thorny.
  • Interchangeability: “Different measures of democracy can lead to substantially different findings and interpretations,” according to Andrea Vaccaro, a former PhD Fellow at United Nations University’s World Institute for Development Economics Research whose research focuses on cross-national measures of democracy and state capacity.

Faced with the problems inherent in cross-national democracy measures, particularly interchangeability, Vaccaro concludes, “To overcome problems related to weak interchangeability, if a single measure cannot be credibly chosen on theoretical grounds, this author recommends users of the measures to validate their findings with multiple measures of democracy.”

Any single democracy/freedom index or aggregate combinations of them must be viewed with abundant caution, particularly given their likely normative bias that favors the liberal (“free market”) democratic model. For this reason, it is best to view the data presented in this essay as evocative rather than definitive.

Is the Russia-Ukraine war part of the democracy-authoritarianism struggle? Probably not…

Attempting to explain the timing of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently surmised that democracies weakened through the spread of misinformation on social media prompted Putin’s decision:

“We see a bit of a slippage in our democracies — countries turning towards slightly more authoritarian leaders, countries allowing increasing misinformation and disinformation to be shared on social media turning people against the values and the principles of democracies…unfortunately (this) emboldened Putin to think that he could get away with this (invasion of) Ukraine.”

An emboldened Putin invaded Ukraine because of misinformation on social media?

That is an adventurous (reckless) claim given the evidence is substantial in other directions as to why democracy has experienced significant declines over the past decade. Near the top of that list is the COVID-19 pandemic:

“The pandemic has had a negative impact on the quality of democracy in every region of the world,” concludes EIU in their 2021 report. No world leader should know that better than Trudeau. Among the most advanced economies, only Italy and Greece have implemented more draconian pandemic restrictions than Canada, according to Oxford University’s Covid-19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT).

The other major stresses on democracy over the past decade have been declines in press and religious freedoms (civil liberties), political party financing increasingly dependent on wealthy elites, lack of government transparency, financial profiteering by political elites, and low accountability (e.g., incumbency advantage). “Citizens increasingly feel that they do not have control over their governments or their lives,” says the EIU 2021 report.

Could social media have contributed to citizens’ awareness of these deficiencies in their country? Absolutely.

Does some of the information passed through social media contain misinformation? Of course, as happens through establishment information sources as well.

But did social media and the misinformation passed through it break down democracies to the point Putin decided now was the time to invade Ukraine?

All I can say is, Mr. Trudeau, show us your data.

To my eyes and ears, Mr. Trudeau’s causal model seems dubious and, most likely, untestable. Ivermectin has more quantitative support than his “social media has weakened our democracies and therefore Putin attacked”-thesis. But that didn’t stop him from throwing his geopolitical folk theory into the social ether.

Trudeau’s message is clear: Canadians, if you disagree significantly with me, by definition, you are spreading misinformation and must be stopped. In other words, according to Mr. Trudeau, censor dissenting views by any legal means possible.

But it is not just in Canada. Increasingly, political (and media) elites across the globe are endeavoring to control the content and flow of information under the guise that only “they” know the truth. The democracy/freedom indices cited in this essay offer indirect but suggestive evidence of this reality.

However, such an elitist worldview as expressed by Trudeau (and others) defies the well understood dynamic on how human knowledge advances —Knowledge growth is both a bottom-up as well as a top-down processKilling one half of the process, kills both sides.

But Trudeau is only doing what democratically-elected leaders across the world are attempting to do (and increasingly succeeding at) — controlling the information allowed to disseminate over the general population.

The prevailing belief among the political class is that controlling information is tantamount to controlling their own prosperity and destiny. On that point, they are probably correct.

But if the wider goal is to protect our liberal-democratic principles and institutions, then I contend that the most dangerous threat to their existence is not Vladimir Putin’s Russia or misinformation found on social media, but rather the political and economic elites that dominate the liberal-democratic landscape.

  • K.R.K.

Send comments to: kroeger98@yahoo.com

Freedom also dies in the light of day

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; February 28, 2022)

“My definition of a free society is a society where it is safe to be unpopular.” Adlai Stevenson

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” George Orwell

Freedom can never be taken for granted.

Russia’s violent and ill-advised invasion of Ukraine brings this reality into immediate focus.

But the events in Ukraine overshadow decidedly smaller, long-festering threats that nonetheless, in the collective, may be eroding freedoms worldwide with as much certainty.

One such small threat was highlighted by a recent news story that warranted little more than a minor headline on sports news websites such as ESPN.com and CBS Sports.com.

On February 25th, Callaway Golf, the largest golf equipment manufacturer in the U.S., decided to “pause” its business relationship with legendary golfer Phil Mickelson, a six-time major champion, over “controversial” remarks he made in an interview about Saudi Arabia, the country financing a new professional golf league to compete with the dominant PGA Tour.

Earlier in the week, KPMG (a Big Four accounting firm), Workday (a large U.S. software firm) and Amstel Light terminated their relationship with Mickelson.

What did Mickelson do?

He told a journalist that, while he recognized Saudi Arabia was using the new golf league to “sportswash” the country’s well-documented human rights violations, he was prepared to look past that in order to put pressure on the PGA Tour to increase compensation for that tour’s golfers.

“We know they killed (Washington Post columnist Jamal) Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay,” Mickelson told The Fire Pit Collective’s Alan Shipnuck. “Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.”

Mickelson, who also described the Saudi’s as “scary,” issued an apology within days of news getting out about his Saudi-related comments:

“Although it doesn’t look this way now given my recent comments, my actions throughout this process have always been with the best interests of golf, my peers, sponsors and fans,” he wrote on Twitter. “There is the problem of off-the-record comments being shared out of context and without my consent, but the bigger issue is that I used words that do not reflect my true feelings or intentions. It was reckless, I offended people, and I am deeply sorry for my choice of words. I’m beyond disappointed and will make every effort to self-reflect and learn from this.”

Mickelson’s fellow golfers offered little support to the backlash over his comments, exemplified by Rory McIlroy who called Mickelson “naive, selfish, egotistical, (and) ignorant.” [A description that could apply to almost every celebrity I’ve ever met.]

Rarely mentioned or hyperlinked in the news reporting about Mickelson’s comments were details of Saudi Arabia’s most egregious human rights violations. So here is an attempt to remedy that oversight:

Human Rights Watch 2021 Report on Saudi Arabia

Amnesty International 2020 Report on Saudi Arabia

U.S State Department 2020 Report on Saudi Arabian Human Rights Practices

It is understandable to think the public admonishment of a multi-millionaire golfer over critical comments about Saudi Arabia is not relevant to the average citizen, but consider this — If an independently wealthy golf hero can be forced to publicly prostrate himself over statements he made based on widely accepted fact, imagine how an average schlub would be disciplined? Or someone from a marginalized community? Or someone who dares to challenge the status quo or the powerful?

The words of Stevenson and Orwell have never been more germane, but it is perhaps this quote that is more pertinent: “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act” (a quote falsely attributed to George Orwell).

I respect the right of private corporations and entities to censor those who use their services or are under their employ. But it is unfortunate when the news media fails to challenge them for such practices.

It is particularly worrisome when people who speak their mind in good faith are then threatened with the loss of their livelihood.

The tyranny of the thought police does not always operate in darkness. Anymore it appears to happen in the light of day.

  • K.R.K.

Send comments to: kroeger98@yahoo.com

State policies mattered during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; February 24, 2022)

In a previous essay, I shared a statistical model that partitioned variation in COVID-19 death rates across the 50 U.S. states (plus the District of Columbia) based on a variety of factors, including the stringency of state COVID-19 policies, vaccination rates, preexisting economic conditions, the availability of nurses in nursing homes, and the healthiness of the state’s population.

The primary conclusion was that stringent state-level COVID-19 policies had a discernable association with death rates, all else equal, but that preexisting levels and changes in a state’s unemployment rate had a comparable, if not stronger, relationship.

Lockdowns and other COVID-19 mitigation policies worked in minimizing COVID-19 death rates, but their positive impact was betrayed somewhat by the extent to which they harmed a state’s economy and employment levels.

In the midst of a worldwide virus pandemic, unemployment and economic distress can kill just as ruthlessly as a virus.

It is far too easy in our highly partisan political environment to see the world in oversimplified motifs such as: Democrats trust the science and Republicans deny it.

That lazy conceit is not only inaccurate, it is unconstructive to a public debate on how to handle a viral pandemic.

Throughout this public health crisis, the science has been understandably tentative, sometimes ambiguous and too often nakedly political.

Wear masks. Don’t wear masks. Just kidding…wear masks…properly…but they must be the good ones.

People exposed to COVID-positive individuals should quarantine for 10 daysmake that 5 days.

If you are vaccinated, you don’t need to wear a mask…scratch that…yes, you do.

Getting the virus doesn’t produce a natural immunity comparable to the vaccines…or, maybe, it does.

And why would anyone expect the public policies issued in this environment to be consistent and coherent?

The reality is that the science on COVID-19 is evolving along with the virus itself. Science is never perfect. It makes mistakes. Politicians and media personalities can lecture others to “trust the science,” but actual scientists don’t have that luxury. They can’t trust the science. By training, it is their job to always question it. Poke it. Prod it. Unrelenting skepticism is a virtue in their line of work, not a vice.

More crucially, science doesn’t operate in a vacuum. When science is translated into policy — as it has been throughout the COVID-19 pandemic — it is a political act. Scientists can’t be expected to understand the social implications of their research findings and recommendations — which is why, in our system of government, we purposefully put elected representatives between the scientists and their policy recommendations. The U.S. is a representative democracy, not a technocracy — and for good reason, policymaking requires a wholistic view of issues that few scientists possess.

In an article for the American Institute for Economic Research, economist Jon Murphy outlined how the disconnected perspectives between elected leaders and scientists explain the cascade of mistakes and contradictions that regrettably define many of the policy decisions made during the COVID-19 pandemic:

“Experts are just like us. They are experts in their specific fields, but not beyond them. The problem with a pandemic is that it is not simply a medical phenomenon. There are economic issues at play, political issues at play, mental health issues, educational issues, etc. Dr. Fauci may be a brilliant immunologist, but he is no economist.”

State policies mattered during the COVID-19 pandemic

At the beginning of the pandemic, World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that “this virus does not respect borders.”

Two years later, he has been proven right — no jurisdiction has been spared.

But a handful of Republican governors confused the easy transmissibility of the coronavirus with the belief that strict, broadly-targeted statewide policies could not contain the virus’ spread and reduce the number of deaths. [Early in the pandemic, I believed the same thing.]

They (including me) were dead wrong.

However, these same governors rightfully recognized that strict COVID-19 lockdowns also cause significant economic harm, particularly to people who were financially vulnerable heading into the pandemic. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis repeatedly resisted lockdown policies because, in his words, they would “hurt families who can’t afford to shelter in place for six weeks.”

Was he wrong?

The answer is complicated. Still, I prefer simple displays of data whenever possible.

So, my first stab at answering the question is looking at a basic bivariate plot of state-level COVID-19 deaths per capita versus the average daily stringency of state-level COVID-19 policies from March 1, 2020 to December 1, 2021.

Figure 1 is that initial plot…

Figure 1: COVID-19 deaths per 1 million people by the OxCGRT Policy Stringency Index (March 2020 to December 2021)

Data sources: Oxford University’s OxCGRT and RealClearPolitics.com

It is evident from Figure 1 that Republican states disproportionately pursued less stringent COVID-19 policies and suffered disproportionately higher COVID-19 deaths per capita.

Mississippi, Arizona, Alabama, and South Dakota are not COVID-19 success stories. They largely ignored the virus and the consequences can be measured in deaths among their residents. In contrast, Hawaii, Vermont, Maine, Alaska, Oregon and Washington seemed to do pretty well. They instituted strict COVID-19 policies which resulted in significantly fewer deaths per capita.

But Figure 1 does not consider the economic impact of COVID-19.

Figure 2 plots COVID-19 deaths per capita at the state-level versus the change in unemployment.

Figure 2: COVID-19 deaths per 1 million people by the Change in Unemployment Rate (March 2020 to December 2021)

Data sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and RealClearPolitics.com

Now we have a better picture as to which states performed better than others during this pandemic.

Figure 2 is quadrant analysis. The upper-left-hand quadrant (high COVID-19 death rates and small changes in the unemployment rate) and the lower-right-hand quadrant (low COVID-19 death rates and large increases in the unemployment rate) are non-exemplary cases. These states either chose to minimize the pandemic and suffered disproportionately high numbers of deaths, or chose to shutdown their economies and suffered economically.

The other two quadrants separate out the genuine failures and leaders of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the failure category are states like New York, New Jersey, Michigan and Massachusetts — all “Blue” states — who suffered high COVID-19 deaths rates and large increases in unemployment.

Their COVID-19 policies failed by any objective measure.

On the positive side are states that minimized COVID-19 deaths rates while keeping their economies relatively strong. Those states include Vermont, Utah, Washington, New Hampshire, Nebraska, North Carolina, Minnesota, and Wisconsin — three of which are “Trump” states.

It is convenient to assume “Blue” states outperformed “Red” states during the COVID-19 pandemic. If COVID-19 death rates are your preferred metric, they did. But when considering the impact of COVID-19 policies on state economies, the biggest failures were, by far, some of the biggest “Blue” states and a meaningful percentage of the successful states were “Red.”

Mississippi and Arizona kept their economies open (and successful) during the pandemic and paid a significant price in human lives.

In contrast, Hawaii, Maine, California and Maryland shut their economies down during the pandemic and saved many lives in the process.

Who was right and who was wrong?

In the end, voters will decide which states pursued the best COVID-19 policies…but don’t assume voters will choose human lives over economic growth.

  • K.R.K.

Send comments to kroeger98@yahoo.com

State COVID measures made a difference, both positive and negative

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; February 14, 2022)

Recently, Dr. Anthony Fauci declared the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. is “exiting the full-blown stage.”

Unfortunately, Dr. Fauci, like the rest of the medical and scientific community, has been more hostage to the coronavirus than a prescient sage as to its future trajectory.

Like a broken analog clock, Dr. Fauci may be right this time, but what a price the world continues to pay for a virus whose behavior often has been unpredictable and whose origins still remain unknown.

However, getting more attention than Dr. Fauci’s declaration about the next phase for COVID-19 was a working paper (i.e., not peer-reviewed) by three economists who conducted a meta-analysis on the effects of public policy on COVID-19 mortality. In this study, economists from Johns Hopkins University, Lund University (Sweden), and the Center for Political Studies in Copenhagen, Denmark — Jonas Herby, Lars Jonung, and Steve H. Hanke — found that “lockdowns in Europe and the United States only reduced COVID-19 mortality by 0.2 percent on average.”

Apart from the predictable efforts by news media elites to smear the credentials of the study’s authors and the intellectual value of a non-peer-reviewed working paper, sober academics and medical experts found the study interesting but far from conclusive. [For example, the study only covered outcomes during 2020.]

Dr. Vinay Prasad, MD MPH, offers a balanced perspective on the this new lockdown study: “(This) early meta-analysis suggests (lockdowns) didn’t do that much. I don’t find it that incredible but I also think it’s not the right moment to do a meta-analysis because the lockdown’s effect is a massive perturbation on the economy and society (and) it’s not just about the short-run mortality. What about the long-run mortality? What about the mortality you’re paying for down the road because of all the disruptions to society?”

A common analytic tool employed in the studies analyzed by Herby, Jonung, and Hanke was Oxford University’s Covid-19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT) which collects systematic information on policy measures that governments have taken to tackle COVID-19. Included in their tracking data is a “stringency index” summarizing these policy measures for each U.S. state which is computed on a daily basis and made available to the public on GITHUB.

According to the creators of the OxCGRT Stringency Index, the index summarizes the strictness of COVID-19 policies that primarily restrict people’s behavior, including containment, closure, economic, health system and vaccination policies.

[All variables used in this analysis are available in my personal GITHUB repository or can be obtained directly from the original sources listed at the bottom of Figure 2.]

Figure 1 shows 12 selected U.S. states to represent three levels of the stringency index (High Stringency States, Medium Stringency States, and Low Stringency States).

Figure 1: Stringency Index scores for selected U.S. states from February 1, 2020 to February 2, 2022

On its face, the OxCGRT Stringency Index appears to strongly correlate with a common understanding of the states that have implemented restrictive COVID-19 policies and those that did not during this two-year pandemic.

A linear model of state-level COVID-19 death rates

Is there any evidence that stringent state-level COVID-19 policies helped reduce death rates?

Since it is unwise to make causal statements in the context of a linear model using aggregated, cross-sectional data, the answer is an emphatic ‘maybe.’ But the associations in the state-level COVID-19 data are strong enough to increase the plausibility of such conclusions.

[In general, I tried to avoid causal statements in this essay and preferred to use terms such as ‘association’ and ‘correlation.’]

Using the variables displayed in Figure 2, I estimated a linear model to explain state-level variations (51 cases) in the number of COVID-19 deaths per 1 million people.

[Model estimates and diagnostic measures can be seen in the Appendix below. More detailed diagnostics are available upon request.]

Figure 2: The relative importance of predictor variables on state-level COVID-19 death rates from February 1, 2020 to February 2, 2022

According to the linear model, state-level unemployment rates at the beginning of the pandemic, changes in those unemployment rates between March 2020 and December 2022, and the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases (per 1 million people) are positively associated with higher state-level death rates. In other words, states with relatively weak economies heading into the pandemic and states that experienced the most economic stress during the pandemic have significantly higher death rates. In fact, they are the two variables most associated with COVID-19 death rates.

But what factors helped to lower state-level COVID-19 death rates?

Among those factors which associate with lower state-level death rates, the number of nursing staff hours per nursing home resident day appears to be the strongest, followed by aggregate measures of people’s exercise habits, the strictness of COVID-19 policies, and a state’s vaccination rate.

By interpreting the standardized regression coefficients in Figure 2, the concrete impact of the predictor variables are stunning.

For example, given that state-level COVID-19 death rates have a standard deviation of 740 deaths per 1 million people, a one standard deviation increase in the unemployment rate change associates with an increase of 363 deaths per 1 million people (or about 117,600 nationally if the unemployment rate change is applied to all 50 states and the District of Columbia).

If every state entered the pandemic with a higher unemployment rate by one standard deviation, the COVID-19 death rate might have been higher by 296 deaths per 1 million (or about 96,000 people).

By comparison, a one standard deviation increase in the stringency index associates with 200 fewer deaths per 1 million people (or about 65,000 people nationwide).

Cautionary note: Due to the high level of collinearity between state-level vaccination rates and COVID-19 stringency policies, it is preferable not to interpret their standardized coefficients separately and more instructive to combine these parameters to estimate their combined impact.

When we do that, it appears the reduction in COVID-19 deaths rates associated with higher vaccination rates and stronger COVID-19 policies is comparable in their impact to similar changes in unemployment rates.

The implication is that policymakers in the future would be smart to explicitly weigh the potential costs and benefits of those COVID-19 policies before making decisions. Through their impact on state economies, strict COVID-19 measures (such as lockdowns) have the potential to kill as many people as they save.

Final thoughts

A complete analysis of the impact of policy choices on COVID-19 death rates should also consider “collateral” deaths, which are deaths not directly related to COVID-19 but the result of strains on hospital resources such as ICU bed utilization rates and staffing availability.

This analytic augmentation would bring to the forefront the question of the total impact of the unvaccinated on state-level death rates.

In other words, the unvaccinated not only increase their personal risk of dying from COVID-19, but they increase the probabilities that other people will die of other causes when hospital and ICU beds are filled to capacity.

How many collateral deaths should be added to the current U.S. COVID-19 death count of almost 950,000 people?

A credible estimate of collateral deaths comes by way of a statistical model computed at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) which calculates the number of “excess” deaths occurring in the U.S. each week. Through these models, the CDC estimates “excess” deaths caused by COVID-19 and “excess” deaths by other causes.

Since the widespread availability of the COVID-19 vaccines after March 2021, the CDC estimates almost 80,000 non-COVID-19 “excess” deaths have occurred through January 1, 2022, almost all of which occurred during COVID-19 surge periods when the most stress was placed on hospital resources (beds, staff availability, etc.). Even if we deduct the probable impact of vaccinated people hospitalized for COVID-19 during this period, the unvaccinated still account for about 66,000 collateral deaths, according to the CDC numbers.

That is a big number which accounts for around three percent of all U.S. deaths during that period, or about 270 collateral deaths per day.

When President Biden said last July that anti-COVID-19 vaccine propagandists are “killing people,” he was articulating what most fully vaccinated Americans believe — the unvaccinated are indirectly guilty of killing thousands of their fellow citizens.

Was he right in saying that?

In a simplistic sense, yes, but not if one rightfully considers why so many Americans remain skeptical of the COVID-19 vaccines, effective as they are in preventing severe illness from the virus.

As I’ve written elsewhere, despite my own aggressive eagerness to vaccinate myself and my family, I understand why many people are resistant to receiving these vaccines.

The reasons are easy to list:

(1) The COVID-19 mRNA vaccines are based on a new technology with debatable levels of long-term research to add confidence in their widespread use,

(1) The mainstream U.S. news media too often serves partisan interests and subsequently is untrustworthy to dispense non-partisan public health recommendations according to millions of Americans.

(2) The U.S. government’s acquiesced to pharmaceutical companies’ insistence on liability immunity for the COVID-19 vaccines which were developed under President Trump’s taxpayer-financed Operation Warp Speed.

(3) The pharmaceutical industry’s ongoing intransigence in releasing their full vaccine testing data to independent researchers.

(4) Research suggesting the risks associated with the COVID-19 vaccines and myocarditis incidence among young males (i.e., they have a minimal risk of dying from COVID-19 and are more likely to experience myocarditis [heart inflammation] from the receiving the vaccines than from the catching the virus itself).

(5) Two scientists from the Food and Drug Administration’s vaccine advisory committee resigned last year over what they believed to be a rushed (‘political’) decision to recommend booster shots in relatively young populations. Writing with a group of other scientists in a September 2021 Lancet editorialthey said: “Although the benefits of primary COVID-19 vaccination clearly outweigh the risks, there could be risks if boosters are widely introduced too soon, or too frequently, especially with vaccines that can have immune-mediated side-effects (such as myocarditis, which is more common after the second dose of some mRNA vaccines [footnote],or Guillain-Barre syndrome, which has been associated with adenovirus-vectored COVID-19 vaccines [footnote]). If unnecessary boosting causes significant adverse reactions, there could be implications for vaccine acceptance that go beyond COVID-19 vaccines. Thus, widespread boosting should be undertaken only if there is clear evidence that it is appropriate.

According to Dr. Prasad, as yet, there is no persuasive evidence suggesting that boosting is necessary in healthy people between the ages of 12 and 50.

I don’t expect unvaccinated Americans are closely following the scientific debates over COVID-19 vaccines in medical journals, but I am constantly amazed in my interviews with the unvaccinated how often they possess at least a basic familiarity with some of the more complicated issues within the vaccine research community (e.g., myocarditis).

Yes, misinformation is abound about COVID-19 in the cyberverse — but so is a lot of valid information finding its way into the everyday conversations people have over these vaccines and the COVID-19 pandemic in general.

Some people want to assume the unvaccinated are stupid. I believe the exact opposite is true — they are awash in information and given their overactive levels of distrust and skepticism, are over-thinking what should be a fairly simple decision.

Furthermore, I find it immoral to incriminate the unvaccinated when other European countries with a similar percentage of unvaccinated still have a substantially lower number of COVID-19 deaths per capita.

According to the New York Times, 65 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated, which is comparable to Europe (64%) as a whole.

And, yet, when we observe countries with similar vaccination rates to the U.S., they have substantively lower COVID-19 death rates:

Netherlands — 71% vaccination rate (1,242 deaths per 1M)
Greece — 69% vaccination rate (2,300 deaths per 1M)
Switzerland — 68% vaccination rate (1,532 deaths per 1M)
Austria — 68% vaccination rate (1,624 deaths per 1M)
Israel — 66% vaccination rate (1,066 deaths per 1M)
U.S. — 65% vaccination rate (2,882 deaths per 1M)

Why are they doing better?

It is still too early to draw strong conclusions when the pandemic is ongoing. But early research is finding that a health care system’s characteristics have helped some countries better handle the exigencies of the COVID-19 crisis.

Among those characteristics are country’s health profile, the number of nurses and doctors, the availability of hospital and ICU beds, and the level of trust citizens hold towards their fellow citizens, government, and health care experts.

The U.S. health care system is left wanting on these factors.

As evidence, since 1960, the U.S. has seen a consistent decline in the number of hospital beds per 1,000 people. According to World Bank data, the U.S. went from 7.9 hospital beds in 1970 to 2.9 in 2017.

The U.S. clearly wasn’t preparing for a future pandemic when it allowed so many rural hospitals to close over the past 50 years.

When comparing the European countries with similar COVID-19 vaccination rates to the U.S. by the number of hospital beds per one thousand people, the U.S. comes in dead last, according to the World Bank:

Netherlands — 3.2 hospital beds per 1K
Greece — 4.2 hospital beds per 1K
Switzerland — 4.6 hospital beds per 1K
Austria — 7.3 hospital beds per 1K
Israel — 3.0 hospital beds per 1K
U.S. — 2.9 hospital beds per 1K

But it is not just hospital beds that put the U.S. at a disadvantage in handling the coronavirus pandemic, it is a health care system in which job loss and financial insecurities drive too many citizens to forgo early and sometimes life-saving medical care.

The U.S. was not pandemic-ready in early 2020, and that is not the fault of the unvaccinated — it is the fault of our political, news media, health insurance, and medical community leadership.

Before shaming and blaming the unvaccinated — which doesn’t vaccinate one person and most likely leads to greater resistance to the jab — would it not make more sense to address the structural problems in a health care system where the most economically vulnerable suffer disproportionately during a national health crisis?

If anything, we all share in the blame for a national health care system that has been outperformed by Mexico in the COVID-19 pandemic (2,823 deaths per 1M vs 2,386 deaths per 1M, respectively). If we were doing as well as Mexico — where about 60 percent of its citizens are fully vaccinated — the U.S. would have 144,000 fewer deaths right now.

But it is so much easier just to blame the unvaccinated.

  • K.R.K.

Send comments and data requests to kroeger98@yahoo.com

Appendix: Linear model estimates and selected diagnostics.

Is the partisan echo chamber more myth than reality?

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; February 6, 2022)

A popular political narrative in the U.S. news media is the story of a deeply polarized electorate where voters restrict their news consumption to partisan-friendly sources, avoid dissenting viewpoints, and remain loyal to their preferred party.

November 2021 report by Pew Research summarizes this political landscape: “Partisan polarization remains the dominant, seemingly unalterable condition of American politics. Republicans and Democrats agree on very little — and when they do, it often is in the shared belief that they have little in common.”

In such a political landscape, major legislative compromises become rarer and important domestic and international problems remain unsolved.

Roll Call writer Stuart Rothenberg echoes this viewpoint: “Partisan polarization with two relatively equal parties takes its toll on the country and on voters. It is difficult for Washington to address important issues, since each side can essentially veto what the other wants to accomplish. And it breeds distrust of the opposition’s motives and allegiances.”

Gridlock isn’t all bad, however: Corporate America flourishes in this environment as tax and regulatory policies are more predictable since major changes to them are less likely — but that is an issue for a different essay.

How can we lessen our political divide?

One hypothesis on how our partisan divide will lessen over time — and thereby start the process to solve our nation’s most intractable problems (e.g., economic inequality, rising public debt, addressing climate change, rising health care costs, etc.) — assumes secular trends in national demographics will over time benefit one party (the Democrats) to the disadvantage of the other (the GOP).

But, if anything, recent evidence suggests the emerging Democratic majority may be the Democrats’ castle in the sky. Though he lost the 2020 election, Donald Trump increased his support among minorities compared to 2016, as the Democratic Party struggles to keep Hispanic and Black men in the fold.

Others political observers theorize that the paralyzing effects of extreme partisanship and political gridlock could give rise to a reform movement that crosses political lines and values compromise and civility over partisan rancor.

Writes Rothenberg: “…the resulting paralysis could eventually produce a reform movement — either inside one party or outside of the two parties — that would place a high priority on political compromise, civility and the rule of law.”

Political scientists Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett offer a more detailed description of this argument in their 2020 book The Upswing in which they argue our current political environment mirrors the Gilded Age (1890s) in terms of the conditions that preceded a long era of political consensus and reform — the Progressive Era (1896–1916).

The past is prologue, in their view.

How real is the partisan echo chamber?

Any conjecture on how this country will rediscover political harmony, however, must contend with a highly politicized media environment in which, according to some observers, few voters ever read or hear enough opposing points of view necessary to change their own points of view.

Research has generally found increases in an electorate’s political polarization relates to patterns in their media consumption. Its a symbiotic relationship where voters over their lifetime tend to restrict their news consumption to news sources aligned with their preferred political attitudes.

It is not necessarily a straightforward relationship, however. For example, research has found that exposure to opposing viewpoints on social media can increase a voter’s political polarization, not lessen it.

Still, on average, conservative Republicans are more likely to watch Fox News while Democrats turn to CNN or MSNBC.

But is this characterization accurate?

Based on evidence from the 2020 American National Election Study (ANES), I conclude that the partisan echo chamber assumption is inaccurate and misrepresents a common tendency among Americans to watch, listen and read news from more than one partisan perspective.

While 48 percent of Americans do not regularly watch cable TV news (CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News), the other 52 percent do so and most of them do it across the partisan spectrum, according to the 2020 ANES.

Any attempt to explain the growth in political polarization (or conjecture how to lessen it) cannot rely on the belief that most voters lack exposure to alternative points of view as expressed in the news media. Most Americans who regularly consume cable TV news do so from media outlets across the political divide.

The partisan echo chamber is more myth than reality

The 2020 ANES asked 8,280 U.S. adults which television programs they regularly watch at least once a month. Using that information, I defined three cable TV news viewer categories based on whether they regularly watch at least two news shows on that network each month. Accordingly, a Fox News Viewer is someone who watches at least two Fox News shows each month, a CNN News Viewer watches at least two CNN shows each month, and an MSNBC Viewer watches at least two MSNBC shows each month.

[Note that the three viewing groups as I defined them— Fox News viewersCNN viewers, and MSNBC viewers — are not mutually exclusive categories. Some ANES survey respondents belong to two or more of those groups.]

Figure 1 (below) shows the extent to which these three cable TV news viewing groups watch other cable TV news networks. If you believe most Americans who watch cable TV news limit their viewing to sources aligned with their personal political views, the following results are enlightening.

In reality, 22 percent of Fox News viewers regularly watch two or more CNN shows and 33 percent watch two ore more MSNBC shows. Likewise, 48 percent of CNN and MSNBC viewers regularly watch two or more Fox News shows.

Forty-four percent of Fox News viewers regularly watch two or more CNN or MSNBC shows.

Figure 1: Cross-network viewing among regular viewers of the three cable TV news networks (Fox, CNN, and MSNBC)

If we expand our news universe to the broadcast networks (CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS) and online news sites (Bloomberg News, Huffington Post, NPR, New York Times, USA Today, Washington Post, and Yahoo News), 83 percent of Fox News viewers tap into these news sources on a regular basis, compared to 91 percent of CNN viewers and 87 percent of MSNBC viewers.

The oft-repeated assumption that the average Fox News viewer lives in a (mis)information bubble that reinforces pro-Republican, conservative talking points is wholly inaccurate. Surprisingly, Fox News viewers routinely reach across the ideological divide for their cable news consumption, as do half of CNN and MSNBC viewers.

The 2020 ANES media consumption data do not allow for a comprehensive volumetric analysis but it still offers tangible evidence refuting the assumption that Americans live in their own personal “news and information bubble.”

Most Americans who routinely consume cable TV news do so by distributing their consumption across the mainstream political spectrum.

The strange interactions of Fox News, CNN and MSNBC viewership

If we sum the number of cable TV news network shows regularly watched by network for each 2020 ANES respondent, we can roughly approximate their viewing volume.

Thus, I categorized Fox News and CNN/MSNBC viewers into one of four volumetric categories: No Cable TV news viewing (0 shows), Light viewing (1 show), Moderate viewing (2 shows) or Heavy viewers (3 or more shows). I then crossed their cable news viewing status with their party identification (Party ID), which was measured on a 7-point scale where 1 = Strong Democrat and 7 = Strong Republican. Hence, any cell in Figure 2 with an average Party ID over 4 is considered to be “Republican-leaning,” while an average below 4 indicates “Democrat-leaning.”

The results of this analysis (in Figure 2) are illuminating, as well as puzzling.

First, as seen in the upper-left-hand cell in Figure 2, almost half of Americans (48%) do not watch CNN, MSNBC or Fox News.

Figure 2: Cross-network viewing among regular viewers of the three cable TV news networks (Fox, CNN, and MSNBC)

Concentrating on the first row in Figure 2 (i.e., people who do not regularly watch CNN or MSNBC), as regular viewing of Fox News increases, the probability of being a strong Republican also increases. Among heavy Fox News viewers who do not watch CNN or MSNBC, the average Party ID is 4.52 — the strongest Republican group among the 16 cells in Figure 2. That makes intuitive sense.

Also notice that only one percent of U.S. adults are heavy Fox News viewers who do not watch any CNN or MSNBC shows. But if we look at the counterpose cases in the first column of Figure 2 (i.e., people who do not regularly watch Fox News), there is not a clear linear trend in Party ID. Light CNN/MSNBC viewers who do not watch Fox News skew slightly Republican (avg. Party ID score = 4.05), but among heavy CNN/MSNBC viewers, the average Party ID score decreases to 3.77 — a difference that is not statistically significant, but is in the expected direction.

But now where things get strange…

Column 4 in Figure 2 contains heavy Fox News viewers (3+ shows). As noted, the most Republican group in Figure 2 is heavy Fox News viewers who do not watch CNN or MSNBC. No surprise there.

Also expected, as CNN/MSNBC viewing goes up, the average Party ID becomes more Democrat — going from an average Party ID score of 4.52 to 3.06 in the bottom right-hand cell.

But among heavy CNN/MSNBC viewers (the fourth row in Figure 2), the average Party ID gets progressively more Democrat as we increase Fox News consumption, going from a score of 3.77 (heavy CNN/MSNBC viewers who do not watch Fox News) to a significantly lower score of 3.06 among people who are heavy viewers of CNN/MSNBC and Fox News.

What the heck?! Among CNN/MSNBC viewers, increased Fox News viewing is associated with an increased chance of someone being a strong Democrat?

My first reaction is to assume I coded the variables wrong. But after a series of check-double-check routines, I could not find a coding mistake (Note: My SPSS code and dataset are available on GITHUB here — feel free to double check my work).

My second hunch is that we are looking at ‘News Junkies’ in the lower right-hand cell and perhaps they are just more likely to be strong Democrats than strong Republicans. But what social or pyschology theory explains that asymmetry?

Earlier in this essay I cited a 2018 study that found political partisans who are exposed to opposing viewpoints on social media tend to, on average, become more partisan. The authors of the study write: “Republican (study) participants expressed substantially more conservative views after following a liberal Twitter bot, whereas Democrats’ attitudes became slightly more liberal after following a conservative Twitter bot — although this effect was not statistically significant.” Explanations these researchers offered to explain their results included:

(1) A ‘backfire’ effect where “people who are exposed to messages that conflict with their own attitudes are prone to counterargue them using motivated reasoning, which accentuates perceived differences between groups and increases their commitment to preexisting beliefs.”

(2) the relative anonymity of social media “emboldens people to act in an uncivil manner…in the absence of facial cues and other nonverbal gestures that might prevent the escalation of arguments in offline settings” and thereby reinforces preexisting partisan preferences.

(3) An asymmetric version of the ‘backfire” effect where, because conservatives hold values that prioritize certainty and tradition, compared to liberals who value change and diversity, conservatives are more likely to act defensively to opposing information.

All of these explanations sound a bit hobbledy-gobbledy-goo to me, but until I hear better ones, I’ll accept their hypotheses.

But if I could offer my own hypothesis as to why this ‘backfire effect’ might operate more on Democrats more than on Republicans, it would go something like this:

Mainstream media content, especially within entertainment TV, movies, music, etc., is overwhelmingly oriented towards liberal social values and narratives. The natural consequence of this intrinsic bias is that anyone who increases their media consumption will get their liberal beliefs reinforced more often than someone with conservatives beliefs. That there are people who are heavy viewers of CNN/MSNBC and Fox News — an apparent contradiction — may simply be an artifact of their heavy consumption of all media.

The ANES 2020 data on media consumption lacks the breadth and fidelity to address these hypotheses as to why increased Fox News viewing might increase partisan polarization among Democrats, but increased viewing of CNN/MSNBC among Republicans might soften the partisan divide.

I suspect the mechanisms at play are far more profound than simply assuming CNN and MSNBC are persuasive while, to the sane, Fox News comes across as batshit crazy. As I hope I’ve demonstrated over the years I’ve written about politics and news, there is plenty of batshit crazy to go around for both political parties and their propaganda outlets.

Final thoughts

The main thesis of this essay is that a significant number of Americans do not live in a partisan media bubble, though a near majority eschew cable news in general. Notably, the vast majority of regular Fox News viewers consume news across the political divide. Likewise, almost half of CNN/MSNBC viewers watch Fox News on a regular basis.

The partisan echo chamber is more myth than reality.

As a result, there remain substantive avenues through which partisan political actors and their surrogates can create significant opportunities for opinion change within the voting public.

However, even with this potential for persuasion to occur, it may be more likely to benefit the Democrats than Republicans. The 2020 presidential election may be the textbook example of this dynamic.

In a study of the 2020 presidential election conducted by Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, a content analysis of CBS News and Fox News coverage of the presidential election found that almost 90 percent of CBS’s statements towards Joe Biden were positive, while only five percent were for Donald Trump. Conversely, Fox News was positive towards Biden and Trump at roughly the same rate (41 and 42 percent, respectively).

From the ANES 2020 data, we know that many loyal Fox News viewers were exposed directly to CBS News’ 2020 election coverage, as well as coverage from other establishment news outlets with a discernable anti-Trump bias (e.g., CNN and MSNBC).

Could this have had an effect on the 2020 outcome, not just by discouraging voter turnout among weak Trump supporters (and encouraging turnout by weak Biden supporters), but also through genuine opinion change?

Since a large number of Americans do not live in the oft-assumed partisan echo chamber, the answer to this question is likely Yes!

  • K.R.K.

Send comments to: kroeger98@yahoo.com

When can we get off the COVID-19 rollercoaster?

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com, January 7, 2022)

The headline photo is not meant to imply the COVID-19 pandemic has been an amusement ride. Quite the opposite. But it has gotten to the point where some of my family, friends and colleagues, who were originally terrified of this virus, are ready to get off this ride and get back to some form of relative normal.

“At this point I’d rather just get it,” I overheard at the Stop and Shop grocery storein Pennington, New Jersey yesterday.

Personally, I expect to be wearing a mask at indoor locations for many months going forward, if not years. Even as I oppose mask mandates and other Karen-generating policies, I consider it no inconvenience to wear a mask or maintain a healthy distance from strangers. I’ve never liked being physically close to people in the first place. [I guess my sensory processing problems are finally paying off!]

A recent news story out of the U.K., which was given little attention here in the U.S., concerned comments from one of the scientists that helped create the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for COVID-19.

“We can’t vaccinate the planet every four to six months. It’s not sustainable or affordable,” Professor Andrew Pollard, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group and head of the U.K.’s Committee on Vaccination and Immunization, told The Daily Telegraph.

This man cannot be dismissed as a crank trying to spread misinformation.

Dr. Pollard noted the much slower vaccine rollouts in countries outside Europe and North America as problematic for humans trying to control the coronavirus. The vaccines are too cost prohibitive and too transitory in their effect, he says.

Instead, he believes, in the future countries “need to target the vulnerable” rather than trying to vaccinate everyone, including healthy children, who are not at great risk from this virus.

Pollard further argued that we do not have enough evidence to warrant offering a fourth (‘second booster”) COVID-19 vaccine shot.

I fully expect Dr. Pollard will be banned from Twitter and Facebook if he keeps talking like this.

Is Omicron scarier than other COVID-19 variants?

Sadly, the Omicron variant has given new life to the COVID-19 panic cult, though, admittedly, there appears to be something different (and potentially scary) in the latest epidemiological data.

Normally, I would go straight to national or worldwide data to support this point, but some more localized numbers just startled me. The first was a from New Jersey’s Department of Health: On January 5th, 106 new COVID-19 deaths were reported in New Jersey.

New Jersey hasn’t seen numbers like that since the peak of the Winter 2020–21 surge. And we are a state that has implemented some of the most draconian COVID-19 measures to go along with one of the country’s highest vaccination rates. [My teenage age son received his booster shot the day the CDC approved it for his age group — and he had to stand in line behind other teenagers to get it.]

Predictably, Democrats and news pundits have made sick sport of victim shaming and blaming the unvaccinated for our nation’s growing COVID-19 cases and deaths. Unfortunately for their narrative, it was a second number from the county government in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (which neighbors my county) that really caught my attention: 38 percent of the 199 people hospitalized with COVID-19 during the week ending January 4th were vaccinated.

Figure 1: COVID-19 Hospitalizations in Bucks County, PA (week ending January 4, 2022)

Source: Bucks County Government (PA)

Maybe more distressing is that 27 percent of ICU patients during that week were vaccinated, as were 31 percent of COVID-19 patients on ventilators.

This is not my way of saying, vaccinations don’t matter. They absolutely do (and in a big way). But, as I increasingly hear people say they are weary of worrying about COVID-19, the public policy analyst in me recognizes that this country may be near its peak level of vaccination. As the second dose and booster jabs slowly wear off (in roughly 5 to 6 months), it may be difficult to get Americans to go back online to make reservations for future booster shots at the pace they did the first time. The current 62 percent full vaccination rate may be as good as it gets.

It is fantasy to think a country of 330 million people will ever achieve even an 80 percent full vaccination rate. As we start to vaccinate small children, who are not generally at risk for serious symptoms from COVID-19, the U.S. vaccination level will rise faster, but current trends according to New York Times’ statisticians estimate the end-of-year full vaccination rate will be around 75 percent. Notably, these statisticians admit their earlier long-term projects for U.S. vaccinations levels were far too optimistic.

The U.S. is probably nearing its maximum vaccination level. And it is not just because of “misinformed,” plaid shirt Republicans. In reality, it is hard to get people to do anything, even when it is in their best interest. People are busy with their lives. But, more importantly, they have a genetic propensity for misestimating their own risk probabilities. Life is much happier with your head in the sand. I can vouge for that.

It also doesn’t help that most people in this country will NOT die from COVID-19, no matter how long it stays with us. The odds are in the favor of those with meh amounts of concern about COVID-19. 

I estimate from CDC’s reported numbers that there is about a 1-in-130 chance that an unvaccinated person will die from COVID-19 in the next 12 months. [I don’t like those odds, but many people do.]

You can’t build public policy around wishful thinking and an exaggerated sense of politicians’ power over nature. We need to develop a vaccine against such delusions and jab our political leaders and policy experts as soon as possible. Omicron, oddly enough, may be the vaccine to do just that.

Its hard to imagine that the American public can keep riding this rollercoaster as we are right now. Politicians from both sides of the aisle are already losing their appetite for strict COVID-19 related mandates

When asked last month about expanding mask mandates in California as Omicron began to rise in his state, Governor Gavin Newsom punted: “I think a lot of people will self-enforce and do the right thing.”

What Gov. Newsom is really saying is that we can look forward to more mask-less Karen videos on YouTube.

So, without minimizing the seriousness of Omicron — which, by early scientific accounts, appears to be much more contagious than prior COVID-19 variants but less virulent — perhaps a look at the numbers might be in order.

Three caveats must be made before showing the latest COVID-19 case, hospitalization and death numbers. First, I am using aggregated data instead of individual-level data. For example, to estimate the percentage of COVID-19 positive people that are hospitalized or put in ICUs, individual-level data is ideally needed. I can only approximate those estimates using nationally aggregated data. Second, it is too early to know precisely the virulent nature of Omicron. Granted, we are not yet seeing the daily rise in deaths that followed case increases during the previous surges; but it will take more time to see the full picture. Third, because I am using aggregate time-series data, I cannot make definitive conclusions, particularly with regard to Omicron’s virulence. It is true that we are seeing falling fatality rates, but that does not necessarily mean Omicron is less dangerous. Those falling rates are also a function of better COVID-19 treatments, the healthier status of those contracting the virus and rising vaccination levels, among other factors that can affect fatality rates.

Early signs are that Omicron, even if it is less virulent, is more contagiousness will lead to record or near-record hospitalization and ICU rates, though we may not see fatality levels like those during the Winter 2020–21 surge (i.e., Third Wave).

Is Omicron more contagious?

In the aggregate Omicron appears more contagious, despite some uncertainty over whether the current numbers are a reflection of the Delta variant or Omicron. They are circulating at the same time.

There is a also a question of whether the current fast rise in cases is due to an increased number of people getting tested. Figures 2, however, should put that last question to rest. The recent change in the daily number of news COVID-19 cases does not appear to be following a similar surge in COVID-19 tests.

Figure 2: New COVID-19 Tests per 1K and New Daily Cases in U.S. (14-day moving averages)

While the number of daily tests have increased in the last two weeks, it has not been on a scale similar to the daily rise in new cases. The U.S. is in unchartered territory right now in terms of case numbers.

So what happened?

By all appearances, Omicron is more contagious. We see that when we plot the number of daily tests (per 1,000 people) against the daily positivity rate of these tests (see Figure 3).

The daily positivity rate is at record levels right now.

Figure 3: New COVID-19 Tests per 1K and Positivity Rate (U.S.)

New COVID-19 test data points represent 14-day moving average

When we regress daily COVID-19 tests on the daily positivity rate, there are two extreme outlier periods: (1) the initial COVID-19 surge in Spring 2020, and (2) the most recent surge (presumably, Omicron).

The first outlier can be explained by the preponderance of early tests being dedicated to people showing strong symptoms. As testing became more prevalent and routine, that positivity rate moderated to some extent and rose more modestly during every new surge. That has changed in the latest surge.

Based on these aggregate numbers, I would conclude, even with the remaining presence of the Delta variant, Omicron is the cause of the recent positivity rate increases.

Is Omicron less lethal?

As noted earlier, it is difficult using aggregate time-series data to make definitive statements about Omicron’s lethality. Other confounding factors are in the mix (e.g., vaccination levels, treatment improvements, characteristics of the infected population, etc.).

Figure 4 plots two versions of the case fatality rate (CFR) for COVID-19. The black line represents the cumulative CFR, while the blue line represents the CFR calculated over a 30-day period. Also, shown are the daily vaccination numbers (as the orange dotted line). The recent drop in vaccinations should not be over-interpreted as the newest numbers tend to be revised upwards over time.

The CFR is calculated as the proportion of people diagnosed with a certain disease, who end up dying of it. It is inevitably an overestimate of the incidence fatality rate (IFR) which estimates this proportion of deaths among all infected individuals. Unlike the CFR, the IFR requires knowing the incidence of asymptomatic cases (which can be a large percentage for some illnesses).

The number we care about is the IFR. The number I have data for, however, is the CFR. Keep in mind, therefore, my estimates for the cumulative IFR of around 1.5 percent and 1.6 percent for the 30-day CFR are likely overestimates of the IFR. 

As a crude estimate for COVID-19’s IFR, I consider the fact that the seasonal flu (prior to the pandemic) typically has an IFR around 0.1 percent and kills, on average, 40 thousand Americans every year. COVID-19 will have killed around 900,000 Americans in two years, or about 11.5 times the number of the seasonal flu. Ergo, I estimate COVID-19’s IFR to be around 1.2 percent. [If I’m close to the right number, that is horrific!]

Figure 4: 30-Day and Cumulative COVID-19 Case Fatality Rate (CFR) in U.S.

Back to the issue at hand: Is Omicron more lethal? According to Figure 4, the U.S. is at an all-time low for its cumulative and 30-Day CFR estimates (1.5 and 1.6 percent, respectively). Therefore, I believe this is evidence of Omicron’s lower lethality, with one caveat — we simply haven’t seen the full impact of Omicron on death counts.

Also supporting the conclusion that Omicron is less lethal is the experience of other advanced economies where Omicron is rapidly growing in appearance.

As of January 1st, of the 31 advanced economics I analyzed in Europe and Asia, 74 percent were at or near all-time low in cumulative CFRs (Data available upon request to kroeger98@yahoo.com). The average cumulative CFR for these countries is 1.0 percent — giving me another opportunity to point out how the U.S. health care system again grossly underperforms relative to our other economic partners.

Those countries seeing significant increases in CFR included Taiwan, Russia, Liechtenstein, Greece, India, Singapore, Austria, and South Korea.

Maybe Omicron isn’t more deadly, but is it causing higher hospitalization and ICU rates?

With the rise of Omicron, the news stories are multiplying about rising hospitalization levels across the U.S.

But an equally important question is the probability an infected person will go to the hospital or ICU. By early accounts, Omicron is filling hospitals because of its high contagion rate, not necessarily its virulence.

As seen in Figure 5, hospital (yellow line) and ICU (dark orange) admissions per 1 million people are surpassing last summer’s surge and could very well surpass all-time highs before this current surge is over.

Figure 5: Hospital and ICU Patients (per 1 million) in the U.S.

But as the hospitalization and ICU rates, the story is different.

Figure 6 attempts to show the relationship between changes in the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations with changes in the number of new cases. Are new COVID-19 cases more or less likely to get admitted into a hospital over time?

As noted, since I do not have access to individual-level patient data, I can only approximate that relationship.

The important line in Figure 6 is the dotted blue line, which represents the trend in the ratio of new COVID-19 hospitalizations to new cases.

There appears to be no trend in this ratio. A new COVID-19 case today is just as likely to be admitted into a hospital as it was in Summer 2020.

Figure 6: Ratio of Change in COVID-19 Hospitalizations (per 1M) to New Cases (per 1M) in the U.S.

But what about the probability of a new COVID-19 case ending up in an ICU?

With the same caveat as in Figure 6, the graph in Figure 7 shows the ratio of COVID-19 ICU patients (per 1 million people) to new cases (per 1 million people). Ideally, I would have calculated the ratio of ICU patients to current “active” cases. However, I consider the “active” case numbers for the U.S. as unreliable as not every state consistently tracks patients from start to finish of their illness.

States, however, have been doing a fair job of registering new COVID-19 cases and Figure 7 indicates that the probability of a new COVID-19 patient ending up in an ICU has been going down since Summer 2020 (see dotted blue trend line). This, of course, may be due to many factors such as vaccinations levels, characteristics of patients, and improved treatments. But do notice the steep drop in this ratio in recent weeks. This could be a further indication of Omicron’s lower virulence.

Figure 7: Ratio of COVID-19 ICU patients (per 1M) to New Cases (per 1M) in the U.S.

And, finally, in Figure 8 we have the ratio of COVID-19 deaths (per 1 million people) to hospitalizations (per 1 million people). Again, the trend line (dotted blue) has been going down since Summer 2020. The probability of a hospitalized COVID-19 patient dying from COVID-19 appears to be going down over time.

Figure 8: Ratio of COVID-19 Deaths (per 1M) to Hospitalizations (per 1M) in the U.S.

Final Thoughts

The findings in this essay are consistent with the most reported research on COVID-19. My intention here is more to demonstrate that publicly-available COVID-19 data in the aggregate is potentially useful in capturing the 30,000-foot view of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In clinical and epidemiological research, there is no substitute for individual-level patient data. However, much can still be learned with sub-optimal data if accompanied by sufficient care and caution.

Stay safe. Wear a mask. Keep your distance. And get vaccinated.

  • K.R.K.

Send comments to kroeger98@yahoo.com

The politicians aren’t fooling anybody about COVID-19…or are they?

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com, January 6, 2022)

[Author’s Note: The opinions and errors found in this essay are mine alone. And do not make personal health or financial decisions based on this essay.]

From the start, this blog has been about the democratization of policy data and public policy analysis. Today, every internet-connected human has access to more quality scientific and social data than the most sophisticated policy experts did thirty years ago.

With only a modest background in data management and statistics, an average citizen today can independently assess the performance of their political leaders on a level that would have been impossible a generation ago.

It is no longer necessary to depend on the national news media to learn how things are going in this country, you merely need a high-speed internet connection, free statistical and database software, some basic math knowledge and an ounce of gumption. Or, know somebody with those resources.

Is it a coincidence that the public’s respect for politicians and policy experts has been in a near lockstep decline with the rise in publicly accessible raw data on their performance? No longer does information about our leaders and policy experts need to be filtered and interpreted by the elite-centric national news media. And, increasingly, it isn’t.

In 1997, the Gallup Poll reported that 68 percent of the U.S. public had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the federal government’s ability to handle international problems and 51 percent had that level of trust in the government for domestic problems. In 2021, those trust numbers stood at 39 percent.

Nowhere have the policy results generated by our political and expert class been more observable than the COVID-19 pandemic.

In what Arizona Democratic Party leaders call a Faustian pact, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey has kept his state’s economy open during the pandemic, arguably leading to 5,600 more COVID-19 deaths than his state should have had given the national COVID-19 death rate (3,376 deaths per 1 million people in Arizona versus 2,609 per 1 million people nationally). 

Has it been worth it? According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Arizona had the 5th fastest growing state economy between Q1 2020 and Q1 2021.

If COVID-19 deaths are your preferred metric, one can understandably claim Ducey’s COVID-19 policies failed on an epic level, just as easy as it is for Governor Ducey (who is not running for re-election in 2022) to claim glorious success.

Arizona’s strong economy cannot be dismissed, but neither can 5,600 excess deaths. In the end, the voters will judge.

But will this information really matter? Are we so distracted by the partisan theater featured daily on the news that we don’t need to think anymore about such things before filling in the ovals on the ballot?

In 2014, Ducey won the Arizona gubernatorial race by almost 12 points. Current projections say the Republican nominee in the 2022 race will win by 0.3% of the two-party vote. Not all of the decline can be attributed to COVID-19, but it is more than plausible that the failure of Ducey’s COVID-19 policies account for a big share of it.

Georgia shares a similar story to Arizona’s, with a Republican governor championing his pro-growth COVID-19 policies (9th fastest growing state economy between Q1 2020 and Q1 2020) while his state experienced an above average COVID-19 death rate.

Georgia’s 2022 governor’s race is called a toss-up by The University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato.

Arizona and Georgia, once solid red states, were slowly turning blue (or at least a deep purple) before the pandemic began. The electoral story is startingly different in some key red states led by Republican governors, however. In Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas — which are all experiencing higher COVID-19 death rates than the national average — Republicans are poised for easy gubernatorial victories in 2022, according to Sabato. Not coincidently, perhaps, these same states experienced average or above average economic growth during the first year of the pandemic. (Figure 1 shows Sabato’s current predictions for all of the 2022 gubernatorial races.)

Figure 1: Predictions for 2022 gubernatorial races (Univ. of Virginia Center for Politics, Prof. Larry Sabato)

Graph courtesy of Prof. Larry Sabato (University of Virginia Center for Politics)

A better test case of the influence of state-level COVID-19 policies and economic growth on electoral outcomes may be the 2022 Wisconsin gubernatorial race, where Democrat incumbent Tony Evers is seeking re-election. In 2018, he won the race by one percent of the vote. Current predictions consider Wisconsin a similar toss-up.

It is unfair, in my opinion, to suggest voting for a pro-growth, anti-lockdown Republican is tantamount to turning a blind eye to the suffering caused by COVID-19. As one of my workmates put it recently, “This is a virus that kills unhealthy people. Who do I blame for that?”

[Our overpriced, inadequate health care system, perhaps?]

Does it make a difference that the average age of the person who died during the 1918 Spanish Flu was 28 years, where most U.S. deaths from COVID-19 have been people aged 65 years and older. It may sound macabre to ask the question, but it must be considered as we head into the midterm elections.

Are undecided and disaffected American voters going to allow their mourning for the COVID-19 dead (and fear of future deaths) heavily influence their final vote decisions? Or are a decisive number of these voters going to weigh economic growth under the banner of personal freedom above the death of thousands of their own state’s residents?

(And, of course, it is possible none of these factors play an important role in many of the midterm elections.}

We will likely find out the answer in about 10 months.

  • K.R.K.

Send comments and bitcoin account access to kroeger98@yahoo.com

The news media deserves some of the blame for vaccine hesitancy

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com, January 3, 2022)

[Author’s Note: The opinions and errors found in this essay are mine alone. And do not make personal health or financial decisions based on this essay.]

“If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uniformed. If you do, you’re misinformed.”

— Mark Twain

Back in September, wearied by five plus years of analyzing the destructive synergisms that define American politics and the national news media, I decided to take a few months off from following our nation’s dysfunction.

I needed a break. (We all do.)

So, I stopped watching cable TV news, avoided social media, limited my news consumption to the online versions of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and, for entertainment purposes, occasionally indulged in my favorite political podcasters like Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti (Breaking Points), Kyle Kulinski, Ben Shapiro and Jimmy Dore.

Though unverified through medical professionals, I believe my systolic blood pressure has gone down ten points over this period. And this is despite the real pressures of inflation, raising a teenage son, keeping a marriage intact, and limiting job stress, all while navigating the pandemic.

As to why one might benefit from avoiding the mainstream news media, my hunch is that its daily offering of divisive, anxiety-inducing content is a public health hazard. That is how they attract audiences and make money: Keep everyone uncertain and agitated. And this is the goal whether the media outlet leans left, right or towards the middle on the political spectrum.

In the end, this business model is destructive to the physical and mental health of our nation, and there is evidence to support such a contention.

Vaccine hesitancy among Republicans and conservatives

Nowhere is the deadliness of misinformation more apparent than the stubbornly large percentage of American adults who continue to resist getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

According to the New York Times COVID-19 vaccination tracker, 27 percent are not fully vaccinated, and 14 percent of American adults have not received even one jab. While it is true that relatively low vaccinations rates exist among Black (67%), less-educated (68%) and younger adults (67%), the lowest vaccination rate is among Republicans (59%), according to the Kaiser Foundation.

But the popular myth about vaccine hesitancy is that it is mainly the product of misinformation about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines being propagated by conservative media outlets such as the Fox News Channel. To be fair, the Fox News has provided a large, influential platform for vaccine skeptics to plant seeds doubt about vaccine safety and effectiveness. But even The Washington Post acknowledged last summer that Facebook is a more powerful source for vaccine misinformation than Fox News.

However, I offer a more essential cause of the disproportionate level of vaccine hesitancy among Republican and conservative Americans: a deep and understandable distrust of the mainstream media that has repeatedly omitted, exaggerated, and misrepresented key facts to the detriment of conservatives and their values.

Do you need examples? Here is just a small sampling from over the past six years (in no particular order):

  1. The January 6th Capitol protests and misrepresentation of Capitol Officer Brian Sicknick’s death (which would lead the New York Times to walk back their original narrative about his death being the direct result of a physical assault by pro-Trump protestors),
  2. Cable TV news networks declared the May 2020 George Floyd protests as ‘mostly peaceful’ as businesses and cars burned in the background,
  3. Misreporting key facts on the Trump January 2021 phone call to Georgia Vote Fraud Investigator prior to the state’s special Senate election,
  4. Failure to acknowledge the active debate in the scientific community over the SARS-CoV-2 lab leak versus natural origin hypotheses,
  5. Russiagate (the specific media inaccuracies over which are too many to list here, but journalist Glenn Greenwald made an early attempt),
  6. Douma chemical attack in Syria, where reporting by award-winning journalist Aaron Mate (The Grayzone) significantly called into question mainstream reporting on the attack,
  7. Failure to report the policy origins and undercount of the disproportionately larger number of nursing home deaths in New York during the early months of the COVID-19,
  8. Failure to cover the Hunter Biden laptop story during the 2020 election campaign, which would lead some news outlets (notably NPR) in late September 2021 (!) to correct their original assertion that the story had no merit,
  9. Media reports of Trump ordering tear gas to clear a protest crowd that were subsequentlycontradicted by an Inspector General report on the event,
  10. Months before the 2020 election, news outlets claimed Russians were paying a bounty to the Taliban to kill US soldiers (and Trump did nothing about it, they also reported); in truth, the bounty story came from a highly unreliable intelligence source that even U.S. intelligence has since disavowed; media retractions of this story would only come after the 2020 election.
  11. Rolling Stone’s story on Ivermectin overdoses overwhelming the emergency rooms of an Oklahoma hospital at the expense of gunshot victims was utterly false and would need to be retracted days after its initial publication,
  12. New York Times grossly overstated the number of child fatalities for COVID-19,
  13. CNN and other news/entertainment outlets reported that podcaster Joe Rogan took horse de-wormer for COVID-19;when, in fact, he took a doctor-prescribed, human-safe amount of the drug Ivermectin,
  14. The Washington Post revised an article and deleted the Twitter post promoting it after saying the November 2021 Christmas parade massacre in Waukesha, Wisconsin was “caused by an SUV.”
  15. Coverage of the Kyle Rittenhouse trial included numerous mistakes, critical omissions (e.g., rarely mentioning that all parties involved were white) and smears (e.g., Rittenhouse referred to as a ‘white supremacist’ without supporting evidence).

Occasionally inaccurate reporting is an unavoidable part of aggressive journalism. It happens. And, God knows, Fox News and other conservative news outlets have misrepresented facts due to their own partisan biases and sometimes careless inattention to detail and complexity.

However, there is something telling and deeply ominous when “trusted” news outlets like the New York Times and The Washington Post so consistently err in one ideological direction when they do make errors. I don’t believe this is random chance. It is the result of a long-developing, pervasive news media bias in favor of establishment-friendly opinions and narratives at the expense of critics to that establishment. (If you want evidence of this growing media bias, here are some good places to start: Herehere and here.)

Distrust of elites drives vaccine hesitancy

Over the past months I talked directly to unvaccinated people I met at my favorite local watering hole (and whose customers are largely working class people from western New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania). It was not a scientific probability sample, but it served the purpose of collecting examples of how people articulate their hesitancy to get one of the COVID-19 vaccines.

My first observation was that most people at this small pub were vaccinated. Still, over the course of a few weeks, I talked to no less than a dozen unvaccinated people and queried them on their reasons for staying unvaccinated. Their responses almost universally included these two themes:

(1) Lack of trust in what they hear in the news media from media, political and science elites,

(2) A belief that they are healthy and would prefer the risks of COVID-19 than the unknown risks of the vaccines.

Young males, who were roughly half of my convenience sample, were particularly likely to cite their good health as a reason not to be vaccinated, and also would frequently express concern that the vaccines could harm their fertility. In fact, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers recently offered this fertility argument as one of the reasons he didn’t get vaccinated.

[The peer-reviewed research I have found on the subject of COVID-19 vaccines and male fertility has found no evidence of increases in male infertility as the result of getting a COVID-19 vaccine.]

But it is the first reason (‘lack of trust’) that I suspect drives most vaccine hesitancy in the U.S., particularly the interrelationship between someone’s trust in the news media, politicians, and science.

The 2019 American National Elections Pilot Study, administered by researchers from the University of Michigan and Stanford University, offers evidence that people’s level of trust in science is primarily founded on their level of trust in journalists and the news media.

When someone’s trust in the news media is undermined — such as, when they believe the news media is continually deceiving them for partisan and social class reasons — trust in science suffers.

In Figure 1 (below), the standardized regression coefficients from a linear regression model using the 2019 ANES data are reported. The dependent variable is a 12-point scale indicating a person’s level of trust in science. Among the significant independent variables in the model, the most significant factor associated with a person’s trust in science is a person’s favorability towards journalists. Also interesting is that being Black or Hispanic— independent of political ideology or attitudes towards the news media or — is significantly associated with distrust in science.

Figure 1: What factors are associated with a person’s trust in science?

Similarly, before the lack of trust in science among some Americans is blamed on Fox News and Republicans, it must be explained why favorability towards journalists is highly related to trust in science, regardless of someone’s political ideology, support for Donald Trump, level of education, sex, or race/ethnicity.

My hypothesis is that, given the mainstream news media (including Fox News) serves such a narrow spectrum of Americans, drops in trust in journalists and, by extension, science were inevitable.

Our national news outlets represent the priorities, opinions and biases of rich, white liberals. These news sources are not objective. Worse yet, they systematically misinform anyone who digests their daily product.

And this central bias in the mainstream news media has not gone unnoticed by conservatives, particularly among the working-class who are so often a punching bag for news media elites.

One of the ugliest (and most socially destructive) arguments finding popularity in the national news media’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic is the suggestion that people who aren’t vaccinated should not be given the same priority for medical care as those who have vaccinated.

The once-funny, now drearily partisan Jimmy Kimmel (host of ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live!) exemplified this toxic kind of thinking in a recent monologue:

Kimmel opined on his show:

“The number of new cases is up more than 300 percent from a year ago. Doctor Fauci said that if hospitals get any more overcrowded they’re going to have to make some very tough choices about who gets an ICU bed. That choice doesn’t seem so tough to me — vaccinated person having a heart attack, yes, come right on in. We’ll take care of you. Unvaccinated guy who gobbled horse goo, rest in peace wheezy.”

Stories of families unable to get their sick parent or child admitted to a hospital ICU ward because those beds are filled with unvaccinated COVID-19 patients permeated the news media last fall.

Those stories are real and tragic…and, yes, I believe the unvaccinated need to understand how their health care decisions are, writ large, impacting their communities.

Yet, there is something seriously wrong if a consensus of Americans think the vaccine hesitant deserve the death penalty for their personal decision regarding vaccines. People accepting the COVID-19 deaths of thousands of Americans in “Trump” country as their ‘just desserts’ need to rethink their values.

More compassionate Americans understand that health care should never be rationed based on background or past behavior. President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA) is predicated on that premise.

John Barro, senior editor and columnist at Business Insider, spelled out this ACA feature on the Rising podcast last year:

“One of the key ideas behind the Affordable Care Act (ACA) — and by certain laws that led up to the Affordable Care Act, like the HIPA law — was about making sure that people with pre-existing conditions could get health insurance at the same price as people who don’t have those conditions. And the reason that we focus on having on having those rules is otherwise it can become very unaffordable for people to get health insurance if they have previously had cancer or if they have diabetes or they have other pre-existing conditions.

Our view is that health insurance is not like other insurance products. It is not like auto insurance or homeowners insurance, where, if you live on the ocean you’re going to pay more for hurricane coverage. If you have a swimming pool you’re going to pay more for liability. If you’ve got speeding tickets you pay more for auto insurance.

Health insurance laws are structured to ensure availability to as many people as possible. We have fought to de-link pricing from health risk.”

Today, too many Democrats and liberals are happy to discard the ACA’s central pricing rationale so that they can punish people they consider ‘ignorant’ and ‘deplorable.’ “Rest in peace wheezy,” sneers Kimmel.

Ironically, working-class conservatives aren’t the only ones burying themselves in ignorance regarding COVID-19. Democrats and liberals have their own intellectual blind spots on the subject matter.

The poor understanding of COVID-19’s hospitalization risk among liberals and Democrats

Coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic by the left- and center-leaning news and entertainment outlets has led to large reservoirs of misinformation residing among liberals and Democrats.

A few months ago on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Bill Maher, host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, made a surprisingly sharp observation about the national media’s unmistakable penchant for fostering undue fear about the COVID-19 pandemic:

“I have to cite a survey that was in the New York Times, which is a liberal paper, so they weren’t looking for this answer. The question was: “What do you think the chances are that you would have to go to the hospital if you got COVID?

The Democrats thought that (probability) was way higher than did Republicans. The answer is between one and five percent. Yet, 41 percent of Democrats thought it was over a 50 percent chance and another 28 percent thought it was between 20 and 49 percent — so 70 percent of Democrats thought it was way higher than it really was.

Liberal media has to take a little responsibility for scaring the (bleep) out of people.”

This overestimate of COVID-19’s hospitalization risk most likely keeps a large percentage of Americans submissive to a variety of ineffective policy measures meant to contain SARS-CoV-2, but which have little scientific evidence to support their implementation (e.g., broad outdoor mask mandatesclosing public parkstesting vaccinated people who lack symptomsprohibiting out-of-home-county travel by university students, and contradictory business closure measures).

Back-of-the-Envelope Estimates on “Breakthrough” Risks Associated with COVID-19

We probably know at least one family member or friend who is fully vaccinated and boosted, but who remains deeply concerned that they will still get COVID-19 from an unvaccinated person (i.e., a “breakthrough” case) and end up hospitalized or dead.

I certainly know someone who fits that profile. But is that an rational fear?

To allay this person’s anxiety, I sought out the best available U.S. data on the subject from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While their aggregated “breakthrough” data only goes through November 2021 (therefore missing the impact of the Omicron variant), it is a good start for a rough estimate of the various COVID-19 risk probabilities for fully vaccinated people.

[The data I am using for this analysis is available here and here.]

Let us first estimate the chance of a fully vaccinated person getting COVID-19 over an entire year. According to the CDC, the week of August 28, 2021 saw a “breakthrough” rate of 117.74 cases per 100,000 vaccinated people in the 26 U.S. states that collect such information (the list of states can be found here). That is the highest weekly rate between April and November 2021 (the lowest being 4.96 per 100,000 during the week of June 5, 2021). To be conservative, I multiplied 117.74 by 52 weeks and divided 100,000 by that product, giving us an estimate of 1 in 16 that a fully vaccinated person will get COVID-19 over the next 12-month period.

That sounds about right. Vaccines aren’t perfect, but definitely effective. According to the CDC, an unvaccinated period has a five times greater chance on contracting COVID-19 than an vaccinated person.

What about hospitalizations? Using the same methodology, I took the CDC’s weekly hospitalization rate for fully vaccinated people (5.4 per 100,000 during the week of November 13, 2021), multiplied by 52 and divided 100,000 by that product to get this estimate: There is a 1 in 356 chance that a fully vaccinated person will be hospitalized for COVID-19 over the next 12-month period.

As a fully vaccinated person myself, I like those chances. The CDC estimates unvaccinated people have an eight times greater chance of being hospitalized for COVID-19.

Finally, the granddaddy of estimates: What are the chances a fully vaccinated person will die from COVID-19 over the next year? The CDC says, at its weekly peak between April and November last year, COVID-19 killed 1.03 vaccinated people per 100,000 vaccinated people. Multiplying that number by 52 and dividing 100,000 by that product, we get this estimate: There is a 1 in 1,867 chance that a fully vaccinated person will die from COVID-19 over the next 12-month period.

In my experience, I consider such chances basically the same as zero.

Some people, like Lloyd in Dumb and Dumber, may view probabilities differently…

But if we take that probability (1 in 1,867 each year) and extend over 60 years, we end up with a 1 in 31 chance that a fully vaccinated person will die from COVID-19 over a 60-year period. That is a 3 percent chance. Compare that to other lifetime probabilities: Dying in a car accident = 1 percent; dying of cancer = 15 percent; dying of heart disease = 17 percent.

Obviously, the lethality of COVID-19, the treatments for it, and the immunities that may build up within us to fight it off renders such a long-term estimate meaningless. But, the point remains, the chances of a vaccinated person dying from COVID-19 are exceedingly remote.

That doesn’t mean CNN won’t find those deadly “breakthrough” cases that do occur and try to scare the crap out of you.

There is irrationality on every side of the political spectrum

What is worse? Not getting vaccinated or harboring a grotesquely inaccurate understanding of the risk probabilities associated with COVID-19?

I think both pose serious problems. The unvaccinated potentially hurt themselves and those close to them who are also unvaccinated. There is also a small chance that other people will be denied ICU beds because they are occupied by unvaccinated COVID-19 patients.

But possessing an unwarranted fear of COVID-19 is equally dangerous and can also cause needless, even life-threatening, harm to others. Every time a state shuts down businesses and economic sectors due to surges in COVID-19, they are putting people out of work, a large number of whom cannot afford lapses in income and health insurance.

The wealth of the world’s wealthiest has surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, while millions of people worldwide have descended into poverty. This is not hyperbole. It is widely-accepted fact among economists. Furthermore, people can die when they become impoverished.

So, when the majority of Democrats hold irrational fears about the dangers of COVID-19, they increase the likelihood that politicians will pursue bad COVID-19 policies that may do more harm than good. People die when livelihoods are threatened and giving them a $2,000 check now and then is not enough to change that fact.

Whether from a left, right or center perspective, what is the solution to all of this? Stop watching, listening or reading the news from mainstream news outlets and seek alternative news sources (The GrayzoneBreaking Points, etc.). Perhaps then the national news outlets will consider hiring more trained journalists with backgrounds outside of our elite universities. I recommend University of Iowa journalism grads, but I’m biased.

  • K.R.K.

Send comments to: kroeger98@yahoo.com

Nursing home liability waivers may have been our nation’s worst public policy during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; August 1, 2021)

The ultrastructural morphology exhibited by the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) (Image created by CDC/ Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM; This image is a work of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, taken or made as part of an employee’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.)

[All data used in this essay is available on GITHUB here.]

Last week, the Biden Justice Department decided not to open a civil rights investigation into the possibility that New York state officials intentionally manipulated data regarding nursing home deaths in an attempt to obfuscate the relatively high number of COVID-19 deaths within nursing homes.

A Justice Department letter sent by Deputy Assistant Attorney General Joe Gaeta to congressional Republican lawmakers read: “Based on that review, we have decided not to open a Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act investigation of any public nursing facility within New York at this time.”

A similar letter was sent to state officials in Michigan and Pennsylvania. Apparently, the Justice Department is still considering investigations in New Jersey nursing homes.

Though New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office did not immediately respond to press inquiries about the Justice Department decision, it would not surprising if Governor Cuomo is feeling some vindication right now.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 data continues to indicate something unusual may have happened in states such as New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Michigan and Pennsylvania where nursing homes were required to take in elderly patients previously hospitalized for COVID-19. To ensure cooperation among nursing home operators, this policy was supported by state laws or governors’ orders granting nursing homes and other long-term care facilities legal immunity from prosecutions related to COVID-19 deaths.

In the first few months of the pandemic, at least 19 states had some form of a nursing home liability waiver: Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Richard Mollot, executive director of the New York-based Long Term Care Community Coalition — a group that advocates for nursing home residents across the country — offers a grim critique of these liability waivers: “It’s basically a license for neglect.”

The state-level COVID-19 data summarized below will bear out Mollot’s concern.

It is not shocking that the Biden Justice Department wants to avoid risking political damage to Democratic governors heading into the 2022 midterm elections. But it is surprising that there is no groundswell among news organizations, government health experts, and academic researchers to demand answers on how the nursing home liability waivers may have impacted the number of COVID-19 deaths during this pandemic — if one of your loved ones was among the more than 15,800 New York nursing home residents who have died from COVID-19, you might be particularly interested in the answer.

An in-depth inquiry into the impact of these liability waiver policies does not need to imply criminal conduct. Cuomo, better than other governors, aptly defended the nursing home liability waivers when New York lawmakers began to question their rationality during the pandemic’s first wave.

At the time, Cuomo correctly noted that ICU beds in New York were rapidly being filled by COVID-19 patients and there was an urgent need to move recovering patients out of hospitals to other care environments. Wholly unfair and irresponsible are insinuations by some (including me) that Cuomo may have implemented the policy, in part, as a favor to nursing home owners who had historically been generous donors to Democratic candidates. Partisan politics brings out the worst in us all.

And if ever there is a time to avoid a partisan inquisition, an open and comprehensive investigation into the impact of the nursing home liability waivers on COVID-19 deaths would be that time. Considering four of the 19 states with nursing home liability waivers at the start of the pandemic had Republican governors, no political party can universally claim the moral high ground.

Nursing home liability waiver laws are not all the same, so assessing their collective impact is not necessarily straightforward

In an August 2020 analytic essay, I concluded that a state’s population density was the strongest correlate with the relative number of COVID-19 deaths in that state (from 18 January 2020 to 13 August 2020), but that nursing home liability waivers were also a strong correlate, associated with perhaps as many as 22,500 additional deaths over the period.

Has anything changed since then to require a different conclusion regarding these liability waivers? As with any public policy whose impact is closely monitored, bureaucrats and politicians can incorporate new learning into revising those policies. That happened with New York’s liability waiver policy soon after it became apparent — in mid-April 2020 — that a disproportionate number of COVID-19 deaths were occurring among nursing home residents. In early May, Cuomo announced that New York would no longer require nursing homes to take COVID-19 patients from hospitals.

“We’re just not going to send a person who is positive to a nursing home after a hospital visit. Period,” Cuomo said at a news conference announcing the policy change.

But the damage in human lives was already done and the extent to which other states with similar liability waiver policies changed their implementation policies appears varied. Connecticut, for example, decided to move COVID-19 positive elderly patients from hospitals to nursing homes dedicated to housing only COVID-19 patients. Healthy residents were not mixed with COVID-19 positive residents.

But, by all indications, the liability waivers remain intact, even while states have stopped moving patients from hospitals to nursing homes. In fact, some states passed their own liability waiver laws in the aftermath of New York’s tragic experience with the law. Iowa, for example, passed a liability waiver law in June 2020 giving businesses, such as nursing homes and medical facilities, protection from civil lawsuits regarding COVID-19. In July 2020, my mother — who was in her 90s — contracted COVID-19 while in an Iowa nursing home and was initially moved to a hospital, but returned to her nursing home days later, despite still suffering significant symptoms from the illness. She thankfully survived, but the experience now appears indicative of the risks associated with liability waiver laws.

Since June 2020, Iowa has had one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the country and it is fair to ask if Mollott and other critics of liability waiver policies are correct in suggesting they are a “license for neglect.”

The circumstantial evidence suggests nursing home liability waivers cost some people their lives

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that early in this pandemic a significant number of elderly Americans died from COVID-19 because they were moved prematurely from hospital care to a nursing home.

Figure 1 (below) shows the state rankings for COVID-19 deaths per 1 million people (as of 27 July 2021). Nine out of the top 10 states in COVID-19 deaths per capita were states that had a nursing home liability waiver law in place at the start of the pandemic.

Figure 1: Top 20 U.S. states with highestCOVID-19 death rates through 27 July 2021

Source: RealClearPolitics

As noted, by May 2020, states such as New York, New Jersey and Connecticut had made significant changes in their implementation of nursing home liability wavier laws. In most cases, they either stopped forcing nursing homes to take on elderly COVID-19 hospital patients or segregated nursing homes by COVID-19 negative and positive residents.

Subsequently, it may be interesting to see if, statistically, there has been a noticeable drop in COVID-19 death rates in the 19 states that had liability waivers at the start of the pandemic.

Methodological Note: At least 10 states worked to pass nursing home liability waiver laws after the start of the pandemic. At the time of writing this analytic essay, I had not determined exactly how many of those states actually passed such laws and therefore leave the analysis of their possible impact on COVID-19 death rates for a follow-up essay.

Figure 2 (below) shows the ranking of U.S. states (+D.C.) by COVID-19 death rates from 18 January 2020 to 31 May 2020 (Pandemic Phase 1). The red bars indicate states that had nursing home liability waivers laws in place at the start of the pandemic. The point biserial correlation statistic — appropriate for correlating a continuous variable with a binary variable (see Appendix A for its calculation) — between a state’s COVID-19 death rate in Phase 1 and whether it had a liability waiver law was 0.49 (significant at p<.05).

Figure 2: COVID-19 deaths per 1 million people from Jan. to May 2020 (Phase 1)

Data Sources: New York Times (COVID-19 data) and Time Magazine (Liability Waiver data)

To test whether nursing home liability waiver laws continued to impact COVID-19 death rates after May 2020, I calculated the point biserial correlation using data from 1 June 2020 to 7 July 2021 (Pandemic Phase 2). The resulting statistic was 0.24 (significant at p<.10).

Figure 3: COVID-19 deaths per 1 million people from 1 June 2020 to 7 July 2021 (Phase 2)

Data Sources: New York Times (COVID-19 data) and Time Magazine (Liability Waiver data)

Apparently, the relationship between liability waiver laws and COVID-19 death rates weakened during the pandemic’s Phase 2, but may not have disappeared completely.

Notable in Figure 3 is how New York and Connecticut performed better than most other states in terms of COVID-19 death rates during Phase 2, but New Jersey, Massachusetts, Illinois continued to experience above average death rates. Also notable is the extremely poor COVID-19 death rate performance by states such as Arizona, Mississippi, South Dakota, Alabama and Arkansas — the explanation for which most likely goes beyond liability waiver laws and probably includes cultural, economic, and public policy factors.

Figure 4 shows a scatterplot of COVID-19 death rates by the two pandemic phases. Again, the states with liability waiver laws are in red and which tend to cluster in the upper right-hand quadrant of the scatterplot (indicating high COVID-19 death rates in both pandemic phases).

Figure 4: Scatterplot ofCOVID-19 deaths per 1 million people (Phase 1 versus Phase 2)

Data Sources: New York Times (COVID-19 data) and Time Magazine (Liability Waiver data)

Nothing presented so far is conclusive about the impact of liability waiver laws, but the results are suggestive of something potentially consequential.

A mediation model of COVID-19 deaths per capita

The final statistical analysis I ran attempted to account for the other major factors that may have impacted state-level COVID-19 death rates (from 18 January 2020 to 7 July 2021), including nursing home liability waivers.

The other factors considered in the model were:

  • Population Density (natural log)
  • Trump vote percentage in 2016 — a proxy variable for the various COVID-19 policies that tended to cluster based upon Red States vs. Blue States.
  • Stay-at-Home orders — an additional policy control based on whether states ever instituted stay-at-home orders during the pandemic.
  • GDP per capita (natural log) — an indication of a state’s level of economic activity
  • Percent uninsured — an indication of the percentage of a state’s citizens lacking health care resources.

The model’s mediating variable through which these factors may have indirectly operated on COVID-19 death rates was the number of COVID-19 cases per 1 million people.

The mediation model was estimated in JASP and whose total effects results and path plot are summarized in Figures 5 and 6 below.

[The full model estimates are in Appendix B.]

Figure 5: Mediation model of COVID-19 deaths per capita — Total Effects (18 January 2020 to 7 July 2021)

Figure 6: Pathmodel of COVID-19 deaths per capita (Jan. 2020 to 7 July 2021)

LN_D = LOG(Deaths per 1M); LN_C = LOG(Cases per 1M); PCT = Pct. Uninsured; LN_G = LOG(GDP per capita); STA = States w/ Stay-at-Home Orders; TRU = Trump Vote % in 2016; NUR = Nursing Home Liability Waiver states; LN_P = LOG(Population Density)

The model results indicate a strong relationship between state-level COVID-19 death rates, population density, and Red State/Blue State status (as measured by the 2016 Trump vote percentage): Densely-populated states (z = 4.89; p < .001)and Red States (z = 4.24; p < .001) had significantly higher COVID-19 death rates over the study period.

[Overall, this model explained 78 percent of the state-level variance in COVID-19 death rates.]

Densely-populated states like New York and New Jersey, however, should not feel exonerated by these results. Nursing home liability waiver states had significantly higher COVID-19 death rates. In fact, it was the most powerful correlate with COVID-19 death rates (z = 2.83; p = 0.005), after population density and Red State/Blue State status.

The other statistically significant variable in the model was the percentage of a state’s residents without health insurance (z = 2.04; p = 0.04).

While not statistically significant, there is a weak indication that economically active states — that is, state’s with high GDP-per-capita — also had slightly higher COVID-19 death rates. It is possible, an active economy inevitably brings with it higher mortality risks, irrespective of a state’s policy attempts to control the spread of a pathogen. Any benefits a state’s citizens might gain from having more financial resources to protect themselves from a dangerous virus may be dampened by the state’s higher levels of economic activity.

Final Thoughts: Our politicians, media, and government experts have a credibility and honesty problem

These results are admittedly suggestive, not conclusive. For example, methodological improvements — such as accounting for the count-data nature of the dependent variable — must be considered.

Nonetheless, it is unimaginable how anyone could look at the COVID-19 death rates and not see how major policy-related differences have been associated with variation in state-level outcomes. Equally apparent, the policy failures cut across partisan lines. Democratic-dominated states made major policy mistakes, as did Republican-dominated states.

And the previous statistical analysis doesn’t even consider the economic and social damage done by states through their COVID-19 policy strategies (lockdowns, mask mandates, crowd limits, public health care, school closings, etc.).

But the policy failures go far beyond liability waiver laws or health insurance coverage. The failures are at every level of government and society.

At one point, we had the leading virologist in the federal government tell us masks were not effective in slowing the spread of SARS-CoV-2, despite privately knowing they were, only to publicly reverse that recommendation — thereby damaging the credibility of anything he said later, no matter how factually correct. Do I harshly judge Americans now hesitant to heed Dr. Fauci’s advice about getting vaccinated? I do not.

Do I personally trust Dr. Fauci when he says the relatively new mRNA vaccine technology has no long-term health implications? For good reason, I do not— though I was still among the earliest to receive both “jabs” (Moderna) and did not hesitate to get my teenage son vaccinated (and he had previously contracted the virus).

This same government scientist slandered and shamed anyone suggesting the SARS-CoV-2 could have leaked from a Chinese lab, only to admit many months later that such a possibility could not be ruled out.

Credibility and honesty are everything in a public crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. Occasionally being wrong is forgivable (and expected). But to fail on both accounts, as Dr. Fauci and other political-media elites have done more than once, is public service ineptitude.

Dr. Fauci should have been fired after his lies to Congress about mask-wearing — and certainly should have been fired after backtracking on the ‘lab leak’ hypothesis — but in today’s partisan environment, he’s instead lionized.

Dr. Fauci’s disingenuous behavior is more than matched, however, by the rogues gallery of Republican governors — Arizona’s Doug Ducey, Alabama’s Kay Ivey, Mississippi’s Tate Reeves, Iowa’s Kim Reynolds, and South Dakota’s Kristi Noem are the first names that come to mind — that chose to ignore common sense state measures — stay-at-home orders, mask mandates, and crowd size restrictions — at the expense of citizens’ lives.

Recall the 20 states in Figure 1 with the highest COVID-19 death rates. The high uninsured rates in southern U.S. states is bad enough — the likely product of systemic poverty and racism — but it is unfathomable how states with the population density and socioeconomic advantages of the two Dakotas and Iowa could still end up in the Top 20 for COVID-19 death rates. California Governor Gavin Newsom faces a serious recall challenge in a state that has done reasonably well, both in terms of COVID-19 deaths and economic impact, but those three Midwest governors remain overwhelmingly popular in their respective states (IowaSouth DakotaNorth Dakota).

Life and politics are not always fair.

Is it coincidence the Americans who disproportionately died during this pandemic — elderly, working class, overweight, Black and Hispanic Americans — are also underrepresented by the policies coming out of our political establishment during this pandemic?

For evidence of this claim, I present nursing home liability waivers — what may be the pandemic’s worst public policy.

  • K.R.K.
  • I am a survey and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion.
  • Send comments to: kroeger98@yahoo.com

Appendix A: Point Biserial Correlation

Appendix B: Full Mediation Model

Dependent Variable = COVID-19 Deaths per 1 million people

To what extent did attitudes about Biden and Trump change during the 2020 general election?

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; July 6, 2021)

Electoral College Results for the 2020 Presidential Election

“Our political opinions and attitudes are an important part of who we are and how we construct our identities. Hence, if I ask your opinion on health care, you will not only share it with me, but you will likely resist any of my attempts to persuade you of another point of view,” New York University psychologists Philip Pärnamets and Jay Van Bavel wrote in Scientific American in 2018.

Pärnamet, Van Bavel and their associates at Lund University in Sweden had previously found that manipulating a person’s opinions and attitudes is not as difficult as sometimes thought in today’s highly partisan environment, and once changed, these new opinions and attitudes can be surprisingly durable.

In their study, after giving study participants false-feedback on one of their opinions — for example, telling a participant they had indicated their opposition to raising taxes when, in fact, they had said they supported raising taxes — the researchers offered them a chance to give an argument for their “new” opinion without fearing they would be criticized for it. It turned out that the act of rationalizing this “new” belief in a non-judgmental context made it more durable over time.

“When it comes to the actual political attitudes we hold, we are considerably more flexible than we think,” according to New York University psychologists Philip Pärnamets and Jay Van Bavel. “People have a pretty high degree of flexibility about their political views once you strip away the things that normally make them defensive.”

In other words, remove a person’s feeling of needing to defend their ideas from criticism, they are more open to alternative ideas.

Conversely, unwillingly expose someone to an opposing opinion and they are likely to erect defensive barriers to it and, in turn, become more entrenched in their original belief. [I suspect that is the reason I lose a few Facebook friends every time I post a video excerpt from Tucker Carlson Tonight.]

This is good and well, but the dominant (non-Fox News) media narrative was that, after four years of a near constant drumbeat of negative news coverage, Trump’s popularity was near an historical low-point for an incumbent president and, subsequently, the vast majority of Americans had already made up their minds about him.

Axios’ Neal Rothschild laid out the facts supporting that narrative in a Sept. 2020 article:

A wealth of evidence suggests more Americans have made up their minds by this point compared with years past:

The conventions had practically no impact on the shape of the race: Biden’s national polling lead (+7.5 per FiveThirtyEight’s average of polls) is just a half-point smaller than it was a month ago.

Just 3% of likely voters said they didn’t know who they’d vote for in a recent national Quinnipiac poll. The same percent of registered voters said they were undecided in a Monmouth poll this week.

An August poll by the Pew Research Center found that among those who preferred Biden or Trump, just 5% said there was a chance they’d change their minds.

Compare that to Pew’s poll in August 2016, which found that 8% of Hillary Clinton’s supporters said there was a chance they might vote for Trump. Similarly, for those who preferred Trump, 8% said they might vote for Clinton.

Even in the swingiest of swing states, most people’s minds appear made up. Just 5% of Floridians say they might change their minds, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll.

Political scientists happily concurred with the ‘set in stone’ narrative heading into the 2020 general election. “There were Republicans who were undecided in 2016 but ultimately rallied to Trump,” John Sides, a political science professor at Vanderbilt, told Axios. “This year, they’re likely on board. And, if not, they jumped ship a while back.”

Rothschild and Sides were justified in their conclusions, but still wrong in the bigger picture.

To what extent did attitudes about the 2020 presidential candidates change?

Data from the 2020 American National Election Study (ANES), conducted in two waves (pre- and post-election) between August and December 2020, confirm significant numbers of vote eligible Americans changed their opinions about the two major presidential candidates during the course of the general election.

Enough that it could have changed the final outcome? Probably not. Nonetheless, it is inaccurate to suggest, even in today’s highly partisan political environment, that attitudes about Biden or Trump were largely ‘set in stone’ before Election Day.

For starters, one-third of eligible voters changed their favorability rating of Trump by at least 10-points (on a 100-point scale) during the course of the general election. [The text of the ANES 2020 thermometer favorability questions are in the Appendix A.]

Among Strong Republicans, 24 percent of respondents became less favorable towards Trump during the campaign. That translates to 11.5 million Strong Republicans — three million of whom either voted for Biden (660,000) or did not vote (2.3 million!). These are potentially election outcome changing numbers, especially when an outcome change in just four closely contested states would have changed the Electoral College outcome.

Tables 1a and 1b (below) show the percentage of vote eligible Americans that changed their favorability rating by at least 10-points for Joe Biden and Trump between the general election and the post-election period.

For example, among Strong Democrats, 14 percent of ANES 2020 voters reported lower favorability ratings for Biden between the general election and post-election period, while 26 percent increased their favorability rating for him. Sixty percent reported no change in their favorability rating of Biden. Weak (‘Not Strong’) Democrats and Independents leaning-Democrat were similarly inclined to upgrade Biden.

More importantly, the percentage of Independents who upgraded Biden was significantly higher than those who downgraded him (32% versus 21%).

Among Republicans, no significant difference existed between the percentage of those who upgraded or downgraded Biden between the pre- and post-election periods.

Overall, 44 percent of eligible voters changed their favorability rating of Biden between the pre- and post-election ANES 2020 surveys.

Table 1a. Biden Favorability Change (Pre- to Post-Election)

Table 1b. Trump Favorability Change (Pre- to Post-Election)

The pattern for Trump was quite different.

Across all party identification groups — with the exception of Weak (‘Not Strong’) Republicans and Weak (‘Not Strong’) Democrats — all partisan groups experienced a higher percentage of respondents who downgraded Trump versus those who upgraded him. For example, among Independents, 28 percent lowered their favorability towards Trump, while only 19 percent increased it.

Overall, 66 percent of eligible voters did not change their view about Trump over the course of the 2020 presidential campaign, compared to only 56 percent for Biden.

For many possible reasons, Biden plainly increased his favorability advantage over Trump during the 2020 general election (see Table 2a) and this advantage was significantly correlated with final vote choices (see Table 2b).

Table 2a. Mean Levels and Mean Changes in Candidate Favorability (100-point scale)

Data Source; ANES 2020

Table 2b. Correlation between Favorability Rating Gaps and 2020 Vote Choice

Data Source; ANES 2020

Even after controlling for key demographic characteristics (age, education, income, race, sex), party identification, political ideology, and policy attitudes (abortion, health care, job guarantee, social spending, defense spending, and environment), the favorability gap between Trump and Biden was the strongest predictor of vote choice (see in Appendix B a preliminary logistic model of the 2020 presidential vote choice).

Trump failed to tarnish Biden

A methodological note is required before moving forward…

The ANES 2020 post-election favorability question was asked after the actual election. Subsequently, how a respondent answered that question was potentially impacted by the outcome of the election. It is, therefore, dubious to draw any conclusion about the impact of a change in candidate favorability on how people voted. Our predictor variable (change in favorability ratings) is contaminated by the outcome variable (vote choice).

Nonetheless, the relationship between those two variables is informative. Tables 3a and 3b show the relationship between changes in the Biden and Trump thermometer ratings and 2020 vote choices.

In Table 3a, among the largest thermometer change group (No Change Towards Biden), 44 percent voted for Biden, compared to only 32 percent for Trump. Conversely, among those who indicated no change in favorability towards Trump, 30 percent voted for Trump, compared to 48 percent who voted for Biden (see Table 3b).

Table 3a. Biden Favorability Change (Pre- to Post-Election) by 2020 Vote Choice

Table 3b. TrumpFavorability Change (Pre- to Post-Election) by 2020 Vote Choice

The status quo was in Biden’s favor. But what about among voters who increased their rating of Biden between the pre- and post-election periods?

Forty-nine percent of respondents who increased their rating for Biden also voted for him, compared to only 25 percent who voted for Trump — that is a 24-point gap (see Table 3a).

In contrast, 40 percent of respondents who increased their rating for Trump also voted for him, compared to 24 percent who voted for Biden — that is a 16-point gap (see Table 3b). In that same group, 37 percent did not vote for president — the highest non-voting rate among the thermometer rating change groups.

Among respondents who lowered their view of Trump during the general election, there was no significant vote share difference between Trump and Biden (32% versus 35%, respectively). Put differently, beating Trump down did not change many votes. Instead, Biden’s victory was built on the back of a status quo environment already in his favor (e.g., the COVID-19 pandemic, a weakened economy) and a general election campaign that generated additional positive feelings towards him.

The Trump campaign and Republican Party failed to convince the American voting public to dislike Biden, and it wasn’t for a lack of trying.

It is hard to see the resiliency of Biden’s popularity and not think the news media played a critical role. In a previous essay, I detailed the overwhelming advantage in tone Biden had over Trump in online news coverage during the 2020 election.

But were there any particular TV news programs disproportionately associated with Americans who changed their opinions of Biden and Trump during the campaign? Fortunately, the ANES 2020 asked respondents which TV news programs they watched regularly (question text is in Appendix A) and offers at least a preliminary look at that question.

Did some news shows matter more than others in 2020?

Quantifying media effects in political campaigns has been one of the holy grail quests of political scientists for decades. And, typically, when positive results have been found, the research has required tightly-controlled experimental designs and idealized research settings. The challenge in finding consistent, strong media effects in political campaigns is partly the result of two real-world challenges.

First, there is a mammoth selection bias problem. People do not choose their media sources randomly. The factors that drive their selection of news shows also drive their preferences for political candidates. Furthermore, we don’t have a Walter Cronkite who can suddenly voice disillusionment with the Vietnam War and bring millions of Americans along with him. Anything Rachel Maddow says on her show, her audience is most likely already with her.

Second, virtually every potential voter consumes information derived from the news media. Voters are awash in news and information. Trying to determine if a voter’s opinions are affected by the news media is akin to wondering if a fish likes water.

Despite the methodological hurdles, the ANES 2020 data does show some interesting (while admittedly small) associations in TV news program preferences and changes in 2020 candidate favorability ratings. And while these associations don’t hold up when controlling for other factors (demographics, party id, policy attitudes, etc.), the bivariate relationships show some intriguing patterns.

Table 4 shows the relationship between a change in Biden or Trump favorability and TV news programs regularly viewed. Only statistically significant associations (chi-square statistic) are indicated, either by a (+) indicating a positive association, or a (-) indicating a negative association.

For example, regular viewers of Stephen Colbert’s Late Night were more likely to have their favorability towards Trump go unchanged during the campaign, and less likely to have become more favorable towards Trump. The net effect of Late Night’s continual bashing of Trump seemed to be in enforcing status quo opinion.

Table 4. Change in Biden/Trump Favorability by Regular Viewers of Selected News Programs (Pre- versus Post-Election)

Data Source; ANES 2020; +/- symbols indicate a significant chi-square statistic at 0.05-level for the crosstabulation between regular viewing of the TV show and a change in candidate favorability.

For every news programs demonstrating significant associations with Biden or Trump favorability, the association was positively related to “no opinion change.” In fact, the only positive relationship with a change in candidate favorability was between people who became more favorable towards Trump and do not watch TV news programs regularly (see bottom-right corner of Table 4).

My interpretation: To the extent individual TV news programs matter at all in elections, it is in attracting viewers who are already less inclined to change their opinions about candidates. TV news programs enforce partisan alignments and are not independent, unbiased sources for news and information.

Final Thoughts

If ever there was going to be an election where the outcome was ‘set in stone’ long before Election Day, it would have been the 2020 presidential election.

In reality, there was significant opinion change among eligible voters towards Biden and Trump in the 2020 general election, despite a relentless effort by the mainstream news media to dampen such behavior.

Research by Swedish psychologists Pärnamets and Van Bavel mentioned at the beginning of this essay has been focused on changes in policy attitudes, not candidate support, but their conclusions concerning the former are likely relevant to the latter:

“…we need rethink what it means to hold an attitude. If we become aware that our political attitudes are not set in stone, it might become easier for us to seek out information that might change them.

There is no quick fix to the current polarization and inter-party conflict tearing apart this country and many others. But understanding and embracing the fluid nature of our beliefs, might reduce the temptation to grandstand about our political opinions. Instead humility might again find a place in our political lives.”

Amen.

  • K.R.K.

Send comments to: kroeger98@yahoo.com

Appendix A:

Key Questions from ANES 2020

Pre-election Favorability Question:

Post-election Favorability Question:

TV Show Viewing Question:

Appendix B:

Preliminary Logistic Model of 2020 Vote Choice

Censoring Iranian (and Palestinian and Houthi) news sites is un-American

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; June 28, 2021)

On Tuesday, June 22, the US government “seized” several Iranian, Palestinian and Houthi news websites, alleging their involvement in spreading “disinformation” and calling them a “threat to national security”.

DUBAI, June 22 (Reuters) — The U.S. Justice Department said on Tuesday it seized 36 Iranian-linked websites, many of them associated with either disinformation activities or violent organizations, taking them offline for violating U.S. sanctions.

Several of the sites were back online within hours with new domain addresses.

Writer’s note: It should be acknowledged that the websites blocked by this U.S. action were on servers owned or controlled by U.S. companies — hence, a violation of U.S. sanctions against Iran.
__________________

There was a time when another country — the Soviet Union — had the genuine ability to, for all practical purposes, destroy my country in an all-out nuclear war. [That ability, in what is now Russia, still exists today — but somehow the threat doesn’t seem as palpable as it did before the downfall of the Soviet Union.]

The Soviet Union was a legitimate superpower, hostile to the U.S. and its allies, and armed with around 5,000 nuclear warheads in the late 1970s (with a good number pointed directly at the U.S. mainland).

As a teenager at the time in Cedar Falls, Iowa, I was able to connect my Heathkit shortwave radio receiver to a 120-foot antenna running in a slope from my bedroom window to an old ceramic insulator attached to a pole at one end of my family’s clothes line.

Thin strips of colored tape identified frequencies where I could listen to worldwide radio broadcasts of stations such as the BBC’s World Service, Deutsche Welle (West Germany), Radio Peking, Radio Havana, Voice of the Arabs (Radio Cairo), Radio Berlin (East Germany), Radio Budapest, and last, by far from least, Radio Moscow.

I would get chills hearing the vibraphone intro to the Radio Moscow newscasts, a tune (I think it was called “Moscow Nights”) that was slow, sweet and oddly melancholy. [Regrettably, the Gorbachev-era would replace that charming interstitial with music that sounded like the theme song from a forgettable 1980s ABC crime drama. In retrospect, that was the first clear sign the Soviet Union was on its last legs.]

Some of the broadcasts were in English, but most of the them were in languages I couldn’t understand. But it didn’t matter. It was the thrill of hearing something far away (and slightly forbidden) that made me listen to that radio for hours on humid summer nights, long after my family had gone to bed.

Listening to Radio Moscow was my feeble, teenage attempt at defiance at a time when U.S.-Soviet relations seemingly were getting worse heading into the Reagan-era of American politics.

But it was more than defiance. I honestly believed it was my right (even civic duty) to hear news and opinions from the perspective of other countries — especially our “enemies.”

And it wasn’t that I found Radio Moscow more informative or trustworthy — quite the opposite, its news stories were often brazenly optimistic:

April 4, 1980: “…the Supreme Soviet Presidium ratified the treaty between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union on the conditions for the temporary stay of a limited contingent of Soviet forces in Afghanistan territory.” [Note: The size of the Russian occupation force would peak around 65,000 and they didn’t leave until 1989.]

or comically understated:

April 29, 1986: “An accident has occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant as one of the reactors was damaged. Measures are being taken to eliminate the consequences of the accident.”

But that was part of Radio Moscow’s charm…and its importance.

Why would an American not want to know the mindset of an adversary? How could anyone honestly call themselves informed without knowing the official views of other governments?

“It’s disinformation!…It’s propaganda!,” is the cry we hear now from both the left and right of the political spectrum — particularly with respect to Iran or Palestinians.

Even if the Press TV (Iran) or al-Masirah TV (Yemen Houthis) or Palestine-Al Youm websites were merely publishing official propaganda, why would I want the U.S. government, or a private U.S. company, to decide for me whether I can read or hear their content?

The thing I remember about the Cold War…

One of distinctive aspects of the U.S. government during the Cold War was its irrepressible sense of superiority and invincibility.

We had, after all, soundly beaten the fascists in Germany and Japan in World War II (OK, I realize the Soviet Union was a rather important part of that victory) and economically we were second-to-none in the decades immediately following the war.

From a U.S. citizen’s perspective, while we understood our homes and city could be evaporated by a single Soviet thermonuclear device, there was a Dean Martin-like boozy confidence among us — at least until the Vietnam War and Watergate— that the American ideology of ‘freedom and capitalism’ were intrinsically superior to authoritarianism and communism.

We may have been afraid of the Soviet war machine, but we were not afraid of the Soviet way of life. It was inferior and we knew it. My mom and dad worried more about inflation than anything the Soviet Union could do to them.

Evidence of our nation’s confidence is how it addressed Soviet propaganda on platforms such as Radio Moscow. Though the Kremlin may have jammed Western broadcasts by radio services like the Voice of America and the BBC, we did not return the favor.

It wouldn’t have been cheap, but we could have done it.

According to Mark Winek, an expert on Cold War-era propaganda efforts, it demonstrated the West’s confidence that we didn’t feel the need to jam Radio Moscow in response to Soviet jamming. In contrast, the Soviets had every reason to fear Western influence:

“While Radio Moscow’s signals were rarely jammed by other nations, the Soviet Union actively jammed the broadcasts of Western stations such as the BBC and the Voice of America. The purpose of this was to prevent Soviet citizens from being able to tune in the Western broadcasters, fearing ‘Western cultural infiltration’. Indeed, they may have had cause to worry: the Voice of America estimated 8 million Soviet citizens listened into Western broadcasts.”

That is the difference between a confident, secure country and one that is not.

How times have changed.

At present, I see my country becoming fragile and increasingly paranoid towards anyone who says something mean — particularly against our two establishment political parties. We are now so delicate, our enemies aren’t just somewhere in some faraway desert or arctic tundra, they are among us. They might be one of your work colleagues or even in your own family. We now believe this so deeply that few Americans blinked when President Joe Biden asked them this month to turn these suspected ‘domestic terrorists and extremists’ into the nearest law enforcement or FBI office.

At least in the Cold War, we feared actual scary things like 15-megaton thermonuclear warheads and bureaucratic group-think. Today, some Americans turn into a mush puddle at the sight of a bare-chested man wearing a furry hat with horns and holding a Qanon sign.

Bare-chested, horn-hat guy holding a Qanon sign in Peoria, Arizona (Photo by TheUnseen011101; photo released into the public domain by its author.)

We are not the same country that once stood nose-to-nose with the Soviet menace without blinking. Today, our current administration openly prosecutes a publisher who published whistleblower document leaks regarding U.S. war atrocities (Julian Assange) and recent administrations have unapologetically monitored the communications of journalists deemed hostile (i.e., published administration leaks).

The day the U.S. Department of Justice shut down the Press TV website, the stories on its home page included stories on:

  • Iran’s military top brass expressing a willingness to cooperate with President Biden (the kind of story that makes state-run news agencies relevant to foreign diplomats and journalists),
  • The Taliban making gains in Afghanistan (undeniably true),
  • Iran’s President-elect receiving congratulatory calls from world leaders (also undeniably true),
  • and a feature on Israeli settlers attacking Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah (a fact the Biden administration has acknowledged).

Is there propaganda on Press TV’s web pages? Of course. It is a state-run news organization after all. Does it print misinformation and promote conspiracy theories on the Qanon-level of a cadre of U.S. elites running a child slavery ring out of a pizza parlor on Connecticut Avenue? Nothing I’ve ever seen on its pages has come close to being that far removed from the sanity train.

Press TV is the English-language service of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, the Iranian government’s news organization — which includes the Tehran-based internet radio station World Service 4 (which is also being blocked by the U.S. government).

I recently listened to a story on World Service 4 (before it was blocked) in which the Iranian government accused U.S. sanctions of directly causing unnecessary COVID-19 deaths among Iranian civilians. I don’t necessarily agree with that statement, but why would the U.S. government prevent me from hearing or reading that? Because I might believe it? That is what a government does when it is insecure about its own honesty. That is the same frame of mind behind the Iranian government suppressing Western ideas about women’s rights or press freedom. They do it because they are insecure.

It should be beneath our country to do such a thing — particularly against such a minor threat to the U.S. as Iran.

They all do propaganda — the trick is knowing how to separate the facts from the b.s.

On our own home front, we must dispense with the grammar-school-level belief that U.S. news organizations are objective and bound solely by the “truth” when crafting their daily headlines and newscasts. Most American journalists serve their economic interests as well as their social and economic class. The “truth” comes somewhere after that.

I.F. Stone famously wrote that “all governments lie.” The same can be said for all news organizations. They don’t do it all the time — not even most of the time — but when they do, they will bamboozle you like a cheating lover.

In a country where Facebook and Google appear to be suppressing news stories and social media conversations related to the generic drug Ivermectin, an antiparasitic drug with known antiviral uses and which has shown enough promise as a COVID-19 treatment to warrant the recent start of large-scale clinical studies on its effectiveness, it is myopic to suggest U.S. news and social media organizations don’t peddle in propaganda too. Sometimes propaganda is not in what is said or written, but in what is not said or written.

So, in the end, I would rather take my chances with my own capacities and limitations. Which is to say: I don’t need the U.S. government protecting me from Iranian or anyone else’s propaganda. Over 40 years of digesting content from the U.S. news media has made me a bit of an expert in picking out fact from nonsense.

  • K.R.K.

Send comments to: kroeger98@yahoo.com

The news media too often serve up elite opinion instead of reality

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com, June 25, 2021)

Rebels from the militant Islamist sect Ansar Dine in Mali (Photo by Anne Look, Voice of America; This media is in the public domain in the U.S. because it solely consists of material created and provided by VOA)

In his classic 1984 Duke Law Journal essay, The Marketplace of Ideas: A Legitimizing Myth, Law Professor Stanley Ingber described the news and information landscape within the U.S. in ways easily applied to today:

“In our complex society, affected by both sophisticated communication technology and unequal allocations of resources and skills, the marketplace’s inevitable bias supports entrenched power structures or ideologies. Most reform proposals do little to help the marketplace reach its theoretical potential. Instead, such suggestions perpetuate the marketplace’s status quo bias or result in unacceptable levels of governmental interference and regulation.” (p. 85–86)

But Ingber’s view of our information ecosystem doesn’t require a conspiracy among economic and political elites to explain its biased effects:

“…the New Left presumed that this effect resulted from a conspiracy of established groups. Their view of the system as a construct of devious, manipulating elites seems overly simplistic. The elites need not consciously create and impose a system in order to benefit from it. The bias or skew toward established groups and dominant value perspectives instead may be unavoidable in a high-technology society in which resources and skills are distributed unequally.” (p. 85)

To Ingber, inequities in what facts, ideas and opinions most prominently make it into the information bloodstream stem from systemic inequities, not the coordinated actions of a small cadre of elites — which is why he dismisses popular freedom of speech reforms, such as The Fairness Doctrine and federal election campaign laws, that he said “easily could decay into formal systems of governmental censorship or popular indoctrination.”

“If we intend to design a social and political system open to the development of diverse perspectives and values, we must first understand how an idea initially outside the community agenda of alternatives becomes accepted within it.” (p. 86)

While Ingber rejects leftist assumptions that the system is the product of “devious, manipulating elites,” he may have been equally naive in believing powerful interests don’t have a demonstrable, independent impact on existing imbalances on what information gets promulgated within the mainstream news media. Nonetheless, Ingber’s analysis from 40 years ago remains brutally relevant to today.

Ingber argued some legitimate perspectives, outside mainstream thought, are denied access to a sizable audience because of structural barriers within the system.

In rare instances, such as when ecological realities profoundly change — like in the Great Depression or the Vietnam War — do novel perspectives become integrated into the mainstream discourse, according to Ingber. “There is little doubt that a change in the ecological setting necessarily creates new interests and needs which in turn alter perspectives,” he wrote.

So we must wait until the next great economic recession or counterproductive U.S. military intervention to see substantive changes in status quo thinking? Ingber offers another path:

“In addition to ecological change, new perspectives and values may be nurtured in a society that encourages, or at least permits, the development of new interests and experiences. Consequently, the status quo bias of the marketplace can probably be neutralized only by protecting a greater liberty of action — allowing people to choose among lifestyles offering differing roles and relationships — rather than merely supporting the freedom of speech.”

Homogeneous sourcing: A case study using a New York Times story on ISIS in Africa.

At the heart of the Ingber argument is that a diversity of perspectives is critical to minimizing the ‘status quo bias’ of the marketplace of ideas: An informed, free-thinking society, empowered by experiential diversity, is capable of navigating contradictory ideas (including falsehoods) when given the necessary information needed to weigh them against one another.

Ingber’s 1984 essay came to my mind recently as I waded through hundreds of news articles about the alleged growing strength of jihadists on the African continent — articles like the following:

ISIS attacks surge in Africa even as Trump boasts of a ‘100-percent’ defeated caliphate (Washington Post, October 18, 2020)

Is Africa overtaking the Middle East as the new jihadist battleground? (BBC, December 3, 2020)

In bid to boost its profile, ISIS turns to Africa’s militants (New York Times, April 7, 2021)

With few exceptions, these articles and many others like them rely heavily on official government sources and U.S./European-centric think tank analysts, who, by training and financial support, back a common thesis: Islamic extremists are turning to Africa to continue and expand their war against Western institutions and influence.

Keep in mind, we are talking about a continent with over 1.2 billion people (of whom 44 percent are Muslim), and more racial/ethnic/genetic diversity than any other continent on the planet. Almost any hypothesis regarding Islam can find anecdotal support somewhere within its vast geography.

On one hand, Islamic jihadists are on the rise (Ansar Dine in Mali) ; and, on the other, Islam and democracy are not antithetical (Tunisia).

Africa and Islam are too complex to summarize in pithy headlines.

And, yet, that is exactly what our most prestigious news organizations do every day, and they do so while generally depending on a relatively narrow range of sources and perspectives.

As anecdotal evidence, we have the April 7th New York Times article, by Christina Goldbaum and Eric Schmitt, which included these sources:

(1) The Soufan Group — a New York-based security consulting firm founded by an ex-FBI interrogator— Ali Soufan — and highly regarded within the U.S. national security establishment,

(2) Africa Center for Strategic Studies — a U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) research institute,

(3) Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS — a U.S. State Department-organized coalition of 80 nations opposed to ISIS,

(4) ExTrac — a private, data-driven intelligence service (based in the U.S.) which combines “real-time attack and communications data with artificial intelligence (AI) to provide actionable insights for counterterrorism and Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) policymakers and practitioners,”

(5) The International Crisis Group — a non-profit, non-governmental organization used by policymakers and academics “working to prevent wars and shape policies that will build a more peaceful world,” though described by journalist Tom Hazeldine as a group that “consistently championed NATO’s wars to fulsome transatlantic praise,”

(6) Mozambican Research Institute (Observatory of Rural Areas) — a Mozambican non-governmental organization that aims to contribute to the sustainable development of Mozambique’s rural regions,

(7) “Experts and officials in the U.S. and Europe,”

(8) “American and United Nations counterterrorism officials.”

These aren’t necessarily disreputable or dishonest sources for knowledge about Islamic State (IS)-related militant activities in Africa, but they are demonstrably linked to the U.S.-European security and foreign policy establishment — with the exception of the Mozambican Research Institute, which was one of the few sources in the Times article saying Islamic State jihadists are not well-liked among rural Mozambicans.

Most of the Times’ sources represent a bounded range of viewpoints on the strength of Islamic militants in Mozambique and the continent overall. To the Times’ credit, alternative viewpoints were elicited in their story — the problem is that it took until the 30th paragraph in a 36-paragraph story to hear them:

“People in Cabo Delgado (Mozambique) have come to realize this group is not a solution, it’s destroying the local economy and it’s become very, very violent with the population,” said João Feijó, a researcher at the Mozambican Observatory of Rural Areas. “Nowadays the group is pretty isolated.”

That represents status quo journalism in a nutshell: Rely almost entirely on establishment sources and declare the story balanced because an alternative opinion was cited somewhere near the end of the story.

It is not a conspiracy — it is merely the result of journalists taking the path of least resistance by emphasizing expediency and ‘what is publishable’ over healthy intellectual curiosity.

What should international affairs journalists be doing instead? My answer would be something told to me in my first journalism class by the late Hanno Hardt, Professor Emeritus in the University of Iowa’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication:

Seek as many points of view as necessary to tell the whole story.

The Times story on the Islamic State in Mozambique or the other ‘rise of IS in Africa’ articles, all offer one dominant perspective — that of the U.S.-European defense and security community.

However, scratch the surface of this narrative — Islamic extremism is rising in Africa and the U.S. and Europe must somehow intervene — and the story becomes more complicated and less open to easy solutions.

We can start by looking at overall trends…

A little data sheds a lot of light on African violence

Figure 1 shows the number of disorder events occurring in Africa since 1997, according to The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a widely used real-time data and analysis source on political violence and protest around the world.

The topline finding is that violence is on the rise in Africa and it is happening in more than Muslim-majority or near-majority countries — it is happening throughout the continent.

Figure 1: Disorder events in African countries since 1997

Data source: ACLED

Not as easily discernible in the above time-series graph, however, is what may be causing this surge in violence.

Here are some initial thoughts…

There is academic research and strong anecdotal evidence that the aftermath of the Libyan and Syrian civil wars played a significant role in the timing and spread of this violence in Africa.

One of the first and largest year-to-year increases in African violence (i.e., disorder events) occurred from 2010 to 2011, which coincides with a series of key events in north Africa and the Middle East: (1)The Arab Spring, beginning with protests in Tunisia on December 18, 2010 in Sidi Bouzid, (2) the practical end of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, (3) the start and end of the First Libyan Civil War, and (4) the start of the (still on-going) Syrian Civil War.

The significant year-to-year rise in African violence continues until it tapers off in 2015 and remains relatively constant through 2017, when it starts to dramatically increase again in 2018 — the year after Bashar al-Assad’s government forces in Syria, with the help of Russia and Iran, finally gained the upper hand against the Islamic State (ISIS) and other jihadist forces, leading to a reduction in violence across most of the country, and prompting some jihadists to leave Syria to go home or join other conflicts (e.g., Afghanistan).

Through the first five months of 2021, five African countries — Nigeria, Dem. Rep. of Congo (DRC), Algeria, Somalia, and South Africa — account for nearly half (46%) of all disruptive events on the continent, according to ACLED, of which two are predominately Christian countries (DRC and South Africa).

It does not minimize the present threat of Islamic extremists in Africa (which is real) to acknowledge that a significant amount of the current violence is not related to Islam. And where Islamic extremism is the issue, it is fair to recognize that Western powers played a crucial role in events leading up to Islamic extremism’s rise in Africa.

The Arab Spring in Africa’s Maghreb and the First Libyan Civil War

A common conclusion among Western analysts about rising African violence is that it is partially a byproduct of ISIS’ defeat in Syria, 2011’s Arab Spring, and the return home of foreign fighters from Libya’s First Civil War.

Let us start with the first point…

To what extent did ISIS fighters in Syria end up in Africa? An exact number is impossible to determine — and there was reporting suggesting it was smaller than anticipated — but there were notable Islamic extremist attacks in northern Africa in 2018 and 2019, including a December 26, 2018 bombing of Libya’s foreign ministry, and a January 17, 2019 raid in northeastern Nigeria. And, more recently, an horrific jihadist attack killing 130 people in Burkina Faso further highlights the presence of jihadist ideology in northern Africa.

The ACLED data on African violence in Figure 1 is also illuminating on how the 2011 Arab Spring, along withthe end of the First Libyan Civil War in that same year, may have impacted subsequent violence in Africa’s Sahel region.

According to the ACLED data, in 2011, the Arab Spring saw the number of disorder events increase exponentially in Muslim-majority countries of Algeria (+187%), Libya (+13,220%), Morocco (+1,300%), and Tunisia (+1,964%).

However, the real story may be how violence spread into Africa’s Sahel after the fall of Col. Muammar al-Gaddafi’s Libyan regime in October 2011, when foreign fighters, who had been supporting Gaddafi’s government forces, joined other militant movements or returned to their home countries, well-armed, relatively well-trained and unemployed.

In 2012, of the 12 nations making up the Sahel, nine saw a significant increase in disorder events: Central African Repubic (+90%), Chad (+33%), Ethiopia (+94%), Mali (+923%), Mauritania (+143%), (Nigeria (+161%), Senegal (+83%), South Sudan (+291%), and Sudan (+120%). The three Sahel countries that didn’t see significant rises in violence in 2012 (Burkina Faso, Eritrea, and Niger) did experience increases in 2011 (Burkina Faso and Eritrea) or in 2013 (Niger).

But while most of the Sahel violence has occurred in Muslim-majority countries and many of the rebel groups involved, such as Mali’s militant Islamist sect Ansar Dine, are ideologically linked to al-Qaeda or ISIS, it would be a mistake to assume this rise in violence is only rooted in an Islam versus the Secular World paradigm. In fact, among the 19 African countries with the largest Christian majorities (70 percent+) and Muslims representing less than 20 percent of the population, 13 witnessed significant increases in disorder events in 2011 and 2012 (Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, eSwatini, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe).

Along with Islamic State and al-Qaeda aligned militant groups, Africa has a significant number of non-Islamic rebel movements: the Lord’s Resistance Army in Sudan and South Sudan, The Cabinda State Liberation Front (FLEC) in Angola, the Coalition of Patriots for Change in the Central African Republic, and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA) in Mali, to name just a few. The NMLA is particularly interesting in that its manpower and firepower increased substantially after the fall of Gaddafi’s Libya and the return to Mali of ethnic Taureg’s who had fought in that conflict.

Violence is rising throughout Africa. That is a fact. As to its sources, any causal model depending solely on the proximate role of Islamic jihadists fails to consider other important factors. Furthermore, it is somewhat laughable to presume there is a “model” that can reliably explain violence (disruptive events) for an entire continent of 1.2 billion people.

Nonetheless, the exercise in trying to build such a model is worthwhile, even if a bit futile in the end.

Possible factors in the rise of violence in Africa

ISIS and other Islamic extremist groups: ISIS is no doubt part of Africa’s violent mix, particularly in northern Africa. But is this marginally cohesive organization really the threat to stability on the African continent, an extraordinarily big place with more linguistic, religious and genetic diversity than any other continent in the world? Considering Sunni jihadist groups have, in the past, been highly dependent on financial support from countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, is it perhaps short-sighted to focus on a symptom (such as the Islamic State) rather than a root cause (the Saudi funding and promotion of Sunni Wahhabism)?

U.S. and European interventions: It is also defensible to recognize the role U.S.-European interference in creating African instability. Academics and analysts have documented the contribution of Libya’s post-Gaddafi instability to the weaponizing of rebel groups in northern Africa and subsequent rises in violence. Once one of the wealthiest African nations prior to NATO’s coordinated military effort to destabilize Gaddafi’s government, the Libyan economy was shattered after his fall (see Figure 2 below where the top line tracks Libya’s GDP per capita since 1999), which had a direct impact on Libya’s poorer neighbors whose economies partially depended on monetary influxes from Libya.

Figure 2: GDP per capita for Libya and selected north African countries over time

Source: World Bank

In addition, French military operations in Mali since 2013 (such as Operation Serval and Operation Barkhane) have not stopped Islamic jihadists from gaining control of much of northern Mali and a growing resistance from the Mali populace to the French military presence in general.

Any argument supporting U.S.-European interventions in Africa must contend with the reality that such interventions have a checkered record in terms of bringing stability — and that is probably too generous an assessment.

Falling oil prices and economic stagnation: The first 15 years of the 21st-century witnessed an historic economic boom in sub-Saharan Africa, with GDP per capita rising over 42 percent (see Figure 3). At the same time, a relative surge in oil prices also contributed to economic prosperity in oil-producing countries like Libya and Nigeria (see Figure 4).

Figure 3: GDP per capita in Sub-Saharan Africa since 1960

Source: World Bank

Figure 4: Oil rents (as a % of GDP) since 1970

Oil rents are the difference between the value of crude oil production at regional prices and total costs of production. Accounting for the contribution of natural resources to economic output is important in building an analytical framework for sustainable development. (Source: World Bank)

Unfortunately, the African economies stagnated after 2011, in part due to falling commodity prices and, more generally, the weakened world economy that followed the 2008 world financial crisis.

Quantitative research on political violence and insurgencies has consistently found economic deprivation plays a significant role in the ability of militant groups to recruit soldiers and popularize their movement within a population, particularly when in the midst of local and regional economic inequities and weak political institutions.

In their influential research paper, Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War, Stanford political scientists James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin, who analyzed 161 countries between 1945 and 1999, concluded that:

The factors that explain which countries have been at risk for civil war are not their ethnic or religious characteristics but rather the conditions that favor insurgency. These include poverty-which marks financially and bureaucratically weak states and also favors rebel recruitment-political instability, rough terrain, and large populations.

More recent cross-national research, focused on Sub-Saharan African countries between 1986 and 2004, concluded that the onset of civil conflict is more likely in regions with (1) low-levels of education, (2) strong relative economic deprivation, (3) strong intraregional inequalities, and (4) the combined presence of natural resources and relative deprivation.

Even 2013 research on Boko Haram, a Nigerian Islamist group, by the quasi-governmental U.S. Institute of Peace concluded that: “Poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, and weak family structures make or contribute to making young men vulnerable to radicalization. Itinerant preachers capitalize on the situation by preaching an extreme version of religious teachings and conveying a narrative of the government as weak and corrupt. Armed groups such as Boko Haram can then recruit and train youth for activities ranging from errand running to suicide bombings.”

Striking throughout the quantitative literature on civil wars and regional insurgencies is the lack of significance among ethnic and religious variables in explaining the outbreak of violence.

Contrary to the security establishment sources in the Times article who argue that U.S.-European military support is essential to stemming the rise of militant Islam in Africa, a broader, more objective canvass of sources would have found as many experts arguing the most effective approach to ending the violence would be for increased investments in education, infrastructure, poverty alleviation and good governance initiatives by African governments.

Both arguments can be true, of course. But one would never know that such a contrast in solutions existed if all one had was the New York Times to rely on.

Final Thoughts

In previous posts I’ve lamented the many blind spots that seem to define mainstream journalism today. More disturbing (to me) is the propensity of the national news media to uncritically repeat the opinions of the U.S. national security industry.

If you want to understand why elite media organizations like the New York Times or Washington Post can get so many stories wrong, just look at the sources they continuously canvass for quotes (not to mention their documented willingness to use other journalists as “independent” sources).

How is it possible that the most prestigious, best paid journalists in the U.S. get so many stories utterly wrong?

Nowhere is this problem more apparent than news coverage of international affairs when news organizations incestuously recirculate the same quotes from the monolithic U.S.-European think tank brigade — an insular cadre of career policy analysts and former defense and intelligence officials from places like the Council on Foreign Relations, Human Rights Watch, The Brookings Institute, American Enterprise Institute, Center for American Progress and the Center for Strategic and International Studies — or when they lazily depend on anonymous “intelligence sources” and nameless government officials.

The last place to go for an objective analysis of African defense and security issues are these aforementioned sources. Yet, that is the source of most all mainstream reporting on the topic.

  • K.R.K.

Send comments to: kroeger98@yahoo.com

Africa’s Sahel nations still paying price for Obama’s Libya policy

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; June 3, 2021)

“We have not yet finished our mission. But we do not foresee staying indefinitely. Once the sovereignty of Mali is restored, once MISMA (a UN-backed African military force) can replace our own troops, we will withdraw,” the French President told a news conference in Bamako, Mali.

Those were the words of French President François Hollande in February 2013, days after a French-led military offensive had driven Islamist rebels out of the country’s north, except for the city of Kidal.

Eight years later — French troops remain in Mali.

And in that time since President Hollande’s optimistic appraisal of the situation, Mali has weathered two coup d’états — the last occurring a little over a week ago when the Mali military, without resistance from the French military in Mali, detained the country’s president, prime minister, and defense minister. Though widely condemned in formal communiques by the European Union (EU), U.S., African Union and U.N., the likely result of this latest coup is that Mali (with the help of the French) will remain in a constant state of war.

It isn’t just Mali experiencing political instability. Since the 2011 NATO-backed revolt that brought down Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorship in Libya, six of Africa’s 10 Sahel countries have seen at least one coup or attempted coup (Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan and Eritrea).

“The Sahel is on fire,” journalist Bostjan Videmsek wrote in 2016as he covered an emerging Mali refugee crisis.

But it is not just Africa’s Sahel countries that are in turmoil. Since 2011, 30 coups or attempted coups (hereafter, what I call ‘coup events’) have occurred in 17 countries across the African continent.

In fact, in the post-World War II period, coup events are on the increase in Africa, in contrast to the rest of the world (see Figure 1). Today, on average, Africa witnesses around three coup events per year; whereas, the rest of the world will have about two. Indeed, even if we remove the outlier year of 2013 from the equation, Africa has seen an increasing trend of coup events since 1946.

Figure 1: Trends in Coup/Coup Attempts since 1946

Data source: Wikipedia (supplemented by my own research which is available upon request)

What is going on in Africa that might explain this troubling trend?

We can rule out one of the standard explanations of African political instability in the 1970s and 80s: government debt.

As seen in Figures 2 and 3, the African countries with significant coup events in the past 10 years exist across the entire indebtedness spectrum. While the most indebted country — Sudan, at over 250 percent of GDP — has also been one of the most politically volatile, some of the least indebted countries have likewise seen significant coup events in this period: Burundi, Comoros, Benin, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Chad, and the Central African Republic.

Figure 2: Gov’t Debt to GDP Ratio (%) for African countries (2019/2020)

Source: TradingEconomics.com; Red bars indicate countries with a coup/attempted coup in the last 10 years

Figure 3: Change in Gov’t Debt to GDP Ratio (%) for African countries

Source: TradingEconomics.com; Red bars indicate countries with a coup/attempted coup in the last 10 years

Extreme debt financing burdens to foreign creditors can stunt economic growth and compel governments to divert money from critical social services, leading to increased social instability. But that does not seem to be the major driving force today — at least not the debt part of the equation.

Instead, in the past decade, oil-exporting African countries have endured declining petroleum prices — which have been in a general decline since a $139 peak (for West Texas Intermediate crude) in 2008 — while sub-Saharan African countries have seen their spectacular GDP-per-capita growth of the 2000s start to stagnate (see Figure 4).

Figure 4: GDP per capita growth in Sub-Saharan Africa since 1960

Source: World Bank

In his 1970 book, Why Men Rebel, political scientist Ted Gurr introduced the concept of relative deprivation, which he defined as the discrepancy between what people think they deserve, and what they actually think they can get.

“The potential for collective violence varies strongly with the intensity and scope of relative deprivation among members of a collectivity,” wrote Gurr.

Though Gurr’s thesis since has been significantly modified — with a society’s capacity for political violence being one major addition to the model — it still offers useful insights.

It is well-known that Africa is resource rich (see Figure 5). The African continent accounts for 20 percent of the world’s land mass, 17 percent of its population, and 3 percent of the its GDP — but contains 30 percent of the world’s remaining mineral resources.

While it is inaccurate to assume Africa’s resource wealth is the only reason for the continent’s strong economic growth in the 2000s, it was a major factor in China’s strategic decision to invest heavily there in the past 20 years (see Figure 6).

Figure 5: Mapping Africa’s Natural Resources

Graph by Al Jazeera

Figure 6: U.S. and Chinese Foreign Direct Investment to Africa since 2003

Graph by China-Africa Research Initiative (Johns Hopkins University — SAIS)

Yet, as of late, China’s investment in Africa has waned, which has played a role in Africa’s dampening economic growth.

Taken together, stagnate growth amidst rising expectations caused by the 2000s economic boom period cannot be discounted when explaining Africa’s current political instability.

But such a conclusion neglects the elephant in the room — the negative impact of NATO’s and the Barack Obama administration’s destabilizing of northern Africa — says policy analyst Robert Morris, author of Avoiding The British Empire: What it Was, and How the US can Do Better.

How NATO and the U.S. mucked up Libya (and Syria)

“The destruction of Libya was key to the refugee flows that destabilized the European Union in 2014, and led to the loss of one of its richest countries (United Kingdom) with Brexit in 2016,” contends Morris. “The effects Of Gaddafi’s killing on the Sahel were both immediate, and long lasting. The financial network that had come to underpin the prosperity of much of North Africa disappeared. Gaddafi’s African soldiers dispersed back to their countries and took their weapons with them. Mali was the first to fall.”

It should be reminded also how many of the weapons from the 2011 Libyan revolt found their way to Syria and its civil war. Over 400,000 Syrians have died in Syria’s ongoing civil war and the U.S. remains entrenched in the country’s northeastern sector, presumably to protect Syrian Kurds, but as we know from Trump’s irrepressible candor, the purpose is largely to control much of Syria’s vital oil and gas reserves and thereby control Assad’s ability to rebuild his war-torn nation.

In the final analysis, the West’s weaponizing of the Libyan civil war had a direct and indirect relationship to coup events in Africa’s Sahel, the Syrian civil war, and the refugee crisis in Europe.

Those results alone establish how bad Obama’s Libya policies were during the Arab Spring of 2011.

As unstable as Gaddafi may have been, Libya under his leadership was becoming an economic powerhouse by African standards. Up to 2011, oil money from Libya was spreading throughout Africa.

And then came the Arab Spring of 2011 and, more importantly, the West’s interference in its progress.

“NATO scooped out North Africa’s economic heart and set it on fire,” argues Morris. “After Libya’s destruction, every economy in the Sahel came to a screeching halt.” Before 2011, Libya’s GDP per capita exceeded European Union countries such as Romania and Bulgaria, notes Morris. Today, Libya struggles to reestablish political stability so that it can, once again, become one of Africa’s most prosperous countries.

The “Iraqification” of Africa by Biden and the EU

In the midst of political instability in the Sahel, the European Union (EU) has recently dedicated €8 billion Euros to its European Defense Fund (EDF) that will fund new military weapons and technologies for militaries within the EU and launched the European Peace Facility (EPF) that will authorize the EU for the first time to supply military weapons — along with equipment and training — to non-European military forces around the world.

A reasonable assumption is that significant amounts of these EU-funded weapons will go to military operations in northern Africa, such as in Mali.

The U.S. military, of course, already has a significant presence throughout Africa, including 29 bases and installations (see Figure 7). Ten years ago, that list would have had around 10 bases and installations.

Figure 7: U.S. military bases and operations within Africa (as of 2019)

Source: The Intercept

For the most part, Trump neglected African issues, and by the end of his term was pulling U.S. forces out of countries like Somalia — to the vocal consternation of the Washington, D.C. neoliberal and neoconservative establishment.

Trump’s troop withdrawals are a direct threat to African stability, moaned more than a few media elites and foreign policy analysts, who conveniently ignored the fact that today’s growing instability in Africa correlates to the increased engagement of the U.S. military on the continent. When the U.S. military stood up USAFRICOM at the end of the George W. Bush presidency, one of its first operations under Operation Enduring Freedom (“The Global War on Terror”) was a joint effort by the U.S. and NATO to “stabilize” the Saharan and Sahel regions of Africa at the start of the Libyan civil war in 2011 (U.S. military activities in the Sahel also fall under Operation Juniper Shield).

Instead of stabilizing the region, the U.S. and NATO further weaponized it. There are currently about 40 million guns and light weapons circulating among civilians in Africa, according to one UN report (https://www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine/december-2019-march-2020/silencing-guns-africa-2020). Government entities hold around 11 million guns and light arms, according to that same report.

Since the start of his presidential candidacy, Joe Biden has hinted at a more active U.S. role throughout the world (not just Africa), and if the past is prologue, this will mean deeper U.S. military engagements.

Evidence of his intent came in April when the Biden administration tapped Jeffrey Feltman, a former senior U.S. and United Nations diplomat known for his advocacy of robust U.S. interventionism, to be the U.S. special envoy to the Horn of Africa — an area where Islamist groups remain a palpable threat to regional stability and where growing tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan threaten to further add volatility to the region.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken highlighted the latter issue when announcing Feltman’s appointment: “Of particular concern are the volatile situation in Ethiopia, including the conflict in Tigray; escalating tension between Ethiopia and Sudan; and the dispute around the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.”

Where Trump made few promises to African leaders and they responded by not asking for many, Biden has invited the opposite dynamic.

The Biden administration hadn’t moved in yet when former Somali Prime Minister Abdi Yusuf openly pleaded to the Biden administration to recommit to “protecting Somalia” from al-Shabab and other Islamist groups.

Feltman’s appointment and other policy signals from the Biden administration, such as recent State Department allegations of human rights abuses in Ethiopia and designating insurgent groups in Mozambique and the Republic of the Congo as terrorist organizations, shows the U.S. wants once again to be the world’s school hall monitor, or in less snarky terms, “an international voice of conscience.” Consonant with the State Department’s declaration on Mozambique-based terrorist groups, the U.S. military is now actively training Mozambique security forces.

But before assuming only altruistic motives by the U.S., the French oil and gas company Total (TOTF.PA) recently announced it will restart construction of its $20 billion liquefied natural gas project in Mozambique given the improved security situation, having withdrawn its workforce from northern Mozambique in January because of security concerns. Total’s demand for a 25 kilometer secure buffer zone around their project site has been accepted by the Mozambique government, in part due to U.S. security assistance.

These U.S. (and French) policy moves in Mozambique have led some Africa watchers to warn of the “Iraqification” of Africa. In other words, the U.S. is creating an expanding, self-justifying military presence with open-ended mission goals tracked by fuzzy performance metrics.

Africa policy observer Jasmine Opperman says of U.S. and French current policies in Mozambique: “The worst…would be an intervention, direct or not, of the great powers.”

Yet, that is exactly what the Biden and Macron governments are in the process of doing.

There are still reasons for optimism in Africa

But despite the Biden administration’s predictable ramping up of U.S. involvement in Africa’s most intractable military conflicts, many foreign policy analysts, like Morris, remain optimistic for Libya and other African countries.

For starters, after years in which rival groups in Libya asserted their legitimacy as the country’s rightful government, the parliament approved a national unity government on March 10, headed by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dabaiba. The transfer of power was peaceful. Something that can never be taken for granted.

Due to Libya’s oil wealth, when it is stable, it is central to all of the Sahel economies, including Tunisia, which still has a functioning (though fragile) democracy. Prior to the Libyan civil war, money sent home from migrant work in Libya was a big part the economy of all Sahel countries. That source of stability may soon return.

“Libya’s population is rich and educated enough, that it’s easy to imagine Tunisia’s experiment spreading there if stability can be preserved,” asserts Morris. “Algeria and Morocco are both relatively rich, fairly well organized places that are very ready for a new system. With a stable Libya, Tunisia could lead a North African block into democracy. This stability wouldn’t just shut down refugee flows, it would provide a new platform for cooperation and economic development, which would, in turn, lead to stability and prosperity for the whole of the Sahel.”

“The Sahel can be a resource for the world’s diplomats and business people again, instead of just a profit center for the French and U.S. militaries,” says Morris. “This isn’t just possible, it’s the most likely result if Libya manages to stabilize.”

Now if only the U.S. and France don’t find a way to screw up this progress.

  • K.R.K.

Send comments to: nuqum@protonmail.com

Neocons may have tipped the balance in the 2020 presidential election

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com, May 25, 2021)

he Electoral College Results for the 2020 Presidential Election

Unknown at the time, President Donald Trump’s prospects for re-election may have ended on June 20, 2019, when he unilaterally decided — against the wishes of his hawkish foreign policy and military advisors — to abort a planned retaliatory strike against Iran.

Revealing a side of Trump few in the news media acknowledged or believed to exist, the president cited his fear that Iranian civilians would be among the victims of an American airstrike against the Iranian military installations suspected to have been used a day earlier to shoot down a U.S. surveillance drone.

Trump told his stunned advisors, some already monitoring the military operation, that the contrast between the loss of one unmanned drone to the potential loss of dozens of Iranian civilians would be a public relations victory for Tehran, whereas the U.S. military gain would be minimal. Some mocked his scrubbing of the Iran attack as proof that the president was getting his foreign policy advice directly from Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, a persistent critic of the expected U.S. attack on Iran in the days leading up to Trump’s June 20th decision.

Never mind that Trump’s neocon-friendly Middle East policies —such as the exit from the Iran Nuclear Deal and the re-imposition of severe economic sanctions,— were the proximal causes of the June 2019 tensions between the U.S. and Iran, when the moment came to pull the trigger, the president (to his credit) stepped back.

Most prominent members of the GOP’s neocon-wing muted their public criticisms of Trump’s decision, including Liz Cheney (R-WY), who told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt: “The failure to respond to this kind of direct provocation that we’ve seen now from the Iranians, in particular over the last several weeks, could in fact be a very serious mistake.”

Privately, the failure of Trump to attack Iran was seen by some neocons as further evidence the president was a non-interventionist at heart, some even suggesting, when it comes to using military force, he’s more like Obama than George W. Bush. “There is fear in him (Trump),” scolded New York Times columnist Bret Stephens.

It was bad enough neocons had to bite their collective tongues every time Trump mentioned the need for a U.S. military withdrawal from their pet projects in Syria and Afghanistan. Along with refusing to attack the Iranians over a drone, Trump soon followed up that decision with the suggestion that he was open to new negotiations with the Iranians over their nuclear program. A backbreaking-no-no in neocon world.

If neocons are consistent on anything, it is their religious-like devotion to the belief that diplomacy doesn’t work with America’s foes.

On that point, September 2019 saw the last straw for Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton, who was often more of an advocate for his own policy ideas than a steward for Trump’s. The breaking point for Bolton? A planned (though eventually cancelled) meeting with the Taliban at Camp David. Not only would such talks be “doomed to fail,” according to Bolton, they would be disrespectful to the families of 9/11 victims.

Trump would fire Bolton that same September (or Bolton resigned, depending on who you ask), and barely a week after his exit, Bolton was launching sharp, thinly-veiled attacks on his former boss at a private luncheon at the Gatestone Institute in New York City. The think tank, created in 2008 by Sears Roebuck heiress Nina Rosenwald, focuses on rolling back political Islam and the “Islamization” of non-Muslim societies, and provided the perfect platform for Bolton (who is now on Gatestone’s payroll) to signal to his neocon kinsfolk this one important message: Trump is not one of us and cannot be trusted.

Reinforcing that critique, Trump himself responded to Bolton’s criticisms by reminding everyone that he was not, in fact, a neocon interventionist:

“I was critical of John Bolton for getting us involved with a lot of other people in the Middle East. We’ve spent $7.5 trillion in the Middle East and you ought to ask a lot of people about that. John was not able to work with anybody, and a lot of people disagreed with his ideas. A lot of people were very critical that I brought him on in the first place because of the fact that he was so in favor of going into the Middle East, and he got stuck in quicksand and we became policemen for the Middle East. It’s ridiculous.”

Trump would nonetheless make significant attempts after the Bolton firing to regain support among his neocon constituents.

However, even the impulsive (and arguably counterproductive) assassination of Iran’s top general, Qasem Soleimani, on January 3, 2020, was not enough to allay concern among neocons about Trump’s trustworthiness to stand by his previous neocon policies (i.e., an attempted coup in Venezuela, ongoing support for a Saudi-UAE regime change war in Yemen, the marginalization of Palestinians interests in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the ratcheting up of Cold War-like rhetoric against China, etc.).

Where the Bolton Revolt offered evidence that neocon intellectuals were bailing on Trump, perhaps more distressing to the Trump re-election effort were early signals from the GOP’s billionaire donor class that their financial support for Trump 2020 was not to be taken for granted — a group that included Rebekah Mercer, a billionaire heiress who has a history of supporting neocon organizations including Gatestone.

Whether he knew it or not, Trump may have sealed his electoral fate when he cancelled the Iran airstrikes on June 20, 2019.

What is a neoconservative, really?

As with so many of the terms and labels commonly thrown around in the political news media, the term neocon (short for neoconservative) is not as well-defined as one might think.

Political historians generally trace the term back to the 1960s and a group of prominent Democrats — such as Washington Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson — who were alarmed by their party’s growing pacifism during the Vietnam War. In that period, neocons were politically liberal (i.e., generally support civil liberties and social justice) but much more interventionist and open to the use of military force when it comes to foreign policy.

In the 1970s, however, the term neocon came to represent post-Vietnam Republicans who wanted to move past the debacle of the Nixon presidency (particularly the culture war issues) and return the party’s focus towards promoting a robust U.S. military and muscular foreign policy.

Over time the neocon label has been increasingly applied to politicians from either party (i.e., Hillary Clinton, Dick Cheney) and is generally attached to politicians and foreign policy leaders who believe military force is often a viable option when dealing with our country’s adversaries; and, in some cases, may be the only constructive option.

Neocons are commonly distinguished from foreign policy realists in that the latter typically advocate for the use of military force only when U.S. interests are directly attacked or an important strategic interest is at stake (i.e., fascist control of Europe, threats to world oil supplies); whereas, neocons are more comfortable with the U.S. military being the ‘free world’s police force’ and do not necessarily require a direct threat to U.S. strategic interests (i.e., Syria, Yemen, 2003 Iraq War). Indeed, neocons often justify the use of military force simply to promote regime change within authoritarian nations we don’t like.

These are broad definitions and, as such, can lose their empirical value when they are distilled down to one or two attitudes and encompass a large swath of the American public. Nonetheless, how Americans answered this simple question heading into the 2020 presidential election — How willing should the U.S be to use military force to solve international problems? — may have had a significant relationship to the election outcome.

Are there enough neocon-aligned Americans to change a presidential election outcome?

How many eligible voters in the U.S. are potentially attracted to neocon policy preferences? Are there enough to sway a presidential election? The short answer is: YES.

The 2020 American National Election Study (ANES) conducted by The University of Michigan and Stanford University before and after the 2020 election offers some insight on this question (see Appendix A for a description of this study and Appendix B for a list of key questions from the 2020 ANES). Figure 1 breaks out the number of ANES 2020 respondents according to their “willingness to use force to solve international problems” and the strength of their party identification.

Figure 1: Willingness to Use Force by Party Identification (ANES 2020)

About 15 percent of U.S. eligible voters are “extremely” or “very” willing to use military force to solve international problems (4.7% + 10.6%). That is 36.6 million eligible voters — who I presume are the Americans most open to neocon policy ideas.

Among those 15 percent, 58 percent are strong partisans — which translates to almost 9 percent of the 239 million Americans eligible to vote in 2020 (or about 21.2 million people).

Of those 21.2 million people, 8.7 million are “strong” Democrats and 12.5 million are “strong” Republicans, according to the 2020 ANES.

[Note: 81.3 million people voted for Biden and 74.2 million people voted for Trump in 2020 — a difference of 7.1 million votes.]

Since strong partisans are far more likely to vote than weak partisans, getting these potential voters to the polls is a high priority for any presidential campaign.

But was Trump able to keep the vast majority of strong, neocon-aligned Republicans in 2020?

The start of that answer is in Figure 2 which shows a strong relationship between strength of party identification (in this case, ‘Strong’ Republicans versus ‘Weak’ Republicans, Democrats and Independents), attitudes regarding ‘use of force to solve international problems,’ and 2020 presidential vote choice.

Figure 2: Presidential Vote Choice in 2020 by ‘Willingness to Use Force’ and Strength of Party ID

Data source: ANES 2020 (Data weighted; 7,453 post-election survey respondents)

Seventy-nine percent of ‘strong’ Republicans voted for Trump, while only 3 percent of those voters defected to Democratic candidate Joe Biden. Another 17 percent did not vote and one percent voted for a third party candidate. Conversely, 79 percent of ‘strong’ Democrats voted for Biden, while a mere 2 percent voted for Trump (data not shown in Figure 2). Nineteen percent of ‘strong’ Democrats did not vote and one percent voted for a third party candidate.

The striking finding in Figure 2, however, is the drop off in Trump’s support among ‘strong’ Republicans who are ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ willing to use force to solve international problems (henceforth, referred to as Republican neocons). Only 59 percent of Republican neocons voted for Trump, compared to 81 percent of other ‘strong’ Republicans.

This is an astonishing decline in support among what should be loyal Republican partisans. In numbers, this means 883,000 Republican neocons abandoned their party’s incumbent president in the 2020 general election.

Is that enough to change the outcome an election in which Biden beat Trump by 7.1 million votes and 74 electoral votes?

If we add those 883,000 “lost” Trump votes across the states (plus D.C.) in proportion to each state’s vote eligible population (and assume all of them were originally non-voters and, therefore, we do not subtract them from Biden’s state vote totals), Trump would win two states he had originally lost: Arizona and Georgia — which, together, are worth 27 electoral votes.

[The spreadsheet where I conducted this analysis is available on GitHub.]

Trump would have still lost the election by 20 electoral votes had the Republican neocons voted as loyally for Trump as other “strong” Republicans.

For Trump to win, he would still need to close a 45,000 vote gap in Pennsylvania and a 4,600 vote gap in Wisconsin.

But what if there are there other Republican neocon voters we did not consider in the previous analysis? What if someone is ‘moderately’ willing to use force to solve international problems? Could they not also be considered a neocon-aligned voter?

The following statistical analysis attempts to answer that question…

A Vote Model of the 2020 Presidential Election

Using the post-election respondents from the ANES 2020 (a weighted total of 7,453 eligible voters), I estimated a multinomial logistic model for the 2020 presidential vote using a 3-level vote indicator (Trump, Biden, Non-voter/Third party voter) as the dependent variable.

The statistically significant independent variables in the model included:

  • Index of Partisan Policy Preferences (see Appendix C for a list of standardized survey items used to construct the index)
  • Demographics: Household Income, Age, Sex, Education, Race/Ethnicity
  • Party Identification and Strength of Party Identification
  • Ideological Self-Placement (Liberal — Moderate — Conservative)
  • Approval/Disapproval of President Trump’s Handling of COVID-19
  • Perception of Changes in Income Gap
  • Perceived Likelihood of Russian Interference in 2020 Election
  • Perception that Government is Run by a Few Big Interests
  • Willingness to Use Force to Solve International Problems

For the purposes of this essay, I will concentrate on the findings related to a respondent’s willingness to use force to solve international problems — which I consider an indicator of a respondent’s openness to neocon policy ideas.

[The full model estimates and diagnostics are in Appendix D and the dataset used to generate these results are available on GitHub.]

Results

Overall, a respondent’s willingness to use force was a significant predictor of a Trump vote in 2020 (Chi-square = 9.5, p < .002). More specifically, the more willing a respondent said they were to use force to solve international problems, the less likely they were to vote for Trump (see Appendix B for the variable’s coding scheme).

After controlling for a number of important factors commonly associated with a person’s vote choice (e.g., age, education, income, party ID, policy preferences), attitudes on Use of Force was still significant in the margins. But enough to alter the 2020 election outcome?

To estimate the electoral impact of attitudes on Use of Force, I first identified those respondents where the model predicted a Trump voter when, in fact, the respondent voted for Biden. Next, I further filtered down to those respondents who answered “extremely,” “very,” or “moderately” willing to use force to solve international problems — in other words, neocons who we would have expected to vote for Trump, but voted for Biden instead.

In the ANES 2020, they are represented by a scant 45 respondents (or 0.6 percent of the total sample). But that translates to 1.43 million voters in the 2020 election.

Similar to the first analysis, I added those 1.43 million “lost” Trump votes across the states (plus D.C.) in proportion to each state’s vote eligible population (but this time also subtracting them from Biden’s state vote totals). After doing this, the adjusted state-level vote totals end up flipping not just Arizona and Georgia (as in the first analysis), but also Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Those 57 electoral votes would have given Trump 289 electoral votes to Biden’s 249.

If Trump had kept the Republican neocons in his camp, he would have won the 2020 election.

[The details behind this second analysis can also be found on GitHub.]

Final Thoughts

Obviously, this is all very speculative. For example, there are other attitudinal variables (expectations of Russian interference, perceived changes in income inequality, Trump’s handling of COVID-19) that were significant predictors of the 2020 vote choice and could have impacted the election outcome.

I just as easily could have shown evidence that disapproval of Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic impacted enough votes to give Biden the victory.

Or expectations of Russian election interference. Or the growing income gap. Or the belief that Washington, D.C. is controlled by a few big money interests.

All were significant factors in the 2020 presidential election, in isolation or considered together.

If anything, this analysis reminds us that the 2020 election was closer than we may remember. Four states. That was the difference.

Trump still could have won, even with an unprecedented level of media hostility and a worldwide pandemic erupting on his watch.

And, so, it does not seem laughable or implausible that the 2020 outcome was changed by a relatively large, motivated group of neocon Republicans — an identifiable faction openly upset about a number of Trump foreign policy decisions (or threatened decisions).

I believe they did.

  • K.R.K.

Send comments to: nuqum@protonmail.com

APPENDIX A: The American National Election Study (2020)

The American National Election Study 2020

Data collection for the ANES 2020 Time Series Study pre-election interviews began in August 2020 and continued until Election Day, Tuesday (November 3). Post-election interviews began soon after the election and continued through the end of December. This field period began earlier than the traditional ANES field period, which typically starts the day after Labor Day and concludes the day before Election Day.

The ANES 2020 Time Series Study features a fresh cross-sectional sample, with respondents randomly assigned to one of three sequential mode groups: web only, mixed web (i.e., web and phone), and mixed video (i.e., video, web, and phone). The study also features re-interviews with 2016 ANES respondents (conducted by web), and post-election surveys with respondents from the General Social Survey (GSS).

Figure A.1: Summary of ANES 2020 Survey Methodology

Source: ANES 2020 Time Series Study Preliminary Release: March 24, 2021 version. www.electionstudies.org

APPENDIX B: Survey Items Best for Defining Respondent Policy Preferences (Principal Component Analysis)

APPENDIX B: Coding of Key Questions from 2020 ANES

APPENDIX C: Survey Items Best for Defining Respondent Policy Preferences (Principal Component Analysis)

APPENDIX D: Detailed Output for Multinomial Logistic Model for the Presidential Vote in 2020