This is one of America’s stranger Thanksgivings. A holiday that is entirely predicated on getting together with family and sharing a meal indoors is happening at a time when that’s literally the worst thing you can do. The pull of American tradition is so strong that I’m surprised at the fact that air traffic is down even as much as 50 percent this year. Thanksgiving seems perfectly designed to spread the virus far and wide.
And yet, I’m tempted, in spite of myself, to think about what the pandemic has revealed to Americans, and how it might change them. We have a dysfunctional political system, an economy ruled by a few at the top, and a cultural schism designed to keep the working class atomized and at each other’s throats. Yet for several months, we’ve had a common experience, a rarity in this day and age. And I do think that’s going to leave a few lasting lessons among the public. Whether that filters up into our politics is another matter, but over time that’s a typical trajectory. So here’s a short list of a few meager measures of hope we can take out of this tragedy.
The pandemic has made us a more social people. That sounds paradoxical, given the fact that so many of us have locked away in our homes for the past eight months. Of course, the fact that so many have found this difficult is a nod to our deep-seeded social structures. Nevertheless, our fragmented society has resisted a common story and even common interaction not channeled through the intensifying filter of social media. That is ending.
If nothing else, the endless parade of Zoom calls has brought us in closer contact with people that might have dropped off our radar screens. I know I personally have heard from more long-lost or forgotten acquaintances during the pandemic than the previous several years. We’re remembering that staring at a screen can distract us from what matters, and I think after the pandemic relents there’s going to be a burst of social activity, of neighborhood congregation, a reversal of the “Bowling Alone” dynamic that had been prying us apart. That bodes somewhat better for politics, too: with social congregation comes the discovery of common interests.
The pandemic has helped us better understand the dignity of work. “Essential workers” has now become a punch line, mainly because businesses have determined that expressing gratitude is all they have to do rather than paying people what they’re worth. This rundown from Judd Legum and Tensim Zekeria shows the disconnect between the businesses that have prospered in the crisis and the meager increases in pay they’ve given their workers.
Still, at the level of ordinary Americans, I think there’s a growing recognition of the value of many invisible or unremarkable jobs, which eventually will put pressure on successful firms like this. You hear it spill out of Joe Biden every so often when he talks about people “busting their neck” (he is the only human to use this expression) for not enough pay. Minimum wage increases are incredibly successful because people know that work is devalued and neglected. The pandemic shined a bright light on that, and can help spur worker-led movements.
The pandemic has highlighted the importance of investment in science. The incredible advance toward a vaccine was only made possible by government spending. Operation Warp Speed is just geek-friendly branding on the delivery of billions of dollars in R&D funding and purchasing guarantees to spur companies to direct their focus. There’s no reason that cannot be replicated for Alzheimer’s or cancer research or to fill any number of other scientific gaps.
Furthermore, while all we hear about is the tearing down of science because it’s more outrageous and moves clicks, I think science has been elevated in the crisis. Quack cures have a rich history and tradition in America; what’s new is that everyone knows the name of the nation’s top infectious disease expert. Scientific inquiry has lessened in its presence in American life the past 20 years; I think that’s on a new trajectory now.
Tumultuous life events like this always have a disruptive quality, changing the nature of our relationships, our social structures, and eventually our politics. Take an erratic president and the sinking tribalism out of the equation; the virus has caused some shocks that are valuable, amid the tragedy.
Odds and Sods
There’s been a development in the ongoing spat between Steve Mnuchin and the Federal Reserve. Mnuchin has now “taken” $455 billion in funds that was appropriated for Fed credit facilities and direct lending to companies and segregated them, somehow, in the Treasury General Fund. According to Bloomberg, this means that the money would require a congressional authorization to be unlocked and put to use, by the Fed or anyone else.
This doesn’t appear to be required, despite what Mnuchin and the Republicans claim. A careful analysis by Peter Conti-Brown indicates that the Fed has authority well beyond the CARES Act to make loans, and Treasury is making a choice withdrawing any funds. Furthermore, it’s completely unclear that the Fed needs to use a deposit base from Treasury to make the aforementioned loans (the New York Fed’s John Williams appears to agree). Even more furthermore, this is all an accounting gimmick, as Nathan Tankus explains. Janet Yellen can rescind Mnuchin’s action, but it’s not really necessary for her to do so; the Fed might want political cover, but they have plenty of authority on their own. I don’t presume that the Fed will do much that’s useful with the money even if Yellen gave it back, so I see this as mostly a sideshow.
Also, a housekeeping note: Unsanitized will be off Thursday and Friday. Come back Monday to see how many days it’s been without a bailout oversight chair!
Days Without a Bailout Oversight Chair
Today I Learned
- The government is claiming it can get 6.4 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine out within 24 hours of an emergency use authorization. (Washington Post)
- Meanwhile, we’re in a triage phase for intensive care wards around the country. (Talking Points Memo)
- Case growth is actually kind of hitting a plateau, but enough get-togethers on Thanksgiving will sustain this surge. (Calculated Risk)
- An incredible fraud scheme at California’s unemployment system led to benefits being granted to, among others, Scott Peterson, who’s on death row for killing his wife. (Los Angeles Times)
- Comcast implementing data caps in the middle of a time of forced Zoom calls and remote learning? (Gizmodo)
- OANN promotes a fake COVID cure, gets a YouTube suspension. (CNBC)
- The Room Rater/Jeb Bush fight we didn’t know we needed. (Miami New Times)