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2020-07-03

GOP, Not Grand Anymore

Three characteristics define the current Republican Party: Racism, Willful Ignorance, and Wealth over the Common Good. The domination of Donald Trump over the party only completes and consolidates these characteristics that have been developing for generations. 

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1. Racism

From Goldwater to Nixon to Reagan to Gingrich to Trump, the GOP has shed its moderate wing and brought on board southern and suburban whites. (Claire Malone offers a cogent examination how the party made itself white in a post on FiveThirtyEight.) She chronicles the evolution from dog whistles to overt racist expressions by our current president—all driven by perceived political necessity to remain in power. 

Donald Trump’s racism should now be beyond question from comments about “shithole” countries, support for “very fine people” who happen to be white supremacists, and “rigged elections” that put and keep people in power who should “go back to where you came from.” The current Black Lives Matter movement has taught us that racism is more than language and even emotion, it is structure. Racism is both in the American political DNA as well as the bones and sinew of our institutions and culture. 

Trump is only overt in expressing what many people think and feel. Which brings us to Number 2. 

2. Willful Ignorance (and Death)

Steaphan Greene / CC BY-SA
America leads the world in the total number of COVID-19 cases and deaths. After a partial flattening of the curve, we are now headed back up nationally and accelerating across several states. The path of the virus has now reached states that are politically red, a predictable outcome as the governors took their cues from the White House that withdrew from any active role in responding to the threat. 

On June 23, Trump said that the coronavirus will simply “disappear”, despite the fact that the case counts continue to climb up a mountainside. This was the 13th time he predicted that the virus will magically disappear. So far, more than 128,000 Americans have perished from the disease. The new case count just passed 50,000 per day on its trajectory to reach a Fauci-predicted 100,000 new daily infections. Yet, the president will not invoke existing powers to marshall medical supplies, support testing and tracing, or even set an example of wearing a mask. 

Where are the rest of the Republicans? A few leaders have started wearing masks. Some GOP governors in states hit hard recently have started inching towards more restrictions. But plenty of Trump supporters refuse to practice social distancing by attending his rallies and confronting government agencies in open meetings to rail against oppression—all because they are asked to wear a bit of cloth to cover half their faces. Trump himself eschews wearing a mask or taking other exemplar steps to counter the virus. 

Partisan politics has overwhelmed scientific knowledge. We now live in our own Dark Ages where reason and evidence have been replaced by incantation and magical thinking. The fact that no Republican of note has stood up to resist this deadly practice speaks to their lack of concern for the general welfare. 

That brings us to Number 3. 

3. Wealth over the Common Good
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America is built on the myth that anyone can be successful, as defined by having great wealth. Yet, Donald Trump is a living example of being born on third base and reaching home before he was three years old. His father provided him an annual income of $200,000 (in today’s dollars) at three and he was a millionaire by age eight. Eventually, Donald received over $400 million from his father. While that is an extreme, although now singularly important example, it is only a difference in degree not kind. 

Wealth begets wealth. Rather than taxing the rich to pay for education from pre-K to college, Americans rely on regressive taxation to fund education, usually local property taxes. While that offers wealthy neighborhoods good schools, it does nothing for those on the other side of the tracks. If education is the great equalizer in our mythology, underfunded schools (because of tax policy) hobbles millions by denying them equal educational opportunities. 

Poverty persists. Lacking education and living in places where good jobs are scarce, America’s poor live lives that have actually gotten worse over the past 50 years. The national minimum wage peaked in real dollars in 1968 and has generally declined ever since. In today’s dollars that 1968 wage would be $11.65, when the actual current minimum is $7.25 per hour. Moreover, that decline took place during a surge in worker productivity. Since 1979, worker productivity increased over 252% while real wages increased 115%. Who pocketed the difference? 

Since the Reagan tax cuts of the 1980s, wealth has flowed uphill. This gravitational inversion has resulted in the top 1% owning 40% of the nation’s wealth while the bottom 80% have only 7%. These are levels reminiscent of the days before the French Revolution. No wonder the streets are filled with angry protesters. 

These economic policies had a lot of help from Democrats, who have some hard questions to answer, but they were driven by Republicans. From Reagan to Bush to Trump, the GOP has sought to rob workers of the income and wealth they generate. Instead of those most able to pay carrying a fair share of the common tax burden, many millionaires and billionaires pay little or no taxes. The tax code is an elaborate shell game where the rich hire the magicians and the rest of us foot the bill. 

Trump once claimed, "I have legally used the tax laws to my benefit and to the benefit of my company, my investors and my employees. I mean, honestly, I have brilliantly - I have brilliantly used those laws.” For once, he has stated a mostly true thing. Those laws were written for people like him, not the rest of us. They put him on a skateboard on his way to home plate. 

What’s Next?

There will be a reckoning. Those protesting systemic racism, the oppression of the police, and the persistence of poverty are only the advance guard. Driven by desperation, perversely motivated by overt police violence, and fueled by the most dangerous ingredient—the American belief in equality—these patriots are marching for the 99.9% of us who are now demanding change. They will not stop. 

2020-06-15

Force Is Not Necessarily Power

The current upheaval and protest over arbitrary police violence against our own citizens is in part—only part, mind you—a product of the militarization of police. Police departments now have and use armored vehicles and weaponry designed for the battlefield. Hence the call by the Secretary of Defense for dominating the “battlespace" to suppress the demonstrations in our streets. The lack of success in quelling the protestors is not from a lack of firepower or the willingness to use it by the police. The police have awakened the fury of our people by their hubris when using such weapons and tactics. Their thinking that they can shut down protesters by cracking bones is the classic answer to the question might or right. Too many police departments have given their answer.

But it brings up an even bigger and a more controversial question (yes, that’s actually possible). If might cannot reclaim city streets and establish peaceful relations between people, does our country need to be armed to the teeth when facing the rest of the world? Do we need thermonuclear weapons in sufficient quantities to erase the human species from the planet? Do these weapons bring our international goals closer to success? Are these weapons of mass destruction still relevant in a world of asymmetrical warfare? 



As a nation, we act as though might makes us right when facing the rest of the world. We invaded any number of countries since World War II because we could. We talked about freedom and liberty, but US corporations were right behind the troops trying to take advantage of the forceful overthrow of governments. We built a military-industrial-complex of unimaginable size to the man who coined the term—President and former five-star general Dwight Eisenhower—who warned us of its implications. 

Our oversized military was built to “protect” us from the threat of the Soviet Union, and we piled bombs on top of bombs in such numbers that we created dark jokes about a second strike making the rubble bounce. Our military spending and schoolboy posturing put our troops in places where we had no reason to be. Far too many of our interventions only made things worse for the people we were presumably helping from Vietnam to Laos to Cambodia and from Afghanistan to Iraq. The forays into Southeast Asia fulfilled the dangers of the domino theory that we used to justify our intervention—bringing to power throughout the region the very Communists who we said were the greatest threat to the people. We sought to bring, by force, democracy to countries that had no such traditions or institutions, toppling dictators and unleashing even more radical elements to destabilize another region. We succeeded in unleashing violence and war that has yet to end. 

From 1945 onwards, every time we have used our military might to “fix” someone else’s national problem, we have made it worse. Why did we and do we keep intervening in other lands?

First, we have cowards in Congress who will not fulfill their Constitutional duty over declarations of war. The power to declare war is also the power to refuse to declare war and make warmongering presidents accountable to the Constitution. 

Second, it seems easy. We have the planes, ships, tanks, and troops to project our military to any spot on the planet. We seek the easy solutions offered by military might because we are a people of action—actually a people who glorify violence and dehumanize our opponents. If you question that assertion, take a look at online gaming or the most popular movies to see what people enjoy. 

We are now questioning the utility of highly armed and massive police forces in our cities. It brings up the same questions about our national military. The questions are not about the need to have armed force ready and trained, it’s about how much is enough and what other tools might we use to protect ourselves. We purposely ignore a vast array of other methods to de-escalate tense situation and prevent armed conflict. 

Americans are being awakened that force is not the path to better lives. We are recognizing that it’s not the solution and often leaves us with more problems. 

2020-06-06

Our Problems in Sharp Relief


CC by Marco Verch
We come to a confluence of several forces that throw our problems into sharp relief. We face a dangerous pandemic without a cure or effective treatment that is ravaging our people of health and life. We face a national leadership that abdicates the rule of law to the forces of violence in a struggle to retain white domination. We face an economic catastrophe only seen before when our grandparents and great-grandparents were children. We have seen the makeshift morgues and heard horrific stories of suffering by those stricken with disease. We have watched in an endless reel that repeats the killing of innocent people by the police. Our economy ended years of job growth in a month that erased a decade of new employment, plunging millions into a heartless scramble to survive. All these things in a nation that boasts that it’s “great”.

[Insert bovine excrement metaphor here. (Hey, this is a family-friendly column.)]

We are reaping what we have sown. Our health care system is built to both confuse and confound the many while enriching the few. Those who need an effective system of care find they are priced out, shut out, and denied essential medicines and treatment. The death toll falls hardest on the poor who in America tend to be people of color because that’s how the system works. Our healthcare system puts its hospitals, physicians, nurses, and labs farther away from those whose lives are a precarious trek through food deserts that deny healthy nutrition and feature stunted economic resources. The result is death at worst and debilitating recovery at best from a virus that knows no remorse. 

Our economy is built on the “free” market where rich people can reap the benefits of nanosecond financial transactions and those denied education and healthcare watch their jobs disappear just as fast. Minimum wage becomes a death sentence for many as they cannot stop working but must labor without protection—without masks and tests or without healthcare if they become sickened by going to work. If they do not work then homelessness and hunger move closer to home. 

Our economic recovery coming out of the Great Recession is built on weak timbers. Minimum wages that guarantee poverty and privation and tax systems that reward investment over labor plant our economic footings in the sand. Mindless globalization that seeks the lowest possible price for anything while debasing the value of our labor robs us of wages that keep privation at bay. While the economic “boom” continued for some, many lost ground and had to take on a second job just to meet the bills that pile up each month—relentless demands that ignored would put people on the street with nothing. No wonder that something as tiny as a virus could knock those rotted props from beneath our feet. 

As we fall, we see that the holes are far larger than the safety net. But for some, our laws, government programs, and racist social order denied them any net to salvage their lives. They fall to the ground where all hurt and some are killed with indifference by a society that cares nothing because they are deemed less worthy. We will bail out bankers but not save bakers—and bus drivers and carpenters and cleaners. We will provide diagnostic tests for the powerful and rich but not for those who must go out to work or face hunger.

Like our healthcare system, our economy is filled with perverse incentives to reward things that do not benefit the many.  Children of the working poor go hungry while our economic system demands their parents risk illness and death just by going to work. Economic sectors built to entertain the wealthy in restaurants, bars, and clubs are shuttered for their protection but throw those who wait tables and clean dishes on the street. Yet, reopening them puts everyone at risk—only the risks for some have poverty added to the list. 

In response, rather than looking at the rotted timbers planted in eroding sand, Congress passes a one-time act to address an acute crisis rather than built-in suffering. Its members ignore the systemic failures and weaknesses with the hope that they can achieve a bipartisan “shot in the arm” for the economy, as though the underlying decay can we wished away by adding some sand bags when the crisis demands rebuilding on firmer ground. 

What is really needed? Start with the crisis that persists. 
  • A national guaranteed income to put a true safety net underneath all of us. (Ignore the deficit as many economists have argued is a false equivalence to the family budget.) 
  • Make Medicare the system of healthcare for all Americans that protects everyone no matter their status, condition, race, gender, politics and all the other things that divide us. (Address the costs by actually negotiating for reasonable drug prices and eliminate the rent-seeking private insurance profits.) 
  • Recast schools to put a concrete floor under per student funding and raise teacher salaries to recognize the difficulty of their jobs. (These will materially help achieve standard educational outcomes that finally leave no child behind—for the first time, ever.) 
  • Start encouraging economic activity that enriches the people rather than those people. (Change taxes to reward work rather than investment—that recognizes that demand is the driver that needs to sit in the seat with the controls.) 
  • Defund the militarization of the police and recast their role to only address crime that involves violence. (Empower social workers, psychologists, and other supportive cadres to address the problems of addiction, child abuse, and mental illness that are not helped by weapons.) 
  • Tap into the wealth brought about by decades of tax policy that incentivize its accumulation over distribution. (This is nothing more than a down payment to atone for economic sins that have injured far too many.)
  • Et cetera. (This could go on for days, but need to pause for breath.)
Are these ideas possible? Of course. Are they going to happen? Not now. The forces of obstruction and entrenched interest with their minions in the media and Moscow howl at attacking the status quo. They rely on undemocratic institutions such as the Senate, partisan control of the Supreme Court, and the vestigial appendage of the Founders—the Electoral College. The only way to overcome these obstacles is to overwhelm them. The electoral wave of November must be a tsunami of voter frustration and rage built over decades and brought to support candidates who will recognize that they serve the people and not themselves. (Those who know me will recognize the implicit nod to Citizens United.)

What’s the message? Let’s start with “Had enough?” That puts the frustration we feel in front, but also points out the recognition that we see the truth. Let’s continue pointing out the acuity of pain with following DC Mayor Muriel Bowser by painting “Black Lives Matter” in front of every state house, city hall, and statue honoring the Confederacy. (Everybody, wear a mask!) 

We’re already in the streets, but need to vote to make the changes demanded meaningful and lasting. It will be very bad to lose this election, and it will be worse to win by only a little. A small victory will embolden the Liar in Chief to negate the will of the majority. The people’s victory must be overwhelming. The future of the Republic demands it. 

2020-06-02

Stop Treating Diseases

We rightly extol medical heroes—the physicians, nurses, and even janitors who work under the threat of COVID-19 to treat or support treating patients stricken with this malady. We call them heroes because they save lives with drugs and devices wielded with knowledge and skill. But there are some problems here that heroism cannot address.

We are discovering that COVID-19 often leads to weakened bodies that will probably be more susceptible to diseases that are ordinary and endemic. Many have weakened organ systems from lungs to hearts to kidneys and psychological disorders that include PTSD and clinical depression. Despite the best efforts of our medical heroes, many—too many—people will face the rest of their lives with compromised health. They are more susceptible to future infections as well as the usual host of non-communicable diseases: cancer, heart disease, and diabetes just to name a few.

The necessary response in the short term is to practice social distancing and stay at home if at all possible. The challenges with this approach run from the inconvenient (working from home) to frustrating (working at home with children) to risky (going to work and exposing ourselves to the virus) to dangerous (going to work in close quarters). All of these levels contribute to one outcome, the decline in business activity in many sectors and the complete shutdown to some. Even the business of medical care is in recession as elective procedures and even medically-necessary but non-urgent treatment is halted. The rest of the economy from restaurants to car dealerships to realtors to barber shops are in economic free fall.

COVID-19 kills people without remorse because it’s a virus and is following a bio-chemical imperative to attach itself to cells. Its lethal effect extends to economies as the global trading system shudders to a halt. Its impact will last beyond even those directly affected. Children’s education is getting disrupted. The issue for schools is far more than children learning to count because learning habits of a lifetime are not being formed at crucial stages of intellectual and social development.

People with underlying health issues from obesity to diabetes to hypertension all encounter COVID-19 with fewer tools to fend off the disease. These factors contribute to their higher rates of catching the disease and dying from it.

We are working heroically to respond to save lives. Undoubtedly many are being saved, but heroism in one sense is wasted because much of the pain we now feel—medical, economic, and social—was avoidable. For people in public health the solution has always been clear, effective, and cheap. Prevent disease so you don’t have to treat it.

We have designed an American modern life where physical activity and healthy diet have been programmed out. The result starts with a few extra pounds and continues into obesity. Our children are subjected to 40,000 advertisements on TV alone, most about the fun of sugary foods rather than healthy fruits and vegetables. Almost a fifth of children are obese (18.5%). That’s 13.7 million in real numbers. They can look forward to lives impaired and even shortened by the usual suspects—diabetes, heart disease, strokes, etc.

Such bad habits persist and grow because picking up a burger and fries or a carb- and fat-laced pizza is an easy fix for dinner by exhausted parents. Parents and kids get fat, fail to exercise, and fall prey to the inevitable diseases of diabetes, hypertension, stroke, and heart disease. (We’re only going to mention tobacco once, right here, as the most evil of bad habits because we knew long ago that it was bad.) This list does not include polluted water, filthy air, and more guns than people that all contribute to bad health.

We have inverted logical health priorities to reward systems of disease, damage, and death. Rather than practicing prevention—universal vaccination, cities and towns designed for physical activity, food systems that deliver healthy diets, safe streets, and universal healthcare—we allow diseases to sicken, maim, and kill our people. Whether its diabetes or cancer, much of the pain is avoidable, but only if we undertake a program of societal prevention.

We need to stop treating disease and start preventing it.

2020-05-31

Anti-Social Media

I have come to dislike social media. 

I deleted my Facebook account more than two years ago. I might have a Twitter account associated with work, but I've been ignoring it for at least as long. I know I don't have an Instagram account. Reddit? Maybe for a hot minute, but found it too much work to find things of interest. Snapchat? Nope. Pinterest? No interest. 

I do have a LinkedIn profile, but that's just for professional purposes. I have a YouTube account, but these days only to find my favorites. 

Am I consistent in my position vis-a-vis social media? Not really. But I do have a position. It has to do with attention span. I like the long form. That's why I prefer the essay. I like to read the background story in the news media to understand the headlines. I prefer to get to the why rather than the how, much less the how many. 

Am I a "pseudo intellectual punk"? Yes, wholeheartedly. That was a charge leveled at me by a high school teacher and football coach as he pushed me up against a row of lockers in the school corridor. (He did pronounce pseudo "swaydo".) My crime was wearing a lapel button with a message favorable to contraception. 

I was attending a Roman Catholic military academy run by Benedictines. (I learned early that contradictions abound in life.) While I was a little concerned with getting a beating as he was infamous for bullying students and hitting them (see above, Catholic school), I was more worried about my sister's reaction as he tore the button from my coat. She had loaned it to me for the day. 

My preference for careful thought and argument are partly because of that episode. I was confronted by a person who used his authority with its implied violence as a way to squelch my voice. I still remember but do not feel the fear. Yet the more important result was the label that has stuck in my mind for almost a half century. He could not accept that my views were genuine and thoughtful. Granted, I was 16 at the time. But many teenagers have a finely tuned sense of fairness, if only applied to their situation. Mine, however, was turned outward because of my era–it was 1970 and the student movement was still alive. 

We now live in an era where our inward monologues and grievances are turned outward. Not in a thoughtful form but at its worst devolved into a hashtag. Those work because people can reuse them and some system somewhere keeps count. The problem with this is that we have abandoned the wisdom of the crowd for the mindless fury of the mob. The problem with mobs is that they have no brain, only impulsive emotions. The problem of mobs on social media is that their fury is encouraged to monetize interactions and contribute to the concentration of wealth in the hands of a very few people. 

In the meantime, the rest of us have to endure mindless spasms of spleen venting as some actually believe this social bile and take action. We are now far beyond the crazy, gullible individual who believed in Pizzagate, and have ostensibly sentient beings marching for the right to not wear a mask, gather together in tightly-packed mobs, and endanger themselves and all around them with infection of a deadly virus. Why? So the owners of social media companies will see their stocks rise.

They have become tech titans and their platforms span the globe. We have faced such concentrations before and used law to break them up. But those were trusts for manufacturing, oil production, and steel making. How do we break up companies built on algorithms? Do we have to use the very instruments of the social mob to organize to defeat these algorithmic owners? 

2020-05-29

Howard Zinn Was Right by Being Left

I joke that I'm a "recovering" historian. It's a lame joke that tries to expropriate the idea of being in recovery like a sober alcoholic. Some might be offended by adopting a term of struggle for myself. But it does describe something I had to leave behind. My first career was as a practicing historian. People even paid me money to practice it. Not much, but enough to ply my trade. Sadly, for me, I had to abandon that career to make a living. My recovery joke was a way to deal with the unacknowledged pain.

I tell this tale to set up the context. One of the historians I met and studied his books was Howard Zinn. You may be more familiar with his book, A Young Peoples' History of the United States. It examines all those people that first European and later American elites subjugated and exploited. There was a lot of violence and even mass murder along the way. It's a tale told from the bottom up and it ain't pretty.

When I met Zinn, I was a graduate student in history in the late 1970s. The political upheavals of the 1960s and early 1970s had ebbed in the wake of national guard troops killing four students at Kent State University and ending the military draft. The former was a warning to student protesters and the latter was a signal that they were no longer at risk of being sent involuntarily to Vietnam. Zinn was often labeled as a New Left activist and historian. That label had meaning among historians at the time. It's meaning was "be careful, there be professional danger here."

You see, when I became engaged with the formal study of history in the 1970s, the battles over race, sex, economics, global power, and the like were still raging in the academy. There were forces on the right trying to push back against the invaders. Those invaders had the temerity to say that Reconstruction may have been a good thing because it empowered and began educating freed slaves. Believe it or not, that was explosive thinking at the time. The people on the right were not defending slaveholders or Jim Crow, but they were pushing back on the tone of this revisionist history. Their critique was as much about manners as evidence. (A medievalist professor of mine once opined in class that he was glad that he could study the Middle Ages because it was "quieter".)

But the substantive arguments were more about looking away from the winners' version of the past to focus on the victims. Zinn was a leading figure in the movement as a "New Left" historian. Unfortunately, when I met him at a conference, introduced by one of my professors, I was still academically wet behind the ears. I did not have the perspective or experience to appreciate his case, but was more attuned to his critics than his evidence. At the time, I adopted a wait and see perspective and placed myself between the consensus historians who thought that America was basically a good thing with some serious problems and the New Left that charged that America was historically a white patriarchy fueled by exploitative capitalism that robbed those at the bottom of the social pyramid of wealth, power, and even a voice.

Soon after, I had to leave my chosen profession to get a job. I followed another enthusiasm, computer programming, that I had picked up along the way. (Long story, but not here.) I thought I had left the academy for good, but returned in my new guise in the mid 1990s. Yet, that argument over the basis of American society and its past never left my mind. My intellectual antennae were tuned to the issues raised by Zinn.

My career shifts offered a way to look at the past and present differently. I was employed by a university but not really part of it. Even after 20 years at the University of North Carolina I never felt part of the community there, despite rising to positions of some significance. Part of me held back because I could see that argument between winners and losers still playing out in the polite discussions during endless committee meetings. It was a subtext but text nonetheless. It gnawed at me, but never did more than shift me leftward. The leaps came later.

By leaps I mean the notion that Karl Marx was right in one sense, along with Zinn, that the powerful get to set the table of reality and most of the people are not seated there. I had to travel to Africa to see that truth in racial terms about my own country. I traveled there many times (another long story, not here) for work to assist in implementing and using information systems to support healthcare. The eye opening took several trips as I was repeatedly immersed in societies that were racial opposites of my home land. These are countries that are ruled by black elites who look like their citizens. Where all the police are black and being stopped while white–which happened a few times–gave me an appreciation of the situation here at home.

It's been a long journey to see the obvious inequities and injustices that are hidden in plain sight. "Black lives matter" is much more than a rallying cry. It is an indictment of a power structure that will take more than a few commissions and the occasional impartial investigation to address. The system has a flawed structure and a value system skewed to reward those who do not deserve the bounty of our nation. (Just ask an "essential" worker if they are paid enough.)

Our response to these realities needs to be more than charity, although that may help a bit. Philanthropists cannot correct the flaws in our society because they are deeper than the blemishes that mar the surface. The very bones of America need to be reset to enshrine the people with all the power and recognize their universal rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". With cosmic irony, it was a slaveowner who penned those words. We as a nation have yet to recognize their import and meaning.

Zinn was right.

2020-05-03

The Haves and Otherwise

Human beings have divided economically, socially, and politically ever since we left the veldt and stopped living communally. By that I mean that some have more––food, shelter, comfort––than others. These differences often come with more freedom and power conferred to some than others.

As societies grew, those with more took these differences to mean that they deserved this higher material and social status with its ultimate expression in the divine right of kings. For those who may have dozed during that lecture, it means that the king asserts that God gave him the power to rule over all others. No one elected him. His power is conferred from above and therefore to oppose him is to oppose God's chosen one on Earth. It took some balls to make that assertion, but if you can put your rivals and whose who complain that your rule sucks to death, it's not that surprising.

You may think that we have matured beyond such fantasies, but if you ever wandered into a sermon on the prosperity Gospel, you get an updated version. For those with more secular frameworks, we celebrate the self-made billionaire as somehow deserving of those material riches. One of them, the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, wrote a self-serving essay that came to be called "The Gospel of Wealth". It was a meditation on the responsibility of the wealthy to become philanthropists because they were wiser than the common folk and could put their wealth to the best social use. Bill Gates provides a 21st Century version of this idea through his philanthropic foundation that tries to address global health issues.

This is not to say that such foundations are mere ego-fluffers. Gates, Rockefeller, and many of the rest do valuable work. (Some of my work has been supported by them.) But they are still private and accountable to no one but their leaders. If the leadership is wise, like Gates, you get forward thinking programs and explorations on the issues that plague us. Carnegie endowed libraries in many small towns across the US (including the one where I grew to love reading). Gates has tried to address global health in general, malaria in particular, and now offering support for vaccine production if/when we come up with a candidate to fight SARS-CoV-2.

But should we need these private individuals leading the way? No one elected them. Nor do they assert that they are God's vessels, at least not publicly. Making gobs of money does show the results of energy and intelligence, but a huge dose of luck is necessary as well. Does that make one wise?

Well, not necessarily and not always. We tend to conflate wealth and wisdom. When the rich person speaks in the noisy room, everyone quiets and strains to listen. People even engineer audiences for such individuals so the rich person feels favorably to their host. Some even offer honors in the hope of future beneficence. But that's not evidence of wisdom. Nor should we offer the rich a megaphone larger than the one they can buy.

The problem with the rich having the first and last say is that they don't live with the rest of us. They are not in existential danger if they miss a paycheck or if a family member needs a trip to the emergency room. They don't have to worry if there will be dinner or a warm, dry place to sleep tonight. Their material abundance insulates them, and isolates them, from the troubles and worries that vex too many of us.

The current pandemic is exacerbating these differences. Testing is an issue in the US right now. We are far from getting the number and frequency of tests to detect COVID-19 that we need to re-open our society even a little bit. At the same time, everyone at the White House is getting tested frequently. Every visitor to the executive mansion is tested at the perimeter with results in 15 minutes. That is not happening at the grocery store, much less the hospital.

While the best policy to dampen the outbreak is to retain social distancing and remain at home, for 30 million of us that is not economically possible. That's the number of unemployment claims we have accumulated in a month with the expectation that the number will continue to climb. Our national leader gets all the testing he needs and seems to extrapolate that to the rest of the country. The rest of us are not so fortunate.

We need to grow out of the notion that wealth confers anything beyond money. At best, it may reveal wisdom (Gates), but at worst it also reveals folly (Trump). We are currently ruled by the latter.

We're in trouble.

2020-04-29

Incompetence or Malevolence?

Frank Bruni prompted a line of my thinking today in a piece entitled, "They Didn’t Drink the Bleach, but They’re Still Drinking the Kool-Aid" to describe the modern Republican leadership. He notes the repeated failure of GOP leaders to rein Trump in. He highlights Trump's incompetence and notes that it "meant one thing pre-pandemic and means quite another now. The same goes for Republican lawmakers’ enabling of the president."

Mr. Bruni applies the rules of “normal” political behavior to our current situation, basing it on finding common ground even between fierce opponents. He is to be commended for his optimism. We all hope to find that day when opponents can cooperate to fashion policies that benefit the greatest number. We do not live there now. 

We live in the age of mortal enemies. Not that they are challenging each other to a duel, but if some people die because of their actions that’s the price we pay. For example, the meat-packing industry is forcing employees to return to work despite massive outbreaks of COVID-19. They are forced to return because that's what the owners want and in part because of a presidential order. The result is an explosion of cases with thousands of workers infected and more that a score dead—so far. It seems that Republican leaders consider this collateral damage for the sake of pork chops. 

These decisions are in line with far-right economic thinking that exalts the investment class over workers. This is particularly true among Republicans who subscribe to the teachings of the economist James Buchanan. The best shorthand description of his thinking is to take Ayn Rand and make her darker and harsher. The devaluation of human life did not begin with Trump, but it seems to be reaching its apogee. 

For Trump, Graham, McConnell, and the other bluest Republican lights, there are only two kinds of people: the peers and the help. Guess which group most of us belong? Some of the help are clearly expendable, but that’s the price of doing business. Nasty, deadly business. 

2020-04-25

Invent Nothing, Adapt Everything (again)

A few years ago, I wrote a blog for my company about our response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa. That crisis hit hard and fast in some of the poorest countries in the world. We in the global public health area responded as best we could with the resources we had at hand. What we discovered, and I noted in my blog then, was we needed to use what was currently available. 

I came up with a rubric to help people understand our approach: Invent nothing, adapt everything. The idea was that we could not bring anything new into the arena, we had to use what was already there. That was a decision forced upon us the material circumstances in West Africa. In our current crisis over COVID-19, we face a different issue. 

The United States leads the world with the greatest number of confirmed infections of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease. WHO conservatively reported 830,053 US cases on April 24. We also lead in the number of deaths, again by WHO's conservative report42,311. These are sobering numbers in any country, but one with the economic and medical resources of ours it moves into a realm beyond tragedy. Frankly, it is irresponsible that our response has not been more effective. 

We do not lack the scientific, manufacturing, or financial wherewithal to address the needs for personal protective equipment, testing for both diagnosis and serological evidence, and fielding trained personnel for contact tracing. These issues have been well documented elsewhere. 

What we lack is coordination and consistency. Some would call that leadership. The failures of our federal government to address the crisis are now obvious, and we should not look to them for remedies soon. We must act at a different level. 

Governors are the executives who have been struggling with the outbreaks in their states. They have relied on their own state departments of public health to understand the issues and address the needs. Sadly, their responses have not been coordinated or consistent. They often bid against each other for badly needed supplies and equipment. They have no mechanism for shifting personnel between states to address growing outbreaks. They are uncoordinated and inconsistent in their responses. This must end. 

Here are my naive ideas on a response. There are probably better ones, but these can be adopted today. They only require a few people to get the ball rolling. 

The National Governors Association offers guidance and some links to potential resources, but it has not embraced the administrative function to coordinate resources. Granted, this should be a federal responsibility, but we cannot depend on them. The NGA needs to establish an emergency operations center and work with each state to understand their needs and present them to other states and the private sector for fulfillment. Nothing need be invented. Use eBay. 

Every state has a chapter of the Medical Reserve Corps. It's supposed to be administered by the US Health and Human Services Department, but let's assume that they are not helping. Each state can connect through the NGA with information on volunteers with skills suitable for deployment to meet COVID-19 demands in hotspots. Every state has the data and can contribute it to a common information resource, so the governors can see what is available. Use Google Sheets.

Absent leadership, our states must step forward to address the pandemic. It is not going to end soon. We face months of uncertainty, fear, illness, and death. To address these challenges, we need coordination and a common resource for information. The tools have been invented. Adapt and use them. 

2020-04-19

Dealing with (Imminent) Death

I'm not heroic. I've never pulled a baby out of a burning building. I've never faced down a gunman. But that does not mean that I've not consciously put my life at risk. (Apologies to the double negative-hating crowd.)

There are two places where I've consciously taken on deadly risk. The first in Afghanistan during the civil war that continues to threaten its people. I took four trips there for work from 2014 to 2017. The second involved three trips to Liberia from 2015 to 2018, the first two during the Ebola outbreak. In neither case was I more than threatened by exposure to danger. I was never attacked by human or viral agents. I never heard a shot fired or saw injury or death directly. Hence, I'm not a hero.

But I did take on risk that I could not understand in advance. I did plan to go to these places, stayed there for weeks, and returned home more sober about death. The purpose here is what I learned in dealing with deadly risk. These lessons may be useful for others.

First, prepare. Before leaving home, I needed to do and understand a few things. I was briefed by people who understood a bit of what I would face. I had to get immunizations, take along some useful things, and prepare for the worst. That last part was the hardest because I had to do practical things like find my will and document all my digital passwords––just in case I did not return. I also needed to think of kidnapping and how I could prove I was alive to my family. The proof of life test involves asking a question that only I would know the answer. Usually it's something intimate and shared with a loved one, never documented, and concisely answered. I thought of it as the last words I might send.

Next, pay attention. In both countries, getting there involved many flights in cramped quarters. (People in global development do work in "exotic" places, but the commute is hard.) For both countries, every trip I arrived without sleep for a couple of days, muscles cramped by inactivity, and entered a confusing place. In Liberia, all international air travel arrives and leaves in the dead of night––from 2:00 to 3:00 am. (It's how the airlines avoid high landing fees.) In Afghanistan, all civilian air travel arrives after dawn and leaves before dusk to thwart surface to air rocket launchers. My point is that upon arrival I had to do some things that normally require some attention. In these cases, as a tired and confused arrival, I had to make extraordinary effort to pay attention.

In Afghanistan, once I found the security detail that was picking me up, I received the first of three briefings. These involved what I should do if I felt or was physically threatened, particularly by kidnapping. There were devices involved and procedures to follow. (I'm being purposely vague here.) The first of these briefings was in the car on the way to my hotel. The second at the hotel to point out their security protocols. And the third at the office, usually after a short (blessed) nap. The briefings focused on what I needed to do, what I needed to know, and how to react depending on where I was. Finally, I was asked to sign a statement that I had received these briefings. (Insurance companies are everywhere.)

In Liberia, the situation was less well organized but no less thorough. The first step upon getting off the plane is washing your hands––in the dark. Not at a sink and not with soap. Putting them under a slowly flowing tap on the bottom of a keg filled with bleachy water. Bleach so strong that you could smell it from a distance. Oh yes, I should mention that someone watches you so you have to do it properly and for long enough to be disinfected. (Later, I discovered this was the practice before entering every public building in the country.) Once your hands are clean but wet (no towels), you had your temperature taken by a health care worker before you got to enter the terminal building. You did not get in if you were running a fever.

In both places, getting through passport control and customs was far more onerous than any place else, although they were looking for different kinds of threats. In Afghanistan the worry was violence and in Liberia one of infection. They really wanted to know why you were there. They wanted to see your yellow fever card and they read it carefully. (It lists all the immunizations you have had.) They wanted your fingerprints and they checked if you had ever been there before.

In Afghanistan, I was never alone when traveling. When traveling by car there was a driver and a security guard. For longer trips, such as airport runs, the car was armored. (I should not have been, but was surprised at how heavy the door was to open and close.) In Liberia, the same driver and security guard pair were there on airport runs because the airport was a 90-minute drive from the capital through rural areas with active marauding bands on the highways. Remember, dead of night. I never saw a weapon, but suspect that they were at the ready.

All this sounds a little scary, and it was––at first. Then it became routine. Danger was normalized. Oh, it was present in the armed Afghan guards and security check points. It was obvious in the hand washing and never shaking hands in Liberia. But those were features and functions that done dozens of times faded into the background. They became rote.

But danger and death were there. Perhaps only a shadow of conscious thought but present always. That's the third part of the lesson. Never forget that death is hovering nearby. You might be practicing those safety steps unconsciously, but you needed to readily take them out of your back pocked in an instant.

So, why this exploration in my non-heroic status? I wonder about that myself. Perhaps, I'm trying to help the four people who read this blog understand their situations through mine. Perhaps, I'm processing earlier dangers so I can handle the current COVID-19 one. Whatever the reason, one thing I had to grapple with was my mortality. We all will die. But we cannot know when or how.

These episodes allowed me to think about death in practical and pragmatic ways. They turned out to help me understand our current predicament in my own terms. They made me recognize that others would feel my loss. Every trip involved saying goodbye to my family. Taking a final hug and kiss and making it last for a lifetime. We now face terrors that we cannot feel or see at first. Every physical contact is now dangerous, but each emotional one is vital.

Every moment we share is precious. Value them.

2020-04-18

Of Exponents and Atlas Shrugged

There's a dangerous notion afoot that we should fully reopen the economy right now. Moreover, some are advocating just letting the virus have full run. They assert that the survivors will have herd immunity and America will return to the greatness of rugged individualism.

Someone needs to put down his copy of Atlas Shrugged.

He needs to start reading about epidemics and economics. He needs to learn about exponentiation. Yes, that's a word. It's the how fast this outbreak growsat an exponential rate. That means that when you graph the actual number of US cases day-by-day it looks like this:
Source: CDC
Source: Merriam-Webster
You can see that from the first reported case on January 22nd, the numbers remained very small until late March. Then they exploded. As of April 16 the total number of reported cases is 661,712 with 33,049 deaths. Those are only the confirmed cases, not all cases. Because of the failure of our federal government to organize reliable testing at scale, we cannot currently confirm even suspected cases. Most cases go undetected because they are asymptomatic. Meaning that the person has no:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Chills
  • Repeated shaking with chills
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • New loss of taste or smell

These infected individuals can spread the virus without knowing they have it. They can remain asymptomatic and infectious for up to 2 weeks. Because our testing rate is not close to what we need just to understand the spread of the virus, many people are spreading it unknowingly. It's a case where ignorance can kill.

On Friday, our president called for the residents of Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia to "LIBERATE" themselves from the lockdown. (Yes, he did all caps.) Just to add some spice, he called on Virginians to  “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” Okay, take a breath and then let's consider the political reasoning behind this call.

Clearly, the president wants a popular uprising to resist the Democratic governors of these three states, including a strong implication to use "2nd Amendment" remedies. He did not call on the residents of California, New Jersey, or New York to take similar action because he has no hope of winning their electoral votes come November. Nor did he focus on the locked-down states of Ohio or Mississippi or Texas because they have GOP governors. He chose Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia so he can thump his chest in the hopes to rile supporters in those states by picking fights with their opposition party governors.

If the Atlas Shrugged-clutching crowd decides to march in the streets or hold rallies, the number of infected people will not slow down and will continue to climb. It will be a tragedy of greater illness and death to come. If the protesters decide to show up armed, then the chances of an immediate tragedy escalate by exponentiation.

2020-04-17

The Wrong Decisions at the Worst Moment

The Trump Administration is mulling over when and how to resume "normal" economic activity. If past is prologue, they will manage to make the wrong decision at the worst moment. Here's how:

The president seems to focus on a single point of fact at a time. Like he fixated on the stock market for a time. Probably right now the fact capturing his attention is that more than 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits within the past month. To say that is unprecedented understates its novelty. No society has seen an event like that. It's not the stock market crashing in 1929. It's not the oil price shocks of the 1970s. This is a body blow to the economy. We have been pushed off the cliff.

Statista.com from the IMF
There's no fixing this in the short term. There's no "V" shaped curve for economic activity. Those predictions are predicated on the notion that we will have an effective treatment within a year and a vaccine for all 7 billion human inhabitants within 18 months.

The outbreak will persist and we have lost those opportunities, if we ever had them. The best we can do is provide continued assistance to those suffering by supporting incomes, probably by shoring up the state unemployment systems with federal dollars. Because all states have to balance their budgets, they are only months away from having to choke off their spending.

We also need to maintain the quarantine and lockdown. Until we know who is infected, who is immune (if anyone is), and where those people are, lifting the restrictions is folly.

Will the president act wisely? I highly doubt it. It runs in the face of the hardy individualist myth of America. His approach will focus on the quarantine. He will try to say that the lockdown orders should be ignored and people return to work and normal life. He may tailor that for places where the curve is flattening, like New York, or where it has yet to ramp up. That's the mistake. Without understanding the epidemic curves–through a massive testing program that does not exist–we will induce another exponential surge in cases. We would see another cycle of growth in infections, followed by hospitalizations, followed by deaths.

We are going to see those humps anyway, but by acting blindly they will be more severe and therefore more deadly.


2020-04-12

What Joe Left Out

Joe Biden, the presumed nominee for president from the Democratic Party, offered his thoughts on how to safely reopen America. His vehicle was an OpEd in the New York Times. He talked about testing, both for diagnosing COVID-19 and serological testing to determine who may have some immunity. That type of information will allow careful reopening of parts of our economy. 

Mr. Biden's ideas work as a thoughtful approach to the factors involved in returning our economy from its currently moribund state. He did not state a timeframe, but clearly months would be involved in the type of programmatic approach he outlines. It's that timeframe that prompts me to point out what he did not specifically mention–income support. 

Ramping up testing of the kinds he outlines will take months itself. Moreover, testing alone is not enough. These tests have to be part of a programmatic approach that is societal in scale. He mentions that, but does not give the complexity and logistical elements their due. The implication is that all that  effort and development takes time for a nation of almost 330 million people. 

In that meantime, what can people do who are waiting to return to serving patrons in restaurants, teach children in classrooms, or do any of the myriad jobs that are closed now. Those jobs will remain on the shelf until those workers can safely return to work. And they should be closed because the alternative is illness and death not seen for a century or more. 

What will those who cannot work do? They need more than the one-time payment in current law. They need continued income support to keep feeding their families and paying for a place to live. Everyone has bills to pay. Without income support, these families will continue to suffer. So will the rest of us. 

Come on, Joe, finish the circle. Add income support to your plan. 

2020-04-11

Can the Economy Become Normal Again?

The COVID-19 outbreak is a global phenomenon. It's even potentially in outer space with the launch of a Soyuz mission to the International Space Station last Thursday. That ferry delivered two Russians and an American to the ISS from countries still struggling with the virus. So, there is no place where humans reside that is safe.

Our president is considering re-opening shuttered businesses because bankers and corporate leaders are lobbying for a return to normal. Perhaps by the end of April. That is understandable since my state now officially has 500k unemployed people, 10% of the workforce. The actual percentage is certainly higher since many undocumented and other workers do not or cannot apply for such benefits. Nationally, more than 16 million claims have been filed in three weeks. Again, your mileage may vary since not all workers are allowed to file claims.

Clearly, the people who do the work of America are suffering. For all who cannot or should not go to their jobs, they have to fall back on personal savings or the unemployment system. At this moment, state unemployment websites are crashing daily because they are overwhelmed by the number of hits as so many people need to file a claim.

Well, help is on the way–sort of. The federal government is going to pay individuals who make less than $75,000 per year $1,200 in the next few weeks. You either have to be in the IRS system or get registered for payment. (What could go wrong there?) That's one payment that is a bit above the official poverty rate (which has its own issues of being too low to sustain a healthy life). One payment. One.

Clearly, even the Trump Administration believes that the stimulus payment will not be enough to help businesses and their employees survive. Hence the talk of reopening things earlier than public health experts say is prudent. We have a collision of interests between the needs of health and the demands of the economy. People need money, but returning to work puts more people at risk of illness and death. And more people will die if we return to work without qualifications. How can we do it?

First, stop thinking that it's a giant on/off switch. It's like a panel of switches that do more than turn things on or off. We need to calibrate between issues of public and economic health and for a very long time. Ridding the world of COVID-19 will take, best case, 18-24 months. That's because we won't have a vaccine sooner than that and it will have to be universally administered to be globally effective. It took 30 years to eliminate smallpox from the earth. No less a logistical and managerial effort will be required of COVID-19.

This will be different, you say. Everyone is at risk rather than just people in poor and remote countries. Perhaps, but we have an infinite capability to rationalize risk. Once America has achieved vaccine-induced immunity, will we continue to fight the virus as strongly in the rest of the world? But I digress.

What about the economy? Can we turn it back on? We might be able to but only carefully. It involves understanding who has and who has had the disease. That's tricky since we don't know if surviving the disease confers lasting immunity in every case. Even if it does, we then need to test everyone everywhere and many of those more than once. Repeated testing is needed because if you don't show the antibodies that indicate immunity does not mean you are not sick or infectious. The body takes a few days to produce those, so everyone without them is still a possible source of infection. All of this assumes that the detection of antibodies is a solid indication of immunity. And that immunity will last.

So, without massive testing of a test that does not exist for an immunity that is unproved, we should not turn the massive Everything-ON switch for the economy. We need a series of stimulus bills to keep the economy on life support while we work on testing, treatment, and a vaccine.

2020-04-07

Consequences and Truth

As children, we are taught sometimes hard lessons about actions and consequences. If our parents are wise, they structure these encounters to encourage a sense of responsibility in their children. A broken cup, causing a sibling to cry, or worse, present opportunities for growth---even when a parent is beyond their tolerance to consciously deliver such lessons. That is because actions have consequences and consequences are the responsibility of the actor. An exhausted and frenzied parent may not deliver a measured response, but they often do deliver the consequences to the offending child. Most of us grow up to understand that we are responsible for our actions.

Nations also learn such lessons. Sometime they are delivered in national myths. In a series of apocryphal stories about George Washington, the pastor Mason Locke Weems tried to establish moral lessons for the budding United States. His fable about young George who cut down his father's cherry tree was not just a lesson about telling the truth, it was a lesson in responsibility. George confessed his crime because his character, at least in fable, compelled him to do so. He accepted any punishment his father was to deliver. Instead, he received a different life lesson. His father was ecstatic that his son was compelled to take responsibility. He cried "in transports" of joy, "Such an act of heroism in my son, is more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold."

One may groan at the ridiculous case of the Cherry Tree crime and lack of punishment. Few, if any, parents would be able to muster such a response to a grave transgression. Yet, the myth has stuck in our national imagination. It persists, too often in jest, but it lives with us today. Why?

Why did we ascribe to Abraham Lincoln the moniker "Honest Abe" and celebrate such a complex man with a single term---honest. Lincoln was skilled in the fine arts of cutting political deals and using the patronage system to get what he wanted. His guile was in full force as he cut backroom deals with lame duck Democrats to get support in the House for the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. Yet, the myth of Honest Abe lives on.

Perhaps the reason is that we value both character and consequence in its purest form: responsibility. My mother once told me that she thought more highly of a man who admitted mistakes out loud. It was a not so subtle jab at my father, but the observation formed an enduring memory and a life-long practice of painfully admitting mistakes. At least more than once. But I digress.

We value leaders who can tell us the truth, even when they don't reflect reality. Franklin Roosevelt told us that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself". He uttered those words at his first inaugural when the heart of the American economy had stopped beating. In reality, there was plenty to fear: unemployment, loss of farms, eviction from homes, and ever-present hunger. Roosevelt was speaking to a truth in our hearts. We were all afraid. He was saying that was understood, but that we would deal with it.

Today, such leadership is lacking. Not just the divorce from facts by the chief executive. Not just the constant, voluminous, and repetitious lying. Not even the denial of reality. It's the evasion of responsibility.

Americans should consider evasion of responsibility as the lowest a person can go. There is nothing more odious. Unfortunately, it's an open question if enough of us do.

2020-03-21

Infectious Pandemics Are Our Achilles Heel

Infectious diseases claim most of our attention. Whether it is the Black Death, the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, or the more recent outbreaks of SARS and Ebola, they scare us--as they should. The reason we generally do not contain them is partly a lack of scientific knowledge, but actually more about the public health system.

Liberia Emergency Operations Center
More people die from infectious disease when public health systems are weak and fragmented. Ebola ravaged West Africa because the public health systems there were quickly overwhelmed when frontline health workers were unable to receive direction from experts. Ebola in Liberia persisted because the public were not reliably informed about contagion and continued normal interactions, accelerating the spread of the virus. Health workers did not have personal protection equipment and a large proportion died in a country that had far too few to begin with. 

I saw that myself when I made my first trip there in 2015. Even then, the outbreak had passed its peak, but it had ravaged the country and decimated the healthcare system. In a society that treasured physical touch, not just of the living but with funeral rites that included touching the dead, their society had been radically changed. (Even a dead Ebola victim is still highly contagious.) People did not give hugs or shake hands. Every building open to the public required people to wash their hands in a bleach solution before entering. Here's a picture I took in front of the Emergency Operations Center where you can see one man washing his hands. On the far left is a guard who made sure everyone did so. 

Lest we think that it cannot happen here, we should know that funding for personnel in public health from the federal to the state to the local level has decayed over the past generation. Moreover, our system of public health is fragmented across thousands of agencies. Thousands, you say? Yes, every county and major city has its own public health department. So does every state. And at the federal level responsibility for public health is split across Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Defense, CDC, the US Public Health Service, the Indian Health Service (that's on the reservations), Medicare, Medicaid, the VA, etc. Some may argue with including healthcare services, but they are the front lines in immunizations as well as reporting infectious disease cases. If we tried to design a more confusing network of agencies and workers, we would not do worse that what we have. 

Now we have our own major crisis. It is exposing the inherent weaknesses in our system of protecting the health of the public. But that could be addressed by strong, consistent leadership from the top. Too bad. We don't have it. We have confusion and partisan bickering. 

We get conflicting signals from the bully pulpit of the White House. Health workers lack appropriate personal protection equipment. As of this week, the president has refrained from using available powers to mandate the production of that equipment. Turning to immunization, we have no coordination in the development, much less the hoped for manufacturing of a vaccine. 

Perhaps most alarming, a strong majority of Republicans think that the danger of COVID-19 is exaggerated—twice the proportion of Democrats. Main Street Republicans give Trump stellar poll numbers that they approve his handling of the crisis, as high as 87% in polls conducted this month.

Let's hope that the federal government succeeds in bandaging this public health wound but remember, the underlying health of our fragmented, underfunded, and overwhelmed public health system remains in dire straits. It's a victim of longstanding neglect and now partisan division.

2020-02-22

How We Got Trump, Part N-1

There have been a few essays recently that the age of bipartisan in American politics is dead. Some even suggesting that it was a political aberration. For those unsure of when that age began, it seemed to emerge after World War II in the 1950s and persisted into the late 1990s where the Clinton impeachment marked the period at the end of that sentence. While many have sought to explain its demise, often with fretful thoughts about the future of the Republic, few talk about the reasons for its rise. 

American victory in 1945 was supposed to usher in an American Century where our values, practices, and economic institutions would dominate the world. Hubris was hyperventilating periodically over the next few decades, but with the other industrial powers literally smoking ruins, we did have the run of the place. 

Did we overreach? Sure. We toppled the elected government in Iran and installed the Shah who set about turning the country into an ugly dictatorship--secret police, torture, and all the usual practices that feature in spy novels. We had harnessed the atom for war and continued to build bombs and delivery systems that piled up the megatonnage to planet-incinerating levels. We declared that we had achieved "consensus" in our society and politics--you could see it if you tuned into entertainment available on the new TV sets inhabiting our living rooms. Everyone depicted on TV was reasonably comfortable economically with that poverty and unionism of the 1930s gone from popular culture. Father knew best long before the Bradys were a bunch. The most disturbing entertainment was in the Twilight Zone, "a place that exists at any moment of time, of space or of mind" but not when you looked out your front window. No demons on Main Street. 

Did we achieve justice? Not if you read The Letter from Birmingham Jail and saw "that there are two types of laws: just and unjust." Not if you probed more deeply into The Feminine Mystique to learn about "the problem that has no name." Not if you sought out The Other America, an exploration into the quarter of the nation that lived in poverty in the midst of the greatest wealth in human history. While these pricked at our consciences, the great train of presumed prosperity and consensus rolled on. Politics was usually as bland as Wonder Bread. 

While post-war society had some pressures that would explode later, one question we should ask is did World War II give us wisdom? Perhaps not enough, but still a lot. The horrors of the war and the reasons it happened haunted those leaders who had made victory possible. They diverged into two paths: One of reaction in the Soviet Union to achieve the totalitarian state explained by Hannah Arendt. Another of revolution in China where the Communists took control of the government and eventually achieved their own version of totalitarianism in the Cultural Revolution. On the other hand, western nations--particularly the US--sought to correct the issues that had prompted the conflagration. Their response was in building multi-national, and even global, institutions. 

[Let us pause for a brief word from institutions: "You hear a lot of grousing about institutional this and institutional that. You hear complaints that it's neither white nor black but an unsatisfactory shade of gray. Well, we embrace gray because it is neither simple or complete. We love the complexity and don't get the respect that institutions should have for their abilities to navigate confounding morality and practice. Institutions offer guidance, granted gray and dim, during turbulent times. Ignoring them or, worse, overthrowing them is never understood fully. Civilization--that way of many, many people living in relative harmony--is based on institutions. Have one, today!"]

Boy, did we build them. The United Nations, the World Bank, the World Health Organization and other formal organizations. We also reached fundamental agreements for world trade and financial operations. The world settled on the US dollar as the currency of reference. (It's not called "almighty" for nothing.) We convened tribunals to convict and punish those who committed crimes against humanity. 

Domestically, we built out political parties as the methods to determine what we thought government should do, and not do. Government became ordinary and gray--generally non-threatening despite its ownership of the means of societal annihilation. And it worked. The man in the gray flannel suit was in charge (okay that's not really what the story was about). Taxes were high on people who made high incomes with the marginal tax rate edging close to 90%. The distance in pay between the line employees and the CEO was about 20 times (it's above 270 times now). Essentially, things were average or close to it. 

So, what the hell happened? Well, it's complex, but your patience is probably wearing thin. Look at it this way: That "consensus" wasn't, and began to crumble in the Civil Rights Movement when "uppity" people began to call for equality in rights. Soon after, our Cold War got hot in Vietnam when young men were subject to the draft. Seeing that they had no influence on the federal government, they started demonstrating on college campuses. Meanwhile, pressures of a displaced population--mostly formerly southern blacks--where their rising expectations from civil rights laws collided with realities in northern cities. They saw economic promises unfulfilled and northern discrimination as more insidious than its southern brother prompting an explosion of riotous violence in Los Angeles. The metaphorical (and literal) fire spread, consuming the dry, socially unjust tinder in every major northern city. At the same time, the college students, energized by draft resistance, expanded into the "New Left", an ad hoc movement that criticized everyone--conservatives for being atavists, liberals for being weak, and the old left for being a tool for the Soviet Union (and for just being old). 

Yet all these activists were really a small, albeit vocal and sometimes violent, minority. What about the rest of the people? With all the noise coming from urban areas and college campuses, many white, middle-aged, middle-income, middle-America people felt silenced. Not that they really were, but they felt that way. Granted, many did not understand civil rights because they lived far from the inner cities that were burning. They could see the injustice of southern blacks marching peacefully and savaged by police dogs, but not urban, northern blacks who looted corner liquor stores. They thought that the college kids were just ungrateful louts led astray by evil Commies and pointy-headed professors. They were concerned about rights and wars, but still were wrestling in the gray coat of consensus. They had seen the progress since the Depression, so why didn't everyone? 

[Enter from stage right.] Then came Richard Nixon. A man who felt wronged by Eisenhower (his one-time boss,) cheated out of victory by the dazzling Kennedys, and nursing his grudges afterwards for years. He founded the politics of resentment based on the "silent majority", the aforementioned middle-everything group who could not understand the country in turmoil. Aided by Roger Ailes, a man who would resurface later, Nixon harnessed the fears of northern white people into an Electoral College win in 1968. Not satisfied with gaining only the presidency, he sought to guarantee his re-election in 1972 by attacking democracy itself. 

[To be continued]

2020-02-15

Our Democracy Is Not Weak — It Was Never Strong

Americans love to tout that they live in a democracy. We enshrined the values of representative government in our national lore as we declared our independence. Our complaint was that the British crown had not heard nor responded to the pleas of his people, except with tyranny. We put "the People" as the actors establishing our Constitution, even though that was wording to overcome the divisions between states during its drafting. "We the People" is the political assertion at the very start of our fundamental governing document. Our assertions have traveled in line with larger movements espousing universal rights of human beings to determine their own affairs. 

As I was growing up, that universal view was the only one I could see. It surrounded me in popular culture and at school. I grew up looking at the covers of Life magazine that featured paintings by Norman Rockwell depicting "everyday" America. This was a land of the free and home of the braveyou could see it in his paintings. 

Rockwell, Freedom of Speech
Rockwell painted scenes showing American values in action that grew to be emblems of democracy. One showed a New England town meeting with a man standing up to share his thoughts. He's dressed as a laborer and you can see men around him in suits. While of humble station, he has the ability to stand and speak his mind to his community. 

The artist called this one, Freedom of Speech as one of the Four Freedoms that President Franklin Roosevelt declared in early 1941 as America was headed towards its second global war. The full set were the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear. Simple, iconic, and asserting American goals for the conflict.  

Such images were part of growing up in America during the 1950s and 1960s, and framed the mythology we sought to embrace. But while myths may contain truth, often in aspiration, they do not depict reality. For almost all of our history we have not even been close to being a democratic nation. 

Africans in America and their descendants were held as property without any rights until 1865. Their moment of liberation was soon spoiled as Jim Crow laws and white mobs forced them back into a fearful, servile state. Most descended into a different form of bondage, that of debt servitude as sharecroppers. They soon lost access to the franchise as whites intimidated them with mob violence and the threat of the noose. 

Nor could women vote or hold office. Their situation was different because they suffered while sharing a bed with their oppressors. A woman's wedding vows often contained the word "obey" as she pledged her life to her husband. Upon marriage, a woman's propertyif anybecame the property of her husband. Was she property herself? Many men thought so and acted as if she were.

Some will point out that in 1920 women gained the right to vote and by 1965 the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts dismantled Jim Crow and protected the franchise. Even accepting that as evidence of democratic reality, as a nation we were by no means a democracy from 1776 to 1965. 

The question remains, are we a democracy today? Are we equally represented in our federal government. Not by a long shot. 

A voter in Wyoming has more than three times the power than a voter in North Carolina in presidential elections. In each of the Dakotas and Alaska, their power is twice that of my state. Lest we consider this a mere partisan measure, both Hawaii and Vermont have similar influence. 

This situation is because of an ancient compromise that created the Electoral College, giving each state votes based on their representation in Congress. The imbalance is because the Senate gives each state two senators no matter the size of their population. That means that California with over 39 million voters has the same voting power as Wyoming—resulting in a state with 12% of the total population holding the same clout as a state with 0.17% of the people.

But we cannot stop there. Efforts to draw and redraw voting districts after the 2010 Census have gerrymandered many voters from having equal voting power. Because of the efforts of the GOP in North Carolina, our state legislature is dominated by Republicans even though the voters are evenly split overall between the parties. Republicans drew new maps that created districts to guarantee them a majority of the seats ever since.

Finally, there is the issue of money. Wealthy people have always had access to the levers of government and their voices are always heard first and clearest. But in 2010, that power was supercharged in a Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. FEC, that declared corporations were legally people and therefore entitled to speech under the First Amendment. In practical terms that meant that the largest concentrations of wealth in America could vocally advocate for public policy and on behalf of candidates. Or even themselves. This election cycle we have seen several billionaires fund their own campaigns for president.

So, are we a democracy? The most optimistic answer is, not yet.