Streetwise Professor

October 16, 2014

The Double Down (On Stupid) Administration, Ebola Edition

Filed under: Politics — The Professor @ 5:22 pm

The Obama administration doubles down on everything. It never, ever, admits an error, or that conditions have changed in  ways that makes its previous choices suboptimal and therefore worth changing. Obama repeatedly doubles down on deploying combat forces to fight ISIS. He has recently doubled down on closing Gitmo. And today, the despicable head of CDC doubled down on a travel ban:

Frieden later warned, however, that imposing a ban on air travel from these nations could induce potentially infected people to come into the U.S. through other countries.

“Right now we know who’s coming in. If we try to eliminate travel, the possibility that some will travel over land, will come from other places…will mean that we won’t be able to do multiple things,” he said, explaining that temperature checks and interviews conducted at airports provide valuable safeguards to public health.

Frieden said one reason a travel ban would not work is that the borders in West Africa are “porous.”

Um, the question is how porous the US border should be. The porousness of West African boundaries doesn’t mean jack if people fleeing west Africa encounter an impermeable border bounded by the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Rio Grande, and the 49th Parallel.

And as for land travel, last time I checked there were several thousand miles of shark filled ocean between west Africa and North America. So, the options are (a) flying to a Western Hemisphere country, then traveling by land to the US, (b) stowing away on a ship or on a plane, or (c) swimming, and using really good shark repellent.

I think we can reject options (b) and (c). (Even if we can’t, the cost raising effect I discuss below works even more strongly with regards to them.)

So let’s consider (a). Those arriving at the US border from Mexico or Canada by land at a border crossing must present a passport. They can be refused entry if they come from a banned country, such as Liberia.

Of course, they can try to sneak across the border. It happens all the time, but it is sufficiently difficult that there are organized networks for smuggling people across, and these people don’t work for free. So consider a Liberian contemplating flying to Mexico, getting hooked up with a coyote (they’re not in the phone book), and paying the cost of getting across the border. Not so easy. Not impossible, but damn hard. And the coyote may not be that wild about transporting someone who could be an Ebola carrier, or may charge way above the normal rate (reasons to create FUD!). It’s one thing for a Mexican or Guatemalan to make it across the Rio Grande, it’s another thing for someone from Sierra Leone. Indeed, it might take so long that said person might perish from Ebola long before reaching the US. Or s/he can try to freelance it. Yeah, fly from Africa to Mexico City, get on a bus to Juarez, or Nuevo Laredo, and start hiking. Good luck with that.

And even this option can be constrained substantially by coordinating the travel ban with Canada and Mexico. Even if they are not predisposed to cooperate,  Frieden’s very fear that a US travel ban would induce attempts to circumvent it would mean that if the US did impose the ban unilaterally, Mexico and Canada would be faced with  an influx of Ebola carriers. That would no doubt concentrate their minds, and make them much more cooperative.

So even (a) is a stretch as a concern.

Frieden is right that no prophylactic will be perfect. There is always a positive probability that someone sick will get in.

But the perfect is the enemy of the good. And this categorical reasoning (“if it doesn’t work 100 percent, it’s not worth doing”) is a crock. The point is that raising the cost of reaching the US from the afflicted regions will reduce the flow of potential carriers, and thereby reduce the risk to the US. If a travel ban is in place, the cost of circumventing it isn’t infinite, but it’s damned high, and will stem the flow dramatically.

Given the exponential nature of the risk, any reduction in this flow is incredibly important. Even halving the number of infected people who come into the US reduces the expected number of US cases by far more than one-half, due to the nature of epidemics.

This last fact is what makes me particularly  livid. There is huge leverage in reducing the inflow of the potentially infected. Reducing inflow by one individual reduces the number of Ebola cases by a multiple of that. This leverage means that the payoff to reducing the flow into the US is huge. And the head of CDC should damn well know that: if he doesn’t, he should lose his head. (Metaphorically. But let me think about that.)

I mentioned prophylactic a bit ago. That sparked a thought. The CDC’s logic in opposing a travel ban is that since the ban wouldn’t be perfect, it shouldn’t be implemented. By that logic, the CDC should also oppose the use of condoms to prevent AIDS. After all, condoms, by the CDC’s own admission, aren’t perfect. Sometimes the virus gets through. Since the CDC’s travel ban logic implies that if something isn’t perfect, it shouldn’t be used,  obviously-obviously!-the CDC must oppose the expenditure of even a penny on condoms, right?

Well, of course, it doesn’t oppose condoms: it actively encourages their use. It calls condom distribution programs a “structural level intervention” that can materially reduce the incidence of AIDS transmission.

How about a “structural level intervention” to reduce the risk of Ebola transmission, Dr. Frieden? Or are you, and the rest of the administration, so tightly welded to your previous position, or so bound to some open borders ideology, that you cannot countenance embracing your inner Roseanne Roseannadanna and can’t even consider saying “Nevermind!”?


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  1. If you are a cynic about government incompetence, this “administration” is a gift that keeps on giving. If not always in a positive fashion. OK, never in a positive fashion.

    Comment by The Pilot — October 16, 2014 @ 6:12 pm

  2. @Pilot. This (Mal)Administration gives new meaning to Reagan’s quip about the 9 scariest words in the English language: “We’re from the government and we’re here to help.”

    @JDonn-Your first conjecture was my first as well-doubling down because they cannot abide admitting a mistake. But like you say, it only feeds the anger.

    Re your second conjecture. We’re not talking about restricting travel to Paris, London, or Tokyo. Places people want and need to go in large numbers. We’re talking about West Africa. Few people want to go there under normal circumstances, and under current circumstances the meetings of the West Africa Travel Club could be held in a phone booth. We’re not talking millions here. Handfuls. Energy companies would be hardest hit, but just this week all German corporations threw in the towel and announced the cessation of operations in the Ebola-affected countries.

    It is a massive miscalculation, and as for it being a setup for Obama to ride in like the cavalry, it’s a little late in the day for that. It will raise questions of “why didn’t you do this before?” and once asked many people will arrive at your conspiratorial conclusion. Trust and confidence are at such a rock bottom level that I don’t see how he can pull out a miracle.

    This would also require Obama to admit that he had erred by remaining aloof for weeks. He will never admit this. At most he will admit insufficient attention to “optics”, because gosh darn it, he’s just working too hard for us and too focused on performance to pay attention to appearances. (Which has to rank as one of the biggest whoppers in American political history.)

    THe combination of a stubborn refusal to admit error, and rigid ideological views (which the Chicagoboyz blog calls “Open borders derangement syndrome”) will leave us at the mercy of every international arrival.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 16, 2014 @ 7:09 pm

  3. My sense is that Obama is like a quarterback who has been sacked a few too many times. He’s so focused on the next hit coming that he can’t even execute on simple play and has been taken out of the game completely. This should be a simple play because, as I was getting at in my earlier comment, Ebola has no constituents. A lot of the issues that Obama (like any president) has been faced with have been genuinely tough, with no easy answers. This is not one of them.

    I really hope there is some kind of calculation or political maneuvering going on behind the scenes though, however incompetent or misguided. The narrative that has been emerging in recent months of a president who is just totally disengaging and has completely lost the will to govern is terrifying with two whole years left in this administration, at least with regards to major international issues.

    Comment by JDonn — October 17, 2014 @ 12:03 am

  4. The narrative that has been emerging in recent months of a president who is just totally disengaging and has completely lost the will to govern…

    I don’t think he ever had it. He probably figured out early in his second term that he could sit at home watching child porn and he’d still have huge swathes of the country, most of the media, and the entire “international community” supporting him to the hilt. His fellow Democrats are only concerned that his actions (or rather, inactions) might hurt their chances at getting their nose in the trough, but they have few genuine objections from a point of principle. So why should he bother? He’s like the unsackable, union-protected French factory worker: the incentives to do anything other than loaf about, cover up his own failings, and massage his own ego simply don’t exist, and they never did.

    It really is a turning point in the history of the US that the person who is elected to the highest office in the country isn’t even interested in doing the job. And few people seem to even care.

    Comment by Tim Newman — October 17, 2014 @ 12:48 am

  5. I don’t think this is a question of the will to govern, being punch drunk, or tired about a second term. Instead, this is a reflection of Obama’s psychological stance that has been in place from day 1 of the administration. The so called breakdowns, failures and seeming inconsistencies of the administration are a reflection of this consistent thread in his administration and most of its works.
    Obama’s own words are revealing. The two sets that give the clearest insight are O’s observation the He is the best speech writer, politician, etc. than anyone else, and his admission (no small thing in such an egomaniac) that he thought that all he had to do was create the right policies and everything would work out. This show an inability and or unwillingness to “reality test”, and a more fundamental belief in a kind of intellectual magical thinking (If I think it, it happens). Both of these things create a kind of laziness – or at least inability to sweat the details of governance – and a petulance when one is forced to act to a situation that one hasn’t thought of, and thus doesn’t want to deal with.

    Taking this mind set as a paradigm, a lot becomes clear: the whole stimulus / O care shows that the “thought” that launched the legislation for both, was not guided and became an unmanageable mess. When crisis have intruded the reaction has been either to dither, or to impulsively act without thinking things through. When there has been room to maneuver, he has always moved towards his biases, no matter the result – witness his winning the war in Iraq- and anything outside his juvenile pseudo Marxist dialectic is ignored – Plagues are so 14th century, religious movements like ISIS are on the wrong side of history, etc. As though Marxism isn’t a religion!

    The most insidious aspect of this mind set has been the self-selection of survivors in his administration. Whatever one thinks of Larry Summers, he is not an idiot and has a large enough ego to stand up to anyone. The survival a Jarrett (ideological suck up), Hagel (useful idiot) or Holder (enabler) show just as much as the winnowing away of anyone with a spine who did not slavishly pander to biases and predilections. I will not go into those who’s sense of survival and need for resume padding (Hillary Clinton) was satisfied; such pond scum always appear in any administration.
    Seen in this light the current flock of embarrassments, disasters, etc. are just the logical extension of the processes that have been in place for the last 6 years. Unfortunately we have two more to go. Justice Holmes described FDR a second rate intellect, but a first rate temperament for politics. Obama has proved himself at best third rate in both.

    Comment by Sotos — October 17, 2014 @ 8:52 am

  6. @JDonn, @Tim & @Sotos. I think you have all hit on crucial elements of Obama’s personality and character. He is lazy, entitled, narcissistic (and always focused on getting his narcissistic supply), ideologically blinkered, and possesses a modest intellect and a narrow (and highly ideological) education. He is so wedded to his preconceptions and belief in his own superiority and destiny that he is incapable of dealing maturely with the empirical invalidation of his magical thinking. He reacts with petulance, and by withdrawing further, and relying even more on his circle of sycophants.

    Sadly, there are still enough enablers that he will be able to rationalize doubling and tripling down.

    Oi. Two more years of this. I hope Adam Smith is right about ruin and nations.

    I used the quote about FDR in a similar way several years ago. FDR was actually a duplicitous bastard, but he could be a charming man, and a persuasive one. Obama is a cold fish, and doesn’t even see the need to persuade.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 17, 2014 @ 9:09 am

  7. having a first rate temperament for politics and being a duplicitous bastard are not mutually exclusive – indeed stabbing someone in the back while still charming them is a real plus. The NY Daily News, a domcratic organ most of the time, once described a pol who FDR had so treated as receiving “The Order of the Double Cross – Hyde Park Chapter” .

    Comment by Sotos — October 17, 2014 @ 9:26 am

  8. So instead of displaced Africans dying on ships en route to the Americas, as happened historically, they are now flown in and Americans die instead.

    Obama’s a genius: he’s re-engineered and revived the Middle Passage, without the optics!

    Comment by Green as Grass — October 17, 2014 @ 9:58 am

  9. Land travel means across North Africa! If people can’t fly out of Liberia and Sierra Leone, they will travel north up the coast via Morocco, possibly spreading Ebola through popular tourist areas. From Casablanca there are direct flights to New York and from Marrakech to all over Europe. No way the U.S. can monitor all that. Really look at a map and educate yourself.

    Comment by KeyLimePie — October 17, 2014 @ 10:42 am

  10. Don’t worry, the President has appointed a Czar to fix this. He’s an experienced doctor who knows all the ins-and-outs of epidemiology and hospital management.

    Hahaha, just kidding, he appointed a lawyer, Democratic fundraiser, and former COS to the VP.

    This is a symptom of the problem in so many different ways.

    Comment by Blackshoe — October 17, 2014 @ 12:40 pm

  11. Yes folks your are going to get legally exposed to Ebola. I’m telling you, we are ruining this western civilization with lawyers. They think abstractly and without common sense. If confronted with an uncooperative Ebola carrier are you going to worry about the legal concequences of confronting him?

    Comment by traveler — October 17, 2014 @ 2:02 pm

  12. Yes folks your are going to get legally exposed to Ebola. I’m telling you, we are ruining this western civilization with lawyers. They think abstractly and without common sense. If confronted with an uncooperative Ebola carrier are you going to worry about the legal concequences of confronting him?

    Comment by traveler — October 17, 2014 @ 2:02 pm

  13. @Blackshoe. Biden’s COS. I wonder if he did blow with Hunter?

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 17, 2014 @ 7:01 pm

  14. Ron Klain has long resume working in D.C. for the Democrats, never in any sort of position that would qualify him for this role. He was Al Gore’s COS long before he was Biden’s. He was one of the top guys leading the Gore Campaign’s recount efforts in Florida in 2000. Kevin Spacey played him in the HBO Movie “Recount”, despite the fact that in the book on which the movie was based, “Too Close to Call”, Jeffery Toobin noted Klain’s striking resemblance to Jon Lovitz.

    I thought “Too Close to Call” was a very interesting book, particularly if you read around some of the author’s rhetoric and attempts at drawing conclusions. I thought the comparison of Gore and Bush’s management styles was reveling, and relevant today. The big difference between the Bush and Gore campaigns was that George Bush was surrounded by people who were all fiercely loyal to him on a personal level. Bush took care of his people, and as a result his campaign was staffed top to bottom with people that would do anything to see him become president, and who were all pulling in the same direction. On the other had Gore was known to be a micro-manager who wanted to analyze and tinker with everything, which meant constantly second guessing his people. The Gore campaign had huge morale problems, and there was no affection for Gore on a personal level, and all believed he would thrown any one of them under the bus if it would make the Op-Ed page of the NYT happy. During the recount his top people, like Bill Daley, Warren Christopher and even his running mate Joe Lieberman, were all concerned with how an ugly battle might tarnish their personal reputations and did what they could to distance themselves. On the other hand, Bush’s guys never faltered in their commitment to winning.

    The lesson to be learned is that big ideas and a fixation on “optics” won’t translate into a successful operation if you alienate the people close to you.

    Comment by JDonn — October 18, 2014 @ 12:14 am

  15. @KeyLimePie. I’m educated about geography, thank you very much. Believe it or not, I know Liberia is not a fucking island.

    The “over land” remark was clearly in the context of travel to the United States. Getting to the United States means taking a flight. That means having a passport. That means, say, a Liberian passport or a passport that is highly likely to have a Liberian stamp. This is true regardless of where the flight originates. It’s not that difficult to monitor.

    Yes, there are ways to circumvent. As I noted in the post, no system would be 100 percent effective. But like most of those frantically opposing the ban, you are taking the “if it’s not 100 percent effective it’s not worth doing” position, which is idiotic.

    And hey, genius, most African nations have imposed travel bans from Ebola-affected areas, or imposed various restrictions to reduce the flow over land on the African continent.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 18, 2014 @ 6:39 am

  16. President Obummer Obola has just appointed a lobbyist to a position in the White House as the Ebola “tsar.”

    This after REPEATEDLY promising that he would have nothing to do with lobbyists, and there would be no lobbyists getting jobs in the White House

    And, of course, as others have pointed out, the “logic” of appointing a lawyer to deal with medical catastrophe is thoroughly perverted.

    AND – not only do we get to be exposed here due to no travel bans, but President Obummer Obola is going to send troops directly into the affected areas in Africa.

    No doubt, President Obummer Obola is sending them to shoot the viruses. Maybe some drone attacks would also help in targeting the virus.

    Comment by elmer — October 18, 2014 @ 8:35 am


    Obama Administration Found Nearly 25 Percent Chance of Ebola Spread to USA…BEFORE Obama Said

    President Obama assured the American public that our country’s Ebola risk was extremely low, even after a federal government-funded study quietly found a nearly 25 percent chance of Ebola reaching the United States in September 2014.

    The Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the federal government’s Models of Infectious Disease Agency co-funded a September 2 analysis on the threat of Ebola’s spread to countries including the United States, Israel’s Arutz Sheva reported. The analysis was circulated among federal government officials prior to its September 2 publication date.

    The analysis found a nearly 25 percent “probability of Ebola virus disease case importation” to the United States within 3 to 6 weeks.

    Nevertheless, President Obama falsely said on September 16 that experts “across our government” agree that America”s Ebola vulnerability was extremely low. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also repeatedly assured the American people that the Ebola risk was low, even after the alarming government study was completed.

    “First and foremost, I want the American people to know that our experts, here at the CDC and across our government, agree that the chances of an Ebola outbreak here in the United States are extremely low,” Obama said.

    Liberian visitor Thomas Eric Duncan’s arrival in Dallas on September 20 validated the study’s findings with two days to spare.

    Comment by elmer — October 18, 2014 @ 9:08 am

  18. @ Key Lime Pie: you’re the one who needs some geographic enlightenment. An asymptomatic person leaving any of three Ebola countries trying overland travel to Morocco will be either symptomatic or dead by the time they get. It’s not like that area has scheduled bus service over an Interstate highway. A feature of Ebola is rapid onset on debilitating illness making travel while infectious difficult and short lasting.

    Comment by The Pilot — October 18, 2014 @ 10:50 am

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