Banana Republicans

“It was the greatest crime in the history of our country,” says Trump. “It’s been going on and it’s still going on and it should never happen again.” What was the crime? asked Philip Rucker of The Washington Post. “You know what it was. It’s very obvious to everyone. You can read about it in every newspaper except yours.” Well, then, what was the crime? “Next question.”

There’s so much to unpack here; there is really nothing to unpack here. Of course it’s another lie, another smokescreen, another attempt to deflect responsibility and blame, all while keeping himself in the spotlight. It’s quite a talent, one worthy of admiration if it weren’t so disgusting. There is no crime, except the one Michael Flynn admitted — twice. There is nothing “going on” either now or “for a very long time.” Nothing about it is obvious except the Hail Mary nature of the accusation.

Since conservatives (by definition) want to conserve: what’s with the wrecking ball aimed at the institutions of democracy? When the Justice Department wants to withdraw a guilty plea in its own prosecution we are become, officially, a banana republic. That sounds like a betrayal of conservative principles unless your objective is ruling and not governing.

Small Government and the USPS

Grover Norquist likes to say that government should be small enough that he can drown it in the bathtub. With the possible exception of Stephen Colbert, nobody has asked the obvious followup questions: And then what? Will you drown it? Why is that a good idea? How does that serve the American people? Republicans and libertarians are fond of talking about small or even tiny government, but the former are so lost in their rhetoric that they don’t know what it means; and the latter (for the most part) aren’t so delusional to believe that we can function without a government and be anything but a failed state. Almost everybody wants lower taxes for themselves (Warren Buffet is an admirable exception); few people want to have the more difficult conversation about what they’re willing to give up in exchange.

Government does have a purpose. There are some problems only government — big government, in fact — can solve; but for now let’s stick to small government. How small? There are four essential things a government must provide:

  • a national army
  • a national currency
  • a national road system
  • a national postal service

These (and a few other things) are all enumerated in Article 8 of the United States Constitution. This is about as small as government gets, and without these things no nation can properly call itself a functioning state. To lower your tax bill, please consider:

  • Will you give up the national defense? Do you have an alternative jobs program for the soldiers you’re throwing out of work?
  • What happens when we return to a system of private money, where banks issue their own currency?
  • Are you willing to stop complaining about potholes even while highway tolls increase under private ownership?
  • USPS is required to serve every single address in the United States. Private carriers like FedEx and UPS are not. (They’re not required to carry the junk mail, either.)

During the pandemic the postal service has proven to be an absolutely critical piece of infrastructure, a literal lifeline for millions of people who cannot leave their homes. The USPS is not without its problems, even before considering how the overnight delivery services have eaten into its market share and eroded its profitability. But there is a much bigger picture here.

Essential infrastructure must serve every business and every household. Telephone (land line) service and electric utilities are state-regulated and are required to reach every corner of their service areas no matter how remote or inconvenient. Cellular phone and broadband Internet should have reached that threshold years ago but regulators have so far failed to require universal service, arguing that robust competition among carriers will solve the problem. It has not, and it will not. Basic mail delivery — letters, packages, and bulk mailings — is, likewise, an essential part of a functioning democracy.

To threaten the existence of the USPS (and that is what is going on, though not quite so overtly) at a time when it is more necessary than ever betrays an open hostility to the basic functions of government. So let’s call it that instead of dressing it up in the usual fetish-objects of “competition” and “market forces.” Not every ill can be cured by open markets or by privatizing the functions of government. History tells us that those remedies are far worse than the disease (and they are almost always more expensive, too). We should stop pretending otherwise.

Critical Thinking (Making Flippy Floppy)

For the last couple of weeks I’ve had a Talking Heads lyric stuck in my head:

Our president’s crazy
Did you hear what he said
Business and pleasure
Lie right to your face
Divide it in sections

Well, David Byrne could have written that yesterday — but it was 1983. “Divide it in sections” indeed: this is what has happened to the United States. We are engaged in a cold civil war; education should be the way out, but the GOP long ago declared war on public schools. The ability (and willingness) to examine facts and arguments critically before accepting them, is a crucial skill in civic life. It is the civic equivalent of the scientific method — but the GOP has declared war on science, too.

There’s also this gem of a lyric two or three lines later; the conspiracy theorists really should take it to heart:

There are no big secrets
Don’t believe what you read

Problem is, they don’t believe what they read unless it originates in their addled, paranoid echo chamber.

Petty Power Play

The French verb tutoyer has no real English counterpart. It is used to indicate the use of the familiar form of “you” — the second person singular, for which English also has had no parallel since “thee” fell out of common usage around 1800. The nearest equivalent verb might be to “first name” someone; it’s an awkward locution but we know what it means.

Trump, it turns out, knows — or, rather, intuits — exactly what tutoyer means. I doubt he could tell me what I mean when I say to him, Ne me tutoie pas, s’il te plaît, nor would he recognize the inherent disrespect. But it’s a technique he uses daily: Deborah Birx, whatever her flaws, is a medical doctor who has earned her degree and the respect that goes with it. To anyone not bred in a stable she is Dr. Birx just as Anthony Fauci is Dr. Fauci. To Trump they are Debbie and Tony, and not because he’s particularly familiar with them, nor because he socializes with them, nor because he wants to run a more informal White House.

No, it’s a power play: he first-names them to demonstrate the inherent disparity between their positions. They are mere public health officials, civil servants; he is the President of the United States and will be addressed as such. It’s a sign of contempt — everything, with Trump, is a sign of contempt, except for his fawning over dictators. There, too, he recognizes the disparity of power: theirs is absolute, his is a gift from a servile senate majority. And as such, it is time-limited.

Got that, Donnie?

Essential Workers

Driving along the Interboro – – excuse me, Jackie Robinson – – Parkway, one passes through several cemeteries. It’s a common site around here. When several of New York City’s highways were constructed in the early 20th century, they literally cut through cemeteries and many graves were relocated.

What I see now shocks me. Last weekend I counted at least a dozen mounds of fresh earth, and several more open sites ready for an interment. Funeral directors report at least triple their normal business, with many more cremations than usual due to long waits for burial. Hamlet’s gravediggers didn’t think of themselves as “essential workers” but they were. In a time of plague, it’s not just the butcher and the baker who keep us moving forward; it’s also the teamster, the apothecary, the embalmer.

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge that it’s the people at the bottom — the minimum-wage workers — whom we most rely upon. The stockbrokers and hedge fund managers aren’t going to help us get through this. The nurses, grocery clerks, letter carriers, and, yes, the gravediggers, are the ones we need.

It’s time for us to rethink how we value, and reward, work.

Seize Authority, Shirk Responsibility

Years ago, working full time and about midway through law school, I took a new job: more interesting work, flexible hours, and a project I could really sink my teeth into. Management gave me full responsibility for its successful completion; what they didn’t give me was any authority to shape the outcome. I had an hourlong talk about it with the area VP whose response to me was simply, “You will graduate and leave here in a year, so I don’t see any reason to make you happy.” The next day I submitted my resignation. Two years later the project failed precisely because my successor wasn’t permitted to make any critical decisions along the path. He had accountability but no authority; the results were a botched implementation and a lawsuit for wrongful termination.

Accountability and authority cannot be divorced from each other. In a well-run organization, individuals will be motivated to excel: their decisions are tested but not arbitrarily overridden by management, and failure is tolerated, up to a point, as an opportunity to learn and grow. Good managers know what they don’t know; and what they do know is that their subordinates often have better technical skills than they do — and in fact they almost always should. It’s not the CEO’s job to skillfully turn out widgets (though she should have a general knowledge of the widget-manufacturing process), it is her job to ensure that employees at every level have the resources they need to succeed and more. Put another way: line workers make widgets, managers make decisions.

The administration of Donald Trump turns this model upside down and inside out. Trump wants complete authority with no responsibility: the consequences of his actions can’t be laid at his door, and he is unaccountable for anything. At least, that is how it works in the fantasy world of Donald Trump — aided and abetted by both his lackeys in the White House and the Congressional bootlicks who put party above patriotism, career above country. In Trump’s world the Constitution of the United States grants the president not just authority but power: the power to do “whatever I want.” (This is not the language or rhetoric of democracy, and Republicans who decried previous (Democratic) presidents’ use of executive orders as “authoritarian overreach” should be seething in anger. That they are not speaks loudly of their commitment to principle and to the rule of law.) In the current crisis — incredibly enough, the first in three years not of Trump’s own making — his aversion to actual decision-making (what CEOs are paid to make) and shirking of responsibility have come into sharp focus for everyone.

In any business a Board of Directors faced with such C-level incompetence and mismanagement would fire the offending executive. Given the lack of interest, among Republican senators, to hold Trump and his administration accountable for the commission of actual crimes — bribery and extortion, not to mention Constitutionally-prohibited emoluments foreign and domestic — there is no way to hold him accountable for this. The only remedy left is for the voter-shareholders to fire both the executive and his enablers at every level of government. Incompetence and decision-avoidance are the stepsisters of grift and corruption; all four are brazen hallmarks of this administration. Corruption is always a problem in government, but in Trump and McConnell’s hands it is the governing principle.

Not everyone is cut out to be a manager, just as not everyone is equipped to be a carpenter, a sculptor, a musician, or an auto worker. People have different interests and skillsets which will intersect and interact in unique ways. Some people, it turns out, aren’t really equipped — by temperament, by skill, or by experience — to do much of anything at all. November 3, 2020 is the day we tell all of them, “You’re fired.”

The Markets and Obi Wan

The markets are tumbling again this week, apparently on Tuesday’s testimony of Drs. Fauci and Redfield before the Senate Health Committee. They warned that the coronavirus is far from contained and that a too-rapid easing of social distancing and stay-at-home restrictions will likely trigger a second wave that could be even worse than the first.

The New York Times reports:

The comments appeared to rattle the markets, driving the S&P 500 down as investors weighed the potential of a second wave of infections against Mr. Trump’s promises that the economy would bounce back once stay-at-home restrictions were lifted.

Seriously? The financial markets are skittish because someone contradicted Trump’s assurances? Trump is a raging narcissist, a pathetic little man whose bombast and lies do not (as he intends) glorify him but starkly highlight the absence of his soul, the smallness of his mind, and the pettiness of his character. Since assuming office he has lied over 18,000 times. One might reasonably begin the count with his inaugural speech, where his language, tone, and “American carnage” imagery were at odds with every measure of objective reality.

The talking heads on television and cable news outlets, especially those which aspire to be information platforms for business, always come back to one word: predictability. “Markets like stability and predictability,” they say. Meaning, the financial markets don’t much care who is in office as long as policy isn’t changed on a whim and without warning. Meaning, the financial markets might be spooked for a moment when a Democrat is elected — on the presumed fear of regulation — but these brief periods of volatility soon smooth out and the markets go on as before. Because they like predictability.

The truth is, the financial sector really shouldn’t like deregulation: it’s the anything-goes, anything-can-happen, nobody-is-accountable temperament of the Wild West that roils markets; its unpredictable nature is by definition unknowable and its consequences unforeseeable, opaque to even the best crystal ball. If we learned anything from the 2008 financial sector meltdown, it was (or should have been) that deregulation begets instability, and that even the best computer models are as clear as mud when it comes to really predicting the future. It’s looking more and more like we didn’t learn that lesson, or any other; just as the 2008 crisis echoed the 1986-1995 S&L debacle. The echoes of history reach all the way back, and after each recovery we take two steps forward and then, when things stabilize, at least one deregulatory step backwards.

Trump wallows in unpredictability; he boasts about it; he sows chaos wherever he goes. It is his briar patch. Burnout is a well-known consequence of working in the White House pressure cooker but Trump’s administration churns personnel at an alarming rate. (Insert joke here about the ten-day period of employment known as a Scaramucci. Oh, you were there a month? Three whole Scaramuccis?)

Financial markets aren’t the only institutions that appreciate stability. Diplomacy might be an art, but it requires some level of predictable behavior and rationality: it’s difficult to negotiate if you have absolutely no idea how the person across the table will respond. (Trump believes this is his strength, that being unpredictable is the art of the deal. To the rest of us it’s a sign of serious mental illness and instability.)

The markets like stability; they want order; they crave predictability. Trump is a known, compulsive, congenital liar whose only objective is to stroke his self-image. To that end he will say anything. With his reelection prospects (already slim, as I discuss here) in tatters he makes assurances nobody should believe about the pandemic being past while Dr. Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, tells the Senate and the nation that the virus will be with us for some time yet. Indeed he has been telling us all along that a resurgence in the fall is likely.

All of which brings me, finally, to Obi Wan Kenobi, whose Jedi wisdom might be the most appropriate answer to anyone taking action of any kind on the strength of Trump’s promises and reassurances. Who is more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him? And if you’re invested in those markets: caveat emptor.

The (Non)Partisan Blame Game

Former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, in an op-ed in The Washington Post, suggests that we “avoid the partisan blame game” when the pandemic is over and we can all go back outside:

I’m worried about preventing a sickness, one we’ve been through before — much more recently than the last pandemic flu. It’s our tribal eagerness to employ 20/20 rearview vision and castigate the Other Side for its mistakes, even those made in all sincerity, even those the second-guessers failed to dispute, or even endorsed, at the outset.

Having laid out his premise, Daniels proceeds to recite his recollection of the run-up to the Iraq War. I say “recollection” to be charitable: the revisionist history that Daniels recounts posits that “the consensus conclusion of multiple national intelligence agencies was that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had or was close to acquiring weapons of mass destruction,” leaving out the part where the intelligence was cherry-picked to support the conclusion desired by the President. He leaves out the part where Colin Powell addressed the UN Security Council and knowingly bent the truth to fit the objective.

The problem, of course, is that in his analogy the Other Side — the administration and its supporters in Congress — did not make “sincere” mistakes: the evidence supporting the undeclared war was at best distorted to enhance its probative value; at worst it was fabricated.

Fast-forward to the present day, where a literal plague threatens the human population of the planet. As of 10 May 2020 (GMT):

  • 4,100,788 cases worldwide
  • 280,432 deaths worldwide

Of these, the United States — with 5% of the world’s population — has nearly 33% of the cases and  fatalities:

  • 1,347,309 cases
  • 80,037 deaths

The infection rate continues to rise in states whose governors are all too willing to “reopen” their states (or who never “closed” them). This in service to a president who bungled the federal response; who ignored at least a dozen warnings that a deadly virus was spreading around the globe; who discarded the pandemic readiness manual prepared by the previous administration; who insists that widespread testing and contact tracing are not necessary to public health and safety; who does not wear a mask in meetings, in public, or on a photo-op tour of a mask factory and who prefers to “go it alone” when it comes to developing a vaccine, rather than cooperate with global efforts.

Many countries have managed this better than we have; there is no secret to their relative success: they have implemented widespread testing and contact tracing. In the United States, while the administration and its captive governors and senators still insist that there is nothing more to be done, a number of states — going where the science tells them to go — are ramping up contact tracing programs of their own. This isn’t a new idea: it has long been standard practice for outbreaks of tuberculosis, as well as for STDs.

If it’s a good idea for STDs, why is it a bad idea for a global pandemic that (so far) has killed over 80,000 Americans, doubling its grisly yield every two weeks? Anyone?

With all respect to Governor Daniels, the blame — and there is plenty to be heaped on this administration and its minions in both federal and state governments — is not partisan. To call it “partisan” is to perpetuate the same logical fallacy that Lisa Murkowski and other senate Republicans foisted on their constituents during the impeachment trial. Refusing to participate in a democratic process doesn’t make the process partisan, it makes you partisan. It means you value your party’s control of government above the principles upon which this nation was founded.

Call it partisan all you want to. That sort of weak straw man isn’t going to sit well in the history books of the next century — if there are any. Refusal to participate, refusal to compromise, has put the nation, and the planet, on a collision course with extinction. Next up: Unprecedented flooding along the Gulf Coast while the virus rages on.