Tag Archives: pandemic

The Robots Are Coming…

When I opened my email a few days ago, the first thing that popped up was an article from the Brookings Institution titled “The Robots Are Ready as the Covid-19 Recession spreads,” predicting that a coronavirus-related downturn will increase the rate at which American industry invests in labor-replacing automation.

As I have previously argued, jobs don’t matter simply because most of us need to put food on the table. Having a job–even a job we dislike–gives most of us a sense of purpose and identity. (There is a reason so many people die shortly after retiring.)In “The Truly Disadvantaged,” William Julius Wilson noted the significant differences between neighborhoods where residents are poor but employed and neighborhoods where residents are poor and jobless.

The longterm trend was worrisome well before the advent of the Coronavirus: American economic mobility and job creation had already begun to slow, largely as a result of policies favoring larger firms over the entrepreneurial start-ups that were once responsible for the creation of most new jobs. Numerous studies have documented what Brookings calls “a steady and significant increase in consolidation” Thanks to anemic anti-trust enforcement, the number of so-called “mega-mergers” has increased, and as the market power of these huge companies grows, competition decreases. The under-enforcement of anti-trust laws has reduced entrepreneurship, increased predatory pricing practices and economic inequality, and resulted in the concentration of economic growth.

Rather than the vigorous competition that characterizes healthy markets, we have increasingly moved from capitalism to corporatism, or crony capitalism, in which government shields favored industries and companies from competitive pressures rather than acting as the guarantor of a level playing field.

Until recently, people expressing concerns about job losses have focused their criticisms on the outsourcing of manufacturing to low-wage countries, ignoring what is by far the biggest contributor to job loss–  automation, and the replacement of workers by machines.

A 2018  study by Ball State University found that just since 2000, nine out of ten manufacturing workers have been replaced by automation. That same year, the Pew Research Center asked approximately 1900 experts to opine on the impact of emerging technologies on employment; half of those questioned predicted the displacement of significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers by robots and digital agents, and predicted that those displacements will lead to serious consequences: larger increases in income inequality, masses of people who are unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.

Forecasts varied widely. One analysis, by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, predicted that ten percent of the jobs in advanced economies will be automated, while scholars at Oxford University warned that 50% of American jobs are at risk. Obviously, no one can say with confidence how many jobs will be lost, or which workers will sustain those losses, but technologies now in development threaten millions.

Think about the numbers. There are 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the United States, and another 1.7 million Americans drive taxis, Ubers, buses and delivery vans for a living. Self-driving cars, which are already being road-tested, could put them all in the ranks of the unemployed.

Think skilled workers are immune? Think again.  Reports show accelerating automation of jobs held by skilled knowledge workers engaged in data-driven decision-making. Between 2011 and 2017, Goldman Sachs replaced 600 desk traders with 200 coding engineers. Even medical professionals are at risk: in 2017, Entilic, a medical start-up, reported that its AI algorithm “outperformed four radiologists in detecting and classifying lung modules as either benign or malignant.” In 2016, the World Economic Forum projected a total loss of 7.1 million jobs to automation, including jobs in advertising, public relations, broadcasting, law, financial services and health care.

Automation will obviously create jobs as well as destroy them, but that will be cold comfort to that 55-year-old truck driver with a high-school education–he isn’t going to move into a new position in Informatics.

What does the current pandemic have to do with this longterm trend? According to Brookings:

Robots’ infiltration of the workforce doesn’t occur at a steady, gradual pace. Instead, automation happens in bursts, concentrated especially in bad times such as in the wake of economic shocks, when humans become relatively more expensive as firms’ revenues rapidly decline. At these moments, employers shed less-skilled workers and replace them with technology and higher-skilled workers, which increases labor productivity as a recession tapers off.

America wasn’t prepared for a pandemic, and we won’t be prepared for the civic unrest exacerbated by widespread joblessness. We are going to require skilled leadership, and that leadership will not be provided by the Party of the Past, led by a mentally-ill ignoramus.

 

The Danger Of Fundamentalism

Ah…religious belief in its infinite varieties…

Media outlets have reported the death from Coronavirus of a pastor who pooh-poohed the pandemic as “mass hysteria. The Reverend Spradlin was visiting New Orleans with his wife and family to ‘wash it from its sin and debauchery.”

Better he should have washed his hands.

Then, of course, we have corporate religiosity from the ridiculous and dependably theocratic major shareholders of Hobby Lobby. (I’ve noticed that their religious convictions always seem to be those that save them money…). According to a report from Dispatches from the Culture Wars,

It’s bad enough that Hobby Lobby is refusing to follow the CDC’s recommendations and remaining open because the wife of the owner had a vision from God; they’re now making it worse by denying paid sick leave to employees who are ill, which dramatically increases the risk of spreading the coronavirus to both employees and customers.

Hobby Lobby’s sick workers will be required to use personal paid time off and vacation pay or take an “unpaid leave of absence until further notice.”

So if an employee doesn’t have any vacation time left and gets sick, they have to choose between going to work while sick or not being paid. Inevitably, some will choose to go to work because they need the money and that means more transmission of their illness, whether it’s the coronavirus or some other condition, to other employees and to customers. I guess that vision from God included a command to put lives in danger. But of course, they’re “pro-life.” Whatever the hell that could possibly mean.

As reprehensible as Hobby Lobby’s insistence on imposing the owners’ religious beliefs on their employees, it obviously isn’t going to do the extensive damage being facilitated by the theocratic throwbacks who support Trump. The New York Times ran an article recently about Trump’s dependence on the Religious Right as a voting bloc and the policy consequences of their extreme hostility to science.

Donald Trump rose to power with the determined assistance of a movement that denies science, bashes government and prioritized loyalty over professional expertise. In the current crisis, we are all reaping what that movement has sown.

As the article notes, hostility to science has characterized religious nationalism in the United States. Today’s “hard core” climate denial comes almost exclusively from religiously conservative Republicans.

And some leaders of the Christian nationalist movement, like those allied with the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, which has denounced environmental science as a “Cult of the Green Dragon,” cast environmentalism as an alternative — and false — theology.

This anti-science “thinking” hobbles America’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

On March 15, Guillermo Maldonado, who calls himself an “apostle” and hosted Mr. Trump earlier this year at a campaign event at his Miami megachurch, urged his congregants to show up for worship services in person. “Do you believe God would bring his people to his house to be contagious with the virus? Of course not,” he said.

Maybe Reverend Maldonado should read up on what happened to Reverend Spradlin. So should the Reverend Rodney Howard-Browne. Howard-Brown occupies the pulpit of The River at Tampa Bay Church in Florida. This “pious” man mocked people concerned about the disease as “pansies” (do I detect a smidge of homophobia??) and insisted he would only shutter the doors to his packed church “when the rapture is taking place.”

As the Times noted

Religious nationalism has brought to American politics the conviction that our political differences are a battle between absolute evil and absolute good. When you’re engaged in a struggle between the “party of life” and the “party of death,” as some religious nationalists now frame our political divisions, you don’t need to worry about crafting careful policy based on expert opinion and analysis. Only a heroic leader, free from the scruples of political correctness, can save the righteous from the damned. Fealty to the cause is everything; fidelity to the facts means nothing.

There have always been people who desperately cling to “bright lines”– who see every issue as  black versus white, even as modernity ushers in ever-expanding areas of grey.

Whether adherents of fundamentalist religions, or political “true believers,” they pose  a clear and present danger to reality, and to the rest of us.

 

An Excellent Summary

My husband recently recommended that I read a lengthy article from the Atlantic by Ed Yong.  Despite the fact that I am a pretty devoted reader of that publication, and a subscriber, I’d missed it.

If you are trapped at home with nothing pressing to do (clean out the refrigerator, or knit face masks, or whatever), you should click through and read the article in its entirety. In case you don’t have the time or inclination, I am cutting and pasting paragraphs that–in my estimation–are insightful and important.

A global pandemic of this scale was inevitable. In recent years, hundreds of health experts have written books, white papers, and op-eds warning of the possibility. Bill Gates has been telling anyone who would listen, including the 18 million viewers of his TED Talk. In 2018, I wrote a story for The Atlantic arguing that America was not ready for the pandemic that would eventually come. In October, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security war-gamed what might happen if a new coronavirus swept the globe. And then one did. Hypotheticals became reality. “What if?” became “Now what?”…

As my colleagues Alexis Madrigal and Robinson Meyer have reported, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed and distributed a faulty test in February. Independent labs created alternatives, but were mired in bureaucracy from the FDA. In a crucial month when the American caseload shot into the tens of thousands, only hundreds of people were tested. That a biomedical powerhouse like the U.S. should so thoroughly fail to create a very simple diagnostic test was, quite literally, unimaginable. “I’m not aware of any simulations that I or others have run where we [considered] a failure of testing,” says Alexandra Phelan of Georgetown University, who works on legal and policy issues related to infectious diseases.

The testing fiasco was the original sin of America’s pandemic failure, the single flaw that undermined every other countermeasure….

With little room to surge during a crisis, America’s health-care system operates on the assumption that unaffected states can help beleaguered ones in an emergency. That ethic works for localized disasters such as hurricanes or wildfires, but not for a pandemic that is now in all 50 states. Cooperation has given way to competition; some worried hospitals have bought out large quantities of supplies, in the way that panicked consumers have bought out toilet paper.

Partly, that’s because the White House is a ghost town of scientific expertise. A pandemic-preparedness office that was part of the National Security Council was dissolved in 2018. On January 28, Luciana Borio, who was part of that team, urged the government to “act now to prevent an American epidemic,” and specifically to work with the private sector to develop fast, easy diagnostic tests. But with the office shuttered, those warnings were published in The Wall Street Journal, rather than spoken into the president’s ear. Instead of springing into action, America sat idle.

Rudderless, blindsided, lethargic, and uncoordinated, America has mishandled the COVID-19 crisis to a substantially worse degree than what every health expert I’ve spoken with had feared. “Much worse,” said Ron Klain, who coordinated the U.S. response to the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014. “Beyond any expectations we had,” said Lauren Sauer, who works on disaster preparedness at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “As an American, I’m horrified,” said Seth Berkley, who heads Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. “The U.S. may end up with the worst outbreak in the industrialized world.”

The quoted paragraphs are followed by predictions of what will come next–best and worst case. Bottom line: even in the best-case scenarios, this isn’t going to be over any time soon. The “President” may think a vaccine or cure can be magically discovered and mass produced in a couple of weeks, but scientists and sane people know better.

And then there’s the aftermath…

As my colleague Annie Lowrey wrote, the economy is experiencing a shock “more sudden and severe than anyone alive has ever experienced.” About one in five people in the United States have lost working hours or jobs. Hotels are empty. Airlines are grounding flights. Restaurants and other small businesses are closing. Inequalities will widen: People with low incomes will be hardest-hit by social-distancing measures, and most likely to have the chronic health conditions that increase their risk of severe infections. Diseases have destabilized cities and societies many times over, “but it hasn’t happened in this country in a very long time, or to quite the extent that we’re seeing now,” says Elena Conis, a historian of medicine at UC Berkeley. “We’re far more urban and metropolitan. We have more people traveling great distances and living far from family and work.”

After infections begin ebbing, a secondary pandemic of mental-health problems will follow. …People with anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder are struggling. Elderly people, who are already excluded from much of public life, are being asked to distance themselves even further, deepening their loneliness. Asian people are suffering racist insults, fueled by a president who insists on labeling the new coronavirus the “Chinese virus.” Incidents of domestic violence and child abuse are likely to spike as people are forced to stay in unsafe homes.

The article does end with a thin ray of hope–or perhaps “challenge” is a more appropriate word. Pandemics can catalyze social change.

Perhaps the nation will learn that preparedness isn’t just about masks, vaccines, and tests, but also about fair labor policies and a stable and equal health-care system. Perhaps it will appreciate that health-care workers and public-health specialists compose America’s social immune system, and that this system has been suppressed.

If we are very, very fortunate, in November we will not retreat further into authoritarianism and fear; instead, we’ll recognize that all diseases aren’t physical, and all tests aren’t medical.

Our test is whether America will repudiate the virus of bigoted “America first” politics, reject kakistocracy, and pivot from isolationism to international cooperation.

 

 

Anti-Intellectualism Will Get Us Killed

A friend sent me a Ted Talk given by Bill Gates in 2015.

If you haven’t already seen it–evidently, several million people have–you need to watch it before proceeding to the blog rant it triggered, below. It’s only slightly over seven minutes, and it’s worth it.

Are you back? Good.

As we are now learning, the Trump administration didn’t just ignore warnings from people like Bill Gates, who knows whereof he speaks because his foundation is deeply involved in issues of global health. The Trump Administration ignored alerts from medical experts, dismissed Intelligence briefings warning of the imminence of the threat, and failed to listen to warnings from Obama officials during transition briefings.

It was behavior entirely consistent with Trump’s war on intellect, science and expertise-the only war this disastrous “President” is winning, as he disassembles federal agencies retaining even a hint of expertise or effectiveness.

Talking Points Memo began a recent report with a sentence that should chill us:

The 20-year Capitol Hill veteran is gone. The 20-somethings remain.

The report detailed the abrupt resignation of Dale Cabaniss, the most recent director of  the Office of Personnel Management. (As with most agencies under Trump, senior officials change with the seasons…)

According to “several reports”garnered from the most leaky White House in most of our lifetimes, there were two reasons for the departure: first, Trump’s persistent efforts to eliminate OPM entirely, and second, the parade of seasoned officials who have been replaced with “a pack of mostly 20-somethings employed by the White House to, more or less, police political officials for loyalty to the President.”

Now, I have long maintained that it is time for generational change; I supported Mayor Pete before he dropped out of the Presidential race. But the “twenty-somethings” installed by Trump in the highest reaches of the administration are far–far–from the educated and talented members of the younger generation represented by Mayor Pete.

The “twenty-something” placed in charge of Presidential Personnel was John McEntee — a 29-year-old who used to be Trump’s body-man. (“Body man” is apparently polite-speak for “goon acting as bodyguard”) and who was only recently given his new title, more than a year after departing his previous job by Trump’s side.” The “skill” McEntee brought to his new gig? Making viral videos showing his football skills.

Axios reported in February that Trump had empowered McEntee to purge “bad people” and the “Deep State” — meaning, those who don’t sufficiently support Trump.

Since his hiring, McEntee has brought on an even less experienced coterie: First, 23-year-old George Washington University senior James Bacon.

Another temporary hire at the Presidential Personnel Office, per Politico, is John Troup Hemenway, who’s expected to graduate from the University of Virginia in December. Hemenway will reportedly help with paperwork for Defense Department political appointees.

And then there’s Anthony Labruna, an Iowa State student who was recently named a deputy White House liaison for the Department of Commerce.

And that’s where we’re left: In the midst of a global pandemic, a crisis that’s thrown the government into chaos, the experienced pro at the top of the government’s H.R. department is gone. But the shallow state that helped push her out remains.

Time to re-read Hofstadter’s classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, in which he investigated the roots of the deep and persistent animus toward knowledge and expertise displayed by  people like Trump–and for that matter, most of today’s GOP.

These people– who disdain as “elitists” the individuals most qualified by education and experience to address the issues we face, and who prefer to listen instead to talking heads who substitute loud certitude for knowledge–may end up being responsible for more deaths than history’s bloodiest tyrants.

 

 

 

Let Me Count The Ways…

On Facebook, Trump apologists are posting angry rebuttals to complaints about the administration’s incompetent response to the Coronavirus pandemic. You can’t blame a president for a disease! This could have happened during any administration! Your criticism is just an example of Trump Derangement Syndrome. Etc.

(I like to think of “Trump Derangement Syndrome” as an accurate description of the Dear Leader’s mental state, but I assume that isn’t what his base intends it to mean…)

Although it is absolutely true that no president can control the timing or severity of a pandemic, a paragraph in Dana Milbank’s column Thursday in the Washington Post actually, factually, described many of the ways in which the Deranged One has made this pandemic much worse for Americans than it should have been.

Milbank neglected to mention what was by far Trump’s worst decision; in his zeal to undo anything and everything his black predecessor had done, early in his administration Trump eliminated the team Obama had charged with preparing for pandemics–and he didn’t replace them, despite several warnings that such a pandemic was likely.

There was also no mention of Trump’s inexplicable–and unforgivable– refusal to accept test kits offered by WHO.

Milbank did remind readers that Trump has depleted the government of scientific expertise–something I’ve repeatedly blogged about.  He also noted that the President has done “little to heed warnings to prepare for a pandemic”– a needlessly gentle way of describing Trump’s hostility to people who know what they are talking about, and his absolute refusal to listen to anyone about anything, expert or not.

Milbank says that Trump blocked Congress from conducting meaningful oversight. That actually might be unfair; Trump is so inept when it comes to dealing with Congress, he could not have blocked oversight without the slavish assistance of Mitch McConnell (aka the most evil man in America) and the Congressional GOP. But Milbank is clearly correct about Trump’s repeated efforts to cut funding for public health and medical research, and about the way in which the chaos and constant turnover in the administration has eroded competence.

His reckless stimulus legislation during an economic boom and his badgering of the Federal Reserve to lower interest rates left few fiscal and monetary tools to stop the ongoing economic panic. His constant stream of falsehoods misled the nation about the threat of the virus and contributed to a delayed, haphazard response. His administration badly misjudged the impact of the virus and was claiming until just a couple of weeks ago that it would require no additional government spending.

Milbank is also correct when he asserts that the bungled handling of the virus is exactly the sort of mismanagement that should disqualify Trump from reelection. But tell that to the bigots and crazies who support him.

The Guardian recently had an article looking at the reaction of Trump’s far right supporters–titled, appropriately, “Disinformation and Scapegoating.”

Apocalyptic narratives – whether of societal collapse, biblical rapture, or race war – are the central way that the a spectrum of far-right movements draw in followers and resources. These narratives use fear to draw followers closer, allowing leaders to direct their followers’ actions, and maybe fleece them blind.

The article details the responses of people and groups on the fringes of politics and sanity–Alex Jones, the survivalists, the televangelists hawking “sure cures,” and Trump’s biggest fans, the Neo-Nazis.

Farther out on the neo-Nazi right, in the Telegram channels where “accelerationists” – who seek to hasten the end of liberal democracy in order to build a white ethnostate – overlap with “ecofascists” – who propose genocidal solutions to ecological problems – groups are openly talking about how to use the crisis to recruit people to terroristic white supremacy.

And of course, the far-right is feverishly concocting conspiracy theories about the causes and origins of the virus–theories that scapegoat immigrants, minorities and liberals. (Alex Jones, for example, claims that Covid-19 is a human-made bioweapon, produced by the Chinese government to bring Trump down.)

Most Americans are responding to this unprecedented challenge with generosity and kindness–looking in on neighbors, buying gift certificates from closed restaurants to provide owners with some much-needed income, sharing credible information and comfort. Then there are are the Trump apologists–those simply refusing to hold him accountable for the government’s delayed and incompetent response, and those inventing theories that absolve him of responsibility while further endangering the rest of us.

Maybe it takes a pandemic to show us who we are.