COVID-19 remains a pandemic as Trump pushes to reopen the broken economy

COVID-19 remains a pandemic as Trump pushes to reopen the broken economyBob Sheak, May 12, 2020

bobsheak@gmail.com

Intro

 This post focuses on the dilemma facing government about how to work toward a balance between the pandemic and the unprecedented decline in the economy. The health crisis stemming from the spread of COVID-19 continues to rise, even more than the official estimates indicate, while the rise in unemployment and other job-related problems soar to levels unprecedented since the early years of the Great Depression. Trump and his administration have adopted the view, contrary to what many experts are saying, that the health crisis is ebbing and that it is now time to “reopen” the economy and sideline government stay-in-place or lockdown guidelines. The actions of Trump administration and the US Congress have addressed some of the needs of businesses and the unemployed, but the lion’s share of benefits have gone to big corporations and the rich. Much of what Trump does is geared to what he thinks will advance his reelection chances in November. According to polls, a majority of American remain skeptical of Trump’s approach. It may also be the case that the present economic system has reached its limits and that transformative changes will be necessary to avoid an ongoing economic breakdown or the perpetuation of a system that is so full of contradictions, suffering, and ecological devastation. Alternatively, those right-wing forces with political and economic power may find ways to buttress their advantages. Either way, the country is in for difficult and challenging times lasting beyond November.

On the health side of the pandemic

Debbie Koenig reviews the evidence on COVID-19 over the first 100 days from January 20, when the first case in the US was confirmed, up to May 7(https://webmd.com/lung/news/20200507/100-days-into-covid10-where-do-we-stand). On May 7, there were 1.2 million confirmed cases in the US, while more than 70,000 people had died from the coronavirus. More recent data, just a few days later from Johns Hopkins, finds that by May 11, there were 1,329,799 confirmed cases and 79,528 deaths (https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html).  Koenig writes: “…because testing has been limited, experts say those numbers are really much larger.” She quotes Jeffrey Shaman, PhD, a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, “who has led work to model national projections.” Shaman says: “We’re not doing well at all.” Koenig also quotes Caitlin Rivers, PhD., who is “a researcher from the John Hopkins Center for Health Security. Rivers testified before the House Appropriation Subcommittee on Wednesday” (May 6) that “[e]ven though some states have been relaxing social distancing restrictions, not one has met federal guidelines for being able to do so.” I discussed these guidelines in my last post.

Koenig identifies some of the “bad news” trends.

  • The United States has one-third of the confirmed cases worldwide, but we’re less than 5% of the world’s population. And we’re adding new cases at a faster daily rate than most other places on Earth.
  • Death projections vary, depending on which assumptions researchers make about social distancing and other factors, but most show us at around 100,000 COVID-19-related fatalities by the end of May.
  • The curve is flattening, but slowly. And if you take New York, the hardest-hit part of the country, out of the equation, it’s not flattening at all.
  • Some areas, like New York, Seattle, and New Orleans, seem to be past the worst of the outbreak.
  • Don’t expect life to get back to “normal” any time soon. Without firm federal guidance and a national testing policy, outbreaks will continue to pop up.
  • The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington has been making and updating projections based on the latest available data as well as the effects of efforts to ease the pandemic, like social distancing. They now project we could have more than 134,000 total COVID deaths by early August.
  • The statistics-focused websiteFiveThirtyEight tracks five models (including IHME’s), each of which makes different assumptions about social distancing behavior and the way the virus will behave. Those models show anywhere from 93,000 to 111,000 total deaths by May 30.
  • President Donald Trump saidrecently that as many as 100,000 Americans could die, twice as many as he’d predicted previously. But a preliminary interagency report from the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services offered a much bleaker assessment, saying we could have 3,000 deaths and 200,000 new confirmed cases every day by early June.
  • “We’re on a very slow decline on a national scale, and it’s highly variable from state to state. Some places are still growing, some are flat, some are in decline,” says Shaman. “But you want to quash it, not flatten it — you’d like to see a sharp decline.” That gives hospitals some breathing room, in case the numbers spike back up after restrictions are lifted.
  • Amesh A Adalja, MD and a senior scholar at the John Hopkins Center for Health Security, agrees. “The purpose of flattening is to keep the peak below hospital capacity,” he says. “It’s not about the number of deaths. And for that, I do think we’re in a better place than we were in March.” So even though the number of cases is still increasing in some areas, most experts aren’t worried about hospital capacity.
  • This flattening doesn’t mean we’re ready to start reopening the country, both Shaman and Adalja say.

However bad the COVID-19 the actual and expected trends, the situation is even worse than they indicate. Most of the data on confirmed cases is limited to  those who have had symptoms and have sought treatment, or are in work setting that have had outbreaks such as in  meat packing plants,  nursing homes, long-term facilities, jails and prisons. The data do not include those with the virus who have no symptoms but who can “shed” or spread the virus to others, representing perhaps another 15,000 to 20,000 cases. There are only now some efforts to track down those who have had the disease, shown no symptoms, but may have anti-bodies in their blood. But it has not yet been scientifically established whether people who have had the virus, diagnosed or not, are immune or how long they may be immune. Furthermore, there has been virtually no “contact tracing” to identify those in the population who have had recent associations with people who have been infected and who therefore could also be contagious. There are even questions about the data on documented deaths from the virus. Some unknown number of people have died in their homes of the virus without ever being diagnosed with the disease or being misdiagnosed.

In short, the current pandemic is worse than the official and expert estimates, the incidence and prevalence of the disease overall is likely to increase over the next two months. And, if the efforts to limit contact, stay-at-home, social distancing, wearing masks, and personal hygiene are not diligently followed, the experts tell us that the COVID-19 infections will spike upward again.

The unprecedented challenge before US political and economic decisionmakers is how to revive the economy without exacerbating COVID-19 – and,ideally taking into account, what kind of economy do the majority of people want.

An economy moving toward the limits of debt-generated limits, while besieged by depression-level unemployment

The income that enables a most Americans to purchase products and services from businesses comes from paid work in the private or public sectors of the economy, and lesser shares from government programs, investments, pensions (often job-related), and savings. The economy, as we know it, cannot function long with depression levels of unemployment. In the current economic crisis, the government, businesses, and a growing number of households are effected. And strikingly, a growing number of people are out of work or have only inadequate employment, have insufficient earnings, and often little or no savings.

Rising debt levels throughout the society

Meanwhile, the debt of the federal government is growing to wartime levels, while the debt burden of businesses, state and local governments, and a broad swath of Americans grow increasingly burdensome. More people find it difficult or impossible to acquire even the necessities of life.  Economic historian Michael Hudson has long argued that the only solution is to cancel all debts, particularly those of the federal government. See the first volume of his book series on “The Tyranny of Debt” – “…forgive them their debts.” The debt is not something that can be sneezed at or casually dismissed. Robert J. Samuelson gives the issue some worrisome  historical perspective.

“It is customary to express the federal debt as a share of the economy, or gross domestic product. By this measure, the publicly held federal debt was almost 80 percent, or $17 trillion, in 2019, according to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office. The debt was rising faster than the economy and was projected to reach 98 percent by 2030. That compares to the previous record of 106 percent of GDP after World War II.

“No more. The White House and Congress have already approved trillions of additional spending and tax cuts to cushion the effects of the pandemic. Previously, CBO projected deficits of about $1 trillion for 2020 and for 2021, or $2 trillion altogether. Now, the CBO’s total for those two years is $5.8 trillion, and the debt would reach 108 percent of GDP by the end of 2021.”

At some point, decisionmakers must find ways to address the system-wide economic problems or there will be even more suffering and chaos. There may be solutions buried in a consideration of how the debts have grown and how the federal government has addressed the pandemic. Just stop doing the same thing repeatedly.

The sources of the federal debt

Much of this debt stems from government policies that disproportionally favor the corporate-dominated private sector and the rich, from skewed tax cuts favoring the rich and corporations, corporate bail outs, and huge and rising military spending. On military spending, Juan Cole  reminds us of the money we squandered on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, writing: “George W. Bush and his administration squandered $6.4 trillion on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (https://www//juancole.com/2020/05/11/trillion-afghanistan-coronavirus.html).

Cole refers to the Iraq War: “With regard to Iraq, that was a war of choice. Iraq had not attacked the United States. Iraq’s secular government feared and hunted down al-Qaeda. Bush just didn’t like the looks of Iraq and decided to whack it.” He adds: “You did not need to make Afghanistan into an American colony and try to change the lifeways of its 37 million people. You did not need to invade and occupy Iraq (pop. 38 million) and try to rule it as though the United States were a sort of steampunk Imperial Britain under PM David Lloyd George. You did not need to have 2.7 million American service members serve 5.4 million military deployments. We did not need to drop an average of 3,500 bombs on Afghanistan yearly since 2006. (Quite apart from the death toll, can you imagine how much those bombs and rockets and missiles cost, each, and how much it cost to deliver them? Who was making money off all that? Not you and me.) You did not need to kill 800,000 people (the angry relatives of whom also started taking potshots at you, requiring you to bomb and kill more people).”

But these are not only the misbegotten wars of choice. See John W. Dower’s book, The Violent American Century or Andrew Bacevich’s The Age of Illusion: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.

Miles Kampf-Lassin considers some of the skewed effects of  recent government policies that have fueled unprecedented levels of debt and reflect upper class and mega-corporate biases. He points, for example, to a recent report from the Institute for Policy Studies that found “America’s billionaires saw their wealth shoot up by $282 billion in just 23 days as the country was sheltering in lockdown (https://inthesetimes.com/article/22514/covid-19-coronavirus-wealthy-corporate-welfare).”

Overall, Kampf-Lassin finds evidence that “U.S. billionaire wealth grew by nearly 10% at the same time over 20 million people filed for unemployment, and by April 10 had passed $3.2 trillion—topping last year’s level. He continues. “To take just one example, Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO and already the richest person in the world, saw his fortune inflate by $24 billion in the first three months of the year, a surge the report’s authors say is ‘unprecedented in the history of modern markets.’ Meanwhile, his workers have staged a series of walkouts and other labor actions to protest a lack of basic workplace protections as warehouse employees have fallen ill with the virus, and some have died.” And adds: ‘As mass death overtook the country in April and the economy went into free fall, the U.S. stock market saw its best month in over three decades, a boon that has overwhelmingly benefited the richest people in the country. Private healthcare companies have seen major gains, boosting the fortunes of healthcare billionaires, just as an estimated 9 million Americans were booted off of their employer-sponsored insurance plans—a figure that could soon climb to 43 million.’”

The same upwardly biased tilt is reflected in government policies directed at COVID-19.

The direct cash payments of $1,200 and expanded unemployment insurance to small businesses had “acute flaws.” Kampf-Lassin points out: “The direct payment plan excludes millions, including undocumented immigrants, U.S. citizens married to noncitizens, many college students and other dependents. And even among those who are eligible, millions have not yet received their checks and some may have to wait up to five months. At the same time, thanks to a change to the tax code tucked into the relief package, 43,000 Americans who make more than $1 million will be saved an average of $1.7 million annually, costing U.S. taxpayers $90 billion in 2020 alone.”

The expanded unemployment insurance policy gave support to those “newly out of work, [but] also incentivized companies to lay off their workforces rather than retaining them while the government continues to provide them paychecks, as countries like the UK and Denmark are going.” Moreover: “The process of applying for the program has been deemed a “nightmare” for millions attempting to navigate an overwhelmed system.” Then, of all things, “workers at businesses newly deemed ‘essential’ such as meatpacking, are now being forced back to work, often in unsafe conditions—and those who refuse over concerns about their safety will lose this unemployment aid.”

The Small Business Paycheck Protection Program turns out “to be a bust for actual small businesses.” Continuing, he writes: “Of the original $350 billion allocated for these businesses in the CARES Act, over $243 million ended up going to large corporations. This includes the subsidizing of massive chains, luxury hotels and even Trump ‘megadonors’ like Monty Bennett, chairman of Ashford Hospitality Trust, who Forbes says ‘is believed to have received at least $59 million.’ As a result, only 5% of all small businesses were able to access those funds, and over 30 million are still struggling to receive relief.” The banks that are handling the loan applications under the PPP have “made off with $10 billion in fees – including many of the same banks that were bailed out by taxpayers during the last recession in 2008.”

But there’s more: “The true callousness of the approach can be seen most clearly in the corporate welfare at the heart of the relief effort. While often posed as a $500 billion fund for large companies, in fact, the CARES Act allocated over $4 trillion to corporate America, since the federal reserve can leverage the initial funding by a ratio of ten to one.”

The central question before the US government is whether a balance can be achieved between curtailing the pandemic and encouraging economic activity, and to do this before in a year or more there is a vaccine made available, mass produced and, if democratic values had any effect, widely distributed, affordable, and accessible. In the meantime, over the coming months into 2021, devising an economic policy that emphasizes the reopening of the economy that does not lead to the intensification of the pandemic will take extraordinary vision and expertise. These are qualities that Trump, his administration, the Republican Party, and his corporate and rich benefactors do not have. If, in the process, the reopening diverts or undermines efforts to fight the virus, then there is a high risk that the pandemic will rebound to dangerously high levels. In that eventuality, the economy is likely to suffer as well.

Trump acts as though there is no dilemma. He is betting the society’s wellbeing on a policy of reopening the economy with few guidelines, while providing some, though insufficient, resources to the states. While Trump and his administration are offering a rosy scenario of a robust economic recovery in the late fall, before the November election, and a recovery that occurs as the pandemic is, they say, vanquished. They provide no unifying leadership in the struggle against the pandemic and offer no economic plan, except to rely on the “market,” finding ways to give benefits to the mega-corporations and rich, and ensuring that the same neoliberal playbook of tax cuts, deregulation, privatization, and America-first trade policies remains the dominant ideological framework for policymaking.

The unprecedented jobs’ problem

The vast and growing jobs’ problem

New York Times’ journalists Nelson D. SchwartzBen Casselman and Ella Koeze analyze the official unemployment figures on data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) for mid-March through mid-April, the most recent available data as of May 11 (https://nytimes.com/interactive/2020/05/08/business/economy/april-jobs-report.html). More than 20.5 million jobs were shed during this period, with an unemployment rate of 14.7 percent, which is higher than at any time since the early 1930s, when in 1933 it reached an estimated 25 percent. The 14.7 percent rate also exceeds the peak unemployment rate of 10 percent during the last recession in October 2009. And the unemployment figures would be even higher if they reflected the continuing shrinking of employment opportunities since mid-April.

The unemployment problem soared as reports of the Covit-19 pandemic led the federal government and many state governments to issue stay-at-home orders as more and more sectors of the economy shut down or drastically shrunk. By the end of April 30 million Americans had filed for unemployment benefits. The NYT journalists quote Michelle Meyer, head of U.S. economics at Bank of America: “What would typically take months or quarters to play out in a recession happened in a matter of weeks this time.”

However terrible the official unemployment numbers, they underestimate the full scope of the problem people are having in finding jobs that provide adequate pay and benefits. For persons to be counted as unemployed, they must have been actively looking for work during the four weeks prior to the employment survey. As Schwartz and his colleagues report,

“the measure ill-suited to a crisis in which the government is encouraging people to stay home. Some 6.4 million people left the labor force entirely in April, meaning they were neither working nor looking for work” and not counted as unemployed. Indeed, they note that the “share of the population with a job was at 51.3 percent, the lowest on record going back to the early1930s.”

There are other shortcomings of the official unemployment estimates. According to the BLS, “some unemployed workers were erroneously classified as employed but absent from work. Had they been recorded accurately, the unemployment rate would have been as much as five points higher, or nearly 20 percent.” The official estimates don’t reflect the number of workers who earn poverty-level wages or who have had their low- or modest wages slashed and now cannot make ends meet, or “the nearly 11 million people who reported working part time because they couldn’t find full-time work, up from about four million before the pandemic hit.”

Economist Jack Rasmus emphasizes how rapidly the unemployment problem has unfolded in recent weeks (https://popularresistance.org/the-myth-of-v-shape-economic-recovery). He writes on this point:

“For the magnitude and rapidity of the shutdown of the real economy in the US is no less unprecedented. Even during the great depression of the 1930s, the contraction of the real economy occurred over a period of several years—not months. It wasn’t until 1932-33 that unemployment had reached 25%.

“As of late April 2020, that 25% unemployment rate was already a fact. The official government data indicated 26.5m workers had filed for unemployment benefits. That’s about 16.5% of the 165 million US civilian labor force. Bank forecasts are 40 million jobless on benefits by the end of May. But respected research sources, like the Economic Policy Institute, recently estimated that as many as 13.9m more are actually out of work but have not yet been able to successfully file for unemployment benefits. So the 40 million jobless may already be here. And that’s roughly equivalent to a 25% unemployment rate. In other words, in just a couple months the US economy has collapsed to such an extent that the jobless ranks are at a level that took four years to attain during the great depression of the 1930s!”

“The Disastrous Employment Numbers – Almost Every Job Is At risk”

This the headline of Neil Irwin’s article, published in The New York Times (https://nytimes.com/2020/05/08/upshot/virus-jobless-rate-demand-collapse.html). He refers to a set of tables in the final pages of the BLS Statistics reports, which are about the number of jobs gained or lost in each industry. Astoundingly, as Irwin writes, “Across dozens and dozens of industries, only one added a meaningful number of jobs in April: general merchandise stores, including warehouse clubs and supercenters. They increased their payrolls by 93,400 positions.” And there were a few sectors that has small positive numbers, “including manufacturers of computers and peripherals (employment up 800), monetary authorities (up 100, not very many considering the trillions of dollars in assets the Federal Reserve is buying to stimulate the economy), and the U.S. Postal Service (up 500).”

But otherwise, industries lost jobs, as “Construction employment fell by 975,000. Manufacturing fell by 1.3 million, as assembly lines halted. Clothing stores’ employment dropped by 740,000. The motion picture industry cut 217,000 jobs, and truck transportation 88,000.” Additionally, “Law firm employment was down 64,000 positions, and computer systems design by 93,000. Local governments cut 801,000 jobs, just over half of them in education,” while “employment in health care fell by 1.4 million as Americans avoided visits to their doctors and dentists for all but the direst emergencies.” Irwin draws the following lesson from the data: “We’re all vulnerable, whether we work in an office or a factory or a construction site; whether our employer is public or private; whether our work can easily be migrated to a home office or not.”

Some segments of the population suffer more than others

Schwartz et al refer to the BLS report that found that the hardship of the employment situation has unsurprisingly struck some segments of the population more than others (https://nytimes.com/interactive/2020/05/08/business/economy/april-jobs-report.html). For example, “Low-wage workers, including many women and members of racial and ethnic minorities, have been hit especially hard. Many service jobs are impossible to do remotely and have been eliminated, and some workers have risked their health by staying on the job.”

Writing on “social trends” for the Pew Research Center, Kim Parker, Juliana Menasce Horowitz, and Anna Brown report on a new Pew survey dealing with the “economic toll from the coronavirus outbreak.” The survey included interviews with 4,917 U.S. adults conducted April 7-12, 2020, using the Center’s American Trends Panel (https://pewsocialtrends.org/2020/04/21/about-half-of-lower-income-americans-report-housholds-job-or-wage-loss-due-to-covid-19).

Parker and her colleagues point out that lower income Americans were “feeling significant financial pressure well before the current crisis.” Indeed, average wages have stagnated for forty years, millions of Americans have not had affordable access to necessities (e.g., health care, decent housing, adequately financed public education, even minimally adequate public assistance).

The scope of those in difficult financial circumstances has expanded. They write: “Overall, 43% of U.S. adults now say that they or someone in their household has lost a job or taken a cut in pay due to the outbreak, up from 33% in the latter half of March. Among lower-income adults, an even higher share (52%) say they or someone in their household has experienced this type of job upheaval.” But the financial problems are not limited to those with low incomes. Summarizing other parts of the survey, Parker and her colleagues make the following points.

  • In addition to being among the hardest hit by the economic fallout from COVID-19, lower-income adults are less prepared to withstand a financial shock than those with higher incomes. Only about one-in-four (23%) say they have rainy day funds set aside that would cover their expenses for three months in case of an emergency such as job loss, sickness or an economic downturn, compared with 48% of middle-income and 75% of upper-income adults.1And while 53% of lower-income adults say they will have trouble paying some of their bills this month, about a quarter of middle-income adults and 11% of those in the upper income tier say the same.
  • Only 23% of adults now rate national economic conditions as excellent or good, down dramatically from 57% at the beginning of 2020.
  • Job losses continue to be felt more acutelyby some groups than others. Roughly six-in-ten Hispanic adults (61%) say they or someone in their household has lost a job or taken a cut in pay due to the coronavirus outbreak. This compares with roughly half or fewer of black and white adults. And adults without a bachelor’s degree remain more likely to report job or wage loss in their household compared with college graduates.
  • The extent to which U.S. adults are prepared for a financial emergency also varies significantly across demographic groups. Overall, 47% of Americans say they have rainy day funds on hand that would cover their expenses for up to three months. While this is the case for a majority of white adults, those ages 65 and older and college graduates, it’s not the norm for most other groups. For example, only about a third or fewer of black and Hispanic adults, those younger than 30 and those with no college experience say they have this type of rainy day fund.
  • Among those who don’t have emergency funds, relatively few say they could tap into other resources in order to make ends meet. Only 28% say they would be able to cover their basic expenses by borrowing money, using their savings or selling assets.
  • Even without a financial emergency, many Americans say they have trouble paying their monthly bills. About one-in-four adults (24%) say they cannot pay some of their bills or can only make partial payment on them in a typical month. A larger share (32%) say they won’t be able to pay their bills this month. The gap in the share saying they won’t be able to pay their bills this month compared with an average month is particularly wide among Hispanic adults: 44% say they won’t be able to pay all of their bills this month, while 28% say this is typically the case.
  • Given these financial constraints, more than half of adults who expect to receive a direct paymentfrom the federal government as part of its coronavirus aid package say they will use a majority of the money to pay bills or for something essential for themselves or their family. About one-in-five (21%) say they will save a majority of the money, and 14% say they will use it to pay off debt. The remaining 10% say they’ll use it for something else.2 Again, there are differences by key demographic groups, with black and Hispanic adults, those without a college degree and those in the lower-income tier more likely to say they will use the money to pay bills or cover essential needs.

The states do not have the resources to battle the pandemic without substantial federal support

The Washington Post’s editorial board puts together a case against Trump’s proposal to have the states take responsibility for  reopening the economy despite the rising deaths that are expected from Covid-19 (https://washingtonpost.com/opinion/trump-is-pushing-to-reopen-too-soon-the-consequencies-could-be-tragic/2020/05/06/). They write: “…Yet Mr. Trump, who decided not to conduct a broad federal effort to battle the novel coronavirus and instead passed responsibility to the governors, is now urging them to reopen too soon, risking more infections, more death and still more economic loss. “Will some people be affected? Yes,” Mr. Trump said Tuesday [May 5]. “Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open and we have to get it open soon.”

The editors make the following points. One, “the president is ignoring the strategy he embraced just weeks ago,” when “the White House announced a series of guidelines for governors to phase in reopening, with criteria such as achieving a ‘downward trajectory of documented cases within a 14-day period and putting robust testing in place.” Two, there is nationwide, in state after state, an inadequate capacity for “diagnostic testing and contact tracing so that offices and factories can cautiously begin to resume work without triggering more sickness.” Three, the federal government has failed to provide leadership and has been a major cause of the shortfalls of protective masks and other personal protective equipment. They refer to the whistleblower complaint filed by a senior Health and Human Services official, Rick Bright, that when he warned a group of senior officials known as the Disaster Leadership Group on Feb. 7 about a shortfall of protective masks, other officials responded ‘there was no indication of a supply chain shortage or of issues with masks, and therefore there was no need to take immediate action.’ Such missteps have been endemic.”

One of Democracy Now’s headlines on May 7 highlights the concern about the inability of states to deal with the growing challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic (https://www.democracynow.org/2020/05/07/headlinels). The headline reads:

“The Associated Press reports a 17-page report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offering step-by-step advice to local leaders on when and how to reopen public places has been shelved, with one CDC official saying the document ‘would never see the light of day.’ On Capitol Hill, the House Appropriations Committee heard testimony Wednesday from two medical experts who said not a single state or territory in the United States has met all of the White House’s own criteria for safely reopening. Dr. Caitlin Rivers, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, said states lack adequate diagnostic testing and the capacity to carry out contact tracing. And she warned that many of the states that are reopening have rising rates of coronavirus infections.”

Trump’s approach fails to offer a solution to the dilemma or generate public support

 Trump and his corporate backers want a quick recovery, but it’s unlikely

Economist Jack Rasmus takes this position (https://popularresistance.org/the-myth-of-v-shape-economic-recovery). But, contrariwise, Trump’s supporters from the mega-corporate sectors of the economy are advancing the idea that reopening the economy will lead to a quick economic rebound. Rasmus puts it this way: “Business interests are pushing Trump and Republicans to reopen quickly, regardless of the likely consequences for a second wave of the virus devastating national health and death rates. There is a growing segment of US business interests desperate to see a return to sales and revenue, without which they face imminent defaults and bankruptcies after a decade of binging on corporate debt. A growing wave of defaults and bankruptcies could very well provoke an eventual financial crisis, which would exacerbate the collapse of the real economy even further.” The evidence indicates, furthermore, that the massive government financial assistance directed at American business is not enough to revive the economy. On this point, Rasmus reminds us:

“So far the Federal Reserve central bank has committed to $9 trillion in loans and financial backstopping to the banks and non-banks, in an unprecedented historic experiment by the Fed. Not just the magnitude of the Fed bailout in dollar terms, already twice that the central bank employed in 2008-09 to bail out the banks in that prior crash, but the Fed this time is not waiting for the banks to fail. It’s pre-emptively bailing them out! Also new is the Fed is bailing out non-banks as well, trying to delay the defaults and bankruptcies at their origin, before the effects began hitting the banking system. Bailing out non-banks is new for the Fed as well, no less than the pre-emptive bank rescue and the $9 trillion—and rising—total free money being thrown at the system. But it should not be assumed the Fed will succeed, despite its blank check to banks and businesses. Its historic, unprecedented experiment is not foreordained to succeed….”

However, rather than the quick economic recovery lauded by the Trump administration, the realty is quite different, as Rasmus sums it up: “Many small businesses never re-open and when they do with fewer employees and often at lower wages. Larger companies hoard their cash. Banks typically are very slow to lend with their own money. Other businesses are reluctant to invest and expand, and thus rehire, given the cautious consumer spending, business hoarding, and banks’ conservative lending behavior. The Fed, the central bank, can make a mass of free money and cheap loans available, but businesses and households may be reluctant to borrow, preferring to hoard their cash—and the loans as well.”

Trump’s personal perspective on reopening the economy quickly and safely is illusory

Greg Sargent argues that Trump has been promoting “the illusion that the country is returning to normalcy over taking concrete steps that might make that actually happen safely” and in the process making a successful economic recovery less likely (https://washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/05/07/big-ugly-paradox-hovering-over-trumps-latest-deceptions). The president is obsessed with doing whatever it takes to bring the economy back from its decline and thus, from his perspective, to increase the chances of his reelection. And he believes that his personal charisma will shape the economy to new heights. It doesn’t matter that his views regularly conflict with what is actually happening in the economy.

Sargent articulates his view of Trump as follows:

“Trump prizes his magical reality-bending powers so highly that he’d rather rely on them to deliver him reelection, because he fears taking the governing steps necessary to get us back to normalcy will render his reelection less likely as well — the real world consequences be damned.” Real efforts would take too long to implement and, implicitly, would bring into question the neoliberal economic assumptions that have been part and parcel of Republican and right-wing views of the economy since the Reagan administration.

Sargent offers the following points on how Trump’s illusionary and misconceived perspective on the economy is linked to his reelection aspirations – and also, one may add, to the underlying neo-liberal ideology which has done so much to shape the economy, with its slow growth, unprecedented inequality, and hollowing out of government regulatory authority.

One, Sargent refers to “a remarkable new Associated Press scoop, which reports that Trump is deliberately refraining from wearing a protective mask in public because he thinks it will damage him politically, for multiple reasons.” Here Sargent quotes the AP scoop: “Trump has told advisers that he believes wearing one would ‘send the wrong message,’ according to one administration and two campaign officials not authorized to publicly discuss private conversations. The president said doing so would make it seem like he is preoccupied with health instead of focused on reopening the nation’s economy — which his aides believe is the key to his reelection chances in November.” In addition, Sargent writes, “Trump, who is known to be especially cognizant of his appearance on television, has also told confidants that he fears he would look ridiculous in a mask and the image would appear in negative ads, according to one of the officials.”

Two, Trump emphasizes how the economy will recover soon and reach new levels of prosperity, because he fears that a preoccupation with the virus and the massive health consequences that the society is experiencing would undermine his reelection campaign.

Three, the president overrates the level of testing for Covid-19 that has been done and the need for more federal involvement in testing, arguing that the “private sector will generate enough testing supplies on its own. But Sargent points to another reason by quoting Trump: “In a way, by doing all this testing, we make ourselves look bad.”

The political impact of the dual crises on Trump is uncertain

Thomas B. Edsall, who writes a weekly opinion piece for The New York Times, asks why Trump’s poll ratings have been so low, given how one might expect him to benefit “through heightened xenophobia, increased acceptance of authoritarian leadership, racial and ethnic schism (https://nytimes.com/2020/05/06/opinion/coronavirus-trump-authoritarianism.html).

 Nonetheless, recent polls indicate the opposite. According to a “P.R.R.I. survey released on April 30 shows Trump’s brief surge of two months ago [is]slipping.” The poll finds that Trump’s favorability rating has dropped seven points over the last four weeks. Today, just over four in ten (43 percent) Americans hold mostly or very favorable views of Trump, compared to a 54 percent majority who hold mostly or very unfavorable views of him.” Edsall draws this implication: public concern over Trump’s competence in handling the spread of the coronavirus has for the moment outstripped the socially regressive forces that Trump has thrived on.” For the moment.

Edsall quotes Robert Jones, the found and CEO of P.R.R.I., who writes: “If history has a lesson for us here, it is this: Where there is a massive wave of suffering and death, a second wave of racism and xenophobia is typically not far behind.” He continues: “Experiences of mass grief and economic stress easily generate a desire for someone to blame.” The political and social responses to an outbreak of infectious disease is also related to how severe the outbreak is. Edsall quotes the findings of Randy Thornhill and his colleagues who write: “populations characterized by a high prevalence of infectious diseases’ foster what they call ‘value systems’ characterized by ethnocentric attitudes, adherence to existing traditions, behavioral conformity, xenophobia and neophobia.”

The evidence is undeniable that the current pandemic “is not only wreaking destruction on public health and the global economy but disrupting democracy and governance worldwide” and “it risks exacerbating democratic backsliding and authoritarian consolidation.” In sync with this finding, Trump’s favorability ratings rose in March, but  in an email from to Edsall,  Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard, wrote that it was only a “minor bump” and “suggests that most Americans aren’t buying the con this time around.”

At the same time, some experts consulted by Edsall find that the pandemic is less likely to sway the views of ardent Trump supporters when it comes to the November election. However, others hold the view that the Covid-19 pandemic re-focuses the attention of at least some of Trump’s grassroots’ supporters on the problems of the health care system, sidelines the immigration issue, and increases faith in health-care experts, while accepting the widely proclaimed notion that health care workers are heroes. How all this play out in November no one knows. Though Edsall thinks one thing is clear: “The more Trump feels cornered, the more dangerous he and his angry, frightened followers can become.”

Presently, most Americans are wary of wholesale reopening of the economy and public spaces, but there are partisan divisions

 Dan Balz and Emily Guskin address this issue in an article for the Washington Post, May 5, 2020 (https://washingtonpost.com/politics/americans-widely-oppose-reopening-most-businesses-despite-easing-of-restrictions-in-some-states-post-u-md-poll-finds/2020).

They cite a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll that finds “Americans clearly oppose the reopening of restaurants, retail stores and other businesses, even as governors begin to lift restrictions that have kept the economy locked down in an effort to combat the coronavirus pandemic.” According to the poll, “[m]any Americans have been making trips to grocery stores and 56 percent say they are comfortable doing so. But 67 percent say they would be uncomfortable shopping at a retail clothing store, and 78 percent would be uncomfortable eating at a sit-down restaurant. People in states with looser restrictions report similar levels of discomfort as those in states with stricter rules.”

The poll also finds that Americans tend to trust their governors more than Trump: “Trump’s ratings are 44 percent positive and 56 percent negative, in line with where he was two weeks ago and only slightly worse than a week ago. Governors earn positive marks from 75 percent of Americans, about the same as a week ago. Partisan differences remain sizable, with nearly 8 in 10 Republicans but just about 2 in 10 Democrats rating Trump positively. In contrast, governors earn big positive majorities across the parties.” Other findings, as follows.

  • Americans also overwhelmingly approve of the way federal public health scientists, including Anthony S. Fauci, have dealt with the challenges from the coronavirus. Fauci’s positive rating stands at 74 percent. He maintains wide bipartisan appeal, winning positive marks from more than two-thirds of Republicans and independents, and nearly 9 in 10 Democrats. Public health scientists in the federal government overall are rated 71 percent positive.
  • In announcing plans to ease the restrictions on businesses, governors have emphasized that their actions represent a gradual and cautious reopening of their economies. Nonetheless, when asked about eight different types of businesses, majorities of Americans say they oppose ending the restrictions on each of the eight. The Post-U. Md. poll asked about the following types of businesses: gun stores, dine-in restaurants, nail salons, barbershops and hair salons, retail establishments such as clothing stores, along with gyms, golf courses and movie theaters. The most significant opposition is to reopening movie theaters, with 82 percent of Americans saying they should not be allowed to open up in their state. There is also broad opposition to reopening gyms (78 percent opposed), dine-in restaurants and nail salons (both with 74 percent opposed).

Gun stores are next, with 70 percent saying they should not be reopened, followed by barbershops and hair salons (69 percent opposed) and retail shops such as clothing stores (66 percent opposed) and golf courses (59 percent opposed).”

Concluding thoughts

 At this point, there is not a clear resolution in sight for the reopening/pandemic delimma.Trump and his allies want to preserve a corporate-dominated economy, existing levels of inequality, and right-wing political control, if not dominance. However, the pandemic and its increasingly dire health and economic effects are unlikely to be resolved before there is an effective vaccine. And even then there is the political question of whether the dual crises will open up opportunities or not for opponents of the present capitalist system to transform  the system, eliminate the rigged politics and the outrageous levels of inequality, as well as to strengthen the position of  the broad working class , to win the rights to tens of millions of Americans to health care and other basic necessities, and in all ways to advance the common good and sustainable ecosystems. What has become clear during these crises is that Trump and his allies have a great tolerance for the death of ordinary Americans and an insatiable appetite for recovering the pre-COVID-19 status quo. What is not clear is whether there are enough Americans who want something different and can be mobilized to work and vote for a more liberal/leftist alternative, that is, if one is available.

Reopening America: a conundrum

Bob Sheak – April 25, 2020

wordpress.com/posts/vitalissues-bobsheak

This post focuses on the White House proposal to reopen America. It is a proposal pushed by President Trump and his economic advisers but only reluctantly supported, if not opposed, by his scientific advisers. Trump is anxious for the economy to come back from its current decline as quickly as possible, because he believes his chance to be reelected hinge significantly on having a good economy. So far, the polls indicate that a majority of Americans choose to stay on the path encouraged by the scientists.

Extraordinary dual crises

There are two systemic trajectories stemming from the onset and spread of the Coronavirus in the United States. One is health related. The Covid-19 virus is causing a massive health crisis, spreading rapidly across the country and the world, transmitted between people and carried across communities, cities, regions, states, and countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020 (https://time.com/5791661/who-coronavirus-pandemic-declaration). At that time, WHO pointed to over 118,000 cases of the disease in over 110 countries and territories with an ongoing risk of further global spread. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director general said at the time that “it is a crisis that will touch every sector.” A pandemic, he said, often applies to new influenza strains that are “able to infect people easily and spread from person to person in an efficient and sustained way” in multiple regions. By April 22, according to The Washington Post, “[m]ore than 800,000 coronavirus cases have been confirmed in the United States, with nearly 45,000 reported deaths. Worldwide, more than 2.5 million infections and 175,000 deaths have been reported” in 182 countries (https://washingtonpost.com/world/2020/04/22/cornonavirus-latest-news). Note the virus spread across the world by 2.4 million cases in just 42 days. And these numbers represent only those with symptoms who have sought medical treatment and/or been tested for Covid-19. The great majority of people abroad and in the US have yet to be tested or traced.

The other trajectory reflects the vast economic effects of the pandemic, causing in the United States extreme and widespread economic dislocations, with widespread business closures, rising job losses at depression-levels, and severe deprivation of all sorts among already economically challenged and vulnerable populations. Many state and local governments are experiencing growing fiscal deficits, as sales and income taxes generate less and less money. Consider just the employment impact. Patricia Cohen and her colleagues at The New York Times report the latest government figures on April 23 as follows: “The grim economic toll from the coronavirus pandemic jumped on Thursday when the government reported another 4.4 million people filed new unemployment claims last week, bringing the five-week total to more than 26 million” (https://nytimes.com/2020/04/23/business/stock-market-today-coronavirus.html). With respect to the administration’s proposal for the states to begin planning for the reopening of economies, they point out that it is “understandable when epidemiological and medical experts tell us that there are grave risks in reopening the returning to normal economic activities before the pandemic is well on the way to eliminating the virus. If businesses re-open and workers return to work too soon, then there is a risk that the virus will begin spreading again.”

Trump says wants to reopen the economy soon, despite expressions of caution from scientific adviser

 Chris Walker considers  the reasons for why Trump is pushing to reopen the economy, “even as a number of prominent health experts…are expressing alarm that a premature return to normalcy could create serious setbacks in the nation’s attempts to contain the virus” (https://truthout.org/articles/trumps-push-to-reopen-economy-on-may-1-puts-his-reelection-above-public-health). In an article published in Truthout  on April 10, Walker cites a Washington Post article on Trump’s thinking on the issue, namely, that the president has suggested in phone calls to advisers outside the White House that “he has a strong desire to reopen the nation’s businesses by May 1 or sooner.” He is worried about how “the bad economic news” of rising unemployment rates and a looming recession or worse could damage his reelection chances in November. The president has often spoken publicly about “his wishes for a fast reopening of the nation’s economy.” Walker quotes what Trump said at a press beefing on April 9:

“Hopefully we’re going to be opening up — you can call it ‘opening’ — very, very, very, very soon, I hope. We’re at the top of the hill, pretty sure we’re at the top of the hill.”

In the televised Coronavirus Task Force “briefing” aired on MSNBC on April 22, Trump kept insisting that the pandemic will be all but vanquished by the fall, when there will only be scattered “embers” of the virus existing here and there. In his exuberance, he sometimes says that he and his administration have created the conditions for a reopening of much of the economy in the latter part of April or in May. If the economy is largely reopened in the fall, it will be recorded as a political plus for Trump’s obsessive presidential aspirations and could well be the decisive factor leading to his reelection.

On April 16, the President’s Coronavirus Task Force  put forth a set of nonbinding guidelines, “Opening Up America Again,” designating the criteria and the conditions that should inform when and how fast governors decide to move toward reopening their respective state economies (https://whitehouse.gov/openingamerica). Trump now emphasizes that the final decisions lie with the states, not the President. Peter Baker and Michael D. Shear report as much, writing: “President Trump told the nation’s governors on Thursday [April 16] that they could begin reopening businesses, restaurants and other elements of daily life by May 1 or earlier if they wanted to, but abandoned his threat to use what he had claimed was his absolute authority to impose his will on them.” They report as well that the President “has previously said that as many as 29 states could reopen soon” (https://nytimes.come/2020/04/16/us/politics/coronavirus-trump-guidelines.html).

White House guidance for reopening the economy

The Opening Up America document, 18 pages long, outlines a “phased approach.” First, however, there are a list of criteria for governors to satisfy before taking any steps to reopen their state economies, and what they should be prepared to undertake, including “testing and contact tracing,” an adequate “healthcare system capacity,” plans to facilitate the reopening of their economies, and guidelines for continued good individual practices.” Even then, governors should proceed only when there is a “downward trajectory of influenza-like illnesses (LIL) reported with a 14 day-period” and a “downward trajectory of Covid-like symptoms” reported over 14 days. It goes on.

There a few lines on what employers should have in place before they open their businesses. Employers should have “social distancing and protective equipment” for their employees, be able to carry out “temperature checks” on workers and customers, have sanitized their workplaces, disinfected common and high-traffic areas, and limited business travel. They should also be able to monitor the workforce for “indicative symptoms” and “not allow symptomatic people to physically return to work until cleared by a medical provider.” Furthermore, they should “develop and implement policies and procedures for workforce contact tracing following employee COVID-19 test.” These requirements are scientifically reasonable given the lethality of the Covid-19 virus. However, it stretches the imagination to think that most employers have the capacity or willingness to institute such a broad range of protections. And it’s not at all clear how the government would enforce the guidelines. Perhaps it will be the customers who will make the difference.

The guidelines are not legally obligatory but voluntary – and generalized with little instructive detail. Baker and Shear point out the Opening Up America document does not confront , for example, some difficult questions: “how to finance the billions of dollars necessary for expanded testing; whether travel should be restricted between states; when the ban on international travel from Europe and elsewhere would be lifted; and how the states should deal with future shortages of protective equipment if the virus resurged in the fall.”
The guidelines

If the preconditions for the Opening Up America guidelines are met, then the document advises that the reopening of businesses should proceed through three phases. States may enter this phased process only if they have satisfied the preconditions previously reviewed, particularly a 14-day decline in reported Covid-19 infections and a well-provisioned health care system. Dr. Deborah Birx, one the principal science experts on the President’s Coronavirus Task Force, identifies the conditions and practices that should exist in a given state or county as they initiate phase one and then at some unspecified time move onto the subsequent phases (https://nypost.com/2020/04/16/trump-unveils-opening-up-american-plan-aims-for-may-1).

Phase 1, which recommends continued social distancing, closure of schools, teleworking and sheltering in place for vulnerable individuals. Non-essential travel would be discouraged, bars should remain closed and visits to nursing homes and hospitals should remain prohibited, the guidelines warn. “If a vulnerable population needs to return to work, there should be special accommodations for all vulnerable populations. If the schools are already closed, they should remain closed,” Birx said. “All visits to senior living facilities should continue to be prohibited. Large venues can only be operated under strict physical distancing protocols. Gyms could open if they adhere to strict physical distancing.” The concept of “strict physical distancing” has become defined as having persons remain at least six feet apart. (And all employees and customers should wear masks, be screened to ensure they do not have the disease, practice social distancing, and have access to well sanitized environments.)

Phase 2 follows when there is a further decline in Covid-19 cases. Then states and local governments can allow schools, restaurants, and bars to reopen with diminished occupancy. Non-essential travel can resume, and people can gather in groups no larger than 50, but teleworking is still encouraged. “This is for the employers. We still would like to encourage telework, and the common areas should remain closed or be physically distant,” Birx said. “This should be a relief to many households that have small children: schools, day cares and camps can reopen in Phase 2. Visits to senior living facilities however should remain and hospitals prohibited.”

Phase 3 occurs when there are virtually no new cases of the virus, in which case states and local governments may allow workplaces to reopen with no restrictions, and visits to senior care centers and hospitals can resume. “It is essentially returning to our new normal. Good hygiene practices and continuing the respect for spaces between individuals continues, because we know that we still have an issue with asymptomatic spread,” Birx said. At this point, the guidelines are framed as follows: “Vulnerable individual can resume public interactions, but should practice physical distancing, minimizing exposure to social settings where distancing may not be practical, unless precautionary measures are observed.” Employers may “resume unrestricted staffing of worksites.” People can visit senior care facilities and hospitals. Large venues (“e.g., sit-down dining, movie theaters, sporting venues, places of worship) can operate under limited physical distancing protocols,” “gyms can remain open if they adhere to standard sanitation protocols,” and “bars may operate with increased standing room occupancy.”

It remains to be seen whether many counties and locales within the various states will be able to satisfy the conditions that precede with the phased opening of their economies. There is no doubt that the federal government will have to provide substantial support in many cases, but even then the proposed guidelines allowing for a safe reopening of businesses, workplaces, sports events, concerts, supermarkets, and public spaces, nursing home and long-term care facilities, will require behavior that wasn’t normative prior to the outbreak, it will be costly, and many people and families will require public assistance in what may well be a long transition to the new normalcy.

How Trump is playing it

The Opening Up America document provides political cover for the president in the event that the actual reopening of the economy should lead to an increase in infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. If high rates continue through May and in the following months, the president is will be in position where he can disclaim responsibility for any setbacks in the struggle against Covid-19 by claiming, one, that the Opening Up America guidelines were created the experts on his task force and therefore they, not he, are to blame. And, two, he can cast blame on the governors who under the coronavirus task force plan have the independent authority to follow the guidelines or not.

Bear in mind two other factors. All of this unfolds in a context in which, to reiterate, there has so far been too little testing to identify the infected population, little contact tracing, and shortages of protective personal equipment and other medical supplies for hospitals, medical personnel as well as for businesses, most workers, or the public at large. And, bear in mind also, the neoliberal policies that have been pushed by Republicans in the White House and Congress for forty years, including most of Trump’s presidency, have overall weakened the public health system in the US and left it sorely unprepared for this pandemic. Trump, his administration, his task force, state governments, the medical community, businesses have all been playing catchup due to how belated and confusingly the Trump administration came to acknowledge the crisis.

For one elucidation of the neoliberal scuttling of the US safety net, see the article by Candice Amich and Uimanthi Perera-Rajasingham, “Declaring War on a Virus Ignores the Neoliberal Policies that Put Us Here” (https://truthout.org/articles/declaring-war-on-a-virus-ignores-the-neoliberal-policies-that-put-us-here).

Cautionary views

Fauci

 Chris Walker (cited above) quotes Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a coronavirus task force member, who believes “the approach proposed by Trump could result in serious repercussions for the nation.” And, quoting from an earlier CNN interview, Fauci said he wants to see “a clear indication” that the infection rate in the U.S. is “very clearly and strongly going in the right direction” before the economy is reopened.” And then on Friday, April 10, Fauci pointed out: “The virus kind of decides whether or not it’s going to be appropriate to open or not. He added that “prematurely” opening businesses and other places that have shuttered due to social distancing could result in the country winding up “back in the same situation” that we presently find ourselves in. That is, if the economy is opened prematurely and without the introduction of a detailed plan, the number of infections and deaths from the virus will rebound. Then on April 22, according to a report sent out by Yahoo, “Dr. Anthony Fauci said he was convinced the coronavirus would be around in the United States until at least the fall but that the scope of those cases depended on the American people abiding by social distancing measures and lawmakers listening to public health advice before reopening segments of the country” (https://yahoo.com/huffpost/fauci-coronavirus-fall-021009936.html).

Redfield

In an article published in Washington Post, Lena H. Sun reports about concerns of the CDC Director Robert Redfield about how next fall and winter the Covid-19 pandemic will still be with us and will coincide with the flu season (https://washingtonpost.com/health/2020/04/21/coronavirus-secondwave-cdcdirector). She quotes Redfield: “There’s a possibility that the assault of the virus on our nation next winter will actually be even more difficult than the one we just went through. And when I have said this to others, they kind of put their head back, they don’t understand what I mean.” He said that we must be careful in any actions undertaken or planned to reopen the economy. According to Sun, “Redfield said federal and state officials need to use the coming months to prepare for what lies ahead.” She continues her quote of Redfield: “As stay-at-home orders are lifted, officials need to stress the continued importance of social distancing. Officials also need to massively scale up their ability to identify the infected through testing and find everyone they interact with through contact tracing. Doing so prevents new cases from becoming larger outbreaks.”

The CDC is in the process of drafting “detailed guidance for state and local governments on how they can ease mitigation efforts, moving from drastic restrictions such as stay-at-home orders in a phased way to support a safe reopening.” While the CDC “has about 500 staff in the states working on a variety of public health issues,” many now working on the covid-19 response, Redfield said “CDC also plans to hire at least another 650 personnel as experts to ‘substantially augment’ public health personnel in the states and assist with contact tracing, among other tasks.” He acknowledged that “a much larger workforce is needed,” and was “talking with state officials about the possibility of using Census Bureau workers and Peace Corps and AmeriCorps volunteers to build an ‘alternative workforce.’” Former CDC director Tom Frieden estimates that “as many as 300,000 contact tracers will be needed. And:

“The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials — which represents state health departments — estimate 100,000 additional contact tracers are needed and call for $3.6 billion in emergency funding from Congress.”

The thrust of Redfield’s statements is that preparations to mitigate the pandemic must grow and continue for the foreseeable future.

The testing gap

 Chris Walker notes that health experts are concerned about a reopening “because there aren’t enough testing kits across the nation to determine which states are able to move in that direction.” Asked to respond to the protests on the Good Morning America show hosted by George Stephanopoulos on Monday, April 20, “Fauci tried to show sympathy for their cause while also noting how their goals couldn’t be achieved without controlling the virus first.” And, he also said “The message is that clearly this is something that is hurting, from the standpoint of economics and the standpoint of things that have nothing to do with the virus. But unless we get the virus under control, the real recovery economically is not going to happen,” Fauci said.

In an opinion piece, The New York Times editorial board addresses the challenge of marshalling resources to support the massive testing that is required for mitigation efforts and to provide necessary information to guide governors who are planning to open up some parts of their economies that have been shut down due to the pandemic (https://www.nyt.com/2020/04/21/opinion/coronavirus-test.html). The editors argue that there is a need for far more tests than have thus far been done. In the week ending on April 16, “about 150,000 Americans per day were tested for the coronavirus, according to the Covid Tracking Project. This total number of testing had remained the same over the previous two weeks.

The NYT editorial board asks, “How much more is needed?” To enable a safe resumption of economic activity even in phase one of the White House plan, it would take “from 500,000 tests per day to five million per day, and beyond.” They refer to a Rockefeller Foundation report published on Tuesday, April 14, that lays out “a useful road map for the United States to reach three million tests per week by late June.” According to the report, 3 million tests per week “would be sufficient to test people with coronavirus symptoms, people identified as coming into contact with those who have the virus and people at high risk if they get the virus.’ The foundation assumes that 3 million tests per week “would allow for a limited return to normal activity [at phase one level] across much of the country.” In order to achieve this level of testing, laboratory facilities that “currently perform other kinds of tests, including university labs and small private labs” would have to be conscripted to focus on tests relevant for the Covid-19 virus. The foundation’s report “estimates that two-thirds of the nation’s molecular testing capacity is used for other purposes and could easily be redirected.” The report calls for the creation of a nonprofit, a central hub, “to place bulk orders for needed supplies, that is, to ensure that there are no shortage of critical supplies to carry out the testing in any location. At a fixed $100 fee for each completed test, the estimated cost is around $100 billion. But this plan would require that Trump uses his authority under the Production Control Act to compel labs to participate, something he has been reluctant to do.

But the goal of doing 3 million tests a week is only the start. The Rockefeller report says that it will be necessary “to aim for the capacity to perform 30 million tests every week by the fall,” if the economy is to move toward expanded – and safe – economic activity.

Many governors say they don’t yet have adequate testing capability

J.M. Rieger reports on this predicament in an article published in The Washington Post on April 22 (https://washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/04/22/trump-administration-says-states-have-testing-capacity-they-need-governors-says-they-lack-testing-supplies). He writes: “Nearly one-third of governors over the past week have said they lack sufficient coronavirus testing supplies to reopen their states, according to a Fix analysis of public statements….Many of the 16 governors who have said they lack testing supplies have not disputed they have ample testing capacity to start to reopen, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other hindrances. Some, like New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D), have said his state needs to double existing testing, while others like Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) have said his state needs to quintuple existing testing.” Rieger continues: “Among the testing supplies governors have said they are lacking are swabs and reagents. Some governors have called for the federal government to acquire and distribute testing supplies to the states amid a global shortage.” In any case, they think that some centralized and unified supply source needs to be created.

Trump and his supporters further politicizes the issue

In an article for Truthout on April 20, Chris Walker reports on the protects that have occurred across the country on April 18-19, “in which participants argued against stay-in-place orders meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and in favor of ‘reopening the economy’ now without conditions, as sometimes pushed by President Donald Trump” (https://truthout.org/articles/lifting-stay-in-place-rules-wont-fix-economy-if-virus-still-rages-fauci-says).

Heather Digby Parton digs into other forces that are generating the protests against the stay-at-home rules (https://truthout.org/articles/trumps-praise-for-astroturf-protests-is-a-divisive-relection-strategy). She refers to a report by Salon’s Sophia Tesfaye that the protests are organized, at least in part, by Freedom Works, one of the instrumental forces behind the Tea Party. Freedom Works is “holding weekly virtual town halls with members of Congress [and] igniting an activist base of thousands of supporters.” It is financed by Charles Koch and other big money contributors.

Parton continues: “Other right-wing groups vocally opposing shutdowns include Americans for Prosperity, an organization [also] funded by the Koch brothers, and the conservative Heritage Foundation. There is even a connection to the family of Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. As Michigan’s governor noted, the DeVos family foundation helped fund Facebook ads for this week’s protest.” Pro-gun activists have also joined the activities. Both Trump and Vice President Pence have praised the protestors, despite “common sense and all legitimate scientific advice…  that prematurely letting our guard down will likely lead to a resurgence of the epidemic.” If that should happen, it would mean “shutting down the economy all over again, with even worse consequences.” They – and the Republican Party – are willing to take this risk because they give greater weight to their political futures than to the health of the population. They “are, Parton explains, still convinced that a highly divisive strategy focused entirely on their base voters is the way to go, even in the midst of an unprecedented public health crisis.

The billionaire backers are not alone. “Republicans in Congress are doing their part as well,” Parton points out. “The bill coming up for a vote this week to supplement the small-business bailout fund [now passed by the US Congress, April 24] is missing something vital that Democrats and governors of both parties have been begging for, that is,  “help for state and local governments, many of which are in dire economic trouble and hamstrung by balanced-budget requirements.” Why? Parton refers to research by Axios that finds

“Republicans will use this prospect as a cudgel to force states to reopen: ‘The thinking among some Trump administration officials is that many states should be reopening their governments [and economies] soon and that additional funding could deter them from doing so.’”

The polls go with the experts, not Trump

Parton considers how the pro-protestor backers may underestimate the fear and suffering of the American public. She writes: “The real effects of the virus may upset their plans. Maybe it’s the growing pile of dead bodies — more than 40,000 of them as of Sunday night [April 19; and over 50,000 by April 24]— or Trump’s increasingly unhinged behavior at these coronavirus briefings, but recent polling shows that Trump’s rally-round-the-flag bump in support has already dissipated. Gallup has Trump’s approval rating down to 43%, from 49% last month, while his disapproval rating is up nine points, to 54%. The latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll reports that 60% of respondents say that Trump did not take ‘the threat seriously at the beginning,’ with a similar number in the Pew poll saying that Trump was ‘too slow’ to recognize the threat. His overall approval average is headed back down to the low 40s, where it’s been throughout his entire term.”

More bad news for Trump and his right-wing supporters. The Kaiser Family Foundation conducts ongoing polls of the public on health care issues and, recently, on attitudes regarding various aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic. In their most recent poll KFF finds: “most Americans (80%) say strict shelter-in-place measures are worth it in order to protect people and limit the spread of coronavirus. Fewer (19%) say the strict shelter-in-place measures are placing unnecessary burdens on people and the economy and causing more harm than good. Majorities also say they can continue following strict social distancing and shelter-in-place guidelines for more than another month while less than one in five say they either cannot follow the guidelines at all (3%) or say they can follow the guidelines for less than a month (14%). While a majority of Republicans say they can follow social distancing guidelines for a month or longer, three in ten Republicans say they can either follow them “less than one month” or ‘not at all.’”

Concluding thoughts

 Amidst the double whammy of the pandemic and an increasingly depressed economy, the road ahead remains ambiguous. What is clear, though, is that the federal government must play a leading role in providing a significant part of the resources, financial and otherwise, to assist states, medical providers, displaced workers, business of all sorts, and vulnerable and low-income segments of the population with a safe and healthy environment and a unprecedented assistance in rebooting the economy. And it seems that a growing majority of the population has come to recognize that all workers are essential, that our societies are more fragile than many previously believed,  that unity is better than division, and that government has an important role to play in it all.

If we were operating in the spirit of the 1930s New Deal, the country would also prepare to do extraordinary things. Here are some examples: rebuild the social safety net; introduce a universal, single-payer health care system; strengthen the public health systems at all levels of the society; increase support for scientific research; support public education and accessible educational opportunities at higher levels; create employment-generating programs; enact a robust progressive tax system; advance reforms to transform or replace the mega-corporations that dominate the economy; build affordable housing; support alternatives to industrial agriculture; replace fossil fuels with renewable energy and efficiency; and build an energy-efficient infrastructure. The revenues for such projects would come from a revived economy, equitable taxes, and a healthier population. The Covid-19 virus would still exist but would be controlled, eventually, with vaccines. One other thing. A progressive government would support global institutions to assist the poor nations of the world, and to supplant militarism with diplomacy and cooperation, acknowledging that we live in a highly interconnected place we call earth.

If Trump, the Republican Party and their allies continue to hold the power they do, then there will likely be vaccines that will eventually control the virus, but also a society riven by enormous and increasing inequalities, a rigged political system, a system that is accelerating the degradation of the environment, the continued shattering of the social safety nets, an infrastructure in disrepair, a bias against policies that address the common good, and a foreign policy based on “America first” principles.

There are also middling possibilities. But we do not have a wealth of time to figure it all out. Even if there are eventually vaccines that control Covid-19, humanity continues to confront  an accelerating and increasingly destructive “climate change,” civil strife and war, the growing threat of nuclear war, the ongoing degradation of habitats on the seas and land, unsustainable industrial-type agriculture, massive numbers of migrants fleeing violence and poverty, the fight for increasingly scarce and vital resources, and the rise of autocratic, if not fascistic, governments. And all this takes place while the earth’s human population grows to 9 or 10 billion by mid-century.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Coronavirus Pandemic and the Flim-Flam Man in the White House

Bob Sheak, April 10, 2020

bobsheak@gmail.com

In this post, I draw on sources documenting that for many weeks Trump paid little attention to the emergence and spread of the coronavirus in the United States. He did acknowledge its existence enough to order a loosely enforced travel ban on China. However, many weeks would pass before the president would acknowledge the presence and spread of the coronavirus domestically. Then, his responses were often to minimize the problem and to tell the public that it was under control and would shortly go away. As the outbreak spread and the contagion became a full-blown pandemic, Trump still failed to face up to the unfolding crisis. In the meantime, we learned how states, cities, hospitals, and other places did not have the basic medical supplies to deal with the growing number of infected people. And there were shortages in all aspects of the growing health crisis, including few tests to identify who had the disease, not enough personal protective equipment for medical personnel, under-resourced hospitals unable to ensure there would be enough beds, ventilators and personnel to treat patients afflicted by the COVID-19 virus.

Recent news reports are mixed. On one hand, the federal government and a variety of for-profit and non-profit organizations are filling some of the gaps in testing, medical supplies, and even deploying the army engineers to help in some places. However, there are also reports and news accounts documenting scarcities of medical supplies and personnel and how the prices for medical gear are being driven up by intense competition. Though the president brags at the press conference on April 9 that there have been two million tests for the virus, the great majority of Americans, even in the hotspots, have not been tested. Lastly, while Trump tells us that he is in regular contact with governors and mayors, he has failed to provide a plan that would provide leadership and only a patchwork of responses to the unfolding pandemic.

Rather, Trumps has said himself that he is a “backup” addressing the crisis in a helter-skelter manner. Then he also portrays himself as a “cheerleader,” with the responsibility to keep the morale of the people up by painting a rosy picture that the pandemic will soon be vanquished (the end of April, he suggests),  the social-distancing restraints on people and businesses will be eased, and the economy will rebound to unprecedented heights of prosperity and growth. In the meantime, the federal government itself is running out of supplies to share and, because most people have not been tested for the virus, the scope and location of the contagion cannot be sufficiently identified. At the same time, the Congress, the president, and the central bank have poured trillions of dollars of assistance and loans for businesses, many unemployed workers, with direct cash payments to many Americans, and assorted aide for hospitals and others. At this point in time, though, the country is in a period of unprecedented disruption, with many people and communities left to fend for themselves.

 The Trump and his administration were slow to respond

In a detailed and lengthy report published in The New York Times, Yasmeen Abutaleb and her colleagues document how Trump’s responses to the coronavirus threat were to deny it as a problem for the US, then to downplay its seriousness, and then only after the facts of the contagion were indisputable, acknowledge the scale of the problem. He then began telling the public how the federal government was releasing large quantities of personal protective equipment and ventilators to some states and cities for healthcare workers who are treating patients with COVID-19. The focus of the report by Abutaleb et. al. is that the president spent many weeks downplaying the problem before acknowledging the serious of the contagion and thereby delayed a response by the federal government that was warranted. The report is based on “47 interviews with administration officials, public health experts, intelligence officers and others involved in fighting the pandemic” ((https://washingtonpost.com/nationa-security/2020/04/04/coronavirus-government-dysfunction/?arc404+=true).

Abutaleb et. al. write that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) first “learned of a cluster of cases in China on December 31 and began developing reports for HHS [Health and Human Services] on Jan 1.” Two days later, on January 3, “The Trump administration received its first formal notification of the outbreak of the coronavirus in China.” It took 70 days from that notification “for Trump to treat the coronavirus not as a distant threat or harmless flu strain well under control, but as a lethal force that had outflanked America’s defenses and was poised to kill tens of thousands of citizens.” The journalists add that as a result critical time was “squandered.” During this time, Trump made many baseless and dismissive assertions about the coronavirus, “including his claim that it would all just ‘miraculously’ go away,” assertions that “sowed public confusion and contradicted the urgent messages of public health experts.”

These lost weeks were a time when there could have been “efforts to develop a diagnostic test that could be massed produced and distributed across the United States, enabling agencies to map early outbreaks of the disease, and impose quarantine measures to contain them.” There were protracted “arguments between the White House and public health agencies over funding, combined with a meager existing stockpile of emergency supplies.” The delay “left vast stretches of the country’s health-care system without protective gear until the outbreak became a pandemic.” Consequently, there may have been thousands of deaths from the virus about which we’ll never know. Polls showed that “far more Republicans than Democrats were being influenced by Trump’s dismissive depictions of the virus and the comparably scornful coverage on Fox News.” But their number of Trump’s faithful is in the tens of millions.

There was preliminary action in parts of the administration. The CDC “issued its first public alert about the coronavirus on January 8. On January 10, senior officials at HHS began convening an intra-agency task force that included Robert Redfield, the CDC director, Alex Azar, the secretary of HHS, and Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Then by January 17, the CDC had started “monitoring major airports in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, where large numbers of passengers arrived each day from China.” Despite such activities, “Trump was not substantially briefed by health officials about the coronavirus until January 18, “when, while spending a weekend at Mar-a-Largo, he took a call from Azar.” Still, the unfolding coronavirus pandemic apparently remained a side-issue of little concern for the president.

On January 21, “a Seattle man who had recently traveled to Wuhan [China] tested positive for the coronavirus, becoming the first known infection on US soil.” Azar then “instructed subordinates to move rapidly to establish a nationwide surveillance system to track the spread of the coronavirus,” but the government did not have the “assets” to adequately support this project. In an interview on CNBC on January 22, “Trump received his first question about the coronavirus,” and answered that he was not worried about a potential pandemic arising in the US, saying: “No. Not at all. And we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China…It’s going to be just fine.” We recently learn that the contagion in New York City came from people traveling from Europe, not China. Kelly McCarthy reports that researchers have determined that the coronavirus outbreak in New York City originated in Europe. She writes: A new study has found evidence that the first COVID-19 cases in New York City originated in Europe and occurred as early as February.” She continues:

“The study, published online by medRxiv and led by researchers at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, traced the origin of the outbreak in New York City by analyzing complete genomes of the virus across four boroughs and two neighboring towns prior to March 18” (https://abcnews.go.com/Health/york-coronavirus-outbreak-originated-europe-study-finds/story?id=7006264).

An official task force was set up by then acting chief of staff Mick Mulvany, the existence of which was formally announced on January 29. The Coronavirus Task Force. Its primary focus was “to keep infected people in China from traveling to the United States. Trump announced a travel ban on people traveling from China to the US. However, by this point, “300,000 people had come into the United States from China over the previous month.” In early February, “the administration was quickly draining a $105 million congressional fund to respond to infectious disease outbreaks.” And: “A national stockpile of N95 protective masks, gowns, gloves, and other supplies, was already woefully inadequate after years of underfunding,” including underfunding during the first three years of Trump’s presidency.

Two letters were sent by leaders at HHS to the White House Office of Management and Budget asking to use its transfer authority to shift $136 million of department funds into pools that could be tapped for combating the coronavirus,” and Azar and his aides “began raising the need for a multibillion-dollar supplemental budget request to send to Congress.” After some contentious meetings, the OMB “whittled Azar’s demands down to $2.5 billion,” but Congress went on to approve an $8 billion supplemental bill that Trump signed into law on March 7. Then in late March, “the administration ordered 10,000 ventilators – far short of what public health officials and governors said was needed,” noting also that many of them would not arrive until the summer or fall. On March 11, he ordered a halt to incoming travel from Europe, but the announcement was so botched that White House officials spent days trying to correct the president’s erroneous statements.

Abutaleb and her colleagues describe the wrangling in the administration over how to address the scarcity of effective tests for the coronavirus. Without tests for the virus, the government is flying blind. By March this problem had not been resolved. That didn’t faze Trump. On March 6, he “toured the facilities at the CDC wearing a red ‘Keep America Great’ hat,” and boosting “that the CDC tests were nearly perfect and that ‘anybody who wants a test will get a test,” a promise which even today (April 8), remains insufficiently met, although the number of available test kits is rising. But the evidence that the number of people affected by the coronavirus kept rising. On March 13, Adam Carlson reported that Trump had declared a “national emergency” on that day and did so under the authority of the Robert T. Safford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (known as the Stafford Act) (https://people.com/politics/donald-trump-declare-national-emergency-over-coronavirus-pandemic). Carlson writes: “An emergency declaration would allow a state to request a 75% federal cost-share for expenses that include emergency workers, medical tests, medical supplies, vaccinations, security for medical facilities, and more.”

The Navarro memos

There are other sources that confirm that Trump and/or his senior aides were informed about the seriousness of a threat of a new coronavirus long before the president took the threat seriously. Maggie Haberman reports that Peter Navarro, President Trump’s trade adviser, sent a memo to “Trump administration officials in late January [January 29] that the coronavirus could cost the United States trillions of dollars and put millions of Americans at risk of illness or death”(https://nytimes.com/2020/04/06/us/politics/navarro-warning-trump-coronavirus.html). At the time, the administration was considering a travel ban on China, which was approved by the president on January 31, going into effect on February 2. Foreign nationals who had traveled to China in last 14 days would not be allowed to enter the US. Any US citizen who has traveled to China would have to undergo health screening upon entry into the country and asked to quarantine for 14 days. All incoming flights from China would have to land in one of only seven airports (https://theverge.com/2020/1/31/21117403/trump-coronavirus-ban-travel-non-us-citizens-china).

In a second memo sent on February 23 by Navarro to the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Navarro warned of an “increasing probability of a full-blown COVID-19 pandemic that could infect as many as 100 million Americans, with a loss of life of as many as 1.2 million souls.” The implication of the second memo, is based on the idea that it would ultimately be impossible to keep the virus out of the US. The memo focuses on the need for planning and funding to deal with this dire prospect. “The lack of immune protection or an existing cure or vaccine would leave Americans defenseless in the case of a full-blown coronavirus outbreak on U.S. soil. This lack of protection elevated the risk of the coronavirus evolving into a full-blown pandemic, imperiling the lives of millions of Americans.” At the time, “Mr. Trump was playing down the risks to the United States, though he would later go on to say that no one could have predicted such a devastating outcome.” Among other things, the memo called for an increase funding for the government to purchase personal protective equipment for health care workers, estimating they would need “at least a billion face masks” over a four-to-six-month period. As already referenced, the administration asked for $2.5 billion, and Congress approved $8.3 billion and the president signed the legislation into law on March 7.

 The US military had warned the Trump administration about the need to prepare for a pandemic and of the shortage of PPEs years before COVID-19 appeared

There is more evidence that confirms that the threat of a lethal infectious disease like the coronavirus was known in the higher circles of the federal government. Ken Klippenstein reports on how the US military warned the Trump administration back in 2017 about a shortage of ventilators, face masks, and hospital beds (https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/covid-military-shortage-pandemic). Klippenstein writes: “Despite President Trump’s repeated assertions that the Covid-19 epidemic was ‘unforeseen’ and ‘came out of nowhere,’ the Pentagon was well aware of not just the threat of a novel influenza, but even anticipated the consequent scarcity of ventilators, face masks, and hospital beds, according to a 2017 Pentagon plan obtained by The Nation.” Klippenstein continues: “‘The most likely and significant threat is a novel respiratory disease, particularly a novel influenza disease,’ the military plan states. Covid-19 is a respiratory disease caused by the novel (meaning new to humans) coronavirus. The document specifically references coronavirus on several occasions, in one instant saying, ‘Coronavirus infections [are] common around the world.’” This was not the military’s first expression of concern. The 2017 plan was an update of an earlier Department of Defense publication, dated October 15, 2013, on a “pandemic influenza response plan” involving the 2012 Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus.”

Klippenstein quotes Denis Kaufman, “who served as head of the Infectious Diseases and Countermeasures Division at the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2014 to 2017, [and who] stressed that US intelligence had been well-aware of the dangers of coronaviruses for years. (Kaufman retired from his decades-long career in the military in December of 2017.)” Kaufman explained that the “Intelligence Community has warned about the threat from highly pathogenic influenza viruses for two decades at least. They have increased their warnings about the potential threat of a coronaviruses for at least five years.” Additionally, “the military plan predicted with uncanny accuracy many of the medical supply shortages that [in a pandemic] it now appears will soon cause untold deaths.” Quoting from the 2013 plan, “Competition for, and scarcity of resources will include…non-pharmaceutical MCM [Medical Countermeasures] (e.g., ventilators, devices, personal protective equipment such as face masks and gloves), medical equipment, and logistical support. This will have a significant impact on the availability of the global workforce.” And, as we now know, such shortages have occurred, as reflected in how the Trump administration (e.g., FEMA), governors, mayors, hospitals, and others compete against one another for needed medical equipment, driving prices up and making it difficult or impossible for some locales to obtain what they must have to avoid being a position where healthcare workers will be at risk of being infected and where some patients may be denied treatment with ventilators for COVID-19. Trump and his administration have begun to address this issue. And in recent days, with the rate of contagion being leveled in Washington State and Oregon, those states are sending a small number of ventilators to other states.

Trump continuously sowed confusion and chaos

Philip Rucker and Robert Costa open an investigative report on how Trump has handled the present coronavirus pandemic with the following words: “In the three weeks since declaring the novel coronavirus outbreak a national emergency [that is, on Friday, March 13], President Trump has delivered a dizzying array of rhetorical contortions, sowed confusion and repeatedly sought to cast blame on others” (https://washingtonpost.com/politics/commander-of-confusion-trump-sows-uncertainty-and-seeks-to-cast-blame-in-coronavirus-crisis/2020/04/02/fc2db084-7431-11ea-85cb-8670579b863d_story.html). Describing himself as a “wartime president,” Trump has defined his role, not as a unifying national leader, but as a mere “backup,” not as one who coordinates and allocates scarce medical supplies so they go efficiently and timely to the locales where they are needed. And when there are shortages, Trump faults “governors for acting too slowly and, as he did Thursday (April 2), has accused [without evidence] overwhelmed state and hospital officials of complaining too much and of hoarding supplies.” That is, if there is anyone to blame for shortages, it’s not him. All the while, Trump tells Americans that he is doing a wonderful job, far better than any other president in history; indeed, as he frequently says in describing his self-considered performance, “incredible.”

Trump also causes confusion when he says America is winning the war against the virus, while “the death toll rises still, and in the best-case scenario [100,000 deaths, as estimates indicated as of April 8] more Americans will die than in the wars in Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq combined.” And that the fundamentals of the economy are strong and, once the virus is vanquished, “will rebound in no time.” Yet, Rucker and Costa point out, the “stock markets have “cratered and in the past two weeks [and] a record 10 million people filed for unemployment insurance, while the number of incidences, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID-19 continue upward. [The stock market has rebounded somewhat in the second week of April on the news that the Federal Reserve will be channeling $2.3 trillion into the economy.]

At the April 8 televised press conference with Trump and the Coronavirus Task Force,  Deborah Birx, a top epidemiologist coordinating the government’s pandemic response, said that “they were cautiously hopeful that the United States may undershoot the worst-case predictions for deaths of the coronavirus,” according to a report by Philip Ewing and Barbara Sprunt at npr.org. on April 8. On April 9, she said the figure could be as low as 60,000. But she and Fauci also stressed that “the outcomes depend upon Americans adopting and sustaining the mitigation measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – staying home, avoiding groups of more than 10, washing hands, wearing masks outside and so forth.” And the estimate is based on testing that is woefully inadequate.

The daily press conferences give Trump the opportunity to take credit for any progress there has been in the delivery of personal protective equipment and ventilators. The press conferences sometimes last for well over an hour and are televised to millions of Americans. In the process, Trump is attempting to erase from the collective memory his earlier delays and often baseless assertions. Isaac Stanley-Becker and Nick Miroff offer documentation of this point, reporting on examples of how Trump’s statements are often “aspirational” rather than factual, and aimed at embellishing his own image (https://washingtonpost.com/nation/coronavirus-white-house-promises-undelivered/2020/04/08/af4afc6e-77f5-11ea-8cec-530b4044458_story.html).

Going back in time, Rucker and Costa say the result of Trump’s utterances and behavior for weeks was confused people about whether to take the coronavirus  as serious as the experts were saying it was. They quote Austin Mayor Steve Adler (D) who reflected on the first 70 days of the unfolding coronavirus crisis: “We’re trying to get as much containment as we can by limiting the number of physical interactions taking place, but they’re hearing it’s not a big deal, it’s going to be over soon, and getting community buy-in becomes a harder thing to achieve.” Rucker and Costa add: “[The president] at times just says whatever comes to mind, or tweets, then someone on TV is saying the opposite,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said in a recent interview. “It’s critically important that the message is straightforward and fact-based for the public.” As noted earlier, he and his administration wasted many weeks by failing to acknowledge the seriousness of the coronavirus and how, in absence of comprehensive mitigation efforts in every state, the virus would not just go away like the annual flu but relentlessly spread from town to town, county to county, state to state.

While the first coronavirus case in the United States was reported on January 21, and while Trump restricted travel from China in late January, “he did not begin fully engaging the crisis until late February” and “did not release guidelines for social distancing and other ways citizens could slow the spread until March 16, well after the virus already had spread across the United States.” Amidst it all, Trump has not taken responsibility for the delayed federal response or the continuing chaos in the distribution of medical supplies. Rather, he casts blame on others. According to Rucker and Costa, “Trump alternately has blamed China for first spreading the virus; New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) for being slow to contain what would become by far the biggest U.S. outbreak; governors generally for requesting federal help procuring ventilators, masks and other equipment and for not showing appreciation for assistance; hospital workers for hoarding supplies; and the media, first for allegedly overhyping the dangers and then for allegedly not giving him adequate credit for the steps he has taken. Now, Trump has, recently, also intermittently praised some mayors and frontline medical workers for doing a fine job.

Rucker and Costa also put the present situation into a larger context of administration policies that, during the first three years of Trump’ presidency, were aimed at “systematically discrediting and attempting to dismantle parts of the federal government’s national security, intelligence and scientific apparatus.” And: “He has harbored suspicions of career experts in part because he does not consider them sufficiently loyal to him personally, at times tuning out their advice and steadily working to erode their trustworthiness in the minds of his supporters.” Thus, Trump’s fumbling responses for over two months after early January undermined the efforts by frontline health providers and hospitals to become equipped to treat people infected with the virus, confused the public about whether the virus was really so serious, and offered little advice on how people and businesses should be prepared to deal with it.

The US has neglected public health

 This is the argument that Jeneen Interlandi makes (https://nytimes.com/2020/04/09/opinion/coronavirus-public-health-system-us.html). The thrust of her position is captured in the opening paragraph, where she writes: “A once-in-a-century public health crisis is unfolding, and the richest country in the world is struggling to mount an effective response. Hospitals don’t have enough gowns or masks to protect doctors and nurses, nor enough intensive care beds to treat the surge of patients. Laboratories don’t have the equipment to diagnose cases quickly or in bulk, and state and local health departments across the country don’t have the manpower to track the disease’s spread. Perhaps worst of all, urgent messages about the importance of social distancing and the need for temporary shutdowns have been muddied by politics.”

She offers evidence. For example: “Health care spending grew by 52 percent in the past decade, while the budgets of local health departments shrank by as much as 24 percent, according to a 2019 report from the public health nonprofit Trust for America’s Health, and the C.D.C.’s budget remained flat. Today, public health claims just 3 cents of every health dollar spent in the country.” And, while Trump exacerbated the problem, it did not start with his presidency, as reflected in how “local health departments eliminated more than 50,000 jobs — epidemiologists, laboratory technicians, public information specialists — between 2008 and 2017. That’s nearly 23 percent of their total work force.” Trump’s dismissive views toward the public sector are revealed in the following example. Interlandi writes: “In 2019, a consortium of public health organizations lobbied the federal government for $1 billion to help the nation’s public health system modernize its data infrastructure. They were granted $50 million. In the wake of Covid-19, that sum has been increased to $500 million. But much more is needed. There is a $5.4 billion gap between current public health spending and the cost of modernizing public health infrastructure, according to the Trust for America’s Health report.”

Margaret Flowers adds evidence on the long neglect of government support for  the US hospital system in an article titled “The US Wave of Hospital Closures Left Us Ill-Equipped for COVID-19” (https://truthout.org/articles/the-uss-wave-of hospital-closures-left-us-ill-equipped-for-covid-19). And The New York Times reports on April 6 of a study released by a government watchdog group based on interviews conducted March 23 through March 27 with more than 320 hospitals across 46 states, Washington DC, and Puerto Rico (https://nytimes.com/2020/04/06/world/coronavirus-news.html). The study found “that hospitals are facing severe shortages of critical supplies,” with shortages “in testing and proective equipment for medical staff,” “sharp increases in prices for items such as masks, gloves, and face shields,” and the need of thermometers, disinfectants, medical gas, linens, toilet paper and food.” The study found “doctors around the United States pleading for ventilators.” To make matters worse, the study “was issued days after reports that protective equipment in the government’s strategic national stockpile was nearly depleted, forcing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to conduct an international search for such equipment. Those efforts have also increased competition for states and localities.”

 Where are we?

The Congress agreed on March 26 to a $2.2 trillion dollar coronavirus stimulus bill, including measures to send checks directly to Americans with incomes in households with incomes under $75,000 (couples who filed joint tax returns $150,000), additional unemployment insurance benefits, additional spending for food stamps, support for businesses with zero-interest loans, tax breaks and other subsidies, including $500 billion in loans and subsidies to large businesses in “severely distressed industries,” and $100 billion for American hospitals.

The Federal Reserve providing $4 trillion or so in liquidity and the purchase of bad loans from the big banks and has just added another $2.3 trillion to such efforts. There is already discussion in Congress about the need for another bill that would aid state and local governments, provide more assistance to hospitals and to safety net programs. These government initiatives exceed even what the New Deal offered during the 1930’s Depression.

According to the latest estimates on the effects of COVID-19, more than 190 countries have cases of the virus, with 1.5 million reported cases and over 877,400 people known to have died from the disease. In the US, according to the CDC, there were 395,011 cases and 12,754 deaths as of April 8. The government’s projection is that, with adequate mitigation, the total number of deaths in the US from the virus will be from 100,000 to 220,000, though, as mentioned, experts on the president’s coronavirus task force have recently express cautious optimism that mitigation efforts may even lead to fewer than 100,000 deaths.

However, these estimates, cautiously optimistic or not, are based on modeling and estimates that are limited to people with symptoms of the disease who have sought medical assistance or who have been tested for the virus. The problems are that there are some unknown number of people, with and without symptoms, who have not been tested or have not sought medical assistance. In all these cases, there is a good chance that such people have been transmitted the disease to others. The implication of this probably vast number of people there are more people who have been infected than the current models and estimates indicate. Consider the following information.

More on the problematic estimates

In an article published in The Washington Post, William Wan, Josh Dawsey, Ashley Parker, and Joel Achembach, document how experts and even some of Trump’s advisers doubt White House’s 100,000 to 240,000 coronavirus deaths estimate (https://washingtonpost.com/health/2020/04/02/experts-trumps-advisers-doubt-white-house-240000-coronavirus-estimate). Trump sees these numbers as absolutely correct, that they represent the what will be the peak of the crisis, after which the number of infected people will decline and, within a month or so, the coronavirus guidelines can be made less restrictive, or even eliminated and the economy can return to “normal.” Contrary to this logic, Wan and his colleagues write: “Leading disease forecasters, whose research the White House used to conclude 100,000 to 240,000 people will die nationwide from the coronavirus, were mystified when they saw the administration’s projection this week. The experts said they don’t challenge the numbers’ validity but that they don’t know how the White House arrived at them.”

They refer as an example to “Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, [who] told others there are too many variables at play in the pandemic to make the models reliable: “I’ve looked at all the models. I’ve spent a lot of time on the models. They don’t tell you anything. You can’t really rely upon models.” And “Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the vice president’s office have similarly voiced doubts about the projections’ accuracy, the three officials said. Other experts voiced similar reservations. Even if the number of cases and deaths fall in current hotspots, the numbers in the best scenarios will only decline gradually over some unknown period. And there is the continuing danger, in the absence of a vaccine, that the contagion could come back to those places which for a time experienced a decline in the reported infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. Furthermore, there will be waves of covid-19 in other parts of the country where current estimates are based on few tests for the virus.

Wan and his colleagues interviewed Jeffrey Shaman, “a Columbia University epidemiologist whose models were cited by the White House, [and who] said his own work on the pandemic doesn’t go far enough into the future to make predictions akin to the White House fatality forecast.” Shaman is quoted: “We don’t have a sense of what’s going on in the here and now, and we don’t know what people will do in the future,” he said. “We don’t know if the virus is seasonal, as well.” With decisive action, he did think that “we can come in under 100,000 deaths.” Marc Lipsitch, a leading epidemiologist and director of Harvard University’s Center for Communicable Diseases Dynamics, said that his initial response to the numbers was that they cannot be reliably and validly computed so fast. There are other questions. Some epidemiologists worried also that the administration’s use of such predictions and its desire for a quickly end to the economically-disastrous effects will  lead to a premature softening of the guidelines, rather than to a long-term strategy based on a national plan to “game out scenarios, foresee challenges and create a coherent, long-term strategy. In this case, the pandemic could be prolonged. Indeed, Trump has “extended the White House’s restrictions until only April 30 and made clear he wants to reopen the country as soon as possible.”

The Unwitting coronavirus transmitters

As already noted, there are major issues in the efforts to identify coronavirus cases because of the lack of testing kits (through increasingly available) and the limited populations that have been targeted to those who exhibit symptoms. Apoorva Mandavilli focuses on the population who have the coronavirus but who do not exhibit symptoms, pointing out that, according to the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “25 percent of people infected with the new coronavirus may not show symptoms” (https://nytimes.com/2020/03/31/health/coronavirus-asymtomatic-transmission.html). This has led the CDC to broaden its guidelines on who should wear masks. And, as the CDC director, Dr. Robert Redfield, told National Public Radio in an interview on Tuesday, March 31, this is one reason why the virus continues to spread across the country.

Without a vaccine, experts emphasize the importance of social distancing, washing hands, and wearing masks (though many masks used by the public may not have much value), as the only feasible ways to minimize the community spread of the virus. Social distancing is most important method for stopping the chain of transmission over time. Mandavilli reports that “[s]everal studies have shown now that people infected with the new coronavirus are most contagious about one to three days before they begin to show symptoms.” And this new coronavirus, COVID-19, people affected by those who are asymptomatic often end up with “severe symptoms and a high fatality rate.” This is particularly true of people have suffer from diabetes, heart disease, and lung disease.

Masks may help. But experts kept returning to social distancing as the single best tool for stopping the chain of transmission in the long term — not lockdowns, necessarily, but canceling mass events, working from home when possible and closing schools. Dr. Carl Bergstrom, an expert in emerging infectious diseases at the University of Washington in Seattle, is quoted: “We can’t assume that any of us are not potential vectors at any time. Therefore, even though I’m feeling great and have felt great and haven’t been exposed to anybody with any symptoms of anything, that’s why it would be irresponsible of me to go out and about today.”

Concluding thoughts

The implication of the evidence reported in this post is that the COVID-19 will continue to afflict us until there is extensive testing of virtually everyone, testing of those who have been in contact with infected people, serological testing to identify those who have had the disease but never showed symptoms, available and adequate medical resources to treat those who require treatment, and quarantining of those with the illness , combined with widespread adherence of Americans to the mitigation guidelines (e.g., social distancing, washing hand, avoiding groups, wearing masks). In the final analysis, as Anthony S. Fauci has so often said, it will take the creation of a vaccine or vaccines to protect large numbers of people from being infected. But, even then, we still know to little about the virus but even then the virus is here to stay and is able to travel through human contact across states, national borders, and in many places (e.g., prisons, slums, immigrant camps and detention facilities, and under-resourced health systems).

Given so many unknowns and the likelihood of a prolonged pandemic or recurrent breakouts of the infection, the nation’s economy cannot simply return to the pre-pandemic normal, as the President continuously tells us it soon will. This is unlikely, until the virus is vastly more controlled than it now is. In the meantime, businesses, hospitals, and ordinary people will have to figure out how to institutionalize some level of mitigation into their everyday practices when they are able to go back to work. Ideally, the country would not have a president who is so deceptive, so opportunistic, so self-promoting and -aggrandizing, and so duplicity agile at finding scapegoats for every one of his tragic mishaps.

 

 

The coronavirus pandemic – being unprepared

The US public health system was unprepared to deal with the coronavirus that came to the United States in January 2020. The policies of the Trump administration made the problem worse than it might otherwise have been. Eventually, the spreading contagion forced the White House to take belated action, though as of March 25, 2020, there are still serious shortages of vital medical resources across the nation. And this is true even though we are still in the early stages of what has been defined as a pandemic. To protect people from infection, large parts of the economy have been shut down, millions of people are without employment or money, and there are fears that the country is headed toward one of the worst economic downturns since the Great Depression of the 1930s. While the Congress and the President have passed legislation to address some of the financial problems, there is still not enough scientific evidence to predict when we will reach the downslope on the curve. All of this is taking place in economic, political, and social contexts that have generated vast inequalities, unprecedented levels of corporate concentration, a money-driven, corrupted political system.

(A note on terminology. I have used the term “coronavirus” to refer to the current pandemic. It is a term widely used in the media and by many officials. The term actually refers to a family of viruses, not to a particular virus. Lindsay Holmes clarifies the terminology in an article published at The Huff Post. She writes that the term “coronavirus” refers to “a handful of diseases” that cause respiratory problems. It is not the name of a particular disease. Rather, COVID-19 is the correct reference to the current and a novel form of coronavirus (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/difference-between-coronavirus-covid-19_l_5e6be1c4c5b6dda30fc8cb30).)

The viruses are there waiting for the right conditions to attack humans

Human beings have had to endure periodic outbreaks of deadly pandemics for centuries, perhaps all human history. A pandemic, as defined in Sonia Shaw’s book, Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Eobola and Beyond (published in 2016), is “an infectious disease that spreads out of a particular locality to infect populations across regions or continents.” Unable to prevent them, societies have typically been ill-equipped to “mitigate” the rise in illness and deaths that follow from an outbreak.

Lethal viruses have always existed, often living in animal hosts like bats. Shaw points out in an article published in The Nation magazine (February 18, 2020): “Since 1940, hundreds of microbial pathogens have either emerged or reemerged into new territory where they’ve never been seen before,” including “HIV, Ebola in West Africa, Zika in the Americas, and a bevy of novel coronaviruses.” She continues: “The majority of them – 60 percent – originate in the bodies of animal. Some come from pets and livestock. Most of them – more than two-thirds – originate in wildlife” (https://www.thenation.com/article/environment/coronavirus-habitate-loss).

Shaw writes in her book Pandemic: “The disease-causing microbe, or pathogen, that will cause the world’s next pandemic lurks among us today.” They occur frequently. “Besides HIV, there was the West Nile virus, SARS, Ebola, and new kinds of avian flu…. drug-resistant tuberculosis, resurgent malaria, and cholera itself.” Indeed, when it’s all totaled, “between 1940 and 2004, more than three hundred infectious diseases either newly emerged or reemerged in places and in population that had never seen them before.” She notes that the notion that “developed societies” had eliminated them was “greatly exaggerated.” In the US between 1980 and 2000, “the number of deaths pathogens caused in the United States alone rose nearly 60 percent. Many of these deaths were from HIV. But the threat is wider than HIV and the potential impact is frighteningly large. Shaw cites a survey carried out by epidemiologist Larry Brilliant that found, as reported in a TED Talk in February 2006, “90 percent of epidemiologists said that a pandemic that will sicken 1 billion, kill up to 165 million, and trigger a global recession that could cost up to $3 trillion would occur sometime in the next two generations” (pp. 7-8). Shaw gives this example from 2009, that is, “a new kind of influenza virus, called H1N1 emerged and ended up killing “more than a half million…around the world” – including more than twelve thousand in the United States.” We may now be amidst such a pandemic. At the same time, there is ongoing research being done to identify and develop vaccines to squelch potentially deadly pathogens. As Show notes, scientists funded by USAID’s Predict program have undertook such efforts. They have “pinpointed more than 900 novel viruses around the world.”  But there is no vaccine yet for the current coronavirus sweeping the US – and the world.

Despite the sophistication of the science and the advances of contemporary medical practices and remedies, the conditions for pandemics are increasing while the anticipated responses are not. Shaw emphasizes how the habitats of wild animals that carry lethal viruses are being destroyed by deforestation and other destructive activities of extractive businesses (e.g., deforestation, fossil fuel operations, the mining of all sorts of minerals) along with the enormous and steady growth of the human population. All this is leading to increasing contact between wild animals that carry viruses and humans. On this point, she writes in The Nation article: “Habitat destruction threatens vast numbers of wild species with extinction, including the medicinal plants and animals we’ve historically depended upon for our pharmacopeia. It also forces those wild species that hang on to cram into smaller fragments of remaining habitat, increasing the likelihood that they’ll come into repeated, intimate contact with the human settlements expanding into their newly fragmented habitats. It’s this kind of repeated, intimate contact that allows the microbes that live in their bodies to cross over into ours, transforming benign animal microbes into deadly human pathogens.” She gives the following examples.

“To sate our species’ carnivorous appetites, we’ve razed an area around the size of Africa to raise animals for slaughter…[and] some of these animals are then delivered through the illicit wildlife trade or sold in so-called ‘wet markets.’ There, wild species that would rarely if ever encounter each other I nature are caged next to one another, allowing microbes to jump from one species to the next, a process that begot the coronavirus that caused the 2002-03 SARS epidemic and possibly the novel coronavirus stalking us today.” Additionally, many more animals are being reared in factory farms, “where hundreds of thousands of individuals await slaughter, packed closely together, providing microbes lush opportunities to turn into deadly pathogens. Shaw gives the following example.

“Avian influenza viruses…which originate in the bodies of wild waterfowl, rampage in factory farms packed with captive chickens, mutating and becoming more virulent, a process so reliable it can be replicated in the laboratory. One strain, H1N1, which can infect humans, kills more than half of those infected. Containing another strain, which reached North America in 2014, required the slaughter of tens of millions of poultry.”

“We Were Warned”

 This is the title of an article written by Uri Friedman for The Atlantic magazine on March 18, 2020 (https://www.theatlantic.com/archive/2020/03/pandemic-coronavirus-united-states-trump-cdc/608215). Friedman identifies the “signs” that a pandemic was likely to occur prior to the actual outbreak of the coronavirus. In 2012, “the Rand Corporation surveyed the international threats against the United States and concluded that only pandemics of all major threats posed an existential danger, in that they were ‘capable of destroying America’s way of life.’” Then there was a warning in 2015, “when Ezra Klein of Vox, after speaking with Bill Gates about his algorithmic model for how a new strain of flu could spread rapidly in today’s globalized world, wrote that ‘a pandemic disease is the most predictable catastrophe in history of the human race, if only because it has happened to the human race so many, many times before.”  While all this is true, there are other such threats to humanity, namely, nuclear war, the unfolding and accelerating climate crisis, and the ability of human activity to destroy the protective ozone layer in the higher atmosphere.

Back to the “warnings.” In 2017, a week before Trump’s inauguration day, “Lisa Monaco, Barack Obama’s outgoing homeland-security adviser, gathered with Donald Trump’s incoming national-security officials and conducted an exercise modeled on the administration’s experiences with outbreaks of swine flu, Ebola, and Zika. Continuing: “The simulation explored how the U.S. government should respond to a flu pandemic that halts international travel, upends global supply chains, tanks the stock market, and burdens health-care systems – all with a vaccine many months from materializing.”

On the 100th anniversary of the flu pandemic of 1918, “which killed 50 to 100 million people around the world, Luciana Borio, then the director for medical and biodefense preparedness at the National Security Council, told a symposium that ‘the threat of pandemic flu is our number-one health security concern.” She noted as well it could not “be stopped at the border.” The very next day, the Trump-appointed National Security Adviser John Bolton “shuttered the NSC’s unit for preparing and responding to pandemics, of which Borio was a part.”

There were other “warnings” in 2018 and 2019, “when the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security gathered public-health experts, business leaders, and U.S. government officials for simulations of the devastating humanitarian, political, social, and economic consequences of fictional novel coronaviruses that left tens of millions dead around the world. Then, it happened. “Two months after the second simulation, a novel coronavirus…emerged in China.” The U.S. intelligence community had warned in assessments from 2013 to 2019 about “the grave hazards of a new influenza pandemic, that it was not hypothetical, and that history was “replete with examples of pathogens sweeping populations that lack immunity, causing political and economic upheaval.”

Despite these warnings, neither the society nor the Trump administration was prepared for the virus SARS-Co V-2. However, it was not an unforeseen problem and it the serious preparation required had not been forthcoming.

Unprepared as a society

In an article published in The New York Times on March 19, 2020, journalists David E. Sanger, Eric Lipton, Eileen Sullivan and Michael Crowley report on federal-funded research by the Department of Health and Human Services focusing on a program code-named “Crimson Contagion” and other preparations by the federal government (https://nytimes.com/2020/03/20/us/politics/trump-coronavirus-outbreak.html). The Crimson Contagion program, which ran from January to August of 2019, simulated an imagined influenza pandemic, and reported in October how unprepared the US was in its preparation to deal with such an event. Officials “at the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services, and even at the White House’s National Security Council, were aware of the potential for a respiratory virus outbreak originating in China” and spreading to the United States. They identified “in stark detail repeated cases of ‘confusion’ in the exercise,” including, for example, how “[s]tate officials and hospitals struggled to figure out what kind of equipment was stockpiled or available. Cities and stats went their own ways on school closings.” The planning exercise “involved officials from 12 states and at least a dozen federal agencies.”

The exercise revealed many problems. While during the exercise the CDC “issued guidelines for social distancing, and many employees were told to work from home,” “federal and state officials struggled to identify which employees were essential and what equipment was needed to effectively work at home.” There was “confusion over how to handle school children,” over among state governments over how Washington would help “address shortages of antiviral medications, personal protective equipment and ventilators. And there was a realization that the US economy “did not have the means to quickly manufacture more essential medical equipment, supplies or medicines, including antiviral medications, needles, syringes. N95 respirators and ventilators…”  These findings did not later influence Trump’s appointees in the relevant federal agencies. Even before the exercise was undertaken, in 2018, Mr. Trump’s national security at the time, John R. Bolton, eliminated the National Security Council Directorate,” which, as mentioned earlier, had been established to coordinate federal government planning for infectious diseases. In Testimony to Congress in early March 2020, “Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, suggested that ending the stand-alone directorate was ill-advised.”

The systemic obstacles to the government’s ability to manage pandemics

 The absence of a public healthcare system

 Robert Reich, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, secretary of labor in the first Clinton administration, makes the argument that the system would be failing even if there was a competent president because “there is no real public health system in the United States” (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/03/17/coronavirus-outbreak-proves-there-is-no-public-health-system-us).

He writes: “Instead of a public health system, we have a private for-profit system for individuals lucky enough to afford it and rickety social insurance system for people fortunate enough to have a full-time job.” There is no central coordinating government entity to ensure that the current system has the reserve capacity to deliver necessary resources to state and local healthcare organizations in a crisis or the ability to deliver, out of necessity, health care to tens of millions of Americans free of charge. He points out that “[l]ocal and state health departments are already barebones, having lost nearly a quarter of their workforce since 2008, according to the National Association of County and City Health Officials.” There are other systemic deficiencies. As mentioned, the present system is not required to maintain a reserve capacity of resources necessary for such emergencies. Thus, “the nation’s supply of ventilators isn’t nearly large enough to care for projected numbers of critically ill coronavirus victims unable to breathe for themselves.” With an expected need of up to 2.9 million intensive care unit beds, there are only 45,000 now available.

In an interview on the only program Democracy Now, Dr. Steven Goodman gave additional information on the availability of all hospital beds. He said: “I think we have on the order of a million beds. And the actual number that are available on any on day is about of a third of that. The number of ICU beds is a fraction of that….So, we are not geared up as a society with the surge capacity to handle the number of COVID patients that we would get if we didn’t do anything” (https://www.democracynow.org/2020/03/13/us_coronoavirus_response). Government officials and hospitals in some states are now scrambling to fill the gaps.

While the system has been woefully unprepared on the healthcare resources side, it has also unprepared to deal with the dislocations and suffering of vast swaths of the American population caused by the pandemic. In summarizing the dire situation, Reich points out: “Almost 30% of American workers have no paid sick leave from their employers, including 70% of low-income workers earning less than $10.49 an hour. Vast numbers of self-employed workers cannot afford sick leave.” “Most jobless Americans don’t qualify for unemployment insurance because they haven’t worked long enough in a steady job…. Meanwhile, more than 30 million Americans have no health insurance.” Continuing: “It’s hard to close public schools because most working parents cannot afford childcare. Many children rely on school lunches for their one square meal a day. In Los Angeles, about 80% of students qualify for free or reduced lunches and just under 20,000 are homeless at some point during the school year.” The ad hoc and belated remedies currently being considered in the US Congress and by the White House won’t fill the void.

Years of austerity at all levels of government, combined with profiteering, in the health care sector

This is Mike Ludwig’s thesis, plus he adds: “the Trump administration’s bungled response.” All this “severely weakened the nation’s ability to combat the coronavirus outbreak and…putting public health workers on the front lines of the crisis in danger” (https://truthout.org/articles/years-of-austerity-weakened-the-public-health-response-to-coronavirus). In an interview with David Himmelstein, M.D., a professor of public health at the City University of New York at Hunter College, Himmelstein says that “public health departments nationwide have eliminated 50,000 positions since 2008.” The employees of public health departments “are the folks who actually go out and when someone is sick with an infectious disease…they track down the people who might be exposed and treat them in the case of treatable things like STDS or hepatitis,  or isolate them in the case of COVID-19.” According to the Trust for America’s Health, a nonpartisan research and advocacy group, 31 states made cuts from to their public health budgets between 2015 and 2017, “often because conservatives controlled their legislatures.” At the same time, “the CDC’s core budget…remained relatively flat for the last decade after steadily increasing from 1990 to 2010.” The Affordable Care Act “attempted to boost federal health spending at the local level through the section of the law known as the Prevention and Public Health Fund, but the fund has received nearly $12 billion less than the law intended by 2007.” To top it off, according to Himmelstein, spending on health care is very unequal, depending on incomes and color. He told Ludwig that “hospitals serving wealthier parts of the country may have plenty of ventilators and intensive care units for treating COVID-19 patients, while others are scrambling to respond with limited resources and protective equipment for staff.”

A drastic shortage of testing for coronavirus has hampered mitigation efforts

In its response to the coronavirus pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) emphasizes “social distancing” to curtail the spread of the disease and the need for a country to do widespread testing to identify the people who are infected. The New York Times Editorial Board writes that “[E]very region that has managed to get a coronavirus outbreak under control has succeeded thanks to a combination of social distancing and aggressive efforts to test as many people as possible.” So, at least on testing, “South Korea…has tested some 274,000 people since February,” while the “United States has tested just 82,000, the vast majority of them in the past few weeks” (https://nytimes.com/2020/02/19/opinion/covonavirus-testing.html). Adhanom Ghebreyesus Tedros, head of the WHO, says that “[e]pidemiological testing – where the contacts of infected people are identified, tested in turn and isolated as needed – is the only way to fully break the chains of transmissions” The editors tells us what has become well known that, until recently, “American officials have not absorbed that lesson.” For example, “Almost no efforts are underway to develop the infrastructure for quarantining the exposed or isolating the infected outside their homes, away from their families. In some places, as the case counts surge, doctors who think they’ve been exposed are being advised to keep on working.” Worst of all, the editors write, testing “has been disastrously slow to come online in the United States.”  The editors expand on the consequences.

“With coronavirus outbreaks in the states of New York and Washington stretching into their second months, some experts have all but given up on testing, saying that the virus has probably spread well beyond our ability to contain it. Based on that logic, people who are known to have been exposed are being advised to isolate themselves at home but are not being tested to determine whether they pose a risk to roommates or relatives, nor are they being monitored for symptoms in any consistent or meaningful way. It also means those who have immunities can’t know it, and thus can’t know they are in a position to safely help those who are high risk.”

In an article for Common Dreams on March 19, 2020, staff writer Jessica Corbett cites sources that confirm the national shortage of COVID-19 laboratory testing materials. She quotes from an interview CNN did with Scott Becker, CEO of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. Becker told Corbett: “I’m really concerned that we are not going to have the capabilities to test those who really need and should get the test.” Corbett refers to other evidence, citing how “medical officials at several state health departments, hospitals and labs have told CNN they need more testing swabs, reagents, pipettes, and other material need to conduct the COVID-1 tests.” There are also reports about such shortages from the Minnesota Department of Health, Utah officials who are reserving tests for “the most at-risk populations,” the San Francisco hospital system, and other hospitals around the country. Dr. Ulrike Sujansky of San Mateo, California, told the New York Times that “she has only been able to test a few patients in her hard hit area because of a supply problem, such as swab kits [that] have arrived late or haven’t been the right type.” Also, Sujansky said she “lacks standard protective gear, like face masks.” Then at major hospitals in Seattle and Washington, D.C., “mask shortages had already become so acute that doctors and patients were being asked to reuse the masks, not dispose of them as previous, traditional CDC protocol requires.” According to Wikipedia, fewer than 14,000 tests had been carried out by March 13 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_coronavirus_pandemic_in_the_United_States).

Doctors treating coronavirus patients don’t have the protective equipment they need

In an article published in the New York Times, Andrew Jacobs, Matt Richtel and Mike Baker report, as many others have, on the dire shortage of protective gear for doctors (https://nytimes.com.2020/03/19/health/cornoavirus-masks-shortages.html). They open their article with an example of how the Open Cities Community Health Center in St. Paul, Minn., “is considering shutting down because it doesn’t have enough face masks.” This follows with examples with the same problems at Doctor at Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis and emergency room doctors in Los Angeles, anesthesiologist interviewed in central Kentucky, administrators at the Memorial Sloan Kettering in Manhattan, the Providence St. Joseph hospital chain based in Washington [state], emergency room doctors in New Jersey, and a surgeon in Fresno, California. They point out as well that while respirator masks can be used for eight hours of continuous and intermittent use, many doctors “around the country said they are being given just one, to use indefinitely, and they spray it down with Lysol or wipe it off, now knowing whether that will preserve it.

The NYT journalists cite Howard K. Mell, a spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians, who says the crisis requires decisive federal action. Mell urged “the White House to ramp up production of medical gear through the Defense Production Act powers, and he called on federal authorities to increase distributions from the Strategic National Stockpile, a repository of critical medical supplies for public health emergencies.” According to this source, the “stockpile has roughly 12 million N95 masks and 30 million surgical masks,” though the “country would need 3.5 billion masks in the vent of a pandemic lasting a year.” There is fear in this medical community that the prospects for adequate and speedy government intervention is limited.

Even if a person is found to have the virus, she/he may not be able to afford the necessary treatment. See the following article by Abigal Abrams, “Total Cost of COVID-19 Treatment: $34,927.43,” published in Time magazine on March 20 (https://time.com/5806312/coronavirus-treatment-cost).

For weeks, Trump fueled confusion and doubt about the reality of the coronavirus outbreak and spread

 In the article by Uri Friedman cited previously, he offers evidence that funding for pandemic preparedness has “long lagged behind other homeland-security priorities.” His example is that, according to one 2016 calculation, “the U.S. government…spends at least $100 billion on counterterrorism efforts versus $1 billion on pandemic and emerging-infectious-disease programs.” He goes on to write that the Trump administration not only underfunded such efforts “but also proposed steep spending cuts year-after-year to institutions, such as, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that are tasked with handling outbreaks.” Congress resisted the efforts of the Trump administration, but the proposed cuts nonetheless reveal the president’s low priority for pandemic preparedness.

Katie Rogers, White House correspondent for The NewYork Times is one among many journalists who document Trump’s  confusing and misinformed responses to the reality and significance of the coronavirus (https://nytimes.com/2020/03/17/us/politics/trump-coronavirus.html).

Rogers writes: “For weeks, President Trump has minimized the coronavirus, mocked concern about it and treated the risk from it cavalierly.” He changed his tune on Tuesday, March 17. However, this was only after confusing and delaying a meaningful government response to what was becoming an out-of-control outbreak.

Rogers identifies five occasions where the president downplayed the issue. On January 22, two days after the first person in the US was identified as having the virus. He was “asked by a CNBC reporter whether there were ‘worries about a pandemic.” The President’s reply: “No, not at all. We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be fine.” On February 16, “at a White House news conference, commenting on the country’s first reported cases: ‘We’re going to be pretty soon be at only five people. And we could be at just one or two people over the next short period of time. So, we’ve had very good luck.”

Then at a White House meeting on February 27, he said: “It’s going to disappear. One day – it’s like a miracle – it will disappear.” On March 7, while the president stood next to President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil at Mar-a-Lago and was asked “if he was concerned that the virus was spreading closer to Washington, he responded: ‘No, I’m not concerned at all. No, I’m not. NO, we’ve done a great job.” Her final example: On March 16 in the White House briefing room, the president said that outbreak would “wash” away this summer: “So it could be right in that period of time where it, I say, wash – it washes through. Other people don’t like that term. But where it washes through.”

The confusion generated by Trump’s statements – until recently – go beyond just minimizing the harm. Rogers reports he has mocked those who expressed concern. At a campaign rally in South Carolina on February 28, “Mr. Trump accused Democrats and the news media of hysteria and unfairly criticizing his administration by engaging in what he said was a political ‘hoax.’” He has propounded inaccurate information. “At a campaign rally on February 10, Mr. Trump suggested that the virus would be gone by April, a claim he has frequently repeated, even though his advisers had warned him that much about the virus was still not known.” He has misled the American people about the unpreparedness of the healthcare system. On March 6, during a tour of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, he said: “They’re there [the tests]. They have the tests and they are beautiful.” He has conveyed the bizarre idea that he has a deep knowledge of the science. During the visit to the CDE on March 6, “Mr. Trump praised his own ‘natural ability to grasp scientific theories.”

Other coverage of Trump’s  responses to the coronavirus from January 24 through mid-March

 David Leonhardt, opinion columnist for The New York Times, assembled “a complete list of Trump’s to play down Coronavirus” in an article with that name (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/15/opinion/trump-coronavirus.html). He identifies these statements, beginning on January 24 through mid-March, including his remarks at press conferences, his statements at rallies, interviews on Fox News programs, and his prolific twitter account. During this period, the number of coronavirus cases in the US continued rising, as it continues doing. The following paragraph from the article sums up Leonhardt’s findings.

“I’ve reviewed all of his public statements and actions on coronavirus over the last two months, and they show a president who put almost no priority on public health. Trump’s priorities were different. Making the virus sound like a minor nuisance. Exaggerating his administration’s response. Blaming foreigners and, anachronistically, the Obama administration. Claiming incorrectly that the situation was improving. Trying to cheer up stock market investors.”

Katelyn Burns identified “Trump’s 7 worst statements on the coronavirus outbreak” in an article for Vox (https://vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/3/13/211776535/trumps-worst-statements-coronavirus). She is particularly concerned about Trump’s tendency “to outright contradict the facts and statements of the government’s top infectious disease experts.” On March 4, Trump told Fox viewers that the death rate [associated with the virus] was a “fraction of 1 percent.” Here’s the full quote in all of its eloquence: “Now, this is just a hunch, but based on a lot of conversations with a lot of people that do this, because a lot of people will have this and it is very mild…So if, you know, we have thousands or hundreds of thousands of people that get better, just by, you know, sitting around and even going to work, some of the go to work, but they get better and then, when you do have a death like you had in the state of Washington, like you had one in California, I believe you had one in New York, you know, all of sudden it seems like 3 or 4 percent, which is a very high number, as opposed to a fraction of one percent.”

Among the “worst statements” are Trump’s claim that health insurers’ “have agreed to waive all copayments for coronavirus treatments”,  that the contagion would likely just disappear when temperatures rose, that anyone wanting a test for COVID-19 could get one, that the seasonal flu is worse that the coronavirus, that a vaccine would soon be available, and that  the US was “the most prepared country in the world.” On this last point, Burns refers, as many others have, to how the Trump administration “fired the government’s entire pandemic response chain of command” in late 2018.

Trump is compelled by the mounting evidence to acknowledge the significance of the coronavirus pandemic in the US

 At the presidential press conference on March 16, “Trump finally seemed to grasp that the outbreak is guaranteed to have a serious impact on the daily lives of American,” according to an article by Cody Fenwick, published in Raw Story(https://www.rawstory.com/2020/03/trump-crashes-face-first-into-reality-as-he-reverses-himself-on-the-coronavirus-in-4-key-ways). Fenwick identifies four ways Trump “changed his tune at the press conference.” Most telling, he admitted that the coronavirus is very contagious, admitting that “This is bad in the sense that it’s so contagious…. It’s sort of record-setting type contagion.” Second, he reversed himself – for the moment – on the media, saying they had been “very fair,” after having repeatedly saying that the media had used it influence “to inflame the CoronaVirus situation, far beyond what the facts would warrant.” Third, he acknowledged, and seemed to agree, that scientists were correct in predicting that the pandemic could continue throughout the summer. Earlier he had said that it would go away in April, with the heat. Fourth, he tentatively agreed that the country could be headed into a recession, in the face of huge drops in the stock market. Though he maintained that, with the defeat of the virus, the economy would likely bounce back quickly to levels even greater than before.

Government responses

Even before Trump’s reversal, despite his skepticism, he had on January 29, 2020, established a White House Coronavirus Task Force “to coordinate and oversee efforts to ‘monitor, prevent, contain, and mitigate the spread’ of the pandemic in the United States” (https://wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_coronavirus_pandemic_in_the_United_States). According to Wikipedia, “Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar was appointed as the leader of the task force. On February 26, President Trump appointed Vice President Mike Pence to take charge of the nation’s response to the virus. And scientific experts…. were included. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was put in charge of procuring medical supplies on March 22.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was enlisted to support state and local efforts at identifying and containing the virus. And, over time, other federal agencies were instructed to focus resources in the fight against the pandemic.

The Trump administration issued orders on January 31, 2020, to deny entry to the US of foreign nationals who had recently traveled through China. On March 20, “the US began barring entry to foreign nationals who had been in China, Iran, or 28 European countries,” adding the UK subsequently.

The White House Coronavirus Task Force, including usually the president, started holding daily, nationally-broadcast, press conferences, to provide the administration with a way to keep the American people informed about current facts, what the administration was doing, and what citizens should do. While Trump tried to convey a upbeat spin at these press gatherings, the experts on the task force kept reporting on the growing spread of the virus and emphasizing what people must do to diminish its spread (e.g., “social distancing”). At the same time, during the question and answer parts of the press conferences, reporters in attendance typically posed hard questions about the ongoing shortage of testing materials to identify those who had the virus, why there continued to be shortages of “personal protective equipment” (masks, gloves, surgical gowns, ventilators, etc.), shortages of  hospital beds for sick patients with the virus, whether the president would follow the lead of some governors in issuing “stay in place” orders. At the same time, the President, the Vice President, and other government officials focused on how these shortfalls were being addressed  – or potentially addressed – by both corporations in the private sector, University research groups, and governors and mayors as well as public health agencies around the country. The evidence is still coming in as to whether these efforts will be adequate, though it is all too obvious that they have been late in emerging.

Another reversal by the President?

President Trump seems to have used the press conferences, at least in part, to promote himself and assure his political base of how “great” his contributions have been throughout the pandemic. At the same time, for weeks, he went along with the experts for some time in agreeing how serious the problem is. However, in the press conference on March 23, 2020, President Trump stunned reporters and the media audiences when he said that the emphasis on mitigating the pandemic would have to soon give way to efforts to re-boot the failing economy. Jake Johnson reports on what Trump said and the reaction of experts (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/03/24/all-about-power-ignoring-experts-trump-reportedly-moving-to-lift-coronavirus).

He writes: “Worried that the tumultuous stock market and soaring unemployment are imperiling his chances of reelection in November, President Donald Trump is defying the internal and public pleas of his administration’s own health experts and moving toward lifting federal coronavirus prevention guidelines in an effort to jumpstart the flagging economy.” In a tweet on Sunday, March 22, Trump claimed “the economic troubles caused by coronavirus prevention measures could outweigh the human costs of the virus itself.” Johnson reports: “Trump’s push to lift social distancing guidelines come as health experts, including the president’s own Surgeon General, are warning that the coronavirus threat is intensifying, not subsiding. On Monday alone, the U.S. reported more than 100 coronavirus deaths nationwide.” In contradiction to the President, Surgeon General Jerome Adams warned on Monday, March 23,

“I want America to understand this week, it’s going to get bad. Right now, there are not enough people out there who are taking this seriously… Everyone needs to act as if they have the virus right now. So, test or no test, we need you to understand you could be spreading it to someone else. Or you could be getting it from someone else. Stay at home.”

There have been expressions of concern, if not outrage, from epidemiologists and other scientists, including from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and a member of the President’s Coronavirus Task Force. Citing the Washington Post, Fauci “privately warned White House officials not to listen to growing calls from right-wing economists, Fox News pundits, business leaders, and Republican politicians to loosen federal guidelines aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19, which has officially infected at least 43,000 people and killed more than 530 in the United States.” Marc Lipsitch. An epidemiology professor at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and director of Harvard’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics,  told the Post that lifting federal guidelines at this moment could have disastrous consequences for public health.” And, further: “Now is the time to tighten restrictions on contacts that could transmit the virus, not loosen them. If we let up now, we can be virtually certain that healthcare will be overwhelmed in many if not all parts of the country. This is the view of every well-informed infectious epidemiologist I know of.”

In the nationally-televised press conference on March 24, Trump repeated his belief that the pandemic would – could – be over, or well controlled at least, in a few weeks. At the same time, he conveyed a duel, somewhat confusing, message that his decisions would be guided by what the scientists told him about the pandemic, but that we could not let the economy stay in lock down much longer.

Concluding thoughts

So far the US Congress has passed three spending bill, the last a massive $2 trillion or so bill passed on March 25. They are designed to offer financial support for businesses in various sectors of  the faltering and shrinking economy, the under-resourced and chaotic health care system, buttress state unemployment agencies, send checks to millions of Americans, and fund childcare services for those still employed, and more. The Federal Reserve has moved to provide $4 trillion to ensure the liquidity into the banking system, lowered the interest rate to near zero to make borrowing from the Fed interest-free, and arranged to purchase worthless assets on the big bank accounts (previously called quantitative easing). There is concern that the banks mega-corporations will be bailed without conditions that require them to invest in the real economy, not in buying back their stocks and increasing the already lucrative compensation of top executives. Jack Rasmus offers an economic analysis of the potential and actual flaws in what the Fed has done at: https://popularresistance.org/an-economic-recovery-program-theirs-vs-mine.

The New York editorial board has put together a plan to fight the war against the coronavirus pandemic that, for example, calls for the federal government to “dramatically ramp up production” of the materials needed by public health practitioners and hospitals, much like what was done to transform the US economy during WWII” (https://nytimes.com/2020/03/17/opinion/war-coronavirus-trump-production.html).

The current pandemic, still in its early stages in the US and many other parts of the world. But there is much about our political, economic, social system that have been already taking us in un-democratic, unequal, and unsustainable directions. If we don’t find the courage and means to vanquish the virus, or if we do so in ways that reinforce existing societal arrangements, then the future will certainly be darker than ever conceived. Viewed in this context, the struggle to find ways to defeat the coronavirus may, nonetheless, represent one of those crucial historical moments that have profound and lasting system-wide consequences, either leading to the consolidation of an increasingly unequal, unbridled, ecologically-incompatible form of capitalism, or opening the door and taking the first serious steps towards the creation of a society that is based on the best science, on democratic and egalitarian values, and on the recognition and commitment to finds ways to achieve sustainable and peaceful ways to live together. Oh, there is a third possibility, that is, the we muddle on frantically trying to patch the system with modest “reforms,” while the systemic contradictions deepen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The debate over Bernie Sanders

Bob Sheak – March 6, 2020

This post focuses on Bernie Sanders multi-issue agenda and the cost of the many proposals that make up his agenda. It also considers the benefits as well as the costs of the agenda. Sanders vision is of comprehensive and structural changes requires a large expansion of government, fiscally, programmatically, in regulations. However, Sanders approach is not one that calls for centralized planning or a command economy. In all cases, businesses in the a less monopolistic private sector do the actual work, while ordinary voters, workers, and consumers have more influence. If ever implemented, his policies would make the society more democratic, equal, just, and less militaristic, than it is or has been. While the costs of the proposals are high, the savings and benefits are also considerable. The question of whether, if nominated by the Democratic Party to be its presidential nominee, Sanders could defeat Trump is taken up, while it is recognized that Sanders must first beat Joe Biden in the Democratic primaries. The outlook here is less bright since Biden’s resounding victories on Super Tuesday. Whoever eventually wins the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, Trump and the powerful forces that support him will pose formidable challenges.

 Bernie’s transformative agenda

Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign identifies 34 “issues” on “Bernie Sanders on the issues,” website. Many of the issues include several or many proposals. For example, under the “College for All” issue there are ten separate proposals. The 34 issues include Medicare for all, a green new deal, college for all, a welcoming and safe America for all, workplace democracy, housing for all, the expansion of Social Security, justice and safety for all, honoring our commitment to veterans, free child care and pre-k for all, eliminating medical debt, reinvesting in pubic education, fair banking for all, supporting HBCUs and MSIs, taxes on extreme wealth, racial justice, high-speed internet for all, free and fair elections, income inequality tax plan, revitalizing rural America, responsible foreign policy, women’s rights, getting corporate money out of politics, LGBTQ+Equality, fighting for disability rights, empowering Puerto Rico, Tax increases for the rich, gun safety, legalizing marijuana, empowering tribal nations, real wall street reform, jobs for all, fair trade, and corporate accountability and democracy.

The limits of the electoral process on communicating the full agenda

My guess is that most of Sanders’ supporters do not pay attention to the whole range or details of his proposals. When they do, they focus on what items on a platform potentially reflect their interests, worldview, and values, and/or their party affiliation, and/or some “demographic” factors, and/or their “electability,” especially with respect to the need to defeat Trump. The strictures of campaigning, the rallies, debates, media appearances, organizational maintenance, coordination and planning, the endless greetings and handshakes, the miles of traveling, the candidates can only focus on their “major” proposals and/or the specific interests of a group being addressed or targeted. Pollsters sometime ask respondents whether their votes for a Democratic presidential candidate will be more influenced by the “issues” presented by the candidates or by their “electability,” with the assumption that the two can be separated.

Issues vs electability

 In the present Democratic presidential campaign context, the question often implicitly associates “issues” with Sanders and “electability” with Joe Biden. In fact, both candidates have multi-issue platforms. Bernie has an appeal to the left side of the political continuum based on structural reforms, his long record in both the House and Senate, and the belief that there is a need for a movement outside of the Democratic Party to propel his candidacy, with a movement like enthusiasm and funding from small donors. Biden’s appeal is more to the center based on incremental reforms, a mixed record in the US Congress, his association with former president Barack Obama, the support of black Democratic voters, the support of the Democratic Party leadership, and contributions from any and all sources, now including multi-billionaire Mike Bloomberg.

The impact – if ever implemented

 The overall effect of Sanders’ platform, if ever fully implemented, would be to reduce overall income and wealth inequalities, through an expansion of government programs and spending. It would reverse, or begin to reverse the neoliberal ideologically justified programs that that have emphasized small government (not the military), low taxes, minimal regulation when it in anyway threats business interests, the shredding of the safety net, the privatization of every potentially profitable economic sector, huge military expenditures, the hollowing out and politicization of federal government agencies, maximum support for fossil fuels.

Under a Sander’s presidency, there would be programs that provide benefits for everyone, but especially for those in the lower 80% of the population and even more for those in the bottom 50%, that is, “the working class” of industrial workers, non-supervisory workers generally, farm workers and small farmers, those without jobs who want work, and the poor. It would provide the phasing in of universal, single-payer Medicare for All and free childcare and pre-K for all. It would eliminate medical debt, expand Social Security, support full employment (“jobs for all”; the 20 million jobs expected to be created by The Green New Deal), improve wages through a higher federal minimum wage and support a minimum salary of $60,000 for teachers . It would “reinvest in Public Education.” It would “Honor our commitments to Veterans.” Additionally, the Sanders’ platform would eliminate student debt and lower the interest rate on future student debt, support black colleges and universities, empower tribal nations and Puerto Rico, and work to end discrimination and improve opportunities for women, blacks, the disabled, and the LGBTQ communities, while “revitalizing rural America” and providing “high-speed internet for all.” There is more. Sanders would work to pass comprehensive immigration reform that support DACA and recognize the international right of asylum, advance a foreign policy that emphasizes diplomacy and strives for international cooperation. It would even legalize marijuana. Much of this agenda can only be advanced with the support of both the Senate and House. And, even in the most propitious circumstances, it doesn’t all happen overnight. Some programs could be instituted quickly, while others would take years to phase in, some requiring more than one administration.

The expansion of government under Bernie’s plan requires a robust, non-mega- corporate-dominated private sector

Sanders has at times called his campaign “revolutionary” in what he wants to achieve. Indeed, in 2016, he wrote and published a book entitled Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In.  All the many proposals address problematic economic, political, and social challenges that, if ever enacted, would domestically make America more democratic, equal, and just than it has ever been. The platform offers proposals to diminish the power of mega-corporations generally, and specifically of Wall Street financial institutions, of the military-industrial complex, the pharmaceutical industry, and eliminating or phasing out fossil fuels and the big energy corporations, insurance corporations in health care, and for-profit corporate control in the prison-industrial complex.

Bernie Sanders is a self-described “democratic socialist, which, contrary to his many critics, does not mean that he wants a centralized planned command economy. There is no doubt his policies, if supported congressionally, would greatly increase the role of the federal government in the economy. It would break up or reform the Wall Street banks (eliminating the “too big to fail” conundrum) and encourage the development of public banks at the state and local level. It would transform the health-care sector, taking over the funding of health care but leaving physicians, hospitals, and other health-related sectors to operate much as they have, while giving consumers the right to choose their providers and hospitals. His agenda would institute ways to negotiate prices for prescription drugs. It would advance policies to replace fossil fuels, supporting companies in the private sector that are investing and producing renewable energy sources, energy efficiency, and conservation. The green energy program would provide opportunities for small and larger contractors in the private sector. The Sanders agenda would cut the huge and bloated military budget, although his campaign has not specified clearly how much they would  cut (https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/02/27/bernie-finally-puts-a-number-on-cutting-military-spending).

Then, of course, his administration would expand benefits for Social Security beneficiaries, strengthen the social safety net, and generally expand what is known as the social-welfare state. This expansion would be like the social democratic systems in many European countries. Additionally, he would ask the congress to fund a massive housing program, built by private developers but under strict, non-discriminatory guidelines. And there would be massive support for a repair and renewal of the national infrastructure, again with the work done largely by private contractors. All work funded by the federal government would require that workers have the choice of being represented by a union, that there would decent wages and benefits, and that they would be non-discriminatory in hiring and other job- related areas. It is clear that Sanders wants to transform the role of the federal government but without the command structures, the one-party domination and interference, and the ownership of the means of production associated with, more or less, countries such as Russia, China, North Korea, and Cuba.

What about the costs?

Ronald Brownstein argues that the cost of Sanders agenda is troubling and could be economically disastrous, estimated by some experts to cost at least $60 trillion over ten years (https://cnn.com/2020/01/14/politics/bernie-sanders-proposals-cost/index.html).

Brownstein’s basic point is that Sanders’ proposals would at least double federal spending over the next decade, [while] he has provided little detail about how he would implement or finance such a massive increase.” According to “a wide variety of fiscal experts, according to Brownstein, the cost of Sanders’ agenda would represent “an expansion of government’s cost and size unprecedented since World War II.” Quoting Larry Summers, the former chief of White House economic adviser for Barack Obama and treasury secretary for Bill Clinton, the cost of Sanders’ agenda would  exceed as a share of the economy “far more than the New Deal under President Franklin Roosevelt, the Great Society under Lyndon Johnson or the agenda proposed by any recent Democratic presidential nominee, including liberal George McGovern in 1972.” Brownstein also quotes Maya MacGuineas, president of the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonprofit group that advocates reducing federal deficits, who reiterates the point that “Sanders’ agenda would at least double federal spending. ”

There are difficulties in coming up with a precise cost estimate of his proposals because the “exact cost projections on all of Sanders proposals aren’t available, in part because he hasn’t fully fleshed out some of the ideas he’s embraced (such as universal pre-K and child care). Nonetheless, Brownstein insists, there are estimates that put the likely cost of the single-payer health care plan he has endorsed around $30 trillion or more over the next decade. Depending on the estimates used, including projections from his own campaign, the other elements of the Sanders agenda — ranging from his “Green New Deal” to the cancellation of all student debt to a guaranteed federal jobs program that has received almost no scrutiny — could cost about as much, or even more than, the single-payer plan. That would potentially bring his 10-year total for new spending to around $60 trillion, or more.” Brownstein reports that multiple officials at the Sanders’ campaign have not responded to requests for comments on the scope of his agenda or their own estimates of its cost.

Brownstein also provides some details on the “most expensive elements of the Sanders plan,” estimated by various organizations and the Sanders’ campaign itself. The Urban Institute estimated that Sanders’ single-payer health plan would cost $34 trillion over the next decade. According to the campaign, the ten-year cost of the Green New Deal will be $16.3 trillion. The campaign’s plan is to build 10 million “more units of affordable housing” over ten years at a cost of $2.5 trillion, $1 trillion to improve the nation’s infrastructure, $1.6 trillion to pay off all student debt, $460 billion for the cost of tuition-free public college, $1 trillion on federal spending on K-12, including a guaranteed $60,000 minimum salary for all teachers, $350 billion in support of universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds and universal child care support, and $275 billion to raise Social Security benefits. These plans alone add up to over $57 trillion.

Higher yet

The total costs may end up to be more expensive than $57 to $60 trillion over ten years. The two biggest uncertainties on the cost side are on the ten year costs of “paid medical and family leave for private-sector workers funded by an expansion of the payroll tax, and, most of all, Sanders “pledge to enact a federal jobs guarantee, to ensure that everyone is guaranteed a stable job that pays a living wage.” One estimate is that the employment program would “provide federal jobs to roughly 11 million Americans who are either unemployed or out of the workforce but still desiring to work” and “would cost around $7.5 trillion over 10 years,” including benefits and administrative costs. The costs in this program could turn out to be less than $7.5 trillion, as there is other funding in Bernie’s agenda to be allocated for the creation of up to 20 million jobs linked to the clean energy plan. However, the estimates for the demand of the federal jobs may well be too low. Jobs that pay $15 dollars an hour with benefits are likely attract millions of workers who are not only unemployed, or out of the labor force, but also workers who are employed in jobs that pay less than $15 and/or do not provide benefits. The existing federal and state employments services are not now equipped to handle such a demand for employment, gather information on the jobs created in the energy, infrastructure, housing sectors, and the full-employment, guaranteed job program.

Tax revenues

According to Brownstein’s sources the proposed taxes, economists across the ideological spectrum, is that the “sheer size of Sanders’ spending agenda dwarfs the proposed tax increases he has offered to pay for it.” He refers to an estimate by Brian Riedl, a former Senate Republican budget aide who’s now a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, who has calculated that “Sanders’ existing proposals to raise taxes on the wealthy, Wall Street and corporations would raise about $23 trillion over the next decade.” In addition, “the CBO projects the total amount the federal government will collect over the next decade from the personal income tax is $23.2 trillion. When the new Sanders’ taxes and the taxes projected by the CBO are combined, that is $43.2 trillion over ten years, there is a gap in the estimated $60 trillion costs of the Sanders’ agenda of $16.8 trillion over ten years and $1.68 trillion a year. Though these estimates are rough and subject to all sorts of unquantifiable contingencies. It should also be noted that there have been continuous “limits on government’s capacity to raise money from the wealthy and business.” These considerations raise the specter of a situation in which either the federal debt will rise, or there will be taxes on the middle class to keep the federal deficit from rising too much, or some or many of programs promised by Sanders will have to be postponed.

Savings and benefits

There could be offsetting savings that reduce any possible additions to the fiscal deficit. Brownstein points out that “Sanders and his supporters have responded to concerns about the cost of his plans by arguing that single-payer health care will save on total health care costs for average families by eliminating copayments, deductibles and premiums; that Sanders will save money by cutting defense spending; that spending in areas such as universal early childhood education or free public higher education will generate more benefits than costs for society by improving the productivity of the workforce; and that the overall agenda will accelerate economic growth to a point that makes the cost easier for the economy to absorb.”

Economist Jeffrey D. Sachs also emphasizes the social and political benefits to Americans that will flow from Bernie’s programs (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/02/26/even-wall-street-plutocrats-cant-burn-bernie). He notes that the Wall Street Elite, among other powerful forces, lobby against or ignore the benefits of Sanders proposals, writing: Sanders is a social democrat in the European mold who ‘wants to restore basic decency to America life: ‘universal publicly financed health care; above-poverty wages for full-time workers, along with basic benefits such as family leave for infants and paid leave for illness; college education that does not drive young adults into lifelong debt; elections that billionaires cannot buy; and public policy determined by public opinion, not corporate lobbying (which reached $3.47 billion in the United States in 2019). He refers to polls that find ‘large majorities….want government to ensure health care for all. They want higher taxes on the rich. They want a transition to renewable energy. And they want limits on big money in politics. These are all core Sanders positions, and all are commonplace in Europe.” The beneficiaries would include “tens of millions of Americans lack basic health-care coverage and that medical expenses bankrupt around 500,000 each year, or that one in five US households has zero or negative net worth and that nearly 40% struggle to meet basic needs….that ‘44 million Americans burdened by student debt totaling $1.6 trillion, a phenomenon essentially unknown in other developed countries. And while stock markets have soared, enriching the elites, suicide rates and other ‘deaths of despair (such as opioid overdoses) have also soared, as the working class has fallen further into financial and psychological insecurity.”

Picking up on the last point about the unmet needs that will be addressed by Sander’s proposals, Robert Reich considers “the humongous costs of inaction.”

(https://robertreich.org/post/610881487293874178). He notes that Larry Summers has put the price tag on Sanders agenda at a ten-year $60 trillion – and recognizes the problems of inaccuracy of that estimate. But inaction, Reich contends, will cost more over time than the costs of Bernie’s proposals, that is, the “costs of doing nothing.” Reich refers to several specific examples to make his point.

“A Green New Deal might be expensive but doing nothing about climate change will almost certainly cost far more. If we don’t launch something as bold as a Green New Deal, we’ll spend trillions coping with the consequences of our failure to be bold.”

“Medicare for All will cost a lot, but the price of doing nothing about America’s increasingly dysfunctional healthcare system will soon be in the stratosphere. A new study in The Lancet estimates that Medicare for All would save $450 billion and prevent 68,000 unnecessary deaths each year.”

“Investing in universal childcare, public higher education and woefully outdated and dilapidated infrastructure will be expensive too, but the cost of not making these investments would be astronomical. American productivity is already suffering and millions of families can’t afford decent childcare, college or housing – whose soaring costs are closely related to inadequate transportation and water systems.”

Reich says the main consideration on determining the value of a program is as follows. “As long as every additional dollar of spending reduces by more than a dollar the future costs of climate change, inadequate healthcare and insufficient public investment, it makes sense to spend more.” But critics raise another issue, arguing it “would be safer to move cautiously and incrementally.” Reich rebuttal: “This argument might be convincing if the problems Sanders… address were growing slowly.

But, according to Reich, experts on the environment, health, education and infrastructure are nearly unanimous: these problems are worsening exponentially.” Thus, in the final analysis, “the reason to support Sanders’ …proposals isn’t because they inspire and mobilize voters. It is because they are necessary.”

 A cleaner, less harmful environment

Jessica Corbett, staff writer for Common Dreams, reports that Sanders and two other senators have taken aim recently at corporate polluters with a bill to clean up toxic “forever chemicals” in drinking water (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/01/29/sanders-takes-aim-corporate-polluters-bill-clean-toxic-forever-chemicals-drinking). She brings attention to the regulator functions of the government and how, with adequate staff and relevant government regulations, the federal government can reduce the negative environment impacts of corporate policies and practices generally, though in this article the focus is on one instance of such potentially avoidable impacts. This would involve more funds for regulation but the costs would be outweighed by the savings from avoiding costly health and environmental outcomes.

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) on January 29, 2020 introduced legislation, The Prevent Future American Sickness Act, targeting toxic “forever chemicals” in drinking water. The chemicals in question are per- and polyfluoroalkl substances, known as PFAS. Corbett quotes Wenonah Hauter, Food and Water Watch, who says: “It [the bill] lays out a plan to finally hold polluters accountable to pay for cleanup of the worst contamination, while providing much needed financial relief for rural homeowners and local governments that need to upgrade treatment plants to remove these forever chemicals.” The problems associated with PFSAs have been scientifically documented. According to Corbett, Studies have tied this class of chemicals—which have been used in products ranging from nonstick pans and stain-resistant furniture to firefighting foam—to health issues including various cancer, weakened childhood immunity, and endocrine disruption.”

The proposed Senate bill includes findings from studies that the chemicals “‘have so far been confirmed in the groundwater or tap water of more than 1,400 communities’ nationwide, though scientists estimate that more than a million people in the country could be living with PFAS-contaminated tap water.” There is currently no federal legislation dealing with the problem of PFSAs, though “Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Michigan are leading the way in terms of setting robust drinking water standards for PFAS chemicals.” Corbett points out: “The bill would direct the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to designate PFAS as hazardous under both the Clean Air and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act—commonly called CERCLA or Superfund. As Sanders’ office summarizes (pdf), it also would set up “authorizations for EPA grants for drinking and wastewater infrastructure to address PFAS contamination in publicly owned water treatment plants, and residential water wells.” It would also “ban these ‘forever chemicals’ in food packaging and ban the incineration of PFAS firefighting foam. It would direct the EPA to examine other contaminated waste that shouldn’t be burned and require the Pentagon to put out a report detailing where in the country its firefighting foam is now and where it has been incinerated over the past decade.”

Sanders is quoted: “it is unconscionable that huge corporations like DuPont have, for decades, concealed evidence of how dangerous these compounds are in order to keep profiting at the expense of human health. Congress must pass this legislation to put an end to corporate stonewalling and criminal behavior and tackle this public health crisis.” Corbett also quotes one of the other co-sponsors, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), “who introduced the Green New Deal with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) in February 2019.” Markey highlighted that landmark climate and economic resolution, which Sanders supports, in the statement Wednesday. “PFAS pose a serious health risk to residents across Massachusetts and the country,” he said. “Cleaning up our air, soil, and water of these forever chemicals is an important component of the Green New Deal, as we fight to provide our communities with a future free of the legacy of corporate pollution.”

 The bottom line on the costs of Sanders’ agenda and the presidential election

 There is no definitive analysis of the cost of Sanders proposals, as there is not for any other political platform. The estimate that Sanders’ proposals will cost $60 trillion or more over ten years, do not take into account sufficiently the amount of tax revenues that will be collected, do not take into account the savings and benefits that will reduce “future” costs, including how environmental regulations can reduce environmental damage and health effects. At the same time, the challenges of implementing at least even only major aspects of Sanders’ agenda are daunting in the scope and magnitude of the changes envisioned. However, it is important to keep in mind, for example, that Sanders’ Green New Deal is the only proposal that gives the United States the chance of taking effective action to curtail “climate change,” which, according to virtually all climate scientists, is an existential threat to humanity that is accelerating and approaching a point where the devastation overwhelms society’s institutions. (Go to “sanders.com/issues” and check out “The Green New Deal.”) Sander’s presidential bid is hardly in the bag. He will face immense opposition in the remaining Democratic primary season from the mounting Democratic Party support for Biden.

Can Bernie beat Trump in 2020?

No – Sanders cannot be Trump. He should not be the Democratic Party’s nominee

In an article for the New York Times, Thomas B. Edsall interviews experts and brings his own knowledge to bear in an analysis that concludes that, if Bernie wins the Democratic Party presidential nomination, it will not bode well for the Party (https://nytimes.com/2020/02/05/opinion/sanders-2020-election.html).

Edsall summarizes his foreboding as follows. “The potential pitfalls for the Democratic Party of nominating Sanders go beyond the possibility of losing to Trump again, raising the likelihood that the Senate will remain in Republican hands and threatening the re-election prospects of the 40+ Democrats who defeated Republicans in moderate districts in 2018. Edsall discounts the “seven most recent national head-to-head surveys shows Sanders ahead of Trump by 3.7 points, 49.0 to 45.3,” arguing that the polls “were taken before any concerted Republican efforts to demonize Sanders, which are certain to start in earnest if he becomes the nominee.” Indeed, Edsall writes, “Sanders stands out among the leading Democratic presidential candidates in that none of the others have accumulated as many potentially debilitating liabilities as he has over 50 active years in politics.”

Edsall thinks that Sanders agenda will alienate too many voters in the general election, referring to a few examples such as “a Medicare for All plan eliminating private health coverage, a ban on fracking highly unpopular in Pennsylvania, the decriminalization of illegal border crossings.”

His evidence – the experts

Edsall writes that “many studies show that in general elections, the nomination of more extreme candidates has alienated moderates and driven up voting for the opposition,” citing a 2018 academic paper by political scientists Andrew Hall and Daniel Thompson, who write: “We have found consistent evidence that extremist nominees do poorly in general elections in large part because they skew turnout in the general election away from their own party and in favor of the opposing party.” Edsall also cites an email he received from Anthony Fowler, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, who writes: “Given this evidence, if I had to make a prediction, I’d say that the Democratic Party’s chances of winning the presidential election are notably lower if they elect Sanders or Warren as opposed to, say, Biden, Klobuchar, or Buttigieg. That’s not to say that Warren or Sanders can’t win the general election, but the evidence suggests that their chances are lower.”  And Wendy Schiller, a political scientist at Brown University, wrote in an email that “Sanders appears to generate the most fervent and intense enthusiasm among his supporters, but polls continue to show that Biden attracts more support among the key groups that are known to get out the door to vote in general elections, especially black voters and voters over the age of 35.” There is also concern that a Sanders’ presidential candidacy will rachet up Republican turnout in response to this radical agenda, stirring a counter-mobilization. Overall, Edsall writes: “Most political scientists I contacted this week saw greater disadvantages for the Democratic Party in a Sanders nomination than in the possible selection of other leading candidates,” especially as it is turning out, the selection of Joe Biden.

Most Democratic Party leaders are opposed to Sanders’ presidential candidacy

For an article published on February 27 in The New York Times, Lisa Lerer and Reid J. Epstein, interviewed 93 Democratic leaders, most of whom think that a Sanders’ presidential nomination will damage the party and lead to a loss to Trump in the general election in November. (https://www.nytimes.com/us/politics/democratic-superdelegates.html).

They summarize how the investigation was done. “Dozens of interviews with Democratic establishment leaders this week show that they are not just worried about Mr. Sanders’s candidacy, but are also willing to risk intraparty damage to stop his nomination at the national convention in July 13-16 at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, if they get the chance. Since Mr. Sanders’s victory in Nevada’s caucuses on Saturday, The Times investigators interviewed 93 party officials — all of them superdelegates, who could have a say on the nominee at the convention — and found overwhelming opposition to handing the Vermont senator the nomination if he arrived with the most delegates but fell short of a majority.” In such an eventuality, those interviewed worried about “a brokered convention, a messy political battle the likes of which Democrats have not seen since 1952, when the nominee was Adlai Stevenson.” They refer to the concerns that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, receive in text-messaging chains from their members in the Congress, worries about congressional losses in November if Sanders is the Democratic standard bearer, and of getting wiped out in the general election. Party leaders across the country “say they worry that Mr. Sanders, a democratic socialist with passionate but limited support so far, will lose to President Trump, and drag down moderate House and Senate candidates in swing states with his left-wing agenda of ‘Medicare for All’ and free four-year public education.”

Concern among Democratic “leaders” that a Sanders presidential candidacy may end up splitting the Democratic Party

The issue of a brokered convention is particularly worrisome to the 93 Democratic leaders interviewed by Lisa Lerer and Reid J. Epstein. At this point in the Democratic primary elections, it looks like there will be two viable presidential candidates who will arrive at the party’s convention in July – Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. According to the party’s rules, if a candidate gets fifty percent + one of the votes cast at the first round of voting, then that candidate will be nominated as the party’s presidential candidate. All the delegates voting in the first round of votes are pledged to one or other candidate – over 3,200 delegates. If neither of the candidates has a majority, there will be a second round of voting. The difference between the first and second rounds is that 771 Superdelegates, unpledged delegates who are not permitted to vote in the initial round but will be permitted to vote in the second round, And, in the second round of voting, the pledged candidates will be allowed to change their votes. Sanders and his team want the rules changed so that, if one of the candidates has a plurality of favorable votes in the first round, that candidate should be given the party’s nomination. No second round. No superdelegate influence. Biden and the Democratic Party leaders want to follow the rules and go to a second vote if there is an absence of a majority for either candidate in the first round of voting. Sanders is concerned about the prospect of Superdelegates participating in the selection of the party’s nominee, as they will do in this scenario, because they are likely to support Biden and significantly increase his change of getting the nomination. Who are the superdelegates? They include members of the Democratic National Committee, Congress members, Democratic governors, party insiders and VIPs – including lobbyists (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/02/27/class-war-dnc-and-fight-our-lives). The superdelegates represent one example of what Sanders calls the Democratic Establishment.

The Democratic leaders and the experts interviewed by Edsall worry that Sanders ascendancy in the nomination fights, presently pitting Biden against Sanders, places the Democratic Party in a double bind. On the one hand, Edsall’s sources argue that Sanders is a “dangerously weak general election candidate. On the other hand, many of Sanders’ supporters are so strongly committed to his campaign that they “are likely to bolt on Election Day and vote for either a third-party candidate or even Trump…or sit out the contest altogether.” That is, their loyalty is to Sanders and not to the Democratic Party. And that could spell doom in the election against Trump. Edsall points to the 7 million votes in the 2016 election that “were cast for third-party candidates, more than enough to have given the election to Hillary Clinton.” Sanders himself has never encouraged such actions by his supporters and has repeatedly said that, if he loses the Democratic Party nomination, he will actively support whoever is the Party’s nominee in the 2020 general election. Nonetheless, to justify his unease, Edsall found a January 22-23 Emerson College survey that asked Democratic primary voters “will you vote for the Democratic nominee even if it is not your candidate?” In response, “87 percent of Joe Biden supporters said yes, as did 90 percent of those backing Elizabeth Warren and 86 percent of those aligned with Pete Buttigieg. 53 percent of Sanders supporters said yes, 16 percent said no, and 31 percent said they were undecided.” In a speech given the night of Super Tuesday, Sanders did say that his campaign had to fight both the “economic establishment” and “the political establishment,” with clear reference to the Democratic Party leadership.

Yes, Sanders can defeat Trump

In an opinion piece for the New York Times, Steven Phillips argues that “the math” says that “Bernie Sanders can Beat Trump” (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/28/opinion/bernie-sanders-polls.html).

 So, what is “the math,” or evidence?

First, Phillips points out that most “of the current polling data shows Mr. Sanders winning the national popular vote.” He continues: “In the most recent national polls testing Democratic candidates against Mr. Trump, Mr. Sanders beat him in every single one, with margins varying from 2 percent to 6 percent. This has been the case for nearly a year now, with Mr. Sanders outpolling the president in 67 of 72 head-to-head polls since March.” The polling data also show Sanders doing well against Trump in “the pivotal battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Second, the exit polls and precinct analysis in the first three nominating contests, in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada document that Sanders received strong support from voters under 30 and from heavily Latino precincts, which represent a formidable base of support for the general election in November. Phillips refers to a Pew Research project that found the “share of eligible voters from Generation Z (18-23 year olds) will be more than twice as large in 2020 as it was in 2016 (10 percent versus 4 percent).

Third, on the youth component of the electorate in past elections, Phillips reminds readers that “Mrs. Clinton defeated Mr. Trump by nearly 20 points among voters under 30, and the anti-Republican tilt of that demographic was even more pronounced in 2018, when 67 percent of them voted Democratic, 35 points more than the number who voted Republican. As for Latinos, nearly two-thirds of that population consistently vote Democratic.” Fourth, the demographics favor Sanders in 2020. Phillips writes: “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.”

Fourth, of all the remaining candidates, Phillips maintains plausibly that “Mr. Sanders is the most likely to reclaim those Democratic voters who defected to the Green Party in search of a more progressive standard-bearer,” especially in states like Michigan and Wisconsin where there was an “increase in votes for Jill Stein from 2012 to 2016” and that it was “greater than Mr. Trump’s margin of victory” in those states.

Fifth, there are concerns that a Sanders candidacy would have a negative effect on down-ballot congressional races. Phillips thinks such concerns are overblown and refers to how in the midterm 2018 elections “the vast majority of congressional districts where Democrats ousted Republican incumbents …it was enthusiasm and the high turnout of Democratic voters [attributable at least in part to how Sanders 2016 campaign has energized parts of the electorate] that made the difference, much more than alienated moderate Republicans switching their party allegiance. In all but five of the 41 seats picked up by Democrats, increased Democratic turnout alone would have been enough to flip the seats without any Republican crossovers.”

Moderate voters need to take a second look at Bernie’s record

This is Jason Sattler’s argument in an article for Common Dreams titled “Moderate Democrats have a duty to consider Sanders” (https://www.commondreams.org/lviews/2020/02/10/moderate-democrats-have-a-duty-consider-sanders-he-has-a-clear-path-beating-trump).

They should take a second look because Sanders proposals seek to address problems that have been allowed to worsen. Sattler writes: “If you believe in saving democracy, the courts and the planet, and reversing the unrepentant cruelty, corruption and carelessness that define the current administration, you have a duty to at least consider the candidacy of the most popular senator in America, the top fundraiser in the Democratic primaries, and the man who has generally beaten Trump in head-to-head polls for five years now.” Sanders is a candidate is a candidate “who has spent decades warning against the evils of an economy where the top 0.1% own as much as the bottom 90%.” He has been effective legislator in the Congress, co-sponsoring more than 200 bills that became law—”including the 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act he negotiated with conservative lawmakers John McCain and Jeff Miller to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs.”  He had been “one of the greatest champions of the $15 minimum wage, a movement that has swept many states and helped drive income gains among the poorest workers.” Addition, Sattler adds: “Supposed big ticket items like free college and universal pre-K might seem overly generous, but they’re just rounding errors compared with the recent increases in the defense budget combined with the massive tax cuts for corporations passed by Trump’s GOP. And while the popularity for “Medicare for All” rises and falls in polls, it would be a strong selling point if the entire Democratic Party got behind it and made the case that it would lead to higher wages.”

Concluding thoughts

 Democratic Party leaders, voters who are afraid of radical or structural change that upend or significantly modify what they are used to, and many media pundits find Sander’s agenda too radical, unsettling, destabilizing, are opposed to Sanders’ nomination. His proposals are certainly far-reaching and want to take the society and many of its institutions to places that are unprecedented in US history. He is talking about systemic or structural changes designed to reduce the concentration of corporate power and private wealth, to detach politics from plutocrats, to reduce significantly inequalities in income and wealth, to guarantee good-paying jobs and health care for all, as well as providing free public college education, a strong regulatory regime, and a wide range of social-welfare programs more generous than the society has ever experienced.

It remains to be seen if the vision of Sanders and his supporters will come to fruition when it is opposed by many Democrats, opposed by the candidacy of Biden,  and undoubtedly opposed by Trump and his allies, especially among the corporate elites and rich Americans. In the meantime, Sanders campaign faces huge hurdles. He needs to keep and expand his base of support, win more delegates in the remaining primary states than Biden, go to the convention with a majority of the pledged delegates, and thus secure the party’s presidential nomination without a brokered convention. If he and his supporters are unable to do all this, his chances of winning the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination evaporate. This pathway to Sanders’ success seems to be increasingly narrow.

One major challenge eventually facing the Democratic Party leaders is whether they can somehow find a way to nominate Biden as the party’s candidate at the Democratic Party convention in July without at the same time alienating Sanders’ supporters. There is little question that the party does not have a chance of beating Trump and the Republicans in November if it is not unified. So, among many other issues, how do the leaders in the Democratic Party nominate Biden while at the same time resolving the differences in the issues that divide the Biden campaign and the Sanders campaign. The challenge is daunting. On the one hand, it involves finding ways to reconcile some very different positions on policy like whether to build on Obamacare or go for Medicare for all, whether to settle for a carbon tax or commence a Green New Deal, whether too-big-to-fail Wall Street banks will continue to exist or be broken up along with other structural changes in the banking system, whether the bloated and wasteful military budget will continue being supported or be subjected to major cuts, and how much taxes on the corporations and high-income – and -wealth families will be raised. These and other differences on important issues will be hard to reconcile. On the other hand, maybe the threat of another four years of Trump will, in the end, lead all factions to subordinate their policy differences to this goal. But that may not be enough either.

Whatever happens, there is the question of whether Biden and the Democratic Party are up to the challenge of facing off against a highly unified Republican Party, a president who seems to have the unyielding support already of something like 45% of the electorate, seemingly unlimited funding sources, the un-democratic benefit of extensive voter suppression in many states, and, the resources to utilize the most advanced methods of spreading disinformation and character assassination to smear opponents.

 

 

 

 

 

The specter of fascism before and during the Trump presidency

Bob Sheak, February 19, 2020

The demise of US democracy

The U.S. power structure is fundamentally based on three crucial centers of power, including the mega-corporations, the presidency and executive branch of the government, and the military-industrial complex. Within a system of increasingly unfettered capitalism, the decision makers in these power centers are pivotal in determining the major economic, political, and military policies for the United States and, through media, public relations, think tanks, and various experts, in shaping the society’s culture. They represent a power structure that is inimical to democracy, has always limited democracy, and is in the process of further diminishing it. Giving shape to it all is a neoliberal ideology that serves to legitimate and continuously reshape the federal government in ways that favor the rich and powerful, including policies providing low taxes, low interest rates, deregulation, privatization when it is profitable, and corporate-friendly trade agreements. And, since the 2016 election, these structures of power have benefited from having a “leader” in the White House and a Republican-dominated Senate, both of whom ensure that the interests of the corporate-dominated economy and the rich are accommodated. It’s important to understand that the anti-democratic power structure was in place prior to the election of Trump, though he has been its enthusiastic, though at times erratic, champion since then.

In this post, I first consider some of the principal characteristics of the present economic-military-political-cultural system and rely particularly for an analytical framework on a book by sociologist Carl Boggs, Fascism Old and New. The central question is just how far the existing power arrangements have advanced toward the undermining the already tenuous democracy of the country. Boggs contends that the US system already has many fascist characteristics. I then consider what is likely to happen if Trump and the Republicans are victorious in the 2020 elections. If they do, then the US would take another step toward becoming a full-blown fascist system, or, as some argue, a form of tyranny.

 Fascistic tendencies in the present system

In his book, Fascism Old and New: American Politics at the Crossroads (2018), Boggs opening sentences capture the thrust of his analysis: “In this book I argue that the United States, the most exemplary liberal democracy in the world in terms of reputation, is well along the path to a new type of fascism, or what might be called a ‘fascist equivalent – ruled by a modern power structure that is increasingly oligarchical and authoritarian, not only politically, but economically and culturally” (p. 1). Boggs does not argue that the US is fascist yet, but rather that there are structural and other developments that are moving in that direction.  He refers to “a merger of historical forces that seem to be gaining momentum: corporatism, super-patriotism, militarism, imperialism, racism” (p. 2).

Friendly Fascism?

Boggs’ research leads him to find that fascism can have different manifestations, depending on the conditions in a given society. The principal implication is that, if fascism comes to the U.S., it will be rooted in the history and reflect the specific conditions that prevail at the time. Citing Bertram Gross’s book Friendly Fascism (1982), he suggests that “a distinctly American fascism is destined to be of a more ‘friendly’ type, without major social disruptions, systematic terrorism, paramilitary actions, Mussolini-style demagoguery, or outright attacks on the Constitution” (p. 11) – and that elements of liberalism will co-exist with right-wing authoritarianism (p. 10). For example, there is no large-scale fascist (or neo-fascist) movement or party” in the U.S. today. But there are troubling developments, some stretching back decades and others unleashed by Trump and his backers. Now, in early 2020, the signs that Trump and his right-wing alliance are ready and willing to pursue policies and employ methods that are anti-democratic have already surfaced, policies that spawn hatred and fear rather than the friendly pitch Bertram Gross anticipated (e.g., https://truthout.org/articles/trump-threatens-to-unleash-paramilitary-violence-in-the-us).

Henry A. Giroux captures the hate- and fear-tinged aspects of Trump’s incendiary language in his book, American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism, pp. 90-91, writing that Trump seems to abide by the “fascist script” identified by Robert O. Paxton in his book, The Anatomy of Fascism.

“Trump has made in his repeated claim that the United States is in a period of decline; his nationalist slogan to ‘make America great again’; his official displays of coded bigotry and intolerance, as in his symbolic association with Andrew Jackson; his portrayal of himself as a strongman who alone can save the country; his appeal to aggression and violence aimed at those who disagree with him; his contempt for dissent; his deep-rooted anti-intellectualism, or what Arendt called ‘thoughtlessness’ (denial that climate change is produced by humans), coupled with his Twitter-driven elevation of impulsiveness over reason; his appeal to xenophobia and national greatness; his courting of anti-Semites and white supremacists; his flirtation with a discourse of racial purity; his support for white Christian public sphere; his denigration of Muslims, Blacks, undocumented immigrants, Native Americans, women, and transgender people; his contempt for weakness; and his adolescent, size-matters enthusiasm for locker-room masculinity”

Power becomes more and more consolidated at the top

Boggs argues we now confront a system that is becoming more and more fascistic. Democracy and its basic values are being eclipsed. Corporate power is becoming more concentrated in a fewer corporate and seems increasingly unassailable. Right-wing forces, with support from the rich and major corporations, control the major institutional levers of state power. Republicans use their power to control the legislative process, rig congressional districts, and suppress the vote. The Supreme Court and the federal judiciary are becoming politicized and dominated by ultra-conservative justices.

The domestic and global scope of American corporate and state power has no parallel. The “integration of corporate, state, and military power is more advanced in the U.S. than anywhere except perhaps China.” The American power elite, Boggs observes, “now possesses more leverage across the globe than any ruling groups in Europe, Asia, Latin American, or elsewhere” (pp. 151-152). It has accumulated vast wealth and power within the existing domestic institutional arrangements so that “there is no need to resort to a single-party dictatorship and terror under a supreme leader” (p. 152). The major media pay little critical attention to these situations, unless they are celebrating them. All of this “co-exists with many formal structures and norms of Constitutional democracy – a ‘democracy’ to be sure,” where party competition, elections, and legislative activity still exist but have been steadily undermined by the wealth and power of ruling elites (p. 156). But sadly, Boggs writes, “corporations, Wall Street, federal government, the military, educational system, surveillance network…are systematically and unapologetically authoritarian, never much impacted by voting results” (p. 175).

On the last point, Boggs quotes from Sheldon S. Wolin’s book, Democracy, Inc. (2007): “One cannot point to any national institutions that [today] can be accurately described as democratic…” Congress, the presidency, court system, parties, state agencies, workplaces, schools and universities, and of course the military” (p. 7). A turning point for Wolin was “an enlarged ‘power imaginary’ that surfaced during and after World War II.” This was manifest in the following: “War mobilization, superpower ambitions, nuclear politics, the security state, and permanent war economy all served to extend the boundaries of power, eroding constitutional limits while feeding into statist, corporate, and imperial authoritarianism – the very stuff of historical fascism” (p. 7).

There is another recent book that serves to document the concentration of power not only in the U.S. power structure but internationally as well. Peter Philips identifies 389 individuals who lead and/or are associated with “the most important networks of the Global Power Elite.” They are “the core of the policy planning nongovernmental networks that manage, facilitate, and protect the continued concentration of global capital,” “providing the ideological justifications for their shared interests and establishing the parameters of needed actions for implementation by transnational governmental organizations.” The title of the book is Giants: The Global Power Elite.” The book provides the names of the individual, their bios, their connections to mega-corporations and to important nongovernmental organizations, and how they are continually thinking and planning about how to protect and advance their interests within capitalist political-economic systems. The book provides detailed evidence on anti-democratic essence and coordinated thrust of the rich and powerful.

The military-industrial complex has a central role

The military continues to grow, and does so in support of corporate interests abroad, involved in unending, destructive, counterproductive wars and interventions, and at the expense of other non-military domestic programs. It has grown amidst “a process of global expansion, development of a Cold War ideological consensus, and narrowing of elite political culture binding Democrats and Republicans to a common international agenda.” At the same time, “the political and popular culture grew increasingly militarized, visible not only in foreign policy but in the media, high rates of crime, gun mania, and the world’s largest prison system” (p. 116). There is hardly a sports or pubic event that is not begun without patriotic songs and symbols.

The costs

By 2016, Pentagon “spending consumed more than half of all discretionary spending – at nearly one trillion dollars dwarfing expenditures of potential rivals such as Russia and China.” It “employed more than three million people worldwide, held fully 80 percent of the federal inventory, operated more than 800 bases in dozens of countries, and possessed a nuclear arsenal large enough to destroy the planet several times over” (p. 118). In his 2021 recommended budget, Trump calls for deep cuts in social spending and large increases for the Pentagon (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/02/10/trump-budget-propose-savage-cuts-medicaid-medicare-and-social-security-while-hiking).

US weapons makers profit exorbitantly by leading the world in unfettered foreign weapons sales – providing the means that fuel disorder, violence, repression, and wars across the globe (https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/08/16/donald-trump-gunrunner-for-hire).

There are other costs, as spending on the military is one of the principal sources of the climbing national debt and comes at the expense of  reduced spending and “austerity” in “social programs and public infrastructure, as spending “devoted to missiles, planes, ships, and guns” take precedence over spending for “roads, water and power facilities, bridges, public transportation, and education” (p. 118).

The enduring delusion that military power will keep the US safe

Despite this awesome military force, the elites who make up the power structure worry about losing military preeminence in the world. U.S. elites are concerned in recent years about nuclear proliferation and terrorism. Boggs refers to R. J. Lifton’s concept of “nuclearism,” or the “ideology of U.S. nuclear power…would allow the world’s dominant warfare state to set its own international rules and norms promoting its supposedly unique set of virtues, including the ‘American model’ of corporate globalization” (p. 125). But, also importantly, the U.S. military has been mired in costly and catastrophic wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, has extended provocatively NATO military forces in Eastern Europe on the border of Russia, is involved in dangerous naval operations in the South China Sea with China, supports Saudi Arabia’s military onslaught on Yemen, while expanding its present in Africa, allows US arms producers to sell by far more armaments to other countries than any other nation, and is making outer space the new battleground. And, as Michael Klare documents, the US and Russian are building up military (and nuclear) forces in the Arctic region very close to one another to control access to oil and other minerals buried at the bottom of the ocean, increasing the conditions for a new and existentially-threatening Cold War ((https://www.tomdispatch.com/post/176661/tomgram%3A_michael_klare%2C_war_in_the_arctic/#more). Along with all this, Trump has authorized the creation of a Space branch to join the existing Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard services. There are now no places on earth and in near space that are safe from US military operations and nuclear attacks.

US military policy in the Trump years increases the chances of nuclear war

Acknowledging this reality, the board of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists have just made their annual adjustment of “the doomsday clock” for 2020 (https://thebulletin.org/doomsday-clock/current-time). The prestigious scientific board uses the doomsday clock as a symbol of how distant or close the minute hand is from midnight, which, if ever reached, would, in their considered estimation, result in a cataclysmic outcome, most likely the end of humanity and much of life on the planet in the case of nuclear war. In their 2020 report, editor John Mecklin writes: “the members of the Science and Security Board have concluded that the complex technological threats the world faces are at least as dangerous today as they were last year and the year before, when we set the Clock at two minutes to midnight (as close as it had ever been, and the same setting that was announced in 1953, after the United States and the Soviet Union tested their first thermonuclear weapons).” In January, the board moved the minute hand to 100 seconds before midnight, the closest it has ever been to this end-game time over all the years the board has been publishing its assessments. While the board includes both the prospects of climate change as well as nuclear war in is recent decisions, the focus in this post will be on the threat of nuclear war.

No closer to peace

The huge military force is said by to be a force for peace. In realty, it has done little to promote peace and has been stuck in unauthorized wars that have ravaged countries, killed and uprooted millions of people, created the conditions for the spread of “terrorist” groups, and cost hundreds of billions of dollars along with many tens of thousands of American casualties, men and women, who have fought in these wars. The published work of Andrew J. Bacevich in such books as The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism or Chalmers Johnson’s book, Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope. Among other proposals, Johnson writes that “[w]e need to reduce, not increase, the size of our standing army and deal much more effectively with the long-term wounds our soldiers receive and the combat stress they undergo.” And “we must give up our inappropriate reliance on military force as the chief means of attempting to achieve foreign policy objectives” (p. 196). In his recently published book, A Nation Made by War, Tom Engelhardt offers an apt summary.

“…we’re truly in a new American age, whether of the plutocrats, by the plutocrats, and for the plutocrats or of the generals, by the generals, and for the generals – but most distinctly not of the people, by the people, and for the people.

“After all, for more than sixteen years, the US military has been fighting essentially failed or failing wars – conflicts that only seem to spread the phenomenon (terrorism) they’re supposed to eradicate – in Afghanistan, Iraq, more recently Syria, intermittently Yemen, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa. Meanwhile Donald Trump’s generals have been quietly escalating those wars. Hundreds, possibly thousands, more American soldiers and special ops forces are being sent into Syria, Iraq, and neighboring Kuwait (about which the Pentagon will no longer provide even inaccurate numbers); US air strikes have been on the rise throughout the region; the American commander in Afghanistan is calling for reinforcements; drone strikes recently set a new record for intensity in Yemen; Somalia may be the next target of mission creep and escalation; and it looks as if Iran is  now in Washington’s sniper scopes” (p. 146).

Fewer constraints on the power elite amidst the “war on terror”

 Since 9/11, constraints on U.S. power have further diminished, Boggs contends, “as the War on Terrorism perpetually legitimates the imperial state, cloaking its naked drive for economic and geopolitical advantage behind the wounded innocence of avenging victim, as in the case of Germany following its World War I defeat and then added humiliation at Versailles” (p. 7). And the ascendance of Trump to the White House, along with a right-wing cabinet, the systematic assaults and diminution of the federal bureaucracy, the undermining scientific research and environmental protections and attacks on the science itself, the ruthlessness of the Republican Party, the concurrence of most segments of the corporate community, and a cult-like following of tens of millions of Americans – all indicate that the U.S. has more fascist elements and tendencies than ever before. Boggs notes: “The sad truth is that popular movements, local organizations, and third parties ultimately constitute the only hope for challenging, possibly reversing, the seemingly relentless fascistic trends identified through this book. Such resistance will be the last line of defense in a world of unprecedented crises, overwhelming challenges, and potential disasters” (p. 179). But this line has yet to reverse the growing concentration and consolidation of corporate power and abuses of power by Trump.

A private-public system of surveillance is massively expanding

There are ominous signs and the federal government and mega-corporations are consolidating enormous control of the society’s principal economic, political, and military sectors. In addition to the fascist tendencies already discussed, our privacy is in danger of being eclipsed by an ever-more sophisticated state surveillance system augmented by large communications corporations. Julia Angwin offers an insightful analysis of this phenomenon in her book, Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance. And Yasha Levine documents the historical and contemporary influence of the military in creating the internet and how tech-industry giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon now collect massive amounts of information on millions of Americans in the book, Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet. The internet can be used for good or bad. On the one hand, Levine writes:

“Today, we live in a troubled world, a world of political disenfranchisement, rampant poverty and inequality, unchecked corporate power, wars that seem to have no end and no purpose, and a runaway privatized military and intelligence complex – and hanging over it all are the prospects of global warming and environmental collapse. We live in bleak times, and the Internet is a reflection of them: run by spies and powerful corporations just as our society is run by them. But it isn’t all hopeless.”

On the other hand:

“Not all surveillance is bad. Without them, there can be no democratic oversight of society. Ensuring oil refineries comply with pollution regulations, preventing Wall Street fraud, forcing wealthy citizens to pay their fair share – none of these would be possible. In that sense, surveillance and control are not problems in and of themselves. How they are used depends on our politics and political culture” (p. 274).

Under the current power arrangements, however, there is every reason to believe that most of us have lost control over our personal information and live in a world where we have little privacy. David Gray looks at how use of the internet technology by corporations and the federal government is now little protected by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution in his book The Fourth Amendment in an Age of Surveillance. The Fourth Amendment was designed to guarantee a basic degree of security against threats of unreasonable governmental intrusion.” However, it is increasingly irrelevant today and fails to address issues related to the electronic media. Gray writes:

“…in a recent ranking compiled by Privacy International comparing surveillance practices and privacy protections among nations, the United States landed at the very bottom, earning the designation ‘endemic surveillance society’ along with Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore, Russia, China, Malaysia, and the United Kingdom” (p. 6).

Boggs points to the enormous expanse of the government’s intelligence/surveillance systems as follows.

“…the system has expanded to include no fewer than 17 federal agencies along with hundreds of state and local bodies charged with homeland security, surveillance, espionage, covert operations, and everyday law enforcement.”

“…American surveillance entities vacuum up billions of electronic transactions daily, enabling them to locate and observe millions of people through cell-phone activity, social media transactions, and Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates. The NSA in turn shares part of its voluminous information with such intelligence-oriented bodies as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), FBI, CIA, Defense Information Agency (DIA), IRS, and multiple layers of state and local police forces.”

He continues:

“The NSA, moreover, has worked closely with such corporations as Microsoft, Verizon, AT&T, Apple, and Google, all central to the smooth functioning of American communications technology. The agency has produced a massive watch list, identifying more than a million potential ‘threats,’ entered into the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) and Terrorist Identities Group (TIG).”

“…in 2013 alone, the NSA collected more than 125 billion telephone items and 97 billion pieces of computer data from around the world, much from (theoretically exempt) American citizens….” (p. 183).

There are additional concerns stemming from the current power structure. Dissent is fraught with risks, though not yet systemically quashed. More and more government functions are privatized, the infrastructure deteriorates, and ecosystems are degraded and depleted in record numbers, while increasingly cataclysmic climate change unfolds with little restraint on corporate polluters in the context of an unplanned and increasingly unregulated, profit-first, unending-growth capitalist economy.

Reactionary Populism gets a boost under Trump

 Along with all the rest, the right-wing political forces have gained strength from the growth of a reactionary populism since the 1990s, including “local militias, Christian fundamentalists, and the Tea Party among them.” Boggs points to how Trump benefited, as 35 percent of his presidential vote come from evangelical constituencies (pp. 12-13). His presidency has “apparently lent new legitimacy to the evangelical movement, especially the selection of Mike Pence as vice-president and Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. As American society moves ever rightward,” Boggs writes, “evangelicals have grown in numbers, organizations, media presence, and general influence. They work indefatigably through state legislatures, PACs, think tanks, conferences, and medical outlets to carry out ‘God’s work, hoping to Christianize secular institutions, beginning with education, bringing ‘family values’ and patriotism to the forefront.” Boggs thinks that they “could help to solidify a social bloc behind fascistic tendencies….” (p. 13).

Historian Kathleen Belew documents the growth of “the white power movement” in the U.S. in her brilliant, but disturbing, book, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. Here is some of what she found.

“While white power featured a diversity of views and an array of competing leaders, all corners of the movement were inspired by feelings of defeat, emasculation, and betrayal after the Vietnam War and by social and economic changes that seemed to threaten and victimize white men. White power also qualifies as a movement through its central features: the contiguous activity of an inner circle of key figures over two decades, frequent public displays, and development of a wide-reaching social network.

“White power activists used a shared repertoire of actions to assert collectivity. Public displays of uniformed activists chanting slogans and marching in formation aimed to demonstrate worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment to both members and observers. Activists encouraged dress codes and rules about comportment and featured the presence of mothers with children, Vietnam veterans, and active-duty military personnel. Members showed unity by donning uniforms and by marching and chanting in formation. They made claims about their numbers. They underscored their commitment with pledges to die rather than abandon the fight; preparing to risk their lives for white power; and undertaking acts that put them at legal and physical risk. A regular circulation of people, weapons, funds, images, and rhetoric – as well as intermarriages and other social relationships – bound activists together” (pp. 10-11).

And they thrive.

“The state and public opinion have failed to sufficiently halt white power violence or refute white power belief systems, and failed to present a vision of the future that might address some of their concerns that lie behind the more diffuse, coded, and mainstream manifestations” (p. 239).

The white power movement, ultra-nationalistic, racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, armed, opposed to progressive values and ideas, poses no threat to the power elite. They represent the potential street fighters against those who criticize the existing power structure from progressive and leftist points of view.

The Democratic Party falters

While there are policy differences that divide the Democrats from the Republicans on “secondary or tertiary” issues like immigration, gay marriage, abortion, both parties, Boggs contends, support “modern capitalism and the warfare state” (p. 159). Though it is important to recognize that in the Democratic Party there is a progressive caucus  and leftist Democrats mounting presidential campaigns that sets them apart from the Republicans on most issues and even from the Democratic leadership on some issues. Certainly, progressive Democrats strongly support civil rights, progressive taxes, the need to regulate the economy and break up some of the mega-corporations, less spending on the military, immigration reform that provides for pathways to citizenship and honors international laws on refugees, the need to ratchet up support for renewable forms of energy and energy efficiency, and the vital importance of government spending on infrastructure, housing, education, job training, and other policies that provide benefits to ordinary Americans. And Obama and his administration should be given credit for signing the international agreement in Paris in December 2015 aimed at limiting greenhouse emissions, the advance of federally-binding fuel-efficiency standards for cars, vans and light truck, and in the successful multilateral agreement signed with Iran, the UK, France, the EU, Germany, Russia on banning Iran from ever developing nuclear bombs. But Trump has negated Obama’s initiatives through various executive orders.

And it also true that Obama and many Democrats in the US Congress supported the bail-out of the big banks in 2008, allowed the banks to sell its junk assets to the Federal Reserve. They supported increased military spending, military engagements throughout the world, drone warfare, an “all of the above” energy policy that included oil, gas, and nuclear energy, and were weak on poverty, public job creation, raising the minimum wage, single-payer medical insurance. Much of the party remains tied to big money for campaign contributions. Obama did little to reach out to peace groups, unions, or other civic organizations. His trade proposals, like the TPP, had “bad labor laws and practices, few if any consumer or environmental protections that can be enforced in courts of law, and precious little freedom of speech” (Ralph Nader, To the Ramparts: how Bush and Obama paved the way for the Trump presidency, and why it isn’t too late to reverse course, p. 165).

Programs created to have wide benefits are attacked and citizen participation declines

 To reiterate, social-welfare programs are being eviscerated, along with environmental and consumer protections. There is increasing inequality in all aspects of the society, trends that go back to the 1970s, especially arising during the years of the Reagan administration. Citizens are increasingly detached from community and political activity and preoccupied with private worries, how to pay the bills, debt, entertainment, consumption. Boggs refers to signs of how vigorous democratic politics have declined, as evidenced by how “widespread and dynamic participating, institutional accountability, broad access, issue knowledge and awareness, sense of political efficacy – have sharply declined in recent decades.” Forty to fifty percent of the electorate don’t vote in presidential elections and sixty percent or more who don’t typically vote in mid-term elections. And, Boggs points out, “[r]ecent history shows…that counterforces to the political establishment – social movements, alternative parties, community enclaves – have not been sufficiently durable to challenge the status quo” (p. 165).

What if Trump is re-elected in 2020?

There is a question of just how far the forces embodied in the interconnected multifaceted economic, political, military, ideological power will take us toward the demise of democracy. Certainly, the election of Trump in 2016 has increased had a damaging effect on democracy and justice. The chances that the United States will end up with a more tenuous and limited democracy than before would be enhanced if Trump were to be re-elected in November 2020. Perhaps, it would be totally eclipsed. Certainly, Trump’s re-election would further consolidate these right-wing forces and threaten the country with a tyrannical or neo-fascist government intent on enhancing corporate capitalism.

A dystopian vision

With the Republican Party in control of the House as well as the Senate, the checks and balances provisions in the US Constitution would become irrelevant. The Trump political base would be energized. In this context, there would be more regressive taxes enacted, more subsidies for favored industries, more lucrative contracts especially notable in military and prison contracting, cheap access for corporate and other interests to the timber, ranch land, oil, and minerals on public land, along with corporate-friendly trade deals. A Trump administration would continue the buildup of the already bloated, wasteful military forces, already larger than at any time since WWII, and with one with far more lethal firepower than ever, stretching around the world and into space, and more likely to use nuclear weapons.

With Trump’s re-election, inequality would grow even more than it has, as the gig economy would expand and, with unions stymied by “right to work” laws and inadequate minimum wage laws in many states, wages would stagnate or barely keep up with rising prices. Many, if not most, Americans would be left increasingly dependent on the private sector for expensive medical care, high prices for prescription drugs. They would have increasingly limited opportunities for affordable and decent housing. The number of public school systems that are severely under-resourced would increase. The system of public higher education that would lead more students and graduates leads to terribly burdensome student debt. Furthermore, Trump would act on his threats to cut such government programs as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and other social safety net programs. The dominant right-wing political narrative would spread through the culture, including appeals to ultra-patriotism, gun rights, the end of women’s legally-based reproductive rights, the strengthening consumerist values, and the promotion of the fear of the “other,” like most immigrants, Muslims, people of color, those with certain sexual orientations, and those who dissent from the pro-corporate, neoliberal agenda.

 Concluding thoughts

The information and analysis compiled in this post indicates that America is dangerously on a path toward some form of fascism. It is grounded in a capitalist system legitimated by a neoliberal ideology, and now abetted by a reactionary president whose policies are aimed at protecting and enhancing this system. It remains to be seen whether progressive/radical forces can win in the 2020 elections and start the kind of “revolution” that Bernie Sanders has in mind. But it is clear, as Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein and others have so often written, when all is said and done, it is up to the “people” and “social movements” to determine the outcome, good or bad. Henry Giroux writes: “In the end, there is no democracy without informed citizens, no justice without a language critical of injustice, and no change without a broad-based movement of collective resistance” (American Nightmare, p. 323). I would add, there is no democracy without a political party with an agenda to limit the power of the mega-corporations and the rich, to foster the replacement of neoliberalism with a radical alternative narrative emphasizing the need for a mixture of progressive and democratic socialist policy changes, and to persuade voters that not only their personal circumstances are at stake but so is the fate of the world. Put it another way: It is imperative the Americans elect a new president and other candidates who have a vision of a society and world that can be based on informed civic engagement by citizens, egalitarian values, environmentally sustainable economies and life styles, and peace and justice domestically and internationally.

There is resistance

On this score, Henry Giroux writes:

“While Trump attempts to expand its alt-right social base under its authoritarian hierarchy, forces for grassroots resistance are mobilizing around a renewed sense of ethical courage, social solidarity, and a revival of the political imagination. We see this happening in the increasing number of mass demonstrations in which individuals are putting their bodies on the line, refusing the fascist machinery of misogyny, nativism, and white supremacy. Airports are being occupied, people are demonstrating in the streets of major cities, town halls have become the sites of resistance, campuses are being transformed into sanctuaries to protect undocumented students, scientists are marching in masses against climate change deniers, and progressive cultural workers, public intellectuals, and politicians are speaking out against the emerging authoritarianism. In a number of red states, middle-aged women are engaged in the ‘grinding scutwork of grassroots organizing’ while addressing the big issues such as ‘health care and gerrymandering, followed by dark money politics, education, and the environment.’ Democracy may be in exile in the United States,  and imperiled in Europe and other parts of the globe, but the spirit that animates it remains resilient” (American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism, p. 306).

The looming danger of nuclear war: the context and the doomsday clock

Bob Sheak, February 7, 2020
bobsheak@gmail.com

Overview

The current post was inspired by the 2020 annual report of the Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists specifying its decision to move the minute hand on the “doomsday clock” closer to midnight (end-game for humanity) than ever before in the over 70 years of such decisions. This year’s decision was based on their assessments of the chances for nuclear war and the ongoing cataclysmic advances of the climate crisis. This post focuses on the nuclear war part of the report, since I have recently written on the climate crisis.

There are three parts to my post. The first part provides background and context for understanding the existential threat of nuclear war. The second part reviews the Board’s report. The third part includes my “concluding thoughts.”

The concern about the increasing likelihood of nuclear war is not a topic that much surfaces in the media, or gets much attention in the Democratic presidential primaries, though pocketbook issues understandably resonate with broad swaths of the public. But indications from polls and news reports are that the growing potentiality of nuclear war won’t have much of an impact on how people vote in 2020. However, like the unfolding climate crisis, the growing danger of nuclear war is a well-documented reality that, if we are not extremely lucky, could destroy everything in a wisp of time. And this is not a new concern. Prior to the onset of the Cold War, Albert Einstein sent a telegram on May 1946 to several hundred prominent Americans “asking for contributions to a fund ‘to let the people know that a new type of thinking is essential’ in the atomic age.” In the telegram, he wrote: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” Einstein’ statement is truer today than ever.

Part 1 – The historical and contemporary background on nuclear weapons and the threat to human existence

Nuclear weapons are the deadliest of weapons ever created by humans, in this case by scientists with financing by the federal government (i.e., the taxpayers). Along with anthropogenic climate disruption, or “climate change,” nuclear weapons have the potential to destroy all human societies and much of life on the earth. What a sad accomplishment for us creatures with the most complex organ in the universe – the brain.

The Manhattan Project – letting the genie out of the bottle

The project to create nuclear weapons (then called atomic bombs) was initiated by the government and paid for by taxpayers during the early 1940s. The story of the project, called the Manhattan Project, is captured in detail by Wikipedia, the online free encyclopedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manhattan_Project).

Nuclear weapons – some facts

In hindsight, the creation of atomic bombs appears to have been an expression of the height of human folly by many knowledgeable people and scientists. Whatever, these terribly destructive weapons are a part of present day reality and most civilian and military leaders in the US and Russia, which alone have 93% of the warheads, view them as vital and necessary components of their military arsenals, while basing their views on a hollow and ultimately counter-productive conceptions of nationalism, “national security,” a vapid patriotism, and the self-serving assumption that nuclear arsenals can be managed in ways that deter the use of these weapons. (Richard Falk takes issue with the view that the existing nuclear arsenals can be managed and makes an argument for banning these weapons: https://popularresistance.org/contesting-management-or-transformation-an-urgent-challenge.

While the issue does not attract much mainstream media attention, it continues to be of utmost importance with 15,500 nuclear weapons stockpiled in the world, according to the Arms Control Association. That includes nuclear warheads that are on delivery vehicles and ready to be launched and thousands of warheads in non-operational status that can readily be made operational (https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Nuclearweaponswhohaswhat).

Some of these warheads are on missiles located on launching pads in the US, on submarines, and on large bombers – and are ready to be launched in just minutes. The Union of Concerned Scientists notes that “the United States still keeps its 450 silo-based nuclear weapons, and hundreds of submarine-based weapons, on hair-trigger alert….around 3,500 total—are deployed on other submarines or bombers, or kept in reserve” (http://www.ucs.usa.org/nuclear-weapons/hair-trigger-alert#.WGbjjeQzXIU). In the meantime, the US military is planning to introduce “‘low-yield’ nuclear weapons on submarine-launched ballistic missiles – weapons that could cause as much damage as the bombs the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The relatively lower-yield of such warheads makes them more likely to be used in a wider range of situations considered to be threatening by the US military command (http://truth-out.org/news/item/43460-pentagon-to-allow-nuclear-responses-to-non-nuclear-attacks).

Perhaps the gravest hotspot, or potential nuclear war situation, is in the highly rancorous and hostile relations between Pakistan (130 nuclear weapons) and India (120 nuclear weapons), particularly over the disputed control of Kashmir. These are two nuclear powers whose troops are within miles of one another. Any slight, accidental, or misunderstood provocation could be the spark that leads to the use of nuclear weapons. And it appears that the Trump administration is aching for the opportunity to wage war on Iran.

There are other nuclear powers, including England, France, China, Israel, and North Korea. At the same time, dozens of countries have the capacity to build nuclear warheads and the means to use them. At one time, six other countries had nuclear weapons but agreed to give them up (Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, South Africa, Iraq, and Libya). There were four other countries on their way to having nuclear weapons and then “shelved their nuclear weapons’ programs” (Argentina, Brazil, South Korea, and Taiwan). These figures come from: https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Nuclearweaponswhohaswhat).

What about other countries. Per the Nuclear Weapons Archive:

“Virtually any industrialized nation today has the technical capability to develop nuclear weapons within several years if the decision to do so were made. Nations already possessing substantial nuclear technology and arms industries could do so in no more than a year or two. The larger industrial nations (Japan and Germany for example) could, within several years of deciding to do so, build arsenals rivaling those planned by Russia and the U.S. for the turn of the millennium….” (http://nuclearweaponsarchive.org/Nwfaq/Nfaq7-5.html).

The point is that the human world is already in a situation in which any one of the nuclear states could use their weapons for any one of a number of reasons – to extend power, preserve a perceived credibility, destroy an “enemy,” avoid a military defeat, or by accident.

It can be safely assumed that most citizens who even think about these weapons have no idea of how fragile nuclear weapons launching technology and procedures are. Couple this with a president who thinks in tweeter-length thoughts, who likes being right and winning every time, who glories in the spotlight, and you end up with an irrational and accident-prone nuclear weapons control and command system.

The crumbling of nuclear arms agreements between the US and Russia (formerly the Soviet Union)

After having some success in nuclear weapons reduction agreements in the 1960s and first years of the new mellinium, the US and Russia now are on a course that is taking the world in the opposite direction, a position taken up and considered later in this post by the board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. This topic has received some attention in the media, especially on important progressive/leftist online websites (e.g., Democracy Now, Truthout, Truthdig, Counterpunch, Antiwar.org). Daryl Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control organization, reviews the US-Russian nuclear arms control agreements from 1969 to 2014 (https:///www.armscontrol.org/2556).

#1 – An overview of strategic nuclear arms agreements

The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) commenced in November 1969 and led to the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, limiting strategic missile defense to 200, later 100, interceptors each, and then an Interim Agreement, “an executive agreement that capped US and Soviet ICBM and SLBM launch tubes and SLBM-carrying submarines.” There were gaps. “The agreement ignored strategic bombers and did not address warhead numbers, leaving both sides free to enlarge their forces by deploying multiple warheads (MIRVs) onto their ICBMs and SLBMs.” There was a follow-up agreement, SALT II, signed in June 1979, that “limited US and Soviet ICBM, SLBM, and strategic bomber-based nuclear forces to 2,250 delivery vehicles (defined as an ICBM silo, a SLBM launch tube [or missile launcher], or a heavy bomber) and placed a variety of other restrictions on deployed strategic nuclear forces.” However, when the Soviet’s invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, President Jimmy Carter “asked the Senate not to go ahead with the next round of negotiations known as SALT III.

In July 1991, President Ronald Reagan signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), which “required the United States and the Soviet Union to reduce their deployed strategic arsenals to 1,600 delivery vehicles, carrying no more than 6,000 warheads….[and] required the destruction of excess delivery vehicles.” The implementation of this agreement was “delayed for several years because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and ensuing efforts to denuclearize Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus by returning their nuclear weapons to Russia and making them parties to the NPT [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] and Start agreements.” In January 1993, Presidents George H.W. Bush and Boris Yeltsin signed a follow-on agreement, called START II, which “called for reducing deployed strategic arsenals to 3,000-3,500 warheads and banned the deployment of destabilizing multiple-warhead land-based missiles.” However, “START II was effectively shelved as a result of the 2002 US withdrawal from the ABM treaty.” In between 1991 and 2002, Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin “agreed to a framework for START III negotiations… ‘to promote the irreversibility of deep reductions including prevention of a rapid increase in the number of warheads.” But when START II was abandoned, the negotiations over START III never happened.

Later in 2002, on May 24, 2002, “Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin signed the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT or Moscow treaty), requiring that the United States and Russia reduce their arsenals to 1,700-2,200 warheads each.” This was to take effect on December 31, 2002. One of the limitations of the treaty was that the US limited reductions to warheads “deployed on strategic delivery vehicles in active service, i.e., operationally deployed’ warheads, and would not count warheads removed from service and placed in storage or warheads on delivery vehicles undergoing overhaul or repair. Nonetheless, the Senate and Duma approved the treaty and it entered into force on June 1, 2003.

The process of nuclear arms control agreements got another boost on April 8, 2010, when “the United States and Russia signed New START, a legally binding verifiable agreement that limits each side to 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on 700 strategic delivery systems (ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers), and limits deployed and nondeployed launchers to 800.” This lowered the warhead limits of SORT and included tighter verification requirements, including “on-site inspections and exhibitions, data exchanges and notifications related to strategic offensive arms and facilities covered by the treaty, and provisions to facilitate the use of national technical mans for treaty monitoring.” Additionally, the treaty “provides for the continued exchange of telemetry (missile flight-test data on up to five tests per year) and does not meaningfully limit missile defenses or long-range conventional strike capabilities.” The Treaty was finalized on December 22, 2010, after it was approved by the Russian parliament and the US Senate.

#2 – Non-strategic Nuclear Arms Control Measures

This involves “ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers,” or 311 miles and 3,418 miles. The US and the Soviet Union signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty on December 8, 1987, including ‘intrusive on-site inspections.” The two sides “completed their reductions by June 1, 1991, destroying a total of 2,692 missiles, and later extended after the breakup of the Soviet Union to include “the United States, Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.” The US became concerned in 2014 that Russia was violating the agreement by deploying ground-launched missiles that were prohibited. This would later give Trump a reason to withdraw from the agreement – rather than to seek a negotiated resolution.

The undoing of nuclear arms control agreements

Legal scholar Marjorie Cohn provides an informative analysis of the breakdown of US-Russian nuclear weapons treaties in an article titled “US Refusal to Negotiate with Russia Increases likelihood of Nuclear War” (https://www.truth-out.org/news/item/43811-us-refusal-to-negotiate-with-russia-increases-likelihood-of-nuclear-war). She reminds us that George W. Bush withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with Russia, which called for the reductions of anti-ballistic missile defenses in both countries. Cohn quotes David Krieger, founder of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation: “The fuel for a new nuclear arms race was already on fire, and a Russian strategic response was predictable, when the US withdrew from the ABM Treaty and began developing a replacing missile defense systems globally. The US withdrawal and abrogation of the ABM Treaty may prove to be the greatest strategic blunder of the nuclear age.” Obama also contributed to the undermining of the nuclear détente with Russia when he signed off on the policy to “modernize” the US nuclear bomb arsenal. The official US nuclear arms position as reflected in the US Nuclear Posture Review has also, Cohn notes, reduced “the threshold for using nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear attacks, including cyberattacks, in ‘extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States, its allies and partners.”

Enter Donald Trump

Now there is increased concern about US nuclear weapons and control and command over the nuclear arsenals. President-elect Trump has twittered and blustered in his braggadocio, narcissistic manner, that it may be better for the world if even more countries possessed their own nuclear weapons (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Japan, South Korea), implied that he might use nuclear weapons in the Middle East to “wipe out ISIS,” suggested that the US could win an escalated nuclear arms race, has withdrawn the US from the multilateral agreement with Iran over its nuclear energy program, is totally and unconditionally in support of Israel (which is in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation international treaty and whose policies intensify the repression of Palestinians and the expropriation of their land), appears to be committed to steamlining the “modernization” of the US nuclear weapons system. Trump has tweeted: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” From Trump’s shallow knowledge of the subject and bully-boy temperament, there is no place for a policy of nuclear weapons reductions or nuclear weapons free zones, such as been proposed for the Middle East. From what we know, Trump is likely to behave impulsively in a crisis – and order helter-skelter the lunch nuclear weapons against Iran, Russia, North Korea, or some other perceived adversary. That would cause unimaginatively catastrophic and irreversible war. Indeed, a war to end all wars. Bear in mind that Trump’s mental instability, impulsiveness, malicious narcissism, and con man approach to policy does not bode well for America or humanity given the power of his presidency. (See the new books: (1) Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, A Very Stable Genius, and (2) Mark Green and Ralph Nader, Fake President: Decoding Trump’s Gaslighting, Corruption, and General Bullsh*t.)

History professor and author Lawrence Wittner writes on how arms control and disarmament agreements have been “rapidly unraveling” under Trump’s administration (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2019/07/29/dear-moderates-presidential-debates-how-raising-issues-how-avert-nuclear-war). He gives the following examples. On May 2018, “the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the laboriously-constructed Iran nuclear agreement that had closed off the possibility of that nation developing nuclear weapons.” Then on February of 2019, “the Trump announced that, in August, the US government will withdraw from the Reagan era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty – the historical agreement that had banned US and Russian ground-launched cruise missiles – and would proceed to develop such weapons.” Russian President Vladimir Putin responded in kind. The 2010 New Start Treaty is also on the chopping block, that is the treaty that “reduces US and Russian deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 each, limits US and Russian nuclear delivery vehicles, and provides for extensive inspection.” Wittner notes that if the treaty is allowed to expire, “it would be the first time since 1972 that there would be no nuclear arms control agreement between Russia and the United States.” Then there are other ominous message from the White House and Pentagon. Wittner adds: Some in Trump’s administration are pressing for a US resumption of nuclear weapons testing. The push for “modernizing the nuclear arsenal, with the introduction of new types of nuclear warheads, is gaining support in the White House, a violation of Article VI of the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. And the US Joints Chiefs of Staff are expressing “new interest in nuclear warfare,” declaring in a June 2019 planning document that “using nuclear weapons could create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability.”

A history of nuclear weapons accidents

There is a long history of accidents at nuclear weapons’ launching missile sites, both in the US and Russia (formerly the Soviet Union), that came within minutes of starting a nuclear war. This history is painstakinglydocumented by Eric Schlosser in his book Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, and in an article for The New Yorker, titled “World War Three, by Mistake (Dec 23, 2016). You can find the article at: http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/world-war-three-by-mistake.

Schlosser’s main argument is that “harsh political rhetoric, combined with the vulnerability of the nuclear command-and-control system, has made the risk of global catastrophe greater than ever.” He concludes his long article with the following ominous words.

“My greatest concern is the lack of public awareness about this existential threat, the absence of a vigorous public debate about the nuclear-war plans of Russia and the United States, the silent consent to the roughly fifteen thousand nuclear weapons in the world. These machines have been carefully and ingeniously designed to kill us. Complacency increases the odds that, someday, they will. The ‘Titanic Effect’ is a term used by software designers to explain how things can quietly go wrong in a complex technological system: the safer you assume the system to be, the more dangerous it is becoming.”

Fred Pearce devotes an entire book to how accidents, mis-judgements, out-right lies have almost triggered nuclear war. See his book Fallout: Disasters, Lies, and The Legacy of the Nuclear Age. In his book, The Doomsday Machine, Daniel Ellsberg writes: “every president from Truman to Clinton has felt compelled at some point in time in office – usually in great secrecy – to threaten and/or discuss with the Joint Chiefs of Staff plans and preparation for possible imminent US initiation of tactical or strategic nuclear warfare, in the midst of an ongoing non-nuclear conflict or crisis” (pp .319-322). There were also such instances during the Bush Jr administration and, much more blatantly under Trump, who have talked about bombing North Korea and Afghanistan with nuclear weapons (see Mark Green and Ralph Nader’s book, Fake President: Decoding Trump’s Gaslighting, Corruption, and General Bullsh*t, the chapter on “War and Peace”).

There are more fingers on the nuclear launch button that the president’s

Ellsberg explains:

“For decades, Americans have been told that there is “exclusive presidential control of the decision to go to nuclear war and how it is to be conducted.” This officially propounded view is “embodied by the iconic ‘football,’ the briefcase carried by a presidential military aide that is to accompany the president ‘at all times,’ containing codes and electronic equipment by which the president, on receiving warning of a nuclear attack, can convey to the military his choice of a response ‘option’ to be executed” (p. 67-68). Ellsberg argues this is not true: “It was not only the president who could make the decision and issue the orders, and not even…the secretary of defense or the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon, but commanders in the field thousands of miles from Washington who thought their forces might be about to be destroyed…. In some circumstances, commanders of four-star rank could issue in their own name an authorized directive to undertake nuclear attack without the immediate prior involvement of the president” (p. 68).

This “hidden” decentralized command structure is considered to be necessary because of the threat of decapitation, that is, that the president and other high government officials in Washington DC could be wiped out by a surprise nuclear attack. Ellsberg puts it this way. “A single nuclear warhead on the capital could kill not only the president but all of his legally designated successors in the cabinet and Congress (and the JCS along with the secretary of defense, the only civilian aside from the president in the military chain of command) – all of them who were in town at that moment. If nuclear deterrence were to have any substantial backing at all – if it were to be more than an empty bluff – it could not be the case that one such explosion would definitively block any authorized, coordinated nuclear response to that or any subsequent attack” (p. 69).

America’s “First Use”policy of nuclear weapons

Ellsberg makes this point.

“Preparation for preemption or for carrying out threats of first use or first strike remains the essence of the ‘modernization’ program for strategic weapons for the last seventy years – prospectively being extended by Presidents Obama and Trump to one hundred years – that has continuously benefited our military-industrial-complex” (p. 324)….“The felt political need to profess, at least, to believe that the ability to make and carry out nuclear threats is essential to US national security and to our leadership in our alliances is why every single president has refused to make a formal ‘no-first-use’ (NFU) commitment” (p. 324)

“…the United States has tenaciously resisted the pleas of most other nations in the world to make an NFU pledge as an essential basis for stopping proliferation, including at the Nonproliferation Treaty Extension Conference in 1995 and the Review Conference since 2000. Moreover, the United States has demanded that NATO continue to legitimize first-use threat by basing its own strategy on them, even after the USSR and the Warsaw Pact had dissolved (and most of the former Pact members had joined NATO. Yet this stubborn stance – along with actual threats of possible US nuclear first use in more recent confrontations with Iraq, North Korea, and Iran – virtually precludes effective leadership by the United States (and perhaps anyone else) in delegitimizing and averting further proliferation and even imitation of US use of nuclear weapons” (324-325)

“UN Resolution 36/100, the Declaration on the Prevention of Nuclear Catastrophe… was adopted on December 9, 1981, in the wake of Reagan’s endorsement of the Carter Doctrine – openly extending US first-use threats to the Persian Gulf – which this resolution directly contradicted and implicitly condemned. It declares in its preamble: ‘Any doctrine allowing the first use of nuclear weapons and any actions pushing the world toward a catastrophe are incompatible with human moral standards and the lofty ideals of the UN” (p. 325) – 82 nations voted in favor of it, 41 abstained (under pressure from US), 19 opposed it (including the US, Israel and most NATO member nations).”

Nuclear Winter

No nation, no people, can survive an even limited, regional nuclear war with warheads in the present nuclear arsenals. Even a first-use attack by, say, the US to destroy the nuclear-launching capacity of, say Russia, would produce a worldwide catastrophe. The smoke from nuclear bomb blasts would rise into the atmosphere and remain there for an extended period, enough to cripple food production around the world. (See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_winter). There are no winners in nuclear war. However, the “doctors strange loves” in the Pentagon are busy at designing smaller nuclear weapons that may not themselves produce a nuclear winter.

Other effects of a nuclear war

Then there is the radiation from nuclear blasts. Robert Jacobs describes some of the chaos and hardship that would prevail after nuclear war had commenced (https://truth-out.org/news/item/3290-we-cannot-survive-a-nuclear-apocalpse-by-ducking-and-covering). He offers this graphic example: “After a nuclear attack, the suggestion that one [a survivor] can go somewhere and find clean water is ridiculous. Or that one could take their contaminated clothes off and simply find uncontaminated clothes nearby. Or that washing your hair one time will remove the systemic dangers of being in a radiologically contaminated environment, and your hair would not simply reabsorb some of that radiation. Or that shampoo would be contaminated, etc.” Jacobs refers to a study by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) which concluded that the radiation produced by a hydrogen bomb “detonated over Washington DC would have the following effects: “not only would everyone in Washington DC be dead from the blast and heat of the weapons, but everyone in Baltimore, Philadelphia and half the population of New York City would soon die of radiation sickness if they did not immediately evacuate.”

Part 2 – The Minute hand of the Doomsday Clock is moved closer to “midnight”

The Science and Security board of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists have just made their annual adjustment of “the doomsday clock” (https://thebulletin.org/doomsday-clock/current-time). The prestigious scientific board uses the doomsday clock as a symbol of how distant or close the minute hand is from midnight, which, if ever reached, would, in their considered estimation, result in a cataclysmic outcome, most likely the end of humanity and much of life on the planet in the case of nuclear war. In their 2020 report, editor John Mecklin writes: “the members of the Science and Security Board have concluded that the complex technological threats the world faces are at least as dangerous today as they were last year and the year before, when we set the Clock at two minutes to midnight (as close as it had ever been, and the same setting that was announced in 1953, after the United States and the Soviet Union tested their first thermonuclear weapons).” In January, the board moved the minute hand to 100 seconds before midnight, the closest it has ever been to this end-game time over all the years the board has been publishing its assessments. While the board includes both the prospects of climate change as well as nuclear war in is recent decisions, the focus in this post will be on the threat of nuclear war. (I have recently written on the climate crisis.)

The board offers two multifaceted justifications for its decision. One is that the danger of nuclear war is increased by“cyber-enabled information warfare.” This is a multifaceted technology that will have the effect of reducing the time it takes to recognize a nuclear missile attack, but at the same time increases the chances of launching nuclear bombs because of mistaken information….computers that control bombs may be hacked….“many governments used cyber-enabled disinformation campaigns to sow distrust in institutions and among nations.”

They refer specifically to “the emergence of new destabilizing technologies in artificial intelligence, space, hypersonics, and biology,” all of which, the board contends, “portend a dangerous and multifaceted global instability.” ICAN provides an in-depth analysis of how these “emerging technologies” increase the risk of nuclear war, as they “add another layer of risk to an already unacceptable level of risk of nuclear weapons use” (https://popularresistance.org/emerging-technologies-and-nuclear-risks ). A 2018 study by Chatham House of cyber security and nuclear weapons found, according to ICAN: “The risks of a cyber-attack on nuclear weapons systems raise significant doubts about the reliability and integrity of such systems in a time crisis, regarding the ability to: a) launch a weapon b) prevent an inadvertent attack c) maintain command and control of all military system d) transmit information and other communication e) maintenance and reliability of such systems.”

The board’s second justification for moving the minute hand on the doomsday clock closer to midnight concerns that the heightened danger of nuclear war is compounded by the erosion of the “international political infrastructure for managing” the nuclear arsenals of the US and other countries. “They write: “national leaders have ended or undermined several major arms control treaties and negotiations during the last year, creating an environment conducive to a renewed nuclear arms race, to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and to lowered barriers to nuclear war. Political conflicts regarding nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea remain unresolved and are, if anything, worsening. US-Russia cooperation on arms control and disarmament is all but nonexistent.”

The Board concludes its report on a positive note, despite all the bad news, and assume, first, the nuclear dangers can be potentially managed and kept from happening and, second, that “there are many practical, concrete steps that leaders could take – and citizens should demand – to improve the current, absolutely unacceptable state of world security affairs.” What are the practical steps?

“US and Russian leaders can return to the negotiating table to: reinstate the INF Treaty or take other action to restrain an unnecessary arms race in medium-range missiles; extend the limits of the New START beyond 2021; seek further reductions in nuclear arms; discuss a lowering of the alert status of the nuclear arsenals of both countries; limit nuclear modernization programs that threaten to create a new nuclear arms race; and start talks on cyber warfare, missile defenses, the militarization of space, hypersonic technology, and the elimination of battlefield nuclear weapons.”

Further: “The United States and other signatories of the Iran nuclear deal can work together to restrain nuclear proliferation in the Middle East….Whoever wins the United States’ 2020 presidential election must prioritize dealing with this problem, whether through a return to the original nuclear agreement or via negotiation of a new and broader accord.”

Additionally: “The international community should begin multilateral discussions aimed at establishing norms of behavior, both domestic and international, that discourage and penalize the misuse of science.”

Finally, there must be attention given to the need “to prevent information technology from undermining public trust in political institutions, in the media, and in the existence of objective reality itself. Cyber-enabled information warfare is a threat to the common good. Deception campaigns – and leaders intent on blurring the line between fact and politically motivated fantasy – are a profound threat to effective democracies, reducing their ability to address nuclear weapons, climate change, and other existential dangers.”

Part 3 – Concluding thoughts

The proposals by the Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists may be the best that can be advanced, however unlikely they are to be implemented, especially during the ascendancy of the Trump administration. Trump often refers to nuclear weapons as a tool to be used to threaten and intimidate adversarial nations at a whim, to get attention, or to really mean it without any understanding or regard of the dreadful and irretrievable consequences of launching nuclear weapons. As the nuclear situation stands now, one thing is crystal clear, that is, Trump, the Republican Party, and their corporate enablers will not follow the recommendations of the Board or anyone else who proposes that more diplomacy with the goal of multilateral agreements should be the basis for moving away from “midnight,” with the goal of phasing out nuclear weapons.

Indeed, in a rationale world based on verifiable, scientifically based evidence, the world leaders would be not only taking “practical” steps to reduce the chances of war but making efforts to ban nuclear weapons altogether. This is not so far-fetched. On July 7, 2017, “some 130 countries” at the United Nations successfully negotiated a treaty to outlaw nuclear weapons and, according to a report by Kennette Benedict for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, “agreed to make the developing, testing, manufacturing, possessing, or stockpiling of nuclear weapons by any state illegal” (https://thebulletin.org/prohibition-nuclear-weapons-treaty-10936). As with the festering and accelerating climate crisis, nations have little time to come together and truly advance such an effort.

In the US, the 2020 elections will represent a seminal moment in the country’s history. If Trump and the Republicans win, the existential threats faced by the country – and the world – will be ignored and made worse than they are. If “moderate” Democrats win, then there is the possibility that the threats will be acknowledged but insufficiently addressed. It will take political candidates with transformative agendas to give the country a chance of possibly advancing policies that lead us away from the “midnight” of nuclear war. The odds of this happening are not good, but not impossible.

There is some public concern. Wittner refers to a May 2019 opinion poll by the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland that found “two-thirds of US respondents favored remaining within the INF Treaty, 80 percent wanted to extend the New START Treaty, about 60% supported ‘phasing out’ US intercontinental ballistic missiles, and 75 percent back legislation requiring congressional approval before the president could order a nuclear attack” (cited previously). Dahr Jamail offers a detailed report (Truthout, Nov 11, 2018) on how “physicians work to bring back the anti-nuclear movement (https://truthout.org/articles/physicians-work-to-bring-back-the-anti-nuclear-movement). According to an article by Jon Letman (Truthout, January 13, 2020), “cities in the crosshairs are pushing back against nuclear weapons” (https://truthout.org/articles/cities-in-the-crosshairs-are-pushing-back-against-nuclear-weapons). And, in a report by Marjorie Cohn (Truthout, Oct 28, 2019), some brave anti-nuclear activists engage in non-violent acts of disobedience against US nuclear facilities, even though it may result in long-term imprisonment (https://truthout.org/articles/convicted-anti-nuclear-activists-speak-out-pentagon-has-brainwashed-people). And James Carden writes in an article for the Nation magazine (Oct 2, 2019): “women state legislators and advocacy groups are uniting to call for a no-first-use nuclear policy” (https://thenation.com/article/trump-nuclear-proliferation). There are, moreover, some Democrats in the US Congress who vote against increases in the bloated military budget and who favor nuclear arms control initiatives, if not a ban on these horrendous weapons.