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Sunday, April 12, 2020

How Are We Doing?

Back in the 1990s, William Strauss and Neil Howe predicted that some dramatic event would trigger a great national crisis sometime in the first 10-15 years of the new century.  Because they drew on so much more history than almost anyone knew, and because the United States seemed at that moment to be going from strength to strength, they had very little impact upon major media and even less in academia.   This remains the case today, even though their most important prediction obviously came true--more than once.  Whether one dates the crisis from 2000-1 (as I do), or from the economic crisis of 2008  (as Neil Howe does), the spiral into chaos has continued with the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and now with the COVID-19 pandemic.  (In The Fourth Turning, by the way, they cited terrorism, economic crisis, federal-state conflict, and epidemics as possible triggers.) 

Drawing on this history of the three previous great crises in our national life--1774-94, 1861-8, and 1929-45--they also predicted the emergence of another leader comparable to Lincoln or FDR, a public commitment to new goals, and the mobilization of the country to meet them.  In this they have been disappointed.  With the exception of the first year or so after 9/11, each one of these crises has made polarization and conflict worse, not better, and the failure to deal effectively with any of them has discredited our professional political class.  I have held off discussing the politics of our latest crisis for a few weeks, but it seems that it, too, is going to continue us down ou road to political hell, at least for a while, while adding a huge new economic crisis to the mix.

Last Sunday's New York Times led with a long story about travel from China to the US during the pandemic, with the purpose of showing that President Trump had not done very much to stop it, despite his boasts.  Today's Sunday Times leads with a long article about Trump's slow response to the crisis.  The editors of the Times, apparently, think it's more important to continue making the [very true] point that Donald Trump is  a totally incompetent and boastful leader than to tell us exactly what is happening with respect to the epidemic and where it all might go.  That, it seems to me, is simply the liberal counterpart of Trump's own approach, which consists of repeating ad nauseam that he and his team are doing a wonderful job, far better than any previous administration in comparable circumstances, and that the mainstream media refuse to recognize it.  Although the Times has the facts on its side in this case, neither approach gets us any closer to dealing effectively with the epidemic and the economic catastrophe that we face, much less using the crisis to pull us together across political lines.

Rhetoric is only one aspect of this problem.  While I have not taken the time to study the government's economic response to the crisis in detail, it seems to have focused on protecting the same big financial institutions that got us into the 2008 crisis and now find themselves overextended again.  One story I read detailed how  the Federal Reserve is now buying "asset-backed securities" based on car loans and other debts, just as it did in 2008-9.  With manufacturing and service industries virtually at a standstill, the financial and legal communities look set to become relatively stronger yet again.  I have not on the other hand seen much serious thinking about how we will sustain most of the population and many small businesses.  My own state of Massachusetts has just given mortgage holders a three-month holiday, protecting them against foreclosure, but on the assumption--a very dubious one in my opinion--that debtors will be able to make these payments good after the grace period is over.  It seems to me that we need something entirely unprecedented, a national holiday on debt payments of all kinds until we decide to send the nation back to work.  We may also need to adopt ex-candidate Andrew Yang's proposal for universal basic income on a temporary basis, which I would combine with Elizabeth Warren's proposal for a wealth tax to pay for it.  In a national emergency we need to draw on the resources of the wealthiest among us, as we did in the era of the two world wars.  This might make a great campaign plank for Joe Biden.

And meanwhile, we may indeed face a very serious decision about our medium-term decision about our response to the epidemic.  We cannot indefinitely continue the social distancing that is lowering our infection rate and with it, our death rate.  A vaccine, authorities seem to agree, is at least a year away.  An article this morning in my other morning paper, the Boston Globe, suggests that we will only be beyond the epidemic when we have herd immunity--which, he writes, only occurs when about 60% of the population has had it.  That is almost 200 million people, and even if the death rate from the virus is only 1%, that means that nearly 2 million Americans would die of it.  (I should say that I don't think we really have any idea of what the death rate actually is because no nation has tested enough to know how many people have been infected.  I might mention anecdotally that I now know personally of about 10 people who seem to have had it but most of them have not been tested and none of them has had a positive test.)  My hunch--and that is all it is--at this time is that our best hope is to discover some treatment options that will significantly reduce the death rate further, so that we will be able to tolerate it as we go back to work.  That decision would be comparable to decisions in earlier eras to accept certain casualty levels in wars, because the nation felt we had to win them.  Like my economic proposals in the preceding paragraph, this problem is only intermittently engaging our leadership now, but things will look very different, I think, by the end of the summer.

Led by Andrew Cuomo, of course, various governors have stepped forward to expand our capacity to treat COVID-19 patients and keep most of us at home and safe.  They have given much better examples of what public service is about than we have seen in many years.  I have begun to think that all our presidents are now so insulated by layers of spin control to give us the same impression of really being on top of events.  We have however, a national an international economy, faced with a pandemic, and states cannot effectively solve our biggest problems.  "Men fight best on death ground," Sun Tzu wrote.  Most of us are not on death ground personally, and will not be, during the epidemic--but our political system is another matter.


Energyflow said...

We are as a society since any decades now, used to minimal pain. I know this is contradictory considering the people overdosing, overindebted and other problems but in general we accept zero deaths or have to stretch life out to 90s using medication and live wih endless disabilities like high blood pressure, diabetes, etc. as chronic disease for decades. We also do not want to reduce lifestyle, using credit cards at the personal level and government tricks at the national level to maintain a mirage of wellbeing. This seems to me a weak response of treaitng symptoms rather than curing diseas at both the physical and financial levels. So in this sense the saeculum crisis is a drawn out parody of the previous ones, where real people took real decisions to deal in an adult manner with real problems. In 2001 the government created a massive security state and switched from war on drugs, useless and vague as it was, to war on terror. The endless financial crises since Bretton Woods agreement were all just papering over of imperial weakness. Breaking gold standard for oil standard, and from 1987 on just taking a loose money policy and distributing credit cards en masse and exporting manufacturing and the middle class. 2008 and 2020 are just more of the same in this regard. Irresponsible, without thought to long term consequences, slapdash. So it seems that the victory in WWII wss pyrrhic as modernity with its magic medicines for longevity, finanncial instruments and decadent consumer lifestyle promoting both illness and indebtedness were born of the hubris of an unscathed victory and hitherto unforeseen wealth and global power and technological progress, all of which we have misused rapidly as the prodigal son on a weekend outing. In short, affluence leads to decadence thence to collapse. A light breeze is all it takes in the end. Similar to an old man who has long outlived himself, whose organs are just suttering on fumes, who just needs a common cold or a seasonal flu to do him in, so is our system, past due. The famed butterfly of chaos theory that unleashes the hurricane on the opposite side of the world or the straw that broke the camel's back is the covid-19 crisis for our post war global order, which in looking back, was a fantasy of perfection without effort. Science fiction. When the organism is healthy it can fight off disease without endless layers of financial tricks and ten pills a day.

It seems that some measures will be taken to control the virus spread and get people back to work in stages in he course of the year until a vaccination is found. Mobility and sociability will be reduced. International tourism might never be the same or casual rock concerts. Those age of aquarius, brotherly love points from the 60s which made us all feel warmer, closer as a human family may take years if ever to get back go normal. 9/11 precautions are still in place and terrorism continues as our presence as warmonger in many nations along with population explosion, poverty and cheap access to weapons and international freedom of movement and immigration in an ever more liberal society. Why should vjiruses behave any differently? Perhaps strict bans on wildlife poaching, bioweapons and even GMO research all of which may have contribted to the spread of this disease in part could be imposed. It is like Pandora's box. Scientific research is for humans a temptation loike the apple to Adam and Eve. We bring on our own destruction. Curiosity killed the cat, satisfactiion...

Energyflow said...

We may live through a new deglobalizing saeculum of human power decline as our power over the planet, our environment wanes in every possible way. Antibiotics and vaccines will be less effective. Climate zones and deserts ill slread, tides will rise, mass aging of billions will commence while water tables fall, desertification and soil erosion commence and energy, metals, even sand for construction runs oout. Useful technologies have motl been all found. The curve on inventiveness has long since been on the downslope. An app is not the same as he internl combustion engine or penicillin. So whatever decisions are taken to paper over the human weaknesses redily apparent, be it central banks buying up 100%of stocks, hedge funds and UBI and MMT forever, reality isn't going away in this Epcot futureworld.

Joe said...

Mr. Kaiser,
Thanks for continuing you blog. After a long time I have come back to suggest what seems to be too obvious? - That COVID-19 is the Climax of this Fourth Turning. It could not have been foreseen at the onset of 4T and it invoked a massive government response in the way Strauss/Howe describe: authoritarian, deciding on winners and losers, if bumbling then only reinforcing and aggravating. In Las Vegas we have breadlines of 4 miles of unemployed hospitality workers the government deemed "unnecessary". The medical-industrial complex gets hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency funding (one of the biggest money grabs in my lifetime) to treat everyone as a COVID patient, no testing necessary. They just got paid on Friday (emergency medicare payments), so expect hospitalization #s etc. to decrease a lot.
In terms of the Fourth Turning the government has started its massive, authoritarian and bumbling answer to the virus attack. This can escalate a lot more until a "total victory" is achieved. We could decide to quarantine China economically as the usual spreader of SARS, COVID, avean flu pandemics. We could decide that a lot more products are now "essential" for our national economy like medical supplies, medicines etc. and mandate domestic production and prevent imports. With how deep the shock is the population will go along policies we would not have dreamed of just a few months back. It took Lincoln three years to find the generals to beat the South. Everyone still fell in line all these difficult years even if newspapers like the "World" and "Journal of Commerce" bashed Pres. Lincoln like the NYT does Pres. Trump. Lincoln even ordered both newspapers shut down. Yet- and this is what happens during a Fourth Turning acc. to Strauss/Howe - the population goes along with the administration until Total Victory or Total Defeat. This is what we have to try to understand now: what does the Trump administration want for Total Victory? - Then we know what we're in for here. Thanks again!

Pmathews1939 said...

Oh, yes, this is decidedly the climax of the current Fourth Turning, and the nation is pulling together on the state and local level despite what the spin doctors and finance folks are up to. While I don't expect to see some of the "malefactors of great wealth" hanging from the lamp posts any time soon, I think you and everybody else who is focused on the upper levels of society have missed the real story. That the public mood has changed, and we will not be getting back to pre-virus "normal" any time soon.

Because the people aren't listening to the politicians and the economic experts (most of the latter having track records which have led to our Second Gilded Age and similar disasters... and idiocies like "The Great Recession was over in 2009!" [not on Main Street, it wasn't.] and "The economy is doing great! It's just that there's a lot of poverty here!" [define "the economy. Uh-huh. I thought so. Well, even the local business column stated openly "'The economy' and the stock market are two different things."

No... come down to flyover country and hear what everyday people think the real issues are, and the new direction we're taking is pretty clear. The Recovery will NOT look like 2019, not one bit.

Wes Volkenant said...

That we are in an election year seems to have had a great deal of impact on the President's and his Administration's response to the coronavirus. We do seem to have had a terribly slow response that failed to do any of the preparation work on supplies, tests and coordination with the Governors in January and February. With a focus on how the economy and stock market would impact his re-election chances, Trump was cautious in dealing with China and Europe, as the virus spread worldwide. Even his travel bands were loosely-structured, and we still saw many travelling into the U.S. with possible exposure, because there was no true quarantine put in place at the national level.

The figures who have stood out best in this crisis include the leading figure, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has generally been unable to reign in the President's tendency to sideline the federal government, and shift responsibility to 50 states, 50 governors.

Because the major news channels regularly cover Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, his presence has stood out in contrast to President Trump's own regular appearances during the crisis. Presenting information in a firm, factual, realistic fashion, compared to the President's often misleading hyperbole, Cuomo has stood out for many as the FDR-like leader, who has taken responsibility for his actions and admitted his failures and inabilities to do even more. Much of his inability has been properly attributed to the lack of federal assistance and cooperation in timely fashion.

Governors Inslee of Washington and Newsom of California have similarly stood out for their early, aggressive approaches to the virus, which affected their states earliest. Many of their choices with stay-at-home orders, closing schools, and instituting testing have served as models for other Governors to follow in states like Maryland, Michigan, and my own Minnesota.

Other Governors like Abbott of Texas, DeSantis of Florida and Kemp of Georgia followed the Trump model of reaction, perhaps for too long, as their states did not quickly shut down, and did so only reluctantly, and none can be considered to have provided the leadership that was necessary for their citizens in this crisis.

The failure of Trump - or Pence - really the only two national figures in a position to have led the nation to fight this virus quickly and aggressively will hopefully lead to their great defeat in November. I'm not certain of this, but the Trump-Pence legacy will remain with us for years - perhaps forever - as our lives and basic social and cultural choices have been irreparably damaged (concerts, plays, sporting events, handshakes, masks in public, etc.).

We now can compare the leadership in crisis of the successful Lincoln and Roosevelt, and contrast it further with the failures of Buchanan, Hoover and Trump. History uses new data points to further shape a story of who we are, what we've done, and how it can be used to make projections about our future. This is why you and I were fans and active followers of the Strauss & Howe histories and projections for our future. Perhaps it's time to revisit Generations and The Fourth Turning to look at what cyclical lessons we've learned that might guide and understand the nation's direction coming out of the crisis period, and how our generational lineup in the 2020s will give us insight.

We appear to have a third 1946 Boomer President whose Presidency has had a mix of success and failure (two impeachments and one other who's second term ended in ignominy) vs. a cusp Silent (Nov 20,1942 birthdate) who has often felt like an early_Boomer, lined up for the Presidency this fall. As it did in 2016, the nation has moved on from its one Gen X Presidency of Obama's to postpone any further new generational leaders, choosing this year to focus on late-Silents (Sanders, Biden and Bloomberg) and early Boomers (Trump, Warren) as the last five who were seeking the Presidency.

Paul Zimmy Finn said...

I agree with Neil Howe that the Crisis began in 2008. I speak as a Millennial who both had a parent who was in Manhattan on 9/11 and who graduated from college in the spring of 2008. 9/11 was the defining singular news event of my lifetime, no question. But the mood shift that took place between the start of my senior year of college and the next fall after I graduated was ENORMOUS. In my opinion, it was a permanent mood shift in a way even 9/11 was not.

This is almost certainly not the climax of this Crisis era...no way. It's the regeneracy point. The climaxes of the prior Crises took place amid an environment in which civic authority had already been consolidated. It's just starting to move toward that kind of consolidation now.

idotter said...

I think we're approaching the climax, but we're not there yet. My biggest fear is what happens in the election this fall. Trump's authoritarian impulses are being reinforced by the crisis (asserting that his authority is "total" in reopening the country) as are his insecurities. What if there's a resurgence in the virus in the fall around the election? Will Trump try and postpone it? What if the election happens but the results are disputed? Even if he loses the popular and Electoral College votes, will he relinquish power?

Looks to me like three of the sources Strauss and Howe mentioned (pandemic, federal-state conflict, and economic crisis) are coming together. The election will spark the real climax. Is Joe Biden the Grey Champion?

David Kaiser said...

Let me just say that I'm delighted to have helped to provoke this discussion.
There is another weird and frightening aspect to our saeculum: the failure of Gen X to produce national leadership, and the failure even of younger Boomers in that regard. That's why we have this fantastic situation of a Silent (Biden--and to he's always been 100% Silent in behavior) contesting an older Boomer--as Buchanan ran against Lincoln in 1864!
I still think 2000-1 was the beginning. 2008 certainly impacted Millennials hugely but it didnt change our institution or values. The response to this economic crisis confirms what I had suspected--the economic powers that be think they've found the answer to our periodic crises. We have to hope that it more or less works again, the alternative is too terrible.
Regarding the first post--in another era, 100 years ago, we lived through a comparable pandemic, took a lot of deaths (many more among young people than we will this time), and moved forward. We don't seem to be capable of that now. I hope there's a treatment breakthrough soon.

Bozon said...

I hear from my wife that there are plenty of Foxholes out there not wearing masks, flaunting it, and basically rebelling against the King.
One can only hope that the Devil will carry off a disproportionate number of fat Foxholes!
I don't know what generations these Foxholes are in. No matter.
All the best,

JS Logel said...

I glad to see that you have written this entry. The generational banter created in this crisis reminded me of your research and interests. As a member of Generation X, I understand your concern that we have not produced a leader of significant effect. I wonder if it is because the Gen Xers, as some have commented, were raised to live apart and alone (divorced parents, latch-key kids, etc...). I also wonder why Obama's leadership did not produce a legacy, or new kind of national leader. Instead, unable to overcome the ever divisive domestic political environment, Obama could not create a political situation to counter the forces that delivered us Trump in 2016. Regardless, the current administration leaves us all wanting and more fearful than we care. I only hope that the US, and the rest of the world avoid rock bottom, and more importantly avert a global conflict akin to the world war that followed the Great Depression. I do hope that Biden's VP pick is a leader who can inspire and demonstrates potential to lead in the future. If not, I fear that reality show horror that is the Trump White House will be renewed for another fours years at all of our peril.