Friday, July 30, 2021

Speaking of Which

I finished reading Michael Lewis's book, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story, where he follows a circle of public health officials and researchers who figured out what was happening with Covid-19 early enough they could come up with a plan for fighting it before it got out of hand, then failed to implement that plan -- because, well, that part isn't so clear. Partly, the people who mucked up the response weren't nearly as interesting as the brilliant weirdos he found. Partly, the institutional biases run much deeper than he has patience for.

You get a hint of this when he talks about the "swine flu fiasco" of 1976, when the CDC's mass vaccination program had to be halted due to side-effects, while the flu itself petered out into something far short of the threatened pandemic. That's when the tables turned and the CDC was taken over by political appointees, and, well, you can see where that went. Lewis's previous book, The Fifth Risk, was effectively a bravo defense of public servants who work in (and sometimes in spite of) government bureaucracy, but this book feels more like The Empire Strikes Back, with the Empire as faceless and sinister as ever, and the heroes regrouping in the shadows of the private sector. Well, at least one hero, Charity Dean, who resigned from her post near the top of California's public health office to raise venture capital for a startup competing for scarce public health dollars. The last few pages read like her prospectus. (Although, it should be noted, that much of what Lewis has to say about private companies during the pandemic, including most hospitals and the big testing labs, is pretty damning. He does cite some companies that stepped up to the challenge civic-mindedly, but they were mostly exceptions.)

So I came away feeling I've read the wrong book on the pandemic. There will in due course be dozens or hundreds of them, and I don't been any great urgency. I can do a preliminary sort next time I do a Book Roundup. Meanwhile, I have a couple of books on Trump and the Republicans that may help me gauge what is and isn't understood about the current political climate: Steve Benen's The Impostors: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics, and Adam Serwer's The Cruelty Is the Point: The Past, Present, and Future of Trump's America. I'm starting with Benen, because I'm more deeply disturbed by the Republican Party than I am by Trump himself, and not just by the former's slavish devotion to the latter. (By the way, Serwer's book starts with a great truth: "Many people woke up on November 9, 2016, feeling like their country hated them.")

While reading the Lewis book, I came up with simple formulation that goes far toward explaining the central truth of US politics:

  1. Republicans have decided that the only thing that matters is who controls the levers of power. Therefore, every issue matters only insofar as it can help or hurt you in the pursuit of power. They are more likely to describe this in terms of fear than greed.

  2. Republicans view the world as a zero-sum game, where you can only win at someone else's expense, and no one else can improve their stakes except to your detriment. This makes them desperate and paranoid.

Maybe the points should be reversed, or merged into one. Everything Republicans say or do fits into this mold, which is why everything they say or do is wrong, and ultimately damaging. A reasonable person may think of natural disasters, especially the pandemic, as events that transcend political party, where smart people of good will can devise solutions that reduce harm and possibly even benefit nearly all people. That's how Democrats think, but it's not how Republicans think -- and our political system makes it harder to make things than to break them (indeed, you can view it as a special case of entropy).

This is not to say that there is no substance to conservative values. Republicans have been pretty flexible about their principles, but they've also locked themselves into some positions that are unpopular now and likely to hurt them even more in the future. And I don't just mean that they've aligned themselves with losing interests, like war and coal. Suspecting enemy preferences, they've turned against most civil servants, especially teachers, and their subject matter, including education in general and science in particular. Benen seems to focus on the party's "post-policy" shallowness, but other keys to their inability to govern include their contempt for knowledge and skill, their willingness to indulge predatory businesses, and their utter indifference to the fate of most Americans, including much of what they call their "base."

No idea how often I'll do this, but a few things came to my attention recently, prompting these notes.

I'm not trying to cover everything here, or even very much. I don't have any interest in the January 6 hearings -- I'm not even reading those reports. I don't care a whit about the Olympics, although I will note that it seems like once every four years we suddenly warm up to the great diversity of the American people. I care more about the infrastructure bill (or two), but not in sweating the details. While I've read a fair amount about Covid-19 recently, I'm not up to trying to sort it out here -- other than to say that the map looks significantly worse.

Paul Campos: The Truman Show: "How the 33rd president finagled his way to a post-White House fortune -- and created a damaging precedent." This caught my eye because Wikipedia has a List of presidents of the United States by net worth, which I consulted when I was thinking about writing a book on political eras. One contrast I wanted to make was between Donald Trump, supposedly the richest US president ever, and the previous list-topper, George Washington (now number two on the list, after everything was converted into recent dollar values). Despite their great wealth -- relative to their peers, Washington may have ranked even higher than Trump -- the two could hardly have been more different: Washington famously tried to appear disinterested (avoiding any suspicion that his wealth was a consideration for his actions), while Trump was the exact opposite. I noted then that Harry Truman was dead last on the list. The list has changed since the last time I looked at it: Trump was added at the top, as was Biden a bit below median (in 25th, between Eisenhower and Ford); recent presidents have climbed fast up the list (Clinton to 9, Obama 12, GW Bush 13); and the nine sub-millionaires were sorted by years (which left Truman last). Even if you accept Campos' valuations, Truman would only rise about 15 spots. And if you look at the various pleas and ploys Truman employed, it's interesting that he looked more to the public for graft than to "the malefactors of great wealth," which is where more savvy politicians like Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton turned, much more lucratively. While the absolute ranking on the list doesn't seem to matter much, it would be interesting to see wealth broken out in three columns: at inauguration time; when departing the White House; and peak before death (or now). One thing that's notable here is that presidents who died in office skew way down the list.

Jonathan Chait: Leftists and Liberals Are Still Fighting Over the Cold War. The occasion for this seems to be the protests in Cuba and Florida, which the latter claim to be aligned. The US left is expected to condemn Cuba, Venezuela, and other outposts of the "illiberal left," which has largely been forced by US sanctions to retrench into a repressive, defensive crouch. This is reminiscent of the posture of many liberal intellectuals during the Cold War era. This position was wrong then, and wrong now, but persists because it continues to sucker people of good will into bad politics. (I'm inclined to count Joe Biden and his foreign policy team in that group, although I know people who wouldn't give them the benefit of doubt.) It's bad politics because it doesn't help most of your fellow Americans, and because it doesn't help the foreign people you're trying to sympathize with either. There's nothing wrong with wishing other people brighter futures. Indeed, every time I see a news article about an election between left and right parties in another country, I root for the left -- even if I don't fully approve, because fairer and more just societies can only come from the left, and I believe that politicians who identify with the people are more likely to help them (in the long run, even if not soon). But best wishes is all I can muster, because I know that I have no say in how other countries are governed. (Hell, I hardly have any say in how my own is run.) People who want to do more are overreaching, probably out of some deep-seated hubris. I'm not saying that you shouldn't speak out when you see injustices elsewhere, but nations should accept other nations as they are -- at least as long as they don't pose existential threats to other nations (as the US has done a few dozen times in my lifetime, so we're more in need of correction than most countries).

To understand why this attitude hurts most Americans, it helps to recall the most basic principles behind the Cold War. At the end of WWII, the European colonial system was bankrupt, and the US was the only viable capitalist power. The threat was that people all around the world, including in the broken states of Europe, might rise up (either democratically or through revolution) and take popular control of their own nations. The idea was to replace colonial power with corporate dominance in a system linked together by American financial and military might. The Soviet reaction was passive-aggressive: most often they retreated, but they fought back on occasion, enough that they could be characterized as a threat to democracy and freedom (even if most American client regimes had neither). But this wasn't just a struggle to extend the viability of imperialism (by cutting a few local elites in on a share of the loot). As capitalists gained power around the world, they gained political power at home. Starting with the "red scare," they purged unions of their most dedicated and principled leaders. The tamed unions could then be used to undermine the left in "allied" countries, but more importantly they became ever more impotent, until they in turn could be broken. The Cold War was as much a war against the working class at home as it was abroad. Throughout this period, a number of liberal politicians and intellectuals regularly sided with the Cold Warriors. For a long while doing so was obligatory to avoid the "red" smear.

The irony is that as communist regimes reformed, especially around 1990, the last holdouts were the nations the US imposed the strictest and most debilitating sanctions on: Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea, China. Some became liberal democracies with mixed economies, some fell into chaos or got snatched up by functionaries-turned-kleptocrats. China and Vietnam reformed their economies without surrendering party control. I was thinking no one predicted this, but it turns out that David Ben-Gurion predicted as much back in the 1950s. By then he was trying to align Israel with America, and his reputation as a socialist was in tatters, but he seems to have understood that equality and democracy were always at the heart of the left. Indeed, that's what the left struggles for even today, with (or without) the help of self-identified liberals. One thing is clear: the demonstrations in Cuba and in Florida are different and opposed things. If you do wish to help the Cuban people determine their own future, you should oppose the "sympathy" protests in Florida, which are meant to rally Americans into attacking and visiting great harm on Cuba. And you should support efforts to normalize US-Cuban relations.

Alex Dalton: The Former Harvard Law Dean Who Wants Government to Save the News Business: Martha Minow, the book is Saving the News: Why the Constitutino Calls for Government Action to Preserve Freedom of Speech. We're a million miles away from entertaining such notions, but good to see that someone is articulating them, especially on the basis of constitutional rights, including the chartering of government to "form a more perfect union" and "promote the general welfare." As I recall, Thomas Jefferson once argued for pubic support of higher education not because we needed skilled workers (although nowadays we do) but because education makes for better citizens (something we seem to be in even more desperate shortage of). Republicans will be up in arms, because they see news and education as domains for thought control (which is why they finance their own). Capitalists will worry that government support will reduce their ability to profit from their news monopolies. And any time government gets involved, people will gripe about how their taxes are being spent -- whether to promote socialism or practice racism, everyone will be offended until no one is satisfied. Still, we desperately need fair and objective news, freely available to everyone. Why can't we figure out how to do that?

German Lopez: The opioid epidemic isn't unsolvable: The death count due to opioid overdoses shot up significantly last year, so much so that it became (actually remained) a major factor in declining life expectancy. Yet this is one public health crisis I have little interest in. Part of that may be that the victims are discrete (unlike the pandemic, where they infect others). But it's also because the way "experts" define the problem is so misleading. What we really have is a pain problem. Opioids are in many cases the simplest, most effective solution to pain, but only if they are administered with much more care than our profit-seeking health care system is capable of. Lopez is smart and knowledgeable, but look how he frames the "solutions":

  1. Restricting the drug supply
  2. More and better addiction treatment
  3. Harm reduction
  4. Address root causes

In other words, start with prohibition, then give lip service to a few other mantras that will be forgotten almost immediately. The obvious problem with the first is that it's already being done quite seriously, and it hasn't worked. On the one hand, people with serious pain are hard-pressed to work the system to get relief. On the other hand, the black market has grown to take advantage of the shortfall, often with faulty product as well as no useful support or service. The other points are increasingly hard, expensive, and/or nebulous. Moreover, the right, despite occasional libertarian pretensions, is fond of prohibition -- it furthers the police state they hold so dear -- they haven't the slightest interest or desire in the other three (i.e., they don't like care, they don't care about risk reduction, and they reject any charge that the system might be at fault). But the system is broken -- so deep you're never going to be able to isolate opioid overdoses as something that can be fixed without overhauling the whole system. That's basically why I have so little patience for people who single out this problem. Give us a health care system that serves everybody, one that treats pain in all its complexity, because we as a people care about each and every one of us. Even so, you're not going to make pain vanish. The best you can hope for is that more people will be able to live with it, because it will be viewed within the context of life, not just as some racket to make money off of.

Kerry Howley: Call Me a Traitor: "Daniel Hale exposed the machinery of America's clandestine warfare. Why did no one seem to care?" Long story, lots about drone warfare. For an update, see Josh Gerstein: Leaker of drone secrets gets 45 months in prison. Howley previously wrote 'The World's Biggest Terrorist Has a Pikachu Bedspread': all about Reality Winter.

Ed Kilgore: Democrats Can't Out-Organize a Gerrymander -- or Outflank Joe Manchin: Argues that Democrats "have to play the cards dealt to them by the system as it currently exists." With razor-thin majorities, that means you can't get lots of things done that are needed. That shouldn't mean giving up. If anything, it means it's all the more important to focus on popular measures and show that you're trying. And make it clear that it's the Republicans who are blocking the government help that the people want and need. Take that into the 2022 election, and use that message to elect many more Democrats. Sure, the cards are stacked against Democrats, but they should have a popular program, especially versus the Republican legacy of doom. By the way, although it never hurts to point out how the Republicans are trying to rig elections, I'm not sure that reducing the number of voters works against Democrats. It mostly gets rid of a lot of low-information, low-commitment voters, who as 2020 showed are as likely to fall for crackpot theories as not. The idea that low turnout favors Republicans became cemented in 2010, when it was possible to explain Democratic losses by voter indifference after the Democrats achieved very little with pretty large majorities. But the 2010 dropoff from 2008 was almost exactly the same as the 2006 dropoff from 2004, except it cut the opposite way.

Paola Rosa-Aquino: New CDC Data Shows the Pandemic Crushed U.S. Life Expectancy. Note that the drop exceeds what can be directly blamed on the pandemic -- although demographic studies suggest that "excess deaths" were up some 50% more than the official Covid-19 body count. Next article I looked at after this one was Zak Cheney-Rice: The GOP's 2024 Strategy Has a High Body Count.

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