A Picture’s Worth A Thousand Words…

Sometimes, visuals convey more information than text. As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.

As our mentally-ill President pretends he knows what he’s talking about and brags about what a “great” job his administration has done, and as too many states are fudging the numbers of dead and dying so that they can open much too quickly, a reality check is in order.

These pictures are from EndCoronavirus.com.They show the progress of various countries in combatting the pandemic. Spoiler alert: America is far–far--from being number one.

These countries do best:

 

A second, nearly equal number of countries, was shown at the link as “almost there.”

The third set was “Countries that need to take action”–i.e., countries doing the worst:

Picture this the next time Trump declares that we’re doing more testing than any other country–we aren’t, not even close–or that we’re ready to “re-open.” Better still, if you happen to come across Trump’s tweet about his proposed new motto–“Transition to Greatness”–click on this URL of the same name for the real story.

If his perverse refusal to listen to experts or learn only threatened the morons who insist that their “liberty” entitles them to ignore your safety, I might be inclined to say “let them go for it!” Unfortunately, they are endangering the rest of us.

As a friend pointed out recently, their “liberty” doesn’t allow them to drive 100 miles per hour on city streets, or to dispense with wearing clothing in public, either. Until they understand the legitimate limits of individual liberty, the “land of the free” won’t be free of the Coronavirus.

Climate Denial Coming Back To Bite Us

It’s all connected.

Not just climate change and the incidence of pandemics–which, it turns out, is a connection we need to understand and take seriously–but science denial and destructive public policies, among many other relationships.

As Talking Points Memo and Pro Publica have reported, scientists and medical researchers are just beginning to unravel the ways in which climate change affects the emergence of new diseases. It isn’t as though the relationship between the two was unknown; for many years now, experts in the field have been warning about the likelihood that a warming planet would accelerate the rate at which new diseases appear. But the mechanisms are just beginning to be understood.

The numbers are jaw-dropping: A new emerging disease surfaces five times a year. One study estimates that more than 3,200 strains of coronaviruses already exist among bats, just waiting for an opportunity to jump to people.

Those strains have always been there–but the planet previously had “natural defenses” that fought them off.

Today, climate warming is demolishing those defense systems, driving a catastrophic loss in biodiversity that, when coupled with reckless deforestation and aggressive conversion of wildland for economic development, pushes farms and people closer to the wild and opens the gates for the spread of disease.

The effect of climate change on the way diseases are transmitted from bats and other animals or insects to humans is anything but intuitive, which is why it would be helpful to elect legislators and other policymakers who have a modicum of scientific literacy. (Actually, it would be nice if at least a few GOP lawmakers knew the difference between science and religion…)

The article explains how it works.

There are three ways climate influences emerging diseases. Roughly 60% of new pathogens come from animals — including those pressured by diversity loss — and roughly one-third of those can be directly attributed to changes in human land use, meaning deforestation, the introduction of farming, development or resource extraction in otherwise natural settings. Vector-borne diseases — those carried by insects like mosquitoes and ticks and transferred in the blood of infected people — are also on the rise as warming weather and erratic precipitation vastly expand the geographic regions vulnerable to contagion. Climate is even bringing old viruses back from the dead, thawing zombie contagions like the anthrax released from a frozen reindeer in 2016, which can come down from the arctic and haunt us from the past.

Not only does climate change facilitate contagion, but once new diseases are introduced into the human environment, changing temperatures and precipitation change how–and how fast– those diseases spread. Harsh swings from hot to cold, or sudden storms — exactly the kinds of climate-change-induced patterns we’re already experiencing— make people more likely to get sick.

The bottom line: climate policy is inseparable from efforts to prevent new pandemics. The relationship of the two cannot be ignored.

What’s known as biodiversity is critical because the natural variety of plants and animals lends each species greater resiliency against threat and together offers a delicately balanced safety net for natural systems. As diversity wanes, the balance is upset, and remaining species are both more vulnerable to human influences and, according to a landmark 2010 study in the journal Nature, more likely to pass along powerful pathogens.

Losses of biodiversity have accelerated. Only 15% of the planet’s forests remain intact–the others have been so degraded that the natural ecosystems that depend on them have been disrupted. When forests die, and grasslands and wetlands are destroyed, biodiversity decreases further.

The United Nations has warned that the planet has already lost 20% of all species– and that more than a million more animal and plant species currently face extinction.

Speaking of interrelationships–politics is intimately and unavoidably involved with our efforts to avoid planetary-wide extinctions. Losses of biodiversity and the increasing prevalence of pandemics cannot be addressed by MAGA-believing xenophobes who fear globalization and dark people, and think border walls will repel viruses and brown people, and return America to the 1950s.

We are facing life-and-death issues, and they can only be resolved by global collaborations led by people who respect science and trust scientists–and aren’t afraid of people who look or pray differently.

 

 

Excellent Analogies

Thanks to my lack of technical skills, some of you may have received a link to this previously. (Don’t ask….)

This misbegotten administration has spawned humor as well as despair–not only are satirists and comedians having a field day, but recently, as Trump’s disastrous, fumbling response to the pandemic continues to endanger us all, pundits and others have looked for explanatory analogies to our current predicament.

The “go to” analogy, of course, has been to Germany in the 1930s–mostly but not exclusively to Hitler. Max Boot–one of the “Never Trump” Republicans–went with a different  angle.

Boot recently penned a column for the Washington Post titled “If Trump Had Been In Charge In WWII, This Column Would Be in German.” (The headline reminded me of a cartoon I saw recently, showing American soldiers in WWII, with one of them saying to a comrade something along the lines of “Wouldn’t it be weird if 75 years from now, the Germans were the good guys and we were the threat?)”

As Boot very plausibly rewrote history, with Trump instead of FDR in charge:

Picture the scene a few months after Pearl Harbor. The first U.S. troops have arrived in England, and the Doolittle raiders have bombed Tokyo. But even though the war has just begun, the Trumpified FDR is already losing interest. One day he says the war is already won; the next day that we will just have to accept the occupation of France because that’s the way life is. He speculates that mobilization might be unnecessary if we can develop a “death ray” straight out of a Buck Rogers comic strip. He complains that rationing and curfews are very unpopular and will have to end soon. He tells the governors that if they want to keep on fighting, they will have to take charge of manufacturing ships, tanks and aircraft. Trumpy FDR prefers to hold mass rallies to berate his predecessor, Herbert Hoover. He even suggests that Hoover belongs in jail along with the leading Republican congressmen — “Martin, Barton and Fish.”

Probably the most compelling analogy I’ve seen, however, was on a Twitter thread my son shared on FaceBook. It was an effort to explain reality to the anti-mask “freedom fighters” who want the “liberty” to infect the rest of us. (I know it isn’t a “politically correct” thing to say, but if they were just endangering each other, I’d urge them on…)

At any rate, the tweeter- Jeremy TEST/TRACE/ISOLATE Konyndyk–analogized the virus to poop in the swimming pool. As he pointed out, when a kid poops in the water, which  happens a few times every summer, everyone clears the pool. “That’s the initial step to protect people from the poop.”

Then some poor soul on pool staff has to go fish out the poop. It’s a pretty thankless job.

Then they have to shock the pool with chlorine to kill off bacteria. And then everyone waits half and hour or so til it’s safe to swim again.

If the lifeguards tell everyone to clear the pool, but the pool staff declines to actually get rid of the poop, what happens? No one can go back in. The poop is still there. Limbo.

Whose fault is it that it’s not safe to go back in the water? Who is accountable?

Do you focus on the people saying “clean up the poop before we can go back in safely!”? Or do you focus on the staff whose job it is to clean up the poop? And what would you think if the staff started saying – look, just get back in. Be a warrior.

As Jeremy points out, right now America is a big swimming pool with a poop problem and a President who– rather than clean up the poop– is urging everyone back into the pool. According to him, the *real* problem is those people who think the pool’s not safe yet. They must hate the pool.

The President’s whole play here is to distract from his failure to fix the mess by focusing the country’s attention on people who don’t want to swim in a pooped-in pool.

He wants you to believe they’re saying you should never go back in. And if you buy that, he’s off the hook. He doesn’t have to clean up the poop, and he doesn’t get blamed for failing to do so. Win-win for him.

But NO ONE is saying “never go back in the pool.” They’re saying – please clean out the poop first.

It’s an analogy even the limited intellects who are demanding the “freedom” to ignore everyone else’s rights ought to understand. But I’m not holding my breath…

 

Kicking Them When They’re Down

A few days ago, I referenced President Obama’s efforts to console family members of the worshippers gunned down during bible study in Charleston, and said I found it impossible to imagine Trump trying to comfort anyone.

Not only does he not console– or even empathize with–people who are suffering, Trump’s instinct is to kick them when they’re down. Just as he insisted that John McCain wasn’t a hero “because he got caught,” he considers Americans who are disadvantaged “losers” –his favorite epithet. And “losers” have absolutely no claim on his sympathies (assuming, in the absence of any evidence, that he has the capacity for sympathy) or on government largesse. To the contrary.

Time Magazine recently reported on the difficulties disabled poor people are experiencing buying groceries during the pandemic. As the story noted, it can be difficult getting to the store in normal times, but in some states–where “stay at home” orders keep the elderly and “medically fragile” residents from venturing out, it has become a huge problem– because unlike other Americans, recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) aren’t permitted to use those benefits for grocery delivery in most states, including Indiana.

Speaking of food stamps, Vox and a number of other media outlets recently reported on the administration’s effort–in the middle of a pandemic that has triggered massive unemployment–to cut over 3 million people from the rolls.

The Trump administration is proposing bumping 3.1 million people off of food stamps (about 8 percent of the total program) through the federal rule-making process — cutting out Congress.

The rule cracks down on “broad-based categorical eligibility,” or BBCE, a policy that enables states to enroll people in food stamps (formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP) if they’ve already applied for other benefits limited to low-income people, most notably Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The claim (which doesn’t have much basis in evidence) is that this provision is easy to game and keeps benefits from going to the neediest people.

In fact, Trump and his administration seem to be mounting a positive vendetta against Americans who have the nerve to be disabled and/or needy. Another recent proposal from the Social Security Administration would cut $2.6 billion dollars over the next decade from the two programs that anchor the disability safety net: Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

Recipients of these safety net programs aren’t exactly living high on the hog: the maximum amount that SSI will provide to a disabled beneficiary is just 74 percent of the federal poverty level — currently $12,490 for an individual– and the average for SSDI was just $14,855 per year.

Speaking of vendettas, Trump is clearly intent upon destroying the nearly 250-year-old Postal Service, evidently because he is convinced that the post office delivers Amazon purchases at a loss. (That–like so much of what Trump believes–is demonstrably untrue.) And he hates Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post.

Trump blocked a bipartisan plan to provide $13 billion to the post office, which was already struggling due to a 2006 Congressional requirement that it pre-fund employee retirement obligations to the tune of several billion dollars a year. Trump has now appointed a crony with no postal experience to be the new postmaster general, and is demanding a hefty raise in postal rates.

The Post Office employs 600,000 workers. It supports a $1.6 trillion mailing industry that employs close to another 7 million. (It also employs black workers at double the rate of the overall workforce.) Only someone as clueless–or heartless– as Donald Trump would try to throw another seven and a half million Americans out of work at a time when unemployment is at an all-time high.

The post office is also critical to American healthcare: in 2019 alone, it delivered 1.2 billion prescriptions, including almost 100 percent of those ordered by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Those who are inclined to minimize the importance of the postal service might take a look at its performance during the current pandemic. Letter carriers are delivering much-needed items and at much lower cost than services like FedEx or UPS–everything from masks to stimulus checks. As states have migrated to vote-by-mail primaries, they’ve delivered the ballots. In fact, it isn’t much of a stretch to attribute the attack on the post office to Republican efforts to defeat vote-by-mail.

SNAP recipients, disabled people, poor folks, postal workers–to Trump, they’re all “losers” who can be kicked to the curb.

I think it was Maya Angelou who said “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.”

Are States Outmoded?

Indiana residents who follow state economic trends probably know the name Morton Marcus. Marcus–who sometimes comments here– used to head up a business school think tank at Indiana University, and even though he’s retired, remains a popular public speaker–not just because he is very knowledgable, but because he’s always been willing to speak his mind and share his often “unorthodox” opinions.

When I first joined the faculty at IUPUI, Morton’s office was down the hall, and he would sometimes pop in to discuss those opinions. I still remember a conversation in which he argued that states–whose boundaries have always been artificial–no longer made sense. Instead, he thought the U.S. should be governed through designated areas of economic influence: the Chicago region, the Boston region, etc.

I thought back to that conversation when I read a recent paper issued by the Brookings Institution. Many years later, Brookings scholars have evidently come to the same conclusion.

The paper began by noting the country’s haphazard response to the coronavirus pandemic, exacerbated by the failure to coordinate governance across local and state lines.

There are a number of ways in which the patchwork of state responses–and the tendency of many Republican governors and legislators to treat the pandemic as a political and economic problem rather than a public health crisis–is leading to thousands of unnecessary deaths. The recent majority decision by Wisconsin’s conservative Supreme Court justices to the effect that the state’s Democratic governor lacked the authority to order a uniform state response is just an extreme example of the chaos caused by internal state political struggles.

Even without the politicization of Covid-19, however, state lines complicate government’s response. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo explained the problem during a  briefing about plans to deploy contact tracing:

“If I turn up positive, yeah, my residence is in Westchester County, but I work in New York City, and I would have contacted many more people in New York City than I did in Westchester…If you’re going to do these tracing operations, you can’t do it within just your own county, because you will quickly run into people who are cross-jurisdictional.”

The paper pointed out that the multiple governance dysfunctions caused by state lines aren’t limited to those highlighted by the pandemic:

Before the arrival of the coronavirus, our planning processes formalized many inequities within and across regions, ranging from hospital bed availability to housing inventory to environmental racism…

Before the coronavirus arrived, both established metropolitan regions and “megaregions”—combinations of two or more metro areas—were consolidating at unprecedented levels. This brief presents evidence documenting these trends, and makes the case for new state and federal policy frameworks to address cross-jurisdictional equity problems that emerge when everyday activities happen in a mega-region.

The paper describes the changes in residential and commercial activity over the past decades, resulting in the creation of what the authors call “large polycentric regions, or a “megapolitan America.” Jobs, housing, and consumption now occur across multiple state and municipal jurisdictions. Significant numbers of people commute between cities or town centers. Etc.

The paper describes several of these regions, and the inequities within them, and I encourage those of you who are interested in the data to click through and read the entire paper. But living in Indiana, I was particularly struck by this description of one problem caused by the mismatch between legal jurisdictions and contemporary realities:

The lack of regional governance institutions is particularly problematic for addressing equity problems within regions. For example, a worker may live in a lower-cost municipality and work in a wealthier one. The revenues generated in the wealthy area will not normally support the services available in the worker’s lower-cost neighborhood if it is in a different county.

We have the opposite situation in the Indianapolis region: workers who commute to Indianapolis from wealthy suburbs in other counties. These commuters use the infrastructure and public services paid for by cash-strapped Indianapolis (where state government agencies and nonprofit statewide organizations occupy roughly 25% of the real estate and are exempt from property taxation), but their taxes go to their already flush home counties.

The Brookings paper provides one more example of an over-arching and increasingly dire problem–the failure of America’s governing institutions to keep pace with contemporary realities. Structures like the Electoral College, the filibuster, the way we conduct and finance elections, and the way we allocate governance responsibilities among local, state and federal authorities are just a few of the systems that no longer serve their intended purposes.

A blue wave in November is an absolutely essential first step toward addressing America’s creaky governing infrastructure.  Given the percentage of voters who remain in the cult that was once the GOP, however, I don’t have high hopes for the thoroughgoing reforms we need.