Well, That Didn’t Take Long

Published at 08:12 on 30 March 2020

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

Published at 14:35 on 27 March 2020

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

Published at 09:15 on 24 March 2020

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

Published at 15:23 on 23 March 2020

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

Published at 17:08 on 18 March 2020

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

Published at 08:53 on 15 March 2020

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.

The Campaigns Do It… Eventually

Published at 11:20 on 12 March 2020

It was obvious by late February this was needed, it took his campaign weeks to realize it, but Biden has finally stepped up to the plate with a pretty damn good speech on the pandemic.

And he’s not planning to shut up about the issue any time soon. One feature of that speech is the creation by his campaign of a coronavirus team, effectively a shadow cabinet to the real one that’s dropping the ball so badly.

It is an indictment of the Sanders campaign that Biden beat them to it. (Sanders is planning on speaking on this issue a few hours later.) That’s truly tragic, and underscores just how bad a job Sanders has done at campaigning, as the general message of socialism is very pertinent in the current situation, which is by its very nature exposing the lie that we are all separate individuals best left to fend entirely for ourselves.

Those disappointed by Sanders’ collapse need to realize that said collapse is more due to a centrist that campaigns semi-competently outcompeting a progressive that campaigns incompetently than anything else. As painful as that may be to acknowledge, it means that things can be unilaterally done to make progressive ideas sell better to the voting public.

A Garbage Speech, Full of Garbage Measures, from a Garbage President

Published at 19:54 on 11 March 2020

Really, it’s not a “foreign virus,” it’s a global pandemic. That was just a xenophobic cheap shot.

The travel ban from Europe makes no sense whatsoever. It only covers flights from the European continent, so anyone can change planes at Heathrow or Gatwick and still fly from Europe to the USA. All that changes are more legs on the journey (and more chances for infection). Simply brilliant.

Even more ridiculous, American citizens in Europe are exempt from the ban. So Americans in Europe can run around, get infected, and fly back. People who live in Europe can’t come here. Worse yet, American travelers in Europe are doubtless doing more circulating, staying in hotel rooms that might have had an infected resident the night before, and so on, thus more likely to be infected than residents of Europe.

No wonder the markets in Europe are already tanking. Capitalists may like their fascist regimes, but they expect a minimal level of competence in them, and the orange clown has none of that.

A Bad Night for Bernie

Published at 18:25 on 10 March 2020

It’s shaping up to be a bad night for Sanders, given that it looks like he just lost Michigan. That was a state that Hillary really struggled with (and where Sanders did well) last time. If Sanders can’t do well in the Rust Belt, a region shafted for decades by Establishment Democrats like Biden, it’s close to game over for Sanders.

Close, but not quite. Biden has yet to be tested in a one-on-one debate, and given that verbal skills are one of Biden’s chief weaknesses, he needs to be. The next debate is scheduled for the 15th. If Biden at least holds his own in that debate, and goes on to continue winning primaries, then it will be time for Sanders to consider conceding.

At that point, Biden could really help put pressure on Sanders, by sending a signal that he realizes the Democratic Party is a big tent. This doesn’t mean adopting Sanders’ platform (Biden, not Sanders, will have won, after all), but it does mean emphasizing at least some progressive concerns, to a greater degree than he already has. Choosing a running mate or some cabinet posts could well suffice. This is something that moderates have had a great deal of difficulty acknowledging in the past, persistently trying to ignore or belittle those to their left. Witness Hillary Clinton’s tone deaf VP choice last election.

If, however, Biden then sends that signal, then it’s definitely time for Sanders to drop out. But only then.

Yes, Sanders Still Could Win

Published at 09:09 on 6 March 2020

As I observed recently, we are not even remotely out of the woods yet.

To reiterate, Biden is a weak candidate:

  1. He has speaking disabilities, which impair his debate performance.
  2. He has many legislative skeletons in his closet.
  3. His Ukraine dealings, while not apparently illegal, still are a liability, and point to a likely history of nepotism.

He’s currently in the lead, but it’s far from an insurmountable lead. More debates are coming; it would be political malpractice to allow Biden become the nominee without stress-testing him. Much like it has been acceptable to stress-test Sanders on how well he responds to red-baiting (poorly, so far), it is acceptable to stress-test Biden on his weak spots.

And what happens if Biden massively fails the stress test? There is only one possible beneficiary, and his name is Senator Bernard Sanders. This is the downside of the moderates’ strategy of having everyone except Biden drop out: there is now no longer any fallback moderate candidate in the event that Biden suffers a massive campaign failure.

There really wasn’t any logical process of vetting or evaluation in that consolidation; it all happened stochastically. Clyburn endorsed Biden, most likely on the basis of a long political friendship from when both were members of Congress. The endorsement proved extremely valuable to Biden in the South Carolina primary. Moderates were increasingly nervous about Sanders playing the role Trump played in the 2016 GOP primary, and jumped at the chance to consolidate around Biden.

This is not to fault the moderates for foolishly choosing a poor strategy. They basically had no choice; time was rapidly running out for them to consolidate. There was, in fact, simply nothing the moderates could have done to easily sew up the nomination. Enough of the party’s base has moved far enough leftward that any reasonably open and democratic process is now sure to give progressives a significant amount of power throughout that process.

Biden’s weakness as a candidate is such that he has never done well before on the presidential campaign trail. Until the past week, he had never won a so much as a single state, despite this being the third primary he’s competed in. It is entirely possible that Biden returns to his old form, and if that happens there is no longer a thing that the centrist wing can do to stop Sanders from becoming the nominee.