Fatigue (II)

Fatigue comes in many forms, and from multiple causes. The jingoists who have appropriated the flag and other national symbols as their own are fatigued, to be sure; but they misdiagnose the source. The rest of us — by which I mean the great majority of the American people — are also numb. Doubly-numb, in fact: for outrage fatigue settled in many months ago, probably early in 2018. As E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post observes:

Trump has, for the past four years, used the sheer breadth of the scandals that surround him to numb the public. No one focused long enough on any single outrage for it to do the damage even one comparable disgrace would inflict on any other politician.

It’s something we’re all familiar with and yet have been too fatigued to analyze or articulate. With so many outrages weekly, and often daily, we have neither the time nor the patience nor the sheer force of will to do more than commiserate: offenses against custom and institutional practice; offenses against families; offenses against ordinary decency. Offenses, most often, against our laws and the rule of law. We have been watching a slow-motion train wreck and have felt powerless to stop it: the people in power, in coequal branches of government, are content to do nothing so long as they get their judges and their tax cuts.

The price to this nation, Senators, was far too high. And you have sold your souls far too cheaply.

Fatigue (I)

A graph published this week in The New York Times documents the unacceptable reality: in the United States, today, the number of new infections daily is double what it was at the end of March — not long after Trump declared that cases would “soon be down to zero.”

Graph from NY Times 10/19/2020 with link to article.
Click the image to open the article.

We — the public — are seven months into this pandemic. The White House, with its intelligence briefings as far back as late December, has had ten months: more than the full gestation of an infant human or a calf, and nearly enough time to birth a horse, a llama, an elk, a seal. Given where we are today I believe its fair to say we will be lucky to return to something like a pre-pandemic normal some time before an elephant conceived in January 2020 is born, which would be next September or October.

And yet: Movie theaters are reopening, restaurants are back to serving indoors, and there is no shortage of people who still believe that their rights are trampled if they are obliged to wear a mask to protect the health of others. Of course this begs the question: Why is your right to be a jackass superior to everyone else’s right to avoid infection? The selfishness (not to mention the ignorance) is astonishing. Let’s be clear: the fact that our lives are slowly, even cautiously, returning to normal is hardly good news. It is a sign, rather, that after seven or eight months people are becoming desperate for some reassurance that it will all soon be over. It will not — and the fatigue currently driving people into the streets, into stores and restaurants, into the cinemas and health clubs, is almost certain to prolong, not curtail, our national suffering. A second wave is coming.

And yet: The people evidently most chafed by stay-at-home orders and mask protocols (“Don’t tell me what to do!”) evidently take their marching orders from a would-be autocrat. These are the people who plotted to kidnap the governors of at least two states to “protest” public health initiatives. Put another way: the self-styled patriots who object loudly to state authorities protecting the public health (by issuing mask mandates and requiring social-distancing protocols) have no objection to their “strong” leader deciding, on his own, who is worthy of state protection, who can stay, who must go, and who should go to prison. The human capacity for cognitive dissonance is without limit.

Trump himself called out the fatigue problem — as always, without a trace of irony or self-awareness — in a conference call with campaign staff: “People are tired of COVID. Yup, there’s going to be spikes, there’s going to be no spikes, there’s going to be vaccines. With or without vaccines, people are tired of COVID. I have the biggest rallies I have ever had and we have COVID. People are saying whatever, just leave us alone. They’re tired of it.” Of course people are tired of it: not the hearing, but the living. It has gone on for seven unnecessarily long months. Most other countries — including developing and third-world nations — have returned to a semblance of “normal” without the threat of spikes or the cloud of super spreader events. “But it came from China!” Aside from being factually suspect (the virus spread to the US from Europe, not China) it isn’t a reason for inaction. Blame-shifting might be effective to avoid responsibility among the more credulous; it never yet actually solved a problem.

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.

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.

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.

Human Sacrifice

Recently a well-known TV personality suggested that reopening schools could be among the first steps towards getting back to normal soon. This is “attractive,” he said, because the fatality rate “is only 2-3 percent.” I find this reasoning baffling, perhaps because I’m able to view it in concrete terms instead of as a vague abstraction: throw in a few numbers and the words “percent” or “per capita” and viewers apparently will assume you are a Very Learned Person who knows more than they do. Very well. I have questions for Dr. Oz:

  • Do you understand that “percent” means “out of every one-hundred” and that you are suggesting that rate is an acceptable sacrifice?
  • Please stand in a room with 100 children and point out the three you believe are expendable.
  • In actual numbers, the United States has something over 28 million children age 5-11. Three percent of that is 840,000. (The total number of minors — victims under 18 — would therefore be about 2.1 million lost to covid-19.) Discuss.
  • Please explain how this kind of literal human sacrifice is qualitatively different from tossing a virgin into a volcano for better weather.

Speaking only for myself: the volcano has the better of this argument: one virgin, versus 2 million children. But Dr. Oz believes it’s an acceptable level of loss. And for Donald Trump it’s a small price to pay for a booming stock market. One hopes the children — like the virgin — will appreciate their role in the history of their people.

Leaving the children to their fate, I’d like to address the adults who are clamoring to “reopen” in the name of “liberty!” Which of your friends and relatives will you sacrifice? It doesn’t need to be for the sake of your stock portfolio; whom are you willing to snuff so you can go back to work? As a strictly moral proposition, I suggest that anyone unwilling to say exactly which specific people — including which among his friends and relatives — are expendable in the pursuit of economic gain, has no business making the “reopen now” argument. (And if you are so willing, you have absolutely no moral authority. Get thee behind me, Sociopath.)

These are large numbers of real people, not just “small” percentages. Compare to the seasonal flu which claims about 0.1% — one-tenth of one percent of those who contract it — every year. Dr. Oz calls a mortality rate thirty times that “attractive.” Let’s think of a better word.  “Mass infanticide” is perhaps too emotionally freighted, but it works for me.

Call it what you will, I challenge the champions of “Liberty!” and “Freedom!” to provide a rational argument. What we’ve heard so far — whining about wanting to get a haircut — isn’t terribly compelling. If you need a haircut, order a clipper from Amazon and let your son or daughter get to work. Isn’t that small inconvenience worth the lives of two million children?

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.


America is in crisis. Government has failed, utterly. This shouldn’t surprise anyone: This is what happens when an uninformed, unequipped, unprepared, unqualified, uncurious, unrelentingly insecure, unmitigated and thoroughly dishonest attention whore is elected to high public office. (It would happen if he’d been elected to low public office, such as city dogcatcher or village mayor; but the consequences would not be so deadly.) Eventually the luck runs out.

A hundred days ago Donald Trump told us all there was nothing to worry about, and that the novel coronavirus would be gone by April. He promised that the fifteen cases “will soon go down to zero” and that his administration had things “totally under control.” It was obvious then (if only because Trump has never in his adult life told the truth when a lie would do) that things were not under control; because we don’t have access to the intelligence briefings we didn’t know at the time just how much things were not under control. But we do now.

Nearly 70,000 known deaths in the United States from Covid-19; that number is underreported as is the well over 1 million known cases. Every day another 2,000 Americans perish. Why? Because the administration has it under control, well-contained, completely shut down. Pick your figure of speech — it makes no difference when containment doesn’t exist, control is illusory, and “shut down” is synonymous with “click your heels together three times.”

This isn’t just a failure of government, though it is that. It is a bigger failure than Katrina, bigger than Maria, because the pandemic is bigger than any storm or earthquake or tsunami in living memory. And it was predicted. Like all such predictions it was impossible to pinpoint the event in future time; it was possible only to identify the kind of disaster that would occur, within what window it was likely to occur, and to prepare for its eventual arrival.  

No, this is not simply a failure of government; if it were that it would be catastrophic but recoverable. This is much more. It is an unprecedented cascade failure whose inception can be traced back through the many unheeded warnings, through the decision to dismantle the pandemic response unit of the security apparatus, to the noxious attitude of this president and his minions: we know best, we are smarter than anyone who has ever come before, we have nothing to learn from the past or from our predecessors.  Make no mistake: when Donald Trump says, “Nobody has ever done what I have done!” it is a rare moment of accidental truth-telling and one more example of his cluelessness.