On September 10, President Joe Biden lamented to a group of Washington, D.C., middle schoolers that political disputes in 2021 have become far too nasty.
"One of the lessons I hope our students can unlearn is that politics doesn't have to be this way," Biden said. "Politics doesn't have to be this way. They're growing up in an environment where they see it's…like a war, like a bitter feud….I mean, it's not how we are. It's not who we are as a nation. And it's not how we beat every other crisis in our history. We got to come together."
When an elected executive complains that politics is too much like war, the prudent thing to do is to do reach for your flak jacket. And sure enough, literally in the preceding paragraph, the president implied that some GOP politicians don't care overmuch if their constituents die.
"Look, I'm so disappointed that particularly some Republican governors have been so cavalier with the health of these kids, so cavalier with the health of their communities," Biden said. "We're playing for real here. This isn't a game. And I don't know of any scientist out there in this field that doesn't think it makes considerable sense to do the six things I've suggested" as a path out of the pandemic.
Table that "I don't know of any scientist" whopper for later, and fast forward to last night. Perhaps because his previous accusations didn't attract much attention from the nodding-along media, Biden again trained his rhetorical howitzers onto GOP electeds.
"Republican governors in states like Texas and Florida are doing everything they can to undermine the public health requirements that keep people safe," the president tweeted. "They're playing politics with the lives of their citizens, especially children. I refuse to give in to it."
Everything about this tweet is terrible.
Take just the "especially children" part. The only thing "especially" about children and COVID-19 is that children are especially unlikely to get seriously sick or die from it, regardless of their governor's party affiliation. Just 439 of the 658,754 people in the United States who have died from the coronavirus have been under age 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That's 0.07 percent, or one out of every 1,500 people.
Even as vaccinations, unavailable to those under 12, have become widespread, and the more infectious delta variant has become the dominant strain, minors are still blessedly underrepresented in COVID death numbers: 146 out of 97,071 since April 1, or 0.15 percent. Kids are 23.1 percent of the United States population, one out of every 4.3 people, and even during the delta/vaccination period, they have accounted for just one out of every 665 COVID deaths. The virus is still unlikely to crack the top 10 causes of pediatric fatalities this year, lagging far behind car crashes, drowning, suffocation, drug overdoses, cancer, malignant neoplasm, and heart disease.
Ah, I can hear some parents retort (literally, in the case of a Washington Post scare story Thursday), "It doesn't matter how small the numbers are….Even if the numbers are really small, you still keep thinking it could be yours." But upper-middle-class neurosis (and the journalism amplifying it) should not drive pandemic policy; rational risk assessment should.
This is where Biden's incantation of science comes in. The president in his remarks last week, using a rhetorical and policy playbook seen most heavily in Democratic-run blue states such as California and New York, nodded toward the zero-COVID neuroses of his party's donor base, before selling as scientific a school-masking policy more restrictive than almost any other industrialized country.
"Now, for any parent, it doesn't matter how low the risk of any illness is when it could happen to your child," Biden said. "But we all know, if schools follow the science…and implement safety measures like vaccinations, testing, masking, then children can be safe in schools, safe from COVID-19."
As Jacob Sullum has documented, there are scientists all over the United States and United Kingdom and Western Europe who do not agree with the CDC that masking kids in group settings beginning at age 2 has a demonstrably positive effect on stopping the spread of COVID-19, let alone one large enough to offset the costs in learning, communication, and emotional well-being.
The president is saying explicitly that kids in unmasked environments are unsafe. That would mean every student in Arizona, Utah, Oklahoma, Iowa, Tennessee, and Georgia, for starters, plus most in "the U.K., Ireland, all of Scandinavia, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Italy." Aside from the factual unlikelihood, what kind of message does that convey to parents nervous about sending their kids back into school buildings?
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has been saying for months that he "fear[s]" a continuation of remote learning, that "we're going to do everything in our power" to avoid it, because "We know there's no substitute for in-person learning. We know there's no substitute for that social interaction that our little ones need." And now his boss is telling parents not only that their kids are in jeopardy, but that the people in charge of K-12 policy in some states "are doing everything they can to undermine the public health requirements that keep people safe."
There is something extra rich about Biden and Cardona accusing Republicans of elevating political concerns over the well-being of kids. One of the main reasons why certain Democratic-run school districts, cities, states, and now the federal government have enacted some of the world's most restrictive and inflexible school-reopening policies is that A) teachers unions have far more clout in the United States than, say, France, and B) those same teachers unions overwhelmingly have pull with Democratic politicians, who are recipients of 94 percent of their political donations.
And Biden's CDC in particular has repeatedly allowed teachers unions to influence what are supposedly scientific recommendations about masking and reopening requirements. As usual, when a politician says something like "We've got to come together," what he really means is "You've got to agree with my contestable policies, which I've arrived at by the usual unholy alliances with interest groups."
Biden's tweet last night received the usual applause from the types of commentators and journalists who enjoy rewriting the Florida governor's last name as "DeathSantis" (though probably less so from those who used to call Andrew Cuomo "Governor Granny-Killer"). But as someone who frequently "believes that both sides are wrong," I'd like to make a gentle suggestion about the political rhetoric of dastardly intent.
There's an important difference between arguing over life-and-death policies, and accusing your debate opponent of consciously choosing the door marked "Death." Those growing number of people who enjoy that second tactic have abandoned persuasion for stigmatizing, truth seeking for in-group validation. It's fine I guess for some schmo on Twitter (if for no other reason than that tells me to mute them), but it's an awful look for the head of any government's executive branch.
Gov. Ron DeSantis does not want to kill your children. Nor does Biden, nor does Gov. Gavin Newsom (D–Calif.), nor does Gov. Greg Abbott (R–Texas). They each have embraced different COVID-19 policies worth criticizing vigorously, and those policies could affect death numbers (though almost certainly less so than their critics contend). But thinking seriously that any of these people wake up in the morning and choose sickness is not thinking seriously.
In closing, people will die!