The End

 

Our memories are mostly memories of memories. We can trust the big ideas. The details are more suspect.

We pave over the particulars of our past with things from other events or things other people have told us about their experiences of the same event. It’s one of the reasons, besides the fact that people are fantastical liars, that we get caught telling tales so often.

Our past exists in a Gordian Knot of stored data in a biological wet organ just big enough to grow inside our skull. And so over time, all that’s left is the general idea of something that once happened to us. And even then only if we all agree on what that idea was and write it down. So that’s what I’m about to do, lest I forget this one and it vanishes like Roy Batty’s teardrops in rain.

Trust the big idea of this one. The details are post script constructs.

Ten years ago this week, I sat staring at a clip board at my desk in my troop space. On it was a long list of things that needed to get done.

Weapons inventories. Manifest check sheet. Will. Power of Attorney. Classified hard drive storage.

There was a line through each of them already.

The phone in the middle of the desk I shared with my Troop Master Chief rang. He picked it up, muttered a something inaudible and hung up. Then he looked at me. Of all the things I remember that day, it was the look.

We were due over at the North Island Naval Air station with the rest of my troop to get onto a C17 headed for Balad, Iraq in about an hour. But something had happened and we had to head over to the meeting room in SEAL Team ONE. And that something could really only be one thing.

Dan Cnossen, one of the Team’s platoon commanders, was injured in Afghanistan. He was a part of the team that had left the week before with some of my operators and analysts. I knew Dan a bit. Not that well. He lost both legs but survived.

We were about to say goodbye to our families on the tarmac, but the Skipper wanted us to know what happened to Dan. And to remind us that no one says nothing to no one. There was a process underway to let those who need to know, know.

This was the work.

As for Dan, he’s since gone to grad school at Harvard and won two Para-Olympic Gold Medals in the Bi-athlon. It’s true what Ruth said about people you know. If they never quit, they’re damn hard to beat. And there’s clearly no quit in Dan.

I left my wife and three kids on the Tarmac that day. It was the last time I would see my middle son before he was diagnosed with Autism. It was the last time I would see my youngest before he could walk. I slept on top of a conex box in a sleeping bag for the next 15 hours or so before we landed in Iraq.

I felt as bad as I’ve ever felt in my life. For a few minutes and then I buried it.

Those are the details of the day.

The big idea was that it was the end. Whatever I had built myself to be able to do, was done. All that was left was six months to play the game I’d spent the previous 15 years preparing for. And while many, maybe even most of my generation will tell you that the most important time in their lives was when they served, I won’t.

Because the most important time in my life was the ten years since I stopped.

None of us, no matter who we are, can fight forever. And few of us can find a market that fills up our lives talking about what it took to fight. The rest of us need to move on.

I put my family back together. I put myself back together. I found that kid that raised his right hand on the courtyard in Annapolis 20 years earlier who saw that world through bright eyes. Who hadn’t yet buried a lifetime of pain in the desert. Who hadn’t yet clung to countless unsustainable life hacks to numb the pain.

I founded a non-profit with my wife to help families with special needs.

I found a career in an industry that let me build on the experience I had but insisted I grow beyond it.

I found my voice in writing; a few million visits to this site, articles in the Washington Post, Playboy and a dozen other online venues.

I found faith. And in it, I found the strength to walk the next leg of the journey; the journey of a special needs father.

This blog is winding down. I’ve said most of what I need to say about politics in America. It’s not going anywhere. If I need to, I’ll say something here from time to time. But there’s work to be done. There are men out there on the same journey I’m on, in pain. Men who don’t know how to be who they are through the grinding task of special needs parenting.

It’s an unfair task. But I think I can help.

This September I’m launching a blog to provide some words of encouragement, hard lessons learned and a little salt and light to the fathers of special needs children. I know they won’t ask for help. I know they won’t tell people they’re hurting. I don’t need them to. I’ve been there.

And I’m coming to them.

Thank you all so much for the years of following this blog. You are all the reason I wrote. I hope it helped.

And if you’d like to follow my new page, I’ll send one last post with the info when we get it out.

The Total War of Pandemic

It took us a little time to figure out how to fit the Coronavirus pandemic into a fully formed political debate. We’ve hit our stride pretty quickly though. It turns out it actually fits neatly into the same sort of debate we’ve always had in American politics.

Coastal elites with their charts and mathematical models and high science degrees are telling everyone else that there’s a giant problem. And while most of them have the sorts of jobs where they make a living in just about any economy, they’ve gone ahead and forced us to do something that’s killed all the higher paying working-class jobs. And they’re hiding behind a “phony” motivation of protecting the most vulnerable Americans in order to do it.

Meanwhile, Joe the plumber, just doesn’t get it. The universe is trying to tell him the world is going to end. And he doesn’t care. All he cares about is himself and people that look like him. All the experts agree but he doesn’t care because he doesn’t understand science. It may be hard on him. But it’s not as hard on him as it is on the truly poor and the elderly. Who are ALL going to die. Why won’t he just listen and do what we tell him to?

Healthcare, globalization, immigration, climate change…now Covid-19.

It’s on.

There’s one critical difference here though. This is not a hypothetical slow burn discussion that requires pundits and politicians to pour gas on it from time to time to keep it going. It’s an acute crisis that will force an outcome, one way or another, in weeks or months…not years or decades.

Over 4,000 Americans have died in the last 24 hours. Most of the deaths are in metropolitan areas like New York. Meanwhile, we’ve got at least 25% unemployment in Michigan. And they’re not alone.

Neither of these issues are sustainable for very long. So, we’ve got some extremely difficult choices that are going to require thinking that can’t be contained by the standard 21st Century American political debate.

It starts by acknowledging that both the problems of a sustained great depression level economic crash and an overwhelming viral pandemic killing thousands of Americans a day are things we can’t live with. We don’t need hyperbolic claims that recessions kill people. And we don’t need people who are urging us to open the economy being called murderers. It’s sufficient to simply say that we can’t trade one outcome for the other. Not for long.

Debates over what’s worse aren’t necessary. Clearly the pandemic is worse because it’s killing thousands of people a day. But it’s worse the way dying of dehydration is worse than starving to death. You can tell people not to eat or they’ll die of thirst for only so long before they go looking for food on their own. The protests are already starting.

Objectively we should all agree that there will be a time when we can start to have an intelligent discussion about when the economic impact begins to outweigh the value of future improvements in public safety. For those folks in the “break a few eggs to make an omelet” camp that think we’re there now, I’ve got a chart originally published by The New Atlantis that can add perspective:

 

Covid

Dr. Phil was right when he went on Fox News and said we don’t close down the economy for car crashes or the flu, both of which kill tens of thousands of Americans a year. As you can see from the chart, Covid-19 is not the flu or car crashes. Or anything we’ve seen since the advent of modern medicine. That curve will flatten out on it’s own at some point…probably… But we’d kill a whole lot of people to find out when. We’ll definately break some eggs. It’s not clear whether or not we’d even have an omelet on the other side though. Which brings up the most critical aspect of our current predicament.

While the Covid-19 weekly death curve looks like that, does it really matter if someone declares the economy open?

Let’s take my hometown of Atlantic City as a case study for this question. It’s a single industry town of casino tourism. Right now all casinos are closed. If Governor Phil Murphy declared the economy “open” at noon today, are people going to the Casino this weekend? Are Americans going to gather in the thousands in small rooms and close seating with senior citizens to gamble?

How about you? Are you going to a crowded restaurant? To the movies? Are you getting on a plane to fly cross country for a work conference you don’t feel like going to?

How about employers? Are they making their staff show up?

Right now over four thousand Cops in New York City have Covid-19. 27 have died. That’s more police officers than died on 9/11. And about 10% of all line of duty related deaths for NYC cops since 1950. In three weeks. You read that right.

Whose excited to bring their teams back together…?

The painful reality is that in many areas, the government hasn’t shut down the economy. The virus has. And for the others, the belief is that it would just be a matter of time before it does so we may as well save lives while we wait it out.

That’s the right strategy. It’s just not complete.

“Stay the fuck home” memes are a fun way to value signal that you’re on team coastal elite. But they don’t do much to help people who don’t know what they’re going to do if we shut down forever. The good news for them is that no one thinks we can shut down forever. The bad news is that no one has provided an alternative reality to look forward to. Which means people are arguing what they know; “open” or “shut”. The future looks like neither, at least not for a little while. So a political debate is not only unhelpful, it’s fundamentally illogical.

This is not a binary political debate. It’s a war. But unlike previous American wars that were fought in far off places bolstered by an American economy that was actually energized to support it, this one is being fought on our soil.

We’re not America in WWII. We’re France…complete with Maginot Line to the south.

We have the brutal task of defeating an external belligerent (the virus) and an internal one (economic collapse) at the same time. It might be an exaggeration to say this is America’s first total war on our soil. But not by much. And we need to fight it that way.

There are three fronts:

1-Fight the disease. Medical capacity, disease containment, therapeutic treatment, and…vaccine.

2-Provide financial sustainment. Over the top, New Deal scope programs that cover people, small businesses and corporations. Don’t make it an either or. Do it all. Do it for as long as we can.

3-Systematically open up society where we can and when we can. Maybe start with schools. Ask questions like what behavioral, technological and organizational innovations would be required to get kids back into school by September?

That’s it. That’s the fight. Anything else is a show.

Be wary of the political/media industrial complex pitching other topics. And be wary of politicians disguised as civic leaders using this war as a platform. If they aren’t talking about any of the three fronts in the war and what they are doing to deliver against them, it’s not worth the time.

New Expertise Required

Rob Wiblin’s 80,000 Hours team has a goal of identifying the skill bottlenecks keeping us from solving the world’s most pressing problems. Yesterday he sent out an important question to the universe via Twitter.

“When a situation is super complicated and the analysis very rushed, is that a time to listen to experts more, or actually a time to listen to them less? Might be more accurate to say, do we need a different kind of expertise?”

Wiblin is of course referring to the only thing that matters at the moment; the Covid-19 epidemic. And his question is towering over all of us right now.

There’s no denying it. We’re not great at pandemic response or preparation in America. And though it’s certainly cathartic to energize political debates as to why, politics won’t make us better. And we need to be.

This is where Wiblin’s point becomes so important. We have mountains of medical experts, public health officials, legislators, and economists working the problem. I’ve been stuck in my house watching them between conference calls and design sessions for work. And something is startlingly clear.

I don’t think we have all the right kinds of experts.

This isn’t a criticism of the people working the issue. It’s a reckoning that modern technology and medicine hasn’t intersected the way other industries have. And so we aren’t very effective at ingesting data at scale, identifying patterns and creating feedback loops. These are the blocking and tackling functions of modern technology enabled capabilities. And we don’t really do much of it in pandemic response. Not relative to how much we do of it in other less important domains. We’re better at suggesting the next porn video than we are telling you how many ICU beds Chicago will need this month.

That feels like a problem to solve.

As tempting as it is to just say we need SiliconValley to weigh in here and fix it, I’m not sure we want that either though. Along that path we’re just as likely to get an opt in mobile app that allows us to turn our medical information over to a corporate enterprise that no one will trust as we are a more robust capability.

Apple and Google did that yesterday by the way. It’s a start. But it’s not exactly what we need. We need more.

Long before the terms machine learning, artificial intelligence and big data were broadly used as advertising buzzwords, I was in Iraq leading an all source intelligence team with much more archaic tools. While we were there, we piloted a new technology from a group no one had heard of. It was a new “intel” software. In actuality it was a pretty basic data aggregation and distribution suite.

At the time, we didn’t have any systemic content management system for our intelligence reports. We had no enterprise search function. We weren’t using anything at all that resembled the metadata or tagging that common applications like WordPress or even Facebook and Twitter use today. Shockingly, there was no curated single source of truth for the data.

The intelligence analyst next to you could be chasing the same target you were and you wouldn’t know it until the evening in person intel brief.

As crazy as it sounds to us now, at the time, we were actually pretty successful at our core job. Like the experts fighting the pandemic, the processes we’d built up over what was already a “long” war had been optimized. We had deep subject matter experts in areas in which we operated. We knew what we were doing. We just didn’t know what we weren’t doing. And how much better we could get by doing it. So when I briefed the brass on the technology suite we piloted and suggested we were in the technological stone age and needed something like it, I was brushed off.

I still remember the look on the senior intel officers face when I told him the Family Tree application on Ancestry.com was the best intel tool in the world. And that how they digitized, stored, tagged and used metadata of old documents to enable it was as close to what the needed future looked like to us as we were going to get.

He actually giggled at me.

So did the exec for the company that built the software suite we piloted when I approached them for a job after I got out of the service a year later. They wanted software engineers, data scientists and UX designers. Not Naval Officers. They were building technology. Not capability.

The point of that war story is Wiblin’s point. At the beginning of the intersection of technology and counter-terrorism, he could have asked the same question he did yesterday. We had the old experts on both sides of the people and technology divide. After technology created capability and then application created organizations and processes, we built new experts.

Today’s counter terrorism experts are steely eyed data and computer warriors. And they’re enormously effective. That company that dropped off that laptop on my desk in Iraq was Palantir. They’re going to clear a billion dollars in revenue this year and are deeply imbedded in a robust cybersecurity, counterterrorism, technology industrial complex.

They never did show any interest in me. So I went to another tech firm and built out a technology based work from home capability for fintech enabled financial experts. We were bad at that at first too. Until we learned how to use technology and data and processes to drive outcomes. And now we aren’t. And now it seems to matter a bunch.

Which brings us back to our current predicament. The intersection of technology, data and medical care should have intersected decades ago. It didn’t; not at the scale it could have and for reasons that could fill a few books. That intersection in the beginning would not have created magical capability any more than dropping a laptop with a software suite on my desk in Ramadi did. But it would have started something that, over time, would have gotten better.

Perhaps that intersection can happen at scale now. And the norms of medical care we valued in the past may wear away in the face of the clear and present danger of pandemic. And then we’ll get better. Just like we’ve gotten better at digitally enabled counter terrorism. Just like we’ve gotten better at baseball scouting. Just like we’ve gotten better at targeted advertising. Just like we’ve gotten better at electric cars.

Each of these processes of building out expertise started with a burning need. We approached it with modern technology. And we built processes and organizations that turned that technology into capability. And then we built experts in that capability.

Wiblin’s right. We need that new kind of expert now.

Be wary of people to tell you that you can’t challenge a doctor on things not specific to medical care. But also be wary of the Silicon Valley tech guru who simply “has an app” to solve that problem too.We need both right now. And we’ll need the expertise that comes from that intersection.

That’s where the goodness begins.

Here’s to hoping this gets the train started. My guess is, you’d get some pretty smart people to climb on if it looked a little different than it does now.

The Occam’s Razor of Pandemic Response

(This is from a Twitter thread that grew into an essay. I’m pretty active in that domain so if interested feel free to follow here.)

From a covid19 response perspective, there’s been a lot of conversations about why some places did better than others and who is ultimately responsible for poor outcomes for populations facing the pandemic. Specific to initial pandemic readiness, I think things are actually simpler than we’re making it. There’s a bit of Occam’s Razor involved.

I’m not the first to suggest it but the notion that comparative pandemic response breaks down along the lines of Southeast Asia vs others is a pretty clear way to look at the problem. Adding variables doesn’t get us closer to the truth. It just adds noise. And so the actual solution to future pandemic outbreaks keeps getting paved over with other things.

It’s nearly impossible not to watch the daily Covid19 pressers and not imagine some sort of panacea that didn’t involve the current administration. Or even one that just made us feel a little better. A good contrast is clear in New York.

Governor Cuomo has an approval rating nearing 90% because he’s standing up and delivering the message his constituents want to hear. As a result they feel like things will eventually get better. It doesn’t change the reality that they weren’t ready either though. And like the rest of America, thousands of people will die who otherwise may not have. The contrast between Trump and Cuomo doesn’t account for where we are materially.

Like New York, Italy and Spain are in full outbreak mode with more absolute deaths than the U.S. with only 20% of our population. There is no Trump administration there. And they have universal healthcare. In fact, it’s safe to say the entire West was caught asleep at the switch with many different sorts of leaders with many different sorts of healthcare systems.

The variable for readiness isn’t Trump or universal healthcare, though both of those things matter tremendously going forward. And none of the politically energetic arguments can account for the difference in readiness between the West and the East. Nearly every effective response, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, China (if you can believe any version of their numbers) have all come from the same region. And it brings  a simple conclusion.

Southeastern Asia has more experience dealing with pandemic than we do. And so they’re better at it. We can talk about state capacity and authoritarian rule vs liberal but the simple reality is we in the West are pandemic rookies.

I live in Southern California. We have both a high Asian American population, high levels of Asian temporary residence workforce and a high volume of Asian tourism. I’ve been watching people from Asia walking around in crowded places in America with masks on for fifteen years. I’ve never seen anyone from anywhere else do the same. And frankly I always viewed the practice as unnecessary and alarmist…like nearly every western leader and much of MSM with Covid19. Because pandemic response was not a part of our contemporary culture.

SARS hit in China within a year of the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. There have been multiple Chinese outbreaks since that have stressed their system. None were severe enough to have the impact Covid19 has had. But they were all severe enough to drive action and build the muscle of pandemic response. In the same time period America has built up counter terrorism capacity in to the same extent. I was a part of it.

Remember the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013? Boston locked down the entire city cheerfully until a joint task force of intelligence community, federal law enforcement and local police caught the bombers in days.

Not weeks. Days.

The American counter-terrorism muscle was and is that strong. Because we’ve spent the last 19 years exercising it. Southeast Asia has spent at least some effort getting better at pandemic response.

It’s telling that no one really cared when President Trump eliminated the pandemic response directorate within the National Security Council. We do now of course. And it looks like a terrible decision. I didn’t even remember it happened though. And I pay more attention than 99% of most Americans.

After we go through recession, have 30% unemployment and lose our personal liberty for three months in America, I suspect we’ll improve our response. This is some part of our identity. We are the “sleeping giant” after all.

It’s little consolation to those of us living through it now I know. The proactive response was a uniform failure in the West. Our energy is best spent on insisting the reactive response is effective and holding our leaders accountable for that.

The Capacity Problem of Pandemics

I’m an operations guy. I have been my whole professional career. I was an operations officer in SOCOM for the better part of a decade and for most of the last decade I’ve been doing some version of the same thing in the consumer software industry.

It’s hard for me to see problems through any other lens.

At it’s core, the art of operations is the activity of matching capacity with demand. There’s a X amount of a particular thing needed because there is Y amount of people/places/enemies who need it.

Figuring out exactly what the X and Y are isn’t really the art of it. That’s just math. The art of operations is understanding the levers that get pulled on either side of the equation to change the math. And understanding what forces move those levers and ensuring that, when the barbarian hordes are amassing at the gates, you’ve got the right levers in your hand to pull to address the ones that you don’t.

At the heart of the COVID-19 epidemic is an incredibly dire capacity problem. And the most common misconception that I’ve seen in the discussion about how to approach the pandemic, is a lack of understanding that capacity problems, at some point, cease to become a symptom of the problem and actually become the problem itself.

The impact from a mismatch of capacity to demand eventually consumes an entire operation. And once that happens, the train is off the track and it doesn’t get back on until demand subsides.

The only variable to control at that point is how many people who need something won’t get it. The grim assumption in pandemic is some higher than acceptable proportion of that group ends up dying.

Spending some time in the math of capacity planning, we can see quickly how shortages reach a tipping point and in pandemic how once that point has tipped, it’s so hard to get it back under control.

The entire acute health care capacity plan in America is based on one baseline assumption:

That an extremely small percentage of Americans will need acute care.

According to the Society for Critical Care Medicine (SCCM) there are about 97,000 ICU beds in America. At any given night, they are about 2/3 full. Which means the working forecast for ICU beds in America is grounded in the assumption that, at any given point in time, 99.98% of Americans will not need an ICU bed.

We have an excess capacity of about 32K beds. Which means that we can stretch our assumption to 99.97% of Americans not needing an ICU bed, without a problem.

Now here’s where the law of large numbers gets problematic for us in a hurry. Let’s say, for the sake of estimation, a hypothetical epidemic hits us and we can only really assume that, at any point in time, 99.9 percent of Americans can be depended on to not need an ICU bed.

This, .07% difference to the untrained, non operations forecaster eye, sounds like an extremely small number. In reality, represents a 400% spike in demand. And it results in a shortfall of 130 thousand ICU beds on any given night.

The clock never stops though. And now time is the enemy.

Say the hypothetical pandemic causing that spike lasts for 60 days. Then over that time, 7.8 million Americans who need acute care, will not have access to ICU beds. This shows how extremely small changes at the top of the demand funnel make for crushing outcomes at the bottom when you have a population of 330M. Based on this estimation, I can describe this problem two ways accurately:

This hypothetical virus will result in less than one tenth of one tenth of one percent increase in need for acute care.

Or…

Over the next two months, about 8 million Americans infected with the hypothetical virus who need acute care, will not get it.

The ops guy in me sees the problem the second way immediately and knows that I’ve got a problem. And my only hope is to address both sides of the equation. I need more capacity AND I need less demand. It will be insufficient to try to simply increase capacity. Because the good guys are playing the game with resource dependent arithmetic growth. The bad guys are playing with resource independent exponential growth.

Let’s unpack that.

When I make a new ventilator or a test or an ICU bed, the existence of that ventilator or test or ICU bed does nothing to increase my capability to to make more. On the contrary, it diminishes my capacity to make more because each one uses some amount of finite resources.

Right now the nation that put a man on the moon with slide rules and pencils doesn’t have enough long Q-tips to make COVID19 tests. This is the reality of where we are on increasing capacity.

On the other side of the fence, every person who catches the hypothetical virus can effortlessly spread the virus and infect countless others. The only resource the virus requires is an uninfected human. This is exponential growth. And it gets out of hand in a hurry. A penny that doubles in value every day is worth $5 million at the end of a month.

The hard part about handling exponential demand growth with arithmetic supply growth is that once you’ve fallen behind, it is impossible to catch up. In fact it’s impossible not to rapidly fall further and further behind. If you don’t stop the growth of demand, it doesn’t really matter what you do.

Social media platforms illustrate this gap effectively. Their customer growth is exponential. The more they have the more they get. Their ability to provide human support to those customers is arithmetic.

Ever try to talk to a person, real time, for help with a problem on Facebook? You can’t. They know they can’t provide it. So they don’t try. It’s a luxury social media platform have that the medical community doesn’t.

This is where the truly brutal nature of epidemic starts to materialize. My capacity is behind. I’m falling farther behind by the second. And then the virus actually starts to diminish my capacity to help the people I actually can. Because besides beds ventilators and tests, the capacity to provide care depends on humans to provide it. Now the virus and my operation are fighting over the same resource. And the virus is better…exponentially so. Eventually, they get infected. The gap widens even further until eventually capacity reaches near zero while demand accelerates.

Now the virus is no longer the problem. My lack of medical infrastructure is. I no longer have capacity to deliver services for other issues. And problems that are entirely unrelated to the epidemic can’t be addressed.

Now, I’m on the road to operational collapse.

It starts with eliminating elective procedures. And then I start to pull DEFCON levers that increase in severity until I’m making decisions on who lives and who dies. And then simply how long to shut down the whole operation because the declaration of no capacity is better than the unfilled promise of some.

All because of an increase in one tenth of one tenth of a percentage of demand for acute care.

In the operations world, nothing about that scenario is controversial. It’s the pattern we understand that defines why we do what we do. Where the controversy lies in every operations problem, is the math that gets you to solving the mystery of demand.

For COVID19, we don’t know what the baseline infection rate is. And we don’t know the impact efforts to limit it will be.

These are all common forecasting problems. The way we get around them is through the collection of historical arrival patterns and the collection of massive data sets that allow us to use machine learning algorithms to enable more effective predictions.

We don’t have historical COVID19 data. And we don’t have nearly enough real time data to start to feed ML platforms that can help. And we won’t until it’s too late. So we’re left with the mother of all bad operations problems.

We have a huge area to cover. We have an unknown incidence of events to respond to. And we have extremely limited resources to respond.

As an Ops guy, I’m out of precise, limited measures. The only action I can take is 1-Broad measures I know inherently decrease demand. 2-Rapid production of capacity.

Right now the bets we’re making are on the forecast. And I can tell you from experience that we don’t have enough data to know that it’s accurate. People telling you X people will die don’t know. People telling you Y people won’t die don’t know.

So we’re in a place we’re we have to decide something undecidable. Which means we really have to fall back on principles that allow us to answer the following question:

If we’re wrong, and we most certainly are to some degree because we don’t have enough information to be right, what’s the acceptable damage we’re willing to incur?

Is it worse to have to simply shut the operation down?

Or is it worse to do the things it requires to keep it running?

This is the question every ops person answers on their way out the door when it’s gotten to bad to stay. And it’s the one on the table for world leaders now.

View at Medium.com

COVID-19 and The Case for State Capacity

As the emails go out from the school district where I live that schools are closing, I can’t help but wonder if there is, or ever will be, a stronger case for state capacity as a base necessity for the protection of liberty than what we have going on right now.

While the classic view of American liberty wonders into the room from over the prairies on horseback with a Second Amendment guaranteed arsenal and a support the troops ball cap, the last few days has to make Americans ask ourselves if we’re really thanking the right things for our freedoms. Moreover, whether we’re fearing the wrong things as potential culprits to infringe upon our way of life.

It’s undeniable. My liberty has NEVER been infringed upon the way it has, in a literal sense, during this outbreak. I cannot go where I want. I cannot buy what I need. I cannot work the way I want. And my children don’t have access to education.

I am not free.

Amazingly, I actually don’t feel coerced by the government at all. Most of these limitations were things I wanted to happen. If they didn’t I might have self imposed them anyway. The scary culprit against my liberty is not government overreach or censorship or cancel culture that won’t let me speak my mind.

It’s something else. It’s a disease. And the extent that my liberty is to be infringed upon depends heavily on one thing; my government’s ability to respond effectively to an event for which only government has the resources to respond.

At present, I’m sitting in my house with my three sons, whose Little League games have all been canceled, who have no school on Monday and who cannot go to a place that holds more than 250 people. How long this lasts is the dependent variable. That variable depends mostly on my government’s capacity to respond effectively.

What’s the diagnostic plan to enable the appropriate direction of resources to the right areas?

What’s the plan to increase capacity for what is a relatively low capacity healthcare infrastructure?

These are things only the Federal Government can do. And not because we’ve surrendered our rights to something we ought to be able to do ourselves. These are focused, highly specialize, high cost, high collaboration activities. A small government plan that lets state and local authorities work the problem, with reactive support from the Federal Government is a great strategy for many things. For a viral pandemic, it’s not.

Without decisive, proactive measures, we’re all forced to move on to a fall back plan of rolling cancelations and extreme limitations of travel and social distancing that would be less sweeping and less enduring if we had more diagnostic data to confirm certain areas weren’t at risk and confidence that our healthcare system could mobilize effectively in advance of the demand of full outbreak.

These intervention activities require proactive increased investment in state capacity. The stated policy of reducing resources of federal institutions is counter to this. On a platform of increasing liberty through “draining the swamp”, the result is the opposite of the promise of more freedom. It results in everyone I know not being able to do anything; a wholesale loss of liberty.

Expanding on this idea, carefully, we can find analogs.

Nothing reduces liberty like a hurricane flattening your town with no plan to build it back. Few things reduce liberty at the source like insufficient public education. Having to depend on an employer for healthcare makes us more dependent on our current employer, less mobile and less likely to start our own business and follow the American dream.

Less liberty.

We’ve had the luxury of a debate where some could reasonably believe that draining the swamp without rebuilding something in it’s place would be a good strategy. It’s possible this shock, like the Great Depression did for the requirements of a social safety net as a foundation for an industrial economy, will drive home an important point.

There are things only our government can really help with. The conservative Reagan mantra that government IS the problem is a great bumper sticker. But it’s a deeply harmful ideology if applied too broadly. Focusing resources and insisting on excellence for certain things should be possible with $4 trillion of American budget. And insisting on leaders we can trust to be the stewards of those resources, in service to our freedom, is a zero defect requirement.

I applaud the efforts the administration has rapidly put in place in the last 48 hours. But we should take note that the current administration rode into the White House on the fervor of a 40 year myth that liberty depended on a small, ineffective government.

A few press conferences of a different tone won’t do much to change the opinion of the people who’ve heard that message their whole lives and are now deeply concerned for the future.

Thoughts on COVID-19

I’ve been a part of enough things in my life that eventually became news stories to see a pattern. Whatever is reported is either an exaggeration, a partial truth or an outright misrepresentation of what actually took place.

Rarely is a dispassionate account of the truth rendered.

As a result, I’m skeptical of many things I read. I understand the forces that are at work in the media. The money, the ratings and the ultimate goal of eyeballs and clicks get in the way of the effective distribution of important information. It’s not a conspiracy. It’s a misalignment of incentives. The result is that we should remain healthy skeptics when consuming information.

For many, the appeal of President Trump has been his willingness to challenge what experts, the media or anyone, frankly, is saying. The uncomfortable truth for many of us is that so much of what circulates in our modern information stream is not entirely true or skewed by spin. And so if one decides to “call bullshit” on everything, one has a very good chance at being right quite often.

President Trump has made it a standing policy to call bullshit on everything that doesn’t come from him or that doesn’t align with administration policy. Based on the patterns I just described, he’s often right.

The risk has never been accuracy with this approach. The risk is a loss of confidence in the institutions we need to take action when something eventually isn’t bullshit.

The global COVID19 outbreak is not bullshit. It is real. And it is shutting the world down in front of our eyes. The claims that this is just the flu are not real. Even it it were, doubling a flu outbreak and increasing the mortality rate would still overwhelm our current care infrastructure. Pointing out that it’s just the old and sick that will die isn’t helpful either. We will not simply sit back and let everyone of us who isn’t completely young and healthy die. Along the way, we will shut down daily life and the modern global economy to avoid that end.

Does anyone honestly believe that China is prone to overreact to save some lives? The state that brought you a famine that starved millions to death and a Cultural Revolution that exterminated an entire class of intellectuals shut down the country to keep the virus from spreading. We should take notice. This is not a drill.

There is good news though. Because for once, we actually have some control over our fates.

In a world where we seem powerless against the march of never-ending wars, environmental catastrophe and the erosion of social cohesion, this pandemic gives us an opportunity. This virus needs us to live. We have domain over its host.

For once, we are in control. And we can be heroes.

There are things that spread viruses faster. We know what they are. We have already stopped doing many of them. There are things that impede progress of spread. We should do them. Limiting public gatherings, taking sick days, social distancing, self-quarantining and washing hands are all things that slow the spread of the virus.

Those are the things we can do as individuals. But there’s more. This is an opportunity to address some things.

It’s probably time to have legislation that ensures that the people who serve our food get paid sick leave. Think about that. The people handing you your food all feel like they have to work through being sick. Coronavirus or not, I’d rather that end. Trader Joe’s changed their policy on this immediately. Heroes.

It’s probably time to figure out how more roles can work remote. It’s probably time to figure out how employers handle parents that have to stay home to care for kids whose schools are closed. It’s probably time to identify a national response plan for any epidemic. What buildings get used for overflow. What labs can be used for emergency testing. What funding can be immediately released.

I thought this was all already in place. It’s not.

Today the New York Times reported that we had testing capacity in Seattle weeks ago. The lab there wasn’t allowed to test because of a standing CDC policy. Two dozen people in Washington state are dead. It’s easy to Monday morning quarterback and lay blame. But it’s also easy to stand up and say that for the next six months, all policies prohibiting testing are waved.

One great question this pandemic may bring us closer to answering is this:

How do we pandemic proof our globally integrated economy?

The real risk that we have is that we can’t save lives right now without tanking the economy. What would need to be true in order for that not to be the case?

The United States of America has been at war nearly my entire adult life. Aside from the days and weeks after 9/11, nothing the war has had to offer has impacted Americans the way the COVID-19 outbreak already has. Understanding the risk and what to do going forward should be a national policy issue second to nothing.

The goal is simple. Short Term: Take positive action to slow the spread of the virus to a rate that allows our medical response to keep pace with it. If we don’t, medical facilities will get overwhelmed, people won’t get treatment and our ability to respond to other everyday medical issues will be limited. Longer Term: Drive institutional change that makes us more resilient to future outbreaks.

I’ve worked in risk my entire professional life. The regrets I have from taking actions against things that didn’t materialized into catastrophe are zero. The regrets I have from not taking action when it could have mattered are substantial. Moreover, I have no idea what catastrophes were avoided by small actions early on in the problem. I’ll never know. And I don’t regret that either.

In the world of the material, beyond politics and media swirl, when we work to solve these sorts of existential issues, no one claims we’re overreacting. The word panic doesn’t even wander into the room. Instead, the tone is one of a requirement to be stewards of the resources we’ve been trusted with to carry out the responsibilities we have to those that count on us.

No one calls bullshit. Because it’s not bullshit.

We have a window here. But it’s going to close. If it does, the outcomes won’t be disaster movie extinction. It will be thousands of lives lost, the loss of effectiveness of our current medical care infrastructure and eventually the catastrophic shut down of the domestic and global economy.

That’s one potential outcome. The other is a coordinated and committed effort to doing what we can, while we can to avoid it. So, before you hit share on the witty, people all need to calm down meme, ask yourself this.

What’s the cost of being wrong about that?

The math on this one is clear. And we’re on the clock. This is our chance to be heroes.

It’s Still Their Party

Bernie Sanders doesn’t have the support of the Democratic Party.

If that wasn’t clear before, yesterday’s thorough beating at the poles by Joe Biden has made it clear. Crystal. The vision of sweeping change rolling through the Democratic ranks that Donald Trump accomplished within the GOP in 2016 and in his three years in office since won’t be realized for the Democrats.

The reason?

Those pesky Democratic voters.

While counterfactualistas wax on about the possibilities in 2016 had all candidates consolidated in support of Jeb or Cruz or Kasich, they forget a pretty important fact. Trump rolled over the competition in every contested primary. He owned the vote.

Last week Biden beat Sanders in South Carolina so badly and so uniformly in the African American vote that the opportunity that never opened up against Trump presented itself to the Democrats. As the evangelicals are to the GOP, so is the African American vote to the Democrats. If you want to win the primary, you need to win them. If you want to win the general, you need to not only win them, but you need them to show up in record numbers.

Losing by 40 points to Joe Biden in the African American vote in South Carolina was a clear sign to anyone who pays attention to these things that Bernie was weak within the party in a way that would have made him extremely vulnerable in the general. Moreover, it showed Biden was strong in a way the party hadn’t been strong since Obama. The ideologically similar understood it. So they made the call.

After one state, it was a gamble. But it worked.

Not only did the pattern continue into other states on Super Tuesday, it expanded beyond the African American vote to other states Bernie won big over Hillary in 2016. The hunch that Bernie did not have the support of Democratic voters was right. And though it was a gamble and it was the establishment making that gamble, this is distinctly different than rigging the election through big business money or through the silly undemocratic pledged delegate process. It was a bet that the voters would show up for Biden.

And they did.

Biden won states he didn’t even campaign in. He won every county in Oklahoma. He won Maine for God’s sake.

Joe Biden. 78-year-old Grampa Joe.

Which means a few things. Most importantly, it means that Democratic voters weren’t particularly excited about Bernie Sanders. And while they may believe that parts of his message need to be a part of the Democratic platform going forward, they didn’t believe the brand of Democratic Socialism was the horse to ride into the race against Trump.

If you step back from the day to day hysteria of politics, this makes sense. Sanders has only been a Democrat since he decided to run for President. He’s done remarkably little as a legislator. Nearly beating Hillary Clinton in a primary before she lost to Donald Trump is his only accomplishment; not exactly the thing to point to as reason for America to follow you down a different path.

The democratic party is still Obama’s party. The change we felt last time was that it wasn’t Clinton’s anymore and not that it was Bernie’s. The market missed that distinction on Biden. And now it’s clear. Biden is the party’s best chance to beat Trump.

As deep as the rabbit hole of electoral game theory is, it’s important that we come back up and address a few things though. The American people have real problems we need to solve that weren’t addressed by the Obama Democrats. The lesson of the modern-day GOP is that if you ignore your constituents problems for too long, someone else will end up promising to solve them for you. And it’s not always the right sort of someone promising the right sorts of things.

The good news for progressive democrats is that the solutions they seek, don’t require a departure from stated progressive Democratic platforms. They simply require a commitment to actually work to accomplish them.

Case in point: We may say Bernie is the champion for healthcare for all. But he spent a long time in congress without sponsoring a single piece of legislation to forward that outcome. Conversely, the only meaningful and enduring healthcare reform passed in recent memory, that expanded both medicaid and healthcare coverage for more than 20 million Americans was passed by the Obama/Biden administration during the first two years of their first term.

Moreover, while many Sanders supporters point to the distributive miracles of Denmark and Sweden as examples for America to strive to duplicate, those nations aren’t, contrary to popular belief, democratic socialist nations. They are free market systems with limited to no public ownership of corporations. They have higher tax rates to more effectively distribute wealth. They have strong unions. But that’s not Democratic Socialism.  Democratic Socialists advocate for public ownership of corporations. Sanders does this openly as part of his agenda.

It’s not required to solve the problem. It’s an unnecessary liability against a unified Trump base and a socialist wary middle.

At the core of progressive policy should be a push to mitigate the economic and environmental impacts of global free trade and technological automation through policies that redistribute, through taxes, the gains from those activities. The ultimate goal should be to strengthen the value of labor relative to the value of capital by subsidizing key industries and locations, providing easier access to education, decoupling healthcare as leverage employers hold over employees, and insisting corporations foot the bill for environmentally sustainable operations.

This can all be done in service to helping the newly marginalized workforce, the longstanding structurally excluded populations and the environment.

And while they’re at it, go ahead and make the social safety net way bigger than anyone thinks it needs to be. Because there will always be a Republican administration around the corner trying to make it smaller than it needs to be.

Carbon taxes. Subsidies for green energy. Strict regulation.

The goal shouldn’t be incremental change. The goal is transformational change on the scale of the New Deal.

None of this requires anything other than energetic, progressive, Democratic (capital D) policies. None of it requires the cartoonish expansion of state resources and destruction of private enterprise that the Sanders agenda calls for. But it does require something much much better than Joe Biden has been for his entire political life.

As was the case with Donald Trump.

For the record, Senator Warren would have been a fine choice to lead most of this. But no one voted for her. Y’all can probably figure out why. If anyone should be chapped about results it’s the Warren camp.

Democracy…warts and all….

Which takes us to the crossroads we’re at. The Sanders campaign has every right and even an obligation to continue to drive its message to the Democratic party establishment in service to moving the needle to the left of where it is. But they don’t have the votes to claim that this is their party. And they’re getting less this go around than the did last. So I would assume they shouldn’t lose sight of that end for which anyone claiming to be a Democrat would prioritize first.

Making Donald Trump a one term president.

On the Utility of Faith

For those of you who don’t follow the majesty that is @sphughes99 on Twitter…this sort of stuff pops out from time to time…

Thread on the utility of faith.

Most of the intellectual energy around faith and people of faith is focused on the institutions of faith. And it’s pretty negative. Rightly so as the institutions are riddled with bigotry, abuse and hypocrisy. So little else gets said.

Beyond that though, it’s hard to overstate the positive impact faith has on people on a personal level. That people endure the negativity of institutions to organize around their faith is telling.

For me, faith is foundational. And it’s worth unpacking the mechanics of that a bit.

I’m a parent and caretaker of of a special needs child. The grind that involves is consuming. I write this, not coincidentally, at four in the morning, the time he decided to get up today. I’m up with him because he’s not entirely safe without some supervision. He’s 12.

Hence some reflection on the utility of faith.

The grind of this life is consuming. And like all grindingly tough things, hard things with the added aspect of having no end in sight, the notion of unfairness plays a central role in the battle for your state of mind.

What my family lives through is unfair. It’s unfair to my child. It’s unfair to my family. It’s unfair to me. Over time, focus on that unfairness turns healthy & honest sadness to bitterness. It’s not unique to special needs parenting. It’s a common cycle because life is hard.

Special needs parenting is just a certain type of hard that makes for an acute illustration. There is difficulty. And there is no way out of it. And there is no end in sight. No end until the end.

In such instances, faith and it’s central role is clear.

I asked BJ Miller of Zen Hospice about the advice he gave to the caretakers of long terminally ill loved ones. It occurred to me that much of the emotional pattern I was experiencing with my son was similar to what my family went through with my mother’s 3 yr battle with ALS.

He told me that one of the central enablers of sustainment for caretakers was the ability to see themselves in the suffering and need of others. And to see themselves in the care they gave. It’s an intentional frame of mind. And without it, fatigue eventually yields resentment.

And resentment yields the bitterness. And so the critical shift is to move yourself out of the center of the problem, the unfairness of it all, and into the care being provided.

It’s easier said than done. The amount of times I’ve patiently whispered “quiet voice” to my son since 4 this morning so he didn’t wake up the rest of the house, eventually starts to draw on me. And so there’s some energy I have to put into seeing myself as an expression of the care I’m giving. In my experience, that energy is best focused on faith.

The central message of my faith as a Christian is simply put, to put God at the center of your life. And that the application of doing that is through loving others.

I’ll pause for a second to acknowledge: So many churches are horrible. And so many Christians hare horrible.

And so much bad has been done in the name of religion that the hypocrisy on an institutional level is bad enough to turn anyone away. Try, if you can put it aside. Because one of the great tragedies of that horribleness is that it blocks people from their faith.

But if we can put that aside and focus on that message of service & love & the underlying messages of grace, it takes us back to the critical utility of my faith. The world needs me to see myself in the care I take of others. The application of my faith reenforces that message

It reenforces a message that I am not at the center of my world. And that this world is unfair and cruel and fallen. But mine is not to spend much time on what that means to me. But instead to serve and to give and to love. And in that service and love, is where I find myself.

And finding a community of people who believe similarly and fill my days with encouragement and reminders of the message makes it easier. Saying out loud what we believe, together, makes it easier. It keeps the wolves of bitterness and self outside the camp.We’re wired for it.

And I know that there’s plenty of smart people who think my belief in God is a silly superstition that is at odds with my analytical Bayesian views of the world. I simply don’t know how to get through the day without it though.

I came to this belief through exhaustion and surrender. And it has changed my life to look the only way it can to survive. Therein lies the utility of my faith.

And now, it’s 630. And it’s time to start today. And this small version of outward expression of faith an 18 tweet prayer thread if you will, has helped. Enjoy your day everyone.

If you know anyone struggling to keep up on the journey of special needs parenting, tell them to check out what we do at Care For Us. It’s all free. And we’re always here.

A Bridge to Nowhere

My family has been in America a long time.

My first descendant was a Dutch immigrant to New Amsterdam in the 1630’s named Wyckoff. He was an indentured servant who rose to become a colonial judge after the Dutch lost the territory to the English. His immigration marked the start of an American family line that can be tracked nearly four centuries to my children. The original family house in Flatbush is still standing. It’s the oldest structure in New York City.

My wife’s American family is older. They were at Jamestown. Her earliest American descendant was a woman whose first husband was killed in a Native American raid. She later married a ship captain that brought supplies to the colony from England. His name was Bennett, my wife’s maiden name. My oldest son’s first name.

Those two old American lines married into recently arriving Irish Catholic and Mexican families in late 20th century in unions that, for most of history, would have been unimaginable. Centuries of war and bloodshed had to solve the conflict of Catholic and Protestant and Mexican and American so that one day our parents might have an uneventful ceremony at city hall.

In my house, the Age of Religious Wars was reenacted and anticlimactically decided by the local Catholic school and its choice to have the only all-day kindergarten in the city. That was the tie breaker. I was raised Catholic.

2800 miles away, on the opposite coast, my wife was half Mexican with an English last name. She didn’t speak Spanish. And so she was raised white as far as anyone knew. Including her.

Today, my wife and I are two mostly white 40 somethings with three mostly white children in the Southern California suburbs. Hundreds of years of English and Dutch and German and French and Irish and Native American and Spanish cultures and religions have mostly been paved over. Until we did DNA tests and logged onto Ancestry.com to do some research, my wife had no idea she was a quarter native American. And I had no idea that I was entirely Northwestern European. Neither of us had any idea our American roots went back four centuries.

I was raised with no pride in my genetic heritage. Nor any shame. I identified as American; an identity that I was told in school and by my parents was a mixture of immigrants. I was a melting pot. And I drew pride in my identity from that distinction.

This is a common American pattern. Hundreds of years of cultural differences assimilated into a common, contemporary American one. This is how cultural assimilation works.

If one is allowed to assimilate, that is. 

For most of American history, what has been allowed to assimilate into American mainstream culture are white people. And so that seamless transition that my family and my wife’s family, from one local or religious culture to another, was reserved for white people. And so, until recently, American mainstream culture has had an over-representative white identity.

African American history dates back to 1619. Latin American history is rooted in the 16th century. They are deep and rich cultures. But they were kept undeniably separate from white American culture for centuries, with great care and effort.

Two weeks ago a white supremacist drove ten hours to the border town of El Paso in Texas to murder 20 people in a mass shooting at a Walmart. Prior to the shooting, he published a manifesto railing against the “great replacement” and drawing on references from and language used in recent white supremacist mass shootings in Pittsburgh and Christchurch, New Zealand.

In his speech condemning the shooting, President Trump called for unity. “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy. These sinister ideologies must be defeated. Hate has no place in America.”

I applaud the President’s condemnation. But I struggle to dive deeply into the cognitive dissonance it takes to be moved by it. The hard reality Americans are struggling to reconcile in the modern identity politics environment is that hate does have a place in America. And our history is riddled with white supremacy.

Our founding documents originally reserved voting rights for “white persons of good character.” It took four scores and seven years and thirteen amendments before the 14th granted citizenship to black Americans. Asian immigrants weren’t granted citizenship until the 1940s. Interracial marriage was illegal when my parents married. Candidates who ran on segregationist platforms served in the Senate until the Obama administration. And from 1920s to the 1960s, immigration quotas were designed to allow mostly English, German and Irish immigrants into the country.

Policies that forwarded white American interest at the expense of other races are undeniably ingrained in our history.

This history is important to remember. Not because white people like me should walk around with heads hung low in shame. Like all histories, America’s has both shame and triumph. And though the sins of the father shouldn’t be visited on the child, we can’t ignore the past. And we have to understand where America came from. And where we are going. And where we are on the arc of that journey.

America will lose its majority white demographic in my lifetime. This is reasonably certain. Most of the people that will be alive then are alive today. And most of the people that are alive today that won’t be then are already known. Demography is easy to predict.

If we closed the doors to immigrants tomorrow, it wouldn’t change the fate of the white American majority. If we left immigration open only to white people from developed nations, it wouldn’t change it either as they don’t come here in large enough numbers anymore. At current inter-marriage and birth rates, over time, 25 years or so, there will be fewer white only Americans than non-white only Americans. The shift has already happened. It is inevitable.

The only questions we need answered are who are the right leaders with the right policies and the right new American ideas to lead us through it.

Four years ago, when then candidate Trump launched his campaign for president, railing against Mexican immigration and riding a wave of anti-immigration sentiment towards a wire to wire victory in the Republican Primary and a general election in which he won every contested state, I was concerned. My concern was that we’d unlocked an undercurrent of populous anger that was motivated by an impossible aim; to keep America frozen in the cultural and demographic glory of the past.

We danced around issues like the economy and  manufacturing jobs. We played lip service to trade and an America first policy. But what both research and a cursory view of any Trump rally will tell you is that what binds the most vigorous Trump supporters together the most are two characteristics. 1-Views on immigration. 2- Views on politically correctness.

The new GOP led by President Trump isn’t content with simple indifference towards the plight of minority populations in America. They’ve given voice to the anxieties of a majority population living through demographic shift in real time. President Trump has taken aim at the institutions of the media, academia and the liberal leaning tech sector who have worked to anchored American cultural norms of intolerance towards racism. And he’s made impossible promises to try to hold together a strong political base, at all costs.

Ethnic majorities that live through demographic shift behave predictably. They are susceptible to populous demagoguery. Fringe ideology of racial purity escalates. Violence against minority populations escalates. Negative attitudes towards immigration and immigrants become more salient.

In the past, when America hit 13% foreign born population, as we are today, the nativist Know Nothing party swept state and local elections in the 1850s. In the 1920s when it did again, emergency immigration quotas were passed to ensure an ethnic majority. Today we have both relatively high immigration, a changing ethnic demographic and an information and social media age that breaks down regional separation.

As the pattern shows, President Trump was right on schedule.

His message though, is a loser. And the fear it runs on, is unfounded. There is no replacement of people. Only some mix of assimilation and diversity that makes for a richer, no less American, America.

I live in a minority white region. And it looks mostly like the majority white one I came from with more food choices and more reasons to throw a party. We still drink beer and watch football and baseball. And there’s plenty of conservative non-white folks here. Because when you make conservative views about something other than maintaining a past white culture, you’ll find that conservative views are universal across peoples.

Faith. Family. Tradition. Personal liberties.

We’re living through change. And we need strong civic leadership to bring us through it. The Trump message is a bridge to nowhere trying to stop a shift that can only be stopped through coercion or violence.

What’s the 20-year plan in that direction? Be 20 years angrier? Be 20 years more afraid? That way lies pogroms. There are strong indications that they’re already here.

It’s time to change course.