Category Archives: Articles

How the Economy Restarts

It’s not going to happen soon or fast, but maybe the process begins by June.

Sadly, any serious article about restarting the economy has to begin by brushing aside the misinformation coming from the White House.

Disclaimers. The economy cannot be restarted safely any time soon.

It won’t happen on Easter (as the President was envisioning Tuesday, but has since backed off of). We won’t even reach the peak daily death total by Easter (as he predicted yesterday). If we’re lucky, we might see the daily new-cases totals peak by then, but deaths trail diagnoses by at least a week. (Italy’s new-cases peak was March 21. Deaths might or might not be peaking now.)

Public health experts agree that certain conditions and capabilities need to be in place before it will be safe to relax social distancing practices, open non-essential businesses, or allow people to start congregating. Those conditions and capabilities aren’t in place now and won’t be for at least several weeks, and probably longer. Trump’s notion that the country will be “well on our way to recovery” by June 1 seems wildly optimistic.

The talking point that shutting down the economy to stop the virus is “worse than the problem itself” (which Trump tweeted a week ago yesterday) is nonsense. COVID-19, unchecked, could kill millions of Americans (which Trump finally admitted yesterday: “Think of the number: 2.2 million people, potentially, if we did nothing.”) The idea that the economy might putter along normally while people are dying in those numbers is just absurd. (I think of this as the Masque of the Red Death theory.)

The supporting talking point that “You are going to lose a number of people to the flu [i.e., coronavirus], but you are going to lose more people by putting a country into a massive recession or depression” is likewise nonsense. Not only won’t a depression kill millions of Americans, the effect usually goes the other way: Lower economic activity means fewer overall deaths, mostly because traffic deaths and heart attacks go down.

We find that in areas where the unemployment rate is growing faster, mortality rates decline faster. So during the Great Recession in the U.S., we saw increases in the unemployment rate of about 4-5 percentage points, so that translates to about 50,000 to 60,000 fewer deaths per year

Smithsonian magazine looked further back and found that “The Great Depression had little effect on death rates.”

Prerequisites. OK, now that the decks have been cleared of some widely distributed bad information, we can start talking sensibly about how the economy restarts

Let’s start with the prerequisite conditions. Dr. Thomas Inglesby of Johns Hopkins listed five:

  • The number of new cases starts going down over time.
  • The health system can quickly and reliably test people who may have been exposed to the virus, even if their symptoms are minor or non-existent.
  • Caretakers have a sufficient supply of masks and other protective equipment.
  • Hospitals have sufficient resources: ventilators, ICU beds, etc.
  • Systems are in place to trace the contacts of any new cases.

These five conditions are consistent with what Anthony Fauci and other public-health experts have been saying. Together, they paint a picture of a South-Korea-like containment: The virus hasn’t been eliminated, but the public health system has identified and isolated almost everyone in a region who is infected. As new outbreaks happen, they can be quickly found and traced, so that the newly infected can also be identified and isolated. Moreover, public health workers have the means to protect themselves, so that a new virus outbreak won’t break the system.

It should be obvious that those conditions don’t exist now. Even in New Rochelle and Seattle, early hotspots that took early action, the optimistic story is that the rate of increase in cases is down, not that the number of cases has actually peaked. (The curve is being bent sideways rather than bent down.) Some parts of the country, particularly rural areas, have not seen large numbers of cases yet. But their numbers are increasing and none of them have the virus contained in the way the experts envision. Tests are not as rare as they were a week or two ago, but the number needed has grown to stay ahead of the number provided, so they still are not plentiful. Better and quicker tests have been developed, but are still not widely available.

Perhaps the best evidence that ventilators and masks are scarce is that Trump has stopped denying it and started finding other people to blame for it.

It’s worth pointing out what’s not on this list: a vaccine or a magic anti-viral treatment that changes the whole nature of the struggle. Such advances will happen eventually, but almost certainly not in the next few months, and maybe not for a year or more.

First steps. So it’s not happening tomorrow or next week, but you don’t have to wear rose-colored glasses to imagine a time when the prerequisites have been fulfilled. No matter how bad the pandemic gets, the number of cases has to peak eventually. Tests exist and are being manufactured in ever larger numbers. Ditto for hospital equipment. Infection-tracking systems work in other countries and could work here.

So it’s anybody’s guess how long it will take to get there, but we will get there. And what happens then?

Ezekiel Emmanuel envisions how a restarting process might go. He pictures a nationwide shelter-in-place policy lasting until about June (except in places — are there any? — with so few cases that public-health officials can already track them all), during which he imagines achieving more-or-less the same things Dr. Inglesby described:

State and local health departments then need to deploy thousands of teams to trace contacts of all new Covid-19 cases using cellphone data, social media data, and data from thermometer tests and the like. We also need to get infected people to inform their own contacts. It would be easier to lift the national quarantine if we isolate new cases, find and test all their contacts, and isolate any of them who may be infected.

The national quarantine would give hospitals time to stock up on supplies and equipment, find more beds and room to treat people, get better organized and give clinical staff a respite to recuperate for the next onslaught of Covid-19 care. Without these measures, any Covid-19 resurgence would be far harsher, and economically damaging.

Whether all that happens by June or not is debatable. But even with those capabilities in place, the restart happens gradually. Nobody flips a switch or makes an all-clear announcement.

The first people Emmanuel would send back to work are those who have recovered from the virus and provably have anti-bodies to resist reinfection. And even they would need some rigorous training in safe working procedures: frequent hand-washing, avoiding unnecessary contact with others, etc.

Next, low-risk parts of the population could be allowed to congregate, while higher-risk people continue to shelter in place: Colleges might be allowed to hold in-person summer sessions. Summer school, camp, and daycare for K-12 children could be attempted — with ubiquitous testing to spot any viral resurgence.

If that works — it might not, and then retreats would have to happen — public venues could slowly start returning to almost-normal: Offices, libraries and museums, and bars and restaurants could re-open, but with reduced occupancy limits. (I heard a Starbucks executive interviewed on CNBC. He described the gradual reopening of Starbucks outlets in China: First take-out only, then dine-in with one person per table, then dine-in with at most two people per table.)

This is hardly a let-it-rip vision, and I think that it ultimately relies on some kind of treatment or vaccine developing: The economy isn’t completely closed down, but limps along for a year or so until medical developments rescue it.

Herd immunity. Thomas Friedman has tried to popularize a more ambitious opening envisioned by David Katz, who IMO gives way too much credence to the economic-contraction-will-cost-lives theory. The argument here is to focus on protecting the vulnerable (mainly the elderly), while letting the less-vulnerable behave more-or-less normally.

Even here, though, the same ideas show up: A period of lockdown, during which ubiquitous testing and research give us a much better idea of who has the virus, how it spreads, and who the vulnerable really are. (Some young people are dying too.) There is, I think, too much optimism about how quickly this period could be brought to a close. (Katz proposed two weeks, which is already about to expire without the kind of testing availability his plan needs.)

Once the vulnerable are sequestered — how you keep vulnerable parents away from their virus-exposed children and grandchildren is never specified — the virus spreads more-or-less harmlessly among the rest of the population, resulting in ever more recoveries with corresponding immunity. (We’re not totally positive immunity happens or how long it lasts, but it’s a reasonable theory.) The ultimate result is a general population with enough herd immunity that the virus no longer spreads like wildfire. As time goes by, then, more and more of the vulnerable can return to society.

Science Alert’s Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz dissents on this view: Herd immunity requires something like 90% of the population to be immune, and 20% of COVID-19 infections are serious enough to require hospitalization. So if you picture even the minimal overlap, about 10% of the population winds up being hospitalized. That will break the health-care system, even if it manages to save almost everybody — which it probably won’t.

So again, I think some kind of treatment or vaccine has to appear before the economy gets back to hitting on all cylinders.

Summing up. In every re-opening vision I’ve seen, conditions more-or-less like Dr. Inglesby’s have to be met first, and it’s hard to picture that happening much before June. By then, the $1,200 checks the government is sending out will have been used up long ago, so another trillion or two or three will have to be spent, both to keep people eating and to supply the public-health system with what it needs to get through the crisis.

And there’s not going to be an everybody-come-out-now announcement. Re-opening will happen slowly, and probably in fits and starts. Some things will reopen too quickly, start a new outbreak, and have to close again. Some new habits will have to continue for a long time, and maybe we will never go back to washing (or not washing) our hands the way we used to. Cubicle-farm offices may never reopen with the same density. Business travel may never recover. Working from home may become permanent for many jobs, or working-from-home augmented by rare trips to the home office.

When will we be able to pack into stadiums again? Or elbow-fight for armrest-space in theaters? That will probably have to wait for a vaccine, which is at least a year away.

Economies Aren’t Built to Stop and Restart

As of this morning, Republicans and Democrats in Congress still hadn’t agreed on a stimulus/bailout package for the economy. (Global markets are once again plunging this morning.) The parties agree on the need for extra government money, and even seem to agree on the size ($1.8 trillion). The remaining issues are who gets the money and what kinds of strings should be attached to it.

It’s far too easy to jump straight into the partisan back-and-forth of the issue — and we’ll get to that — but first I’d like to review why government intervention is needed in the first place.

It starts with a simple truth: Modern capitalist economies are supposed to be perpetual-motion machines. They’re never supposed to stop, and so there is no obvious way to restart them.

Right now, though, we’re in a situation where much of the US (and global) economy needs to stop. To prevent (or perhaps just slow) the spread of the COVID-19 virus, people need to stay home and stay away from all but a handful of other people. So industries that depend on gathering people together (sports, bars and restaurants, live entertainment, conventions, schools, retail malls) need to come to a halt. Industries that depend on travel (airlines, hotels, tourism) need to stop as well. If a factory employs a large number of people at the same location and and has them touch a lot of the same objects, it has to stop. Services in which practitioners touch their clients (barber shops, beauty salons, massage therapists) or enter people’s homes (cleaners, dog-walkers) or invite people to enter their homes (music teachers) have to stop.

How long? We’re not sure. Probably until summer. Maybe longer.

Then what?

There are basically two problems, or rather one problem relating to two kinds of entities: people and businesses. How do they survive until things start up again?

Our models for thinking about economic dislocations like this are natural disasters like hurricanes, floods, or earthquakes. But none of those models quite fit, because the economic infrastructure hasn’t been damaged. There are still plenty of places to live in America and plenty of foods to eat. The fields, mines and factories are still there. Nothing needs rebuilding, we just need to survive until the virus is gone and then restart. But how?

People. Long before COVID-19 got started, studies had revealed that about half of American households live paycheck-to-paycheck. Around 40% would have had trouble coming up with $400 to cover some surprise expense. Now that the economy is pulling back to just food and healthcare, large numbers of those people will be without paychecks until summer (or maybe fall).

They don’t make it without some kind of help. Some of them could rely on family or friends, but many couldn’t. And what if those families and friends are financially stressed at the same time? After all, American society is economically stratified: Rich people tend to know rich people, and people on the edge tend to know people on the edge.

The problem, as I said above, isn’t a shortage of stuff. It’s that people can’t earn money to pay for the stuff they need. Somebody needs to collect or create enough money to get them through and figure out a way to distribute it. The federal government is really the only institution set up to do that.

Businesses. If you’re a minimum-wage worker, the business that employs you — whether it’s a corner restaurant or a giant manufacturer like Boeing — seems incredibly rich. And it probably is, as long as the perpetual-motion machine of the economy keeps running. But American business, large and small, runs on debt. Debt requires interest, but in normal times a successful business generates plenty of revenue to cover that interest.

Very few businesses, though, are set up to survive without revenue for even a fairly short amount of time. Nobody has a plan for that, because it wasn’t supposed to happen. Economies don’t just stop.

But now large chunks of the economy are stopping. The problem shows up first in businesses that have a lot of debt and are supposed to generate a lot of revenue. Airlines, for example, borrow to buy their planes. (And banks or bond investors are happy to lend them the money, because an airliner is good collateral — as long as airlines go bankrupt one at a time and aren’t all looking to sell off their planes simultaneously.) On a smaller scale, restaurants rent their space, and may rent their fixtures as well.

Both Delta and Joe’s Diner have employees — pilots and cooks, respectively — they really can’t afford to lose. Restarting will be tricky if they have to go out and find new ones quickly. So even if you don’t have anything for them to do in the meantime, you really want to maintain their employment somehow.

Add all that up — rent, interest, and some kind of salary to essential employees — and a business runs out of capital in a hurry. I’ve seen an estimate that the airlines will all be bankrupt by May, and Boeing is likely to go down with them. That’s likely just the beginning. The auto companies can’t operate their factories. And if enough large and small businesses can’t repay their loans, banks will go under. We saw in 2008 how far the ripples of a banking collapse can spread.

So this crisis may have started as a health crisis, but it quickly turns into a financial crisis. And we know from 2008 how hard those are to solve.

Preserving business preserves inequality. Imagine that we get to October and COVID-19 is gone — there’s a treatment of some sort, or maybe the infection has just run its course. The government has pumped out enough money to keep everybody eating and living somewhere, so the 99% of the population that survives is ready to go back to work.

But where do they go? A few companies — Amazon, maybe, and possibly the big grocery chains and internet providers — have actually prospered. Others (Apple, for example) had big cash hoards that kept them going. But the majority of business have gone belly-up. Eventually, the market would probably sort that out. New businesses would arise to fill the demand for air travel or hotel rooms or meals out or whatever. But it could be a long painful process.

The alternative is that the government could keep businesses going the same way that it kept people going. It could float big low-interest loans or buy stock or just write checks. So all the businesses survive, and are ready to rehire people at the same time that people are ready to go back to work.

There are two problems with that scenario. First, it’s an awesome amount of money, and (since we don’t know when the pandemic ends) nobody has a good estimate how much we’re talking about. And second, the government would not just be preserving the workplaces of workers, it might also be preserving the fortunes of rich people. There’s good reason to want the economy to be in a position to restart, but why does it have to restart in the same place?

That was what was so unpopular about the bailouts of 2008-2009. Government money didn’t just save the financial system, it saved the banks and the bankers who arguably had crashed everything to begin with.

This time around, you can already see the problem with the first bailout candidates: the airlines and Boeing. The airlines go into the crisis short of cash because they spent it all on stock buybacks. Robert Reich isn’t having it:

The biggest U.S. airlines spent 96% of free cash flow over the last decade to buy back shares of their own stock in order to boost executive bonuses and please wealthy investors. Now, they expect taxpayers to bail them out to the tune of $50 billion. It’s the same old story.

Boeing entered the crisis in a weakened state because of safety problems with the 737 Max. The company cut corners and airplanes crashed. If they’d won that gamble, the profits would have stayed with the company and its shareholders. But they lost it, and now they need to be bailed out with public money.

And those are just the companies that need help right away. Once we establish the pattern of bailing out big companies hurt by the virus, how do we say no to the companies that run out of money in June or August? How much will that take?

There’s also a too-big-to-fail problem again. The main proposal for helping small business is via government loans. The proprietor of a dog-walking service in Philadelphia doesn’t see the sense of that:

We have no idea what sort of landscape we will return to when this is all over. Will we come back to 90% of our previous business if this ends in two months? If this goes on for four months, will 50% of our clients be laid off themselves and unable to rehire us? If this goes for a year, will we have any clients or employees left? Will we have to start from scratch with nothing but our reputation?

Two weeks ago, a bank would not underwrite a loan without a clear business plan. Right now, none of us can do any sort of business forecasting for what our revenue is going to look after this Covid-19 pandemic recedes, but we’re being told to take out loans. That is not sound business advice. It’s the government passing the buck to the very job creators that employ millions of Americans.

But a major employer like Boeing will probably get free money, not just a loan.

The corruption problem. The most efficient way to distribute whatever cash the government sets aside for bailouts is to have a simple process overseen by a single person. In the current proposal, that person would be Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

The problem, though, is that a streamlined process is open to corruption. Maybe WalMart gets bailout money because its owners support conservative causes, and Amazon doesn’t because Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post. Or maybe Amazon does get money, but not until after the Post starts covering the Trump more favorably. (That’s a bad example, because neither WalMart nor Amazon is likely to need bailing out, but you see the point.)

That would be a disturbing possibility in the best of times, but it’s particularly troublesome with the current administration and its history of self-dealing. The gist of the Ukraine scandal was that Trump is willing to use the powers of his office to gain unfair political advantages. How can he (or a Treasury Secretary who has shown no ability to say no to him) be trusted to dole out large sums of money?

And while we’re at it: If the hotel industry ultimately gets a bailout, won’t a chunk of that money go straight to the Trump Organization? How can we trust the Trump administration to judge fairly the amount of public subsidy the President’s business needs?

The Warren principles. That’s why Senator Warren has put forward eight principles that would control bailouts:

  • Companies must maintain payrolls and use federal funds to keep people working.
  • Businesses must provide $15 an hour minimum wage quickly but no later than a year from the end
  • Companies would be permanently banned from engaging in stock buybacks.
  • Companies would be barred from paying out dividends or executive bonuses while they receive federal funds and the ban would be in place for three years.
  • Businesses would have to provide at least one seat to workers on their board of directors, though it could be more depending on size of the rescue package.
  • Collective bargaining agreements must remain in place.
  • Corporate boards must get shareholder approval for all political spending.
  • CEOs must certify their companies are complying with the rules and face criminal penalties for violating them.

The legislation Majority Leader McConnell is trying to push through the Senate doesn’t fulfill those conditions. In particular, it includes $500 billion for Secretary Mnuchin to distribute with very few strings attached. Paul Krugman had already criticized such a proposal in advance:

as Congress allocates money to reduce the economic pain from Covid-19, it shouldn’t give Trump any discretion over how the money is spent. For example, while it may be necessary to provide funds for some business bailouts, Congress must specify the rules for who gets those funds and under what conditions. Otherwise you know what will happen: Trump will abuse any discretion to reward his friends and punish his enemies. That’s just who he is.

According to Politico:

the language drafted by Senate Republicans also allows Mnuchin to withhold the names of the companies that receive federal money and how much they get for up to six months if he so decides.

So if he were to simply hand a few billion to the Trump Organization in mid-May, no one need hear about it until after the election.

Interesting (but not necessarily important) Questions and Answers about the Pandemic

You don’t really need to know any of this, but I found it engaging.

The major media is sensitive to the criticism that they’re raising panic, so they garnish their we’re-all-going-to-die coverage with practical information for those of us stuck at home. These public-minded segments answer important practical questions like: What should I do if I get sick? What’s the right way to wash my hands? What disinfectants kill the virus? How should I practice social distancing? And so on.

I’m sure you’ve seen most of those questions discussed more than once, so I’ve just linked to sample articles without rehashing. That kind of stuff isn’t what this post is about.

But you can’t have this many people focusing on a single subject without a few interesting things getting written. The questions below may not have the practical importance as the ones above — some are entirely frivolous — but in my purely idiosyncratic opinion, they’re fascinating.

Why are people hoarding toilet paper? I’ve observed it locally and heard reports from all over the world: Hoarders have been cleaning out stores’ supplies of toilet paper. Numerous Facebook friends posted pictures of empty shelves, while others traded tips about which stores might still have a few rolls.

Most of the other empty shelves in the supermarket have made some kind of sense: There are clear reasons why wipes and hand sanitizers are in demand. And masks; you can argue about how effective they are, but they’re an obvious thing to try. Everybody suddenly wants to disinfect their counters and other surfaces, so it’s been hard to find bleach. (All those over-priced organic no-harsh-chemicals cleaning products are suddenly much less desirable.)

But hoarding toilet paper? Economist Jay Zagorsky points out in The Boston Globe that classical supply-and-demand economics has no justification for it. Other than the hoarding itself, there’s no demand problem: The pandemic doesn’t make us use additional toilet paper. There’s also no supply problem: The US makes 90% of its own toilet paper, and most of what we import comes from Canada and Mexico, where transportation is working just fine.

So why, then? When pragmatic thinking comes up short, it’s tempting to look for psychological explanations. So Time goes Freudian:

What is it about toilet paper—specifically the prospect of an inadequate supply of it—that makes us so anxious? Some of the answer is obvious. Toilet paper has primal—even infantile—associations, connected with what is arguably the body’s least agreeable function in a way we’ve been taught from toddlerhood.

And Niki Edwards from the Queensland University of Technology (evidently they’re hoarding toilet paper “down under” too) echoes:

Toilet paper symbolises control. We use it to “tidy up” and “clean up”. It deals with a bodily function that is somewhat taboo. When people hear about the coronavirus, they are afraid of losing control. And toilet paper feels like a way to maintain control over hygiene and cleanliness.

Other writers (I’ve lost the references) point out that while hoarding toilet paper is an irrational response to the pandemic, it’s not that irrational: Toilet paper is easy to store, it doesn’t go bad, and you will eventually use it up.

But I think Zagorsky ultimately has the best explanation. It’s economic, but comes from behavioral economics rather than classical economics: When people feel endangered, they instinctively want to eliminate the risk rather than mitigate it. So when faced with a risk we can’t eliminate completely, we are tempted to divert our attention to a related risk we can eliminate, even if it’s not the main thing that threatens us. (The economic term for this is zero-risk bias.) So the logic of the toilet-paper hoarder is most likely to go something like this: “Maybe we are all going to die, but at least I won’t run out of toilet paper.”

How does soap kill viruses? Most of us learned about soap long before we learned about science, so soap holds an almost magical significance for us. But now that we’re washing our hands twenty times a day, it’s hard not to wonder if we’re being superstitious: I know Mom said it was important, but … really?

The answer turns out to be: Yeah, really. Simple soap, the stuff that’s older than recorded history, kills all sorts of viruses. The NYT’s Ferris Jabr covers this pretty well. The full article has a lot of fascinating detail, but here’s the gist:

Soap is made of pin-shaped molecules, each of which has a hydrophilic head — it readily bonds with water — and a hydrophobic tail, which shuns water and prefers to link up with oils and fats. … When you wash your hands with soap and water, you surround any microorganisms on your skin with soap molecules. The hydrophobic tails of the free-floating soap molecules attempt to evade water; in the process, they wedge themselves into the lipid envelopes of certain microbes and viruses, prying them apart.

Now that I can’t go to bars, restaurants, and performances, what should I binge-watch on TV? If you’d asked me last fall, I would have picked out March as a particularly good time to be housebound, because I usually spend large chunks of the month couch-potatoing in front of the NCAA basketball tournament. If I have any TV time still available, NBA teams are maneuvering for playoff positions, and hope springs eternal in baseball’s spring-training games.

Well, that plan didn’t work out. But in the streaming era we still have plenty of choices about what to watch.

There are two basic theories here: One says you should use the opportunity social distancing provides to catch up on all the high-quality classics you’ve missed. The other says that life in near-quarantine is stressful enough, so you should chill out by watching stuff as comforting and unchallenging as possible. (In other words, “The Walking Dead” or “The Strain” might not be a good choice right now.)

If you go the high-quality route, I recommend signing up with HBO and watching all five seasons of “The Wire”. Now that “Game of Thrones” is complete, going back to the beginning and seeing how it all hangs together is a worthy project I still haven’t tackled. I’ve also recently gotten the PBS app, through which I’ve streamed “Poldark”, “Sanditon”, “Vienna Blood”, “Modus”, and now “Beecham House”.

But that’s just me. For expert advice, check out The Guardian’s “100 best TV shows of the 21st Century“.

On the other hand, comfort TV (like comfort food) is too personal to find on some expert’s list. I recommend thinking back to some long lost era of your life and recalling what your favorite show was back then. When I ask that question, I drift back to the 80s and remember that I haven’t seen most episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” in at least 30 years.

A third option entirely is to surprise yourself with something you’ve never heard of before. Decider has 10 suggestions, most of which you can find on NetFlix. (I can vouch for “Slings and Arrows”.)

What is “flattening the curve”? And why does it help? The whole point of everything closing and people staying home is to “flatten the curve”. A bunch of sources have images that illustrate curve-flattening. Here’s the one from Wired:

(The Washington Post also has some fabulous graphics that simulate disease spread.)

Left to their own devices, epidemics spread exponentially as long as there are still plenty of new people to infect. And when something bad grows exponentially “everything looks fine until it doesn’t.” The mistake Italy made was to wait until it had a significant number of cases before it started shutting everything down. The right time to shut everything down is when that still seems like a ridiculous over-reaction. (If you do it right, the spike in cases never arrives, and critics conclude that you didn’t know what you were talking about.)

If the number of cases rises too fast, the healthcare system gets swamped, which leads to a whole new set of problems. (It’s bad enough to be sick, but it’s much worse to be sick when nobody has any place to put you.) Social distancing is supposed to slow down the spread, in hopes that the healthcare system might be able to deal with it.

That’s why you eliminate big-arena sports events and other large gatherings — so that one sick guy can’t infect 50 or 100 others. If you can’t stop the virus, make it work harder — it will spread by infecting two people here and three people there, not dozens at a time.

There’s also some hope that if you slow down the virus enough, you can affect not just the distribution of cases, but their total number as well. That’s the lesson of how two cities handled the 1918 Spanish flu.

What the heck did the UK just decide to do? Experts around the world advise that governments shut down places where people meet, encourage social distancing, and hope to flatten the curve. But in United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has a different idea.

On Friday, the UK government’s chief science adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, said on BBC Radio 4 that one of “the key things we need to do” is to “build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission.”

The “herd immunity” notion is easy to make fun of, because it sounds like a let-the-virus-run-wild model. But it’s a little more nuanced than that.

A UK starting assumption is that a high number of the population will inevitably get infected whatever is done – up to 80%. As you can’t stop it, so it is best to manage it. … The [UK’s model] wants infection BUT of particular categories of people. The aim of the UK is to have as many lower risk people infected as possible. Immune people cannot infect others; the more there are the lower the risk of infection. That’s herd immunity. Based on this idea, at the moment the govt wants people to get infected, up until hospitals begin to reach capacity. At that they want to reduce, but not stop infection rate.

I understand this through a thought experiment: Imagine that you had some foolproof way to keep the uninfected-but-vulnerable part of the population safe for a limited time. (Imagine you shot them into orbit or something, but you couldn’t leave them up there forever.) One thing you might try is to have the rest of the population — the Earth-bound part — get sick and recover as fast as possible. Then when the vulnerable people came back, the virus would have a hard time finding them, because they’d be surrounded by people who had developed immunity.

Go back to the Philadelphia/St.Louis graph above. Philadelphia certainly made the wrong choice for its citizens, but if you had managed to hide in a deep mine shaft until November 20 or so, after you came out you’d do much better in Philadelphia.

So the UK government is advising people over 70 (and other vulnerable folks, I suspect) to “self-isolate” while younger and stronger people get sick.

It’s not a completely insane idea, but I’ll be amazed if it works.

How did the Federal Reserve “inject” $1.5 trillion into the economy? And where’s my share? On Thursday, the Fed announced that it was “injecting” $1.5 trillion into the economy. Immediately, progressive social media lit up with comparisons to the cost of Medicare For All or the Green New Deal. Bernie Sanders, for example, tweeted:

When we say it’s time to provide health care to all our people, we’re told we can’t afford it. But if the stock market is in trouble, no problem! The government can just hand out $1.5 trillion to calm bankers on Wall Street.

Vox explains why this is an apples-to-oranges comparison. The Fed didn’t spend the money, it loaned it to banks (at interest, with collateral). The point of the Fed’s move is that loan demand is about to spike: As events get cancelled and people stop traveling and going out, businesses that used to make a profit are going to lose money for a while. The only way they’ll keep going is if they get loans. The Fed’s loans to banks will turn into business loans that hopefully will make the difference between, say, Jet Blue having a disappointing quarter and Jet Blue declaring bankruptcy.

If things work out as expected — the disruption from COVID-19 lasts for a quarter or two, and then the economy more-or-less goes back to normal — all the loans will be repaid and the Fed will get its money back.

That wouldn’t happen if the Fed created money and spent it on healthcare or infrastructure or something else. Whether or not those things would be good ideas, they’re not anything like creating money and loaning it to banks.

It should be fairly obvious that a repo market intervention isn’t like, say, printing $1.5 trillion to pay for an expansion of health care. If the Fed funded Medicare-for-all that way, it would not get $1.5 trillion back plus interest. It would just spend a whole lot of money on doctor’s and nurse’s salaries, MRI equipment, hospital mortgages, etc., and never get it back.

A better comparison might have been the housing crisis of 2008-2009. If the homeowners who couldn’t pay their mortgages were good bets to have future income, and if the houses themselves were worth enough to cover the loans, then it might have made sense to create money to keep those households going until the Great Recession was over. That would have been a similar loan-and-get-repaid scenario. But that kind of retail transaction would require a different kind of institution: something more like the post-office banks Senator Warren has proposed.

What does the COVID-19 virus actually look like? Part of the terror of classic plagues like the Black Death was their invisibility: You barricaded yourself in your home to hide from something you couldn’t see. But with today’s advanced microscopy, we’re not only able to see the virus, but to start designing the antibodies we need to beat it.

Let’s blow that last quadrant up a little more:

Coronavirus Reaches My Town, and other notes

COVID-19 reached my town this weekend. There’s been a case at the regional hospital and some local household is self-quarantining while waiting for test results. We’re still a long way from people dropping dead in the streets — I’ve read Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, so my imagination drifts in that direction — but nearby cases do get my attention. Preparations that seemed speculative a week ago are looking more pragmatic.

The current information, as of this morning, from Live Science:

About 564 people in the U.S. have been confirmed to have the virus. Of those, 22 people have died, with deaths in Washington (18), California (1) and Florida (2). (Globally, more than 111,000 cases have been confirmed, with 3,892 deaths.)

The percentage of US deaths (22/564 = 4%) is higher than you would expect, which probably indicates that we actually have many more cases, but haven’t found them yet. That would be because of the glitches in our testing process.

However, on Saturday (March 7), Dr. Stephen M. Hahn, FDA Commissioner, said that 1,583 people in the U.S. have been tested for COVID-19 through the CDC tests.

For comparison, South Korea is testing 15,000 people per day, and has tested 196,000 to date. The containment efforts of American local health officials have been undercut by the lack of tests. As a result, some people are being quarantined unnecessarily while others are undiagnosed and spreading the virus freely.

Just about everything connected with the virus is uncertain, so any projections should be taken with a grain of salt. I haven’t been able to find much in the way of numerical projections by qualified experts, so I will pass along (with reservations) a link to the calculations of bio-engineer (not epidemiologist) Liz Specht, who is getting quoted by a number of other people. Her main point is that if current trends hold, the US healthcare system will get swamped.

She assumes 2000 US cases on March 6 — acknowledging that the number of confirmed cases is much lower, but increasing it to adjust for the lack of testing. From there she assumes that cases double every six days which is “a typical doubling time across several epidemiological studies“. Obviously, doubling like that can’t go on forever, because the number of cases would eventually exceed the population of the planet. But it could go on for quite a while, as long as the number of infected people remains small relative to the general population.

We’re looking at about 1M US cases by the end of April, 2M by ~May 5, 4M by ~May 11, and so on.

Bad as that sounds, it’s in some ways less alarming than the projection on a slide that was presented at an American Hospital Association webinar on February 26 by Dr. James Lawler of the University of Nebraska Medical Center:

(Business Insider published the slide, but doesn’t appear to have Lawler’s cooperation; the associated article doesn’t fully explain what the slide means. I’ll observe that since Lawler’s doubling time is longer than Spect’s, his epidemic has to continue well into the summer to get 96 million cases. Some people are still hoping for seasonality, noting Singapore’s success containing the virus in a hot climate. But the World Health Organization is skeptical: “It’s a false hope to say, yes, that it will disappear like the flu. We hope it does. That would be a godsend. But we can’t make that assumption. And there is no evidence.”)

Anyway, Spect continues:

The US has about 2.8 hospital beds per 1000 people. With a population of 330M, this is ~1M beds. At any given time, 65% of those beds are already occupied. That leaves about 330k beds available nationwide (perhaps a bit fewer this time of year with regular flu season, etc). Let’s trust Italy’s numbers and assume that about 10% of cases are serious enough to require hospitalization. [Lawler’s slide estimates 5%.] … By this estimate, by about May 8th, all open hospital beds in the US will be filled.

A similar calculation has American hospitals running out of masks for its workers to wear while treating COVID-19 patients. That means health-care workers will start getting sick in fairly large numbers, leading to a shortage of them too.

Her point is not that we should all panic, but that we should all pitch in and do whatever we can to slow the spread, in hopes of mitigating the worst possibilities. So: wash your hands, stay out of crowds, cancel unnecessary gatherings, and so on. If you get sick, plan on self-quarantining and riding it out at home if you possibly can.

Now, about that lack of testing. The World Health Organization had a COVID-19 test that it was shipping all over the world — but not to the US — by the end of February. The initial batch of tests made by the CDC were defective, so all over the country, public health officials have been proceeding on guesswork: We can’t be sure who is infected and who isn’t, so our efforts to track and contain the virus have been crippled from the start.

Why the United States declined to use the WHO test, even temporarily as a bridge until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could produce its own test, remains a perplexing question … But neither the CDC nor the coronavirus task force chaired by Vice President Mike Pence would say who made the decision to forgo the WHO test and instead begin a protracted process of producing an American test, one that got delayed by manufacturing problems, possible lab contamination and logistical delays.

Reportedly, many more tests will be available soon. But in the meantime, Trump’s solution is to lie about it:

But I think, importantly, anybody, right now and yesterday, that needs a test gets a test. They’re there, they have the tests, and the tests are beautiful. Anybody that needs a test gets a test.

That claim was made Friday, during a tour of the CDC Trump did while wearing his campaign hat “Keep America Great”. Wired reporter Adam Rogers commented:

As a reporter, in general I’m not supposed to say something like this, but: The president’s statements to the press were terrifying. That press availability was a repudiation of good science and good crisis management from inside one of the world’s most respected scientific institutions. It was full of Dear Leader-ish compliments, non-sequitorial defenses of unrelated matters, attacks on an American governor, and—most importantly—misinformation about the virus and the US response. That’s particularly painful coming from inside the CDC, a longtime powerhouse in global public health now reduced to being a backdrop for grubby politics.

The Dear Leader bragged: “I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it. Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should have done that instead of running for president.” (If his meeting Monday with pharmaceutical executives was any indication, more likely the doctors were surprised by how incredibly ignorant Trump is.)

He clearly cared much more about his own credit or blame than about Americans facing a potentially deadly disease:

Trump repeatedly sought to judge his administration’s performance by the numbers of how many have been shown to have contracted the virus and comparing it to other nations — and, in doing so, appeared to be making judgments based solely on that scorecard.

He declared he would prefer to keep the thousands of passengers and crew on the cruise ship [Grand Princess] off the California coast aboard the vessel rather than bring them ashore for quarantine, though he acknowledged that Vice President Pence and other top aides were arguing for the ship to be brought to port.

“I like the numbers being where they are,” Trump said. “I don’t need the numbers to double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.”

Steven Colbert’s Late Show satirized the Grand Princess situation with the song “The Bug Boat“.

Trump’s attempt (amplified by Fox News) to minimize the danger of the virus has real-world consequences. Jelani Cobb tweeted:

Overheard from the person in front of me on line at CPAC last week: “I don’t believe anything the CDC says about this virus. It’s full of deep staters who want to use this to create a recession to bring down the President.”

Meanwhile, Senator Ted Cruz is self-quarantining after coming into contact with a carrier of the virus at CPAC.

Now we get to the economic effects.

You may be wondering why the virus is causing such huge disruptions in the investment markets. No matter how bad the outbreak gets, the worst will probably be over in a few months. In a year (or at most two), COVID-19 should be gone completely, with the vast majority of people fully recovered and ready to be as productive as ever. (The worst epidemic in modern history, the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919, was followed by the Roaring 20s.) So why are stock markets plunging and long-term interest rates at record lows?

The answer is that the virus is a shock to the system, and it’s hard to predict what else might break because of that shock. Say you run an airline. A year from now people are probably going to be flying at the same rates as before and your airline should be as profitable as ever. But what if you don’t get there? Airplanes are expensive and you borrowed a bunch of money to buy yours. That looked like a sound investment decision at the time, because your company had plenty of profits to pay the interest with. But now people afraid of catching COVID-19 have stopped flying, companies have cancelled business trips, and all your profits have gone poof.

But your debt is still there, demanding repayment. And so you may be bankrupt by the time air travel picks up again. Viruses infect people, not airlines. But an airline might die from the secondary effects. Ditto for small businesses that rely on people going out in public, like restaurants and bars. Demand for their services will certainly return to normal in 2021, but they might be out of business by then. And once businesses start closing and companies start going bankrupt, a cascade can start. One company lays off its employees, and then the businesses that serve those employees are in trouble too. One defaults on its debts, and now its creditors face bankruptcy as well. When the dominoes start falling, it’s hard to predict how far the collapse will go.

The Great Recession of 2008 may have started with people defaulting on their mortgages. But things didn’t really break until Lehman Brothers went bankrupt. Eventually, people who had nothing to do with real estate were losing their jobs. The demand-drop and supply-disruption caused by the virus is like the mortgage defaults. We’re waiting to see if this cycle will have its own Lehman Brothers.

Over the weekend, one possible candidate raised its head: Russia and Saudi Arabia have been arguing about how to play the drop in the oil market, with the Saudis wanting oil-exporting countries to cut production and prop up the price, and Russia hoping to use the price drop to drive more expensive producers (like the shale-oil companies in the US) into bankruptcy. This weekend, the Saudis essentially said, “If that’s what you want, Mr. Putin, we’ll give it to you good and hard.” They increased production and drove the world oil price down to $27 a barrel. (It was $63 in January.)

The US stock market opened down about 7%, with the Dow falling over 1800 points.

Such a huge price drop in oil is its own shock to the system, and it’s hard to predict what might shake loose next.

I’m Voting for Warren

Super Tuesday is tomorrow, and I’m voting in the Massachusetts primary. I’m going to vote for Elizabeth Warren.

Any who-I’m-voting-for article eventually turns into a here’s-who-you-should-vote-for article, so I might as well be up-front about that from the beginning. Here’s how I think you should go about deciding who to vote for.

In any primary, there are really just four votes that make sense:

  • Vote your heart. This is the most direct and simple vote: Who do you want to see become president? It doesn’t require any complicated analysis of polls or theories about how your party wins. Just listen to the candidates, research their positions on the issues you care about, and picture them as president.
  • Vote for the candidate most likely to lead your party to victory. This vote requires that you identify who the most electable candidate is, which is not as easy as a lot of people make it sound.
  • Unite around the front-runner. Long, drawn-out battles for the nomination risk dividing the party and raising negativity about the ultimate nominee. So if the leading candidate is someone you’re happy with (or happy enough), you can help end the nomination process quickly by voting for him or her.
  • Unite against the front-runner. If you look at the leading candidate and have a strong “Not that one!” reaction, either because the front-runner offends your heart or seems likely to lead to defeat in the fall, you can vote to block his or her path to the nomination. The most effective way to do that is to look at the polls and vote for the alternative candidate most likely to win in your state.

To make a long story short, my heart is with Warren, I’m not sure who the most electable candidate is, I’m not ready to unite behind current front-runner Bernie Sanders, and the candidate with the best chance to beat Bernie in Massachusetts is also Warren. So two factors unite around Warren in my case, which might make my decision easier than yours.

Why my heart is with Warren. I first noticed Elizabeth Warren during the financial crisis of 2008, when she was chairing a five-person commission to oversee the TARP bank bailout. Rachel Maddow interviewed her several times about how that was going, and in particular about Warren’s belief that the government shouldn’t just put the same people back in charge of the banking system so they could make the same mistakes. She struck me as someone smart and public-spirited who did her homework before making a decision. In these and many other ways, she’s the exact opposite of the president we have now.

After Obama was elected, she helped him create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. When Republican senators torpedoed the idea that she be the first head of the CFPB, she decided to run for the Senate instead. She was elected in 2012 and re-elected in 2018. When I lived in New Hampshire, I heard her several times when she came up to campaign for our senators and representatives. Now that I live in Massachusetts, she’s my senator.

I like Warren because she combines idealism with a wonkish streak. She knows exactly how the government works and where injustice gets baked into policies before they’re implemented. She has a good lawyer’s knack for seeing through another advocate’s spin. (You saw that on the debate stage in Las Vegas, when she listened to Mike Bloomberg justify his company’s treatment of women, and immediately responded with “I hope you heard what his defense was: ‘I’ve been nice to some women.’ That just doesn’t cut it.”)

Her campaign’s I-have-a-plan-for-that theme points to one of her key virtues: She has thought this stuff through and is ready to govern. When I look at the public health challenge the coronavirus is posing, and I ask myself “Who would I trust the most to follow the science and do the right thing?” my answer is Warren.

I agree with her general philosophy, which is that government needs to be creating opportunities for ordinary people to succeed, and not supporting systems designed to concentrate wealth. She springs from working-class roots in Oklahoma, taught kids with learning disabilities for a while, and then climbed her way through the legal profession until she became a Harvard professor. But she doesn’t cop an I-did-it-all-myself attitude. She never loses sight of all the ways that opportunities were made available to her — and how many of those avenues have since closed down. That’s why college-affordability and student-loan-forgiveness are so important to her.

She also sees the structural problems in the economy, which is what raised her original interest in the banking system and the ways it is abused to centralize wealth.

In short, I think her heart is in the right place. Her policies resonate with the life she’s lived, and so feel very authentic to me. She has a nuts-and-bolts view of how systems work that makes her likely to get things done. She lives by facts rather than by ideology, so if things don’t turn out the way she expected, she’ll come up with something new.

Who can win? I wish I knew. It’s not that there’s nothing worth saying on the topic, but it’s not as simple as a lot of pundits make it sound. I have expressed my ideas on the topic in another post.

I’m not ready to unite around Bernie Sanders. Like all the major Democratic candidates, Bernie is miles better than Donald Trump. If he’s the nominee, I will vote for him, and not in a hold-my-nose way. We could do a lot worse.

I’m not that far from Bernie on a number of issues (neither is Warren), but I wouldn’t have the same confidence in him as president. Bernie is an ideologue. If he found himself in a situation where his ideology was not working, I can’t picture him rethinking. I believe Warren would.

And getting back to who can win, I’m not impressed with the theory that says Bernie is our strongest candidate. I think there are Romney-Republicans and Bush-Republicans who would be happy to vote against Trump, but Sanders is too much to ask. Warren may be too much to ask too, but I’m not as sure of that.

Who can beat Bernie in Massachusetts? The best bet is Warren, who is the favorite-daughter candidate here. This is where your mileage may vary. In Texas, for example, polls show Biden with a better chance. In North Carolina, at least one poll says Bloomberg. I’m not telling you what you should do in those states.

So anyway, I’m in a situation where the candidate I want to vote for is also best positioned to block a front-runner I’m not wild about. That means I don’t have to make a more difficult decision where I weigh my favorite against more practical considerations.

Does Anybody Know Who’s Electable?

Like most Democrats I know, I wish someone could tell me who is electable. If I knew for a fact that one Democratic candidate would beat Trump in the fall, but that all the others would lose, I would absolutely vote for the “electable” one. Bloomberg is currently my least favorite Democrat, but if I were certain that it would come down to either him or Trump, I’d pick him. Bernie? Joe? Elizabeth? Amy? Doesn’t matter. If only one of them can win, sign me up.

And wouldn’t you know it? Lots of people claim they have that information. The problem is that they disagree.

Two theories. There are two basic theories of how Democrats can beat Trump in November:

  • Swing-voter theory. Elections are decided by moderates who swing from one party to the other, depending on who sounds the most reasonable to them.
  • Turnout theory. Non-voters lean Democratic, but they don’t vote because they don’t see politics making a difference in their lives. To get them to turn out, you need to offer bold ideas that clearly would make a difference.

Obama’s 2008 landslide came from doing both: inspiring new voters without scaring off moderates. Doug Jones’ surprising senate win in Alabama followed a similar formula. Jones was a moderate, but turnout was high anyway.

People arguing that Bernie Sanders isn’t electable usually apply swing-voter theory: He’s the most extreme candidate in the Democratic field, so he will alienate moderate voters who otherwise would be ready to vote against Trump. In particular, Trump’s know-nothing style of governing has alienated a lot of educated suburbanites who used to be loyal Republicans. Those votes are available to a centrist Democrat like Biden or Bloomberg, but not to Sanders.

Conversely, turnout theory says that Sanders is the most electable candidate.

In Michigan and Wisconsin, which were decided in 2016 by roughly 11,000 and 22,700 votes respectively, close to a million young people have since turned 18. Beyond the Midwestern trio of states, the demographic revolution has even more transformative potential. Mr. Trump won Arizona, for example, by 91,000 votes, and 160,000 Latinos have turned 18 in that state since then.

Getting those voters to the polls, the theory says, wins not just for Bernie, but for Democrats in general.

Giving voters too much credit. Neither theory is entirely crazy, but both, in my opinion, oversimplify things. Each in its own way gives some group of voters too much credit.

Like iconoclastic political scientist Rachel Bitecofer, I don’t believe in “this informed, engaged American population [of swing voters] that is watching these political events and watching their elected leaders and assessing their behavior and making a judgment.” Similarly, I don’t buy the turnout-theory image of non-voters as disaffected socialists waiting for the clarion call of political revolution.

No doubt there are a few analytic middle-of-the-roaders judiciously weighing each candidates’ positions on the issues, and a few idealistic left-wing radicals who haven’t been voting because see little difference between Nancy Pelosi and Paul Ryan. But in my opinion, the vast majority of swing voters and non-voters are far less impressive examples of American citizenry: They have little interest in politics and little knowledge of it. They’re more likely to be turned off by Bernie Sanders’ hair than by his policies, or they voted for Obama and then Trump because “Yes We Can” and “Make America Great Again” were both good slogans.

These days, knowledgeable people who care about politics have well-defined opinions and show up to vote. Overwhelmingly, the swinging from one party to the other, or from voter to non-voter, is being done by uninformed folks for not terribly intelligent reasons. CNN’s Ron Brownstein observes:

An exhaustive study from the Knight Foundation that examined the roughly 100 million eligible Americans who did not vote in 2016 underscores [Ruy] Teixeira’s point [that non-voters don’t favor either party]. For the study, which was released last week, the foundation commissioned a survey of 12,000 nonvoters nationwide and in swing states, and held focus groups with Americans who habitually do not vote. The results found nonvoters united by their disconnection from the political process and disengagement from the news, but divided quite closely in their views of the two parties. …

[T]he geographic distribution of nonvoters creates challenges for a Democratic strategy centered on mobilizing them, especially in the Trump era. On a national basis, the best evidence suggests, the Americans who are eligible to vote but don’t split about equally between whites without college degrees, who lean Republican, on one side; and minorities and college-educated whites, who lean Democratic, on the other.

Bold liberal ideas are likely to motivate both groups, not just the one.

But the distribution looks very different in the Rust Belt states that tilted the 2016 election. In Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, the three states Trump dislodged from the “blue wall,” whites without college degrees represented a clear majority of the adults who were eligible to vote but did not, according to calculations from census data by David Wasserman of The Cook Political Report. The adults who have become newly eligible to vote in those states since 2016, mostly by turning 18, do lean more toward minorities, according to analysis by the States of Change project, which Teixeira directs. But even accounting for those young entrants into the electorate, many Democrats believe that Trump has a bigger universe of potential new voters available to harvest across the Rust Belt than the Democratic nominee does.

Polls. Whenever people argue about electability, they start comparing polls. A few months ago, moderates touted head-to-head polls that had Biden beating Trump by a larger margin than Bernie beat Trump. Lately, progressives have been pointing to polls that either say the opposite or indicate that there’s no real difference.

In either case, the problem is the same: Polls are pretty good at telling you how people will vote tomorrow, because the people they interview are pretty good at predicting their own short-term behavior, as long as nothing important happens between the interview and the election. But polls about what will happen eight months from now are not nearly so enlightening.

They’re especially useless in evaluating candidates most of the public hasn’t formed a firm opinion about yet. My personal intuition (which may not be worth much) is that the Democrat who would run the best race against Trump in the fall is Amy Klobuchar. I have no data to support that opinion, I just think she contrasts well against Trump: She’s sunny where he’s angry. She’s in the prime of life while he’s a fat old man. She’s sharp where he’s confused. She’s a woman while he’s the embodiment of toxic masculinity. And so on.

But whether that’s true or not, I wouldn’t expect to see it in the polls this far out, because most of the country has never really tried on the idea of President Klobuchar. Or President Buttigieg, for that matter. Either one of them (or Kamala Harris or Cory Booker or one of the other longshot candidates who has since dropped out) would look completely different in November than they do now. By November, Nominee Klobuchar would have been at the center of a successful primary campaign, would have given a convention acceptance speech, and stood toe-to-toe with Trump in the debates. What an election would say then just isn’t predictable from a poll taken now.

But OK, let’s consider the possibility that polls can tell us something about the electability of the two best-known Democrats: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. As of this morning, the RealClearPolitics average of head-to-head polls of Biden vs. Trump had Biden up 5.4%. The same number for Sanders vs. Trump had Sanders up 4.9%. (The outlier was Emerson, which had Sanders beating Trump by 2%, but Biden losing by 4%.)

That’s a difference of half a percent, with eight months of events still to be processed. And there are more factors to consider. Political scientists David Broockman and Joshua Kalla point out that the Biden voters and Sanders voters are not the same people.

We found that nominating Sanders would drive many Americans who would otherwise vote for a moderate Democrat to vote for Trump, especially otherwise Trump-skeptical Republicans.

Republicans are more likely to say they would vote for Trump if Sanders is nominated: Approximately 2 percent of Republicans choose Trump over Sanders but desert Trump when we pit him against a more moderate Democrat like Buttigieg, Biden, or Bloomberg.

Democrats and independents are also slightly more likely to say they would vote for Trump if Sanders is nominated. Swing voters may be rare — but their choices between candidates often determine elections, and many appear to favor Trump over Sanders but not over other Democrats. Despite losing these voters to Trump, Sanders appears in our survey data to be similarly electable to the moderates, at least at first blush. Why? Mainly because 11 percent of left-leaning young people say they are undecided, would support a third-party candidate, or, most often, just would not vote if a moderate were nominated — but say they would turn out and vote for Sanders if he were nominated. …

The case that Bernie Sanders is just as electable as the more moderate candidates thus appears to rest on a leap of faith: that youth voter turnout would surge in the general election by double digits if and only if Bernie Sanders is nominated, compensating for the voters his nomination pushes to Trump among the rest of the electorate.

(BTW: The Sanders campaign also believes it will bring Trump-leaning non-college whites back to the Democrats. The Broockman/Kalla data does not support this claim.)

So you can try to be as data-driven as you like, but in the end you come back to a “leap of faith”. Will that youth-voting surge really show up? Young people who say they will only vote if Bernie is on the ballot — might they change their minds?

How I wind up thinking about electability. Some pundits go so far as to say there’s nothing to know here, so you should just forget about the whole notion. Unfortunately, I find that impossible. November is so important, it’s hard not to form opinions about it.

Whatever conclusions you come to, though, you should hold them lightly. Use your notions of electability as a tie-breaker between candidates you like, not as your only criterion. Few political experiences are worse than to give up on someone you believe in so that you can win, and then not to win. Cast a vote you can live with.

For what it’s worth, my hunches about electability — and they’re really just hunches — come down on the moderate side rather than the progressive side. My confidence in a 2020 Democratic victory comes from the 2018 victory: Democratic candidates got 53.4% of the vote in congressional elections in 2018. If all the people willing to vote for a Democrat for Congress decide to vote for the Democratic presidential nominee, it’s a landslide.

I see that win as mostly supporting the swing-voter model. Democrats flipped seats by running moderate candidates in suburban districts where educated professionals used to be reliably Republican.

Conversely, I have never seen the turnout model work. If some progressive candidate had won an unexpected victory in some red state senate or house race by using radical policy proposals to bring in vast numbers of new voters, then I could more easily imagine the same thing working on a national level. But I don’t know of any such example. The best-known progressives in Congress come from liberal bastions like Vermont (Sanders) and Queens (AOC). They don’t flip red states. Or at least they haven’t.

The Coronavirus Genie Escapes Its Bottle

The COVID-19 virus broke out of containment this week. A week ago, you could still draw an imaginary boundary around the places affected and hope it stayed inside. Mostly it was in China. Other countries, like the US, had a handful of cases that could be traced to affected areas — foreign travelers and such. Just keep those people in quarantine and maybe everybody else would be safe.

Now, though, “community spread” has started: People have COVID-19 even though they have no traceable connection to China or any other area with a known outbreak. Two Americans have now died, and a cluster of cases in Washington state raises suspicion that the virus has been spreading undetected for weeks. The virus is out there now, and before long you will have to assume that anybody might have it.

That’s bad, but not necessarily apocalyptic. This first-person account in the Washington Post demonstrates that catching COVID-19 isn’t always dire.

My chest feels tight, and I have coughing spells. If I were at home with similar symptoms, I probably would have gone to work as usual. …

During the first few days, the hospital staff hooked me up to an IV, mostly as a precaution, and used it to administer magnesium and potassium, just to make sure I had plenty of vitamins. Other than that, my treatment has consisted of what felt like gallons and gallons of Gatorade — and, when my fever rose just above 100 degrees, some ibuprofen. … After 10 days, I moved out of biocontainment and into the same facility as Jeri. [his wife, who had been exposed but tested negative] … As of my most recent test, on Thursday, I am still testing positive for the virus. But by now, I don’t require much medical care. The nurses check my temperature twice a day and draw my blood, because I’ve agreed to participate in a clinical study to try to find a treatment for coronavirus. If I test negative three days in a row, then I get to leave.

The low impact the virus has on many people is one reason it spreads so widely. For comparison, if you caught Ebola you’d likely get very sick and maybe die before you had a chance to infect many other people. With COVID-19, you might think you can go to work “as usual”.

But even if any particular case of the infection is likely to be mild, it’s a mistake to write the whole thing off, as Rush Limbaugh did when he said “The coronavirus is the common cold, folks.” (Turn that statement around — the common cold is a coronavirus — and it becomes true: There are many types of coronavirus, some of which cause a common cold.)

A 2% fatality rate (the estimate I keep hearing, concentrated among the elderly and those previously in poor health) may not sound scary, but it turns into horrifying numbers when enough people get infected. If all the world’s 7.5 billion people got infected, 2% fatality would lead to 150 million deaths. In the US alone, 7 million deaths. Universal infection is probably not going to happen, but those numbers illuminate what’s at stake.

NPR and Vox have everybody-stay-calm articles about planning for a major outbreak, and what to do if you think you’re infected.

For most Americans, social and economic consequences of the virus are likely to hit harder than the disease itself. You and your loved ones may stay perfectly healthy, or at worst spend a week or so hindered by fever and malaise. But you might still face considerable challenges and disruptions. Japan, for example, has cancelled school for the next month. Various countries have cancelled sporting events, and this summer’s Tokyo Olympics are in doubt. Any plans you have that involve large crowds may have to be changed.

The Dow Jones average dropped 12% last week. That may seem a trifle extreme, until you factor in that growth was already slowing and the world economy is due for a recession soon anyway. The worrisome thing about an economic slowdown now is that there isn’t much ammunition for fighting it: Interest rates are already near record lows, and the US budget deficit was already projected at $1 trillion, thanks to Trump’s tax cut.

Now we start to get into the politics of the contagion. Any infectious disease reminds us of something we tend to forget: We’re all in this together. You may receive marvelous health care, but you’re still only as safe as the janitor who cleans your office or the waitress who brings your french fries. If they live paycheck to paycheck and don’t get paid time off, they’ll be coming in to work when they’re sick. If they can’t afford to get tested or treated, they’ll probably try to ignore their symptoms as long as they can.

When someone has flu-like symptoms, you want them to to seek medical care,” said Sabrina Corlette, a Georgetown University professor and co-director of the Center on Health Insurance Reforms. “If they have one of these junk plans and they know they might be on the hook for more than they can afford to seek that care, a lot of them just won’t, and that is a public health concern.” …

Azcue [who got tested for his symptoms and didn’t have COVID-19] said his experience underscores how the costs of healthcare in the U.S. could interfere with preventing public health crises. “How can they expect normal citizens to contribute to eliminating the potential risk of person-to-person spread if hospitals are waiting to charge us $3,270 for a simple blood test and a nasal swab?” he said.

ObamaCare got rid of junk health insurance for a while, but the Trump administration brought it back. COVID-19 — which is probably not going to be the last or even deadliest plague of this era — reminds us why we need to achieve the goal of universal health care.

That’s one of many ways this administration has made us less safe and more vulnerable to an epidemic. For example, the pandemic response team inside the National Security Council was disbanded when John Bolton reorganized the NSC in May. Its leader left the government and was not replaced.

Trump has tried to cut funding for the Center for Disease Control in each of his budgets, but Congress keeps putting the money back. So things could be worse, but only because Trump didn’t get his way.

Ever since it became clear that the Trump regime didn’t care what was true or not true — either about important things like climate change or trivial things like the attendance at Trump’s inauguration — I’ve been hearing people ask some version of “What’s going to happen when we have an actual crisis?”

If you were in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, you’ve already seen the answer to that question: Thousands of people died while Trump was congratulating himself on how well he was handling things.

So now it looks likely that the US mainland will face a public health emergency. In such situations, rumors run wild and people have a tendency to panic. They both overreact and underreact, doing ridiculous things to try to stay safe while ignoring practices that might actually help. Government has an important role to play, both in organizing treatment and in giving the public reliable information.

Wouldn’t it be great to have a government that could fulfill that role? One that we could trust to tell us what was actually happening and what we should or shouldn’t be doing?

Trump himself is utterly hopeless in that regard. Here’s what he’s said so far about the virus.

Reed Galen writes:

For President Donald Trump, the coronavirus represents a personal threat: to his brand, to the economy he claims to be growing, and to his self-professed understanding of how society works. But unlike most of the people in his administration, the coronavirus does not listen, is not scared of mean tweets and can spread regardless of the information the president chooses to share or to diminish.

Trump’s whole career has been based on bullying and marketing, but neither talent helps him here. He’s good at intimidating or conning people into doing things that work to his advantage (and usually to their disadvantage). But he’s never shown any talent for dealing with the physical world, where things are either real or not, and events happen or don’t without regard to what anybody says or thinks.

Trump’s leadership (“new hoax”) has signaled the rest of the right-wing media to run wild with conspiracy theories. Don Jr. claimed Democrats

seemingly hope that it comes here and kills millions of people so that they could end Donald Trump’s streak of winning

Conservative Treehouse has made much of the fact that Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, who warned the country to “prepare for the expectation that this could be bad” is none other than Rod Rosenstein’s sister! How much more evidence of a sinister conspiracy do you need?

There is a strong argument to be made that various resistance government officials like Dr. Messonnier, in alignment with democrat resistance politicians, are attempting to weaponize fear and talking-points about the coronavirus in order to inflict maximum damage upon the Trump administration; regardless of both psychological and actual economic impact to the public.

And conservative radio host Wayne Dupree drew the obvious conclusion:

Looks like this is yet another instance of D.C. swamp creatures using any opportunity to undermine President Trump.

It’s all about Trump. It’s not about those 3,000 people worldwide who have died. It’s about Trump.

OK, Trump may be hopeless at recognizing reality and dealing with it, but he can delegate responsibility to more competent, trustworthy people, right? That also seems unlikely. His top priority is always his own ego. He needs to be 100% right at all times, and he hates it when somebody in his government implies that he’s made a mistake. (Sharpiegate was an almost comical example of how far he’ll go to maintain the claim that he’s right.)

Vice President Pence has been put in charge of the government’s COVID-19 efforts. His task force is a mixture of political hacks and people with genuine public-health knowledge. It’s not clear yet which are the decision-makers and which are there for political window-dressing. It could go either way.

Pence quickly moved to control messaging.

The vice president’s move to control the messaging about coronavirus appeared to be aimed at preventing the kind of conflicting statements that have plagued the administration’s response.

The latest instance occurred Thursday evening, when the president said that the virus could get worse or better in the days and weeks ahead, but that nobody knows, contradicting Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, one of the country’s leading experts on viruses and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.

At the meeting with Mr. Pence on Thursday, Dr. Fauci described the seriousness of the public health threat facing Americans, saying that “this virus has adapted extremely well to human species” and noting that it appeared to have a higher mortality rate than influenza.

“We are dealing with a serious virus,” Dr. Fauci said.

Dr. Fauci has told associates that the White House had instructed him not to say anything else without clearance.

It’s hard to consider Pence a trustworthy figure here. He has a history of giving his moral and religious convictions priority over public health. Plus, the presence of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnunchin and economic advisor Larry Kudlow on the task force indicates the major focus of Trump’s concern: the stock market and the economy. The center of Trump’s re-election case is that stocks are at record highs and unemployment at record lows. If the public stops believing those things — say, because they stop being true — Trump might lose in November. That — and not the possibility of thousands and thousands of deaths — is the problem that grabs his attention.

Finally, it would be nice to believe that in a life-and-death situation, decisions would be made for the public good, without trying to leverage public angst to advance the regime’s political hobby-horse issues. Well, guess again. Saturday, Trump announced that he was very strongly considering closing the southern border.

There’s really no reason to do that. Mexico so far has fewer COVID-19 cases than we do, and fewer than Canada. (It would make more sense for Mexico to close its border with us.) But Trump always wants to close the southern border, so why not use the virus as an excuse?

Accelerating Corruption and Autocracy

Ever since he came down the escalator pledging to protect us from Mexican rapists, Donald Trump has shown corrupt and autocratic tendencies. Before long, he was leading chants about locking up his political opponents, welcoming Russian help in his campaign, encouraging his supporters to be violent, profiting off of campaign events, and saying that he would only accept the election results “if I win“.

Since taking office, he has funneled public money into his private businesses, continued building his wall without a Congressional appropriation, refused all demands for financial transparency and Congressional oversight, obstructed the Mueller investigation, assembled the most corrupt cabinet since Nixon, lied many times per day, and repeatedly expressed his envy of dictatorial regimes like North Korea and China.

But the authoritarian drift has definitely accelerated in the three weeks since every Senate Republican but Mitt Romney voted to let Donald Trump remain in office, despite proven abuses of power. As Atlantic’s Adam Serwer puts it, Trump’s acquittal marked “the end of the Trump administration, and the first day of the would-be Trump Regime.” Think about what we’ve seen since the Senate’s abdication of its constitutional role in controlling would-be autocrats.

A purge of “disloyal” officials. The disloyalty here is not to the United States, but to the person of Donald Trump.

Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman, for example, has behaved exactly as an officer should: When something about Trump’s Ukraine call seemed odd to him, he reported his concerns up the chain of command. When Congress subpoenaed him, he appeared and testified honestly. For this, he was not just fired, but escorted out of the White House like a criminal. His twin brother, who played no role in the impeachment hearings, was also fired just out of vindictiveness. (Fortunately, the Army has refused Trump’s suggestion that Lt. Col. Vindman be investigated and disciplined.)

Other people who are now gone: Ambassador Bill Taylor, Ambassador Gordon Sondland, Ambassador Marie Yovanovich, Undersecretary of Defense John Rood, and Deputy National Security Adviser Victoria Coates. They join everyone in the FBI who had any connection to the original Russia investigation, most of whom were purged long ago: James Comey, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, Bruce Ohr, and Lisa Page, as well as the Justice Department leadership that refused Trump’s pressure to shut the investigation down: Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein.

The purge is expected to continue throughout the administration. (See below for purges at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.)

Interference in the Stone trial. It’s important to understand what Roger Stone (along with Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn) represents: the last loose ends in the obstruction of the Mueller investigation. (One of the obstruction-of-justice claims explored in Part II of the Mueller Report was that Trump engaged in witness-tampering with Manafort, including hinting at a pardon.)

Stone was the Trump campaign’s link to WikiLeaks and from there to the Russians who hacked Democratic computers. Manafort was the campaign’s link to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, and from there to Russian intelligence. Flynn’s relationship with Russian Ambassador Segei Kislyak (in particular why Flynn and Jared Kushner approached him about creating a “back channel” to Russia) has never been explained. These men are not just Trump’s “friends”, they’re his accomplices.

In the Stone case, Trump (through Bill Barr) reversed the prosecutors’ sentencing recommendation (causing all four prosecutors to withdraw from the case rather than participate in political corruption of the processes of justice), attacked the judge, and attacked a juror. He didn’t stop Judge Amy Berman from sentencing Stone to 40 months in prison, but he did set up his justification for a post-election pardon, along with pardons of Flynn and Manafort. This would send a clear message to anyone else who could testify against Trump: Keep your mouth shut and the boss will take care of you.

Notice what has been missing from Trump’s defense of Stone: acknowledgment of the fact that he’s guilty. Stone lied to Congress to protect Trump, and he threatened a witness who could expose that lie. A jury of his peers unanimously found that Stone’s guilt had been proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

Pardons for money. Corrupt Illinois Governor Rob Blagojevich got the attention, but the most obviously corrupt of Tuesday’s pardons was tax evader Paul Pogue, whose family has contributed over $200K to the Trump Victory Fund. Criminal financier Michael Milken was pardoned after a request from billionaire Nelson Peltz, a Milken business associate who had just hosted a Trump fundraiser that netted the campaign $10 million.

Pardons to maintain a corrupt network. Jeffrey Toobin pointed out the authoritarian flavor of the other Tuesday pardons:

Authoritarianism is usually associated with a punitive spirit—a leader who prosecutes and incarcerates his enemies. But there is another side to this leadership style. Authoritarians also dispense largesse, but they do it by their own whims, rather than pursuant to any system or legal rule. The point of authoritarianism is to concentrate power in the ruler, so the world knows that all actions, good and bad, harsh and generous, come from a single source. …

In this era of mass incarceration, many people deserve pardons and commutations, but this is not the way to go about it. All Trump has done is to prove that he can reward his friends and his friends’ friends.

Trump’s pardons did not percolate up through the Justice Department’s Pardon Attorney. They all had some personal connection to Trump or his circle of friends and donors. Blagojevich, for example, was a contestant on “Celebrity Apprentice”, and his wife pleaded for his pardon on Fox News shows Trump is known to watch. (It’s worth noting that there is no doubt about Blagojevich’s guilt. We have the tapes.) Bernard Kerik was a crony of Rudy Giuliani.

All the beneficiaries of Trump’s mercy were convicted of the kinds of white-collar crimes Trump’s people might commit themselves. That was the point, Sarah Chayes (who covered Afghanistan for more than a decade) explained in “This Is How Kleptocracies Work“:

In return for this torrent of cash and favors and subservience, those at the top of kleptocratic networks owe something precious downwards. They owe their subordinates impunity from legal repercussions. That is the other half of the bargain, without which the whole system collapses.

That’s why moves like Trump’s have to be advertised. … Trump’s clemency came not at the end of his time in office, as is sometimes the case with such favors bestowed on cronies and swindlers, but well before that—indeed, ahead of an election in which he is running. The gesture was not a guilty half-secret, but a promise. It was meant to show that the guarantee of impunity for choice members of America’s corrupt networks is an ongoing principle.

Threats to the rule of law. The Justice Department had retained some measure of independence until Bill Barr became attorney general. Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, shared Trump’s policy goals, but respected internal procedures for maintaining the rule of law. For example, he recused himself from the Russia investigation because of his own connection to the Trump campaign — a move which angered Trump and for which Sessions was never forgiven.

But Barr has made a number of moves in the Justice Department to shield Trump from investigation and intimidate his enemies. The best summary I’ve found is by Marcy Wheeler:

  • The Stormy Daniels hush-money investigation sent Michael Cohen to prison, but all the follow-up evaporated after Barr took over at DoJ. Cohen claimed he worked under Trump’s instructions, and that the Trump Organization reimbursed his illegal campaign contribution. But those leads have been dropped.
  • SDNY seems to be slow-walking its investigation into Rudy Giuliani’s Ukraine shennanigans, now that a new US attorney has been appointed. The head of the neighboring Eastern District of New York has been put in charge of Ukraine-related investigations that SDNY had been pursuing.
  • A new US attorney in D.C. has led to a “review” of investigations there, including cases involving Michael Flynn and Erik Prince.
  • Barr assigned Connecticut US attorney John Durham to investigate the origins of the Trump/Russia investigation. Anyone tempted to investigate further Trump wrongdoing now knows that they risk becoming targets themselves.
  • Barr tried to stop the Ukraine whistleblower’s account from reaching Congress, and did not recuse himself even though he is mentioned in the complaint.

Tightening control of the intelligence services. Like the Justice Department, the intelligence services maintained their independence when Dan Coates was Director of National Intelligence, and the subsequent acting heads had failed to bring them under control.

As a result, occasionally conclusions unfavorable to Trump have made it to Congress or the American public: Russia did help elect Trump in 2016. North Korea is not denuclearizing. ISIS is not defeated. Trump may not like to hear such facts, or to allow the American public to know them, but the whole point of having intelligence services is to correct the leadership’s misperceptions.

The most recent example was a February 13 briefing to House leaders of both parties, in which Shelby Pierson, an aide to then-acting DNI Joseph Maguire, reported that Russia was repeating its 2016 interference in the 2020 election process, again for the purpose of electing Trump.

You might expect an American president to react to such news by giving Vladimir Putin a stern warning to back off — as Bernie Sanders did when told that the Russians might be working to help him win the Democratic nomination. But no: Trump welcomed Russian help in 2016, sought to extort Ukrainian help with the 2020 election, and seems to welcome further Russian help now.

The intelligence report did make him angry, but at the intelligence services. He dismissed Maguire and replaced him with Richard Grenell, who has no intelligence background whatsoever. In a Washington Post column, retired Admiral William McRaven lamented Maguire’s fate:

in this administration, good men and women don’t last long.

In a different article, the WaPo quotes a former director of the National Counterterrorism Center:

Nothing in Grenell’s background suggests that he has the skill set or the experience to be an effective leader of the intelligence community. … His chief attribute seems to be that President Trump views him as unfailingly loyal.

As Ambassador to Germany (a position he still holds), Grenell was noted for his identification with right-wing parties like Alternative for Germany. (US ambassadors typically avoid such partisan interference in the politics of our NATO allies.) The German news magazine Der Spiegel couldn’t get an interview with Grenell, so it interviewed more than 30 sources including “numerous American and German diplomats, cabinet members, lawmakers, high-ranking officials, lobbyists and think tank experts.”

Almost all of these sources paint an unflattering portrait of the ambassador, one remarkably similar to Donald Trump, the man who sent him to Berlin. A majority of them describe Grenell as a vain, narcissistic person who dishes out aggressively, but can barely handle criticism. … They also say Grenell knows little about Germany and Europe, that he ignores most of the dossiers his colleagues at the embassy write for him, and that his knowledge of the subject matter is superficial.

Oh, by the way, Grenell used to work for a corrupt Moldavian oligarch, but didn’t register as a foreign agent. Under any previous administration, he wouldn’t be able to get a security clearance.

Grenell in turn has ousted the #2 intelligence official, Andrew Hallman, replacing him with Devin Nunes staffer Kashyap Patel, who is known for promoting pro-Trump conspiracy theories. More personnel changes are expected.

The NYT reports that Grenell has “requested the intelligence behind the classified briefing last week before the House Intelligence Committee where officials told lawmakers that Russia was interfering in November’s presidential election and that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia favored President Trump’s re-election”.

This move recalls how Vice President Cheney abused intelligence during the Bush administration: By “stovepiping” raw intelligence to his own office rather than letting it pass through the analytic process, Cheney was able to manipulate conclusions that favored the policies he preferred, most notably the invasion of Iraq.

Summing up. If you don’t follow US government closely, you may not see the problem. After all, the President is in charge. Why shouldn’t the people under him do what he wants? Isn’t that how it always works?

It isn’t, and there are good reasons why it doesn’t. One problem — you might fairly say it was THE problem — the Founders were trying to solve when they wrote the Constitution was how to control executive power. Unfettered executive power quickly becomes dictatorship, and the rights of the People are then only as safe as the Dictator allows them to be.

For that reason, power was divided among the three branches of government, so that Congress and the Courts would be able to hold the President in check. Congress got the power of the purse and the power of oversight, both of which are now in jeopardy.

Subsequent to the Founding, executive power has also been controlled through the professionalization of the various departments, each of which balances political control by the President with its own inherent mission. So the Justice Department takes its policy from the President, but pursues the departmental mission of justice. The intelligence services try to find truth, the EPA protects the environment, the CDC defends public health, the military safeguards our country and its allies, the Federal Reserve balances economic growth against the threat of inflation, and so on. For the most part, presidents have known when to keep their hands off.

Until Trump. More and more, Trump makes everything political. There is no truth other than the story Trump wants to tell. There is no mission other than what Trump wants done.

Students of authoritarianism have been warning us about his dangerous tendencies since he first began campaigning. But, as Rachel Maddow noted Friday night, we are well past the time for warnings. “The dark days are not ‘coming’,” she said. “The dark days are here.”

What’s Wrong With a Decision-Making Convention?

The last contested Democratic convention nominated Adlai Stevenson in 1952.

The results of the early Democratic primaries and caucuses have been mixed: Bernie Sanders has replaced Joe Biden as the front-runner, but the vote remains split among many candidates, nearly all of whom are continuing to campaign at least through Super Tuesday on March 3. Unlike the Republicans in 2016, Democratic primaries all award delegates proportionately, and there are no winner-take-all contests. So it’s a growing possibility that come July no candidate will arrive at the Milwaukee Convention with a majority of delegates.

If that happens, then it will be up to the Convention to make the decision, i.e., to settle on a candidate without clear instructions from the primary voters.

A number of commentators (Chris Hayes, for one) have painted this possibility as a disaster, particularly if the candidate who comes to Milwaukee with the plurality of delegates isn’t nominated. Bernie’s supporters in particular — who picture their candidate as the one most likely to come in with a lead — are already talking about how the nomination will be “stolen” from him if anyone else gets it.

I’m not seeing it. Whether or not the convention’s choice seems legitimate depends on the scenario, and in a number of the scenarios I would regard as legitimate, the candidate who comes in with a lead doesn’t leave as the nominee.

The delegates. Before getting into that, let’s make sure we understand the process. According to the Green Papers, the primaries and caucuses will choose 3979 delegates, and only those delegates get to vote on the first ballot. If that first ballot doesn’t result in a majority choice, 771 “superdelegates” are added to the mix. Superdelegates are party officials, Democrats who hold prominent offices (like governors and members of Congress), various other distinguished Democrats (Barack Obama, for one), and representatives of key Democratic constituencies (like labor leaders).

So a first-ballot majority is 1990 delegates. Any candidate who gets that many delegates out of the primaries and caucuses is the winner. On the second and all subsequent ballots, a majority is 2376.

Scenario I. A clear leader with a near miss. One possibility is that some candidate is the clear leader and falls just slightly short of that first-ballot victory. Rather than 1990 delegates, Bernie or Bloomberg or somebody else [1] winds up with, say, 1950 delegates, and the rest are scattered among half a dozen candidates, none of whom have more than a thousand. Similarly, national polls show the front-runner to be the clear leader, perhaps with majority support among Democrats or Democratic-leaning voters. The front-runner also polls as well or better than any other candidate in head-to-head match-ups with Trump.

In that case, I agree with Chris Hayes: Something untoward would have to happen to deny that candidate the nomination, and his or her supporters would be right to feel cheated. In particular, any scenario in which a majority of elected delegates forms after the first ballot (as might happen when other candidates drop out) but gets reversed by the superdelegates, would be an anti-democratic travesty.

Unlike the Bernie supporters who imagine a stop-at-nothing conspiracy against them, though, I regard that scenario as extremely unlikely. The superdelegates are there to rescue the party from a hopeless deadlock, not to overrule the voters. (It’s worth remembering that in 2016, when superdelegates could vote on the first ballot, Bernie’s campaign was arguing that they should overrule the voters. Hillary was well ahead in primary votes and elected delegates, but the Sanders campaign argued that if they finished strong, the superdelegates should respect their momentum and swing the nomination to Bernie.)

But there are other scenarios.

Scenario II. A clear delegate leader suffering voters’ remorse. A lot can happen between now and July, some of which might cause voters to change their minds after they cast their primary ballots. So imagine a delegate split like Scenario I, but also that the polls have drastically changed due to some unanticipated event that has damaged the front-runner: Bernie has another heart attack, or Biden stumbles over his words in a way that implies dementia, or some lurid sex scandal reminds Buttigieg voters of all the bad gay stereotypes.

In this scenario, the front-runner in delegates is no longer the front-runner in the polls, and running him or her against Trump is like carrying out a suicide pact.

At that point, I think we all say “Thank God for superdelegates” and prepare to unite behind somebody else.

Even then, though, it matters who Somebody Else is. The primary voters may have changed their minds about the front-runner, but there’s no reason to think they’ve changed their entire political philosophies. So the nominee should be someone who represents the voters who supported the front-runner. So replacing Sanders with, say, Warren would be legitimate in a way that replacing him with Bloomberg would not be. Ditto for replacing Biden with Klobuchar rather than Sanders.

In other words, the nomination shouldn’t automatically fall to the second-place candidate if the front-runner implodes. In this scenario it might even be legitimate to nominate a candidate who wasn’t previously running at all, but who represented a compromise between the progressive and moderate factions: Sherrod Brown, for example.

Scenario III. Several significant candidates. What if the candidate in second place is closer to the leader than the leader is to a majority? Say, for example, that three candidates are splitting the delegates 40-35-25.

In that case, I don’t think the Convention has any obligation to nominate the 40% candidate, particularly if the second and third-place candidates are similar to each other and different from the front-runner. In that case, nominating the front-runner might be going against the primary voters.

For example, imagine Sanders is leading Biden and Bloomberg, or Buttigieg is leading Warren and Sanders. In either of those scenarios, one faction of the party (moderate or progressive) represents the majority, but the front-runner comes from the other faction. Imagine that on the second ballot, the third-place candidate drops out, and his or her delegates mostly vote for the second-place candidate, who becomes the nominee. Those delegates are arguably representing the voters who sent them to the convention, so I don’t think there’s anything to complain about.

Why is this happening? Not since 1952 has a convention failed to produce a first-ballot nominee. (The 1976 Republican Convention, though, was so closely split between sitting President Gerald Ford and challenger Ronald Reagan that there was some suspense.) So why does it seem likely to happen now?

For reasons that are, by and large, good. In the past, late primaries have often been unrepresentative winner-take-all affairs, which generally allowed the leading candidate’s delegate count to go over the top. Also, campaigns were funded more by big donors who wanted a return on their investment, and so were unwilling to keep supporting a candidate with little chance to win. Now campaigns are funded more by small donors who remain loyal even if early results are disappointing (or by billionaires like Bloomberg and Steyer, who remain loyal to themselves). As a result, we have more candidates surviving deeper into the primary calendar.

If you imagine those two factors continuing into the future, we may have to get used to multi-ballot conventions again. They didn’t used to be controversial. (When I was first getting interested in politics as a teen-ager in the 1960s, contested conventions were recent enough that they were a regular feature of political novels like Fletcher Knebel’s Convention, or of movies like The Best Man.)

Abraham Lincoln, for example, was well behind William Seward (173.5 votes to 102) on the first ballot of the 1860 Republican Convention, but won on the fourth ballot. The 1932 Democratic Convention required a 2/3 supermajority, and it took four ballots for FDR to get there. In 1924 Democrats needed 103 ballots to nominate John Davis, who lost to Calvin Coolidge in the general election.

Not necessarily “brokered”. In the old days, conventions were dominated by well-established power brokers like the leaders of New York’s Tammany Hall and other big-city machines. Corruption was rampant and deals were cut without much concern for what the voters wanted. The early primaries were viewed as field tests of a candidate’s popularity, and weren’t central to the nominating process. It wasn’t until JFK’s 1960 campaign that primaries rose to prominence. (Lyndon Johnson went to the 1960 Convention as Kennedy’s main challenger, but had not campaigned in any primaries.) Nominations were decided in “smoke-filled rooms” where the power brokers cut deals.

As a result, we still refer to a convention without a first-ballot winner as a “brokered convention”, a pejorative term implying that some dirty deal is happening. But that needn’t be the case. A convention without a clear primary winner could instead function like a ranked-choice caucus, where delegates vote for their second or third choice when their first-choice candidate drops out.

There’s nothing unseemly about such a process, even if the candidate who enters the convention with a lead doesn’t leave with the nomination.

[1] In judging whether a scenario is fair, I think it’s important to imagine it happening to several candidates — not just to the one you particularly like or dislike. If it would be fair to deny Bloomberg the nomination in certain circumstances, then it would be fair to deny Bernie in similar circumstances. And vice versa.

Let’s Talk Each Other Down

Looking around this week — in the media, among my friends, inside my own head — I observed that a lot of people are freaking out. Because Trump was acquitted, because he has started his revenge tour, because Republicans know he abused his power and don’t care, because the Democrats are doing it all wrong, because a virus is spreading out of control, because the State of the Union was full of lies, because both the National Prayer Breakfast and the Medal of Freedom have been desecrated, because a US senator willfully and illegally endangered the life of a whistleblower, because it’s been 65 degrees in Antarctica, because the Attorney General has given Trump carte blanche to violate campaign laws, because a billion-dollar disinformation project has begun, and because, because, because.

There’s been no lack of stuff to freak out about, if that’s what you feel inclined to do. You’re not wrong. I can’t tell you that all those horrors aren’t happening. But let me try to talk you down in a different way.

In general, people freak out for a very simple reason: They’ve been telling themselves “It’s all going to be OK” when they don’t really know that. When events start to crack that false sense of certainty, one natural reaction is to flip over completely to: “We’re all doomed.”

Allow me to point something out: You don’t really know that either.

So if you come to me hoping I’ll tell you it’s all going to be OK — sorry, I can’t do that. But I can tell you this: Uncertainty is the natural state of human beings. Maybe we’re doomed, but maybe things will be OK — or something in between, more likely. That’s how life is and always has been. It might be true that the arc of the Universe bends towards Justice, but you can never count on that bend being visible in any given lifetime. If you’ve comfortably lived in denial of that reality until this week, I’m sorry you had to find out like this. It’s not really my fault, but never mind: Accept my apology anyway, because probably nobody else will offer one.

You know something that’s even worse? You might be in this state of uncertainty for the rest of your life. Maybe we’re doomed, but maybe we’re not. Nobody really knows. Democracy in America might soon be over, or it might get a reprieve. Truth might finally drown in a sea of disinformation, or maybe it will figure out how to swim in that sea. People are endlessly surprising. Just when you think they’re hopeless, they do something hopeful. And vice versa.

So: Breathe. Breathe again, to make sure that one wasn’t just luck. Keep breathing. You can do this, at least for now.

And try to accept something: You don’t need to know that it’s going to be OK.

You can do something to make things better without being sure it’s going to work. Because … well, what else are you going to do? (I don’t know if you’ve ever tried giving up, but I can tell you a little about that too: It’s no fun either. Sometimes when you get worn down, you might think that waiting helplessly for inevitable destruction would be an nice relief. But trust me. It isn’t.)

Affirmations can be useful in a situation like this, but only if you choose to affirm things that are at least vaguely believable. Try this one: I don’t know that things are going to be OK, but I don’t need to know. I can try to do good things anyway.

Now say it out loud. “I don’t know that things are going to be OK, but I don’t need to know. I can try to do good things anyway.”

Maybe one or two of the things you’ve been trying to do really are doomed, and maybe that’s finally become obvious to you. You can shift your effort to something else. There’s no lack of things to do that still might be useful.

Because you don’t know what’s going to happen. We all like to think that we do, but we don’t.

Now let me tell you something about the particular challenge we’re facing now: Trump. At his core, Trump is a bluffer. He puffs himself up to make people think he’s bigger and richer and stronger than he really is. It’s the only trick he knows, but sometimes it works: He scares people into giving up or going along. (That’s what we just saw happen in the Senate. You don’t really believe that all those Republicans thought keeping him in office was good for the country, do you? Or even good for their party, or for themselves? They got scared, so they went along.)

When something like that works for him, he uses it to puff himself up further and scare more people. That’s what’s been going on this week.

Don’t help him.

Don’t run around scaring other people about how big and powerful he is. When a bluffer gets on a roll, you can never predict how far it will go. But we do know one thing about bluffers: When their empires start to collapse, they collapse quickly, because each failure causes more people to think “I don’t have to be scared of this guy.”

You can never predict exactly when that process is going to start. The balloon always looks biggest just before it pops.

Steve Almond put it like this:

We must organize rather than agonize.

This optimism should not be confused with naiveté. We all know that the Trump regime will do everything in its power to rig the 2020 election. We’ll see more voter suppression, more fearmongering, more Russian trolling.

Nihilism remains the GOP’s ultimate Trump card. They are counting on citizens of good faith to give up, to quit the field, to say “who cares?” So is the party’s most reliable ally, Vladimir Putin. And so are the oligarchs, domestic and foreign, who have converted our planet into a vast and decaying casino.

Don’t let them sucker you.

Be a fanatical optimist. Make a plan. Take action. Listen to your conscience. Vote.

A brighter dawn might await all of us, but we have to work for it.

I’ll quibble with him using the word optimism rather than hope. (I’ve written about that elsewhere.) But the key word there is might. If you’re waiting for a guarantee, for a political almanac that will tell you exactly when the sun will rise and the tide will turn, you’ll keep waiting and you’ll do nothing. Don’t go that way.

Be hopeful. Throw your effort out there and see what happens. Because you never know.