America isn’t what we think it is

Damn this Anne Applebaum essay is something else.  Relatedly, if I could only subscribe to three publications, they would be NYT, WP,  and the Atlantic.  They’ve been doing great work for a long time, but they’re stuff in Coronavirus world has been consistently top-notch.

Anyway, terrific essay comparing current U.S. to mid-19th century Japan when they thought they were the greatest nation in the world and had their eyes dramatically opened otherwise by the appearance of an American naval fleet.  This is our similar moment in America:

The Perry expedition famously convinced them that their political system was incapable of coping with new kinds of threats. Secure in their island homeland, the rulers of Japan had been convinced for decades of their cultural superiority. Japan was unique, special, the homeland of the gods. “Japan’s position, at the vertex of the earth, makes it the standard for the nations of the world,” the nationalist thinker Aizawa Seishisai wrote nearly three decades before Perry’s arrival. But the steamships and the guns changed all that. Suddenly, the Japanese realized that their culture, their political system, and their technology were out of date. Their samurai-warrior leaders and honor culture were not able to compete in a world dominated by science…

The coronavirus pandemic is in its early days. But the scale and force of the economic and medical crisis that is about to hit the United States may turn out to be as formidable as Perry’s famous voyage was. Two weeks ago—it already seems like an infinity—I was in Italy, writing about the first signs of the virus. Epidemics, I wrote, “have a way of revealing underlying truths about the societies they impact.” This one has already done so, and with terrifying speed. What it reveals about the United States—not just this administration, but also our health-care system, our bureaucracy, our political system itself—should make Americans as fearful as the Japanese who heard the “distant thunder” of Perry’s guns…

Without the threats and violence of the Chinese system, in other words, we have the same results: scientists not allowed to do their job; public-health officials not pushing for aggressive testing; preparedness delayed, all because too many people feared that it might damage the political prospects of the leader. I am not writing this in order to praise Chinese communism—far from it. I am writing this so that Americans understand that our government is producing some of the same outcomes as Chinese communism. This means that our political system is in far, far worse shape than we have hitherto understood.

What if it turns out, as it almost certainly will, that other nations are far better than we are at coping with this kind of catastrophe? Look at Singapore, which immediately created an app that could physically track everyone who was quarantined, and that energetically tracked down all the contacts of everyone identified to have the disease. Look at South Korea, with its proven testing ability. Look at Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel managed to speak honestly and openly about the disease—she predicted that 70 percent of Germans would get it—and yet did not crash the markets.

The United States, long accustomed to thinking of itself as the best, most efficient, and most technologically advanced society in the world, is about to be proved an unclothed emperor. When human life is in peril, we are not as good as Singapore, as South Korea, as Germany. And the problem is not that we are behind technologically, as the Japanese were in 1853. The problem is that American bureaucracies, and the antiquated, hidebound, unloved federal government of which they are part, are no longer up to the job of coping with the kinds of challenges that face us in the 21st century. Global pandemics, cyberwarfare, information warfare—these are threats that require highly motivated, highly educated bureaucrats; a national health-care system that covers the entire population; public schools that train students to think both deeply and flexibly; and much more.

Applebaum rightly calls the whole Trump administration to task where appropriate, but largely eschews partisanship. Obviously, problems at this level do transcend partisanship and indict an entire culture and political system.  But it is also hard not to conclude that a decades-long Republican “war on government” is assuredly a major part of how we got here.  Republicans have made an effort to reduce the capacity of government to play a positive role in people’s lives and then every time government fails, say, “see we were right government is bad.”  But, the rest of the developed world shows us that it is under-staffed, under-funded, under-respected government that is the real problem.

Following its crisis, Japan under went a major change to join the modern world.  I’m skeptical of our ability to meet our challenges in the same way.  One thing is absolutely for sure, though, any hope of meaningful change starts with removing Trump in November.

Quick hits (part II)

More from obsessively reading about the Corona Virus so that you don’t have to :-).

1) Eric Levitz is no fan of Biden, but gets that Bernie supporters will simply need to vote for him in November:

Progressives and socialists would be wise to build their own independent institutions and cultivate their own mass base of support. But they should also recognize that they do, in fact, have a profound stake in seeing Joe Biden prevail over Donald Trump this November. For low-income people in Louisiana and Kentucky, the stakes of elections between moderate Democrats and far-right Republicans can be life and death. There is no party in U.S. politics right now that is committed to achieving truly universal health care as quickly as logistically possible. But there is one party that is demonstrably committed to expanding public health insurance, and one that is similarly committed to shrinking it. The tens of thousands of Americans who’ve secured Medicaid as a result of Democrats beating Republicans in elections are worth fighting for; as are the Virginians who will no longer have to ration their insulin because Ralph Northam beat Ed Gillespie; as are the undocumented New Yorkers who can now drive legally because Andrew Cuomo beat Marc Molinaro. To abstain from two-party competition in the contemporary United States is to forfeit ripe opportunities to improve the lives of our nation’s most vulnerable people.

2) I think this “never Biden” contingent will be much smaller in November, but, basically, a lot of people hate that they are stuck with this binary choice.  But, they just are.  It’s Trump or the Democratic nominee and a vote for anybody, but the Democratic nominee or a non-vote serves to keep Trump in office.

3) Very nice guide to the what social distancing actually means.  Also interesting that even the experts are not quite in agreement as to what, precisely, this should mean.  E.g.,


Watson: Those are more one-on-one interactions. I think there’s a lower likelihood that exposure is going to occur that way. I don’t think that’s a big concern.

Cannuscio: I would say hold off on your haircut and then when you go back, when it’s clear that we have vanquished this foe, everybody please give your hairdresser extra, extra tips. I hope that policies will be put into place to protect the paychecks of people who will suffer during this period.

4) Meanwhile, I think a social distancing plan that says, basically, don’t let your kids play with their friends is taking this too far.

5) That said, we still don’t have a very good handle on how well the virus spreads before symptoms and the asymptomatic spread may be the scariest part.

6) In happier times, we could focus more on the brutal academic job market for PhD’s.  To some degree, this results from a horrible mis-aligning of incentives whereas universities have great incentive to churn out PhDs (and even create new programs) while there just aren’t the jobs for all these people.  Meanwhile, people keep pursuing this because if you are one of the lucky ones who gets a tenure-track professor job, it’s just an amazing job to have.

7) Even before Covid-19 may have doomed Trump’s presidency, Biden’s performance so far has provided plenty of reason to think well of his chances against Trump.  John Cassidy:

The results from Tuesday’s primary in Michigan, a state that Trump carried in the 2016 general election by eleven thousand votes, provided the strongest evidence yet that Biden’s electoral strategy may be a viable one. Having already scored important primary victories in South Carolina and other Southern states, where black voters form the biggest portion of the Democratic electorate, the former Vice-President defeated Bernie Sanders by a sixteen-point margin in Michigan, where, according to an exit poll, whites without college degrees were the largest single voting bloc…

Of course, you can’t directly translate the results of a Democratic primary to a general election, where the voting pool is much bigger and more conservative. In 2016, about 4.8 million people voted in the general election in Michigan, compared to 1.2 million who voted in the Democratic primary. But you can’t ignore the results of primary elections, either. “You have to be careful about the signal-to-noise ratio, but there is certainly some signal there,” Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and an expert on electoral demographics, told me on Wednesday. “It seems to fit the proposition that Biden is putting forward. If I was part of the Trump campaign, I’d be a little concerned.”

That might be an understatement. In a recent analysis of what it will take to win the Presidency in 2020, Teixeira and a colleague, John Halpin, pointed out that in November, 2016, whites without college degrees made up about forty-four per cent of the electorate, making them the largest single group, and Trump carried them by more than twenty points. In 2020, Trump is once more basing his campaign on appealing to these voters and getting more of them to turn out. The good news for the Democrats—and the worrying thing for the President—is that they don’t need to eliminate Trump’s advantage with white working-class voters, which would be a huge task. Given the Democrats’ advantage in other demographics, merely restricting Trump’s advantage with that group to more manageable levels could be sufficient to carry Biden to the White House. [emphasis mine]

8) You know where we have the opposite of social distances?  Jails, prisons, and courtrooms.  We need to do so much better here.  As Emily Bazelon succinctly puts it, “Our Courts and Jails Are Putting Lives at Risk.”

9) Susan Rice on how to avoid a worst-case scenario.

Yet, there is still limited time to avoid the worst-case scenario if the White House moves very quickly.

Most immediately, the federal government must make millions of test kits available to all who need them at no cost to patients, including by calling on the W.H.O to help. It must speed the preparedness of hospitals and health care workers to ensure there are sufficient beds, ventilators and protective equipment to treat the imminent influx of the very ill. To fully engage the Federal Emergency Management Agency and accelerate the deployment of critical resources, the president should declare a national emergency now. (Mr. Trump declared a national emergency and announced several other steps to speed coronavirus response and testing at a news conference Friday afternoon.)

Next and critically important, the federal, state and local governments must swiftly mandate rigorous social distancing. To the greatest extent possible, all Americans should avoid sizable gatherings and crowded places, especially older adults and those with underlying health conditions. Not only should the sick and those close to them stay home, but we all should avoid concerts, large religious gatherings, sporting events, conferences and the like. Major league sports and the N.C.A.A. have led by example. School closings, as disruptive and costly as they are, can be critically important in limiting community spread.

Aggressive social distancing is our last key tool for slowing the spread of the coronavirus in the United States. If cities and states can “flatten the curve” of infections so that hospitals and health systems are not overwhelmed, we can better treat the very ill and delay the onset of many infections into a period when there are therapeutic treatments and a vaccine.

The severe economic impacts of the coronavirus must be relieved through urgent financial support to workers, caregivers, small businesses and the uninsured, as well as to companies. Paid leave, food assistance, affordable testing and treatment, and increased unemployment insurance are among the many accommodations Congress and the administration must immediately enact to assist the most vulnerable.

10) Very good one on “flattening the curve.”

11) Great Monkey Cage piece from Neil Malhotra on how short-term thinking is endemic to politics.  This is going in the Public Policy syllabus

So why is the United States so poorly equipped for a mass pandemic? Much of the answer plausibly lies in politicians’ incentives. Having the federal government prepare for crises may be incredibly good value for money. But politicians get few or no benefits from doing so, since voters don’t reward them for being ready. This is why…

Despite the clear efficiency of investing in preparation rather than response, prevention spending has decreased over the decades — while response spending has increased. Why has the federal government spent its money so poorly?

The answer lies in electoral incentives. We find that presidents who deliver relief spending after a disaster get a larger share of the votes in the next election. Specifically, if the incumbent party increases relief expenditures in a county from $1 per person (the 66th percentile for spending in the data) to $10 per person (the 93rd percentile in the data), the incumbent party will gain about 0.77 percentage points more in the next presidential vote. But there is a flat relationship between prevention spending in a county and presidential vote share — in other words, there’s no increase at all. This creates a clear incentive for government to not invest much in prevention, and instead to send help when disaster strikes.

12) Yeah, I’ve heard we all sit too much.  But, no, I will be taking up squatting.

13) Want to boost your immune system to fight off Covid-19?  Nothing at all surprising.  Eat right, exercise, reduce stress, and get enough sleep.

14) Good stuff on underlying medical conditions and susceptibility to Covid-19.

15) Conor Friedersdorf with a thoughtful and thorough look at the role of sexism in Warren’s downfall.

16) Twitter is all lit up with this WP story about the bumbled and awful Coronavirus response.  I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but surely a good use of some of your time on Sunday.

The economy was grinding to a halt. Stocks were in free fall. Schools were closing. Public events were being canceled. New cases of the novel coronavirus were popping up across the country.

And then, on Wednesday, the day the World Health Organization designated the coronavirus a pandemic, Jared Kushner joined the tumult.

President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser — who has zero expertise in infectious diseases and little experience marshaling the full bureaucracy behind a cause — saw the administration floundering and inserted himself at the helm, believing he could break the logjam of internal dysfunction.

Kushner rushed to help write Trump’s widely panned Oval Office address to the nation. His supermodel sister-in-law’s father, Kurt Kloss, an emergency room doctor, crowdsourced suggestions from his Facebook network to pass along to Kushner. And Kushner pressed tech executives to help build a testing website and retail executives to help create mobile testing sites — but the projects were only half-baked when Trump revealed them Friday in the White House Rose Garden

Kushner entered into a crisis management process that, despite the triumphant and self-congratulatory tone of public briefings, was as haphazard and helter-skelter as the chaotic early days of Trump’s presidency — turning into something of a family-and-friends pandemic response operation.

The administration’s struggle to mitigate the coronavirus outbreak has been marked by infighting and blame-shifting, misinformation and missteps, and a slow recognition of the danger. Warring factions have wrestled for control internally and for approval from a president who has been preoccupied with the beating his image is taking.

18) Thoughtful and interesting piece on public closings from a physician who wrote a book about the 1918 epidemic.  I was especially interested in the uncertainty on the efficacy of school closings.

19) Helaine Olen, “Coronavirus is an indictment of our way of life”

Our moment of crisis is decades in the making, the endgame of decades of embracing the idea that we are not interconnected, that it is each man and woman for themselves. The results are all around us: Income and wealth inequality soared. When a global financial crisis occurred in 2008, the government bailed out the banks and financial service sector, while allowing millions of American households to go into foreclosure. The rich got even richer, while almost everyone else fell behind. A majority of people say they cannot come up with $1,000 in a pinch without resorting to credit.

Intent on extracting wealth for an ever-smaller elite, we failed to invest. Corporations put money into stock buybacks, not into their employees or research. School funding fell, and our infrastructure — well, it’s a solid D+, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. Roads are filled with potholes, and bridges literally fall down…

ut the fault is not Trump’s alone. Too many of us were deluded, convinced that we ourselves would be fine while others suffered around us. But it was absurd to think money could protect us from all danger. Viral diseases don’t check your wallet before striking, and they find you at Hamptons summer houses and hidden bunkers alike.

We are all connected. We all need to take on the task of rebuilding our society and putting protections in place so that when the next the crisis comes, we are ready to take it on. That looks like Medicare-for-allPaid sick leave. A strong unemployment system — one that covers gig workers — so that people losing their jobs don’t run out of money almost immediately.

That’s not a radical left agenda, it’s one that protects all of us. It also happens to be humane. And if we do it, some good will come out of this terrible calamity. The world will almost certainly never be the same. It’s in our power to make it a better one than before.

20) David Wallace-Wells lets loose:

This is not how a functioning society responds to a crisis. And while it is important to keep in mind that even the worst-case scenarios for COVID-19 stop far short of producing total social and political disarray — producing merely widespread death and suffering and an almost incalculable burden on our already stretched-thin medical capacity — it is nevertheless astonishing, and horrifying, just how quickly we have arrived here, almost totally distrustful of the civic institutions we expect to protect us.

And how did we arrive here? Part of it is, of course, Trump, who has so accelerated the decades-long Republican war on government, which is to say good governance, that it can now seem the only two people actually working in the federal government are Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller (who, by the way, jointly wrote the speech the president gave last night). Part of it is the long story of neoliberalism, which has taught us all that we make our political mark on the world through consumer choice and individual behavior, that we shouldn’t expect much but economic management from government, and that citizens are meant to be unleashed into unemcumbered markets. Part of it is even deeper cultural transformation, involving growing distrust of institutions and authorities and the growth of a kind of casually paranoid style of go-it-alone American life, as was so memorably documented in Chris Hayes’s The Twilight of the Elites. And part of it is, I think, in the term Ross Douthat has deployed in the title of his new book, “decadence” — the ancient imperial cycle of rising power and competence followed by avarice and narcissism and shortsightedness, but accelerated, in the case of the U.S., for a hypermodern age.

Barely more than two decades ago, the United States saw itself as a kind of eternal and all-powerful empire — the indispensable nation. It would have seemed laughable, then, to be told that China would have produced a far better and more comprehensive pandemic response — a shamefully superior response. But today, distressingly, we take that relative failure for granted, and don’t expect to outperform the Chinese on matters like these, let alone South Korea or Singapore. What feels new is that we are doing worse even than Italy, where in the past few days hundreds have died and where they are now rationing critical-care devices between patients who need them — deciding, between two people who will die without support, which one has a better chance of surviving with the machine and giving it to them. We are well behind Italy and seem somewhat closer in the effectiveness and coordination of our response to Iran, where it’s estimated millions may be infected, including many senior figures in government. When countries like these are desperate, they now turn to China, which is sending a huge supply of necessary equipment and human resources to Italy. The United States used to play that role not that long ago. Now, in this crisis and future ones, who will help us?

21) And, we’ll leave on the most damning note from Derek Thompson, “America Is Acting Like a Failed State”

Throughout the world, the most effective responses to the historic threat of the coronavirus have come from state governments. China imposed a lockdown of tens of millions of people in Wuhan and other cities. In Singapore, the government built an app to inform citizens how to contain the virus and what public spaces to avoid. South Korea opened a number of drive-through centers to accelerate diagnostic testing.

But in the United States, the pandemic has devolved into a kind of grotesque caricature of American federalism. The private sector has taken on quasi-state functions at a time when the executive branch of government—drained of scientific expertisestarved of moral vision—has taken on the qualities of a failed state. In a country where many individuals, companies, institutions, and local governments are making hard decisions for the good of the nation, the most important actor of them all—the Trump administration—has been a shambolic bonanza of incompetence.

It might seem hyperbolic to compare the U.S. government to a failed state that cannot project its authority or adequately ensure the safety of its population. But for much of the past month, the White House has shown an inability to do either.

The Trump administration has failed to perform the most basic function of a state during a pandemic—which is to accurately assess the threat. While South Korea is reportedly conducting 10,000 tests a day, lawmakers learned on Thursday that the U.S. has conducted only 11,000 coronavirus tests in total. (For the U.S. to catch up to South Korea on a per capita basis, it would need to conduct 65,000 tests daily.) But the coronavirus caught the Trump White House flat-footed. The administration fired the U.S. pandemic-response team in 2018. It ignored early warnings from epidemiologists; refused to waive regulations that impeded early testing; and botched its initial COVID-19 testing kits.

The White House has also failed in its basic role to protect the public by communicating accurate and useful information about public health and hygiene.

22) Exactly 21 years ago today, I defended my dissertation :-).

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