How will the coronavirus pandemic look in the rear view mirror? When, 30 years from now, high school students study for a test on early-21st-century history, what three or four Covid-19 bullet points will they memorize?
A leading candidate, to judge by the number of articles about it, is “ended a period of sustained globalization and ushered in an era of deglobalization.”
One interesting thing about this bullet point is that it represents a choice. Not all Covid bullet points do. This one, for example, seems pretty much guaranteed to be true: “accelerated the adoption of telemedicine, telecommuting, e-commerce, and other practices that save money by replacing in-person interaction with remote interaction.”
And, for that matter, certain aspects of a “deglobalization” bullet point are pretty much inevitable. There’s little doubt, for example, that the US and some other countries will make themselves less exclusively dependent on foreign suppliers—especially Chinese suppliers—for some pharmaceuticals and medical supplies.
The source of globalization’s strength and of its weakness is its non-zero-sum nature.
Fans of globalization tend to emphasize one side of this non-zero-sumness: the “win-win” side. When I buy a smartphone, I’m helping to pay the wages of workers in various Asian countries, and those workers, in exchange, are building me an affordable smartphone. Win-win!
This win-win dynamic is real. (Which doesn’t mean that no Asian workers are in any sense exploited but does mean that global supply chains have tended to raise wages in low-wage countries and save money for American consumers.) And this dynamic is a basic source of globalization’s stubborn power—one of the main reasons globalization is hard to stop. But to appreciate why globalization isn’t impossible to stop—and why it’s in some ways fragile—you have to appreciate two other game-theoretical things:
1) The flip side of win-win is lose-lose. The typical non-zero-sum game isn’t a game that always comes out win-win. It’s a game that can come out win-win but may come out lose-lose. And globalization, as it proceeds, makes these lose-lose outcomes possible on a larger and larger scale.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a good example—as was the 2008 American financial crisis and the 1997 Asian financial crisis. In different senses, these three international contagions spread through an infrastructure that had been built so that people in distant regions could play win-win games.
To put it another way, the “interdependence” that globalization famously fosters boils down to a correlation of fortunes: good news for someone halfway around the world can be good news for me, but bad news for someone halfway around the world can be bad news for me. Win-win or lose-lose—but, either way, non-zero-sum.
It’s when the infrastructure of globalization starts carrying waves of bad news that globalization is most vulnerable to political backlash. And Covid-19 has brought two waves of very bad news—first the viral contagion itself and, second, a contagion of economic contraction.
What heightens the political vulnerability of globalization, especially at times like this, is the second game-theoretical thing:
2. Non-zero-sum games are often intertwined with zero-sum games. Because of globalization, some American workers—especially in the manufacturing sector—have been playing a zero-sum game with low-wage Asian workers. And a lot of those games have been won by Asian workers and lost by American workers. Of course, when these American workers put on their consumer hat and go buy a smartphone, they become winners. But if you lose your union job at GM and wind up doing nighttime custodial work in a Detroit office building, you don’t put your consumer hat on as often as you used to.
That Donald Trump got elected president is among the signs that America has failed these workers. There are various ways it could have served them better: provided support and retraining after they lost their jobs; struck bilateral trade deals that reduced the exposure of these workers to foreign competition; or (my personal favorite) tried to achieve that reduced exposure via multilateral trade rules that, among other things, elevate labor and environmental standards in low-wage countries.
Two people have recently made arguments for starting a new cold war with China—one of them a right-wing Trump supporter (Republican Senator Josh Hawley) and one of them a left-wing Trump opponent (journalist Matt Stoller). I’m not in the habit of complimenting Trump supporters, but I have to say that, of the two arguments, Hawley’s was more coherent. It was internally consistent in the sense that its logic meshed with Hawley’s Trumpist values.
Which was OK with me. I’m against a cold war with China, and I’m against Trumpism. Seeing the two fit naturally together somehow reaffirmed my faith in both positions.
I was also happy to see that Stoller’s argument wasn’t so coherent. Though I’m not a true leftist, I’m left of center, and I share many of the values that inspire people further to the left, including Stoller. I would have felt some cognitive dissonance if he had managed to reconcile a position on China that I disdain with political aspirations I respect.
Hawley’s argument came in a New York Times op-ed titled “Abolish the World Trade Organization,” and Stoller’s came in a conversation on the Glenn Greenwald podcast System Update. The two arguments have a lot in common.
For starters, both seem a bit overwrought. Hawley says that “Chinese imperialism” is “the single greatest threat to American security in the 21st century.” Stoller says China’s goal is “to subvert the current international global order.” (Exploit? Yes. But subvert? Why would you subvert something you’re successfully exploiting?)
And both Hawley and Stoller want not just to “decouple” (as Stoller puts it) our economy from China’s but to bind our economy more tightly with the economies of kindred nations. Hawley says we should build a new trading network “in concert with other free nations,” and Stoller wants us to “move production to democracies” and “create some level of self-sufficiency among democracies.” Both men want to see global commerce divided along ideological lines, just like in the good old days that neither is old enough to remember.
One difference between the two is in exactly how cold they want their wars to be. Hawley seems happy with something close to a complete rupture of relations with China, but Stoller wants to stop short of that.
The previous issue of NZN featured Part I of my conversation with Princeton philosopher Gideon Rosen, in which we pondered this question: What does it mean to call yourself a “materialist” or “physicalist,” given that modern physics makes it hard to think of the world as consisting ultimately of solid particles or solid anything else. The difficulty of defining these labels leads to another question: Might they be a way of signaling not what you believe about reality but what you don’t believe—namely that you don’t believe the universe has a purpose (a “telos”) or comes with built-in moral truths? That’s where we pick up the conversation, which eventually leads to such topics as whether we live in a simulation, how we would know if we did, and whether the directionality of evolution (its tendency to lead to more complex and intelligent structures) could be evidence of a larger purpose unfolding on Earth.
ROBERT WRIGHT: I wanted to touch on teleology. I think you said [once] that [“physicalist”] is almost like an identifier, a way of saying "I'm not a moral realist,” and “I'm not teleological," meaning, “I don't believe there's purpose in the world, certainly [not] a larger purpose.” Am I misremembering, or would you have said something like that?
GIDEON ROSEN: Yeah, I do think that's part of it.
I mean, a whole bunch of things emerged together at the beginning of the 17th century with the scientific revolution. One was the rise of mechanistic physics as a fundamental theory of reality. Another—and these were not exactly the same thing—was the rejection of teleology in nature, the idea that the apt description of nature is in terms of the purposes of things, the functions of things, or the goods that are to be realized by physical processes. Those two things—the rejection of teleology and the rise of mechanistic physics—happened at the same time, with many of the same people involved…
By the time the scientific revolution was mature, to be a hardheaded, scientifically-minded philosopher or theorist was to hold that fundamental physics involves mathematical properties of extended things spread out in space and time, and not moral properties. Not functions, not purposes, nothing like that. And not, by the way, anything outside of nature that might have endowed physical things with that kind of purpose, like God.
So if you're a materialist or a physicalist now, you reject fundamental teleology and you also reject the supernatural...
It seems to me that one problem with that worldview is … the fact that we speak of a clock as having a purpose.
It is a purely physical system. So certainly you can imagine ... a physical system that has a purpose, but we don't have to think of the purpose as residing in the system... We can think of the purpose as almost having to do with the nature of its historical development...
Now, I understand that you could ... say, okay, the universe could have a purpose in that sense, but we just don't think that there was some kind of deistic God that imparted [it]. As a matter of belief, I can see that.
Although I would say that I think one current in thought that might lend... legitimacy to the view of this kind of purpose in the universe is all this stuff about living in a simulation, right? There are serious philosophers (plus Elon Musk, for what that's worth) who say: “Hey, we may be living in a simulation.”
And that seems logically possible to me… And if that's the case, then it's an example of something where a system that looks to us like a physical system—functioning regularly, in accordance with laws—clearly does have a purpose that was imparted. Right?
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In the Guardian, Rutger Bregman writes about a real-life version of Lord of the Flies, the William Golding novel about a group of boys who, left to their own devices after being stranded on an island, illustrate a dark view of human nature. But in the real-life story—involving six boys who got stranded on an island in 1966 and spent a year there—human nature comes off looking better. The piece is an excerpt from Bregman’s book Humankind.
Edward Luce of the Financial Times does a deep dive into Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus crisis.
In National Review, Michael Brendan Dougherty argues that American attitudes on Covid-19 are less polarized than the lockdown-versus-open-up narrative on social media would have you believe. But he’d like them to become still less polarized: “At the risk of sounding like a total drip, let me just say: People, try to be generous to one another.”
In Lion's Roar, four Buddhist chaplains share stories about providing spiritual counsel to the sick and dying during the pandemic.
Two weeks ago a group of mercenaries staged an invasion of Venezuela so feeble and ill-conceived as to make the Bay of Pigs look like the Normandy invasion. In Vox, Alex Ward tells the remarkable story of the fiasco’s mastermind—an entrepreneurial former US soldier named Jordan Goudreau, whose eccentric security firm once did work for President Trump. Secretary of State Pompeo has denied “direct” US involvement in the escapade.
In the Atlantic, economist Emily Oster argues that "just stay home" coronavirus messaging risks making the perfect the enemy of the good and could lead people to do riskier things than they otherwise would.
The New York Times reveals what doomed a Republican senator’s attempt to stop the flow of US arms that, as deployed by Saudi Arabia, have killed many Yemeni civilians: a memo that Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro sent to Jared Kushner under the title: “Trump Mideast arms sales deal in extreme jeopardy, job losses imminent.”
This week I read a piece in the Atlantic that gave me a new mission in life. I now want to stamp out—completely extinguish, with no mercy whatsoever—a rhetorical tactic that has long belonged in the dustbin of history but continues to plague humankind: the aiding-and-abetting meme. That is: depicting people whose views you don’t like as being in league with, or abjectly serving the interests of, adversarial foreign powers.
The Atlantic piece is by George Packer, and the folks at the Atlantic think so highly of it that it’s in the actual physical magazine. Here’s a passage from it:
Donald Trump saw the crisis almost entirely in personal and political terms. Fearing for his reelection, he declared the coronavirus pandemic a war, and himself a wartime president.
OK, so far so good. But then Packer continues:
But the leader he brings to mind is Marshal Philippe Pétain, the French general who, in 1940, signed an armistice with Germany after its rout of French defenses, then formed the pro-Nazi Vichy regime. Like Pétain, Trump collaborated with the invader and abandoned his country to a prolonged disaster.
I realize that, to many readers, it won’t be obvious why this passage sent me over the edge, catapulting me all the way into Howard Beale territory. So let me try to explain the several things about it that, together, gave it such force.
The theory that Covid-19 came not from a Chinese “wet market” but from a Chinese laboratory now has the full support of President Trump. This hasn’t been confirmed by Trump himself, but it’s been confirmed by the next-most-official source: a Fox News chyron. During a recent episode of Tucker Carlson’s show, the chyron read, “Sources to Tucker: Intel agencies are almost certain that the virus escaped Wuhan lab.”
In sheerly factual terms, Trump could turn out to be on solid ground. The fringe version of this theory—that the virus came from a bioweapons lab, and may have been genetically engineered—continues to be widely dismissed, but credible people think the virus could have escaped from a less nefarious Wuhan lab, one that studies coronaviruses with an eye to preventing epidemics.
I can see why Trump thinks that publicizing even this watered down version of the lab origin story is a political winner. Though it lacks the cinematic flair of the bioweapon theory, it seems (at first glance, anyway) to corroborate the idea that the Chinese government was engaged in a cover up during the contagion’s crucial early stages. So it reinforces Trump’s blame-the-perfidious-Chinese-communists-not-the-incompetent-American-president narrative—without Trump having to be the one who blames the perfidious Chinese.
But if I were Trump I’d hope that the lab origin story doesn’t pan out. On close examination it turns out to reinforce the blame-the-incompetent-American-president message. In 2018, we now know, the Trump administration had an opportunity to help tighten security at the Wuhan lab that is at the center of the story and failed to do so.
Is physical stuff all there is? If you ask a philosopher that question, it can lead to a discussion that covers things ranging from consciousness to 20th-century physics to whether mathematical concepts are real. That’s what happened when I discussed the subject with Gideon Rosen, professor of philosophy at Princeton and co-author of The Norton Introduction to Philosophy. Gideon is also a friend of mine—which made the conversation even more fun for me than it would have been otherwise.
ROBERT WRIGHT: I've been trying to get you to be on this show for years. You've resisted, but the reason I've wanted you to is that whenever I have a question about philosophy, you provide a very efficient overview of the whole context of my question. You don't always provide a definitive answer, but that's in the nature of philosophy.
GIDEON ROSEN: It is. It's a shame that it's in the nature of philosophy.
It would be nice if we could wheel out definitive answers to these questions and it's a bit of a mystery why we can't, since everybody else manages to provide the occasional definitive answer. We don't. It's a drag, but we do our best.
Do you think it's a mystery? Or do you think it's kind of clear, given the nature of the questions you address, why it would be the case that you don't come up with the same kinds of answers that mathematicians and scientists do?
Yeah, there are some obvious differences that explain why we don't do it the way they do—but, if the questions make sense, if the questions are clear, then they have answers. We don't have a clear sense of why it is that we can't nail them down.
It's not as if we're floundering around. Philosophy produces plenty of opinion, plenty of conviction—even plenty of justified conviction, in the sense that people have arguments for their views and arguments that some people find persuasive. But we don't get as much consensus on the hard questions, even given the arguments we've got, and that's a little mystifying...
I don’t know, I want to give you more credit. I think you're just tackling the hard questions…
In the Atlantic, Peter Beinart argues that the Biden campaign’s apparent decision to try to out-hawk Trump on China suffers from three shortcomings: “First, it promotes bad foreign policy. Second, it could stoke anti-Chinese racism. Third, it doesn’t even make long-term sense politically.” But aside from that…
The Verge reports that Spot, the doglike robot made by Boston Dynamics, is being used in hospitals to reduce the risk of transmitting the coronavirus between patients and staff. Ars Technica, in a piece called “The pandemic is bringing us closer to our robotic future,” notes that wheeled sidewalk delivery robots are also in demand.
In Foreign Affairs, political scientist Barry Posen argues that, though the pandemic has in some ways heightened international tensions, “the odds of a war between major powers will go down, not up.”
In a University of Chicago working paper, four academics present evidence that cable news viewing habits have influenced patterns of Covid-19 infection. During February, when Tucker Carlson was warning about the Covid threat and Sean Hannity was dismissing it, the more a county’s Fox News viewers watched Hannity, and the less they watched Carlson, the more the county was afflicted by the epidemic. This pattern abated after late February, when Hannity started taking the virus more seriously.
In the New York Times, Thomas Edsall assesses the political logic behind Trump’s attempt to play both sides of the lockdown debate—supporting people in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Virginia who rebel against restrictions that are remarkably like the restrictions he professes to support.
In Vox, Roge Karma interviews Yale historian Frank Snowden, author of Epidemics and Society, about why the modern world is so vulnerable to pandemics and how the current pandemic will affect the perennial struggle between xenophobia and tribalism on the one hand and cosmopolitanism and cooperation on the other.
In the Guardian, Julian Borger does a play-by-play recounting of the World Health Organization’s response to the coronavirus contagion (and in the process rebuts widespread reports that Taiwan offered early evidence of human-to-human transmission that was ignored by WHO).
In the New York Times, Taylor Lorenz looks at Josh Zimmerman, who is a “life coach for influencers.” Weeks into the pandemic, a client who has big followings on YouTube and Instagram asked him for guidance and “within 24 hours… she had a plan for a timely series about grief, gratitude and self-reflection called ‘14 Days of Mindfulness.’ ” Lorenz opines that “Mr. Zimmerman’s role feels especially vital now, in the midst of a health crisis that has sent half the world home for an indefinite period and glued many of them to their phones.”
The Guardian reports that books by Marcus Aurelius and other Stoic writers are selling well amid the pandemic. Marcus, who lived through a plague, advised that, rather than mourn your bad luck amid misfortune, “you should rather say: ‘It is my good luck that, although this has happened to me, I can bear it without pain, neither crushed by the present nor fearful of the future.’ ” I’ve always assumed it would be easier to adopt that attitude if I were emperor of the Roman Empire, but maybe I’m underestimating the demands of Marcus’s job.
When Steve Bannon got his White House pink slip in 2017, there seemed to be at least two lessons for anyone who aspires to stay in Trump’s inner circle for long. First, avoid being depicted on Time Magazine’s cover as the “great manipulator”—the true power behind Trump’s throne. Second, avoid being quoted in a bestselling book as calling Ivanka Trump “dumb as a brick.”
But, however grave Bannon’s crimes, to write him off back then—to assume he would never again be a significant force within Trumpism—would have been to underestimate his resourcefulness and determination. A pandemic is a time of opportunity as well as tragedy, and Bannon is seizing the moment. And the way he’s seizing it drives home what a pivotal moment it is—how much will hinge on the way voters and politicians respond to the coronavirus contagion.
Bannon, like many nationalists, is highly sensitive to threats from abroad, and he was sounding alarms about Covid-19 before most Americans got the picture. In late January his “War Room: Impeachment” podcast morphed into “War Room: Pandemic.” In March it started getting airtime on WABC, New York’s right-wing talk-radio powerhouse, and it’s also featured on various other talk stations across the country. A video version of the show airs nightly on the Newsmax cable TV network.
Broadcasting from “Fort Defiance” in Washington, Bannon and his crew lay out a vision of how Trump should wage the war against Covid-19 (fiercely), how Trump should talk about the war (clearly and dramatically), and how amenable the post-pandemic landscape can be to the triumph of Trumpism. That triumph, Bannon seems to believe, will be easier if Trump and other prominent Trumpists follow his rhetorical lead. And Bannon’s stream of Trump-friendly guests, from Rudy Giuliani to Nigel Farage, probably increase the chances of that happening.
Meanwhile, Bannon is getting attention beyond his base. He’s the star of the Errol Morris documentary “American Dharma,” released five months ago, and this month he created a stir on Twitter by getting respectful treatment as a guest on the well-known leftish podcast “Red Scare.”
This week President Trump expanded his arsenal for dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. He went from a blame-China-not-me strategy to a blame-China-and-the-World-Health-Organization-not-me strategy.
Officials at WHO, Trump said at a press conference, are “very biased toward China”—just look at how, in the early weeks of the outbreak, they “said there’s no big deal, there’s no big problem, there’s nothing.” So Trump will be “looking into” whether to freeze US funding for WHO.
Republican Senator Rick Scott of Florida is on board. A week before Trump’s press conference, he called for hearings into WHO’s performance. The World Health Organization, Scott says, “lied to us. It was intentional. People are dying because of it.” So, “as soon as Congress is back in session, there should be a hearing, along with a full investigation, to review whether American taxpayers should continue to spend millions of dollars every year to fund an organization that willfully parroted propaganda from the Chinese Communist Party.”
This is a familiar right-wing move: subject international institutions to scrutiny that, if all goes according to plan, can be used to justify cutting their funding. Then, as the script typically unfolds, global governance fans like me spring to the defense of these institutions.
In this case, though, I’m partly in sync with the right-wing move. I don’t agree with Scott that we should do the investigation ASAP (since at the moment both we and the World Health Organization are kind of, um, busy). And I’m not in favor of cutting WHO funding. I’m also not nearly as sure as Scott that WHO is guilty as charged. But the organization could have performed better in the early stages of the contagion, and there’s at least some reason to suspect that people at WHO consequentially misled us.
Before I get into the consequential misleading, let me lay out a larger reason that I think fellow global governance fans should consider getting on the investigate-WHO bandwagon.
Institutions of international governance, like institutions of national governance, are prone to a particular form of corruption: they’re inclined to serve powerful interests at the expense of their mission.
Apple and Google announced that they’re jointly developing smartphone software that will facilitate “contact tracing”—finding and notifying people who have been near someone who tests positive for Covid-19. Blogger Nicky Case offers a cartoon explanation of how smartphone contact tracing can work without sacrificing privacy—which is the way Google and Apple say their system will work. Russell Brandom of The Verge answers “the 12 biggest questions” about the approach Apple and Google are taking. Efficient contact tracing is considered critical if the US is to emerge from economic lockdown without rapid recurrence of contagion.
The Intercept’s Sharon Lerner reports that, in New York City, the five ZIP codes with the highest rates of positive Covid tests have per capita income of $27,000, while the five zip codes with the lowest rates have per capita income of $118,000. The New York Times displays data from many cities, gathered by tracking the smartphones of high-income and low-income people, to support the thesis that “staying home during coronavirus is a luxury.” In the Washington Post, Eugene Scott explains “four reasons the coronavirus is hitting black communities so hard.”
The good news from Yemen: Saudi Arabia, which in 2015 led a military intervention that has greatly worsened the conflict there, declared a coronavirus ceasefire. The bad news: the next day Yemen, a country whose health care infrastructure has been devastated by the war, reported its first coronavirus case.
Google used (anonymized) location data from smartphones to see how much activity of various kinds—going to parks, shopping at grocery and drug stores, etc.—has changed during the Covid-19 epidemic. Its Community Mobility Reports website offers downloadable summaries of the activity for lots of nations, as well as individual American states and counties in those states. In my county—and I suspect in many others—the only category in which activity has grown is “residential.”
The International Crisis Group looks at ways the pandemic could “give rise to new crises or exacerbate existing ones” (especially in areas featuring conflict, simmering tensions, or weak governance). One problem is a possible lack of global leadership; the US, which led the international response to the 2014 Ebola contagion, has “simultaneously mishandled its domestic response to Covid-19, failed to bring other nations together and stirred up international resentment.”
The New York Times takes a look at how Americans are spending their money amid the shutdown. TLDR: Charitable giving down, alcohol consumption up, and boom times for home improvement.
Did you know that “America is under attack—not just by an invisible virus, but by the Chinese”? Did you know that, even amid this attack, “Joe Biden defends China and parrots Communist party propaganda”? If not, maybe you should get on the mailing list for news updates from the Trump-Pence campaign.
Team Trump has shifted into full-on blame-China-first mode. In a span of two weeks, we’ve gone from Trump using the term “coronavirus” to Mike Pompeo test-marketing the term “Wuhan virus” to Trump abandoning all pretenses of subtlety and going with “Chinese virus.”
There’s no denying that China deserves lots of blame. Its failure to adequately regulate Wuhan’s “wet markets”—where wild animals are sold for consumption—seems to be what inflicted this epic problem on the world.
Then again, in 2008 America’s failure to adequately regulate its financial markets inflicted an epic problem on the world. That’s life amid globalization: screwups in one nation can rapidly infect other nations. Sometimes you’re the screwer, and sometimes you’re the screwee.
To put this in more formal language: in a globalized world, nations are locked into a non-zero-sum relationship; there can be lose-lose outcomes or win-win outcomes, depending on how they play their games. This pandemic has been lose-lose, but in the fight against it there will be win-win moments—not just in the sense that victories over the virus in any nation make other nations safer, but in the sense that successful tactics and treatments discovered by one nation will spread to other nations. For better and for worse, we’re all in this together.
One of the main things this newsletter is about (hence the name!) is how the world’s various non-zero-sum games can be played more wisely. Sometimes that mission means championing the kind of global governance that facilitates cooperation among nations. So, for example, I’d be against cutting US funding to the World Health Organization. And I’d certainly be against trotting out the idea of a 50 percent cut in that funding at exactly the time that a pandemic is enveloping the world—which, remarkably, the Trump administration actually did.
But cheering for good global governance isn’t enough. If you’re serious about fostering it, you have to foster a political climate conducive to it, which means fighting the xenophobia and crude nationalism that so often poison that climate.
You may think my next sentence is going to be: “And that means fighting Trump and Trumpism.” Wrong!
On March 11—back before President Trump had declared a national emergency and sent various other signals that he was now taking COVID-19 seriously—the Economist posted some numbers showing that Democrats were more worried about the virus than Republicans and more likely to have taken precautions against it. The headline said, “In America, even pandemics are political.”
There’s certainly some truth to that. Once Trump, out of the gate, minimized the dangers posed by the virus, some of his supporters followed their leader—as supporters are especially inclined to do in polarized times. And their attachment to his position was probably strengthened by the derisive dismissal of it coming from his detractors. Psychology of Tribalism 101.
But to fully appreciate the coronavirus’s potential to deepen American polarization, you need to see how thoroughly it can be woven into the narrative that got Trump elected. And to see that, you need to understand another reason Trump supporters didn’t get as freaked out by the virus as Trump detractors: It wasn’t as much of a threat to them.
The virus was at first a blue-state problem: California, Washington State, New York, and Massachusetts had the biggest spots on the coronavirus map. And as the disease spread, it hit the bluer parts of the red states—the big cities. (As various analysts have noted, America’s great divide isn’t so much blue state versus red state—after all, big chunks of blue states are red, and vice versa—as high-population-density areas versus lower-density areas.)
Of course, this is changing. The virus is now in all states, and it’s starting to move from cities to towns. So maybe people on both sides of America’s political divide will more and more be seeing things the same way?
In the sense of taking the epidemic seriously, yes. There’s been an uptick in Republicans’ interest in and concern about the coronavirus as it has spread and as Trump has gone from being dismissive of it to being conspicuously in command of the war against it. But there’s reason to worry that this convergence of perspectives won’t bring broader harmony between red and blue.
For one thing, if you’re in a red state or a red town, and you see the virus headed your way, where is it headed from? From blue states and blue cities! Moreover: How did it get to those blue states and blue cities? From abroad.
Our situation would seem to be this: the price of fighting COVID-19—the price of the massive social distancing the U.S. and other countries are now deploying against it—is almost certainly a recession and possibly a global depression. And global depressions have, among other downsides, something in common with COVID-19: they kill people.
In the New York Times, David L. Katz, a physician, argues that there’s a way out of this dilemma—a way to avert economic collapse without paying a massive toll in death and suffering.
The basic idea is to apply social distancing more selectively but more intensively: identify the most vulnerable (older people, plus younger people with such conditions as diabetes), and strengthen the rules that protect them from infection, while relaxing the rules for the less vulnerable, and thus allowing them to participate in the economy.
In this scenario, the contagion would continue, but it would continue within corridors that would keep the death rate low—that is, corridors occupied by relatively young and healthy people. The typical experience of people infected would range from feeling no symptoms at all to having something like a bad case of the flu. And after infection they would presumably be immune, at least for a while. Eventually America would achieve “herd immunity”: a high enough percentage of the population would be immune so that the virus would quit spreading.
Most people, including me, find “herd immunity” scenarios a bit chilling, as they entail unflinching resignation to a certain level of death, however low, within a certain part of the population. And that just seems less humane than trying to save everyone, even if that effort is doomed to fall well short of its goal. But before dismissing Katz’s idea, you should read his op-ed, because he notes downsides of the current approach (including lethal ones) that go beyond flirting with economic apocalypse.
New York Times tech writer Kevin Roose sees upside in the physical isolation the coronavirus has imposed on us. The virus “is forcing us to use the internet as it was always meant to be used—to connect with one another, share information and resources, and come up with collective solutions to urgent problems. It’s the healthy, humane version of digital culture we usually see only in schmaltzy TV commercials, where everyone is constantly using a smartphone to visit far-flung grandparents and read bedtime stories to kids.”
Pollution dropped markedly in China and Italy as a result of coronavirus-induced social distancing. On the environmental blog G-Feed, Marshall Burke calculates that the lives saved in China via reduced pollution exceeded the lives lost to the virus. Whether or not that’s true, the satellite images accompanying the blog post are testament to how much the air seems to have cleared up in China. Satellite shots of northern Italy before and during its lockdown paint the same picture. Of course, these reductions in pollution were part of an economic slowdown that you wouldn’t want to sustain forever. Still, the pandemic will no doubt heighten our appreciation of how many things we can do remotely, via information technology, without generating as many pollutants as we’re accustomed to generating. These things include not just telecommuting but, for example:
Quartz reports that the pandemic has brought a boom in telehealth, as doctors—in part to shield themselves from infection—become more amenable to virtual office visits.
In the New York Times, John Schwartz assesses the extent to which some of the tools of social distancing—telecommuting, virtual conferences, and the like—could slow the rate of climate change. The question is more complicated than you might guess. If, for example, working remotely means spending the day in a house that would otherwise be uninhabited, the fuel consumed to heat or cool the house has to be weighed against the fuel saved by not commuting (which itself varies greatly depending on whether you drive to work or take public transportation).
Three months ago, on the website Counterpunch, Richard Ward wrote that Bernie Sanders is “the one possible challenger to the neoliberal order.” That status, he went on to assert, accounted for the timing of the Senate impeachment trial; it was the neoliberal order’s way of keeping Sanders off the campaign trail. I can only imagine what Ward thought this week after the Democratic establishment swung into action to convert Joe Biden’s victory in South Carolina into victory on Super Tuesday.
If Biden’s resurrection was indeed in some sense the work of the “neoliberal order,” the effort may have been misguided. However qualified Sanders is to overthrow that order, he’s also qualified—maybe uniquely qualified—to save the things about it that many neoliberals profess to cherish, things that may otherwise suffer a grim fate.
To see what I mean, you have to first appreciate an odd thing about the word “neoliberal.” Unlike most ideological labels, it is claimed by virtually no one. It’s used mainly as a pejorative, typically to mean something like “a free market fundamentalist who happily does the bidding of corporate overlords, helping them run roughshod over the world’s working people.” And that’s not the kind of phrase you put in your LinkedIn profile.
But even if no one wears the neoliberal label proudly, and even if the term is now thrown around so loosely as to make it unclear who really merits the label, it’s possible to apply it with some precision. If you follow the term “neoliberal” back to the 1990s, you’ll find it referring to a distinct set of policies—policies collectively called “the Washington consensus”—and an underlying philosophy. Adherents of that philosophy are still around, and many of them—neoliberals in a precise and not-necessarily-pejorative sense—are now being called neoliberals in the vaguer, pejorative sense.
These are the people I’m calling neoliberals, and here is the point I want to make about them: If their detractors are right—if they are mere tools of rapacious capitalism, cloaking their true motives in liberal cliches—then they should definitely oppose Sanders. But if their goals are the more high-minded ones that they profess, Sanders may be their man and Joe Biden may not.
The New York Times obituary of the physicist Freeman Dyson, who died last week, includes such characterizations as “iconoclast,” “heretic,” “visionary,” and “religious, but in an unorthodox way.” All of that and more came through in an interview I did with Dyson two decades ago (one of the very first video interviews I ever did, back at the dawn of online video). Below is a mildly edited transcript of the interview. Reading it, I was reminded how eclectically adventurous Dyson was--jumping from the Gaia hypothesis to an eccentric definition of God to the idea that the universe involves “three levels of mind” and to many other things. I was also reminded what a nice person he was.
ROBERT WRIGHT: First of all, thanks very much for letting me come talk to you here today. I've never been within the walls of the Institute for Advanced Study before, and I feel kind of privileged. It has a kind of mystique about it. Do you find that people react to it that way?
FREEMAN DYSON: Well, I tried to demolish this aura of sanctity that surrounds the place. What it is basically is a motel with stipends. ... It's just a place where young people come from all over the world and are given a year or two with pay.
A somewhat more selective admissions policy than some motels have. Right?
Yes. But still that's basically what it is. Mostly the important thing is what they do when they get home, not what they do while they're here.
I see. But there have been—I mean, Einstein, von Neumann and so on—there have been a lot of people thinking deep cosmic thoughts here, right?
Yes, but that's not really what the place is for, that's accidental.
It's not for cosmic thoughts really?
Well, if you're lucky, of course you get a few of those. ...
You, in any event, have been doing your share of thinking cosmic thoughts.
Not very much.
Well, I don't know. Let's do a brief review.
In the New York Times, Peter S. Goodman writes that the coronavirus has “accelerated and intensified the pushback to global connection,” heightening fears about immigration and exposing the vulnerability of global supply chains. And the pushback may be just beginning. As Jeet Heer notes on Twitter, Trump’s initial, optimistic messaging strategy—Don’t worry, we’re on top of this—may soon give way to xenophobic, anti-globalization fear mongering. Secretary of State Pompeo has already started calling the virus the “Wuhan virus.”
Elizabeth Preston reports in Quanta that the aquatic salamander known as the axolotl—which looks even weirder than its name suggests—has now had its genome fully sequenced. The resulting knowledge could someday give humans a quintessentially axolotlic skill: the ability to regenerate lost body parts.
In Fast Company, tech writer Harry McCracken takes a look at the presidential campaign of 1996, “the first to be fought on the web.” It wasn’t a momentous battle; most voters weren’t on the web, and “nobody in politics was an expert on leveraging its power.” McCracken says the candidates’ websites were “eyesores…even by 1996 standards”—and a perusal of them provides some supporting evidence. But I was most struck by the air of innocence and earnestness. The home page of Phil Gramm’s site declares, “We have established this presence on the internet in the interest of providing a wide range of news and information that will interest those who are already involved in our campaign and those who want to learn more about our efforts.” That it took only 20 years to get from there to 2016—when the web was a battleground of bot-abetted, microtargeted deception—is sobering.
The Trump administration’s support of the bloodless coup that deposed Bolivian President Evo Morales hasn’t wavered amid the repression unleashed by his military-installed successor, to judge by a piece in the Washington Post. And, to judge by another Post piece, the justification for that coup is looking even shakier than before. A statistical analysis by two MIT scholars casts doubt on the claim that there were “voting irregularities” suggestive of foul play by Morales.
I’ve never been good at lovingkindness (“metta”) meditation. (People who know me aren’t mystified by this.) In Tricycle, Thai forest monk Ajahn Brahm suggests that metta-challenged meditators like me start the practice by imagining a kitten. No way, dude. But I’m willing to try a dog. Anyway, this short article is linked to Tricycle’s annual Meditation Month—a challenge to commit to 31 days of (not-necessarily-metta) meditation, along with a package of materials that help.
In the New York Times, Alex Stone looks at a demographic of growing interest to scholars of marketing: people who are consistently drawn to new products that will wind up bombing in the marketplace. These “harbingers of failure” may someday be used by companies to abort the launch of doomed products (whose past examples include Crystal Pepsi, Watermelon Oreos, and Cheetos Lip Balm.) Apparently there are whole zip codes whose residents seem to have this sixth sense.
The recent peace deal between the US and the Taliban looked tenuous this week as Taliban attacks on Afghan government targets brought American counterattack. John Glaser of the Cato Institute argues that the deal will remain fragile so long as the US continues to make compliance with it conditional on constructive engagement between the Taliban and the Afghan government, rather than acknowledge the limits of American leverage.
On the Wright Show, I interviewed alleged Bernie Bro David Klion, author of a tweet so notorious that Mike Bloomberg featured it in an ad implicitly aimed at Bernie Bros. I thought I had convinced Klion that it would be a good idea to tone down his more hyperbolic, tribalistic tweets, but a few days later he tweeted this. Sigh.