Tuesday, March 24, 2020

What Are We Trying To Accomplish?

“The trouble with not having a goal is that you can spend your life running up and down the field and never score.” — Bill Copeland

“Without goals, and plans to reach them, you are like a ship that has set sail with no destination.” — Fitzhugh Dodson

The United States has not articulated a goal for dealing with the coronavirus that leads to COVID-19. Without clarity, we continue to mis-allocate and squander scarce resources and to sow distrust with conflicting information. In short, we will fail to reach our objective if we continue as a ship under full sail with no destination or compass.

The medical profession has proposed that our goal must be to flatten the curve of infection and provide extra resources so that our healthcare providers are not overwhelmed by the disease. The Trump administration has never accepted this objective.

Had that been the aim, the administration would have tried to slow contagion to buy time and use that respite to prepare for the coming tsunami of illness. It’s not that they didn’t know what to expect. Trump announced on January 31 that he was instituting some travel restrictions on individuals arriving from China. We won’t argue here whether the restrictions were too early or too late, too onerous or too lax. By the end of January, health officials knew the problem was serious enough to recommend restricting travel and Trump did.

In a globally connected world, no one could imagine that such restrictions would allow the U.S. to avoid contamination. By then, we already had several cases. What it could buy was time to prepare, time to buy some insurance. The thing about insurance is that you pay the premium and then hope like heck you never have to file a claim. We chose instead to wish for the best and not pay the insurance premium.

We should have ramped up production of masks. (One night of news from China showed that we’d need them.) By the end of January, we knew this disease required ventilators beyond our capacity. We should have ramped up production and storage. China was already building two additional hospitals Why weren’t we developing plans for providing more beds? So states and local government could react quickly when novel coronavirus made its appearance, we could have accelerated production of test kits and pre-distributed some portion to state health departments. We could have developed communication policies to educate residents on the danger, creating a language of short-term sacrifice for long-term benefit. I have seen no evidence we did anything of the sort.

The travel restrictions and decent luck bought us a month, and we pissed it away celebrating what a fine job we were doing and watching the DOW reach record highs.

In January and February, we did not have a goal to be prepared to control the novel coronavirus. Trump, on the campaign trail for re-election, dismissed any concerns over a pandemic and promoted his running of the economy: how low unemployment was, how high the stock market was.

Does that mean keeping our economy strong is the unstated goal? For some, it is. Florida’s governor refused to close beaches during Spring Break (although now he wants anyone visiting Florida from New York to self-quarantine for fourteen days!). Just this week, Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick suggested that grandparents should willingly risk death by COVID-19 “in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren.” Obviously, healthcare is not something Patrick values as American. He wants us to “get back to work . . .get back to living . . .and those of us who are seventy-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves.”

This idea that what Americans value most is commerce is not a recent one. Calvin Coolidge said in a 1925 address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors that “The chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world.[i]

The question of the economic cost of saving lives is not abstract. We’d probably all agree that we wouldn’t send most people home for two weeks or longer to save one individual life. And we’d probably agree that if 100 million Americans would die because we didn’t shutter our economy, we close it down and count the bargain cheap. Easy answers at the extremes don’t eliminate tough choices in the middle.

That’s where having stated goals is useful. As many people have noted, we drive automobiles even though their use causes thousands of deaths and disabilities a year. Over time, Congress felt pressured and passed laws to make vehicles safer, but the convenience and economic advantages of automobile travel continue to be more important to us than the human toll of death and dismemberment autos cause.

With COVID-19, we have no shared vision of the tradeoff between economic well-being and increased mortality. If we agree that the only aim is to flatten the curve, we should take the approach of China and South Korea, test everyone and lock down the population. The hodge-podge of solutions at state and local levels when travel continues between areas can defeat even the best of intentions. Only national restrictions will work and only the federal government may do that. We’ve made shared sacrifices in times of war, but it’s important for leaders to demonstrate understanding. It does not help to propose social distancing and then see the President gather his team in close proximity for his daily update.

Despite Trump declaring himself a “wartime president” he has been ambivalent about calling for shared sacrifice and defining what that sacrifice must be. He declares that we will secure “total victory” over the virus without defining a path to success. Had he set clear objectives, Congress would have shared focus for its third try at bailing out portions of the economy, as it did with its first two slices at the pie. Without it, politicians (and their supporters) have retreated to their political tribal bunkers, squabbling over the same issues: corporations or people, broad-brush solutions or targeted remedies.

Dithering as a strategy in the face of a crisis is a recipe for disaster, and I fear we shall enjoy its bitter fruit. We cannot catch a time-machine and redo the past; we can only change the present and its effect on the future. I believe Americans will pull together if given a clear understanding of their required sacrifices and a believable assurance that the government will mitigate the damage as much as it can. Only one person has the positional power to make this happen.

President Trump must tell us his intentions. In clear, direct, unambiguous language, he must detail the goals he wants us to achieve. In November, voters can decide the wisdom of his proposed course and either reward him with four more years or vote him out of office. 

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James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. False Bottom, the sixth and most recent novel in the series is set in the Boston area. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.

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