- Glenn Sonnenberg
Musings from the Bunker 1/14/21
EXISTENTIAL AND MORAL ISSUES
We clearly have major issues before us in strengthening our democratic institutions, climate change, economic recovery, racial injustice, and addressing the immigration crisis at our borders. These are important and demand our immediate attention. That said, they may need to take a temporary “back seat” to addressing the more pressing needs of dealing tamping down the pandemic, effectively delivering the vaccine and addressing issues facing the working class and its economic well-being.
Ben VandeBunt reminds me that the prioritization of the issues before us (or at least the messaging of those priorities) could either be unifying or counterproductive. He cites as problematic when President-elect Biden stated in late November “On day one I will create a commission to unite migrant kids with parents.” This is a noble and critical priority for our country, as we hope to step back from the cruelty of our recent immigration policies. And it must be addressed in short order. But this perhaps should not be articulated to the American voters as a “first priority.” The fact is that, while this is a serious policy issue and moral concern, it is not the one that resonates with most voters—at least not right now.
Expanding upon this, I think there are two sets of priorities—those that most directly affect voters (particularly in their pocketbooks and livelihoods) and those that are laudable but don’t “put food on the table.” Think of it like “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs” set in the political arena. The first set of issues—the economy, jobs, economic prosperity, and health, occupy a lower, basic, rung in the hierarchy—and require immediate attention. The second set of issues—caring for immigrants, world peace, the climate—are critical issues that require a good deal of attention and government funding but are longer term propositions. Before one talks about higher values that may benefit other peoples or the benefits of which may lie sometime in the future, voters want to hear first about their own jobs and economic prosperity.
Mr. Biden might steal a page from Mr. Trump’s playbook, who was able to tap into the anxieties of people and say what they wanted to hear. Trump understood that people care first and foremost about themselves. “America first!” is a thinly veiled articulation of “me first!” Much of Trump’s strength was, at least rhetorically, making the working person believe that their concerns were his concerns as well (whether they were or not). Adopting rhetoric about saving the planet for future generations and addressing immigration as a priority may make liberals cheer in the short term, but that focus early on will turn off many who may ask why Joe doesn’t prioritize Americans first.
Many people wanted to buy what Trump was selling. Voters were willing to forgive him for foreign policy mistakes, his impulsiveness, his treating immigrant families as criminals, his kowtowing to dictators, even for pursuing his own family’s personal interests over those of the nation’s. They were willing to give him a “pass” because he stated repeatedly that their issues had primacy in his administration.
WHAT BIDEN SHOULD DO
Biden needs to be clear that his primary focus is jobs, the economy and the coronavirus. As Ben aptly put, there is time to say that “my generosity of spirit will cause me to spend your money on things not related to you,” but that message can’t take the top billing while people need jobs and are infected with COVID.
There is a sense of euphoria about Biden’s pledge to accelerate the vaccination process, provide for economic relief for those in need and disseminate expert advice (and not unfounded theories). He must also endorse long term unemployment support that is tied not to arbitrary period of time that is subject to interruption due to legislative inaction but is instead tied to some metric of measuring the virus’s subsidence.
Right after these immediate needs, Biden needs to “call for the question” on a major infrastructure bill. People across the spectrum claim to endorse such an initiative. He should call it the “American Employment and Recovery Act” or some such thing. It’s about creating jobs (a la the WPA) and improving our quality of life by repairing and modernizing our infrastructure.
What governs this all is what Jack Watson, who was involved in two transitions of power has said, You have to separate what must be done, soon, from all the other things you might want to do later in the administration.”
THE PERFECT IS THE ENEMY OF THE GOOD
One of the quotes I most like to invoke is “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” Better to act decisively and get a “half a loaf” rather than trying to get everything and risk getting nothing. On the other side of the equation is my other favorite, “better to get this done right than to get it done fast.”
When it comes to the distribution of the vaccine, I believe the former should be the guiding principle. Priorities have been established that should dictate how the vast majority of the vaccine gets distributed. But now let’s move with all deliberate speed to get it done, even if it is an imperfect system and even if the implementation doesn’t adhere religiously to the priorities that have been established.
Right now many states, including California, resist opening up administration of the vaccine to a group until the prior group’s priority has been fully exhausted. But all that does is slow things down overall. Some sites report that they administer few vaccines and aren’t able to “go down the list” in the absence of directives from above. There has been a fair bit of talk about cheating to move to the front of the line. Family members of health professionals may be cheating; wealthy people may be bribing people, vaccines may be “leaking out” from the distribution chain. But here’s the thing…at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter much. If a few self-interested people “cut the line,” so be it. The system is spending far too much energy worrying about slippage around the edges, resulting in vaccines not being expeditiously administered.
If there’s a 1% “error rate” then perhaps three million people will get vaccinated out of order. But that is a small price to pay if we vaccinate 20 million people several weeks sooner. Plus, every person vaccinated—whether they were vaccinated “in order” or not—makes us all just a tiny bit closer to herd immunity and greater safety.
Time to pull all the stops and get these vaccines in people’s arms quickly.
ONE MORE PICARESQUE NOVEL
For a completely different expansive picaresque novel, one hardly filled with optimism, there’s the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson. It is quite different and the hero hardly heroic. Set in North Korea and based in part on the author’s travels to the Hermit Kingdom and interviews with defectors, Johnson creates a world of state control and where the stories are more important than the facts. Jun Do (a play on the “John Doe” everyman) is caught up in a world of oppression, deception and propaganda, where facts are not facts and pleasing the “Dear Leader” is all important. Some scenes where people try to piece together descriptions of events that just transpired in a way that can be “sold” to the authorities, even if implausible, make for a comic element to this otherwise bleak narrative.
While his story (and that of nearly every other character) is one of survival through any means, he eventually does something selfless, after a life at times complicit with and at other times rejecting of the state. What becomes clear through the story is that no one escapes ultimate punishment at the hands of the state (and those supporting it), regardless of how hard one fights to avoid being singled out for retribution.
The Sonnenbergs have been playing a lot of games, in person and remotely, since the pandemic began. I love games and love the “trash talk” and good natured challenges that go with it. I have never allowed our kids to win a game, even when they were little. Do you think they realize that, as much as we may love to gloat when we are victorious we are as pleased when they beat us? It’s the ultimate “win-win.”
Have a good day,