Can A Pandemic Have A Good Side?

Pollyanna here! (I know– this is a rare appearance of my positive side…)

What prompted my question was a series of posts on my neighborhood listserv, which is usually dominated by complaints about trash pickup, potholes and porch thieves. The first of the series was this one:

If there are any elderly or immunosuppressed neighbors who have an errand they cannot run, I’d be happy to help! I work in a nursing facility and know there are many elderly that are fearful of getting to the store.

That was followed by one titled “Be Kind,” which read

Please keep an eye out for neighbors, friends, kids, even people on the street that look stressed. Be kind to everyone since we cannot know the problems they are having with the stress of this slow moving crisis. Whether emotional or financial, it will bring out depression in those trying to keep it together. Domestic violence is likely to increase. It is unlike a hurricane in that we don’t know when, where, how, or how long.

Forty-nine neighbors had responded to that post when I last checked, and the comments were uniformly positive, thanking the poster for the reminder, suggesting ways to be helpful to neighbors, and indicating an intent to check on the well-being of older residents or those with medical problems.

I live in a downtown neighborhood–often referred to (scornfully) as “the hood” by people who assume that urban life is dangerous, faceless and anonymous. I actually know most of my neighbors, who are unfailingly pleasant and helpful, so I was gratified, but not surprised, by the attitudes expressed in these posts.

Also on the potentially positive side is growing recognition that a robust social safety net doesn’t just help “those people”–i.e., the poor or marginalized. If people living paycheck to paycheck (and there are more of them than you think) don’t have paid sick leave, they are likely to come to work when they shouldn’t, and to infect “us.”

And it probably goes without saying that if everyone had access to healthcare, it would be easier to identify and isolate sick folks and thus contain pandemics. Perhaps the virus will help more people understand why a society that protects the most vulnerable is actually better for everyone.

Finally, despite the best disinformation efforts of Faux News, there are signs that this public health challenge is creating a renewed appreciation for the importance of a properly functioning government.

Periodically, America’s historic penchant for anti-intellectualism and distaste for “pointy-headed” experts facilitates the election of a “politically-incorrect” public official.  Previously, this has been a more common outcome at the state and local level, but in 2016 it elevated a toxic and profoundly ignorant man to the Presidency.

When resentment of knowledge unites with fear of social displacement–in our case, the escalating panic of less-educated white “Christian” males facing loss of their dominant status–it creates an opening for the con men and would-be autocrats who view government office as an opportunity for graft rather than a call to serve.

Unfortunately, when an emergency arrives that requires a government solution, the utter inability of these bozos to perform–to use the powers of government for their intended purpose– becomes too obvious to ignore.

The Trump administration’s multiple transgressions against science, the environment and the most basic principles of good government will be responsible for many deaths that  might have been avoided. There isn’t much average Americans can do about that at this point–but going forward, we can and must learn a lesson: competent government matters.

And at a time where so many Americans have displayed their ugliest sides–their racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and more–we can take comfort in the humanity and genuine goodness of so many ordinary citizens.

It may not be enough, but it’s important.


Who Do You Resent?

Political polarization has created newly rigid political identities, complete with required enemies. Not only do partisans detest each other, devout Republicans and (to a somewhat lesser extent) Democrats also coalesce around those common enemies.

Democrats disparage the “un-woke,” distrust billionaires and powerful corporations, and rail against climate-change-deniers.

Republicans sneer at higher education, fear immigrants, use “socialism” as a dirty word (despite considerable evidence that most of them have no idea what it is), and really, really hate “elitists” –i.e., experts who actually know what they’re talking about.

“Elitists” populate the equally despised and mischaracterized “deep state.”

Frank Bruni recently had a column in the New York Times in which he explored the GOP’s resentment of professionalism–especially the patriotic public servants that Trump’s current, despicable press secretary labels“radical unelected bureaucrats.”

The impeachment inquiry and the events that led to it tell many stories. One, obviously, is about the abuse of power. Another illuminates the foul mash of mendacity and paranoia at the core of Donald Trump.

But this week, as several longtime civil servants testify at the inquiry’s first public hearings, a third narrative demands notice, because it explains the entire tragedy of the Trump administration: the larger scandals, the lesser disgraces and the current moment of reckoning.

That story is the collision of a president who has absolutely no regard for professionalism and those who try to embody it, the battle between an arrogant, unscrupulous yahoo and his humble, principled opposites.

Bruni notes that Trump’s contempt for professionalism is part and parcel of his aversion to norms of all sorts, including tradition and simple courtesy, and that such contempt has been a “distinct theme” in his business career, which has been “rife with cheating, and his political life, which is greased with lies.”

Go back to his initial staffing of senior posts and recall how shoddy the vetting process was. Also notice two prominent classes of recruits: people who had profoundly questionable preparation for the jobs that he nonetheless gave them (Ben Carson, Betsy DeVos, Stephen Miller, Javanka) and genuine professionals who wagered that their skills would be critically necessary — and thus highly valued — and that Trump would surely rise to the established codes and expected conduct of his office.

Now look at how many of those professionals (James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, Gary Cohn, Dan Coats) are gone. And tell me whether Trump has ever had the epiphany that the presidency is, in fact, a profession.

Interestingly, the Trump Administration’s sorry excuse for vetting came to public notice again just this week, when multiple media outlets reported that a senior official had embellished her résumé with highly misleading claims about her professional background, and had gone so far as to create a fake Time magazine cover with her face on it. She had invented a role on a U.N. panel, claimed she had addressed both the Democratic and Republican national conventions, and implied she had testified before Congress, none of which was true. Lying at this level should have been easy to uncover, but she was appointed–and continues to serve–as a deputy assistant secretary in the State Department.

As Bruni says

A crisis of professionalism defines his administration, in which backstabbing is the new glad-handing, firings are cruel, exits are ugly, the turnover is jaw-dropping, the number of unfilled positions is mind-boggling, and many officials have titles that are prefaced with “acting” — a modifier with multiple meanings in this case.

Trump slyly markets his anti-professionalism as anti-elitism and a rejection of staid, cautious thinking. But it’s really his way of excusing his ignorance, costuming his incompetence and greenlighting his hooliganism.

Two of the professionals who have come forward to testify about Trump’s effort to blackmail the President of Ukraine were described by Michael McFaul, a former United States ambassador to Russia, in a recent essay for The New York Review of Books titled “The Deeply Dedicated State.”

Both always have struck me as first-rate government servants, singularly focused on advancing American national interests. Both have served Republican and Democratic presidents, and even after decades of interacting with them both, I could not guess how either of them votes.”

He characterized them as “accidental heroes” who aren’t “likely to seek the limelight.” “They are extremely well trained, competent, and highly regarded professionals,” he summarized.

That’s why they bucked Trump. And that’s why he can’t bear them.

When people resent competence, when they sneer at honorable public servants as “elitists” or label them members of a nefarious “deep state,” it tells you a great deal about their own deficits.

Such resentment permeates today’s Republican Party, and that explains a lot.


Longing for a Little Competence

Back in “the day,” Bill Hudnut used to make speeches about the importance of being a city that worked. The basic message was simple: we can’t do the big things if we can’t get the day-to-day mechanics right. The first order of business for any public manager is to ensure that public services are being delivered properly and the public’s business is being handled prudently.

If Bill was right–and I believe he was–then all I can say is “Houston, We Have a Problem.”

According to news reports, Mayor Ballard and 100 “city leaders” are leaving on a trade mission to Germany.  And the City is putting together another SuperBowl bid.  (Let’s just ignore that 6 million dollar cricket field…) Big things, check.

But how are we doing with the humdrum everyday stuff? How is that “city that works” thing going?

Is the public’s business being handled properly?  Paul Ogden has the truly jaw-dropping details of a lease between the City and a  campaign contributor for an uninhabitable  Regional Operations Center that wouldn’t pass the smell test of a first-year law student. I spent 17 years practicing real estate law, and I have never seen anything remotely that egregious.  Either the lease was the result of corruption, or it was negotiated by the most incompetent lawyer in central Indiana. Either way, it represented a colossal waste of ever-more-scarce tax dollars.

How about those public services? My commute from my home in downtown Indianapolis to IUPUI is about a mile and a half. Usually, it takes 5-8 minutes, depending upon the time of day. But for the past several weeks, it has taken nearly half an hour. Traffic has been bumper to bumper, thanks to poorly managed street repair projects and (evidently unregulated and unsupervised) private construction that has brought traffic on some of our busiest downtown streets to a virtual standstill. Some  congestion is obviously inescapable, but it is clear that much of it is a result of poor–or nonexistent–management. The resulting mess increases drive time, air pollution and frayed nerves.

The city isn’t the only inept manager of local construction projects, of course.  The state has closed I65 and the downtown split, in order to raise bridges that keep getting damaged because trucks keep hitting them. Barely ten years ago, the much-ballyhood “Hyperfix”  shut down those same portions of the interstates, so that multiple repairs could be made. For reasons that have never been explained, the Hyperfix project didn’t include work to raise the bridges–and this isn’t a new problem.

What’s the old saying? There’s never time to do it right, but always time to do it over?

Managing curb and sidewalk construction, ensuring that highways are safe, vetting contracts to ensure that taxpayers aren’t getting ripped off–these and many other municipal tasks aren’t glamorous. But they’re necessary and important. They are essential elements of a city that works.

You’ve gotta drive to the airport if you’re going to fly to exotic places on that junket. The fifteen people in Indy who play cricket need to drive to the game.

And eventually, if you keep flushing tax dollars down friends’ toilets, there won’t be any left.


The Vision Thing

Matt Tully and Erika Smith are the most perceptive-and provocative-commentators at the Indianapolis Star, and I agree with them more often than not. So when I opened Tully’s column this morning, I was inclined to agree with his basic thesis: Indianapolis needs a leader with a bold vision for what the city could become.


What, exactly, is “vision”? I agree that it isn’t the issuance of ten-point plans, or plaintive explanations of good intentions. On the other hand, I think Tully is conflating vision with charisma. Vision, it seems to me, is the ability to articulate a coherent plan to move the city to a clearly identified place–i.e., we might say our vision is to create a city in which residents feel safe, can find employment, inhabit a vibrant arts community, and enjoy public amenities. Vision is evidenced by connecting those “ten-point plans” to each other in service of an overall goal, by showing an understanding of the importance of public transportation, for example, to both quality of life and economic development. As readers of this blog already know, I do not see that vision–or the management skills to achieve a vision–as attributes of our current mayor. (What is Ballard’s vision for Indianapolis after we’ve sold off all our infrastructure, I wonder.)

Bill Hudnut was widely seen as visionary, and I agree with that assessment, but he was also charismatic. Six feet four, with a commanding presence, a gift for public speaking, he could look visionary promoting the “Clean City” initiative. Neither Ballard nor Kennedy is charismatic, but that isn’t the same thing as a lack of vision.

And when we do go to the polls to vote for one of them, we need to take into account not only their stated goals, not only whether we think those goals are reasonable ones, but the likeliness that they have what it takes to achieve them.