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  • Glenn Sonnenberg

Musings from the Bunker 4/16/20


First of all, this reference to Back to the Future made me smile. While the first was a classic, I think the two sequels were nearly as good. The Back to the Future movies were witty, funny, nostalgic, thought-provoking, packed with great acting, and with great twists and time paradoxes. These movies are among the “most watched” in the Sonnenberg household.

What we do next—how quickly we come out into the open—will have serious repercussions on future events. How it is handled will require data, analysis, and thoughtful discussion. I’m going to call this the first “Opening Up America” edition. I think discretion suggests we should follow Doc’s advice and leave our DeLoreans in the driveway and let the flux capacitor cool down for a while longer before rushing out in the world again…



We have been hearing from various folks about the time when “American is open for business.” The predictions are all over the board. In order to better determine when the “lockdown” is over, I think we need first to establish a baeline:

  • What are the values that will guide the opening?

  • What are the consequences/tradeoffs of opening?

  • Who will decide how and when that opening occurs?

The administration has focused on a May 1st date, which experts seem to believe is unrealistic. I hope the President demonstrates the flexibility to see his prior prediction as aspirational and, instead, will rely upon what the experts suggest. His recent pronouncements that some States will be ready well before that date do not instill confidence that the relaxation of restraints will be deliberate and thoughtful.



In order to “reopen the country” we first need to understand our objectives. The goal, as I understand it, is to get the country back to work after (a) flattening the curve so as not to overburden the healthcare system and (b) reducing the risk that future infections will not again spike and overburden the system. It seems that a precondition is better and more available testing; this can help ensure that future lockdowns can be localized and less draconian. To precipitously act, without a testing regimen and sufficient testing kits, would largely defeat the purpose of this initial lockdown.

If, however, people conclude that we have survived this initial spike, declare victory, get back to work, we run the risk of greater harm from future spikes (unless a vaccine will come out earlier and can be manufactured and administered expeditiously). But let’s not kid ourselves; there will be real human cost to this. Plus the next shutdown could well be as severe as this one—or worse (don’t forget that the second year of the Spanish Influenza was worse than the first).

Importantly, we need to talk frankly about the tradeoffs of greater economic activity bersus lives lost or forever changed (in various scenarios). These are moral issues, worthy of careful and thoughtful debate and honest talk with the American people.



Who should decide when it’s time to relax restrictions? Some say it should be left to medical experts, but that’s right only if stemming the disease is the sole objective. Others have suggested leaving it to economists, but that’s right only if getting the economy started is the primary objective. I’m pretty sure it shouldn’t be comprised primarily of politicians or ideologues. And it certainly shouldn’t be determined primarily by corporate executives.

As I write this the exact makeup of the “Council to Reopen America” (or whatever its current name is) is not known. The President has announced the names of some 17 “experts,” whose names he’s floating for this Council. It is top-heavy with corporate leaders and entrepreneurs. The list includes the likes of Mark Cuban and Jamie Dimon, who are impressive in their own right, but don’t exactly have a resume for this type of work. And Mark Zuckerberg, who still thinks welcomes the posting of false information on some twisted theory of freedom of expression, and whose milieu is not out amongst the people, but in their living rooms.

My hope is that whatever group is empowered will represent a broad spectrum of disciplines—health, economics, law, and moral philosophy, as well as some Mayors and Governors, who actually are dealing with the difficult issues on a day-to-day basis.



Speaking of Governors… First off, this isn’t true:

“The President of the United States calls the shots. They can’t do anything without the approval of the President of the United States.”

See, e.g., the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, Marbury v. Madison, Ex Parte Milligan.

I thought this dispute was resolved a couple of days ago, when leaders and legal scholars pretty much universally agreed that the States were the instrumentalities charged with the health and safety of their citizens and would determine how and when to roll-back restrictions on public gatherings and business. Then the President, while seemingly acquiescing to the States’ primacy going forward, reserved the right to “come down very hard on them” if he doesn’t like what he sees.

I fear the President, seeking to placate his base, may become impatient and prematurely declare the United States “open for business,” lifting federal limits on travel and commerce and demand the States’ compliance. Some States will follow suit—quickly and happily, for fear of incurring wrathful tweets. Others will not, raising challenges from the federal government (presumably based at least in part on the Interstate Commerce Clause). Then what? Constitutional crisis…

We have a federal system for good reasons. The national government performs certain tasks that are more efficiently and successfully done through coordination of the States and the States otherwise are responsible for the health, welfare, and safety of their citizens. Indeed, the little-cited Tenth Amendment explicitly says that rights not granted to the federal government are reserved to the States (and the people). We are comprised of fifty states, a federal district and territories with their unique challenges, environments, and populations. Government is best when it is local and focused. [QUIZ QUESTION: CAN YOU NAME THE TERRITORIES?].



Here are cast albums recommended by the New York Times theatre critics. Enjoy: Want to Listen to Musical Cast Albums? Our Top 10 Desert Island Picks



Answer to the quiz… The U.S. territories are the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands. Of some curiosity, if one visits the World War II memorial in Washington D.C., one will see 56 pillars, for each of the 48 States (at the time, Hawaii and Alaska were territories), D.C., and the territories at the time (Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam…and The Philippines). Yes, it’s true—from the Spanish American War in 1898 until the end of the Second World War the Philippines were a part of the U.S.

The above is a beautiful picture of the World War II Memorial, from the Park’s website. The two large columns are labeled “Atlantic” and “Pacific,” surrounded by the 56 pillars discussed above. While the memorial has been derided by a few critics as evoking stark brutalism, almost fascistic, tropes, the message is clear—this was a worldwide conflict against a common enemy. It was perhaps the last time (with the possible exception of immediately post 9/11) when the American people—and the World— were so clearly unified against a shared foe.

Enjoy the day,


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