Status vs. Programs

There’s an important distinction between raising someone’s status and providing a benefit.

If we’ve learned nothing else in the past five years, I hope that lesson proves sticky. Mainstream U.S. culture has always been pretty uncomfortable with the idea of a handout, and that discomfort has only grown in the quarter-century between welfare reform and the rise of the modern cult of success.

To ask why people aren’t satisfied with better programs and services is to miss what’s really on offer: given the choice between a few abstract marginal dollars and the chance to utterly dominate the national “conversation” for half a decade or more, which would you take?

Or, to put it more bluntly, if the current administration sent another round of stimulus checks, would that change your vote?

Waking Up to a Changed America

There’s a long-running argument among two camps of historians: the “trends and forces” school and the “great man” school. Great or not, too many of us have been fixated on one man for too long: we missed the trends and forces that led us here, and we’re still not looking hard enough at where they’re taking us.

Let’s begin, then, with a macro analysis of a “looming Constitutional crisis” and the possible undoing of the United States. In a big read, the FT’s Ed Luce takes a hard look at the slow-motion ossification of a governing document written by hand on parchment more than 200 years ago. Perhaps it’s easier for a non-U.S. newspaper to ask hard questions about a quasi-sacred text and the idolatry of “originalism” that’s sprung up around it; in any case, Luce shines light into several corners that most Americans — even run-of-the-mill institutionalists — shy away from.

Moving from structural forces to cultural trends, Luce also penned an incisive, courageous analysis of the future of Trumpism: in short, it’s not going away, even if its namesake does. There’s lively debate on this, including in the FT’s comment pages, but I’m with Luce here. Ideologies seem to be hardening and hardening, and it’s going to take a pretty radical reframing to get us back on the same team — if that’s possible.

Finally, for a look at just how polarization, suspicion, and violence compound, consider Lauren Smiley’s excellent chronicle of “The True Story of the Antifa Invasion of Forks, Washington,” in Wired [HT Longreads]. As Twain is supposed to have said, a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still getting its boots on — and, these days, the lie can literally appear in boots (and camo, and body armor, bearing weapons) weeks and months before the truth comes out. If ever it does.

What Will You Do If He’s Elected?

In November 2016, the late, great Brian Doyle sent along one of his email “ditties” under this title.

Then, of course, you knew exactly who “he” was — and Brian’s response was characteristically empathetic, charitable, and hope-filled. No, Brian insisted, he wouldn’t be leaving this country he loves; and, after all, people can change, quickly — we’ve all seen it.

Four years later, much has changed: Brian didn’t leave the country, but he tragically left this life. And “he” hasn’t exactly risen to the dignified image of his office.

But the question remains, and it’s even more pointed now. What to do if he’s re-elected is now the subject of much public and private handwringing; an NYT columnist seriously considers leaving, while an FT columnist is no longer considering settling here.

But what will you do if he’s elected? No, not him — the other one. If it’s hard to contemplate grace in defeat, it’s perhaps even harder to contemplate grace in victory. “Vindication” is awfully close to “vindictive,” and vindictiveness is not going to bind up the nation’s wounds.

Victory is a test of character, probably more even than defeat. “He” failed that test horribly.

Will we?

Atlas Shrugged

Dr. Scott Atlas probably doesn’t want you to know who he is.

He’s the physician (neuroradiologist, to be precise) who’s been doing a lot of the behind-the-scenes, um, shaping of CDC and administration guidelines and policies related to the coronavirus.

According to a recent Financial Times profile,

Unlike some others on the [White House pandemic] task force, Dr Atlas does not have a background in epidemiology, but he is known in rightwing circles as a former healthcare adviser to both Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney during their failed presidential bids. [President] Trump appointed him to the task force after a string of appearances on Fox News during which he [Atlas] argued combatively against lockdowns.

The main thrust of the article is that Dr. Atlas has become quite the vocal advocate for the idea of herd immunity — “aggressively protecting” the most vulnerable while letting the virus burn its way through the rest of the population.

But as the epidemiologists of Kings College London showed early on, even a smallish percentage of deaths in a large population works out to be an awful lot of dead people. If you assume 1 percent mortality on 100 percent infection, you’d see 3.3 million deaths in the United States alone; even if you drop those numbers to achieve “only,” say, 2 million deaths, that’s still outrageous — ten times as many as we’ve seen yet. And, as KCL recently showed, immunity isn’t forever, so herd immunity is effectively never.

So we need to be clear about a few things: first, “herd immunity” is a euphemism for hundreds of thousands of deaths. Second, that’s the official line of the administration — both from the White House and from the task force.

Third, even if such a shrugging response to mass death might be expected from someone whose qualifications for his current role prominently feature advising Rudy Giuliani and a string of Fox News appearances, it’s completely and sickly incompatible with the battle royale unfolding before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The thing about Amy Coney Barrett is that she’s pro-life. And the thing about Scott Atlas is he’s pushing policies that are undeniably pro-death.

There are miracles, and there is medicine. (For that matter, there is jurisprudence, and there is religion.) But the haphazard conflation cynically peddled by the current administration is, frankly, sickening.

The Fox and the Hedgehog

As the old saying goes, the fox knows many things while the hedgehog knows one big thing.

Looking back over the past five years and ahead to the election, consider how much hay the president has made on one or two massive, overwhelming, totally un-prioritized insights.

Politics — campaigning, especially — always mixes some pathos with logos and ethos. But we haven’t had a fully emotional platform in decades, not to mention one that appeals directly to the lower angels of our nature (at best).

What you end up with is the same perspective error that’s at the heart of “all lives matter.” Of course they do, and that’s never been the question. Instead, Those People become the most salient issue, and a flood of votes based on hate rather than heart is released.

Democrats can be prone to yak-shaving: arguing about the design of seatbelts and the rules for wearing them, as though the plane can’t fly unless everyone’s wearing one. But the Trumpists’ argument is and has always been that FIRST CLASS SITS AT THE FRONT!

Not only is that not a real issue (people grumble in line, but the diamond-elite customers always board first across the cheap red carpet anyway), but it’s definitely not the most important one if it looks like the wings might be coming off.

At that point, you want a pilot who knows enough about aerodynamics, engineering, and crew management to land safely.

Pre-existing Conditions

The United States has a pre-existing condition.

In fact, we might have several — but the one that’s really and truly inarguable is that we’re going into November with a Covid caseload that’s high and rising.

On the one hand, it’s notable that Europe is beginning to reimpose lockdowns after a relatively easier summer. Remember watching Italy and Spain in extremis before things got really bad here? Chances are sadly high that we’re squandering another epidemiological warning.

On the other hand, there’s the matter of the election. As of inauguration day, the facts on the ground are likely to be:

  • About a quarter of a million Americans dead in under a year
  • An epidemic still burning pretty much out of control, with about 8 million Covid cases and counting (at a rate of 50,000 or more per day)
  • No prospect of a well-proven, widely-available, widely-accepted vaccine for another year-plus
  • Perhaps another year or so (I’m guessing here) to roll out the vaccine, tiptoe into a new normal, and begin to truly reboot the economy (presidents don’t control the economy — that’s called Sovietism — but that’s another rant)

We know that Covid is a tough disease, even if we’re still figuring out all the long-term effects. The moral of the story, however, is clear:

  • A lot of Americans are going to have pre-existing conditions thanks to Covid
  • Many more will discover them as they seek delayed or deferred care
  • And the economy will remain in some kind of holding pattern until people feel safe to interact again (even without “lockdown,” voluntary social distancing has negative economic effects)

Hence the question: if many Americans will have pre-existing conditions, and the next presidential term will have such stiff pre-existing conditions, which personality — and which policies — do you trust on this issue?

For most of us, for most of the next term, health and healthcare are going to be the issue.

We Don’t Need a Third Debate, Either

With the second debate officially canceled, can we just go ahead and scratch the third one, too?

After all:

  • Debates aren’t about information or substance. They haven’t been for a long time. The people who really want you to watch are television executives, social media executives, and (perhaps) the president.
  • The last debate showed the choice plenty clearly: it’s Joe Biden, who requires no further introduction, versus Donald Trump, who also requires no further introduction. Moreover, the president showed he was perfectly capable of turning it up to 11 even before the steroids. Anybody want four more years of that?
  • And, of course, in the last battle of the high-risk septuagenarians, one of them already had a perhaps-unconfirmed case of Covid. Who’s for running that risk again pre-election?

What more do you need or want to see, really?

Thugs, Near and Far

Four great reads this week — three from the FT, and one from the Scholar’s Stage:

First, “‘To Be Near Trump is Toxic:’ Covid-19, Chaos, and the Election:”

On Monday, Mr Trump returned to the White House by helicopter and made his way up the steps to the South Portico before dramatically ripping his mask off “like a burlesque artist,” as [presidential historian Donald] Brinkley puts it.

Meanwhile, inside the White House itself, some seem to be betting on science:

Inside the Oval Office, only two officials were allowed access to the president — Mark Meadows, chief of staff, and Dan Scavino, Donald Trump’s director of social media [!]. Both men had to dress head-to-toe in protective garb.

Meanwhile, in the real America, we’re still suffering at least two 9/11s a week in terms of Covid deaths, apparently due to a lack of will, or faith, or miracle cures.

It’s been said before, but it bears saying again as the election — and winter — bears down: economic recovery will and must follow epidemiology, not the other way around.


Zooming way out, Janan Ganesh has a long, detailed, and extremely perceptive look at the United States’ “re-pivot to the Pacific” in “Why America No Longer Looks to Europe.”

Kudos, as always, to him for looking deeper and taking a longer view than most other columnists — especially the famous ones born, bred, and stuck here. The United States is consistently surprised by the world, even as we continue to shape it.


Janan’s piece is best read together with at least one piece of the FT‘s weeklong series on “the new Cold War” between the United States and China. If you think Trump’s policy program was totally incoherent or a merely a passing fad, you’ve got another think coming.

Here’s “‘This is a Guy Who is a Thug:’ How U.S. Elite Became Hawks on Xi’s China.” Note that “‘This is a guy who is a thug'” is Joe Biden speaking — as you no doubt already guessed by the highbrow syntax.


Finally, from late August at the Scholar’s Stage, T. Greer writes up a New York magazine interview with “electoral whiz kid” David Shor.

The whole thing is worth your while, but, if you’re a typical reader of this blog, it’s worth meditating on this observation [Greer, quoting Shor, as quoted in NY mag]:

The single biggest way that highly educated people who follow politics closely are different from everyone else is that we have much more ideological coherence in our views. […] There’s a paper by the political scientist David Broockman that made this point really famous — that “moderate” voters don’t have moderate views, just ideologically inconsistent ones.

Further, “whenever we talk about a given issue, that increases the extent to which voters will cast their ballots on the basis of that issue” [Shor again, as quoted by Greer] — and so, after an immigration-themed campaign, we see a lot of people switch their votes from Obama to Trump not because of substance or style differences between Obama/Clinton or Romney/Trump, but because of relative issue salience.

And so to the kicker, which still bewilders so many, um, ideologically coherent people:

The way that racially charged issues generally get brought up in the U.S. is in the context of crime, which is a very Republican-loaded issue (in terms of which party the median voter trusts on it). Or it comes up in terms of immigration, which is itself a Republican-loaded issue. So even if voters acknowledge the massive systemic inequities that exist in the U.S., discussion of them normally happens in a context where conservatives can posit a trade-off with safety, or all these other things people trust Republicans on.

Shor, qtd. by Greer, emphasis Greer’s [and I’d agree]