THE MOST AMERICAN PANDEMIC

I write a lot less about the day-to-day of politics than I used to, mostly because I can't keep up with it (while maintaining other responsibilities) anymore but also because it's so self-evident the way in which most of what happens is bad that I don't feel like I have a lot to add. At some point there's only so many times you can say "Well, this is stupid!" or "They sure did fuck that up!" before you feel like the local news weather reporter in San Diego saying "78 and sunny" every single day until death takes you.

The billion ways in which the response to the COVID pandemic have been cataloged ably by many others, and in fact you probably figured them all out on your own without a real need to have what is bad about "Let's just reopen everything, masks are for pussies" explained to you. I used to have the energy for that; I no longer do. I salute anyone out there who has managed to continue doing that all day, every day. What it must be doing to your psyche, I can only imagine.

To me, the COVID response in the US will play out for History Books as not only the best example of everything wrong with us, but as the perfect representation / culmination of our last forty years of politics. The best way to summarize the response of the people in charge of managing this public health crisis is: Look, just do whatever is best for you. Handle it however you want to handle it. Go out or don't go out. Wear a mask or don't wear a mask. Stay home or don't stay home. Take quack drug treatments or don't. There's nothing the government or anyone else can tell you to do, and if they tried it wouldn't work, and they'd probably tell you the wrong thing, so I mean really what can we say other than "You make the choice" because ultimately you know what's best for you.

We've been pushing that line of thinking – nobody can tell anyone what to do, only you know what's best for you – in a million different policy areas and as an answer to every social, political, and economic question for a long time now. It has been pushed so hard and so effectively that not only is it the default solution to every problem but we can conceive of no other. Make everyone stay home? The government can't even do that!

On the first day of class in introductory American Politics, and in the first few pages of nearly every textbook on the subject, there is a discussion of the very basic concept of collective action problems. Government exists because there are some goods neither we as individuals nor "The Free Market" can provide. We cannot provide security for ourselves because we have to sleep sometime, and therefore we organize into groups that make rules and laws. We cannot provide our own roads so we tax everybody and build them as a cooperative effort. Public health is a collective good, too – it has an individual component, of course, because beneath the statistics there are real people getting sick (or not). But this isn't choosing Coke vs Pepsi, public schools vs private schools. We can't have pandemic for some people and no pandemic for others, especially without a vaccine or effective treatment. With a vaccine, a specious but technically accurate argument could be made ("Hey, get the vaccine if you want! I'm not!") that the individual has some control over the outcome. But in this situation you don't. You don't control whether you get it or not. You can protect yourself and reduce the odds, but you can't eliminate the risk.

And here we are, taking a purely individualistic approach – the do as thou wilt rule – to a basic collective action problem. It is idiotic and nonsensical on the most basic level possible, and here we are. We tried some collective action for a couple weeks, people got bored and business owners got mad because they weren't able to force their employees back to work and their customers back to shopping, and then we just decided that the collective action problem no longer required collective action. Not that it went away – that it simply wasn't a thing we needed to plan and execute a collective response to anymore. We didn't solve the problem so much as we simply decided it is not a problem anymore, or that it is, but we are powerless to stop it, but I guess we aren't powerless, but ok I guess what we really mean is we just don't want to.

Read that run-on sentence again and tell me there is a better way to summarize what the idea of governing has become in this country; it's not merely that we can't solve the problems we face, but that we can conceive of the solutions and have decided that we simply can't or won't implement them.

This is how systems collapse, albeit slowly – when everyone can see what is wrong but nothing can be done because the solutions would violate the consensus imposed by The System. And the system and the consensus around it are worth more to decision-makers than any single problem it causes, and so nothing changes, until eventually the problems pile up high enough that the whole edifice collapses.

The pandemic is a signal that we are entering the terminal phase, although there's no telling how long it will last – the phase in which the solutions are there but we can't do them and nobody can quite understand or explain why. It's the lemmings jumping off the cliff asking "Hey why are we doing this?" and then just doing it because everyone else did, without bothering to demand or propose an answer. We are doing what we're doing because this is the way it has to be, silly.

That works as an epitaph for a lot of empires.

18 thoughts on “THE MOST AMERICAN PANDEMIC”

  • AC Many countries have done much better. My home country of Australia has had just over 100 deaths in a population of 23,000,000. The US has almost 15 times the population of Australia, but over 1,000 time the deaths.

  • Pandemic as metaphor? Collectivism and central control vs. individual rights and local control. There are Venn overlaps, of course, but this is just the latest battleground between left and right. Toss in these pied pipers of race hate heading the #BLM movement, and we have America Nonpareil Bad as the endgame once again, yet again. It’s been quite some time since America Nonpareil Good has had much sway in the socio-cultural mainstream. Still, non-Orwellian non-revisionist history remains on the side of America On Balance Good. Unfortunately, it’s the slogans and memes of social media, today’s Newspeak, that’s the currency of current exchange and sensibility. Most “news” journalists, more at polemicists, along with most modern academics, are little more than irresponsible leftist apparatchiks, with no real conception of the ravening philistines they empower. “It can’t happen here” was coined by an honorable leftist, Sinclair Lewis, yet it applies more now not to the takeover from Christian Right puritans Lewis feared, than instead to the functional Western equivalent of “goverment” by Maoist or Khmer Rouge gutter thugs.

  • Just own it. Point out that America has embraced this virus like no other nation. It's not a Chinese disease, but the American plague! People across the political spectrum find personal, very political reasons to endanger all of the other Americans. Well, except for the poor, who are put in danger because capitalism! Be sure to tell everyone, regardless of their political stripe how proud you are of this American malady, one we've all joined together in patriotic spirit to indulge. They'll enjoy hearing that and salute you in return with their scowls and vitriol aimed at their political enemies, sure signs that they welcome you.

  • AC and JohnMc – I would add Germany, Austria, New Zealand, Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, and South Korea. Also, to be fair, there are countries who have done as poorly or considerably worse (at least initially), including Italy, Iran, the UK, and Brazil.

  • A country of rugged individualists is not a country. A country needs a social contract, a set of norms that shape our interactions and our lives as members of a common interest. Norms enforced as laws give us confidence to enter contracts because we can expect the terms to be upheld, to accept employment expecting laws concerning wages and hours to be enforced, and many other social interactions.

    Rugged individuals, pioneers, and pilgrims don't need norms. They are the lone cowboys and rogue detectives who populate our movies and TV. You know, the protagonists of so many of them who get results and find the real murderer by bending the rules.

    Those people aren't real. Real people know that norms are the lubricant that keeps society moving smoothly. The right has been working to destroy the lubricant since Reagan was elected. It's no surprise that the gears are locking up.

  • Robert Walker-Smith says:

    Inkberrow, you live in a country where leftists are in power?

    Where is it? Are visitors welcome? It sounds delightful.

  • @Rugosa, I beg to differ. A collection of rugged individualists occupying geography exactly describes a country. What we don't have, have never really had in america, is a nation.

  • Robert:

    Leftists are in power and have been for years in academia and in pop culture, which includes news media and now social media. Leftists lost the last presidential election nonetheless. Leftists also being in charge of America’s major cities for decades also speaks for itself, as we see the degraded downtowns of Beirut and Mogadishu, sorry, New York and Seattle.

  • @Inkberrow

    Have you ever been to Beirut or Mogadishu, motherfucker? Piss off.

    And for the record, Fox News has been the most watched news network in the US for 18 or 19 years running. Leftists in power of news media, my ass.

  • I haven’t been to Mars either, short bus, but pictures and descriptions abound.

    Fox News leads because it has so little competition off the leftist bandwagon.

  • Post Narrative says:

    Could it be that the US’ poor response is a result that everything is politicized?

    Naw! Couldn’t be that. It’s all the Orange Man’s fault.

    Instead of leaders being able to create and orchestrate a cohesive response to a national emergency, it was all about points scoring and name calling. Between the partisan hackery and the media playing the mouth piece of the Dems, is it any wonder the situation is shit? Why should anyone trust any official line?

  • Post Narrative says:

    John Mc:
    DAFQ you talking about?

    You are aware that the hardest hit area is NYC?
    The population of NYC proper is 8+million. That’s the population of Sydney and Melbourne combined, jammed into an area roughly the size of Melbourne and its inner suburbs. The majority of people live in close proximity to each other in multi-storey buildings, work in same and generally are in close contact with others. They are heavily reliant upon PT to move around the city for the daily commute. Do you think that may have something to do with their appalling numbers?

    LA *County* by contrast has ~12million people, with the majority living in single family dwellings, in an area roughly that of Melbourne to Avalon. The primary means of commuting is the car. Additionally, LA is highly decentralized, so there’s less concentration of people going to a single downtown area for work. And surprise! Numbers for LA County, are considerably lower.

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