Institutional Collapse

The COVID-19 pandemic may be the straw that finally breaks the camel’s back for America’s already fragile and failing institutions. The current crisis was guaranteed to strain every country’s political, economic, and even societal foundations but, among the developed world, America’s institutions seem uniquely unable and unprepared to deal with it. Much of that has to do with current leadership but is also a result of a forty year, primarily Republican, assault on those institutions as well as an unfounded and almost religious belief in the power of the so-called “market” combined with the rejection of science and reason.

The federal government is failing the American people. Its response to the pandemic is primarily the result of a colossal failure of leadership of monumental proportions at almost all levels. From the beginning, our narcissistic President has only viewed the crisis through his own personal political fortunes and acted accordingly. His first thought was to deny the issue in order to defend what he believes is the only measure of the health of our economy, the stock market. His next thought was how he could turn the crisis to his own political advantage. He is directing desperately needed medical equipment to states he needs to win in 2020 while denying the needs of blue states he knows he will lose. He requires blue state governors to praise him in order to get what little equipment he will give them so that he can use those clips in political ads. He refuses to invoke the Defense Production Act to coerce business into providing the necessary materials to fight this virus despite his administration having used that power hundreds of thousands of times already for primarily military purposes. Instead, he funnels whatever material the government has through his private business cronies, allowing his friends and probably family to make fortunes through price gouging. By refusing to provide a special enrollment period for the ACA for the soon to be tens of millions who will be unemployed, the President is condemning thousands to bankruptcy and even death. By his own admission, he considers anything below 200,000 deaths from this crisis a “success”. And every other thought the President has is about how not to get blamed for the crisis, best summarized by his declaration that “I don’t take responsibility at all”. By any measure, the President is actively taking steps that will result in thousands of American deaths. As the Boston Globe wrote the other day, “Much of the suffering and death coming was preventable. The president has blood on his hands”.

Of course, even an adequately prepared government might have been able to mitigate the damage of an unqualified, inadequate, and even sociopathic President. But the Republican party has spent the last forty years attacking and undermining the legitimate functions of government. This attitude became especially pronounced with the ascension of the Trump administration and its promise to deconstruct the administrative state. Top leadership positions are either vacant or now filled by sycophantic and corrupt yes men and women, most of whom are simply appointed rather than confirmed and who have no idea how to actually manage a federal bureaucracy, especially with a President who provides either vacillating leadership or none at all. This attitude has meant that planning for a pandemic has been willfully ignored. Years of malign neglect have meant that our reserves designated for crises such as the one we face now have expired or are in disrepair. Personal corruption within the administration is rampant, from the President and his family on down. Federal policies can be dictated through personal connections to the President or large enough donations to his campaign.

Important agencies in the federal government have been thoroughly coopted into Trump’s criminal enterprise. The State Department has been gutted and is run by a borderline religious fanatic, with US foreign policy openly for sale, especially if the foreign country can damage the President’s domestic political opponents. The Department of Justice has been turned into the President’s personal law firm while being used as a political weapon to attack his political opponents. The Department of Defense has fired the Navy Secretary who refused to pardon a Trump-supporting war criminal and has now fired a naval commander, a man who was desperately trying to protect his crew from COVID-19, simply because his message highlighted the lack of interest and response from the government to deal with the crisis.

Perhaps an effective Congress might have been able to rein in the excesses and abuses of a renegade executive branch, but we haven’t had an effective Congress since Newt Gingrich decided to blow that institution apart in the 1990s. Both parties have been complicit in ceding Congressional power to the executive branch, mostly in the hope of having to avoid taking a position that might jeopardize their next election. Similarly, House Democrats have been timid in using all the powers at their disposal to force the Trump administration to stop blocking effective oversight. The anti-democratic features of the US Senate has allowed an effectively minority party, the Republicans, to block legislation at will. That has now morphed into an attitude that any Democratic power is by definition illegitimate, leading to the refusal to even give Merrick Garland a hearing. The budget reconciliation exception to the filibuster means that all policy now gets kluged into an enormous bill that is oftentimes voted on without any hearings at all or even the full understanding of the members of Congress and even more often with significant unintended consequences. Personal corruption is also rampant within the halls of Congress where insider trading has seemingly become the norm.

In the face of two historic crises, Congress has consistently managed to underestimate the depth of the problem and protected the shareholders and executives of large corporations while leaving actual workers far more exposed. Right now, in the midst of both an economic and medical crisis of unimaginable proportions, Congress has not only once again passed a clearly insufficient bill to deal with the crisis, it has gone out of session for three weeks.

State and local governments have always been a cesspool of corruption. In this crisis, the difference between living and dying, between solvency and bankruptcy, largely depends on the quality of your governor. The quality of local government almost solely relates to property values where property taxes provide over 70% of revenue. State governments get about 30% of revenue from property taxes and have long been hampered by declining revenue due to tax cuts and the requirement to balance their budgets, usually leading to increasing borrowing costs. Because of budget requirements, New York state, the current epicenter of the pandemic, is considering actually cutting its Medicaid budget. Going forward, state and local governments will be entering a negative feedback loop where the decrease in revenues will force reduction in services which will delay any recovery, forcing more reductions in services, and on and on. State legislators are so reliant on corporate donations that they have become mere mouthpieces for lobbyists and simply allow special interest groups to write the bills that get passed.

In addition, state and local governments are in no way positioned to be able to handle the explosive demand for services this pandemic will create. Already, states are unable to process the high demand for unemployment claims in a timely manner. In Florida, officials readily admit the system for claiming unemployment benefits was intentionally “designed to fail” in order to make the numbers look good for the then governor, a man who ran the largest insurance fraud in history in his prior job. In many states, red ones in particular, the systems are designed to make it as difficult as possible to claim state benefits.

Jacksonian populism gave us elected, rather than appointed, state and local judges, another disastrous example of “American exceptionalism”. The result has been decades of oppression and corruption. A two tiered justice system put tens of thousands of mostly poorer defendants in pretrial detention while wealthy and politically connected defendants not only get bail but are also able to avoid sentencing for years or avoid jail for most of their sentence. Today, judicial elections have just become another proxy battleground for the culture war and moneyed interests. That approach has now been adopted at the federal level by the Republican party, exemplified by its currently filling the federal courts with often unqualified right-wing hacks and the refusal to even give a moderate justice like Merrick Garland a hearing. While it is true that the courts have managed to stand up to some of the Trump administration’s more egregious abuses, their refusal to uphold constitutionally authorized congressional oversight is creating enormous damage to our democracy. As Trump shreds the Constitution with absurd theories like absolute immunity, the courts seem oblivious to their responsibilities as the third branch of government.

Things are hardly much better in the Fourth Estate. There is, no doubt, an enormous amount of incredible reporting but far too often those stories stand alone without any real context. The current “both sides” standard of journalism is remarkably unsuited to today’s world of propaganda and outright lies. Much of the media still can’t bring itself to call the President’s lies exactly what they are, constantly searching for new euphemisms to describe them. Worse, many elements of the press simply repeat those lies as the headline and the reporting on why the statements are not true is buried deep in the story. Other outlets don’t even bother with that, merely existing as stenographers for the lies of the President and his administration. Most egregious, however, is the effort of the media to take the President’s incoherent babblings and present them as fully formed thoughts in addition to normalizing outlandish policy legal and policy positions as though they were legitimate disputes. The President himself is now laughing at how easily he can game the press into presenting him in the best light. And the networks and cable channels continue to give Trump hours of free media every day to basically engage in a partisan rally. As one MSNBC producer noted in the lead-up the 2016 elections, “we have blood on our hands-we treated her like a criminal, which she wasn’t, & him like a legit candidate, which he wasn’t”. And they are doing it again as we head into the November election. (As a contrast, some of us might remember when the networks refused to give Obama primetime coverage for a speech about immigration).

Not only is the media failing to provide the proper context for its stories, it is also simply failing as a business. More than 20% of newspapers have folded in the last 15 years and the number of actual reporters have been halved. Even as the demand for quality information spikes during this pandemic, hundreds of journalists are currently getting laid off. The void is currently being filled by social media, an environment uniquely designed to spread propaganda for which tech companies avoid responsibility by claiming they are merely “platforms” and not publishers.

Our electoral processes are an absolute disaster and can barely be described as democratic. Our President was elected with a minority of the vote. Republicans control the Senate despite their Senators representing 20 million fewer Americans. Extreme partisan gerrymandering is rampant, as exemplified by Wisconsin where Democrats won 54% of the vote in State Assembly elections yet only won 36% of the seats. Between registration requirements, voter ID, restrictive voting hours and methods, the refusal to hold elections on a holiday or weekends, and lack of polling stations, we make it incredibly hard to vote compared to other advanced democracies. And, finally, one of our major parties openly admits that their chances of winning elections falls as the number of people who actually vote rises and therefore goes to extraordinary lengths to reduce turnout, even forcing in-person voting during this pandemic.

Despite spending significantly more per capita than any other developed country, our medical system actually produces inferior results. For all that money, we have the lowest life expectancy and highest infant mortality rates compared to other higher income nations. We have higher administrative and pharmaceutical costs than other countries, in many cases tripling or quadrupling the costs of those nations. There is no universal health care. Instead, we rely on an absurd system that ties health insurance to employment, leaving workers incredibly exposed, without income or healthcare, whenever an economic slump occurs. Again, one of our major parties spent almost two years trying to throw 20 million Americans off their health insurance and is currently in court trying to do the same. Many of that same party’s governors have refused to expand Medicaid in their states, even though the federal government would pick up 90% of that cost.

Just as with the media, the medical system’s business model also appear to be failing. Rural hospitals are closing at an alarming rate, with 18 closing last year, nearly 120 closing in the last decade, and 600 in danger of closing. Hospital billings seem capricious and untethered from reality. Surprise billings can be large even with health insurance and working within network. Actual coverage and out-of-pocket costs vary considerably from year to year and there are now estimates that insurance rates might rise by about 40% next year due to the pandemic. And in the midst of this catastrophic medical crisis, primary care physicians are in danger of going bankrupt because they get paid on an almost production line approach based on the number of patients they see with in-person visits.

The US now spends over $700 billion on national defense, more than the next seven largest spending countries combined, and nearly $1 trillion when including defense related expenditures. Yet in the last two decades, we have had two massive intelligence failures — 9/11 and COVID-19. Yes, in both cases, the intelligences community provided clear warnings but they were ignored by our political leaders. Those failures have led to around 20,000 American deaths, with tens of thousands more to come, and the loss of hundreds of thousands innocent foreign lives. Those failures created Abu Ghraib, torture prisons, and Guantanamo, eradicating any notion of America as a human rights leader. Despite being aware of a possible biological attack, natural or intentional, for decades, we are apparently totally unprepared to deal with it. We spend hundreds of billions on aircraft, ships, guns, and bullets when we haven’t fought a conventional war in over half a century but don’t have enough basic necessities like masks and ventilators to deal with a thoroughly predictable biological mass event.

Our professional classes are betraying us. Lawyers game the legal system to facilitate crime. Barr and Rosenstein are equally complicit in Trump’s crimes. Don McGahn’s refusal to follow illegal orders kept Trump from being impeached but he ignored his legal obligation to report those crimes to authorities. Business leaders watch on quietly as Trump dismantles the rule of law and destroys the economy, more concerned about the protection he offers them from having to actually pay their fair share and the continued opportunities to line their own pockets. As the pandemic creates hundreds of thousands of deaths and massive unemployment, the plutocrats are openly asking for workers to literally be sacrificed in order to keep their companies’ share prices from falling, while they themselves are safely locked down on their megayacht in the Carribean, or their ranch in New Zealand, or a SWAT protected bunker in Kansas. The masters of the universe on Wall Street have spent hundreds of millions building sophisticated risk models. Yet they couldn’t imagine that housing prices would collapse in every corner of the nation all at once and now they are once again shocked to see every economy in the world fall into recession within months. In a global, interconnected world, perhaps business leaders should be paying a little more attention to tail risk and actually preparing for it as opposed to buying back stock and then depending on another bailout.

Even our institutions of faith have failed us. The Catholic Church has spent decades protecting pedophiles. Evangelical Protestants, along with a number of hard right Catholics, want to abandon democracy and establish a white Christian theocracy. And mainline churches, traditionally more focused on social justice, are simply dying off. In South Korea, churches were an important vector for the virus and it will be the same here. Megachurch pastors and MAGA-loving faith leaders continue to ignore the reality of the pandemic and put lives at risk.

The last area of institutional collapse is in many ways responsible for so much of the others, namely the disintegration of the Republican party into an extremist faction solely concerned with maintaining its own power at almost any cost. The Reagan-Thatcher mentality that there is no such thing as society, only individuals, may have been misinterpreted but has no doubt resulted in forty years of social Darwinism dominated by the “greed is good”, “take what you can and then some more” mentality that has led us to this moment. We can all remember the abuse Hillary Clinton got for “It Takes A Village” or Obama for “You didn’t build that”.

Yet here we are today, relying on everyone around us not to spread the virus so we can stay alive. Here we are today, not relying on “job creators”, but on all those individual workers in our supply chains, many of whom are working without adequate protection, so that we can still stay alive. All those workers who haven’t seen a raise in decades and have been treated as simply expendable parts are the ones keeping us alive. As Robert Reich so aptly put it, “Nurses are ALWAYS essential. Farm workers are ALWAYS essential. Postal workers are ALWAYS essential. Grocery store workers are ALWAYS essential. Truckers are ALWAYS essential. First responders are ALWAYS essential. Billionaires are not”. Yet our economic system, beholden to the proposition that the “principal objective of a business enterprise is to generate economic returns to its owners “, is designed to screw those essential workers and give billionaires, CEOs, and the shareholder class even more money.

Masha Gessen warned us that “institutions will not save” us. Far from saving us, the pandemic is illustrating that those institutions — the federal government, Congress, state and local governments, courts, the press, business leaders, even our faiths — have in so many ways collapsed, unable to meet the challenge of our current moment. Yes, in every one of those institutions there are heroic people doing amazing work. But as a whole, those institutions have failed us.

Joe Biden’s almost certain nomination was interpreted to mean that Democratic voters didn’t want a revolution, even though polls showed that the actual policies of both Warren and Sanders were quite popular. But with so many of our institutions in a perhaps final phase of collapse, with potentially 30% of working age people unemployed, with millions without income or health care, with breadlines already forming all across the country, with our supply chains straining and relying on lower wage workers without adequate protections, it’s hard not to believe the revolution is coming whether we like it or not. It remains to be seen whether it will result in a more equitable or more autocratic society.

Thoughtful discussions on politics and economics with some sidelights in photography and astronomy.

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