Quick hits

Ummmm, so, if you are not interested in Covid-19 and the political responses, this post just may not be for you.

1) Pretty much every “how we get back to some semblance of normal” relies on very extensive testing.  Alas, this Op-Ed by a respected infectious disease expert throws sand in the gears by saying we’re simply not going to have the amount of necessary reagents to pull that off.  Yet none of the other stuff I read seems to acknowledge this problem.  Don’t know what to think.

2) So, this article on Covid and food safety, by a chef, is honestly pretty much the best thing I’ve read on the disease, period.  Covers food safety wonderfully, but so much more.

3) Wired, “It’s Time to Face Facts, America: Masks Work”

4) And this is one of the best articles I’ve read on disease transmission because it looks at studies of how diseases survive out there in the real world, not the lab.

5) Really loved this from Francis Fukuyama on how democracies versus autocracies and trust in the system and response to pandemic.

In the end, I don’t believe that we will be able to reach broad conclusions about whether dictatorships or democracies are better able to survive a pandemic. Democracies such as South Korea and Germany have been relatively successful so far in dealing with the crisis, even if the U.S. is doing less well. What matters in the end is not regime type, but whether citizens trust their leaders, and whether those leaders preside over a competent and effective state. And on this score, America’s deepening tribalism leaves few reasons for optimism.

6) Enough with his “narrow path.”  Bernie still campaigning is not what America needs right now.  Time to face reality, end his campaign, and focus all his energy on helping the fight to get Trump out of office.

7) Meanwhile, the EU and NATO both absolutely, positively need to kick Hungary out.  And, of course, it is absolutely shameful, not surprisingly, that there’s been no condemnation from the Trump administration (surely, Trump is jealous of Orban).

8) I’ve made a few really good investments this year.  A new router, a mesh network extender for said router, and a soundbar for my TV.  And damn I should have done that sooner.

9) Great Wired article on the tremendous progress of Solar power.  We can do this!

GOOD NEWS HAS been rare this past decade, so here’s some: Since 2010, the cost of generating solar electric power has dropped by 80 percent, and gigantic photovoltaic plants, some spanning thousands of acres, are transforming the economics of green energy. “Even from five years ago, it’s a really different story than today,” says Gregory Nemet, an academic who last year published a book called How Solar Energy Became Cheap. “This isn’t just cheap. It’s dirt cheap. In sunny places, it’s the cheapest way humans have ever invented to make electricity.”

If this cost collapse had occurred in a single year, it might have been hailed as the breakthrough of the century. But it happened gradually, and incremental improvements in crystalline silicon manufacturing don’t generate buzz. At the beginning of the 2010s, solar was a science project, accounting for less than 1 percent of the world’s installed power capacity. Now that number is 9 percent and growing fast. More than $1 trillion has been invested in new solar installations in that time. Solar power routinely wins competitive power auctions, with bids as low as 4 cents per kilowatt-hour. At that price, a solar plant isn’t just cheaper than a coal plant; it’s cheaper than coal itself. “We’re reaching a phase where it’s cheaper to build a new solar power plant than it is to operate an existing coal one,” says energy investor Ramez Naam.

10) Interactive charts so you can see how your country or state (pretty good, NC) are doing on their Covid curves.

11) I don’t know about only in America under Trump, but, damn if this isn’t just sadly, sadly typical, “Taxpayers Paid Millions to Design a Low-Cost Ventilator for a Pandemic. Instead, the Company Is Selling Versions of It Overseas.”

12) This Ed Yong piece about just how much scientific uncertainty there is on many aspects of Covid transmission is a must-must-read, “Everyone Thinks They’re Right About Masks: How the coronavirus travels through the air has become one of the most divisive debates in this pandemic.”

13) Meanwhile, largely due to the evidence for asymptomatic and presymptomatic transmission, I’m very inclined to agree with this Op-Ed, “Wearing Masks Must Be a National Policy.”  Also, we need a rapid cultural shift to make that happen.  Scientists at Trump news conferences wearing masks.  PSA’s on proper mask use.  This cannot happen without the proper signals. .

14) Since they are all out, Vox on how to make your own.  And I loved this analysis on which materials make the best homemade masks not just for stopping germs, but for actually letting you breathe while you’re at it.  And Stanford’s mask material analysis if you are into this (obviously, I am).

15) Jamelle Bouie, “The Coronavirus Test Is Too Hard for Trump: The president joins Herbert Hoover and James Buchanan as a leader who failed when it mattered most.”

The list of presidential failures is long and varied. But when it comes to failure in the face of an external force — a natural disaster or an economic meltdown — it is difficult to find anything as catastrophic as President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, even at this early stage of the crisis.

There are moments that come close. There was President James Buchanan’s indifference to the secession crisis of 1860. Other than to give a speech — clarifying his view that secession was an extra-constitutional action — the outgoing president did little but watch as most of the South left the Union in the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s election.

There was President Herbert Hoover’s response to the 1929 stock market crash and subsequent Great Depression. He urged calm — “The fundamental business of the country, that is production and distribution of commodities is on a sound and prosperous basis” — encouraged volunteer action and pressured employers to keep wages up. But he wasn’t intellectually or politically equipped to go further — “We cannot legislate ourselves out of a world economic depression, we can and will work ourselves out” — and the country suffered as a result.

I would also include President George W. Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina and his handling of the subsequent crisis in New Orleans. His management of the situation — from his initial lack of interest to the abject failure of his disaster response team — produced devastation for thousands of people and marked the effective end of his presidency.

Trump hasn’t just failed to anticipate the way Buchanan did or failed to respond like Hoover or failed to prepare like Bush — he’s done all three. He inherited everything he needed to respond to a pandemic: explicit guidance from the previous administration and a team of experienced experts and intelligence agencies attuned to the threat posed by the quick spread of deadly disease. He even had some sensible advisers who, far from ignoring or making light of the virus, urged him to take it seriously.

The federal government may not have been able to stop coronavirus from reaching the United States — that was impossible to avoid in a globalized, highly-mobile world — but it was well equipped to deal with the problem once it reached our shores.

But as the world knows, Trump ignored, downplayed and dismissed the problem until it became one of the worst crises in our nation’s history.[emphasis mine]

16) Navy Seal convicted of war crimes?  Trump pardons.  Navy captain speaks up to get urgently needed medical care for his crew?  Relieved of command.  Just another day in Trump’s America.

On Monday, Capt. Brett Crozier, the commander of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, sent a letter to the Navy pleading for permission to unload his crew, including scores of sailors sickened with Covid-19, in Guam, where it was docked. The Pentagon had been dragging its feet, and the situation on the ship was growing dire.

“We are not at war,” he wrote. “Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset — our sailors.”

After the letter was leaked to The San Francisco Chronicle, the Navy relented. But on Thursday, it relieved Captain Crozier of his command.

Captain Crozier joins a growing list of heroic men and women who have risked their careers over the last few weeks to speak out about life-threatening failures to treat the victims of this terrible pandemic. Many of them are doctors and nurses, and many of them, like Captain Crozier, have been punished. All of them deserve our deepest gratitude.

17) CAP with a Covid plan.  This sounds sensible and doable:

Using the Susceptible, Exposed, Infected and Resistant model developed by the University of Toronto, it is possible to project the impact of physical distancing on transmission. If restrictions are lifted on April 30, as proposed by President Trump, the model projects that 41.1 million Americans would become infected by late October, with 4.9 million infected at the peak in mid-July. An estimated 334,500 people would die. It is important to note that this projection assumes aggressive physical distancing—closure of businesses and transportation—which has not been implemented throughout the United States to date.

In order to break transmission through October—new cases would still occur, but at a flat rate—aggressive physical distancing would need to be in place for 45 days starting April 5, according to the model. In this scenario, the model projects that 15.7 million Americans would become infected by late October, with 5.2 million infected at the peak in mid-April. An estimated 139,600 people would die. After the peak in April, the number of new cases would decline and stabilize this summer. In October, transmission would begin to slowly grow again, absent other measures. According to the model, aggressive physical distancing for 60 days would almost completely suppress transmission through November.

18) Putting Jared Kushner in charge of Covid response is just an amazing case of adding insult to injury in Trump’s gross mishandling of everything Covid.  Instead of pouring salt in wounds, it’s like chopping off your leg and throwing it in a salt flat.  Michelle Goldberg:

According to Sherman, when New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, said that the state would need 30,000 ventilators at the apex of the coronavirus outbreak, Kushner decided that Cuomo was being alarmist. “I have all this data about I.C.U. capacity,” Kushner reportedly said. “I’m doing my own projections, and I’ve gotten a lot smarter about this. New York doesn’t need all the ventilators.” (Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top expert on infectious diseases, has said he trusts Cuomo’s estimate.)

Even now, it’s hard to believe that someone with as little expertise as Kushner could be so arrogant, but he said something similar on Thursday, when he made his debut at the White House’s daily coronavirus briefing: “People who have requests for different products and supplies, a lot of them are doing it based on projections which are not the realistic projections.”

Kushner has succeeded at exactly three things in his life. He was born to the right parents, married well and learned how to influence his father-in-law. Most of his other endeavors — his biggest real estate deal, his foray into newspaper ownership, his attempt to broker a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians — have been failures.

And Paul Waldman, “Trump’s ignorant son-in-law is running the coronavirus response. That’s unacceptable.”

So many awful things have happened over the past three years that we’ve become almost numb to them. But this a moment when our voices should be rising in anger. As if it weren’t bad enough that the president is messing this up so badly himself, he has outsourced management of one of the most deadly challenges the United States has ever faced to his ignorant son-in-law.

Perhaps there is an individual somewhere who is so brilliant, so deeply informed, so experienced, so persuasive, and possessed of such remarkable judgment that he or she would have been capable of solving all those problems Kushner has been assigned. Perhaps there is someone who with zero knowledge of public health or pandemics or government logistics could swoop in and successfully manage this kind of crisis.

It’s at least possible that such a person exists. But Kushner is not that person.

In fact, just like his father-in-law, Kushner is a walking case study in the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which people of low ability drastically overestimate their own abilities, in large part because they are incapable of understanding what they don’t know.

Join that with a lifetime of unearned wealth and privilege (Kushner, a mediocre high school student, was accepted to Harvard after his father pledged to the university a well-timed $2.5 million donation), and you wind up with someone who is supremely and unjustifiably confident, moving through a world in which nobody ever tells them how badly they’ve messed up or how incompetent they are.

19) Nancy LeTourneau asks, “Is It Possible to Overstate Trump’s Depravity?”  Obviously, you know the answer to that.

It is infuriating to watch political reporters get sucked into the nonsense delivered by this president over and over again. But David Roberts recently described why that happens.

Ask someone who’s been in an abusive relationship with a malignant narcissist. One reason they’re able to maintain appearances/jobs/etc. is that they are relatively rare & unusual & the normal people around them simply can’t absorb that they are what they are…They try again and again, thinking there must be normal human intentions & emotions in there somewhere. It’s just remarkable how far someone w/out shame or conscience can get by exploiting this cognitive/emotional blindspot.

When Roberts writes about how we keep trying to see normal human intentions and emotions in someone who has never exhibited them before, it is because projection isn’t merely a matter of assuming that others are capable of our worst instincts. In general, we tend to project all of our responses onto others in an attempt to understand their actions. Since most of us aren’t malignant narcissists, it is difficult for us to grasp the levels of depravity exhibited by those who are. Normalizing Trump’s behavior is simply another form of projection.

Over the last three years I have consistently questioned whether I have gone overboard in assuming the worst about Donald Trump. But while it is never a good idea to lock oneself into any line of thinking, I doubt that it is possible to overstate this president’s depravity.

20) New Yorker’s Susan Glasser with a great take:

When you are done being angry about all the crazy, nasty, inconsistent, and untrue things that Donald Trump says each day about the coronavirus and other matters, remember that the flood of words is cover for an Administration that in some ways barely exists relative to its predecessors, especially when it comes to crucial areas of domestic, economic, and international security—or even straightforward crisis management. Turnover at the upper levels of Trump’s White House stands at eighty-three per cent, according to a Brookings Institution tracker. In his Cabinet, Trump has had far more turnover than Presidents Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, and both George Bushes. The capacity of the federal government to respond to this catastrophe—even if Trump had been so inclined—has never been weaker. The virus was not of Trump’s making, but his government’s incoherent, disorganized response to it was utterly predictable.

On March 6th, Trump fired his acting White House chief of staff. Amid the extraordinary headlines of the world’s largest economy shutting down and the mass closure of U.S. schools and businesses, little attention was paid to the ouster of Mick Mulvaney and Trump’s appointment of a combative North Carolina congressman, the Republican Mark Meadows, as his successor. Even more remarkably, it was only this week, nearly a month later, that Meadows officially resigned from Congress and started in the White House, which he was required to do in order to avoid the constitutional prohibition on serving simultaneously in the executive and legislative branches. Trump, facing the gravest test a President can face, was literally without anyone to run his perpetually dysfunctional and faction-ridden White House.

Meadows is just the sort of political opportunist and cable-TV talking head to have been pulled into the President’s gravitational orbit—a former small-time real-estate developer in North Carolina’s Highlands with none of the executive experience or leadership credentials needed in this sort of crisis…

This is the case across the government. Amid the pandemic upending the world, Trump has no Senate-confirmed director of National Intelligence, having pushed aside both the director and the subsequent acting director for perceived disloyalty. After the captain of an American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, sent a memo pleading for relief for the hundreds of sailors facing a spreading covid-19 outbreak on his ship, he was relieved of his command by the acting secretary of the Navy. The previous Navy secretary had been pushed out by Trump in November, after he objected when the President intervened in a war-crimes case involving a Navy seal and two other service members. Elsewhere at the Pentagon, the undersecretary in charge of policy planning for the military was recently fired, with no replacement in sight—a key vacancy at a moment when the global health crisis seems to suggest an urgent rethinking of America’s entire national-security strategy.

As far as the White House staff, much has already been made of Trump’s downgrading of the pandemic-response team at the National Security Council. But even where positions are filled, as in many of the top government jobs related to health, the problem is not so much endemic vacancy but “feebleness, cluelessness, disempowerment,” as Stephen Morrison, the head of global health programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, put it to me.

If you had literally created a plan to hollow out government so that it would fail us in a crisis, you could hardly have done much better than Trump.  And thousands and thousands and thousands of Americans will die and suffer in many, many other ways because Americans elected this grossly incompetent, malignant narcissist.  And because the Republican party failed to stand up to him and remove him for the obvious good of the country when they had the chance.  

Okay, on that happy note…

Let’s do this 

NPR’s Planet Money interviewed economist Paul Roper about what do do about our current crisis and his ideas about a far more proactive federal role make a hell of a lot of sense.  Like, hey– let’s do these things!  To wit:

But Romer believes that if the federal government pursues a new strategy, where it coordinates industry, sets up and staffs testing sites, and buys virus-fighting equipment at massive scale, we can have a way better option within a month or two.

The way he sees it, the current two choices aren’t nearly as good. One is continued social distancing until scientists deliver us a vaccine available for widespread use, which could take two years. Waiting that long, Romer says, would mean “the end of the economy and life as we know it.”

The other choice is returning to normal before we get a vaccine, with everybody reintegrating into work and social life at the risk of hundreds of thousands of deaths. “We’re either gonna keep destroying the economy or we’re gonna start killing people,” he says…

Romer and Garber advocate that the federal government mobilize the nation like it’s a war and implement measures that might allow us to reenter a somewhat normally functioning economy without massive loss of life.

As others have been advocating, they want the government to make COVID-19 tests universally available, done frequently, and used as a green light for each of us to reenter economic and social life. The problem, Romer says, is there are only about a hundred testing machines in the U.S. and we need at least 5,000 of them. And that “isn’t going to happen if we just sit around and pray and hope,” he says. He thinks it’s going to require massive government funding and centralized direction. He envisions government-sponsored testing sites throughout the country.

Romer and Garber also want mass production of face masks, gloves, full-body suits, hand sanitizer, ventilators, and everything it takes to make it safer for social interaction. “It’s just a tragedy that we don’t have enough masks and face shields – and god help us – we may not even have enough gloves soon for people to do their work at the hospital,” Romer says.

Economists usually like it when the market provides solutions. But building factories, buying machines, training workers, and doing everything else it takes to produce massive quantities of medical equipment on an aggressively short timeline will cost a lot. And, Romer says, without government intervention, companies won’t do this on their own.

That’s because corporate America naturally worries that demand for this equipment will evaporate once the crisis recedes and that even during the crisis, they might not be able to charge much for it. With historically high demand and limited supply, the market’s natural response is sky-high prices. Everybody hates them, but high prices provide an incentive for manufacturers to produce. Yet, Romer says, “the reality is our political system, our emotions, will not let companies charge like ten times as much for the masks right now as we’re trying to get a surge in production. So that’s why the market can’t do its job. We won’t let prices do what they have to do.”

With corporate America caught between a short demand spike and price controls, Romer and Garber want the federal government to step in and do whatever it takes to increase the production of testing machines and protective equipment. Romer compares it to what the government did after Pearl Harbor.

This strikes me as sensible as a matter of health care, economics, and politics.  Alas, I’m afraid the fly in the ointment is that too many Republicans– including the president– are simply opposed to using the federal government in this way even though it represents, quite possibly, the best way out of this mess.

I was kind of depressed thinking about things today because I keep seeing good plans that, in large part, rely on a smart and massive response of the federal government.  And, yet, it seems that with our current leadership we are quite unlikely to get what we so clearly need.

Why is Trump getting more popular now (political science can explain)

I first meant to write about this over a week ago, but I keep putting it off.  On the one hand, it is really frustrating to see Trump’s approval go up as he flails about and lies at press conferences and has failed to lead in a response that will surely mean more dead Americans.  On the other hand, the very modest increase in approval he’s had is eminently predictable and explainable by how political science has long understood presidential approval and it suggests this will be short-lived.

Political Scientist, Matthew Dickinson, with a really nice post:

For the denizens of Twitter, and for those whose primary source of news is cable talk shows and editorials in the NYC-Washington DC media axis, the upward trend in Trump’s approval may seem baffling, particularly given their steady drumbeat of stories criticizing the administration’s response to the corona virus. But it shouldn’t be. Trump is benefiting from a “rally ‘round the flag” effect  – the same phenomenon that has boosted support for previous presidents in times of national crisis.  First documented by political scientist John Mueller in a study focusing predominantly on Cold War military events. Mueller’s finding has subsequently been confirmed, and developed, in several additional studies that provide a clearer portrait regarding the basis of the rally effect.

The primary source of this phenomenon is rooted in presidents’ relatively unique position in the American political system. At the most basic level, presidents – as the only elected official with a national constituency – are the closest we have to the individual embodiment of national sovereignty.  The impact of that role is heightened by the fact that in the U.S., the President plays a ceremonial function in additional to his (someday her) partisan political position.  As such, when circumstances threaten the nation’s sovereignty, he benefits from his stature as both political head of government and chief of state by becoming the focal point of public concern about events…

We can see, then, why Trump’s approval ratings have gone up.  First, he has appeared on an almost daily basis, often in prime time, to give press conferences documenting his administration’s response to the corona virus…

Moreover, Trump has been flanked at these press conferences by non-partisan medical experts…

Most importantly, Trump’s policies, if not his framing, have attracted support at all levels of government.  The most visible example is the $2.2 trillion economic relief package, which sailed through Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support and was signed into law by Trump yesterday.  Despite Trump’s best efforts to step on his own bipartisan message, for now at least he is reaping the benefits of the administration’s highly visible response to the Covid-19 pandemic, one that in its broad outlines is attracting generally positive reviews nationally, as measured by polls…

Of course, that assumes that Trump’s higher approval ratings will persist until June.  There is good reason to suspect that won’t be the case. George W. Bush received an initial boost in approval after invading Iraq and removing Saddam Hussein from power.  But as the Iraq war dragged on, and U.S. casualties mounted, his support dropped steadily, as shown here…

More generally, studies document that most rally effects are short-lived, and barring additional events, presidential approval typically reverts to the pre-event level.  In the event of a sustained rise in the death toll caused by the coronavirus during the next several months, one could envision a similar drop in Trump’s approval, particularly if that leads to a renewal of the partisan polarization among political elites that Trump has confronted through most of his first term in office. This is almost certain to happen as the presidential election campaign comes back into focus, and Joe Biden ramps up his attacks on Trump’s handling of the pandemic…

An additional consideration is how the administration’s response to the coronavirus will impact the economy. Most election forecast models include a measure of aggregate economic performance as one of their explanatory variables.  Abramowitz, for example, finds that a 1% drop in GDP can cost incumbents nearly 20 electoral votes.  Should the economy fall into an extended recession, despite the passage of the stimulus bill, it could very well jeopardize Trump’s reelection chances, assuming past performance is a reliable indicator.

And Yglesias just came out with a nice piece summarizing a lot of good info on this:

Italy has become the poster child for the coronavirus’s global spread, and the Italian government’s handling of the outbreak is widely cited as a cautionary tale of mistakes to avoid.

But the public gives high marks to Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and his cabinet, a hastily composed coalition government that was formed last year in a desperate bid to keep the far right out of power. Polls show a sky-high 71 percent approval rating for a formerly unpopular team.

Smaller but still large approval bumps are also evident for Merkel and Macron.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s approval ratings have also soared into the high 70s, despite a policy approach characterized by a confusing back-and-forth on whether to even try to contain the virus, leading to a situation where the prime minister himself has been infected

Franklin Roosevelt’s numbers went up after Pearl Harbor, Jimmy Carter’s rose in the initial phase of the Iran hostage crisis, and George W. Bush’s soared after the 9/11 attacks. One common thread in all of this is that voters seem to discount the question of presidential conduct before the crisis hit. The hostage crisis, for example, was precipitated by the Carter administration’s decision to admit the recently deposed shah of Iran into the country after a lobbying campaign led by Chase Manhattan Bank. The Bush administration ignored warnings about al-Qaeda during its first nine months in office and sidelined plans it inherited from the Clinton administration for more aggressive action.

But in both cases, the incumbent president played the role of national leader on television very effectively in the early days of the crisis; only later would public support eventually wither…

The most striking thing about Trump’s approval rating bump, however, is simply that it’s very small. Compared to other politicians in the US and abroad, he’s very bad at playing a unifying figure. As a politician, that weakness is offset by the way the Electoral College overweights his coalition. But given the public opinion equivalent of a layup, he’s falling far short of the hoop.

Right, as Jonathan Bernstein (I think?) likes to say, Trump just isn’t very good at presidenting.  When the world seems to change so much in just a matter of days it seems foolhardy to try and predict, but I’ll go out on a limb and predict Trump’s approval ratings in October will be notably lower than they are now.  And, for his odds of reelection, that’s decidedly not good.

Miscellaneous Covid thoughts

1) I so loved this article about why we all need to wear masks once we come out from under social distancing.  In part because I’ve already been reading so much, this one really convinced me on the value of masks.  And, the fact that we should just use good-old fashioned surgical masks and definitely save N95 for medical personnel.  And, in making its case, I learned so much about respiratory virus transmission.  Lots of really, really good stuff here.

2) It seems that this coronavirus seems to be mutating pretty slowly as these things go.  That’s great news, as it suggests that once we get a vaccine, it will actually work for a while.

3) And this was a terrific primer (put together by the good folks at NC State) on viruses and viral evolution with a bunch of scientists– again, learned so much.

4) If you only think you know what you are talking about, never, never submit to an interview with Isaac Chotiner.  Richard Epstein is a law professor who thinks he’s an epidemiologist and wrote a very influential piece (likely influencing Trump) suggesting we are over-reacting.  Rarely, oh so rarely has an emperor been seen to be so starkly naked as he is in this interview.  It really is a must-read– just trust me.  Also, just a great example of “if all you have is a hammer…” and his hammer is evolution despite knowing nothing evolution in viruses.

Honestly, reading #2 and #3 above you will definitely more about evolution in viruses than Epstein does and yet he based a whole policy argument based on what he doesn’t understand.

5) Will Covid-19 diminish in Summer?  Lots of science, and… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.  Though, more than anything… don’t count on it.  And, if it does, we’ll get to say… it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.

6) It’s really hard to know what I would have made out of this when I was a very young adult before I had settled on political science.  But, I can say, if I, as in some crazy body-switch movie, went back to being 18, I would so go into epidemiology.

7) I really wish I had had some more warning the library was closing.  Just cannot do e-books and really wanted to read a novel, but not a lot of unread novels lying around my house.  So, I made the very rare for me decision to re-read a novel and I started re-reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  Very good call

Quick hits (part II)

1) Really interesting piece from Seth Masket comparing Covid to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927:

The flood was the product of several freak storms in the winter and spring of 1927. The flood surge destroyed the homes of roughly 700,000 people as it worked its way down the Mississippi River, killing 500 people and flooding 27,000 square miles of land (an area larger than West Virginia). Damages in today’s currency would likely exceed a trillion dollars. It remains the most destructive river flood in American history. 

Here’s the part that really echoes: as the flood surge approached New Orleans, city leaders there made a fateful decision to dynamite the levees that were protecting the poorer regions of St. Bernard Parish and Plaquemines Parish, saving the city’s wealthier neighborhoods. 

Now, the specific details of the flood aren’t that much like the COVID-19 virus, obviously. But the similarities lie in what the flood revealed about the society it tore apart.

As Barry argues, a powerful popular belief at the time was the idea of noblesse oblige, the idea that the wealthy and powerful would look after everyone else because it was their obligation to do so. Of course there was rampant economic and racial inequality in the 1920s and well prior to that, but it wasn’t so bad because the people on top would take care of everyone else when the chips were down. 

That philosophy died hard when New Orleans city leaders blew the levees. Now, I need to be clear what “city leaders” here means. As Barry describes it, the leaders were not so much elected officials as they were the city elders, leaders of prominent families, and especially the elite clubs known as krewes who held the real power in town. (Krewes today have much more pleasant tasks like creating Mardi Gras floats — back then they more or less ran the city.)

The flood, and the calloused and self-dealing manner in which city elites responded to its threat, undermined their rule and the ideology of noblesse oblige that had propped them up for so long. Poorer citizens would no longer trust elites to do the right thing in a crisis. The flood’s aftermath created an environment for populist politicians like Huey Long to rise to power by running against the elite families. Herbert Hoover, then the US Secretary of Commerce, organized a massive federal relief effort in the region, setting a precedent for federal remedies for local and regional catastrophes (and also bolstering his 1928 presidential run). 

Importantly, when the Great Depression hit a few years later, there was little expectation that local elites or wealthy patrons would remedy the problems. The federal government was expected to fix it.

We may be seeing something like this at work today, although we are still only at the beginning stages of the Coronavirus pandemic. President Trump, while seeking efforts to shore up the economy, has largely resisted using governing tools like the Defense Production Act to respond to demands for masks and ventilators and virus tests, instead insisting that governors and private industry should be doing more. 

2) Be suspicious of a wine bar that starts selling gourmet pizza during a pandemic, “A restaurant in South Carolina has been accused of reselling Costco pizzas at a 700% markup as ‘gourmet Roman-style thin crust pizza'”

3) If Hillary Clinton had been president we probably would have not closed the border as quickly, but we would have done virtually everything else so much better.  Max Boot.

4) Meanwhile the fundamental rule of law in our court system continues to be undermined.  Dahlia Lithwick and Mark Joseph Stern:

Nowhere is the problem of asymmetrical rhetorical warfare more apparent than in the federal judiciary. For the past several years, federal judges, notably those appointed by Donald J. Trump, have felt unmoored from any standard judicial conventions of circumspection and restraint, penning screeds about the evils of “big government” and rants against Planned Parenthood. Most of the judicial branch, though, has declined to engage in this kind of rhetoric. There are norms, after all, and conventions, standards, and protocols. There seems to also be an agreement that conservative judges demonstrate deeply felt passion when they delve into such issues, while everyone else just demonstrates “bias” if they decide to weigh in. So when Justice Clarence Thomas just last year used a dissent to attack the integrity of a sitting federal judge in the census case, it was mere clever wordsmithing. But when Justice Sonia Sotomayor suggests, as she did recently, that the conservative wing of the high court seems to be privileging the Trump administration’s emergency petitions, she is labeled—by the president himself—unfit to judge. It’s such a long-standing trick, and it’s so well supported by the conservative outrage machine, that it’s easy to believe that critiques of fellow judges by conservative judges are legitimate, while such critiques from liberal judges are an affront to the legitimacy of the entire federal judiciary…

A startling number of Trump judges appear to believe that, like Ho, their job is mainly to own the libs in print. Neomi Rao, a Trump judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, has created a cottage industry out of writing preposterous Trump-friendly polemics. On the same morning that South Texas College of Law Houston professor Josh Blackman expressed his outrage at Adelman’s article, Rao issued yet another dissent that would protect Trump, this time by denying the House of Representatives access to the unredacted Mueller report. Rao’s position is so extreme that Thomas Griffith, a conservative George W. Bush appointee, penned a separate concurrence just to shred it. It is impossible to ignore the fact that Rao keeps running interference for the Trump administration, making arguments that are promptly shunned. And it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that her lengthy, contorted dissents begin with the proposition that Trump must triumph and work backward from there.

5) NPR, “Why Germany’s Coronavirus Death Rate Is Far Lower Than In Other Countries”  Testing.

6) Enjoyed this little history of toilet paper.  Also, glad my wife went out and bought one big jumbo pack at the beginning of the craziness so we didn’t have to worry.

7) I really wish more people understood how fundamentally white Christian evangelicalism in America is tied to white supremacy in the South.  (MB will definitely want to read this whole link).

I grew up in a rural Indiana town surrounded by symbols of American exceptionalism. Despite our size, we maintained one of the biggest Fourth of July parades in the state. Bright red, white, and blue flags and bunting decorated our houses and businesses year-round, including our plethora of churches. At the time, I had no idea that I was being raised in a nationalist, white-identity, Neo-Confederate cult that worshipped power, white supremacy, and hypercapitalism. I’ve come to call this massive and dangerous sect the Cult of the Shining City.

The America I knew—the America that so many of us grew up believing in—was not simply true, it was the only truth. The history we were taught in school focused on the United States of America as the one certain hope in a world of danger and evil. That message was echoed in our preachers’ sermons every Sunday morning as figures like Jesus Christ and George Washington were treated with similar reverence. What those history lessons and sermons didn’t teach us was the means by which evangelical Christianity had come to merge with the secular worship of wealth and power, creating a nationalist, racist faith.

8) Fixing the economy, Nordic style:

In Denmark, political parties from across the ideological spectrum joined with labor unions and employers associations this month to unite behind a plan that has the government covering 75 to 90 percent of all worker salaries over the next three months, provided that companies refrain from layoffs.

The Danish government also agreed to cover costs like rent for companies that suffer a shortfall in revenues. These two elements are collectively estimated to cost 42.6 billion Danish kroner (about $6.27 billion), after factoring in the savings on the unemployment insurance system.

The Netherlands produced a similar scheme, with the government stepping in to cover 90 percent of wages for firms that show losses of at least 20 percent of their revenue. The British government pledged to cover 80 percent of wages, and on Thursday extended those protections to the self-employed.

The aim of this approach is to prevent the wrenching experience of mass unemployment, while allowing businesses to retain their people rather than firing and then hiring them again. Once normalcy returned, companies would be in position to quickly resume operations, restoring economic growth.

“There was quickly an understanding that we were in an exceptional situation where it was necessary to very quickly produce exceptional initiatives,” said Carl-Johan Dalgaard, an economist at the University of Copenhagen and chair of the Danish Economic Council, which advises policymakers. “If you can tide firms over and thereby reduce the severity of bankruptcies and firings, you can expedite the return to normal.”

The primary reason that this sort of approach appears unthinkable in the United States is the same one that limits options to expanding health care and lowering the cost of university education: Wealthy Americans have proved adept at shielding themselves from taxation.

“You don’t have a comprehensive welfare state in the United States, because it implies a politically unacceptable level of redistribution,” said Jacob F. Kierkegaard, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. “As long as you’re not willing to tax wealthy people and give some of the money to people who are not wealthy, these sorts of options are not on the menu.”

9) OMG Thomas Massie really is the worst and I love the way that Dana Milbank points out that he’s very much a creation of the perverse dysfunction that is the modern Republican Party (also, he apparently went to MIT, just more proof that you can have high IQ and be a moron):

Massie, a believer in the “deep state” conspiracy, is a product of the tea party, a protege of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and a collaborator with outgoing Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who is becoming Trump’s chief of staff, when they tried to oust then-Speaker John Boehner. “I’m ready to be unpopular,” Massie said after his 2012 election, and he has opposed even anti-lynching and human rights legislation — and celebrated when he uses “the process” so that “things die.”

He is emblematic of the newer Republicans who congressional scholars Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann say have turned the GOP into an “insurgent outlier,” rewarding bomb-throwers and making compromise with Democrats all but impossible.

“Newt Gingrich gave them the theme that the best thing they can do is discredit government and blow up all of government,” Ornstein told me Friday as Massie perpetrated his shenanigans. Massie, he said, “is a monster created by their deliberate attempt to get people to have contempt for government and institutions that are part of government.” That contempt gave rise to Trump, but it also remade the Republican caucus in Congress.

10) Peter Wehner on how astonishingly unsuited Trump is for this moment:

The thing to understand about Donald Trump is that putting others before self is not something he can do, even temporarily. His attempts to convey facts that don’t serve his perceived self-interest or to express empathy are forced, scripted, and always short-lived, since such reactions are alien to him.

This president does not have the capacity to listen to, synthesize, and internalize information that does not immediately serve his greatest needs: praise, fealty, adoration. “He finds it intolerable when those things are missing,” a clinical psychologist told me. “Praise, applause, and accolades seem to calm him and boost his confidence. There’s no room for that now, and so he’s growing irritable and needing to create some way to get some positive attention.”

Adam Serwer: Trump is inciting a coronavirus culture war to save himself

She added that the pandemic and its economic fallout “overwhelm Trump’s capacity to understand, are outside of his ability to internalize and process, and [are] beyond his frustration tolerance. He is neither curious nor interested; facts are tossed aside when inconvenient or [when they] contradict his parallel reality, and people are disposable unless they serve him in some way.”

It’s useful here to recall that Trump’s success as a politician has been built on his ability to impose his will and narrative on others, to use his experience on a reality-television show and his skill as a con man to shape public impressions in his favor, even—or perhaps, especially—if those impressions are at odds with reality. He convinced a good chunk of the country that he is a wildly successful businessman and knows more about campaign finance, the Islamic State, the courts, the visa system, trade, taxes, the debt, renewable energy, infrastructure, borders, and drones than anyone else.

Read: How the pandemic will end

But in this instance, Trump isn’t facing a political problem he can easily spin his way out of. He’s facing a lethal virus. It doesn’t give a damn what Donald Trump thinks of it or tweets about it. Spin and lies about COVID-19, including that it will soon magically disappear, as Trump claimed it would, don’t work. In fact, they have the opposite effect. Misinformation will cause the virus to increase its deadly spread.

So as the crisis deepens—as the body count increases, hospitals are overwhelmed, and the economy contracts, perhaps dramatically—it’s reasonable to assume that the president will reach for the tools he has used throughout his life: duplicity and denial. He will not allow facts that are at odds with his narrative to pierce his magnetic field of deception.

11) Love this idea from Jay Rosen:

What: A daily briefing on where we are in fighting the Covid-19 virus. 

When: Every day for the forseeable future, 4 to 5 pm ET. 

Where: On the internet. Streaming video and audio always. Broadast whenever a particpating channel or station decides to pick it up. All guests appear remotely. All questions asked remotely. 

Why: For the same reason there needs to be a daily briefing at the White House, but this one is independent from the White House. It provides a stream of factual and relevant information from experts who can speak with authority, and people on the front lines who are in a position to know. 

Who: Originated by the “network pool,” a consortium of ABC, CBS, NBC, FNC and CNN that already collaborates on big occasions like the State of the Union, plus a few other events like this. Any other media company can join for free, submit questions live, and carry the video or audio, which are also available on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and as a podcast. 

How: Features 4-5 guests a day who have advanced knowledge or a vital perspective: public health experts, epidemiologists, scientists, hospital officials, governors. Journalists who are part the AMDB can submit questions live. Anyone on the internet can submit questions in advance. 

12) This is great from Parker Molloy, “By reframing Trump’s incoherent inaccurate ramblings as bland political copy, journalists are carrying water for the president.”  Lots of great examples at the link.

13) Farhad Manjoo, “How the World’s Richest Country Ran Out of a 75-Cent Face Mask: A very American story about capitalism consuming our national preparedness and resiliency.”

14) You are probably not getting things wet enough or leaving the moisture long enough with your disinfecting wipes for them to actually do the job.  I’ve just been wiping lots of stuff down of late with straight-up rubbing alcohol.  

15) It is utterly amazing to watch people trash their reputation to give the president the most ridiculous and literally incredible praise (here’s looking at you, Dr. Birx.  But my friend, Michael Cobb, raises the good point that we should not put scientific experts in the position where they feel they have to do this to save their job.  

16) I’ve been telling people I’m really glad I live in a state with a Democratic governor.  Now, some empirical backing:

 

Quick hits

1) Given how right-wing evangelicals have so perverted the fundamental teachings of Jesus, sure, I’ll happily blame them for Trump.

2) Of course Europe is responding with smarter policy for mass unemployment.  NYT Editorial, “Why Is America Choosing Mass Unemployment? European countries are paying to preserve jobs during the coronavirus crisis. Sadly for American workers, the United States is charting its own path.”

3) It is somewhat encouraging that Americans really get the fact that Trump is utterly lacking in basic human empathy.  He polls really poorly on this.

4) Head of China’s CDC says our biggest mistake is not wearing masks.

5) I remain cautiously optimistic that Remdesivir will be a genuinely effective treatment.  Here’s a more sober, but mildly optimistic take.

6) Rachel Bitecofer is out with her 2020 election prediction model.  It suggests good things for Democrats.  She hedges a lot, rightly, but I almost feel like a politically predictive model in the midst of Covid should just wait for after Covid.  Talk about uncharted waters.  Still:

As the Democratic primary winds down, with a Biden nomination a delegate-math inevitability even if contests remain on the calendar, it is time for one of the few updates I plan to my forecast, this one, the post-primary update. Of course, this update comes at a time of incredible turmoil, not only in America, but worldwide, as the unprecedented COVID19 pandemic unfolds — bringing the global economy to a halt and forcing much of the world’s population into self-imposed quarantines. In the July 2019 release of this forecast, I said that little could occur that could alter the basic contours of this election cycle: Democrats are fired up in a way they were not in 2016 because of negative partisanship powered by backlash to Trump and thus would increase their turnout significantly and be less likely to defect to third-party candidates.

I also said, “barring a significant shock to the system, Democrats recapture the presidency.” Significant disruptions I identified included an economic recession, but with the market humming along, willing to handicap Trump even on trade wars with China and Europe, and rate cuts keeping the economy around its 2016 metrics in terms of growth and unemployment, a recession seemed unlikely. Now it is all but certain this fall’s general election will take place immersed in a serious one, with some early reports suggesting potential unemployment numbers, at least in the short term, well into the teens.

To be sure, voters will likely see this recession as they saw the first term of Obama’s presidency, in context. No president can do much to avoid a total standstill of the global economy from an unprecedented virus. But Trump’s mismanagement of the underlying pandemic causing the economy to melt down will be judged by voters, and it’s already clear that the president’s missteps in the early days of the pandemic are exacerbating America’s economic woes.

If Trump had political capital to spend heading into this crisis, that would be one thing. But after the Russia investigation was followed in short order by the Ukraine scandal, Trump’s political capital tank is already on empty, with few Americans outside of Republicans capable of trusting him. Trump will be heading into the fall with the dubious distinction of being the most embattled, controversial, and scandal-plagued president to seek reelection in the history of the republic — and that was before this virus emerged to create a massive public health disaster and destroy his strongest claim for reelection: the economy.

But Donald Trump does have one formidable asset to help his reelection prospects: political polarization and hyperpartisanship, which even in the face of a recession and potential fallout from COVID19 management will likely provide him with a steady and reliable base of support, preventing the type of erosion in approval ratings we saw in the second term of George W. Bush’s tenure.

7) Thomas Edsall with, basically, everything political science can tell you about religion and politics.

A steady religious realignment has reshaped the white American electorate, turning religious conviction — or its absence — into a clear signal of where voters stand in the culture wars.

As mainstream Protestant denominations have declined over the past half century, there has been a hollowing out of the center among white Christians of all faiths. New generations of Americans have joined the ranks of evangelical churches, while others, in larger numbers, have forsaken religion altogether.

These two trends have transformed the strategic underpinnings of political campaigning.

The more religiously engaged a white voter is, the more likely he or she will be a Republican; the less religious the voter, the more likely to be a Democrat. But, as we shall see it’s not that simple: The deeper you go, the more complex it gets.

Ryan Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University, has tracked religious trends for the past 30 years using data from the General Social Survey.

He reports that in 1988, 55.7 percent of Americans were members of traditional, mainstream denominations, 36.6 percent were members of evangelical and born-again denominations and 7.7 percent said they were not religious.

By 2018, membership in traditional denominations had fallen 20 points to 35.5 percent, born-again evangelical church membership had grown by 4.8 points to 41.4 percent, and the share of the nonreligious had tripled to 23.1 percent.

In an email, Burge warned that “in just a few years there will be no moderate Protestants left.”

This has been a windfall for the Republican Party.

Sorry this is short.  Spent too much time reading about Covid and not enough time on this post.  More later in the day :-).  But, heck, you’re probably under a stay at home order and not going anywhere anyway.

How does this end?

Really, really good piece in the Atlantic (really, you should subscribe) from Ed Yong about how this ends.  I’ve already written about the political failures of how we got here, but they are worth reiterating:

The testing fiasco was the original sin of America’s pandemic failure, the single flaw that undermined every other countermeasure. If the country could have accurately tracked the spread of the virus, hospitals could have executed their pandemic plans, girding themselves by allocating treatment rooms, ordering extra supplies, tagging in personnel, or assigning specific facilities to deal with COVID-19 cases. None of that happened. Instead, a health-care system that already runs close to full capacity, and that was already challenged by a severe flu season, was suddenly faced with a virus that had been left to spread, untracked, through communities around the country. Overstretched hospitals became overwhelmed. Basic protective equipment, such as masks, gowns, and gloves, began to run out. Beds will soon follow, as will the ventilators that provide oxygen to patients whose lungs are besieged by the virus.

With little room to surge during a crisis, America’s health-care system operates on the assumption that unaffected states can help beleaguered ones in an emergency. That ethic works for localized disasters such as hurricanes or wildfires, but not for a pandemic that is now in all 50 states. Cooperation has given way to competition; some worried hospitals have bought out large quantities of supplies, in the way that panicked consumers have bought out toilet paper.

Partly, that’s because the White House is a ghost town of scientific expertise. A pandemic-preparedness office that was part of the National Security Council was dissolved in 2018. [emphases mine] On January 28, Luciana Borio, who was part of that team, urged the government to “act now to prevent an American epidemic,” and specifically to work with the private sector to develop fast, easy diagnostic tests. But with the office shuttered, those warnings were published in The Wall Street Journal, rather than spoken into the president’s ear. Instead of springing into action, America sat idle.

Rudderless, blindsided, lethargic, and uncoordinated, America has mishandled the COVID-19 crisis to a substantially worse degree than what every health expert I’ve spoken with had feared. “Much worse,” said Ron Klain, who coordinated the U.S. response to the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014. “Beyond any expectations we had,” said Lauren Sauer, who works on disaster preparedness at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “As an American, I’m horrified,” said Seth Berkley, who heads Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. “The U.S. may end up with the worst outbreak in the industrialized world.”

But, what’s done is done.  There’s still time to do better.  Though, that won’t be easy with this administration coordinating what needs to be a nationwide effort.  Here’s a good section on what is likely to come to pass:

These measures will take time, during which the pandemic will either accelerate beyond the capacity of the health system or slow to containable levels. Its course—and the nation’s fate—now depends on the third need, which is social distancing. Think of it this way: There are now only two groups of Americans. Group A includes everyone involved in the medical response, whether that’s treating patients, running tests, or manufacturing supplies. Group B includes everyone else, and their job is to buy Group A more time. Group B must now “flatten the curve” by physically isolating themselves from other people to cut off chains of transmission. Given the slow fuse of COVID-19, to forestall the future collapse of the health-care system, these seemingly drastic steps must be taken immediatelybefore they feel proportionate, and they must continue for several weeks…

The third scenario is that the world plays a protracted game of whack-a-mole with the virus, stamping out outbreaks here and there until a vaccine can be produced. This is the best option, but also the longest and most complicated.

It depends, for a start, on making a vaccine. If this were a flu pandemic, that would be easier. The world is experienced at making flu vaccines and does so every year. But there are no existing vaccines for coronaviruses—until now, these viruses seemed to cause diseases that were mild or rare—so researchers must start from scratch. The first steps have been impressively quick. Last Monday, a possible vaccine created by Moderna and the National Institutes of Health went into early clinical testing. That marks a 63-day gap between scientists sequencing the virus’s genes for the first time and doctors injecting a vaccine candidate into a person’s arm. “It’s overwhelmingly the world record,” Fauci said.

But it’s also the fastest step among many subsequent slow ones…

It’s likely, then, that the new coronavirus will be a lingering part of American life for at least a year, if not much longer. If the current round of social-distancing measures works, the pandemic may ebb enough for things to return to a semblance of normalcy. Offices could fill and bars could bustle. Schools could reopen and friends could reunite. But as the status quo returns, so too will the virus. This doesn’t mean that society must be on continuous lockdown until 2022. But “we need to be prepared to do multiple periods of social distancing,” says Stephen Kissler of Harvard.

Much about the coming years, including the frequency, duration, and timing of social upheavals, depends on two properties of the virus, both of which are currently unknown. First: seasonality. Coronaviruses tend to be winter infections that wane or disappear in the summer. That may also be true for SARS-CoV-2, but seasonal variations might not sufficiently slow the virus when it has so many immunologically naive hosts to infect. “Much of the world is waiting anxiously to see what—if anything—the summer does to transmission in the Northern Hemisphere,” says Maia Majumder of Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital.

Second: duration of immunity. When people are infected by the milder human coronaviruses that cause cold-like symptoms, they remain immune for less than a year. By contrast, the few who were infected by the original SARS virus, which was far more severe, stayed immune for much longer. Assuming that SARS-CoV-2 lies somewhere in the middle, people who recover from their encounters might be protected for a couple of years. To confirm that, scientists will need to develop accurate serological tests, which look for the antibodies that confer immunity. They’ll also need to confirm that such antibodies actually stop people from catching or spreading the virus. If so, immune citizens can return to work, care for the vulnerable, and anchor the economy during bouts of social distancing

Scientists can use the periods between those bouts to develop antiviral drugs—although such drugs are rarely panaceas, and come with possible side effects and the risk of resistance. Hospitals can stockpile the necessary supplies. Testing kits can be widely distributed to catch the virus’s return as quickly as possible. There’s no reason that the U.S. should let SARS-CoV-2 catch it unawares again, and thus no reason that social-distancing measures need to be deployed as broadly and heavy-handedly as they now must be. As Aaron E. Carroll and Ashish Jha recently wrote, “We can keep schools and businesses open as much as possible, closing them quickly when suppression fails, then opening them back up again once the infected are identified and isolated. Instead of playing defense, we could play more offense.”

Whether through accumulating herd immunity or the long-awaited arrival of a vaccine, the virus will find spreading explosively more and more difficult. It’s unlikely to disappear entirely. The vaccine may need to be updated as the virus changes, and people may need to get revaccinated on a regular basis, as they currently do for the flu. Models suggest that the virus might simmer around the world, triggering epidemics every few years or so. “But my hope and expectation is that the severity would decline, and there would be less societal upheaval,” Kissler says. In this future, COVID-19 may become like the flu is today—a recurring scourge of winter. Perhaps it will eventually become so mundane that even though a vaccine exists, large swaths of Gen C won’t bother getting it, forgetting how dramatically their world was molded by its absence.

This is all… not great.  But it doesn’t have to be catastrophic if we do this right.  We know how to do this right.  The question is will we, and especially will we have the political leadership and social will to do it.

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