A Ship on the Rocks of COVID-19
If we are very lucky, a credible vaccine for coronavirus will be widely available within a year or so. In the meantime, COVID-19 will sicken and kill many more Americans. Some fairly obvious actions could still reduce the number of casualties. Other countries have taken these actions - the U.S. will not. It's worth understanding why.
The proximate reason is, of course, President Trump, who seems committed to doing virtually nothing to mitigate the pandemic. Congress could pass legislation to force his hand, but Senate Republicans seem firm in their support for his inaction. But there is also a broader problem. A majority of Americans would probably support more actions to control the pandemic. In a democracy, a single obstinate fool, even if he's the president, should not be able to thwart the public's will. But that's exactly what's happening. Beyond the president's self-centered obstinacy lies the broad failure of our political system.
Before considering how our system is failing, let' s review the actions that we could be taking to reduce the damage from COVID-19. They're pretty obvious.
(i) Testing and tracing need to be increased to much higher levels
(comparable to, say, the levels reached in S. Korea). This needs to be
done in the entire country. Our patchwork of state programs have
clearly failed. Testing and tracing need to be mandated, regulated
and funded by the federal government.
(ii) Shutdowns need to be reimposed systematically. Both shutdowns and reopenings should be based on objective criteria formulated by people with scientific expertise - these decisions clearly cannot be left to politicians. We need one set of standards for the country. State boundaries are irrelevant to viral transmission, so shutdown and reopening orders must be applied to regions that make scientific sense.
(iii) We need to ensure that all Americans can afford to comply with shutdown orders. The first round of shutdowns imposed enormous economic hardship. All Americans must have enough income to survive the unemployment that shutdowns inevitably bring. This could be accomplished by extending existing programs like unemployment insurance and SNAP, but it's probably more effective to directly ensure a minimum monthly income for the duration of the pandemic.
(iv) In essential industries like food processing, OSHA needs to impose regulations to reduce the risk of transmission among workers.
Besides being obvious, these actions are imminently feasible. They would take a lot of money and will need to be debt financed but this is really not a problem - the historical record clearly shows that we can afford much larger federal deficits without any damage to the economy, now or in the future.
There are, however, a whole set of political problems that will prevent seriously fighting the coronavirus, no matter what most Americans want.
Unlike nearly all other democracies, the U.S. has no way to quickly change our leaders. We have no means to bring down a government. There is no way to call a snap election or (at the federal level) to have a recall referendum. If Trump is defeated in the next election, he will not actually be replaced until late in January of 2021, so we have at least another half year of his inaction.
It's likely that the majority of Americans will vote against Trump in November but of course that does not mean he won't be re-elected. After all, the majority of us voted against him four years ago. Thanks to the perversity of the Electoral College, the next president will be chosen by voters in a handful of states, as usual.
If Trump is replaced, serious actions to control COVID-19 could be blocked by a Republican Senate. In the last two elections, Democrats won the majority of all votes cast in Senate races but the GOP maintained control. This could easily happen again. Although we rarely notice, the Senate is in fact an inherently undemocratic institution. With its six year, overlapping terms, changing control of the Senate is a slow and difficult process, particularly because of Republican strength in a number of small states. The Democrats could once again win the popular vote and not gain control of Congress.
If, in January 2021, we have a president and a Congress that want to take serious steps to control COVID-19, they will still have the courts to contend with. Since effective efforts to control the pandemic require federal action, conservatives are likely to challenge them in the courts (many conservatives hate the federal government doing anything other than fight wars). At present, federal courts are dominated by conservative judges and four members of the Supreme Court consistently vote based on right wing ideology. As a practical matter, federal courts have almost unlimited power and are subject to no democratic control. Even if court challenges do not prevail, they are likely to produce deadly delays.
This is not to say that a Democratic victory in November wouldn't save lives. But our political system will have delayed action to control COVID-19 and it provides conservatives many opportunities to hamper those actions.
Although almost no one is happy with the state of American politics, our political system is still often portrayed as the exemplar of democracy (at least by Americans). An almost religious reverence for the constitution is common among our chattering class. Every two years when elections roll around, supposedly hard headed reporters get dewy-eyed about our 'great exercise in democracy'. It's time to get over it. The constitution was not handed down on Mount Sinai. It is not a pure expression of the wisdom of the country's founders - much of it represents nothing more than political deals. It was a great advance in democracy back in 1789 but it's flaws have matured into a legalistic, convoluted, undemocratic mess. Our vaunted political system is a ship on the rocks and out of control. We cannot steer it, not even to save our own lives.
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