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Covid-19: The Tempering Test of the Market State

Covid-19: The Tempering Test of the Market State

I wanted to exposit a bit on some of the points I made in my last blog post about the dilemma that Covid-19 presents. As many commentators have observed, the pandemic has disrupted our economic system and starkly revealed its defects. In particular it has exposed the risks to a bulk of the population who live on marginal income and can barely, if at all, afford health insurance. But of course these were known issues already, it’s just that Covid-19 is shining a harsh spotlight on them.

I’ve categorized this post as “Strategy Review” because I want to think of this problem with one of the strategic theories I’ve reviewed in the past in mind. That would be Philip Bobbitt’s conception of a newly evolving constitutional order called the “market state.” Here’s a key quote from the linked blog post:

the familiar nation state of the 20th century is giving way to what Bobbitt calls the “market state.” A key difference between the two orders is that whereas the nation state serves the welfare of the nation through public services and social safety nets, the market state maximizes economic opportunity for its citizens, while protecting them from environmental degradation and network-infiltrating dangers such as infectious disease and terrorism. The state’s role has evolved from managing the system for the benefit of the people, in competition with other states with different ideologies (the Cold War status quo), to protecting the system’s perimeters while allowing the people to manage themselves in a loosely controlled consumer marketplace of global extent 

The Covid dilemma as it relates to this constitutional order is this: if the market state is supposed to protect the citizen while maximizing opportunities, what does it do when these goals are mutually exclusive? Simply put, an endemic disease that is highly infectious and lethal entails restricting economic activity in order to save lives, but that necessarily reduces economic opportunity. This is especially problematic in the United States, which has a flavor of the market state which Bobbitt calls “entrepreneurial” – meaning that it favors individual over corporate responsibility for well-being.

Hence the quandary the U.S. is in, with its fraying social safety net, and too many people living on a thin margin. Gig economy workers are suddenly in an environment in which there are no gigs. Unskilled laborers have become “essential workers” and are expected to endure dangerous workplaces with no extra compensation, and rudimentary protection measures.

At least the public at large has shown a willingness to follow one simple, minimally disruptive safety measure – the wearing of face masks. I believe that the broad compliance with this mandate shows that society is ready and willing to cooperate and take collective action. The desire is there. But there is a political problem of extreme partisanship and incoherent national leadership.

So this pandemic has become the tempering test of the emerging market state. Can it survive as an ordering principle, or will it break under the strain and need to be replaced? One way to help think about this question is to consider the state in relation to the strategic environment, a key feature of Bobbitt’s line of thinking.

In Bobbit’s model, the nation state prevailed in a particular security environment, which pertained to the World War and Cold War eras. The rise of certain technologies – weapons of mass destruction, advanced computing, telecommunication networks – altered the strategic landscape from that in which the nation state was successful. For the new market state to be successful, it must be able to counter security threats in this new environment.

Threats primarily intrude on the order of the market state by exploiting open networks. In the quote above I explicitly mention infectious disease as a network-infiltrating danger. I had in mind SARS and H1N1, which have turned out to be the preludes to Covid-19. Other potential threats include computer hackers, social media disruptors, and smugglers of WMDs.

The best strategies against these kinds of threats are defensive; think of tower defense casual games, where an infrastructure is built up against ongoing waves of enemies trying to get past a perimeter. Hence the pandemic related shutdowns and other measures – limiting mass gatherings is a defensive strategy against an airborne virus. Surveillance is also crucial (you have to detect the network infiltrators), which is why nations which implemented intensive testing and tracking programs are the ones that have been the most successful at mitigating against the coronavirus.

So you can see the fundamental problem the United States has, with its “entrepreneurial market state.” It is just too open of a society. It is large in extent, and its citizens are used to free travel and a high degree of autonomy. Which is why so many are railing against the measures (though I still think the majority accepts the need for them).

Not only that, the ethos of the independent, self-made American (the “entrepreneur”) means there is resistance to the concept of public assistance, which is another useful defensive measure. The government is calling what pandemic aid has been given “stimulus” money, a complete misnomer. If the economic recession were on the demand side, meaning people didn’t have money to spend for goods or services, then the term “stimulus” would make sense. But the recession is supply side, meaning that businesses can’t deliver goods or services because of the shutdown measures. The loss of income to these businesses is the problem being alleviated, so the money is relief money, not stimulus money. But we can’t call it that, lest we admit that we aren’t a purely capitalist society.

Have other societies, with more of a “managerial market state” (Bobbitt’s term) fared better? Those would mostly be other developed countries of the West – in Europe, for example. I’m not sure of the answer, though it would be interesting to go over Bobbitt’s work, identify his taxonomy of states, and then see how each has done in the 2020 pandemic. There may be a pattern. It would be a bit of lengthy task, but might be worth the time.

Meanwhile, it’s plain to see one thing that has suffered in reputation in light of the pandemic: globalization. It is, in fact, globalization, with its increased access to markets and increased movement of goods and people, that is the reason new viral diseases keep popping up and rapidly spreading around the world. This latest one, Covid-19, seems to have put the brakes on globalization for some time to come, probably for at least a generational cycle. It had already lost its popularity among anyone except economic elites anyway.

What will happen to the market state? I’ve already noted in previous strategy review posts that we will not simply revert back to the nation state. Time isn’t reversible, for one thing, and the changes in the strategic environment – the nature of threats to the security of society – remain. We still need a state capable of countering danger in a complex, networked world.

It’s not just communicable disease that exploits networks. What about dangerous ideologies, spread on social media? If you’ve seen the Netlfix documentary The Social Dilemma you know what I mean. Given the deep political trouble the United States is in, there may be even stronger fires for the market state to endure before it is strong enough to rule in the twenty-first century.

The Covid dilemma

The Covid dilemma

This sign sits in front of a strip mall in the area where I live. If you visit the site listed you might get the impression that it was created by some of the same people I’ve blogged about who denigrate the Pennsylvania governor’s Covid strategy. I get it; I do. If you are a small business on a thin margin, how can you survive an extended shutdown?

It all comes down, I suppose, to the trade off between freedom and security. Between protecting lives and maximizing economic opportunity, both of which we expect our government to do. But what happens when the two goals are mutually exclusive?

One option is to take a defensive approach, and provide supplemental income to those in need while restrictions are imposed to mitigate against an infectious disease. But to some, that smacks of welfare and is undesirable. No handouts, they say. Just freedom.

These times are clearly testing the resilience of our system. We want openness, but a virus is exactly the sort of thing that exploits an open network. But with little in the way of a social safety net, closing the network inflicts pain. That is the dilemma.

Some kind of plan at the national level would really help out here…

Watching You, Watching Me

Watching You, Watching Me

Outside she goes, to explore the planet of the Covidiots. They volunteered her because she’s such a good observer.

***

I worry when she’s gone. The world is plague-ridden and full of hostiles. But at least I have a tracking device with which I can monitor her progress from headquarters.

***

The device in question is our Android smartphones running Trusted Contacts, which lets us always see one another in Google Maps.

***

I had long resisted getting any kind of tracking software for my phone, counting on loved ones to report their location if ever needed. But then my partner got a job as an enumerator for the U.S. Census Bureau. Knowing that she was going out and knocking repeatedly on strangers’ doors, in a country that has suffered an implosion of trust (and never much trusted in government, ever), changed the equation. Suddenly getting tracking software became an imperative.

First we tried Waze, but found the interface difficult. Not to mention I couldn’t see her on the map even though I connected to my Facebook contacts. The app isn’t really made specifically for tracking individuals. But then her son suggested Google’s Trusted Contacts, which integrates easily with our Google accounts, as well as Google software like Maps. It requires mutual agreement between two account holders, and then one can see the location of the other in real time.

Now I can see her as she moves about the area. Since her profile picture on Google Accounts is a sunflower, I see her as a flower floating about town. It’s reassuring to watch her moving in the expected pattern, because I can take that to mean everything is fine.

To her, I would just be a floating head at home base, since I am a privileged stay-at-home worker, not an essential worker like she is. From where I sit, life is safe and comfortable. She is out braving the dangers of post-apocalyptic America, but at least I can keep an eye on her.

***

So I wait into the evening, watching her on my screen. And have dinner waiting for her return, to her one safe haven in this ravaged land.

Rise Of The Planet Of The Covidiots

Rise Of The Planet Of The Covidiots

It’s more contagious than other deadly coronaviruses we have encountered, like SARS. And it’s far deadlier than other very contagious viruses, like H1N1. That is what experts are telling us about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the respiratory disease Covid-19. To reiterate, the virus is both very contagious and much more lethal than the flu. That is why mitigation is warranted.

The current case fatality rate is around 6%, according to this dashboard. That is like, if you get the disease, you roll a d20, and on a 1, you’re dead. Do you like those odds? Do you want to be infected by this virus, or have someone you know become infected? I would hope not. So why don’t you just wear a face mask in public? And avoid crowds? Why is this so hard?

I think about this whenever I see the viral videos of beachgoers or partyers ignoring all social distancing recommendations, or of the crowded hallways of a just opened school. I think about it when I drive by a restaurant and see people out on the tables dining, or even when I walk up to the Post Office and see them gathering at the ice cream place that’s up the block, standing in line or sitting on the benches without wearing masks.

I mean, seriously, it’s that important to eat out? You know you can get takeout, and all parties involved, both the customer and the vendor, can be masked, right? If it’s really that you’re trying to support the restaurant business, you could get takeout but tip like you were dining in, and just forego being waited on because, you know, pandemic.

But apparently it’s all too much for an impatient country, restless from months of being stuck at home. A country with failed national leadership and no cohesive plan for dealing with this disease. A country that bases its beliefs on the science of the pandemic on political partisanship, so that whether or not to wear a mask depends on being blue-zone or red-zone.

So we almost flattened the curve, early on there, but then pent-up energy and sheer orneriness overcame us, and back up it goes.

I feel like we’re at the beginning of some weird apocalypse movie trilogy. I call the current installment Rise Of The Planet Of The Covidiots. I see them everywhere – the anti-maskers, the plandemic conspiracy theorists, led by the Covidiot-in-Chief. Now I’m just waiting for the inevitable sequel. Lord knows what madness comes next.

A Memorial Day that will go down in infamy

A Memorial Day that will go down in infamy

Memorial Day 2020 will be remembered as the day America blew off the experts and partied with the coronavirus. Reading the news articles about how crowds gathered at beaches and parks, ignoring the social distancing recommendations of the CDC, I can’t help but notice the irony. Memorial Day was instituted as a holiday to honor those who have died performing their civic duty. And America chose to celebrate it by ignoring civic duty altogether.

Maybe it’s just that the definition of civic duty has changed. After all, the President told us just after 9/11 to do our duty by going shopping. As citizen-consumers of the neo-liberal market state, it is our responsibility to sustain economic activity at all costs, even if the cost is the lives of those vulnerable to a contagious new virus.

This could be seen as a consequence of the failure of leadership at the Federal level, with the current President actually touting conspiracy theories. It’s a crying shame that partisanship has split the country to the point that it determines what facts you believe. I get that it’s hard to know what’s really going on, given that even the experts on disease control can only make a best assessment based on limited data. But would it really have been so hard to just enjoy this weekend from home?

Next Memorial Day should be dedicated to those who are now going to die because so many people chose to ignore social distancing and spread SARS-COV-2. Next Memorial Day should honor those who did their duty for freedom, by suffering and dying of COVID-19, thanks to this weekend’s hordes of the irresponsible and ignorant.

Beachgoers on Memorial Day in Port Aransas, Texas
Today’s Workout Music: Wii Fit Music

Today’s Workout Music: Wii Fit Music

It’s been a couple of years since I published a Workout Album post. In the meantime, I swear, I was going to the fitness center in my apartment complex on a semi-regular, albeit infrequent basis. I was listening to my standby electronic music while I exercised – maybe some Shpongle Remixed, or some Hanna Haïs. But that’s all in the past. You see, they won’t let me into the fitness center any more!

So after a month or so of pandemic lockdown I was noticing the ill effects. A whole day of literally no physical activity except for briefly moving from one room of the house to another. It made me realize how much extra activity I was doing before just from commuting to work and walking about at the office. Now I was homebound, and it was often too cold, windy or rainy for a walk, seeing as this is the year of perpetual winter, among other disruptions. My body was getting stiff from inactivity, and my lower back was aching, which is my red flag that I am being too sedentary.

What to do? Luckily, my best friend and partner, in whose home I am quarantining, had a solution. She dragged an old device out from under a bed (I presume) and we got to working out again. That’s right, I’m talking about the Wii Fit. Everyone had one back around 2008, remember? And yours is probably still under a bed somewhere.

My BFF’s son expertly crafted our Miis, we did our body tests (my current Wii Fit Age is 46, BTW), and got to it. And what fun it was! It was a bit of nostalgia trip, re-experiencing the balance board and the different activities. It might not be the perfect exercise system, but it’s solved the problem of complete lack of activity.

I find that Wii Fit’s method of rewarding with credits and encouraging improvement with scores and rankings motivates me. And some of the activities are a lot of fun. I generally favor the balance games, especially the slalom, and the yoga. My favorite aerobics is the boxing, which is a really good workout. We have been fairly disciplined in working out regularly, and it’s having the desired effect. I may not get to the level of buffness of that guy from Hobart, but I am confident that my health is going to improve.

It does mean, however, that my workout music for the forseeable future is going to be the Wii Fit theme music. I don’t think there is anyway to change it. I guess I’ll get back to the Shpongle later.

That’s Mii in the middle.

Just Call Me A Zoomer

Just Call Me A Zoomer

It’s been six weeks in lockdown. Except for cashiers at the grocery store and a few curbside pickups of take out food, I haven’t interacted face-to-face in real life with anyone other than family. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t socialized. Like many of us shuttered in at home, I have videoconferenced – both for business and pleasure – using the software that has suddenly taken over our lives: Zoom.

So far I’ve attended a couple of hangouts with old friends, one of which was a surprise birthday party. I’ve been to happy hours with my work colleagues – and yes, we are welcome to have a drink. It’s nice to see the faces of my coworkers after a week of working online from home. I’ve also particicpated in a couple of script-readings for the eldest son’s script analysis class (put together by his attentive mother), including one where we were Zoombombed by professional actors.

Ok, we weren’t really Zoombombed, because the participants were invited. Ok, at work we actually use different software. I just mean to stick a label on this phenomenon where our socializing has abruptly moved into the digital space, as the Internet proceeds to the next phase of its complete takeover of our lives. We’re all Zoomers now.

It’s been fun figuring out the finer points of Zoom. Gallery view is best for a general conversation, but active speaker is good for the script reading. If you have a lot of participants, you can scroll through them to catch late arrivals, and make sure they get welcomed. And don’t forget about the chat option!

I do find that an online video hangout satisfies the need for social interaction. It feels like a change of scenery, and it alleviates the cabin fever. Good thing, because we don’t want this Sim’s mood to drop too low. Now if I could just get my virtual background to work…

Everything changed so fast

Everything changed so fast

Time moves fast in a Crisis.

I remember back when 2019 was coming to an end, and everyone on social media was posting retrospectives of the 2010s. There was this exciting sense of being there for the end of an era. I even participated by Tweeting a list of my favorite streaming shows, since I saw the rise of streaming on-demand television as the decade’s big story in the media and entertainment space.

When 2020 began, I had plans already lined up to hit the many travel destinations I like to visit periodically. I don’t know why, but I felt this compulsion to do it all as soon as I could. It was like I wanted to start the new decade right.

I went down to North Carolina, where I used to live, and attended a gaming convention with my BFF. That was in January. In February, we went to Washington, D.C. and visited my mother and sister. We also went to New York and saw two shows, as well her best friend from high school days. By then, the novel coronavirus was in the headlines.

At the very end of the month, I went down to Virginia to play Magic: The Gathering with old friends that I have been playing with since the 1990s. It was a fun get together after a year apart. We were making jokes about the coronavirus.

As March began, I looked forward to the high school theater season starting up, since my BFF and I attend performances as part of the Philadelphia Independence Awards. By then, the severity of the novel coronavirus contagion was becoming apparent. There was talk of shutdowns. The company where I work had a WFH day as a drill.

We ended up seeing one Independence Award show, and it was a dress rehearsal because the actual performances were cancelled. The last large gathering we attended was a funeral. We thought about maybe not going, but we wanted to pay our respects to a friend who had died tragically at too young an age. The funeral was attended by hundreds of people.

Since then we’ve been in lockdown, only leaving the house for grocery runs, or to go on walks in the neighborhood. Everyone at my office is working from home. I know that I am very lucky to have that opportunity, because many others are out of work and with no prospects.

All that travel and activity in the recent past seems like it might have been too risky. Especially the trip to New York. We actually came down with colds when we got back from there. Did we have it? I don’t think so, but we can’t be sure.

What now? The future looks ominous. I had all these ideas for blog posts lined up, but now they don’t seem relevant. Everything changed so fast. I’m glad I got all that travelling in at the start of the year, since it looks like that might be the last of it for the year. Personal, private life will be slower for awhile, even as events in the outside world move faster and faster.

Exactly what you’d expect in a Crisis Era.

Silent of the Week: Anthony Fauci

Silent of the Week: Anthony Fauci

My most recent Silent of the Week posts featured Democratic politicians, as the two stories that dominated the beginning of the year were impeachment and the Democratic primaries. That’s all on the wayside now, with the COVID-19 pandemic taking over news feeds. The crisis has thrust numerous leaders into the limelight, with some reputations faring well, and others not so well.

Most of these leaders are Boomers or Gen-Xers, but there is one notable member of the Silent Generation who is in the limelight now. That would be Anthony Fauci (b. 1940), director of the NIAID and a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

A highly credentialed physician and immunologist, Fauci has had a long career in the Federal government. He has been at the forefront of government policy and research involving epidemics, such as HIV/AIDS and Ebola, as well as bioterrorism. He has been in his current role as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since the 1980s, serving under many Presidential administrations.

A long and distinguished career as a specialist mark him as a member of his generation, whose legacies include expertise and working within the system. Another legacy of his generation is acting as a tempering influence on the volatile personalities of the Boomers who came after them. And boy does he have that work cut out for him now, as evidenced by a recent meme of him face palming during a task force press conference.

For giving us hope that there is at least someone intelligent with expertise working within the White House in this most desperate time, and for valiantly continuing his long service under this most feckless of administrations, I name Anthony Fauci my Silent of the Week.

It was fun while it lasted

It was fun while it lasted

With the outbreak of novel coronavirus COVID-19 shocking markets and threatening supply chains, it seems like we might finally have hit the crisis moment that breaks the old order for good. I don’t think any bailouts can help us now.

Of all generations, Generation X is the least well positioned for it. Silents and Boomers are on their way out and will witness the end in their final years. Millennials are still young and have enough time to bounce back. But Gen X will watch their 401Ks evaporate along with any possible opportunity to recover in time for their elder years, which will be spent in poverty.

At least, that aligns with one prediction from Strauss & Howe generations theory, which I can’t help but mull over as I watch the headlines.