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What the Pandemic Is Telling Us About Science, Politics, and Values – Slate

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U.S. Capitol Dome with coronavirus spikes all over it

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

For the past 30 years, I have tried to make sense of the interactions between science and politics, especially the challenge of making decisions under conditions of uncertainty and disagreement. Why—despite huge and ever-expanding bodies of relevant scientific research—is it so impossible to resolve disagreements around climate change, nuclear energy, mammograms, K–12 public education, chemicals in the environment, genetically modified organisms, nutritional guidelines, trade policy, and on and on? Why, despite all the research and expertise, do the opposing sides of these debates remain fixed in their values and interests, certain in their own version of the facts and immovable in their sense of what should or should not be done?

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the relation between science and politics is now at the center of the world stage. The novel coronavirus offers up a powerful and extremely clear lesson about the appropriate role of science in helping to guide us toward a better future—a lesson that sharply contradicts standard thinking about science and politics. Above all, we are learning that science’s place in politics is determined not by the logic of facts, but by the fundamental influence of human values. To understand why, we have to start by recognizing how the COVID-19 crisis differs in almost every important respect from more familiar controversies at the intersection of science and politics.

For once, we all agree.

Most importantly: The COVID-19 threat is immediate, global, and existential. The protection of one’s own life depends on the protection of the lives of others. We are thus unified by the shared value of preserving life, which in turn means we are all actually talking about the same thing when we talk about the COVID crisis. A similar condition of value convergence emerges during time of war, but because the threat now is a pandemic virus and not an enemy nation, the desired goal of preventing loss of life is universally shared. My point is not that COVID-19 signals the dawning of the age of Aquarius—the battles in Congress this week make it clear that rancor remains. It’s that as the reality of what we are facing sinks in, people everywhere are showing that they are increasingly willing to put their immediate interests and conflicting values aside in the service of achieving a much larger, shared goal of slowing the pandemic.

We can see what caused the crisis.

There’s a second reason we are talking about the same thing: Causation can be attributed. Some wacko conspiracy theorists notwithstanding, the causal link between the novel coronavirus and the emergence of a new strain of potentially acute respiratory illness is clear, as is the exponential increase in both disease incidence and deaths resulting from the illness. Uncertainties about ease of transmission, asymptomatic cases, and misdiagnoses do not undermine knowledge of the fundamental chain of causation, which is simple, linear, and unmistakable: The virus is identified, people are getting sick, hospitals are filling up, patients are dying, and the number of deaths can be counted and communicated unequivocally.

The facts, that is, are being made authoritative not through scientists telling us what to believe about an invisible virus, but by occurrences in the real world, visible for all to see. If a researcher claims that a certain chemical in the environment, like the glyphosate in Roundup, will cause a certain number of increased cancer deaths per year or that a particular economic policy will lead to a certain number of new jobs, in most cases no one will ever be able to confirm that prediction. Even if the mechanism by which the chemical causes some variety of cancer is clear in lab rats, it is likely to have many plausible causes in humans. Even if the new jobs do appear, the cause might be trade decisions made by other countries or the expansion of new industries. In the years that might be necessary to test such claims (though usually they cannot be tested), other researchers may come up with entirely new explanations. No wonder scientific and political debates about such matters never seem to end. But for COVID-19, the basic scientific inferences quickly play out—through changing incidence of the disease and its consequences—in ways that allow both scientists and the public to assess the current level of scientific understanding and the facts on the ground.

The facts are good enough.

What we know now has to be the basis for action. The facts have to be good enough—even if some of them turn out to be wrong. We can’t wait around for more research. We can watch learning occur in real time as the consequences of actions are assessed and interpreted. For example, as I was writing the first draft of this essay, new evidence from Italy was showing that death rates were for the first time beginning to fall below the exponential curve that previous death rates were following. Fact: The nation’s radical social isolation policies were beginning to take hold. But a day later, death rates were on the rise again. Fact: Apparently the policies weren’t making a difference, at least not yet. What makes the science good enough on any given day is that we need it to be good enough if we are to act on behalf of the values we share. We don’t use the facts because they are right, but because they are what we have, and because we must act, and because we all want the same thing.

Indeed, scientists and policymakers are for the most part being open about the significant uncertainties surrounding the disease and its future course. These uncertainties range from basic facts about the virus (how will it behave in warmer weather?) to inferences about the course of the disease (how many undiagnosed cases are out there? What’s the fatality rate?) to predictions about how policies (like social isolation) will slow the course of the pandemic. This openness about uncertainties may appear ironic or paradoxical; after all, if the experts are so worried, shouldn’t they hush up the uncertainties so as not to undermine the need for urgency and compliance?

Yet the speed with which the pandemic is advancing and policies are being enacted also means that the consequences of decisions are likely to be revealed fairly quickly. Unfolding events will help reduce uncertainties and improve learning about what works and what doesn’t. These conditions rarely hold for the more conventional sorts of controversies I’ve mentioned, where causal inferences are often impossible to validate, and facts, decisions, and consequences—and the links among them—are themselves mired in controversy and disagreement. But with COVID-19, convergent values about what we want to accomplish means that uncertainty (about the science and about the decisions that are being be taken) does not block action—everyone agrees both on the need to act and on the desired goal. Scientists share those values (they’re people too!), so even if they disagree over aspects of the disease and its mitigation, they may not need to feel compelled to overstate the certainty of their results and beliefs, unlike more conventional interactions between science and politics, where competing sides enlist their own experts who then have a strong incentive to speak with more than warranted certainty.

Models can be used appropriately.

For many problems at the intersection of science and policy, scientists use mathematical models to make inferences about the future, for time periods ranging from decades to centuries or more: How can new energy technologies best be deployed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? How will nuclear waste behave in a geological repository over coming millennia? How much will economic productivity increase if more investments are made in research? But such questions always involve enormous uncertainties, and the models used to try to answer them are laden with assumptions about more basic questions that are themselves unanswerable: How will the price of solar panels change in the coming decades? How many centuries will it take for groundwater to corrode the nuclear waste storage vessels? How efficiently do universities create economically valuable knowledge? Different assumptions about these sorts of questions allow models to fuzz the boundary between science and politics by providing competing views of the future, in support of competing political agendas.

While epidemiological models used for predicting the future of COVID-19 are also assumption-laden and highly uncertain, they can be constantly tested and refined based on data that is emerging on a daily basis, to accomplish what everyone agrees must be done. For the most part, models are being used to help put boundaries around the range of plausible futures that we face, and we can see different versions of these futures unfold as different countries implement different policies at different speeds. The models are valuable because they allow us to test our assumptions about both the behavior of the virus and the impacts of different policy approaches, in real time. They are not crystal balls deployed to make the case for one preferred future or another, but navigation charts that help us narrow the plausible pathways to the future that we all hope for.

Political agendas fall away.

For this crisis, the things that unite us are outranking those that divide us.

Complex policy issues around problems as diverse as K–12 education, climate change, health care, and immigration are all accompanied by a diversity of ideological and political sub-agendas that rarely get articulated yet may importantly influence why certain positions are supported or opposed. Different ideological theories—for example, about the role of government versus the private sector in problem-solving—are available to support competing interests, and they justify disagreement about what actions should be taken. Disagreement can be sustained because no one really knows what to do, because short-term testing of alternative policies is impossible. The problems are so complex that even defining them is controversial. Is climate change a problem of lifestyle or technological innovation or population growth? Is poor K–12 public education a reflection of underpaid teachers and inadequate government investment, or too powerful teachers unions and insufficient focus on the basics, or racial and economic inequalities whose origins go deeper than anything that can be resolved at the level of school reform?

Your view on what counts as a policy solution will reflect your underlying ideological beliefs about what causes the problem. We’re seeing this dynamic play out in spades right now as the Senate battles over an economic response package, Republicans and Democrats intent on spending the needed billions in ways that advance their ideological beliefs and political constituencies.

But when it comes to fighting COVID itself, rather than fixing the economy, the combination of shared values and clear chains of causation makes it tough to import second-order political agendas into debates about what actions to take—despite the ongoing and acknowledged uncertainties. Politicians as ideologically distinct as New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a liberal Democrat, and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a conservative Republican, are implementing essentially equivalent strategies for addressing the pandemic. While President Donald Trump is at the moment threatening to loosen up social distancing rules, his spasmodic approach to pandemic policies isn’t turning out to be significantly different from that of many other national political leaders. For this crisis, the things that unite us are outranking those that divide us; pandering and opportunism, while never absent from politics, are being brought to heel by the pincer combination of shared values and facts on the ground.

COVID-19 is a hard problem, but not a complex one. We know what COVID-19 is because we see it around us. Experts, in expressing their deep concerns, are also talking candidly about the great uncertainties and exercising humility. Politicians are nonetheless listening to experts and taking action. They are, on the whole, acting for the common good. The tired, unhelpful, ever-wishful tropes of “evidence-based policy” and “political will” actually seem to have some meaning under these special conditions.

None of this is to say that catastrophe can or will be averted. But we can say that the threat of COVID-19 is bringing out the best in both science and politics. The lesson is not that we need to always listen to experts and that science will show us the way to go. It’s that a shared sense of our commonality as humans is the essential condition of a society that has the tools to deal with its problems. Common values, not expert assertions about facts, are what make science good enough to act on. Whether this message carries into the post-COVID world, we will someday see. But if it does not, no amount of research or expertise will ever take its place.

This article also appears on the website of Issues in Science and Technology.

Future Tense
is a partnership of
Slate,
New America, and
Arizona State University
that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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The Coronavirus Is Transforming Politics and Economics – The New Yorker

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Just like in wartime, people are frightened, public attitudes are changing, and the circumstances necessitate an expanded role for the government, including the Department of the Treasury.Photographer by Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg / Getty

In early March, when health experts warned that the United States risked running short of vital medical supplies, such as masks and ventilators, Donald Trump resisted calls to invoke the Defense Production Act, a 1950 law that gives the President broad powers to prioritize the production of certain items when they become important for national security. As recently as last week, he said, “We don’t need it.” Finally, on Thursday, Trump dropped the pretense and invoked the act to order the suppliers of ventilator manufacturers to give them the components they need to speed up production.

Every day, in ways small and large, the spread of the coronavirus is reshaping American politics. As the death toll rises and the economic fallout spreads, measures once considered unthinkable are being adopted, and not just in the public-health sphere. The $2.2 trillion emergency spending bill that Congress passed last week is worth about ten per cent of G.D.P., and in the coming months we are likely to see another stimulus. This dramatic ramp-up in federal spending is comparable to what happened in 1942, the year after Pearl Harbor, when federal spending as a share of G.D.P. rose by more than ten percentage points.

Trump is no F.D.R., of course, and the virus, unlike the Axis Powers, is an invisible enemy. But the record shows that lethal pandemics and major wars can both have enormous political and economic consequences. In his 2017 opus “The Great Leveler,” Walter Scheidel, a Stanford historian, described them as two of the “four horsemen” that have flattened economic inequality throughout human history. (The other two levelling forces that Scheidel identified were revolutions and state failures.) By decimating the population of medieval Europe, the Black Death made labor scarce, which raised wages and undermined the feudal system. The Civil War abolished slavery and gave rise to the Homestead Act of 1862. The First World War changed the role of women in the economy and paved the way for their political emancipation. The Second World War elevated the role of labor unions and led to the explicit adoption of Keynesian full-employment policies, through the 1946 Employment Act. In Europe, it facilitated the creation of a postwar welfare state, including the National Health Service in Britain.

These violent ruptures lasted years. We can hope that this horrible public-health crisis will also be temporary. And yet, the “wartime” metaphor is in many ways apt. Daily life has been transformed; in just two weeks, almost ten million Americans have filed unemployment claims; and earlier this week a White House task force said the death toll could eventually reach two hundred and forty thousand. Just like in wartime, people are frightened, public attitudes are changing, and the circumstances are necessitating a big expansion of the government’s role.

As of today, tens of millions of small and medium-sized firms will be able to take out bank loans to cover all of their running costs, including wages and rent, for the next eight weeks. If they keep their workers on the books, or rehire the ones they have laid off in the past couple of weeks, the Treasury Department will automatically repay the loans in their entirety. (I wrote about the scheme earlier this week.) The involvement of banks disguises the fact that this is essentially a huge, federal grant program, in which Uncle Sam will be paying the wages of tens of millions of Americans who are nominally private-sector employees. For a conservative Republican Administration, this is a strikingly interventionist move. But it doesn’t cover large corporations, and there are doubts about how quickly and widely the loans will be taken up. (The initial reports aren’t encouraging.) If the jobless count keeps rising, pressure will grow for the Administration to go further and copy the emergency job-protection programs that many European countries have adopted, which encompass businesses of all sizes and involve the government paying them directly.

In other policy areas, too, the Overton window—the range of political options considered acceptable—is expanding. The rapid passage of such a big stimulus, with more to come probably, has punctured the idea, assiduously promoted by deficit hawks, that we “can’t afford” more government programs. Despite all the additional spending, the U.S. Treasury is still able to borrow on remarkably favorable terms: on Thursday, the yield on ten-year Treasury bonds was just 0.63 per cent. And as a backstop, there is the Federal Reserve, with its electronic printing press at the ready.

You don’t have to be a convert to Modern Monetary Theory to have noted the alacrity with which the Fed, over the past month, has purchased and placed on its balance sheet about $1.5 trillion worth of Treasury bonds, commercial paper and bonds issued by large corporations, mortgage-backed securities, auto loans, and credit-card loans. In the coming days, it may well start lending directly to big corporations. As the Fed constructs a comprehensive safety net for Wall Street and corporate America, how can anyone argue against an equally comprehensive approach to safeguarding the welfare of medical workers, delivery-truck drivers, grocery-store employees, and other ordinary Americans on the front line of the battle to contain COVID-19?

The public at large may not grasp some of the financial intricacies, but it surely sees the urgent need for universal health care. According to a poll published by Morning Consult earlier this week, net support for Medicare for All—those who support it minus those who oppose it—has risen by nine points. The virus isn’t just raising support for socialized medicine; it is also undermining the finances of the private-insurance model. Caring for COVID-19 patients can be very costly. If the insurers have to recoup these costs next year, they could raise their 2021 premiums by more than forty per cent, according to an analysis by Covered California, the Golden State’s official health-insurance marketplace. Though Elizabeth Warren is out of the Democratic primary and it would be a huge surprise for Bernie Sanders to secure the Party’s nomination, they could well end up winning the debate over health-care policy.

In another important development, the mass layoffs that have resulted from the virus have also laid bare the iniquities of the gig economy, in which Uber drivers and other online-platform workers, temp-agency workers, and a whole variety of freelancers didn’t have access to health insurance, sick leave, or unemployment insurance. During an appearance on CNBC on Thursday, the investor James Chanos said he was selling short the stocks of gig-economy companies because their business model, which is based on classifying workers as self-employed to avoid giving them costly benefits, is likely to be challenged. “I think both political parties are going to be looking at that pretty hard,” Chanos said.

Much depends on the duration of the pandemic, of course. If the associated shutdowns prove to be reasonably short-lived—two or three months—the economy and the markets could rebound fairly rapidly. Congress and the Fed could wind down their emergency programs, and public attitudes could flip back. But the longer the pandemic goes on, and the deadlier it becomes, the greater the pressure will be for more government activism of various forms.

It would be reassuring to think that this pressure will always lead to necessary actions and progressive policies, but that might be kidding ourselves. A new study of the impact of the 1918 flu pandemic on the U.S. and European countries shows that it led to a decline in social trust. The spread of the virus, the confinement measures taken to counter it, and “rumours about enemy spies spreading the infection beyond the lines as a kind of biological weapon created a climate of suspicion and mistrust,” the authors noted.

With some people already calling for residents of COVID-19 hotspots to be confined to their own areas, and Trump referring to “the China virus,” we are already seeing some echoes of this phenomenon. As the pandemic intensifies, it could lead to rising xenophobia, a further accentuation of regional divides, and even demands for authoritarian remedies, which Trump, having settled into the idea of himself as a wartime leader, might be all too eager to exploit.

That is worst-case speculation. But COVID-19 is shifting the tectonic plates that undergird American politics, and, as with the progress of the virus itself, the range of possible outcomes is wide. It is in such circumstances that history is made, for good or ill.


A Guide to the Coronavirus

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Coronavirus: Playing party politics in a pandemic? – BBC News

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“United front.” “Unity of purpose.” “Common ground.”

Take your pick from the bank of phrases used by our politicians when they talk about the need to work together to tackle this deadly pandemic.

Two weeks ago when the executive’s 10 ministers held a joint press conference in Stormont’s grounds, it seemed like they might just be capable of doing it.

But that didn’t last long.

Sinn Féin has been pulling in the opposite direction from its power-sharing partner, the DUP, on many aspects of the response to this crisis.

The first and deputy first ministers, Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill, may have been standing side-by-side at regular press conferences, but their messages – on everything from school closures and testing to what counts as an essential business – have been entirely contradictory and confusing.

Flawed strategy?

Ms O’Neill’s latest comments, accusing Health Minister Robin Swann of being too slow to act, are significant because she is swiping at her very own government.

In the space of one interview, the concept of collective responsibility practically vanished.

Critics say she’s acting more like an opposition leader playing politics, than the joint head of an administration speaking up on principle.

But Sinn Féin says there is no point presenting a united front on a flawed strategy, and that if the party tried to resolve differences behind the scenes – rather than airing legitimate concerns with strategy in public – it would get slated for that.

Ms O’Neill says she’ll continue to “call out” problems within government, and that argument will hold weight with some, but it will further upset relations with the other four parties, in an already tense executive.

Arlene Foster tried to put out the flames, sounding a calm note when she appeared on Friday’s airwaves, although some within the DUP may have wanted her to take a tougher line.

Fragile relationships

For days now, Stormont sources have been briefing journalists that all is not well on the hill, as ministers and their respective teams go on the defensive.

Around the executive table, the atmosphere’s been repeatedly described as “toxic”, with decisions being taken in silos and even some policy announcements being put on social media before governmental colleagues have been informed.

It’s true the parties are facing challenges they never envisaged, made harder by the fact devolution was only restored in January after a three-year hiatus – relationships were already fragile.

The crisis has also highlighted the shortcomings in the limited powers afforded to the Stormont executive.

Whether it’s relying on Westminster for extra funding, or looking to Dublin for help in securing additional equipment, given the bidding war going on across the world, Northern Ireland only has so many levers to pull and no doubt that is also exacerbating internal strains.

Failure is not an option as lives are depending on the executive and time is short. The peak of the virus is due to arrive in Northern Ireland during the next two weeks.

Over the years the clarion call here has been for politics to be taken out of health. But if the parties couldn’t do that in the past how can anyone expect them to take the politics out of a pandemic?

The DUP-Sinn Féin partnership has always been one of reluctant necessity, due to Northern Ireland’s system of mandatory power sharing.

It’s hard to present a united front if someone doesn’t fully believe in it. Will the executive soon reach a point where the differences in approach to tackling this virus become too much to bear?

For the sake of everyone in Northern Ireland, let’s hope not.

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Trump letter attacking Schumer is sent as President says 'this is not the time for politics' – CNN

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Trump was speaking at the White House daily coronavirus briefing at the same time his staff released the letter to Schumer, in which he blasted the New York Democrat’s request for more streamlined leadership in mandating production to support the coronavirus response.
“I’ve known you for many years but I never knew how bad a Senator you are for the state of New York, until I became President,” Trump wrote to Schumer, disparaging his request as “Democrat public relations letter and incorrect soundbites, which are wrong in every way.”
The exchange highlights Trump’s negotiating strategy once again defaulting to a political clash with a top Democrat as the coronavirus outbreak worsens, forcing the administration to work with key Democrats such as Schumer, a long-standing critic, to establish a federal response.
However, Trump had attempted to keep the letter from being sent out after speaking with Schumer on the phone Thursday afternoon.
Schumer’s office told CNN that the President had told the New York Democrat that he had written a “very nasty letter” to Schumer, and “he would try to stop it from going out and would apologize to Sen. Schumer if he didn’t stop it in time.”
New graf: New York has emerged as the virus’ epicenter in the United States, leading all other states with more than 92,000 cases and more than 2,400 deaths as of Thursday night, according to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has also drawn Trump’s ire after pushing back against the federal government’s response strategy.
In the letter, Trump attacked Schumer for New York’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, as well as what he calls the “ridiculous impeachment hoax.” Trump claimed that if Schumer had spent less time on impeachment, New York might not have been “so completely unprepared for the invisible enemy.”
Schumer’s qualms came after Trump invoked the Defense Production Act — which gives the government more control during emergencies to direct industrial production — last week to compel General Motors to produce more ventilators for increasing coronavirus hospitalizations, and named White House trade adviser Peter Navarro as the act’s policy coordinator for the federal government.
Speaking to CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Wednesday night, Schumer described his plans to call on Trump to name a new point person for management of the Defense Production Act and disparaged Navarro.
Navarro “is not up to the job,” Schumer said. “He’s a very nice man, but he has had no experience doing things like this, and they have no one, that I can best tell, in charge of the distribution.”
He called on the administration to select “one person, a military person, a general who knows how to deal with logistics and order mastering, who knows command and control.”
That person should be “in charge of both production and distribution of all the kinds of needed equipment and get it to the places that need it and have shortages,” Schumer said, recommending that Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, select a candidate for the role.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the number of deaths from coronavirus in New York state as of Thursday night.

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