In the wake of a virus that killed millions, these Senate witnesses say it’s time to start treating pandemic research as a national security issue.
Three scientists who testified at the first Senate hearing on gain-of-function research on Wednesday said that stronger oversight is needed to make sure research that’s supposed to prevent pandemics isn’t causing them.
The hearing, held by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Spending Oversight and led by ranking member Rand Paul of Kentucky, was agreed to by both parties, but only Republican members chose to participate.
Richard Ebright, laboratory director at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology and hearing witness, said gain-of-function research involves changing pathogens to make them more dangerous. “Gain-of-function research of concern is defined as research activities reasonably anticipated to increase a potential pandemic pathogen’s transmissibility, pathogenicity, ability to overcome immune response, or ability to overcome a vaccine or drug,” Ebright said.
This research has multiple risks, Ebright added, and limited benefits. It results in new health threats because it creates “new potential pandemic pathogens.” He said that “if the new potential pandemic pathogen is released into humans, either accidentally or deliberately, this can cause a pandemic.”
Another risk, according to Ebright, is that once this gain-of-function research is published, people can use it to construct pandemic pathogens from synthetic DNA for well under $10,000. “Publication of the research provides instructions — step-by-step recipes — that can enable a rogue nation, organization, or individual to construct a new pathogen and cause a pandemic,” Ebright said.
Kevin Esvelt, another witness who is a biologist and director of the Sculpting Evolution group at MIT Media Lab, said this is a risk whether scientists are creating potential pandemic viruses through gain-of-function experiments or simply researching naturally occurring ones. He estimated that once the genome of a potential pandemic virus is published, there are 30,000 people with doctorates in the United States alone who would be able to create the virus in a lab.
Trying to identify potential pandemic virus is supposed to help prevent natural pandemics, Esvelt added, but he calculated the research is likely to kill a hundred times as many people as it saves because the likelihood of the research being used maliciously far outweighs the likelihood of it helping prevent a pandemic.
“In the hope of preventing natural pandemics,” Esvalt said, agencies including the National Institutes of Health “seek to identify viruses that could kill as many people as a nuclear weapon, to alert the entire world to what they find, and to publicly share[e] the complete genome sequences of those viruses so that skilled scientists everywhere will be able to make infectious samples.”
Esvelt said that “in the wake of a pandemic that has killed more people than could any thermonuclear explosion,” we need to start addressing pandemics in terms of national security. “We are so used to thinking of pandemics as a health and safety issue that we’ve missed the national security implications of identifying viruses that could be deliberately unleashed to kill millions of people.”
Steven Quay, the CEO of Atossa Therapeutics, said the SARS2 virus that causes Covid-19 “has features consistent with synthetic biology gain-of-function research.” He added that “two features involve acceptable academic gain-of-function research” while one region of the virus “has features of forbidden gain of function research: asymptomatic transmission and immune system evasion.” According to Quay, the permissible gain-of-function features were aspects of research that the United States and Wuhan Institute of Virology had proposed in 2018, while the forbidden features were aspects of research that was already going on at the lab.
Paul said he hopes the scientists’ suggestions can be incorporated into a bipartisan bill for better oversight of research that could lead to pandemics. “I don’t think the people doing the research are able to adequately and objectively regulate themselves,” Paul said. “And I think having a million people die, there should be bipartisan curiosity in this, that we should be able to move forward.”
In response to a question from The Federalist, Paul said that if the GOP wins the Senate and he becomes chairman of the committee, he’ll pursue investigations to hold people accountable for funding this research.
Pre-pandemic trends offer clues of how this might play out across state capitals.
Public schools are facing massive enrollment declines, with at least 19 states losing 3% or more of their students compared to pre-pandemic levels. New York’s 5.9% plunge is the biggest, and California isn’t too far behind at 4.4%. Because K-12 education funding is tied to student counts in most states, this trend will have major policy implications.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, public education spending was at record levels, averaging $15,656 per pupil in the 2018-19 school year and exceeding $20,000 per pupil in states such as New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. Education funding plummeted during the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009, but most states had replenished or exceeded their previous inflation-adjusted K-12 spending highs by 2019, thanks to strong economic growth and policymakers’ eagerness to boost funding as state budgets recovered.
At the onset of COVID-19, state lawmakers and school district leaders feared the years of balanced budgets were over, but, thankfully, most dire economic forecasts never materialized. In fact, stronger-than-expected state tax revenue plus $190 billion in federal K-12 relief have left many school districts with more dollars than they can spend. Per-pupil spending growth in states such as New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Texas surpassed 7% in 2020-21 even though the bulk of the federal relief funds remain unspent.
This influx of cash, combined with states’ hold-harmless policies that base school funding on prior year enrollment counts, have largely protected districts’ bottom lines in the face of declining enrollment. For instance, Houston Independent School District lost 12,759 students in 2020-21 — 6.1% of its enrollment — but its total revenue increased by 1.7%, while per-pupil spending jumped by $1,032. It was a similar story for Dallas Independent School District, which lost 5.64% of its students but still got $1,002 more per pupil.
But once federal relief funding expires in 2024, school districts will have to rely on state funding to plug budget holes caused by student losses and sustain long-term commitments made with the one-time funding, such as new hires and salary increases. The billion-dollar question is to what extent state policymakers will continue their hold-harmless policies once federal funding dries up.
Pre-pandemic trends offer clues of how this might play out across state capitals.
Between 2016 and 2019, 30 states had enrollment losses, and eight of them — New Hampshire, Illinois, Mississippi, Vermont, Louisiana, West Virginia, Connecticut, and Massachusetts — saw substantial declines of 2% or more. Of these states, only three (Mississippi, Louisiana, and West Virginia) saw inflation-adjusted cuts in total education revenue, and all increased real per-pupil funding. Notably, Illinois’ enrollment fell by 3.9%, yet its total education budget increased by 8.4% with a $2,158 spike in per-pupil revenue.
Clearly, aggregate education spending doesn’t track neatly with enrollment declines. But revenue is only half of the school finance equation, and the fiscal fate of districts will also depend on how dollars are allocated through state formulas and related policies. Generally, districts lose state funding when enrollment declines, with prominent examples in the last decade including Los Angeles, Detroit, and Baltimore. But pandemic policies have muddied this relationship.
For instance, in the past two years, Texas policymakers have overridden their student-based funding system with various hold-harmless policies that use outdated student counts to fund school districts. Illinois has also already committed to using pre-COVID enrollment counts for funding calculations through at least 2024. Despite having a relatively strong student-centered education funding formula that allocates dollars to schools based on real student needs, policymakers in California are now considering ways to weaken the link between funding and enrollment changes.
But these hold-harmless policies are expensive to maintain and divert resources away from students in districts with steady or increasing enrollment. After all, every dollar spent protecting districts from the fiscal effects of declining enrollment is a dollar not spent supporting students in the schools they attend. If states removed hold-harmless policies, these funds could be spread fairly among all schools, based on the actual number of students they are serving.
While it will be a painful process, states need to acknowledge that school districts losing students should not get more funds to teach fewer kids.
Districts that spend their one-time funding irresponsibly could face an unprecedented fiscal cliff when the money runs out and won’t be able to avoid layoffs, school closures, and other cuts. Rather than wait and see, school districts should get their fiscal houses in order now, while they have flexibility in their budgets.
As the rest of the world reeled from the COVID pandemic in 2020, it looked like China had things under control. Americans and Europeans sheltered in place, while the Chinese enjoyed pool parties and weddings. The World Health Organization concluded in a February 2020 report: “China’s bold approach to contain the rapid spread of this new respiratory pathogen has changed the course of a rapidly escalating and deadly epidemic. This decline in COVID-19 cases across China is real.”
Turns out, China’s “bold approach” wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. For weeks now, the country’s Communist leaders have imposed lockdowns on some of its largest cities to grapple with a spike in hospitalizations. China’s COVID vaccines are far less effective than those developed and produced in America and Europe. Despite state censorship, cell phone videos of average citizens yelling at the authorities have gone viral (so to speak). People don’t have enough to eat. They are imprisoned in their own apartments. Meanwhile, even the bluest cities in America are lifting mask mandates.
None of this should surprise anyone. On the one hand, China invests a great deal in trying to convince the rest of the world that it should be feared, and its leader, Xi Jinping, has accumulated increasing power.
But the regime has also blundered. Xi this year signed a sweeping pact with Vladimir Putin on the eve of Russia’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine. And China is gaining little from picking a fight with India in the Himalayan Mountains.
What Xi and his apparats do not understand is that every time they bully a neighbor or con an international organization, they are making a strong argument to weaker states that it is better to align with America than to accept Chinese hegemony. When the rest of the world sees that Beijing cannot control a virus that likely originated from one of the regime’s biological laboratories, that case gains strength.
None of this is to say that America should not prepare to confront China in the coming years. The Chinese have surpassed us in hypersonic weapons technology. China’s military buildup is real. But just as the world is now learning through Russia’s blunders in Ukraine just how incompetent and corrupt the Russian Army is, we should not assume a military untested in battle will be as menacing as Chinese propaganda would have us believe.
Totalitarian regimes look fearsome right until they crumble. Xi’s is unlikely to be any different.
In a pandemic, you can send people all the money in the world and they still won’t go out to dinner or book a flight, especially if those services are suspended by government fiat. A pandemic is like a blizzard: If people get a lot of money when the snow is falling, they will fuel inflation once it has been cleared.
Inflation continues to surge. From its inflection point in February 2021 to last month, the US consumer price index has grown 6% – an 8% annualized rate.
The underlying cause is no mystery. Starting in March 2020, the US government created about $3 trillion of new bank reserves (an equivalent to cash) and sent checks to people and businesses. The Treasury then borrowed another $2 trillion or so and sent even more checks. The total stimulus comes to about 25% of GDP, and to around 30% of the original federal debt. While much of the money went to help people and businesses severely hurt by the pandemic, much of it was also sent regardless of need, intended as stimulus (or “accommodation”) to stoke demand. The goal was to induce people to spend, and that is what they are now doing.
Milton Friedman once said that if you want inflation, you can just drop money from helicopters. That is basically what the US government has done. But this US inflation is ultimately fiscal, not monetary. People do not have an excess of money relative to bonds; rather, people have extra savings and extra apparent wealth to spend. Had the government borrowed the entire $5 trillion to write the same checks, we likely would have the same inflation.
Other purported factors – including “supply shocks,” “bottlenecks,” “demand shifts,” and corporate “greed” – are not relevant to the overall price level. The ports would not be clogged if people were not trying to buy lots of goods. If people wanted more TVs and fewer restaurant meals, the price of TVs would go up and the price of restaurant meals would go down. Greed did not suddenly break out last year.
By contrast, inflation, when all prices and wages rise together, comes from the balance of overall supply and demand. The economy’s capacity to produce goods and services turns out to be lower than expected. Here, the labor shortage – the “Great Resignation” – is a key underlying fact. Employers can’t find people to work because many people remain on the sidelines, not even looking for jobs.
The US Federal Reserve was completely surprised by the surge of inflation, and through most of the year insisted it would be “transitory,” and go away on its own. That turned out to be a major institutional failure. Is it not the Fed’s main job to understand the economy’s supply capacity and fill – but not overfill – the cup of demand?
One might expect that among the thousands of economists the Fed employs, there is a group working on figuring out ports’ capacity, the effects of microchip shortages, how many people have retired or are not returning to work, and so forth. One would be disappointed. Central banks have sketchy ideas of supply, mostly centered on statistical trends in labor markets.
Why did this fiscal stimulus produce inflation when previous stimulus efforts from 2008 to 2020 fizzled? There are several obvious possibilities. First, this stimulus was much bigger. Former US Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence H. Summers correctly prophesied inflation in May 2021 by simply looking at the immense size of the spending packages, relative to any reasonable estimate of the GDP shortfall.
Second, officials misunderstood the COVID recession. GDP and employment did not fall because there was a lack of “demand.” In a pandemic, you can send people all the money in the world and they still won’t go out to dinner or book a flight, especially if those services are suspended by government fiat. To the economy, a pandemic is like a blizzard. If you send people a lot of money when the snow is falling, you do not get activity in the snowdrifts, but you will get inflation once the snow has cleared.
Third, unlike in previous crises, the government created money and sent checks directly to businesses and households, rather than borrowing, spending, and waiting for the effect to spread to incomes.
Will inflation continue? Fundamentally, inflation breaks out when people do not think the government will repay all its debts by eventually running fiscal surpluses. People then try to get rid of the debt and buy things instead, which drives up prices and lowers the real value of debt to what people believe the government will repay. Given that prices have risen 6%, people evidently believe that of the 30% debt expansion, the government will not repay at least 6%. If people believe that less of the debt expansion will be repaid, then the price level will continue to rise, as much as 30%. But inflation will eventually stop: A one-time fiscal helicopter drop leads to a one-time rise in the price level.2
So, whether inflation will continue depends on future fiscal and monetary policy. Fiscal policy is the big question: Now that we have crossed the Rubicon of people believing that a fiscal expansion will not be fully repaid, will people think the same about additional persistent deficits? The danger here is obvious.1
If fiscal inflation does erupt, containing it will be difficult. If monetary policymakers try to curtail inflation by raising interest rates, they will run into fiscal headwinds as well as a political buzz saw. First, with the debt-to-GDP ratio above 100%, if the Fed raises interest rates five percentage points, interest costs on the debt will rise by $1 trillion – 5% of GDP. Those interest costs must be paid, or inflation will just get worse. Similarly, if the European Central Bank raises interest rates, it increases Italy’s debt costs, threatening a new crisis and imperiling the ECB’s vast portfolio of sovereign bonds.Sign up for our weekly newsletter, PS on Sunday
Second, once inflation works its way to higher bond yields, stemming inflation requires higher fiscal surpluses to repay bondholders in more valuable dollars. Otherwise, inflation does not fall.
Monetary policy alone cannot contain a bout of fiscal inflation. Nor can temporary “austerity,” especially sharply higher marginal tax rates that undercut long-run growth and therefore long-run tax revenues. The only lasting solution is to get the governments’ fiscal house in order.
Finally, supply-oriented policy is needed to meet demand without driving up prices, to reduce the need for social spending, and, indirectly, to boost tax revenues without a larger tax base. Given supply constraints from regulations, labor laws, and disincentives created by social programs, potential solutions here should be obvious.
The 10-page plan, which Vanity Fair has obtained, would enable the U.S. to finally do what many other countries had already done: Put rapid at-home COVID-19 testing into the hands of average citizens, allowing them to screen themselves in real time and thereby help reduce transmission. The plan called for an estimated 732 million tests per month, a number that would require a major ramp-up of manufacturing capacity. It also recommended, right on the first page, a nationwide “Testing Surge to Prevent Holiday COVID Surge.”
The antigen tests at the center of the plan can detect the virus when patients are at their most contagious.
Three days after the meeting, on October 25, the COVID-19 testing experts—who hailed from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Rockefeller Foundation, the COVID Collaborative, and several other organizations—received a back channel communication from a White House official. Their big, bold idea for free home tests for all Americans to avoid a holiday surge, they were told, was dead. That day, the administration instead announced an initiative to move rapid home tests more swiftly through the FDA’s regulatory approval process.
The rapid-test push, in particular, seems to have bumped up against the peculiar challenges of fighting COVID-19 in the 21st-century United States. Difficulties include a regulatory gauntlet intent on vetting devices for exquisite sensitivity, rather than public-health utility; a medical fiefdom in which doctors tend to view patient test results as theirs alone to convey; and a policy suspicion, however inchoate, that too many rapid tests might somehow signal to wary Americans that they could test their way through the pandemic and skip vaccinations altogether. “It’s undeniable that [the administration] took a vaccine-only approach,” said Dr. Michael Mina, a vocal advocate for rapid testing who attended the October White House meeting. The U.S. government “didn’t support the notion of testing as a proper mitigation tool.”
President Biden, before departing on Marine Force One, Monday:
Q President Biden, why did your administration reject the holiday testing surge in October? Does the buck stop with you there — rejecting the surge?
THE PRESIDENT: We didn’t reject it.
We’re left with the same feeling after President Biden insisted no military adviser recommended to him to keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, after U.S. Central Command General Frank McKenzie and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley told Congress under oath they had recommended that action. Or Biden’s claim that he himself had predicted that the Afghan government would collapse by the end of the year. Or Biden’s claim that his late son Beau served in the U.S. Navy in landlocked Afghanistan, or his claim to have been opposed to the war in Afghanistan from the beginning. Or the number of times Biden stated that vaccinated individuals cannot spread Covid-19, or that “you’re not going to get COVID if you have these vaccinations.”
Sure, maybe Biden is just lying when he says his administration didn’t reject a holiday testing surge. But what if the president genuinely doesn’t remember what he’s been told in briefings, conversations, and decisions?
Or in the case of the rejection of the massive expansion of testing, was this decision made without Joe Biden’s involvement?
Twitter blue checks across the Northeast are utterly divorced from the reality of pandemic life in the rest of the country.
Omicron is here, and with it comes death and destruction — unless, that is, you cancel Christmas, hide in your homes, get all the boosters, double mask, and demand to see negative Covid tests and proof of vaccination for anyone who darkens your doorstep. Any precautions, no matter how seemingly outlandish, are seen as justifiable to protect yourself from this new and terrifying variant.
So it is, anyway, with a disturbingly large number of reporters and commentators in the corporate press, whose coverage and individual responses to Covid have become increasingly divorced from that of the rest of America. To watch CNN or read The New York Times, you’d think omicron was the most deadly strain of the virus to date, poised to overwhelm hospitals and leave a trail of death behind it.
The reality, which most Americans have readily grasped, is just the opposite: omicron appears to be the least dangerous strain of the virus yet. After five weeks of omicron’s spread in South Africa, where the variant first appeared, the news is encouraging: mild to nonexistent symptoms, hospitalization rates nine times lower than previous surges, and extremely low rates of severe illness and death even though only about a quarter of the population is vaccinated. Here in the United States, only one person has died from the omicron variant thus far, even though omicron cases accounted for nearly three-quarters of new infections nationwide last week.
Rather than return to lockdowns and school closures — to say nothing of canceling holiday gatherings — there’s every reason to believe we’ll be able to weather this surge with minimal disruption.
Unless you’re a member of legacy media. In that case, you’re probably going to cancel your own birthday party like The Atlantic’s Ed Yong did, even though all his birthday guests were vaccinated and boosted, and probably would have been tested before showing up at his house. But no, it was just too great a risk.
Yong, you see, covers science. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Covid. He’s written too many stories about the pandemic to be dissuaded by mere data about omicron. For him, isolation, masking indoors, and eating outside are normal and necessary, and really what everyone should be doing.
He’s not alone. Former GOP communications director and CNN contributor Tara Setmayer blurted out on Twitter last week that she hadn’t been on a plane or gone to a movie since March 2020, and has only eaten indoors twice this entire time, even though her family is vaccinated and boosted.
This isn’t a healthy or sane response to the pandemic, especially not after nearly two years of Covid. Judging by how busy airports and movie theaters and restaurants are across the country, it’s also not normal. It’s borderline psychotic. Only people who have convinced themselves that the worst thing that could happen to them is get Covid would go to these absurd lengths.
Yet that’s exactly what many Twitter blue checks have done. CNN’s Chris Cillizza confessed on Twitter last week that the omicron surge has really hit him hard because it made him realize, for the first time, that “the vaccines don’t, really, prevent you from getting the virus,” and that they “can never do what I had hoped: Ensure no one I loved will become infected.”
Imagine being so impervious to reality — to say nothing of science and data, or even just stories about Covid in the news — that you’d still think, in December 2021, that the Covid vaccines could prevent all your loved ones from getting infected. I know we all joke about how bad Cillizza’s takes are, but come on.
It would be one thing if this insanity were confined to the Acela corridor, but it’s not. Thanks to the hysterics of our media elite, a certain segment of the American people have lost their minds over Covid and essentially become some version of the mask-sealed-with-surgical-tape, “Shitton of Xanax” lady.
Now, where would this poor woman get the idea that all this is necessary to protect her from the omicron variant? Maybe she read Washington Post health reporter Dan Diamond’s latest column, in which he warns his readers not to expect a mild case of Covid from the omicron variant, to “brace yourself” for a positive test even if you’re vaccinated, to “expect hospitals to be pushed to their limits,” and to “upgrade your mask and think twice about taking risks.”
Understand that none of this advice has much to do with the science or data we have so far on omicron. Indeed, the South African doctor who first reported the omicron variant wrote earlier this month that she was “astonished by the extraordinary worldwide reaction” to the new strain of Covid, which she says is “out of all proportion to the risks posed by this variant.”
That reaction is being pushed by a small cohort of elite journalists and talking heads who live in large cities in the northeast, and whose entire approach to Covid and the pandemic are way out of step with the rest of the country. What’s more, their fear-driven approach hasn’t yielded better outcomes. Places that have imposed draconian lockdowns and school closures have fared no better (and sometimes worse) than places that have remained mostly open.
It’s time — long past time — to stop listening to these people.
It is hard to believe that Spring 2020 was almost two years ago. The empty grocery store shelves and panic buying of toilet paper, hand sanitizer and canned foods feels like both a lifetime ago and also just yesterday. Many actions of that season have had reverberating effects – namely, the panic buying and unparalleled demand for those products.
Hand sanitizer, something that we were told we needed to stay safe and healthy, flew off the shelves faster than major manufacturers could produce it. This led the Trump administration to relax certain regulations and issue emergency guidance to allow producers to ramp up production and help meet the record demand. This was a reasonable approach at the time, as we had severe shortages of hand sanitizer and many stores had none to sell; however, it also led to lax practices in refilling, distributing and labeling hand sanitizers, and even dangerous and harmful products ending up in the hands of Americans. Now that we are almost on the other side of the pandemic, and businesses have their doors back open, the FDA needs to issue guidance on bulk distribution of hand sanitizer, to protect American citizens who are still relying on hand sanitizer for some measure of safety. 0:00 / 48:556 seconds…
Just this month, hand sanitizer manufacturer ArtNaturals had to recall hand sanitizer due to high amounts of “benzene, acetaldehyde and acetal contaminants,” and these are products that are being used on college campuses and in businesses.
Terrifyingly, benzene is linked to blood cancers, including leukemia, and is considered a high-risk carcinogen, and it is being given to Americans, unbeknownst to them. Many businesses purchased hand sanitizer in bulk — in gallon jugs — and then used it to refill existing branded hand sanitizer dispensers. The branded hand sanitizer was effective and safe, but in many instances the bulk sanitizer used to refill the branded dispensers was neither safe, nor effective.
The businesses who did this were not guilty of bad intent. But the effect was nonetheless harmful to the public, as they thought they were protecting themselves and reducing risk to themselves and others when, in fact, they were doing nothing to combat the virus, and even making themselves more at risk for other, more dangerous diseases like cancer.
As Americans are back out in the world and our economy begins to ramp back up, both students and consumers need to know that the hand sanitizer they are using at businesses they visit is effective and won’t put them at risk for other diseases. Ads by
Hopefully, we are overcoming the pandemic, and the crisis will soon be in our past. But hand sanitizer isn’t merely useful in combatting COVID-19. The common cold and the flu can be combatted with effective hand hygiene that includes reliable hand sanitizer. The flu season is coming and having access to safe and effective hand sanitizer is important, even if the risk of COVID-19 is decreasing.
Studies have shown that to effectively kill germs and viruses, the alcohol content needs to be at least 60 percent. Generally, more is better. Some have said that it shouldn’t be less than 70 percent. But there can be no doubt or disagreement that hand sanitizer should not contain known carcinogens at such high levels that their use is actually harmful and exposes people to an increased risk of cancer.
So, the FDA was correct to withdraw the emergency guidance and return to the previous and well-established standards, but the FDA now also must make sure that schools, retailers, restaurants, healthcare facilities, and other frontline businesses are providing safe and effective products, that includes advising against the practice of topping off refillable dispensers with dangerous, mislabeled and ineffective products.
Current science suggests that COVID-19, like the flu, will not be completely eradicated. Thus, we will have to mitigate their impact and harm. U.S. business owners have been through so much, and they fought to stay open, with the hope that they will have the necessary tools to keep their patrons safe. One effective way is through proper hand hygiene, which clearly includes having access to effective and safe hand sanitizer.
he economic rebound that began as the pandemic-related lockdowns started to end in the states is producing strong results throughout the United States despite the considerable rise in inflation. While higher prices are wiping out the income gains workers made during the pre-COVID boom, the surging stock market helped the amount of money held in private retirement accounts reach some of the highest levels on record.
The number of 401(k) and IRA millionaires have hit all-time records, CNBC’s Jessica Dickler reported Thursday, suggesting good times may still be ahead even though the perception is growing that President Joe Biden and his economic team are mismanaging the economy. In the most recent IPSOS poll, 55 percent of those surveyed said they were “pessimistic” about the direction of the country, an increase of 20 points over late April when the question was last posed. Pessimism, the polling firm said, was rising across all age groups and income levels and was even down among Democrats.
The Biden economic plan includes higher taxes and increased spending despite the recurrence of notable inflation. If it passes, it would likely cause a contraction in an economy that has appeared to be growing again since people started going back to work after many of the nation’s governors – mostly from the so-called “Red States” – stopped the pandemic-induced unemployment emergency bonus payments that more than one prominent economist identified as a significant disincentive for people to get back on the job.
For retirees and investors, meanwhile, the surging stock market and the steady increase in retirement account balances is welcome news considering how badly these holdings fared during the government-imposed lockdowns, losing considerable value in many cases. According to data provided by Fidelity Investments, the nation’s largest manager of 401(k) savings plans, their overall average balance was up 24 percent from a year ago and hit $129,300 at June’s end. Individual retirement account balances were also higher, CNBC said, reaching $134,900, on average in the second quarter, up 21 percent from where they were a year ago.
American workers across the economy are participating in the wealth creation, not just the so-called “ultra-rich.” According to Fidelity, nearly 12 percent of workers increased the contributions they made to their plans over the period while a record 37 percent of employers also automatically enrolled new workers in their 401(k) plans.
This growth in the number of workers joining the investor class is a political problem for Biden and the progressive Democrats who control Congress. The tax, borrow, and spend plan they are trying to pass over an apparently unified Republican opposition includes, for the first time in decades, serious proposals to increase the tax on capital and returns on investment.
This step back towards the economic policies of the 1970s that produced high unemployment and high inflation – something the economic theories dominant in government and academia at the time said was an impossibility – would be a job killer. Yet, even above that, some Democrats are talking up the institution of a “wealth tax” assessed annually on total holdings rather than income as a “pay for” for policies progressives say they wish to enact like tuition-free community college, free pre-K childcare, and the transition of the U.S. to an economy based entirely on renewable energy. With Fidelity reporting the number of its plans “with a balance of $1 million or more” jumping to a record 412,000 in the second quarter of 2021 and the number of IRA millionaires also at an all-time high, the savings amassed in these accounts may prove an irresistible target for the wealth taxers if their proposals begin to gain momentum in Congress.
We have not just lost our minds, but given them up voluntarily.
It was never just a mask, it has always been a way of thinking. “Mask” is just shorthand.
I got dumped from my volunteer work at the Hawaiian Humane Society for choosing not to wear a mask outside while walking their dogs. Neither science, the CDC, nor the state requires a mask outdoors, and I’m fully vaccinated. Some staff bot saw my naked face and informed me of their “policy.” I asked why they had such a nonsensical policy, and her only answer was “it is our policy.” The conversation ended like an ever-growing percentage of conversations in America now end, with her saying, “Do I need to call security?” I didn’t enjoy it, but I think she did.
I was left with no good to do this week, and a simple, real Covid-19 question. Why are fully vaccinated people treated the same as the unvaccinated? Everyone on the plane wears a mask and goes through the same mock social distancing. Everyone at a restaurant, office, concert, etc., does the same. The answer is at the heart of whether public policy in America will shift and allow us to crawl back into our lives.
The biggest reason for treating vaxxed and unvaxxed people the same miserable way is the claim that vaccinated people can still get Covid enough to pass it on. Funny thing is you can actually “get” the measles even after being vaccinated. The vax is actually only 97 percent effective, similar to the Covid ones. But nobody talks about measles or demands we wear a mask to prevent their spread. We simply accept and deal with the risk.
The next question is really, really hard to find an answer to. How many vaccinated people actually get Covid, the so-called “breakthrough” cases?
That exact number is critical because it is the pivot point for the risk vs. gain decision our society needs to make. If we cannot make a wise choice we will be struggling with and fighting over the restrictions on our lives and livelihoods forever. If we assume we’ll never have full vaccination and that breakthrough cases are a non-zero number and likely always will be then we need to make an informed decision about risk. So is it a non-zero number like, duh, “smoking causes cancer,” or a non-zero number like “very few people die from meteor strikes (or from the measles)?”
The current public policy decisions on risk are haphazard. All 50 states have different rules, many large cities, too, and each and every company. There are different rules if you take a bus or want to go dancing. One grocery store demands masks, another does not. It makes no sense. It becomes not a considered decision but an example of lack of public policy leadership. Into that leadership void enters superstition, pseudoscience, politics, voodoo, and most of all, fear.
So what are the chances of a fully vaccinated person getting a breakthrough infection? It turns out this pivotal question is not clearly answerable, but we act as if it is, with consequences for our lives, mental health, education, commerce, and more. Even for our stray dogs.
I started with Google and “What are the chances of getting COVID after being fully vaccinated?” expecting the answer in 0.0039 seconds, like when you ask what year some historical event happened. Nope. AARPsays “less than one percent of fully vaccinated individuals have been hospitalized with, or have died from, COVID.” That’s a small number but does not fully address the question.
Over to NPR, which reports, “On rare occasions, some vaccinated people infected with the delta variant after vaccination may be contagious and spread the virus to others.” What does rare occasions mean? This is supposed to be, you know, science, so we finally get some numbers from the CDC: Out of 159 million fully vaccinated people, the CDC documented 5,914 cases of fully vaccinated people who were hospitalized or died from Covid-19, and 75 percent of them were over age 65. That means only 0.0000037 percent of vaxxed people were hospitalized or died, most of them elderly. That is a very small number. It is a lot less than one percent and a lot less than rare. Chances of dying in a car wreck are many tens of thousands of times higher and yet we drive on.
However, it still does not answer the question of how dangerous the vaxxed but unmasked are in terms of transmitting the virus. No one really knows. Recent scare headlines calling for reinstated restrictions and vax mandates are based on a single outbreak, 469 cases, in one city in Massachusetts, that appears to show (at variance with existing studies) 75 percent of those infected had been vaccinated and oddly, almost all of those people (87 percent) were male. Most of the infected were asymptomatic or experienced mild symptoms. No deaths.
What is believed is the a) Delta variant of Covid makes a b) temporary home inside a vaccinated man’s nose or upper respiratory area, c) outside the immune system. It waits there to be d) blown out and then be e) received by an f) unvaccinated person. So, all these things have to work out for it to matter. It is not simply a chore of toting up how many vaccinated people tested positive and then hitting the panic button. As one doctor put it, “We really need to shift toward a goal of preventing serious disease and disability and medical consequences, and not worry about every virus detected in somebody’s nose.”
Bottom Line 1: We need to stop the obsessive, simplistic, and misleading counting of positive tests and focus on real world consequences.
Requiring everyone wear masks again based on one outbreak may seem as if it can’t hurt, but it does. Organizations waste time and credibility enforcing measures that have limited if any impact (consider how many masks are so old, dirty, improperly worn, etc., to be fully useless.) To simply dismiss the reality of numbers with a blithe “well you can’t be too careful” only works if you imagine Covid restrictions have no secondary or tertiary effects.
Economies have been devastated. Education has disappeared for large numbers of kids. Despair grows menacingly. Suicide attempts by teen girls increased 26 percent during summer 2020 and 50 percent during winter of 2021. We are killing children to save them.
Economic inequality got a booster shot. The power of government has grown alarmingly. The ability to shape how we live, shop, work, and eat has been handed randomly to a near-endless range of actors, from the president to governors empowered with “emergency edicts” to clerks ever-anxious to call security not on shoplifters but on an exposed nose.
Americans’ irrational fears were created by politicians and the media, and have become a profit center. The New York Times for months ran columns saying Trump’s vaccine was another government syphilisexperiment. The vice president refused to take the shot during the campaign. Biden took it, then went right on masking as if it didn’t work.
It was a very successful campaign to propagate uncertainty for a political purpose. It is all their fault vaccine acceptance now varies by political party, where we live, and how much education we have. It’s a form of blowback—the information operation worked too well.
So we won’t concede the reality kids are unlikely to get sick and should go to school. That the vast majority of deaths occur among the elderly with comorbidities, not the general population. That ill-fitting masks and wiping down groceries with Clorox are theater. That the debate has become a political argument instead of an evidence-based one. That everybody agrees the CDC has lost credibility until one side needs it for some partisan purpose. That previously healthcare decisions started with the premise of “first, do no harm,” while today there is no conversation allowed about the balance of benefits and damages. That we simply tally the collateral damage while the virus remains unaffected.
Bottom Line 2: If we are to heal as a society there is only one answer, at some point we must simply ask what works and do that.
But we lack the political leadership to say what’s true, so we’re going back to “let’s just argue about masks and mandates.” Meanwhile the virus continues to find unvaccinated hosts. The economy won’t snap back. Biden is facing a mini civil war over required vaccinations and restarting lockdowns but has no plan. Things will hit the fan in September as Hot Vax Summer sputters, when every school district does something different, and federal unemployment supplements run out.
People have grown weary of being afraid and grown weary of being subject to the paranoid demands of safety fetishists. Many did what they were told to do—get vaxxed—only to find themselves stuck inside the same dysfunctional loop of mask/unmask. We are killing ourselves. Somehow that must be factored into our Covid response.
Bottom Line 3: We can’t resolve the pandemic until we end the panic and the politics. Can Biden do that?
Dr. Anthony Fauci has become increasingly defensive and evasive in answering legitimate questions posed by members of Congress.
This is a problem.
Fauci has no statutory authority to preside over a public health crisis. Nonetheless, he has become the nation’s de facto doctor in chief during the COVID-19 pandemic. He clearly relishes the attention — making an astronomical number of media appearances that promote himself, but not public health. Unfortunately, Fauci has been a horribly ineffective doctor in chief.
Fauci started off the pandemic by telling us that “people should not be walking around with masks.” This initial dismissal of masks was fact-based and rational. But now, Fauci advocates wearing two masks even after vaccination. Where are the reliable scientific studies proving that masks save lives? Or that they are necessary after vaccination?
The idea that those who’ve been vaccinated or have natural immunity should still wear masks for the next year or two on a seasonal basis is one of the most insanely idiotic and anti-science statements made since some worry-warts on Christopher Columbus’s crew expressed concerns that they might sail off the edge of the Earth.
I’d like to hear Fauci explain what he has been doing for the last 50 years to avoid contracting or spreading the deadly smallpox virus or polio. Answer: He’s done nothing because vaccines work.
But Fauci advocates people get vaccinated while also suggesting that it won’t actually help. We still can’t return to normal life, he says. It is little wonder that many question why they should get vaccinated. It is the logical result of Fauci’s anti-science approach!
Here’s the truth — Fauci isn’t a serious doctor or a serious scientist. He’s just a serious government bureaucrat who happens to have a medical degree and often wears a white lab coat.
However, Sen. Rand Paul is a real medical doctor. Even as a senator, he performs eye surgeries for at-need patients around the globe. Paul has asked some very good questions of Fauci. But it is Fauci who sounds like the consummate politician with his bureaucratic two-step of word games and obfuscation. His answers have often been dismissive, combative, and evasive. He defiantly tells Paul he’s wrong but doesn’t bother to explain why. We are simply supposed to take his word for it. That’s not very scientific.
Consider what happened this week when Paul asked Fauci about U.S. government direct and indirect grants (via third party Eco-Health Alliance) to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Since the Wuhan lab may have been where the virus escaped from, taxpayer funding of the lab is an important question. Yet, Fauci flatly denied funding any Chinese “gain-of-function research” — a risky and controversial approach that involves making pathogens more infectious and deadly. But Fauci also admitted he funded “gain-of-function research” in the United States. He also admitted he couldn’t account for how the Chinese used U.S. taxpayer dollars.
If Fauci doesn’t know how the WIV spent U.S. money, he cannot categorically deny that this money was used to fund risky research.
We can draw a lot of conclusions from the way the totalitarian Chinese regime has blocked and interfered with investigations into the origins of this pandemic. That is precisely how the guilty behave. Likewise, Fauci’s answers to Paul give rational people good reason to question his credibility. If Fauci wants to be taken seriously as a doctor and scientist, he should act like a doctor and scientist rather than a politically motivated bureaucrat.
Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, whose poll numbers continue a downward slide over her handling of the COVID crisis, faces new questions after it was learned an outside entity has paid for her use of a private jet owned by influential businessmen to visit her father in Florida during the lockdown.
Whitmer aides have carefully stated repeatedly that no taxpayer dollars were used to pay for the chartered flights, which occurred during a period she was discouraging Michigan residents to stay in their homes because of COVID and while emergency rules kept families from visiting hospitalized loved ones.
“It’s been 62 days since the secret trip. The story from the governor’s office keeps changing,” said GOP Communications Director Ted Goodman. Previously the governor has said she paid for the flight out of her own pocket. Now, her office admits, she only paid for her seat, leaving others to cover the rest of the expense.
No one is yet suggesting Whitmer broke any laws by taking the $28,000 trip which is becoming a continuing political embarrassment. According to several sources, the flights were paid for by a social welfare not-for-profit group – Michigan Transition 2019 – to handle expenses related to her 2019 gubernatorial inauguration. In general, the use of funds by politicians coming from groups designated 501c(4) by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service to cover expenses like non-official travel is generally frowned upon.
Complicating matters more, the Detroit Free Press published Monday a report revealing Air Eagle, LLP – the air travel company operating the plane Whitmer used to visit her father in Florida – is not authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration to offer charter flights. Agency spokesman Elizabeth Isham Cory told the paper companies seeking to operate such flights must have a Part 135 certificate.
“The Gulfstream G280 Whitmer’s office confirmed she flew on ‘is not on a 135 certificate and Air Eagle does not have a Part 135 certificate,’” the Free Press reported, citing an email from Cory.
Whitmer and her staff have repeatedly attempted to tamp the scandal down by asserting extraordinary accommodations must be made to keep her safe because of threats made against her in the last year. “I have received an incredible number of death threats over the last year and a half. There are a lot of reasons we don’t discuss how I travel and when I travel,” the governor previously said.
This is not the first incident to raise questions about Whitmer’s management of state affairs during the pandemic. Michigan First Husband Marc Mallory reportedly tried to have his boat placed in the water before Memorial Day weekend in 2020 in violation of what some called “the most draconian stay-at-home orders in the nation.”
Her apparent fall from grace may not be as precipitous as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s but it is just as self-inflicted. Before last summer’s BLM riots, Whitmer was believed to be atop Joe Biden’s list of potential running mates. Now she finds herself peppered with questions about why she went to Florida unvaccinated despite the number of times she expressed concern that residents there were not taking proper safety precautions and bringing the virus to Michigan. As issues of this sort mount, strategists in both parties are wondering how vulnerable she’ll be when seeking a second term in November 2022.
The number of new COVID infections is declining rapidly, suggesting to some that the novel coronavirus pandemic may be on the verge of ending. Nevertheless, even with the advent vaccines that apparently prevent its transmission from person to person, most Americans believe the protective measures adopted over the last year like mandatory masking will continue for some time.
A recent Rasmussen Reports poll found that nearly three out of every four Americans over the age of 18 expect the requirement that masks be worn outdoors will remain in place for at least another six months. Almost a third – 36 percent – said it would be more than 18 months before it would be acceptable to be barefaced in public once again.
“It’s an indictment of the media that so many people expect mask mandates to persist for months,” said the Committee for Prosperity’s Phil Kerpen who has for months been crunching the numbers related to the pandemic and its spread.
Kerpen and his group produce a free daily hotline that provides short and timely insider updates on what is happening with the economy and the virus. It was one of the first to notice that New York’s Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo seemed to be fudging the numbers connected to COVID-19 in nursing homes, a story most news outlets missed.
With Vice President Kamala Harris and others inside the Biden Administration claiming, falsely, that they’ve had to begin the fight against the coronavirus “from scratch,” the recent acknowledgment by Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the number of new cases and hospitalizations are indeed coming down.
“We continue to see a five-week decline in COVID cases, with cases decreasing 69 percent in the seven-day average since hitting a peak on January 11th. The current seven-day average of approximately 77,000 cases is the lowest recorded since the end of October,” Dr. Walensky said during a White House briefing Friday.
“Like new COVID-19 cases, the number of new hospital admissions continues to drop. The seven-day average of new admissions on February 16th, approximately 7,200, represents a 56 percent decline since the January 9th peak,” the doctor continued.
The problem remains what to do until what many medicos refer to as “herd immunity” is reached. Some, like Biden COVID advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci, have suggested it may be prudent to double up on masks while the CDC’s latest recommendation is “placing a sleeve made of sheer nylon hosiery material around the neck and pulling it up over either a cloth or medical procedure mask.” Others, like Kerpen, suggest the best possible thing would be for states to open up and for people to be allowed to go about their business once again, and for children to be permitted to return to school on a five-day-per-week schedule.
“More governors need to exercise the leadership of Florida’s Ron DeSantis, the Dakota’s Kristi Noem and Doug Burgum, and Kim Reynolds of Iowa and proclaim a return to normal now – now, forever, months in the future,” Kerpen said.
His suggested approach appears to be the wise one. Recent comparisons of the spread of COVID-19 in Florida and California show little difference in how things have turned out. This would seem to deflate the dire predictions Gov. DeSantis’s decision to re-open the economy in the nation’s third most populous state would push the number of infections and death off the charts.
None of that seems to have happened. What is different is that Florida’s been open for business for some time while California’s economy, which for months has been in a lockdown state, is floundering badly. The performance of the two economies, which are about as different at this point as night and day, are worth further study. There may be valuable clues regarding the best ways to fight a pandemic hidden in the data, waiting to be unmasked.