Two Charts (Signs of the Times)

This first one is hard to believe. The rate on the government’s 10-year Treasury bond is around 0.70%. That’s the lowest it’s been for more than 150 years. Whoever buys one of these bonds is basically giving the government an interest-free loan, money the government could use to help people who’ve lost their jobs, small businesses that have lost their customers and local governments that are spending more and collecting less in taxes because of the virus.

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This second chart is easy to believe. It shows confirmed Covid-19 cases per million people. Although the president and his cronies claim that America’s response to the virus has been “spectacular”, compared to a country with a competent national government, South Korea, our response has been spectacularly bad. We’re the red line. South Korea is the blue.

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They Pity Us

The US response to the coronavirus crisis has been paralysed by a contradiction that the Republicans have inserted into the heart of US democracy. On the one hand, they want to control all the levers of governmental power. On the other, they have created a popular base by playing on the notion that government is innately evil and must not be trusted.

From Fintan O’Toole, who writes for The Irish Times (behind a paywall):

Over more than two centuries, the United States has stirred a very wide range of feelings in the rest of the world: love and hatred, fear and hope, envy and contempt, awe and anger. But there is one emotion that has never been directed towards the US until now: pity. [Note: There was pity after 9/11, but for a very different reason.]

However bad things are for most other rich democracies, it is hard not to feel sorry for Americans. Most of them did not vote for D—- T—- in 2016. Yet they are locked down with a malignant narcissist who, instead of protecting his people from Covid-19, has amplified its lethality. The country T—- promised to make great again has never in its history seemed so pitiful.

Will American prestige ever recover from this shameful episode? The US went into the coronavirus crisis with immense advantages: precious weeks of warning about what was coming, the world’s best concentration of medical and scientific expertise, effectively limitless financial resources, a military complex with stunning logistical capacity and most of the world’s leading technology corporations. Yet it managed to make itself the global epicentre of the pandemic.

As the American writer George Packer puts it in the current edition of the Atlantic, “The United States reacted … like Pakistan or Belarus – like a country with shoddy infrastructure and a dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering.”

It is one thing to be powerless in the face of a natural disaster, quite another to watch vast power being squandered in real time – wilfully, malevolently, vindictively. It is one thing for governments to fail (as, in one degree or another, most governments did), quite another to watch a ruler and his supporters actively spread a deadly virus. T—-, his party and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News became vectors of the pestilence.

The grotesque spectacle of the president openly inciting people (some of them armed) to take to the streets to oppose the restrictions that save lives is the manifestation of a political death wish. What are supposed to be daily briefings on the crisis, demonstrative of national unity in the face of a shared challenge, have been used by T—- merely to sow confusion and division. They provide a recurring horror show in which all the neuroses that haunt the American subconscious dance naked on live TV.

If the plague is a test, its ruling political nexus ensured that the US would fail it at a terrible cost in human lives. In the process, the idea of the US as the world’s leading nation – an idea that has shaped the past century – has all but evaporated…..

It is hard to remember now but, even in 2017, when T—- took office, the conventional wisdom in the US was that the Republican Party and the broader framework of US political institutions would prevent him from doing too much damage. This was always a delusion, but the pandemic has exposed it in the most savage ways.

What used to be called mainstream conservatism has not absorbed T—- – he has absorbed it. Almost the entire right-wing half of American politics has surrendered abjectly to him. It has sacrificed on the altar of wanton stupidity the most basic ideas of responsibility, care and even safety.

Thus, even at the very end of March, 15 Republican governors had failed to order people to stay at home or to close non-essential businesses. In Alabama, for example, it was not until April 3rd that governor Kay Ivey finally issued a stay-at-home order.

In Florida, the state with the highest concentration of elderly people with underlying conditions, governor Ron DeSantis, a T—- mini-me, kept the beach resorts open to students travelling from all over the US for spring break parties. Even on April 1st, when he issued restrictions, DeSantis exempted religious services and “recreational activities”.

Georgia governor Brian Kemp, when he finally issued a stay-at-home order on April 1st, explained: “We didn’t know that [the virus can be spread by people without symptoms] until the last 24 hours.”

This is not mere ignorance – it is deliberate and homicidal stupidity. There is, as the demonstrations this week in US cities have shown, plenty of political mileage in denying the reality of the pandemic. It is fuelled by Fox News and far-right internet sites, and it reaps for these politicians millions of dollars in donations, mostly (in an ugly irony) from older people who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus.

It draws on a concoction of conspiracy theories, hatred of science, paranoia about the “deep state” and religious providentialism (God will protect the good folks) that is now very deeply infused in the mindset of the American right.

T—- embodies and enacts this mindset, but he did not invent it. The US response to the coronavirus crisis has been paralysed by a contradiction that the Republicans have inserted into the heart of US democracy. On the one hand, they want to control all the levers of governmental power. On the other they have created a popular base by playing on the notion that government is innately evil and must not be trusted.

The contradiction was made manifest in two of [his] statements on the pandemic: on the one hand that he has “total authority”, and on the other that “I don’t take responsibility at all”. Caught between authoritarian and anarchic impulses, he is incapable of coherence.

But this is not just D—- T—-. The crisis has shown definitively that [his] presidency is not an aberration. It has grown on soil long prepared to receive it. The monstrous blossoming of misrule has structure and purpose and strategy behind it.

There are very powerful interests who demand “freedom” in order to do as they like with the environment, society and the economy. They have infused a very large part of American culture with the belief that “freedom” is literally more important than life. My freedom to own assault weapons trumps your right not to get shot at school. Now, my freedom to go to the barber (“I Need a Haircut” read one banner this week in St Paul, Minnesota) trumps your need to avoid infection.

Usually when this kind of outlandish idiocy is displaying itself, there is the comforting thought that, if things were really serious, it would all stop. People would sober up. Instead, a large part of the US has hit the bottle even harder.

And the president, his party and their media allies keep supplying the drinks. There has been no moment of truth, no shock of realisation that the antics have to end. No one of any substance on the US right has stepped in to say: get a grip, people are dying here.

That is the mark of how deep the trouble is for the US – it is not just that T—- has treated the crisis merely as a way to feed tribal hatreds but that this behaviour has become normalised. When the freak show is live on TV every evening, and the star is boasting about his ratings, it is not really a freak show any more. For a very large and solid bloc of Americans, it is reality.

And this will get worse before it gets better. T—- has at least eight more months in power… [He] will pump more hatred and falsehood, more death-wish defiance of reason and decency, into the groundwater. If a new administration succeeds him in 2021, it will have to clean up the toxic dump he leaves behind. If he is re-elected, toxicity will have become the lifeblood of American politics.

Either way, it will be a long time before the rest of the world can imagine America being great again.

[The same applies to this part of the world.]

The Plan Is To Have No Plan

From Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University:

This is my read on what the government’s guidance and actions amount to…. My purpose in posting it is to challenge the American press to be a lot clearer in its descriptions.

The plan is to have no plan, to let daily deaths between one and three thousand become a normal thing, and then to create massive confusion about who is responsible— by telling the governors they’re in charge without doing what only the federal government can do, by fighting with the press when it shows up to be briefed, by fixing blame for the virus on China or some other foreign element, and by “flooding the zone with shit,” Steve Bannon’s phrase for overwhelming the system with disinformation, distraction, and denial, which boosts what economists call “search costs” for reliable intelligence.

Stated another way, the plan is to default on public problem solving, and then prevent the public from understanding the consequences of that default. To succeed this will require one of the biggest propaganda and freedom of information fights in U.S. history, the execution of which will, I think, consume the president’s re-election campaign. So much has already been made public that the standard script for a White House cover up (worse than the crime…) won’t apply. Instead, everything will ride on the manufacture of confusion. The press won’t be able to “expose” the plot because it will all happen in stark daylight. The facts will be known, and simultaneously they will be inconceivable.

“The plan is to have no plan” is not a strategy, really. Nor would I call it a policy. It has a kind of logic to it, but this is different from saying it has a design— or a designer. Meaning: I do not want to be too conspiratorial about this. To wing it without a plan is merely the best this government can do, given who heads the table. The manufacture of confusion is just the ruins of Trump’s personality meeting the powers of the presidency. There is no genius there, only a damaged human being playing havoc with our lives. 

The Toddler Strikes Again — Pandemic Edition

From Crooked Media’s informative newsletter:

The T—- administration abruptly removed the doctor who led the federal agency working on a coronavirus vaccine because he pushed back against the administration’s efforts to promote [the president’s] favorite unproven drugs. Now he has become a whistleblower: “I am speaking out because to combat this deadly virus, science — not politics or cronyism — has to lead the way.”

Dr. Rick Bright said he was dismissed as director of [Health and Human Service’s] Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) because he insisted that the government invest funding into scientifically vetted treatments, vaccine research, and critical supplies, and resisted widespread use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine to treat coronavirus symptoms. (On Tuesday, a panel of experts [at the National Institutes of Health] specifically advised against the use of hydroxychloroquine outside of clinical trials.)

Bright believes he was transferred to a smaller role at NIH as an act of retaliation. He said he’ll request an investigation into the politicization of BARDA, including how the administration has pressured scientists to “fund companies with political connections and efforts that lack scientific merit.”

A vague but stunning accusation of political corruption hobbling the government’s response to one of the most deadly crises the country has ever faced….

Remember during Trump’s impeachment,a mere 400 years ago, when we learned that Trump fired an experienced career diplomat because she wouldn’t go along with his corrupt Ukraine scheme? We’ve just seen him do the same thing to a career scientist in a key public health role, in the middle of the worst public-health crisis in our lifetimes. Somebody ask [Republican Senator] Susan Collins if she still thinks T—- learned his lesson. 

“The Central Question in America Today”: In Her Own Words

One of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s many gifts is that she can discuss important issues in plain language. Bill Clinton had the same ability. But her views are more progressive than Clinton’s. She will make a great president.

Below is an interview with Warren conducted by David Dayen of “The American Prospect”. It was published yesterday under the title “Monopolist’s Worst Nightmare: The Elizabeth Warren Interview”:

David Dayen: We’re doing this issue about economic concentration. And one thing I’ve noticed is that, probably since 1912 there hasn’t been this much talk about monopoly in a presidential context, in a presidential race. To what do you attribute that? I mean, why do you think this issue has inspired this interest at this time?

Elizabeth Warren: I believe the central question in America today is who government works for. Yeah, it’s got a lot of different directions, but that’s the fundamental one. Is it just going to work for the rich and the powerful, or is it going to work for everyone else? Antitrust cuts right to the heart of that. We’ve had a government that has kissed up to every giant corporation for decades. It has weakened antitrust enforcement, looked the other way on mergers, passed on deals that everyone knew were anti-competitive and would be bad for the economy and bad for competition but good for the bottom line of the companies that wanted it. And no one so much as fluttered an eyelash over it. And that’s started to change. And I think—So here’s my thinking: it’s because we’re focusing more on what’s wrong in this country. It’s not like somebody woke up and just said “antitrust”—we’re not that nerdy—but it’s about what’s wrong in this country. And as people increasingly see that the problem is not an overreaching government, the problem is a government that won’t get in the fight on the side of the people. Antitrust becomes one of the clearest places to see that.

DD: Now you did a speech at the end of 2017, you talked about this issue, and at the beginning of the speech you said something like, you know, people don’t have to know the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index to know that there’s something wrong.

EW: Exactly.

DD: But how do you talk about it on the trail? How do you talk about it to really drive that home so that it doesn’t get bogged down in numbers and economic theory and stuff like that?

EW: It’s important to give examples of how it touches people’s lives. So when I talk about Amazon, for example, I talk about the platform where everybody goes to buy coffee makers and pet cookies, and that the platform works great. But that Amazon does something extra. It’s not just an ordinary marketplace. It’s a marketplace where Amazon, the owner of the platform, sucks up information from every transaction and every near-transaction, the fact that a shopper looked at the item, right, searched for the item, spent a little time hovering, it’s been in your cart.

And I talk about that. And then they use that information to go into competition with the businesses that are trying to sell you coffee makers or pet cookies. And the consequence of that is that the guy who busted his tail, figured out the pet cookie business, got out there and marketed it—Amazon looks over the edge and says, hmm, profit to be made there, let’s do pet cookies, don’t even identify it as an Amazon business, and move the guy who built this business back to page seven in the search. Routine, and now Amazon has sucked up one more business.

DD: The other issue with Amazon is, that pet cookie business, they take a cut out of every transaction he makes anyway.

EW: Exactly, exactly.

DD: And they can raise that price, they can change and say, “Oh, we’re charging more for shipping now, we’re charging more for storage now.”

EW: Every part of it. So, in other words, the way I describe that particular point is, it’s like baseball. You can run the platform—that is, you can be an umpire—or, you can have a team in the game—that is, you can run competition against others who are trying to sell the items. But you don’t get to do both at the same time. And people in the room all say, “Right.” That makes sense to me.

DD: You just break it down and it makes sense.

EW: That’s right.

DD: So we’ve seen, very recently, these hearings in the House on the digital platforms.

EW: Yay.

DD: And, you know, I’m wondering about your thoughts on the role of Congress in this policy. These are policies that Congress wrote, that they have oversight function on. You know, in the ’40s we saw something called the Temporary National Economic Committee, which was a series of investigations into all sorts of sectors over the economy. Do you think, is that something we need now? How can Congress get involved in this?

EW: Okay, I’m glad to see Congress doing this. I think it’s great. I want them to call witnesses, to let people tell their stories, I want them to expose the data. I want to see the books and records of some of these companies. Remember, Congress has got a lot of muscle if it decides to use it. But I want to make two other points. The first is current law gives the Justice Department and the FTC and the banking regulators a lot of power to move now. Even without Congress, a president who put a strong team in place could change antitrust enforcement in this country, without a single change in the laws from Congress.

DD: And it’s interesting you say the banking regulators, because people don’t realize how much power is in, you know, other agencies, not just the FTC and the Justice Department.

EW: Exactly right. I picked banking, but you’re exactly right. But it’s the reminder—There’s a lot we could do right now. But also, and this is what I argue should come out of all this, there are places where Congress should draw a bright line in this. So I have a plan to break up the big platforms. If a platform is doing more than a billion dollars in business, the platform has to be broken off from all of the ancillary businesses. And there’s just—We shouldn’t have to litigate it. Just make it happen. It’s too much concentration of power. And so I’m both ways on this: there’s a lot we can do without—I’m delighted Congress is doing this. There’s a lot we can do, even if Congress doesn’t change any law. But, there is at least one good place Congress could change the law and make this whole system work better.

DD: You mention your plan on the platforms, but you’ve also made the point that if we broke up Google and Amazon and Facebook tomorrow, we’d have a terrible concentration problem in America.

EW: Oh, it’s much broader than just that. Platform is such an obvious one and we’ve—

DD: And everyone interacts with it.

EW: That’s exactly right … the analogy from history where someone—one business—could not only control the marketplace, but also be a dominant player in the marketplace simultaneously. It’s not that you can’t find them in history. It’s that when we found similar economic concentrations in history, we broke them up.

DD: Sure, sure.

EW: Especially when they started buying everything else. And then, of course, doing—as I recall in the railroads—doing a discriminatory pricing map. Charge themselves a different price from [someone else’s] grain outfit.

DD: Absolutely. So, I mean, the sort of elephant in the room on this is the judiciary, which has a very particular theory and view of antitrust and even if you put in enforcers that want to take that in a different direction, you still have to argue that in court. So what do you think can be done there? I mean, obviously a new president would have judicial nominations, but you know, that’s going to take some time, so how—Is there a way to sort of get the judiciary to realize that they need to do their part here?

EW: Use every tool in the toolbox. So part of it is get an aggressive antitrust team. Part of it is presidential leadership. Get out and talk about this issue. And explain to the American people why the laws are working for the big guys and not for them. Encourage the academics to get out and make their case. Remember—

DD: The ones not on the payroll—

EW: … That’s exactly right. Remember, it was the academics that got this started in the wrong direction, arguably.

DD: I would argue that as well.

EW: Yes, exactly, so I think it’s all of the above. And, at the same time, move on the congressional front. I just don’t want this to feel like, gee, if we can’t move Congress, we can’t do anything. No. Bang away without Congress, but also, bang away on Congress to make change. Just move on all the fronts.

DD: Excellent, excellent. And finally, there’s a famous—It was Richard Hofstadter wrote this thing in the ’60s. And he said—And the title of it was “What happened to the antitrust movement?”

EW: Yes.

DD: That there was a movement that created all these laws and then the movement sort of went away and said, “Regulators will take care of it.” It seems like a movement is what is necessary at some level, and how do you inspire that?

EW: Okay, now let’s move back up to the 10,000 feet where we started this, because I think that’s what this is all about. When we started this conversation, I said that I think the question is who government works for. I think much of the antitrust relaxation over time in the ’60s was confidence the government would handle this. Confidence that we had regulators who knew their stuff and who were technically adept and who had shown that they would be on the side of the American public. And when the big corporations started pushing back, started advancing the academic work that said, “No, let the giant corporations do whatever they want. What could possibly go wrong?”—That it’s taken a long time for people to see the implications of that. Look, for 40 years now, the mantra in Washington and in most of the Republican Party and a big chunk of the Democratic Party has all centered around Ronald Reagan’s “What are the nine worst words in the English language? I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Ha ha ha. The idea that it’s government that poses the threat to all of the rest of America and must be held at arm’s length, and missing the fact that it’s government that balances out the power of these giant corporations. And without an effective government to enforce antitrust laws—and other laws—we’re all in trouble.

DD: Well, it’s the idea that if there’s—If government takes away the regulation, the regulation doesn’t go away, it’s just in the hands of the giant corporations.

EW: It’s just in the hands of the giant corporations.

DD: So they get to do regulation from the boardroom.

EW: And that’s how we keep hearing lately about self-regulation. Aircraft manufacturers that self-regulated; how did that work out? You know, it’s—But it’s over and over. It’s wait, what? They’re doing what? The oil companies that were doing the drilling offshore were self-regulating? You know, they filed some reports that nobody read. That’s not a government that’s working for the public. So when you say about, is it going to take a movement? The answer’s yes. That is the movement we’re starting to build.