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Sunday, August 30, 2020

Mere anarchy is loosed

  For the second time in a week, men have been shot and killed during protests.  In Kenosha the shooter was a right-wing counter-protestor, and the victims part of the original protests; in Portland, things are much less clear.  This is the development that I have feared for more than three years, since the Charlottesville confrontation.  It echoes what happened in the last years of Weimar Germany, when militia groups from the Nazi, Communist and Social Democratic parties battled one another in the streets, taking hundreds of lives.  (The Nazis actually got the worst of it in the streets but eventually outpolled these two rivals at the ballot box and worked their way into power.)  With the country so awash in guns that a 17-year old can acquire an AR-15, it is surprising that it took so long to come to this.  But how far will it go?

I think there will be further incidents along these lines between  now and the election.  Across the nation, our police consistently kill about three people a day.  So far this year they have killed 661 people, most of whom we never hear of.  242 of them, it is worth noting, are white, and 123 are black.  80 are Hispanic and more than 200 do not have an identified race.  Only when actual video exists do they become national issues.  Shootings remain constant and videos become more and more common, and thus, I expect more well-publicized cases.  Each of them will lead to more marches, probably to more outbursts of arson and looting, and perhaps to more violent counter-protests as well.  I share the fear that all this will help Donald Trump in his campaign for re-election.

Yet I still do not think that we are heading for anything remotely resembling national socialism, because that was a product of a completely different time and place.  The militias of Nazi Germany were highly organized and hierarchical.  That was natural in a country that had had compulsory military service until very recently (it had been eliminated by the Versailles Treaty.)   The whole western world, I would argue, was more organized and more respectful of authority at many levels then than it is now.  For half a century, we have been living through a revolt against leadership of all kinds.  It began in the 1960s, when young Americans rebelled against  the draft, young women began to reject traditional roles, and young black activists rejected the authority of long-established civil rights groups.  That revolt has continued through three generations on both sides of the political fence.  On the right it has been mainly economic, on the left, it is more based on identity.  The two revolts have left us almost without common values and certainly without the ability to devote major resources to a common goal.

COVID-19 is dealing another huge blow to our institutions.  Not only is the Administration utterly unable to cope with it, but it has crippled our entire educational system.  Paralysis has now stopped the Congress from passing effective new relief measures, allowing the President to step in with his own mock measures instead.  Certainly I hope that Joe Biden will win election this November and return a functioning adult to the White House, but I certainly understand why so few Americans believe that any outcome will make a meaningful difference in their lives.  They may turn out to be right.  A prolonged controversy over the election will not help, either.

The United States, I think, went through a somewhat comparable period during the last three years of the Hoover Administration, when the government could not cope with a devastating economic crisis.  That came to an end when FDR convinced the nation that he understood its problems and was doing something about them--even though it actually took the war to end mass unemployment.  The Revolutionary War and the Civil War were more difficult periods to live through, but in each of them the nation was making a huge and ultimately successful effort to solve the big problem before it.  It has now been decades, however, since our government successfully attacked a major problem of interest to us all. 

Future posts will discuss how all of this began.  I cannot predict where it is going.  The national discourse, reflected on the front and op-ed pages of mainstream media and by the memes that keep popping up on my facebook page, is only making matters worse, based as it is on unrestrained anger, suspicion, and self-righteousness that rarely reflects real facts.  

There is, I think, a profound connection between political and intellectual anarchy.  That is why, as a favorite Harvard professor of mine remarked nearly 50 years ago, history thrives in periods of restoration--that is, the 20-40 years after a great political crisis, when political authority has won renewed respect, society is relatively stable, and there is enough time, and calm, to think.  We do not live in such a time.  I do not know when it might return.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

80 Years Ago, once more

 It has been some time since I have compared this morning's New York Times front page to its counterpart 80 years ago--the length of the recurring cycle first identified nearly thirty years ago by Bill Strauss and Neil Howe. The two front pages do confirm that the United States, now as then, faces a serious crisis--but the nature of those crises is entirely different.  80 years ago the crisis was international--a European war threatening almost at any moment to become a world war.  Today the crisis involves the functioning of many basic American institutions, both because of the COVID-19 epidemic and because of the political crisis that threatens our institutions, as they were not threatened then.

The right-hand four columns of the eight-column front page on August 23, 1940 deal with the European war.  Headlines describe the escalating air Battle of Britain, including a nighttime German bombing attack that struck the western suburbs of London, retaliatory British raids into Germany, and an attack by German heavy guns on the French coast on a British convoy passing through the English channel. Meanwhile, the Greek government, a military dictatorship, was preparing for an Italian attack, backed by Germany.  Another extraordinary story datelined Tokyo reports that the Japanese Foreign Ministry has carried out an extraordinary purge of its diplomatic service, recalling five ambassadors and nineteen ministers, including its senior representatives in Washington, Paris, Ankara, and Rio de Janeiro--a move frankly acknowedged to be a purge of liberal elements known as the "British-American faction."  I am rather astonished that I managed to write my entire book, No End Save Victory, which had a lot to say about Japanese policy and Japanese-American relations in 1940-1, without knowing about this. And meanwhile back at the ranch, column 1 on the left reports the creation of a joint US-Canadian Board to plan the defense of the Western Hemisphere, whose members included Fiorello La Guardia, the mayor of New York; senior military officers from all the services; and a State Department official.  This board, I know, had serious business to attend to: American authorities from FDR on down thought that the fall of Great Britain was entirely possible, and should it occur, hemispheric defense would become critical.

Congress remained fully in session that summer despite the election--as it does not now.  The House had just adopted a House-Senate conference report on a bill authorizing the President to call out the National Guard and army reserve for one year's training--a measure expected to affect about 400,000 men.  One provision sought to make sure that would be able to get their jobs back when they returned. In the Senate, meanwhile, one Senator accused isolationists of abusing Senate rules to carry on an informal filibuster against the bill creating the nation's first peacetime draft. The debate, like the even longer debate on the Lend-Lease Act about five months later, slowed, but did not stop, the passage of this key step in the fight for preparedness. 

Both party conventions had taken place at least a month earlier in 1940 than they have this year, but only one story dealt with the campaign.  The Republican candidate Wendell Willkie held a press conference announcing his first major campaign swing beginning on September 14 in Kansas and moving to the West Coast. As it turned out, since Willkie supported much of the New Deal and joined FDR in calls to aid Great Britain to the fullest possible extent, he had to rely in his campaign on claims that a third victory for Roosevelt would establish dictatorship in the United States.  The New York Times eventually endorsed him, as did most of the nation's leading newspapers, but FDR won very handily in November.  And at the very bottom of the page, the Times reported that Sylvia Ageloff, a 31-year old  Brooklynite who worked as a Department of Welfare home relief investigator--presumably a state agency--had been identified as the woman who had introduced Leon Trotsky to has assassin in Mexico, where she had gone during a three-month leave of absence from her job.  As it turned out, Mexican authorities initially charged her with complicity in the murder but later released her. 

That 80-year old front page had ten separate stories; today's has only six. The lead has nothing to do with foreign war, military preparedness or the course of legislation: it tells how Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin orchestrated the appointment of Louis DeJoy, a big contributor to President Trump's campaigns, as the head of USPS, in defiance of a decades-old law that tried to insulate it from political pressure. The lead political story speculates that President Trump will try to defeat Joe Biden the way George H. W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis in 1988, by defining him as an extremist.  A third story explains that California is having more trouble fighting this year's huge wildfires because a great many of the prison inmates who have served as fire fighters in years past have now been released. The lead local story details the desperate attempts of New York restaurants to survive the pandemic by offering tables outside.  A fourth has the self-explanatory headline, "To Stay Open, Colleges Wage War on Parties," a second example of how the pandemic has crippled key national institutions.  Lastly, the only foreign news story tells how the Thai government as used Facebook to discredit a domestic critic. And that is that.

We are fortunate, of course, not to have a major war raging on another continent and threatening our own, but we do have a pandemic raging on every continent, and now, centered in the United States, which was merely an interested bystander in the early stages of the Second World War. The 80-year old front page tells the story of institutions coping with that challenge, in Britain by defending against the German air attack, in the United States by mobilizing for war and cooperating with Canada, and even in Greece. Today the stories about Mnuchin and the possible course of the Trump campaign deal with the corruption of our government on the one hand and our political process on the other, while the state of California, New York restaurants, and colleges and universities fight what seems at the moment to be a losing battle against COVID-19.  Terrible times lay ahead in 1940, but five years later, the United States was stronger than ever, and on the verge of two decades of prosperity and progress on many fronts. Now, sadly, we are still waiting to hit bottom and begin to improve.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

The Crisis in our Politics

 I have written many times that the nomination and election of Donald Trump in 2016 was a symptom, not a cause, of serious, possibly fatal diseases in American politics.  Donor networks had long dominated both parties by then, and serious candidates needed access to those networks.  That was why so many presidential candidates were either former Vice Presidents (such as George H. W. Bush, Al Gore, and Joe Biden), or closely related to Presidents (such as George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, and the 2016 Republican favorite Jeb Bush.)  The two parties had collaborated in the outsourcing of American industry via NAFTA and other agreements and the deregulation that produced the financial crisis in 2008.  They pursued the same foreign policies, many of them disastrous.  They had completely failed to solve the problem of illegal immigration or to stop the trend towards more and more inequality, and they used various tribal loyalties to hold their voter bases together.  Both, in short, had completely failed to meet the challenge of the fourth great crisis in American national life. Millions of Americans had decided that neither party leadership had anything to offer them.  Donald Trump won easily over a field of standard Republican candidates, and narrowly defeated Hillary Clinton in an election in which the votes for both the Republican and Democratic candidates fell relative to 2012. 

Trump has made the crisis worse in two ways.  First of all, he has allied himself with the Congressional Republican leadership and the party's major contributors such as the Koch brothers to continue, at breakneck pace, the destruction of the federal government and the legacy of the last 120 years or so.  This would not have been possible if more people still cared about it. Secondly, Trump is such an utterly incompetent individual, so totally focused on his own narcissistic needs, that he can neither solve a real problem nor trust anyone who can.  The COVID-19 epidemic has exposed this for all to see, and it looks likely to cost him his re-election.  Biden leads him by a solid 8 points in national polling, a margin much too big for the Republican electoral college advantage to overcome.  Biden leads comfortably in enough of the battleground states to win a solid electoral majority.  Now, however, a new threat has emerged.

Mail-in voting has become very popular in the country in recent years, and the Trump Administration, led by the new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy--a major Trump fundraiser and donor who has helped run a competitor of USPS--is trying to sabotage the whole postal service so as to make it impossible for ballots to arrive and be counted on time and, it would appear, provide a basis for challenging results.  The Postal Service has stopped overtime, removed post office boxes from the street in various cities, and threatened to retire a great many sorting machines.  Trump meanwhile is arguing falsely that mail-in voting is wracked with fraud.  The experience of a number of recent primaries suggests that it could take a week or even several weeks to get a full count of the mail-in votes in some states. Exactly how Trump might try to use all this to assure himself a favorable result is not clear, and I hope to research it further in weeks to come.  Yet the DeJoy appointment and what he has done in office persuades me that some one is working on a well-developed strategy to use controversy over the election to keep Donald Trump in office.

Democrats must not allow themselves to be led the slaughter by more determined Republicans, as they were in 2000.  A full recount in Florida, it later developed, would have shown that Al Gore was the winner--but his team never even demanded a full recount.  This time, the problem is to use mail-in voting as little as possible, or, alternatively, to take advantage of other ways--and there are other ways in most states, if not all--to get the early ballots to the authorities.  In my own state of Massachusetts one can hand carry his ballot to the office of the Town Clerk.  One can also vote early in person, as I have in the past and plan to do again.  The Democratic Party and the Biden campaign need to set up an interactive process on line that will inform voters about these options in every state and help them make use of them.  And last but not least, it must appeal to voters who have not arranged to vote early to get to the polls--despite the health risks of doing so.  Hundreds of thousands of American soldiers died in the last two great crises, the Civil War and the Second World War, to preserve our way of life.  Simply showing up at the polls as a last resort will show the world that we still value our institutions enough to take some risk to preserve them.

The rot in our political system runs very deep, and how much a President Biden will be able to do to regenerate us remains a very important question, dependent on many things that we do not yet know.  We will not emerge from this crisis strengthened and more confident to the extent that we did from any of the previous three--but we can emerge with our system intact and keep some new possibilities open for the future.  That will however require attention, dedication, and even serious risks, to make sure that the American people can make their will felt on November 3.

Saturday, August 08, 2020

Emergency Powers?

I have been skeptical about claims that Donald Trump aims to set up a dictatorship  He and the Tea Party Republicans upon which he increasingly depends are more interested in destroying the authority of the federal government than increasing it, and his mind is far too disorganized even to figure out how he might do so.  He and William Barr have perverted the criminal justice system to help his friends, but they haven't done much with it to try to hurt his enemies, even though some investigations of former FBI officials are continuing.  That is not to say that all our liberties are safe. We have somewhere between 13 and 20 million undocumented immigrants in this country, and although I can't find complete figures, it looks like Trump will have deported about a million of them during his first term.  The remarkable Netflix series, Immigration Nation, which I am halfway through, shows how ICE is harassing and terrifying many of these people, including many who have caused no problems while in the United States, and even some veterans of honorable service in the U.S. military.  That situation is the fault of the Congress and earlier administrations who have not been able to give those people legal status, leaving them at the mercy of the executive branch.  The Trump administration is also trying to cut back on some protections for LGBT citizens.

This week, however, new developments definitely send a shiver down the back of anyone familiar with how the Nazi regime came to power.  A little history is in order.

The Weimar Republic had an exemplary democratic constitution, but it came to power in 1919 under most unfortunate circumstances.  The country had just lost a war and was losing several chunks of its territory.  its currency had lost most of its value, and the victorious allies were presenting a large bill for reparations.  Returning veterans organized themselves into paramilitary units to fight socialists and communist revolutionaries.  Assassins made a concerted and largely successful attempt to kill all the officials who had signed the Versailles Treaty.  Last but not least, the electorate was split into at least half a dozen major parties based mostly on class and religion, with none of them anywhere near a majority.  And in the second half of the 1920s, the Republic's two most important statesmen died: Friedrich Ebert, a Social Democrat and first president of the Republic, and Gustav Streseman, the liberal foreign minister who had worked hard to re-integrate Germany back into Europe.

The economy, on the other hand, had recovered somewhat from about 1926 through 1928, and in the latter year, a broad coalition of parties led by the Social Democrats took office.  Then in 1929 came the stock market crash on Wall Street, leading to the withdrawal of American capital upon which the Germans depended.  Their own economy began to come apart, and in the spring of 1930 the government coalition broke apart over the issue of unemployment benefits--that's right, unemployment benefits.  Heinrich BrĂ¼ning  of the Catholic Center party took over as chancellor and called a new election.  it was a disaster. The Nazis came out of nowhere to become the most numerous party in the Reichstag or parliament, and together with the Communists--who were equally dedicated to the destruction of the regime--they were strong enough to block any effective government action.  With the cooperation of the President, Paul von Hindenburg--the most popular general of the First World War, who had little commitment to the regime himself--BrĂ¼ning took advantage of an emergency provision of the Weimar constitution that allowed him to rule by emergency presidential decrees.  For two years, he passed the budget and every other important piece of legislation that way, before he himself was dismissed from office, given way to two relatively authoritarian chancellors of short duration, who in turn gave way to Hitler.

 Events have been moving far more quickly in the US in the last six months than they did in the late stages of the Weimar Republic. Thanks to the pandemic, we suddenly face one of the three worst economic crises in our modern history, with no real idea of how to end it.  And like the Reichstag in 1932, Congress cannot agree what to do about it, because it is so divided. The Democratic House has passed a new plan, but in the Senate, Mitch McConnell has refused to even try to compromise with the Democrats there, because he is apparently sticking to his rule of never allowing legislation to pass without a large majority of the Republican Senators behind it.  (This is of course exactly the opposite of the way responsible politicians are supposed to behave in a national emergency, but it is not surprising.)  McConnell in the last two weeks allowed two executive branch figures, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows--a former Tea Party Congressman himself--to take them over.  Their attitude, however, now suggests that they had no intention of reaching an agreement at all.

Instead, President Trump has announced that his administration is preparing executive orders to extend unemployment benefits, stop evictions, 
 provide other unspecified forms of assistance, and perhaps even declare a cut in the payroll tax.   The President seems to think that he enjoys the emergency powers of the Weimar president--although I'm quite certain that he has no idea of the history I reviewed above.  He has been encouraged in this belief by Berkeley law professor John Yoo, who wrote a notorious torture memo for George W. Bush, and who is now arguing that a recent Supreme Court decision allows a president at least temporarily to claim any power that he wants.  In this case the problems Trump is claiming could hardly be more unconstitutional, since the Constitution specifically reserves the right to appropriate money to the Congress. The Supreme Court's 5-4 conservative majority, however, has already allowed Trump to get away with diverting money appropriated for other purposes to his border wall, even though a circuit court had ruled that he could not do so.   Trump has remarked that he will be sued for doing this, but he probably enjoys the idea of Democrats going into federal court to stop him from handing out more unemployment benefits, stopping evictions,  or cutting payroll taxes.

In fact, I am concerned that this political ploy may work.  As Sol Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) said to another (fictional) president in the next to last season of Homeland about some drastic action she had taken and its popularity, "It showed balls. They like a president with balls."  Trump can't persuade the American people that he is on top of the fight against COVID-19, but he might persuade some of them that he took action to help them when the Congress refused to do so.  Having almost unanimously surrendered their power to discipline the President for impeachable offenses earlier in this year, the Senate Republicans are probably more than happy to surrender their share of the power of the purse to him now as well.  

At the moment Trump's re-election seems very unlikely.  If however he gets away with executive orders declaring how billions of federal dollars will be spent and does win re-election, I think we could move to some kind of authoritarian rule, at least where the budget and the operation of the federal government is concerned.  The failure of Congress, over decades, to handle many serious issues, has helped pave the way for this.  I hope we don't have to find out.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Some COVID-19 numbers.

On April 22, I began keeping a weekly spreadsheet of COVID-19 deaths in the US and in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.  I have kept up with it now for more than three months, and without it, I would not have much of a grasp on the course of the epidemic.  Innumeracy--an inability to make sense of statistics--is rampant in the media. and much of the reporting is about cases, for which our data is lamentably incomplete.  The death count is surely incomplete as well, but not by nearly as much.  Here are some of the most important things that the data now shows.

Nationwide deaths totaled 14,031 for the week ending midnight GMT on April 28.  That figure included more than 2,512 in New York, 1,379 in New Jersey, 821 in Massachusetts, 468 in Connecticut, and 418 in Illinois.  Deaths per million for that week--a key statistic-- were 42 nationwide, 128 in New York, and 155 in New Jersey.  Deaths per million were just 12 in Florida and 5 in Texas.  Nationwide deaths remained at about the same level in the next week, totaling 14,330 for the week ending May 5.  Then they began to drop, to 11,154 on May 12; and they continued to do so pretty steadily for another eight weeks or so, all the way through the month of June.  Deaths for the week ending July 1 totaled just 3,919, less than 1/3 of the week that ended on April 18--just 12 new deaths per million people, rather than 42 on April 28.  Among the states, Rhode Island was the leader for that week with 42 deaths per million, followed by Arizona with 35, Illinois with 30, New Jersey with 26, and Massachusetts with 21.  Connecticut and New York had just 10 new deaths per million each that week,  Both had cut their death rate by 90% or so in nine weeks, a remarkable achievement. 

I do not have this figure at hand, but I saw figures around that time stating that as many as 40% of all deaths had occurred in nursing homes.  The virus had spread through many of them, and through a significant portion (we have no real idea how big) of people in the Northeast, like wildfire, before anyone realized what was happening.  By May, however, if not earlier, nursing homes had become quarantine zones, and that must account for a significant portion of the reduction in deaths.  Meanwhile, the shutdown of the economy and the almost universal adoption of social distancing measures in the large urban areas of the northeast had obviously reduced the infection rate by a very large number as well.

After bottoming out at 3919 on July 1, new deaths nationwide increased to 4,064 on July 8; 5,282 on July 15; 6,039 on July 22; and 7,657 on July 29, last Wednesday. (I should note that all these figures are slightly approximate because they are the ones reported at the time, and states have frequently had to revise their figures upward somewhat later.) Total deaths in that period have been increasing at 5% a week--a rate of increase considerably higher than the long, slow decline from early May through early July.  Meanwhile, the distribution of deaths around the country has completely changed.  The leaders in new deaths per million for the week ending July 29 are Arizona (66), South Carolina (64), Texas (63), Mississippi and Louisiana (47), Florida (46), Alabama (36), Georgia (29), and Nevada (25.) Nationwide we suffered 23 deaths per million.  In the northeast, Massachusetts deaths per million were 16, New Jersey 10, New York 6, and Connecticut 5.  California, interestingly enough, has stayed quite close to the national average throughout most of the epidemic.

The epidemic, then, as been getting worse in terms of deaths since July 1, and therefore, it must have been getting worse in terms of new infections several weeks before that, when the "re-opening" of the country began in early June.  We hear from the news daily that we have set new records for new cases and total active cases.  I am not convinced that that is true.  Deaths for the week ending July 29 were only slightly more than twice as high as deaths in late April.  If we really have more cases now, that means that the death rate per infection must have fallen by 50%.  The early "nursing home effect" might have raised the early death rate that much, but it seems a little doubtful to me.  If the current trend continues, however, we probably will be as badly off in total cases as we were in late April, even though they will be in completely different areas.  It would however take about 50 days of increases of deaths at the current rate to get total deaths per day up to the late April level.  That's plenty of time for the Sunbelt states to get their cases on the decline, if they are willing to do so.

I have not kept week-to-week statistics on other countries, but daily data shows that several of the major European countries have reduced their deaths to very low levels indeed. COVID-19 deaths on July 29 totaled 12 in Canada, 16 in France, 9 in Germany, 3 in Italy, and 2 in Spain.  In the UK they were 38, and Russia 29.  In the United States, the total reported was 1,465, the highest in the world.  Even though we are about six times larger than the major European countries, those are sobering figures.  New England, New York and New Jersey, with about 42 million people total, had 62 deaths on that day, a noticeably higher rate than Germany or Spain.  Brazil is second to the United States in total deaths with 1,189 that day; India, with 3-4 times the population of the US, had 783.

The continental European nations have passed the first big test posed by the pandemic. We have not.