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.

Iowa 2020 – Safe to Ignore

As we approach the final tallies of the spectacularly inept Iowa caucuses, I think it’s fair to say that – despite all of the time, expense, and effort – it ultimately tells us very little.

The tie between Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg shows that the party is still fairly balanced between its progressive and centrist factions.

New York Times, www.nytimes.com, 6 Feb 2020, 5:30 pm, Singapore time

This is true even if you add the results of the other leading candidates together. Looking at the final vote tallies, Sanders and Warren together got 46.8%. Buttigieg, Biden, and Klobuchar together got 50.9%. (I don’t know how to classify Yang.) In the end, the party might coalesce around a more centrist candidate, but that’s by no means guaranteed, and it hints that any centrist candidate will have to reach out to the progressive wing. (Though I suspect their temptation is likely to be telling the progressive wing to suck it and fall in line.)

However, we still have the wildcard of Michael Bloomberg, which could further disrupt the race. Bloomberg is advertising his way (buying his way, US$300mm and counting) into the middle of the pack in recent polls, doing far better than other candidates who have been hustling and meeting voters for a year or more. But he chose to not compete in Iowa and isn’t competing in New Hampshire, so it’s hard to gauge his actual electoral support. After all, Biden has been leading those same national Democratic polls for a long time, but placed fourth. Which, maybe that’s the one clear and meaningful result. Tanking that bad is not a good look.

Random observations from living with the Wuhan coronavirus

Negative:

  • It’s crazy hard not to touch your face.
  • On social media, the well-meaning but snide fact-checkers can be as annoying as the panicky people.
  • It doesn’t take long for people to turn on one another.

Positive:

  • Most people stay level-headed.
  • Governments can and do learn how to respond to crises.
  • We have modern communications, public health systems, and medicine.

Neutral:

  • Sometimes you just have to cancel your plans.
  • When asked to look back to prior outbreaks, people who have lived through them seem to take it all in stride.
  • Nobody trusts China.

Winning in 2020 – Economics vs. race and the return of the politics of hope

As we grind on through the election year – and especially through the Democratic primary – opponents of Pres. Trump are looking for answers as to how he pulled off his unexpected win and what can be done to avoid a repeat. Many of the analyses over the last three years have focused on two main areas: the impact of bigotry in the forms of sexism and racism and the economic and life conditions of the American electorate.* While I’m sympathetic to the first explanation, I think the second explanation has more power. In a clip from an interview with the New York Times, Sen. Bernie Sanders summed it up rather nicely. See the video below or read the transcript below it. (Full interview here.)

Here’s a transcript of the conversation:

NYT’s Brent Staples: I think it’s — how about the fact that Trump has touched a chord in 40 to 44 percent of the people? I mean, what about that issue is that Trump is a symptom of a widespread problem. I mean, how do you address that? The problem exists whether Trump is president or not is what I’m saying.

Sen. Sanders: I wish I could give you a great answer, brilliant answer to that. But this is what I will tell you, because that’s, you’re right. What is the issue? How did Trump become president? O.K. And I think it speaks to something that I talk about a lot and that is the fact that the — not everybody, but tens and tens of millions of Americans feel that the political establishment, Republican and Democrat, have failed them. Maybe The New York Times has failed them, too.

Staples: That explains the appeal of racism?

Sanders: Yeah. O.K. What you have is that people are, in many cases in this country, working longer hours for low wages. You are aware of the fact that in an unprecedented way life expectancy has actually gone down in America because of diseases of despair. People have lost hope and they are drinking. They’re doing drugs. They’re committing suicide. O.K. They are worried about their kids. I have been to southern West Virginia where the level of hopelessness is very, very high. And when that condition arises, whether it was the 1930s in Germany, then people are susceptible to the blame game…

Sanders: To say that it is the undocumented people in this country who are the cause of all of our problems, and if we just throw 10 million people out of the country, you’re going to have a good job, and you’re going to have good health care, and you have good education, that’s all we got to do. So all over the world, Trump didn’t invent demagoguery. It’s an age-old weapon used by demagogues. And you take a minority and you demonize that minority and you blame that minority, whether it’s blacks, whether it’s Jews, whether it’s Latinos, whether it’s Muslims, you name the group — gays? Gays are going to destroy education in America, we all know, yeah. On and on it goes. And you take the despair and the anger and the frustration that people are feeling and you say, “That’s the cause of your problem.”

I think this analysis is fundamentally correct.

We are a desperate people. That’s especially true when you compare us to our fellow developed nations. The US spends far more on health care while getting worse results. In fact, US life expectancy has declined for three straight years. Real wage growth has stagnated for the past forty years. Most of the income gains of recent years have gone and continue to go to the wealthy. Meanwhile, billionaires pay a lower tax rate than the working class. Forty percent of US households can’t afford the basics of being middle class. Forty percent of Americans also can’t cover a $400 emergency expense. Twenty-five percent have no retirement savings. Income inequality is among the highest in the OECD. Students are having to take on ever more debt to get an education to get ahead. The US has outrageous levels of gun violence.

Recently we’ve been enjoying a record-long economic expansion, but this won’t change most Americans situation dramatically – certainly not overnight and especially not if a recession hits. All of this is long-term trend that has persisted through different combinations of partisan control of government. The program that both parties have followed over the last two generations has not worked for most Americans. And they are tired of it. That has resulted in a continuous series of “change” elections. At the presidential level, it’s part of the explanation for how we got Barack Obama twice, but then flipped to Trump.

Ironically, as a son of the (post-)industrial Midwest Rust Belt, the Republican Trump sounded very much to me like a throwback to old-time labor union Democrats – quite the change, indeed – with promises to get tough on trade, save manufacturing plants, and preserve jobs. (He hasn’t delivered, particularly, but that’s another matter.) Democrats long ago blessed this hollowing out of American manufacturing. I watched numerous jobs disappear to lower-wage places with fewer worker protections – including the American south, Mexico, and eventually on to China – while Democrats told people they simply needed to get with it, move their cheese, and get more education (even subtly implying at times that workers in the Midwest were too dim-witted or lazy for the modern economy).

Living abroad as I do, I meet many Europeans who just shake their heads and can’t possibly understand how Americans gave them Trump. We’re not stupid. We’re desperate. And a drowning person will grab for any rope thrown to them.

So, is simply addressing people’s economic well-being the entire issue – the magic key?

No, of course not.

With regards to sexism, this is a real issue in many parts of life. (Pay disparities being a particularly corrosive example, since it undermines women’s power and independence and America’s commitment to equality.) But there’s not clear cut evidence, when it comes to electoral politics, that it’s decisive. And after all, let’s recall that Clinton actually won the popular vote. The country as a whole was certainly ready to elect a woman to the presidency, even if the quirks of the outdated Electoral College blocked that this time around.

Regarding racism, it is absolutely a real, repugnant and pernicious force in American society. I’ll admit – I think I grew up in a bit of a bubble. I was raised without overt racial bias. My parents consistently taught that all people were equal. However, later in life, I moved to downstate Illinois and encountered overt racism for the first time. A plumber doing some work at my house in an eastern suburb of Peoria, Ill., once told me I chose a good place to live because there weren’t many blacks and that he didn’t like black people. Another person I came to know told me one time that he didn’t like to go to the west side of the Illinois River because there were too many black people. (In both cases, I’m ashamed to admit, I did not confront this bigotry forcefully enough.) Another Peoria suburb, the town Pekin, Ill., has a troubling history with KKK activity, which sadly surfaced again recently.

This sort of overt bigotry helps bolster a pervasive low-level racism that shows up most egregiously in the criminal justice system, which then feeds the persistent economic disparities we see in society – not to mention how psychologically difficult it is for people to live with this sort of irrational bias against them. This is the white privilege that gets talked about. It can be hard to appreciate how nice it is to not have your character questioned all the time simply because of the color of your skin.

By the way, this is not unique to the US. As I’ve already mentioned, I live abroad in the city-state of Singapore. This is a well-run, orderly, clean, wealthy, and interesting place to live. We’ve been very fortunate to be here. I’ve also learned that racism has a history here and is, in fact, a universal human condition. There was what is called “communal” violence and tension – groups separated by race, ethnicity, and religion. In the case of Singapore, this mostly means Han Chinese, Malays, and Tamils from the southern India. Sometimes these attitudes pop up from time to time in Singapore and in other parts of Southeast Asia. To its credit, Singapore takes affirmative steps to tackle these tensions. Officially it doesn’t tolerate racism, and it works actively to balance and celebrate the representation of its respective communities. I’ll admit; it often does so in ways that many people in the “free” world would not accept – for example, enforcing a representative ethnic balance in public housing estates – but it’s not at all clear to me whether this is a bad thing if it leads to the de-emphasis of ethnicity and a decrease in racial tensions. (Incidentally, people of European descent are often referred to as “ang mohs” – meaning “red haired”. While used pejoratively by some – there are other, worse terms – many European extraction people often use it jokingly as a way to “take it back”.)

Getting back to the Sanders interview and statement, I spent what likely seemed like a long digression on racial attitudes in Southeast Asia. That was not to slam Singapore or any other country, but to illustrate that racist attitudes are universal. While the overt bigots of the world are willing to double down on this sort of thinking – and there are always ruthless politicians willing to exploit it – I sincerely believe most people in the world would rather try to find a way past racist thinking and move toward universal respect and acceptance of people regardless of their unchosen physical traits at birth.

How to do that? Well, in the American context, of course, condemn the true bigots as, dare I say, deplorable. Then seek ways to make racist appeals less salient – less powerful – by giving people hope and well-being and economic security. And that’s what Sanders – and progressives in general – look to do through their structuring of the social contract.

Is this a perfect recipe? No, not at all. Back to Europe for a moment. The people living there are fortunate to have the kind of social well-being systems in place that Americans and many others in the world can only dream of. But that doesn’t make them completely immune to racist appeals. The advocates of Brexit famously used racist appeals to push their case. The widespread immigration from the Middle East is challenging many European countries and empowering right-wing forces. This is true even in the places with the most robust welfare states.

There is no perfect solution. This is a constant fight. Millennia of human society built on condemning others in order to promote group solidarity (which was likely essential to our very survival) won’t be cleared out in an instant. This whole Enlightenment and welfare state projects are blips in human history – a couple hundred years in thousands of years of human civilization.

Also, it’s important to note that economic interests don’t explain everything in human society and elections, anyway. For example, progressives often wonder how lower-income conservatives could possibly vote for the Republican Party, which tends to advocate for policies that benefit the wealthy. The standard, and accurate, reason given is that Republicans play on other “cultural” issues, like abortion, religion and guns. These are often regarded as irrationally trumping (excuse me; had to use it) economic issues. But I don’t think there’s anything irrational about it at all. We are much more than the sum of our economic interests. Values matter. Essential commitments matter. For example, if someone were to offer me the opportunity to live comfortably and securely for my entire life and for the lives of my descendants in the ever-tightening authoritarian security state being created in the People’s Republic of China, I would refuse because human rights and freedom of expression matter to me. It’s not so easy just to dismiss it as a “cultural” issue.

So, how to put a program like the one Sanders and other progressives might propose in effect? Yes, there are a host of practical considerations to take into account – from paying for it to designing it to fit into other features of human nature, like laziness, greed, the willingness of people to exploit systems, and the power of financial incentives and the value of free enterprise. (These last two are not small things.) But those are all questions of design and enforcement, issues that never go away no matter what the system.

What’s needed first is a universal commitment to guaranteed widespread human well-being, based simply on someone being a human being and not of any particular socioeconomic or ethnic group. If we can begin to turn the minds and hearts of Americans in that direction through politics and elections, well, that’s a pretty good place to start.

* A third set of explanations could be called “dirty tricks”. This would include the Russian interference campaign, former FBI Director James Comey’s actions regarding the agency’s investigations into Clinton’s use of a private email server while Secretary of State, and Wisconsin Republicans’ changes to state election laws. It’s hard to say whether any of these were decisive. Elections are won and lost due to many reasons. However, taken altogether, these hijinks, with any luck, are unlikely to have the impact they did in 2016. Clinton is not on the ballot, of course, and people are prepared, otherwise. (At least we hope, despite efforts by Republicans seemingly to leave us vulnerable to further foreign interference.)

This War Being Ginned Up With Iran Must Be Stopped Now

ENOUGH. With the shooting down of a US drone by Iran, the Trump administration needs to take steps now to de-escalate this situation.

Parts of this administration — most stridently National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — have made it obvious that they want war with Iran and no other option. And that alone should make us suspicious of any event that pushes us further in that direction.

Going to war would be a stupid mistake on par with our the disastrous decision to invade Iraq. It’s no surprise that it’s the same people promoting this war as that one. Whom, by the way, wouldn’t go when their country “called”.

By the way, this is not even something the Pentagon wants. I’m old enough to remember with the Republican Party supposedly listened to its generals. Nah, war is too good.

Frankly, I remain baffled by how we’ve been unable to find a lasting peace with Iran. Don’t talk to me about the Iranian Revolution and holding the embassy employees hostage. I live in Southeast Asia. I have visited Vietnam as a tourist with my family. If we can reach that kind of accommodation with Vietnam, we can certainly do so with Iran.

So what’s it all about? Israel. As with all things US policy in the Middle East, it begins and ends with Israel. (See #3.) Even more than oil, I believe.

While I’m on oil, wasn’t fracking supposed to be about energy independence so that we could avoid these kind of conflicts over oil? Nah, instead we’ve become a net exporter of oil. Money to be made.

But I digress. We need a more balanced policy in the Middle East. We need to de-escalate now. The American public cannot fall for this again. For that matter, the elite mainstream press better not fall for it, either, like they did with Iraq.

And for what it’s worth, this is personal. I have extended family that serve in the military, and closer to home, I have two teenage boys. They will be the ones asked to fight this forever war. If not for them, for other teenagers just like them, this needs to stop. A war is unthinkable. ENOUGH.