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Who Can We Blame This Time? (Gwen Moritz Editor's Note)

Arkansas Surgeon General Greg Bledsoe

When it comes to traditional, conservative values, personal and political, my brother takes a back seat to no one. He left Arkansas 47 years ago, briefly for Texas and then for Tennessee, and has never been tempted to come back home like his baby sister and so many others. State income taxes, you know.

I got a text message from him last week: “I hear Arkansas is seeing more COVID cases. Is that exaggerated news reports or truth?”

I responded with a telephone call. This topic required more words than I have patience to peck out on my cellphone — especially the idea that news reports about COVID might be exaggerated. I know of no news source that is reporting any state-level COVID statistics other than those provided by the Arkansas Department of Health, an agency that reports directly to Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

(Yes, hospitals get a bigger Medicare reimbursement for documented COVID cases, which has made some people eager to believe that COVID diagnoses have been inflated by greedy health care professionals. But if COVID isn’t to blame, something else caused 15% more deaths in the United States in 2020, and something else is filling ICU beds in Arkansas to a level not seen in months.)

Tennessee’s vaccination rate is similar to Arkansas’ — only about a third of us are fully vaccinated — and yet as of this writing, Tennessee has not seen the spike in new cases, hospitalizations or deaths that our state has suffered. As of last Wednesday, the day my brother and I spoke, Tennessee was reporting a third as many new cases per day despite having more than twice Arkansas’ population. Our mutual neighbors, Missouri and Mississippi, are also undervaccinated and suffering from worrisome spikes, but neither has seen as many new cases per capita as Arkansas.

Clearly something has gone wrong, especially in Arkansas but also elsewhere in our region. And last week, Dr. Greg Bledsoe, the state’s surgeon general and Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, took to Twitter to make sure we all know who is to blame for this failure in public health outcomes among conservatives in conservative states: liberals.

If I understand Bledsoe’s tweets correctly, “the left” is responsible for “normal” Americans (which he helpfully defined as people with “non-progressive” opinions) mistrusting factual information about COVID and vaccines coming from government (including the one he’s part of), “the media” and academia. He made clear that he wasn’t blaming anyone in Arkansas specifically for making Arkansans reject lifesaving science; instead, he blamed “academia in general” and “national medical associations” who “have been aggressively adversarial towards conservative perspectives, especially on issues like the 2nd Amendment, abortion, etc.”

If he offered up evidence to support his conclusion, I missed it, and the polls and surveys I’ve seen on vaccine hesitancy haven’t drilled down into which leftist institutions have made conservatives distrust even the conservative governments that they have elected to run states like ours. (They do reflect what Bledsoe said the data show: “conservative, red state voters are not getting vaccinated.”)

But it’s notable that some states led by Republicans have not had lifesaving messages drowned out by mistrust of liberals. The Republican governor of bright-red Utah announced that 70% of his state’s adults had at least one shot by July 4, and then sheepishly had to back that down to 67% — still a success rate that Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee can only dream of. (Arkansas’ comparable figure at this writing is 43%.)

Almost as notable as who Bledsoe blames for conservative vaccine hesitancy is who he never mentions as being any part of the problem: fellow conservatives who are actively sowing fear and doubt in direct opposition to Bledsoe’s message. Maybe Bledsoe is fine with Fox News talking head Tucker Carlson telling his conservative audience, “Maybe [the vaccine] doesn’t work, and they’re simply not telling you that.” Maybe he’s fine with Newsmax host Rob Schmitt suggesting that vaccines go “against nature.” Or maybe he wishes they would shut up but can’t take the political risk of suggesting publicly that anyone but liberals shares any of the deadly blame.

For what it’s worth, my brother dismissed partisan politics as the reason for vaccine rejection. He thinks it’s no coincidence that the states with low vaccination rates are also the ones with less educational achievement. And since he spent five days in the hospital with COVID last fall, followed by weeks on supplemental oxygen, I’ll tell you what else he said:

“I would be happy to take a third shot if that’s what it takes not to get it again.”

Gwen Moritz is the editor of Arkansas Business.

Officers of the Court (Gwen Moritz Editor's Note)

Long ago I worked with a reporter who routinely suggested potential news stories without any idea of whether they were factual. His setup — “Wouldn’t it be a great story if …” — became a newsroom punchline. I have no reason to believe that he actually fabricated any articles, but his approach to journalism made me nervous. I have never known another reporter who did that.

I was reminded of that dude as I edited Senior Editor Mark Friedman’s two-part story about the 2015 death of 20-year-old Luke Baker in a Jefferson County hunting lodge and the misery and litigation that trailed in its wake. (See Lawyers Called Greedy in Fatal Gunplay Case and Private Autopsy, Public Blowback in Fatal Gunplay Case.)

As the mother of two grown sons, I appreciate the misery that his parents will live with for the rest of their lives. I can even understand their refusal to believe that their boy, raised to respect firearms, would ever have shot himself in the head in the reckless stunt described by his friend and only known witness.

And since they can’t believe that Luke shot himself, I can understand why they believed that someone else did it — someone who has not been held accountable. I can understand their unquenchable desire to find evidence that someone else’s kid was reckless, or even malicious.

What I can’t understand is why lawyers, officers of the court, helped the Baker family accuse others — specifically Skylar Wilson; his father, Bryan Adams; and his uncle, Brandon Adams — of causing and then covering up Luke’s death without evidence beyond the desperate belief of a bereaved family. It would be great for the Baker family if anyone who had firsthand experience with the evidence — including the body exhumed years after burial — had offered any support for the idea of a homicide, or at least some evidence contradicting young Skylar’s account.

But no one did — not sheriff’s department investigators, not the deputy coroner, not even the medical examiner hired to perform a long-delayed autopsy or the former coroner hired to witness the autopsy.

That didn’t stop attorney Greg Stephens, a longtime friend of Luke’s father, Kerry Baker, from asserting in court that the gunshot was “believed” to have originated too far from the wound to have been self-inflicted. Believed by whom? Only by those with a vested interest in believing it.

For two and a half years, Jefferson County Circuit Judge Alex Guynn demonstrated compassion toward the Bakers and gave their lawyers more latitude than they probably deserved. Ultimately, he lost patience with “theatrics” and dismissed the Bakers’ attempt to use a civil court to reassign the blame for their son’s death.

And while he never directly questioned the family’s motives, Guynn did suggest that Stephens and another of the Baker family’s lawyers, Lucien Gillham of Benton, were motivated by greed rather than justice. Well, he was elected to be the judge of such things.

After spending more than $1 million defending themselves, the Adams brothers and Wilson have turned the table. They have sued the Bakers, the lawyers and even the Jefferson County coroner, who waited almost four years to declare Luke’s wound to be “non-self-inflicted” based on what he later described as a “mistake” in interpreting photos of a body he had never seen in person. Coroner Chad Kelley could have put a stop to a narrative that had no supporting evidence, but he didn’t. While I can’t endorse the sinister motive that the Adamses ascribe to Kelley — that he changed the cause of death in order to get a cheap settlement in an unrelated sexual harassment lawsuit — I think it’s fair to say that the people of Jefferson County deserve a coroner who can recognize evidence of a close-contact gunshot wound. And one who doesn’t average five phone calls a week with a single plaintiff’s attorney (Stephens) over the course of two years.

Mark Friedman spent weeks reporting on the most complicated legal morass that he or I or Managing Editor Jan Cottingham had ever seen. As Jan pointed out, that’s well over 100 years of combined journalistic experience.

But as complicated as the legalities are, I think the most telling detail is quite simple. Skylar Wilson said his friend Luke joked about playing Russian roulette, then pointed a revolver at the ceiling of the hunting lodge and pulled the trigger. But the gun failed to fire. Only then did Luke, laughing, point the gun at his own head.

If true, it explains why a young man with no desire to harm himself pulled that trigger the second time. If it’s not true, it’s the most brilliant, simple, believable lie I’ve ever heard.

Gwen Moritz is the editor of Arkansas Business.

Certain Unalienable Rights (Craig Douglass On Consumers)

Job killers! No, not highly visible tattoos the Urban Dictionary lists as “job-killer ink.” What we’re talking about are federal and state regulations often singled out by business and industry. These disdained policies usually range from mandatory increases in minimum wage and more liberal employee leave policies to workplace safety and environmental protections. Or, more recently, increased unemployment payments.

Each year the California Chamber of Commerce (CalChamber) publishes a list of state legislation it deems “job killers,” legislation identified as harmful to employers and the economy. This year, CalChamber lobbied to kill at least 25 bills, including those regarding employment mandates, taxes, housing, workplace safety and workers’ compensation. As a chamber of commerce, it’s doing its job and its members’ bidding. Nothing wrong with that.

There is debate, however, on the actual effect regulations have on private-sector job losses or the lack of new-job creation. Business and general news media, depending on where they are on the left-to-right spectrum, can be very precise about what is otherwise imprecise research on the matter.

Agreement is generally reached on the advantages and disadvantages of regulations, and how regulations affect consumers and producers.

Regulatory advantages include better working conditions, protection of rights, prevention of monopolies, public health and safety, cleaner air and water, and ensuring tax revenue for programs benefiting the public good.

Disadvantages, too, are well cited. They include retarding innovation, increasing administrative work and consuming time, disproportionately affecting small business, and raising business costs and consumer prices.

Now, any smart business or industry wants to do more with less. And the “less” usually means fewer employees and the payroll and benefit costs that go along with them. It’s simply called productivity. And you can increase that with streamlined best practices, technology and automation.

Our belief is that the process by which government regulations are promulgated should be accompanied by not necessarily an economic impact statement, but a value-added statement — the value a regulation will add to the product or service. And value can be measured at the consumer level, at least, by such metrics as confidence in the performance of the product, the safety with which it was produced and the fairness with which it is marketed.

We’ll let the debate over regulation and private-sector job creation and retention go, praying only for balance.

We’re worried, though, about something else that may be a little more esoteric, but no less important: social legislation and regulations that affect individual rights, personal behavior and professional services.

There may be a paradoxical dilemma in certain legislative efforts around the country. That dilemma has to do with a notion that government should be limited in its involvement in our daily lives. “Live Free or Die.” “Don’t Tread on Me.” “Give me liberty, or give me death!” And the like.

But then we see rules and regulations that interpose government in the bedroom, the locker room, the doctor’s office and the voting booth. These are contradictory propositions.

Are these regulatory expressions of societal constraints job killers? Do they create pause among progressive business and industry leaders who are expanding their consumer service companies or relocating industries that manufacture and distribute consumer products? Do economic development efforts, so highly competitive among states (and nations, for that matter), suffer at the incongruity between ideology and policy? Chambers of commerce, no less, have opined in the affirmative.

It was once thought progressives (nee liberals) preferred government intervention to ensure social and economic equality, while conservatives opposed government intervention to protect social and economic equality.

Said another way, progressives would initiate a regulation to level the playing field. Conservatives, on the other hand, would eschew a regulation so the marketplace could provide equanimity. Whose rights are ensured; whose rights are protected?

We know this: The notion of protecting responsible and independent individuals from themselves has seldom worked to the benefit of our society or the social order maintained by our economic and political traditions.

Job killers? Perhaps. A slap at certain unalienable rights? Most assuredly.

Craig Douglass serves as executive director of the Regional Recycling & Waste Reduction District in Pulaski County.

Famine, Then Feast (Gwen Moritz Editor's Note)

I picked up a prescription at my regular pharmacy early last month, and my medicine and receipt came with an extra bag of goodies: hand sanitizer, sanitizer wipes, disposable masks and even a nice cloth mask. A year earlier, I would have felt like I won the lottery.

My son stopped by the house, saw the swag on the kitchen table and said he got the same when he went to the same pharmacy for his COVID-19 vaccine.

Representatives of a state agency came by the office a couple of weeks ago, and they too left me with pocket-sized bottles of hand sanitizer. It didn’t seem like an attempt to influence me; as with the pharmacy, it seemed like an attempt to get rid of an oversupply. I am still sanitizing my hands regularly, as I did for years before COVID, but I’m not sure I’ll live long enough to use up all the bottles of clear goo that have inexplicably multiplied at my house, on my desk, in my car and in my handbag.

Being devotees of hand sanitizer from way back, my husband and I had a healthy supply before the pandemic and were never in any danger of running out. Still, I confess to buying a couple of spares when the supply finally caught up with demand. When something you depend on becomes scarce, the urge to hoard is powerful — but at least I waited until the shortage was over. It’s easy to understand the “Depression-era mentality” that my parents’ generation retained for the rest of their lives (and passed on to some of us boomers).

Less interesting to me than consumer behavior — which Olivia Farrell, the former CEO of Arkansas Business Publishing Group, concluded that I would never grasp despite her valiant efforts to mentor me — was the response to supply shortages by the business community.

Early in the crisis, we had a shortage of masks so dire that public health authorities discouraged the general public from buying them in order to preserve the limited supply for front-line health care professionals. The airborne mechanism by which the virus spread became apparent pretty quickly, but not immediately. Almost instantly anyone with access to fabric and a sewing machine, from my sister-in-law in Tennessee to Adidas vendor TY Garments at the Port of Little Rock, started turning out masks. (Who ever imagined that we would all develop personal preferences about mask design?)

Lexicon, the Little Rock steel fabricator that’s currently doing a $100 million project for Tesla in Texas, created metal brackets for plastic face shields for use by local health care professionals. “We didn’t make any money on it, but it shows how nimble we are,” CEO Patrick Schueck said recently.

RockTown Distillery in Little Rock similarly augmented production of potent potables with hand sanitizer, and so did a lot of other manufacturers, judging by the glut of sanitizer brands I had never heard of. And some of them smell really bad, like they launched without time for basic market research — or with the confidence that desperate consumers would not be choosy.

The only similarly instantaneous market response I can remember was the “fidget spinner” tsunami of 2017. The buzzword is “pivot,” and the women featured in Sarah Campbell-Miller’s Women’s Stunted Capital Blocks Better Economy use it a lot. The entrepreneurial mindset that can recognize a void in the market and quickly react is something I admire and envy.

But what happens when a void is filled to overflowing? In April, the New York company that makes a Sani Smart hand sanitizer sued Walmart Inc. for $15 million after its Sam’s Club division refused to take delivery of millions of dollars worth of the stuff. Walmart, in its response, denies that Sam’s Club ordered that last shipment and — in a cautionary tale for all vendors — denies “that the referenced emails constitute purchase orders.”

Any glut of disposable masks will undoubtedly be absorbed over time. But hand sanitizer, being regulated by the Food & Drug Administration, carries a mandatory expiration date. The stuff piled up in your glove compartment will never be dangerous to use, although it might eventually lose its germ-killing power. But selling pallets of aging or expired products will require some entrepreneurial genius.

Last week’s COVID count and our state’s embarrassing vaccination statistics suggest that any declaration that masks and hand sanitizers are no longer needed could be tragically premature.

Gwen Moritz is the editor of Arkansas Business.

Crime and Punishment (Gwen Moritz Editor's Note)

In last Monday’s Executive Q&A feature, Mark Hayes, executive director of the Arkansas Municipal League, cited technology — particularly cybersecurity and the threat of cybercrimes like ransomware — as the biggest challenge facing cities around the state.

On the day that issue landed on subscribers’ desks, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a thrilling new weapon in the war on hackers: better hackers. The DOJ, with a warrant from a federal magistrate judge in the Northern District of California, infiltrated a cryptocurrency “wallet” and seized 63.7 of the 75 bitcoins that Colonial Pipeline of Alpharetta, Georgia, had paid last month to the cybercriminals who had shut down the computer systems that controlled its vast fuel pipe network. (The dollar value of the bitcoins had fallen in the interim.)

That ransomware attack, as you surely remember, led to a fuel shortage on the East Coast that was exacerbated by panic buying. The price of gasoline spiked, especially in the affected areas, and airlines were left scrambling.

Federal officials attributed the hack to DarkSide, a group of hackers probably based in Russia that has victimized more than 90 businesses and organizations since it first surfaced less than a year ago. DarkSide is believed to be an affiliate of a Russian hacking group called REvil (with an emphasis on the “evil”).

Ransomware is not new. Our Sarah Campbell-Miller first wrote about it as a threat to businesses in Arkansas in mid-2016 — and Augusta health care provider ARCare and the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office fell victim to it later that year.

Five years is a long time in the field of cybersecurity. Back then, an aspiring cybercriminal could buy the malware online and deploy it against small, unsophisticated organizations with weak networks. The ransom demanded was typically small — Carroll County shelled out $2,400, which was more than most — which made paying the ransom a fairly easy response. (ARCare stiffed its hackers, having made adequate preparation for a data loss.)

DarkSide, REvil and their ilk started hitting vastly larger organizations and threatening vital infrastructure. DarkSide posted an apology online for the “social consequences” of its hit on Colonial Pipeline and promised to “introduce moderation” in targeting future crime victims. Color me skeptical — especially if it turns out that DarkSide is responsible for this month’s holdup of JBS SA. The giant Brazilian meat packing company paid $11 million in ransom.

Ramping up the reward also ramped up the risk. Remember the words of criminal mastermind Hans Gruber in “Die Hard”: “Well, when you steal $600, you can just disappear. But when you steal $600 million, they will find you, unless they think you’re already dead.” While DarkSide stole only $4.4 million from Colonial directly, that was a pittance compared with the cost to the American economy in just a few frantic days. And while the DOJ hasn’t captured the criminals, it made the crime far less lucrative.

In mid-May, a day or so after President Biden promised aggressive federal action in retaliation for the Colonial hack, cybersecurity journalists with The Record reported that DarkSide had lost control of the digital accounts containing the ransom. Or so DarkSide’s pseudonymous operator claimed in an online post. Consider the source.

About the same time, the cybersecurity firm Elliptic announced that it had identified the crypto wallet that received the Colonial ransom payment. Within a few more days Elliptic said it had tracked some $90 million in ransom payments to DarkSide between October and May.

Tracking bitcoin transfers requires high-level expertise in blockchain technology, but knowing that money has been moved from one state-of-the-art safe to another is one thing; getting the money out is another. (“You can unlock the vault, can’t you?” Hans Gruber asked the oleaginous Theo.) What the DOJ announced last week should send shivers through every criminal who thought Bitcoin was “secure, decentralized and anonymous,” as The New York Times put it.

Exactly how the DOJ was able to access the DarkSide wallet is the kind of state secret even I approve of, as long as it is used to make victims whole and frustrate criminals. It might even provide a glimmer of hope for someone like Stefan Thomas, the San Francisco programmer I mentioned in this space a couple of weeks ago. He has 7,200 bitcoins, worth $265 million last week, but has forgotten the password to his wallet.

Panic is never a good financial strategy. During the fuel shortage last month, I saw a thought-provoking comment on Facebook that went something like this:

Some people will take only one slice of pizza because they are worried there won’t be enough to go around. Other people take three slices for the same reason.

Which kind of person are you?

Gwen Moritz is the editor of Arkansas Business.