Fixing Racism Is Even Harder Than It Seems

By Mike Koetting            June 6, 2020

NOTE: This was written in the first week of June, but I am just now posting. I ran into some nasty health issues that made it impossible to post—and, in fact, put the entire blog on hiatus. But I am recovering nicely and anticipate that I’ll be posting again on my usual semi-regular schedule starting in mid-August. Thanks to all who sent words of support.

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In 1967, I was 19 and spending the summer in New York, where the drinking age was 18. For 10 day in the middle of July, every night was spent in a Bronxville tavern glued to riots, first in Newark, then in Detroit.

If you don’t remember this, I doubt it is possible to recreate the impact of watching the flames and the tanks roll through those cities. Now the very names Newark and Detroit summon images of urban decay and despair. But in 1967, they were still major centers of commerce. Until then we had grown up in this haze of unending, if largely unexamined, national optimism. Riots and tanks in the streets were things that happened elsewhere, not in America.

The conversation those evenings was a stew of despair about what we were seeing and what we understood was behind it, and optimism that somehow we would make it right. This wouldn’t happen again on our watch.

Fifty-three years later, I stood on my balcony and saw the smoke rising from the Loop where the crowd had set a police car on fire. We failed. It was harder than we thought and, one has to concede, we didn’t care enough.

The latter is a bitter pill. We did care. But not enough to cure the racism which has so deeply infected our society.

At this point, there is pretty wide-spread acknowledgement of the ways that the current racial attitudes were built into the foundation of the country. It would be foolish to not acknowledge that they have moderated. But it would be even more foolish to turn our back on how much hasn’t changed and on how slowly change has come. No one in their right mind could pretend that our racism ended with the Civil War…or the Voting Rights Act.

Despite progress, there is the stubborn reality that, counter to the instinct that racism is a spectrum of attitudes, it is actually more of a “yes-no” proposition. Racism gets built in ways large and small into every aspect of society. Each piece makes an incremental contribution to the cumulative effect, both within the society and within each individual. Each piece that doesn’t change reinforces the idea that change is too difficult, maybe impossible. And if change is slow enough in coming, that is proof that not much can be done.

Sometimes this is expressed in outright racism—a foundational sense of superiority over “the other,” whoever that might be. But for most people it is much more subtle, a quiet infection. Even those of us who try not to be. Racism erects many barriers to full participation in society. When people, inevitably, become snagged on the barriers, that in itself reduces societal empathy, particularly when it’s possible to point to people who somehow overcame the obstacles. Some of us are better at seeing problems as a symptom not a cause of racism.  But when we are honest, we know that even many of us who are committed to the idea of a just society remain disconcerted by the specifics.

Dahleen Glanton, in the Chicago Tribune, spells it out:

Take an honest assessment of your attitudes Admit that would you be less likely to believe Floyd did noting wrong without the video to prove it…Ask why doubt creeps into your head when you find out that the victim didn’t live a perfect life.

The sum of these doubts, distances and hesitations keep us from the all-out, sustained assault on the problem that would be necessary to actually tame American racism. Without such a comprehensive assault, we’ll be in an endless cycle of a “whack-a mole”.

I believe such a comprehensive effort requires:

  • Attitudinal change
  • Structural change
  • Patience and persistence

Attitude change will be the hardest. It is not like we don’t know what are the manifestations of racism in America. Any sentient American can list at least a handful of unarmed Black men shot down in situations ranging from flimsy to downright felonious.  We might know something is wrong and we might try some things and those might make some difference. But it doesn’t get at how deeply gnarled the problem is in every aspect of society.

We won’t make necessary progress until the attitude changes from “Racism is wrong” to an unrelenting focus on “It is wrong to not end racism.” We are a long way from there.

There is another tricky aspect of changing the national conversation. We want to move away from us-versus-them attitudes. It is hard, because racism is so heavily implicated in many of those discussions. Unfortunately, significant focus on ending racism will inevitably stoke it in some quarters. We must be prepared and not let it deter us. If we get this right, the haters will simply be left behind by history.

It is beyond this post to get into details on the necessary structural changes. A few general things are, however, clear:

  • It will require large sums of money, probably over a long period of time.  Reparations however structured. I favor expenditures on structured programs rather than outright grants, but the topic requires a long and thoughtful communal discussion.
  • We will need to level the economic distance between Blacks and the rest of the population.
  • We will need powerful levers to mitigate residential segregation. It is too easy to maintain discriminatory structures—even unwittingly—when there is so much physical and social separation.
  • We need a completely different approach to policing. It is clear the current structures aren’t propagating the right attitudes. It may be easier to largely blow them up and start over.
  • Related, we must rethink drug policies. From my perspective, we have it mostly backwards when we legalize guns and criminalize drugs. Untrammeled drugs are a scourge. But the current approaches have been ineffective and have led to unacceptable collateral damage.

Beyond that, I think there needs to be a lot of attention to the process by which we move this forward. Addressing racism will impact so many aspects of our society, there will need to be massive buy-in. Think of the societal effort support for WWII. We won’t get that unless many elements of society feel their voices were included, particularly including those less enfranchised.

Patience and persistence will be required, on all sides. The reason I started this post outlining how hard it is to mitigate racism is to illuminate why this is not going to be a “one-shot” affair. Changing attitudes and making necessary structural changes will require years and years, probably decades and decades, of focused, concerted effort. Many Blacks will justifiably think progress is too slow. Many Whites will incorrectly think we are giving too much. And everyone will be shocked at the price tag. But the moral imperative is clear enough—and perhaps this time shared enough.

Almost 60 years ago John Kennedy said:

We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.

Getting our house on earth is an even more worthy goal. We must not underestimate how long and hard the journey—or we will not have the political fortitude to get there. But we must pick up the torch now.

We shouldn’t fool ourselves again. Fixing the racism problem in our country will not be a single program or set of expenditures. Addressing this fundamental flaw in the way America developed will be a project for several generations.

The question is whether we are going to do it or not. Do we choose to start now on this long and difficult road? Or, will we settle for some one-time changes and 50 years from now our children and grandchildren will look again at the flames of outrage, shake their heads, and say “We really should have fixed this.

The Intractability of What We Have

By Mike Koetting May 22, 2020

I am happy to report I got more comments than usual on my recent post outlining my take on what the virus told us about Federalism. Some people applauded that states provided an alternative source power when their populace didn’t agree with the flavors on offer from the central government. Others noted the need for local components to target appropriately for local circumstances and, sometimes, simply to develop local support necessary for a program to be effective.

Both fair comments. But I was still skeptical states are the best vehicle for either of these. So I decided to think about what alternatives might exist.

Set aside the fact that from a practical perspective, making a major change in the role of states is a non-starter, short of a catastrophe so bad that we don’t want to think about it. People like me can sit around and think of reasons why states don’t work until the cows come home. No matter how impressive the list of problems, change seems well less likely than absolutely no way.

Still, I figured, I might come up with suggestions that would motivate some practical thought on the issue. History has a way of making it seem like what has evolved is the best that can possibly be achieved, even though it rarely is. Since stringing together problems does not dent the tendency to the status quo, maybe some plausible alternatives would.

Well, damn, if that wasn’t hard.

One of the first things I was reminded of is that everything is connected to everything. This is a hardly a unique insight. But we often forget this when we bore down on the problems created by one facet of an issue. Take education. America’s basic educational system has vested a large degree of control in local communities. But there is little evidence this has led to great educational outcomes. The evidence rather suggests it leads to mixed outcomes with enormous variation among communities. Almost as soon as I started thinking about how to balance narrow local interests with larger social interests, I smacked into the reality that thinking about education inevitably puts you in the middle of addressing the overall taxing structure of localities, states and the country. No doubt those are issues that might benefit from reconsideration. Still, that level of consideration throws so much open for discussion that no person with real world responsibilities wants to go there.

It also becomes apparent that social structures have evolved the way they have because it happened, not necessarily because it is optimal. Specifically, if you try to pick a starting place on which to base a reconsideration, you quickly realize that your starting spot is only one dimension of a larger reality. For instance, if you start to rethink how you might conceptualize the U.S. Senate based more an urban-rural distinction, it doesn’t take long before you’re wondering if urban/rural is really the right way to divide. What about concentrations of racial/ethnic groups or various cultural divisions? Do New York City and Los Angeles really have so much in common that it overrides all other axes on which differences might be compared? History doesn’t have to face these questions because it is not intentional and does not have to defend the criteria against which decisions got made. Colonies got created and settled based on the land grants given by the King of England. In the ensuing 400 years, they became states and they, and the other states established subsequently, addressed issue after issue in a way that seemed rational to them at the time, without a lot of thought about the overall effect.

Rube Goldberg Butts In |

Rube Goldberg, 1932

However ungainly the results, today each state is well-established, with a formidable bureaucracy operating in some form of self-contained equilibrium. It is not possible to change one major thing in any state without setting all kinds of things in motion, much less amending the overall system. Even in the face of a pandemic, we see states shooting off in various directions, the net effect of which is unlikely to be helpful.

All of this may seem obvious. Indeed, the question readers might be asking is why I am writing about it.

The answer is that this dynamic plays itself out in all major social structural issues. We think of problems with the existing structure and propose something to replace it without a full appreciation of the degree to which history—for better and for worse—has narrowed the options. Let me illustrate in the area I know best, healthcare.

A universal health plan along the lines proposed by several Democratic candidates has many things to recommend it. As envisioned, it would expand coverage, reduce costs substantially, and, almost certainly, improve the health of the population. There can be hardly any real argument that it would not be an improvement on the current wasteful, patchwork approach—that in fact is disliked by a substantial portion of the population.

But there is a problem. It’s incredibly hard to get there from here. It’s like trying to imagine how one would re-configure the states—or get the toothpaste back in the tube.

American healthcare made a number of decisions in the first half of in the last century that impelled it along a course of development. Maybe different decisions could or should have been made. But they weren’t. And we have the health system we have now, which consumes more of the economy than in any other developed country and achieves, at best, uneven results. However, each of those decisions created interest groups that, over time, have become extremely entrenched in their interests as defined by the status quo.

When we think of “interest groups”, we like to construct them as repositories of greedy or somehow undeserving people. And while there are certainly some of those in healthcare, substantially cutting healthcare costs means a material reduction in the number of people working in healthcare. Reducing healthcare expenditures from 18% of GDP to 15% of GDP would probably reduce the number of people working in healthcare by 5 to 10%, most of which are relatively good jobs. This could increase the national unemployment by a percent or more. Which is a big deal in an era where maintaining the number of good jobs is a huge problem.

Moreover, people being people, a large portion of the population has become attached to their particular form of receiving healthcare. (It is definitely curious that the American public has a generally lower approval rate of its healthcare system than other developed countries but still has so many people willing to stake their vote on those particular forms that are much less evident in other health systems.)

“Medicare for All” advocates prefer to wave these problems away with recitations of what a mess the current system is. Their diagnoses are mostly correct, but ignore the context in which their changes would have to take place. Achieving a revision as large as “Medicare for All” from where we are now may not be realistic.

To be clear. This doesn’t mean change is not possible. If this is the best healthcare system America can come up, with we should probably just pack it in as a country. There are any number of meaningful steps that a Democratic administration could and should take that would move us closer to a sensible and sustainable healthcare system. Fixing some glaring problems in the Affordable Care Act, including adding a meaningful public option, would take us a long way. While all other developed countries have some form of universal healthcare, the nature of these systems varies wildly and reflects the history of how they got there. That’s the full lesson we should draw from comparisons with other counties.

And that is the moral of today’s post, extending well beyond healthcare. No matter how ugly the problems–indeed, the uglier the problems—fixing them will probably require a gradual approach. So we better get started.

Federalism and the Virus

By Mike Koetting May 12, 2020

I am not a big fan of the idea of states. It’s hard to see what reality they are mapping aside from historical precedent. Take Illinois. While the Chicago metropolitan area shares one media market, one air and water space, a common labor pool, a shared healthcare market and intertwined transportation, there are at least two state governments that get involved, often to peculiar results, and two other states impacted. Conversely, the rest of Illinois is perpetually aggrieved by the idea that Illinois government is overly shaped by Chicago.

The history of state governments in the U.S. is of course inextricably linked to the founding of the country. At the time of the Revolutionary War, political and practical identity was tied to individual states, which in fact had already evolved in different ways because of the political and economic circumstances of their founding.

At the time of the Constitution, there was simply no way of creating a unified country that didn’t carefully limit federal power over the individual states. No states, no country. It was as simple as that. It was also as simple as no slavery, no country. Giving states power to regulate that matter was a necessary condition for forming a country. It was a moral dodge required by reality. The Senate, and the electoral college, were part of the package.

Once the country was under way, states were admitted on something of an ad hoc basis, typically with the primary construct to incorporate new land while maintaining the balance between slave and non-slave states. Since the Civil War, the main impetus for maintaining the importance of states has been to maintain a political structure that allows former slave states to frustrate the underlying purpose of the Civil War and to fight liberal social impulses more generally

Some would argue that is a good thing. I am less certain. It recognizes minority rights to the extent regional preferences are different from national sentiment, but makes it more difficult to protect minority rights within the region. On specific substance, while some state experimentation has proved useful, the ever increasing interconnected, complexities of modern life make central coordination more important than ever. Moreover, much of the vitality of the country has moved to metropolitan areas that often overlap states and/or are at war with their state government.

Still, states persist. The current pandemic provides an interesting lens through which to view their current status. I see two conclusions and two questions.

  1. The circumstances required a strong federal response.

We only got part way. And some of the federal responses caused problems, including the CDC’s botched handling of test kits and the FDA’s overly restrictive approach to approving testing.

There were material gaps in the federal approach, such as failing to develop a national testing strategy, sending states bidding against each for critical supplies, and major inconsistencies in the moral messaging. These are not inherent faults of a centralized government. They are rather manifestations of incompetence. Very few would argue that each state should have its own standards for approving medicine or that each state should have an international security agency to detect events that would eventually have big impacts back here.

If anything, the pandemic shows the need for a strong federal government. That might suggest less energy attacking “the deep state” and more energy trying to deepen the competence at important federal positions.

2. States responses are mixed

In the absence of a clear, federal command voice, governors filled the vacuum. While no state made perfect decisions, it became unquestionable that people were looking to their governor more than the central governmental bodies. The governors communicated both danger and resolution, and, for the most part, offered clear and consistent plans. This was a vote for the potential of the states to compensate for certain kind of inadequacies at the federal level.

On the other hand, the pandemic laid bare certain shortcomings in the distributed authority structure. Outdated stockpiles and spotty public health planning and facilities were problematic. Handling unemployment claims was another sore spot. The need for each state to have its own system is not obvious but the consequences of inadequate preparation and antiquated technology were obvious. This is true of many state systems. Do we really get enough extra value out of supporting (or not supporting, as turns out was often the case) these separate systems?

3. How will state experimentation work out?

It is too early to tell whether the ability of states to go different ways on the key issue of when to reopen the economy is a good thing or a bad thing.

New York Times (as of May 12, 2020)

If it turns out that states re-opening actually get good economic momentum without a major uptick in loss of life, it would be a chalk-up for state experimentation. If the loss of life is materially higher or the economic impact not great, much less so.

While I don’t have a completely closed mind on this—I am very worried about the economic consequences of what we are doing and the evidence on all sides is terrifyingly weak—this still seems problematic.

My first concern is that I find it hard to imagine how to evaluate these “experiments”. This is not simply a question of assigning values to various outcomes—although that is an issue—but interpreting the outcomes themselves. For instance, how many weeks would an “open” economy have to go before we were confident we actually knew what it told us?

I am also concerned about the potentially coercive effect on individuals these “experiments” might have. Those on the right complain that lock-downs restrict their rights. But saying that people will lose their unemployment if they don’t go back to work no matter how dangerous it is seems to me to be coercive as well. And the risk factors are related to economic status—which also correlates with poor insurance coverage.

I am less concerned about the argument that people cross state lines. They do. And they will travel. But in the realm of problems that seems relatively small. For the most part, the responses seem reasonably consistent by region, sometimes by explicit design.

Without further information, I think my preference is a consistent national plan for the basic reason it contributes to the creation of a united country in a difficult time. It might not be perfect, but nothing will be and we’d all be in it together. The current process exacerbates existing political and cultural issue without providing a framework for resolution because the “experiments” are so haphazard it is possible we will never know what they told us, certainly not in real time. Moreover, the process has become so acrimoniously partisan that we now have parts of the country rooting for bad outcomes—more death or more economic suffering—for the other part of the country. The fact the president argues against his own advisors, apparently in an effort to stoke partisan arguments, is embarrassing.

Prickly City by Scott Stantis

And even if we avoid the worst of those pitfalls, we have further undermined the idea that science and expertise should drive decisions rather than the pollical mood of the moment. Science and expertise are by no means always right. Particularly when the data is as weak as currently, it should be robustly debated. But policy choices are about odds of reaching an outcome. Over time, you can’t improve society’s odds of getting to a favorable policy outcome by going with your gut and ignoring science and expertise.

4. What will happen to states when the smoke clears?

State budgets have been shredded by the virus. Sales tax revenues, hugely important for states, are in the toilet. The deficits are mounting at record rates. And, unlike, the federal government, states must actually balance their budgets. Absent massive federal bailouts, this will mean drastic cuts—which, of course, will make the economic disaster more painful.

The federal government could help. But will it? It appears the Republican majority in the Senate is willing to let states fall into bankruptcy. Not that it’s clear what that means–among other things, state bankruptcy is not even a legal option. So for now, that’s only a rhetorical position.

But what is not rhetorical is that the fiscal structure of many states is at serious risk with no obvious way out. The risk is of course greatest for those states who have invested the most in their citizens.

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In short, the ultimate question governing the continuance of the federal structure is whether the advantages of having two separate models for meeting the needs of our citizens outweigh the disadvantages. While the Covid-19 epidemic has shown some of the advantages of our federalism, perhaps unsurprisingly, this has not changed my general belief that we would be better off reconsidering how we govern ourselves. Of course, as more states go broke, we may have no choice.

Voting in the Time of Covid

By Mike Koetting April 24, 2020

I am very concerned that in the necessity of dealing with the immediate problems of the pandemic, we are unable to focus on the actual mechanics of voting in November, an election that will decide the fate of our democracy.

There is a high level of public concern about how safe voting in person will be. The prudent thing is to plan as if the pandemic were still raging. Hopefully that will be overkill, but the downsides are trivial in comparison to the problems of a chaotic election. As in Wisconsin.

But time is a monster enemy. We have to start right now to get ready for November. According to Nate Persily, a Stanford professor who specializes in election law, making any material change in our voting processes, especially if there is going to be a large scale move to voting by mail, requires at least six months.

More voting by mail would be the right response. There is a relatively high level of support for this process, although most polls show that Republicans tend to oppose. But at least one poll in battleground states showed even a slight Republican majority for mail-in voting.

To be sure, there are practical problems. There are more than 8,000 election jurisdictions in the country. This is insane, but is not going to be solved in the short term. Focusing at the state level will address most issues. There will also be some challenges in scaling up for places like New York, but that is why we need to start now.

Initial costs for voting by mail will be higher, but the numbers are not huge by federal standards. Moreover, while there are up-front costs, it’s not clear that the net cost is that much greater because of the corresponding reduction in the number of polling places.

Unsurprisingly, the real issues are political. Republicans will battle this at every turn, almost certainly disproportionate to any real problems.

Studies in those states that rely to a greater extent on mail voting show no structural advantage to one party or the other. Historic evidence also shows that mail-in ballots favor white and older voters, the bedrock of today’s Republican voters. Republican parties in many states have long had sophisticated programs for getting out absentee and other votes by mail ballots. What happened in Wisconsin, where a Democratic candidate beat a Republican candidate (although the election is technically non-partisan) with a large mail-in majority, is seen by most experts as an anomaly. What seems to make the most difference is how well a particular party is organized to use the process.

Regardless of what Republicans do on vote by mail, Democrats should push for more voting by mail. It is the right thing for the times, and perhaps for all time. As they do this, there are a number of things they need to keep in mind. But, by far, the most important is that for 2020 options are available only to the extent these issues are decided immediately. If the battles drag on into June, voting by mail will no longer be practical and any further time spent on it will distract from what Democrats otherwise need to do.

Other considerations include the following:

Mail voting will be messy

Democrats should not enter this struggle without understanding how hard it would be. While five states now have mostly mail-in elections, all have histories of “good government.” None of them have particularly large populations, and, most importantly, they get didn’t to their current capabilities overnight. It took each of them many years and multiple elections to transition from voting in person to voting by mail—exactly the opposite of what other states are now facing.

Nor is the decision simply opting for a mail vote. There are a whole set of other changes that will be necessary. How will citizens get ballots? How are those returned? How is integrity maintained? Most states also have laws about when votes can be counted, how they are to be counted, and when they can get reported. We must accept from the start is that it is unlikely that our current system of reporting election results will survive a largely mail-in ballot. If for instance the deadline for mail-in ballots to arrive was midnight, November 8, it could be two weeks before a reliable total was available. One of the ways of fighting the inevitable claims of fraud—particularly if a vote count takes longer—is to be realistic up front.

Mail-in voting does not guarantee turn-out

Voting by mail is not necessarily easier than voting in-person. A ballot has to be procured, completed and mailed in enough time to insure that it meets whatever deadline. Because this process has more discrete steps and can take place over a longer time period, the demands of educating an electorate on this process and getting compliance are greater than simply getting everyone to the polls on a specific day. Under any circumstances, turning out the mail-in vote, particularly in populations with lower connection to voting and no history of using mail-in ballots, would be challenging. Doing so under virus conditions will be even more difficult.

Republicans will continue efforts to suppress the vote

Republicans in many places promote an agenda that suppresses the vote of people who seem likely to vote against them. On more than one occasion, Republican leaders have been caught saying what seems to be the obvious truth: if everyone who is eligible to vote in fact voted, it would be infinitely more difficult for them to win.

Accordingly, Democrats need to be prepared to address any particular tactics that are designed to dissuade minority, poor, or younger voters. In a vote by mail process, very tight time deadlines and very rigid interpretations of identification requirements are likely spots for vote suppression.

But the biggest risk is switching to mail-in ballots without enough time to prepare. The ensuing chaos could give election officials enormous power over outcomes, not to mention having profound effects on who votes in the first place.

Democrats must be focused on the counter-attack

We know the courts are not going to help us. The current Supreme Court has chosen to reverse the precedent that the right to vote trumped the right of states to run elections any way they saw fit. If Democrats want to win, they must win under the prevailing rules, however awful they are.

Start with voter identification rules. Instead of hoping some court is going to overturn, Democrats have to be maniacal in understanding the rules and organizing to make sure people can and do follow them. This means starting now to make sure as many people as possible are properly registered, have proper ID and know what they have to do to vote. In some cases these requirements are deliberately absurd, such as requiring Indians to have a street address when there are no streets. But if this is the rule and we want those people to vote, we need to be getting street addresses on the reservation now. September is too late.

Stacey Abram’s Fair Fight Project is the right idea. We need teams in every state studying the rules, distilling the necessary steps, and coordinating with everyone to organize people to follow them. This is particularly important in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, but other states could be swing states. And even in states where there is no hope of electoral votes, there are down-ballot contests that are the key to the Senate and to state races that will determine future election rules.

Even before the pandemic, the right to vote was under attack. Covid-19 only makes the problem more complicated, and in some ways more urgent. We cannot afford to wait a single day to address this problem. But we need to be careful about spending too much time and energy trying to get a different system if that distracts from winning under the current system. On a day-by-day basis, the possibility of a significant but thoughtful change in any state’s voting system diminishes.

Trump’s Approval Rating

By Mike Koetting April 10, 2020

Polls have been showing about 50% of the country approves of President’s Trump handling of the coronavirus pandemic. I was at first perplexed by how this could be in the face of what seems to me like egregiously poor performance. Then I decided I was confused by the wrong thing.

For the purposes of this post, I want to focus only on the non-substantive parts of his performance. Initial returns suggest that the administration made many substantive mistakes. But I want to set this aside for the moment. Plenty of people are writing on the specifics and the final evaluation will get hashed out over time. Even so, it is worth keeping in mind that, as much as we like to pretend we are non-biased, no one is immune. For instance, the Washington Post notes that the constantly quoted charge that Trump disbanded the office of global health affairs is substantively more complicated. More time will give us a better view.

I also have some sympathy with the fundamental problem faced by the administration—how do you balance immediate public health needs and the long-term economic well being of the society. Anyone who thinks this is an easy call isn’t thinking very clearly about the downstream effects of a broken economy. A Depression-like scenario in this and other countries will cause serious and continuing pain for many. Weighing these options, particularly given the paucity of hard information at the time when decisions had to be made, is beyond difficult.

That is not to say I am absolving the administration’s substantive handling of the crisis. Everything I have read points to serious problems with what they have and haven’t done. But, regardless of where that comes out, leadership in a crisis involves more than the substantive issues. There are “soften” aspects and he has massively failed in these aspects.

At a moment that calls for solidarity, he has continued to be divisive. When we need a leader to acknowledge that we are all in this together and model that behavior conspicuously, he routinely destroys any common space where people can come together and set aside differences. From failing to invite Democrats to the stimulus bill signing ceremony to infantile name calling, his every instinct is to divide.

In the same vein, when the message needs most to be about the common good, Trump has been transparently obsessed with his own concerns—making sure everyone knows he bears no fault, using circumstances for political campaigning, and crowing over his own TV ratings. Leadership is about focusing attention on the common mission. Trump shows no willingness to give more than occasional lip service to this aspect of his job. His ostentatious undermining of the CDC recommendation to wear face masks is a perfect example.

Another failed test is his inability to be consistent. Consistency in uncharted waters is not never changing your mind. In a circumstance unlike any other faced in recent time, changing understanding can well lead to policy evolution. But what is culpable is failing to anticipate the more likely outcomes, ignoring facts until they are utterly inescapable, being too anxious to tell people what they want to hear, discounting people with more expertise and creating fatuous expectations.

These are not esoteric criteria for leadership. I pretty much figured these things out as a Boy Scout shortly after becoming leader of the Thunderbird patrol at the age of 12. I had to. Otherwise the Thunderbird patrol wouldn’t have eaten.

So why the approval rating?

Mostly, this is just another reflection of the cultural divide we knew was there. For a material number of people in the country, a question about Trump’s handling of anything is a forgone conclusion. You might as well be asking if they were a homosexual immigrant or a socialist from San Francisco. I don’t know what percentage of the population this is, but I am guessing at least 25%, or half of the people giving high approval ratings.

This is totally consistent with why this group voted for Trump in the first place. They believe that there is a large, powerful group of people in our society who are determined to shift power to the elites and minorities. “Elites” in this context is not necessarily people who have huge amounts of money or power, it is people who intrude on their lives by telling them what to do—don’t eat so much sugar, integrate your schools, worry about endangered species, give up your guns, ignore what your pastors say about abortion and homosexuals, and be politically correct. These “elites” are enemies at a visceral level.

Donald Trump validates their view of the world. He speaks ill of whomever he wants to, he appoints traditionalist to the courts, and he is not intimidated by experts So, by definition, they support whatever steps he thinks appropriate.

Regional differences may also play into this. With the somewhat complicated exception of Louisiana—the southern states have been extremely reluctant to accept strong public health measures, although even within those states, there have been tensions between the larger cities and the states. I think this is a slightly less toxic version of the above– not wanting to be dictated to by the big [Democratic] cities. The largely defiant stance from southern governors has further muddied the signal, as has sentiment from the evangelical leadership. But it winds up in the same place—people supporting Trump without much consideration of the actual issues at hand. Of course, due the magic of our voting rules, it is unlikely that any answer in these states affects the presidential electoral outcome in November.

I have no idea how to fit into any paradigm the stunning statement by the Governor of Georgia on March 31 that he didn’t know the virus could be transferred by people before symptoms were visible. Was this a measure of the hypocrisy to which people will stoop when they feel cornered or was he really that unknowledgeable? And if the latter, where were his staff? Maybe there are people who approve of Trump for reasons that are utterly impossible to comprehend.

All of this raises the real question: what can we actually learn from opinion polls? Could be it’s a lot less than we’ve been thinking.

I’ve already suggested that at least two-thirds of Trump’s approval rating for his performance is purely reflexive and contains no information about how people think he’s actually doing. And those approval ratings don’t tell us anything about how people will vote in November that we don’t already know.

Perhaps there is a small group of people who give a higher approval rating for Trump’s handling of the corona virus than they have been for his performance beforehand. Is this an early warning? If this is a real signal, in a tight race, it could be significant. I don’t think it is. I am guessing they are people who aren’t really paying much attention and know Trump’s been on TV a lot and think it’s a time to “rally around the flag.” We are already seeing some of these approvals starting to drift down toward previous levels.

The same surveys also show that Americans have a far more favorable opinion about the response efforts by their state and local governments than their ratings for the President, suggesting that they are making discriminations. These higher approval ratings for governors are shared across the political spectrum and the differences are materially larger in the crucial swing states.

In short, I don’t see any evidence that the Trump campaign gets any significant boost from his handling of the crisis.

So why do we continue to be so fascinated by these polls? It seems like most of them are measuring things different from what they purport to measure. If people want to really understand what’s going on in the country, what we need is more qualitative discussion about why people have one opinion or the other rather than simply asking about the opinion. It’s unlikely we can ever address the deep social division in our country by coming up with new ways to prove that it exists.

Lessons for the (Really) Big One

By Mike Koetting March 27, 2020

Coronavirus is a monster hit to every aspect of our lives. It is hard to imagine writing about anything else right now and every publication is full of articles on the topic. But most of them are providing advice (not always consistent), looking at its short term impacts, or, here and there, guessing about long term impacts. I have nothing to add to those. At least at this time.

What I do want to write about is lessons that might be learned for dealing with another issue of even potentially larger impact–climate change. As disruptive as coronavirus undoubtedly is, my guess is that the changes that could be wrought by unchecked climate change will be even bigger, and last longer. Maybe we should consider the virus as a practice run and take advantage of what seems like a teachable moment to get the people of this country thinking about what we can learn from the pandemic and what it might suggest we focus on going forward.

Exponential Growth

The Washington Post had the following headline a couple days ago:

It took three months to reach 100,000 coronavirus cases worldwide. The second 100,000 only took 12 days.

Hello exponential growth.

We all learned this concept somewhere in school but most of us don’t have much reason to think about it on a daily basis. But Covid-19 has painfully reminded us. Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’ve heard all about “Flattening the curve”—which is to say slowing the rate of exponential growth. (By the way, “flattening the curve” doesn’t necessarily change the fact that the virus will grow exponentially for a period; it will just grow at a slower rate.)

Many of the factors driving climate change are also subject to exponential growth. Consider the following the following two graphs, one of carbon dioxide growth and one of global temperatures.

Both show exponential growth and both are ominous. Although these data are hardly new, the American response to them can best be described as “Oh yeah, maybe we ought to do something. But nothing too drastic.”

Why this response to trends that imperil world civilization as we know it? Because it is the nature of exponential increases that the impact is not so obvious in the early stages and it is the nature of human beings to ignore that which doesn’t impose an immediate threat.

Whether people will learn the danger of short-sighted thinking from the current pandemic remains to be seen. I still hear people saying….”Well, it’s only a few deaths—nothing compared to the annual death rate from the regular flu.” Could be they are right, which would be a good thing. But that is not what we would predict with an exponential growth curve for the virus. I don’t want the epidemiologists to be right. However, if they are, maybe people will really understand how exponential growth works in the real world. You only know how much trouble you’re in when you’ve passed the point you can do much about it.

Two weeks ago, Megan McCardle shared her coronavirus concerns using a metaphor about a lily pod that doubles in size every day and if you knew it was going to cover the entire pond in 48 days, even on day 40 the pods would only cover a very small portion of the pond’s surface..

The first time I heard this metaphor was in a 1971 book—The Limits to Growth—which was warning that we were still on the flat end of environmental issues but, unless we started taking steps, we were courting disaster. I had not heard it since. American citizens are, for the most, still partying on the beach of environmental degradation. Most give verbal assent to the notion that there is a crisis looming, but have shown little willingness to take serious action and less willingness to demand legislators treat the issue like the crisis-in-waiting that it is.

Making Expertise Great Again

One of the major problems with getting traction on climate change issues is the willingness of people to disregard expert opinion, especially when it might require change. Some of this is a result of deliberate efforts by corporations to sow doubt. Other parts of it result from media which, on the one hand, treats all issues as controversies and, on the other hand, treats all counter opinions as of equal value or fails to put any one “finding” in a larger context. And some part of the mistrust is the sense that expertise has been coopted to do the bidding of the elite class. While it is probably true that much expert opinion can be seen as having greater short-term effects on the less affluent, the bigger issue is that this perception perfectly well suited the purposes of Republican politicians. One whole pillar of Donald Trump’s campaign was to attack expertise of any sort, scientific and otherwise. (At the beginning of the current crisis, Donald Trump announced his ‘natural ability’ for healthcare while second-guessing health professionals. His tussle with experts obviously continues.)

However, as Sonja Trauss says:

Americans are being reacquainted with scientific concepts…Unlike with tobacco use or climate change, science doubters will be able to see the impacts of the coronavirus immediately.

We have seen much of that already. Increasingly the average person is more interested in Dr. Fauci than President Trump. People recognize that even as Trump tells them what they want to hear, their odds of getting reality are greater with Fauci.

All of this relates to another question—whether the country will demand that government take a longer view, including planning for unpalatable outcomes. Most Americans are now aware of the randomly fluctuating attention of the National Security Council to global health. Emphasis, typically expressed by having a specific office, ebbed and flowed depending on the whims of the administration then in power. Most Americans are also aware that even in the immediate instance the U.S. was caught relatively flat-footed and lost several weeks to disorganization as this crisis started to gather speed.

This ties to something else. We need to start seeing the world globally rather than focusing too much on our little piece. Scott Kelly, in his observations on what space flight teaches about surviving the pandemic, reminds us of what we all know but sometimes have a hard time internalizing:

Seen from space, the Earth has no borders. The spread of the coronavirus is showing us that what we share is much more powerful than what keeps us apart, for better or for worse. People are inescapably interconnected, and the more we can come together to solve our problems, the better off we will all be.

This is even more true of climate change.

Again, I don’t know if these potential lessons will carry into a concern about preparation for climate change.  On the one hand, the rate of change is slower and much less “in your face.” What’s the loss of polar ice cap or increasing draught in Africa to the average American? And if flooding in New Orleans, Houston and Miami doesn’t get people’s attention, it’s not likely the flooding in Indonesia will. Still, the consequences of climate change are so potentially far-reaching, it is possible that, because of what happened when we dithered for a few weeks on coronavirus, more people will realize the potential harm of the 50 years of environmental dithering since Limits to Growth was published.

Hard to know how this will turn out but the lessons are clearly there for all to see. If we want to.

Political Myths and Mything the Point

By Mike Koetting March 11, 2020

David Brooks’ recent column, “Why Sanders Will Probably Win the Nomination,” at this point seems to have been seriously premature. But what he got right and wrong is worth revisiting.

The gist of his column was that Sanders would probably win the nomination because he had a story—Brooks call it a “myth”—that is simple, easy to get your head around, and coherent in its own way. The other candidates didn’t. (Actually, Brooks thought Warren did too, but he believes it was just a different version of Bernie’s.) Brooks see the Sanders’ myth as having the same “us versus them” structure as the myths told by Donald Trump, just with different villains. Brooks argues that not only are both myths wrong, but their “us-versus-them” narratives are obstacles to the “great yearning for solidarity, and eagerness to come together and make practical change” that are the real underlying wish of ordinary people.

There is truth, myth and obtuseness here.

Continue reading “Political Myths and Mything the Point”

The Border

By Mike Koetting February 27, 2020

This month my book club read The Border, by Don Winslow. It’s a novel, basically a thriller, focusing on the drug trade between Mexico and the United States. Though fiction, it is enough rooted in the underlying facts of the drug trade that you cannot help but emerge with a new appreciation for the extent of the problem.

The are a couple of obvious themes. The War on Drugs has been a disaster on both sides of the border and it will never be solved as long as the possible profits are so staggeringly large. Moreover, there is some level of complicity in parts of the financial elite, either because they have drug money in their holdings, because they are creating conditions that make people susceptible to drugs, or both. One of the double-edged throw-away lines in the book is a character who asks “You know what’s the difference between a cartel leader and a hedge fund operator? Wharton Business School.” (The shot at President Trump is deliberate. He and Jared Kushner appear as very-thinly disguised villains in the book.)

Image result for drug trade cartoons

This is by no means great literature and I am not suggesting you run out and get a copy. But I have found myself thinking more about the issues raised in this book than issues raised in better books. Two in particular I just haven’t been able to get out of my mind.

Continue reading “The Border”

The Impeachment Trial-Snippets

By Mike Koetting February 6, 2020

I didn’t have very high hopes for the Impeachment proceedings and they did not fail to disappoint. I won’t try to make sense of either what happened or my own reflections on it, which are varied and mixed. But here are some thoughts, maybe loosely connected, maybe largely random.

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The Problem with Globalism

By Mike Koetting January 30, 2020

The main problem with globalization is that you can’t quit. No getting out of the club. Just isn’t possible. There are plenty of other problems with globalization. They are very difficult and some are at the very edge of human’s ability to solve. But the most important underlying feature is that it is here and, unless you believe you can jet off to another planet without taking earth’s problems with you, the only way to avoid it is to let things get so bad that we all have to start over. That does not sound like a fun ride.

Here’s why you can’t quit globalism. And there are more where these came from.

Continue reading “The Problem with Globalism”