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Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Epidemic and its Consequences

Prince Max of Baden, born in 1867, was a trained lawyer and a one-time general in the Prussian Army.   He had left the army by the time of the First World War, and during that war, he became active in contacts with Germany's enemies to secure better treatment for prisoners of war.  In early 1918, he wrote one of the most brilliant strategic appreciations that I have ever seen, a plea to the highest German authorities to abandon hopes of total military victory and offer a generous peace at a moment when the Germans had once again secured a military advantage.  The government ignored his advance, and the great German offensive of March 1918 stalled in the summer, having wrecked the German Army.  By September Germany was clearly losing the war, and Prince Max suddenly became Chancellor, charged with putting through liberal reforms to the German constitution and seeking a negotiated peace with President Wilson.  By late mid-October, he was becoming convinced that the Emperor William II would have to abdicate to secure that peace.  Meanwhile, the influenza pandemic was raging, killing many thousands in Germany, where years of hunger had weakened the population.  On October 22, he came down with influenza himself.  He continued his delicate negotiations among all the German parties, as he described in his extraordinary memoirs, until November 1.  "I had not yet got over my attack of influenza," he wrote years later.  "The pressure of owrk of the last few days had utterly exhausted me, and I had a serious relapse.  The doctor was called and wanted above all things to ensure me rest. He administered a drug which in my weakened state had a stronger effect than had been intended, and put me into a deep sleep. For thirty-six hours all attempts to wake me were in vain."

The German Empire, as it turned out, had only 8 more days to live, but Prince Max survived to write his memoirs.  That is one lesson I am trying to keep in mind as I watch our own epidemic spread:  the vast majority even of those of us who have become infected will survive, even as many die.  Yet in another parallel, our political system as we know it may also face critical threats.

The fear that hangs over us all now has put some things in perspective for me.  We have temporarily lost many parts of our lives: visits to the gym, to restaurants, and the movies; professional sports; social gatherings.  Millions of us are losing their jobs, and traditional education has come to a halt.  We need to revive some of these activities as soon as we can, but some of them--such as the gym--are emerging as luxuries within a very well-off society.  Another luxury, I am convinced, are the political attitudes that have come to dominate various sectors of our society, and which never would have become so popular had we had more real problems to deal with.

Worst among those is the largely Republican belief in the superiority of free markets and the supremacy of private interests.  Fifty years ago we had an expensive, but necessary public sector, paid for in part by high marginal personal and corporate income taxes.  Now transfer payments make up the bulk of the federal budget and the discretionary part of it that provides critical public goods is proportionally much smaller. The situation seems to me much worse at the state and local level, where pension commitments, I suspect, have continually crowded out money for education and infrastructure at an increasing rate.  We now have to find extraordinary resources to deal with the economic crisis that goes along with the medical one, and this will challenge a very stressed system--especially in red states.

That is not all.  On the Democratic side of the fence, which has become the party of the economic and political status quo, what the government does has increasingly become less important than who exactly does it.  The party's key constituencies have focused more and more on the identity of its candidates, and the need to reduce the number of straight white males among them has become something of an obsession.  This year none of the minority, female or gay candidates managed to win over a sufficient portion of the Democratic electorate to contend, but Joe Biden, the presumptive nominee, has made a guarded promise to put a woman on the ticket.   Meanwhile, despite eight years of Barack Obama (b. 1961) in the White House, the Democratic Party has failed to create any new national political figures of stature under 70.  During the crisis, Andrew Cuomo (b. 1957) has emerged as the most impressive leader that we have seen in some time, demonstrating a quick intelligence, an ability to lay out the essentials of a complex problem quickly, and the administrative ability to get solutions going  Nearly everyone I know seems to wish that he could become the Democratic candidate--even some New Yorkers who have not been smitten with him during his decade as governor.  Our nominating system, however, now lacks the flexibility that in earlier decades enabled parties to select a suitable candidate at the last minute.  Barring unforeseen events in Joe Biden's campaign, Biden seems sure to be nominated--even if the Convention has to be held virtually, instead of in Milwaukee as planned.

And last but not least, a real threat looms over the electoral process.  For the time being we are giving up much of our lives and shutting down much of our economy to save tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives.  I do not think that this can continue indefinitely, although it could be, if the epidemic can be brought under control as in China, that lockdowns and shutdowns will become local events in response to small outbreaks instead of national ones until, somehow or other, the epidemic ends.  We would however have great difficulty, it seems to me, holding a national election under today's conditions.  We need planning right now to make sure that the election takes place on schedule, and in a manner that will command the nation's confidence in its results.  Having held elections during the Civil War and the Second World War, we can certainly carry on with this one--but we made need adjustments.  We can certainly survive even the worst case scenarios for deaths from the epidemic.  Surviving a complete collapse of our democracy would be much more difficult.


Energyflow said...

I recall lots of economic and political crises going way back and presumably kennedy's death was a great upst still during my mother's pregnancy, increasing her adrenalin or depression. So I like the thrill somehow. Pretty weird. 79 hostage crisis, 81 challenger explosion, 1982 recession, 87 stock market crash then tiananmen massacre and the collapse of Eastrn Europe were critical early adult experiences as later Iraq 1 war and soviet collapse, then the tech bubble collapse and 9/11, Iraq war and 2008 crisis. Now this problem. What else is new one might ask. Anyone who works with people or has a family knows that tensions, misunderstandings build up, steam gets blown off through argument, then adjustments are made and we continue. I recall that the Fed Ex founder was a Vietnam War veteran, used to performing under pressure. I guess Trump as a businessman should fit this but he was not quite as successful. And just being a crisis junky is not good either. One tends to doomerism, expecting, hoping for zombie apocalypses, meteor strikes or climate apocalypse. My generation sang the Who but mine is stranger than yours. Sadly it looks like no good is resulting. Bailouts like in 2008 for the rich. Nothing will be rationally fixed, just print money. Markets could reach new highs and unemployment go to 30% in parallel. Monopoly money levitates markets. What will the people do, watch their free porn subscription? Will rents and mortgages be paid indefinitely by the govt? Only universal masks and cheap fast testing can get people out of the house or targeted quarantined instead of en masse and the economy going again in next couple months. Or else when cases die down national or state borders, air travel will be very limited until a universal vaccine is introduced. The global village has a weakness shown in the film '12 monkeys', fast disase spread. Chinese live animal markets are breeding grounds for avian flu and similar. International air travel, introduced in late 60s and deng's opening to the West brought this possibility to reality just like 9/11 was made possible by skysvcrapers and jumbo jets. What ther odd human made catastrophes, black swans, wait jn the wings, like skynet or matrix? At the very least a sense of disaster preparedness and common global humanity could come to the forefront after long periods of strife and superficiality. But weaknesses in our system are now becoming impossible to paper over. A soviet style collape of sorts could be healthy for a hyperactive economic system built on excessive debt. Let's hope for the best.

Bozon said...

Interesting comparison. Spanish flu.
I am guessing you are suggesting the Germans might have won but for the flu....
That may be, if that is what you meant.
I wonder whether Wilson insisted on Wilhelm abdicating, or did others, eg Clemenceau.
Sad commentary if true, in the aftermath of the doublecross of the Allies re Wilson's 14 points as the basis for the armistice.....

Re Biden's commitment to a woman veep, a commitment I gather you do not favor, nor I, I fail to see what about it was guarded:
All the best

sglover said...

I worry that the most important provision of the relief bill, getting money to those with the least, seems to rely on the state unemployment machinery. Those agencies are just one of many basic public administrative functions that have generally languished -- where they haven't been actively sabotaged by right-wing zealots.

(I can only hope that other parts of that bill aren't the kind of naked crony capitalism that I fear they might be. I know the owner class can be blinkered and foolish, but are they really that short-sighted, even now? How's Boeing looking now, after all those sweet Trump tax cuts?)

I think, or at least I want to hope, that this situation might catalyze some essential changes in fundamental assumptions, attitude, outlook. This is a startling moment of clarity: Glorious "free enterprise" has given us a "health care system" that's so efficient at squeezing pennies that it never bothered to stockpile basic medical gear -- masks, gowns, gloves. Our "innovative" captains of free enterprise have made it very very clear that their portfolios mean infinitely more to them than your life or mine or certainly that of their employees. And it's employees keeping things going.

Also -- so far most people in most places do seem to be more or less voluntarily cooperating with quarantine measures. That's an indication of a basic social cohesion, maybe even a kind of solidarity. There are worse grounds for cautious optimism.