Eugene Linden
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Latest Musing

Imagining a Post Pandemic World

How might a post-pandemic world look and feel? Let’s imagine a creative team at a New York City advertising agency pitching a campaign in 2050 for a new perfume (more than most products, perfumes are sold by attaching to the dreams and aspirations of their times).  The Big Apple, ...


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Deep Past
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endangered animals
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Winds of Change
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Afterword to the softbound edition.

The Octopus and the Orangutan
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The Future In Plain Sight
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The Parrot's Lament
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Silent Partners
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Affluence and Discontent
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The Alms Race
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Apes, Men, & Language
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Saturday November 08, 2008

By EUGENE LINDEN If ever there was a year for a Democratic president to be elected, this was it - a war without end, imploding economy, the most unpopular incumbent in living memory, etc. --but a black Democrat? Even given the revulsion over the mess the GOP has created, it's still hard to imagine any other prominent black politician winning the Democratic nomination, much less the presidency. Jesse Jackson? Charles Rangel? Maxine Waters? Obama has more in common with someone like Colin Powell than he does with Al Sharpton. Like Powell, he came up through the establishment, not the inner city. Obama never had to have a photo-op with Tawana Brawley or pay lip service to the notion of reparations for slavery, or do any of the things that might pander to resentments in the black community, but at the price of completely alienating white and Hispanic voters. Yes, he attended a church where the reverend Wright on occasion inveighed against America, but the association never stuck, possibly because the contrast between Wright's demagoguery and Obama's thoughtful style only underscored that Obama was not of that school of politics. Rather, he's a charismatic, eloquent, and highly intelligent politician who happens to have a dark skin. Still, that probably wouldn't have been sufficient to get him elected in 2000 or even 2004 (had he been old enough). Americans needed a narrative that would help prepare the public for a different skin color in the White House. There have been articles in the press about the parallels between Obama's campaign and the story line of the last season of "The West Wing" where a Hispanic candidate played by Jimmy Smits ascends to the White House. The real narrative that made the prospect of a black president plausible, however, came not from the left, but more likely from the right, from the pro-torture, militaristic, and wildly popular television series "24." In President Palmer, Americans got to see Dennis Haysbert play the role of a strong, competent, intelligent, even inspiring leader, dealing with the most dire crises that the show's paranoid, right-wing creators could dream up. President Palmer did not deal with these crises as a black president, but as a president. His advisors didn't deal with him as a black politician, but as a president. Palmer's skin color was all but irrelevant to the high-tension story line. The show took for granted that a black man could function in the land's highest office, and I suspect that this low-key, almost subliminal message was far more effective than the preachy, self-conscious stereotypes that the entertainment industry seems to prefer when dealing with racial themes for mass culture. "24" offered a template for what we might want in any president, black or white, and Barack Obama fit that template perfectly. So for millions of "24" fans, Barack Obama's candidacy had a familiar reassuring aura. It's unknowable how much that helped, but it sure didn't hurt.

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Short Take

Relaxing COVID-19 Restrictions will Kill, not Save, the Economy


[This is a more developed version of the previous Short Take}

Those who want to relax mandates on self-isolation and social distancing to save the economy have got it exactly backwards. Reopen society too soon, and we risk destroying the economy as well as public order and our shaky democratic institutions. The reason comes down to two words: supply lines.

 Supply lines for necessities such as food are already under stress. Those going to grocery stories encounter random instances of empty shelves and vegetable bins. Smithfield Farms shut down a South Dakota plant that supplies roughly 4% of the pork in the nation after over 500 of its workers tested positive for the coronavirus. Other giant meat processors such as Tyson have also shut down plants for similar reasons. Farmers in the West are having trouble finding workers to harvest the crops now reaching maturity in the fields. And even if they manage to get the crops picked, farmers are out of luck if the truckers fail to show up, or the flow of packaging for their products get interrupted. 

Right now, these disruptions are episodic, but that should be concerning because we haven’t even seen the end of the first wave. What we have seen is that vital front-line workers such as nurses, doctors, EMT’s, and other first responders have had trouble finding protective equipment and maintaining morale. Some have staged walkouts over the dangerous conditions, and these are workers with a sense of mission.

By contrast, for most of the hourly-paid workers who keep supplies made, distributed, and sold, their work is a job that pays the bills. It would be appropriate if society recognized that they played a vital role, but mostly these workers encounter demanding bosses, monotony, and surly customers. If sick, they are not going to work – nor would we want them too. And they are not likely to risk their lives if going to work exposes them to contagion.

Disruption of one link, e.g. the trucker that delivers food the last mile, could halt a supply chain. COVID-19 is a threat to every link. Should a second wave hit before there is a readily available, cheap and effective treatment, it’s a very high probability that many supply lines will be disrupted and filling the gaps could easily overwhelm the nation’s businesses. 

Even today, on the evening news, we see images of vast caravans of cars lined up to get supplies from food banks. Imagine two weeks of empty shelves in the stores that feed our cities. How likely is it that civil order could be maintained in that situation? Will people suffer in silence if they realize that they can’t buy food for their kids because our leaders reopened the economy before a treatment was available because they wanted to prop up the stock market (which is how it will be portrayed)? If we want to look analogues for what life is like once supply chains break down, they’re readily available today in cities like Mogadishu, Kinshasa, and Port au Prince. 

 Thus far, the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic seems to be a mélange of Boss Tweed, Don Corleone and Inspector Clouseau. For the next act, the administration has a choice: Churchill, who bolstered British morale during the London Blitz, or Pol Pot, who sacrificed millions of his countrymen for a bad idea. Let’s hope those around Trump can convince him that the cure for the disease is the cure for the economy.

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