The recent balloon threat, like so many other perceived threats, is vague enough to be treated as silly or deadly-serious depending on the political needs of those commenting on it or tasked with planning official responses.
There’s no clearer evidence of that than the revelation that the expensive U.S. military machine may now have unwittingly gone to war with a harmless amateur balloon hobbyist group called the Bottlecap Brigade, who should at least demand a formal declaration of war from Congress before they’re annihilated. For balance, Biden should’ve ended his speech about the balloon threat last week with a verse or two from the anti-war, anti-paranoia 1980s song “99 Red Balloons,” from a then-West German singer who understood that one hasty radar reading—with a little help from stupid bureaucracies—could launch missiles and end the world.
The private sector isn’t a cure-all for the problem of bureaucratic irrationality, either, lest anyone think a libertarian like me is unaware of that fact. Until the law routinely punishes as forms of fraud, say, keeping customers with complaints on hold or bouncing them around to different departments forever, corporate America will get away with a lot of scams and understandably spawn a lot of enemies.
Wary though I am of responding to such problems by unleashing either real populists or faux-populists, I was pleased to see Ohio’s Sen. J.D. Vance complaining about one sleazy footnote to the recent big train derailment/chemical spill in his state: Representatives of the organization Norfolk Southern Testing purportedly slyly offered free testing for chemical residues to residents near the crash—so long as they signed a waiver (of which people weren’t allowed to keep a copy unless they signed) holding the company blameless in it all, the company being a subset of Norfolk Southern Railway Company, the highly accident-prone train company involved in the crash. The company later claimed the sweeping waiver one resident managed to photograph was an incorrect document issued accidentally.
Reactions to the whole disaster, in short, can be ratcheted up or down as politically or financially necessary.
As a veteran of a libertarian-leaning, skeptical thinktank that often debunked eco-paranoia, I know health effects from chemicals are routinely exaggerated, especially by lawyers and hypochondriacs—not to mention the creators of semi-apocalyptic novels and films such as White Noise, which by a weird coincidence opens with a big train derailment/chemical spill, shot a couple of years ago in the very location where the real spill is now unfolding. On the other hand, I know corporate bureaucracy, much like government bureaucracy, is dumb and amoral enough to kill us all while that phone queue mentioned above tells us to wait patiently.
Instead of an objective, coldly scientific assessment of the dangers in Ohio determining the tone of public discourse about the spill, politics and self-interest likely will—and one of the best pieces of evidence that Donald Trump will take his 2024 return campaign for the presidency seriously is that he’s already begun criticizing Biden for failing to respond quickly to the Ohio disaster. Ohio is in the politically moderate Midwest, locus of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 defeat and the heart of non-ideological swing-voter territory.
As usual, who’s in favor (rightly or wrongly) of tougher safety or environmental regulations won’t matter. If Trump needs to show heightened concern to pick up some votes, he’ll do it. I’m reminded of how much time Fox News spent lamenting the Gulf oil spill during my ill-fated year working for them in 2010—not because Fox consistently favored tougher regulations or penalties against polluters but presumably just because that disaster made Obama look bad. Politicians and pundits can turn as green or pro-business as needed to achieve their real end: greater political influence.
Biden and his allies are suddenly leaning pro-nonchalance on chemical exposure, assuring the world Ohio’s in no danger, just two years after they urged locking down the whole world over any detectable traces of a usually sniffles-inducing virus, equating a puritanical zero-risk attitude with neighborliness and basic morality.
With that panic ebbing, unelected (but immensely enriched) health-and-surveillance czar Bill Gates now casually dismisses mRNA vaccine tech as inferior and the establishment acts as if lockdowns were no great burden and not something to which they were dogmatically committed—though they must sweat at least a little when they see less-amnesiac protestors gathering at a New York City appearance by lockdown-enabling Dr. Fauci to denounce him as a murderer, while even the usually safely pro-establishment film industry puts out the satirical film Sick in which a proud Covid-mask-wearing oldster bars the door to a woman fleeing a serial killer since the woman isn’t doing the safety-enhancing proper thing by wearing a mask of her own.
Risk is in some sense subjective, as Wall Streeters, focus group organizers, bullies, security system salesmen, Al Gore, and many other categories of opportunists know.
—Todd Seavey is the author of Libertarianism for Beginners and is on Twitter at @ToddSeavey