Magazine April 6, 2020, Issue

The Week

(Roman Genn)

• Broadway is closed. Social conservatives just keep getting wins in the Trump era.

• Zhao Lijian and Hua Chunying, two representatives of the Chinese foreign ministry, have, in that familiar “just asking questions” manner of conspiracy theorists, begun to promote the baseless claim that this new strain of coronavirus actually began in the U.S., not in China. In doing so, they have seized upon an out-of-context statement by a CDC official that in no way proves their claim, and contradicted the official findings of the World Health Organization. The brazenness is even more shocking given that, if there was a conspiracy related to the spread of the coronavirus, it was conducted by the Chinese government to hide its initial discovery and spread. Government agents actively suppressed the efforts of early whistleblowers, such as the doctor Li Wenliang, who ultimately died of the disease. With incipient knowledge of what was happening, they also destroyed samples, suppressed news, continued to allow large public gatherings, and permitted millions to leave Wuhan. President Xi Jinping himself knew about the outbreak for two weeks before speaking about it publicly. As important as hygiene is right now, the Chinese government cannot wash its hands of this.

• That government, via a spokesman for the foreign ministry, has also condemned “the despicable practice” of calling COVID-19 the “Wuhan virus” or the “Chinese coronavirus,” as certain American officeholders — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, House minority leader Kevin McCarthy — and no doubt many ordinary folk have done. There is a long history of attaching geographical names, not always accurate, to diseases (cf. the Spanish flu, the French pox). The present instances are unfair to the people of Wuhan, and China generally, who have suffered massively from the outbreak. A better name would be “Xi’s disease,” after president Xi Jinping. 

• “As China Cracks Down on Coronavirus Coverage, Journalists Fight Back.” That was a headline in the New York Times — whose subheading was “The Communist Party is trying to fill the airwaves with positive stories about its battle against the virus. Chinese reporters, buoyed by widespread calls for free speech, are resisting.” Elsewhere, Sarah Cook, a China expert at Freedom House, made a powerful point. After the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Chinese Communist Party offered a kind of social compact to the people: You have no political rights or civil liberties. We are in charge. In exchange, however, we give you prosperity and security. At present, many Chinese are saying, If you can’t give us what you promised, at least give us free speech. The CCP has shown a demoralizing knack for survival and perpetuation, but this may be a perilous moment for the party, which could lead to brighter days for China.

• Italy has been overwhelmed by the coronavirus. It didn’t realize how widespread the virus was until it was too late, and the country has been playing catch-up ever since, resorting to ever more extensive lockdowns. Italy has the oldest population in the EU, and the disease has been particularly devastating there. As we went to press, it seemed only a matter of time before Italy, a country of 60 million, surpassed China, a country of 1.3 billion, in total fatalities. The medical system is strained to the breaking point and doctors are making excruciating decisions about who gets precious ICU beds and who doesn’t. Say a prayer for Italia.

• At a campaign event in Detroit, Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, got into an argument with Jerry Wayne, an auto worker, who questioned his stance on gun rights. Biden, bristling, called Wayne “full of sh**” and a “horse’s ass.” Such outbreaks of temper are part of the Biden persona, along with geniality, self-pity, and hot hands, and probably will not damage him going forward. His position on guns might. While he calls himself a supporter of the Second Amendment, he recently tapped former opponent Beto O’Rourke to “take care of the gun problem with me. You’re going to be the one that leads this effort. I’m counting on you.” O’Rourke’s program for taking care of the gun problem is to confiscate AR-15s (with compensation). This was what prompted Jerry Wayne’s question — and will, we suspect, prompt other gun owners’ questions in the months ahead.

• Fox News’s Bret Baier asked Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez why young voters, who many thought would carry Bernie Sanders to the Democratic nomination, didn’t turn out in droves for the socialist in the Michigan primary. Ocasio-Cortez told Baier that “rampant voter suppression” was in part to blame for Sanders’s disastrous performance, noting that “kids were waiting three hours in line to vote in Michigan.” A spokesman for Michigan’s top election official — a Democrat — told reporters that Ocasio-Cortez’s rhetoric was “misinformed and dangerous,” noting that the only significant lines in the state were at voter-registration booths, where officials were met with a surge of “thousands of same-day registrants.” Jacqueline Beaudry, clerk for the city of Ann Arbor, called Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks “simply not true” and said “there were hardly any wait times anywhere in the city, except at city hall to register to vote.” Supporters of Sanders want a revolution, but only if they don’t have to plan ahead for it.

• Elizabeth Warren has dropped out of the Democratic presidential primary. Senator Warren, who has been, over the years, a Lou Dobbs–style economic populist, a Cherokee and “professor of color,” an author of self-help books, and many other interesting things, insists that her presidential campaign foundered because she is a woman. Of course, there probably are a few atavistic specimens in the Democratic Party who refused to vote for her because she is a woman, and others who feared that a woman couldn’t win in November. Yet other Democratic-primary voters  preferred her precisely because of her sex. Warren’s problem is not in her chromosomes, or in her stars, but in herself: She is a lousy campaigner; her “I have a plan for that!” shtick is so shallow that even a few Democratic-primary voters noticed; and her attempt to split the difference between the left-wing and left-of-left-wing candidates (right of Sanders, left of Biden, basically) was obvious, clumsy, and abject. Her all-over-the-map positions on health care, for example, left some voters wondering what she really believes. We wonder whether she even remembers what she really believes. The question going forward from here is not whether Warren belongs in the White House but whether she belongs in the Senate. Massachusetts is not a lost cause — ask Charlie Baker.

• One of the worst genres of 21st-century journalism is the “anonymous nobodies on Twitter were mean to me” essay, most recently practiced by Mara Gay in the New York Times. Gay, a member of the Times editorial board and an MSNBC talking mouth, made a blunder on television, saying that Michael Bloomberg had spent enough on his failed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination to give every American $1 million. The actual figure is $1.53. She was, of course, relentlessly mocked, often in ways that were cruel, stupid, and racist; Gay is black. As Charles C. W. Cooke pointed out at National Review Online, the mistake was telling as well as amusing: Progressives of Gay’s type really do argue and behave as if billionaires such as Bloomberg were bottomless coffers, and as if we could give every American a millionaire’s life if only we were willing to raise taxes on the tycoons a little. Gay responded to the criticism with a self-pitying essay headlined, “My people have been through worse than a Twitter mob.” Indeed they have, which perhaps didn’t need saying. 

• Alabama Republicans recovered some of their honor by spurning accused sexual predator Roy Moore in the first round of Alabama’s GOP Senate primary March 3. President Trump is backing Tommy Tuberville, former football coach of Auburn and a political rookie. That’s because the other candidate is Jeff Sessions, who held the seat for 20 years before becoming Trump’s attorney general. He was the first senator to back Trump for president; he backed Trump’s signature issues — immigration restriction, trade protection — years before Trump himself took them up. He retains a pure, almost virginal, faith in Trumpism. But because he recused himself from the Russian probe early on, he earned Trump’s contempt, and earned Tuberville Trump’s support. (“Coach Tommy Tuberville, a winner, has my Complete and Total Endorsement,” Trump tweeted.) In Trump’s world, gratitude and ideological affinity count for nothing, only complete personal obedience.

• Since narrowly losing the Florida governor’s race to Ron DeSantis in 2018, Andrew Gillum, a former Tallahassee mayor from the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party, has been a media commentator and the head of a voter-registration organization. In March, he was found by police in a Miami Beach hotel room, vomiting and too intoxicated to answer questions. Gillum’s companion, a 30-year-old man, was suffering from an apparent drug overdose, and a third man had called for help. (Some bags of what looked like crystal meth were confiscated from the room by police.) Gillum said that he himself had not taken drugs but that he had a problem with alcohol abuse. He announced he would seek help in rehab and would exit “public-facing roles for the foreseeable future.” A good decision, for both Gillum and the people of Florida, who must count themselves lucky for their near miss.

• The Democratic Party has for decades regarded the judicial branch as little more than a better-educated alternative legislature, but usually takes care not to say so. The mask slipped in ugly fashion in early March, when Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer stood in front of the Supreme Court and personally threatened two of its judges. “I want to tell you, Justice Kavanaugh and Justice Gorsuch,” Schumer said: “You have unleashed a whirlwind, and you will pay the price. You won’t know what hit you if you go forward with these awful decisions.” By “these awful decisions,” Schumer was referring to a pending abortion case — which means that his position, in effect, was, “Continue to pretend that the Constitution says what it does not, or there will be consequences.” What those consequences will be remains to be seen. In recent months we have heard talk of Court packing, of impeaching justices, and even of abolishing the judicial branch completely. Whatever Schumer had in mind, he is keeping it to himself. “My point,” he said afterward, “was that there would be political consequences for President Trump and Senate Republicans.” Which, of course, is why he named the two judges he was worried about, and pointed to the Supreme Court building as he did it.

• The Senate approved a 77-day extension of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, but the FISA fight isn’t over yet. As Congress works toward a permanent deal, Republican senators Mike Lee (Utah) and Rand Paul (Ky.) fought for and secured debate over the reauthorization of three FISA provisions that they say do violence to Americans’ civil liberties. On these issues, they are wrong. A provision relating to “lone wolf” terrorism does not apply to Americans; another relating to roving wiretaps is a commonsense tool that permits effective surveillance of foreign agents’ communications devices; and a third relating to business records was once used too broadly but has since been pared back. The senators’ concern about an overweening federal government is welcome, but should be redirected.

• Democrats have spent the better part of the last decade sounding the alarms about rising wealth inequality in the U.S. This obsession has jerked the party leftward, propelling fantastical proposals such as Medicare for All and wealth taxes into the mainstream. But it may result from an accounting error. Economist Thomas Piketty and his acolytes define wealth as the value of all assets held by households minus their debt. They leave out future Social Security payments, which account for 58 percent of wealth for the bottom 90 percent of the wealth distribution. A new paper from the University of Pennsylvania finds that when Social Security wealth is accounted for, inequality has remained constant over the past three decades. It is telling that those most concerned about economic inequality won’t welcome the good news. 

• The Centre for Aviation, a highly regarded airline consultancy based in Sydney, warns that a majority of the world’s airlines could be bankrupt by May. Lost revenue is expected to amount to well over $100 billion: a figure that is rising daily as the crisis deepens. “Coordinated government and industry action is needed — now — if catastrophe is to be avoided,” the report warns. The word “bailout” already is on everybody’s lips. It is likely that some “coordinated government and industry action” is called for, but we should proceed with caution. Writing in the New York Times, Tim Wu offers the cautionary case of American Airlines, which earned $7.6 billion in profit in 2015 and continued with strong showings afterward but ended up carrying debt equal to about five times the company’s market value, having borrowed money to finance stock buybacks. Well before the coronavirus epidemic, analysts worried that American was headed for insolvency in spite of CEO Doug Parker’s big talk about the firm never losing money again. We want the airlines to continue functioning; indeed, we would prefer it if there were more of them, and more competition, rather than the three big alliances that dominate the market. What we do not want is for the epidemic to be used to give cover to old-fashioned corporate welfare and crony capitalism. If airlines come to the government with their hands out, shareholders must pay up first, and to the fullest.

• The New York Times issued a correction to Nikole Hannah-Jones’s essay in its 1619 Project. She had maintained that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” That claim drew the ire of multiple professional historians at the time of its publication, but the Times modified it only after Leslie M. Harris, a historian consulted by its fact-checkers, wrote a piece in Politico alleging that she had “vigorously disputed” Hannah-Jones’s argument but been ignored. It’s not the only assertion from the project that multiple professional historians have questioned. One wonders how many factual errors school systems across the country will be willing to tolerate as they continue to implement the ideological project into their curricula.

• A New York State judge sentenced disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein to 23 years in prison. Weinstein was convicted in February on charges of first-degree felony sex act (forcibly performing oral sex on a woman) and third-degree rape (coercive but not forcible). The former crime is treated with appropriately extreme seriousness by the Empire State’s penal code. Consequently, even though Weinstein was acquitted on two charges carrying potential life sentences, he faced a minimum of five years and a maximum of 29 years in prison. The only real question was how hard the judge would slam him. For a 68-year-old who is in failing health, a 23-year term is effectively a life sentence. Weinstein still faces at least one more prosecution in California for felony sexual assaults. At this point, it is just a matter of totaling up the score; the monster’s fate is sealed.

• At Williams College, a male student says he was suspended for making out with a female student without asking her on a date afterwards. The two kissed and cuddled a bit one evening, but when she called him a week later, he was lukewarm, which she considers “cultural insensitivity” (both students are foreign). Soon the faint-hearted lover was facing disciplinary proceedings, which ended with his being suspended for a semester. His conduct may have been a bit ungentlemanly, and it’s possible that the plaintiff’s version of events, in which she was slower to consent, is correct; but as often happens in such cases, the defendant was not informed in advance of the charges or allowed to examine or refute witnesses, and much exonerating evidence was ignored. Now he has filed a lawsuit against the college. Sexual assault is a serious matter, and it should be treated seriously, not with kangaroo-court procedures.

• OPEC for years quietly reveled in its unofficial title of “world’s most successful cartel.” (The De Beers people had a good run of it, but let’s not overlook the NEA-AFT.) The Saudi–Russian oil-price war is likely to put an end to that — it may even put an end to OPEC. As worldwide demand for oil collapsed with the coronavirus outbreak, Saudi Arabia, OPEC’s dominant member, attempted to negotiate extended reductions in output among the ad hoc OPEC+ group, which includes Russia. Riyadh called the tune, but Moscow declined to dance. The Saudis responded with the nuclear option, not only maximizing the output of the national oil company, Saudi Aramco, but promising to flood the market with more oil than the Saudis actually have the ability to drill, drawing down reserves. The idea, some analysts argued, was to force Moscow back into negotiations. If so, the tactic failed. A lot of that cheap Saudi oil is headed for the U.S. Gulf Coast, which may mean lower gasoline prices. Drivers will celebrate. The pain will be felt most in places such as Venezuela, where the oil industry is practically the only functional part of the economy, but the North American energy industry, from Texas to Alberta, will suffer too. And that during an epidemic — just what the doctor didn’t order.

• France’s pro-competition regulator has handed down the largest fine in its history, $1.24 billion, to Apple. The American technology company is accused of exploiting its market position to impose terms of business on Apple resellers that were less favorable than those for Apple’s own wholesale network. Apple will appeal the ruling. Two Apple wholesalers also were fined a total of $154 million for colluding to fix prices. Apple says the action relates to business practices abandoned more than a decade ago and disregards precedent. American technology executives often privately complain that European regulators are engaged in a form of protectionism, attempting to use measures directed at anti-competitive practices to dictate more-generous terms for local businesses at the expense of U.S.-based multinationals. This is precisely the sort of thing that can and should be addressed through such accords as the proposed Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which the Trump administration has put on ice and which economic populists to the left and right are happy to see remain there. Without going into the specific merits of this action against Apple, one can see good reason to believe that U.S. firms often are treated unfairly in the European Union. Is that a “globalist” concern or a “nationalist” one? Either way, Washington should get on it. 

• About Afghanistan, the news is worse than usual. Two would-be presidents held competing inaugurations in Kabul: a block apart, at the same time. For the first time, a U.S. president had a direct conversation with a Taliban leader — and the Taliban guy was a mere deputy. The Taliban has stepped up attacks on Afghan soldiers, killing 15 of them at one blow. Our deal with the Taliban has secret annexes, concerning how we are to determine whether the Taliban is living up to their end of the agreement. The New York Times reported that these annexes “appear to give Mr. Trump, or his successor, enormous latitude to simply declare that the war is over and leave.” A Republican congresswoman, Liz Cheney, said that any deal with the Taliban “should be made public in its entirety.” A Democrat, Tom Malinowski, tweeted, “Bottom line: The administration is telling a terrorist group the conditions (such as they are) of our withdrawal from Afghanistan, but not telling the American people.” In Kabul, an Afghan former national-security adviser told the Washington Post, “All the cards are in the Taliban’s hands now” — a bitter and alarming pass.

• In Russia, as formerly in the Soviet Union, the only question that matters is who has the run of the Kremlin. In absolute and unchallenged power these past 20 years, Vladimir Putin has given a masterful display of all the black arts. As either president or prime minister, he has turned every aspect of governance into an instrument of his will. Sixty-seven now, he is due to stand down in 2024 but to the contrary has been proposing to “reset,” a euphemism for changing the constitution in such a way that he would remain in power until 2036 (he’d be 83 by then). “Resetting” won the immediate approval of the Duma, a packed parliament, and also of the constitutional court. According to Alexei Navalny, a lonely spirit of opposition, only idiots or crooks ever thought that Putin would leave the Kremlin in 2024. A referendum will soon be held, and its outcome is unquestionably clear.

• In the last twelve months, Israel has held three general elections, illustrating the famous quip that the repeat of some act in the hope of obtaining a different result is insanity. For all their angry slogans, Bibi Netanyahu’s governing Likud Party and Benny Gantz’s oppositional Blue and White Party are quite similar. Winning an almost identical number of seats, neither party had enough for a majority capable of stable government. Several smaller parties found irreconcilable reasons to refuse to participate in a coalition. The so-called Joint Arab List has enough members to play the kingmaker, but both of the main parties have promised to have nothing to do with Arab politicians who are openly anti-Israeli. It was controversial of Gantz to break this promise and cozy up to the Joint Arab List the moment Israeli president Reuven Rivlin invited him to form a government. A fourth election, Rivlin let it be known, is “impossible.” Some Israelis speak of the end of the Netanyahu era, and some think Gantz has stolen the election. As things stand, either the two contenders form a united government, or the fourth general election proves not so impossible after all. 

• Juan Carlos, the former king of Spain, is one of the key figures of the second half of the 20th century. After the death of Franco, he guided Spain toward democracy, and, in 1981, he fended off a coup attempt, intended to restore fascist rule. Eventually, scandals mounted, and he abdicated in 2014, in favor of his son, Felipe. Now there is yet more scandal, leading King Felipe to renounce his financial inheritance and to strip his father of his stipend. It was discovered that Juan Carlos had socked away a lot of money, particularly in Switzerland. There, the Saudis “donated” $100 million to an account of his, according to reports. The ex-king did great good in his career but now stands disgraced. It must have wounded his son to separate himself as he has. Perhaps only Verdi, composer of Don Carlos, could do justice to this story.

• Like everyone else, we eulogized Jean Vanier when he died last May. “Jean Vanier was a great man,” we began. “He made life better for many thousands.” Yes, he was the founder of L’Arche, meaning “Ark,” a worldwide organization that allows mentally disabled people to live together with dignity. Vanier was a candidate for sainthood, a virtual shoo-in. In its obit, the New York Times conferred on him the designation “Savior of People on the Margins.” Now L’Arche — his own organization — has released a report whose findings were summarized by the Washington Post as follows: Vanier “had coercive sexual relationships with six women during his lifetime that left the women hurt and in need of psychological therapy for years.” Does this negate the good that he did? No, but it is a terrible blow all the same. And L’Arche is to be saluted for its honesty and its Christian concern for the victims.

• We have all seen recently what happens when unprepared hospitals lack the proper tools to treat endangered patients. Ireland experienced the same thing, though on a much smaller scale, when a patient was admitted to a Dublin hospital with a venomous snakebite — the first such case in Irish history, at least since Saint Patrick banished the slithering creatures from the Emerald Isle a millennium and a half ago. The snake in question was a puff adder that had been kept as a pet (hey, at least you don’t have to walk it) until it bit its owner, who was rushed to the hospital, which had to get the antidote flown in from England. We wish the snakebit animal-lover a speedy recovery; and may we take the liberty of suggesting that he look into keeping a nice Irish setter instead?

• As the dark cloud of the pandemic was gathering over Italy in early March, some unsuspecting citizens of Castelvetro, a town outside Bologna, turned on their showers and kitchen-sink faucets and were treated to streams of red wine. A thousand liters of it from a local winery somehow leaked into water pipes. The wine had mixed with water and looked more pink than red, and only 20 or so homes were affected, for a few hours, but what killjoy would correct the townspeople for magnifying the event in the telling? They found a little cheer when they needed it, and they made the most of it.

• Skeletal remains of two white giraffes were found by locals about 35 miles outside a conservancy in northeastern Kenya in March. The Kenya Wildlife Service is investigating. From the state of the carcasses, conservationists estimate that the animals, an adult female and her calf, had been killed four months earlier. They fell to poachers, according to a statement issued by the conservancy. The third member of their family, an adult male, may be the last surviving white giraffe and the end of the line for the rare variety. A regional conservation organization promises to work with local authorities to end poaching, a constant threat to elephant and rhino populations as well. Alas, the ban on poaching is easier to support than to enforce.

• All 16 of the supposed Dead Sea Scroll fragments at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., were inked in modern times, researchers have concluded. Their forensic work was laid out by museum officials at an academic conference they hosted in March. The museum had sent five of the fragments for testing in 2018 and later announced that all of them were assessed to be probable forgeries. Last year it hired a company specializing in art-fraud investigation to examine the other eleven specimens. The company owner, Colette Loll, stipulated that the museum would be hands-off and that her report would be final and released to the public. Museum officials agreed. They’ve been burned too often already; last fall, an Oxford professor who had sold them some Bible-manuscript fragments was accused of having stolen them from an archive he oversaw. “The Museum of the Bible is trying to be as transparent as possible,” its chief executive officer points out. Give it credit for handling the embarrassment with honesty and honor.

• It’s a commonplace insult to compare a print publication that one dislikes to toilet paper. Yet if you had to go without toilet paper, you’d miss it a lot quicker than your favorite news source. In Darwin, Australia, after coronavirus-inspired panic had denuded loo-roll shelves, the NT News managed to have it both ways by inserting a special section with nothing printed on it but dotted lines and maps of Australia, making it easy to repurpose for hygienic use. Sure, print journalism may be on the way out, but let’s see someone try that with a Kindle . . .

• In the worrisome days of 1942, Americans’ spirits were lifted by a bouncy song called “Rosie the Riveter,” about an aircraft-production worker who took the job to help protect her Marine boyfriend while keeping “a sharp lookout for sabotage / Sitting up there on the fuselage.” The song was inspired by a newspaper column on 19-year-old Rosalind Palmer, a welder at a Sikorsky plant in Bridgeport, Conn., who had grown up in a wealthy family but was eager to do whatever she could, even manual labor, to help the nation in its hour of need. After the war she resumed her socialite life, marrying Harry Glendon Walter, a prosperous business executive, and becoming a prominent philanthropist. Over the years, other women have been called “the original Rosie the Riveter,” since the song’s title was reused for a 1943 film promoting war bonds and a 1944 feature film, and later, long after the war, the name “Rosie the Riveter” became associated with two familiar female-empowerment images: the “We Can Do It!” workplace poster and a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover. Each of these had a real-life woman behind it, and all did their part to increase morale; but Rosalind P. Walter was the original original Rosie. Now she has died at age 95. R.I.P.

 

CORONAVIRUS
The Crisis We Face

Much of American life has shut down.

The coronavirus has created a crisis atmosphere unlike any we’ve seen since September 11 or the 2008 financial meltdown. People aren’t going to work, schools have closed, bars and restaurants have shuttered, sports leagues have shut down, and the federal government has issued guidelines against gatherings of more than ten people. This is a medieval response — social distancing is just contemporary argot for the age-old expedient of quarantines — imposed on a modern society, and it is going to have untold economic and social consequences.

This is tough medicine, administered in the hope of squelching the coronavirus. It is still spreading at exponential rates in the U.S. Fatality rates are much higher than for the flu and other familiar bugs, particularly for older people. There is no vaccine for the time being. The character of its spread and symptoms threatens to gradually overwhelm the capacity of health systems in affected areas, leaving them short of hospital beds and respirators to treat the most seriously afflicted patients and so dramatically increasing the risks to them.

What we hope to avoid is the specter of Italy, where the virus has nearly overwhelmed an advanced Western country, although a poorly administered one. The countermodel is South Korea, which has embraced social distancing but mostly relied on a regime of massive testing to get a handle on an initial surge of cases.

We are behind the testing curve here because of disastrous missteps involved in the effort to make testing kits available nationwide. They are the fault of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — coupled with senseless bureaucratic obstacles to other players using their own tests — and they represent a serious scientific, technical, and bureaucratic failure for which the appropriate officials should be held responsible. We are now, thankfully, on a path to making testing kits available to all who need them.

The CDC debacle is not President Trump’s fault, but his response to the crisis has often been woeful. In a serious public-health crisis, the public has the right to expect the government’s chief executive to lead in a number of crucial ways: by prioritizing the problem properly, by deferring to subject-matter experts when appropriate while making key decisions in informed and sensible ways, by providing honest and careful information to the country, by calming fears and setting expectations, and by addressing mistakes and setbacks.

Trump hasn’t passed muster on any of these metrics. Besides quickly restricting travel from China, he resisted making the response to the epidemic a priority for as long as he could — shunning briefings, downplaying the problem, and wasting precious time. He failed to properly empower his subordinates and refused to trust the information they provided him — often offering up unsubstantiated claims and figures from cable television instead. He spoke about the crisis in crude political and personal terms. He stood in the way of public understanding of the plausible course of the epidemic, trafficking instead in dismissive clichés. And he denied his administration’s missteps, making it more difficult to address them.

This presidential behavior is all too familiar. It is how he has gotten through scandals and fiascos for more than three years in office. But those were all essentially political in nature, and most were self-created. This is different, and demands a new level of seriousness from the president and those around him.

Beginning with his Oval Office address in early March, Trump has adopted a more appropriate tone, in at least most of his public statements. His designated point man for the response, Mike Pence, has performed admirably, while Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health has been an important voice of sobriety and reason.

As Yuval Levin writes elsewhere in this issue, the characteristic American response to any crisis is to fumble at the beginning. Then we tend to wrestle it to the ground with massive resources and technological innovations. We have every confidence that this will be the outcome once again. But getting there will be painful, in lost lives and unimaginable economic disruption. May this chapter in our national life close as quickly as possible.

 

PUBLIC POLICY
Viral Economics

The Federal Reserve has brought its target interest rate to zero and initiated quantitative easing, while Congress decides how it too should respond to the coronavirus crisis. While the situation remains fluid — as we write this editorial, the Trump administration has just tacitly dropped its request for a payroll-tax holiday and acceded to a bipartisan congressional request for checks to be sent directly to most Americans — it’s worth thinking through the considerations that should govern our economic policy in the months to come. It’s especially important since this legislation is unlikely to be the last time Congress has to act to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus.

Typically when the economy falls into a recession we debate “stimulus” legislation, but most of the old arguments ought to be shelved in this case. Policymakers should have four goals in mind: slowing the spread of the virus, aiding the treatment of those infected, providing relief for those adversely affected by both the virus and the efforts to fight it, and supporting the overall economy. These tasks sometimes overlap and sometimes conflict. In a normal recession, we would want to make sure that legislation did not discourage people from working. Some of our supply-sider friends are making that point now — mistakenly. At least for the short term and in many instances, we actively desire people not to go to work. Biology has to take precedence over economics.

And speed has to take priority over precision. It was right to abandon the idea of suspending payroll taxes, which wouldn’t directly help the afflicted elderly or those who are being laid off, and would offer benefits in two-week increments for months rather than right away. Funding sick leave, as both parties seem eager to do, may also need to be rethought. The theory behind it is reasonable: People who have the infection should not feel economic pressure to keep working and thus spread the illness. But quick cash payments to a broader population may be more effective — since we want a lot of people who do not have symptoms or know they are sick to stay home as well — and easier to administer (as well as easier to end when the crisis is past). This policy would also do more to relieve the hardships the coronavirus is causing. For similar reasons, unemployment-insurance payments should also be increased. 

Increased payments to state health systems have bipartisan support. The details matter: We ought not heighten the post-Obamacare Medicaid program’s incentives for states to concentrate on able-bodied people above the poverty line. But in this area too, the basic imperative is clear.

Halting the spread of the virus and providing for treatment are ways to support the economy, albeit indirect ones. The Federal Reserve has more-direct responsibilities. Its steps so far have been welcome, particularly in light of the rapid decline in inflation expectations — which are a sign that economic weakness has gone well beyond supply disruptions. The economy is likely to contract sharply in the near term. The Fed should make it clear that its goal is for spending and prices to resume their pre-crisis trend as soon as businesses reopen, and that it will engage in as much quantitative easing as needed to assure it. An economic slump is now a public-health necessity, but it should not last a week longer than it must.

 

POLITICS
The Biden Victory

The primaries from South Carolina on have effectively ended the presidential hopes of Bernie Sanders. Enough Democrats were alarmed by the possibility that a self-declared socialist would win the nomination to consolidate with stunning rapidity behind the candidacy of former vice president Joe Biden. They have compelling, albeit mostly negative, reasons for doing so: Biden hasn’t praised Castro’s Cuba, he isn’t calling for outlawing most Americans’ health insurance, he doesn’t want to let prisoners vote. Democratic voters forced Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Michael Bloomberg out of the race. All have now endorsed Biden.

Yet Biden, notwithstanding his impressive turnaround, is not obviously a stronger general-election candidate than Bernie Sanders. He is old, and he wears his age poorly. No sober observer will ever call either Biden or President Trump a great orator, but the latter is much better at getting his point across. Then there are Biden’s decades as a Washington insider.

And while Biden counts as a moderate within the Democratic Party, that party has itself been moving left and Biden has been pulled along. Biden wants a $3 trillion tax increase, an expensive expansion of Obamacare, a reduction in enforcement of the immigration laws, a ban on new fracking, a carbon tax, and taxpayer-funded abortion. And that’s before he has finished mollifying Sanders and his supporters, who are not suddenly going to turn reasonable.

Biden is not a true believer, as Sanders is. But don’t be fooled. He is running on a much more left-wing platform than Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, or John Kerry did.

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