The Non-Stop Nordics

Image of Nordic flags by miguelb

This week, the advocacy organization Reporters Without Borders released its 2020 World Press Freedoms Index. The index ranks the world’s nations and some territories on the freedom journalists have to report on what is happening in their countries and to challenge power. At the top of list: Norway, Finland, and Denmark, and Sweden.

The Netherlands rounds out the top five. The largest European countries fall between 11 and 35. The United States is at 45. The world’s largest democracy, India, is at 142. Singapore, where I live, is at 158. China is fourth from the bottom at 177.

Seriously, is there anything these Nordic countries can’t do right? Here’s what I’m talking about.

Start with just how rich these countries are, using data from the World Bank. In terms of GDP per capita, Norway is at number 7.

Norway is that high, though, mainly because it is an oil state. On the other hand, it’s only that low because it’s sandwiched in with a lot of known tax shelter countries and territories, which cater to the global wealthy. Let’s look further down the list to more “normal” countries.

There they are – Denmark, Sweden, and Finland – right in the pack of the world’s richest economies.

And they’re among the countries with the least amount of inequality, as well. Here is a chart from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

But, you might object, what about freedom? All kinds – individual, civil, and economic? After all, that’s what the western world prides itself on. The libertarian Cato Institute compiles an index. Three of the four Nordic countries appear in the top 11. The United States comes in at number 15 (tied with Estonia). Norway is just below the US at number 17.

(A special shoutout to the Netherlands, by the way, which is always high in all of these rankings, as well, and tied for 11th in freedom, just after Sweden.)

Suppose you want to dial in on just economic freedom, defined as the ease of doing business and whether the government is “big” or not. The conservative Heritage Foundation has you covered. Despite the Nordic governments famously collecting a lot in taxes (which get turned into services, like universal health care, etc.), Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and Norway are right in there with the “mostly free” countries.

Maybe your focus is productivity. After all, it’s been humankind’s ability to become more and more productive over the last couple of centuries that has freed it from millennia of poverty and subsistence. Let’s turn to the World Economic Forum and its Global Competitiveness Report. There the Nordic countries are again.

Getting back again to those “big” governments of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland. Surely “big” government is a prescription for disaster due to the possibility of corruption, correct? Well, let’s turn to Transparency International and its measure of how corrupt the world’s governments are perceived to be, from least to most. The Nordics are in the top ten for least corrupt. The United States, by the way, doesn’t show up until number 23, just above France.

What about health care? How do the Scandinavian countries stack up? This one is harder to summarize in one simple chart because of the number of variables. Is everyone covered by health insurance? Is it affordable for individuals and the countries? How does the system perform on various life outcomes, like life expectancy, maternal mortality, infant and child mortality, etc? I found one ranking by the World Health Organization, but it was from 2000. Many changes have occurred in global health care systems since then, especially in the US with the introduction of the Affordable Care Act.

Even so, many organizations and media outlets have pressed ahead to rank systems. The Peter G. Peterson Foundation focuses on how the US spends far more money on health care than other countries, yet gets far worse outcomes. Note that two of the Nordic countries, Finland and Norway, are on the left as “best”.

The Commonwealth Fund also has a set of charts showing how non-US systems cost far less and produce comparable to better outcomes. Notice in the report how the Nordic countries are nestled comfortably in with the other countries with better outcomes. Let’s focus on one in particular – life expectancy. Norway and Sweden are in the pack, while life expectancy for the US actually declined in recent years.

To wrap up, what about the future for the citizens of the Nordic countries? After all, anyone with kids hopes their lot will be better than their own.

Let’s look at education first, because it is key to so many parts of a modern country’s success. The Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, tests are a globally accepted standard for comparing educational outcomes. Finland has long had a globally recognized education system. Sweden ranks highly, and Denmark and Norway are comparable or rank more highly than the US.

And finally, let’s finish with social mobility – that is, the chances that a person can do better economically than their parents did. The World Economic Forum has you covered.

Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Sweden are the top four for future prospects, just like they were the top four for press freedom, where all of this began. Non-stop Nordics, indeed.

Unlocking coronavirus – Moving beyond testing

Much of the focus in recent US debate regarding the response to the covid-19 coronavirus has been on expanding our testing and tracing efforts. Other countries have used this model more or less successfully. Quickly identify sick people, find out everyone they came into contact with, and get them all into quarantine to head off the spread.

But I’ve all but given up on testing as a strategy for many countries, especially the US. I think the focus has to be mostly on increasing medical system capacity – more equipment, more supplies, more quickly-trained personnel who can perform some tasks (and get paid a lot to do them).

Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) - United States Department of ...
US Department of State,

We cannot stay closed for the many months and possibly years required to identify safe and effective treatments and/or vaccines. Social distancing of some kind will still be necessary, of course. The peaks should still be shaved off the caseload. And of course, some people who are especially vulnerable should take extra precautions.

But bottom line, it’s about keeping the death rate from SARS-Cov-2 as low as possible. With proper medical care, it seems likely that we can keep the fatality rate down where it seems to be settling in globally – 1% of cases. That is still ten times deadlier than the flu, so there’s no reason to relax. But it is not the first SARS (10%), MERS (30%+), or Ebola (50%). And most cases still seem to be mild, maybe to the point of people not feeling any symptoms at all.

As the expert in this NPR interview points out, we should definitely have testing for the people on the front lines – medical personnel, people working in the manufacturing and delivery of essential products and services (from food to transport to energy to water), security workers of all kinds (firefighters, police, military), etc.

But, at least in the US, I’m convinced we simply won’t ever pull it together to have widespread enough testing – either for covid-19 directly or serological to look for antibodies (and therefore potentially immune people). Better to put our resources into what we already know how to do – provide medical services.

A Rush Job to “Re-Open” the Economy

It appears from his USA TODAY op-ed that Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin is comfortable with doubling down on his previous statements that addressing the covid-19 pandemic in the US is not worth the economic damage caused by the various lockdowns being put in place.

It’s easy to dismiss him as yet another conservative ghoul. (Sorry, but just about every take that’s either directly or indirectly okay with higher death rates comes from Republicans and/or libertarians).

However, I happen to agree that a balance will eventually have to be struck between coronavirus mitigation and economic activity.

(And to be honest, I don’t mind a stark reminder of our mortality, though he has a particularly brutal way of saying it. “Death is an unavoidable part of life.” Is he a religious man?)


We have no effective, widespread testing regime in place in the US, either to detect live cases or to identify people who have recovered. This second group of tests – blood, or serological, tests – can identify people who could be immune and might be able to work safely with sick patients. They can also donate their serum for the virus-killing antibodies it contains, which can be used in research and possibly treatments.

We have not adequately ramped up our medical resources. He makes yet another bogus comparison to known dangers, like the seasonal flu, which our health systems are geared up to address. One of the biggest dangers from this “novel” (as in new) coronavirus, as it was originally called, has been that it appears to be ridiculously infectious – in part, because no human has encountered it before – which creates an enormous number of cases all at once. Current data show about 15% of all cases require hospitalization – often for weeks – which our system is simply not scaled up to handle. Also, while case and mortality data continue to come in, it does appear that covid-19 is some multiple more deadly than the seasonal flu. Even Pres. Trump has now said that 100- to 200-thousand US deaths would be a “very good” outcome, compared to a potential two million deaths.

We have no effective tracing and isolation regime in place. Johnson throws a bone to the need for the current set of social distancing/lockdown orders in place in many states. (“Social distancing should continue until this outbreak is under control.” However, the only way to refine social distancing, and therefore re-start portions of the economy, is to set up a way to identify the sick people, find out who they had close contact with, and get them all out of the public. Otherwise, it just becomes the Wild West for the virus all over again.

In short, how about we fix the public health problem FIRST, then get busy worrying about which parts of the economy to return to normal? I’d take these calls much more seriously then.

Three other things to address.

First, there’s been a lot of focus on whether Trump believes or doesn’t believe in extending these lockdowns. (This isn’t addressed specifically by Johnson.) But why? Trump has no authority to do that. (Or maybe limited? Where are those strict constitutionalist conservative scholars when you need them?) These lockdowns are imposed by the states. Count ourselves lucky that, under our federal system, governors who realized the true extent of the danger were empowered to act without the blessing of the central government. (Unlike China.) The Trump administration’s recommendations are just that – recommendations.

Second, Johnson does say that he wants to flip our policy from identifying “essential” economic activity to instead identifying “non-essential” economic activity. Look, the fact is that a lot of the mass social activities that have been targeted by the lockdown orders are non-essential. Commuting to offices might prove to have been a luxury, or maybe just plain silly. Also with eating out, live entertainment, travel, etc. Our economy existed before these were mass products and services and, while I miss them, too, life does goes on. (A worldview the senator would seem to be comfortable with.) The problem is, instead, how to employ people in this new world. Some are already re-deploying to delivery services and logistics. How about we incentivize and/or aid transitions into medical care, medical support, in-home visits, etc.? We need people in light manufacturing (of masks, etc.) This transition is painful, so let’s find ever more ways to smooth it. And of course, make it absolutely safe for people to perform these roles.

Finally, along that line, should the good senator not be comfortable with addressing any of these public health considerations first, then he should be first in line to volunteer at a restaurant serving out-of-work folks or in a hospital or elderly care setting. Put yourself, Sen. Johnson, on the front lines of the coronavirus economy. Otherwise, kiss off.

Singapore covid-19 covonavirus life update for 19 March 2020

Occasionally on Facebook, I’ve written open letters mainly for family and friends back in the US about how the covid-19 coronavirus outbreak is progressing in Singapore. Here’s the latest.

Hi, everyone. Since I started giving periodic updates out of Singapore, I figured I’d post another. And what a week it’s been. 

Where to start? I suppose with the numbers. After having pretty good control of the covid-19 coronavirus for a while now, the number of new cases increased dramatically just this week. The highest jump came just yesterday – 47 more cases – bringing the total since January to 313. (Just below two thirds of those are still hospitalized, while the rest have been discharged. Fifteen are in critical care.) 

Globally speaking, these are still excellent numbers. And why we saw a jump matters a lot. Most of the cases have been imported from the rest of the world. Many Singaporeans and foreigners who live here are rushing in. The caseload in Europe and elsewhere is surging; business travelers are finally getting the message and cutting trips short; a local school holiday during which some people traveled is ending; cases from Singapore’s neighbors, Indonesia and Malaysia, have landed here; and students whose colleges have closed are returning. Sadly, a friend of mine is one of these cases, having picked up covid-19 in the UK. He and his spouse are doing well as of right now. (Sadly, the work colleague of another friend has died.)

This surge of confirmed and potential cases has led to a lot of dramatic changes. Singapore is now requiring all travelers to serve a two-week stay-at-home period to see if they develop symptoms. Travelers from some countries, like China and places in Europe, aren’t allowed to come or pass through here at all. While not a full lockdown from the outside world, it inches closer. Meanwhile, aggressive testing and tracing of people who might have been exposed continues. People serving stay-at-home notices and quarantines are carefully monitored (with penalties for disobeying.) Temperature checks and filling out travel declaration forms (with penalties for lying) are commonplace.

Besides the clamping down on outside travelers, the other big news of the week was Malaysia finally getting serious about the virus. (Singapore is an island just off the southern tip of Malaysia.) After a growing number of cases, Malaysia decided to block its citizens from leaving the country, presumably to prevent them from coming back infected. For Singapore, this potentially dealt a huge blow to its labor force and, most disturbing, its food supply. 

Between 250k and 300k people travel from Malaysia *each day* to work (and study) in Singapore. Losing these workers could deal a huge blow to a lot of industries. Ahead of the deadline, many Malaysians rushed to get into Singapore, and many Singaporean employers rushed to find places to house them – not always successfully. There are stories of Malaysian workers sleeping in exposed conditions at this time. (Not so bad from a weather perspective – it’s warm here all year long – but the risk of mosquito-borne diseases, like dengue fever, is always high.) These workers are essentially separated from their homes until the end of the month.

As I mentioned, the food supply was also at risk. Many fresh vegetables and meats in Singapore come from Malaysia. (Singapore is basically a city-island. While it tries to grow some food for emergencies, most of it is imported.) Soon after Malaysia’s announcement that it was closing its borders, we had another run on the groceries. We had long lines and many empty shelves (including – yet again – toilet paper. 🙄) The government quickly moved to reassure Singaporeans that there was enough supply by saying it had emergency stocks spread around the island, that it was finding alternative supplier countries for things like eggs, and that it would negotiate some sort of understanding with Malaysia. (Singapore and Malaysia have historically not liked one another, so that’s always tricky.) Meanwhile, one grocery instituted buying limits on some items, and the grocery delivery services are stretched to near breaking. But by yesterday afternoon and today, some shelves were being restocked. This might be resolving itself, but the supply of food and other necessities remains a huge worry.

At this point, a natural question might be, why not leave? After all, we’re foreigners here. Unlike Singaporeans, supposedly we have the option of exit. Well, first off, logistically that’s not so easy. Flights are getting canceled left and right and at short notice. And what do you do with all of your stuff? Just leave it? It’s not like an army is invading. Second, what kind of reception is waiting back in the US? Countries are closing off and turning more xenophobic by the day and might not even welcome back their own citizens. At the very least a mandatory quarantine of some kind seems highly likely. Finally, and maybe most importantly, this is our home. No one becomes a refugee until there’s truly no choice left.

Meanwhile, life goes on, with plenty of disruptions but fewer than elsewhere. 

Most importantly, the medical system seems to be handling the caseload. 
As for education, local schools have been on break, but the government has announced they will re-open on schedule next week. That said, things haven’t been so calm at the kids’ school. While not explicitly stated, after a parent returned from Europe and tested positive, the school clearly began exploring its options should school be forced to close. (Another parent returning from the US has also since tested positive.) So, as a controlled dry run, in-person school was canceled from Wednesday through Friday this week, and Thursday and Friday are being spent doing distance learning. So far, so good. The kids are sitting at computers all day. Pretty good training for a life of office work, I guess. Next week is spring break. (Absolutely no one is traveling. Or at least they shouldn’t be.) And with any luck, just like the Singaporean schools, they’ll be back in class and with their friends soon enough.

People are still going to work in many cases, but not always. Just today, my wife’s US employer announced that everyone worldwide who can work from home should do so until the end of the month. This mirrors what I’m seeing in many other parts of the world. Since I already mostly work from home, all four of us will be here tomorrow, staring at our own screens

Finally, most social activities are canceled – certainly big events, but many smaller ones, as well. That said, we do not have the blanket closure of all restaurants and venues. Fewer people seem to be going out. (With no tourists, crowds in many places are way down.) Usually people are in small groups and spaced out (even if I did see one packed bar the other evening with a live band playing). But all of this is voluntary, with most people seeming to follow the recommendations of health experts. I know I’ve completely eliminated handshakes and even fist bumps from my social gestures. I’ve definitely given up licking flat surfaces… 😉

To wrap up, I’ve tried to present this fairly calmly, but if I take a moment to reflect on the last week, I start seething. The spike in cases that we’ve seen has largely been caused by stupidity and/or denial. Some countries have been ridiculously slow to respond. For example, in Malaysia, a giant religious event was allowed to go forward, and many people became infected, some of whom landed back here. (Another similar event wisely just got canceled in Indonesia.) Some people have taken business or personal trips, when – to my mind – it was clear that they shouldn’t have. Or if the trip was truly necessary, it was certainly clear that you should separate yourself and those close to you voluntarily when you get back. (I feel the infections at our school fall into this category.) There have been big private parties in the community, and as I said, some people still go to crowded venues. In my more charitable moments I try to remember that this is a fast-moving situation. Maybe people feel they were acting reasonably at the time. But nah, the writing has been on the wall long enough. Some people are just being outrageously irresponsible. And we’ll all potentially going to pay the price.

So that’s the view from sunny Singapore – for now. While it’s been nice to see many people praising the country for its response to covid-19, it’s important to remember that it’s a constant battle to keep ahead of the coronavirus, and there are other forms of instability that can come out of nowhere.

Meanwhile, keep flattening that curve by practicing appropriate social distancing and give our modern medical system time to get the drop on this bug. Stay safe, remember to be nice to one another, and 🤛🙏👋 or even 🖖, but certainly do not 🤝. 


Make or Break for the Sanders Campaign

Tuesday, the Midwestern delegate-rich heavy hitter states in the Democratic primary begin to vote – first Michigan, then Ohio and Illinois next week (and can’t fail to mention Florida coming up, as well). As a Bernie Sanders supporter, it’s a big deal. A lot is riding on his success in these states. Michigan especially kept Sanders competitive in 2016, and it could again this time.

I’ll admit the polls don’t look good, though they were spectacularly wrong in 2016 (in Michigan specifically, not just nationally). Centrists in the party have found their candidate in Joe Biden and are going all in.


For me, this is largely make or break for the Sanders campaign. The post-industrial areas of the country should be a source of strength for his campaign. If they’re not, then that speaks to the nature of the race this time around. It is possible for Sanders to justify staying in the race until the end of April, though, when Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have had a chance to vote.

Should Biden ultimately prove to be the nominee, I would strongly encourage Sanders to work hard to build bridges to centrist Democrats. He’s had tremendous success in shifting the conversation within the party. He should consolidate that.

At the same time, centrist Democrats have their own work to do. I worry they will make two big mistakes:

One, ignore or, even worse, dismiss the issues and energy Sanders has identified. The bad blood between the two factions of the party could lead centrists to believe too strongly in the electoral power of disaffected Republicans. They made this mistake in 2016. Republican-lite failed with Hillary Clinton, and I believe it’s likely to fail again. They should actively court the left, with tangible, credible offers.

Two, I worry centrists will dismiss the obvious weaknesses of Biden as a candidate, again, much like they seemed to with Hillary Clinton. I get that you have to believe in order to campaign hard. But someone better be working late to think through how his faltering performances in many public appearances could affect the campaign and his eventual presidency. Plus, you know Republicans aren’t going to drop questions around Hunter Biden any time soon.

Coronavirus and Trump Supporters – Please Step Up

This is a really hard post to write because I’m trying to reach people who won’t be receptive to my message: Trump supporters.

Pres. Trump is failing to lead the nation with his response to the coronavirus. Specifically, calling the outbreak a “hoax”, being clearly uninformed in several different public appearances, and now this, which I fully expected, overruling the advice of the specific government agencies with expertise in this area.

Of course I’m not a Trump supporter, overall. But I do try to be fair. (I’ve said many times that he isn’t wrong about everything.)

But his usual playbook will not work this time. Viruses don’t care about political bullshit.

Now, it could be that state and local health officials are able to fill in the gap. But without the power of the federal government to manage and coordinate the response, I’m not hopeful.

Spoken like an anti-Trumpie, right? Don’t want to hear biased, never-Trump lies! It’s all about the Dems and the media and the election!

Well, in the end, I don’t know what to say to this sort of willful denial. You might find it impossible to believe, but I’m trying to avoid making the virus response an election issue. After all, it shouldn’t be. It’s similar to rooting for a recession just because it might undermine Trump. That’s asinine.

What I’m trying to say to Trump supporters is that we need you to demand better leadership from Trump. He’ll listen to you. Call or email the White House. Get on the phone or email your representatives in Congress. Call or email Fox News.

This might all prove overblown. I sure hope so. Other outbreaks have been contained with proper social health measures.

But this coronavirus appears to be ridiculously infectious. And the death rate seems to be holding steady at roughly 3.5 percent. It’s real; it’s serious; and we need a forceful, apolitical response.

We saw in Wuhan, China what happens to a medical system and a people when a government tries to coverup or ignore this disease. We don’t want that for the US. He needs to step up. And hell, a good response might even improve his election challenges, if that’s what really concerns you. What do you have to lose?

The Not-So-Nice Days of Democratic Party Politics and Policy Past

After the Super Tuesday results, centrists in the Democratic Party are rightly celebrating their electoral victories. Mainstream elements consolidated around Joe Biden, and he handily won 10 out of 14 states to move ahead in the party delegate and popular vote counts. The contest isn’t over, of course. Sanders could mount a comeback over the next two weeks. But should the centrist faction ultimately take the day, it’s likely to be cold comfort for most Americans.

Centrist Democrats and the Republicans turned off by Pres. Trump all seem to pine for some “good ol’ days” that simply weren’t. Biden is explicitly campaigning on, and being celebrated for, a message of “restoration,” returning to an era before Trump. While I admit Biden might restore some political norms associated with the presidency, he is also likely to continue to endorse a failed political-economic program embraced by centrist and right-wing elements of both parties for decades.

The story of the last forty years of American political-economy has been a steady march to he right. The program has largely consisted of:

  • Tax cuts, particularly for the wealthiest
  • Trade agreements that encouraged corporate, but not worker and environmental, globalization
  • As many cuts to social programs as politically possible (Social Security and Medicare have proven highly resilient)
  • The steady shift of financial and life risk onto individuals without corresponding offsets (more below)
  • The weakening of unions
  • And a steady drumbeat of propaganda that any government-led solution is doomed to failure

Centrist Democrats explicitly signed up for this program. It was Bill Clinton who famously said, “The era of Big Government is over,” and the party’s commitment to a conservative/libertarian-framed approach to the nation’s economic affairs has persisted to this day. Breaking the world down into concentrated money power (plutocracy) and concentrated people power (democracy), modern Democrats have, for the most part, decided that money power – and deferring to and favoring those with it – is the way to go.

Let me be clear, at the time, the plan didn’t necessarily seem altogether crazy. Given the spectacular failure of uber-Big Government Soviet Communism, the stage was set for a new, emboldened set of beliefs, rooted in capitalism. My formative adult years were spent in this era, as well, and I was raised in the upper middle class, highly educated sphere. This new post-1970s program was going to make the people of the world freer, wealthier, and better well off.

People would be freer because government regulation wouldn’t interfere in business and, individually, they could make more of their own decisions. Also, later, trade with China became linked with freedom because interaction with the West was to transform the last major Communist power. As for wealth, an explosion of entrepreneurialism and business dynamism would lead to a larger, more robust economy that better served consumers’ needs and wants. And as for well-being, yes, there would be disruptions in a dynamic and changing world, but eventually all would benefit as people moved into new jobs and the results trickled down to the dislocated and least advantaged among us.

Some of the predictions of this experiment actually came true. Global wealth grew, and new products and services were created that proved popular. (What almost unbelievable device are you reading this on?) Historically enormous numbers of people in China eventually moved out of complete poverty into the global middle class.

But the promised trickle down and improvement of people’s well-being has failed to materialize.

  • Wages have stagnated for most Americans, even though productivity has increased dramatically. Virtually all wealth and income growth has gone to a very small number of people.
  • On the expense side, the basics of life – like health care and education – have become almost unaffordable, leading going without medical treatments or to medical bankruptcies and ballooning student debt.
  • The ideological capture of the regulatory system, both public and private (through the credit ratings agencies), by money power led to the greatest global financial meltdown since the Great Depression. And then a massive bailout followed for the captains of “free markets”. The rest got massive foreclosures.
  • While the overall pie has gotten bigger, overall economic growth has been slower.
  • Communist China has only become more repressive and could in the future export its system of authoritarian market captitalism/socialism.
  • Thanks to money power’s influence on our political and information systems, we’ve failed to transform our economy to prevent climate change.

In the end, this grand multi-decade-long experiment in the social engineering of our political-economy has failed to deliver for most Americans and left our individual and collective futures less secure. People are waking up to these facts. They are hungry for change and are looking for solutions. Donald Trump tapped into some of this mixed anger and despair to help his campaign. The Sanders campaign is also trying to tap into this growing realization among voters. Yes, embracing the term “socialist” remains problematic in American politics. And Sanders and his campaign have made mistakes – mostly, I think, by going out of their way to alienate moderates at times. But I also think they know very well what they’re up against, and it’s why Sanders and his people explicitly identify as revolutionary.

Virtually all of today’s professional and institutional Democrats’ formative years and professional connections and opportunities have come from the era of the great right-wing political-economic experiment. It is the ocean in which they swim, and it makes it very hard for them to see the world in a different way – or to bite the hands that feed them. Also, it’s just incredibly difficult to admit you were wrong.

But we’re running out of time for centrists to realize the water is boiling around them. I am deeply worried that, should they ultimately prevail, they’ll take the entirely wrong message away from their victory: That “restoration” is good enough. That the program they ran before was okay. That we can continue to focus on identity and ignore class. That we can continue to court and please and compromise with the plutocrats. That a new politics is the wrong way to go. If they conclude that, the American project is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

Coronavirus – Keep Calm and Wash Your Hands

So I stayed off social media for a couple of days because it was very difficult to watch the US begin to go through a collective freakout over the coronavirus. Watching a people being forced to confront their (inevitable) mortality is not a pretty sight. And of course, none of this is helped by our current polarized political and media environment.

I hate to feed the polarization beast and talk politics in what should be a medical and apolitical conversation, but it seems unavoidable. On the one hand, we have a president who engaged in his own freakout over how this might affect him and his election chances rather than the American people, going so far as to call the coronavirus a hoax. It is not, just to be clear. If ever there was a kind of crisis when we needed a public-spirited, non-divisive stable genius in charge, a disease outbreak is it. Additionally, we have people in charge at the federal level who deny science; look to religion for answers in medical matters; and constantly dismiss expertise. I don’t like to say it, but I don’t think answers will be found at the federal level. States and medical personnel are going to have to take the lead.

Also, the media need to do better. There’s the insatiable bias toward conflict built into much TV news (which I guess works because people reward it with their eyeballs). But I’ve also already seen enough “doomsday pepper” clickbait articles to know there’s a lot of irresponsible journalism out there right now.

Yes, there are circumstances in which a particular global outbreak could definitely bring down society – say, if Ebola with its average 50% death rate went global. Then there truly would be a complete strangling of the real economy. Production and supply chains for food, medicine, and essentials would break down as factories and fields and transportation networks were starved for workers. Municipal water supplies could be threatened as regular workers became unavailable and whatever chemicals and equipment are needed would be in short supply. And of course, people would be overwhelmed just surviving and burying their loved ones.

But this coronavirus is not that disease. Yes, covid-19, as it’s now called by the WHO, is incredibly infectious. Personally, I’m resolved to the fact that it’s likely to soon be widespread worldwide. But most people’s symptoms (around 80%) are mild. There are more serious cases, but the best data we have right now shows that the death rate remains around two to three percent. That death rate is far higher than the flu (at about .1%), of course, and it’s altogether tragic, like any disease outbreak (or war or famine, for that matter). But it is manageable from a societal perspective. With this disease profile, a recession seems likely (which will be painful in its own right), but the economy will eventually grind back to life.

What cannot happen, under any circumstances, is a panic. Any panic will cause more problems than the disease itself. If you’re overly worried about shortages of essentials and go on a hoarding spree, you’ll cause the very shortages you were worried about. We are all being tested now, whether we can keep our wits about us, while remaining appropriately vigilant.

What is appropriately vigilant? There are both individual and societal components. Healthy individuals need to wash their hands, avoid touching their faces, and avoid crowded spaces and sick people. People who feel sick or could have been exposed need to seek medical care, wear a mask if going out for any reason, and respect quarantine orders. Among the needed societal measures are those quarantines, as well as continued monitoring and testing and making sure hospitals and medical personnel are well supplied.

The goal here is to avoid any given hospital system getting overwhelmed. That’s when it really gets ugly. This is what we see in Wuhan, China – the epicenter of the outbreak and where tens of thousands of people have gotten sick. That situation is unusual compared to other countries so far, but it carries critical lessons for the US. Wuhan’s crisis was exacerbated by a political system that saw coverup, denial, and self-interest as more important than public health. I’m talking about the closed, propagandistic system of communist China, of course, but I am seeing far too many parallels in the early response by the Trump administration and Fox News. To any Trump supporters and Republicans, you must demand better. Sure, Democrats and the media will go too far the other way, but trust me, you want the benefits of an open society that questions and critiques more than you want an authoritarian society that sweeps under the rug.

To wrap up, my basic messages are these: Don’t panic. Stay vigilant. Support medical personnel and researchers. Help your fellow citizens get needed care.

Sure, circumstances could change. After all, before the WHO named this thing covid-19, it was referred to as the novel coronavirus – novel, as in “new”. We’re learning more every day. But I’m confident, based on what we know so far, we can get through this – calmly and together.

Right Now, Trump Is Certain to Win Re-Election

It happened again today. I got asked whether I think Trump will win re-election this year. The question often comes from nervous and/or incredulous non-Americans who are desperately trying to understand what is going on in the World’s Greatest Democracy™. Since I have a ready answer, I figured I’d go on the public record with my prediction.

Yep. For sure. He’s getting four more years.

Here’s why.

Even though Trump overstates how well the economy is doing – and he’s largely the beneficiary of a continued expansion that has somehow managed to weather his trade wars – there’s no doubt that it’s also strong enough to give his campaign some lift. Absolutely, the economy can be better structured to benefit more people and not just the wealthy, but the Democrats messaging on that is muddled. More on that below. (Plus, absolutely no decent person is going to root for a collapsing economy just to win one election.) 

Trump has also delivered just enough on some of his campaign promises to hold his voting bloc together. The depressingly long list:

  • He got massive tax cuts passed. (Aggravating the federal deficit, of course. Remember when Republicans cared about that?)
  • He tried to kill the Affordable Care Act (only to be thwarted by John McCain).
  • Working with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, he has helped to make the federal judiciary far more conservative for many years to come. (McConnell and Republican stymied Pres. Obama for years in this area, mostly famously with a Supreme Court seat, until they got the president they needed.)  
  • Using a legally suspect maneuver, he took funds from the military budget to begin building structures that he claims constitute a wall with Mexico.
  • He has continued to limit immigration and travel to the US in ways celebrated by conservative activists.
  • Perhaps most importantly, he has kept right-wing Christian evangelicals happy. Again, he delivered on two Supreme Court justices that might, eventually, overturn the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. He continues to speak their language unapologetically (though almost certainly hypocritically.) And he is delivering on some of their theologically-inspired foreign policy goals for Israel.
  • Also in foreign policy, he’s gotten “tough” in the Middle East, confronting Iran by walking away from the nuclear agreement negotiated by Obama and Europe and, of course, risking starting a war by assassinating Iranian major general Qasem Soleimani.
  • Also in the Middle East, let’s not forget the killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (even if that might not matter too much).
  • He has confronted China, all the while speaking in ways that could have come from old-fashioned union Democrats by promising that plants will be saved (even if he hasn’t really delivered).
  • With the Democrats help(!), he even got a revision to the NAFTA trade agreement with Canada and Mexico passed (which was very controversial with unions at the time of its passage).

That’s just what I can think of off the top of my head without one single internet search. I’d probably find more that would ring his supporters’ bells.

Even without some of those accomplishments, his grip on his voting base seems absolutely secure. Despite multiple gaffes, offensive remarks, nutball tweets, wild staff turnover and recriminations from former employees, massive pain among farmers from the trade wars, outright lies, and scandals that led to impeachment, the grip of the personality cult of Trump is just as tight as ever. Hey, Mexico isn’t even paying for the wall. Doesn’t matter.

Oh, and lest we forget, the GOP still has that structural advantage in the Electoral College. Rural states, which lean GOP, have outsized importance, so much so that even when Democratic candidates win the popular vote, they can’t win the White House.

Which naturally leads me to Trump’s opponents – the Democrats. What to say? Frankly, the Democrats just don’t seem very good at politics. Despite winning the House in 2018, they’re still digging out from the losses of the Obama years, and getting the Senate back any time soon is a long shot. Clearly the Democrats need a new playbook, but they can’t agree on what that is. Personally, I think it’s by embracing more policies of the left, specifically repudiating the 40-year, bi-partisan program that has left most Americans in stagnant or declining economic conditions. Others argue that we need a solid return to the center, which will attract enough Democrats and disaffected Republicans to break the Trumpian spell. I’m going to leave this debate here for now. Plenty more to come.

In the end, I don’t think it looks good. As of now, I’m certain Trump is going to hold on to the White House.

Here’s to hoping that this analysis is as spectacularly bad as an Iowa Democratic caucus. 

Enough with the Iowa Caucus. Bring on the Great Lakes Primary!

Before the debacle with the Iowa caucuses this week, many people – including myself – questioned the wisdom of having the state continue to hold the first primary contest each presidential cycle. Candidates to replace Iowa are already coming forward. Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker made his pitch for why the Land of Lincoln should be first in line:

If you click through to the NPR article, Illinois looks pretty promising based on certain metrics.

Since I’m about to return to Illinois after several years abroad, naturally I like this idea. Who wouldn’t want presidential candidates fawning over them? That’s power!

But of course, any one state getting that kind of advantage is really kind of ridiculous. In some sort of perfect world, there would be a national primary. But I’ll admit a personal element would be lost. It would become a carnival of TV and online ads and stadium events – just like the general election.

A compromise could be regional primaries – groups of related states all going at once. For example, the Great Lakes states – Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan – could all coordinate their schedules. Candidates would still have only a portion of the country to visit, and they could address the issues common to those states. I’d leave it to the other states to sort out their groupings, but natural ones seem to be northeast, south, plains, southwest, mountain, and west coast. If having large groups of states go all at once sounds like too much for a campaign, recall that Super Tuesday involves fourteen states in every corner of the country (as well as a territory and overseas Democrats).

Bottom line, as a proud Midwesterner, I’d like to see more focus on our states and issues. If the Great Lakes states can work together to coordinate their primary schedules, that’s one step toward that goal.

And of course, we should go first.