Friday, January 1, 2021

Lift a Finger


Had an interesting kind of New Year's Eve colloquy, or maybe I should call it an obloquy (he was nice enough to respond to me on several points, but I was mostly just bouncing off him) with the writer Noah Berlatsky, who posted a fun list of 99 unpopular opinions on the Twitter, on all sorts of subjects, one of which was this:

Coincidentally, it turns out this morning that this is a less unpopular opinion than you might think, in part because of some terrific reporting by the New York Times White House gossip department on Trump's handling of the pandemic and his inability to understand that it involved the needs of anybody other than himself:

Throughout late summer and fall, in the heat of a re-election campaign that he would go on to lose, and in the face of mounting evidence of a surge in infections and deaths far worse than in the spring, Mr. Trump’s management of the crisis — unsteady, unscientific and colored by politics all year — was in effect reduced to a single question: What would it mean for him?

The result, according to interviews with more than two dozen current and former administration officials and others in contact with the White House, was a lose-lose situation. Mr. Trump not only ended up soundly defeated by Joseph R. Biden Jr., but missed his chance to show that he could rise to the moment in the final chapter of his presidency and meet the defining challenge of his tenure.

Well, duh, you say, he's constitutionally unable to rise to that moment, so he technically didn't have a chance in the first place, and I hear you, but that kind of imagination is what The Times is not good at, and what they are good at, the observation, demonstrates the point, showing him as an incompetent emperor at the center of a battle among scheming courtiers (some with some good or at least respectable intentions), interested in nothing but himself and consistently rewarding the ones who flatter him the most and challenge him the least, climaxing with the awfulness of the non-epidemiologist Dr. Scott Atlas

With Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the coordinator of the White House virus task force, losing influence and often on the road, Dr. Atlas became the sole doctor Mr. Trump listened to. His theories, some of which scientists viewed as bordering on the crackpot, were exactly what the president wanted to hear: The virus is overblown, the number of deaths is exaggerated, testing is overrated, lockdowns do more harm than good.

and the political short-sightedness of Freedom Caucus veteran Mark Meadows, who was instrumental in stopping Trump from wearing a mask, even after Trump was given one he thought was handsome:

Mr. Kushner had some reason for optimism. Mr. Trump had agreed to wear one not long before for a visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, after finding one he believed he looked good in: dark blue, with a presidential seal.

But Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff — backed up by other aides including Stephen Miller — said the politics for Mr. Trump would be devastating.

Even though the polls collected by Tony Fabrizio showed decisively that Meadows and Miller were wrong on this (over 70% of voters in all the key states the Trump campaign was targeting, including majorities of Republicans, favored mask mandates).

It's a fascinating story, as the courtiers reveal their characters—Pence too cowardly to act on his understanding because it might anger the president, Birx finding belated courage to tax the abominable Atlas for his willful stupidity. Redfield and Fauci stopped showing up at the White House not out of some grand design but to begin with with the entirely good reason that the building and the people in it weren't safe, and they didn't want to get sick—only realizing later that it didn't make them any less effective. Alex Azar found the cunning to work around the terrorized Pence and move the vaccine project forward without sacrificing scientific principle. And so on.

Anyway, the story also inspired Greg Sargent and Paul Krugman on the Twitter to bring up an important paper on executive incompetence from last summer by David E. Pozen and Kim Lane Scheppele, "Executive Underreach, in Pandemics and Otherwise", in which the pandemic responses of presidents Trump and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil were examined from the legal standpoint as examples of a particular type of incompetence, in which

when domestic and international legal sources are widely seen to authorize, if not also encourage or oblige, an executive to tackle a particular sort of problem with particular sorts of tools and yet the executive declines to do so. As a matter of positive law, an underreaching executive could do much more to protect the population from an imminent threat to its health, safety, or welfare. As a matter of political morality, an underreaching executive should do more, given the severity of the threat and the rationale behind the executive’s delegated or inherent power to confront it.

While the equally dictatorial but competent Victor Orbán of Hungary serves as an example of overreach:

While some of [Orbán's] decrees echoed measures being taken by other countries, many had little to do with the pandemic. For instance, military commanders were put in charge of every hospital and military teams were inserted into “strategic companies,” from which they exfiltrated data about employees and clients for no apparent public health reason. Other decrees punished political opponents by redirecting tax revenue away from cities where they had gained control. As criticism of the Enabling Act from European institutions, foreign governments, and the international press mounted, Orbán declared in late May that he would end the state of danger in mid-June. At that time, however, parliament passed another bill effectively giving Orbán back under a different legal rubric most of the powers he had ostensibly just relinquished. The new law authorizes Orbán not only to issue decrees on a nearly unlimited range of subjects but also to direct the military to use force against civilians inside Hungary “up to but not including death."

(Trump attempted to do some of these things, punishing blue states by holding back funding, or deploying the military to repress political activity, but was almost as unsuccessful as he was in doing what needed to be done.)

Pozen and Scheppele see the legal issue in executive underreach as a constitutional one—the focus in out founding documents on "negative liberties", on the things the government isn't allowed to do as opposed to the things it is required to do to "establish justice" and  "promote the general welfare", and that it ought to be a matter of international law, which is much stronger on the subject of "positive liberties", but they don't have any real ideas on how to get there, which seems to me particular poignant on this day where another underreaching executive, the prime minister of Little England, and his adherents celebrating his achievement of freedom from international law—Mark Francois sounded like Thomas Jefferson when he spoke of victory in the "struggle for our liberty", but in congratulating Britain for saying goodbye to 2020 and Europe on the same day,

“Tonight we get a chance to wave both 2020 and the EU goodbye, within an hour of each other”, he said. “After a truly terrible year and a great struggle for our liberty, it’s a marvellous example of a buy one, get one free.” 

he showed his fecklessness: the terribleness of 2020 isn't over in Britain at all, where Covid infections and death rates remain at unparalleled highs and a new variant of the virus, thought to be almost twice as infectious as the old one (though no more deadly and not resistant to the coming vaccines) rages through the country—I don't know what Francois thinks Britain "bought" to get to 2021, but they've hardly begun to pay for it, for the continuing pandemic or for the "freedom", which is in and of itself expected to leave the country 5% poorer by 2035 than it would have been if they had remained.

But I know Joe Biden is committed to restoring our place in the international community to something like what it was in the Obama administration, and I'll keep a wan hope that it might be better than that. The 1919-style nation-state continues to be one of the greatest sources of evil in our world, and international law is the only thing that can rein it in.

The original thing Krugman adds to the discussion is something of moral significance that inspired me to elaborate on it: 


Which brings us back to the underreach, doesn't it? When we say of somebody, "They wouldn't lift a finger to help you," it doesn't mean they're too lazy to harm you, although that also may be true of Trump in the not-too-long run.

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