Sunday, March 22, 2020
I usually start gathering links with Matthew Yglesias's
page at Vox. For a while I was putting his links up front -- back
when he was writing a regular "most important stories of the week"
feature -- but later I moved him back into alphabetical order. This
week he wrote quite a bit, and I commented there with a few things
I might have saved for an introduction, so decided to list him first.
One subject I didn't get to is business bailouts. Probably premature
for that anyhow, although the option to postpone debt and rent payments,
bankruptcy and foreclosure, is something that will be needed soon. Also,
bridging loans, with various restrictions -- just enough to keep dormant
businesses viable when/if the time comes to re-open them. I should also
note that while I'm skeptical/hostile to short-term stimulus proposals,
I do think it would be a good idea to start moving on longer-term efforts,
like Green New Deal. One big problem with the 2009 stimulus package was
the failure to include any infrastructure projects that weren't "shovel
ready." (Reed Hundt's book, A Crisis Wasted: Barack Obama's Defining
Decisions makes this point.) We need a lot of infrastructure work
going forward, and that needs to be factored into any recovery plan.
There's going to be an attempt to stampede Congress to pass all sorts
of business bailouts, because that's the way the whole system is designed
to work. You and I are lucky if we have representatives who even remotely
care about us (given where I live, I'm especially unlucky in that regard),
but business interests have scads of lobbyists looking for profit angles,
and lots of politicians already in their pockets.
As this plays out, we
would do well to recall what happened in 2008-09: we heard a deafening
cry for help from the big banks, which unquestioningly had to be bailed
out to keep the economy from collapsing. They indeed got what they wanted --
a $700 billion slush fund and much more through the Fed's back door -- and
survived, quickly returning to profitability, even as the rest of the
economy continued collapsing. And once the banks were safe, only the most
marginal efforts were made to help anyone else. (The auto industry bailout
was a comparatively paltry effort, saddled with stringent requirements
the banks never had to face.)
I was sympathetic to the bank bailouts at the time, but dismayed by
the failure to protect more of the economy, especially the workers who
wound up bearing the brunt of the recession. Only later on did I see an
alternative approach that should have been obvious: let the businesses
fail, but protect the workers and other people at the bottom. Business
would bounce back, and the change of ownership would ultimately be a
healthy thing. That sort of turnover may be even more beneficial this
time: when/if the economy recovers, it is almost certain to be changed
significantly from the one before the crash, reflecting changed views
of what matters and how we want to live. We may, for instance, find
that we still need airlines, but not as many. The cruise ship industry
is probably finished, and would that be such a bad thing? A much larger
potential collapse is in fossil fuels: even before the crash, demand
for coal was falling, as were oil prices, and both will fall further
as recession lowers demand. Given how they contribute to climate change,
I don't see any reason to encourage their rebound. (In fact, this would
be a good time for a stiff carbon tax.) On the other hand, we may decide
that we need to have health care systems for all, including some excess
capacity even before the next crisis. The list, no doubt, goes on and on.
While it's easy to jot down what you'd like to see happen, it's much
harder to even guess about how this crisis will play out in the minds
and attitudes of people around the world. Will we learn and adapt, or
flail about, trying to force the new world into our old minds? I can't
help but wonder whether the panic over Covid-19 hasn't been preconditioned
by the (mostly denied) fear of global warming. A large political segment
seemed determined to ignore or even denounce the science of climate change,
only to find themselves desperate for scientific direction when faced with
the pandemic: there is something immediate and personal about the latter
that climate change never triggered. (I'm reminded of the adage about
there being no atheists in foxholes. It seems there are no science-deniers
in emergency rooms.) The 2008 financial collapse, like previous recessions,
could be written off to bad business practices and even to periodic cycles,
but this one is a direct assault on one's worldview. No one can predict
where that kind of psychic shock may lead.
Meanwhile, I've been plodding through Adam Gopnik's A Thousand
Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism. I picked it up
in the library, thought it might be interesting to read an unapologetic
defense of liberalism. I grew up believing in what Louis Hartz called
"the liberal tradition in America," only to find that self-proclaimed
liberals in the 1960s had turned into pretty unsavory characters --
especially in their rabid anti-communism, most immediately evident in
their support for near-genocidal war against the Vietnamese. At the
time, there wasn't much of a conservative threat (Barry Goldwater won
the Republican nomination in 1964 but lost in a landslide), so I came
to view "cold war" liberalism as the main enemy of fairness, decency,
and justice in American politics. I read books like Kenneth Minogue's
The Liberal Mind and Robert Paul Wolff's The Poverty of
Liberalism (but no longer remember the specific critiques), and
I delved further into Marxist critiques (not really of liberalism,
but of its handmaiden, capitalism), and came to identify with the
New Left (which was openly contemptuous of the Sino-Soviet orbit of
Communist regimes, but more focused on our own world, especially of
America's world-straddling hegemony).
But I stopped reading Marxist analyses after I left college, and
while my practical political impulses never changed much, I've found
myself growing sympathetic to liberal reformers over time, notably
of Keynes in economics. Ever since I was a teenager, I've had a soft
spot for utopian imagination, and I've often returned to that over
the years, at least as teleology. But I lost whatever desire I might
have had for revolution, and as I've aged have become increasingly
willing to settle for liberal reformism, even in tiny. So I thought
I might be open to Gopnik's formulation. Unfortunately, all he has
to offer is a weird mixture of dashed hopes and anti-left vitriol.
Regardless of whatever ideals liberals think they hold dear, their
main function in politics today (and basically over the last 50-100
years) seems to be to castigate anyone who still believes that the
liberty secured by a few in the great bourgeois revolutions of the
past should be extended to everyone (i.e., the left).
I probably should have read David Sessions' review,
The emptiness of Adam Gopnik's liberalism, before I wasted my
We might not have expected much more from Gopnik, but A Thousand
Small Sanities' aimless joyride of free-associated clichés and
its stubborn refusal to look at reality may indicate more broadly how
little the American establishment has learned since the turn of the
century. The climate crisis, more than anything, has highlighted the
inadequacy of the liberal orthodoxy's self-congratulatory moderation
and celebration of glacial incrementalism. It poses, in stark terms,
the need for dramatic action and the inescapability of confronting
the powerful interests behind the deadly carbon economy. The rapid
degradation of the planet has made radicalism rational and incrementalism
a kind of civilizational death drive. In this context, Gopnik's blissful
ignorance reads not as comical but as deeply sinister.
The Democratic Party split in 1968 over the Vietnam War, with many
of the hawks winding up as neoconservatives (a mostly Republican clan
which still exerts powerful influence over today's Democratic hawks,
especially the Clintons). Democrats are further split between middle
class professionals and the working class base, with most successful
Democrats (including Obama and the Clintons) gaining among the former
while thanklessly banking the dwindling votes of the latter. In 2016
and 2020, those splits became clearer, with the left (dovish, mostly
working class) rallying behind Bernie Sanders and the "moderates" (or
merely cautious liberals, including hawks and/or professionals)
ultimately flocking to Joe Biden.
Gopnik is an atavism in this split world, railing against a left
that no longer exists in favor of an idealized center that is unable
to accomplish anything (not least because their anti-left instinct
keeps it from building a broad base, and because they are always
willing to sell their reforms short). The key chapter in Gopnik's
book is "Why the Left Hates Liberalism," but it should really be
called "Why Liberals Hate the Left," where you could just as easily
substitute "Masses" or "People" for "Left." But then it's hard to
explain that without giving the impression that liberals are simply
self-satisfied snobs -- dilettantes who imagine liking the idea of
more people enjoying their comforts, but who hardly ever lift a
finger to help them.
Some scattered links this week:
The unprecedented tsunami of unemployment insurance claims, explained.
The numbers are indeed staggering, and it's impossible to see how a
system which is mostly funded at the state level can cope with them.
We need to realize that unemployment insurance is the first line of
defense against recession, and focus efforts there -- long before we
consider handing cash out to people who still have jobs, who probably
won't use it (at least until the pandemic starts to abate) to restart
the economy. Under the section "How to change unemployment insurance":
That means making the program much more generous so as to come close
to fully covering lost earnings, relaxing eligibility requirements so
that people don't need to be actively hunting for a new job, and also
expanding the purview of the program to cover people who are having
their hours cut rather than people who are being laid off. This last
change is particularly important. All throughout the food service
sector, employers are currently trying to grapple with conversion
to take-out only and reduced demand, which combine to greatly reduce
their need for workers.
Senate Republicans' cash assistance plan is far too limited.
I'm not opposed to "direct cash assistance" programs in general, but
this doesn't strike me as the time to think about such things. You
can think of recessions as having two phases: crash and recovery (of
course, it you don't do anything, there's also likely to be a trough
in the middle where the two phases cancel each other out). You need
a different focus in each. During the crash phase, you want to slow
down the crash and you want to protect people from as many of the bad
things that occur in a crash as possible. This is the work of stabilizers,
like unemployment insurance (which is nicely targeted to the immediate
problem), and of regulatory limits. An obvious example of the latter is
to halt foreclosures, utility disconnects, etc. Some of these things
kick in automatically, which is part of the reason the 2008 collapse,
which was initially as sharp as the one in 1929, didn't fall nearly as
far. (Another reason is that government was a much larger segment of
the economy, and it didn't panic like the private sector did.) Once the
crash is stabilized, you shift focus to recovery, and that's where
stimulus spending pays dividends. Of course, these rules were worked
out to deal with financial recessions (like 2008 and 1929). What we're
experiencing now is very different. We're seeing a similar collapse in
demand, but it's not because people lack money but lots of people are
suddenly afraid of going out and spending their money. In normal times,
if you give people more money, they'll spend it, but not now, at least
not until the fear lessens significantly. Given the pandemic, recession
is as much a solution as it is a problem, so maybe we should focus more
on fighting the pandemic and reducing the recession's collateral damage
than on jumping ahead to recession recovery initiatives.
Of course, if Republicans are willing to propose direct cash measures,
it's hard for people on the left not to join in, and argue for programs
that are fairer and more generous -- as Yglesias does here, and
Mike Konczal (see
The stimulus plan that we need now) and others do elsewhere. Yglesias
points out that the Republican plan offers "little help for those who
need it most," that "backward-looking data doesn't predict present needs,"
and "parents really need help" -- all good points. As for "it's a good
time to go big," I'd say that even if we "go big" -- which I'd agree is
the only way out -- we still have to be smart about picking our shots.
They say "never let a serious crisis go to waste," but that doesn't mean
you can use the occasion to throw in every wish you might have.
America's mass transit agencies need a bailout, too. Actually,
they deserve increase public funding at all times, shifting revenues
away from fares. They perform an immense public service, something
that we all should want (even people who continue to prefer cars).
Joe Biden wins the Florida Democratic primary.
The coronavirus election: "Weeds" podcast.
Joe Biden's effort to heal the breach with Elizabeth Warren on bankruptcy,
explained: "A flip-flop with a long and dramatic backstory." I'll just
add that although Warren's plan would be a big improvement, I can think of
some other things that should be factored into bankruptcy proceedings. In
particular, I'd like to see some way to restructure bankrupt companies so
that they can survive as employee-owned.
Democrats' choice is clearer than ever: Fight Trump or fight for
revolution. The headline oversimplifies the author's point,
which isn't really that Biden is the only option to "fight Trump" --
indeed, many of us don't regard him as the most promising candidate
to run against Trump. Rather, the question is whether the problems
we face are superficial (e.g, Trump) or systemic.
Biden believes America is experiencing a crisis -- a pandemic, but
more broadly Donald Trump's presidency -- that requires a new and
different leader. Sanders believes that the basic long-standing
structure of America's politics and economic system is a crisis.
Biden argued that Democrats need to unite and beat Trump in order
"to restore this country's soul." Sanders said we need to talk more
about "the power structure in America," namely, "the billionaires who
contribute money to political campaigns" thus allowing them to "control
the legislative agenda."
The Democrats screwed up: "Nancy Pelosi and other party leaders
have been outflanked by opponents embracing big spending ideas to
address the coronavirus recession." I'm not so sure they screwed up.
When Democrats propose big spending they always get hammered, not
least from the deficit scolds in their own party. On the other hand,
hardly anyone complains when the Republicans want to spend, so why
not let them pick a number, and show how it can be more effectively
spent, to the greater good? Of course, you can also note that the
number isn't really big enough. The only way to really screw up is
to let the deficit scolds lead the attack. If Democrats become the
party of forced austerity, they'll be finished. In fact, Obama did
great harm to the party in his limited embrace of austerity after
The deep ideological roots of Trump's botched coronavirus response:
"How the GOP's decades-long war on expertise sabotaged America's fight
against the pandemic."
Intelligence reports warned about a pandemic in January. Trump reportedly
This wouldn't have happened if Hillary Clinton had won: Clickbait:
only reason I clicked was to see who'd be so stupid to write this, and
I wasn't disappointed. This, in turn, led me to a link for Josh Rogin:
Don't blame 'China' for the coronavirus -- blame the Chinese Communist
Party. Pick a more politically correct way to express your bigotry
David Edward Burke:
How conservatives have rigged our politics: Review of Caroline
Fredrickson: The Democracy Fix: How to Win the Fight for Fair Rules,
Fair Courts, and Fair Elections.
The coronavirus calls for wartime economic thinking: The only real
precedent for this is WWII, but lots of things are different. For one
thing, WWII demanded more production, whereas Covid-19 only requires
minor reallocations of resources, producing more medical supplies and
(hopefully) treatments. It turns out that some of this is already being
done with the Defense Production Act. WWII also enforced rationing, but
it's hard to see how that would work now, or even whether it would be
supported. But clearly Covid-19 calls for a different kind of economic
The Peace Corps isn't just bringing home 7,300 volunteers because of
the coronavirus. It's firing them.
There's no such thing as unskilled labor.
Zolan Kanno-Youngs/Annie Karni:
Under the virus's cloak, Trump pursues long-sought policies.
The incompetence pandemic.
Bloomberg bails on anti-Trump super-PAC.
Big Pharma prepares to profit from the coronavirus.
The GOP's relief bill is too right-wing for the right's own good.
Trump's latest coronavirus press briefing was a disastrous failure in
David J Lynch/Heather Long:
US economy deteriorating faster than anticipated as 80 million Americans
are forced to stay at home: "Already, it is clear that the initial
economic decline will be sharper and more painful than during the 2008
Airlines are asking the US government for a $50 billion bailout. Should
they get it?
Senators allegedly dumping stocks as the market tanks is why some people
think senators shouldn't own stock.
March 17 primaries: Live results. Biden swept last Tuesday's three
primaries (Ohio's was postponed), winning in: Arizona (44.02% to 31.98%
for Sanders, with others still getting votes: Bloomberg 9.86%, Warren
6.58%, Buttigieg 4.68%, Klobuchar 1.26%, Gabbard 0.52%); Florida (61.83%
to Sanders 22.83%, Bloomberg 8.49%, Buttigieg 2.30%, Warren 1.91%,
Klobuchar 1.00%, Gabbard 0.51%); and Illinois (59.03% to Sanders 36.02%,
Bloomberg 1.52%, Warren 1.41%, Buttigieg 0.58%, Gabbard 0.58%, Yang
Saudi Arabia is now a murderous, one-man dictatorship, with US elite
complicity, superb new book reveals: Review of Ben Hubbard: MBS:
The Rise to Power of Mohammed Bin Salman.
Gabby Orr/Lara Seligman:
Trump team's new mission: Defend the 'wartime president'. I suppose
you could point out that no incumbent president has ever lost an election
in the middle of a war, but one should add that Truman and Johnson opted
out, their parties going on to lose. I've said before that this campaign
is going to be pretty disgusting. Here's an example of how disgusting:
Even former Vice President Joe Biden, who is close to securing his spot
as Trump's Democratic challenger in the 2020 election, described the
coronavirus outbreak in warlike terms. Speaking to supporters from his
Delaware home after a series of primary victories Tuesday, Biden said,
"Tackling this pandemic is a national emergency akin to fighting a war."
"This is a moment where we need our leaders to lead, but it is also
a moment where the choices and decisions we make as individuals, and
collectively as a people, will make a big difference in the severity
of the outbreak," Biden said.
An outside adviser to the Trump campaign said the president's 2020
team is hoping to capitalize on Trump's new messaging strategy by launching
a series of digital ads as soon as next week that highlight the president's
efforts to battle the "invisible enemy" -- a phrase Trump has recently used
to describe the respiratory syndrome, which can be deadly. A Trump campaign
spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
"I wouldn't mind seeing the Trump campaign expend some resources to
communicate to his supporters that this is important," Fratto said. "And
if he has to use wartime language to do it, it's in all of our interests
to let him."
Here's why giving every American $1,200 is a really bad idea: "Let's
give the money to the millions of laid-off workers -- and in large enough
amounts to make a difference."
Prophets of instability: "How finance broke the modern corporation."
Review of Nicholas Lemann: Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and
the Decline of the American Dream.
I live in the first US city ordered to "shelter in place." Here's what
it's like. "The Bay Area has shut down. Can it buy us the time we
Ohio orders halt to "nonessential" abortions in preview of battle that
could go national.
Pompeo and Netanyahu paved a path to war with Iran, and they're pushing
Trump again. Related:
The 9 most important unanswered questions about Covid-19.
Nathan J Robinson:
Notes on a nightmare #1: The virus and us, and
Notes on a nightmare #2: Suffering and politics: "Why this is so
terrifying and how the existing political response is failing us."
These link to several broad economic proposals:
Betsy Woodruff Swan:
DOJ seeks new emergency powers amid coronavirus pandemic: "One
of the requests to Congress would allow the department to petition
a judge to indefinitely detain someone during an emergency."
Barbara Ehrenreich is not an optimist, but she has hope for the
future: Interview with the author, who has a new book out, Had
I Known: Collected Essays. Worth noting that one of her most
prescient books was Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle
Class (1990). On the other hand, she spoke too soon in naming
her collection of 1980s columns The Worst Years of Our Lives.
The left is bigger than Bernie Sanders.
Congress just passed a bill that will guarantee free coronavirus testing
for all Americans: "It also expands paid sick days and paid leave for
a subset of workers." Those are good things, but creating an extra special
fund for things that should be universally covered already adds complexity
and nuisance to a system that is already full of it. For instance, I have
Medicare, but every time I use it I have to answer questions about things
like black lung because they have their own special funding. And this extra
complexity makes it easier to leave out people who should be covered.