Harsh Your Mellow Monday: Distant Sounds of Inevitability Edition
Now here is a quote for you:
“Leadership cannot be created synthetically. Men must be what they were made by the Almighty or the American people will find them out in time.”
― Herbert Hoover
Whew, boy, does that have some layers to it, when you consider the man who said it, what happened to him, and the times we are now living in. Like an onion, just layer after layer of applications. Hoover’s legacy, of course, mostly gets saddled with the early stages of the Great Depression and being known as the speed bump to the FDR era. But there was more to it than just that:
Quite simply, Hoover seemed never to have grasped the grave threat that the economic crisis represented to the nation—and that solutions to the Depression might have required abandoning some of his deeply held beliefs.
Hoover compounded these missteps, each of which had political implications, with inept political maneuvering. Hoover proved unable to handle Congress, the press, and the public—or difficult situations like the Bonus Army—in ways that built confidence in his leadership. It should also be noted that Hoover’s questionable political judgment and leadership was not brought on by the “Great Crash.” In the early months of his presidency, Hoover displayed little political acumen during debates about agricultural and tariff policies. The Great Depression, though, brought these political failures, as well as Hoover’s ideological and policy limitations, into sharp relief, exaggerating their effects and paving the way for Franklin Roosevelt’s victory in the 1932 presidential election. What emerges, then, for Hoover is a mixed and perhaps still damning verdict, but one that takes a more accurate measure of the President, his policies, and his politics.
Crisis reveals character, the old saying goes. It also blows away the frilly facades and gets down to whatever core you have. Our institutions and leaders are having that exact experience right now. It’s silly to try to make an analogy fit perfectly — maybe the civil unrest is like the Bonus Army, and maybe the economy completely faulters like the 30s — but history does indeed rhyme. In fact, if things keep going this way, it might be bordering on plagiarism.
So after that long runway, let’s get to this weeks Harsh Your Mellow Monday.
CauldronIn our last Harsh Your Mellow Monday we talked about the coming Edupocalypse that is about to befall ordinary life for parents and school-aged children. Since then, more and more school systems have declared the initial opening of schools will be virtual only, and more will follow. It’s the easiest and least risky of options. And by least risky, we don’t mean the virus; we mean to the politicians and leaders who are deathly afraid of the blow back from making the wrong decisions.
But that is only part of the coming trouble. Most presidential election cycles obsess over what the “October surpise” will be to throw the race off kilter. 2016 had Hillary’s emails, more specifically James Comey’s moment of glory/infamy. 2012 had Superstorm Sandy, 2008 had “Auntie O”, 2000 had Bush’s drunk driving arrest, and the list goes back to 1800. That election saw Jefferson get broadsided by 54 pages of vitriol from the pen of Alexander Hamilton, which may or may not have been stolen and released without the pre-musical founder’s permission, but it was a forerunner to the late-in-the-campaign things that can effect an election.
We don’t have to wonder about the lead story in October this year. It’s already set in motion:
It’s the economy, stupid.
October is going to bring about the end of the current fiscal year, and the beginning of the next. While the Federal Government can’t seem to be bothered to budget anything properly, private businesses and state and local public sectors don’t have that option. There are going to be some really hard decisions coming for a multitude of places that have known since the spring of precipitous drops in revenue projection. Those projections are getting worse by the week as the Covid crisis lingers on. Compounding that problem, uneven rules for the restarts/roll-backs have left many businesses reeling. Without direct action by congress, the temporary provisions from the federal government will start lapsing. There have been calls for massive aid packages to the states, and another round of direct payments to citizens. Whether that happens or not is anyone’s guess with elections looming. Then there is what the president will/will not sign into law.
The school/education situation has economic impact as well. Colleges and universities are facing a full blown crisis of what to do and how to fund whatever they decide to do next. While the Harvards and other big name schools have billions in endowments to weather the storm, most smaller schools and even many state-run universities run a much tighter margin. Any sort of mass exodus or drop in revenue will have an affect. And even the Ivys aren’t immune, as those fat endowments are also strictly governed on what and to whom that money can go to. The Higher Ed bubble might be overdue for a poppin’, but regardless, lots of jobs are at stake from highly paid admins to service workers who depend on the institutions for their own livelihoods. If schools go mostly virtual only, which is the way things seem to be trending right now, some 30 days before most places would normally start classes, a huge chunk of the American workforce is going to have major problems figuring out how to care for kids and keep their jobs. Disproportionately, this will once again hit lower-middle class and down folks, those who cannot work remotely or adjust hours.
Then the emotions will come.
Nobody wants to see the service worker unload on a school teacher who is concerned about their health and the health of their students when that worker wasn’t given the option to work or not. Nor do we want to see the single parent choosing between the only job they can find and their kids needing a parent at home to both watch and help their children with studies. Virtual or hybrid learning, where kids alternate days or weeks, is going to be a burden born by parents, teachers, and students alike, and as usual the most at-risk and disadvantaged will pay the highest price by getting the least from the ordeal. But all that and more is coming toward a school system that is not prepared and parents that are just starting to realize they might be looking at no return to normal this calendar year.
Too many folks think the virus is some kind of moral agent that is going to prove their worldview correct. Virus doesn’t care. What the virus is doing is stripping the layers off everything — schools, government, families, social institutions, faith, politics — and revealing what they truly are under the pressure of crisis. Some are going to rise to the occasion. Others are revealing they were always incompetent and getting by as long as no one noticed. And a whole mess of folks are going to come out on the other side of this crisis with a new perspective on what their government can and cannot do for them.
But that realization is a far piece off. As summer turns toward fall there is every indication that while you should always hope for the best but prepare for the worst, too many haven’t prepared at all. Certainly not for four, five, six months of crisis that is threatening to continue on.
The Clinton years made “It’s the economy, stupid” a point of reference from social issues and political practicality being secondary to the general wellbeing of the country. In the challenges to come, “It’s the economy, stupid” might be a plea, folks begging for help because social, political, and economic issues form into a singularity that threatens to consume their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.
Riding the Unicorn Railroad
Every few weeks, somebody re-ups this ridiculous nonsense on social media:
you ever just think about the high speed rail system :,) pic.twitter.com/FrRtWBvXIn
— Sunrise Movement 🌅 (@sunrisemvmt) July 19, 2020
It’s fitting that the Sunrise Movement, billing itself as an “American youth-led political movement coordinated by Sunrise, a 501 political action organization that advocates political action on climate change” would be promoting this, because such a map would take child-like ideological faith to think that map’s version of high-speed rail in America possible. But that is what happens when you want something to happen because of your beliefs and ideology instead of wanting something to happen because it is a workable solution to a problem.
For the record I’m not against high-speed rail. I love traveling by train. Both times I lived in Germany I paid for a full EuroRail pass of some kind and used the trains all the time because they are a wonderful mode of transportation over there. As much as I loved driving the Autobahn, sometimes relaxing on the ICE train to Frankfurt before flying back to the states was definitely the way to go. I took several trips that were built around taking the train, such as through the Alps, that were amazing.
But that is Europe. High-speed rail only works practically in high-density areas that can make it economically feasible. Also worth noting, the rail systems in Europe and Japan were built/rebuilt almost from scratch in many places after the ravages of World War 2, allowing for maximum utilization of an overall master plan.
You can’t do that in America. The real estate alone would be hundreds of billions dollars, not to mention that map would be cutting through at least a half dozen national parks and scores more local, state, and otherwise protected lands. You’d think that some of the same folks who insist on bodily throwing themselves across pipelines to stop their perceived evil might think of such things, but the unicorn of bullet trains fits their worldview nicely and covers a multitude of others sins, I suppose. California has spent decades and tens of billions trying to do high-speed rail, and has stalled trying to get 171 miles of line between Merced and Bakersfield into reality. Two cities, by the way, that no one is going to pay money to travel between. The arguments that high-speed rail will allow folks to work high-paying jobs while commuting from the more affordable locations was laughable to start with, but events have really made it a farce. The ballooning budget will make the required ticket prices too high, and the coronavirus has given rise to a whole new generation of those high-tech jobs going remote anyway. But the dream never really dies, so no doubt our California friends will continue to pay out for the rails of dreams for time and eternity.
The places that you do have high-density enough to maybe think about high-speed rail would be almost impossible to build. Amtrak’s Acela on paper has the ability to push high-speeds, but of its 400 mile line only about 30-odd of it is straight and uncongested enough to be safely run faster than 130mph. Acela’s average speed is in 60s, and a lot of that is plodding along at a rather pedestrian 30-40 mph. That’s before you deal with horrendous management of Amtrak, which has been a farce by any measurement. The rail line hasn’t turned a profit since 1970 and needed a 1 Billion dollar, with a B, infusion in April of this year amongst projections they were going to lose 95 percent of ridership.
We could go on and on about why high-speed rail isn’t practical, as California is finding out, but the stark reality is for the foreseeable future America is still a car nation, is far too spread out to make national high-speed rail work other than in very specific areas, and there is no economic outcry for such a service. There is, however, a political and ideological outcry for it. But it isn’t based in reality. One thing working in transportation for years taught me is you can think whatever you want, but at the end of the day X has to get to Y by such and such a time or the rest don’t matter.
Especially child-like wishes of unicorn railways designed as games to foster such dreams. That isn’t me being harsh; that map comes from a website of a political advocacy organization that on the same page you download the PDF map is selling “build your own high-speed rail” board games, housing tarot card decks, and dreams of high-speed rail zipping along unhindered by anything so minor as reality.
Nothing wrong with dreams. Just make sure you know that is what they are, unless you have an few extra trillion dollars laying around to try and make them come true.
Election by Inertia
The headlines and Sunday shows were screaming variations on “BIDEN WITH 15 POINT LEAD”….
Well, not really. The RCP average has Biden pretty steady at 8-9 points nationally and 5-6 points in the battlegrounds. 538 has the spread at 9 after breaking down just about every poll that exists, before concluding:
Simply put, since the protests against police violence appeared to erode Trump’s standing at the beginning of the summer, there hasn’t been a lot of action in the race. The campaign is not dominating the headlines, and Trump’s handling of the pandemic — which is dominating the headlines — hasn’t improved in Americans’ eyes. However, the party conventions start in one month, and we can probably expect the presidential campaign to command people’s attention between then and November, pandemic or no.
And, of course, developments in the coronavirus crisis — or some other breaking news story that we can’t predict yet, like a scandal — could cause voters to view the candidates in a different light. While Biden’s current lead is robust enough to withstand even a major polling error, there are still three and a half months left for the polling to change.
And, as 538 points out, this is all without Biden doing much at all.
Joe Biden’s campaign will be a fascinating review in the years to come, especially if he wins the presidency. It is an ultimate example of political inertia. Only in America can someone like Joe Biden be on the cusp of the presidency of the United States of America by just hanging around. But right place at the right time, and timing, is everything. Biden was in the right place right when the Democratic party collectively looked into the future under the Democratic Socialist banner being flown by Bernie Sanders, and ran en masse to the comforting arms of Ol’ Joe. With the crisis of Coronavirus wreaking havok across the land, social unrest, and President Trump being himself on 11, Joe hasn’t had to do anything at all to climb into a nice lead. Then there is the unanswered question, which is going to be answered in November, that I have always wondered: how much of Trump winning had to do not with Trump but with Hillary Clinton? If Biden wins easily, the answer will be “a lot,” and much more so than anything Trump did.
That will change, of course. At some point Joe Biden will have to be out in front of his own campaign, and unless the sky really falls this fall — which, the way 2020 is going, you shouldn’t bet against — history says the incumbent will tighten up the race some how, some way.
But we are pretty far off the map right now, so any prediction at this point about November is just a guess. All through the campaign until about April I always answered the same way when asked about the re-election prospects of Donald Trump, “Tell me what the economy looks like.” We know now the economy is going to be a mess, along with a lot of other things. Anything can happen. But in this, a campaign of inertia, something is going to have to happen to change the trajectory of this race.
Slow Your Generational Roll
Speaking of polls, let us indulge our Democratic friends for a moment and game this out a little. Let’s say President Trump does loses rather decisively in November, call it 8-12 points taking the median of polling right now. Let’s even be really generous and give Team Blue the Senate as well, and another 10-15 house seats. That means a progressive wave for a generation in power right?
We’ve done this too many times. President Obama rode into office with both houses of Congress in Democratic hands and a 56 seat margin in the Senate that went to 57 once Al Franken got his re-count. There was open talk of another “permanent majority” by many in the media and even some of the Democratic leadership themselves. Over the next 8 years the Democratic party lost over 1200 seats in national and state elections, and the president that followed him…well, you know what happened there. Republicans under President Trump are seeing something similar, having started with thinner majorities in 2016 than Obama had, have already lost the House in a wave election and are increasingly looking to be at risk of losing the Senate, not to mention the struggling Trump Presidency.
But a word of caution. Things change quickly in politics. A President Biden would be inheriting a nation in grave economic times, great unrest from coronavirus, and an election that may or may not be settled before Thanksgiving. Blaming Trump will work for a while, but not a long while. The Republican party will reconstitute itself after Trump, coalescing back against the new “big bad” of a Democratic government, a role they historically are far more successful at electorally than when they have the big chair themselves.
Beyond the economy, domestic politics, and viruses, there are other dangers lurking. Our current president does not care and cannot be bothered with the affairs of the world at large, let alone having a coherent foreign policy. The worlds bad actors are pretty much doing what they want. Historically, when American’s attention is fully focused inward it has been a prelude to truly awful things coming, terrible events that surprise and shock us because we didn’t see them coming from afar. I pray that isn’t the case here, but whoever is president come January 2021 there is a good chance not only the world, but the American landscape, will be a very hard place for the leader of the free world to navigate.
Do not count on long runs of power, regardless of your party. Events get much of the say in that, timing is everything, and there appears to be more storms on the horizon that don’t care which president they rain on.