Off the Table

You don’t want to think, “If I go to the movies, I might die.”
We’ve got to take dying off the table.

– Jim Cramer, CNBC analyst (4-16-2020),
commenting on reopening the economy

This week’s featured post is “Trump’s Guidelines Aren’t What He Says They Are“.

This week everybody was talking about the lockdown protests

I say a little more about this is the featured post, which includes that photo from Columbus that looks like something out of The Walking Dead. But here’s a meme that makes a more explicit connection with the zombie mythos.

One thing to remember about these demonstrators: They may not represent anyone but themselves.

Americans overwhelmingly support continued social distancing measures to fight the coronavirus pandemic despite the impact on the U.S. economy, a new poll finds.

In the Politico/Morning Consult poll released Wednesday, 81 percent of respondents say Americans should “continue to social distance for as long as is needed to curb the spread of coronavirus, even if it means continued damage to the economy.”

The virus is highlighting the difference between symbolism and reality, which ripples through America in so many places.

One thing no end-the-lockdown protest can do without is the American flag. These Tea Partiers see themselves as patriots, because they identify with the symbols of patriotism. They wave their flags, put flag decals on their bumpers, and tell anybody who will listen how proud they are to be Americans.

But they aren’t patriots at all in any real sense. If you ask them to do anything for the common good — stay home, do without a haircut, wear a mask in public, pay taxes — it’s too much. Their vision of America is that the government builds us roads, delivers our mail, protects us from criminals, educates our children, and sends helicopters to pluck us off the roof when the flood comes, but in return we wave flags and otherwise don’t have to do anything we don’t want to do. JFK’s idea that we should ask what we can do for our country — that’s tyranny. All that “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship” crap — we don’t do that any more.

I can barely imagine how World War II would have played out if my parents’ generation had felt that way about the government rationing food and gas, or forcing Ford to build tanks and planes rather than new cars. There would have been riots, and probably America would have lost the war. History played out differently because the men and women of the GI generation were patriots in their actions, not just in their symbols and self-identifications.

Something similar is happening within Christianity. If Christianity is fundamentally an identity to you, then absolutely you had to symbolize your identity by going to church on Easter, and any government order trying to stop you was tyranny. The more obstacles public health officials put in the way of gathering together with hundreds or thousands of your fellow Christians, the more determined you are to do it.

On the other hand, if your Christianity is about following the teachings of Jesus, then the thought that you would make a big show of your Christian identity even if it costs your neighbor his or her life — that’s absolutely abhorrent.

and whether the virus is peaking

As of this morning, the US has reported 40,620 deaths from Covid-19. The number of deaths per day seems to leveling off at about 2,000. So if we’re going to achieve those “optimistic” predictions of “only” 60,000 deaths, the per-day totals have to start dropping significantly and soon.

The good news from New York is that the number cases in the state definitely looks to be past its peak. However, the peak of the graph looks rounded rather than spiky. If that’s the case nationwide, there’s a lot of death yet to come.

Something we have to bear in mind is that the virus is on a different track in different parts of the country, and that the models assume continued social distancing. If states start allowing people to congregate again, the graphs could go to a new peak.

One thing that’s driving me nuts about the discussion from the states that don’t have a large number of cases yet: If a state like New York or New Jersey had it to do over again, they’d lock down sooner, before the caseload took off. States like Wyoming and Idaho still have the chance to do that, but are acting like biology works differently for them.

CNN points to four good examples: Taiwan, Iceland, South Korea, and Germany.

But we’re also seeing examples that the virus can rise again if social-distancing restrictions are relaxed.

In Singapore, which is battling a resurgence of cases, the country reported 728 new cases today, a record daily high, according to the health ministry. None of the country’s cases since Apr 9 have been imported

China is also seeing a new wave of infections — not anywhere near its old peak, but the worst in five weeks.

The question of immunity remains open. It stands to reason that a person who beat the virus once, and who retains at least a few antibodies tuned to it, has a good shot at beating it again. But whether that person has a genuine immunity, such that the virus can’t even get a foothold that allows it to infect someone else, that’s still unknown. And if there is immunity, is it for life or just for some period of time? Since no one had this virus before December or so, the sell-by date of whatever immunity anyone has is a mystery.

Keep that in mind when open-the-economy folks start talking about antibody tests that “certify” someone’s immunity to the disease and make it “safe” for them to go back to whatever work they were doing. That might be true, or it might not.

and electoral politics

Hard to believe that a week ago, we still didn’t know who had won in Wisconsin: Biden won the presidential primary, but the big news was that the Republican voter-suppression effort failed. Wisconsinites turned out to vote in record numbers, and the incumbent conservative supreme court justice lost. Hats off to all the voters who either got their absentee ballots in on time or braved the virus threat to go out and vote in person.

Last week we knew that Bernie Sanders was withdrawing, leaving the nomination to Joe Biden. This week the Democratic Party began to close ranks around Biden. He was endorsed by Sanders, by Elizabeth Warren, and by Barack Obama.

All three endorsements demonstrated how different politics is during the lockdown. In a typical year, each would have been the occasion for a major rally: Biden and the endorser standing together with hands raised in front of a cheering crowd. This year, each happened via video messages.

and you also might be interested in …

Karleigh Frisbie Brogan is a grocery worker writing in The Atlantic. She appreciates all the attention she and her colleagues are getting during the coronavirus crisis, but the “hero” talk doesn’t sit well with her.

Unlike medical personnel and emergency responders, we didn’t sign up for potentially life-threatening work. We can’t check the temperature of people entering our store or maintain a safe distance from one another.

… Cashiers and shelf-stockers and delivery-truck drivers aren’t heroes. They’re victims. To call them heroes is to justify their exploitation. By praising the blue-collar worker’s public service, the progressive consumer is assuaged of her cognitive dissonance. When the world isn’t falling apart, we know the view of us is usually as faceless, throwaway citizens. The wealthy CEO telling his thousands of employees that they are vital, brave, and noble is a manipulative strategy to keep them churning out profits.

I have immense gratitude for my job. I love my co-workers like family. I respect the company that has employed me and given me excellent health-insurance benefits for more than 16 years. The anger I have is not toward my boss, or my boss’s boss, or even that guy’s boss. It’s toward an unfair system that will never change if we workers don’t question the motivations behind such mythmaking.

In spite of the we’re-all-in-this-together rhetoric, we’re actually not. Some of us can work at home, or are securely retired and can continue our normal activities (like writing this blog) with a few restrictions. For us, a trip the grocery store is like a mission behind enemy lines. We gear up and make plans for as efficient a strike as possible.

But people in other parts of the economy, typically working class and less well paid, enter that danger zone (or one like it) every day because they have little choice. If they’re heroes, it’s in the same way that drafted soldiers can be heroes, even the ones who wouldn’t have volunteered and would go home if they could. They’re carrying on, and doing what they have to do. The other workers we now recognize as “essential” — all the people who make Amazon packages magically appear on your doorstep, for example — are doing the same.

The one useful interpretation of the hero rhetoric is that it’s a promissory note we need to honor when this is all over. I don’t want to hear protests that workers don’t deserve a $15 minimum wage or health insurance or a chance to go to college. The drafted heroes of World War II got a GI Bill of Rights when the war ended. These heroes deserve something similar.

If you think Trump’s afternoon briefings are bizarre to watch, imagine what it’s like to participate in one. Brian Karem reports on Tuesday’s, where Trump responded to his question by threatening to walk out of his own briefing.

It was probably the most surreal thing I’ve seen in close to 35 years of attending White House news conferences. … The president of the United States was playing victim to a reporter he knows from past exchanges is going to ask him a tough question and not back down even if the president tries to bully him. Suddenly I had the power to make him leave? Please. It’s part of the Trump plan. He has turned the daily briefings into mini Trump rallies, complete with a propaganda video in Monday’s episode. Demeaning the media is a recurring theme, as is blaming everyone else for his problems. Trump may claim to have total authority, but in truth he loves to play the total victim.

Some have suggested that reporters should modify their behavior to keep Donald Trump from getting angry. I firmly disagree. As Helen Thomas told me when I was younger, “Just ask the question.” We are not responsible for the reaction our question elicits; we are merely responsible for the questions we ask. Trump’s behavior is on him and no one else. He is petulant, angry and dismissive because that is who he is, not because he’s the victim of some rude reporter asking him pointed questions.

Whether the Post Office is forced into bankruptcy or privatization by the current crisis is still up in the air. Bizarrely, it has turned into a partisan issue, with Democrats wanting to save the Post Office and Republicans willing to let it collapse. Trump reportedly threatened to veto the first stimulus bill if it included a post office bailout.

With local businesses shut down, the Post Office has lost some of its most lucrative business — delivering fliers for local stores and restaurants. It’s estimated to be losing $2 billion a month, and is projected to be insolvent by the end of September.

What’s weirdest about how the politics play out is that the parts of the country that will be most damaged by a collapse of the Post Office are the conservative rural areas.

Businesses like FedEx and UPS don’t build offices in remote rural areas, like deep in Wyoming or in the mountains of Colorado, because it’s simply not profitable. They often rely on the Post Office for last-mile delivery; the agency delivers mail for them from major transportation hubs to the final delivery destination, often in secluded areas.

This ultimately means that without the USPS, FedEx and UPS won’t have the resources to deliver to remote rural areas, nor will they likely make investments to do so since they’ll lose money in the process. Instead, people will have to bear the burden of traveling to the companies’ offices in larger towns to meet their mailing needs. For Mary Meyer, who lives in Bucyrus, Ohio — a town with a population of about 11,000 — the closest UPS customer center is 16 miles away in Marion.

and let’s close with an expression of values

This “Emptying Sacred Spaces” video was made in a variety of houses of worship in Maryland, and includes statements from leaders of many different sects. The mood is sad and somber, while at the same time hopeful and meaningful. A religious community may make its home in a particular place, but it is so much more than that place.

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  • Ted  On April 20, 2020 at 12:47 pm

    “Their vision of America is that the government builds us roads, delivers our mail, protects us from criminals, educates our children, and sends helicopters to pluck us off the roof when the flood comes,”

    Are you sure about that “delivers our mail” part? As you point out later in your post, they sure seem willing to kill of the post office.

  • George Washington, Jr.  On April 20, 2020 at 1:22 pm

    Another not entirely unexpected development from the pandemic is the conspiracy theory that China released the virus on purpose to harm the US economy and damage Trump’s prospects for reelection. While this is patently absurd, as it requires one to believe that Premier Xi was willing to damage China’s own economy and kill thousands of his own people just to annoy Trump, it sets the stage for finding someone to blame if conditions deteriorate. Chinese people are already being attacked, and there have been calls for “reparations” or for the US to default on its debt to China. While I don’t think Trump is crazy enough to start a shooting war with them, some people are already calling for that.

  • John  On April 20, 2020 at 2:50 pm

    All I can think of when I hear conservative “Christians” *insisting* that their megachurches must remain open is a song I learned in Sunday school: “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people. I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together. All who follow Jesus all around the world, yes we’re the church together.”

  • AT Coffey  On April 20, 2020 at 4:09 pm

    I resonate with Karleigh Frisbie Brogan’s observation. I’ve spent most of my 41 years of working life being in public either in a grocery service department or as a poorly paid minister spending hours at hospitals with sick members, or at funerals for dead members and others. Being in public and working with the public most of the time not only exposes you to whatever their issues are but also whatever communicable diseases they’re carrying when you deal with them. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been sickened either from spending too much time at a hospital or with a member who decided they could be sick at church just as easily as at home.

    None of this made me a hero, and if I weren’t unemployed wouldn’t make me a hero, but signing up for death, disease or disability from COVID-19 is something no person who works with the public should be forced to accept and when they are they are not heroes but as Ms. Brogan points out VICTIMS.

  • Bill Dysons  On April 20, 2020 at 4:36 pm

    Doug, do you subscribe to the WSJ? I would love to get your take on an editorial in today’s Journal titled “The Lockdown Rebellion” by William McGurn. It reminds me of the disconnect between professionals and the working class that you’ve so eloquently written about before. What argument can we make to get conservative working-class protestors to recognize that the poverty and bankruptcies that they will almost inevitably experience from an extended shutdown – while awful – is better for them in the long-run than reopening the economy now? Even writing that sentence makes me feel like an elitist know-it-all. I’d feel ridiculous trying to sell that idea to a conservative.

  • ccyager  On April 21, 2020 at 4:50 pm

    I applaud Karleigh Brogan. She’s right. And I like your idea to make the “hero” designation a promissory note. These people deserve better all the time, not just at this moment. I’ve stopped listening to Trump. I listen to my Governor and do what he and the medical experts are telling us to do in my state. The more I read about how this virus affects the human body, the more frightened I am because I know my own body and how it responds to things. I already have a wacky immune system, and the virus takes that weakness and exploits it. So, as far as I’m concerned, Trump and Pence need to go back to their offices and let the medical people guide the nation. I agree with Dr. Fauci — the virus makes the timeline, not us. The Trumpers who think protesting in groups is a good idea, they absolutely have the right to express themselves and the right to die, but not to kill other people in the process.

  • jh  On April 21, 2020 at 7:01 pm

    Just want to mention… the USPS is a profitable institution. It’s an accounting trick that makes it look like the USPS is failing. The Republicans put in a requirement that would bankrupt any business… a 75 year prefunded pension requirement. Yep. A 75 year PREFUNDED PENSION.

    to put it in perspective, there are a bunch of corporations who go bankrupt and their pension funds go bye bye and the government pays the pensioners.

    to put it in perspective, a person who was hired at age 20 (Let’s use easy numbers) and retired at age 50, and starts drawing on the pension until he’s 100, would only need a 50 year prefund. What happened to the remainder? Let’s be real. You don’t work for USPS when you are 18 or 19 or 20 or 21 or even 22. You are either a supermarket checkout kid or applying to colleges and studying and doing a wait staff job on the side. (flexible hours so you can work around your class schedule.) So how did republicans jump on a 75 year prefund requirement?

    If we applied this prefund requirement to other for-profit entities, they would all go bankrupt. This is just another big lie from a conservative so they can privatize a public service that most taxpayers appreciate. I mean, I can send a first class letter to any state in the US and it only costs me a stamp costing 55 cents. If I had to pay Fedex or UPS prices, it would be at least a dollar if not more than five dollars for the same service. Oh.. and neither FedEx or UPS have a 75 year prefund pension requirement.

    If anything, we need a poison pill clause in our government agencies and products so that private business doesn’t privatize our goods and socialize the business’ losses.

    In addition, we could greatly expand and revise the role of the USPS. Sure, pieces of mail are going down, but UPS and FedEx don’t have the distribution. Amazon and other internet retailers can’t afford to build their own custom distribution networks. In addition, passports, identify theft solutions (for example, having any cc institution require a USPS certification when an address is changed.), low income banking are all things we should consider. I mean, it’s a lot easier to walk or drive a mile to your local post office and get your passport application processed as opposed to some private for profit mail service using low wage workers to handle that application or driving a hundred miles to our nearest passport processing regional center. I’d love it if the USPS was expanded and it was the major point of service for citizens requiring governmental services/issues.

    • George Washington, Jr.  On April 22, 2020 at 9:24 am

      One benefit of the Post Office over private carriers is that everyone pays the same price to send letters. Privatization would lead to volume-based pricing, with letters between major urban centers costing less, while rural customers would have to pay more. Ironically, this would affect the typical Republican more than the typical Democrat.

  • susanchambless  On April 22, 2020 at 10:29 am

    Excellent article.

    I wish the date of the article was posted clearly at the top.

  • Roger  On May 4, 2020 at 6:39 am

    Not incidentally, I quoted and linked to this article:


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