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society

Where are We in this Thing?

It’s a good question, and one which doesn’t have a good answer. We don’t really have a consistent story of which states are doing what, much less what individuals are doing. The economic force, which is major, seems to be overpowering the protective force. A backfire is the major risk, with some areas of the country already seeing rises while others continue to fall.

The main challenge is, will the various governments be aware enough to catch new outbreaks early, and even if they do, will the stacks of human cordwood, that have their sights set on beaches and beer and all that, heed the call if a small flare-up risks becoming a five-alarm blaze?

The cordwood looks to do the heavy lifting, at least in the South, where the business community has caught the eye of the political class and they will not listen to science. If your area has an outbreak, and your government says all is well, believe the science. Practice the rules of prevention. At the least, you won’t be contributing to someone else’s misery with a deadly virus by not spreading it.

You don’t want to pass it on to your family or your hunting buddy, no matter how good a beer at the bar sounds.

Governments that are unwilling to follow science will be governments that find themselves without support in elections to come, and states that ignore science will be states that find people and businesses leaving. The short-term economy is currently the enemy of the long-term, in that sense.

What’s supposed to have happened is that testing would ramp up and tracing would ramp up and best practices, tailored to the business, would ramp up. Instead, testing is slowly getting better, but is unlikely to get to the levels really needed with asymptomatic transmission. Tracing doesn’t really do much without adequate testing. It has some marginal benefit, some localized protection, but not a ton if you don’t have the testing to feed it.

Best practices rely heavily on strong communication skills and coordination, but without governments leading on that, it’s a very sloppy and mixed effort. Some states aren’t even publishing their numbers honestly. (Same for nations.)

Think back on driver’s ed, and that old two-second rule. That you should be at least two seconds behind the car ahead, which means more distance at higher speeds. That you need that reaction time.

With our current trajectory in the pandemic, our lag time comes in around a couple weeks. That’s for the governments to act. Add at least a couple more days for the most aware citizens to act. Then a few more for the next half. The remainder, God knows.


At each stage of this crisis, there is an opportunity, there is time to be used to effect whatever changes make sense for the next moment. The administration hasn’t used any of them to do that.

  1. Early warning of emergent threat. The administration could have started ramping up PPE at that point, briefed governors on the basic playbook. They did neither. Donald John Trump turned a blind eye.
  2. Early domestic phase. Could have begun shutting down the largest of gatherings, put us on a kind of half-open footing some states are entering on reopening. Donald John Trump lied that it wouldn’t amount to anything.
  3. First wave hitting. Ramping testing up quickly. Work on mitigation plans for reopening. Donald John Trump Still said it would quickly vanish.
  4. First wave began to taper off. Begin demonstrations of how various workplaces should be operating. Have tracing network ready. Donald John Trump and his team chose to push to reopen without any real plan or messaging beyond that.
  5. Reopening begins. Donald John Trump and his daughter and son-in-law are not planning for how to handle new outbreaks, much less a new wave.

And that’s where we are in this thing.

Categories
society

The Oddity of Opening

The polling and reporting tells the following story:

  1. Most people think that the measures aren’t there to reopen.
  2. Republican-connected groups have been pushing protests to reopen.
  3. Based on that, some Republican governors have been getting ahead of themselves and reopening.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense. While some businesses have a majority of Republicans supporting reopening, a lot do not, and even where there’s a majority, it’s still split (though maybe less or more if you factor in margins of error). There is, once again, a minority Republican view being pressed and causing policy here.

More importantly, there’s a huge business case to be made to pay what’s actually needed to reopen (testing and tracing). It could even be done in a VAT or similar vehicle! But instead of doing it correctly, there are businesses pushing for blanket immunity.

The self-described pro-business lobbies always seemed a bit fucked in the head, but they’re really smashing the old Budweiser can on their forehead this time. If the virus gets worse, all those businesses that reopen will just keep losing revenue. Immunity from lawsuits doesn’t pay bills.

It’s been months now, coming up on five if you count from when the administration had a heads-up from the intelligence community. There’s been ample time to stand up supply chains, to ramp up testing. They haven’t been able to do it.

The problem is this: most people in most states aren’t going to be John Rambo, so most will stay home. Business revenue won’t be improving in the way the open-uppers think it will. But there also won’t be a viable way to open up more or get people back in public, because they still aren’t working on test-trace. So the economy stays a bummer, the virus stays a plateau, and we continue to waste time and money spinning our wheels. It’s stupid. It’s ridiculous. It’s Donald John Trump.

In order for an economy to function, you need supply and demand. The supply is shut for health reasons, but also for demand reasons. Even before stay-home orders hit, many businesses were seeing demand plummet. There is demand—aspirational, “wouldn’t it be nice” demand. But there is not “I’m getting in the car, let’s go now” demand, and there won’t be unless and until there’s a good bet you won’t get sick.

From a numbers point of view, if even 50% of regular demand is there, that’s probably not enough, and if new upticks in cases happen even under depressed demand, that 50% will drop even lower and won’t recover the next time a reopen is attempted.

From a numbers point of view, the cost of the shutdown is very high, far higher than what it would cost to implement real testing and tracing, and yet… the governments are still not saying that. They aren’t doing that. They are ignoring the facts that are plain as day.

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society

The Challenge of Open

Shutting things down is hard, but minimizing transmission of pestilence in anything approaching normal conditions is at least an order of magnitude harder. Avoiding it entirely would require far more than what society is willing (perhaps able) to do.

We must recognize that opening up a bit means the containment will be less than it has been. It means some people will get sick, and some of those will die. It’s the nature of opening things up, just as some fraction of cases today still occurred under the relatively closed conditions we have.

The trade-off of opening up a bit is to be prepared to test and trace and isolate cases. Not doing so, and not planning to do so, invites uncontrolled spread and a fast retreat to stay-home.

A good mental model is cars. We have done a ton to make cars safer. Seatbelts, airbags, licensing, crumple zones, and so forth. They aren’t completely safe. People still die from car crashes. But we’ve tried to minimize that harm. The plans being worked on by businesses and governments are similarly designed.

They are weighing all sorts of options and considering the logistics, acceptability to customers and the public. Like on the Apollo 13 mission, trying to connect a square CO₂ scrubber to a round air exchanger takes a lot of thinking through. Unlike that mission, the danger is mostly contained as long as people stay home and the clock is more about trying to get people where they can work safely.

For example, if you went to a fine dining establishment, how would you feel about having the wait staff instruct you how to bus your own dishes or wipe your own table? Is that something we can comfortably ask the public to do? Or do we stick to take-out only, depriving work from those who would normally be in the dining rooms? Or do restaurants switch to disposable tableware and some easy way to biohazard the entire table in one fell swoop? Or some other option? What are the risks? What are the costs? How do we balance it all?

For example, with grocery delivery in-demand, can stores work with delivery services to streamline the process, to minimize transmission, improve contact tracing, and increase service throughput?

There are tons of businesses and they all need solutions that fit their business and the community. Some of them will make mistakes.

But the number one tool we have is technology. All manner of businesses need to look at how they can use phones and computers to rework their business so that contact is minimized. And that’s going to require new software. Now more than ever it should be built with standard interfaces, where one app can be used by multiple businesses rather than requiring every last business to have a custom app built. We simply do not have the developer bandwidth to do the latter.

It’s a heavy lift. But the alternative of an unprepared reopening—something some states might try (and something that, unfortunately, many on the right media are urging)—will see another spike and more death than necessary. And the economy will still be worse off for those states, after they have to tuck tail and deal with another round of stay home. Their citizens will be less willing to trust those governments, and they will be watching on TV as the slow-and-steady states see slow-and-steady improvements.

Society has been wounded by the virus. We are convalescing and have fresh stitches. Communities that try to get up and run will tear their stitches and have to be rushed to get themselves sewn back up and then back to bedrest. Places that take it slow, cautious, will heal faster and be back on their feet.

Unfortunately, with interstate travel, there’s always the risk of the stitch-tearer bungling into another patient, tearing her stitches too. The virus can bloom in a foolish state and infect a smart state anew.

As things do open up a bit, remember that you have the right to say no. If you think the precautions are inadequate, you should seek alternatives. If a business is asking you as a customer or worker to do something you think is unsafe, you should speak up.


In some other universe, Americans are seeing a coordinated federal response to the pandemic and, for the first time in decades, they are seeing what the machine, firing on all cylinders, is capable of. It must be a thing to behold, but sadly we are deprived it and its comfort in these trying times.

Categories
society

Risk and Economics in a Pandemic

There are a lot of different ways to think about recessions. One is a traffic model. A bustling economy is moving a lot of cars with little trouble. A hurting economy is moving fewer cars slower. Depression is outright gridlock. The need to get cars moving is the recovery mechanism. (The slow cars are slowing each other down, which is akin to cascading financial problems.)

Another metaphor is a tree, battered by disease or wind, having lost some of its leaves. It has to slow its growth to repair itself instead. In some cases, government provides artificial sunlight, artificial rain, etc. to nurture the tree along.

The main thing about economic downturns is that they are a signal that, in some way, our collective resources were misallocated. Either we didn’t regulate enough, or didn’t spend enough on the right things. Sometimes we took a calculated risk and are just unlucky. Other times, we did not calculate risk correctly.

One of those risk calculations is the healthcare and insurance system. It doesn’t fully cover the nation, and it’s largely subject to the same kinds of economic problems as the rest of the system. Under a true universal system, whether Medicare-for-All or not, that wouldn’t be. It would dramatically reduce the suffering, but it would also help to prop up the larger economy. To divorce vital industry from the economic winds is a great ballast. The tradeoff of ballast is that growth in (at least parts of) healthcare would be more limited. Slower to accelerate, but slower to halt.

Another risk calculation, made (or failed to be made) by Donald John Trump, was to underfund, reduce, and dismantle parts of our shield against pandemics. Even now, he keeps pushing for quick fixes, corner cuts, and premature reopening, all which threaten to undermine public health efforts that economic recovery depends upon.

Governors and mayors weighed the risk of stay-home orders. Ministers did, too. The risk, plus some luck either way, results in a signal of whether the decisions were apt. Sometimes the signal is in lives lost.

The Republican party in the state of Wisconsin decided the risk of having people vote the normal way at the normal time during decidedly abnormal public health conditions was worth the risk of more suffering and death.


The economic fallout will take some time to really become apparent in all of this. It depends on the length of the shutdown, which depends on the ability of government to manage test coverage in a way that ensures we can reopen and stay open. So far, that’s not materialized.

Which makes no sense! The economic output lost from having to keep protections higher, or the economic output lost from having more waves of virus or worse waves, are both in excess of the societal cost of ramping up testing to the level needed to avoid them! For all the monies appropriated by the Congress, for all the nonsense dispensed by the president (including his fantasy over an anti-malaria drug), they haven’t done the one thing! Testing! Even if a quinine-based drug were a magic bullet, testing would still be king!

The decision between minimizing risks and maximizing economy is false. Those who see what should be very welcomed reductions in projected deaths and say, “We should open up,” are inviting much larger outbreaks and tolls. Failure to expand testing is bad for the economy. Risk is what’s hurting the economy, so taking on more of the same risk is to invite ruin.

Happy and/or Merry Easter!

Categories
society

One Way or the Other.

Successful leadership in a crisis requires trust and steady fact-based decisions. Trump was completely unstable at the best of times, and he had zero trust from anyone who pays attention.

After leadership, you have the logistics of handling a crisis. It’s not that difficult. You simply learn what steps are necessary, what materials needed, and you do the work. A computer could have done it, but not the Trump administration.

A computer would have taken input that said, “Need masks. Need ventilators. Need other PPE.” It would have put out requests to the proper channels to find out availability and begun the wheels of industry a-turnin’. It would have called for shutdowns and distancing. A computer.

The hard part of logistics in a crisis comes from the bad news. Trying to keep people going through it. Keeping focused. The decisions should be self-evident. You get the ventilators. You get the PPE. You close the beaches. You prepare for recovery.

Not Trump. First it was “magically disappear.” Then came “hoax” and “flu” and automobile fatalities. Only now, after a month-plus of fucking around, they’re saying 100 000, if all the right cards are dealt. They had an entire, color-coded plan and they didn’t even look at it!

Which is the whole point: this has never been a serious administration. There’s no commitment to governing. There’s just the fucking around, the schtick. There was never going to be success. There wasn’t any ability or thought to attempt success from. They didn’t just ignore warnings, but treated the warnings with contempt. Warnings are for people who might actually give a shit, who want to do the right thing.

And we’ve seen it downballot, with several prominent Republicans now under investigation for cashing out stocks on the warnings while they didn’t lift a finger to stop the actual mess.

The nation has a choice that it always has, that we all have: do the right thing or suffer the consequences. Either this administration finds the ability to handle the pandemic, and the pandemic runs one course, or they don’t, and it runs a much more costly course.

But let’s be clear on that choice, just as we should be clear about the election in 30 weeks: the choice isn’t even close. The economy will do better if the pandemic is handled properly from here forward. The lives saved will be far greater if the right choices are made, based on science and boring old logistics that a computer can do.

To fail, you have to try. Trump is the don’t bother president. The un-president. The lazy sod that wants to take credit if only 100 000 of our brothers and sisters die. He’s not responsible, whatever happens, because he’s not leading. He’s only there because he was elected, not because there’s a job to be done. Whatever work the administration does is incidental to Trump, or is done to fluff his ego.

Sure, they go through these indecent motions to have him sign off on decisions, but he’s not in charge other than as an obstacle to the various administration factions doing what they want to do. They are required to thank the president, to appreciate him in public. That’s not appreciation, if you’re coerced. Doesn’t matter to Trump, as long as people believe he gets credit for work that he doesn’t even care about.

There are a lot of people sick and dying because of this president’s inability to do his job. There are a ton more trying to patch around him, to keep things working despite Trump. The Republicans in the Senate took this risk, they bet against the nation, when they failed to hold a real trial and failed to convict him for his high crimes. This country owes itself to do better than these jackals.


If Biden were president today, the nation would be far better prepared, on top of which there would be an effort to ensure broad insurance coverage. He would have made healthcare improvements instead of a giant tax giveaway for the rich, and he would be doubling down on healthcare now. Trump never put forward a plan, and the only reason that millions have healthcare at all today is that Senator McCain told Trump to go fuck himself when it mattered most.

Biden would have a national purchase coordinator for masks, gloves, and gowns, with a proper distribution system. The rapidly-depleting stockpile—meant to be a stopgap to distribute to states and localities while production ramps up during a crisis—would have been properly maintained and properly used to get us to full production, which under Trump we’re nowhere near. There would be a much stronger testing capability, so that we could know not just if a sick person has the virus, but if it’s spreading undetected. What we have is so piecemeal as to likely make the pandemic worse in places that are undertesting. What we have in Trump is someone who still denies problems that are clear as day! They’re trying to cobble together blindspot data from community surveys and internet-of-things thermometers.

Joe Biden is not only better, he’s a thousand times better. He will not be a perfect president, but he won’t be incompetent. That’s something to be excited about: waking up to an American presidency that actually cares. Someone who won’t make a very silly bet with tens of thousands of lives, that the virus would just vanish by yesterday. That’s a big fucking deal.

If Biden were president, we would be in a much better position, not waiting to hear how many needless deaths Trump will inflict on our nation through his complete failure to lead.


But there’s another side to be told here. Terminally underfunding the federal government and state governments means we’re always playing catch-up on critical functions. Taxes need to go up. We need to pay for the country we want. That’s more necessary for states, but it’s true for both. That kind of partnership (Trump likes to harp on NATO allies for not spending enough; if he were consistent he would have been saying, for years, that states need to raise their revenues) is what is needed to meet these trials.

There is so much work to be done, and sooner or later the naysayers in the GOP will have to get out of the way of progress, or we’ll keep seeing people die and we’ll keep seeing inadequate governance. Biden can work to push them toward realistic funding and changes, but there has to be internal change among Republicans. They must recognize that failing to pay for government is the same as failing to govern.