Tag Archives: pandemic

Killing Themselves To “Own the Libs”

Each morning, I get one of those “news of the day” emails sent out by the The New York Times. The version I get always begins with an introductory discussion of one of the main stories, and last Monday, that introduction was mind-blowing–at least to me.

The data shows that the racial gaps in vaccination that were worrisome have narrowed, although they haven’t entirely disappeared. But it also shows that the partisan gap remains enormous.

A Pew Research Center poll last month found that 86 percent of Democratic voters had received at least one shot, compared with 60 percent of Republican voters…The political divide over vaccinations is so large that almost every reliably blue state now has a higher vaccination rate than almost every reliably red state.

One consequence of differences in vaccination rates, rather obviously, is a difference in death rates.

Since Delta began circulating widely in the U.S., Covid has exacted a horrific death toll on red America: In counties where Donald Trump received at least 70 percent of the vote, the virus has killed about 47 out of every 100,000 people since the end of June, according to Charles Gaba, a health care analyst. In counties where Trump won less than 32 percent of the vote, the number is about 10 out of 100,000.

The story was accompanied by multiple charts demonstrating the salience of political identity to death rates and resistance to vaccination, and the obvious question is: why? Why has a decision that should be made on the basis of medical science and individual prudence become so politicized that Republicans prefer to risk illness and death rather than take elementary precautions to protect themselves and their families–let alone their neighbors?

As the article noted, other countries aren’t experiencing a political vaccination divide.

What distinguishes the U.S. is a conservative party — the Republican Party — that has grown hostile to science and empirical evidence in recent decades. A conservative media complex, including Fox News, Sinclair Broadcast Group and various online outlets, echoes and amplifies this hostility. Trump took the conspiratorial thinking to a new level, but he did not create it.

“With very little resistance from party leaders,” my colleague Lisa Lerer wrote this summer, many Republicans “have elevated falsehoods and doubts about vaccinations from the fringes of American life to the center of our political conversation.”

Evidently–as one pundit noted– a number of Trump supporters believe they are “owning the left” by refusing to take a lifesaving vaccine. (Presumably, dying is the ultimate  evidence of that “ownership.”) Even some Republican strategists are beginning to worry; as one was quoted, “In a country where elections are decided on razor-thin margins, does it not benefit one side if their opponents simply drop dead?”

I frequently accuse today’s GOP of fostering–and exemplifying–insanity. Readers may consider my use of that term overblown, and I have occasionally wondered whether it might be hyperbolic. But nothing else seems to fit.  What would you call someone who was not suicidal–but who jumped out of an airplane without a parachute, confident that he could land safely?

Rejecting empirical evidence, risking death, and endangering loved ones and acquaintances in order to “get” political opponents is to be mentally disordered. There’s no way around that conclusion.

Among the dictionary definitions of insanity is “extreme folly or unreasonableness.” Synonyms include “derangement,” “lunacy” and “madness.” One example given was  “someone who acts or speaks strangely because their brain isn’t working correctly. An example of insane is a person who goes shopping without any pants on.” 

How about people who refuse to believe that a deadly disease–a pandemic–threatens not only their own lives but the health of the community in which they live, and who proceed to act in ways that endanger not just themselves, but others? And who base that refusal on the “fact” that science is a liberal plot?

There’s a point at which “stop the world, I want to get off” becomes more than an expression of annoyance or anger. it’s a statement of intent.

 

 

Time To Rethink Federalism

I used to begin my classes in Law and Public Policy with what I call the “constitutional architecture,” the structures of U.S. government. As I would tell students, the Founders had divided authority both vertically and horizontally–through Separation of Powers and Federalism.

Most graduate students were familiar with those terms. Undergraduates generally knew that we had three branches of government, although the term “Separation of Powers” was less familiar to them, but very few could define federalism–the division of jurisdiction between the federal government and the states. Both mechanisms were intended to provide “checks and balances”–to limit the power of the central government.

The world we inhabit is very different from the world that confronted the nation’s founders. We still need federalism–but it is past time to review and adjust the current divisions of authority among local, state and federal levels of government.

A number of those divisions are still useful and should be retained. State and federal governments have no reason to assume responsibility for handing out zoning permits or policing domestic violence disputes, to choose a couple of examples, but other current assignments of responsibility no longer make much sense. State-level management of elections, for example, was necessary in the age of snail-mail registration and index cards identifying voters; in the computer age, it’s an invitation to misconduct–an invitation that  state-level lawmakers eagerly accept.

In a number of areas, there are awkward pretenses of state “sovereignty” where contemporary realities mean none really exists. (Think of federal highway dollars that are conditioned on state compliance with federally mandated speed limits. Or the similar “strings” attached to federal funding.) 

At the other end of the spectrum, there are an increasing number of issues, including but certainly not limited to the threats posed by climate change and the pandemic, that must be addressed globally.

Then there are the increasing tensions created by legislators in red states who want to be free of the constraints imposed by the Bill of Rights.

The GOP has never gotten over its original resentment over incorporation–the odd word for the doctrine that nationalized the Bill of Rights. That process was premised on the 14th Amendment principle that fundamental liberties protected by the Bill of Rights should be a “floor”–that a citizen in Alabama should enjoy the same basic rights as a citizen of New York. States are able to enlarge on those rights, but–at least until Donald Trump managed to pack the Supreme Court with rightwing ideologues–they have been forbidden to retract them.

There are multiple reasons to revisit the division of authority between the nation’s state and federal governments. I realize that any effort to do so would be met with alarm–much as we’ve seen with calls to eliminate the filibuster that currently prevents the Senate from actually governing. We humans are creatures of habit: we become accustomed to the world we have grown up with, and assume that the structures of whatever society we inhabit are just “the way it is.” (A great example: the people who argued against same-sex marriage by insisting that marriage “has always been between one man and one woman.” That’s demonstrably false. Even if you ignore biblical history, more than half of the world still recognizes plural marriage. But it was true within the confines of their limited experience.)

A recent guest essay in The New York Times pointed to the undeniably negative effect of our current federalism on public health.

Tennessee and North Carolina are both digging out from catastrophic flooding, while parts of Louisiana were flattened by Hurricane Ida, and most of New Orleans remains without electricity. Ida’s remnants also brought even more rain to areas of the South and beyond that were already dangerously waterlogged.

In the Utter Failure to Understand What “Pro-Life” Really Means tournament, normally a very close battle in the red states, Texas is currently uncontested: Its leaders just made it easier to carry a gun and harder to end an unwanted pregnancy in the same week.

Finally, in the Colossally Botched Medical Emergency competition, it’s neck and neck across the region as Republican governors double down on efforts to block mask and vaccine mandates, along with every other pandemic-mitigation attempt made by people who are not allergic to science.

The author points out that every single one of these disasters is a public health emergency that red state governors have worsened “in every way imaginable.” (A recent NBC poll confirmed that politics has played havoc with public health. It found 91 percent of Biden voters vaccinated opposed to 50 percent of Trump voters.)

 Citizens’ health and safety– and the extent of their civil rights–  should not depend upon their state of residence. 

A Perfect Storm

I woke up yesterday to the news that Trump’s Supreme Court–through its “Shadow Docket” and by a five to four margin–had effectively overturned what lawyers call “incorporation”–an odd term for the proposition that the Bill of Rights constrains state and local governments

In a scathing dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote: “The court’s order is stunning. Presented with an application to enjoin a flagrantly unconstitutional law engineered to prohibit women from exercising their constitutional rights and evade judicial scrutiny, a majority of Justices have opted to bury their heads in the sand.”

Actually, it’s worse than that. Much worse.

Not only does the Court’s increasing use of the Shadow Docket raise serious questions about the erosion of the judicial transparency fundamental to the rule of law, the decision to allow Texas’ empowerment of culture war vigilantes achieves a goal long held by “states rights” fundamentalists: a return to the days when state and local lawmakers could impose their preferred “morality” on their citizens–and not-so-incidentally decide which citizens were entitled to equal rights– without the pesky interference of the federal government.

As I noted yesterday, approval of Texas’ ploy opens a door to civil strife far removed from the abortion wars. State legislatures can now turn private citizens into “enforcers” of pretty much any goal–and not just conservative ones. The decision effectively approves a federalism on steroids, and the unraveling of the “United” States.

I used to explain to my students that one of the salutary effects of the incorporation of the Bill of Rights was that it ensured a “floor”–so that when someone moves from New York to Alabama or Texas, they don’t suddenly lose their right to religious liberty or free speech or their protection against unreasonable search and seizure..

This case strikes a terrifying blow against that principle.

I titled this post “a perfect storm” because the Supreme Court’s abandonment of fifty years of precedent is only one of the truly existential challenges we currently face.

It is no longer possible to pretend that climate change is some sort of elitist, liberal theory that can safely be ignored. Fires in California (now threatening Nevada), increasingly powerful hurricanes battering not just Louisiana but causing flooding and chaos all the way to New England, the continuation of “extinctions” threatening to disrupt the global ecology…the list goes on. There are some valiant efforts underway to combat climate change, but the likelihood is that even if those efforts manage to moderate its effects, there will be enormous disruptions of global life–including  famines and massive population movements.

Then, of course, there’s the pandemic. Two pandemics, actually–COVID and insanity. The insanity makes it highly likely that COVID won’t be the last disease to decimate populations around the world.

Speaking of insanity, Leonard Pitts reminds us of the rising tide of rightwing violence.

While it’s unlikely we’ll see regional armies clashing as they once did at Antietam and Shiloh, is it so hard to imagine the country descending into a maelstrom of conservative terrorism, the kind of hit-and-run asymmetric warfare — random bombings and shootings — that rocked Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s? Certainly, the weapons and the sense of grievance are there.

On top of all of this, outdated elements of  America’s legal architecture are impeding our ability to confront these challenges. In a recent, very important paper by Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center (I will have much more to say about his paper in future posts), Wilkinson concluded his analysis of what he calls “The Density Divide” with a recitation of the mismatch between America’s population realities and that framework.

As Wilkinson notes, our Constitutional system has a strong small-state bias, “which effectively gives extra votes to topsoil in low-population states.” In a country where 50 percent of voters identify or lean Democratic and 42 percent identify or lean Republican–a Democratic advantage of some 18 million voters– the GOP has erected “an imposing fortification” through gerrymandering, voter ID laws, voter-roll purges…the list goes on.

Wilkinson underscores what many others have said: we desperately need structural reforms and especially strong new legislation protecting voting rights. What he doesn’t say–since his paper was written before the Court’s recent assault on the supremacy of the Constitution–is that such protection must be nationally enforceable.

This “perfect storm” has created a genuinely existential moment. It is no longer possible to ignore the fact that American governance by We the People is teetering on a dangerous edge. The question is: can a nation burdened with a substantial minority of QAnon-believing, MAGA-hat wearing, Ivermectin-ingesting, Confederacy-loving citizens–many if not most of whom are White racially-resentful rural residents empowered by outdated electoral structures– rise to the challenge?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Law And Order

According to Fox News and other Republican sources, America is experiencing a crime wave. Actually, we aren’t. What we are experiencing is a rise in homicides–almost entirely as a result of gun violence.

As a recent Guardian article explained: homicides were up across the US in 2020 and appeared to be primarily driven by rising gun violence. Other crimes, however, fell.

A preliminary government estimate shows a 25% single-year increase in killings in 2020. In some larger cities, the number of homicides has remained higher than usual through the early months of 2021.

While official national crime data will not be released for months, some trends are clear. The 2020 homicide increase happened across cities and towns of all sizes, from those with fewer than 10,000 residents to those with more than a million, according to preliminary FBI data.

The rise in homicides likely translated into an additional 4,000 to 5,000 people killed across the country compared with the year before, according to early estimates.

The increase in murder comes as robberies declined more than 10%, and rapes declined 14%. Overall, violent crime increased 3%. The obvious question is: why? Why is murder up while overall crime is down? And how worried should we be?

Some context is helpful: even with the rising homicide rates, Americans are safer than we have been historically.

And yet, even after an estimated 25% single-year increase in homicides, Americans overall are much less likely to be killed today than they were in the 1990s, and the homicide rate across big cities is still close to half what it was a quarter century ago.

New York City saw more than 2,200 killings in a single year in 1990, compared with 468 last year, according to city data. In the bigger picture, that’s a nearly 80% decrease.

Los Angeles saw more than 1,000 homicides a year in the early 1990s, compared with fewer than 350 last year.

Furthermore, the article quotes one scholar of crime for the observation that the increases in homicide are taking place in neighborhoods where homicides have traditionally been concentrated. The incidence is not spreading out.

The pandemic has clearly contributed.

There is some evidence that national factors, including the many stresses and disruptions of the pandemic, may have played a role in the 2020 homicide increase. The uptick was “widespread,” Rosenfeld said. In an analysis of big city crime trends for the nonprofit Council on Criminal Justice, “We found very few cities that did not experience pretty significant rises in homicide during 2020,” he said.

Whatever researchers ultimately determine, it is impossible to ignore the effect of America’s gun culture and the sheer number of weapons owned by our citizens.

A preprint study from researchers at the University of California, Davis, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, suggested that a spike in gun purchases during the early months of the pandemic was associated with a nearly 8% increase in gun violence from March through May, or 776 additional fatal and nonfatal shooting injuries nationwide. The researchers found that states that had lower levels of violent crime pre-Covid saw a stronger connection between additional gun purchases and more gun violence.

There has been a predictable effort to attribute the rise in homicides to criticisms of police, or to unrest blamed on Black Lives Matter, but the data simply doesn’t support those accusations.

Some police officials and their allies have asserted that last summer’s big, volatile protests against police violence diverted police resources and attention away from their normal patrols, and have suggested that demoralized, angry police officers might be less proactive or effective in dealing with violent crime.

But Jeff Asher, a crime analyst who writes extensively about homicide trends, examined 60 cities and found no correlation between the number of Black Lives Matter protests, and the size of a city’s homicide increase.

Rosenfeld cautioned that any policing-focused explanation for the homicide increase needed to explain why the change would have only affected serious and deadly violence.

“Most crime is down, including most felony, serious crime,” he said. “If the de-policing argument is correct, why did it only affect an uptick in violence and not other street crime?”

At this point, the stresses of the pandemic, especially on low-income neighborhoods, appear to be a significant cause of hostility and despair and “acting out.” But the easy availability of guns clearly was–and continues to be–an enormous factor.

I’ll believe Americans seriously want to reduce violence and homicides when we get serious about gun control. But I’m not holding my breath…

 

 

From Your Mouth…

My grandmother used to have a favorite response to rosy predictions: “From your mouth to God’s ears.” In other words, “I sure hope so, but whether God is listening remains to be seen.”

That was my reaction to a recent column by David Brooks in the New York Times.In a very real way, Brooks column–titled “The American Renaissance Has Begun “–  put flesh on President Biden’s frequent assertion that “America is back.”

He began the analysis by harkening back to the post-World War Two period, when West Germany and Japan emerged from widespread devastation to experience “miraculous” economic growth, while Britain, with its institutions more intact, entered a period of slow economic growth.

Brooks cited a 1982 book by Mancur Olson, which offered an explanation:

“The Rise and Decline of Nations,” Olson concluded that Germany and Japan enjoyed explosive growth precisely because their old arrangements had been disrupted. The devastation itself, and the forces of American occupation and reconstruction, dislodged the interest groups that had held back innovation. The old patterns that stifled experimentation were swept away. The disruption opened space for something new.

Brooks hypothesizes that the pandemic may have ushered in similar disruption, and he bolsters that argument with a number of data points: the 4.4 million new businesses that were started in 2020 represent a modern record.  The 38 percent of workers who took some additional training during 2020 was a substantial increase from the 14 percent who did so in 2019. U.S. start-ups raised $69 billion dollars, which was a 41 percent increase over the previous record, set in 2018. Productivity is up. Perennially low savings rates increased.

After decades in which consumption took preference over savings, Americans socked away trillions of dollars in 2020, reducing their debt burdens to lows not seen since 1980 and putting themselves in a position to spend lavishly as things open up.

Brooks says these and other data points are signs of three major shifts–growing worker power, a “rebalancing” of population between urban and suburban America, and a similar rebalancing of work and domestic life. I think the latter two predictions are “iffy”–it remains to be seen how many businesses will institutionalize remote work and how, and those decisions will affect workers’ need–and willingness–to relocate and commute.

If population dispersal does occur, our political polarization might ease; Brooks quotes a professor of urban studies who predicts such movement and as a result, forecasts a decline in the economic and cultural gaps between coastal cities and inland communities.

It remains to be seen whether these predicted population movements and changes in the culture of work will materialize, but the shift of power from employers to workers is clearly underway, and just as clearly overdue.

Power has begun shifting from employers to workers. In March, U.S. manufacturing, for example, expanded at the fastest pace in nearly four decades. Companies are desperate for new workers. Between April 2020 and March 2021, the number of unemployed people per opening plummeted to 1.2 from 5.

Workers are in the driver’s seat, for now, and they know it. The “quit rate” — the number of workers who quit their jobs because they are confident they can get a better one — is at the highest in two decades. Employers are raising wages and benefits to try to lure workers back.

This is a “rebalancing” that matters. Unions were formed originally to counter the disproportionate power of employers. Over time, in some industries, unions then became dominant–more powerful than employers. Over the past decades, however, as technology and gig work and successful corporate lobbying eviscerated union power, employers once again gained the upper hand–and a number happily exploited both their regained advantage and their workforces.

The operation of supply and demand, referenced by Brooks, is returning a measure of power to workers. (The recent Supreme Court decision upholding Obamacare will also help with that “rebalancing.” Employers’ positions were substantially strengthened by America’s insistence on tying health insurance to employment –workers with pre-existing conditions were effectively precluded from quitting and losing their coverage.)

The next few years will tell the economic story. But we also need to recognize that America  won’t truly be “back,” let alone “better,” unless we repair our infrastructure–physical and social–and protect our democracy.

If there’s a God, I hope she’s listening…..