Tag Archives: pandemic

We Can’t Unscramble This Egg

The COVID vaccine–actually, now two of them–is on the way. Granted, the way is filled with potholes, thanks to the incompetence of an administration lacking any ability to govern effectively, but reliable sources estimate that vaccines will be broadly available by late spring. Thanks to a new administration that actually knows what it is doing, we can anticipate a return to something approximating normalcy by late in 2021.

Historians, sociologists, political scientists and assorted pundits will spend the next few decades trying to explain how we got here. By “we” I don’t just mean the United States, and by “here” I don’t just mean the pandemic and its mismanagement, or the incomprehensible fact that in November some 70+ million voters agreed to buy whatever excrement Trump and the GOP cult insist on selling.

Eventually, we will see the reasons for–and consequences of– disastrous governing decisions made by the U.S. and Great Britain, and the growth of right-wing terror and autocracy elsewhere. One of the few things that seems fairly clear now is that substantial numbers of people around the world are reacting against the realities of modernity and globalization and fearing the loss of familiar cultures and comfortable certainties.

A lot of those people are saying, essentially, “stop the world, I want to get off.” That, of course, is like trying to unscramble eggs.

There was a particularly perceptive essay by someone named William Falk in The Week, in which he suggested that we have a choice:  we can accept the reality of our interrelationships, and appreciate and embrace the insights and values of the Enlightenment, or we can retreat into superstition and suspicion.

The vaccines are a triumph of the Enlightenment values of science, reason, and evidence—all now under assault in a new Dark Ages in which demagogues and conspiracy theorists spread disinformation and distrust. Despite various attempts to claim credit, the vaccines would not exist without international cooperation. Moderna’s vaccine employs technology created by Hungarian-born scientist Katalin Kariko, and the company is run by a team of researchers and entrepreneurs from around the world. The Pfizer vaccine was created by second-generation Turkish immigrants to Germany, Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, and has been pushed past the finish line by company CEO Albert Bourla, an immigrant from Greece. The pandemic of 2020 will not be the last crisis endangering humanity. What we’ve relearned in this traumatic year is that all we hold dear is fragile, and that science, community, and empathy light the road forward.

It isn’t just the vaccines, of course. The global economy is inextricably interdependent. The threat of climate change doesn’t respect national borders–it requires a co-ordinated international response. Terrorism is a far different threat than conventional warfare, and requires international co-operation to root it out. There are multiple other examples, including most obviously COVID-19.

When the current pandemic is finally contained, the “normal” to which we return is unlikely to look like the “normal” we left. How it differs will depend upon the ability of humans to emerge from our tribal affiliations and work together. That, in turn, will depend mightily upon our ability to get a handle on the disinformation and hysteria promoted by our existing media landscape, especially the social media algorithms that incentivize its spread.

We really are at one of those tipping points that occur during human history.

We can accept the reality that we share an endangered planet inhabited by inevitably interrelated and interdependent populations, and that we need to create institutions that will allow us to save it and inhabit it peacefully, or we can give in to the forces trying to take humanity into a new Dark Ages and possible extinction. 

What we can’t do is evade the challenge and unscramble the global egg.

The Polder Model

One of my sons lives in Amsterdam, having moved there almost two years ago to accept a position with a tech firm. (No matter how often he explains what he does, I am incapable of understanding it–but as his mother, I’m impressed.) Thanks to FaceTime, we “see” each other several times a week, making the distance between us less daunting, and serving as evidence of the ways in which technology is accelerating globalism.

The pandemic, of course, is added testimony of the global and deeply interrelated nature of today’s world.

My son has generally been delighted with governance in the Netherlands, and has found their political processes to be more democratic and far more collaborative than ours. Public policies are considerably more focused on the common good. The social safety net is generous and private economic activity seems to flourish, so he was surprised by what he has seen as the Dutch government’s hesitant (and in his opinion, at least) relatively inadequate response to the Coronavirus. It led him to do some research.

When we were talking the other day, he shared the theory that emerged from that research. It involves the origins of a generally positive aspect of Dutch political culture that does, however, get in the way of immediate, decisive actions of the sort required by a pandemic.

It is “the Polder Model.”

One of the more unique aspects of the Netherlands is that the country consists in large part of polders, or land reclaimed from the sea. These areas require constant pumping and careful and continuous maintenance of the dykes. (Dutch water engineers are the best on the planet–and with climate change, increasingly in demand.) Ever since the Middle Ages, when this process of land reclamation began, people living in the same polder, including those from different societies or backgrounds, have been forced to cooperate because without unanimous agreement on shared responsibility for maintenance of the dykes and pumping stations, the polders would flood.

According to historians, even when different cities in the same polder were at war, they still  cooperated to prevent the polder from flooding. This long history has deeply influenced the country’s political culture; it has taught the Dutch to set aside differences for a greater purpose, and to work across differences for the common good.

The Netherlands has benefited enormously from this aspect of the country’s political culture. But working across differences to achieve consensus is necessarily a slower process than a decree from an official-in-charge, or an autocrat. My son’s theory is that it has slowed the Dutch response to the pandemic.

Obviously, this theory is conjecture, although there is data to support it and it certainly seems reasonable. Moreover, it serves as yet another example of the multitude of ways in which political cultures evolve and influence governance and elections.

How much of the current dysfunction of the United States is an outgrowth of our own, very different, history? What percentage of current racial attitudes and animosities is attributable to our slaveholding past? How much rabid individualism can be traced to the sheer size of the country, where for generations, people who didn’t “fit in” could go West, acquire land and ignore the constraints and conventions of more settled regions? What about the often-mystifying differences between Canadian and U.S. cultures that share so much? Do they stem–at least in part– from the need of Canadians to band together to help their neighbors in a much colder environment?

Given the reality of global interdependence, the most pressing question is: what can we learn–or, ideally, import– from the polder model? 

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.