Ranting in a time of plague
by Michael Brenner on 20 Apr 2020 2 Comments

What have we learned?


Collective tragedy is always a learning experience. So it has been for great wars, natural disasters, economic collapses, political revolutions. The COVID-19 pandemic is such a tragedy. Although the number of casualties may pale compared to the carnage of war, there are ancillary effects that leave us shocked and sobered. Most obviously, there is sudden onset of a severe economic depression with attendant social distress whose toll we will be registering for years to come. Then, there is the exposure of how incompetent our public institutions have become – the callous inhumanity of those who rule in Washington matched only by their clownish ineptitude. It is in the realm of these latter intangibles that we should look first for morals and lessons.


Overriding all else is the spectacle of a President, duly elected by the American people, who is a malicious psychopath with not a single redeeming trait. A physical, intellectual and emotional spectre who would defy our imaginative powers, were he not on display before our eyes. He has gathered around him a witch’s coven of scoundrels, crooks and crackpots as bereft of mind and ethics as he is. They also are inveterate liars; Trump himself is a congenital liar since clinical narcissism is inborn. Yet, we refer to this motley assemblage as an ‘administration’ – in our impulse to ‘normalize’ the abominable. No dry bill of particulars is necessary, nor could it do justice, to the squalid theater we see played out before us on a daily basis. This man, at this moment, is viewed favorably by 46% of the public. That reality eclipses everything else.


There is no organized opposition worthy of the name. This is the second great failure of our democracy. The Democratic Party creaks under the weight of geriatric nominal leaders – plodding along without conviction, without will, without the integrity to free itself from the monied interests and the self-serving careerists who have dragged it into the mire. Yes, they may succeed, come November, in sparing the Republic the coup de grace of four more Trumpian years. This despite their suicidal instinct in choosing Joe Biden to bear the standard – a man barely robust enough to keep the banner from dragging in the dust on his slog along the campaign trail. This bunch can’t even get themselves to a microphone for a news clip at a time of historic crisis aggravated by the atrocious sins of the existing government. Surely, a first. Worried about Covid-19 contagion? Order a box of alcohol wipes from China. Instead, Biden makes a call to Trump for what both agree was a ‘nice conversation.’ What does that get him?


Cuomo has to placate Trump with soothing words – even at the expense of lying about how much aid New York actually received from Washington – since the lives of his people are at stake. For Biden, the opposite is true; avoiding soothing words is crucial since the November election is dependent on undercutting Trump and discrediting him.


Three, the United States is a poorly governed country. Manifest ineptitude in performing collective functions is by no means limited to Washington under Trump. It has become a feature of the institutional landscape. True, the Trumpites have launched a dedicated campaign to realize the anti-government fanatics’ wet dream of disabling all public agencies.  FEMA and Homeland Security are but the most glaring example of departments stocked with hacks capable only of crippling the organizations that they are supposed to direct. They even corrupted the Center for Disease Control. Its leaders, evidently eager to curry favor with the madman in the Oval Office, gave its stamp of approval to the unproven – and dangerous drug HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE that Trump’s been promoting as the Silver Bullet to cure Covid-19. (April 4-6) Luckily, saner heads prevailed, or a conscience was pricked, and these panting spaniels withdrew the recommendation from their website.


 The anti-government cabal’s techniques range from putting government agencies on starvation financial rations to infecting them with hostile personnel to leaving key executive positions unfilled (15 senior slots in the Treasury alone) to circumventing the law by dictating what they can and cannot do - with the backing of collaborators in the judiciary. (The Supreme Court majority is now prepared to go so far as to have citizens die in order to tilt an election toward a favored Republican). Let us bear in mind, though, that performance lapses are recurrent at all levels – private as well as public, and that they predate Trump.


It took Barack Obama four years to get his health care website (more or less) up-and-running. In addition, his misbegotten hand-outs to the financial predators laid the basis for today’s looming meltdown. Moreover, the Obama strategy ignored the plight of states and municipalities – forcing deep cutbacks in all public services – the price for which we are paying now during the Corona virus crisis.


At local levels, just look at the condition of infrastructure, of pension funds – of public health. The extremity – and, frankly, the absurdity – of what’s happening in the health sector is highlighted by what we see elsewhere in the world. Face masks, including ones that actually provide protection, are readily available throughout East Asia – and elsewhere.


A personal anecdote: relatives in Tunisia are mailing me N95 masks which they purchased in their neighborhood pharmacies. Indeed, as of April 8, Tunisia had produced by their own resources, and distributed 30 million masks to a population of 11 million. The equivalent here would be 1 billion masks! (Minus the 1 million sent express to Israel by the Pentagon as a ritual gift of fealty). In America, we are offered instructions on how to sew a (probably useless) mask out of discarded T-shirts. MAGA!! Hospital directors fire nurses who buy their own equipment out of concern that they will be upstaged and exposed as the callous, profit obsessed bozos they are. Yet, we blind ourselves to the realities of other nations – because to do so is embarrassing, because our so-called leaders are protecting their behinds, and because we compulsively retain our dogmatic faith in American superiority.*


The readiness of executives to do anything necessary to protect against exposure of their own failures or illicit actions has become commonplace within our institutions. The current Corona crisis puts that reality into the headlines – as with the despicable act of the Pentagon in dismissing summarily Captain Brett Crozier whose petition made known that his superiors were prepared to sacrifice his crew’s lives to the imperative of hiding their own errors. Is this notion that ‘anything goes except accountability’ any different from Harvard’s studied silence about its embrace of Jeffrey Epstein or its abrupt sacking of a professor who dared reveal that the President was sweeping under the academic rug rampant sexual abuses? We all have personal experience of similar stories.


As to the Crozier scandal, let’s be clear: it is not a matter of ethics alone, but also of ability to meet critical obligations. In the event that the country found itself at war against a serious enemy, it is a dangerous liability to have in positions of command people like Secretary of Defense Mark Esper (hack lobbyist for Raytheon and the Aerospace Industries Association), Naval Secretary Thomas Motly – who missed his calling as a political commissar in the old Red Army, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Miley and Chief of Naval Operations Mike Gilday who both are testament to the Peter Principle that determines promotion in today’s military. They would either be washed out in the wake of gross failures, or continue to be albatrosses dragging out pointless missions like the 17 bemedaled but clueless U.S. generals who have proven so useless in Afghanistan. As it is, they seem unable to keep their warships from slamming into inanimate objects in placid waters.


Here are Motly’s last remarks before riding off to join corporate boards: “The men and women of the Department of the Navy deserve a continuity of civilian leadership befitting our great Republic, and the decisive naval force that secures our way of life…” he acknowledged that he “lost situational awareness” during his address to the Roosevelt’s crew.” “There is no excuse, but perhaps a glimpse of understanding, and hopefully empathy. I am deeply sorry for some of the words and for how they spread across the media landscape like a wildfire.” (The New York Times – ever twisting its hat with eyes averted in the presence of intimidating Presidential authority – features a long letter from Motly justifying his actions, 4/7. Only 3, I Republican, 2 Democrats, protested Crozier’s mistreatment. Among the silent chorus were the 22/23 aspirants to the Democratic nomination who bored us stiff for fifteen months with their unceasing calls for “LEADERSHIP!” ‘Profiles In Courage’ is not a best-seller at the Capitol. Even Dr. Fauce doesn’t have a copy.


Absence of accountability is incompatible with good governance. That is especially true in democracies where accountability is ultimately downwards. In a country like China, where accountability is primarily upward, the circle can be squared by the occasional resort to putting some miscreant up against the wall. We don’t have that luxury. Here, it is only the weak, the indigent and the naïve who need fear punishment – of any kind. The powerful and well-connected worry less about a last cigarette than about their first.


In compiling a list of factors that have contributed to the drastic decline in the performance of American institutions, this parochialism figures prominently among them. We put up with levels of dereliction matched in the developed world only by Britain. Think of the debate over Medicare-for-All and like proposals. As alluded to in an earlier commentary, the best national medical insurance systems (as confirmed by the WHO and other independent bodies) are in Western Europe, Canada and Japan – France topping the list.


Yet, their expenditure on those systems is only 2/3 of what we pay for our own ramshackle non-system. That fact is ignored. Instead, the political class agonizes over the specious issue of whether we can afford it. Joe Biden has pledged to veto any such plan on grounds that it would cost $35 trillion – or whatever number has floated into his fog-bound mind. This lethal combination of ignorance, dogmatism and fidelity to special interests has come to be a hallmark of how we approach government and the meeting of collective needs.


A full treatment of the several intertwined, mutually reinforcing elements that have led us along the path of decline is well beyond the limits of a brief commentary. A few, though, do deserve to be mentioned for what – one hopes – might be future reference. One is the ‘privatization’ craze. It has become the preferred method for transferring public assets to private profiteers. The effects are degraded services, the loss of expertise in public bodies, the exploitation of workers and the abandonment of intelligent planning (ventilators anyone?).


With the COVID-19 affair, we’ve reached the ultimate privatization: the Federal Reserve has hired BlackRock to conduct its operations on the bond market as the central component of its $4 trillion Quantitative Easing strategy (BlackRock itself being the dominant player on that market). The same effects have been produced by the swarm of hedge funds and private equity who are parasites feeding on the prostrate host that is the real economy and its dependents. American society celebrates, and empowers, these critters.


Then there are the ‘consultants’ – the locust hordes which our culture designates as vital contributors to the good works of government, of business, of universities, of charities, of sports teams, of hospitals, of failing marriages, of the US Army that puts guns in their hands. They, too, add to the toll on public competence and collective services.


Another anecdote: the city of Austin, Texas has hired a consulting firm to advise them on designs for a reconfiguration of the street that runs in front of the University of Texas. Should the sidewalks be 8’ wide or 10’ wide? Curbed or uncurbed? With bicycle racks or without? These matters evidently are beyond the competence of the city government, and of the University’s 3,000 strong expert faculty.


‘My Kingdom for a tape measure!’ How about a 69-cent face mask?


* Consider this. During WW II, the Kaiser shipyard in Richmond, CA – along with its 17 counterparts - were able to construct 2,710 Liberty ships between 1941 and 1945 (an average of three ships every two days). In other words, it took each yard just twelve days to put a ship in the water. That was the work of Rosie the Riveter and her colleagues. Today, we struggle to produce a few thousand $1 face masks - much less reliable COVID-19 test kits. Of course, back then the country was led by responsible adults – not the bunch of clods and delinquents we’re stuck with nowadays.


(The views expressed are personal)

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