From the beginning, the purpose of Star Spangled Gamblers was to use the ridiculousness of political gambling to have a light-hearted conversation about the facts of the modern world. The filter for this point-of-view has been “Keendawg,” a degenerate and fictitious version of myself. If you are reading this newsletter, you probably like what he has to say. But today, I am going to leave Keendawg behind. The world is careening into panic over fears of vast human and economic loss from the coronavirus. It’s a situation that deserves a more sober appraisal– and that’s what’s inside this newsletter.
We’ll be back with some lighthearted copy next Friday, but for today’s cover letter, I want to talk frankly about the contagion that has infected our minds and our communities too.
HOW COULD THIS POSSIBLY HAPPEN?
We are living in the richest, most prosperous society in human history. Our economy produces $20 trillion of wealth each year. Since the Second World War, the United States has led the globe in every meaningful cultural and economic transition. There are books written about why this is the case and if it will continue on, but for the time being, our society is different from all others because of one thing: we choose risk. We choose risk because we believe we will be rewarded for it. Colonists risked their lives coming here on wooden ships and pioneers fought across a frontier of rightly furious natives, rival European powers, and unknown perils from wildlife, disease, and climate. Risk is an American virtue and to this day, migrants from Latin America and Asia still risk their lives coming here because they believe it will be rewarded.
At a cultural level, risk is the appeal of John Wayne and Jay Gatsby. The tough guys and the self-made. On a legal level, it’s the roots of a decentralized government that intentionally divides the State’s power in order to weaken it. Compared to our peers, American government keeps a lean overhead, offers scarce pensions, has no national health care plan, and lets companies run right over unions so that they can react quicker to changes in the global marketplace. We’ve chosen risk as a society and for the most part, we’ve reaped the reward.
The cost of this preference is a disaster like the coronavirus. Think about it. What nation could possibly be worse prepared for a pandemic than ours? We split power between three branches of government and 50 states. We’re a people that refuses to be told what to do– good luck social distancing from that — and we have a health care system that functions completely differently depending on how much money you make. Ask Kevin Durant and his NBA friends about that. Republicans and Democrats disagree about a lot, but they do agree that too much power is bad. For one camp, it’s the power of government; for the other, it’s the power of wealth.
Oh, to have a central state or a monopoly that could scale-up to meet today’s crisis; to have a small and trusting society that could accept change without question. But we aren’t Korea. We aren’t Singapore. We are a massive country with a centuries-long tradition of attacking the authorities that we need right now.
So why is anyone surprised by our government’s failure to respond to COVID-19?
OKAY. BUT IT MAY BE THE CASE THAT THE AMERICAN SYSTEM IS WELL-SUITED FOR A CRISIS LIKE THIS–
The United States is the most diverse society on the planet. Not just by ethnicity, but by climate, geography, and economic activity. We expect the President and the Congress to come correct with a solution to everything — but state governments are actually in touch with the needs of their local populations. To me, it’s not surprising that governors like Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) and Larry Hogan (R-MD) have been the breakout stars of this disaster. Federal officials deal with abstracts that drive voters insane. State officials deal with the reality of filling potholes and funding hospitals.
A great president may be the hero that Americans want, but competent governors and community-level administrators are probably the heroes they need.
ON THAT NOTE, THE POLITICS HERE ARE MORE COMPLICATED THAN PEOPLE WANT TO MAKE THEM–
There is no denying the Trump Administration’s total failure to prepare for this outbreak. Honestly, we could be looking at a Hurricane Katrina-level catastrophe in a majority of major cities. But the predictable calls to further centralize government authority in order to prevent future outbreaks are probably ill-founded. The failure to contain the coronavirus is arguably a failure to delegate power, not centralize it.
Why? In China, party figures punished doctors for sounding the alarm, engaged in a widespread cover-up, and allowed COVID-19 to spread around the world undetected. In the United States, the failure to contain the outbreak pivoted on the Center for Disease Control’s unwillingness to share its authority to produce and conduct virus tests. Had the CDC allowed local, private, and academic labs to scale-up sooner, we might have had actionable information to target and isolate cases from the start.
Instead, we are shutting down society because national leaders have concluded that containment is impossible. No one is saying it in Washington, but the plan is for everyone to get sick in an orderly fashion.
This is what retreat looks like. America has been conquered.
IT IS PROBABLY FAIR TO SAY THAT THE GOVERNMENT’S FAILURE TO CONTAIN CORONAVIRUS IS RELATED TO BASIC HUMAN BULLSH*T–
It is easy to assume that the CDC’s unwillingness to share testing authority and Trump’s unwillingness to confront China over the disease’s spread sooner are functions of everyone at every level of the food chain’s obsession with completing short-term bullsh*t at the expense of the big picture. Translation: office politics trump practicality in Washington too.
The CDC refused to give up its power. And Trump was probably focused on finishing negotiations with China to end his controversial trade war before the election. In the meantime, a deadly virus slipped between the gaps of pettiness.
SPEAKING OF PETTY, ZOOMERS AND MILLENNIALS GET BONED AGAIN-
We’ve made a decision to turn-off the American economy indefinitely. The implied reason is to protect the health of aging Americans. A human being will tell you that this is absolutely the morally correct decision. But economists will eventually write about how once again, Millennials and Zoomers are getting hosed in red rink.
Young Americans are the ones who are on the hook for the $23 trillion of debt that their elders racked-up with unfunded Medicare bills and generous tax breaks. And they’re the ones who have struggled to get a solid career footing since the 2008 collapse. Many young people may be living in their mom’s basement, but all of them will be financially liable for paying for the trillions of dollars of bailouts that are to come in the name of extending their parents’ and grandparents’ lives.
Once they figure this out, there’ll be a whole new generation of Bernie Sanders clones.
FINALLY, LET’S TALK ABOUT THE GEOPOLITICAL LONG GAME
Political people talk about “re-alignments” in elections: Kennedy in 1960, Reagan in 1980, etc. But even bigger than this are re-alignments in thought. There are Black Swan events that rapidly and indelibly change our notions about who we are as individuals, communities and nations. These events usually come from swift advances in technology or cataclysmic wars. To name a few that every high school student knows:
EUROPE: THE INVENTION OF THE PRINTING PRESS
— Ends Catholic Church’s monopoly on information.
— Allows for dissemination of information in local languages –> gives rise to the idea that communities of people with a shared ancestry can govern themselves without the Church’s blessing.
USA: THE WORLD WARS
— Victory of Allies establishes “Western Values” as the first principles for all world affairs. These values are global free trade and a respect for human life, in that order.
— Establishes American-dominated global institutions like the UN, the World Bank, and The World Health Organization that use military, cultural, and economic force to preserve and project these values across the globe.
— Gives the United States a 30-year head start on the global economy thanks to the war’s destruction of the European and Asian industrial base.
GLOBAL: INVENTION OF THE MICROCHIP
— Democratizes information, provides opportunities for market distribution and career advancement without Ivy League credentials or access to large pools of capital.
— Establishes new forums for community online that allow humans to socialize exclusively with members claiming the same tribal identity, whether in political outlook or racial ancestry. Severely corrodes traditional notions of nation and community.
With that as backdrop, it’s time to discuss:
GLOBAL: THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC
Someone needs to ask the question — if an army marched from Wuhan, China through Europe and the United States — what could it do that is more damaging than destroying the Western World’s economy for as much as a year?
“Carpet bombing” is what they called the Allied air raids on German cities. These were strikes where as many as a thousand planes would bomb a city at once. There were notable times when these efforts resulted in horrifying firestorms that killed thousands, but for the most part, reducing German cities to rubble often only disrupted their industrial production for a few days. Compare that to the present: we are now talking about a Chinese-born viral outbreak that could knock-out every major city in the West for a calendar year. What army could do more damage than that?
The optimistic projection is that we’re all in this together and we’ll figure it out. The cynical one is that Western economies will slide into depression and become dependent on Chinese capital for their resurrection, much as the bombed-out warzones of Europe depended on American charity in 1945. Back then, Americans were the shriners. They brought the Marshall Plan. Are we now living on the eve of “The Xi Jinping Plan?”
It would be pretty dramatic to predict an end to the Western world order. And it probably won’t happen. But it’s hard not to think that fragments of this time will be with us forever. I personally hope it’s generous liquor laws that let me order a cocktail by delivery and a deeper societal commitment to washing our hands. But as they say in times of trouble — hope for the best, prepare for the worst.
**we have our usual array of gambling-focused political comedy online at www.StarSpangledGamblers.com. Check it out. We’ll be back next week with our regular tone and topics.**