Back From the Brink?

I finally caught up on a recent essay in the New Yorker by Evan Osnos entitled “Pulling Our Politics Back From the Brink.” [HT to the FT’s Swamp Notes newsletter.]

It’s absolutely worth reading for at least three reasons:

First, it offers a strong recapitulation of the history of (reasoned) argument, paranoia, partisanship, violence, and entertainment in American political life — all of which are dramatically exceptional in comparison to any “peer” country, and most of which are unfamiliar to the average citizen.

Second, it’s frank about the risks. Not only are we awfully divided, but the country is awash in weaponry in a way that’s essentially unprecedented. The perceived stakes keep getting higher, the tolerance or appetite for violence keeps growing, and there’s now some level of orchestration from the very top.

Third, it’s practical and hopeful, citing and summarizing both a commission report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences that includes 31 achievable proposals for a rejuvenated (and less violent) politics and some new sociology that argues that it’s possible — though not preordained — that people can rescue their political culture.

History rhymes, and we’ll soon see if we’re in something more like the antebellum or the Gilded Age. Here’s hoping we can indeed pull back from the brink.


A four-day weekend is pretty luxurious anytime.

In the midst of a pandemic, the further unstructuring of time is in some ways even better.

If you’re lucky enough to enjoy some quietude this weekend, relish it.

Riding the Transition Trade

Presidents have a lot less influence on the stock market than is commonly thought (or written), but certain macro actions have clear effects.

Clearing the path to a transition is one of those, and it’s the best thing the president has done for “his” market in months.

There are a lot of ways to take this news (beyond whatever it might be doing to the First Ego):

  • In terms of what it might say or imply about the relationship between political and economic power
  • In terms of the elusive “certainty” executives and investors are always searching for
  • In terms of the conclusions everyone’s jumped to about what life will look like with Janet Yellen as (presumptive) treasury secretary

My hope is that all this heralds a tacit bargain that begins to unwind what Rana Foroohar recently described in the FT as U.S. executives’ “deal with the devil.” In essence, the new bargain should say:

  • No, the pitchforks aren’t coming out. We’re not going to dismantle capitalism in toto, and there’s still going to be plenty to go around in terms of profits and wealth. That’s the kind of “certainty” on offer.
  • However, the price — and there’s always a price — is a long-run systemic adjustment in favor of innovation, competition, and workers. If the casino is going to stay open much longer, all the action can’t remain at one table.

It’s probably safe to say that we’ll never get a better (less costly, better justified, more acceptable) opportunity to make meaningful changes than the first half of 2021. Let’s get down to business.

Viva la Transition

That’s more like it.

We’ll probably never get a true concession, and we’re going to have to account for that precedent in some way at some point. (Speaking of unpresidented, I wouldn’t be too surprised if a certain someone doesn’t show up for the big event.)

Nevertheless, things can now get underway that really need to get underway — like the Covid-response, economic, and national-security teams comparing notes.

As you Zoom through your turkey on Thursday, thank a Michigander.

The Middle Way

So far, both the pollsters predicting a “blue wave” (remember those days?) and the pundits predicting widespread chaos in the streets — especially with anything less than an overwhelming Biden-Harris win — haven’t seen their predictions fulfilled.

Plus ça change, in the first case; thank goodness, in the second.

However, this leaves us facing the third risk: the most obvious, and therefore hardest to see coming, and probably the biggest.

Simply put, that’s the risk of deeply divided, more-or-less-nonviolent stagnation and decay. More of the same might not feel like much of a risk — it’s what we know, after all — but that’s no reason to underestimate it.

The Biggest Loser?

It might not be who you think (though he certainly has the worst loser title locked up for what I hope is forever).

In an especially perceptive FT column, Ed Luce wonders just what it might look like for the new administration to put the U.S. back at the head of the table of global democracies. Four or five years on, democracy ain’t what it used to be. No matter how powerful the urge to turn back the clock to the status quo ante, it’s now definitively post — and the status quo has changed in a lot of countries. If we convene the world’s democracies now, who would be invited or not, and why?

But the killer line — which Luce doesn’t explore as fully as I wish he would — is this:

Whatever else can be said about Mr Trump’s foreign policy, he did not start new wars (though there are still 60 days to go). When historians look back on America’s early 21st century politics, my hunch is they will say [George W.] Bush did more harm to global democracy than Mr Trump. [emphasis added]

This was the first campaign in almost two decades that didn’t center on 9/11 and the forever wars. But those — and the methods by which they’re fought — are now firmly bipartisan.

Trump’s style shocked a lot of people — so much so that I’ve heard a lot of nostalgia for the Shrub years. But, even if we don’t count Bush v. Gore, too many Americans still don’t appreciate how much damage the Bush/Cheney years did. As I once read, the world spent centuries trying to outlaw torture, mercenaries, assassination, and wars of aggression — only for the leader of the free world, at the height of the Pax Americana, to bring all of them back at once and with gusto.

If you’re still poring over the election results, wondering who we’ve become and how we got that way, it’s worth recalling Powell’s UN testimony, the Abu Ghraib photos, and Obama’s drone-strike (and deportation) policies.


Lagniappe: in the NYT, Mark Leibovich writes a “memo from Washington” with a sub-head that truly says it all: “President Trump and his lawyers are engaged in a spectacle that would be funny if it weren’t so dangerous, and if the stakes weren’t so high.”

Stay un-melted, my friends.

Is Government Essential Work or Knowledge Work?

Of course it’s both. From mail carriers to cabinet secretaries, people working with the most classified intelligence to National Park rangers, the actual nature and content of the work vary widely.

But the impending transition is another huge opportunity to really rethink how we think about government work, which is famously (if not always fairly) pilloried for being stuck far behind the times.

Even under the present, Covid-denying administration, lots of work that was previously impossible to do remotely started getting done remotely. From January onward, with the virus raging out of control (and, yes, a vaccine on the horizon), what will an administration that’s serious about Covid do about workforce practices and policies?

If substance follows style, there should be room to make some unprecedented experiments with remote and digital work. This carries risks and inconveniences, of course, but it did the same for bankers, doctors, and other professions that were totally hooked on the in-person experience — and they’ve all more or less carried on.

I can’t enumerate all the downside risks here, but the upside seems significant: it’s a great impetus to make government more flexible, responsive, and secure. And it would seem there’s substantial downside risk in bringing everyone into the office — a West Wing outbreak would be bad PR on its face, and presumably quite dangerous for the oldest president in history.

We finally broke up with floppy disks a couple years ago. Let’s see how much we can catch up — or get ahead — over the next six months or so.

Just a Guess

Prediction: the sooner vaccines help us get a real handle on Covid, the more like the old normal the “new” normal will look.

Right now, it sounds like the best guess for the earliest possible hope of something resembling post-pandemic life is the second half of 2021. And that means the race is on to get the presidential transition done, the cabinet members in place, and new laws and regulations approved that will shape the recovery.

What follows won’t be exactly the same as before, of course, but this is — to employ a really overused turn of phrase — a truly unique opportunity to set up some channels for the tsunami of economic activity that will follow the practical end of the pandemic.

There’s probably not enough time, for example, to aggressively pursue antitrust cases against Big Tech. But the more that can be done to encourage a small-business-led recovery (not to mention some real competition or innovation in the tech industry), the better. Ditto infrastructure, health, and, above all, climate.

For practical purposes, the first six months of 2021 are likely to be defining for both the Biden presidency and the trajectory of the pandemic. Buckle up.