The USA Drops the Ball, with Enormous Consequences

Insufficient amounts of testing and tracing infrastructure are in place, but it doesn’t matter: reopening is happening.

It also doesn’t matter that some areas are being more cautious than others. Well, it does matter, but not so much as one might wish it did. All a plague needs to keep spreading is for some areas to fester, mostly untreated, so that it can continue to spread and affect all areas.

Here Comes the Second Wave

It’s going to be a doozy. If you look at the curves, overall, they’ve barely flattened. The “low” point from which the resurgence is going to start really isn’t all that low, in other words. Things will reach crisis levels surprisingly soon.

At that point, there will be attempts to slam on the brakes, but it will be largely too late. Momentum will dictate the process.

Goodbye, Economy

The key fallacy of our time is the dichotomy of saving the economy versus saving more lives, because letting the disease rage mostly out of control will destroy the economy. Smarter capitalists like Bill Gates realize this. Even most economists do. Even nominally right-wing economists like those in the employ of the American Enterprise Institute have been making this argument.

One would think such an amazing (and unusual) amount of consensus might attract attention. Apparently not, at least on the political right. This is not a surprise; humans have an amazing ability to rationalize away inconvenient information.

Keep in mind that even if the pandemic stopped getting worse, the economy would probably continue to get worse for some time. Many businesses that are still alive on paper have been fatally wounded economically. As the inevitable happened to them, the economy would almost certainly sink further in the coming months.

Now there is going to be a second, more severe wave of infections added to that whole process. The conclusion seems inescapable.

Hello, Second Great Depression

It is theoretically possible for a massive stimulus program to address this. It was also theoretically possible for better testing and contact-tracing to be in place before the reopenings started. Just like the latter failed to happen, the former will not happen, either.

In order for such measures to be taken (basically, a second New Deal), there must be both the will and the ability. Neither exists. A large and vocal minority, given disproportionate political power by an antiquated system, won’t allow the measures to be put into place.

What measures (too little, too late) can be put into place will be doomed by corruption. Just like Trump cronies soaked up most of the aid in previous packages, they will in any coming packages. Money spent on relief will thus mostly go to waste. The show in Congress over relief measures is therefore mostly a show; the US government is incapable of preventing a depression.

The economy is even more global today than it was in 1929, and in 1929 it was already global enough that Germany was able to drag the rest of the world down for the ride when it entered an economic depression. Moreover, the United States is far more economically prominent today than Germany was then.

It therefore seems inevitable that the severe downturn will be global, a Second Great Depression.

There Will Be No Fast Recovery

There is much debate among pundits as to whether we are now in a “V-shaped recession” or a “U-shaped recession.” The answer is neither, but particularly not the wished-for (short duration, quick recovery) V-shaped recession.

The reason is that this is not a typical recession. It was instigated by a pandemic, not by the more typical operations of the business cycle. There is no cure for the coronavirus, nor will there be for twelve to eighteen months at least.

The initial lockdowns will end, but that will not prompt a return to the old normal. The disease will still be out there, and it will keep flaring up from time to time, in various places. Each time that happens there will be a cycle of negative, confidence-sapping news stories followed by spate of necessary but costly social-distancing measures. Those measures won’t be so widespread as the present ones, but they will still be disruptive. There will be some recovery in the next six months (so, not U-shaped), but it will be only partial; the economic downturn will be far from over (not V-shaped, either).

There are whole categories of businesses whose models depend on large numbers of people congregating in one place that are not by any stretch of the imagination essential: sports stadiums, movie theatres, music venues, and so on. These are the last businesses that will be allowed to reopen; odds are that many of them won’t be allowed to do so until a vaccine is available.

By that time, the damage will have been done. Most of those businesses in the previous paragraph won’t be able to survive their prolonged shutdowns. They will fail, and after they fail, most will not come back. Cinemas, for instance, may become as unusual as coffeehouses once were in the USA: a cultural attraction that larger cities may have a few of, but which are absent from the vast majority of the country.

This is not a normal crisis that we are living through; this is a major crisis, on the scale of the two world wars. When you have a crisis this big, you don’t get the old normal back, ever. You get a new, different, post-crisis normal.

It’s not all gloom-and-doom, either. Two more likely victims of the coming permanent changes are urban gentrification and the decline of many small towns. Many of the professional class whose demand is responsible for skyrocketing urban real estate values don’t particularly even like the big cities their careers compel them to reside in. Widespread telework has been possible for well over a decade; the only thing stopping it was management inertia, and that inertia has now been dislodged. We’re unlikely to get the old normal of mandatory in-person office work back.

This will likely both take the pressure off urban real estate prices and act as an economic shot in the arm to many struggling rural areas, as formerly urban professionals relocate to them. (But not all of them, and not equally. Rural areas with abundant scenic and recreational opportunities will disproportionately benefit; Wyoming will fare better than Kansas. West Virginia, a scenic state not far from the Boston/Washington megalopolis, may be the biggest winner of all.)

Not just local economies will change in these states: politics likely will, as well. Those newcomers will take their politics with them, and will help their new home states become less right-wing over time. It’s already happened in Nevada, which used to be a reliably conservative state, and which now leans Democrat, thanks to millions of Californians moving to Las Vegas. (And if you think it far-fetched it might happen in Wyoming, check out how the county there most affected by people moving in for scenic and recreational opportunities, Teton, votes right now.)

The big cities, by contrast, will probably become affordable to many of those who have long been in danger of being priced out of them. This will happen at the expense of many real-estate speculators, who will find out that speculating in real estate is not a sure thing. Many of today’s upscale apartment buildings will become tomorrow’s downscale and affordable ones. It may become as much of a cultural trope for urban artists to reside in battered apartments that were once luxurious (possibly large funky ones created by knocking down walls from adjoining units) as it once was for them to reside in lofts converted from industrial spaces.

But, whether the changes are for the better or for the worse, they are coming. What is not coming back is the old, pre-COVID normal (and it is certainly not coming back quickly).

An Encouraging Development

Two groups of states, one in the Northeast, and the other on the West Coast, have formed pacts to continue enforcing social distancing until scientific evidence (and not the wishes of the Trump regime) indicates it is safe to relax such measures. Good: such a strategy probably is necessary.

But, some words of caution: Trump is not going to like this, not one little bit. Those governors better be preparing for a confrontation with the Federal government, because odds are they are going to get it.

Red States Are Gonna Get It Bad

Most (not all, there are noteworthy exceptions, see Ohio for example) of the so-called “red” states adopted a strategy of denial about the coronavirus. The bill for such a foible is coming true, and it will be a steep one, paid for in human lives as well as in dollars.

It’s tragic, because the line that big, dense cities are abnormally vulnerable to pandemics does have some truth to it, particularly in a world where cities tend to be ports of entry from foreign lands. The thing is, the advantages that rural areas have evaporates if they don’t make good use of their extra warning time to prepare.

We don’t live in a world where country-dwellers are mostly isolated anymore. The invention of the motor vehicle changed that. Rural people regularly drive to town for church, shopping, and other errands, interacting with numerous others.

The virus doesn’t care if it is passed from person to person in a small town or a big city. It took a while longer for infections to start getting reported from the more rural states, but here they are.

These later infections may even prove more lethal than the earlier big-city ones, for the simple reason that the best health care facilities are concentrated in the big cities. Those who get very ill in the hinterlands won’t have the same access to care.

The red states that are not sparsely-populated might be the worst off of all. Florida in particular seems to be a disaster in the making. Not only did you have a right-wing denialist government that refused to take the crisis seriously, you also had mobs of students congregating for Spring Break (without restrictions, thanks to that inept state government), and it all happened in a state with a huge concentration of elderly retirees.

Florida is also a barely-red state. (Obama won it twice.) The looming disaster there might prompt enough voters to politically recalculate that the Republicans will lose again this time.

A virus doesn’t care about your politics or your propaganda. It’s just hardwired to infect you.

Well, That Didn’t Take Long

As I predicted earlier, bad news about the pandemic has forced a presidential recalibration. What I missed is the nature of the bad news; I had assumed it would be horrifying general statistics. Instead, it turns out to be a tragic anecdote: one of Trump’s old friends became infected and quickly ended up in a coma in an ICU.

However it happened, it happened. The thing to be aware of is that Trump is nothing if not impulsive and immature. He could well forget about this sad anecdote, and return to pushing for a premature easing of social distancing. State and local governments still need to be quietly planning the best way to confront such a possibility.

The USA Needs a National Lockdown

If we don’t get one, we’ll continue to have what we currently do: patchwork measures. The problem with that, is that the areas that aren’t taking this thing seriously will then act as centers of contagion. Eventually, they will get the point of taking things seriously, but not until after: a) a significant amount of perventable death and suffering, and b) a great deal of wasted time.

Maybe that means we get to a national lockdown eventually instead of promptly. That means lots of wasted time to arrive at the inevitable.

Or, maybe we’ll never get to a national lockdown. Instead, the parts of the country that acknowledged reality sooner will eventually bring things under control, at the same time they are raging out of control in more backward regions. At that point, the less-backward regions will start relaxing controls, but likely with travel restrictions to protect themselves against the disease still raging in more-backward regions. Those restrictions (and the continuing disruption in the more-backward regions) will of course come at a continuing economic cost.

Either way, there will be a delay in getting things back on the road to more normal conditions, compared to what there would have been in just swallowing the bitter pill of a nationwide lockdown early-on. That delay will hurt the economy, of course.

That’s right, the very desire to not hurt the economy will end up hurting it more. As the classic TV ad goes, you can pay now or pay later.

We’re in a similar situation right now, of course. Had Trump prioritized testing and openness early on, the resulting bad news coming out of the testing labs would have tanked the economy. No doubt about it. But we’d be dealing with the cost of strategic regional lockdowns, and other even more finely-targeted measures, instead of the costs of the nationwide pandemic that we are now facing.

Think I’m making this up? It’s the gist of why über-capitalist Bill Gates is advocating aggressively taking economically painful measures ASAP. And Gates is not a random capitalist going off half-cocked with unsolicited advice; his foundation has been concerned with the threat of pandemics for years. He gave a famous TED talk about this threat in 2015.

We’re already paying more later. The only question is: do we now want to pay even more, even more later? (Keep in mind that any avoidable extra cost will be measured in human lives, not just dollars and cents.)

Don’t Panic Yet, but Do Prepare

That should be the takeaway message for responsible state and local governments (and non-government groups of all sorts) in light of the extremely disturbing development that the Mango Mussolini wants to prioritize the economy over millions of lives.

First, despite the panic from some pundits that it will happen soon, a presidential order to end social distancing prematurely has not happened yet, and probably will not happen soon. Why? We haven’t reached the end of that fifteen day period yet, and during the remaining days, the outbreak is only going to get worse. Much, much worse, in fact. (People in New York City may well already be dying due to a lack of hospital facilities by then.) The ability of such horrific news stories to force a recalibration should not be underestimated.

Second, a premature relaxation of measures probably will happen later, when the rush on the hospitals starts winding down. This would be a grave error (literally grave, as in many graves), because it will simply prompt a rebound that would likely be worse than the first peak.

At that point, it will be up to the state governments, local governments, and private, non-government organizations to step in. The easy part will be the simplest: do nothing. When the Trump regime starts pleading to end the lockdowns, ignore it. Only end social-distancing measures when science indicates it wise.

But it will be necessary to go further. Some parts of the country will choose to follow Trump over the cliff. Absent further action, they will serve as sources of contagion, sickening the public in responsible regions. Preventing this will require states challenging Federal authority on a scale not seen since the nineteenth century. The weak-willed who might hesitate at such a notion should reflect that any weakness at that time will be paid for in human lives.

Governors can deploy their states’ National Guard and set up border checkpoints to prevent non-essential land travel, and to restrict airport use to prevent non-essential air travel. This would probably get challenged as a violation of the commerce clause of the US Constitution. A ruling favorable to the Trump regime is not a foregone conclusion, however, as the constitution gives to Congress (not the president) the power to regulate commerce amongst the States.

Even if a ruling favorable to Trump happens, however, it can be ignored. Why jump over a cliff just because an irresponsible leader elected by a minority of voters wants to? Remember, lives are at stake. Act decisively now and apologize later.

Private organizations can play their part. For example, unions representing airport workers could stage work actions whereby they refuse to allow nonessential traffic to proceed to the gates, thereby preventing the importation of infected people traveling from irresponsibly-governed regions. (More than likely, airlines would respond by simply refusing to serve such airports with passenger traffic, which is of course pretty much the whole point.)

The same goes for local governments below the state level. Houston is an island of blue in a mostly red state. Its two airports are owned and run by the city government, so that owner could restrict their usage to essential purposes should it wish. In fact, most airports are owned by local public agencies, and most large cities have majorities that oppose Trump, so such measures alone could be used to effectively restrict a significant amount of non-essential air travel nationwide.

The time to start making plans for such actions is now. Hopefully they will never be needed, but if they are, lives depend on them being ready to roll out and put into place on a moment’s notice.

The Anti-American, Anti-Capitalist Virus

If I were an evil person with the desire to do harm, and if I possessed the ability to genetically engineer, from scratch, a virus designed specifically to target people in the United States of America, I would design a virus much like SARS-CoV-2, the COVID-19 coronavirus. It is difficult to conceive of a virus more optimized to target the weaknesses of the USA. Maybe the only change I would make is to make the virus more lethal.

As it is, we have a virus seemingly almost tailor-made to attack a society whose self-image is tightly bound up with capitalism.

There are no existing drugs to control its spread, and developing such drugs will take time. Therefore, as lucrative as such therapies could be for their inventors, none can be available at the present. Since no pharmaceutical interventions are available, society must rely on non-pharmaceutical interventions.

One such intervention is self-isolation of the sick. But being a hyper-capitalist society, there is no mandatory, universal, paid sick leave in the USA, creating an economic disincentive for sick individuals to do the socially responsible thing. Even now, when the need for such leave should be self-evident, capitalism’s most subservient lackeys are busy opposing such a measure in Congress.

Another is the shutting down of non-essential economic activity, so that even the apparently well can self-isolate as much as possible. This is because the virus has a long incubation period, during which infected people are unaware of their infected status and are capable of infecting others. (The virus also frequently causes asymptomatic infections.)

It is totally feasible to perform such a shutdown for a period of up to several years, because most economic activity is not in fact vitally necessary. We can get by without new cars being made for a year or two (we did during World War II, after all). Ditto for most consumer electronics (above and beyond the need to replace defunct devices), fashions, most new housing, etc. Just stop things for a while. Let food, medicines, spare parts, other essential goods continue to be produced and distributed.

The number of workers involved in the above sectors is small enough that: a) most people could isolate themselves, and b) there would be enough experienced workers in reserve that any workers taking sick leave could easily be replaced. Most people wouldn’t be earning money, so the simplest way to facilitate distribution of needed basics would be to simply have a universal basic income for the temporarily unemployed. Relief from rents and loan payments would also probably be required.

Beyond several years, problems would start emerging. More labor and products would be needed, because shortages would develop in many sectors. Price controls (probably needed to ensure essentials can be afforded) would start causing economic malfunctions. However, there is nothing that makes the above impossible for shorter terms of time, and twelve to eighteen months is all we need.

Nothing, that is, except it would leave most capitalists out in the cold, no longer able to exploit labor and amass wealth by taking for themselves the surplus value it creates. Thus, it is a particularly toxic idea in American society. Expect it to be fought, to the max.

Those doubting this assertion have only to ponder how Trump has so far refused to use legitimate emergency authority to order businesses to do things like manufacture needed medical supplies*. That would mean bossing the capitalist bosses around, and we can’t have that.

So expect opposition from the capitalist class. Expect the opposition to be successful, because the capitalist class is not called the ruling class for nothing. Expect there to be consequences: severe, painful consequences. Viruses don’t care about anyone’s childish emotional attachments to obsolete socioeconomic systems.

No empire lasts forever. This is as true for the US empire as it was for any preceding one. When empires collapse, the process is almost never simple or painless. The badly-botched pandemic response, along with the Trump regime, is simply part of that process.

* Even supposedly progressive Jay Inslee, governor of Washington, has so far refused to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order, despite California (six times more infected on a per-capita basis) and Illinois (five times more infected) having already issued such orders. Now today, his office has announced there is a proclamation coming this evening, on the same day that Boeing announced it is closing its factories for the time being. Mere coincidence? I think not.

Sanders Needs to Concede

Just consider the basics of the current situation:

  • He’s been consistently losing primary elections, even losing “must-win” ones such as Michigan and Washington.
  • Even where he’s won recently (e.g. California), he’s done worse than expected.
  • He debated Biden one-on-one, and Biden did a good job.
  • The coronavirus crisis is making it unsafe to conduct in-person elections.
  • It is not going to be possible to shift to all vote-by-mail elections on a notice short enough to complete most primaries.
  • Sanders faces very long odds; Biden is virtually a shoo-in to win the nomination at this point.
  • In past primaries, when a race has gotten to this stage, the obvious loser has traditionally conceded.

On the debate point, that was really the one reason why Sanders should have stayed in up until this point. We wouldn’t want to run a candidate sure to melt down in a one-on-one debate, and verbal skills have never exactly been Biden’s strong suit.

Now that Biden’s mettle has been tested, and we have a batch of post-debate primary results demonstrating that not only Yours Truly thinks Biden passed, that reason no longer exists. It’s time to concede, Bernie.

1918 All Over Again

At least in respect of how inconsistent the local response to this pandemic is, it is. Some states have closed all their schools and banned large public gatherings, other states have governors acting like COVID-19 is all some liberal hoax designed to make their orange god-king look bad:

Individuals in private positions of authority are in on the politically-motivated science denial, too: “In your more politically conservative regions, closing is not interpreted as caring for you. It’s interpreted as liberalism, or buying into the hype.”

Right-wing congresscritters are also guilty of spreading deadly misinformation.

In another way, it’s likely to be worse than 1918 this time. Then, localities that lived in denial of the threat posed by the Spanish Flu ended up bitterly regretting their denial, and sooner rather than later. I think that the deniers will still end up suffering the consequences of their denial.

But it gets worse: the reality-distortion bubble surrounding the political Right is so great that I think it more plausible the Right will consider the greater severity in right-leaning regions to be evidence that the Left deliberately created and spread the virus for purposes of harming their orange god-king and those who follow him. The denial is likely to serve, not as an object lesson in the existence of the denial and how harmful it is, but to reinforce the reality-distortion bubble which led to the denial itself.