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.

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.”

Failure

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.

The Spinning Plates: A Fable

There once was a man who lied incessantly but who suffered no consequence for it: a modern-day Pinocchio whose nose did not grow when he lied, nor did any other calamity befall him. He simply lied, day in and day out, and if anybody called him a liar he flew into a rage and threatened to sue for defamation.

“But sir,” said one courtier (for although he was just a small appliance salesman he fancied himself a king), “But sir, truth is an absolute defense.” But the man, not being terribly clever, did not understand and so became even angrier, and he glared at the poor fellow until he — poor soul — could take it no more and slumped where he stood while his employer stomped back to his make-believe throne.

The man’s lies had made him very rich, though not as rich as he always said he was; and his lies and his make-believe wealth had made him very famous, too. But this did not satisfy him, and so he looked for ways to increase his fame. The more famous he became, the less satisfied he was, and the more he lied. It was not enough for him to be on television with a large audience. He began to demand from his producers larger blocks of time, and more money to pay him for the valuable time he spent on television. And to extract even more payment he would lie about the size of his audience, because he thought the producers were fools who did not know how to read a Nielsen report or analyze a photograph.

Now, there came a time when something strange happened to King Wannabe — that was not his name, and he was not a king, but we have to call him something. It isn’t clear how it happened, or why, but one day he told a lie that was simply too much for the Universe to contain. No sooner had the lie left his mouth than *P O P* there was a spinning plate above his head. King Wannabe had a stick in his hand and had no choice but to keep twirling the stick so the plate would not come crashing down on his head. 

“What is that, sir?” asked a courtier, for he had never seen King Wannabe do much of anything except sulk and watch television. Certainly nothing that required any energy, or eye-hand coordination.

“What is what? Oh, this? This is for you to hold for me.” And with that he freed himself of the offensive object. Except that no sooner had the words left his lips than *P O P* another plate appeared above his head. “Oh, yes,” said King Wannabe. “I remember now. I ordered plates for everyone.” *P O P* *P O P* *P O P* *P O P* and the plates appeared in his small hand almost sooner than he could hand them off.

It happened at about this same time that King Wannabe found himself, for the first time, employed by someone else. He had never before worked for anyone except his father, or himself. But suddenly — because he had lied about his own competence — he found himself at the head of a Very Large Corporation with more employees and departments and products and just moving corporate parts than King Wannabe had ever known existed.

“That’s all right,” he said. “It can’t be that difficult. I’m so much smarter and better than everyone else.” Well, you can guess what happened. His hands were full again, and he had to yell for his lieutenants to come and hold these damned plates and you’d better not let a single one drop. For it turned out that the Very Large Corporation was itself in the plate-spinning business and it took a lot of expertise to keep them all in the air at once. In the entire history of its plate-spinning the Very Large Corporation had always kept the plates in the air, and had always had very talented plate-spinners. Plate-spinning was an honorable profession, and those who worked for the Very Large Corporation were held in high esteem. Men and women of great talent, in many fields of expertise, came and went at the highest management levels and their efforts helped the Very Large Corporation grow to be envied and even feared in some parts of the world.

But King Wannabe knew that he did not need the talents of talented people to spin his plates for him. He could do what he had always done — he could hand them to his underlings. After all, everyone who worked for the Very Large Corporation worked for him, and there were many thousands of them. Even if he lied all day every day for several years, generating plate after plate after plate, he would never run out of underlings who would keep his plates spinning. This soon became a problem when people who had worked in various departments — making plates, testing plates, glazing plates, cleaning plates, and, yes, spinning plates — began to leave, because King Wannabe was creating left-handed plates with all of his lies, and the Very Large Corporation dealt only in the finest right-handed plates.

“It’s no problem!” he said, and of course as he did another plate popped into existence. “We don’t need those people. We can hire them back whenever we need them. Everyone wants to work here.” Pop! POP! POP! King Wannabe was running out of underlings to hand his plates to, and he was running out of hands and energy to keep them spinning. Somehow, though, he did. Nobody was sure how and they were drawn to the hours upon hours he spent on television, doing nothing but lying plates into existence and keeping them all spinning above his head.

People are drawn to disaster scenes like a train wreck or a car crash. It isn’t that they want harm to befall anyone; it is simply a morbid human compulsion. More than that there is a certain fascination in experiencing the slowing of time, everything — life itself — suddenly in slow motion in the moments before the inevitable calamity.

And so it was with King Wannabe. Everyone watched. Everyone held their breath. There was nothing else they could do, and they did not understand how this small man had kept so many left-handed plates spinning, for so long, without any of them falling on his head.

Until, one day, they did. But there were so many plates by this time that the crash buried not only King Wannabe but his remaining underlings — few, and not nearly as competent as the right-handed plate-spinners they had replaced. The force of the crash brought other plates, right-handed plates being kept aloft by the remaining professionals, crashing down as well. In just a few seconds the Very Large Corporation was no more, buried under the broken crockery of an unpleasant and needy man too small and incompetent to hold a real job, who had somehow lied his way into this one.