[guest post by JVW]
Yascha Mounk, the editor of the new online journal of opinion (he modestly refers to it as “a newsletter,” but I’m going to upgrade it) Persuasion, has a compelling piece in yesterday’s edition titled “Why I Am Losing Trust in the Institutions.” He covers the recent controversy regarding the CDC’s temporary determination to prioritize COVID-19 vaccinations based upon occupational and racial considerations rather than age considerations, even though they acknowledged that this would likely cause thousands of senior citizens to die who otherwise might be spared. He does an excellent job in explaining how this decision was reached:
On November 23rd, Kathleen Dooling, a public health official at the CDC, gave a presentation to the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), which is tasked with developing the recommendation on who should first get access to the vaccine against Covid. In a stark departure from the course of action adopted in virtually every other developed democracy, Dooling recommended that 87 million essential workers—a very broad category including bankers and movie crews as well as teachers or supermarket cashiers—should get the vaccine before older Americans, even though the elderly are much more likely to die from the disease. The committee unanimously accepted the recommendations.
Dooling’s presentation laid out three different metrics for evaluating whether 87 million “essential workers” or Americans over the age of 65 should be next in line: feasibility, science, and ethics. According to the CDC’s own evaluation, considerations of feasibility give us reasons to prioritize older Americans. This makes sense. It is both difficult to determine who should count as an essential worker and to communicate to people who do fall into that category that they are eligible. A straightforward age cut-off makes it easier to decide who’s in and reach the target population. As a result, prioritizing the older than 65s leads by this metric.
Considerations of “science” also seemed to point in the same direction. As the presentation acknowledged, the likelihood of dying from Covid strongly depends on age. According to the CDC’s model, prioritizing essential workers over the elderly would therefore increase the overall number of deaths by between 0.5% and 6.5%. In other words, it would likely result in the preventable deaths of thousands of Americans.
And yet, the presentation concluded that science does not provide a reason to prioritize the elderly. For, as Kathleen Dooling wrote in one of the most jaw-dropping sentences I have ever seen in a document written by a public official, differences in expected consequences that could amount to thousands of additional deaths are “minimal.”
This allowed Dooling to focus on “ethical” principles in selecting the best course of action. Highlighting the most important consideration in red, Dooling emphasized that “racial and ethnic minority groups are underrepresented among adults > 65.” In other words, America’s elderly are too white to be considered a top priority for the distribution of the vaccine against Covid. It is on this basis that ACIP awarded three times as many points to prioritizing the more racially diverse group of essential workers, making the crucial difference in the overall determination. Astonishingly, the higher overall death toll that would have resulted from this course of action does not feature as an ethical reason to prioritize older Americans.
I have quoted quite liberally from Mr. Mounk’s piece, and rather than explicate the rest of his thoughts in this post, I simply urge everyone to click over to his piece and read it in full. But I will let slip that he affirms Andrew Sullivan’s observation of two years ago that “we all live on campus now,” and as the title of his piece indicates, Mr. Mounk declares that this social justice silliness is corroding his — and, I venture it is safe to say, so many others’ — trust in societal institutions that ought to be above this sort of fatuous grandstanding.
Meanwhile, the boss had a Twitter back-and-forth on this very same subject with lefty writer Kevin Drum of Mother Jones, who unsurprisingly is far more sanguine about prioritizing younger essential workers over elderly retirees for vaccination, partly of course because younger “essential” workers are indeed a more racially diverse cohort. Patterico made the same argument on Twitter that Yashca Mounk would later make in his piece: What about elderly minorities, especially the black community, who without the vaccine will presumably (at least according to what we have seen thus far) die at a higher rate than elderly whites? Set aside for a moment the obnoxious argument that social justice dictates that younger and more diverse age-groups have priority over older and whiter age-groups: How is social justice served by using the vaccine to theoretically save X young black lives as opposed to Y older black lives, especially if it turns out (as it very well might) that Y is greater than X? Obviously the right solution in the eyes of the rabid social justice mob would be to have all black and brown people move to the front of the line, but even the CDC realizes that is fraught with peril, both from a moral and a practical standpoint. Patterico’s entire Twitter exchange with Kevin Drum can be found here, but this is the major part when Drum addresses our host’s question:
I don't get this. Why would they not ask if they're truly social justice warriors?
— Kevin Drum (@kdrum) December 19, 2020
Isn't that all subsumed under the death rate for 65+, which of course they acknowledge is higher? I'm not trying to be opaque, but I really don't get this. Also, blacks have higher comorbidities at all ages, so in general that would be a great thing for SJWs to point out.
— Kevin Drum (@kdrum) December 19, 2020
That depends on your perspective. For those of us who think minimizing death predominates over "racial justice" — *even if* the group whose deaths are minimized contains a lot of white people! — then I think the discussion deserves the seriousness with which it's being taken.
— Patterico (@Patterico) December 19, 2020
It probably won’t shock any readers of this blog if I declare my belief that Patterico and Yascha Mounk have the better of the argument. As Mr. Mounk points out, if our institutions mindlessly adopt the fashionable intellectual pablum marketed under the banner of social justice then they shouldn’t expect the rest of us to hold them in any particular esteem.