Welcome to Grinding the Lens

Hello! This is my blog on all things that strike me, which you’ll find tends to be politics and economics. The object of this blog for me, personally, is to help refine my thinking about topics of the day. Through words, I’m looking to grind the lens through which I see the world, so that it can be clearer and better understood.

As of July 2021, I’ve decided to start publishing on Substack. Please go check it out, subscribe, and enjoy!

How can the Democratic Party move from feckless to forceful?

So, I don’t consider myself a partisan – that is to say, not a Democrat or a Republican. It’s true – I vote overwhelmingly Democratic. I mean, come on – in a democracy, you’ve got to vote for somebody*. But I’ve never been much of a joiner. And while passion for any issue makes you vulnerable to motivated reasoning, political party partisanship seems to make a person especially stupid. The in-group pull is so strong that you’ll accept almost anything. It’s best to be suspicious of partisanship.

Why do I say all of this? Because this post is about how the Democratic Party can improve. If I don’t see myself as a partisan, why would that matter? Because of where the Republican Party has gone in recent years.** I’m actually quite sympathetic to many parts of what has traditionally been considered the Republican Party program. Broadly speaking, I’m pro-free enterprise and think entrepreneurship is vastly underrated on the left. I hold a variety of what are usually described as conservative values and positions. I believe in self-restraint and hard work. I believe in family. I believe, on net, that the US has been a force for good in the world. Despite the many failures, the US always strives to do better.

What isn’t the Republican Party committed to anymore? Well, most clearly, any sense of the truth. The way the party has rallied around the 2020 election Big Lie and pretty much excused the January 6th attack and its plotters – up to and including Trump – is just stupefying. If Republicans do not come out forcefully against what happened that day, how it came to be, and the people who plotted the attack, then I truly think the republic is done for. Along the same line, there appears to be a commitment to using every means at their disposal to undermine the functioning of our democratic republic in order to preserve and expand their power. Most concerning to me are these bills that empower state legislatures to overturn presidential election results. To finish fleshing this out, I strongly oppose the party’s adherence to the gun extremists. And I want action on climate change, with a transition to renewable and sustainable energy, which the GOP actively opposes.

At the same time, there are those issues that pull me toward the Democratic Party. Mostly this has to do with creating an economy free of desperate people. Republicans often seem content with how precarious economic life is for many Americans. As long as the wealthy and big businesses are okay, then there’s nothing left to do. The working class and poor are often left behind. Because of the success of Donald Trump in attracting working class voters to the Republican Party, this attitude might be shifting in Republican circles. But the Democratic Party has clearly been more attuned to these issues since the days of FDR. Given how beholden the modern Democratic Party is to the very same wealthy and economically powerful interests as the Republican Party, it’s fair to question the Dems commitment. But there’s no way around the fact that, historically, it’s been Democratic programs that have worked to ensure the economic security of many Americans, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, SCHIP, the Affordable Care Act, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, etc. And just to be clear, economic security means economic freedom. More on that later.

So, safe to say, I think Democrats winning elections matters for the well-being of Americans, the future of our republic, and the environmental future of the world.

How do they get better at elections then? This is where I start sharing what I think they should focus on. I’ll admit – none of them are particularly original to me. But I definitely see these areas getting short shrift in Democratic circles currently. It leaves me shaking my head at what appears to be the utter political incompetence of the Democratic Party. I don’t really have a handle on how it got so bad within the party. But here are things I’d like to see improve.


I think it’s safe to say that Republicans own the concept of freedom in American politics. The party’s messaging never misses an opportunity to link its program and policies back to the idea of liberty.

This is a huge problem for Democrats.

There is no more central concept to American identity and the American project than freedom and liberty. There’s just no way around it. Sure, equality is a close second – especially if we include some idea of equality as fairness. But equality/fairness is most certainly not number one, and culturally, Americans are mostly willing to pitch equality overboard in pursuit of some concept of liberty. Hell, even the high point moment of our national anthem lands on the word “free”.

The thing is, for most of our political history, liberals/progressives – and by extension, the modern Democratic Party –  have fought most strenuously for freedom – abolition, women’s right to vote and achieve other rights denied to them, labor rights and safe workplaces, the ending of Jim Crow, the right to marry whom you choose (whether it’s someone of a different race or of the same sex), Social Security, Medicare, etc. Even the founding of the republic itself was a progressive movement for freedom, made in the face of monarchism, which was just accepted fare at the time.

You might be wondering why I would include Social Security and Medicare on this list. These are economic programs, not civil rights, right? Sure, but economic liberty has for too long been defined by conservatives as simply being the right to form and transact business. Economic liberty is much bigger than that. If you are not economically secure, then you are not very free. If you are starving, then you are not free. If you cannot get needed medical care, you are not free. Back to FDR for a moment, he understood this when he formulated his Four Freedoms in 1941, not only in the face of fascism, but also after the calamity of the Great Depression. He included “freedom from want”.

The Four Freedoms, captured in stone, at the FDR Memorial in Washington, DC

Democrats must begin to reference freedom and liberty in connection with everything they propose. Period. Even if it feels unnatural or shoehorned in at first. To be successful in American politics, there is no other choice. It also has the added benefit of being true.

[I’d encourage reading these essays out of a “Freedom Forum” held by The Democratic Strategist in 2010.  In particular, I’d recommend the one by John E. Schwarz, but it appears to be a dead link. (I have a printed out version.) However, others refer back to the essay. (Kind of like how we only know of certain ancient Greek philosophers from the people who commented on them, I guess…) Also, I’d strongly recommend the book “Freedom’s Power: The True Force of Liberalism” by Paul Starr from 2007. That will give you a comprehensive treatment.]

Incidentally, I’m not sure I think much of Gavin Newsom, but at least he leaned *heavily* into freedom for this recent message to Floridians. We need more of this.

Stay in Touch with the Working Class

Second on my list would be for Democrats to lean away from college educated voters and toward working class voters. This used to be a core constituency of Democrats – I mean, nominally it’s supposed to be exactly who the Democrats serve in the first place – but instead working class voters became a key to Trump’s success. I grew up in the Midwest in the 70s and 80s, and many times Trump sounded to me like the old-fashioned Rust Belt Democrats of that era. Democrats have slowly turned away from those voters – most especially through how they negotiated international trade deals throughout the 90s and 00s and increasingly through cultural issues. It’s a mistake.

There’s a running debate as to whether Democrats can win simply by turning out their existing voters better or whether they need to change in order to pull in independent or former voters. I side with the latter. It’s well known that Democrats face a variety of structural problems in state and federal elections thanks to people sorting themselves geographically. (Broadly speaking, Democrats have concentrated in a few states and cities.) Republicans control many state legislatures and have gerrymandered many legislative and congressional districts. The Senate favors Republican states, and the Electoral College does, as well. However, this could be a blessing in disguise.

In an interview last year, Barack Obama and Ezra Klein talk extensively about this. Let’s recall that Obama won twice as the first black president, and part of why Clinton lost in 2016 (among many) is that there were voters that flipped from Obama to Trump (which seems as unlikely as a political journey as one could picture). In that interview, Klein says:

So you have this real difference now between the parties, where Democrats need to win right-of-center voters to win national power, and Republicans do not need to win left-of-center voters to win national power. And that really changes the strategic picture for the two of them.

Obama responds with what I think is a clear-headed and dare I say hopeful message:

That does mean Democratic politics is going to be different than Republican politics. Now the good news is, I also think that has made the Democratic Party more empathetic, more thoughtful, wiser by necessity. We have to think about a broader array of interests and people. And that’s my vision for how America ultimately works best and perfects its union. We don’t have the luxury of just consigning a group of people to say you’re not real Americans. We can’t do that. But it does make our job harder when it comes to just trying to get a bill passed, or trying to win an election.

So, in fact, these challenges could make the Democrats the true national party – if they can see past their noses.

For more on this, I’d absolutely encourage people to read The Liberal Patriot and The Democratic Strategist.

Enough with Woke

“Wokeness” – for the lack of a better term – is a real thing, and it should be opposed. I define it as an excessive obsession with race, diversity, and inclusion that: one, often tips over into an intolerance and bigotry of its own; two, is ahistorical; and three, unproductively pushes the boundaries of what most Americans are willing to accept.

Obviously this is a complex issue, and I’m going to be brief here. But put simply, wokeness has gone too far – especially and critically for many voters. To give a flavor of where I’m coming from, let me offer some brief examples.

First, the fact is that the vast majority of whites are right to be offended when they’re called racists, and it doesn’t mean they are “fragile“.

Second, I’ve read Ibram X. Kendi’s book “How to Be an Antiracist”, and I found it to be an interesting and at times touching story. I feel genuine empathy for Kendi. However, oddly, one sentence threatens to tank the whole project:

The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination. (p. 19)

Honestly, leaning into racial discrimination will not be a winner – let alone that it’s morally suspect. Firmly put me in the camp of people who still hope for a colorblind society someday.

Third, this belief system of wokeism can lead to some ghoulish moments. From the book “The War on the West” by Douglas Murray, I learned of an incident on the Tonight Show:

As part of his opening bit, host Jimmy Fallon mentions that, for the first time in US history, the number of white people declined. It’s supposed to be a set up to a joke about white people’s tastes (fair game for comedy) and Fox News (sure, why not), but get this – the audience actually cheers! It’s hard to imagine this being acceptable of any other race. It’s disgusting. And it’s self-defeating for anything woke proponents might hope to achieve.

Honestly, it struck me as reminiscent of a moment when libertarian Republican Ron Paul, the father of current libertarian Republican Sen. Rand Paul, was running for president. He was asked at a CNN debate whether society should just let someone die because that person chose not to buy health insurance when healthy, but later got sick. His supporters cheered the idea of letting the person just die:

Bottom line, much of wokeism smacks of racial essentialism – that we should be judged and treated according to unchosen, inborn traits, rather than who we are as people – and who we are as a common humanity. We’re much better off embracing the concept of universalism – that we are all equal humans sharing similar goals and aspirations – and de-emphasizing racial differences.

Why not just emphasize economics, no matter what your color? Let’s take affirmative action as an example. The policy of race-based college admissions clearly invites a backlash. And in fact, it could be made unconstitutional by the Supreme Court next term. Why not re-focus now on expanding economic opportunity by making college admissions contingent in some way on income? Sadly, in a way, that would accomplish the same result, given the way wealth, income, and race play out in our country.

Now, I want to say that I think wokeism comes from genuine concerns that America is failing to address. First, why is that minorities, especially blacks, and women continue to lag in economic terms? And second, why does it seem that policing is especially harsh for blacks? There is absolutely no reason to back off on seeking answers to these problems. Also, pushing boundaries is essential for progress. History shows us that.

But we can do that without resorting to cheering death, essentializing race and gender, and pushing a cultural revolution. Press for answers and for change, but don’t be stupid about it – especially when we’re trying to win elections against the odds.

No More Climate Catastrophism

Let me mention two more issues quickly. First, regarding the climate – enough with catastrophism. Climate change is bad and getting worse. Understood. But even in the face of that, we need a positive vision. We’ve been trying “the world is burning” memes for a while now, and it just isn’t working. That’s not to say to just ignore the danger. Those message need to be out there, too. But look for promising answers to the problem and promote them. Look into new technologies and engineering solutions. Talk them up as stop gap measures. Talk about the switch to renewables as the commonsense advice to stop digging when you’re already in a hole, while also allowing opportunities for entrepreneurial development to build us a ladder out of the hole. As a matter of political-economic power, create new industries that take on the fossil fuel industries.

By the way, people currently working in the fossil fuel industries naturally and justifiably worry about their economic futures with any transition to clean energy. Unlike those Midwestern workers who were promised a just transition with the expansion of global trade in the 90s and early 00s, we need to make sure this is real. Except for the climate deniers and BS artists, these aren’t evil people. We should treat them as such. Instead, we should work to make these people whole – similar, in a way, that we do with veterans. The new climate law in Illinois, the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA), passed last year, focused in part on this – creating a just transition for these workers. Not only is that morally right, it’s also good politics.

Countering China

I’ve actually been happy to see that the Biden administration and Democrats have kept up a wary stance toward the People’s Republic of China. I had a brief concern that they would change course after the election simply because Trump was so confrontational. They need to keep up this pressure.

China is a fascinating country. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit three times. I have several close friends with ties to China. I’ve enjoyed learning about Chinese culture as a hobby. Heck, I even studied Mandarin (普通话 – the widespread, national form of the Chinese language) for a year. I earned a level 1 certificate, which means I’m functionally equivalent to a toddler, I figure (if that).

But the fact is that the Chinese Communist Party has a created an authoritarian system in China, and it’s only getting worse. And of course, China is on its way, barring some catastrophe, to being the most powerful nation on the planet – both economically and militarily. Some might say, fine, let China be. But that fact is that power spills over into the rest of the world and shapes it. It matters who the global hegemon is.

Asia provides some clear examples. Japan is democratic today because of US influence. So is South Korea. As is Singapore to a degree, though that started with British influence and is incomplete. And what’s especially interesting and telling is that even Chinese officials – right up to Pres. Xi – think they have to defend China’s system as democratic! They can’t simply be authoritarian – at least on the international stage – without laying claim to democratic validity somehow.

That’s a function of US hegemony, plain and simple. Despite all of its missteps and misdeeds, America does still stand for democracy, freedom, and human rights on the world stage. However, that cultural power likely would have been sharply reduced without its economic and military power.

And US power is diminishing, at least relatively. Geopolitically we really are in at the beginning of a confrontation that will determine if democratic values and human rights will win the day or if we’ll see a new birth of autocracy worldwide. This is a confrontation worth engaging in.

Let me be clear about something – I’d didn’t say “fight” or “war”. War would be catastrophic for the entire world. So, while we must have a strong defense, the warmongers should be dismissed out of hand. Just refer back to the Iraq War, one of the defining political events of my adult life, if you need a demonstrative example. (It grates that all of those war criminals still walk free and often get sweet media gigs and whatnot.)

On the left, it’s long been fashionable to condemn the US role in international affairs. Believe me, I get it. We’ve done some horrible things – again, the Iraq War, plus the War on Terrorism. (Pay a visit to the “American War” museum in Vietnam sometime, too, as I have.)

Plus, US policymakers blundered badly and pursued a flawed strategy for years with China – engage in trade, help build it up economically, sacrifice our manufacturing sector, so that China will turn democratic. Not so much on that last step. (This is a lesson Europe is learning painfully now with Russia, too.)

(As an aside, regarding the hollowing out of manufacturing sector with international trade, Trump was on to something politically. I grew up in the Rust Belt, and when he was campaigning, he sounded like an old-fashioned, pro-union Midwestern Democrat to me. No wonder so many flocked to him from the working class.)

At least Democrats seem to be holding firm on this issue, which seems to square to US public opinion, broadly, and is good policy.

The Democrats Are Just Really Bad at Politics. But Here’s to Hoping

I’ve long said that the easiest way to understand modern American politics is that the Republicans are ruthless and the Democrats are feckless. I’m afraid I don’t see many promising changes on the horizon for the Democrats. And I certainly don’t see the Republicans becoming any less ruthless in pursuing political power. I tend to be a pretty pessimistic guy most of the time, so naturally I can’t say I’m terribly optimistic for our political future – which is frightening, of course, given how much is at stake.

But that said, as with the climate, there really isn’t much time for pessimism or defeatism. Instead, it’s time for the Democrats to reform themselves, become capable at politics again, and win. Then, at least, we have a fighting shot.

* To all of those who say, nah, voting is a waste of time, I say, great! Please don’t! I wish no one voted but me. Then I’d be king of the US.

** I’m going to constrain my post to talking about the duopoly of the GOP and Dems, both of whom are utterly ruthless at using their power in office to suppress the ability of new parties to form and thrive.

Tribal truth

Expanding upon my last post, we’re heading ever deeper into a period of “tribal truth”. All that matters is what people I trust – my tribe – say is true.

Thing is – this is our natural state. We are built to believe this way. We believe what people we trust tell us even more than what we see with our own eyes. The pull is that strong.

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

Going high brow for a second, this was the revolution of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution – that we could, through rational processes and an open mindset, reach true conclusions based on commonly accepted standards of evidence. Yes, it appeared in pockets in human history at different times, but this system of thought and truth-seeking finally took solid root only recently – and produced astounding results in expanding human well being and freedom.

But it is not natural.

And let’s be honest, the scientific process is not exempt from tribal truth. Why do you believe scientists or research results? Probably mostly because you trust scientists or researchers. And probably just your tribe’s scientists and researchers.

And we must realize how much this pull toward tribal truth is emotional – having nothing to do with reason. It simply feels better to be part of a tribe and to know that you are an upstanding member of it. Getting exiled is one of the worst feelings of all. There’s a reason it was one of the most serious punishments back in the day.

I have witnessed highly rational people change their minds, but only really comfortably accept the change once it was confirmed by a fellow tribe member.

Just to note a couple of additional influences to this process of tribal truth – First, the influence of news media silos, which I mentioned in my previous post. Those go a long way toward validating tribal truth. A second is how power – either money or political – can distort truth-seeking. But that’s a topic for a different day.

For now, the biggest danger is tribal truth. And I don’t see us getting out of that any time soon.

P.S. Just to be clear – no one is immune from this, including myself. The best you can do is try to be aware of the many biases that we can be subject to and constantly check yourself against them.

But, that said, sorry, the hottest action and deepest depths in tribal truth are on the “right” at this point. Hasn’t always been so, but it is right now.

With truth fracturing, the republic is at stake

Read these poll results. I imagine they’re fairly representative. We’re in for a rough decade. And it all hinges upon a disagreement over how to ascertain reality and truth.

There simply will be no persuading most Republicans that Joe Biden won fairly. That’s despite traditional methods of settling electoral truth – recounts, audits, law enforcement investigations, lawsuits – all pointing in that direction. No, all that matters is what Trump and his enablers say is truth. No disconfirming evidence is to be believed. That’s the case *even if* they were Republicans, voted for Trump, were appointed by Trump, etc.

Now, it’s quite possible many Republicans have never really heard the disconfirming evidence or who exactly is delivering it. News media silos on social media, TV, online, etc. – driven by commercial imperatives – largely prevent it.

But either way, I’m genuinely frightened for the future of the republic. Because without shared reality, you can’t debate, compromise, etc. People won’t accept election results.

Two basic tenets of democratic process are on life support – compromise and elections. Democratic processes and culture are the last lines of defense against the ultimate politics – warfare.

Violence has already arrived with an attack on our Capitol and Congress. And yet, even now, two realities are being forged around that event.

Dark days ahead.

And I desperately hope I’m wrong.

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, https://www.state.gov/coronavirus/

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.