The Morning Jolt


The Quarantining of America

An empty French Quarter restaurant is pictured in New Orleans, Louisiana, March 15, 2020. (Jonathan Bachman/Reuters)

On the menu today: trying to keep up with all of the rapid changes in quarantined America, the Democrats hold a debate that feels particularly pointless, and wondering if this crisis represents a symbolic end to globalization.

Welcome to Quarantined America

By now, you probably saw the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s ominous declaration that events with 50 people or more should be canceled or postponed for the next eight weeks.

Schools are closed in many parts of the country; in my neck of the woods, school buildings are closed “until further notice” — meaning no going in to get any forgotten books out of your locker. The aim was to reopen after Easter, but . . . that’s obviously a goal, not a certainty. New York City schools will be closed until at least a week later, April 20. Ohio governor Mike DeWine said it was possible that children may not go back to school before autumn.

A lot of teachers are doing extraordinary work right now, trying to set up distance learning and online lessons on the fly. There are a million little questions to be sorted out — do grades count when kids are trying to learn from home? How do you ensure no one is cheating by Googling the answers?

How many kids will be trying to learn in homes where one or both parents are experiencing coronavirus-related economic stress?

What about all those teenagers who were supposed to take the SAT this spring? The spring athletic season is either gone or going to be extremely truncated, the spring musicals and plays won’t happen, there probably won’t be a spring dance or prom . . . how many friendships have to be shifted to entirely online? How many teenagers were thinking of asking someone out before the sudden interruption to our lives? Carpe diem, I suppose.

Some of us might feel a little satisfaction from an interruption to the current regime of standardized testing. But how well will our children be learning in this new system? When we do get the kids back in schools, will they have backslid a bit on their knowledge and skills? Will colleges look at kids’ transcripts, see a dip in grades in 2020, and say, “Ah, yeah, coronavirus, everyone’s performance was off back then”?

In California, Gavin Newsom wants everyone 65 and older, as well as everyone with chronic health conditions, to stay isolated at home. (In normal times, we’re worried about seniors who are isolated and never interact with anyone!)

Quite a few state and city governments are shutting down restaurants and bars. If you’re wondering how or why they have the power to do that, “Every state, the District of Columbia and most territories have laws authorizing quarantine and isolation, usually through the state’s health authority.

How many people were gainfully employed and hardworking, and had a successful business, who now have it effectively shut down by a government decree? When we were discussing a bailout last week, one of the arguments was that if you have a safely operating good or service, and the government suddenly announces no one is allowed to buy it for a certain period of time, aren’t you entitled to compensation from the government? Last week I wrote, “how many companies have a contingency plan in place for ‘what happens if all of Italy shuts down’?” Now we’re asking our nation’s businesses to have a contingency plan in place for America shutting down. Companies may put aside cash reserves for an economic downturn, but almost no business plans for scenarios like this.

Starbucks and Taco Bell announced they’re only doing take-out and delivery.

Putting large swaths of American life on hold is going to be an economic beat-down the likes of which we’ve never seen. The only good news is that once we get through it, we’re going to have a pent-up demand for goods and services that will make up a chunk of the damage. But the owner of a restaurant or coffee shop or shoe store has to get to that point with either no income or minimal income. (I suppose we could see a giant explosion of take-out food orders . . . but that still leaves the bars without their drinkers.)

We’re living through an extraordinary time — a nightmare for some, merely surreal for others. Our kids will be telling their kids about the coronavirus outbreak of spring 2020. (And hopefully no recurrence in the autumn.)

Over on NR’s home page, I make an attempt to sort through it all, and where this is all leading us. I had been thinking about a point made on a video discussing David Lynch’s films, and why he often showcased bloody and violent darkness with cozy, idyllic portraits of small-town American life:

Why does Lynch mix the macabre and the mundane in his art? It’s not to highlight the macabre — it’s to highlight both in order to give us an appreciation for the beauty of the mundane. It’s to find the balance point in any situation, and for Lynch, this makes the macabre beautiful, too. What is the white picket fence on its own? We need to see the creepy crawlies under the surface, and this will give us the contrast we need to appreciate the white picket fence . . .

I think this is the key to Lynch’s love of the 1950s. World War II had just ended, people had just been through hell, so there was a real appreciation for the safe and wholesome, with a pop culture modern audiences would consider to be boring; the darker and more horrific a situation you put someone into, the more beautiful “boring” becomes in contrast.

This kind of frightening, widespread disruption of our lives is probably going to make “ordinary time” — yes, that choice of phrase is deliberate — on the other side seem much sweeter.

But we’ve got a long and difficult road ahead. Come on, vaccine researchers. Come on, herd immunity.

Oh, Hey, There Was a Debate Last Night

The two remaining Democratic presidential candidates held a debate last night. I watch all the presidential primary debates, out of professional obligation, and often feel like I’ve lost several hours of my life that could have been better spent. Many nights over the past year, a crowd full of no-hopers and also-rans exchanged prewritten one-liners and bumper-sticker slogans in 75-second increments for a theater audience that had been conditioned to applaud any sequence of words delivered with sufficient emphasis. “And THAT is why WE will build a MICRO-AGGRESSION-FREE AMERICA in NOVEMBER!”

Last night was different, and arguably much better, in the sense that without the audience, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders didn’t bother trying with the applause lines. The problem was it felt like two old men discussing vacation plans while the house is burning down around them. Neither one has a dramatically different vision for how to deal with this crisis beyond “do more and get the military involved” and “tell Trump to shut up.” A significant portion of the debate focused on Bernie Sanders’s contention that Biden once supported cuts to Social Security. (Many year ago, Biden expressed a vague openness to the idea as part of entitlement reform.) The notion that a President Biden would cut Social Security — with a Democratic House! — seemed about as realistic a threat as an invasion by the Klingon Empire. And once again, it’s not like we are lacking much more pressing threats to America’s seniors in the here and now.

Jay Nordlinger: “Whenever Biden is asked about Bernie’s revolution, he says something like this: ‘We got immediate problems to work out. We’ve got to be practical. You can’t get Bernie’s program passed.’ He never disagrees with it fundamentally. He never says, ‘America is a good country. We already had our revolution. We have the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Let’s keep all that, shall we? And make improvements where we should.’”

It’s a good point. For all of his “Malarkey!”-shouting combativeness, Biden is at heart a dealmaker who wants to build a messy consensus. This means he’s rarely willing to completely smack down a fellow Democrat’s idea.

Dan McLaughlin: “The biggest news that comes out of this debate is that Biden absolutely ruled out a male running mate, which will come as a disappointment to Cory Booker and Pete Buttigieg. My own assumption is that Biden, who has spent the bulk of his life in the Senate, will choose a senator, and perhaps this elevates several of those as contenders: Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, or Tammy Duckworth. Biden certainly went out of his way tonight to embrace Warren and her “plans” even on issues such as bankruptcy, on which she was acidly critical of Biden’s own record. Biden also pledged to appoint the first black woman to the Supreme Court.”

The boss: Biden “won the beginning of the debate over the coronavirus and scored points on Bernie’s foolish call for a political revolution and on his reprehensible praise for Communist dictators. Biden is the presumptive nominee largely because he is the acceptable alternative to Bernie, and most Democrats will probably look at tonight and think he will be able to present himself as an acceptable alternative to Trump, too, in the fall.”

Some states are postponing their primaries, to avoid having voters congregating in line at polling places. Within a few minutes of the debate’s conclusion, the CNN anchors had switched focus to the latest news about the coronavirus. The 2020 presidential campaign is more or less on hold, as well.

ADDENDUM: Our old friend Daniel Hannan asks if the coronavirus outbreak represents the end of globalization. I think when we’re on the other side of this, there is going to be a volcanic reaction of rage against the Chinese government for all the ways they botched the early response and tried to hide the severity of the outbreak — and that will mean a lot of countries wanting to cut their economic ties to China.


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