Preparing for a Worse Pandemic

It looks like the Gulf Stream will eventually collapse, leading to a climate catastrophe, but maybe it will take centuries, not months, so let’s consider a different catastrophe instead. Eric Lander, the administration’s top science adviser, explains what we need to do to avoid a much worse pandemic:

Coronavirus vaccines can end the current pandemic if enough people choose to protect themselves and their loved ones by getting vaccinated. But . . .

New infectious diseases have been emerging at an accelerating pace, and they are spreading faster.

. . . That’s why President Biden has asked Congress to fund his plan to build on current scientific progress to keep new infectious-disease threats from turning into pandemics like covid-19.

. . . For the first time in our history, we have an opportunity not just to refill our stockpiles but also to transform our capabilities. However, if we don’t start preparing now for future pandemics, the window for action will close.

Covid-19 has been a catastrophe: The toll in the United States alone is more than 614,000 lives . . . A future pandemic could be even worse — unless we take steps now.

It’s important to remember that the virus behind covid-19 is far less deadly than the 1918 influenza. The virus also belongs to a well-understood family, coronaviruses. It was possible to design vaccines within days of knowing the virus’s genetic code because 20 years of basic scientific research had revealed which protein to target and how to stabilize it. And while the current virus spins off variants, its mutation rate is slower than that of most viruses.

Unfortunately, most of the 26 families of viruses that infect humans are less well understood or harder to control. We have a great deal of work still ahead.

The development of mRNA vaccine technology — thanks to more than a decade of foresighted basic research — was a game-changer. It shortened the time needed to design and test vaccines to less than a year — far faster than for any previous vaccine. And it’s been surprisingly effective against covid-19.

Still, there’s much more to do. We don’t yet know how mRNA vaccines will perform against other viruses down the road. And when the next pandemic breaks out, we’ll want to be able to respond even faster.

Fortunately, the scientific community has been developing a bold plan to keep future viruses from becoming pandemics.

Here are a few of the goals we should shoot for:

The capability to design, test and approve safe and effective vaccines within 100 days of detecting a pandemic threat (for covid-19, that would have meant May 2020); manufacture enough doses to supply the world within 200 days; and speed vaccination campaigns by replacing sterile injections with skin patches.

Diagnostics simple and cheap enough for daily home testing to limit spread and target medical care.

Early-warning systems to spot new biological threats anywhere in the world soon after they emerge and monitor them thereafter.

We desperately need to strengthen our public health system — from expanding the workforce to modernizing labs and data systems — including to ensure that vulnerable populations are protected.

And we need to coordinate actions with our international partners, because pandemics know no borders.

These goals are ambitious, but they’re feasible — provided the work is managed with the seriousness, focus and accountability of NASA’s Apollo Program, which sent humans to the moon.

Importantly, these capabilities won’t just prepare us for future pandemics; they’ll also improve public health and medical care for infectious diseases today.

Preparing for threats is a core national responsibility. . . . The White House will put forward a detailed plan this month to ensure that the United States can fully prepare before the next outbreak. It’s hard to imagine a higher economic or human return on national investment.

Reconstruction, the Gilded Age and Today

Having heretofore avoided reading a book about Reconstruction, one of the worst periods in American history, I decided to read a book about Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, two of the worst periods in American history (on the theory that reading a book about Reconstruction and something else would dilute the nevertheless disturbing account of Reconstruction).

The book was The Republic For Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865 – 1896, by Stanford University historian Richard White. It’s one of nine volumes in the Oxford History of the United States. It’s got 872 pages of text and weighs 3 1/2 pounds.

It wasn’t what you’d call a “fun read”. This is part of the publisher’s summary:

At the end of the Civil War the leaders and citizens of the victorious North envisioned the country’s future as a free-labor republic, with a homogenous citizenry, both black and white. The South and West were to be reconstructed in the image of the North. Thirty years later Americans occupied an unimagined world. The unity that the Civil War supposedly secured had proved ephemeral. The country was larger, richer, and more extensive, but also more diverse. Life spans were shorter, and physical well-being had diminished, due to disease and hazardous working conditions. Independent producers had become wage earners. The country was Catholic and Jewish as well as Protestant, and increasingly urban and industrial. The “dangerous” classes of the very rich and poor expanded, and deep differences — ethnic, racial, religious, economic, and political — divided society. The corruption that gave the Gilded Age its name was pervasive.

One thing that summary leaves out is that the period also included “taming the West”, more appropriately described as inflicting cultural devastation and mass murder on the American Indians. It also leaves out the horrors inflicted on former slaves (and some of their white supporters) in the South, the stunningly successful effort to undo the results of the Civil War using a biased legal system and more mass murder (there were places in states like Alabama and Mississippi where maybe 1% of black citizens cast ballots).

Two of the big political issues of this period were tariffs (what taxes should be applied to imports) and money (whether it should be based on gold or silver). Corruption in government, recurring financial panics and the economics of farming were also major concerns. But in some ways, American politics looked a lot like today, with inequality, the power of big business and limits on immigration being major issues. 

These two illustrations show something else that hasn’t changed. The first shows the presidential election of 1896; the second shows the one we had last year. 

1896_large 2020_large

The big difference between the two maps, of course, is that between 1896 and 2020 the two parties switched sides. Partly because of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Southern racists became Republicans (not what you’d expect from the Party of Lincoln) and Northern and west coast liberals became Democrats.

Much Ado About Not Much

It looks like the Senate will pass an inadequate infrastructure bill after months of discussion. It’s been heralded as a bipartisan breakthrough. But it doesn’t meet the moment, as Katrina vanden Heuvel explains for The Washington Post: 

While the infrastructure deal’s architects are hailing it as proof that bipartisan cooperation is possible, in fact, the deal is both inadequate and disingenuous. Its inadequacy is illustrated by the hundreds of millions of dollars cut from the original administration proposal: no more funding for research and development, for U.S. manufacturing, for public housing, schools and child-care centers, for home and community-based care, or for clean-energy tax credits. The bill also cuts proposed funding for public transit by half, for electric vehicles by 90 percent and for broadband by a third.

The bill is disingenuous both on the spending side and on the revenue side. To lower the bill’s price tag without totally gutting the programs, the bill uses a five-year timeline as opposed to the eight years in the original Biden plan. Because Republicans refuse to consider raising taxes on the rich and the corporations — which most Americans sensibly favor — or even empowering the IRS to collect taxes that the wealthy already owe, the bill offers gimmicks such as collecting unpaid taxes on cryptocurrencies and reclaiming past coronavirus aid funds. Almost half of the supposed $1 trillion price tag is from money already authorized.

The result is that any serious effort to alleviate the real crises facing Americans will depend on progressives corralling Democratic unity around the $3.5 trillion budget resolution that has been put together under the leadership of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). That bill will authorize crucial funding left out of the bipartisan deal — clean energy, research and development, manufacturing aid, housing and schools, child care — as well as sustaining the child tax credit and expanding Medicare coverage.

But to pass the reconciliation bill, Democrats need the votes of all 50 caucus members, and [Sen. Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)] have indicated that they may balk at the $3.5 trillion price tag. (Sinema has even said that she won’t allow any votes to interfere with her vacation plans. If she were to carry out that threat, she could torpedo both bills on her way out the door.) Once again, these so-called centrists are standing in the way of Congress addressing catastrophic climate change, investing in civilian research and development, boosting domestic manufacturing vital to our economy, and alleviating inequality and the pressures on working families. Also at stake are the chances Democrats have to retain their majorities in both the House and Senate in the 2022 elections, for their vote will surely be depressed by a failure to deliver.

It’s not that Sinema or Manchin have a specific, principled stance. They just want less. If there is a final agreement, it will probably be reached just like the infrastructure deal, by lowering the total price tag while sustaining most of the annual level of spending by reducing the number of years the programs are authorized. That will give the programs less time to take effect and make them more vulnerable to repeal.

With record wildfires, a terrible pandemic starting to revive, extreme inequality and an economy that doesn’t work for working families, most Americans increasingly realize that it is time for bold action. Yet, we have a Republican Party consumed by delusions and dedicated to making the administration fail. For all the bipartisan blather, Democrats must get it done on their own — despite having only a one-vote margin in the Senate (counting the vice president breaking a tie) and a three-vote margin in the House. And that requires Sinema, Manchin and others to get with the program.

More on the Plot to Wreck America’s Elections

There is Big Money pushing the Big Lie. Charles Pierce of Esquire comments on a new report explaining how and why reactionaries with money are funding the attack on the 2020 election and elections to come: 

Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, indefatigable dark-money gumshoe, has made another major bust, this time in the area of The Big Lie and the lushly financed ratfcking infrastructure of the American right. She begins with the extended farce that is dragging on in Arizona, largely because it has been designed to drag on in Arizona, and elsewhere. She points to Patrick Byrne, the founder of Overstock.com, as one of the major sugar daddies behind this particular exercise in weaponized futility. But Mayer also emphasizes the fact that the entire conservative dark-money machine has been turned away from some of its traditional purposes and put behind a national effort not only to suppress the franchise, but also to delegitimize the electoral process itself. One engine supplies the power to the other.

Ralph Neas has been involved in voting-rights battles since the nineteen-eighties, when, as a Republican, he served as the executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. He has overseen a study of the Arizona audit for the nonpartisan Century Foundation, and he told me that, though the audit is a “farce,” it may nonetheless have “extraordinary consequences.” He said, “The Maricopa County audit exposes exactly what the Big Lie is all about. If they come up with an analysis that discredits the 2020 election results in Arizona, it will be replicated in other states, furthering more chaos. That will enable new legislation. Millions of Americans could be disenfranchised, helping D____ T____ to be elected again in 2024. That’s the bottom line. Maricopa County is the prism through which to view everything. It’s not so much about 2020—it’s about 2022 and 2024. This is a coördinated national effort to distort not just what happened in 2020 but to regain the House of Representatives and the Presidency.”

And, it should be said, to perpetuate that control for the purposes of shoving more of the national wealth upward and keeping it there. Because, for all the high-falutin’ talk about conspiracy theories and democracy, this is now and always has been about establishing a permanent oligarchy and, if a kind of fascism comes along with it, well, bonus, right, folks?

Although the Arizona audit may appear to be the product of local extremists, it has been fed by sophisticated, well-funded national organizations whose boards of directors include some of the country’s wealthiest and highest-profile conservatives. Dark-money organizations, sustained by undisclosed donors, have relentlessly promoted the myth that American elections are rife with fraud, and, according to leaked records of their internal deliberations, they have drafted, supported, and in some cases taken credit for state laws that make it harder to vote.

For example, the Heritage Foundation is in on the game, according to Mayer and to Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who is bulldogging the money power in all our political institution. [Right-wing legal activist] Leonard Leo, not content with having warped the federal judiciary unto the generations, is now turning his dark arts to screwing with elections. But Mayer also follows the money back to its source, which happens to be in this case, the most usual of usual subjects.

These disparate nonprofits have one thing in common: they have all received funding from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. Based in Milwaukee, the private, tax-exempt organization has become an extraordinary force in persuading mainstream Republicans to support radical challenges to election rules—a tactic once relegated to the far right. With an endowment of some eight hundred and fifty million dollars, the foundation funds a network of groups that have been stoking fear about election fraud, in some cases for years. Public records show that, since 2012, the foundation has spent some eighteen million dollars supporting eleven conservative groups involved in election issues.

I know people in Wisconsin who have spent their entire public careers fighting the poisonous influence of the Bradley Foundation, the reek of which prevails in almost all of the state’s major institutions—including, alas, my beloved alma mater. It was one of the major engines behind the rise of Congressman Paul Ryan, the zombie-eyed granny-starver from Janesville, and behind Scott Walker, the goggle-eyed homunculus hired by Koch Industries to manage their midwest subsidiary once known as the state of Wisconsin, and behind Ron Johnson, the continuing blight of the United States Senate. So the Bradley Foundation has managed to damage the national government in so many different ways, including the promotion and election of woeful statewide candidates.

An animating force behind the Bradley Foundation’s war on “election fraud” is Cleta Mitchell, a fiercely partisan Republican election lawyer, who joined the organization’s board of directors in 2012. Until recently, she was virtually unknown to most Americans. But, on January 3rd, the Washington Post exposed the contents of a private phone call, recorded the previous day, during which Trump threatened election officials in Georgia with a “criminal offense” unless they could “find” 11,780 more votes for him—just enough to alter the results. Also on the call was Mitchell, who challenged the officials to provide records proving that dead people hadn’t cast votes. The call was widely criticized as a rogue effort to overturn the election, and Foley & Lardner, the Milwaukee-based law firm where Mitchell was a partner, announced that it was “concerned” about her role, and then parted ways with her. Trump’s call prompted the district attorney in Fulton County, Georgia, to begin a criminal investigation.

Do yourself a favor and read the whole thing. Jane Mayer has found the taproot. It isn’t about Donald Trump, or about the My Pillow dumbass, or even the people who attacked the U.S. Capitol. It’s about the money, and who has it, and who wants to keep it, and, here’s a revelation, it’s probably not you.

Here are the closing words of the New Yorker article:

Polls show that, although the Arizona audit is wildly popular among Republican voters in the state, it alienates independents, who constitute approximately a third of the state’s electorate—and whose support is necessary for statewide candidates to win.

For now, though, conservative groups seem to be doubling down on their investments in election-fraud alarmism. In the next two years, Heritage Action plans to spend twenty-four million dollars mobilizing supporters and lobbyists who will promote “election integrity,” starting in eight battleground states, including Arizona. It is coördinating its effort with the Election Transparency Initiative, a joint venture of two anti-abortion groups, the Susan B. Anthony List and the American Principles Project. The Election Transparency Initiative has set a fund-raising goal of five million dollars. Cleta Mitchell, having left her law firm, has joined FreedomWorks, the free-market group, where she plans to lead a ten-million-dollar project on voting issues. She will also head the Election Integrity Network at the Conservative Partnership Institute, another Washington-based nonprofit. As a senior legal fellow there, she told the Washington Examiner, she will “help bring all these strings” of conservative election-law activism together, and she added, “I’ve had my finger in so many different pieces of the election-integrity pie for so long.”

Back in Arizona, where the auditors are demanding still more time, [Republican member of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors] Bill Gates believes that the Big Lie has become a “grift” used to motivate Republican voters and donors to support conservative candidates and political groups. “The sad thing is that there are probably millions of people—hardworking, good Americans, maybe retired—who have paid their taxes, always followed the law, and they truly believe this, because of what they’ve been fed by their leaders,” he said. “And what’s so dispiriting is that the people who are pushing it from the top? They know better.” 

The My Pillow Guy’s Plot to Wreck America

Anne Applebaum is the author of Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. She’s an historian and writes for The Atlantic. This is most of an article she wrote about meeting one of the Big Lie’s key supporters. She came away believing he’s a nice guy and a threat to our democracy:

When you contemplate the end of democracy in America, what kind of person do you think will bring it about? Maybe you picture a sinister billionaire in a bespoke suit, slipping brown envelopes to politicians. Maybe your nightmare is a rogue general, hijacking the nuclear football. Maybe you think of a jackbooted thug leading a horde of men in white sheets, all carrying burning crosses.

Here is what you probably don’t imagine: an affable, self-made midwesterner, one of those goofy businessmen who makes his own infomercials. A recovered crack addict, no less, who laughs good-naturedly when jokes are made at his expense. A man who will talk to anyone willing to listen (and to many who aren’t). A philanthropist. A good boss. A patriot—or so he says—who may well be doing more damage to American democracy than anyone since Jefferson Davis.

I met Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow, in the recording studio that occupies the basement of Steve Bannon’s stately Capitol Hill townhouse, a few blocks from the Supreme Court—the same Supreme Court that will, according to Lindell, decide “9–0” in favor of reinstating Donald Trump to the presidency sometime in August, or possibly September. . . .

Last January—on the 9th, he says carefully, placing the date after the 6th—a group of still-unidentified concerned citizens brought him some computer data. These were, allegedly, packet captures, intercepted data proving that the Chinese Communist Party altered electoral results … in all 50 states. This is a conspiracy theory more elaborate than the purported Venezuelan manipulation of voting machines, more improbable than the allegation that millions of supposedly fake ballots were mailed in, more baroque than the belief that thousands of dead people voted. This one has potentially profound geopolitical implications.

That’s why Lindell has spent money—a lot of it, “tens of millions,” he told me—“validating” the packets, and it’s why he is planning to spend a lot more. Starting on August 10, he is holding a three-day symposium in Sioux Falls (because he admires South Dakota’s gun-toting governor, Kristi Noem), where the validators, whoever they may be, will present their results publicly. He has invited all interested computer scientists, university professors, elected federal officials, foreign officials, reporters, and editors to the symposium. He has booked, he says variously, “1,000 hotel rooms” or “all the hotel rooms in the city” to accommodate them. (As of Wednesday, Booking.com was still showing plenty of rooms available in Sioux Falls.) . . .

Along with Bannon, Giuliani, and the rest of the conspiracy posse, he is helping create profound distrust in the American electoral system, in the American political system, in the American public-health system, and ultimately in American democracy. The eventual consequences of their actions may well be a genuinely stolen or disputed election in 2024, and political violence on a scale the U.S. hasn’t seen in decades. You can mock Lindell, dismiss him, or call him a crackhead, but none of this will seem particularly funny when we truly have an illegitimate president in the White House and a total breakdown of law and order.

Lindell had agreed to have lunch with me after the taping. But where to go? . . . Because Lindell is famously worried about Chinese Communist influence, I thought he would like to pay homage to the victims of Chinese oppression. I booked a Uyghur restaurant.

This proved a mistake. . . . Once we got there, he didn’t much like the food. He picked at his chicken kebabs and didn’t touch his spicy fried green beans. More to the point, he didn’t understand why we were there. He had never heard of the Uyghurs. I told him they were Muslims who are being persecuted by Chinese Communists. Oh, he said, “like Christians.” Yes, I said. Like Christians.

He kept talking at me in the restaurant, a kind of stream-of-consciousness account of the packet captures, his mistreatment at the hands of the media and the Better Business Bureau, the dangers of the COVID-19 vaccines, and the wonders of oleandrin, a supplement that he says he and everyone else at MyPillow takes and that he says is 100 percent guaranteed to prevent COVID-19. On all of these points he is utterly impervious to any argument of any kind. I asked him what if, hypothetically, on August 10 it turns out that other experts disagree with his experts and declare that his data don’t mean what he thinks his data mean. This, he told me, was impossible. It couldn’t happen:

“I don’t have to worry about that. Do you understand that? Do you understand I’ve been attacked? I have 2,500 employees, and I’ve been attacked every day. Do I look like a stupid person? That I’m just doing this for my health? I have better things to do—these guys brought me this and I owe it to the United States, to all, whether it’s a Democrat or Republican or whoever it is, to bring this forward to our country. I don’t have to answer that question, because it’s not going to happen. This is nonsubjective evidence.”

The opprobrium and rancor he has brought down upon himself for trying to make his case are, in Lindell’s mind, further proof that it is true. Stalin once said that the emergence of opposition signified the “intensification of the class struggle,” and this is Lindell’s logic too: If lots of people object to what you are doing, then it must be right. The contradictions deepen as the ultimate crisis draws closer, as the old Bolsheviks used to say.

But there is a distinctly American element to his thinking too. The argument from personal experience; the evidence acquired on the journey from crack addict to CEO; the special kind of self-confidence that many self-made men acquire, along with their riches—these are native to our shores. Lindell is quite convinced, for example, that not only did China steal the election, but that “there is a communist agenda in this country” more broadly. I asked him what that meant. Communists, he told me, “take away your right to free speech. You just told me what they are doing to these people”—he meant the Uyghurs. “I’ve experienced it firsthand, more than anyone in this country.”

The government had taken his freedom away? Put him in a reeducation camp? “I don’t see anybody arresting you,” I said. He became annoyed.

“Okay, I’m not talking about the government,” he said. “I’m talking about social media” . . . .
It is true that there has been some organized backlash against MyPillow, which is indeed no longer stocked by Bed Bath & Beyond, Kohl’s, and other retailers. But I suspect that this reaction is every bit as red-white-and-blue as Lindell himself: Plenty of Americans oppose Lindell’s open promotion of both election and vaccine conspiracy theories, and are perfectly capable of boycotting his company without the aid of Chinese bots. Lindell’s lived experience, however, tells him otherwise, just like his lived experience tells him that COVID-19 vaccines will kill you and oleandrin won’t. Lived experience always outweighs expertise: Nobody can argue with what you feel to be true, and Lindell feels that the Chinese stole the election, sent bots to smear his company, and are seeking to impose communism on America. . . .

Alongside the American business boosterism, Lindell’s thinking contains a large dose of Christian millenarianism too. This is a man who had a vision in a dream of himself and Donald Trump standing together—and that dream became reality. No wonder he believes that a lot of things are going to happen after August 10. It’s not just that the Supreme Court will vote 9–0 to reinstate Trump. It is also that America will be a better place. “We’re going to get elected officials that make decisions for the people, not just for their party,” Lindell said. There will be “no more machines” in this messianic America, meaning no more voting machines: “On both sides, people are opening their eyes.” In this great moment of national renewal, there will be no more corruption, just good government, goodwill, goodness all around.

That moment will be good for Lindell, too, because he will finally be able to relax, knowing that “I’ve done all I can.” After that, “everything will take its course. And I don’t have to be out there every day fighting for media attention.” He won’t, in other words, have to be having lunch with people like me.

Alas, a happy ending is unlikely. He will not, on August 10, find that “the experts” agree with him. Some have already provided careful explanations as to why the “packet captures” can’t be what he says they are. Others think that the whole discussion is pointless. When I called Chris Krebs, the Trump administration’s director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, he refused even to get into the question of whether Lindell has authentic data, because the whole proposal is absurd. The heavy use of paper ballots, plus all of the postelection audits and recounts, mean that any issues with mechanized voting systems would have been quickly revealed. “It’s all part of the grift,” Krebs told me. “They’re exploiting the aggrieved audience’s confirmation bias and using scary yet unintelligible imagery to keep the Big Lie alive, despite the absence of any legitimate evidence.”

What will happen when Lindell’s ideological, all-American, predicted-in-a-dream absolute certainty runs into a wall of skepticism, disbelief, or—even worse—indifference? If history is anything to go by … nothing. Nothing will happen. He will not admit he is wrong; he will not stop believing. He will not understand that he was conned out of the millions he has spent “validating” fake data. (One has to admire the salesmanship of the tech grifters who talked him into all of this, assuming they exist.) He will not understand that his company is having trouble with retailers because so many people are repulsed by his ideas. He will not understand that people attack him because they think what he says is dangerous and could lead to violence. He will instead rail against the perfidy of the media, the left, the Communists, and China.

Certainly he will not stop believing that Trump won the 2020 election. . . .

Lindell mostly speaks in long, rambling monologues filled with allusions and grievances; he circles back again and again to electoral fraud, to the campaigns against him, to particular interviewers and articles that he disputes, some of it only barely comprehensible unless you’ve been following his frequent media appearances—which I have not. . . . I asked him about the events of January 6. He immediately grew more precise. “I was not there, by the grace of God,” he said. He was doing media events elsewhere, he said. Nor did he want to talk about what happened that day: “I think that there were a lot of things that I’m not going to comment on, because I don’t want that to be your story.”

Not too long after that, I suddenly found I couldn’t take any more of this calculated ranting. (I can hear that moment on the recording, when I suddenly said “Okay, enough” and switched off the device.) Although he ate almost nothing, Lindell insisted on grabbing the check, like any well-mannered Minnesotan would. In the interests of investigative research, I later bought a MyPillow (conclusion: it’s a lot like other pillows), so perhaps that makes us even.

When we walked outside, I thought that I might say something dramatic, something cutting, something like “You realize that you are destroying our country.” But I didn’t. He is our country after all, or one face of our country: hyper-optimistic and overconfident, ignorant of history and fond of myths, firm in the belief that we alone are the exceptional nation and we alone have access to exceptional truths. Safe in his absolute certainty, he got into his black SUV and drove away.