The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

A Time for Honesty

Nurse Teresa Malijon waits for patients at a drive-through testing site for COVID-19 coronavirus in a parking lot at the University of Washington’s Northwest Outpatient Medical Center in Seattle, Wash., March 17, 2020. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

On the menu today: why leaders in the United States — and around the world — need to be honest with the public during this crisis, especially when it’s uncomfortable; serious questions about senators’ stock sales before the coronavirus hit; the importance of speed when it comes to economic aid; and the end of the era of political leaders as a form of entertainment.

Now Is the Time for Honesty — Even If It Is Uncomfortable

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of elected officials and public-health officials being honest with the public about what they see, what they think, what they know, and what they don’t know. It is okay for a leader to admit he or his team doesn’t know something. It is much preferable to hear uncertainty than to hear something inaccurate. An answer of “I don’t know,” is honest, and forces people to be prepared for worse scenarios than the present.

Inaccurate statements do far more damage, because that suggests that the leaders don’t really know what’s going on, or they do know what’s going on, and are afraid to tell the public because it’s so bad. Forewarned is forearmed.

The report prepared by Imperial College epidemiologist Neil Ferguson compared the threat of the current coronavirus to the 1918 influenza outbreak — the one that infected one-third of the world’s population, killed 675,000 Americans, and killed 50 million people worldwide. (That’s about two-thirds of the worldwide death toll of World War II.)

If that is indeed what we are dealing with, then all of these measures that seem extreme make sense; this coronavirus is a once-in-a-century threat to public health. The situation in Italy makes that comparison seem plausible. Spain quietly crept up to become the country with the fourth-most deaths in the world. We don’t know how reliable the numbers from the government of Iran are, but even the official numbers paint an ugly picture. (A little-noticed story: Donald Trump reportedly held back a counterattack against Iran because of their current crisis with the coronavirus.) France’s death toll is starting to rise more dramatically.

You also have to wonder what we’re not seeing. Russia only suffered its first death this week, and has only 199 officially reported cases. India has only 194 cases, at least officially reported, although testing has been sparse so far. Pakistan has 454 cases. Vietnam has 85 cases. Mongolia has six cases. All of those countries share borders with China. Even if those countries’ health authorities were doing a terrible job of testing, you would think we would be hearing about overwhelmed hospitals and such. One theory is that the coronavirus doesn’t spread as much in heat and humidity — and that’s generally true for viruses — but Russia and Mongolia aren’t that warm at this time of year.

Speaking of Public Trust . . .

We don’t often see Tucker Carlson and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez agreeing on something. But they both are livid about an NPR report that U.S. senator Richard Burr offered stark warnings to a small group of well-connected constituents while taking a different tone in comments to the general public, and a subsequent report from ProPublica that Burr sold off a significant portion of his stock on February 17, including shares of Wyndham Hotels and Resorts and Extended Stay America — two hotel companies that are getting hammered by the current economic crash. As Carlson points out, there might be a legitimate explanation for this, but if there is, Burr shouldn’t delay in laying out the exculpatory information.

The statement from Burr’s spokesman doesn’t really help him much at all: “Senator Burr filed a financial disclosure form for personal transactions made several weeks before the U.S. and financial markets showed signs of volatility due to the growing coronavirus outbreak.”

Er, yes, that’s precisely the point. The suspicion is that because of confidential briefings, the senator knew that an economic earthquake was coming to world markets and cashed in based upon inside information.

Another GOP senator, the newly appointed Kelly Loeffler, faced similar accusations. She responded early this morning: “Investment decisions are made by multiple third-party advisors without my or my husband’s knowledge or involvement.” That’s good to hear. But did those third-party advisors hear about the coronavirus threat to the economy through any source connected to Loeffler?

Speed Is of the Essence When It Comes to Helping This Economy

I’m not an economist, but I have eyes. Yesterday, John Delaney — the congressman that no one paid attention to in the Democratic presidential primary — wrote that 40 percent of the American economy is shut down. Whether or not that percentage is exact, this morning you woke up in a United States that has more than half the nation’s schools closed, most restaurants limited to take-out and delivery, almost no one in hotels, almost no one on airplanes, most museums and tourist sites closed, resorts and cruises closed, nonessential travel strongly discouraged, all concerts, conferences, sporting events canceled, and public spaces such as beaches closing — and all of the businesses that support all of that are getting hit hard.

I find myself lining up with Robert VerBruggen and Michael Brendan Dougherty: In a crisis such as this, when contemplating an economic relief or stimulus to mitigate the effects of all this, the most important thing is to get the money out the door quickly. The old joke about dropping money from a helicopter would be fine, if only the gathering of crowds below didn’t mitigate social distancing.

You’re going to hear a lot of comments that Congress is “dithering” over the economic aid, and I don’t think that’s a fair accusation. Those who don’t want to see taxpayer dollars wasted, or more government money going into the pockets of the already wealthy, are raising valid concerns. We would never operate like this in a normal circumstance. This sort of government would make no sense in a normal circumstance. But we’re in the opposite of a normal circumstance. Shutting down 40 percent or whatever percent of your economy until further notice in an effort to save lives is just about the most abnormal circumstance imaginable.

Just get money out the door, lots of it, to lots of different people. As MBD notes, if we really fear that too many taxpayer dollars will go to wealthy people who don’t need it, we can raise taxes later. A lot of wealthy people have enough good sense to donate it to someone who needs it more. I know there’s this perception of greedy rich people, but if you look around, you see wealthy people and well-funded organizations throwing money and supplies at coronavirus-related charities left and right:

  • The top executives at Nike are donating to Oregon Food Bank ($1 million), the Oregon Community Recovery Fund ($2 million), and the Oregon Health & Science University ($7 million) to “improve statewide care coordination in Oregon, increase patient access and ramp up operational readiness for expanded diagnostic testing for COVID-19.”
  • Actor Eric Stonestreet announced Wednesday that he is donating 200,000 meals to Harvesters Community Food Network in Kansas City. The regional food bank is part of Feeding America.
  • The Minnesota Twins announced a $30,000 donation to The Sheridan Story, a nonprofit organization which works to provide food access for children, providing meals for 7,500 Minnesota kids.
  • The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, who run the Four Winds Casino, “have donated 7,450 pounds of food to residents in Southwest Michigan and Northern Indiana after deciding to close its four casino locations.”
  • Facebook will match up “to $20 million in donations to support global relief efforts for Covid-19: $10 million apiece to the Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fund started by the United Nations Foundation and the World Health Organization, and to the CDC Foundation, which will begin a fundraiser in the next few weeks focused on the United States.”
  • The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator, “$50 million to be dispersed to 12 pharmaceutical companies and biotech firms which are actively looking to find an effective vaccine against the coronavirus. But that donation comes with a crucial caveat: the successful company or companies must make the vaccine affordable and accessible to even the world’s poorest regions.”

Yesterday I wrote in The Corner that federal highway regulators are allowing truckers to drive more than the number of hours the regulations permit if their load includes medical equipment, hand sanitizer, or food. Obviously, no one wants truck drivers to be drowsy at any time. But because of the importance of getting these supplies where they need to go as quickly as possible, the federal government has decided, at least for a while, that we can trust truck drivers to use good judgment. The rule is eleven hours in a 14-hour period, which must be followed by a ten-hour period off-duty. If it takes eleven-and-a-half or twelve hours to get the load of ventilators to the hospital, get it there, instead of stopping and delivering it a half a day later.

Could some drivers use bad judgment, drive for too long, and end up having an accident? Yes. But for now, regulators have decided that the need to get the supplies quickly outweighs that risk. This is the way we need to look at stimulus and recovery funding right now. Sure, some people will use the money they get “badly,” and some money will end up going to those who are already financially secure enough to weather the storm.

We’re all more dependent upon each other than ever. It is not easy to trust each the judgment of our fellow citizens. But if the government tries to manage every last detail of economic aid, it will come far too late to do much good.

ADDENDUM: Over in TheArticle, I point out that the era of government and elected officials as entertainment is ending — and that it was a terrible idea from the beginning,

The presidency is not primarily a job about being entertaining on television. Since the rise of television, the most pivotal moments of the American presidency have occurred far from the television cameras: John F Kennedy and his cabinet, trying to avoid Armageddon during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Lyndon Johnson making the fateful choices about the Vietnam War. Richard Nixon’s decisions surrounding Watergate. Jimmy Carter’s choice to try the Desert One operation to rescue the hostages in Iran. Ronald Reagan’s summits with Gorbachev that set the end of the Cold War in motion. George HW Bush and Desert Storm. George W Bush after 9/11, and the decisions of the Obama cabinet as they grappled with the Great Recession and made far-reaching decisions about the bailout. All of those involved high-stakes decisions made behind closed doors, in consultation with the government’s best experts, for better or for worse.

Charisma on television is the icing on the cake — but it is not the cake. The cake is good judgment and an ability to understand the duties of the office and the complicated, ever-changing world we live in.

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