Tag Archives: pandemic

Pandemics And Parking Meters

Back in 2011,  Indianapolis (under  then-Mayor Ballard) entered into a  fifty-year agreement with  a consortium called Park Indy  to upgrade and manage the city’s parking meters. At the time, I was  among those who argued strenuously against that agreement.

I  had  two major objections  and two never-answered questions.

The first objection was to the fifty-year length of the contract. Even if the deal had been less one-sided fiscally, decisions about where to place meters, how to price them, what lengths of time to allow and so on have an enormous impact on local businesses and residential neighborhoods. As I said at  the time, these are decisions requiring flexibility in the face of changing circumstances; they are most definitely not decisions that should be held hostage to contracting provisions aimed at protecting a vendor’s profits.

My  second objection was that, under the terms of the contract, downtown developments and civic events would become more costly. More often than not, new  construction interrupts adjacent parking. If the city is managing its own meters, it can choose to ignore that loss of parking revenue, or decide to charge the developer, based upon the City’s best interests. Street festivals and other civic celebrations also require  that meters be bagged, and usually there are good reasons not to charge the not-for-profit or civic organization running the event. The ParkIndy contract required the City to pay ACS whenever  interruptions require bagging the meters and disrupting projected revenues from those meters.

No one could have foreseen a pandemic, of course. That’s the point. When you contract away your  flexibility, your authority to make decisions that are responsive  to  unforeseen events, you end up owing a lot  of money to the private  vendor. Indianapolis closed certain streets to  traffic,  in order to allow restaurants to serve customers outdoors, a move that probably kept some of them afloat during a very difficult time. That required bagging  the meters  on those streets. WISH reports that the city  has already had to pay Park Indy 450,000 under the contract–at a time when the pandemic is wreaking  havoc with city and state finances.

File that  payment under “adding insult to injury,” since, according to periodic reports, the city has never come close to receiving the income it projected when this ill-conceived privatization agreement was negotiated. In May of 2016, the Indianapolis Star reported that the city was reaping only about a quarter of the dollars ParkIndy projected when it paid $20 million for the right to operate the meters until 2061.

Then there  are  my two questions.

As I wrote at the time, why privatize at all? Parking isn’t rocket science. There was never a satisfactory response to the obvious question “why can’t we do this ourselves, and keep all the money?” Why couldn’t Indianapolis retain control of its infrastructure, and issue revenue bonds to cover the costs of the necessary improvements? Interest rates were at a historic low at the time, making it even more advantageous to do so. If the Ballard administration was too inept to manage parking, it could have created a Municipal Parking Authority, as Councilor Jackie Nytes  suggested at the time.

What was the compelling reason to enrich private contractors and reduce (desperately needed) City revenues.

And finally,  why ACS –the company that is the primary partner of ParkIndy. There had already been extensive publicity about ACS’ performance problems in Chicago; there was also troubling information about the company’s track record in Washington, D.C., where an audit documented mismanagement, overcharging, over-counting of meters, and the issuance of bogus tickets (ACS got all the revenue for tickets). The audit  found  that Washington had lost $8,823,447 in revenue and experienced a twenty-fold increase in complaints from the public.

The  only answer I  could  come up with was that the Ballard Administration got an  up-front infusion of cash which helped it hold  the line on taxes while Ballard was  in office–and who cares about the future? 

This was actually something of a modus operandi for Ballard.  An academic paper I co-authored  with a colleague  shared the results of our investigation into the convoluted structure of  the city’s sale of its water and sewer utilities. The highly sophisticated financing scheme for the sale had the effect of shifting costs to utility rate-payers that should properly have been assumed by taxpayers.

There’s a saying among politicians: to elected officials, “long-term” means  “until the next election.” 

And I  used to think that “fiscally responsible” meant “pay as you go.” I was  so naive…

Joe Biden Is Coming For Your Windows

If it wasn’t so serious–and terrifying–it would be funny. 

Anyone who watched Trump’s Rose Garden “press conference” and still thinks that the guardian of the nuclear codes is sane, is equally demented. 

Dana Milbank shared his bemusement in the Wednesday Washington Post.

President Trump’s window is closing.

All signs suggest it’s closing on his presidency because of his world-class incompetence with the coronavirus pandemic, the protracted economic collapse that resulted, and the increasingly overt racism Trump has embraced.
 
But it also appears the window is closing on his connection to reality, if it hasn’t already.

Milbank described Trump’s use of the ostensible press conference to launch a bizarre and lengthy attack on Joe Biden– “attributing a platform to his Democratic opponent that bore hardly any resemblance to anything occurring in the real world.”
 
Trump informed the assembled White House reporters that Biden would “incentivize illegal alien child smuggling,”  “abolish immigration enforcement,” “abolish police departments” and “abolish our prisons.” According to Trump, Democrats are “calling for defunding of our military” and “wouldn’t mind” if terrorists blew up America’s cities.

He also said “Biden and Obama stopped their testing– they just stopped it.” (Presumably, they are also culpable for failing to prevent 9/11.)

The weirdest accusation was that Biden’s energy plan would require eliminating windows. According to Trump’s unhinged diatribe, Biden’s energy plan “basically means no windows” in homes or offices by 2030.

Uh-huh.

Lest you think Milbank was exaggerating for comic effect, his description of the “press conference” (note quotation marks) was echoed by a number of other observers. Cody Fenwick attributed the performance to Trump’s longing for the rallies he has been unable to hold.

There was no consistent thread or argument to his ramblings, aside from his own supposed greatness. It was pure stream of consciousness, supplemented by factoids apparently printed on notes on his lectern. He claimed to be the defender of African Americans at one moment because he favors school choice, but then slipped into attacking low-income housing and saying he’d preserve the suburbs — an unsubtle code for protecting white neighborhoods.

He lied so constantly that CNN’s Daniel Dale, one of the president’s most assiduous fact-checkers, noted that he couldn’t cover the speech in real-time on Twitter because there were just so many falsehoods.

The Lincoln Project tweeted out: “We’re watching the self-destruction of the president in real time.”

And back at the Washington Post, in a column that was far from amusing or bemused, Paul Waldman argued that people who aren’t furious with Trump and the GOP just aren’t paying attention.

Let me take you for a moment to a fantasy land. In this place, the coronavirus pandemic was bad for a couple of months but now it is largely under control. If you lived there you’d still be a little uncertain about going to a concert or a movie, but your life would have largely returned to normal.
 
You wouldn’t have lost your job; the government would have had a comprehensive support program that kept unemployment low. You’d be able to see your family and friends without fear. Your children would be returning to school in September. There would be some precautions to take for a while longer, but there would be no doubt that the pandemic was on its way to being defeated.

As Waldman says, this isn’t a fairy-tale; it’s life in numerous other countries around the world. (I know it’s true of the Netherlands, because I have a son who lives in Amsterdam, and that’s been his experience.)

Waldman provides data that should enrage us: new case totals from Monday. France: 580; UK: 564; Spain: 546; Germany: 365; Canada: 299; Japan: 259;  Italy: 200; Australia: 158; South Korea: 52.

The United States? 55,300.

There are many reasons we have experienced this catastrophe (and it quickly became two catastrophes, an economic crisis added to the public health crisis), but one stands above all others: President Trump.

Is there a single aspect of his response to this pandemic that has not been a miserable failure? For weeks he ignored warnings and denied that the pandemic would be a problem. He didn’t prepare the equipment and systems we’d need to respond.

Waldman lists the failures, then focuses on the President’s disconnect from reality.

And he demanded that everyone around him echo his insane claims that everything is under control and the pandemic is being vanquished. It was a month ago that Vice President Pence pathetically proclaimed that “we are winning the fight against the invisible enemy,” and the administration’s great success was “cause for celebration.”

And now (since nothing bad can ever be Trump’s fault) the White House is trying to discredit Dr. Fauci.

As Waldman points out, we should all be furious–because we’ve been robbed:

Even if you’re lucky enough not to have gotten sick or lost a loved one, you’re the victim of a robbery. Trump stole so much from all of us — our time with friends and family, our mental health, even our faith that our country could meet a challenge.

I can just hear the Trumpers’ response: but think how angry we’ll be when Joe Biden steals our windows…

 

 

 

 

The Pandemic And The Constitution

Several faculty at the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, where I teach, collaborated on a special summer school course investigating the challenges posed by the pandemic to our particular fields–criminal justice, disaster preparedness, non-profit organizations…and in my case, civil liberties.

Here’s an abbreviated (but still pretty long) version of my lecture.

The Coronavirus pandemic has raised a number of issues that are new or even unprecedented. One is a fundamental governance issue: what is the proper balance between government’s obligation to protect and the individual’s right to autonomy, or self-governance?

The rights guaranteed to individuals under the U.S. Constitution are civil liberties; they are guarantees against governmental infringement of our fundamental, human rights. Civil rights, on the other hand, are statutory rights against discriminatory behavior by private entities. The question we’re going to explore in this class is limited to civil liberties—specifically, how much additional latitude the Constitution gives government to limit individual rights in order to discharge its duty to protect our health and lives—civil liberties in the time of a pandemic.

There are a multitude of issues raised by government’s efforts to keep us safe and control the pandemic.

·      One of the most visible—and contentious—issues involves federalism. Federalism, as you know, is the structure whereby government jurisdiction, or authority, is divided between federal, state and local units of government. What is the role of the federal government in a pandemic? What powers and decisions are reserved to the states? In previous situations involving threatened pandemics, there was much more co-ordination, and most of the questions we now face didn’t arise. This time, however, there has been a great deal of public confusion over where various responsibilities lie; the President has asserted his authority to over-rule governors on several matters, but he has also disclaimed responsibility for tasks that he says are state responsibilities. Several of those statements are inconsistent with the Constitution, which vests primary responsibility with the states. As you consider America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the very uneven experiences of the states, you might also consider where America should place primary responsibility for pandemic response.

·      Another issue that has been debated is: What are the limits of civil disobedience and the First Amendment right to assembly during a pandemic? This issue arises in several ways: some citizens have protested state orders requiring masks and social distancing (and some of those protestors have been armed, which is disquieting). Those protests pale, however, before the hundreds of thousands of citizens who have participated in the widespread Black Lives Matter demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd. The states did not move to curtail those demonstrations on the basis of the threat to public health, and the data we now have suggests that those protests were not, in fact, a triggering event. The lack of spread has been attributed to the fact that protestors were outdoors, and a significant percentage of them wore masks.

·      Requirements to wear masks have generated especially nasty confrontations, with people comparing the requirements to “communism” and “attacks on the Second Amendment.” My own reaction to these assertions is based less on the Constitution—which I think pretty clearly allows such measures –and more on logic, or more properly, the lack thereof. The government can and does require you to wear a seat-belt; ordinances require that we refrain from smoking in public places. For that matter, government requires us to wear clothing—at least enough to cover our genitals—in public. It is illogical to obey these and other common mandates and yet claim that wearing a mask in order to abate a pandemic is somehow a new and offensive invasion of personal liberty. I will say that what I find offensive is the unwillingness of these people to wear a mask intended to prevent them from infecting others. They are either unbelievably selfish, or perhaps they believe, with the President, that the pandemic is a “hoax.”

·      So much for masks. What about the shutdowns, the “stay-in-place” orders? Here, the law seems pretty clear; ever since a 1905 case—Jacobsin v. Massachusetts—the Supreme Court has upheld the right of government to impose quarantines and require vaccinations. Government does have to demonstrate the reasonableness of those measures, but assuming it meets that burden, requirements for quarantines and vaccinations are clearly allowed.

·      What about interstate travel, which the Supreme Court has long held to be a fundamental right? We’ve seen some governors restricting people from entering their states from so-called “hot spots.” I am unaware of cases testing those restrictions.

·      Using cellphones for “contact tracing” has been met with considerable alarm from privacy advocates and organizations concerned with the level of government surveillance. That’s another area of legal ambiguity.

·      The right to vote is a critically-important constitutional right, and cases have already challenged restrictions on the availability of absentee ballots. (A related issue is the evident inability of many states to handle increased voting by mail—situations that may deprive people of their constitutional rights by reason of inadequate capacity to perform, rather than by intent.)

·      Several states have used pandemic restrictions to justify denying women’s constitutionally-protected reproductive rights, spawning litigation about the degree to which those restrictions can be imposed.

·      Both the right of Assembly and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment have been cited by religious organizations—primarily churches—that have objected to limitations on public gatherings. (Medical scientists tell us that singing in a confined space is particularly dangerous.)

·      Then there are incarcerated persons, and would-be immigrants who are being detained at particular risk. At what point do the conditions of confinement rise to the level of “cruel and unusual punishment”?

·      A fascinating case that has been filed raises an increasingly important First Amendment Free Speech/Free Press issue: can sources of disinformation be held liable? The case is Washington League for Increased Transparency and Ethics v. Fox News. The plaintiff alleges that Fox News violated the state’s Consumer Protection Act and acted in bad faith, both by disseminating false information about the novel coronavirus through its television news broadcasts and by minimizing the danger posed by the virus as COVID-19 began to explode into a pandemic.

The Executive Director of the non-profit was quoted as saying that they aren’t trying to chill free speech, but that they believe the public was endangered by false and deceptive communications in the stream of commerce. She emphasized that there are a lot of people who listen to Fox News, and that Fox is not taking the recommendations of public-health officials seriously. She has asserted that “This lawsuit is about making sure the public gets the message this is not a hoax.”

I think it is highly unlikely that the Washington League will prevail, but the lawsuit raises some profound questions about the nature of speech that might be considered the mirror-image of “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater.” In this case, Fox is accused of shouting “There’s no fire; stay in your seats” when, in fact, there is a fire.

For a more scholarly exposition of these and other civil liberties issues, click here.

 

 

One Of These Things Is Not Like The Other

There’s a children’s jingle/question that keeps popping into my head: “one of these things is not like the other.” It is a common lead-in to exercises encouraging children to distinguish between shapes, colors, etc.

If the Coronavirus has demonstrated anything, it is that Republicans can’t tell one thing from another.

Trump’s inability to tell the difference between science and superstition (let alone fact and fiction) is a given, but when it comes to science, the entire GOP has demonstrated cognitive dissonance and an astonishing capacity for incoherence.

Anyone who has followed what passes for Republican policy these days can give numerous examples of ways the party has rejected science. A May column in the New York Times by Michelle Goldberg was titled “We’re All Casualties of Trump’s War on Coronavirus Science.” She enumerated the multiple attacks on medical science and scientists by Trump and the dimmer bulbs in the GOP’s Congressional delegation.

The column began by referring to a 60 minutes investigation into the abrupt termination of an NIH grant to the EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit research organization focused on emerging pandemics.

The reason, as “60 Minutes” reported on Sunday evening, was a conspiracy theory spread by Representative Matt Gaetz, the Florida Republican who in March wore a gas mask on the House floor to mock concern about the new coronavirus. On April 14, Gaetz appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show and claimed that the N.I.H. grant went to the Wuhan Institute, which Gaetz intimated might have been the source of the virus — the institute may have “birthed a monster,” in his words.

The first of Gaetz’s claims was flatly false, and the second unlikely; the C.I.A. has reportedly found no evidence of a link between the virus and the Wuhan lab.

True, Trump’s ignorance of and contempt for science has consistently undermined the country’s coronavirus response. But as Goldberg points out, his is just an extreme example of a longstanding anti-science bias on the part of conservatives. Republicans have tried to keep science classes from teaching evolution; they’ve objected to NIH or other government funding for stem cell research; and their dismissal of climate change has been a national embarrassment since well before Trump took the party down crazy lane. Goldberg attributes this hostility to a combination of factors, including populist distrust of experts, religious rejection of information inconsistent with biblical literalism, and efforts by corporations to protect their bottom lines.

Until recently, it seemed as if Trump’s sabotage of efforts to combat climate change would be the most destructive legacy of his disregard for science. But the coronavirus has presented the country with an emergency that only sound science can solve. That means that the Trump administration’s disdain for expertise, its elevation of slavish loyalty over technical competence, has become a more immediate threat.

Since Goldberg’s column, the administration’s response to the pandemic has only gotten worse. But that, ironically, is where the cognitive dissonance comes in.

The President whose Magical Thinking veers from promises that the virus will “just disappear” to suggestions that drinking bleach might protect you (in all fairness, it might; dead people don’t get sick), is counting on real scientists to produce a vaccine. Quickly. There are predictions that announcement of such a breakthrough will be the election’s “October surprise.”

Given the collective brainpower of a GOP base that equates refusal to wear a mask with patriotism, it will be interesting to see the response of those “patriots” to a genuine eventual vaccine. Will the know-nothings of a political party that pooh-poohs climate change and conducts a vendetta against “smarty-pants elitists” (i.e., scientists who actually know what they are talking about) nevertheless line up to take advantage of a product of medical science?

The Neanderthals rejecting science and expertise all seem willing to drive cars and use IPhones and computers and other products of science and technology. When it comes to medical science, most apparently do have doctors–and if TV advertising is any indication, they’re part of a robust market for all sorts of medications.

One of these things is not like the other……

 

 

Denial Isn’t Just A River In Egypt

Sorry about that bad pun, but these day, even pathetic humor is a respite from the daily news…                                                                          
                                                                    
And speaking of the daily news–according to one recent report on the pandemic, new cases have increased by 84% in states that don’t require the wearing of masks, and fallen by 25% in states that do.
 
You might consider that a clue-just a small hint that we should trust science.

After all, those numbers would seem to confirm what all those doctors and epidemiologists have been saying: mask-wearing protects us (or more accurately, protects other people from being infected by those of us who are asymptomatic). Evidently, however, America’s tribal polarization has overwhelmed sanity.
 
The polls tell us that a sizable majority of Americans strongly favor measures to control the spread of the pandemic over efforts to “reopen” the economy. When those numbers are broken down, however, Republican voters disagree—prioritizing the economy.
 
Self-identified Democrats are significantly more likely to wear a mask and engage in social distancing than self-identified Republicans.
 
The polling reminds me of a survey I saw a couple of years ago—well before the pandemic—in which significant numbers of Americans who would not object to their children marrying across racial or religious lines strongly disapproved of the prospect of that child marrying someone of the opposite political party.
 
Talk about “identity politics”!
 
In today’s highly polarized America, an individual’s self-identification as Republican or Democrat has come to signify a wide range of attitudes and beliefs not necessarily limited to support for a political party. Political scientist Lilliana Mason has argued that “A single vote can now indicate a person’s partisan preferences as well as his or her religion, race, ethnicity, gender, neighborhood and favorite grocery store.”

Democrat and Republican have become our new mega-identities.
 
The fact of extreme partisan polarization doesn’t, however, explain why identifying as Republican means being substantially less likely to believe the science that tells us Covid-19 poses a genuine threat. Of course, there’s President Trump’s determination to ignore the threat—to insist it is an artifact of testing (!), or a Democratic “hoax,” but in a recent New York Times column, Paul Krugman offered a different theory, arguing that the G.O.P.’s coronavirus denial is rooted in a worldview that goes well beyond Trump and his electoral prospects. Krugman argued that Covid-19 is like climate change: It isn’t the kind of menace the party wants to acknowledge.
 
“It’s not that the right is averse to fearmongering. But it doesn’t want you to fear impersonal threats that require an effective policy response, not to mention inconveniences like wearing face masks; it wants you to be afraid of people you can hate — people of a different race or supercilious liberals.”
 
As Adrian Bardon of Wake Forest University recently wrote in The Conversation, Americans increasingly exist in highly polarized, informationally insulated ideological communities occupying their own information universes, and engage in what political scientists call “motivated reasoning” to dismiss inconvenient or unwelcome facts.

In all fairness, this phenomenon isn’t limited to today’s GOP; the “anti-vaxxers” and “anti-GMO” activists tend to come from the left side of the political spectrum and are equally dismissive of science that doesn’t fit with their ideological preferences.
 
In his book, The Truth About Denial, Bardon reminds us that our human “sense of self” is intimately tied to our tribal membership and our identity group’s beliefs. We are all prone to engage in confirmation bias (what we used to call “cherry picking”), accepting expert testimony that confirms our prejudices and rejecting facts and data that contradict them.
 
Unfortunately, in some situations, ignoring facts can kill you. Or grandma.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

How a cognitive failing explains why so many people reject the facts about the pandemic