Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

29 February 2020

Two Things the Public Needs to Know about Covid-19

For brief descriptions of and links to recent posts, click here. For an inverse-chronological list with links to all posts after January 23, 2017, click here. For a subject-matter index to posts before that date, click here.

The current coronavirus disease, called Covid-19, is caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2. It’s part of a family of coronavirus-caused diseases, of which SARS and MERS had the two most recent epidemics. We believe these diseases are more distantly related to the common cold, which has over 250 strains, and also to influenza.

That’s why you can get a lot of common colds in your life. There are lots of strains. Having and getting over one strain—and therefore gaining immunity to it—doesn’t necessarily protect you from other strains.

Apparently scientists have identified only 19 coronavirus strains so far. SARS and MERS were contained relatively quickly, and neither had truly global scope. The “ME” in the acronym “MERS,” for “Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome,” suggests as much.

But Covid-19 already has been identified in 54 countries. [Scroll down to “Where has it spread?”] So it looks as if the cat is out of the bag: the current virus’ geographic containment is unlikely.

Therefore this virus might be with us for a while, endemic around the globe. It could spin off mutations regularly, just as the common cold and influenza have done, producing new strains that could be more or less dangerous. (Often viruses evolve toward lesser mortality: a virus that kills all its hosts has a dim future.)

This possibility—even probability—has three primary consequences. First, unless we develop a cure, the first lines of defense going forward will be vaccination and good epidemiology, that is, tracing cases locally, quarantining those infected and exposed, and disinfecting places and things that might be contaminated.

Every nation with resources for vaccine development should be working on a vaccine at full speed. May the best one win and help save humanity, or at least our global economy. (For purely economic reasons, this work should be done and/or supported by governments or not-for-profit businesses.)

Vaccine research should focus on spurring our immune systems to target those bright-red viral protrusions in the virus photos, which are the means by which the virus attaches to and enters human cells. Researchers have been pursuing a similar strategy to find a “universal” vaccine for flu, with some success in laboratory trials.

Second, even if we develop a vaccine by year-end, we probably won’t be able to vaccinate everyone. Instead, we’ll use a strategy of encircling geographic pockets of infection, just as China has done without a vaccine, even with huge regions like Hubei Province. It’ll take time to ramp up vaccine production to the point where everyone can get a coronavirus vaccine every year, at least in developed nations, possibly combined with a flu shot.

Third, both while we’re still developing vaccines and in the longer term, there are two absolutely vital things researchers need to determine and tell the public about this virus.

The first, and perhaps the most important, is the viral longevity on things. How long does the virus “live,” i.e., remain active and infectious, on various non-biological surfaces and under varying conditions of temperature, humidity, etc.?

I have read that common-cold viruses are active for at least two hours. In some places workers are now disinfecting elevators every two hours, apparently on the assumption that the same rule applies to the virus for Covid-19.

But that’s not science. Good scientists never assume anything. They test. They do well-controlled experiments and (for something this important) check them at least twice.

Expert, even elite, medical or biological scientists must do these tests. They must be thorough, both in terms of possible substrains of the virus, and in terms of the nature of the surface and its conditions. We should trust no one with an ulterior motive, whether making a profit or avoiding liability, to do this work. The scientists must be financially and psychologically independent of all non-scientific influences.

One the work is done well, and repeated and verified in a couple of different countries, the results could have wonderfully salubrious practical and economic effects.

Let’s say that good science shows the virus never remains active on things for more than two days. That would save the cost of disinfecting things like hotels, houses, aircraft, cruise ships, train cars, buses and cars thought to be contaminated. Just wait the two days, then re-use them safely, without worry or expense.

Not only would this save money. It would give the public confidence in using all these things. Time, they say, heals all wounds. Yet what does the public know about the effectiveness of all those chemical sprays shown on the TV news, or about whether the crew doing the disinfecting is doing it right?

The second major need to know is this: what’s a good disinfectant for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19? What chemicals are not harmful to most people, easily available, and inexpensive, but do the job? Does isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) work? ethyl (drinking) alcohol? hydrogen peroxide? ammonia? bleach? and at what dilution?

For several years, I’ve carried little spray tubes of 91% isopropyl alcohol around with me whenever a leave the house, to sterilize my hands and even my face periodically. Their spray is like the trademarked product Purell, but much less viscous and so quicker and easier to evaporate. The isopropyl alcohol seems to have worked to reduce my susceptibility to colds and virtually eliminate airborne or contact-spread bacterial diseases. (The isopropyl alcohol doesn’t produce evolved resistance like antibiotics because its effect is less biochemical than physical. It ruptures bacterial cell walls.)

But does rubbing alcohol work against this latest coronavirus? Against any of the genus? I have no idea.

Knowledge, they say, is power. It’s especially important as applied to a virus that you can’t see, but that could make you sick or even kill you. Not only could this knowledge save lives and reduce panic. It could also help save the global economy.

I recently bought two Amazon TV Fire Cubes. After discovering they were made in China, I alcoholed the parts several times before using them, photographed the manual with my cell phone, and threw away the manual and packaging. Was I wasting my time and effort? Would I have done better just to leave the boxes in the garage for a few days?

I don’t know. But a public that has reliable answers to these questions might just be more happy buying things—especially things made in China or where the epidemic is also rampant. An informed and empowered public could help keep the global economy humming while we develop a vaccine and improve our global public-health response. Empowered, it would also feel more in control and less prone to panic.

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26 February 2020

An Eight-Year-Old Writes the GOP

For brief descriptions of and links to recent posts, click here. For an inverse-chronological list with links to all posts after January 23, 2017, click here. For a subject-matter index to posts before that date, click here.

[For a note on Elizabeth Warren’s haymaker in South Carolina, updated today 2/27, click here.]

Dear GOP,

I don’t know what “GOP” means, but I know you like Trump. You say you don’t like him, but you back him up.

He’s hard on us and lots of the people who live in our neighborhood. You let him do bad things. You cheer him on.

To me, you look like a big gang. Trump leads your gang. You do what he says, but you say you don’t like to. You know he’s a bad man, but you do what he says.

That’s what gangs do, right? They do what the boss man says, even if it’s bad. Does that make you bad, too?

Trump is often mean to girls. He’s mean to big girls and little girls. My Mom says that’s not good. What does your Mom say? What does your wife say?

You say Trump made us rich, or at least kept us from getting poor. My Dad says it wasn’t Trump, but the black guy with the funny name, who dug us out of the hole that the banks put us in. My Dad got a good job while he was President. Now my Dad’s afraid he may lose it because of Trump’s sheriffs, or something like that.

My Mom gave the black guy five stars. She says you tried to steal his five stars for Trump. Is that true?

My Mom also says your big tax cuts help the rich but no one like us. If you stole the black guy’s five stars, whose stars will you steal when Trump’s sheriffs put us back in the hole again?

Then there’s this guy, the “Burn.” You curse him. You say bad things about him. But my Mom and Dad say people who work for a living like him. He wants them to get a fair shake. He wants everybody to live well. He wants everybody to have a doctor. Aren’t those good things?

Anyway, the Burn guy seems to care about us and the people on our block.

Does Trump care about us? Do you?

When you bad mouth the Burn guy, you sound just like the gang in my school yard. They pick on the smart kids. Most of us like the smart kids. They are nice to everybody, and they know lots of cool stuff. More of us like the smart kids than are in the gang, but the gang doesn’t know that.

My Dad says Trump is just like that guy from the big war, when we fought the Germans. I can’t remember his name, but it starts with an H. My Dad makes him sound like Hell. He says the H guy started with small bad things and then worked up to big bad things. His worst things just snuck up on everybody. Mom and Dad are scared that’s just what Trump will do.

When you get in the booth to vote, will you vote for Trump? My Dad says you want us to think so, so we won’t vote for the Burn guy.

But is that true? Do you have kids like me? Do you want someone like the H guy taking care of your kids and their future? My Mom thinks you love your kids and know it’s time to stop this nonsense.

My Dad thinks you bluff. He say you might not vote for the Burn guy but anyway won’t vote for Trump. My Dad thinks we should all call your bluff, and vote for the Burn guy.

I think so, too. I like the Burn guy, and I think he likes us.

Which do you hate more, someone who likes us and people like us, or someone like the H guy? You might have to pick soon.

Your friend,


Endnote: Warren Gets Tough

While we’re on the subject of things an eight-year-old can understand, let’s talk about toughness. If you want toughness, I hope you watched the debate in South Carolina Tuesday night.

Elizabeth Warren had started taking Mike Bloomberg apart on the stage as early as the Nevada debate. But on Tuesday she rose to a whole new level. If she were a boxer, you could only describe her punch as a “haymaker.”

She accused Bloomberg of telling a pregnant worker in his firm, who had been concerned about keeping her job while pregnant, to “kill it,” apparently meaning her fetus. Bloomberg repeatedly denied saying that, and his denial was credible. But Warren stood her ground, saying that that’s what the pregnant woman in question had accused Bloomberg of saying.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. I have no idea what the truth is. Nor, I think, did many, if any, of the listeners. It’s hard to believe that Bloomberg said those exact words; that doesn’t sound like him. Maybe his denial was a lie. But more likely he just didn’t remember what he said. Maybe he had said something to the same effect, possibly being sarcastic, and his accuser dramatized it. Maybe the accuser was lying.

But in this case the truth doesn’t matter so much. Remember Judge, now Justice, Brett Kavanaugh? A woman—a professor, no less—accused him of sexually assaulting her when he was young (and drunk). Kavanaugh denied doing so, and later flew into a rage on camera. Everyone, including most of the Senators on the Judiciary Committee, said the accuser’s testimony was credible. Yet the “investigation” that followed was every bit as much of a sham as the no-witness, no-document “trial” of Trump in the Senate, by which he was just acquitted.

It’s generally known, and research tends to show, that when a woman accuses a man of sexual misconduct and the man denies it, people of both genders tend to believe the man. They do so either just because he’s a man or because, being a man, he’s more likely to hold a position of power and responsibility. People believe the man because of the consequences of not believing him to his firm, his organization and society in general. In other words, we all tend to believe the man because the consequences of not doing so are or seem to be (except to the woman) more serious and risky.

Women of course can’t stand this reality. But not only women. I have an X and a Y chromosome, and I thought the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh with barely more than a fig leaf of investigation was one of the most rotten things I’d ever seen in this country, until Trump’s sham acquittal.

The thing about Kavanaugh is that there was nothing special about him, except the credible and damning claim against him. Trump had a whole list of equally conservative judges to elevate. Presumably few or none suffered from Kavanaugh's peculiar “disability.”

In an earlier, more innocent age, a few key senators would have discreetly warned both Trump and Kavanaugh, and Kavanaugh would have quietly withdrawn his nomination. But not now. Instead, Trump and McConnell rammed his confirmation through. It was much like that image in Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, of a boot repeatedly stomping on a human face in cruel celebration of raw power.

The final point of brilliance in Warren’s attack was that it spread easily across the aisle. Imagine how the words “Kill it!” sound to a fervent believer in the right to life. The uncertainty of the claim and Bloomberg’s weak response no doubt made many conservatives as sick to their stomachs as this progressive over the whole affair.

So here’s what Warren’s haymaker did. First, it reminded every woman how her personal safety and credibility depend on the credibility of the men she knows and deals with. That is, it reminded every woman of the MeToo movement and how there but for the grace of God goes she. It reminded sympathetic men of the whole Kavanaugh fiasco and how fundamentally unfair our political/legal system is to women, including the women they love. It reminded all these people, willy nilly, of Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein. It had the potential to fire up people on both sides of the aisle, progressives and conservatives. And when Warren implied (I don’t recall her saying directly) that the “kill it” woman was one of those whom Bloomberg or his firm muzzled with a nondisclosure agreement, she made it all seem so much worse.

All this was going on at the semi-conscious or unconscious level in listeners, including me. I only figured it out later, as I sat down to write this post.

In his bland and dogged claims of innocence, Bloomberg gave no sign of understanding any of it. Do you think Trump, whose intelligence compares to Warren’s as a glow worm to the Sun, would do any better? If you want a fighter who can knock Trump stone cold without him even knowing he’s been hit, you’d better take another look at Warren. And by the way, Trump gives Warren a lot more to work with than does Bloomberg.

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23 February 2020

Five Reasons Why Bernie Sanders Can Win

For brief descriptions of and links to recent posts, click here. For an inverse-chronological list with links to all posts after January 23, 2017, click here. For a subject-matter index to posts before that date, click here.

No, I’m not discussing the nomination. Of course Sanders can win that, after winning Nevada decisively. I’m talking about the presidency. Read on:

1. Like Trump, Sanders says he’s got workers’ backs, but unlike Trump Sanders really means it.

Why is Trump president? In order of importance, there are five reasons. First, Hillary never lamented the bailouts or blamed the bankers who caused the Crash of 2008. That Crash pushed millions of skilled workers over the edge. It also accelerated the exodus of jobs to China, which mostly avoided the Crash.

Second, Hillary earned big bucks by giving speeches to Wall Street, whose contents she kept secret. How’s that for a trust magnet for workers? Third, she enhanced her aura as a know-it-all elitist by putting the workers whose votes she sought into a “basket of deplorables.” Fourth, she had supported Dubya’s needless war in Iraq long after her husband and just about every other Democrat stopped doing so; as everyone knows, our working class fights our wars, the more so now with our all-volunteer army.

Finally, Hillary beat the guy (Bernie) who seemed to understand how the system is rigged and why workers and their families were hurting. Worse yet, if you followed the primaries it seemed like she beat him by similar rigging, pulling insider strings.

So if you were a skilled worker on the skids, what would you do? You’ve got a guy who claims to be a successful businessman and claims to have your back, running against a person deeply embedded in the elite cabal and the Washington “swamp” that closed your factory, dried up your town, cost you your job, house and/or marriage, and drove your kin to opioids. Doesn’t the question answer itself?

Yet there’s more. Even with all these glaring faults and all her “triangulating,” Hillary won the popular vote decisively. If she had visited the key battleground states closer to the election, she might even have reversed her narrow loss, which amounted to a total of only 80,000 votes in the three key states. Think a man who’s adamantly on forgotten workers’ side and against the oligarchy, and who’s also a relentless campaigner despite his heart attack, might do better this time?

So it’s not as if the general electorate is a troop of bloodless zombies in thrall to Trump. Poll after poll shows that it’s progressive, by substantial majorities, on major issues like health insurance, drug costs, retirement, pay equity, family leave, minimum wages, ending our endless wars, women’s rights, and those damned guns. It was so in 2016. It’s much more so now, after three years of extreme misrule.

Trump’s narrow win in 2016 was a fluke. Now it’s just a matter of helping the people’s will prevail.

2. Trump broke virtually all his promises to workers.

The easiest and quickest way to give skilled workers good jobs nationwide was to repair and rebuild our dilapidated infrastructure. It still is. But Trump never got to that. Instead, his first priority was to cut taxes mostly on his rich cronies and big corporations. Then he imposed tariffs that made many things more expensive for the middle class, including workers out of jobs.

Trump’s tariffs caused China to retaliate against his farming supporters. Trump then had to bail them out. That left him unable (and unwilling) to return any of the tariff proceeds to all middle-class workers, as Dems now propose doing with the proceeds of a carbon tax to save our planet.

It gets worse. Trump never even proposed a health-insurance plan better than Obamacare. Instead, he tried mightily to kill it. He and his crew managed to maim it with litigation. So the number of our people with good health insurance has dropped for the last two years. Now over eighty million of us are uninsured or underinsured.

Next Trump built only a few miles of new Wall—by violating the Constitution and stealing the money. Mexico hasn’t paid a dime for it. He’s relaxed the rules that keep our air, water and ground clean. The only major promise to workers that Trump seems to have kept is reducing illegal immigration, but he did it by means so cruel and draconian as to embarrass our nation and destroy its moral standing at home and abroad.

There are, of course, many Trump supporters who don’t know these things and won’t bother to find out. But there are also many who are starting to question his leadership. What will they think when they see these facts laid out, multiple times every night, by TV and Internet ads financed by Bloomberg and by the most frightened and free-spending Democratic party since LBJ buried Barry Goldwater for threatening nuclear Armageddon?

Yes, Fox is a dangerous propaganda organ, but it’s in as steep a decline as our nation. Roger Ailes is gone; Facebook and Twitter dominate the Internet; youth is turning from cable to streaming in droves; and Bloomberg is smarter than anyone now at Fox.

3. When Trump won in 2016, few outside New York knew him. Now everybody does.

Forget about his policies, which change from day to day and minute to minute, at his whim and caprice. He’s a thoughtless, extortionate, vindictive, inconsistent, impulsive, crude, vulgar, bigoted, nasty and cruel narcissist. He may be fit to be a Mafia capo, but a president? Never!

Our ad-makers can sell you a defective product and make you happy you bought it. Think they can’t make people understand who Trump is for real?

A lot of people took a flyer on Trump, thinking him a smart businessman who could keep his promises to bring factories back from China and find good new jobs for everyone. Sure, some voters have adopted him as their champion and now will hear no evil about him. But all it takes is a few percent to have their epiphany, and that only in key states. Just remember that Trump’s 2016 margins in the key states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin were all less than one percent. In 2018, his party lost badly, although he tried soooo hard to shore up his lackeys.

4. Many Republicans and former Republicans, let alone independents (and especially women!), just won’t be able to bring themselves to vote for Trump again.

He’s so cruel, abusive, vulgar, and selfish as to seem derived from another species. He’s done much damage to our national unity, our institutions, our allies and international standing, our science, and the certain and steady policy that business needs to thrive. Few elite, informed people will vote for him, even among those who took a flyer on him in 2016.

Those who did will understand that the tax cuts were a one-of, and that he can’t keep cutting regulations forever, at least not with the House in the Democrats’ hands. They will fear his random tariffs and his hopeless misunderstanding of economics.

This time, they won’t be able to vote for him even while holding their noses. The stink on steroids will push through.

Then there are all the people whom Trump has hurt personally and directly. They include people named Coats, Comey, Kelly, Mattis, Mueller, Romney, Sanderson, Tillerson and Vindman. They include all the prosecutors now resigning and protesting over Trump’s meddling with the Justice Department, many of whom are Republicans. They include hordes of dedicated scientists and other experts in our once-superb bureaucracy, whom Trump fired or forced out by making their work (at less than private-sector pay) irrelevant or subordinating them to unqualified apparatchiks, such as the clueless acting DNI now.

Almost every month, Trump has pushed dozens of good, well-qualified, experienced people out of government and replaced them with incompetent ideologues, lackeys, or not at all. All of them have relatives, sympathetic colleagues, and friends who vote.

True, we can’t be sure that all these folk will vote for Sanders, whether out of conviction, acquiescence or just spite. But they won’t vote for Trump, and that will be enough.

5. Informed people who read and think will digest this summary of the first volume of Volker Ullrich’s new biography of Adolf Hitler and fear the future.

They will feel a chill run down their spin as they recognize in Trump every major facet of Hitler’s rise to absolute power. The chill will deepen as they come to understand that Hitler became Germany’s dictator gradually, beginning by winning a surprise election as a supposedly laughable outsider.

They will see many more uncanny parallels, most of all in Trump’s immediate grasp for absolute power (in pardoning criminals and breaking down the Chinese wall between Justice and the president), just after surviving the impeachment process. They will worry, if Trump does all this within mere days of acquittal, what he would do if re-elected for another four years.

Not all these people will vote for Sanders. Maybe none will. But they won’t vote for Trump and risk forfeiting our democracy.

In the privacy of their voting booths, they just won’t be able to, any more than many Dems and independents could vote for Hillary in 2016. Even some of the senatorial cowards who voted to acquit Trump to save their own jobs might be unable to vote for him, as long as no one knows.

As they vote, all these people will think of the heavy responsibility of the German people, which present-day Germans now sadly but laudably bear. They will consider a new Hitler in command of the world’s most accurate and deadly stash of nuclear weapons, which Adolf never had. They will balk at repeating Germany’s fatal error, at least so soon afterward, especially at a time when war could extinguish our species.

* * *

The truth is that Trump has no real magic. Yes, he’s a consummate showman, propagandist and demagogue. But he had a free ride in 2016 because the Dems chose a deeply flawed candidate to face him, who saw the general election as her coronation. Part of the free ride also came from the Russians, who started the first-ever transnational electoral information war, pushing for Trump and against free elections. Trump also got a free ride because millions of people—including many who should have known better—projected their dreams and desires onto him instead of seeing him as he was and is.

The 2016 general election was a perfect storm of inattention and delusion, including self-delusion on all sides. Trump rode that storm to the White House. Yet it bears repeating, endlessly, that even so Hillary lost by only a hair.

Now we all know better. We all know who and what Trump is. Now we’re on guard against interference by Russians and other foreigners. And the dreams of so many, projected onto so flawed a vessel, have been dashed upon the hard rocks of reality, if voters only choose to see it.

So if the man whose message meets these times, and who should have been the Dems’ nominee in 2016, now, although older, faces Trump, the result is hardly foreordained, let alone against the challenger. On the contrary, the winds are all blowing toward Sanders’ victory.

In the end, enough people will understand that “democratic socialism” limited to health insurance is not a repudiation of free enterprise, and that Sanders’ presidency will bear no likeness whatsoever to Maduro’s (especially after Sanders calls Maduro out repeatedly on the stump). More to the point, they will choose any kind of democracy over the erratic, immoral and vindictive one-man rule of our modern blend of Caligula and Nero.

Endnote 1: Warren and Sanders

As readers of this blog know, I much prefer Warren to Sanders and plan to vote for her in the primary. I prefer her because she’s smarter, more precise, and more careful. Unlike Sanders, she calls herself a “capitalist” who just wants the rules to work for everyone. I also think that being female gives Warren an important advantage at the polls.

But if Sanders wins the nomination, as now appears probable, I won’t lose my enthusiasm for a progressive tidal wave. I won’t be blind to the poetic justice in a belated victory of a man who—practically all alone—sounded the tocsin in 2016 against gross economic inequality in a rigged system, yet failed to get the chance to fix it. And if Sanders does win the nomination, he will be bound by honor and pragmatism to pick Warren as his Veep, if only to jump-start the women’s revolution that has been so long in coming and to insure his legacy and continuity of policy against further setbacks in his health.

Endnote 2: The “Trump Fears” Fallacy.

Many Democrats seem to want to nominate a candidate whom Trump fears. But Trump feared Biden and maybe still does. (He often fears his own shadow and anyone who doesn’t kiss his ring.) Does anyone still think that Biden can win the nomination, let alone the presidency?

There are so many things wrong with the “Trump Fears” Fallacy that it’s hard to know where to begin. Let’s just start with the obvious: how good has Trump’s judgment been in general? He seems to know how to attract a certain kind of voter, but only to the extent of about 40%. His popularity rose to 49% just after his acquittal but now has subsided back to its consistent baseline.

In the final analysis, Trump knows little about anything but himself. Unless he has a Tweet-spawning paroxysm of “gut feeling” at 3:00 am, he relies on others’ views of external reality, insofar as he recognizes such a thing. Mostly he relies on Fox and Friends, although he consulted wealthy donors and celebrities in deciding which criminals to grant his recent pardons.

Trump probably feared Biden (up to now) only because the polls and media anointed Biden as formidable. Now the media have condemned Sanders as a loser just because he calls himself a “democratic socialist,” and the media see that as risky. That’s probably the sum total of Trump’s “analysis,” if you can use that term to describe any of Trump’s thinking.

What Trump and the media are missing is that Sanders evokes the same level enthusiasm and commitment among voters that Trump himself evokes, and that Hillary never did. I myself voted for Hillary while holding my nose with both hands. It was Trump’s glaring unfitness, not her few virtues, that motivated me. I could hardly even discern her policies amidst her constant “triangulating” and trying to have everything both ways.

Hillary Clinton nearly won despite displaying, at almost every turn, an apparent inability (or unwillingness) to do what presidents are supposed to do: decide. Bernie Sanders does not have that problem. Nor does Elizabeth Warren.

Trump runs his own campaign at his own whim. He has only endured only one election in his entire life, against Hillary. So unless Fox tells him to beware Sanders, which it never will do, Trump cannot imagine that Sanders might have a base as fired up and loyal as his own. Nor can he imagine that Sanders’ base is not only similar in size to his own, but also has a lot of natural overlap.

As for Putin, the motivation for his spooks’ recently reported support for Sanders is unclear. He could, like Trump, think Sanders is the easiest Dem to beat. But it’s more likely that Putin has given up on Trump as too erratic and unreliable and therefore dangerous. Likely Putin prefers Sanders’ consistent, serious and well-thought-out policy of avoiding military intervention in foreign affairs to Trump’s spastic vacillation between threatening “fire and fury” and falling at the knees of tyrants. (Sanders’ policy in this regard is just the same as George Washington advised in his farewell address, regarding foreign entanglements.) [Search for “faith and justice” and read down at least ten paragraphs.]

Putin just wants us out of his way, and the thing any leader most wants in potential enemies is predictability. Like Trump, Hitler didn’t start out as a warmonger. He, too, began his demagogic career by playing on real economic grievances. But by the time Hitler had consolidated absolute power, no one inside or outside of Germany could tell in advance where he’d strike next. That’s the nature of empire, even as recently as the last century: no checks or balances on a single man’s caprice. (Think of our recent sham, no-witness impeachment trial in our Senate.)

Hitler’s violation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and invasion of Russia were what sealed Nazi Germany’s fate. But they also sealed Russia’s agony, in which one out of seven Soviet citizens died. In our nation today, that sort of carnage would mean over 46 million dead—more than the entire population of California, or of New York and Texas combined.

So it’s no exaggeration to say that Russia bore the brunt of Nazi aggression under Hitler, the last world-class demagogue in control of a mighty empire. That’s why Putin has every reason to prefer Sanders over Trump as president. A declining superpower that’s not chastened, sobered, and rationally calculating, but acts more like a rabid dog, is not an end that anyone ought consciously to seek.

All this of course says nothing about Sanders’ campaign. It’s only speculation about Putin’s probable motives. In the house of smoke and mirrors that is international espionage, those motives are not easy to discern.

But unlike Trump, Sanders himself has acknowledged being warned by our intelligence agencies and has disavowed and repudiated Russia’s help in clear and forceful language. That’s what any American aspirant to top leadership ought to do, and what Trump himself has never done.

How does all this relate to the topic of this post: Sanders’ chances for becoming president? Vladimir Putin is one of the world’s wiliest leaders. He’s in ultimate charge of one of the world’s two best foreign intelligence agencies (the other being Israel’s Mossad). He thinks that Sanders has enough chance to become president to risk a further breach of US-Russia relations by trying to help him, just as he helped Trump in 2016, who won.

Of course that’s not anything we Americans should salute. But it’s evidence that smart foreign spooks, who have a lot at stake and the perspective of distance, don’t believe (like Fox and our malleable media) that Sanders is a sacrificial lamb or will become one in the general election. If steely-eyed foreign spooks are taking Sanders seriously, so ought American workers and progressives who’ve craved his policies, so far in vain, for the two generations since Reagan.

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16 February 2020

How to Stop a Pandemic

For brief descriptions of and links to recent posts, click here. For an inverse-chronological list with links to all posts after January 23, 2017, click here. For a subject-matter index to posts before that date, click here.

[For brief comment on the Dems’ Nevada debate, click here. For the terms of permission to re-post, link to, copy, translate, distribute, publish, display and transmit (but not modify) the following post, click here.]


1. What anyone can do 2. What government and business can do

Introduction. The germs that spread pandemics—mostly viruses and bacteria—are invisible without special equipment. But if you know how they move, you can understand how they spread disease. That requires thinking through physical detail—a process familiar to most scientists and engineers, as well as medical personnel.

Germs travel from person to person in four ways. They move: (1) in animal “vectors” (mosquitos for malaria and yellow fever, and rats and fleas for bubonic plague); (2) in body fluids or tissue (HIV/AIDS, rabies, ebola), (3) on things (which can be solid like doorknobs or porous and flexible like hats, bedclothes and clothing) (many diseases, including respiratory viruses like the new coronavirus), and (4) through the air, usually in droplets (colds, coronaviruses, flu, TB).

Although we believe coronaviruses originated in animals and jumped to humans, they are not known to pass among humans via animal vectors. Transmission through body fluids and tissue is mostly an issue for medical personnel and intimates of the sick. That’s why HIV/AIDS, rabies and ebola never reached a pandemic stage. So to stop this pandemic, we should focus on the last two means of spreading: objects and droplets.

Germs that are still active on objects or in the air have a big risk of spreading. That’s why the greatest modern pandemic so far—the worldwide Spanish flu epidemic of 1918—was so devastating. It killed an estimated 50 million people, about the same as all of World War II.

Two developments have substantially increased the risk of pandemics since 1918. First, the world’s population has nearly quadrupled [point 12], from 1.9 billion in 1917 to 7.5 billion a century later. People are now living closer together, in larger and more densely packed cities, than ever before. There are also more people living closer to animals, and eating more undomesticated ones (“bush meat,” as the Aussies call them). Animals are a potent source of newly mutated viruses.

Second, global travel is incomparably faster and denser than a century ago. The world’s first scheduled commercial passenger flight came in 1914, in Florida. Now passengers can fly within or among continents on over 100,000 scheduled commercial flights each day. A person who catches the coronavirus in Wuhan can be in Beijing, London, Mexico City, Moscow, New York, Tokyo, or Toronto the same or the next day.

So how can our species ward off this new coronavirus, or the inevitable next threatened pandemic, when we can’t perceive the germs that spread it without equipment that only specialists have?

As it turns out, there are lots of things we can do, especially for viruses like the new coronavirus. Some of them are simple things that anyone can do—even things that everyone in developed nations does daily. Other things only government or business can do. Some precautions may require cultural changes. Read on.

1. What anyone can do (in roughly descending order of its effectiveness divided by its difficulty).

a. Don’t touch your face, except immediately after washing your hands. The easiest way to make yourself sick by contact is to touch on or near your head’s orifices (mouth, nostrils, eyes and even ears) with hands that have contacted a transmissible virus. This is so not just for the new coronavirus, but for flu and the common cold as well.

You never know when you’ve contacted germs, because they’re too small to see. Anyway, all of us tend to forget things we’ve recently touched. So the best preventative strategy is to train yourself not to touch your face at all, or to do so only through clean tissues, towels or handkerchiefs, or after washing your hands thoroughly.

b. Wash your hands. You can practically shut down germs’ object-driven pathway to infecting you simply by washing your hands. But you have to wash them far more thoroughly and more often than you are used to doing.

Experts say a thorough preventative washing should take 21 seconds. You have to thoroughly wet your hands, especially the pads and sides of your thumbs and fingers, which are most likely to contact objects. You should saturate and scrub them with soapy water, then rinse them thoroughly until they no longer feel slimy. If you want to do a good job you should imagine yourself as a surgeon about to enter the OR.

To avoid further contamination from water faucets, it’s best to touch them only through clothing or a paper towel, or (if you have to) with the back of your hand. That’s why many public restrooms, especially in airports, have photocell-based no-touch taps for water and soap. It’s not to encourage laziness or even to conserve water and soap. Instead, it’s to curb the spread of disease.

The best times to wash your hands are: (1) whenever you enter your home from outside, (2) before and after eating (because you might pick up germs from the table, plates or utensils), and (3) before and after going to the toilet (because you might transfer germs to your private parts or pick them up from the toilet seat, faucet handles or door knobs). On leaving a toilet, it’s best to push swinging doors with your feet and to touch flush levers, water spigots, and door knobs with toilet paper or a paper towel. (Cruise ships have started putting wastebaskets neat toilet doors to make it easier to do this. Many airport toilets now have “doorless” and therefore “touchless” entryways, with a bend for privacy.)

Why is washing your hands so important? Your hands are the only parts of your body that regularly touch objects outside of your home. If they then touch your face (see the previous item), they can easily transmit a respiratory virus.

Furthermore, your hands are perfect storage media for germs. Unlike your clothes and shoes, they stay at about body temperature, even in hot summer or (after you don gloves or mittens) in winter. In contrast, the bottoms of your shoes get wiped off every time you take a step, and your clothes get dumped into the hamper and washed mostly without your touching any parts that might have touched seats.

c. Stay home when you feel sick, or if you think you’ve been exposed. Self-quarantine, aka self-isolation, may be the most powerful means of stopping an epidemic from becoming a pandemic. Unfortunately, it encounters psychological and cultural pushback. But for that pushback, this simple measure would be the very first item on this list.

In an ideal world, how would self-quarantining work? If you woke up feeling the slightest bit ill, you would simply stay home and phone in sick. If you started feeling sick while out at work or at school, you would go home. Thereafter, you would attend no social events or entertainment outside your home. You would meet no one in person but would communicate electronically. You would not go back to school or to work.

You would also go home and stay home if, based on all the information you know, you think you might have been exposed to a potentially deadly virus. You would do this, for example, if you discovered that authorities were testing everyone on a plane you recently took, or people at your school or place of work. You would stay home until you were informed that the plane, school or workplace had been cleared, or you personally had tested negative.

During your self-quarantining, you would assiduously avoid crowded places, including public transportation, theaters, stadiums, gyms, stores and supermarkets. You would not leave your abode, except maybe to exercise on uncrowded streets or in parks, keeping your distance from others.

Your family, friends, neighbors, home-delivery businesses, or, in the worst case, public servants would bring food to you door. In any a house or non-single apartment, you would stay in a separate room or suite, preferably with a separate bathroom, from the rest of the residents.

You would not come out of your self-imposed quarantine until you had been cleared by medical professionals, or until you felt much better and were no longer sneezing, coughing or blowing your nose. If you got sick enough to require medical attention (which you or your family, neighbors or friends could verify by telecommunication), medical professionals would visit you at home, with appropriate protective gear (including hazmat suits in an epidemic). If necessary, they would take you to the hospital in an appropriately protected vehicle. Or you could drive to a designated hospital in your own or another’s car, provided the car itself were quarantined and/or professionally disinfected afterward.

Even in advanced nations, human society is not yet ready for this ideal regime of self-isolation. Unaccustomed to it, and not compelled by law, people would get bored, become selfish and thoughtless, and break their quarantines, perhaps in catastrophic ways.

The necessary social infrastructure and sense of obligation to others, let alone patriotism and public spiritedness, has not yet fully developed, even in China. And of course no nation yet has the physical infrastructure to bring food to the doors of the poor or isolated or to transport them safely (in terms of infection risk) to hospitals with good testing facilities and isolation wards.

Yet the Internet makes such a quarantine possible, at least in theory, by facilitating communication between self-quarantined individuals and the world outside their homes. It even permits a degree of diagnosis by “telemedicine,” at least for purposes of triage. Workers and students could keep up, or at least remain apprised, by telecommunication. Likely a majority, if not the vast majority, of workers could work remotely over the Internet for the short time needed to confirm or rule out a serious communicable disease. While self-quarantined, everyone could maintain family and social contacts through electronic means, including e-mail, text messaging, and video phoning (FaceTime, Skype, Google Hangouts, etc.).

In my view, we already have most of the infrastructure to implement an effective regime of self-quarantining like this. The principal obstacle—besides lack of enough mobile medical personnel—is cultural. The US and other developed nations still have a macho culture that discourages absences from work or school. People who go to work or school when they are sick, despite the difficulty and real pain, are seen as heroes of a sort. Sometimes they see themselves that way.

We must change that maccho culture as quickly as we can. In its own way, it’s as counterproductive as people in Africa hand-washing the corpses of their dead relatives and contracting ebola in so doing. We need to assess people who break quarantine, whether self-imposed or required by government, as what they are: selfish, thoughtless and anti-social. Bosses and underlings, employers and employees, teachers and students—we must all recognize self-quarantine for what it is, an act of patriotism, social good, and love for family, friends, neighbors, region and country. Getting this right (including distinguishing sincere self-quarantiners from malingerers) will take time.

The stringency of the self-quarantine regime of course should depend upon the nature of the threat. Against today’s coronavirus, for example, the regime probably should extend no further than Wuhan, Hubei province, and other areas of China and abroad within the immediate vicinity of known foci of infection. There’s no need to go overboard and spread terror, or to impair the economy far from any known threat. But it stands to reason that rapid self-quarantining could be a powerful means of containing the virus in each “virgin” but newly infected town, street, office, school, apartment building or community.

With existing resources, centralized authorities could determine the geographic extent of the optimum self-quarantine zones and communicate them to local authorities, or even directly to the people affected, over the Internet and public media. But of course the regime’s ultimate effectiveness would depend on the availability of physical resources to test people in their homes, feed them, and transport them safely to treatment centers if necessary. Developing a robust infrastructure for all these tasks will take some time, as China’s recent experience shows.

A less-stringent form of this regime might also be useful in cases of local outbreaks of less deadly diseases, such as the flu. At very least, we should start by putting the kibosh on the cultural notion that it’s a good idea, and maybe heroic, to go work or school when you feel sick. That change needs to begin right now.

d. Wear a mask to protect yourself and others. Wearing a mask can protect both you and others from being infected by virus-bearing droplets formed in coughing, sneezing, singing, talking and even breathing. But the protection masks provide is chancy, a bit like roulette.

Anything but a respirator might pass small virus-containing particles. And droplets stopped by a mask might migrate to your hands as you take it off—a good reason for washing your hands immediately afterward. As for protecting others, masks will not always stop an explosive sneeze or cough from letting virus-ridden droplets escape.

That said, masks are a lot better than nothing. You should wear them in public to protect others if you feel sick, as is even now customary in many Asian cultures. This is especially important if you live in an area, or work or study in a facility, where cases of a deadly virus have occurred. In fact, in such an area or facility it’s prudent for everyone to wear masks when in close proximity to others, and especially when in crowds.

Masks are good to protect yourself, too, but there are caveats. If everyone buys and wears masks, there might not be enough to go around for the people who really need them, including medical personnel, first responders, and people who live, work or study in places where infection has been confirmed. So while it’s probably reasonable for everyone in or near an infected area to have a small supply, it’s not reasonable to hoard lots of masks where there is no immediate threat. That said, I plan to keep a mask or two on me, in a sterile plastic bag, to wear whenever I fly or otherwise have to be in a crowded situation.

One such situation that most people probably don’t think about much is elevators. In big cities, many people both work and live in highrise buildings with elevators. They use elevators four or more times per day.

Unfortunately, elevators raise more than just the people in them. They elevate the risk of spreading a virus in two ways: (1) through virus-ridden droplets in a confined space, and (2) through viruses deposited manually on buttons, railings and hand-grips. You can avoid this elevated risk by: (1) taking the stairs instead (trying not to touch doorknobs and railings), (2) touching the buttons only indirectly (for example, through a tissue or with a clothed elbow), (3) refraining from touching anything else directly with your hand, and (4) wearing a mask to avoid those damned droplets. If there are (or reasonably may be) infected people using the same elevator(s), no one should accuse you of being antisocial or selfish merely for wearing a mask.

e. Don’t shake hands, at least not without thinking. When you shake someone’s hand, whether for greeting or for agreement, do you ever wonder what might be on it? In an infection zone or suspected infection zone in the middle of a pandemic, you ought to.

Human culture, in all its diversity, doesn’t just affect the ease of making a self-quarantining regime work. Even minor quotidian cultural habits like shaking hands or hugging can risk contagion.

With their mutual bows at a distance, the Japanese are best situated not to turn routine social interactions into possible contagion events. Socially conservative Brits, with their soft “hello” at a distance, are also pretty safe. Muslim women, with their “no-touch” regime, hijabs and chadors, are also relatively safe from both giving and receiving contagion.

But Muslim men may have to modify their hugs and even perfunctory kisses. Even more, many Americans, Latinos and Europeans, with their hearty handshakes, hugs, and kisses, may have to modify their behavior in order to stay safe when a pandemic approaches. Doing this won’t be fun or easy, but it may be necessary.

One can hope that a brief explanation and reference to the pandemic will suffice to avoid offense. Or you can wash your hands (and face, if necessary) in private immediately afterward.

2. What government and business can do.

a. Do or support good science to assess the threat. Accurate and reliable science are as important to facing an epidemic as are reconnaissance and military intelligence to fighting a war. For every threat of an epidemic or pandemic, the health profession needs to know at least four parameters of the disease. In declining order of importance, they are: (1) mortality, or what percentage of patients with the disease die from it; (2) the disease’s incubation period, or the maximum time between exposure to the germ and the onset of symptoms, (3) whether a patient can transmit the virus during the incubation period and, if so, when, and (4) the period during which viruses on objects remain viable and able to infect people (“viral longevity”).

At the moment, with think we know the first two parameters for the new coronavirus. The mortality lies between 2% and 2.5%. (It could be lower if, as some experts suspect, many mild cases of the disease in China have gone undiagnosed.) As for the maximum incubation period, which of courses fixes the length of quarantine, doctors worldwide are operating under the assumption, backed by clinical evidence, that it’s two weeks.

But the last two parameters, which are also crucial for fighting an epidemic and assessing its severity, are not well known. That lack of knowledge is itself good reason to follow common-sense precautions like not touching your face, washing your hands, and wearing masks under crowded conditions in places where people who are infected may be in close proximity.

Coronaviruses are similar in structure and operation to viruses for the common cold and influenza. So doctors can make educated guesses about the last two parameters by analogy to these other diseases. But those estimates are just that: guesses.

Furthermore, these vital parameters may vary among strains of viruses, for different people of different ages or with different genetic makeup, and (for viral longevity) under different conditions of temperature, humidity and the object’s surface (smooth or rough, impermeable or porous, organic or inorganic, metal or cloth). So only real science, with good experimental controls and an appreciation of the many sources of measurement error, can determine these parameters reliably, as well as their likely range of normal variation.

Once known, these parameters can be crucial not only in estimating an epidemic’s severity and speed of advance, but in planning effective countermeasures. For example, the infectivity during incubation helps determine how to isolate and house people during quarantine, and the viral longevity helps to decide whether and when housing and vehicles suspected of contamination can be used without expensive chemical disinfection. One of the reasons why the current coronavirus epidemic is so severe, and its prognosis so uncertain, is that the last two of these parameters are virtually unknown.

Tying them down is the work of elite scientists, in absolutely safe environments (such as in hazmat suits), which are expensive. That work is properly classified as “basic research,” which is usually funded by government for lack of any clear market. Rather than duplicate effort, governments should collaborate to parcel out this basic research to organizations such as the CDC (and its foreign equivalents) and the WHO, and to have other similar organizations verify the results to insure their reliability. Too much is at stake to use preliminary results without verification, except under the most exigent circumstances.

This is not work for private, profit-making firms because there is no profit in it. To insure the results’ full utility, they must be universally available, without charge or delay, preferably on the unrestricted Internet, as soon as the international medical community accepts them as reliable.

b. Develop vaccines and cures. For-profit firms also don’t do well in producing vaccines and medicines capable of stopping epidemics or pandemics. There simply isn’t the monetary incentive for investment that capitalism usually provides, let alone in the necessary time frame. This conclusion has nothing to do with ideology. It comes from economic analysis.

Before an epidemic or pandemic starts, there is no market for the vaccine or cure. Even after it starts, the market may disappear if the plague succumbs to mere good epidemiology (locating and isolating nuclei of infection), a mutation of the germ, or just dumb luck.

Once the epidemic or pandemic starts, there’s little time to develop a vaccine or cure, which might easily have been developed in advance, had the germ involved been known, or had it shared certain biological features with its predecessors. (The latter appears to be the case with the new coronavirus and its predecessors SARS and MERS.)

Worse yet, if the vaccine or cure works, in the very process of saving individuals it kills the market that the germ created, thereby also killing the return on investment for private companies and their investors. That effect, in turn, kills the incentive to develop the next vaccine, whether for likely similar future plagues, or in general.

So you can cite epidemics and pandemics as severe cases of market failure. The prognosis for capitalism curing this epidemic, or preventing or curing future ones, is not good. Even in so-called “Communist” China, this is one case in which our species relies too heavily on private business to do things that private business has no economic incentive to do, at least absent government support for research and possible collateral uses.

We are just going to have to recognize that preventing and/or curing epidemics such as the current coronavirus is, like most research in basic science, something that has to be funded collectively. In business terms, it’s a cost center, not a profit center.

This work doesn’t even seek profit, but human survival, health and happiness. It therefore requires collective support. In our modern world, that means government. Even if private enterprise does part of the work, government funding and supervision can reduce corruption, delay, and unnecessary duplication of effort.

Maybe this is something that the UN or the WHO can manage well. Who knows? It might just bring the nations of Earth together in common humanity (and humility) against a common enemy: mutated germs.

c. Enforce quarantines and encourage self-quarantining by making work (including military service) and school more flexible. In the meantime, both business and government can improve our species’ defense against this epidemic and our readiness for the next one. They can do so both by enforcing government-ordered quarantines and by reordering their priorities to encourage self-quarantining.

This reordering need not cost a lot of money. But it will require a lot of thought, management time and creative use of the Internet and related technologies. No one doubts that a universal and strict regime of self-quarantining like the one outlined above could go a long way toward stopping the current coronavirus epidemic, or any future one. But currently its effectuation is doubtful. It may, at present, be unachievable outside of small areas of the most developed nations.

This is partly is a matter of culture. Many nations’ cultures views regular attendance at work or school as a necessity, an aspect of good character, and even a part of patriotism. For obvious (if self-serving) reasons, many employers do, too. This goes double for military personnel, who are often expected to show up for duty even when hurt or sick, especially in wartime.

So to encourage an effective self-quarantining regime, both government and business are going to have to revise their cultures and their rules for more flexibility. Where individuals can work or learn at home, business and government can make doing so as easy and as free from penalties as possible. Where showing up personally is vital to getting the job done, they can make individuals and working units better substitutes for each other. They can make it easier to shift operations, particularly critical ones, for one geographic location to another.

Disaster planning already provides precedents and experience. Many government and business organizations have stored records, secrets and critical information online, but in multiple physical locations that serve as mutual backups. Similarly, if a factory in one location uniquely makes a critical component of a company’s products, management might have to split the factory among two or more locations. Or it might find another supplier elsewhere. Then if an epidemic strikes in one critical location, the company can still produce the component, although perhaps at reduced volume, in the other. In this way geographic diversification can improve quarantines while it ameliorates an epidemic’s economic effect.

In sum, enterprises will have to distribute their critical operations more thoughtfully, so that a whole enterprise doesn’t have to shut down if an epidemic and massive self-quarantining impairs or shuts down work in one geographic area. In the long run, this re-distribution of critical functions, much like distributed generation of electricity with solar arrays or windmills, will have other advantages, too. For example, some distributed locations may be closer to certain customers, near related research facilities, or in areas less prone to bad weather, flooding, or earthquakes.

Conclusion. The 1918 pandemic of Spanish flu was a clear warning to our species. But coming in the midst of humanity’s first global war, it didn’t get the attention it deserved.

Now we humans have had four pandemic threats in the last two decades: SARS, MERS, ebola and the new coronavirus. If you count HIV/AIDS, which started a generation earlier but turned out to spread less quickly because of its limited means of transmission, that makes five, or six counting Spanish flu.

We should have learned better from this century-plus of repeated experience. Early in the last millennium, the Black Plague changed the world. It devastated Europe and retarded the advent of democracy. It helped encourage wars by making hard-hit societies look vulnerable. Elsewhere and earlier, it had dissolved the great Mongol Empire, which once ran from deep in Europe to the Asia’s East Coast and was far more advanced than most Westerners know [Search for “its brutality”]. So the “darkness” of what we used to call the Dark Ages was due mostly to the Plague.

Those were the days before science, when people could understand the threat of a plague only in terms of superstition, evil spirits or the Divine. Now we know how communicable diseases travel. We can identify their agents in days or weeks and even decipher their DNA.

Yet two new superstitions have arisen. First, we believe that private markets are the cures for all ills, even when no relevant market exists. Second, we think that competition, if not open war, among different nations and societies is our first priority.

But viruses don’t care about private profit or capitalism. And none of the pandemic threats of the last century, including Spanish flu, has discriminated among victims based on their nationality, language, race, religion, sexual orientation, or political affiliation. If the viruses had been intelligent, which they were not, each would have exclaimed, “All your species’ DNA is nearly identical, so I’m coming after all of you, every one. I’m the new Black Plague.”

If we don’t rise to their challenge, the first half of our new Millennium may be as dismal as the pre-Renaissance part of the last millennium, despite all our species’ advances in science and social relations. If we really are an intelligent species, we can’t let that happen.

Copyright License: Google Blogger’s statistics show that someone recently hit on my Comment and Copyright Policy, I hope in connection with this post. Unfortunately, my policy is a bit opaque in that connection. So I hereby grant anyone, anywhere a worldwide, nonexclusive, royalty-free, limited license to re-post, link to, copy, distribute, publish, display and transmit (and translate into any other language, but not modify) the foregoing post in any form, manner or medium including on paper or by any electronic means, as long as the re-posting, copy, translation, publication, display or transmission contains: (1) all but not just part of Part 1 (What anyone can do), or all but not just part of Part 2 (What government and business can do), or both, and (2) the following credit and citation, verbatim: “by Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D., available online at https://jaydiatribe.blogspot.com/2020/02/how-to-stop-pandemic.html”

The Dems’ Nevada Debate

Well, it had to happen sooner or later. Better sooner than later. The terms “brouhaha,” “barroom brawl,” and “mud slinging” came to mind. From the very beginning, the six Democrats on the stage went at each other with hammers and tongs. As NBC lead moderator Lester Holt said before the first commercial break, they definitely had gotten “warmed up.”

A lot of the brawl was inside baseball, mostly lost on all but political junkies. Here are my general impressions of how it went, with points in declining order of importance:

1. Gravitas. Sometimes it’s good to listen to the music and not the words. I did that, mostly in retrospect, and came to an interesting conclusion. Gravitas was notable mostly for its absence.

Starting from the left, Mike Bloomberg seemed bemused that those present in the room didn’t recognize him immediately as the smartest person there, not just the richest. That’s not gravitas.

As apt and on point as she mostly was, Elizabeth Warren had a schoolmarmish and whiny quality to her. She made some good substantive points and kept on message. But her cheap shot at Biden, taking his remark about working with McConnell out of context, didn’t help. It was positively Trumpian. No gravitas there.

Sanders has something approaching gravitas. He’s imperturbable, stays on point, and rarely, if ever, resorts to cheap shots. (His 2016 refusal to debate Hillary’s e-mails comes to mind.) But there’s not much “give” in the man, and a lot of outrage. Gravitas requires inner tranquility and some flexibility, no?

Biden has lots of fight and, like Sanders, indignation. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he sounds like an old man shouting, “Get off my lawn!” Let’s just say that his emotional range is dreadfully narrow.

That leaves the two young “moderates,” Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. Klobuchar did well in excusing her prior inability to come up with the name of Mexico’s president. But then she wilted under Buttigieg’s more substantive critiques. After that poor performance, I think her campaign is finished. We’ll see.

So if I had to vote on gravitas alone, I’d vote for Buttigieg. There’s an inner strength in his calm blue eyes, his soft and soothing voice (even while dispatching Klobuchar), and his near-perfect articulation that no other candidate can match.

I found myself thinking that, of all the six—and totally independent of policy—Buttigieg is the one I would most like to see in my living room for the next four years. Somewhat like Obama, he looks, sounds and acts like a president, and he has the kind of decency that our nation sorely needs. I can’t remember anyone exactly like that since JFK, although Carter certainly had the ability to soothe.

Buttigieg is young and inexperienced for a president. But I hope he winds up in the Cabinet and gets groomed for higher things. He might make a good VP—the traditional “attack dog” role, where he could reproduce his smooth knifing of Klobuchar.

2. Sparring makes perfect, but for what? At this point in the primary cycle, the lusty infighting may have been a good thing. It let candidates and their staff discover what works and what doesn’t, and how little you can say with 75 seconds to make your case and 45 for rebuttal. Warren, for example, should fire the staffer who gave her that cheap shot at Biden. It was beneath her and beneath the presidency.

Anyway, what all this verbal pugilism has to do with governing I’ve never figured out. I guess every culture has some form of ritual combat as a leadership test. This, apparently, is ours.

There’s little question that a candidate who can’t withstand jabs from colleagues, and give as good as she or he gets, has no chance of beating Trump, especially if Trump doesn’t duck debates. That’s why I think Klobuchar, as attractive as her empathy and decency are, is close to being out of the race.

But I put Trump’s likelihood of ducking debates as better than even. So all this good sparring may be for naught, except maybe as fodder for media ads. Its downside is that it could drive away some voters trying to decide what the Dems stand for and who’s the best one. So I wouldn’t want to see the brawl continue on to Super Tuesday. Teamwork is the thing most missing from the Dems’ skill set now. (See this post.)

3. AMLO. A moderator, not a competitor, threw down the gauntlet to Klobuchar about Mexico’s president’s name. At first I thought it an unfair “gotcha,” but then I thought again.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador has an easy acronym for non-Spanish-speakers to remember: “AMLO.” The Mexicans use it, too, even in newspapers.

But that’s not the point. Every progressive American should know at least his acronym and should support him. For of all the leaders of Mexico that I’ve been aware of in my 74 years, he’s the one closest to, and most trusted by, the Mexican people, especially ordinary workers. (I was coincidentally in Mexico during the 1968 massacre of students on the Zócalo. So I know how bad Mexico’s leadership can get.) AMLO is Mexico’s Bernie Sanders, but a bit more like Warren in rejecting left-wing labels and ideology.

International relations is not a zero-sum game, let alone with your closest neighbors. If Mexico’s economy thrives, so does ours. If Mexico defeats the drug cartels, we gain. If Mexico enacts stronger protection for workers and the environment, our workers and our environment benefit, too, and illegal immigration slows. With the confidence of his people and a reportedly pragmatic approach to politics, AMLO may be the best recent leader of Mexico to help bring all these things to pass.

So every Democrat running for the top job ought to be thinking of ways to work with AMLO to make our shared continent better. Mexico should never be a blind spot in Democrats’ policy, if only because it’s the immediate source of all the immigrants and asylum seekers that play such a big role in Trump’s demagoguery.

4. Bloomberg’s Role. Michael Bloomberg didn’t do nearly as well in the debates as (I confess) I had hoped. He lacks charisma and gravitas and apparently didn’t even take the trouble to practice. (His company Bloomberg, LP, is private, so he doesn’t enjoy the practice that CEOs of public companies get in answering public investors’ hostile questions in annual meetings.)

The apparent lack of serious attention to the process was not Bloomberg’s only problem. The others pummeled his weak spots before a Democratic audience: (1) his firm’s apparent mistreatment of women, (2) subjecting complainants to nondisclosure or “gag” agreements, (3) admitted lack of sensitivity to minorities’ perceptions and needs, and (4) switching sides between the GOP and Dems. Maybe he can draw some independents and Republicans to his side, but I don’t think he can hold the base. He seems likely to maximize the inevitable defection if Sanders doesn’t win the nomination.

So despite my hope against hope for the proverbial savior on a white horse, I don’t think Bloomberg is the one, unless he makes a miraculous improvement before Super Tuesday. As always, we shall see.

But more realistic Dems cannot depend on a savior. They must now begin to choose among the remaining five, while hoping that Bloomberg remains faithful to his pledge to use his fortune to help the people see who Trump really is.

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12 February 2020

What Do New Hampshire’s Votes Mean?

For brief descriptions of and links to recent posts, click here. For an inverse-chronological list with links to all posts after January 23, 2017, click here. For a subject-matter index to posts before that date, click here.

As I write this post, we have 91% of precincts reporting. Sanders leads, with Buttigieg a close second. Klobuchar is third, and Warren is a distant fourth, having less than half of Klobuchar’s support. (These numbers may change a bit as the last 9% of precincts report.)

What can we learn from these facts? As it turns out, not much. New Hampshire, like Iowa, has become a grossly over-emphasized electoral icon for little reason but tradition. It’s a tiny, homogeneous state, in a unique region (New England) with a unique culture. (I’ve described that culture in this essay.) In many ways it’s an attractive, even admirable culture, but only a small minority of Americans shares it.)

So the first and most important lesson from last night’s results is not to read too much into them. At least New Hampshire, unlike Iowa, seems to have gotten the mechanics of voting right.

That said, some interesting results lie buried in the horse race. If you add the votes for the strong progressives, Sanders and Warren, you get 35.2%. But if you add those for the so-called “moderates,” Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Biden, you get 54.1%. That looks like a pretty good turnout for moderation: more than half again higher.

But it’s wise not to read too much into this, either. New England is a culture in which being seen as extreme is almost as verboten as talking or bragging about yourself. You would expect moderates to do better there. So the really interesting result is Sanders’ narrow win, despite his being generally considered the most extreme candidate, the one who calls for a political “revolution.” Of course, Sanders is from New England, and that may have helped.

One thing that doesn’t show up in the horse race may be the most important factor of all. Election-night reporting suggests a surprising level of indecision and uncertainty among the voters. Large numbers of voters may have decided for whom to vote on the last possible day.

Why might that be? Could it be that no single candidate stands out because every one seems to be missing the big picture?

Trump comes to New Hampshire and fills a stadium as Caesar filled the Roman Coliseum. His Republicans stand united behind him in a phalanx, much like the emperor’s Praetorian guard. Most lick his boots despite his having nicknamed, belittled, insulted and vilified nearly every one, let alone slaughtered their sacred cows of foreign alliances, Russophobia, and deficit reduction.

Meanwhile, the Dems fight among themselves on nuances of health care, while Trump and his guard seek to erase Obamacare as Roman emperors erased their predecessors’ names on statues. They dredge up “gotchas” from each other’s distant past, in our Twitter era when yesterday’s news is “history.” They play these childish games while Trump continues breaking his most substantial promises, and, with absolute dominance of the media, social media, and big in-person rallies, creates a new lie, and new bogus crisis, a new distraction, or a new “enemy of the people” every day.

Now why would this confluence of events create uncertainty and indecision in the electorate?

Might it be that the voters are tired of discussing “electability” in the abstract, as a matter of character or policy? Might it be that “electability” is a matter of action, including running a powerful campaign?

Trump is a master of media and showmanship. He’s a master of Tweeting lies, distortions and insults. He’s a master of innumerable dark arts that we didn’t even know were among us until he came along.

Because he’s the president, and because he obeys no rules, Trump is going to force the Dems to fight this election on his own ground. He may suffer no debates at all. Whether he does or doesn’t, the Dems have to match his media savvy and go him one better, without the crutches of lies, obvious distortions and random insults. If they don’t, they’ll be like a primitive tribe facing a Roman legion. History tells us how that worked out.

Maybe it’s all a bit like the Harry Potter story. Maturity, oration, and even skill at quidditch don’t cut it. You’ve got to have some magic, which today includes media savvy. No Dem yet seems to have it, or at least has the skill to show it, but the fate of our Republic may depend on it.

So I think a lot of people are waiting to see what Bloomberg can show us besides money. He has a reputation for media savvy. At least he has the common sense not to bet a state’s convention delegates on an untested app written by amateur techies when you could hire Amazon or Google to write one for you. If that’s all the Dems can expect of their nominee, they’re in for a world of hurt.

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07 February 2020

A Good Boss and a Good Team

For brief descriptions of and links to recent posts, click here. For an inverse-chronological list with links to all posts after January 23, 2017, click here. For a subject-matter index to posts before that date, click here.

[For a bit of (unrelated) hope in this dismal time, read this. For impressions of last night’s Democratic debate, click here].

Nothing lately has depressed me, as a Democrat and an American, so much as the one-two punch of Trump’s State-of-the-Union speech and his acquittal by the Senate. Now I can envision our own American version of Josef Stalin ruling us for another four dismal years. I can see us losing our Republic.

Maybe some day we’ll get it back. But if Trump wins again, I don’t think I’ll see that in my lifetime. Much as I want to, I can’t visualize any of the now-leading Democrats stopping Trump. With the slap of that one-two punch upside my head, I’ve just now come to see what’s missing.

Our president is the “big boss,” who must fill the world’s hardest executive job. Being a legislator, even a Senator, is not the same thing. Legislators think, analyze, argue, negotiate and vote. Bosses decide. Then they convince, goad or coerce others to follow. Our highest boss also runs a huge bureaucracy, one of the biggest in the world.

Legislating and executing are different work. They’re different in accountability as well as qualifications and day-to-day performance.

Trump’s acquittal illustrates the difference. I’ll go to my grave believing that maybe ten to twenty Republicans would have convicted and removed Trump if doing so had been entirely up to them individually. Mitt Romney was not the only one who despised Trump and wanted to see him gone.

But it wasn’t an executive decision; it was a group decision. Trump and McConnell, as leaders, were the ones who really decided. Then they convinced the other GOP Senators what would happen.

No one but Romney dared stick his neck out. All but one Republican voted to acquit, so no single Republican Senator would have to take the hit alone (although obviously those in purple states had more to lose than others). No single senator could affect the outcome, so all but one hid in the crowd, profiles in cowardice.

In a deeply divided legislature, that sort of thing is all too common. Something can get done only by virtue of rare bipartisan cooperation, or with a dominant legislative majority in which a few bosses (like Mitch) call the shots. Today’s Senate is no school for executives; it’s a school for chameleons, posturers, rationalizers, and excuse-makers. Susan Collins (R., Me.) is Exhibit A.

Unfortunately, the three Dems whose policies I like most are all Senators: Warren, Klobuchar, and Sanders. Klobuchar and Sanders have some executive experience at the local level, but that’s all. Their executive heft, such as it is, rests on their plans and programs and their experience, if any, at the city or county level: Warren, none; Klobuchar, eight years as Hennepin County Attorney; Sanders, ten years as mayor of Burlington, Vermont.

In contrast, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all had governed states, and Bush Senior had run the CIA and served as Vice President. One reason that Trump won last time is his lifetime of running a small family company, as compared to Hillary Clinton’s following Obama’s leadership at State. Many voters thought he would make a good executive.

Pete Buttigieg’s narrow win in Iowa (if recanvassing confirms it) likely derives from more than just his superb articulation, his self-evident decency and his razor-sharp mind, exceeded (if at all) only by Warren’s. He served as mayor of South Bend, Indiana for eight years, had tactical military experience as a naval intelligence officer (seven years, including seven months in combat); and served 2.5 years with a leading business-consulting firm advising executives how to save their businesses.

Joe Biden, of course, has the highest-level of political experience of any Democratic candidate, including executive experience of two years on a country council and eight years as Vice-President. But he would be 78 at inauguration, our oldest president ever. More important, he fails to excite Dems craving a true progressive agenda after eight years of scorched-earth resistance to Obama’s mild progressivism and three years of Trump’s full-speed retrogression. And if anything tells voters that leading Dems now are a bunch of amateurs, it’s got to be the Iowa caucus debacle.

So what have the Dems got to match Trump’s claim of vast executive experience, his stealing credit for the Obama Recovery (and everything else but the Sun shining), and his juggernaut of demagoguery? Potentially, they have one thing that Trump can never match, because he’s not a team player. They could have a team.

The Democratic Party is filled with outstanding public servants with potential to rise ever higher and serve the public better. Imagine, for example, how quickly our nation could recover from the ogre with a Cabinet like this:

Possible Democratic Cabinet, 2021

Vice PresidentElizabeth Warren
or Stacey Abrams
Attorney GeneralEric Holder, again
Secretary of CommerceTom Steyer
Chairman of the Council of Economic AdvisersPaul Krugman or Joe Stiglitz
Secretary of DefensePete Buttigieg
Head of EPAJohn Hickenlooper
Presidential Adviser on the Future (a new post)Andrew Yang
Secretary of HHSAmy Klobuchar
Secretary of HUDStacey Abrams,
if not VP
Secretary of LaborBernie Sanders
Secretary of StateJoe Biden
Secretary of the TreasuryElizabeth Warren,
if not VP

Just to dream this dream suggests how powerful a Democratic administration could be if the Dems worked together like Abraham Lincoln’s famous “Team of Rivals.” All that’s missing is the top name: the supreme leader’s.

Enter Michael Bloomberg.

I know, I know. He would be 79 on inauguration, older than anyone but Sanders. Yet the whole idea is that he would be the grey eminence: he would make the decisions based on options presented by all the mostly younger people listed in the table above. He would harness all the decency and power of the entire Democratic field, while Trump, being Trump, would govern alone. No one who’s watched Trump so far can conclude that he listens seriously or regularly to anyone else, let alone consults experts often on his own initiative.

Bloomberg has the most impressive executive experience of any Democratic candidate running, even Joe Biden. He served as mayor of the nation’s leading city for eleven years, and twenty-sx (nonconsecutive) years as CEO of Bloomberg L.P., a finance, software and global media company he created. After the New York Times appeared declining and Murdoch bought and corrupted the Wall Street Journal, and before Jeff Bezos bought and rescued the Washington Post, Bloomberg’s own on-line news service filled the gap in national coverage with, incisive, objective and mostly quantitative reporting.

Unlike Trump, Bloomberg is used to running very big organizations that succeed without extortion, fraud, lawsuits, bankruptcies and lies. He would cut Trump down to size on Trump’s own scale and reveal him as the small, crude and clueless man that he is. Bloomberg could crush Trump with attack ads without even denting his own enormous fortune, which, unlike Trump, he got through his own success, not inheritance.

As for progressiveness, don’t worry about that. Read his own published summary of his program. It fits in the space for an ordinary op-ed, but it tells you how he would govern. He would address most of the goals of Warren and Sanders, but without making waves or roiling the oligarchs (other than with bigger taxes, including estate taxes).

The guy doesn’t just talk like a can-do leader. He actually did it. And he can fund his entire campaign with his own money, making him immune from corruption or even influence by other oligarchs.

The only thing at all precarious about Bloomberg is his age. As long as he’s healthy now, he can last long enough to give his Vice some of his wisdom and executive savvy, turning a progressive savant like Elizabeth Warren or Stacey Abrams into an experienced national-level executive leader. (Both Warren and Abrams are quick studies, and Abrams already has substantial executive experience.)

If Bloomberg felt his grip slipping, he could resign, like the last Pope, after making sure he had adequately prepared his replacement. In that way his age could become an advantage, building a bridge to a new gender and/or generation of leadership.

But in order win the election, Bloomberg has to promise to create such a team. That’s the only way it works. No Democratic voter wants to replace one-man rule by an alleged billionaire with one-man rule by another, even if real. The same, of course, is true for any of the other leading Democrats who seek the presidency, as their high-level executive experience is so thin, especially as compared to Bloomberg’s.

Impressions of the Democrats’ New Hampshire Debate

I was able to watch only the last third of last night’s debate live. For the rest, I relied on highlights from CNN and live blogging from fivethirtyeight.com, Nate Silver’s media site. (Nate Silver is the reporter who literally wrote the book on the proper use of mathematics, statistics and probability in politics.) So I’m not going to comment on the horse race, but just give a few general impressions:

1. Practice makes perfect. Every one of the seven candidates on the stage vastly improved her or his debating style and approach last night. As a result, I would prefer every one to the monster in the White House now, including Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer (in that order). But all this healthy practice may be futile for the general election. Trump might well refuse to debate at all and rely instead on his financial support, media muscle, Fox propaganda, Tweets and in-person rallies. When you base both your campaigning and your governing on lies, why submit to a venue where you can be called out in real time? The Democrats should be prepared for a no-debate general-election campaign, just as we had a no-witness, no-documents impeachment “trial.”

2. Billionaires. Sanders’ and (to a lesser extent) Warren’s bashing of billionaires is getting old and stale. There are probably too many billionaires, but reducing their number, by any stretch of fair taxation—of income, wealth or estates—will take time. In the meantime, there are good and bad billionaires. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett each have pledged $30 billion to worldwide charities, supplementing US and UN funds to improve human life worldwide. Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer are devoting their billions to dis-electing the worst president in our history, and both are having an impact. Bloomberg, in particular, has pledged to support any Democratic nominee and to use his own money to bash Trump in the general election. Steyer used his presence in last night’s debate not to tout himself (probably a lost cause) but to redirect the conversation to crucial issues like race. The billionaires who need bashing are people like Sheldon Adelson and the surviving Koch brother, who use their billions to promote their personal interests, and those of their billionaire class, without regard to the public welfare or the nation’s or humanity’s future. There are good and bad billionaires, just as there are good and bad people of every race, ethnicity, religion and national or sexual minority. Bashing all indiscriminately will only alienate voters.

3. Campaign purity. I think it’s wonderful that Warren and Sanders don’t accept any money from PACs and rely on millions of individual contributions. But I don’t fault other candidates for taking contributions from rich people, or Bloomberg or Steyer for using their own billions to finance their campaigns and aid the Democrats’ cause. Unilateral disarmament doesn’t work any better in domestic politics than in geopolitics. We should all strive to overturn Citizens United, even by stacking the Supreme Court, if necessary. But in the meantime let’s all live in the real world.

4. Teamwork. I remain convinced that, to beat Trump, the Democrats must unite and provide a team, not a single candidate. Going after the presumed frontrunners (now Sanders and Buttigieg) is traditional and expected, but it’s counterproductive. Every Democrat paying attention now knows that Sanders’ and Warren’s “Medicare for All” would wipe out private insurance, that Bernie’s flirtation with “Democratic socialism” attracts some youth but Trump would demagogue it to death in the general election, and that Biden supported easy incarceration decades ago, as Bernie did gun rights and Bloomberg “stop and frisk.” Enough already. Now it’s time for Dems to turn their attention to Trump in unison, and for primary voters to judge how well each bashes him. Especially if Trump ducks debates, the time to start softening him up among the general electorate is now.

5. Gender and empathy. I remain convinced that Warren’s and Klobuchar’s gender will be an advantage, not a liability, in the general election. Females are an absolute majority of voters and an even bigger majority of likely voters. When women enter the privacy of the voting booth, I think Trump’s misogyny and cruelty will be important factors in their voting, and in some men’s as well. Democratic candidates can and should call them out often, and they should be the subject of massive attack ads. But there’s another way for Warren and Klobuchar to campaign against Trump: showing the stark contrast between an empathetic female and the human monster that he is. Warren did that well in the last debate, and Klobuchar did it superbly last night. Whether either wins or loses, the memory (and video clips) of that contrast will enhance Democrats’ prospects this fall, especially if the primary winner promises a team that includes Warren and/or Klobuchar.

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