Terrifying Words

Ronald Reagan was good with quips. There was that news conference on August 12, 1986 – “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”

He’d been saying that for years – those precise words – and he had perfected his delivery, just the right cadence with sly smile at the end. He had been a Hollywood star, of sorts. And he had been president of the Screen Actors Guild for years and years. He knew how to deliver a line, perfectly. That’s why he was now president, delivering that same line once again. It was clever and it was devastating, but of course it was kind of stupid. There are times when the government can help, when the government can do what the private sector cannot or will not do – disaster relief, a national highway system, food-safety inspection, police and fire departments, a judicial system, national defense – those things that do great good for large numbers and cannot possible turn a profit for anyone. Ronald Reagan knew better. But it was a good quip.

The problem was that small-government conservatives took him seriously. Grover Norquist did Reagan one better – “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

Republicans have been working on that ever since – privatize the VA and all public schools – the second Bush wanted to privatize Social Security – the long fight over Obamacare was to keep healthcare privatized (with odd protest signs about keeping the government’s hands off “my” Medicare) – all a riff on Reagan as modified by Norquist. Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s political theorist through Trump’s first year in office, kept talking about “dismantling the administrative state” – Norquist without the bathtub.

Donald Trump bought it all. At any given time, half of the administrative positions in the nation’s government are now vacant. Donald Trump doesn’t like experts and he doesn’t like administrators. Donald Trump doesn’t like government. Government is stupid and he’s not. And his base has cheered him on in his. They heard echoes of Reagan.

But there comes a time when the most terrifying words in the English language are “You’re on your own.” The government you paid for sees no reason to help you at all. That’s not their job. What were you thinking? And that leaves the nation with what Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns report here:

One day after President Trump told the nation’s governors on a conference call that he had been “watching a lot of you on television” dealing with the coronavirus, he proved it Tuesday morning by angrily tweeting at Michigan’s governor for saying on MSNBC that “the federal government did not take this seriously early enough.”

But Mr. Trump’s name-calling – he referred to Gretchen Whitmer only as “Failing Michigan Governor,” and said she needed to “work harder” – soon backfired. Responding on Twitter, Ms. Whitmer laid out a list of steps she had taken since last week to mitigate the outbreak, and mentioned both the website and toll-free hotline Michigan has set up to answer questions about the virus.

“Ironically, he made my point that they’re not taking this as seriously as they need to,” Ms. Whitmer said in an interview Tuesday afternoon, noting that the president had been “watching TV.”

This was not a good look for Trump. People were panicked, for good reason. The situation was deadly serious, as in life and death. Things had to get done, now. She was doing things. The chief executives in the states were doing things. The chief executive of the nation was watching television. The implied visual image was deadly.

But that wasn’t her fault:

Since the coronavirus began spreading, the governors have taken a lead role in issuing strict guidelines and stern warnings, asserting themselves in ways that only highlighted the initial inaction and lack of seriousness from the White House.

With polls showing that far more Americans have confidence in their state governments to address the virus than they do in Mr. Trump, the contagion has elevated a class of veteran political leaders whom Republican voters bypassed in the 2016 presidential race and Democratic voters shrugged off in 2020.

As a result, the leadership of figures like Jay Inslee of Washington and Ms. Whitmer, who are Democrats, and Mike DeWine of Ohio and Larry Hogan of Maryland, who are Republicans, has vaulted them into contention to play roles or have influence in the next administration of either party.

There are those people who get things done, as they reminded Trump:

Mr. Inslee, who ran for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, and whose state is at the epicenter of the crisis, dismissed the political implications of the virus but did reveal in an interview that he had not yet received a phone call from Mr. Trump, who this month referred to the governor as “a snake.”

Mr. Inslee said he had been in frequent contact with Vice President Mike Pence, the head of the coronavirus task force and himself a former governor, and expressed hope that Mr. Trump’s transition from what the Washington governor called “denial to grudging acceptance to active leadership” would continue.

“Our leaders in the federal government at every level ought to be thinking of this moment as December 8, 1941,” Mr. Inslee said, calling for “the same federal response we had the morning after Pearl Harbor.”

Inslee pretty much said that Mike Pence got that. He has no use for Pence’s sanctimonious holier-than-thou conservative politics, but he appreciates Pence’s fair and thoughtful and quite useful leadership in this matter. Wanna make Trump so angry he spits nails? Tell him that his vice president is a far better man than he will ever be.

And that leaves Trump with nowhere to hide:

Mr. Trump, of course, has benefited from and fostered divisiveness since he began running five years ago. And given his penchant for showmanship and impulsiveness, he could have a difficult time sustaining any attempt at restraint, as his attack on Ms. Whitmer shows.

He also refused to acknowledge his early and well-documented skepticism about the seriousness of the virus. “I’d rate it a 10,” Mr. Trump told reporters Monday when asked to grade his performance. And on Tuesday, Mr. Trump said, “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic,” contrary to weeks of his own statements.

Everyone knew he was lying. The networks could pull up the many clips of Trump calling the whole coronavirus thing a hoax – over and over and over – but why bother? Trump had already lost this argument:

Mr. Trump is not the only one closely watching the nation’s governors: So, too, are the many Americans cooped up in their homes, fixated on incremental news announcements about the crisis and assessing the various public figures managing the crisis.

“There will be new appreciation for clear, decisive and competent leadership,” said former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a Republican. “And if things get mishandled, botched, miscommunicated in a way that’s viewed as incompetent or bumbling, politicians will pay a price — as they should.”

Tom Ridge, the former governor of Pennsylvania who served as the first secretary of Homeland Security, predicted that some of the current class of governors would take up roles in the next president’s cabinet.

And Mr. Ridge, a Republican, suggested that the White House might have done well to regard the aggressive actions of Democratic and Republican governors as a reason to “rethink the recommendations I’d made as president, to the country.”

“I’d want to take a clue from my governors,” Mr. Ridge said.

Trump would never do that. He’s right. They’re wrong. But sometimes time runs backwards:

Nick Everhart, an Ohio-based Republican strategist, went even further, predicting that the severity of the virus would prompt “a shift from the political-outsider candidate era – where public service, having been in office and branded a career politician was a liability – to an era where that competence and experience of understanding how to manage government is seen as a plus and important litmus for handling the next crisis.”

That sounds like Joe Biden. And that makes the coming election a battle between Americans who scream that they hate government, that government is always the problem and never the solution, and those who don’t want grandpa to die and who don’t want to see the 1929 breadlines again. There are those who think that a functioning government is pretty nifty:

It is not only on public health that governors are currently leading the way: With the coronavirus throwing the 2020 presidential primary calendar into disarray, state leaders have taken the initiative in drafting backup plans and alternative procedures for voting.

Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon, a Democrat whose state already votes entirely by mail, has begun an initiative through the Democratic Governors Association to study alternative voting procedures to rescue her party’s presidential nominating contests, deploying aides to review where states might be able to greatly expand absentee voting or switch to mail-in balloting, people familiar with the effort said.

In an interview on Tuesday afternoon, Ms. Brown said she was overwhelmingly focused on confronting the coronavirus outbreak in her state, but added that taking steps at the state level to protect the election was an urgent priority, without waiting on the federal government.

The nation desperately needs a functioning government at the moment. Trump will not provide one. He thinks they’re stupid. So the governors will provide that functioning government:

Ms. Brown said there were also increasingly formal conversations between governors to share strategies for containing the pandemic: the National Governors Association, a nonpartisan group, had organized a “governors-only” conference call for Wednesday that Ms. Brown said would be “focused on emergency actions and replicating best practices.”

That sort of information sharing has already crossed party lines, according to a number of governors who said they had been in constant contact with one another by phone in part because the White House was not addressing their needs with any level of urgency.

They are forming a multi-state bipartisan fully functioning government, a de facto not de jure national government. Someone had to do it, and someone is very angry:

President Donald Trump punched back on Tuesday against criticism from Democratic governors critical of his administration’s coronavirus response, wading into his familiar political spats as the White House looks to combat a pandemic.

Trump referred to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as the “failing Michigan governor” on Monday and lashed out at New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo after his calls for stepped up federal assistance. Minutes later, he heaped praise on his own administration for “working very well with the Governors and State officials.”

That was only half true:

Although Trump and Cuomo sparred Tuesday on social media, it appeared the two made amends after a morning phone call. Not long after Cuomo praised the Trump administration for being “responsive” at a press conference on Tuesday, Trump told reporters at the White House press briefing that they were both “doing a really good job.”

“We had a very good talk,” Trump said. “I think we are right there on the same track. It’s going to be very successful.”

But Trump didn’t let up on Whitmer during Tuesday’s press briefing – defending his attacks on the Michigan governor.

“I only do that when I have to respond,” the president said in response to a question about his criticism of Whitmer and other high profile Democrats. “She said that will something that was false, and therefore I did do that, and I will continue to do that. If they’re not going to play fair because, you know, they have the media on their side. I don’t. I just have me. And if they are not going to play fair, I’m going to do that. If they are going to play fair, there’s going to be nobody better than Donald Trump in terms of bipartisanship.”

No one even bothered to roll their eyes. He is who he is, so there was this:

The president’s criticism of Whitmer on Tuesday was triggered by her appearance on MSNBC, where she said her state is working to flatten the curve by closing restaurants and bars after a federal government response that did not take the outbreak “seriously early enough.” She also outlined her plan to expand unemployment benefits as workers lose jobs and are forced to stay home amid the pandemic.

“The federal government did not take this seriously early enough, and now it is on us to make sure we’re doing everything we can based on the best facts and science available and that we are always putting the health of our people front and center,” Whitmer said on MSNBC. Trump soon after tweeted that the Michigan governor “must work harder and be much more proactive. We are pushing her to get the job done. I stand with Michigan!”

Michigan loves him! Michigan hates her! He’s a winner! She’s a whiner!

And then he gave up:

The mayor of Seattle wanted “mass tents” from the federal government to rapidly build shelters to house people in quarantine. The state of New York pleaded for help from the Army Corps of Engineers to quickly build hospitals. Oregon’s governor repeatedly pressed the Department of Health and Human Services for hundreds of thousands of respirators, gowns and gloves, face shields or goggles.

After so many pleas, President Trump moved on Tuesday to begin enlisting much of his government in what the White House had called for weeks a “whole of government” approach to the rampaging coronavirus.

“We are starting the process,” Mr. Trump said during a news conference Tuesday afternoon, referring to New York’s request to enlist the Army Corps of Engineers. “The state is working on it very hard themselves, but we’ll probably supplement what they’re doing.”

His people will “probably” supplement what they’re doing? His heart was not in this:

Despite promises of a “whole of government” effort, key agencies – like the Army Corps of Engineers, other parts of the Defense Department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Veterans Affairs – had not been asked to play much of a role.

Even after Mr. Trump committed to supporting the states on Tuesday, the Army Corps of Engineers said it still had not received direction from the administration.

Don’t rush him! He’s still thinking about this! But the de facto national government wondered what there was to think about:

“We need the federal government to play its role,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York said Monday. “The federal government has tremendous capacity.”

Much of that capacity is untapped. Hospital ships are at port. The Department of Veterans Affairs, legally designated as the backup health care system in national emergencies, awaits requests for help. The veterans department has a surplus of beds in many of its 172 hospital centers and a robust number of special rooms for patients with breathing disorders.

The sprawling system of emergency doctors and nurses ready to be deployed by the Department of Health and Human Services – known as the National Disaster Medical System – is also still waiting for orders, other than to staff locations where passengers offloaded from cruise ships are being quarantined.

So there’s nothing to think about:

The last time a big infectious disease epidemic emerged President Barack Obama dispatched nearly 3,000 American troops to Liberia to build hospitals and treatment centers to help fight Ebola. The Pentagon opened a joint command operation at a hotel in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, to coordinate the international effort to combat the disease, and the American military provided engineers to help construct additional treatment facilities and sent people to train health care workers in West Africa to deal with the crisis.

The Pentagon has been running through plans for how the American military can help: from deploying the Navy hospital ships Comfort and Mercy to the Hudson River in New York or off the West Coast, to building tent cities near urban hospitals to triage cases.

This has been done and can be done again, because governments do this kind of thing:

Mr. Cuomo expressed appreciation for the rapidly growing capacity to conduct coronavirus tests, which has been the delay that so far has drawn the most attention. But the real need now is for a much broader response, he said. His wants the Army Corps of Engineers to help New York set up temporary hospitals – as he said he fears the state is about to face a disastrous shortage of hospital beds, particularly in intensive care units.

“They build airports,” he said. “They build the bridges. They build hospitals. This is exactly what they do.”

A spokeswoman at the Army Corps of Engineers said on Tuesday that the agency – which has had its massive capacity put to use in past disasters like Hurricane Katrina – was still awaiting orders.

The Army Corps of Engineers was awaiting orders from a man who thinks government is always the problem and never the solution to anything, that grumpy and angry old man who is just beginning to issue those orders, even if he hates issuing those orders. That array of Democratic and Republican governors forced his hand. The nation has to have a government. The people need one. Trump was trapped.

Megan McArdle carries this further. The nation is collapsing. She says subsidize everything:

Those are hard words for a libertarian to say. But then this is a harder crisis than we’ve faced in anyone’s living memory. To put this in perspective: By some of the higher estimates, this virus could kill more than 1.5 million Americans. That’s more than all the Americans who have died in all wars since the country announced its independence from Britain.

To avoid this disastrous outcome, we need to “cancel everything” for some, hopefully short, period of time. But that won’t work unless we ensure that the people who will be most hurt – people and businesses who make things or provide services in a physical location – come through this relatively unscathed.

We’re going to have a recession, and in a certain sense we want a recession; if the economy is growing, it means too many people are still moving around. So there’s little use for traditional policies like payroll tax cuts, which aim to get people back to working and shopping as fast as possible.

Instead, we have to think first about mitigating the suffering of those who have lost their jobs and, second, about keeping businesses on life support so they can go back to normal production as quickly as possible whenever we get the virus under control.

In this unprecedented situation, the government will need novel, creative policymaking to minimize the damage – and not just the same old predigested ideological programs.

But most of all we will need a government, to actually do things, like this:

The first priority should be laid-off workers, who need secure access to what financial guru Dave Ramsey has dubbed the “four walls”: food, transportation, rent or mortgage, and utilities. That will mean, in part, putting cash into the hands of individuals who have been laid off or quarantined, first through checks, then through unusually generous unemployment insurance and some sort of federal sick-leave program. It will also mean declaring a moratorium on evictions and utility shutoffs, like the one Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has already put into place. Vehicle repossessions and residential mortgage foreclosures should be added to the list.

But that won’t be enough. Halting evictions, repossessions and the like will just shift the problem and the cost back to utilities, landlords and other providers of vital services, who have their own loan payments to make. So the government must keep those businesses solvent, with zero-interest loans if necessary, to help them survive the coming months.

Ronald Reagan is weeping. Grover Norquist is seething. Steven Bannon is scheming. Donald Trump is watching television. Megan McArdle is thinking things through:

Finally, the government must target employers, to ensure that as many people have a job to go back to when all of this is over. There are a lot of ways we could do that, but one of my favorites is Tim Bartik’s proposal to encourage “labor hoarding.”

Labor hoarding sounds nasty, but actually it is good: It’s how economists describe employers who hold on to more employees than they really need during recessions. Finding and training good workers are expensive, so it is often cheaper in the long run to keep people on when demand falls. But employers also do this because, despite the stereotypes, most bosses hate to fire people and will go to almost any length – including letting unproductive employees skate – to avoid having to say, “We’re letting you go.”

This is a tendency the government should encourage right now.

Bartik suggests we offer employers a tax credit to maintain their payrolls above 90 percent of their 2019 average. It’s much cheaper than offering a payroll tax cut to people such as me who can easily transition to working from home, and provides employers a much more direct incentive to do what we want.

This can be done, and Reagan had been wrong:

At this point, conservative readers may be shuffling uneasily. Isn’t this going to be expensive? Won’t unscrupulous people try to game the system? Won’t this distort the economy?

The answer to those questions is yes, yes and yes. In a normal time, or even a normal recession, I’d never suggest any of these measures.

But this is a most abnormal time. Our collective health relies on every other citizen doing the right thing and keeping their distance from everyone else. We need to make it as easy as possible for everyone to do the right thing.

She’s a libertarian, the most committed to small government, or no government, of any political ideology, but she’s also human:

That’s going to cost money, some of which will go to people who don’t deserve it. The only justification is that it will cost all of us a lot more if we don’t take these steps. They are as necessary as they will be expensive.

Just do it. The nine most terrifying words in the English language might have something to do with Donald Trump and Grover Norquist’s bathtub.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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