Wednesday, May 06, 2020

The Pandemic And The Deconstruction Of The Administrative State. Or Did Stephen Bannon Get His Way?

Eons ago, in 2017, president Trump still had his own Rasputin standing behind the throne and whispering in his ear:  Stephen Bannon.

Bannon was Trump's chief strategist and the architect of the president's ideological strategies.  Bannon may have disappeared from the Trump administration and also largely from the public view, but one of his most important goals has not: The deconstruction of the administrative state.

What did Bannon mean by that term?   The answer:

The process, he explained, began with Trump's first presidential hires.
"If you look at these Cabinet appointees, they were selected for a reason and that is the deconstruction, the way the progressive left runs, is if they can't get it passed, they're just gonna put in some sort of regulation in -- in an agency," Bannon said. "That's all gonna be deconstructed and I think that that's why this regulatory thing is so important."
So did Bannon get his way in this respect?

I think we are learning the answer while watching, in real time:  The way this administration stumbles around in its responses to the current pandemic, how it seems to be passing the proper tasks of the federal government* to individual states without apparently coordinating that change with such federal institutions as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Or compare the US pandemic policies to those practiced in countries which seem to have the pandemic under better control:

While statistics show that this wave of the pandemic in the US is nowhere near peaking, our Supreme Leader wants it to be over so he has decided that it is more or less over.

He wishes to refocus on opening the economy**, whatever the resulting cost in lives lost, because he sees a booming economy as necessary for his re-election.  And that is why he earlier today told us that he will wind down the coronavirus task force, though he has now had to walk back that statement a little bit.

I think Bannon should be pleased with the current state of the federal administrative state, even if some of the destruction has come from the uncertainty and dizziness caused by all of us having to live inside Trump's personal and weird worldview.

*  Even the most conservative of economists would agree that the fight against a globally spreading infectious disease  is the duty of the federal government.

**  It is not wrong to focus on both the pandemic and the economy, of course.
We need to be able to produce food and to get it to consumers, for example,  and even more generally the economy cannot stay in a lock-down forever.

But Trump's plan is not the kind of careful and considered "re-opening in stages" which some other countries are pursuing once it is clear that the peak of the first Covid-19 wave has passed in that country.  It's just a general re-opening, as if the pandemic has left the USA, when it is actually just checked into the second hotel in its tour around the place.

Sunday, May 03, 2020

How We Talk about The Pandemic: A Slightly Different Slant

1.  Those who vociferously protest against the stay-at-home-orders are a small minority.  They are not representative of any large group of Americans.  The media should clearly state this when they cover the protests, and we should all take care that we are not viewing that group as representative of, say, all Republicans in the US.

I get that covering the protests is great click-bait, but to pretend that we are seeing a giant wave of citizens protesting the orders distorts facts.  The media has the responsibility not to distort facts.  Neither should the media allow itself to be used as a PR machine for the groups raging and ranting at various state houses.

2.  In fact, most Americans (and most citizens of almost all countries) have been almost exemplary in their willingness to obey the various mitigation efforts governments have introduced against the Covid-19.  To see this has been heart-warming and has made me slightly more optimistic about the future of humankind.

It is easy not to see the good news when so many news are frightening.  But good news also exist.*  The willingness of ordinary people to work together in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic is good news.

3.  I once read, in a book about birds, that crows take care of their elderly and sick.  I have no idea if the story was true, but reading it made me think that taking care of those community members who are of no obvious immediate use value might be one marker of what we call civilization.

Contrast those crows to the opinions of one Northern California city official:

A Northern California city official has been ousted after he suggested on social media that sick, old and homeless people should be left to meet their “natural course in nature” during the coronavirus pandemic.
City council members in Antioch, a city of about 110,000 people 35 miles east of Oakland, voted unanimously Friday night to remove Ken Turnage II from his post as chairman of the city’s planning commission.
NBC Bay Area reports there was a swift uproar after Turnage characterized people with weak immune systems as a drain on society.
He wrote on Facebook: “the World has been introduced to a new phrase Herd Immunity which is a good one. In my opinion we need to adapt a Herd Mentality. A herd gathers it ranks, it allows the sick, the old, the injured to meet its natural course in nature.”
As for homeless people, he added that the virus would “fix what is a significant burden on our society and resources that can be used.”

Mr. Turnage was not writing about a triage situation in some hospital where ventilators might be so scarce that health care providers must decide who can get them**.  Rather, his comments appear to be about everyday life***.  But our resources are not so scarce that we would have to make terrible choices about who can get them.

As an aside, I love him calling that view "a Herd Mentality!"

* For pretty obvious (mostly psychological) reasons, what we call "news" tends to mostly consist of "bad news." We want to know about possible future risks and how to avoid them.  But good news are also news, and trying to see them serves to keep us more mentally balanced.

**  The usual examples where Mr. Turnage's views would be mentioned are all about truly catastrophic situations:  People in a life boat with enough water or food for only a few of them, an isolated tribe facing mass starvation if it tries to feed all members of the tribe, only one available ventilator remaining in a hospital and three patients needing it, and so on.  But Mr. Turnage extended that way of thinking to everyday society, perhaps so that the economy could be quickly re-opened.

***  Even if we all adopted Mr. Turnage's callous world view, it is unlikely that even he would like the world thus created.  That's because almost everyone, including, Mr. Turnage, would one day fall into the category of individuals with no remaining immediate use value while still having some life years left. 

This, in turn, would change the incentives of all individuals about how they would behave toward others in the same community.  Altruism, for instance, would be much rarer because at least some altruism is based on the expectation that if one helps others then one day those others will return the help.  Nobody would be willing to serve in the armed forces if returning wounded or disabled veterans would just be thrown away.  And so on.

Mr. Turnage also ignores the fact that the coronavirus is disproportionately affecting black and Hispanic communities.  Although many of the reasons for the higher infection and death rates among black and Hispanic communities are directly or indirectly linked to poverty (which correlates with race and ethnicity) and (especially) for the black communities also to the impact of historic institutional racism, some are due to the fact that many of the now-essential workers come from exactly these racial and/or ethnic groups:

On the first, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in NYC is a useful and disturbing example. As the New York Times reported last week, bus and subway workers have been hit hard by the coronavirus: 41 dead and more than 6,000 either diagnosed with Covid-19 or self-quarantining because they have symptoms that suggest an infection, as of April 8.
Who works for the MTA? Black people and Latinos. They account for more than 60 percent of the agency’s workforce in New York City, according to estimates from 2016.
Black people in particular are overrepresented in the MTA; they are 46 percent of the city’s transportation workers versus 24 percent of its overall population. (White people, on the other hand, make up 30 percent of local MTA employees but 43 percent of NYC residents.)
This is, again, true across cities and sectors. As Devan Hawkins wrote in the Guardian, black Americans are more likely than white Americans to be employed in the essential services that have been exempted from state stay-at-home orders, and they are more likely to work in health care and in hospitals. In America as in other countries, health care workers make up a disproportionate share of Covid-19 cases.
 Being an essential worker is exactly the reverse of how Mr. Turnage depicts the victims of the coronavirus pandemic.  These are the people we really need right now, and they are dying at higher rates.