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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Saturday, May 30, 2020

The 1960s Return

I feel this weekend that I am reliving painful parts of my youth.  Urban riots, to use the contemporary term, were the first anomalous event to shatter the optimism of the early 1960s, still the most hopeful period that I can remember in American life.  The civil rights movement had unleashed plenty of violence in the South, but that seemed to be the last gasp of a dying old order, and civil rights in the summer of 1964 won the huge victory of the great civil rights act.  Lyndon Johnson was about to consign (or so it seemed) Barry Goldwater's anti-New Deal conservatism to the scrap heap of history.  The escalation of the Vietnam War had not yet begun.  The first great urban riot of the 1960s began on July 16, 1964, in Harlem, and lasted for six days.

It is rather chilling to return to accounts of these events because they sound so familiar. An off-duty NYPD police lieutenant came across an altercation between some black male teen-agers and an apartment house superintendent who was using a hose to try to drive them off a building's steps.  He challenged 15-year old James Lynch, a Bronx youth whom he claimed tried to attack him with a knife, and shot and killed him.  Black groups held demonstrations over the weekend that followed.  They escalated into riots that lasted several days. An estimated 500 persons were injured, 465 were arrested, but only one more died.  Property damage from looting was estimated at between half a million and a million dollars.  A smaller riot occurred in Phladelphia later that summer.

The triumphal mood of the mid-1960s reached its peak in the middle of 1965, as Lyndon Johnson pushed through Medicare and much of the rest of the Great Society program, and the Voting Rights Act followed the Civil Rights Act of the year before.  On August 11, 1965, in the black Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, a motorcycle cop pulled a black driver over for reckless driving.  The driver's brother, a passenger, summoned their mother from their house nearby, a crowd gathered, more police arrived, and altercations broke out.  The police arrested the whole family, rumors spread, crowds gathered, and police fought with the crowds all night.  Rioting, arson, and looting lasted for six days and nights.  Governor Pat Brown called out several thousand National Guardsmen, who imposed a curfew along with police, and decided on mass arrests.  Arrests eventually totaled 35,000, and 34 people died, 16 shot by policemen and 7 by national guardsmen.    This time nearly a thousand commercial buildings were burned, looted, or seriously damanged, and property damage was estimated at $40 million.  Together with the disturbances at UC Berkeley that had started in the fall of 1964 and continued for years to come, the riots helped sweep Ronald Reagan to a landslide victory in the gubernatorial race in 1966, which got him on the path to the White House.

Despite some violence in various major cities, nothing comparable to Harlem or Watts occurred during 1966.  1967, when the Vietnam War was in full swing, was another matter. On the evening of July 12, two Newark, New Jersey police stopped a black cab driver, and wound up beating him.  A crowd gathered outside the police station and began throwing rocks and bottles at police, and looting began.
Within days, a protest march turned into an orgy of arson and looting, and national guardsmen and state troopers came in to quell it. The death toll reached 27, the injured topped 700, and arrests neared 1500.  Property damage was estimated at $10 million.  In succeeding years the white and black middle class rapidly fled the city, which has never recovered. 

The same script played out on an even larger scale in Detroit from early Sunday morning, July 23, to July 27.  This time the triggering event was a raid on an illegal after-hours bar in a black neighborhood, that brought an angry crowd into the street. Within two days, looting and arson were taking place over a wide area.  Eventually the 82nd Airborne Division joined the state police and National Guard troops, who had proven very trigger happy.  In both Detroit and Newark, detailed studies of the killings during the riots found most of them to be totally innocent bystanders hit by stray bullets.  In one notorious incident, however, three Detroit police officers gunned down three black youths in cold blood in a the Algiers Motel, an incident later chronicled in detail by the novelist John Hershey.  This time the death toll reached 43, with almost 1200 injured and more than seven thousand arrested.  412 buildings were burned or damaged, 2509 buildings reported damage or looting, and 388 families lost their homes to fires.  The riots triggered massive white flight from Detroit, which has never been the same since.   President Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission to study the causes of these disorders, and it reported in early 1968 that racial discrimination was turning the United States into two nations, separate and unequal.

The last chapter in this story began when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.  One major riot generally seemed to be enough to release the anger and tension in any urban ghetto during the 1960s, and neither New York, nor Los Angeles, or Newark or Detroit had a big disturbance that week.  Now it became the turn of Washington, D. C.--where I was spending my spring vacation at the time.  Arson and looting  destroyed 1200 buildings and wiped out huge business districts for decades to come, but police and national guardsmen were under strict orders not to intervene, and there were almost no deaths or injuries.  A multi-day riot in Chicago resulted in 11 deaths, 500 injuries and 2150 arrests, and $10 million in property damage.  Riots also hit Baltimore, where federal troops were dispatched, 6 people died, 700 were injured, and 5800 arrested, and $12 million in property went up in flames.   Freshman Governor Spiro Agnew made a name for himself and got the attention of GOP front runner Richard Nixon by blasting a meeting of civil rights leaders for failing to stop the outbreak. A few months later Nixon selected Agnew as his running mate. Similar disturbances, albeit on a lesser scale, took place in Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Trenton, Wilmington, Delaware, and Louisville. Several of them also had very serious long-term impacts on the neighborhoods in which they occurred.  No major riot, interestingly enough, ever struck a Deep South city in the mid to late 1960s.  Reeling under the twin impacts of the endless Vietnam War and racial turmoil in the cities, the Democratic Party saw its popular vote shrink from 60% in 1964 to about 43% in 1968.  It has never fully recovered.

In the five subsequent decades, urban outbreaks of arson and looting had occurred on numerous occasions, most notably in Los Angeles in 1992, when the riots following the acquittal of the police who arrested and beat Rodney King were larger by some measures than the  Watts riot.  We are now suffering the most widespread series of such outbreaks that we have seen, I believe, since 1968, although we have not as yet seen arson, or deaths, or even looting on a comparable scale.  Now as then, commentators see both a response to a specific event--in this case, the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis--and a reaction to decades of discrimination and inequality.  In one critical difference, these disturbances coincide with the worst unemployment since the Great Depression, whereas the late 1960s saw the end of a very long economic boom, albeit one that did not completely reach the inner cities.   On the other hand, the riots in the late 1960s took place as a very large and very long crime wave began, whereas serious crimes have been declining now for well over a decade. 

 Floyd's death, like King's, has triggered protests and violence all over the country.  Once again, mayors and governors, most of them Democrats, are torn between the desire to identify with the rioters' grievances and the need to keep public order.  This time, in an interesting development, the protests are so integrated that the movement, if such it is, seems more generational than racial.  White youth also rioted in 1968 and in the next two years in dozens of universities and on the streets of Chicago during the Democratic convention, but rioting, for the most part, was segregated in those days.  At Kent State in 1970, black student leaders kept black students in their dorms when the National Guard arrived on campus, not wishing to see a repeat of Newark and Detroit.

History, at any rate, does not suggest that the current protests will do much good.  They are yet another illustration of the people's loss of confidence in our institutions, which in different ways affects nearly the whole population.  Many of us are wondering whether Donald Trump, like Reagan in 1966 and Richard Nixon in 1968, will ride resentment of the rioters into an election victory marked, among other things, by Minnesota's passage into the Republican column.  Already, for good or ill, the disturbances are pushing Joe Biden to select a black running mate.  Today's young people, as the rapper Killer Mike stressed yesterday, need to show that they can use their outrage to strategize and mobilize in order to avoid another national catastrophe.


Sunday, May 24, 2020

Three strikes and you're out?

The United States faces its third great crisis of the 21st century.  Like the civil war in the 19th century and the Depression and the Second World War in the twentieth, the successive events of 9/11, the financial crisis of 2008, and now, the COVID-19 epidemic and its economic consequences have tested the idea upon which the United States was founded:  that a government by, of, and for the people, acting through elected representatives, can deal effectively with great problems and open the way for a better life.  Nineteen years after 9/11 (and nearly 28 years after the election of Bill Clinton), the same Boom generation remains ultimately in charge.   The outcome of the crises of 2001 and 2008 do not bode well for what will happen in the next year.

A little less than a year before 9/11, the Republican party leadership and its selections on the Supreme court had demonstrated an unprecedented willingness to disregard established procedures in order to secure power.  Rather than settle one of the closest elections in American history by making sure the votes in Florida were counted as accurately as possible, they managed to stop recounts, allowing the Supreme Court to award the election to George W. Bush by a 5-4 vote.  Eventually a private count indicated that Gore had in fact won. By that time, however, 9/11--the Boom generation's big moment in foreign affairs--had taken place.  The neoconservatives that ran the foreign policy of the Bush II administration used it to embark upon a crusade to remove hostile regimes and impose democracy on the Middle East.  That crusade now lies in ruins, as Afghanistan and Iraq both struggle with chaos, and authoritarianism rules most of the Middle East again.  At the same time, that Administration threw away a federal budget surplus with two rounds of tax cuts, creating a permanent deficit.  Yet for the most part, the Obama Administration continued the foreign policies of the Bush administration. It did withdraw from Iraq--only to re-enter a few years later--but it also temporarily expanded the war in Afghanistan, and undertook two more disastrous attempts at regime change, in Libya and in Syria,  The Arab spring led to a reimposition of dictatorship in Egypt.  The Bush II administration also moved away from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and agreed to let Israel retain at least some territory occupied in 1967.  Now the Israeli government is poised to annex much of it.

The financial crisis of 2008 showed the folly of deregulating Wall Street and the banking system and throwing away the restraints that had been imposed in the Great Depression. An insane real estate bubble burst, revealing a highly unstable pyramid of debt and threatening the whole world economy.  The American political process played a relatively small role in getting out of the crisis.  Political leaders, economists, bankers and financial leaders from the Boom generation got together to use the Federal Reserve Board and a Congressional guarantee to provide the private institutions that had destroyed themselves with liquidity to ride out the crisis.  Despite some tepid efforts at reform, this left our financial giants more powerful than ever.  The Obama Administration had to agree to rounds of deficit reduction that further reduced the federal government's role in our lives, and it did not do enough for the average American voter to create anything like a new Democratic majority.  Then the catastrophic presidential election of 2016 showed that neither political establishment could provide a candidate who could defeat a reality tv star with a catastrophic record as an entrepreneur.

In the succeeding three years, virtually the whole Republican Party has lined up behind Donald Trump, despite his obvious incompetence and disrespect for the norms of civilized political behavior and the rule of law.  The Democrats have managed to regain control of the House of Representatives and a few state houses, but the Republicans have gained more and more power over the courts and have become more and more militant within the states they control.  And now comes the COVID-19 epidemic.

It is now clear, I think, that the epidemic has made the state of our politics worse than ever.  As bad luck would have it, it hit first, and by far most seriously, in the nerve center of the national Democratic Party, the northeast.  Because of drastic measures that have crippled our economy, the virus's spread there has now slowed dramatically--but they are still increasing in the heartland, where a big majority of new infections are now taking place.  The red states still have a very long way to go before their cases and deaths per million will reach the levels of New York, New Jersey, and southern New England, but they are increasing.  And now the parties and the regions where they are strongest are splitting on the issue of re-opening the economy.  In my opinion, however, the effects of the epidemic have passed beyond the control of our political leaders.  No matter how quickly the economy officially re-opens, relatively few people will start once again going to restaurants, traveling by air, or training in their local gym.  That means that a great many laid-off people will remain unemployed, creating new mortgage crises in both personal and commercial real estate.  Brick and mortar retailers, already hurt badly by amazon and by private equity takeovers, will fall further faster.  The rich will get even richer and the poor poorer.  I am not optimistic that our deeply divided and increasingly oligarchic nation will be able to come up with either short- or long-term solutions to these problems.  I suspect that within a year, a strong case will emerge for a universal basic income, funded by a wealth tax, but  our economic and political powers that be will probably oppose both.  I feel sure that we will have gotten beyond the medical consequences of the epidemic long before we get over the economic ones.

It is too soon to say whether the November election can turn things around.  Joe Biden, like George H. W. Bush and Al Gore, is a product of the modern political system:  he failed as a presidential candidate on his own, but became a party leader by serving as Vice President.  At a time when the nation clearly needs a capable and decisive executive like Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic Party is fielding a candidate without real executive experience.  Biden is nearly old enough (though not quite) to remember V-J day, and he still wants to restore the relatively decorous political environment that he found in Washington when he became a Senator in 1973.  That era is long over and we need to create something new.  Donald Trump is becoming more and more irresponsible and hysterical as the crisis goes on, and the polls suggest that the country is tired of him.  But Trump is also preparing the way for a new controversy over the validity of the results of the coming election, which may create another great crisis at least as serious as 2000.  This time certain state governments might even find themselves divided over the validity of their results.

The 80-year cycle that has given us the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the era of Franklin Roosevelt has been bound up with the whole experiment of the Enlightenment.  In each crisis, reason helped us solve certain critical problems and thus created a new consensus that lasted until the next one.  Yet the rational solutions that the mid-20th century developed to solve our economic problems seem to have made too many powerful interests unhappy to have lasted.  A new postwar generation also rebelled against the authority and discipline, in virtually every area of life, that had gotten us where we were when they were born.  Last but hardly least, a powerful revolt against the Enlightenment developed where it should have been strongest, in universities.  It has weakened them so much that many of them, too, are unlikely to survive the coming economic crisis.  The epidemic itself poses a tremendous test for our for-profit health care system.  Can our drug companies take the necessary time to develop effective vaccines and/or treatment for COVID-19, rather than yielding to enormous political and economic pressure to declare the problem solved prematurely?  All these questions will be answered, one way or another, in the next few years.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

The Past and Future of Higher Education

The nationwide closure of institutions of higher learning, which immediately moved all instruction on line, will I feel certain mark a turning point for American higher education.  It was already in crisis.  While the richest institutions still thrive in our winner-take-all economy, poorer ones--particularly liberal arts colleges--are going out of business every year.  Our best public universities are no longer really public, in the sense that their tuition has now increased to much higher levels, and their students have to finance their education with loans.  Now that the colleges and  universities have announced that they can deliver their educational product without providing room and board along with it, a lot of students and their families will want them to go on doing so.  Many faculty will prefer this as well.  The current crisis could be the beginning of the end of higher education as we have known it--but it would not have had that effect, had not a series of disastrous changes already taken place.

What follows will be to some extent impressionistic.  A year or two ago, I discovered in a correspondence with the Harvard archives that I could probably get access to extremely detailed data on the budget of Harvard Univeristy in 1965, when I first entered it--on how much the university took in, and what it spent it on.  Contemporary data would inevitably be much less detailed, but I suspected that enough would be available to make a meaningful comparison.  And that might enable me to answer a question that has bothered me for over a decade: why is it, exactly, that a Harvard education today costs more than three times as much as it did then, even after allowing for inflation, and despite the phenomenal growth of the endowment?  I think we know the answer in broad outline, but I would have enjoyed trying to flesh it out.  I did not however choose to embark on that project and I doubt that I will--but I do wish that some one would.  Meanwhile I will content myself with generalities.

The first, and probably the most important change, has been the growth of administrators, which has been the subject of a number of articles.  Both the number of administrative positions and their staffs have grown so quickly that administrators now outnumber faculty in many major institutions.  The leading ones also draw very impressive salaries.  The Harvard Form 990 for 2018--the equivalent of the institution's tax filing--lists then-President Drew Gilpin Faust (total compensation $1.7 million), provost Alan Barger ($881,000), and ten different vice presidents whose compensation appears to average more than half a million apiece.  Diversity officers at many institutions make $300,000.  No faculty member made the list of Harvard's 13 best-paid employees.  Harvard also pays more than $50 million every year--perhaps much more--to the managers of its endowment.  The Provost and the Vice President for the Harvard Library are the only people on this list who appear to contribute directly to the university's intellectual mission.   Many of them, I am sure, manage Harvard's relationship with society and government, which in turn is based on generating the funds that the university needs to support its mangement in the style to which it has become accustomed.

A second big change is the growth of the faculty.  As I pointed out in A Life in History, in 1965, when I arrived, the Harvard History Department had 30 full-time faculty members and had just graduated about 270 history majors from Harvard and Radcliffe. In 2018 that department showed more than 50 full-time members--and it had just graduated 45 history majors from a student body that was a bit larger.  The same pattern, I am sure, prevails among the other departments in the Humanities.  The average educational contribution of faculty, in short--measured by the number of students they teach--is way down.  That also matches the wishes of most of the faculty, who have been conditioned for generations to regard teaching as a routine activity unworthy of a serious scholar.  (There have always been exceptions, but they survive largely by accident.)  The Harvard government department recently cut its teaching load for tenured faculty from four courses a year to three.  The day of the large lecture course in the humanities or social sciences, the staple of my own education which could put the stamp of a great faculty member on a whole generation of undergraduates, seems to be past.    Small group classes now dominate, partly because students always put pressure on for more of them.  Meanwhile, professors have gotten used to teaching their specialized interests to undergraduates as well as grad students, rather than focusing on the broadest issues within their discipline.  All this, too, makes college more expensive.

Lastly, schools now spend much more money on facilities than they used to.  As late as the 1960s, in the nation's most prestigious university, the administration still seemed to think that young men and women might learn better in  relatively spartan setting.  About ten years ago, when my wife--a graduate of a state university--asked that we reserve a dormitory room in one of the houses when we attended one of my reunions.  The room had not changed in the better part of a century, and she was to say the least disappointed by the amenities.  Now Harvard is remodeling its houses one by one, at considerable expense.  A friend of mine once asked Larry Summers, when he was president, why the school was spending so much money on new eating facilities, when one of the most fun parts of his own Harvard experience had been meeting local people in the many small restaurants and cafes that Cambridge had to offer. "Our customers want it," Summers replied. q.e.d.  His customers also wanted a shorter academic calendar, and under his leadership, Harvard did away with the January reading period and moved exams before Christmas.  I and many of my classmates were astonished to learn how much we could read, and learn, during those 2-3 focused weeks. Today's undergraduates will miss that lesson.

Students have attended leading institutions to better themselves economically for at least 150 years.  In the 1870s, when Henry Adams was teaching history at Harvard, one of his students explained to him that "the degree from Harvard College is worth money to me in Chicago."  Yet the reputation of schools depended in large measure not merely on the credentials that they could provide, but also on the particular educational experience that they offered.  Some of the Harvard faculty who taught general education courses at Harvard when I got there had been hired by James Bryant Conant specifically for the purpose of teaching those courses.  Now the number of colleges in the nation that offer a particular undergraduate educational experience could now be counted on the fingers of two hands.

The current crisis could become an opportunity for some liberal arts colleges in particular.  Rather than abandon residential education, they might drastically cut back on their administrative staff, perhaps let go some faculty as well, and insist that faculty spend more time teaching, take it more seriously, and teach the kind of course that every educated citizen ought to take. That in turn would enable them to cut tuition drastically. Within a few years, I think, such a school would have a student body to be very proud of, and its services would be much in demand. Yet it is very unlikely that this will happen, simply because all the power now rests in administrators' hands, and the school exists largely for them.  I feel very lucky to have attended college when I did.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

William Barr's theory of the Constitution

Many months ago, when the impeachment controversy was just getting going, I published a piece here about different kinds of grounds for impeachment.  It argued, among other things,. that we had lost sight of one of the principal grounds for impeachment as recognized by the Founding Fathers: the use of legitimate powers for corrupt purposes.  Presidents and other officials, I argued, might take actions that did not in themselves violate the criminal code, but which were designed to achieve a corrupt aim having no relation to the public interest.  That was what Donald Trump did when he asked the president of Ukraine to undertake an investigation of Joe Biden's son Hunter and of supposed Ukrainian intervention in the 2016 election.  The same issue lies behind Attorney General Barr's attempt to drop the prosecution of former National Security adviser Michael Flynn for lying to the FBI.  Here some background is in order.

On December 29, 2016, the Obama Administration announced new sanctions against Russia in retaliation against Russian interference in the recent presidential election, which may have resulted in the election of Donald Trump.  On that same day, Russian Ambassador Kislyak spoke to Flynn several times in international phone calls, since Flynn was vacationing in the Dominican Republic.  Flynn evidently encouraged  the Russian government not to retaliate in its turn against the new sanctions and promised that the Trump administration would revisit the matter as soon as it came into office.  In subsequent weeks, when Russia's role in the election was becoming more and more controversial, Vice President-elect Pence asked Flynn if he had discussed sanctions with Kislyak, and Flynn said no.  He said no again when the FBI questioned him about it a few days later, thereby violating the law.  That led to his almost immediate resignation as National Security Adviser, Trump's request to FBI Director Comey to "let Mike Flynn go," Flynn's prosecution, and his guilty plea.  The guilty plea--rather than a full trial--had another consequence. It allowed the Trump Administration not to release the evidence of Flynn's guilt, the transcript of his conversations with Kislyak.  We still don't know what he told the Ambassador the Trump administration would do.

Now the reason that AG Barr and his new team of prosecutors--who unlike the old ones are dedicated to building up the image of President Donald Trump and trying to destroy anyone who stands in their way--have asked the Judge to dismiss the case is not that they dispute that Barr lied to the FBI.  They are arguing, in the first instance, based on a released internal memo,. that the bureau agents knew that he was likely to lie because he had already lied to the Vice President, and that, in their view, constituted some form of entrapment.  This obviously makes no sense.  More importantly, however, they are arguing that the prosecution should be dropped because the investigation should never have been opened in the first place.  This is what Fox News, the White House, and the President himself have been saying for three years, arguing that it was only a false dossier written by a former British intelligence operative and financed, they say falsely, by Hillary Clinton, that led to the investigation.  The same argument, obviously, could be applied to the prosecution of all the people convicted by the Mueller investigation, and Barr and Trump are probably planning to make it when Trump, win or lose, pardons Roger Stone and perhaps Paul Manafort after the election.

A more impartial view of the investigation would go like this.  The FBI knew that the Russians had been using social media and a hack of the Democratic National Committee's computers to help Donald Trump. They also knew about some contacts between Trump campaign supporters or staffers  and operatives within the Russian effort, including Julian Assange of Wikileaks.  They had every reason to ask whether Trump operatives (nicluding Flynn) had promised the Russians anything in return.  The transcripts of Flynn's conversations with Kislyak about sanctions certainly fell within the scope of that inquiry.

A really interesting question emerging from all this, I think, is why Flynn lied to Pence.  It seems quite possible that he--like Rudy Giuliani a year or two later regarding Ukraine--was acting directly on behalf of President Trump, who didn't want other leading figures in the Administration to know about his dealings with the Russian Ambassador.  We don't even know who called whom between Pence and Kislyak, as far as I can tell, and who put them in touch.  We do know that Flynn thought he had to conceal what they had talked about from the Vice President-elect and from the FBI.  That is important.

What Barr is really suggesting, however, it seems to me, is that President Trump, even before taking office, had every right to say anything he wanted to the Russian Ambassador, just as Trump's defenders argued that he had every right to ask the President of Ukraine to investigate Biden. The theory of the "unitary executive" which Republicans have invented in recent decades, seems to hold that the President can use all his powers, including the power to communicate with foreign governments, in any way that he chooses, without any interference from the other branches of government.  Yet the impeachment clause of the Constitution proves that this was not what the framers intended, and as I showed in my earlier piece, "high crimes and misdemeanors," a term borrowed from British practice, included both the corrupt and the incompetent use of executive power.

From 1789 onward, Congress has established executive departments for specific purposes, and their appointed and permanent officers serve to carry those purposes out, not to slavishly execute the will of whoever happens to be in the White House. That is the precedent that both George W. Bush and now, Donald Trump, are trying to overturn.  Had the Republican Party earlier this year respected the original purposes of the Constitution, Trump would no longer be President.  It now rests with the American people to remove a President and an administration that do not understand or respect the Constitution that must govern their behavior.

Sunday, May 03, 2020

Thoughts on the Virus and where it has spread

I am not, of course, a medical doctor or an epidemiologist, but I have always loved numbers and I've spent a lot of time playing with them--especially, although not exclusively, as they relate to baseball.  I am convinced that important facts about the covid-19 virus are hiding in available numbers, and I hope that more knowledgeable people than I are looking for them there.  I have spent some time playing with figures available at this web site, however, and I could not miss an important pattern.  Just now, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo--who has a good feel for the significance of numbers himself--made an argument in his Sunday news conference that very much fit in with what I was seeing.  I am going to share my thoughts very tentatively here.

The worldometers site I just linked gives total cases, new cases, total deaths, new deaths, total cases per million people, and total deaths per million people,  and several other statistics, for every country in the world every day.  Studying it, I decided to focus on just one of those statistics: total deaths due to the virus per million people.  That, I think, must be the most meaningful of these statistics.  Total cases at this point is still largely a function of total tests administered, a number which varies enormously from country to country (and from state to state) as a proportion of population.  Total death figures undoubtedly underestimate the number of people the virus has killed--but I would be amazed if it underestimated it by as much as a factor of 2.  And when we focus on that figure, we find that the virus is far more common in the North Atlantic World--really, in the NATO alliance--than anywhere else.  Let's begin with a few numbers.

Leaving aside a few very small countries whose percentages are not meaningful, Belgium has the most covid-19 identified deaths per million in the world, 577.  The next four countries are all in Europe, ranging from Spain (540) through Italy, the UK, and France (379.)  The Netherlands, Sweden, Ireland, and Switzerland range from 295 per million to 204, and the United States is the first significant non-European nation on that list, with 205 deaths per million as of this morning.  US deaths, however, are highly concentrated.  The state of New York shows 1,256 deaths per million people, followed by New Jersey (877), Connecticut (680), Massachusetts (563), and through Louisiana and Michigan to the District of Columbia (367.)  Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Maryland are the only other states whose deaths per million exceed the national average, and eighteen states have less than 50 deaths per million population.  Heading back to Europe, we find that Denmark and Germany have 84 and 81 cases per million. 

In the third world, the virus has had very little impact so far.  Ecuador leads Latin America with 89 deaths per million.  Turkey leads Asia with only 40.  Totals in Eastern Europe are very low.  China now reports only 3 deaths per million people. New Zealand and Australia have escaped almost entirely.

I didn't know what to make of these figures earlier this morning, but now, thanks to Governor Cuomo, I think I do.  It is now clear, he said, that the virus came to New York state (and evidently to the whole northeast) not from China, but from Europe.  While the Administration banned travel from China on February 1, it did not stop travel from Europe until the middle of March, and by then the virus was well established here.  It was not too long after that that travel largely shut down within the United States, and it has remained so.    COVID-19 so far is a disease of the world's wealthiest nations, because, I suspect, their citizens travel so much.  Now, two months of social distancing have apparently slowed its spread in these most affected areas--but those areas are still showing far more new cases and deaths than most of the rest of the United States where the virus hadn't gotten a foothold before interregional travel almost came to a halt.  And with the exception of China, where it looks to me now as if the spread of the virus never came close to what has happened in the major European countries and the US, it has yet to gain a significant foothold anywhere in the Third World--because there hasn't been enough travel between the North Atlantic world and the Third World to start one.  Interestingly enough, a New York Times story this morning that asks why the virus is so much more plentiful in some countries than others--and which does not reach any conclusions--added another key data point for me.  The Dominican Republic now has 30 deaths per million from COVID-19, while Haiti, on the very same island, has just 7.  The reason, I strongly suspect, is the very large Dominican minority in the northeast US--much larger than any Haitian community--and the correspondingly high rate of travel from the US to the DR.

What follows is, of course, speculative, but I will state it with relatively few disclaimers.  I am not, of course, even in touch with anyone who is investigating the virus's spread scientifically, but I suspect we will find out within a month or two whether my hypotheses are true or not.

Air travel evidently has played a critical role in the spread of the virus.  A critical question, and to my mind a very open one, is this:  did most American travelers who had been to Italy contract the virus in Italy, or did most of the contract them in airplanes?  Airplanes, like buses and subways, are enclosed spaces in which the virus could, it seems to me, easily move from one person to another through the air.  The very serious impact of the virus in nursing homes, where so many vulnerable people live so close together, suggests that proximity drives the spread.  So, alas, does the spread within hospitals, which we must do everything we can to control.  Obviously the virus has been spreading via face-to-face contact in the western European NATO countries and in the northeastern US, but the general halt to large-scale travel within the US and around the world seems to have stopped large-scale transmission elsewhere, at least for now.  The significance of travel to the virus's spread obviously could have implications for how we try to return to normal, as well.  Pressure to return to normal is mounting in some parts of the US because the virus hasn't made many inroads there.  Can those areas safely return to normal activities if they maintain some kind of quarantine from more affected areas?  That is a question for an epidemiologist, not an historian, and I don't know the answer.  I think however that we need to find out what the answer is.

Any sudden revival of world and interregional travel would evidently open up new danger of spread.  We need competent authorities (such as the WHO, from whom President Trump is trying to take away funding) to study these questions and make recommendations.  I do think we can say now, however, that we aren't facing a virus that is spreading around the world at a steady exponential rate.  It spread very rapidly in certain very rich areas before travel restrictions, and it seems not to have spread over long distances very rapidly since then.  That, it seems to me, must be an important clue to a solution.