Big Brother

June 8, 2020

In late 1948, George Orwell completed his literary classic 1984. The most unforgettable phrase from Orwell’s government-controlled surveillance society was “Big Brother Is Watching You”. Interestingly, there were 36 years from 1948 to 1984, as well as from 1984 to 2020. Numerology anyone? Now 72 years later, we have surrendered our privacy to omnipresent cameras supported by facial recognition technology. We have done this in exchange for a sense of security, to speed our passage through toll booths and airports, and to support our social media connections.

Contact Tracing: In order to control the spread of COVID-19, contact tracing has been proposed as a means to track down people who might have been exposed to the coronavirus to ensure they don’t pass it to others. Considering that the virus has an incubation period of 5 to 14 days, the potential web of an infector can be huge, with many more webs springing forth from that web. The resulting challenge? How to notify everyone who was near you at home or work, as well as in a grocery line, bus or elevator in the past two weeks.

Possible methods? Build a literal army of disease detectives (aka “contact tracers”) who will personally contact everyone with whom an infected person may have had a recent interaction: everyone in your “pod,” “quaranteam,” or “bubble”, as well as family, friends and co-workers. A colossal task.

By some estimates, the USA would need more than 100,000 of these detectives. Who will train them? Who will pay them? Will you answer a call from an unknown number? How can the caller be confirmed as a legitimate tracer? Would you be willing to share names and phone numbers of your recent contacts? While this well-intentioned program may work in smaller, less-mobile communities, it seems fraught with significant issues in major metropolitan areas.

Enter Orwellian technology! Use cell phones equipped with Bluetooth tracking software to instantly text anyone in your web of a confirmed case in their related tangle. Apple and Google have developed a functional app that Italy will launch today: Immuni. Other countries have adopted open-source platforms that seem to address user’s privacy concerns.

The bottom line question is: And then what? Can / should Big Brother force you to quarantine if you are pre-symptomatic but were in someone’s web? Are Americans willing to sacrifice their privacy to stay out of quarantine, or to do so in the greater interest of public health? The coming months will tell.

In 1981, President Reagan said:
“We’ve gone astray from first principles. We’ve lost sight of the rule that individual freedom and ingenuity are at the very core of everything that we’ve accomplished. Government’s first duty is to protect the people, not run their lives.”

Implantable microchips: In Sweden, thousands have voluntarily implanted rice-sized chips into their hands to have the convenience of discarding their keys and wallets. In 2017, Three Square Market became the first company in the United States to offer implanted microchips to its employees. Today, more than a dozen states have passed laws to ban mandatory microchipping that would otherwise create Big Brother anxiety. But as with facial recognition technology, will people ultimately be willing to surrender privacy for convenience and/or security? Before you think “Not me!”, consider the privacy many of us already surrender via the use of our smart phones, email, internet-connected smart TVs, online purchases, fitness smart watches, social media apps, and even our newer automobiles!

Stocks: Last week, the S&P 500 gained 5% on news that employers hired back 2.5 million workers, reducing the unemployment rate to 13.3%, a promising sign that the economy is on the mend. Many good economists had predicted that unemployment would climb to more than 20%. The NASDAQ is nearly back to its all-time high, and the S&P 500 is down just 1% for the year, just 10 weeks after the depths of despair!

Stimulus “checks”: Americans have been discarding their special prepaid debit cards from the IRS thinking it was junk mail. The cards were enclosed in a non-descript white envelope from Money Network Cardholder Services, and looked much like the many direct mail solicitations from banks. The cards were designed to speed up the delivery of the “Economic Impact Payment”. Perhaps the word “Stimulus” somewhere on the envelope or contents would have been wise? Other snafu? My son’s card had his wife’s maiden name instead of Volpe!

IRA Required Minimum Distributions: Although none are “required” for 2020, there could be tax planning benefits when making a distribution during 2020. We will provide guidance during YETPLAN and WorldWatch later this year. Please ignore other RMD communications from Fidelity or your other IRA custodians.

Merck joins the race! “Unless we immunize essentially the whole world, none of us will be safe” said Merck CEO Ken Frazier in an interview last week. Merck has two new vaccines in development, as well as an antiviral drug similar to Gilead’s remdesivir. Russia also announced very strong results for avifavir, a therapeutic drug that has been shown to halve the duration of COVID-19, and they claim to be the most promising anti-coronavirus drug in the world. It is a modification of a drug used in Japan since 2014 to treat influenza.

The new Space Race! 9 days ago, Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully launched two astronauts into space on their Falcon 9 reusable rocket. The following day, their Crew Dragon capsule (also reusable) docked with the International Space Station. NASA’s public/private joint venture challenge between SpaceX and Boeing was the beginning of a race to open the commercial age of space exploration. SpaceX won. They also had the far better-looking flight suits and capsule!

Mars? Musk Tweeted last week that SpaceX will have a manned mission to Mars by 2024. They are simultaneously working on their intercontinental Starship which will economically transport hundreds of passengers a quarter of the way around the planet in less than 60 minutes…at Mach 25. Fasten your seat belt!

Best regards,

Richard J. Volpe, CFP®, CLU®, ChFC®, AEP®
Founder and President