Tuesday, April 7, 2020
In these dark times, when the world as we know it is fast falling apart, it is reassuring to find one small evidence that the old, familiar ways endure, offering us something, however slight, to hold on to. It is for that reason that I greeted with deep gratitude this news that Trump has a small stake in the French company that makes the Malaria drug he has been touting as a miracle cure for COVID-19.
Monday, April 6, 2020
Another troubled night, this time agitated by arithmetic. Yesterday evening, I heard Wolf Blitzer say that exactly one month ago [i.e. March 5th] there were 11 confirmed COVID deaths in the U. S. and now [last night] there are 9600. Since a logarithmic graph of this increase, as I found it with a little Googling, is essentially a straight line, it follows that the number of deaths is doubling every 3+ days. [That is, in one month it doubles between 9 and 10 times, or goes up more or less by a factor of 900. 9600 is roughly 900 x 11.] If we are two weeks from the peak, that means total deaths to that point will go up by a factor of 16 [ = 2 x 2 x 2 x 2] to ~150,000.
Now, in the bell-shaped curve with which we have all become familiar, the x axis measures days, the y axis measures numbers of deaths on that day, and total deaths are represented by the area under the curve from the origin to that point.
Which means that if the curve really has the shape portrayed, total deaths when the pandemic has died down will be TWICE the total at the peak, or, in our estimation, 300,000. And that is just over the period March-May! By comparison, 2.8 million Americans die each year from all causes. That is about 700,000 in the March-May timespan.
I am not sure we have yet comprehended the social impact of COVID deaths on that scale in that compressed time frame.
Sunday, April 5, 2020
What follows, let me emphasize, are speculations, not predictions. All of these speculations are optimistic. At a time when thousands are dying and perhaps hundreds of thousands will follow them to the grave [or to the freezer truck], it is no effort to forecast the worst. Consider these not even speculations, but rather a call to action.
In most great natural calamities, some species of animals and plants perish. One thinks of the Permian-Triassic Extinction, in which 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species disappeared. The COVID event is not in that league, but it may claim one hardy species of faux raptor, the Great Republican Deficit Hawk. After the fourth, fifth, and sixth multi-trillion dollar “stimulus” packages are passed unanimously by the Senate and signed into law, the once-feared deficit hawk may have retreated to a protected sanctuary in the Cato Institute, only to reappear on ritual occasions to preen, fluff its feathers, and utter its distinctive “cuuuut, cuuuut” cry.
As the Deficit Hawk dies out, small timid MMT theorists may emerge from their safe havens in second tier university Economics Departments and, as often happens during such upheavals, evolve into fearsome saber toothed Ivy League professors. The genera, sub-genera, families, species, and sub-species of Marxists, who have survived by identifying and cultivating less hostile backwaters in State universities, will in all likelihood not benefit from the COVID extinction. Since they prey mostly on one another they are ill-suited to take advantage of openings in the intellectual ecosystem.
Which brings me to health care, or, as the virus is revealing, the lack of health care. If I may continue the evolutionary metaphor, the development of the American health care unsystem is a classic example of the speciation that Darwin discovered on his famous sea voyage. Separated from the rest of the world by two large oceans, America has developed a completely distinctive, utterly inefficient, but on the other hand exorbitantly expensive way of caring for its citizens’ health care needs. The struggle to rectify this disaster has consumed the energies of Democrats for a large part of the seventy years. Improvements have been achieved, to be sure, by means of a mode of evolution that the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Goud called Punctuated Equilibrium. That is to say, long periods of stasis interrupted by brief bursts of change. It looks to me as though we may emerge from the COVID extinction with an overwhelming consensus in support of rapid fundamental change. Joe Biden, who is probably ideally situated to benefit politically from what will come to be called the Trump Die Off, is perhaps the worst Democrat in America to lead such a period of change, but as he seems not to have any identifiable convictions, he can be counted on to sign whatever a Democratic Congress puts before him.
I shall now put behind me the biological metaphor, which has outlived its usefulness. Quite the most interesting political development of the past month is the shift taking place before our eyes in the relative power, status, and energy of the federal government and the state governments. In the past 90 years, the powers of the presidency have been so enlarged and those of state governors so diminished that it would have been a brave prognosticator who would have suggested as recently as February that the Office of the Presidency would be reduced to a clown car sideshow while a governor would become the voice of the people and the hope of the nation. Only a President as uniquely ungifted as Trump could have accomplished such a reversal. Whether it will in any form survive the present crisis is difficult to say. Surely it is unlikely, but perhaps it is not impossible.
Finally, what does this all mean for the election? In closing, I will make an actual prediction. Things will look worse and worse for Trump in April, May, June, and even early July. By deep summer, the virus will have receded, people will be going back to work, Trump will claim victory, and those of us on the left will despair. Then, as fall follows summer and the election looms, the virus will return, just in time to crush Trump’s chances for reelection.
After yet another night troubled by dreams of COVID-19, I will later today take a crack at forecasting the large changes I foresee as possible outcomes of the virus, but first, I should like to share with you a lovely moment from last evening. It may lift your spirits. A word of background explanation is necessary.
I have a stuffed bear, who sleeps with me and even on one occasion accompanied me to New York for my Columbia class. He is a pretty standard Winnie the Pooh bear, complete with little red coat. His name is Howard. Howard is named after a famous movie star, Jonah’s bear in the almost forty year old romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. The movie is, among other things, a cinematic homage to the great old Cary Grant Deborah Kerr tearjerker An Affair to Remember. It ends, appropriately, on the Observation Deck of the Empire State Building, where Jonah has gone in hopes of finding Meg Ryan. After he leaves, Ryan finds Jonah’s forgotten backpack with his bear in it, and in the romantic conclusion to the movie, she returns it and asks Jonah the bear’s name. “This is Howard,” he says, and the three go off together to what the Director, Nora Ephron, makes clear will be a happily ever after.
Yesterday evening, having watched as much news commentary as I could stomach, I lay in bed surfing the web, looking for anything to distract me. Somewhere in the clutch of movie channels provided by my Spectrum subscription, I stumbled on the last 40 minutes of Sleepless in Seattle. I watched it happily with Howard perched on my chest. Howard was overjoyed, or at least as overjoyed as a stuffed bear can be.
Saturday, April 4, 2020
More and more strongly I am coming to suspect that America will emerge from this medical crisis changed in significant ways. Perhaps better, perhaps worse, but changed. Changed economically, changed politically, changed socially. I was born in the fourth year of the Great Depression and grew up as a boy during the Second World War. Those two events changed America fundamentally. I do not yet have anything like a coherent analysis or set of expectations, simply a suspicion. This is different, different from the Oil Shock, different from the Great Recession, different even from the Viet Nam War.
Several of the comments on this blog have made it clear that I really, really rub some people the wrong way. I must say I am rather reassured by that. As a young man, I was, shall we say, a trifle provocative at times, and though I know I have mellowed, I am pleased to discover that I still have the ability to drive some people nuts, even as I am smiling and seeming to be just a regular nice guy.
Let me say a few words about an issue raised in the minds of several commentators by my naïve enthusiasm for zoom. Some people have what strikes me as an odd ambivalence about the privacy of their communications. On the one hand, they think nothing of communicating with one another by the use of their cellphones, which are essentially spiffy modern versions of the shortwave radios used by ham radio enthusiasts a century ago. On the other hand, they are shocked, shocked [if I may steal a phrase from Casablanca] to learn that the world is listening in. If you want privacy, or something pretty close to it, try snail mail, for heaven’s sake. When you communicate with the functional equivalent of a megaphone, it is a bit odd to get upset that folks can hear you.
For most of the two hundred thousand years or so of the human race, people had no more privacy than a pride of lions or a gaggle of geese. For almost all of recorded history, which is to say for the last six thousand years, give or take, most people lived in villages or nomadic tribes small enough so that everyone knew everyone, and knew everyone’s business besides. In such a setting, you knew who was being born and who was dying, who was courting, who was planting, who was tending sheep, who was shooing horses, who was good with a sword, who could play the lute, and who baked really good pies. You also knew as soon as a stranger came to town. One of the distinctively unusual features of the eighteenth and nineteenth century frontier in America was the possibility of starting afresh, taking a new name, leaving old connections behind.
The big anonymous cities that we all now take for granted were anomalies, but today they are the norm. During the seven years that I taught at Columbia, I lived at 415 W. 115th street, apartment 51. There were 24 apartments in the building, and in those seven years I only met the occupant of one other apartment – Bob Belknap, who lived in apartment 52 and taught Russian Lit at Columbia. One day I tried to explain to him my excitement about Kenneth Arrow’s General Possibility Theorem, which showed that there was no majority-rule type decision procedure that avoided possible contradictions. He looked at me uncomprehendingly and said, “But life is full of contradictions.” I guess reading too much Dostoyevsky will do that to you.