COVID19 may kill social security

I know very little about what is going on in China, and that is partly because there are so many things going on that it would take a lot of attention to even begin to unravel it. All I can do is offer my impressions about what information that does manage to reach me. My understanding is that while the government does offer some basic services and protections of individuals, for the most part the individuals need to look out for themselves. In many ways, it seems that at the individual level, the demands on the individual’s self-reliance is higher than it is in the west. The difference is in the nature of that self-reliance: in china the self-reliance is in terms of taking advantage of their state while in west the self-reliance is more about taking advantage of their property.

Specifically, I’m referring to basic survival. While I assume these are partly misleading, the images of people being locked into their homes or neighborhoods suggested that those people would need to live on what they had inside that enclosure. Alternatively, the reports of allowing just one person to leave a household every few days to get supplies for the entire household meant that the person was responsible for the entire household in a way that has no parallel in western world.

The closest example I can think of is a father of a newborn in the days (or weeks) after birth when he is the only one able to get out and he needs to get stuff for everyone. Even then, the father can make multiple trips and the situation is temporary. Eventually, the mother is able to get out herself and the baby is able to come along.

I have been paying attention to China for a long time, perhaps most of my life. So this kind of reliance on a family acting as unit is not unique to this one epidemic. They have a very strong culture of having strong family ties and obligations to each other. This leads to multi-generational households, or at least very frequent if not daily interactions across the generations, where much of this interaction is necessary, such as providing services to each other.

Currently, there continues to be news about additional provinces receiving new restrictions or lock downs, or the provinces are at heightened levels of anxiety. By the time the news reaches me, the descriptions are filtered through the lens of this being the result of what the communist party does. While it is true that the ones in control (and thus making these decisions) are in the Chinese communist party, I suspect they have no other viable choice.

In our country, we have a social security program where the government redistributes wealth from working people to retired people though social security benefits. This includes the more generous retirement benefits to government workers. In these cases, the government insulates the family’s younger generations from being financially obligated to their parents or grandparents.

In China, despite its being a communist state, the younger generations are more responsible for the financial and well-being of their elders. People can get jailed for not doing this. This is not a sign of the oppressive government, but instead a consequence of the culture itself. China is built upon this expectation of inter-generational obligation, and this was for the good reason that this is part of the long-standing culture.

Long before the current virus outbreak, this system was under strain with a more transient population that separated generations especially as the younger sought work in distant areas where industries existed. When that happened, it was no longer possible to take a short detour in ones daily activities to visit their relatives for assistance. This might be compensated somewhat with cash payments, but that falls far short of what can be done for free through volunteered time to help with chores, etc.

I recall when the virus first made the news, that there were lots of reports of it affecting younger people, Mostly these were health workers. I recall my initial impression was that this was particularly dangerous to younger people but that was because I overlooked the fact that the health workers were busy healing others. Most of those others were older people. Many of the older people were brought to hospitals by relatives living in multi-generational households. Someone from the household caught the virus and brought it home, and even though the initially infected person recovered, the disease was passed on to the elderly or weakened who did not tolerate it as well.

Assuming that I am correct, I can see why the authorities would decide that the best option is to lock people into their buildings or neighborhoods. There was no effective means possible to isolate the generations.

Certainly, the entire situation is far more complex than I am writing, but there is at least a consideration that households consist of multiple generations ranging from school-age children to working age adults to retirees. They may not be physically in the same apartment, but they are close proximity with visits multiple times every day. Not even the Chinese communist party government would be able to replace that kind of dependency.

Our government (and our president in particular) has criticize China a lot. In hindsight, we can point out the errors it made, and a lot of those were failures to meet obligations to other nations in various ways. I tend to be a little more forgiving to the Chinese in that the mistakes were understandable at the time and given the challenges they faced. Some of the errors may trace to mischievous intents, but those too may be understandable given the stress they were in.

We can condemn them for these errors, but our government has also made some very poor decisions that have similarly violated our obligations to foreign nations and the global community. Some of those errors were mistaken lessons from the Chinese examples, such as the concept of the house-arrest style lock down being an inherent strategy for this virus as opposed to something that was more specific to a particular culture. Other errors were clearly from our own stupidity, or even our own mischievous actors.

In any event, there is a commonality of all of the worlds responses and that has to do with the obligations that the young have to the old.

The governments’ COVID19 responses (whether from China’s or the West’s) has strained this fragile relationship to the breaking point. The daily news fixated on case totals and geographic heat-maps provided the harsh illumination on this relationship between the generations. The population most at risk from this disease are in retirement age groups. While the disease threatens to take way a few more years of good lives, they have accrued many years of opportunities and probably more satisfying times.

Every country reacted in such a way to reduce the risk to these older people most at risk. Although the actual mechanics varied, every nation sought to protect the lives of the elderly by imposing demands on the younger generations:

  1. School age children must no longer go to school, or engage in play or sport with their peers. Instead they must stay inside their (often) cramped homes and wait indefinitely.
  2. Older children and younger adults must not be allowed to pursue new opportunities of training, engaging in commerce, or socializing to build networks, friendships, or future families. In effect, this generation must freeze in place whatever positions or networks they had before this situation started, a very unnatural expectation for young people.
  3. Working age adults must close their businesses and way of life if those are considered non-essential. They are threatened with ruinous fines or imprisonment if they disobey.
  4. Everyone must socially distance themselves from their peers and associates. They must accept a world where everyone must stay at least 6 feet apart, cover their faces and hands, and engage in “no touch” commerce. This must continue indefinitely.

All of this is occurring with very little discussion about the purpose being primarily to protect people in their retirement ages.

So much of the discussions have been about the medical controversies of this disease. All of these medical debates miss the most important medical truth depicted by a calendar. Calendars and years encapsulate the most basic of medical facts: people age. We use calendars to plan future objectives, and we also use them to record past achievements and missed opportunities. Medical decisions to do no harm should primarily do no harm to the calendar of one’s lives.

When considering the different age groups, the COVID19 response has different impacts to people’s life calendars. The virus poses absolutely no risk to older people’s past record of achievements and lost opportunities. The virus only risks people future calendars, and there are fundamentally different future calendars for the different age groups.

  1. The oldest generation’s future calendar is for the most part repeating what they did the day before, or the comparable day of the year before.
  2. The working age generation’s future calendar are the milestone achievements they strive to meet for some larger objective or just for the achievement itself. These are generally unlike what they did previously.
  3. The young adult or older child generation’s future calendar are to develop themselves both as individuals and as relationships with others that will define and serve them through their adulthood.
  4. The youngest children’s future calendar is about getting exposed to the world and adapting to its realities.

With very few exceptions, the entire globe approached the COVID19 situation incorrectly by failing to account for the basic medical fact of people’s future calendars. Nearly universally, we obsessed over case counts and death counts even after it became clear these numbers were unreliable. The medical priority was to keep these numbers down, no matter what. We needed to resort to invasive ventilators even with a 10% survival rate, because that 10% keep the numbers down. We needed to clear everyone’s future calendars because we were about to run out of ventilators.

The continued obsession on COVID19 is shining a bright light on this very fundamental fact: we are asking the young to sacrifice their future calendars for the sole sake of preserving the future calendars of the retirement-age group. Eventually, that light will shine on the massive qualitative difference of those calendars.

The current policies equalizes everyone’s calendars to be identical to the retiree’s calendar: do today what you did yesterday or what you did the same time last year. We are demanding that the entire population become retirees. Real retirees have their memories and wealth of past accomplishments. Similarly, younger generations must be satisfied with what they did earlier, all the way to babies retiring on their memories.

It is not surprising that some are warning that this is risking the end of humanity. Everyone in the entire population has been turned into a retiree, and when all the retirees die off, there will be no one left.

We are told that this is temporary until a vaccine is available. The problem with the vaccine is that there isn’t time to test it for safety. Specifically, it is not tested for safety to people’s future calendars. We acknowledge that vaccines are unavoidably unsafe, and those risks increases for younger people because they have more years to encounter the side effects, and those side effects will hamper their future prospects. Vaccines do not resolve the fundamental problem of trading off future calendars of young people for the future calendars of old people.

In my limited learning of history, I was struck by a common theme in the fall of great civilizations. One story that really stood out was the practice in ancient Egypt of ceremoniously sacrificing their leader when that leader reached a certain age (young by our standards). This was the most powerful and privileged person in that society and yet when he reached the defined age, he had to submit to being killed off. During this period, the kingdom thrived until one managed to convince the population that he did not have to submit to that practice. He got older, and his successors also were allowed to get older, and the entire civilization quickly collapsed.

I don’t know how true that story is or how accurately I remembered it, but is struck me that a great part of great civilizations (including the earlier history of my country) is that they consisted of and were lead by young people. Civilizations falter when their obsession to placate their older generation suffocates the futures of their younger generations. Eventually, the older generation will disappear, and the younger generation will take their place with one else to suffocate to sustain their lives. Civilization falls.

I was very disappointed in the government’s response to the current situation. Initially, I resigned to the worst case predictions and suggested that we just accept it as fate, get it over with, and then pick up with what remains. Early on, it was clear that the remaining population would be the mostly untouched younger generation who are well endowed (with youthful vigor at least) to carry on. I accepted this outcome even if it would have resulted in 10s of millions of deaths.

Even if the virus was man-made with gain-of-function enhancements, it is now part of nature and we will have to deal with it. It’s ongoing presence may condemn the future to a shorter life expectancy, from the upper 70s to the mid 60s. We can live with even that.

We can’t live with wiping clear of the young person’s future calendars for the sake of clinging onto the current high life expectancy. Eventually, the life expectancy will come down. It will come down much further if we continue on the current path even if we find a vaccine.

I was especially disappointed by the economic spending (so called stimulus or paycheck protection) that added trillions to the debt that the young generation must deal with. Thinking more about it, the spending (as well as the next one) should be taken out of the Social Security trust fund or Medicare obligations. This is spending that is specifically for the retirees. This should be an advanced up front payment in exchange for being free of the future obligation.

I suspect that these elder-population entitlements are now even less feasible with the COVID19 response. At some point the younger generation will reasonably conclude that they have already paid off this obligation to the older generation by saving them from this virus. They now need to focus on their own future calendars.

In the Chinese model, the young have an obligation to support their older generations. While this is true to some extent in all cultures, there are variations. In particular, there is a Western tradition of the older generation investing in their younger generations (whether related or not). The older generation acknowledges the benefits they have enjoyed in their youth and appreciations the advancements possible in the future. As a result of that, there is an obligation to support the younger generation by giving them the best opportunities.

That is not to say that the older generation is willing to die for the benefit of the younger generation. Even some of those ancient Pharaohs did not voluntarily die. The broader question is in the collective sense. What is the appropriate amount of burden the older generation should place on the younger one? I would argue: as little as possible.

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