May 14, 2020

Ross Douthat wonders why we don't want to wage a full-scale war on the coronavirus.

We’re containing the virus, limiting the damage, preventing worst-case scenarios — but we aren’t trying to actually stamp it out. Instead, we’re on a path to just live with it (and sometimes die with it) until we get a vaccine or herd immunity, choosing management and mitigation over suppression, a year of stalemate over a campaign to win the war.

... we have no nimbleness and little grand ambition, and so our capacities are limited when it comes to achieving more than just stability, more than what Matthew Continetti calls a “cruel new normal” of thousands of deaths every week or month.

You may be asking: Who is this "we" Douthat is talking about? And continues to talk about:

... we can ... look at the places that have achieved suppression and see a range of plausible measures for a would-be General Patton of the coronavirus war. Masking. Testing. Tracing. And yes, mandatory quarantines.

We have twice been given time to scale up our capacities in these areas — first in the wasted month of February, then in the weeks of lockdown we’ve just endured. And we’ve made some progress, however halting.

But an assumption of futility hangs over these efforts — a mentality of “no, we can’t” that emphasizes all the ways that we aren’t like South Korea or Taiwan or Eastern Europe, all the impositions that Americans supposedly won’t stand for, all the ways that our exceptionalism and polarization and mutual suspicion will inevitably make our death toll rise.

Maybe some of this defeatism is justified as a judgment on Donald Trump’s inability to lead any kind of wartime effort. Maybe it’s justified as a judgment on our hollowed-out industrial capacities, our loss of what Bloomberg’s Dan Wang calls the “process knowledge” required to suddenly shift from making semiconductors to making swabs or masks.

Are our manufacturing shortfalls solely because we lack the "process knowledge" to make, say, protective equipment? Over the weekend, The Washington Post reported on a Texas company whose vice president told the Trump administration that he was willing to start up relatively new but idle production lines in order to produce 1.7 million N95 masks a week. The administration blew him off.

Does Douthat think most Americans wanted that to happen? Maybe a great deal of U.S. manufacturing capacity isn't ready to shift to pandemic mode, but the Trump administration hasn't even tried to get the most we can get out of what we've got.

Douthat actually makes an interesting comparison here:

But the assumption that decadence is simply inescapable seems decadent itself. Especially when it leads to weird conclusions — like that Americans are too paranoid or cussedly libertarian to accept mandatory testing or temperature checks or mask-wearing or quarantines but that we will somehow just resign ourselves to closed schools and dead retail and empty restaurants and rolling lockdowns for months and months to come.

Right -- we did accept the lockdowns, or most of us did. Poll after poll tells us that two-thirds to three-quarters of Americans want restrictions to continue until it's safer to resume a more normal life. On the whole, Americans aren't "cussedly libertarian." Only some of us are. And nearly all of those so-called libertarians aren't libertarians in the abstract -- they're fine if people they don't like are subject to government restraints (or worse treatment, such as police brutality), as long as the authorities don't try to make them do what they don't want to do.

Douthat almost gets it:

... there’s nothing in our history to suggest that our individualism precludes accepting tough, even authoritarian measures under the right conditions. A pandemic that’s already responsible for 1930s-level unemployment and more American dead than the war in Vietnam seems like it should qualify.

What Douthat won't do is recognize what's preventing us from really declaring war on the virus: Republicans. It's Republican politicians who've tolerated Trump's dithering, denialism, and failure to act. It's Republican pols and propagandists who are trying to manufacture consent for a forced return to normal life, even though most of the public still find the virus terrifying. It's Republican voters who've drunk the Kool-Aid and who now accept the plutocrat-friendly "reopen" rhetoric, even as Democrats and non-right-leaning independents -- i.e., the vast majority of the nation -- reject that rhetoric.

America is still big. It's the GOP that got small. It fears that a shared sense of purpose and a successfully activist government might threaten the party's top mission, which is to transfer as much money and power as possible from the non-rich to the rich. A "reform conservative" like Douthat ought to be able to figure that out.

Posted with permission from No More Mr. Nice Blog

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