Krugman Nails It

Paul Krugman wants to know how many of their fellow Americans Republicans are willing to kill in order to “own the libs.” In the wake of actions by Governors in  Texas and Mississippi–essentially eliminating anti-COVID requirements– it’s a fair question.

Krugman also points out–graphically–why mask edicts are not an abrogation of American freedom.

Relieving yourself in public is illegal in every state. I assume that few readers are surprised to hear this; I also assume that many readers wonder why I feel the need to bring up this distasteful subject. But bear with me: There’s a moral here, and it’s one that has disturbing implications for our nation’s future.

Although we take these restrictions for granted, they can sometimes be inconvenient, as anyone out and about after having had too many cups of coffee can attest. But the inconvenience is trivial, and the case for such rules is compelling, both in terms of protecting public health and as a way to avoid causing public offense. And as far as I know there aren’t angry political activists, let alone armed protesters, demanding the right to do their business wherever they want.

As Krugman goes on to point out, the dangerous posturing by self-described defenders of “liberty” is the essence of identity politics.  Although Republicans politicians like to accuse Democrats of playing that game, they limit the definition of “identity” to issues of race and religion–it’s their way of reminding their White Supremicist base that Democrats represent   a citizenry that includes “those people.”

What is motivating this rush to unmask isn’t economics–Krugman points out that the costs of mask-wearing are trivial, and that controlling externalities–taking into account  costs being imposed on others–is Econ 101. As he says,  “if potentially exposing those you meet to a deadly disease isn’t an “externality,” I don’t know what is.”

Of course, we know what’s actually going on here: politics. Refusing to wear a mask has become a badge of political identity, a barefaced declaration that you reject liberal values like civic responsibility and belief in science. (Those didn’t used to be liberal values, but that’s what they are in America 2021.)

This medical version of identity politics seems to trump everything, up to and including belief in the sacred rights of property owners. When organizers at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference asked attendees to wear masks — not as a matter of policy, but simply to abide by the rules of the hotel hosting the meeting — they were met by boos and cries of “Freedom!” Do people shriek about rights when they see a shop sign declaring, “No shoes, no shirt, no service”?

But arguably we shouldn’t be surprised. These days conservatives don’t seem to care about anything except identity politics, often expressed over the pettiest of issues.

There are plenty of problems with mischaracterizing mask wearing as a “freedom” issue, and one of those problems ties back into my constant rants about the country’s low levels of civic literacy.

The United States Constitution does not give anti-maskers the “liberty” they claim.

I will readily admit to being a hard-core civil libertarian.  (I ran Indiana’s ACLU for six years and was routinely criticized when our affiliate sued to protect citizens’ rights to pursue their own moral or personal ends.) But as Krugman’s introductory paragraphs illustrate, and the ACLU has always acknowledged, government retains considerable authority to require or prohibit certain behaviors. We can’t urinate (or worse) in public, or  run around our neighborhoods nude. We can be ticketed for failing to buckle our seatbelts. We can be prohibited from exposing others to the passive smoke emitted by our cigarettes. Governments not only have the right but the affirmative obligation to impose quarantines to protect public health, and they have done so historically to control the spread of diseases like smallpox.

I agree with Krugman that the anti-maskers are playing identity politics. I wonder if they realize that the identity they are claiming is “selfish and ignorant.”


  1. Recent reports indicate that the plague has shifted from the cities to the country. Where we first had urban black and brown people taking the biggest hit, now it is RURAL WHITE Trump Country that is hardest hit…. By their OWN Doing. Sad but not surprising. So I guess they are exercising their freedom to kill Grandma. Ok then.

  2. The problem is that they are not just killing their own grandparents. Every time the virus replicates, it rolls the evolutionary dice. Letting the pandemic run rampant is the single best thing they could be doing to ensure that a variant that the vaccines don’t protect against will arise and spread in the population, requiring yet another round of developing a booster that will cover the escape mutant and producing and administering 300 million (or, more properly, 7 billion) doses, hopefully before a variant that *that* booster doesn’t protect against arises, etc.

    As a former biologist, it’s been awful to watch, seeing how all of these folks who think their identity politics frees them from the responsibility to consider externalities are the reason why the pandemic got so out of control in the first place, why it has gone on for so long, and why the “new normal” may never be normal again.

  3. Last week, in my local Kroger, I saw a woman not wearing a mask (not even around her neck) for the first time in a year. She parked her shopping cart near one end of the produce section, leaving her large purse gaping open in the child seat, to walk to the far end of produce to select some items. That is the lack of common sense driving the anti-mask and anti-vaxxer MAGA supporters in this country. They cannot be reached with logic or statistics of the Covid death rate; or obviously the ease with which she could have been a victim of thievery during this current economic time of need. I didn’t wait around to see what happened.

  4. In rural northern blood red Indiana many are refusing to be vaccinated. I am referring to adults who are in their sixties. Based on their variety of reasons it is safe to assume they watch/listen to only radical right wing opinions on tv or radio.

    Examples I’ve been given are: They are injecting a microchip to control you,, they are changing your DNA. I believe they have already willingly submitted to control of their minds and their lives to the radical right wing.

  5. Waiting at a traffic light a few years ago, the bumper sticker on the “big foot” in front of me was eye level. It read “If you ain’t Country, you ain’t Shit” and at the time I really wanted to ask the driver if he was aware of the problematic grammar. I was obviously oblivious to the covert message.

  6. Krugman gives them too much credit, and so are many others for thinking that far along – the only identity they are sharing is closed-mindedness which is taught at an early age.

    Who hasn’t watched a video of Trump supporters being interviewed before a MAGA event?

    It’s comical relief but at the same time terrifying to know there are 70 million people like this around the country, if not more.

    Despite all the scientists hitting the TV this weekend, DeSantis and Abbott invite everyone to come party for Spring Break. But why shouldn’t they?

    Our healthcare system hasn’t been about public health for decades. Once we allowed our public healthcare system’s privatization, it became about maximizing profits versus prevention or keeping people healthy. Capitalism isn’t about sacrificing for others. Corporations aren’t about social responsibility.

    Loading up the beaches, hotels, and bars with kids from all over the country spurs the economic engine we are all worried about. Dollar signs everywhere.

    Then they come back from Spring Break and spread Covid infections to friends and family. More hospitalizations. Even funeral homes get to profit. Dollar signs everywhere.

    We’ve trained people at a young age that it’s all about selfishness, freedom, and money. It’s the way of capitalism. Once that becomes enculturated into them, you aren’t going to change that very easily.

    Sacrificing by wearing a mask for the greater good isn’t a component of capitalist society. That’s not who we are and if people don’t trust the government or the press any longer, guess what?

  7. It’s just too bad that naked stupidity and self-centeredness doesn’t leave us with any way to hold them to account for the roughly 300,000 deaths we might not have had, if they had behaved differently.

  8. Todd,
    I often disagree with what you write here, but today is your tour de force. Well said on all fronts.

    Of course Republicans have to defy real health practices. Their donors tell them to worry only about how they can make more money. Have you ever listened to the sewage that comes out of DeSantis’ mouth? In fact, all those Republican governors who eschew mask wearing and distancing sound exactly as Todd describes them today. They care not a whit about the people they presume to govern. Only their rich donors matter to Republicans.

    To whit: Not a single vote in either the House or the Senate for the COVID relief bill. Not one. Meanwhile, 70+% of Americans approve of the bill to help them survive this horror. Even 60% of Republican voters approve. So, if there was any doubt that the Republicans currently in Congress and in many – too many – state houses aren’t fundamentally corrupt and totally beholden to the rich people who don’t care if we die, this episode in Republican civic idiocy should remove those doubts.

    It really boggles the mind to see what wretches Republican voters put in office at every level. Money before people. Profits before safety. And stupidity before duty. That’s the new (well, maybe not new) Republican theme. They have no policy to run on, so they have to pander to the ignorant base and the donors.

  9. Wow, what a novel approach using a virus to exterminate those who might be different than you!

    The government turned a blind eye to those who were giving smallpox infected blankets to the native Americans wiping out millions! All this without having to fire a single shot. Why not use covid to infect black and brown folks in this country to reduce the population and therefore retain Superior numbers!

    Sure some of your elderly might buy the farm but it’ll take out a much more of those pesky other types!

  10. This is nothing new. This is America. In Australia, drivers almost all drive at or slightly above the speed limit. You can get a ticket for 5 miles an hour over. There is little reckless driving, tailgating, road rage, etc. On a visit there, I was amazed by all this. I asked someone about it. She said “It’s the matey culture – we take care of each other.” Check out how they have handled the pandemic.

    For a much more thorough discussion of this and some pretty good theory about why “Trumpism” and the like are spreading in the developed world, I heartily recommend “Identity” by Francis Fukuyama. Just finished it – glad I won’t be around a lot longer.

  11. “Our healthcare system hasn’t been about public health for decades. Once we allowed our public healthcare system’s privatization, it became about maximizing profits versus prevention or keeping people healthy. Capitalism isn’t about sacrificing for others. Corporations aren’t about social responsibility.” Todd Smeken

    As a retired nurse Todd, I totally agree with you. I recall my public health nursing rotation in the 70’s. We wore blue uniforms so everyone knew we were nurses trying to help people in communities of poverty.

    There is nothing exciting about prevention nor is it as profitable. Just as we need to invest in other kinds of infrastructure, we need a public health infrastructure that is well funded and available to all. Public health nurses need better pay so that more nurses are attracted to work in public health. That sort of infrastructure would have helped us deal with this pandemic and would have markedly reduced the number of infection and deaths.

    Those who refuse to wear masks are a significant symptom of our lack of civics education in our schools. They have not even been taught that with each freedom we have comes a responsibility to extend ourselves for the safety and welfare of our fellow citizens. They are acting like adolescents who refuse to abide by rules that ensure their own safety as well as the safety of others in the name of identity politics.

    If Trump had directed his base to wear masks as a patriotic act, they would have confronted anyone not wearing a mask and complied with CDC guidelines. But in his grandiosity, Trump believed he knew more than the scientists and probably God, too.

  12. “Identity politics?” How about “Freedom Politics,” as espoused by Cruz, at the CPAC, where he screamed about “Freedom!” His version of it is the freedom to
    Cruz’ screams for “Freedom!” are screams for the “freedom” to “…exploit people into economic ruin; the freedom to assassinate unions; the freedom to prey on unprotected consumers, workers, and environments ; the freedom to value quarterly profits over climate change; the freedom to undermine small businesses and cushion corporations; the freedom from competition; the freedom not to pay taxes; the freedom to heave the tax burden onto the middle and lower classes; the freedom to co modify everything and everyone; the freedom to keep poor people poor and middle-income people struggling to stay middle-income, and make rich people richer.” From “How To Be An antiracist.”
    If I placed this here a while ago, I apologize for the redundancy. I am just back from a nice long weekend away from all the political craziness.

  13. It occurs to me that the ultimate bullying tactic (‘I can make you follow me anywhere, even to death’) is to command demonstration of political loyalty by risking your life. That’s what Trump has done to his supporters. He doesn’t even care if he kills them off, so long as they support him for all to see. It doesn’t get more macho or egotistical or needy than that. He needs more help than a mask can offer.

  14. I surprise “conservative” friends and acquaintances by pointing out via Wikipedia and other sources that our Constitution is considered to be the original definition of liberal democracy which first defined freedom under government. The Wikipedia definition of “liberal” is heavy on the notion of freedom plus responsibility. In fact, there is a political spectrum abstraction that posits that the opposite of liberal is not conservative, that’s the opposite of progressive, but it’s authoritarian. The reaction of “conservatives” is shocked because they are convinced of the opposite; that liberal is defined as authoritarian.

    Much discussion often ensues. Irresponsible behaviour is not freedom because it imposes less freedom on others, the ones who get sick and die because of viral spread for instance. Carrying the means to kill at a distance in public is not freedom because it puts others at risk is another example. My freedom stops at the boundaries of yours.

    Many people are enlightened by this revelation. Many are angered by it. They feel entitled to take a chunk out of everyone else’s freedom. I insist we call that what it is.

  15. Mitch D.,

    Thanks for pointing out that Republicans, in addition to naked power, have a second value – the right to prey on anyone at anytime for any reason. This of course, as often displayed by Trump, means not only destroying your enemy, but also the right to turn on your colleague/accomplice and devour him whole if he manifests slight disagreement with what you preach. As the intended victim, Mike Pence strangely seems to buy into this principle though it flies in the face of his self-interest. These people and their values are not understandable in any frame of reference hitherto known to sages, historians, philosophers or civilized society. Their position appears unsustainable.

  16. I will not allow the gummint to tell me what to do! No sireeee! Fine! Does that freedom extend to not stopping at stop signs and red lights? Seat belts? Seditious conduct at the capitol? Beating up frail widows? Purse snatching? Peeping Tomism – I’ve got a right to look in your window?

    Who draws and enforces the line in an organized society? Our duly elected representatives? Priests and preachers? Hitlers and Trumps? Wall Street? Amazon and Facebook? If we do not agree that the answer is “our duly elected representatives” rather than an interest group we are in big trouble as a democracy since those focussed on profits and power will only fashion social and economic mores and folkways to suit their primary objectives, i. e., the pursuit of power and profits.

    Ronald Reagan with his “Government is the problem” observation gave permission to the masses to blame government for all their own shortcomings even while preaching individual responsiblity from the rooftops – a predecessor to Trump’s grievance politics. Reagan was a Trump with a smile.

    Trump was not the first of the political liars in the Oval Office (see Harding, Nixon. Reagan et al), but he is the first of whom I am aware who in his lust for power openly condoned the sedition of January 6 in a continuing attempt to de-legitimize last fall’s election. He has committed several crimes before and after such an attempt and must be punished not only for what he did but as a signal to future presidents that those who would destroy our democracy will be held accountable irrespective of their high station.

  17. And, just to illustrate an instance of over-regulation of one’s constitutional liberties, let’s talk about a pregnant woman’s right to obtain an abortion. The liberty has been supported by the Supreme Court, but compromised by the principle that the older the fetus the more diminished a woman’s right to control her own reproductive outcomes. The compromise is huge. It has allowed states to impose myriad additional restrictions on women’s constitutional right to privacy in her medical decisions. But, I’d ask everyone to consider this – in no other instance is a person required by law to risk their own health, death, or financial security to save the life of another person. No soldier, no fire fighter, no doctor is required to risk their health or wealth to save the life another person. If they do, they are given medals and honors. Women who risk their health, life, and financial security to give birth are rewarded with a life of poverty and health impacts that range across a wide spectrum of seriousness and permanency. Even people who are capable of saving a life by donating a kidney or bone marrow are not required to risk a procedure to save the life of another. Someone who sees a car accident isn’t required to risk being late to an appointment to stop and save the life of an injured person. And, now states are legislating the protection of people’s right to not be inconvenienced by wearing a mask to save the life of another person. Tell me now how restrictions on women’s constitutional right to an abortion are not unequal, illegitimate violations of human liberty.

  18. Krugman makes an excellent point. We need to look at Covid -19 as hygiene issue. You do not urinate and take a bowel movement in public. You do not divert your “waste” into your neighbor’s yard. Many people walk their dogs and carry a bag to clean up the dog poop.

    Some how wearing a mask to protect other has become a political-social-cultural issue.

  19. Mary Mallon, patron saint of the no-maskers, was put into forced isolation for spreading Typhoid Fever. She was asymptomatic. Released, perhaps with the help of William Randolph Hearst, who loved a good paper-selling story, she promised not to work as a domestic, but changed her name and got a job as a cook. Having made the entire family ill, she was put into forced quarantine again.

    Perhaps, we should send these anti-mask people to someplace like South Padre Island, Texas, and quarantine the whole island. They can party maskless all they want, drink in bars, urinate in public — just never leave.

    Sorry – fantasy of the day. For those unfamiliar with the name, Mallon was “Typhoid Mary” – I think only three actual deaths were linked to her, but dozens of people were stricken.

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