A National Strategy Requires a National Government

Like so many Americans, I find myself envying nations that have a national government, and all that implies: A national sense of purpose; a national strategy for testing and tracing; a national plan for a public health crisis. There was a time when the United States had purpose, whether it was defeat of the Axis or putting a man on the moon. “We’re going to win!” is neither a goal, nor a strategy for achieving one. And, “We’re going to win so much, you’ll be tired of all the winning!” What does that actually mean? It is tautological, nonsensical, risible. “Winning” in this telling is undefined and lives (if it lives anywhere) beyond the looking glass, where words are just sounds with no actual meaning:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

 Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

It’s a sure bet that Donald Trump hasn’t read the book, nor would he understand the exchange. Irony, as they say, is not his long suit. At least, not intentionally.

Any dream of a national purpose must wait for another day; the pressing need, today, is for a national strategy: the novel coronavirus is among us and is not leaving any time soon. The national response has been botched — because in truth there was no national response. We had, instead, fifty state responses, some more successful than others but all of them at risk: the weak responses in a very real sense threaten the stronger ones. Our constitution guarantees freedom of movement, and while the governor of (for example) New York can require travelers from Texas and Florida to self-isolate for two weeks after arrival, it is only a matter of time before someone decides to make a literal Federal case out of a very real and very practical exercise of the state’s police power. Health and safety be damned, because this is America!

Meanwhile, in the real world: over 30 million people are unemployed; over 5 million have contracted Covid-19; over 160,000 have died from the disease, and 1,000 more die each day. (Our infection rate has been doubling about every six weeks; at that pace, by May or June the entire nation will be Covid-positive, a stunning achievement. If “winning” means, “create a nation of lepers”: mission accomplished.) And the United States Senate, the self-styled “world’s most deliberative body,” can neither deliberate nor negotiate nor even formulate legislation that might help  American citizens survive — pay the rent, buy groceries — until the pandemic subsides and the jobs actually do come back. Bear in mind that formulating legislation is the actual job of senators: it is their primary responsibility, enshrined right there in the job title: “legislator, upper body.”

For anyone who might be persuaded by the argument that “the House refuses to negotiate,” please bear in mind that the House actually passed legislation in May. The Senate (and the White House) chose to wait until the expiration of the March bill (July 31) before even beginning negotiations, evidently in the hope that Democrats would be persuaded of the urgency of passing anything and would thus accept whatever weak last-minute tea the Republicans brewed. (The Republicans, for their part, can’t even agree among themselves what to ask for or try to pass. So much for their legendary party unity.) It has taken a generation, but the Democrats — and Speaker Pelosi — have gotten wise to this game and aren’t having it.

Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee — under Lindsay Graham’s “leadership” — grills Sally Yates about the spooks under the bed. (Ms. Yates wasn’t having it, either, and deftly put the majority in its place.) Writing legislation is the Senate’s primary job, but by all means let’s ask more questions about Hilary’s emails, eight years after the fact. Changing the subject is a time-tested method of distracting attention from your failures, collectively as a legislative body as well as individually.

By most accounts the American people aren’t buying, not this time. There is an actual plague in the land, and the federal government isn’t doing anything to control the spread or mitigate the effects. We’re on our own, until we’re able to put people in government who are actually interested in doing the hard work of governing.

A Crisis of His Own Making

In the beginning it was popular, among the so-called chattering classes — the op-ed pages, the Sunday talk shows, drive-time radio — to refer to the Covid-19 pandemic as the first crisis Trump has faced that is not of his own making. (It’s not quote true, of course: there was Maria and the devastation our citizens in Puerto Rico are still suffering, three years on. Trump didn’t create the storm, but the lasting effects were made far worse by his customary blend of indifference, insensitivity, inaction, indolence, and incompetence.) Crises in the Trump era have been, most notably, the foreign policy blunders and debacles: North Korea, Iran, Turkey, Brazil… the list goes on, and each and every one actually started with Trump.

And now, Covid-19.

The alarms were first rung at least in late December 2019 — fully seven months ago, if not more. Trump ignored them. A month went by, and further disturbing intelligence emerged — and Trump ignored it. Worse, the National Security Directorate tasked with managing a pandemic response had been disbanded and the literal book on health crisis management, a sixty-plus page manual developed by the Obama administration, had been tossed aside by people so sure of their own abilities that nobody in the history of the world could possibly teach them anything. Seven months later — when the rest of the world has returned to normal and has resumed life as usual, the United States struggles: over 1,000 dead each day (compared with perhaps a dozen in all of Europe); nearly 150,000 dead since March; the mortality rate continues its grim ascent parallel to the long handle of the hockey stick; and over 4.5 million known cases. Trump insists that we test more, and therefore have more cases. No: nor will eliminating biopsies cure cancer. That any adult would say this might be amusing; for such dissembling nonsense to spew daily from the Oval Office is terrifying.

So is this truly not a crisis of Trump’s own making? The facts suggest otherwise. The signal event — the virus’s species jump — was surely beyond anyone’s control; the reaction to that event, and how to manage its consequences, is entirely within the control of any government interested in doing its job. Trump prefers to preen and posture; rolling up his sleeves and doing actual work is far beyond his capabilities. By ignoring facts, science, and a set of written instructions left by the previous administration, Trump has exacerbated a crisis that, properly managed, might have been over by March; instead it is now a raging plague that will be with us for years to come.

Historians are forever telling us that every president campaigns on domestic issues and is soon consumed by international affairs — hot spots and flareups that the United States must address in its capacity as beacon to the world and, since 1990, sole superpower. In the age of Trump the United States no longer lights the way except in the strictly negative sense: don’t do this, more pratfall than pragmatism. It’s not that we have become the problem so much as we have lost control of the entire enterprise; and feeling now out of control we have no real idea how to correct course. Our democracy is threatened by those sworn to protect it and the American experiment in self-governance is closer to burning out than it has ever been in its 244 year history. The beacon of the world is perilously close to self-extinguishing.

Presidents, and crises, come and go. That Trump would both by his actions, and by inaction, create crisis after crisis was predictable. But the only cure, the only lasting remedy, is to look beyond Trump and acknowledge and act upon what our founders knew in their bones. As we consider the Trump Trifecta — a pandemic, record unemployment, and rampant social injustice — we might bear in mind the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel from just fifty years ago, when he joined the ranks of protesters in an earlier age of social unrest and upheaval:

There is immense silent agony in the world, and the task of man is to be a voice for the plundered poor, to prevent the desecration of the soul and the violation of our dream of honesty.

The more deeply immersed I became in the thinking of the prophets, the more powerfully it became clear to me what the lives of the Prophets sought to convey: that morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.

The Prophets aren’t going to lead us out of this low ebb in our history; only the collective voices of all Americans, shouted as one on November 3, can begin to reverse the tide and begin the long road to redemption and restoration to greatness. In a free society some are guilty, but all are responsible. Trump and his enablers might be guilty; but we are all responsible to send them packing.

The Last Refuge

Patriotism, Samuel Johnson memorably said, is the last refuge of a scoundrel: Those who would defend the indefensible invariably, inevitably wave the flag. Then they wrap themselves in it. The tactic — too often effective against a credulous public — is designed to distract from their own corrupt and corrosive activities that serve not to strengthen the republic so much as permanently ensconce themselves in power.

So it is with Senate Republicans, particularly (these last weeks, at least) those on the Judiciary Committee: while Trump literally tears us apart and tries to burn down the nation, Lindsay Graham wants to hold hearings. Into Trump? AG Bill Barr’s shameless coddling of convicted felons (and Trump cronies) Roger Stone and Michael Flynn? No! The FBI! Investigate the investigators who investigated Trump! While Trump fires all the independent government watchdogs — the Inspectors General of State, Defense, Transportation, HHS, and Intelligence. And how does Charles Grassley, who built a decades-long reputation as a defender of government accountability, react? A meek letter asking the president, please, if you would be so kind as to indulge me sir, to explain, and forgive the temerity of my question.

In the last four months we have all aged four years, if we were paying attention.

Intellectual (Dis)Honesty

Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump don’t want to defund the police. A sloppy slogan — which Carlson, at least, knows doesn’t mean what he says it means — has become a rallying point for the collapsing conservative movement and Trumpism. “Defund the police” doesn’t mean — as, again, Carlson is surely aware and which Trump might or might not be — abolish the police, dismantle the police, disband the police, dismiss the police, or even replace the police.

What it does mean is simply this: we ask the police to do too much, and it’s long past time we cut back on their mission to allow them to focus on the things only a well-trained professional police force can do. It’s time to stop asking them to be social workers, truant officers, mental health professionals, suicide prevention counsellors, poison control specialists, drug treatment counsellors, election monitors, and the thousand-and-one sundry other things we throw money at the police to do because, well, it’s just easier than hiring people who actually trained for this or want to do that.

The truth is, the police are failing right now: they fail because of mission creep. “Protect and serve” was never meant to mean, “Protect our bloated budgets and we will serve your political interests.” The answer, it seems (to listen to the Tucker Carlsons and Sean Hannitys of the world), is to repair and reform the police, presumably by throwing more money at them.

These are the same people, mind, who believe that failing public schools should be defunded — by which they mean, disbanded and shut down. Take the education budget and shovel it towards the private sector where it won’t so much educate children as enrich the well-connected, in much the same way the law-enforcement dollars spent on tanks and riot gear don’t keep the peace so much they as effect an enormous transfer of wealth out of the public coffers.

It has long been an article of faith in conservative circles that competition is a sort of magic bullet that will solve every problem. Schools not doing the job? Take away their money and inject some competition into the system, and may the best school win! Health insurance not covering your expenses? Competition is here to save you! Just read the fine print from every carrier and make an informed decision!

Public schools fail for the same reason policing fails: the ever-expanding mandate makes it impossible to focus on the core mission. If we want everyone to have a future in this country — black children, white children, special-needs children, gifted children, everybody’s children — we might take a few minutes to consider why the answer for one failing institution is to withhold funding; and for the other, to continue to throw money at the problem.

It’s past time for the proponents of charter schools and school vouchers, and the defenders of shockingly abusive police practices — so often the same people — to be honest about their agendas. The results of your intellectual dishonesty are always, always deadly.

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.