Facing a Dying Nation

If you read nothing else today, please do see George Packer’s We Are Living in a Failed State at Atlantic. It starts this way:

When the virus came here, it found a country with serious underlying conditions, and it exploited them ruthlessly. Chronic ills—a corrupt political class, a sclerotic bureaucracy, a heartless economy, a divided and distracted public—had gone untreated for years. We had learned to live, uncomfortably, with the symptoms. It took the scale and intimacy of a pandemic to expose their severity—to shock Americans with the recognition that we are in the high-risk category.

The crisis demanded a response that was swift, rational, and collective. The United States reacted instead like Pakistan or Belarus—like a country with shoddy infrastructure and a dys­func­tional government whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering. The administration squandered two irretrievable months to prepare. From the president came willful blindness, scapegoating, boasts, and lies. From his mouthpieces, conspiracy theories and miracle cures. A few senators and corporate executives acted quickly—not to prevent the coming disaster, but to profit from it. When a government doctor tried to warn the public of the danger, the White House took the mic and politicized the message.

And so on. Years of corruption, neglect, obstruction, program cutting, and economic inequality left us helpless to deal with with this pandemic in the manner befitting a first-world, industrialized nation, never mind the United States of America. Our federal government and many of our state governments are close to being utterly dysfunctional. Systemic change, anyone?

Not to say I told you so, but back in 2009 I wrote a post called “The U.S. as a Failed State” that holds up fairly well. And that links to a George Monbiot article in The Guardian that lamented our inability to address climate change. “Why do we treat the world’s most powerful and innovative nation as if it were a failed state, rejoicing at even the faintest suggestion of common sense?” Monbiot asks.

As many have said, the breakdown of effective government we are experiencing now has been a long time coming. Trump is a symptom, not the disease itself. However, he’s a late-stage symptom. It is particularly telling that all of our fail-safes built into the Constitution to remove a corrupt or despotic president, such as the 25th Amendment or impeachment, can’t work because there’s too much corruption in the rest of government to make it work. If the U.S. were a cancer patient, we’d be close to the point when the doctor says it’s too late to operate, but maybe we can get you into a research study.

Just one sign of our helplessness is that many of the so-called “stimulus” checks are lost in the system because over the years the IRS has been gutted. See Where’s your check? Ask GOP lawmakers. at the Washington Post.

Congress itself deserves much blame for the undercapacity of the IRS. Years of GOP defunding led to severe underinvestment in staff, technology and customer service, the folly of which is only more obvious now.

In normal times, the big problem with the Republican campaign against the IRS was that it led to lax enforcement of tax laws, which let cheaters skip out on paying massive amounts of money to the Treasury. Small amounts of funding spent to maintain a functional IRS would have yielded large amounts of income that the federal government was owed, at the same time ensuring fairness for the vast majority of Americans who obeyed the law.

Now the big problem is that Congress suddenly needs an efficient, staffed-up agency to help rescue the economy, but it must fight the downturn with the agency lawmakers built. Without the years of cuts, the IRS would be more capable of answering Americans’ many questions about confusing procedures to obtain their stimulus checks. It would also have had more capacity to build the technological tools it had to create on the fly to aid distribution.

Similar stories apply to many other government agencies. And then there’s our rickety health care system that’s been tooled to maximize profit over, you know, providing health care. After years of hospital closings — rural hospitals can’t make a profit, you know — and a large part of our population essentially cut off from health care because of no insurance, we are less able to deal with a pandemic than nations with a healtheir population and a national, taxpayer supported health care system. Bernie Sanders wrote in the New York Times recently,

The absurdity and cruelty of our employer-based, private health insurance system should now be apparent to all. As tens of millions of Americans are losing their jobs and incomes as a result of the pandemic, many of them are also losing their health insurance. That is what happens when health care is seen as an employee benefit, not a guaranteed right. As we move forward beyond the pandemic, we need to pass legislation that finally guarantees health care to every man, woman and child — available to people employed or unemployed, at every age.

The pandemic has also made clear the irrationality of the current system. Unbelievably, in the midst of the worst health care crisis in modern history, thousands of medical workers are being laid off and many hospitals and clinics are on the verge of going bankrupt and shutting down. In truth, we don’t have a health care “system.” We have a byzantine network of medical institutions dominated by the profit-making interests of insurance and drug companies.

So here we are. The old song from Hair seems to fit —

We starve-look
At one another
Short of breath
Walking proudly in our winter coats
Wearing smells from laboratories
Facing a dying nation
Of moving paper fantasy
Listening for the new told lies
With supreme visions of lonely tunes

Yesterday David Wallace-Wells wrote for New York magazine that The White House Has Erected a Blockade Stopping States and Hospitals From Getting Coronavirus PPE. I want to write more about that, mostly because it makes absolutely no sense unless you assume that at least part of the confiscated medical supplies are being re-directed into a black market, with Trump and his son-in-law getting a cut of the profits. Do read this for the details of how much has been confiscated by the feds. I’ll skip to the end:

You could call this piracy. You could call it sanctions. The federal government is choking supply chains to states like it chokes supply chains to Iran and North Korea. These blockades aren’t as complete as those surrounding sanctioned regimes, of course, and some amount of the disruption may be honest confusion in a time of crisis. But the disruption is being brought about by federal interference, and unlike the kind of disruptions you’d want to engineer against antagonistic states, the purpose seems completely unclear — indeed the policy is inexplicable and indefensible.

Which may be one reason why no explanation has been given. We don’t know where these supplies are going. We don’t know on what grounds they are being seized, or threatened with seizure. What business do the DHS and FEMA have with ventilators and PPE purchases by governors and local hospitals? “This is like a story out of the last days of the Soviet Union,” David Frum wrote on Twitter of the NEJM letter. “This is what it means to be a failed state,” wrote the essayist Umair Haque, echoing him. In the absence of an explanation, it is hard to come to any conclusion other than that this is simply mafia government, exerting control for the sake of control, not in spite of but because of the crisis-led demand, and squeezing the American people, as they die in hospital beds and attend — with inadequate protection — to the sick and scared.

And let’s not get started on the lack of oversight on the pandemic relief bills that have passed so far. But we can also go back to the failed Katrina response and the billions appropriated by Congress that, somehow, never seem to have reached the Lower Ninth Ward. I understand that what recovery was done there was done by private foundations and volunteers. I don’t believe there has ever been an accounting of which middlemen’s pockets that money disappeared into.

It didn’t start with Trump. But if you aren’t depressed enough yet, do read Paul Wadlman’s The War Against the States.

President Trump and congressional Republicans are going to war with the states.

It’s bizarre, it’s self-defeating, it will do enormous harm to Americans in every corner of the country, and it can be fully explained only by understanding the president’s pettiest and most narcissistic motives. In other words, it’s the kind of thing we’ve come to expect in the Trump era.

Last week, the $349 billion allotted for small businesses in the CARES Act rescue package ran out, with only a portion of the American businesses that have suffered in this pandemic-driven recession getting the help they need. While everyone seemed ready to provide more money, we found ourselves in a familiar situation, with Democrats saying we need to be swift and aggressive in saving Americans suffering from this economic catastrophe, and Republicans saying that we shouldn’t spend too much or help too many people.

The cities and states are facing huge budget shortfalls from losses of revenue and horrendous expenses, including paying three times too much for medical supplies. This is setting us up for a long-term economic recession if not depression. And the federal government is making it worse.

It is affecting red states and blue states, cities and rural areas, anyone and everyone. And you’d think that even if they’re indifferent to human suffering, Republicans should at least see it as in their political interest to help. After all, the worse the recession is, the less likely it is that Trump will be reelected and that Republicans will hold on to the Senate.

So why is it that Democrats have to beg and plead for aid to states and cities, while Republicans resist?

Waldman says the most likely explanation is that the Trumpies think the shortfalls will force states to re-open their economies sooner than they would like. Economists don’t think it’s possible to re-start the economy until people stop being fearful of the virus, but Trump and his enablers don’t see that. They want normal life to resume now. They want the pre-pandemic stock market back.

That is, in a word, bonkers. It’s as though they think state governors (of whom there are 26 Republicans and 24 Democrats) are keeping lockdown orders in place only because they and their citizens haven’t been forced to endure enough economic pain; let them suffer a little more, and out of desperation they’ll lift the orders even if public health concerns dictate otherwise.

Trump’s support for the anti-restriction protesters is of a piece with this. If he can’t order the states to end restrictions, he’ll force it some other way.

It may be that if Democrats are very successful in November we can begin to salvage what’s left of our country, although I’m not that confident that Joe Biden is the guy to provide leadership for that. But if Republicans keep the Senate, or the White House, or both, there will be no salvaging anything. Whatever can be sold off for parts will be sold, and the rest will be left to rot. Maybe we’ll get CARE packages.

12 thoughts on “Facing a Dying Nation

  1. IMO, the US is a failing state – not a failed state. We have the wealth, the academic resources (smart people who know their stuff) and the human resources to be great. We've squandered that so far by letting rich greedy people call the shots. 

    Change the rules to prevent politicians from benefiting by representing the aristocracy instead of the people and we'd turn it around.

  2. Don't count on any CARE packeges, maha.

    They'll join PPE equipment, and other necessities, on the tRUMP & Cronies black market.

    My only hope is that Biden chooses Sen. Warren as VP.  I firmly feel that she's the ONLY ONE who can, if not fix this mess, at least mitigate the worst possibilities.

    Fifty years of conservative malfeasance and propaganda is coming home to roost.  WITH A VENGEANCE!!!

    With tRUMP, we sealed our fate as the latest empire to fall.

    Will the last person in America 0leasevturn out the lights?

    WAIT!  Never mind!

    They'll have been disconnected a long time before then…

  3. Thanks Doug, for making an important point clear – failing vs failed. 

    I'm interested in what large masses of people think, and in particular when an entire cohort of people have a powerful collective realization that makes them do a 180 in their thinking.

    When enough people in this country feel in their bones that this is a failed/failing state, and a con man like Trump is seen for what he is, that becomes a "teachable moment" a pivotal time, when the stories that drive masses of people are all up for grabs. We're getting close to it, when articles like Packer's appear in the public space, and not in some fringe publication.

    The country is then ready for a new story, a new narrative that can give them hope. I hope we're ready. 

  4. @gulag – completely agree with you about Biden chosing EW.  I could start to get excited about being a Democrat.

    • I want EW as A/G, not VP. I think Biden will let the DOJ operate independently (as they should.)  The paper trail these Trump vandals leave behind will lead to a boatload of convictions UNLESS the A?G is inclined to treat cabinet-level corruption as immune from prosecution. 

      A lot of lawyers believe in a caste system of immunity for the rich and senior members of government unless there's a trail of a thousand underage victims – and even then. 

      Joe wants to placate progressives but he won't give her the nod because he's a sexist at heart who can't tolerate a strong woman any more than Trump can. If she was A/G and he didn't have to consult her or vice-versa that would suit Joe just fine.

  5. Doug,

    You mean (gerbil slowly-turning music):

    Mucn, much higher taxes on those earning high salaries, and a Sen. Warren-like "wealth tax" on the rich!!!!!

    • The 'thing' I'm advocating is repairing process, not pursuing issues. WTF does that mean? Suppose you had a factory and you discover you're producing out-of-spec widgets, three hundredths of an inch too big. You could hire workers and a bunch of sandpaper to sand them to meet specifications OR – fix the machine that's producing bad parts. In the short run, sandpaper is cheaper – very soon the cheaper option is fixing the machine.

      The US government is producing faulty legislation and regulation that doesn't serve the people because the machine is calibrated to feed the rich. Fix the process and the parts will meet the specifications that count to you and me. (which isn't making rich people richer at our expense.) 

      Here's the flaw that prevents fixing the machine – we voters all focus on the part we care about. Health care or seniors or the environment or taxes, etc. We're reactionary and we grab sandpaper and rub has hard as we can on the part that matters even when we KNOW another defective part will be delivered soon.

      I've been watching this for decades – literally. Big money in politics is where 90% of the flaws originate in a machine (US Democracy) that was never renowned for precision when it worked. And the vast majority of defects can be traced directly to one thing that we can fix.

  6. Excellent article by George Packer, I particularly liked this passage. So true and accurate.

    Both parties were slow to grasp how much credibility they’d lost. The coming politics was populist. Its harbinger wasn’t Barack Obama but Sarah Palin, the absurdly unready vice-presidential candidate who scorned expertise and reveled in celebrity. She was Donald Trump’s John the Baptist.

    One thing he didn't mention, at least in direct terms, was Trump's incessant bellowing about fake news. The thought that a leader, a supposed leader anyway, would work so tirelessly to infuse doubt into the minds of those he is supposed to lead and unite is beyond comprehension. I just can't understand how anybody who has spent any time in life wouldn't seriously question the motives of anybody who makes the accusation of fake news the centerpiece of their rhetoric.

  7. Much new shit has come to light, way too much.  So what is a Dude to do?  Well after reading the referenced NYT piece I ordered a sports level oximeter.  Why, because it is probably like having your own screening level Trump Plague test kit.  I think the Dude would approve.  

    One thing liberals have in their arsenal (besides this incredible blog) is the New York Times.  No newspaper is perfect in selecting quality writers, editors, and printing only solid, well researched material.  I mention this only because I know I can trust NYT content and the article referenced must have been extremely well vetted.  Comments from other professionals seem positive and validating.  We have no fake news rating from the  Drama Queen now acting in the role of president, but then who made him/her the ultimate judge of journalistic merit.  He/She is not on my guru lists in much of any category and certainly not that one.  I am looking forward to his/her rapid replacement and surviving until that glorious day.


  8. My hope is that Biden will win, then build a powerful coalition of experts, something Trump would never do. Biden may be ( like most of us over 60 people) slipping a bit. It is a natural part of aging. Perhaps Biden will be the transition President. 4 more years of the Golden Grabbalottapus will destroy whatever is left of us.

  9. I think it's about time for Rudy to get back in the game to run some interference. He's still good for a couple of news cycles just to break things up. It makes no sense to let the Hunter Biden investigation to wither on the vine when we're in a situation that clearly calls for more confusion and chaos coming from the White House.

    • Don't they have him all tied up defending Jim Bakker on the bogus Trump Plague potion charges?  

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