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.

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.

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.

Empathy

Decades ago Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy kicked off a cold civil war; Ronald Reagan kept it going with his apocryphal story of a Welfare Queen, George HW Bush had Willie Horton, and George W Bush had the duplicitous Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. In the 1990’s Newt Gingrich weaponized “traditional values” in congressional elections and the culture wars, begun thirty years earlier (by Goldwater acolyte Phyllis Schlafly) were fully joined.

Trump isn’t the disease. He’s a symptom. He is the apotheosis of a cynical process begun by Schlafly and Roger Ailes, continuing in a straight line through Gingrich and Palin and on to Jim Jordan, whose feverish House speechifying would be hilariously funny were it not so scary: if he believes even half of what he says he is simply incapable of coherent thought and critical analysis; if he doesn’t then he is a proven liar.

So if Trump and all these others are symptoms, what is the disease? Why is our congress deadlocked, our legislative pipeline gridlocked? Why is our political discourse coarse? If politics is supposed to be the art of the possible, why is even the smallest compromise seemingly impossible? It comes down to one single word: empathy. There has long been an empathy gap in American politics: Republicans have none, Democrats a surfeit. (This might be a good time to point out the misleading way many polls are reported: breaking results down by political affiliation might seem useful but it has the effect of elevating the Republican Party to a status it does not enjoy. Independents and Democrats each outnumber registered Republicans.)

Politics is the art of the possible: compromise. But compromise is impossible in an environment where one party routinely engages in the most toxic rhetorical excess, demonizing policy differences and branding them as an Enemy who is seeking no less than the destruction of the nation. Compromise requires empathy, and a willingness to view the world — just for an instant —through someone else’s eyes. Before you judge a man, it is said, you should walk a mile in his moccasins.

The signal event in the transformation — or disintegration — of the Republican Party was the rise of Newt Gingrich to Speaker in 1995. What began as an election device to demonize the Other became, in Gingrich’s hands, a weapon of legislative havoc, a wrecking ball aimed not just at New Deal and Great Society programs but at the people who would preserve them and their legacy. Empathy is rhetorically conflated with sympathy, and both are denigrated as signs of weakness. That demonization is, ironically, itself a sign of weakness, the kind of professed certainty and absolutism that betrays fanaticism. (“The fanatic,” wrote John LeCarré, “is always concealing a secret doubt.”)

The transformation of the GOP into the POT is complete: there are no scruples (only “winning” is important), there is no objective truth (only “alternative facts” are allowed), and there is no actual leadership (only a bloviating void determined to airbrush failure after failure). Perhaps, in a few years, a new center-right party will emerge to honestly debate the things that must be debated. Everybody wants to win; but winning doesn’t mean somebody has to lose. Compromise used to be possible; it will be possible again when empathy is properly embraced as a political tool and a sign of strength.

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.