CHRIS POWELL: Democracy won a world war; it can handle state's epidemic

Published on Monday, 20 September 2021 21:12
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An argument being made for extending Governor Lamont's emergency powers to deal with the virus epidemic is that this would be more efficient than involving the General Assembly and enacting ordinary legislation instead of proclaiming emergency orders. But efficiency is only the old rationale for totalitarianism, and history doesn't support it so much.

German efficiency is a cliché that draws much of its strength from World War II in Europe. But Germany's early triumphs arose mainly from the weakness, unpreparedness, and mistakes of its adversaries. In fact the Nazi state was a caricature of bureaucracy, with many departments and functionaries frequently in conflict about overlapping responsibilities and with genocide policy drawing crucial resources away from the war.

The totalitarian Soviet Union did most of the fighting that defeated Germany, but its victory did not arise from efficiency. It arose largely from the Soviet Union's huge advantage in manpower and from war materiel and food provided by the United States.

Indeed, the war's totalitarian aggressors could not have been defeated without the war production of the United States and the superior use of its military, even as the country remained a vigorous democracy. Few who have served in the U.S. military marvel about its efficiency, but during World War II the United States made far better use of its manpower (and womanpower) than the totalitarian aggressors did. The totalitarians were not much concerned about wasting lives.

During the war the United States and the United Kingdom had the great advantage of independent political officials who could monitor the government's performance, expose weaknesses, gain publicity, and exact accountability. Indeed, Harry Truman was chosen as vice president in 1944 largely because of his able and well-publicized chairmanship of a Senate subcommittee investigating waste, corruption, and mistakes in war contracting. Truman's subcommittee is estimated to have saved the government $15 billion.

Of course, fending off the virus epidemic in Connecticut is not as challenging as waging a world war, but the principle of oversight is the same. Totalitarian governments suppress oversight. Democratic governments put up with it if only because they have to.

Benign as Governor Lamont has been with his emergency powers, legislators and the public have not yet been full participants in their deliberation, even as the epidemic is not half as serious as governmental and journalistic hysteria makes it seem, what with 99.8 of infected people recovering.

Bad as the epidemic may seem, there's no reason to let democracy be another one of its victims.

Every day for months now the governor's office has done excellent work publishing data by which the epidemic in Connecticut can be monitored – a compilation of the number of new and cumulative virus infections, the number of virus tests administered, the "positivity" rate drawn from that testing, the current number of people hospitalized with the virus (figures recently augmented with the percentage of unvaccinated patients), and the total of new and cumulative deaths that were "associated" with the virus (now reported weekly rather than daily).

Without these reports Connecticut would not have much idea of where it stood. But the data isn't really so definitive.

The "positivity" rate, emphasized by news organizations, is of little value. It is just a measure of those who recently chose to be tested, not a measure of the extent of infection in the state. Besides, virus tests are often inaccurate.

Deaths and hospitalizations have seemed far more valuable measures. But the death data doesn't show whether people died of the virus or merely with it.

Similarly, a study reported last week by The Atlantic magazine impugns hospitalization data for failing to show just how sick patients are with the virus and how many are in the hospital mainly because of "co-morbidities."

According to The Atlantic, "The study suggests that roughly half of all the hospitalized patients showing up on covid-data dashboards in 2021 may have been admitted for another reason entirely, or had only a mild presentation of disease."

This is more reason for oversight and for not being frightened so easily.

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.

Posted in The Bristol Press, Column on Monday, 20 September 2021 21:12. Updated: Monday, 20 September 2021 21:15.