Opportunities Tomorrow (Another Day)

Alan S. Blinder is a professor of economics at Princeton University and a former vice chair of the Federal Reserve who writes columns for various publications including the Wall Street Journal.

Professor Blinder published an article this past week entitled “On Coronavirus Debt, Heed the Wisdom of Scarlett O’Hara.” Scarlett, of course, was the protagonist of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind who famously put off thinking about problems because “tomorrow is another day.” Interestingly, that phrase was the working title for Mitchell’s book, but was changed by the publisher.

One hopes that Blinder will not be excoriated too much for invoking the wisdom of Scarlett O’Hara, since GWTW has become a pariah for the pecksniffian crowd because of its perceived denigration of Blacks during the Civil War and Reconstruction era. The novel has, along with Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, and many other classics have been cast into the left’s new Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

Procrastination, invoked by Scarlett, is often regarded as a vice. But as Blinder points out, situations often should be allowed to evolve before taking pro-action. Many, like fruit, should be allowed to ripen. The possibility of an unsustainable national debt and inflation, the professor argues, is to be dealt with later. Because of the urgent problems we’re dealing with today, the spending and expansion of the money supply are badly needed and there will be plenty of time “tomorrow” to deal with those prospects.

Actually, like most of the literature that stands the test of time, GWTW has a lot of insight or wisdom. Much of that is spoken by Mitchell’s character Rhett Butler, who as the story goes, Scarlett discovers too late he is her soul-mate. Practical to the point of cynicism, Butler makes these observations.

• No matter what noble purposes the orators assign to wars, there is never but one reason for a war. And that is money. All wars are in reality money squabbles.

• Opportunists are generally held in bad repute, especially by those who had the same opportunities and failed to take them.

• Remember when you get arrested: Influence is everything, guilt or innocence merely an academic question.

• There is as much money to be made out of the wreckage of a civilization as in the upbuilding of one.

• Money generally can buy most anything, and when it can’t, it can buy some of the most remarkable substitutes,

Applying the last to our present Covid-19 crisis might risk overstating the situation, but there will be opportunities abound for creative entrepreneurs. There are already new businesses starting.

I’ve got the brains you’ve got the looks
Let’s make lots of money
You’ve got the brawn I’ve got the brains
Let’s make lots of money
I’ve had enough of scheming and messing around with jerks
my car is parked outside I’m afraid it doesn’t work
I’m looking for a partner someone who gets things fixed
Ask yourself this question do you want to be rich.
I’ve got the brains you’ve got the looks
Let’s make lots of money
You’ve got the brawn I’ve got the brains
Let’s make lots of money

Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)
Pet Shop Boys song (1985)

Few Have the Ability

The imbroglio surrounding the prosecution of former General Michael Flynn, also President Trump’s national security adviser for a short time, brings to mind a number of past experiences.

It is universal knowledge in this country that the Constitution provides that “[n]o person…shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself” in the Fifth Amendment — in shorthand, we all have the right to remain silent.

Few, however, have the ability.

This fact of human nature is emphasized in criminal investigation as well in the prosecution and defense of those accused of crime. Confessions and statements by defendants are used against them all the time. The key word in the Fifth Amendment clause is “compelled.” A voluntary statement by an accused person may be, and often is, used against him. The contours and limits of what conduct amounts to compulsion is the subject of much case law. It is clear, however, that being under arrest (the status of which has its own marginal ambiguities) is ipso facto compulsion.

Any person under arrest must be given a specific warning that he has certain rights, including the right to not say anything, that if he does, it can be used in evidence against him, and that he may consult with a lawyer prior to saying anything. This warning rarely deters a suspect from talking. Many want, or say they want, to tell “their side of the story.” Some believe they can outsmart the interrogator. Such suspects are often wrong.

Federal law enforcement agencies, of which there are more than most of use realize, have several advantages. One significant one is provided by 18 U.S.C. § 1001 that makes it a felony to lie to a federal officer, such as an FBI agent. Probably more persons have been convicted of that offense than the underlying crime being investigated. Many federal agents deliberately try to lay “perjury traps” where they try to get a witness or suspect to lie when interviewed so they can be prosecuted under 1001 to provide a plea-bargaining chip. One prime example is Martha Stewart. The feds could not prove an insider trading case against her, so they seized on a mis-statement she made during an interview. Note: the FBI euphemistically refers to all official conversations as “interviews,” but they should always be regarded, at least potentially, as interrogations.

With this background in mind, what is happening to Michael Flynn has some troubling aspects.

It appears that the FBI and special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s team may have been out to ‘get” Flynn for political reasons.

I am not in a position to adjudicate, Flynn’s case. All of the facts are not clear. If he did willfully lie with intent to deceive in an official inquiry, perhaps he’s deserving of punishment. If, however, he made a misstatement because he did not remember the details of a prior conversation, which is what he claimed, perhaps not. Furthermore, it is reported that Flynn’s son, also named Michael, may have been under investigation for some vague violation of a trade statute, and Flynn was coerced into pleading guilty to a 1001 violation by a threat to prosecute his son if he was recalcitrant. Sounds like dirty dealing to me.

Now, it’s one thing to offer a less culpable criminal suspect to turn prosecution witness in exchange for his testimony against a more culpable one. It is quite another to coerce a person to plead guilty by threatening to prosecute a family member in an unrelated matter if the person remains unwilling to so plead. If Flynn;s son may have been involved in a corrupt and illegal activity, he should be investigated and, if appropriate, charged, regardless of what his father has done to please the FBI.

But Michael Flynn never should have agreed to speak with the FBI agents without legal counsel. He seems to have trusted who he believed were colleagues in the government.

This brings to mind the investigation of Richard Jewell, the security guard who was wrongfully accused of the 1996 Olympic bombing in Atlanta. Jewell found the bomb, and alerted attendees to evacuate the area and probably saved many lives. Because he fit an FBI profile of one who is likely to cause a dangerous situation like planting a bomb and then “discover” it and thus be regarded as a hero, Jewell was targeted as a suspect. The FBI tried a subterfuge to interrogate Jewell and get him to make statements that they could use to arrest and prosecute him. But Jewell had the sense to call a lawyer he knew. The lawyer told the FBI to back off instructed them to not interrogate his client with him being present. No doubt that the agents had in mind trapping Jewell into making an innocent misstatement and then charging him with a 1001 violation. Probably saved Jewell from wrongful arrest and possible prosecution. (The real bomber was later arrested, tried, and sentenced to life in prison.)

The lesson to be learned from Martha Stewart’s, Michael Flynn’s, and Richard Jewell’s cases is that no one should agree to be “interviewed” by federal law enforcement agents (I use the plural because there are always two of them – one to aks the questions, the other to write down his version of the answers) unless they have prior legal counsel ahead of the conversation. If approached, the only things to say are “I have a lawyer; he or she will be in touch with you so give me your card; have a nice day.”

Two Protestors (and some other thoughts)

Shelley Luther, a Dallas hairstylist who has made national news, was held in contempt of court and jailed for opening her salon in defiance of an order to stay closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. This matter has some interesting aspects.

These is a legal doctrine called the “collateral bar rule” that hold one cannot defend conduct disobeying a court order before challenging it in a higher court.  Ms. Luther did that, so her act may have been legally unjustified. Not knowing all the fact, I decline to express an opinion

It is also reported that the judge in the case called upon Ms. Luther to apologize and admit she was being “selfish” for opening her salon in defiance of his order. She declined to do so. Now there are some, if not many sub rosa, who believe selfishness, properly understood, is a virtue. Ayn Rand was among the first to point that out explicitly. She wrote a series of essays in a volume entitled as such. Actually, without using so many words, Adam Smith believed that and implied so in his great work on economics, The Wealth of Nations.  The idea there is that taking care of yourself first is necessary, otherwise one cannot help anyone else.  There are numerous examples of this. And most of those who proclaim their own altruism, are really trying to signal what they believe is their virtue, all for self-aggrandizement.

Finally, and most interesting, Shelley shares a surname with the man who started the longest running protest of it all, Martin Luther. Four hundred ninety-nine years ago in the year 1521, Martin stood before the Imperial diet (council) in the city of Worms — present Germany– and refused to recant his then heretical religious beliefs. “Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders. Gott helf mir (Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.)” His recalcitrance exposed him to being burned at the stake, a much worse fate than Shelley was exposed to. But as Shelley had her Greg Abbott, Martin had a patron in the Elector of Saxony, who had little use for the Emperor, who doubtless he would have regarded a real Palpatine. (You know that George Lucas didn’t make any of his stuff up.)

Both Luthers were set free.


Lunacy in Academia

Several decades ago I attended the University of North Texas (its name at the time was North Texas State University) for a master’s degree program in history. Most faculty members in that department (and nearly all the students) leaned to the political left even then. Though my politics generally did not align, I never had an indication or believed any of the professors were lunatics, and all were open to reasoned academic discourse.

That doesn’t appear to the be case today.

Last December 2019, Nathaniel Hiers, an adjunct professor in the mathematics department, went in to the faculty lounge one day and notice a flier near a blackboard published by the University of New Hampshire entitled “How to Identify Microagressions.” Hiers casually skimmed it, then wrote on a chalkboard, “Please don’t leave garbage lying around,” and drew an arrow pointing to a flier. The next day, Ralf Schmidt, the chair of the mathematics department, emailed his staff with a photo of the chalkboard message. “Would the person who did this please stop being a coward and see me in the chair’s office immediately. Thank you.” Hiers replied and wrote that he was responsible. That it was intended as a joke, and was his opinion. He refused to apologize. Hardly a cowardly response.

Hiers was subsequently taken to task by the department head, Schmidt and the administration. Even though he had entered into a contract to teach math during the spring semester, UNT unilaterally canceled the contract and effectively fired him. The reason for Hiers’ dismissal was unambiguously because of his comment critical of the concept of “microagressions” that allegedly victimizes “marginalized” groups.

The Alliance Defending Freedom has taken Professor Hiers’ case. ADF lawyers filed has filed suit on Hiers’ behalf in the U.S. District Court Eastern District of Texas Case # 4:20-cv-00321. The 30 page Complaint, with numerous exhibits attached, states facts in excruciating detail that describes the wrongful acts and policies of UNT and its administration’s members. It alleges alleging eight claims or causes of action under the United States Constitution and civil rights statutes as well and breach of contract under Texas law. Hiers is seeking money damages, injunctive relief, and his attorneys’ fees. Fifteen defendants, all members of the Board of Regents or officers of UNT, are named defendants.  Complaint

The Complaint quotes a passage from Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure commenting on political correctness and so-called microagressions:

. . . encourage students to find more things offensive (leading them to experience more negative impacts), and you also tell them that whoever says or does the things they find offensive are “aggressors” who have committed acts of bigotry against them, then you are probably fostering feelings of victimization, anger, and hopelessness in your students. They will come to see the world—and even their university—as a hostile place where things never seem to get better.

If someone wanted to create an environment of perpetual anger and intergroup conflict, this would be an effective way to do it.

Lukianoff, who is the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (The Fire) and Haidt, a New York University faculty member (NYU-Haidt) point out that much of the so called microagression movement is intended to discourage the use of language in ordinary discourse that can reasonably taken to be demeaning. Courtesy and civility in speech and manner can aid persuasiveness, and avoid generating more heat than light in an argument. Litigators and negotiators are taught this, and the ones who take it to heart are the successful ones.

But, in Professor Hiers’ case, it is obvious to one who reading the UNH flier that it is an attempt to impose orthodoxy in thought, which should have no place in an American institution of higher learning. The orthodoxy here, of course, is left-wing, of the most extreme kind.

Now, this is not to deny that people sometimes say stupid things based on assumptions and stereotypes. This is part of the dominant collectivist theory that being the perceived member of an artificial group imbues certain characteristics, desirable or undesirable, to individuals. Perhaps there are those who would find such speech offensive, but there is no right to freedom from being offended. As matter of fact, such experience can be a motivating factor to show a uninformed speakers that they are wrong in their assumptions.

College campuses are places for learning, not only academic skills, but also social skills. Social skills include how to get along with other people who may have different opinions, how to disagree without being disagreeable, and how to synthesize ideas from opposing points of view. Establishing orthodoxy in thought stifles free inquiry. Unfortunately many campuses, obviously UNT is one, have abandoned academic freedom, even of their faculty, who should be the most academically inquisitive of all the members of the community of scholars that is a university.

It is also particularly ironic that Hiers, a mathematics professor, should be the one pilloried for unorthodox opinions, even though they had nothing to do with his subject. Mathematics, of course, is the one discipline where outcomes of inquiry can be definite right or wrong (except possibly in its ethereal realms). Two plus two equals four; the square root of 100 equals 10; and so forth. No argument, except in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where it could be thoughtcrime, if the Party mandates otherwise.
Anyway, UNT and its administration, as well as the faculty members involved in sacking Professor Hiers, need to get spanked, and spanked fairly hard. Those who believe in freedom of speech should certainly hope so.

Read more here .

A Side Note

Co-incidently, the local newspaper recently re-published a series of Garry Trudeau’s comic strips Doonesbury that first appeared in the 1990s or early 2000s. Trudeau’s strip first appeared in the late 1960s and has commented on politics and popular culture, usually from a left-wing point of view (some newspapers have placed it on the op-ed page rather than with the other strips). This series had perhaps three weeks of episodes in which a math professor at Trudeau’s fictional Walden College was sued for giving a student a “B” on a math paper, and thus allegedly causing the student (a jock and frat member – two of Trudeau’s usual targets) mental distress and humiliation. The strip, of course, drips with satire. It’s fictional setting is not quite congruent with Professor Hiers’ situation, but it suggests that such lunacy has been around for awhile.

April 19 — A Lesser Known Birthday

Today, April 19 is remembered as the day the colonists in Massachusetts, alerted by Paul Revere, stood off British troops at Lexington and Concord, thus beginning the American Revolution. It is also, less fondly by most, remembered as the day of the 1993 Branch Davidian holocaust near Waco Texas, and the 1995 revenge bombing of the federal building that housed offices of the BATF, in Oklahoma City.

The day’s noteworthiness for those events overshadows many others. It is also the birthday of a number of celebrities and historical figures, notably at least here in Texas, that of Erastus “Deaf” Smith (1787-1837). During the Texas Revolution, Smith was a member of Sam Houston’s army, for whom he acted primarily as a scout or in modern times what we might call a combat intelligence operative, or less euphemistically, a spy. On instructions of Houston and the local commander William Barrett Travis, he left the Alamo carrying Travis’ noteworthy letter to Houston. He later returned after the fall of the Alamo and escorted survivor Susanna Dickinson to report the details of the fall to Houston. Smith fought at the battle of San Jacinto, and later led a company of Texas Rangers to fight a unit of the Mexican army near Laredo.

Smith did not long survive the Texas Revolution., dying at the age of 50 in 1837. He was survived by his wife Guadalupe Ruiz Smith, whom he had married in 1822, and their four children. Deaf Smith County in west Texas is named for him.

Smith nickname (pronounced in his day as “deef”) came from his partial loss of hearing from an illness he suffered around 1821.

Andromeda Redux?

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration(NASA) launched a satellite called Scoop to sample the contents of space environment and then return to Earth where scientists could examine the samples. The Scoop was supposed to make a number of orbits before NASA brought it down, but a collision with something unknown knocked it off its orbit and it prematurely crashed to earth in a small, remote town in Arizona. Shortly after the spacecraft landed, everyone in the town suddenly died, except for two. The dead who were examined on site were found to have their entire body’s blood coagulated. A virulent microorganism was suspected immediately. NASA alerted the military who sent a team wearing hazmat suits to retrieve the satellite and deliver it to a special top-secret laboratory that had been constructed for such a purpose under the Nevada desert. There, a term of scientists — pre-selected for their expertise — assembled to find out why people died in the town where the satellite landed.

That is the plot of Michael Crichton’s techno-thriller, The Andromeda Strain, first published in 1969. I was prompted to reread the novel by the present Coronavirus/Covid-19 pandemic. Crichton, who died in 2008, wrote numerous novels with plots that concerned science (in its broadest sense) going awry. The most famous might be his Jurassic Park, a tale about biologists using DNA from fossils to clone dinosaurs. Promoters established a theme park zoo on and island off the coast of Costa Rica to display the creatures, with disastrous results when the dinos got out of hand.

The Andromeda results were less dramatic than raging dinosaurs, at least on the surface. The two survivors from the town provided a clue that led to the mechanism of action. One was a sixty-nine year old who treated his chronic stomach ulcer with a bottle of aspirin a day and occasional swig of Sterno, and a newborn infant who was crying its lungs out when found in the doomed town. I won’t spoil the denouement for those who maybe interested in reading the book but haven’t. Actually, two films were made, one big-screen (1971) and one made-for-television several decades later. The first one was mostly faithful to the book.

What was interesting about rereading was Crichton’s depiction of the computer technology compared with what exists today, more than 50 years later, and the biomedical knowledge and other technical aspects of scientific investigation and analysis of that time. Crichton was a graduate of Harvard Medical School, although he never obtained a license to practice, preferring instead as literary career, at which he was exceptionally successful. So his stories are plausible, and make interesting reading. Much of what he describes in Andromeda was fantasy in 1969, but really exists today, especially in the computer/IT world. Some continues to be far-out. Not sure whether a microorganism that acts like the one in Andromeda has ever been found, though all organisms mutate, faster among the biologically simpler ones. No politician today could get away with ordering, or even suggesting, a nuclear explosion to cauterize an infected area. Spoiler: it was contemplated by as a means of controlling a microorganism in the story, but did not happen.

Relating the Andromeda story to today’s pandemic, there will be a solution and eventually a prophylactic against Covid-19. But regardless of its virulence, the immediate response should not be akin to the nuclear option in Crichton’s story. His fictional president and other characters wisely decided against it. And as it turned out, under the fictional scenario it would have made the situation much worse. That might be a present day lesson. Shutting down the country is the nuclear option and will be worse than the disease.

On another note, given the present predicament, it is apropos that today is the 65th Anniversary of FDA approval of the Salk vaccine for polio. That, and the later Sabin vaccine eliminated what had been a much feared disease threat.

Off-Label Libel

All the noise that various commentators have been making about President Trump’s “promoting” the medication known as hydroxychloroquine is ridiculous and the most transparent yet of the leftists’ desperate attempt to discredit this president. They have described the drug as “unproven” and speculated that Trump has a financial interest in the production and distribution of it. All of this is false innuendo and nonsense.

First of all, President Trump’s statements cannot in fairness be seen to be promotion. If anyone wants to see what real promotion of pharmaceuticals is like, they only have to watch the commercials on television. What Trump is doing is informing the public that there is a possible effective treatment that could already be available, and, in fact, is being used with measured success.

Concerning the “unproven” allegation, it is a half-truth and thus effectively false and misleading. Hydroxychloroquine has been available for over four decades. The Federal Drug Administration has responsibility for testing and approving, among other things, pharmaceuticals for public distribution here in the United States. The approval is a two-step process: the drug has to be proven first to be safe, and then if found to be safe, approved for effectiveness; that is, the drug works for the specific malady or disorder for which the manufacturer seeks approval.

Hydroxychloroquine has without equivocation, been approved to be safe. There are side effects, as there are with any pharmaceutical. The FDA looks at the nature and severity of possible side effects before approving a drug, and requires warnings to be given.

As far as effectiveness is concerned, hydroxychloroquine was tested for its effectiveness in treating malaria. It was found to be effective for that purpose. It has not been found to be effective for treatment of the Corona-19 virus infection. One reason for this is the virus was only known about for the last 3 to 4 months, and approval takes a long time, sometimes years to obtain, and the process is expensive. Furthermore, the patent for hydroxychloroquine expired some time ago, and it is unlikely a potential manufacturer would go to the considerable expense to seek approval for an off-label use.

While the FDA regulates the manufacture and sale of pharmaceuticals, as well as some foods, it does not practice medicine, or attempt to regulate medical practice. If a physician or other qualified practitioner determines that a drug may benefit the patient who has some disorder other than the one for which the drug was approved to be effective, that physician may prescribe it. This is called “off-label” use. It is common and is part of advancing medical practice and information. It has been estimated that up around one-fifth of drug prescriptions are for “off-label” use. Pharmaceutical manufacturers generally are not allowed to “promote” the sale and use of their products off-label. Upon an unsolicited inquiry by a practitioner, certain information regarding the efficacy of an off-label use can be provided by a manufacturer.

Furthermore, there is no evidence that Trump has any more of a financial interest in hydroxychloroquine use that anyone else in this country — or elsewhere.

For more information see

Booze and One-way Tickets

Yesterday, April 4, was the 45th anniversary of Bill Gates and Paul Allen founding Microsoft in Albuquerque, NM. Few of us noticed at the time. Their vision is to be congratulated. Paul passed away in 2018, but Bill and wife Melinda, a Dallas native, are busy using some of their billions being global philanthropists and busybodies, in the tradition of Andrew Carnegie and other so-called “robber barons” of a century ago.

Gates has injected himself into the current situation by prognosticating the long-term outcome. That is his opinion and right to express it, but success in another endeavor does not qualify him as and expert in that regard. Not sure that success in that kind of fortune-telling is possible anyway. Gates’ current significance is what he and his company have previously accomplished.

Microsoft and its industry have made working remotely for many of us possible during this Coronavirus/Covid-19 shutdown. Many workers, however, cannot. Restaurant, tavern, and most retail employees have been named as nonessential and are out of luck. There are others, but not purveyors of booze. Columnist Peggy Noonan observed in the weekend edition of the WSJ that:

Everyone is fascinated that everything is closed but liquor stores remain open. This is because there isn’t a politician in the country stupid enough to prohibit alcohol in a national crisis. They may know on some level that no nation in the history of the world has closed both its churches and its liquor stores simultaneously and survived. Russia after the revolution closed the churches but did its best to keep vodka available because they wanted everyone drunk, which is the only way to get through communism. And how Russia did get through communism.

But we are outdoing ourselves. The AP reports alcoholic-beverage sales rose 55% in the week ending March 21. Online liquor sales were up 243%.

Stock in Anheuser-Busch Inbev NV anyone?

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, empowered by law to mandate closures, shelter-in-place, and other restrictions, has opined that liquor stores should remain open so alcoholics wouldn’t have to detoxify, and, I suppose, take up hospital beds.

Given that Dallas police have had many complaints of loud “Corona parties” held by those sheltering in place, I wonder if all the purveyors of Corona beer, which is hecho en Mexico have been sold out? Full employment for that brewery as a form of foreign aid. Who would have thought?

The most curious mass purchase is that of toilet paper. Stocking up on hand sanitizer, face masks, and the like is understandable. But one-way tickets? No disease control person has suggested that diarrhea is a symptom of Covid-19 infection. Various hypotheses have been put forth by armchair psychologists, mostly media pundits. Anyway, the country has not lost its productive capacity for paper products. Speculators who have bought up vast amounts will be disappointed.

Coincidently, last week a tractor-trailer from a manufacturer loaded with toilet paper crashed and burned on a freeway just outside of Dallas. Some of the paper went up in flames, but there were reports of the road being fully papered. Wonder how many scavengers made off with carloads of poop paper.

Tuchman’s Law and Crises

The Covid-19/Coronavirus is the latest, and by most accounts the most serious pandemic to hit the world for quite some time. What can we do? What will result? Looking back to the past might help understand.Disease epidemics have occurred many times throughout history.

The 4th Century B.C. Athenian statesman Pericles died from what was probably the bubonic plague during the Peloponnesian War, possibly contributing to Sparta’s victory over Athens.

The recent Coronavirus/Covid-19/China Virus prompted a re-read of the chapter on the Black Death in Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. There are some similarities and important differences in these maladies.

The plague – known at the time as the Pestilence or Great Mortality, and only later as the Black Death — entered Europe in 1347 from a ship or ships arriving from Black Sea ports, through a port on the Italian peninsula or Sicily, possibly Venice or Messina. That land, which didn’t become a unified nation until 1870, has been the center of Mediterranean throughout history. Accordingly, it was the first and the hardest hit by the 14th Century epidemic. The word “quarantine” comes from the Italian quaranta; that is 40, for the days chosen for its Biblical significance that the city state of Venice and other ports isolated arriving sailors in an attempt to limit the spread of the disease. The next three years it spread throughout Europe in a clockwise path through the Western countries, the British Isles Scandinavia Germany and Poland to Russia. Oddly enough a number of the central European areas, such as Bohemia, were spared for the most part. It is estimated that on-third to one-half of the European population died from the Pestilence.

Tuchman, and other historians, describe a truly horrific situation in Europe as the disease ran its course. Death cart drivers went door to door in towns and villages collecting corpses, which were buried in common graves or often just dumped in the river. The transmission method was mainly bites from fleas carried by infected rats, who were themselves infected by other fleas. But no one knew. Those vermin were then ubiquitous, and had been around for decades, so no one gave them much notice. All kinds of wild hypotheses abounded: God’s punishment of wicked humanity, mis-alignment of stars and planets, miasma or bad air, and most unfortunate, a vast conspiracy by Jews to poison Christian wells and other water supplies. The germ theory of disease was four centuries in the future.

Immediate response was mostly ineffectual. Even if the nature of the malady — it was bacterial — had been known, antibiotics were then five centuries in the future. The only central authority was the Church with the Pope at its head, then based in Avignon, France. Clement VI escaped the plague by sequestering in a chamber with fires burning at both entrances to “purify the air.” That probably worked for him by keeping the rats and fleas out, but he did not do much else. Looking back, and recognizing the dearth of knowledge about what caused infectious diseases and how they spread, how could he have. A few measures, although draconian, seemed to work for certain locales. In Milan Archbishop Giovanni Visconti — a secular despot as well as a religious one — ordered the first three houses in which the plague was discovered to be walled up, entombing the occupants. That harsh method might have worked; Milan subsequent deaths were light. A similar act in England, the burning and razing of an entire village where the plague appeared in Leicestershire, may have saved the occupants of the manor house and its curtilage.

That outbreak of the plague ended after about three years. It was to recur in less widespread and virulent forms from time to time since. It was, however, to return in 17th Century England, where in 1765, 100,00 Londoners are estimated to have died. A similar recurrence occurred in 19th Century India, then under British rule.

What were the long-term effects? Historians have a number of theories. All appear to agree that at least the course of European/Western civilization was altered. Losing so much of the population must have had an effect. One documented fact is that it made labor more scarce and thus dear. Workers, both in agriculture and in trades, had a sellers’ market, and wages and other compensation for them increased significantly. This tended to allow more socio-economic upward mobility, which hardly had existed before (see a prior post in this blog about the “Great Chain of Being”). Professor Dorsey Armstrong, who has written about medieval history in depth, maintains that the Renaissance was hastened by the plague. The great mortality also called into question the authority of the medieval church, and probably accelerated theological dissent and the Reformation of the 16th century.

The bubonic plague did not have a very long incubation. There are accounts of individuals going to bed with few or no symptoms and waking up only to die the next morning. It was thus apparent who had the disease quickly after they become infected. Today’s Coronavirus has an incubation period of somewhere between seven and fourteen days, which means an infected person could be well and still be a carrier. It is also spread by person-to-person contact, or close proximity where the virus could be airborne and inspired merely by breathing. On the other hand, the virus is much less lethal than the bubonic plague. The plague did not appear to discriminate by age or underlying health problems, although most Europeans, as well as everybody in the world of the 14th century, except the very wealthy, were probably malnourished.

So it was.


Note: In the introduction to her book Tuchman playfully identified a historical phenomenon which she called “Tuchman’s Law,” as follows:

Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts. The fact of being on the record makes it appear continuous and ubiquitous whereas it is more likely to have been sporadic both in time and place. Besides, persistence of the normal is usually greater than the effect of the disturbance, as we know from our own times. After absorbing the news of today, one expects to face a world consisting entirely of strikes, crimes, power failures, broken water mains, stalled trains, school shutdowns, muggers, drug addicts, neo-Nazis, and rapists [as well as disease epidemics]. The fact is that one can come home in the evening—on a lucky day—without having encountered more than one or two of these phenomena. This has led me to formulate Tuchman’s Law, as follows: “The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold” (or any figure the reader would care to supply).

This notion is well worth remembering to avoid a total freak-out while dealing with the present pandemic.

Coronavirus and Free Speech

It appears that the Coronavirus is giving a lot of us extra time by self (so far) quarantining and encouraging limited public contact. Possibly as a result, I received a communication from Greg Lukianoff, the president and CEO of FIRE announcing that he is starting his own blog hosted at that organization’s website. The communication included an essay that is both timely and ongoing entitled “Coronavirus and the Failure of the Marketplace of Ideas.”

Here is an excerpt

For just over a hundred years, when we have talked about freedom of speech and the First Amendment, the dominant metaphor has been the “marketplace of ideas.” This metaphor was the brainchild of the eminently brainy Oliver Wendell Holmes in his “Great Dissent” in the 1919 Supreme Court case Abrams v. United States. Justice Holmes was late to appreciate the value of free speech, but became convinced of its value in no small part due to his Darwinist outlook on the world. He envisioned the marketplace of ideas as an arena in which “fit” ideas battle unfit ones for survival.
This metaphor is vivid, relatable, memorable … and wrong.

… the “marketplace” metaphor doesn’t really capture free speech’s most fundamental function:: Freedom of speech gives you a fighting chance to know the world as it really is.

Lukianoff’s explanation in its entirety is available here.

For those who have not heard of it, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, known by its acronym, is an organization that promotes freedom of speech on college campuses, both for faculty and students. It was founded in 1998 by University of Pennsylvania professor Alan Charles Kors and criminal defense lawyer Harvey Silverglate (who wrote Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent). Kors and Silverglate together authored The Shadow University: the Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses. That book exposed the pervasiveness of orthodoxy and “political correctness” at colleges and universities, where administrations squelched free expression of ideas through various speech codes, and some faculty members enforced dissent by threats of poor grades to students.

FIRE has fought restrictive speech codes, and the unconstitutional deprivation of freedom of speech rights at public universities by legal action, and at private institutions by exposing their failure to live up their professed academic freedom. The FIRE rates universities and colleges throughout the United States by assigning them color-coded ratings: red, yellow, and green, depending on their commitment or lack thereof to free speech and the restrictiveness of their speech code, if any. There is also a blue rating for institutions that affirmatively profess their values and goals are higher than any commitment to freedom of expression. Those include the service academies, for what appear to be obvious reasons. In Texas it is noteworthy that Baylor University in Waco, founded as and continues to be a religiously oriented institution, also has a blue rating.

The FIRE is non-partisan and non-ideological, except for its commitment to free speech expression, regardless of where the speaker sits on the political right-left. Kors and Silverglate came from different sides of the center, though not extreme, of that spectrum.

Martha and I have supported the FIRE with donations and intelligence for the past 20 years. Its website is https://www.thefire.org