In a time of heightened political tension, Jonathan Haidt has a good idea of what’s driving this polarized atmosphere around the world. He is a social psychologist who believes social media has transformed in recent years to become an “outrage machine,” spreading anger and toxicity. He sits down with Hari to discuss this difficult problem and what the possible solutions could be.
Chamath Palihapitiya, the CEO of Social Capital and chairman of Virgin Galactic, talks about a wide range of issues, including Bitcoin, COVID, civil unrest, and broad economic trends and forecasts. We discuss:
- Whether his economic forecasts have shifted throughout COVID
- Why he believes a debt crisis will occur
- How he views the success of BTC as a hedge against the ruling class
- How the economic pendulum will swing back toward consumers
- Why he doesn’t mind if big corporations and hedge funds get wiped out
- Whether he subscribes to the thesis that Bitcoin is uncorrelated
- Why the pandemic has not spurred institutional adoption of crypto
- Why he sees no merit in Ethereum
- How the economy will become more decentralized in the future and whether blockchain will be a part of it
- Why he prefers SPACs over ICOs
- Why he started capital as a service
- Why he believes the government should bust up large corporations
The marshmallow test is a famous psychological experiment that tests children’s willingness to delay gratification. Children are offered a marshmallow, but told that they can have a second marshmallow if they’re willing to wait 15 minutes before eating the first one. Claims that children with the willpower to hold out do much better in life haven’t held up well, but the experiment is still a useful metaphor for many choices in life, both by individuals and by larger groups.
One way to think about the Covid-19 pandemic is that it poses a kind of marshmallow test for society.
At this point, there have been enough international success stories in dealing with the coronavirus to leave us with a clear sense of what beating the pandemic takes. First, you have to impose strict social distancing long enough to reduce the number of infected people to a small fraction of the population. Then you have to implement a regime of testing, tracing and isolating: quickly identifying any new outbreak, finding everyone exposed, and quarantining them until the danger is past.
This strategy is workable. South Korea has done it. New Zealand has done it.
But you have to be strict and you have to be patient, staying the course until the pandemic is over, not giving in to the temptation to return to normal life while the virus is still widespread. So it is, as I said, a kind of marshmallow test.
And America is failing that test.
New U.S. cases and deaths have declined since early April, but that’s almost entirely because the greater New York area, after a horrific outbreak, has achieved huge progress. In many parts of the country — including our most populous states, California, Texas, and Florida — the disease is still spreading. Overall, new cases are plateauing and may be starting to rise. Yet state governments are moving to reopen anyway.
This is a very different story from what’s happening in other advanced countries, even hard-hit nations like Italy and Spain, where new cases have fallen dramatically. It now looks likely that by late summer we’ll be the only major wealthy nation where large numbers of people are still dying from Covid-19.
Why are we failing the test? It’s easy to blame Donald Trump, a man-child who would surely gobble down that first marshmallow, then try to steal marshmallows from other kids. But America’s impatience, its unwillingness to do what it takes to deal with a threat that can’t be beaten with threats of violence, runs much deeper than one man.
It doesn’t help that Republicans are ideologically opposed to government safety-net programs, which are what make the economic consequences of social distancing tolerable; as I explain in today’s column, they seem determined to let crucial emergency relief expire far too soon. Nor does it help that even low-cost measures to limit the spread of Covid-19, above all wearing face masks (which mainly protect other people), have been caught up in our culture wars.
America in 2020, it seems, is too disunited, with too many people in the grip of ideology and partisanship, to deal effectively with a pandemic. We have the knowledge, we have the resources, but we don’t have the will.
The coronavirus crisis once seemed to be the kind of gut-wrenching shock that would pull together a politically divided nation. Increasingly, though, it is pulling the nation apart along familiar lines.
To see why, start by looking at how the pandemic’s effects are falling along partisan lines, leaving people on both sides of the red/blue divide now feeling they are bearing unfair burdens.
Political power in the country’s states today is almost evenly split between the two parties: 26 have Republican governors, 24 have Democratic governors. Yet the coronavirus’s effects aren’t even close to falling evenly between red and blue states.
Two-thirds of confirmed coronavirus cases are in states with Democratic governors. When states are measured by the sheer number of coronavirus cases, six of the top seven have Democratic governors. Together, those six blue states have about half of the nation’s cases, though only about a third of its population.
Coronavirus deaths tell a similar story. Eight of the nine states with the most deaths due to the virus are states with Democratic governors. When measured by deaths per capita, eight of the top nine states also have Democratic governors.
Obviously, the virus isn’t picking partisan sides. It moves without regard to borders or political affiliation. It just happens that more of the blue states have densely populated metro areas, heavily used mass transit systems and colder climates, which help the virus spread more easily. In some cases, they also have older populations more vulnerable to it.
These aren’t partisan distinctions. Massachusetts with its Republican governor, Charlie Baker, has been hit as hard as its Northeastern neighbors.
Nor are the state-by-state discrepancies necessarily a sign of how well or how badly governors are handling the outbreak. Certainly some will be judged to have acted better than others, but mostly they are dealing the hand that nature and the gods of disease handed them.
Inevitably, though, this uneven distribution of disease has led to uneven political reactions about its burden. Red states feel they are being hit harder than justified by a national economic shutdown that, to them, simply feels more acute than the problem it is addressing. It’s no surprise, then, that the debate over how quickly to reopen the economy is both an emotional one, and is falling along partisan lines.
“A red-state governor is losing his business in exchange for blue-state lives,” said Angus Deaton, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at a Brookings Institution seminar last week. “So for him, opening up is a no-brainer, which is sort of why it is happening.”
He added: “It is a lot to ask those governors to kill their businesses and their GDP for people who live far away, and who they may not even like very much.”
At the same time, blue-state leaders are starting to feel that, despite all the “we’re all in this together” sentimentality heard early in the crisis, that feeling isn’t prevailing today—particularly not in the U.S. Senate.
The states hit hardest by the virus are suffering the double whammy of lost tax revenues as economic activity grinds to a halt as well as skyrocketing costs for health care. These states’ finances, obviously, are being hit hardest, and they are seeking more help from Washington to cope, on top of billions of dollars Congress already has approved. And the Democratic-controlled House voted last Friday to do just that—to provide almost a trillion dollars more in a new aid package.
But that package is going nowhere in the Republican-controlled Senate, whose leadership has characterized additional aid as a “blue-state bailout” of badly run states and deeply indebted public pension programs in which they have little interest. At one point, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested that troubled states could simply declare bankruptcy.
And it’s in the Senate where the imbalance between coronavirus impact and political clout is most acute. Those six hardest-hit blue states have more than half the country’s coronavirus cases, and a third of its population—yet only 12% of the votes in the Senate. It is almost a perfect formula for political tensions.
President Trump is straddling this red and blue divide. In sheer political terms, two of the hardest-hit states, Michigan and Pennsylvania, are critical to him because they happen to be swing states he carried in the 2016 election.
The president “is absolutely open” to negotiating more aid for states, White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett said in an interview Friday. But, he added, “the one thing he has taken off the table is fixing old problems” with new aid.
Mr. Deaton notes that the splits may narrow if cases continue to grow in red states. But for now, the ideal world in which red and blue sympathize with each other may be slipping further away.
The president brings instability and confusion to a crisis.
Having a pandemic is really bad. Having a pandemic and a civil war together is really, really bad. Welcome to Donald Trump’s America 2020.
If you feel dizzy from watching Trump signal left — issuing guidelines for how states should properly emerge from pandemic lockdowns — while turning right — urging people to liberate their states from lockdowns, ignore his own guidelines and even dispute the value of testing — you’re not alone.
Since Trump’s pronouncements are simultaneously convoluted, contradictory and dishonest, here’s my guess at what he is saying:
“The Greatest Generation preserved American liberty and capitalism by taking Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day — in the face of a barrage of Nazi shelling that could and did kill many of them. I am calling on our generation to preserve American liberty and capitalism today by going shopping in the malls of Omaha, Nebraska, in the face of a coronavirus pandemic that will likely only kill 1 percent of you, if you do get infected. So be brave — get back to work and take back your old life.”
Yes, if you total up all of Trump’s recent words and deeds, he is saying to the American people: between the two basic models for dealing with the pandemic in the world — China’s rigorous top-down, test, track, trace and quarantine model — while waiting for a vaccine to provide herd immunity — and Sweden’s more bottom up, protect-the-most-vulnerable-and-let-the-rest-get-back-to-work-and-get-the-infection-and-develop-natural-herd-immunity model, your president has decided for Sweden’s approach.
He just hasn’t told the country or his coronavirus task force or maybe even himself.
But this is the only conclusion you can draw from all the ways Trump has backed off from his own government guidelines and backed up his end-the-lockdown followers, who, like most of the country, have grown both weary of the guidelines and desperate to get back to work and paychecks.
But, in keeping with my D-Day analogy, Trump has basically decided to dispatch Americans into this battle against this coronavirus without the equivalent of maps, armor, helmets, guns or any coordinated strategy to minimize their casualty count. He’s also dispatching them without national leadership — so it’s every platoon, or state, for themselves, maximizing the chances of virus spread between people who want to go shopping and those who still want to shelter in place.
He’s also dispatching them without a national plan to protect the most vulnerable, particularly the elderly, and without setting the example that everyone should wear face masks and practice social distancing whenever they are at work or in a public setting. Finally, he’s dispatching them without a plan of retreat if way too many vulnerable people are infected and harmed as we take to the malls of Omaha and beyond.
Other than all that, Trump is just like F.D.R.
I fear that when these shortcomings become apparent, it could trigger a low-grade civil war between those who will ask their neighbors: “Who gave you the right to ignore the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and heedlessly go to a bar, work or restaurant and then spread coronavirus to someone’s grandparents or your own?” And those who will ask their neighbors: “Who gave you the right to keep the economy closed in a pandemic and trigger mass unemployment, which could cost many more lives than are saved, especially when alternative strategies, like Sweden’s, might work?”
A new Mason-Dixon line could emerge between those states led by governors who want to equip their people with the maximum protective gear and safety guidelines and those governors who are keen to reopen their states for business as usual — gear and guidelines be damned.
According to a new poll from Pew Research Center, more than two-thirds of Americans worry that their respective states are reopening too quickly, while pro-Trump protesters have taken to the streets to demand that businesses get people back to work now.
So, I can imagine the possibility of the governor of Maryland, who has been very careful about lifting lockdowns, banning cars coming north on Interstate 95 with Georgia license plates. And this is not just my imagination.
South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem “sent letters Friday to the leaders of both the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe demanding that checkpoints designed to prevent the spread of coronavirus on tribal land be removed” — or risk legal action, CNN.com reported Saturday. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe has rejected the ultimatum. Stay tuned.
The tragedy of all of this is that a better president would never have allowed us to get to this edge of pandemic civil strife.
A real president would be simultaneously framing the issues for the nation and then arguing for and guiding us on the least painful course. He’d start by explaining that we are up against a challenge no one in our generation has ever faced — the challenge of a global pandemic in which Mother Nature is silently, invisibly, exponentially and mercilessly spreading a coronavirus among us.
And, unlike a human foe, you can’t defeat Mother Nature, negotiate with her or spin her. All you can do is adapt in the least harmful way possible to whatever she throws at you. And when it’s a pandemic, it means there are only hellish moral and economic trade-offs — no matter which path you choose. Too closed, she’ll kill your jobs. Too open, she’ll kill your vulnerable.
The job of leadership is to choose the path that offers the most sustainable way to balance lives and livelihoods and then create and stick to the conditions that make it workable.
So, as I said, China has chosen the pathway of locking down and then opening its economy, but with strict social distancing, masks everywhere and highly intrusive testing, tracking, tracing and quarantining anyone with coronavirus to prevent further spread — while it waits for a vaccine to create herd immunity.
Sweden has chosen moderate social distancing, keeping a lot of its economy open, while trying to protect the most vulnerable and letting those least vulnerable — those most likely to experience coronavirus either asymptomatically or as a mild or tough flu — continue to work, get the virus and develop immunity to it. Then, when enough of them are immune, they can sound the all-clear for the vulnerable. That’s Sweden’s strategy, but it is too early to say it’s the right answer.
If you listened to Trump last week you heard a president who was all over the place. One day he talked as though he wanted to follow Sweden in getting a lot of people back to work, even if many more will get infected by coronavirus. Another day, he boasted that we’re testing just like China — only more so. Another day he disputed the need for testing at all.
In brief: Trump talks like China, envies Sweden, prepares for neither and insists that his strategy is superior to both.
But the fact is he is not prepared to impose the kind of strict surveillance tracing and quarantining system that makes China’s reopening work. And he is not ready to consider strategies — like moving vulnerable people living in crowded homes to empty hotels or surrounding every nursing home with a public health testing units — that might make a Swedish-style opening less dangerous.
So, I fear that we are heading for a roiling mess. Our coronavirus infections will be exacerbated by Trump’s incompetence, while our hyper-political partisanship will be fed by his malevolence. After all, his whole political strategy is to divide us into red and blue, Republicans and Democrats, open-now advocates and go-slow advocates. That’s the only politics he practices.
In sum, Covid-19 is sapping our economic and physical health, while Trump is undermining our institutions and national unity. We desperately need a vaccine — and a 2020 election outcome — that can give us herd immunity to this virus and this president.
He is not a liberal, he’s the end of liberalism.
A few months ago, I wrote a column saying I would vote for Elizabeth Warren over Donald Trump. I may not agree with some of her policies, but culture is more important than politics. She does not spread moral rot the way Trump does.
Now I have to decide if I’d support Bernie Sanders over Trump.
We all start from personal experience. I covered the Soviet Union in its final decrepit years. The Soviet and allied regimes had already slaughtered 20 million people through things like mass executions and intentional famines. Those regimes were slave states. They enslaved whole peoples and took away the right to say what they wanted, live where they wanted and harvest the fruits of their labor.
And yet every day we find more old quotes from Sanders apologizing for this sort of slave regime, whether in the Soviet Union, Cuba or Nicaragua. He excused the Nicaraguan communists when they took away the civil liberties of their citizens. He’s still making excuses for Castro.
To sympathize with these revolutions in the 1920s was acceptable, given their original high ideals. To do so after the Hitler-Stalin pact, or in the 1950s, is appalling. To do so in the 1980s is morally unfathomable.
I say all this not to cancel Sanders for past misjudgments. I say all this because the intellectual suppositions that led him to embrace these views still guide his thinking today. I’ve just watched populism destroy traditional conservatism in the G.O.P. I’m here to tell you that Bernie Sanders is not a liberal Democrat. He’s what replaces liberal Democrats.
Traditional liberalism traces its intellectual roots to
- John Stuart Mill,
- John Locke,
- the Social Gospel movement and
- the New Deal.
This liberalism believes in gaining power the traditional way: building coalitions, working within the constitutional system and crafting the sort of compromises you need in a complex, pluralistic society.
This is why liberals like Hubert Humphrey, Ted Kennedy and Elizabeth Warren were and are such effective senators. They worked within the system, negotiated and practiced the art of politics.
Populists like Sanders speak as if the whole system is irredeemably corrupt. Sanders was a useless House member and has been a marginal senator because he doesn’t operate within this system or believe in this theory of change.
He believes in revolutionary mass mobilization and, once an election has been won, rule by majoritarian domination. This is how populists of left and right are ruling all over the world, and it is exactly what our founders feared most and tried hard to prevent.
Liberalism celebrates certain values:
- intellectual humility and
Liberalism is horrified by cruelty. Sanders’s leadership style embodies the populist values, which are different:
- bitter and relentless polarization, a
- demand for ideological purity among your friends and
- incessant hatred for your supposed foes.
A liberal leader confronts new facts and changes his or her mind. A populist leader cannot because the omniscience of the charismatic headman can never be doubted. A liberal sees shades of gray. For a populist reality is white or black, friend or enemy. Facts that don’t fit the dogma are ignored.
A liberal sees inequality and tries to reduce it. A populist sees remorseless class war and believes in concentrated power to crush the enemy. Sanders is running on a $60 trillion spending agenda that would double the size of the federal government. It would represent the greatest concentration of power in the Washington elite in American history.
These days, Sanders masquerades as something less revolutionary than he really is. He claims to be nothing more than the continuation of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. He is 5 percent right and 95 percent wrong.
There was a period around 1936 or 1937 when Roosevelt was trying to pack the Supreme Court and turning into the sort of arrogant majoritarian strongman the founders feared. But this is not how F.D.R. won the presidency, passed the New Deal, beat back the socialists of his time or led the nation during World War II. F.D.R. did not think America was a force for ill in world affairs.
Sanders also claims he’s just trying to import the Scandinavian model, which is believable if you know nothing about Scandinavia or what Sanders is proposing. Those countries do have generous welfare states, but they can afford them because they understand how free market capitalism works, with fewer regulations on business creation and free trade.
There is a specter haunting the world — corrosive populisms of right and left. These populisms grow out of real problems but are the wrong answers to them. For the past century, liberal Democrats from F.D.R. to Barack Obama knew how to beat back threats from the populist left. They knew how to defend the legitimacy of our system, even while reforming it.
Judging by the last few debates, none of the current candidates remember those arguments or know how to rebut a populist to their left.
I’ll cast my lot with democratic liberalism. The system needs reform. But I just can’t pull the lever for either of the two populisms threatening to tear it down.