(2020-04-14) Guinn First The People
There were other casualties of the Great War, too. The narratives of a protective ruling class across Europe. Fervent embrace of trade and economic models based on colonialism and imperialism.
First, the people die; then, the stories.
The human toll of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) is unlikely to approach even a mean fraction of the pain visited on humanity in the first quarter of the 20th century. But what about the stories we tell about our global institutions, our shared values, and our own orthodoxies and authorities? Those stories are dying. They are dying because the institutions built on those stories failed us all, and all at once.
The failures of these institutions were not simple mistakes, evidence of wrongness of one kind or another. The failures of these institutions were failures of narrative, devastating revelations of each institution’s fundamental inability to do what they said they would do. Revelations that their purpose was something other than the story they told about themselves.
We may choose our birthright of resilience and sovereignty – a life in which we reclaim the power exploited so recklessly by nudging government officials, nudging oligarchs and rent-seekers. Or we may choose a world in which we accept that our participation will amount to obsessing over the charade of a presidential election every four years and nothing more.
If we would not yield our birthright, we must first choose never to forget the full scope of our betrayal.
The missionaries leading the WHO told you a story about who they were.
We published an essay called The Industrially Necessary Doctor Tedros on February 16, maybe a week or two before every carbon-based lifeform with a marginally working brain knew that COVID-19 had become a global pandemic.
That was, incidentally, almost a month before the WHO itself got around to declaring it a pandemic. More startingly, it was two weeks AFTER the WHO had published a document declaring an ‘infodemic.’ Too many people concerned about the virus, you see
How do I know that everyone at WHO knew that the official Chinese numbers were a crock on Feb. 4? Because WHO-sponsored doctors in Hong Kong published independent studies on Jan. 31 showing that the official Chinese numbers were a crock.
This will be a familiar refrain, because the nature of our betrayal by so many of these institutions shares a flamboyant emphasis on “evidence-based” analysis. The problem is that “evidence” based on the analysis of knowably incomplete, non-representative or self-evidently fraudulent data is not evidence-based analysis at all. It is cargo cult science
It is doing sciencey-looking things to provide a dangerous and unethical imprimatur to the politically derived conclusions you had determined to promote long before any actual evidence came to light.
The missionaries leading the CDC told you a story about who they were.
Today, everybody knows that everybody knows the CDC leadership promulgated “noble lie” guidance about masks to nudge citizens’ behaviors, and established testing eligibility criteria designed to minimize the headline COVID-19 infection numbers reported for the United States rather than to arrest the extent of its spread.
The chief betrayal by CDC leadership came in the form of diagnostic eligibility criteria for COVID-19, a policy we coined “Don’t Test, Don’t Tell” back in February.
As late as February 26, the CDC claimed in emails made available to the Wall Street Journal that “testing capacity is more than adequate to meet current testing demands.” It is a claim which tells you two things: that the institution cared very much about being able to tell Americans that it was doing its job, and that it wanted to self-measure its performance in that job by whether it was able to provide enough tests to meet demand. There are only two ways it could feasibly achieve that end. The first would be to artificially limit what it defined as ‘demand’ by introducing arbitrarily and dangerously limited testing criteria. The second would be to move decisively and rapidly to expand available testing. The leadership of the CDC chose the first. And then they failed for weeks to do anything productive about the second.
the direct result of Don’t Test, Don’t Tell was to provide “data” that permitted governors, businesses and local leaders to act slowly to enact social distancing measures based on the imprimatur of ‘evidence-based’ analysis.
the CDC was also responsible for a delay in widespread testing capacity on multiple fronts
But there’s a difference between botched test kits and the promulgated testing policies
The testing policy failure was of a different kind. So, too, was the shift in official CDC recommendations about the use of masks by American citizens.
The missionaries leading the FDA told you a story about who they were.
Today everybody knows that everybody knows the FDA is more concerned with avoiding blame and defending its political turf than the safety of Americans.
The FDA is an organization designed to move slowly, deliberately and with an excessive focus on what might go wrong. It is literally the worst possible organization to approve each and every diagnostic, new medical device or piece of PPE that might be necessary to rapidly inform and supply the fight against the exponential spread of a novel virus.
the FDA played a chief role in slowing the approval and roll-out of COVID-19 testing.
On February 4th, instead of removing traditional hurdles to recognize the severity of the looming pandemic, the FDA added additional hurdles on labs before they could participate testing
If that were not enough, it was not until March 16th, when community spread was demonstrable in nearly every major US metropolitan area, that the FDA approved the marketing of COVID-19 tests by private sector labs. March. Sixteenth.
They issued a modified ventilator emergency use authorization on March 24th, weeks after governors had been begun begging for more inventory
Elite American universities (colleges) told you a story about who they were.
Today, everybody knows that everybody knows that our elite universities exist to monetize the benefits of a reputation of progressive activism without even the most threadbare genuine commitment to it.
there are also “university endowment truthers.” These citizens posit that endowments don’t actually have funds to do things like ensure that their hundreds of part-time contract workers across campus are not missing rent or meals because of a suspension in on-campus activity related to the COVID-19 pandemic. You see, the endowment consists of multiple different funds, each of which is completely earmarked. No money in any pool for this kind of thing.
American universities have institutionalized the promotion of narratives of progressiveness, social justice and awareness to such an extent that they have become cartoons.
The American news media (MSM journalism) told you a story about who they were.
today everybody knows that everybody knows that the US media are willing to speak truth to power…so long as it is the right power.
For most large-scale US media outlets with a left-wing editorial predisposition, the right power to speak truth to is Donald Trump. Even if that meant being the most vocal US institution downplaying the risk of COVID-19 for all of January and the first half of February 2020.
for most media outlets this wasn’t just a matter of getting the pandemic wrong. It was an institutional failure, an inevitable result of the narratives they created for themselves. US media were asleep at the wheel on the pandemic when they could have been actively challenging the WHO, China, the CDC, the FDA, local health officials and all sorts of other officials relying on fundamentally flawed methods for establishing their claims.
When the facts became unavoidable, to their credit, these outlets rapidly changed their tune – and their coverage. Some of the coverage in March from these same outlets has been extraordinary and brave.
if you don’t think the US media has suffered an institutional failure in need of redress by a populace who needs them to resume their role as the fourth estate, you are not paying attention. And if you think the work of right-wing media beginning in late February hasn’t been even worse, you are paying even less attention.
They’re scaring the living hell out of people. And I see it again as, like, “Oh, let’s bludgeon Trump with this new hoax!” Sean Hannity on Fox News (March 9th, 2020)
Nearly all of the techniques with which left-learning outlets directed early conclusions toward pacification, criticism of Donald Trump and eyes closed to the actions of the WHO and CCP, were later used by right-leaning outlets when the White House was the one in the business of downplaying the risks of COVID-19
It wasn’t that Fox News, Breitbart and others were simply making mistakes and getting the pandemic wrong. In fact, I don’t think it is very hard at all to argue that they were largely more attuned to the risk of this new coronavirus in late January than other media sources were
But after mid-February, when the Trump administration shifted to a posture which sought to minimize the risk of a COVID-19 pandemic, when most media outlets began to shift their news coverage to recognize it as a more significant risk, the news coverage and opinion content on Breitbart and Fox News shifted dramatically. Diametrically. Immediately.
I think the above article readily encapsulates the failure of right-wing media. So convinced are they their mission must be first to speak truth to the power that is a progressive-dominated US news media that they abdicated their duty to provide true and timely information about the extent of a dangerous pandemic
The institutional failure that has been laid bare is not a national press that made some mistakes in its coverage. It is a media which – across the political spectrum – believes it is a principal. It believes and acts as if its proper role is to promote and influence adoption of its preferred interpretations of the world, instead of acting as the agent of the people
Yesterday, everybody knew that everybody knew that public company boards (board of directors) faithfully represented the interests of shareholders.
Today, everybody knows that everybody knows that public company boards are largely captive to management, similarly motivated to maximize short term price appreciation at any cost and incentivized to be “good soldiers” to permit future lucrative engagements.
Whiting Petroleum, and Brad serves as both its Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer. On March 26, 2020, that board paid him and his fellow executives $14.6 million in bonuses. Holley himself pocketed $6.4 million. Six days later, that same board sent Whiting Petroleum into Chapter 11 bankruptcy with a proposal that would wipe out 97% of the equity in the company
Words that will allow these gentlemen – the chairs of Whiting’s compensation, audit and governance committees, respectively – to continue supplementing their retirements with the roughly $100,000 a year in cash to go along with $200,000 or so in share grants that Whiting and comparable small- and mid-cap shale companies offer their directors.
those bonuses are almost certainly going to be substantially clawed back as the company proceeds through Chapter 11, so the upside to this brazenness is limited, too. Unless, that is, your incentive is to demonstrate to future management teams in need of an experienced board slate that you know how to play ball.
Sometimes playing ball takes the form of permitting management to juice returns for years and enrich itself in the process by endangering the business, by risking its shareholders, and yes, by relying on American taxpayers for yet another bailout. Like the board of American Airlines Group.
Yesterday, everybody knew that everybody knew that Wall Street produced the occasional greed and excesses, sure, but in the end performed a vital function synthesizing views on risk and pricing of capital to ensure that capital is directed to its most productive ends.
National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow... Yes, Larry was completely wrong when he referred to COVID-19 as contained. More than wrong. It was a statement which could not possibly have been correct given the testing information available at the time. It was not knowable. You cannot assert that something is contained when the only evidence that exists demonstrates that you are actively avoiding discovering evidence.
Is CNBC Wall Street? My goodness, no. Sure, some financial advisers and individual investors watch it seriously and earnestly for information. Professional investors, by and large, roll their eyes at it. But everybody has it on. And so, like Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal (and Barron’s, once upon a time), it ends up being one of the primary missionary platforms through which corporate executives, along with capital markets, trading, lending, investing and government institutions seek to influence the behavior of others.
If you are not involved in financial markets, let me tell you what happened and why this matters. In early March, investors, lenders and businesses were all grappling with the unsettling uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic and what a 20-30% drop in economic activity in a single quarter might mean. For most, the answer was pretty clear, and became even clearer once they saw what others were doing: “hold and conserve cash.” And when a lot more investors, lenders and businesses start saying that they’d rather hold cash than anything else, a few things happen all at once.
When you hear people talk about “liquidity”, this is the broadest definition of what they mean: How easily, how quickly and at what cost can you access cash that you thought you’d be able to access? It is a big question for lenders, businesses and investors alike.
It is an especially big question when your business model or lending model is almost completely dependent
A ‘bear market’ is when we hate the prices that the market is coming up with. An ‘illiquid market’ is when we hate the prices the market is coming up with AND want to give a regulator the narrative cover of a ‘broken market’ to step in and ‘fix’ them
we are technically bailing businesses out of the dangers of a leveraged dependence on a stable price of money
It gets more complicated, however, when the Federal Reserve starts talking about the purchase of both primary and secondary issues of investment grade corporate and municipal debt, high yield debt
this isn’t really a liquidity operation. This falls closer on the spectrum to a price intervention operation. This is a determination that it isn’t fair that this market environment will make it more costly for some more debt-dependent companies to borrow
You see, most of the institutions who are sensitive to interest rates and credit spreads are not primary lending institutions at all. They are investors and investment managers who have a structural mandate to own those things nearly all of the time, or else they are speculative institutions who are betting on a change in the price of those things. That is not a pejorative – there is nothing inherently evil about hedge funds.
When a global pandemic was looming, many of them did not see it as an opportunity to reduce the amount of risk they were taking.
These funds lost tremendous sums, and then simultaneously lost tremendous sums on investments which they believed would diversify the first.
When you hear people bemoaning the concentration of gains and the socialization of losses, this is what they mean.
Let’s all live in the fantasyland in which we pretend that the Fed’s and Congress’s actions were wholly motivated by “the real economy” and not asset prices for the benefit of highly leveraged investors. Doesn’t matter. Because this essay ain’t about mistakes. This essay is about institutional failures
For decades, we have permitted the financial services industry to repeatedly force us into Hobson’s Choices at the end of every market cycle. Every cycle, Wall Street levers up and empowers cyclical sectors of the economy to lever up. When they do, they improve their returns in the interim, extract as much cash as possible and subject us all to systemic risk in the process. When that risk manifests, and it always does in some way “no one could have predicted”, we are then told we must all share the burden for it, since now is not a time for blame! Real businesses and families are hurting, and not helping Wall Street right now would hurt them, too.
US Congress has no stable institutional narrative. Never has. Insert the Mark Twain quotation of your choosing here.
Today, everybody knows that everybody knows that Congress can’t even pass an historic, once-in-a-lifetime emergency bill for a global pandemic without inserting into it every possible personal cause, special interest or political ambition.
Frankly, in context of most government actions, you could even make the argument that the CARES Act is a decent bill.
It contains a lot of direct aid to Americans
Along with a bunch of other ridiculous shit.
The latest institutional failure is, in fact, the usual institutional failure of Congress: that it boasts of some special expertise for the identification of need and the allocation of resources to direct it.
The White House
Perhaps you also found it conspicuous that this example isn’t getting the same clever little device that the others did. You know, where we would say that the White House told us a story about who it was, but then a lot of people died and now that story is dead? I didn’t say that…because the story isn’t dead. The narrative of the US Presidency is alive and well. And that’s a problem.
When we published the words below on February 10th, we wrote them about the Chinese Communist Party.
Our contention – our fear – was that the cartoonification of coronavirus figures by governments would lead to policies which sought to optimize the cartoon rather than the world-as-it-is.
There are a lot of ways to do that.
You can lie.
You can change what is being measured.
You can maintain an artificially restrictive set of testing criteria to minimize the testing taking place over an extended period.
The White House has said that it acted early – and against the grain of a biased national media who promoted the idea that he was overreacting – to cut off travel from China. That is correct. It did (and they did). That action almost certainly slowed the spread and saved lives. Of course it did, despite the post hoc face-saving thinkpieces from late-to-the-game outlets making tortured arguments that it didn’t. Same thing on Europe, frankly. The White House has also said that it was ahead of the curve in identifying some of the problems with the relocation of American manufacturing and key industries overseas (even if the policies driven by those beliefs were not entirely productive). That is also correct. It was.
All that is true. What is also true is that by the time the United States had tested 1,000 Americans for COVID-19, France had tested five times as many
What is also true is that widespread testing did not begin taking place in the United States until March 16th, weeks after evidence of community spread in multiple locations had emerged.
What is also true is that the repeated attempts to downplay the risk posed by the COVID-19 pandemic to Americans by the White House between February and mid-March – including President Trump, Vice President Pence, and many of their advisers on many occasions – had the direct effect of slowing the implementation of social distancing measures made necessary by the lack of effective testing across the nation
And now, when we are at perhaps the second most critical juncture in the pandemic process – where we decide when and how to rescind stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures – the administration has unveiled their suggestion.
We could call these ‘mistakes’ – big mistakes, to be sure – but we would be wrong. The errors made by the executive branch in response to the COVID-19 pandemic were not uncertain bets on evidence that simply turned out to be wrong. They were not procedural failures in execution. They were not the result of breakdowns in communication. These policies were the inevitable outcome of the need for the White House to promote its preferred narrative about the pandemic: “We’ve got this under control! Don’t sell your stocks!”
The more we subject ourselves to “Call it the Trumpvirus” or “Call it the Chinavirus”.... The more we do ALL of these things, the more we will start to believe this myth that the Widening Gyre will plant in our brains: that what matters here, the way that we fix this kind of thing so that it can’t happen again is that we make the right decisions in the voting booth this fall. That is the mess of pottage we are being offered for our birthright. Reject it. Reject it utterly.
Friends, for the first time in any of our lifetimes, everyone around us is seeing the same things that we are seeing about the same institutions. They know the same things we know.
We may all observe in real-time how complexity makes liars out of global institutions designed with political pacification of the masses (“All is well!”) as their primary purpose
Far more importantly, however, we may all see in real-time how the strength we have shown as a nation did not come from faceless institutions, but from the efforts and sacrifices of individuals, families, associations, communities, towns and tribes, connected by both the value they place in each other AND by the values they share.
when they miss the big changes happening in the world, cynical people in our cynical industry shrug and say, “Oh well, no one could have predicted it.” I will let you in on a secret: those people are the reason why the world goes back to the way it was. Strive against these people.
Seek your pack. Find how to make it resilient. Never again yield your life to any fragile institution.
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