Friday, September 25, 2020

Cheering for the President, Sorta

Yesterday I was driving through the peaceful residential streets of Rockville, listening to WTOP, our local DC news radio station, when the deep-voiced announcer teased an upcoming story: "News in one minute. President Trump was met with cheers at the Supreme Court today."

I was a little surprised at that, as you can imagine, and so I waited through a couple of commercials until the news came on. The actual story: "President Trump was met with chants and cheers of 'vote him out' at the Supreme Court today when he and the first lady went to pay their respects to the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg." (I am paraphrasing, pretty close.)

The President and First Lady made an obligatory appearance at Ruth Bader Ginsburg's flag-draped coffin, laid out between the imposing pillars of the Supreme Court building. In 2016, Ginsburg had told the New York Times that "I don't even want to contemplate" four years of a Trump presidency and the effect it could have on the high court. He responded "Her mind is shot - resign!" You could say the say the two of them represented two divergent views of what America can be.

Her death is a loss to the country and the Republicans' rush to fill her position before the election is ghoulish and embarrassing for them. They have announced that they already have enough votes for approval in the Senate but they do not know who the nominee will be -- a definition of partisanship. Trump wants to have another ally on the Supreme Court in case they have to decide the election as they did in 2000. At the same time, however, the country remembers that the Republican Senate would not even consider Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland in March, 2016, well before the campaign season. Playing games with our democracy leaves a bad taste and serves as a reminder of the current administration's corruption and its support by Congressional and downticket Republicans.

This is historic video, something you can show your grandchildren.

The crowd is murmuring and then one woman's voice is heard saying, "Vote him out," and the chant quickly sweeps through the crowd. There are no audible dissenters, no nervous tittering. Where Ginsburg brought stability and support for democracy to the country, Trump is undermining our institutions at every point, and the contrast was too stark here to make light of.

Trump stands there expressionless while the crowd expresses their loathing. It is a little reminiscent of the time he attended a baseball game last year and had to sit through a long round of booing and chants of "Lock him up!"

The country wants to get rid of this guy, and early voting has already started. His plan though, is simpler than all that: "We want to get rid of the ballots, and we’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There’ll be a continuation."

Maybe, maybe not.

Saturday, September 05, 2020

Health, Then Business

It appears that American discourse regarding the pandemic has broken into two sides, one of which believes that public health is a priority and one that believes that the economy is a priority.

In reality, all of us want both of those things. None of us want to die, or want our neighbors to die, or our families, and none of us want to be evicted, to lose our jobs, to go hungry. It isn't really a binary choice. We have always had pretty good levels of both health and prosperity, well the distribution of each could be improved but that is not the question right now. The US has not led the world in healthcare but we have mostly managed to get by, and our prosperity is mostly controlled by a handful of billionaire oligarchs but most people have been able to find a job and a place to live.

Everyone wants to reopen the economy. We want kids to get back to school, workers to get back to their jobs, we want to produce and consume like normal. We want to go to a game or a concert and socialize with friends and strangers. And many countries around the world have recovered economically from the pandemic and are living pretty normally, with perhaps occasional emergency restrictions. Reopening the economy is entirely possible, an entirely reasonable thing to hope for and expect. Honestly, it is shameful that we have not reopened by now.

But you cannot open the economy while a highly contagious, deadly virus is spreading through human contact. Maybe most people don't die from it, but lots do, and there seem to be long-term health consequences of COVID-19 infection. Even if one person survives or has a mild case, they can pass the virus to someone else who will die.

Good example right now, an August 7th wedding in Maine and now, a month later, 147 cases of COVID-19 are tied to this one event. Three people have died -- and none of the three were people who attended the wedding. Cases have spread to a nursing home and a prison, both more than 100 miles away from the venue. The wedding reception at the Big Moose Inn had 65 people, and at least one of them was a coronavirus carrier.

Without getting into details, these kinds of examples, which are numerous, can be combined with the observation of many other countries that have controlled their epidemics, to lead to one simple and obvious conclusion: we need to beat the pandemic before we can restore the economy. It is simply a matter of doing them in the right order: public health, then the economy. The reverse is literally, logically and practically, impossible.

We know what needs to be done, it is not a secret and not even that hard, but this requires everybody in the country contributing at the same time. People need to wear masks, they cannot congregate indoors, they should maintain social distance, sick people should be isolated and exposed people should be quarantined. Nonessential businesses, sporting events, concerts, and crowds should be shut down. Hand-off deliveries of market products, work-from-home where possible. We know the drill, we just need to implement it nationwide. With these precautions we can get the virus prevalence down to a level where we can resume normal living and open up a normal economy. You just can't have a way of life where going to work or shopping for groceries is a matter of risking your life. That is simply suicidal. We cannot reopen the economy before we have control of the virus.

We cannot practice these restrictions if we fear we will lose our homes, our jobs, and our future. And that means that the government -- the federal government -- needs to do some of the things that other countries have done. Clear guidelines need to be publicized and enforced, and businesses need to be subsidized so they can keep their payroll going even if their employees are huddled in their homes. Testing needs to be ramped up, and treatment needs to be available to everyone who needs it. This is not a time to be cheap, and not a time for billionaires and corporations to siphon more money out of the public's treasury.

Health experts think that six weeks of this kind of lockdown might be sufficient to get the virus under control. I would read that as eight weeks. We are now eight months into this pandemic, where the citizens initially thought that the government would manage it in the first few weeks and months and that did not happen. Our next opportunity to get on top of the pandemic is late January, about five months from now. By that time we will be near a half million Americans dead, and hopefully a new administration will issue strict and inflexible orders. People will groan and complain, but we can practice some discipline for two more months, and by next spring things can be back to near-normal again.

Again, the simple fact: the economy cannot restart until the pandemic is controlled.