E Unum Pluribus

US television viewers’ deeply disparate responses to the daily Trump coronavirus briefings means it’s time. Time to update the motto of the US, “e pluribus unum”, Latin for “out of many, one”; to “e unum pluribus”, out of one, many.

Out of one country, many factions with diametrically opposed perspectives on reality.

Exhibit A. How large swaths of liberal Democrats, like your favorite blogger, think about the pressers as described in The Trump O’Clock Follies by Susan B. Glasser of The New Yorker.

Her opening paragraph:

“During the Vietnam War, the United States had the Five O’Clock Follies, nightly briefings at which American military leaders claimed, citing a variety of bogus statistics, half-truths, and misleading reports from the front, to be winning a war that they were, in fact, losing. Richard Pyle, the Associated Press’s Saigon bureau chief, called the press conferences ‘the longest-playing tragicomedy in Southeast Asia’s theater of the absurd,’ which, minus the ‘Southeast Asia’ part, is not a bad description of the scene currently playing out each evening in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, in the White House. We now have the Trump Follies, the nightly briefings at which President Trump has lied and bragged, lamented and equivocated, about the global pandemic that poses an existential threat to his Presidency. Just as the Vietnam briefings became a standard by which the erosion of government credibility could be measured then, historians of the future will consult the record of Trump’s mendacious, misleading press conferences as an example of a tragic failure of leadership at such a critical moment. There will be much material for them; the transcripts from just the first three days of this week runs to more than forty thousand words.”

Shortly thereafter, Glasser adds:

“The disconnect between Trumpian reality and actual reality has never been on starker display than in the past few days, as the true face of the horror we are facing in the United States has shown itself, in New York City, with overwhelmed morgues and emergency rooms, a governor pleading for ventilators and face masks from the federal government, and heartbreaking first-person accounts reminiscent of the open letters sent from Italy a few weeks back, which warned Americans: this is what is coming for you—don’t make our mistakes.”

But there’s a problem with Glasser’s analysis. Many, many of the Presidents’ supporters see a completely different reality. In ways I don’t understand, they literally do not see “horror” or “overwhelmed morgues and emergency rooms” or “a governor pleading for ventilators and face masks”. What do they see?

Exhibit B. How large swaths of conservative Republicans think about the pressers as described by the President’s daughter-in-law in “Trump’s handling of coronavirus crisis shows America what real leadership looks like”.

Lara Trump takes a little longer to warm up. From her second paragraph:

“Unprecedented times call for a strong leader. My father-in-law, President Trump, is showing what leadership looks like in a time of crisis. He is taking bold and historic steps to combat COVID-19.

While Democrats and the media were obsessing over impeachment, the president took early and effective actions to stop the spread of coronavirus. He ordered travel restrictions on China and Europe and restricted our southern and northern borders. Less than a month after learning of the virus, the CDC began working on a vaccine. By March, the president announced that the first potential vaccine entered a “phase one” trial, breaking records for the speed it moved to trials.

While these scientific developments were taking place, the president and the administration led efforts to support states, small businesses, jobs and American families. They’ve waived interest rates on federally held student loans and afforded borrowers the option to suspend payments. They have prioritized the health care of our most vulnerable veterans, and deployed tens of thousands of masks, gowns and other medical devices to states in need.”

Liberals will laugh this off much more quickly than they’ll acknowledge that the President’s approval ratings have gone up quite a bit since the daily pressers began. You can tell the President knows his ratings are trending up as he grows more informal, verbose, and cocksure with each passing one.

How will the (dis) United States resolve this dilemma of its citizens seeing things so differently? Through the electoral college on November 3rd, 2020. I just hope not too many people die unnecessarily between now and then.

 

 

 

I’m Like Fox News, Fair and Balanced

I dedicate this to Travis and Mike who are convinced I’m being even less fair and balanced about the current administration than normal.

From Arnold Kling’s blog post “Calibrating anger”.

“I don’t think that anger toward President Trump is well justified. It is true that he reacted more slowly than many people who are more technically oriented and better able to read exponential processes. But almost every other leader around the world reacted just as slowly. And he was badly served by the FDA. . . Some of those FDA folks are still taking their case to the press, attacking President Trump for breaking out of their regulatory straitjacket.

No doubt that there were some officials somewhere in the bowels of the bureaucracy who saw this coming and tried to send warnings up the chain of command. Perhaps some of those warnings made it all the way to the Oval Office. But suppose that Mr. Trump had understood and been ahead of the curve. Had he told people back in February that they needed to change their behavior, I am skeptical that he could have brought the country with him. The left, rather than respecting such a judgment, would more likely have denounced early measures to stop the virus as a fascist takeover. As it is, they can call him an idiot for being too late. Fine.

I don’t recall leading Democrats putting much pressure on him to act sooner.

Where I am inclined to fault Mr. Trump is in what I see as a lack of ability to attract and retain outstanding personnel. I think that his circle of trust is too narrow. If my intuition about this is correct, then this shortcoming is quite consequential.”

I’m trying really hard to make nice so I will not say a narcissist is incapable of “hiring only the best” because their smarts and competence would accentuate his relative shortcomings.

Dammit, so close.

Higher Education Teeters

Every sector of the economy is going to be severely tested by pandemic closings and related fallout.

As one example, the pandemic will test every college and university and could be a deathblow to some of the growing number of economically distressed colleges and universities. Here are a few of the pandemic’s probable ripple effects:

  • fewer campus visits of prospective students, leading to a decline in applications
  • far fewer international student applications
  • reduced yields of accepted students because families will be unable to afford even deeply discounted tuition, room and board
  • a loss of good will as upset families seek refunds from March-May tuition, room and board
  • shrinking endowments meaning less “passive income” to pay salaries, keep the lights on, and maintain campus facilities*
  • reduced alumni giving due to widespread loss of income and wealth
  • due to a spike in unemployment, graduates will struggle even more to find white collar jobs that pay a “livable wage” and provide benefits, further complicating the sine qua non of higher education

Educational institutions change slowly, but the pandemic is likely to accelerate The Great Contraction. The most distressed institutions will close shop. Others will seek partners with whom to merge. Every college and university has to become much clearer about the two or three things they do especially well. Even if they successfully refine their missions and curricula, a growing number of faculty, administrators, and staff will lose their jobs.

Tough times indeed.

*the total amount of deferred maintenance is an excellent indicator of relative fiscal health

 

Weekend Assorted Links

1. The Trump Presidency Is Over. Peter Werner, a former Republican, weaves and bobs through the first half of this essay, and then, midway through, unleashes a flurry of devastating hooks. If it it was an actual fight the refs would’ve stopped it well before the end. Technical knock out for all but the most irrational.

2. Mad About Elizabeth Warren. A friend implores me to “Just get over it.” But how can I with piercing analysis like this?

“Warren the Presidential candidate was that girl with perfect grades in the front row of the classroom, always sitting up straight and raising her hand. “She was too smart, too rigorous, and always right,” as my friend Katherine put it. “‘I have a plan for that’ became a kind of joke at her expense,” another friend added. ‘She was so knowledgeable and so prepared that her life as a brilliant student stood out.”

Even in our famously anti-intellectual country, it is possible for a wonk to win the White House. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were intellectual superstars, and got elected anyway—indeed, Obama’s brain power was one of his major selling points. But, apparently, for a woman, being “brilliant,” “knowledgeable,” and “prepared” are suspicious qualities, suggestive of élitism and snootiness. On the other hand, if Warren had been obtuse, ignorant, and unready, that wouldn’t have worked, either. Being obviously unqualified to lead the free world only works for men.”

3. Merkel Gives Germans a Hard Truth About the Coronavirus.  Who knew she’s a trained physicist? Merkel and Warren are two peas in a pod, which begs the question, why are more German men okay with brainy women?

4. I have never really considered what Agnes Callard proposes, that The End is Coming.

“. . . so many of our practices—seeking a cure for cancer, building a new building, writing a poem or a philosophy paper, fighting for a political cause, giving our children moral lessons we hope will be handed down again and again—depend, in one way or another, on positing a world that will go on without us. The meaning of our lives, in the here and now, depends on future generations; without them we become narrowly self-interested, prone to cruelty, indifferent to suffering, apathetic.”

Only to add:

“Because here is something we know for sure: there will not always be future generations. This is a fact. If the virus doesn’t do us in, if we do not do one another in, if we manage to make everything as sustainable as possible, nevertheless, that big global warmer in the sky is coming for us. We can tell ourselves soothing stories, such as the one about escaping to another planet, but we are embodied creatures, which is to say, we are the sorts of things that, on a geological time scale, simply do not last. Death looms for the species just as surely as it looms for each and every one of us. How long have we got? At a recent public talk, the economist Tyler Cowen spitballed the number of remaining years at 700. But who knows? The important thing is that the answer is not: infinity years. Forever is a very long time, and humanity is not going to make it.”

Just because that’s a deeply depressing conclusion, it’s not wrong.

5. All The Ways I Failed to Spend My Massive Wealth. Of course, “he” could’ve just gone all in on the stock market a week ago.

 

 

The Coronavirus Double Whammy

1. It’s a reminder that we’re not in control. Normally, we convince ourselves that we mostly are.

2. It’s a reminder that some day we’re going to die. Normally, we are very good at not thinking about that.

These are not normal times. What can you do? Be especially patient and kind to those who may feel a loss of control and fear dying. Even if you do not feel or fear either one.