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History Sucks

Why do once-a-century events keep happening to us?
March 20, 2020
History Sucks
"I fought time, it won in a landslide."

1. Our Holiday from History Is Over

I’m not really young anymore, but I’m not quite old. And so far the three big events of my adult life have been: 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, and now the 2020 pandemic.

So I spent a few minutes yesterday feeling sorry for myself and wishing that I could stop living through history, because it turns out not to be any fun.

The problem, as I realized pretty quickly, is that history keeps happening. Just in the last century we’ve had:

  • A global pandemic
  • A world war
  • A global economic depression
  • Another world war
  • Nuclear bombs dropped on civilian populations
  • A presidential assassination
  • A president pushed from office for criminal conduct
  • A global energy crisis resulting in energy rationing
  • An attempted presidential assassination
  • A massive terrorist attack on the largest American city
  • A storm of the century
  • A global economic recession
  • Another global pandemic

Most of these are the kinds of world-historical events that you expect once a century. But here’s the thing:

There are enough once-a-century kind of events that, over the course of an actual century, you’re going to get one of them every decade or so.

So, that’s no fun.

This is why, by the way, a responsible society does not elect leaders who are unfit for office simply because they want to “blow the whole thing up.”

Being able to “blow the whole thing up” is a luxury afforded only during times of abnormally prolonged stability. And because you never actually know when the next once-a-century crisis is going to hit, people tend to go with more vanilla, basically-responsible elected leaders.

Because when you get so decadent that you start to believe that the machine will run itself and it’s fine to have leaders who are in no way capable of executing even the most basic tasks of governance, then you end up with things like this.

America’s most recent holiday from history lasted for 10 years. It’s now over.

2. New Developments

There are three very important pieces to read:

The Bailout: After spending a decade studying the 2008 financial crisis, Andrew Ross Sorkin believes that the only path forward is for the government to essentially backstop the entire U.S. economy. This is an enormous undertaking—we are talking trillions of dollars, just to prop up the economy for a few months:

The government could offer every American business, large and small, and every self-employed — and gig — worker a no-interest “bridge loan” guaranteed for the duration of the crisis to be paid back over a five-year period. The only condition of the loan to businesses would be that companies continue to employ at least 90 percent of their work force at the same wage that they did before the crisis. And it would be retroactive, so any workers who have been laid off in the past two weeks because of the crisis would be reinstated.The program would keep virtually everyone employed — and keep companies, from airlines to restaurants, in business without picking winners and losers.

It would immediately create a sense of confidence and relief during these tumultuous times that once the scourge of the coronavirus was contained, life would return to some semblance of normal. It would also help encourage people to stay home and practice social distancing without feeling that they would risk losing their job — the only way to slow this disease.

The price tag? A lot. Some back-of-the-envelope math suggests that many trillions — that’s with a “t” — of dollars would go out in loans if this crisis lasted three months, possibly as much as $10 trillion. That’s half the size of America’s gross domestic product. And assuming 20 percent of it is never repaid, it could cost taxpayers hundreds of billions if not several trillions. I get that. But with interest rates near zero, there is no better time to borrow against the fundamental strength of the U.S. economy, spend the money and prevent years of economic damage that would ultimately be far, far costlier.

This is the most important piece you’ll read today.

The Future of Public Health: This interview with former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb is a look forward to a couple different possible futures, depending on drug development:

My concern right now is that we are going to have a major epidemic now across the United States. There are different estimates of how long that is going to last, but most of the modeling shows that it is most likely to peak sometime in probably late April or early May. That is sort of the optimistic case. In seven to eight weeks the epidemic will peak. Then it will start to come down. By July, hopefully the epidemic will have coursed. There will be a sizable portion of the population who have gotten the infection so you’ll have what’s called herd immunity. In July and August, we’ll probably have sporadic outbreaks but you shouldn’t have epidemic spread. The fear is, and my concern is, that when you come back in September, you’re going to have major outbreaks and the risk of another epidemic going into the winter. I think the policymakers really need to focus on that risk. That’s a challenge because right now they are focused on the crisis. But they need to take steps right now to also be guarding against the risk in the fall. By September, it will be too late.

We should be investing in those therapeutics. There’s no reason we can’t have something like an antibody-based prophylactic. There’s no reason we can’t have repurposed an antiviral drug that currently exists for the purposes of targeting coronavirus. Now maybe it won’t be through regulatory approval, but you should potentially have enough clinical data to prove whether one of these compounds work and that you could use it on a mass scale. There are currently trials underway with Remdesivir. We are going to turn over the card on them in April. If they show clinical benefits, by the fall you could have mass production and that product available in a treatment protocol—where you are still continuing to collect data and study it, it’s not licensed, but you are providing it on a treatment basis in the context of some kind of study. You could have an antibody-based prophylactic potentially approved by the fall, that should be a relatively rapid development and scale up—if it works. And it should be fairly clear how to establish its safety profile. . . .The other thing you’re going to want is an extremely robust surveillance system. You’re going to want a system that basically looks at people who present with influenza-like illness but who test negative for the flu. And you then test their samples to see what they have. We currently do that. We have a surveillance system distributed throughout multiple cities and we take a certain number of samples—it’s a small amount—it’s not tens of thousands but thousands and we test them for other things to see what is circulating in the population. We also do that to try to have an early detection in case, like, a pandemic flu stream is circulating. But we don’t do it for this novel coronavirus and we don’t do it on a mass scale.

What you’re going to want by the fall is to really blow that out, do it at a mass scale, and obviously build out the capability to do it for coronavirus. Because this coronavirus is not really going to come and go. It’s going to be with us. And unless we have those kinds of tools available to us and this kind of surveillance system in place, this is going to change daily life in perpetuity until we have a vaccine. And that’s not sustainable. The kind of posture that the nation is in right now isn’t sustainable. And another major epidemic won’t be sustainable.

There’s a lot more in there about what round two of this might look like and the three different pharmaceutical pathways that are being worked on right now.

The “Chinese Virus.” Read this Graeme Wood piece on the obvious pivot that Trump and his apologists have taken in attempting to rebrand COVID-19 as the Chinese Virus or the Wuhan Flu or whatever.

What they want is for people to get distracted and to turn this into a second-order fight about racism or political correctness or the culture war.

Don’t let them do it. Trump can call COVID-19 whatever he wants. He can call it Captain Trips if it makes him happy. But for the love of God, don’t turn it into an issue.

Because the issue—the only issue—is the president’s real-world actions which have made this pandemic an order of magnitude worse for living, breathing, people.

This is the issue. The only issue.

(And besides, the Chinese government really did slit the world’s throat with its handling of this virus. There will have to be a reckoning for that, but only after the crisis is past.)

3. Brady

So if it didn’t already seem like the world was ending, Tom Brady has left the Patriots. This Mark Liebovich profile from 2015 was fantastic:

Out of the blue that day last summer, Yee asked if I was still interested. Did I want to have lunch with Brady in New York that Wednesday? (Yes, yes, I thought I could fit it in between breakfast with Santa Claus and dinner with Jim Plunkett at Josh’s house.)

I woke up Wednesday to an email with the heading “Tom Brady here.” The message was impressively cordial. “Good morning,” it read. “I hope you’re having a good week.” We set a time and place. An hour later, I received another email from Brady saying he wanted to call “an audible”: We would meet at his home rather than a restaurant in SoHo. Sure, sure, where did he live?

Twenty-third and Madison, he said.

I was in the cab on the way there when it occurred to me that any number of homes might be found at that intersection. So I emailed Brady to ask for some more specifics.

“Hahaha, I wish I knew the address,” he replied. At this point, I figured I was being pranked.

It was the big building next to a McDonald’s, he wrote back.

Read the whole thing.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.