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S2: Hello and welcome to the Slate Political Gabfest for April 2nd, 2020. Maybe it is Infrastructure Week edition.
S3: I am David Plotz. I’m in today. I’m in my basement. Joining me from somewhere in their houses, Emily Babylon of The New York Times Magazine and Yale University Law School. Hello, Emily. How are you?
S4: I’m fine. A little worried about the streak on your basement ceiling. Let’s discuss that later.
S5: Yes. You know what it is? Is the dishwasher leaking it and causing some water damage there? I’m 99 percent sure. Excellent. But thank you for noting that your water damage makes me incredibly anxious. I’m not an anxious person, but that’s what makes me anxious. It’s water damage. So thanks for stressing me out.
S6: Well, if I can just chat if I can just chime in and remember our conversation about how do you so accurately, poignantly and unforgettably referred to water leakage is as like having a spy in your house. Yeah, I don’t know about it. It’s always struck me as the most apt metaphor for water leakage and damage, which I have a similar feeling about. And also have lots of water leakage from our dishwasher.
S5: That is John DICKERSON of CBS 60 Minutes joining us from Manhattan. Hello, John. How are you guys doing? You know, David.
S6: Yes, OK. We’re doing. We’re doing all right. It’s we’re into our third week now of because we had people it tested positive at 60 Minutes. So we’ve been we’ve been a social dence distancing and shutting ourselves off for about three weeks. So it’s we’re into our third week and we’re all everybody’s kind of hanging in Mullingar down.
S7: Similarly, yes.
S5: All right. On today’s gabfest, what is the best way to shorten and minimize the economic catastrophe that covered 19 is causing? We will talk to Jason Furman, who ran President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers about the best ways to do that. Then, can we have an election in the middle of the pandemic? Why not? Why can we have conventions? We got to be able to do it. And then Geraldine Brooks wrote Year of Wonders, one of the great novels about plague. She will bring some deep, novelistic wisdom and perspective about what it’s like to live through a plague. Plus, of course, we’re going to have cocktail chatter as we were taping on Thursday morning.
S8: The new jobless numbers have come out. There were 6.6 million new claims for unemployment, which doubled last week, Rick Record, which was itself, I think, seven times greater than any previous week in history. The nation is obviously in the midst of an enormous economic crisis caused by at 19. We are very happy to be joined by Jason Furman. Jason was the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers for President Obama. He’s now a professor at Harvard. Welcome, Jason. I want to start with a sort of sideways question. You’re teaching Actand, which is, of course, I took in college, which is the basic economics course at Harvard. What is the most important concept from the current crisis that is going to go into an introductory economics curriculum?
S9: Yeah, well, first, that we’re putting the crisis into our course right now as we talk about monetary policy, as we talk about fiscal policy. We’re discussing how it applies to the current situation in terms of what new is going to come out of it. In some ways, I think the last crisis did prepare us for this a little bit. We know that we want to erred on the side of doing too much, not too little. We know that fiscal policy is really important and really effective. The Fed invented a lot of new programs in the last crisis. They’re using all of the same programs. Now they’re just doing more of all of them. But you know, what will be brand new is can we figure out, is there a way to put an economy into a medically induced coma and then wake it up and have it start jogging around again? That’s something we’ve never seen happen before. And we’re seeing a lot of different experiments in different countries about how to do that.
S1: And what do you think about the U.S. approach of having these just enormous sets of unemployment claims? I mean, in Europe, there has been more of an effort in some countries to freeze employment in place by covering the wages of businesses and covering even the expensive businesses here. We’re seeing just this hemorrhaging of people and separating them from their jobs. And there’ve been some economists who say this is really a terrible idea because you’re severing these connections. On the other hand, I suppose there’s an argument for the market shaking itself up because some of these businesses will come back and others won’t. And if the government kept paying people’s wages, it would kind of freeze them in place. And I just wonder what you think about those two sides if I’ve gotten that right.
S9: Yeah. So the fundamental thing that one needs to be worried about is. When we saw the large increase in unemployment rates in 2008 9, I looked at the data from a lot of countries. For many decades and found no country had ever on a sustained basis lowered its unemployment rate by more than seven tenths of a percentage point per year. The unemployment rate goes up 7 percentage points, which might be a good case here. That would take 10 years to work that all. And the question is, can you figure out a much, much better way than waiting 10 years for the economy to recover from what it’s going through right now? In Europe, you’re paying businesses to keep people on. We don’t have data yet to know if the businesses are actually doing that. My worry in the United States is we wouldn’t be able to reimburse those businesses for another two months or so. She’d be telling the hardest hit businesses, keep paying your employees and don’t worry, we’re gonna pay you back two months from now. The unemployment insurance system, as creaky as it is, we do know that works. We do know people will get checks. Some of them will get checks even larger than what they were getting before. A little bit of a bug in the system. And importantly, the unemployment insurance reform. You can furlough workers and they can still get their unemployment insurance. So Macy’s can tell people, you know, we don’t need you right now. We’re not going to pay you right now, collect unemployment insurance two months from now. Macy’s could reactivate those employees and start paying them. So, you know, we have some things in place that will do this. I’m worried about what our ability would have been to try to do anymore.
S6: So, Jason, I just want to put a finer point on that, which is that. So your argument is there are a lot of people were saying you should protect unemployment. And what it sounds like you’re saying is that might be working in other countries, but we lack the structure for it and that actually we could do more harm than good using that approach as opposed to the slow and unfortunate, but nevertheless, perhaps more effective unemployment system we have now.
S9: Yeah, I don’t I don’t have 100 percent conviction on. That’s just to be clear. But yes, we don’t have a lot of institutional structures in place. I have a friend in France and her nanny isn’t working now. And she got a letter from the government, keep paying your nanny. We’ll keep paying you. And it used exactly the same paid leave system that they already had in France. They didn’t have to invent something new. They just had to take something that was there and extend it to this novel circumstance. Inventing brand new things in a time of crisis can sometimes take months. And in effect, you would be during those months telling businesses the hardest hit businesses to make a loan to the federal government for social insurance rather than the government paying unemployment. You tell a business to pay it and then you repay the business three months from now. So it’d be like businesses lending the government money and in some ways that’s the exact opposite of where we want to be right now.
S10: So we’ve just done this to point to trillion dollar, massive spending package. That money. Where’s that money coming from? Is it coming from the future? How is it we’re able to spend that money? And who is buying the bonds that are allowing us to spend that money? And where’s it borrowing from?
S9: I mean, is this this two distinct questions there. One is the finance. So one, which is the government is going to be borrowing two point two trillion dollars. In fact, they’re going to be borrowing even more than that because tax revenue is falling a lot and just the normal spending is continuing. A lot of that borrowing is the Federal Reserve is buying more treasuries. Central banks around the world are accumulating more treasuries. So a lot of that is from the official sector. And by the official sector, I mean governments, central banks, sovereign wealth funds and other entities like that around the world. Some of it is people who sold their stocks. They were nervous. They want something safe. They’re in a money market fund. And then the money market fund buys treasuries. So the financing side of it, I don’t think we need to worry very much about the evidence. We don’t need to worry is that interest rates remain quite low. That’s a measure that that debt is being absorbed. Is it then more confusing thing, which is a lot of households are going to maintain their purchasing power either because they’re still paid by their employer because they’re getting these unemployment insurance checks, because they’re getting a couple thousand dollars per family and the checks. But lots of stuff is not being produced right now. And so you have potentially the sort of large amount of money chasing a smaller amount of stuff. Some people think that could lead to inflation. I think probably not. But in 2010, when some conservative economists were going on about inflation, they were obviously completely. Same and one could just out of hand dismiss them this time with. When you maintain a household’s purchasing power. But there’s nothing to buy. No one quite knows what’s going to happen in the real economy.
S1: I just have a very basic question. When is the economy coming back? How long is this and deep is this trough going to be? And what do we how do we interact with the rest of the world?
S11: I was gonna say, what do we owe the rest of the world? Like if our debt is easier for the world to absorb. If our treasury bonds are being purchased, just the United States have a kind of unique role in trying to prop up or restore the whole world’s economy.
S9: Yeah, I worry a lot about what’s happening in countries that are poorer than the United States. They’re going to be hard hit by this virus. They have much less ability to borrow than we do. The United States has historically played a really critical role when their international financial crises like the Asian crisis in the 1990’s. This time we’re really looking inward and so worried about ourselves. It’s hard to think about others at a time like this. I talked to a political leader of a very liberal country who said I couldn’t get my country to pay attention right now to poor countries. But if we don’t, this will be not just a Cauvin crisis, it’ll be an international financial crisis. On top of that, and that’ll come back and rebound, too. So the good news is the IMF does have more resources than it used to have. We increase that a lot in the last crisis. It still has those. But we’re gonna have to look outward to help other countries.
S6: At some point in this jaison in this crisis, there have become a lot of people have become armchair epidemiologists. And so there are a lot of armchair economists out there.
S12: What do you think is either the most dangerous way of old thinking that is possibly going to keep us from doing the right thing next? Or alternatively, is there a new thing that we learned from the last crisis that we should keep our eye on as we all consume whatever policymakers decide to do in this stage we’re in? Right.
S9: I mean, I’m encouraged about how much old economic thinking was discarded so quickly. I don’t hear anyone raising concerns about the deficit. I heard three weeks ago people talking about their brilliant supply side ideas to get the economy going. And they stopped talking about this brilliant supply side ideas about two weeks and 6 days ago. It’s not like workers need a tax cut to motivate them to work right now. So I’ve actually, frankly, been encouraged about how people are leaving aside some of what they normally want. I think it’s going to get trickier, though, as time goes on. I mean, that’s what we see is that you get fatigued with the types of policy responses you need. In the last financial crisis, we did extended emergency unemployment insurance when the unemployment rate rose to 5. When it was still above 8 percent, we got rid of that because people were like, we’ve had it for years. We’re tired of it. We’re sick of it. So I am worried that the old thinking will come back. People will start worrying about deficits, start worrying about inflation, and start worrying that the Fed’s balance sheet start worrying about, you know, have their little pet theory is that supply side economics and whatever else. But so far, we haven’t seen that. But I’m sure it’s coming back.
S13: Jason, so the running joke, of course, of the Trump administration is that it’s always infrastructure weak. And there is this notion that maybe now it is infrastructure weak, that maybe the next fourth rescue bill could be an infrastructure bill, at least certainly some Democrats wanted the president. Trump seems to want it. What’s the case for or against that and why? What would we do if we did do?
S9: The infrastructure is, first of all, perfectly good, even absent this crisis. It will probably be even more needed in twenty, twenty one and twenty twenty two because of the high unemployment rate we’re likely to still have because of this crisis. But I don’t think it’s the number one most pressing issue. So if Congress can walk and chew gum at the same time, I would say tell the Transportation Committee you put together an infrastructure bill. Leadership is going to focus on the immediate things that matter for twenty one, not for twenty twenty one, not for twenty, twenty two. And then you’ve passed both of them. If they did that I think it would be great if the infrastructure bill ended up crowding out things like aid to states, expanding coverage for health care, expanding nutritional assistance for households that are hard hit, continuing to extend and expand on some of the things like unemployment insurance and checks. All of that is the most urgent. I think you can do both. But I do sometimes worry that infrastructure might crowd out that other stuff, because infrastructure really is that next year and the year after. It’s not about this year.
S1: Jason, if we’re going to do infrastructure, should we be thinking about climate change, the Green New Deal, some of the elements of changing American infrastructure so that it’s forward thinking as well as restoring highways and bridges?
S9: I certainly think ideally we would. And, you know, just even things in our infrastructure, as simple as we’ve historically prioritized highways over transit because of the power disproportionate due to our electoral system that rural areas have over urban areas. So there’s all sorts of things I’d love to see in there. I don’t want to wave the white flag of surrender right on your or your broadcast here, but I think I will, which is if we can’t get a consensus on some of the more controversial longer term issues to at least get the shorter term right, I think we’d still be well worth doing.
S13: Jason, I going to use host privilege. Ask one final question, actually, which is you worked in the Obama administration. How do you think their project management approach to this would have been different than what we’ve seen under the Trump administration in terms of the implementation?
S9: Vice President Biden did a really outstanding job with the Recovery Act pretty broadly praised. I remember Darrell, I said at a press release about how it was a model for the way government should oversee spending. He was making sure there wasn’t fraud, making sure the money was getting out, making sure it was used well and staying completely on top of that. I don’t know enough to know whether or not that’s happening in this administration. The good news is the most complex part of the legislation that just passed is about funding the Fed and funding feds programs. And the Fed is the most competent part of the government. So that part I feel a little bit better about the rest of it. You know, who knows?
S13: Jason Furman is a professor at Harvard and the former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers. Thanks, Jason. Stay healthy. Talk to you soon. Stay healthy.
S5: Slate Plus members, you get bonus segments on the gab fest and other slate podcasts go to sleep. That complex gab fest. Plus to become a member today. Today, we’re gonna talk about some of our pandemic life hacks, how to get through this sane and and maybe with even some joy or some creativity. So go to Slate.com slash gabfest plus to hear that discussion and get so much other great stuff from Slate.
S10: As we tape. Wisconsin is still planning to hold its primary elections on Tuesday, April 7th, even though hundreds of polling stations won’t even have poll workers, turnout will be incredibly low. They haven’t figured out a working vote by mail method. Joe Biden on Wednesday proposed delaying the Democratic convention currently scheduled for the middle of July to August, which seems like the basic hygiene there. The Republican convention scheduled for August remains on the docket. The November election for president and Congress, remember, will take place. But we’re faced with a whole bunch of really complicated and new questions for us. How can campaigning happen? How can the election happen? So, Emily, we have never postponed or canceled a presidential election. The 1918 election took place in the middle of the Spanish flu pandemic. And there was, I think, a very low turnout, but it took place all the same. How are we going to have an election if we’re in the middle of a cover 19 or the kind of continued social distancing or a fall resurgence of it?
S7: Let’s just first take care of the legal question here. The reason the presidential and congressional elections happen on the first Tuesday of November is a statute that Congress passed in the 1840s. It would take both houses of Congress and the president to change the date. It is also written in the Constitution that the president and the new Congress need to be inaugurated in January. So the fear about postponing the election. I think you can put very low on your list. How to do it in a way where people are enfranchised has a lot to do with increasing access to vote by mail and with money, because it is going to take a a heavy lift from state election officials who run all the elections in the country. This is a state and locally run affair. That’s how we do American elections. And they are going to have to make some real changes. They’re going to have to really increase access to vote by mail. And we can talk about the details. They’re also not going to be able to shut down all the polling places because there are people who don’t have addresses where they can be properly mailed a ballot.
S14: So the polling places are going to need to be safe and there needs to be a lot of planning now. Even if we are lucky and the virus is gone in November, we need to imagine that it might be with us and plan for that scenario.
S10: Emily, is this one of these situations where. It it has to be state by state, there is no federal mandate for how this is conducted because elections are state affairs. So each state can do its own method.
S14: Yes, either. So Congress could pass a national law telling the states to increase access to vote by mail. The federal government. Congress has the power to administer elections in the constitution. And may you think about the Help America Vote Act or even the Voting Rights Act. Those are federal laws that affect how elections take place. Legal scholar at Florida State named Michael Mallie was arguing to me this week that actually the states don’t need federal directive to make voting by mail universally available. So there are a bunch of states. I think the count is like 17 where you have to have an excuse currently to get an absentee ballot. And there are even states like Connecticut where to change that requires a constitutional a state constitutional amendment. However, Michael is arguing to me that given the emergency situation, any governor or secretary of state, depending on where the power resides in the state, state officials could say this time. Kove It is the excuse and everybody as a result can get an absentee ballot. Can can vote by mail. And that made me feel better because it seems like a problem that the states could take care of.
S10: If Congress does not, John, voting has become this partisan issue in the sense that reducing voter turnout has become an almost explicit and sometimes occasionally explicit goal of certain Republicans. I presume they will block vote by mail efforts where they can. They’ve not been keen about it in most places. How? And it would slow other creative solutions to this because their interest is lower turnout there, their electoral interest is lower turnout. How do you think that could play out? Do you think there’s any chance that crisis breaks that pattern?
S6: Well, just to your point, the President Trump essentially said if we did what the Democrats wanted in terms of voter access, everybody would be allowed to vote and we’d and we lose. I’m paraphrasing him, but but I’m not I don’t think I’m off by much. So. Yeah, you’re not. Yeah.
S14: So is the saying the quiet part out loud this week. Right. President Trump on that.
S6: Right. So. So just to affirm your point, I guess my feeling I’ve two thoughts. One is not an answer to your question, but the first thing I was thinking about is when they were talking about cybersecurity and the elections a few months ago, I talked to a person who is in charge of trying to harden the individual states to make sure that they would be resistant to Russian hacking efforts. And essentially they said basically, where do where our list of priorities. We can’t do all 50 states and we don’t even really need to do 50 states, because really the states that are most dire are the battleground states, the ones the states where it where the election will be up for grabs more than in, say, you know, a state like Mississippi or Massachusetts. Now, that’s not great. You’d like to have all 50, but time limited, attention limited. You have to make a priorities list. So that got me thinking the battleground states. And then to your question, David, if this becomes a state by state knife fight, we got to watch the battleground states. One that’s particularly in my mind is Florida. If you look at Governor de Santos’s foot-dragging and lack of responsiveness to the health crisis in Florida, which now puts Florida at a severe disadvantage, and it is now listed as one of the states that officials are thinking about in terms of the maximum hospital to efforts of the kind that we’re seeing in New York, where they’re building field hospitals and that kind of thing. If that was the response to a serious health crisis, you could imagine the same kind of slowness with respect to hardening the election or improving the election process since he’s an acolyte of President Trump. So that would be one of the places I would look. And then I would look, you know, I mean, Colorado, for example, is a battleground state, but has a really good they make it very easy to to vote. And so I would go back down the list of the states that are battleground, but where it’s hard to vote. Wisconsin is a little isn’t so bad. But then you get into North Carolina is not great. And then Pennsylvania, Florida, they’re not so good. Then the question is, where does Georgia and Arizona fit or those battleground states? They’re not so good either. And then Michigan’s not so great. So what I wonder is, A, if that’s a logical way of making the priorities list. And then, B, can all the states that are worried about this go to somebody like Oregon and Colorado, which are two of the best states for being able? I think in Oregon you can hold if you’re registered, you automatically get a ballot. Can other states call Oregon and say, hey, give us your system, can we copy it? And is that possible? Does it require legislation or even just logistically, is that possible?
S11: And I think one hopeful thing about this. You know, if the states don’t increase access to voting, they’re going to disenfranchise people on both sides of the aisle. It’s such a basic idea that you should get to vote for president. I’m I’m just not sure the politics of that are going to play out in the same hardcore partisan manner as these questions always do. I mean, I just it’s possible they won’t. And the second thing is that Nate personally, who’s been a guest on the show and has an election law expert at Stanford, he kind of crunched some numbers last week that showed that Republicans are just as likely to use absentee ballots as Democrats. And I think that also might be helpful when you think about voting by now. It’s something that helps older people who have more trouble getting to the polls to vote. It’s it really shouldn’t be a partisan issue.
S5: But I just want to put one asterisk against everything you guys have said or just an additive point, which is that it is not a presidential election. This is a general election. And if I were a challenger candidate in this environment for Congress. I would be so worried that I think the presidential election people will focus on, they will pay attention to. I think where we’re going to have an enormous amount of voter ignorance and low turnout and probably a huge incumbent benefit that we’re just going to start to see soon is in Congress where people are going to probably vote for safety and familiarity rather than take a risk on somebody. They’re not going to know very well because there’s going to be a much attenuated campaign season and the campaign is not going to be fought on the issues which the challengers want to fight it around. It’s going to campaign’s going to be around covered and the economic catastrophe that resulted from it and how we’re going to deal with it. And I think that is almost certainly going to be a an incumbent an incumbent re-election benefit. Am I wrong about that, John?
S1: Doesn’t it depend so much, though, David, on how many deaths, what the economy is like? I mean, there could be a real throw the bums out push in this country if things are desperate.
S15: Well, also, it also depends on our tradition. Ah, the the trajectory of split ticket voting and whether it continues to be nonexistent in other. So. So it will be really interesting to see if congressional voting is de-linked from presidential voting because it has the trend, of course, as we’ve talked about a billion times, has been to basically make those to the same. So it’ll be interesting to see how how that sorts. But it is important with respect to ballot access in some of those states I was writing off because they’re not battleground states. It would be really interesting. And somebody smart has probably already done this is to look at the swingy or I should say battleground districts in non presidential battleground states. You could think of some in New Jersey and California that are settled and locked in the presidential, but have had switches in the congressional. That would be interesting laboratories to test the idea you’re talking about.
S10: David, if you, Emily, were the Biden campaign, if you were Joe Biden or if you were Mike Bloomberg and had money to spend or if you were the DNC and needed to plan for the next few months, how what are the productive things you think could be done politically in the next few months in the midst of the depth of the crisis that would potentially help you in November? Is there anything that they can do now that’s going to benefit them? Maybe it’s just stuff behind the scenes.
S1: And what would that be behind the scenes without emphasizing life online too much?
S14: So with that caveat, I was really struck by a piece in The New York Times this week by Jim Rittenberg and Matthew Rosenberg about how far behind the Democrats and Biden are in terms of their online war, war strategy, whatever you want to call it. So first of all, there are the kazillion followers that President Trump and other Republicans have on Twitter and other social media. Biden’s reach is tiny by comparison. Then there are the links that the Republicans have been willing to go to, for example, to just vacuum up people cell phone numbers so they can get texting out in a way that I think the Democrats have worried at some points raised privacy concerns. And then there’s just the funding for an online ad strategy, especially on Facebook, which has not banned these ads and continues to allow micro-targeting, despite all the advice that this is really not healthy for a democracy. When you think about all that and you imagine an election in which the candidates have to get their message out more online because they just have fewer in-person opportunities, that seems important.
S11: I mean, how are political rallies going to operate if people are scared to go out like the big events seem to me the last thing that are going to safely come back and that makes me think that, you know, the piece in The Times really did a good job of showing the internal fighting and strife. And some of it is President Obama’s fault probably for having built up a separate organization outside the party, but it just seems like they are way behind.
S5: What do you think the button campaign or other parties can do either explicitly, overtly, politically or in terms of infrastructure in the next few months?
S6: Yeah, well, I think Emily’s to a point about infrastructure is is quite right because also in addition, you know, the Trump campaign has been grabbing every name and contact for every one of those rallies the president has has held. So in a way, they’ve taken advantage of the ability to contact people, not just through the targeting methods of online research, which they’ve been working on for quite a while, but also through the just the in-person. And of course, in-person is always more beneficial. If somebody is willing to go out and go to a rally, you know, they might be committed to jump over whatever hurdles are necessary to actually vote tactically there. The Democrats do have some wherewithal in there, in there just to.
S15: General Democratic team, even people who aren’t party operatives, but just in Silicon Valley and other places, to try to find creative online solutions to perhaps close that gap, especially while everybody is sitting at home in quarantine, sitting at home in quarantine is not unlike what they do with a rally, which is once you get people to come into the door with a rally, you capture their information. You could imagine a situation in which people sitting at home on their computers all day long on Xoom conference calls are in a position to be captured in a way that they wouldn’t be under normal circumstances. As a messaging question, it’ll be interesting to see. I mean, the message for the president is obvious. He will run into the front of the parade and say whenever we get out of this, he will claim credit for it. That’s kind of obvious as a messaging strategy for Democrats. It seems to me that the message is relatively simple, which is you’re not just electing Joe Biden, you’re electing a team that understands that this is what you do as a president. You face challenges when facing challenges. You need to rely on experts. You need to rely on a government that acts in the collective good. Because you can’t have a state by state response. You need to have people who have spent their lives working in this kind of atmosphere because crazy and unpredictable and dangerous things can happen and everybody can’t learn on the job. It seems to me the messaging argument is America may have gotten through this, but if we get hit again, you want a set of people who recognize this is actually what the job is, not who are in constant tension with the actual job, which is to respond to big and difficult things. And then finally, from a values standpoint, you would say you want somebody in the job who has empathy for the whole country, not just empathy for red states over blue states, or who is installing people in positions who make emergency decisions, who will have your set of values in mind, not just the values of the person at the top of the ticket, but the people they hire who are making lots and lots of these lower level decisions that have real effects on people’s lives. So that as a as a messaging argument, it seems actually that it’s a pretty clear kind of central case that plays more to the Democratic strength. If you think the Democrats are associated with the party that believes in government and the role of government in terms of its just overall view in the population, do you guys see the new Biden ad that it goes right for the empathy jugular, so to speak?
S1: It was like a minute and a half maybe. And it’s Biden saluting all the health care workers and first responders and talking about how this is America kind of grabbing hold of that definition of patriotism. Anyway, it was, I thought, John. Exactly. Trying to make the case you just laid out and I wonder about the impact of an ad strategy like that.
S15: I mean, if you’re Joe Biden, you want the fight to be on the empathy front, because that’s clearly a place where the president doesn’t you know, that’s not his strength. The second step for Biden in that case would be to make the case not just that empathy is a good thing and that’s nice. We should all have it. But that empathy had a real cost here, which was that it caused the administration and the president in particular to make decisions slowly, to devalue the human cost of this, overvalue the market cost, and that that had a real cost in lives.
S11: I get to introduce our third topic. I’m so excited because one of my very favorite novelists is joining us today. Geraldine Brooks is the author of many books. She is a prize winner. She is a former international correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. And we invited her today in particular because she has written a couple of books that speak to Times of Plague. People of the book is one of those titles. And then in particular, her book, Year of Wonders, which is about the response of one village in England to a pestilence, a very specific response.
S1: So, Geraldine, welcome to the Gab Fest. Thank you so much for joining us. Can you tell us how you happened upon this story? I know there’s an origin tale of how you found out about this village and its very distinct response to a plague. I think in the sixteen hundreds.
S16: Yeah. So I was working flat out at the time as Middle East correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. And as you know, the news in the Middle East is one damn thing after another. So it was very rare to be able to take any risks. But there was this rare weekend when I was able to be in England and I thought I just need to be in the opposite of hot and dry and intense. So my husband and I went rambling, as they call it.
S17: I love the word rambling. It sounds so much easier than hiking.
S16: So we were rambling in the peak district, which is a beautiful and not particularly heavily visited area. I think people say that it’s near the industrial cities of Manchester and so forth, that it is wild and gorgeous. Anyway, we were walking from one stone village to another and we saw a little finger post that had the name of the village AME and underneath it had in parentheses Plague Village. And I thought, well, not many places try to attract visitors, but putting up a sign saying Plague Village. But I was intrigued. So we walked there. And in the parish church of St. Lawrence, at the center of the village, was the exhibition of the most extraordinary story of what had occurred there in sixteen sixty five when bubonic plague had been carried to London. They think on a bolt of cloth that an itinerant tailor had ordered, and it spread through the village. And then villages came together and took a decision that, as far as I’ve been able to research, was unique in human history.
S18: When they found that plague was among them, they voluntarily quarantined themselves to avoid spreading the infection into surrounding communities.
S19: And this just took hold of my imagination. And it wasn’t that I ran home and quit my job at the Wall Street Journal and went up to a garret and started writing a novel.
S16: I didn’t do that.
S20: I went on doing my job, but it was banging around in my imagination. And 10 years later, I sat down to try and engage with it imaginatively.
S13: Geraldine, when you read accounts of how we are responding to our plague, what seems most similar and how we’re responding and what seems most different.
S20: I think this is not just about epidemics either.
S19: I think it’s about how human beings respond in a time of crisis.
S18: And what I learned from covering wars and conflicts in the Middle East also holds the plague.
S20: And an epidemic pandemic is that some people go to their best self. And some people go to their worst self around the time of the AME outbreak of bubonic plague.
S21: London was behaving very differently in London, the first people who fled with a clergyman, followed quickly by the doctors and basically then anyone who had the means to get out of town, which left the poorest and the least able to do.
S16: And if you read Samuel Papacies diary, he describes the horror of people being locked up in their homes with nobody to bring them food or water or health of any kind. Locked up to die alone and locked up with their dead. And he says very memorably, I think we have become as cruel as dogs one to another.
S18: You think it’s a lot cooler than dogs? In my experience of dogs, but they go.
S1: One thing I was thinking about and returning to your book, which is really just a wonderful book and I recommend thoroughly, is the sacrifice the villagers make and the way in which there was like a concentration of illness and anguish in this village that is supposed to be that is presumably saving other people. And I was thinking about that in relation to what we’re asking of health care workers right now and wondering what is fair to ask. I mean, certainly people who work in the health care field expect to put themselves at risk. They are accustomed to treating infection. What is troubling me so much, and I’m sure this is true for lots of people is the idea that we’re asking that of them without the proper equipment and that we are expecting them to put themselves in harm’s way without the usual expectation that they will be taken care of and protected. And I wonder when you think back to Anna, your amazing main character, who is a caregiver herself. Like how you think about that development now and that relationship.
S16: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s it’s absolutely scandalous what we’re asking of health care workers. And, you know, not all of them are infectious disease specialists say, yes, everybody gets a bit of basic training in this, but not the day after day after day at the coalface confrontation. You know, one of the last people I was able to have dinner with before it became impossible to do that was a young friend of mine who’s a Kurdish woman who is just finishing her final year medical school. And of course, the medical students had been mobilized and she was doing crash in a Paris hospital.
S19: And, you know, she she just took it, as you know, this is sense of privilege of being able to serve.
S16: And I guess I wasn’t surprised in her case because when she was a very young medical student, she went into northern Syria to help the Kurdish population and the anxieties in the middle of the conflict there. So I think there is this forward facing. Incredible. And this is this is the other side of it. You know, the good side of human nature, the people who are called upon to be completely unselfish and to rise to that end.
S17: And you see that I think not even just with health care workers.
S16: I had a really moving report yesterday from a factory in rural Maine where they make the nasal swabs that are in such high demand because it’s easier for the nurses to use them in the drive. Is there on a long flexi steak or something like that? And they’re running double shifts and everybody in that factory is feeling like they’re doing their part and contributing and they’re really proud to be able to help. So I think that, you know, that that’s the better angels. And if we have the right leadership, we call on that instead of the divisiveness. And often, if you put it to people in another way, if you show them another way of seeing things, they respond to that because, you know, maybe I’m naive.
S21: But after all my experience of seeing people go one way or the other. You know, the the the kid who can be turned into the vicious boy soldier, the perfectly normal guy would have been an accountant if he hadn’t come up under Saddam Hussein.
S16: And then until it sure, there is a way of, I think, connecting with people’s best selves. If you have leadership and I think we’re seeing examples of extremely poor leadership at the level of our president, the Australian prime minister, Boris Johnson, and then we can see a kind of radiant leadership.
S18: Into then in New Zealand couldn’t have responded more appropriately, quickly and also with kindness and humility.
S12: Geraldine, I wanted to ask you about the idea of home, which you wrote. I guess we started out as lectures and then wrote about. You’ve lived in. I think it was. Was it nineteen. I don’t know if it’s up to 20 now. Different places. And you you have. That’s wonderful. What I loved is that many, many different versions of what home means, but we are now all stuck at home in a way.
S22: And I just wondered if you could reflect on that for a moment, the idea of home and the fact that we are all now in it.
S21: Yeah, I know it is funny how many different definitions of there.
S19: I you know, the place that you seek, the place that that is precious to you.
S18: But at the root of the word is haunch, which I think is fascinating. So, you know, a home can be a haunting idea as well. And I’m sure plenty of people, you know, going slowly out of. Mine’s in full wells. We’re very, very lucky we live in a rural place. It’s very easy to walk out the door into nature and still be safe. Not put anybody at risk.
S16: I can walk for hours and not encounter another soul. And I keep thinking about what it’s like when you choose a home in a city. You rely so much more on public spaces.
S17: You know, you don’t have a place to hang out at home because you hang out in public in a very social way. And.
S18: And I’m just feeling, you know, great sympathy for the people who are stuck, particularly with small kids who need to be outside. And to explain to a small kid why you can’t run up to your friend, you know, it’s hard enough to get people not to pack a dog. So now I feel an immense, immense, immense sympathy. That also is why it is so striking to me that people who got it as good as we do, letting that fear most of them and otherwise, people who need our help now.
S1: Geraldine Brooks is the author of Year of Wonders and other books. I just love after you read that when read March. If you have not gotten a chance to do that or the secret chord or Caleb’s Crossing or people of the book. Geraldine, thank you so much for joining us.
S17: Thank you for having me. I enjoyed gabbing.
S10: Let us go to cocktail chatter when you are having a virtual happy hour or perhaps a real happy hour with not with your underage children. I hope, Emily Bazelon, but with your over age spouse.
S11: But we’d be chattering about a year against parents allowing teenagers to drink a few sips of wine.
S5: I’m actually strongly, strongly support it. Do your children drink a few sips of one day?
S11: One of my children last night was on the ringer. The Web site, the ringer, because they were having what seemed like an excellent coronavirus competition, which TV characters are the best. They had lined it up as if it were March Madness with 64 entrants to start with, and they were in the round of 16. And so we had an excellent debate. Omar vs. Larry David’s character and Curb Your Enthusiasm cut off debate.
S23: Is that that’s that’s. I think that’s a 16 one believe. Who lost?
S7: I think Omar might have lost it, which is insets insane, right? Well, wait a minute.
S12: Best rel best like to have in a fight against the zombies or to have dinner with.
S11: OK. It’s the best TV character of the 21st century.
S10: That’s that’s ludicrous. The Larry David character would not be in would not make the top 60 for he would not make the 68 who would even get in the for they butt in to compete for those last spots. That’s a ridiculous.
S23: I don’t know. It’s that’s ridiculous.
S7: I also notice that only three of the 16 contenders were women which troubled to me or maybe it was like four.
S24: But it was a small percentage, which then led to a heated discussion about whether that was because the women just didn’t have good characters to play or whether, as I believe something else was going on.
S7: Was it Carmela, one of them, like Selina Meyer, wasn’t there anymore from Veep, which seemed insane, although Amy Poehler was running strong along with Darcy and Aria Stark and maybe one other person. Anyway, I really recommend this. I mean, by the time our listeners hear the segment, it will be in some later round. But it was very entertaining discussion.
S5: I’m looking it up now because I’m so enraged. John, what is your chatter?
S25: My chatter is also a visual. Well, it’s a video of watching TV chatter, which is we watched the 1996 version of Hamlet, Kenneth Branagh Hamlet with our teenagers. And there were two things that are important. One is that when teenagers know, which is really smart about watching Hamlet, is it watch it with the subtitles on, which is fantastic. And I wish I could do that when I see Shakespeare in the theater. The second thing is it’s really long, so you should just start in the middle, which makes it more enjoyable because by the time it really catches its stride, you’ve really got fatigued from having to watch the first part of the play.
S12: The second part is this, which is the scene between Derek Jacoby, who is playing Claudius and Laertes, where they’re plotting how they’re going to spoiler. Spoiler alert, kill Hamlet. Derek Jacoby does what so few Shakespeare actors do, which is he makes this complicated language and seem like he’s just talking at a cafe in the afternoon. It is amazing. He’s so good at just effortlessly. You can’t tell he’s acting. This is not true of all the people who play Shakespeare, who sometimes feel like they’re shouting to a foreigner through a bad. Cell phone and they just massively overreact. And you want to just give them a cold compress and a cup of tea and calm them down. And so this just that one scene, if you want to watch somebody who is really good at playing Shakespeare, I would recommend that.
S11: Can I just say I’ve watched so few Shakespeare films in my life. I love that Hamlet. It’s like seven hours long. I remember going to see it in Berkeley in 1996, I think was like a long intermission for lunch or dinner or something in the middle. And it has Kenneth Branagh and IT and Julie Christie. It’s just so wonderful. I’m so glad that you helped everyone to rediscover it.
S15: Yeah. And and in the subtitles really help update Elite Eight.
S10: There’s only one woman left, but Omar did beat Larry David. Thank God.
S4: Phew. It’s gonna be really, really hard to hear that some justice in the world. Exactly.
S10: My chatter. I guess we’re all chattering the the visual eye. My new addiction in lockdown is the Bon Appetit. Gourmet makes YouTube channel. So Gourmet makes is a woman named Claire saffet, who’s a brilliant cook, brilliant chef who sets herself the task each episode to try to recreate some popular food at a Cheeto, a Krispy Kreme doughnut, an instant ramen, always a trashy food. But to recreate it. So it looks and seems like the thing that you buy in processed in the store, but is probably more delicious. It is so delightful. She’s so charming. It’s such an incredibly wonderful, fun way to spend 30 minutes. And she’s also brilliant as you watch her figure out how these things work. So Gourmet makes on from Bon Appetit with Claire Savitz listeners. You also have sent us great chatters. Thank you. You can tweet them to us at Slate Gabfests. We really appreciate that you’re sending us things which are diversionary, interesting, challenging. And I wish I could share all of them with our listeners, but I will only share one today, which I think may be the greatest listener chatter that’s ever been sent to us. And it’s courtesy of at Haarlem Cavalier. And Emily, it’s a neighbor of yours. It’s about a neighbor of yours or four neighbors of yours who have create an Instagram account called Covered Classics over the last few days. And what they are doing is just in there, in their lockdown, in their quarantine. They’re re-creating famous paintings as photographs in their home. And so they have done American Gothic. Actually, they went into the art to American Gothic. They’ve done Van Gogh with his ear cut off. They’ve done Whistler’s mother. They’ve done girl with a pure girl in earlier airing. It is fantastic. It is so charming and wonderful. I’d strongly recommend you check out the covered classic Instagram account. I don’t have any. I follow nobody on Instagram. I follow this. I literally don’t follow. I follow maybe two things on Instagram. And I’ve now added this as a third. It’s so, so good.
S11: It is really just amazing. And then the American Gothic, when I recognized the house that’s standing behind them, which I was so happy about.
S10: Yeah. They live literally in your neighborhood, right? Yes, they do. If you enjoy the gabfests, please subscribe to the show. You’ll get new episodes the minute the second they are published. And we would appreciate you being a regular listener of the show.
S3: The gabfests is produced by Jocelyn Frank from her bunker in the Midwest. Well produced as usual, Josslyn. And our researcher is Bridget Dunlap. From her bunker in the Midwest. Thank you, Bridget. We engineered ourselves. Gabriel Roth is the editorial director of Slate podcast. June Thomas is the managing producer of Slate podcasts for Emily Bazelon and John DICKERSON and David Plotz. Thank you for listening. Please stay safe and healthy. And we want to talk to you again next week and we will talk to you again next week. That wasn’t foolish. We actually will do it. So talk to them.
S10: Hello. Slate Plus, how are you? Bad time, but I hope I hope your you and your family are doing OK.
S8: We had another like plotts just came up with something. Emily thinks that we did this topic two weeks ago.
S24: But it’s okay because everything is the same in Corona virus time. Everything just circles back on it.
S10: It is. It’s time is a flat circle. I feel like I’m in an episode of True Detective. It is this quality. I don’t know what to say. The only reason I know what it is is that I know we tape to get it on Thursday. Otherwise I would have no idea. Days time. Not sure what time it is in the day. Could be morning, could be evening anyway. So the topic is shut down HACS. What are the things that we’re doing to make life more bearable? To build connection. To just get through the day, get through these long and strange days with as much delight as we can manage given the very difficult circumstances. So who wants to go first? John, you are a man who has a million hacks for everything.
S6: It’s true. It’s true. And and I’m I’m thinking about actually writing about this for a couple of different weight reasons. The first thing is I’ll just give you the short answer, which is actually talking to clinical psychologists about how to get through this individually and also as a culture. The list is pretty simple about what you’re supposed to do. First of all, fight against that feeling that you talked about, David, that the routine and rootedness in the day is is important because it probably not for you because you have your own packages of propulsion, but for a lot of us were propelled by the routine of our normal day. And it gives us then propulsion towards the things that give us meaning, whether it’s work or relationships or whatever. If you lose your structure, then you can kind of fishtail around, which not only means you’re not productive. If you’re out of a job, what is productive activity mean? But it means you lack that routine and therefore you lack propulsion, which means you’re not in touch with meaning. So you need to find some kind of routine for the purposes of a routine and that keeps you stable. The other stuff that’s simple, which everybody knows, is you exercise connection and staying off of social media, which as my friend David Honegger pointed out, does, that’s all the stuff you’re supposed to do, even when you’re not in a situation like the one we’re in, which is when we were talking about the presidency. This is also true, which is all the things people are now focused on in the middle of an emergency are the things that we should all be focused on actually when there’s not an emergency with the job in the office, too. But we don’t. And so anyway, that’s a time topic for another time. But in terms of actual hacks that have been useful. One there are two to one is make the bad every morning and clear the surfaces at the end of the night, which is the dishwasher, the sink full of dirty dishes in the morning as the first thing that smacks you in the face. Tough also like just the stuff all over the kitchen.
S12: If it’s clean when you wake up in the morning, it just seems to make the day begin a little better.
S6: The other one is a regular like touchin with either friends or family at a very specific hour. For us it’s in the evening, so it kind of orders all the events around that because of that appointed time.
S1: So wait, you touch in with your kids and with an evening. That’s what you meant.
S6: No, no. I have some. Some of my friends from high school, we we all gather at at the same hour every night.
S24: That’s really nice. I was going to say that I feel like I’m touching it constantly with my child because there’s nobody else here who I want to limit that.
S12: Right. Everybody needs to be able to say, you know what?
S15: I just want to be alone and not have the person to whom they say that be all. I’ll be bummed out. We need. We need to be alone.
S1: Yes, that is a good point. I got obsessed this week with making face masks. I’m really, really angry with the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control with for misleading us about the protective nature of face masks. I’m convinced from the evidence that we could have mitigated the spread of the virus if we’d had them for the first place.
S11: There’s a reason that the Asian countries that have fared the best, all people wear face masks like they got used to it from TSAs and H1N1 and we have not. And I listened to the surgeon general and never bought any face masks because it seemed unpatriotic to hoard or even to have a few of them. And now I feel like I was misled. And so Farhad Manjoo used to be our colleague at Slate and is now New York Times columnist, wrote an excellent couple of comms about this. And then The Times published an extremely simple guide to sewing your own face mask. And I have now made one and a half of them without a selling machine, which is sort of a barbar. Be better if I had a sewing machine, but I have figured out and I am like the least handy person in the world. But I was able to sell on myself. Our. And now I’m making them for everyone in my family. And no, they are not. And ninety fives. They are not proper facemasks. But the evidence shows that they’re are better than nothing, for one thing. They destigmatize wearing facemasks for everybody. And for another, they mostly don’t protect you that well, but they protect other people if you happen to be infected. So that’s my latest strategy.
S10: I’m guessing, Emily, your great crochet or right or knit or net is one of those who can’t face math.
S23: I’m guessing you can’t knit if you know you’re so too big.
S26: It would be better if you could knit one.
S10: Although I feel like it would be like an end. One would be. It would be. It would take to keep in one percent of particle.
S26: Yeah. Instead I found this old tablecloth that had horses on it. I can’t figure out like whether we got it in Wyoming or where it’s from. But it is a good cotton weight. Oh, the other part of this is that the New York Times instructions suggest a tea towel. They had no idea what a tea towel is. It seems like I gather from by a question on Twitter.
S1: It’s like a late ish British dish towel. In any case, my old tablecloth is working well.
S10: But the tea towel is just to tell. It’s just a dish tell.
S11: It’s just a you know, this town is quite heavy and would be terrible facemasks, but there obviously are different weight of dish towel. I don’t think it was that useful a directive. That’s my one quibble with that. Otherwise, excellent set of instructions which we will post.
S10: Those are good. I guess the the thing that I have found most in what I’m trying to think is the right word. Most encouraging. Most heartening. Most soul fulfilling is is the occasions when I get to spend time with my children, which is not fraught, but where they’re learning something new. And so the thing that has been most gratifying, I suppose, is we’ve set up a remote cooking class. My mother, who’s a wonderful, wonderful cook and baker, is teaching my children and actually friends, children how to cook various things. And that is a really, really nice thing for the olds and for the families.
S15: So smart.
S11: Yeah, the connecting the grandparents to the kids right now is great pack.
S10: So that that’s a good one. And I don’t know that that’s supposed to I’m all out of ideas. Well, it’s somebody who who like needs physical exercise. One form of physical exercise I’ve found, which is in the absence of a gym is to do Pull-Ups on trees because nobody else is handling those trees. So you can just go and do a pull up on a tree. That’s about it.
S12: Heck, yeah, that is very dark because A, it assumes you have trees around you. B, that the limbs are.
S23: The right on the right side. Hi. I have to go find. You have to go find limbs that are the right size. So that’s part of bio, David. We have one of the wall like one of our doors.
S25: Yeah, we. I’m so bad at pull up. We’re good.
S6: We had the perfect pull up situation back in Washington and I’ve been unable to recreate it here. And it bums me out because I used to do that was. Yeah. Yeah.
S10: Emily, the question for you. A huge percentage of the women I know are letting their hair go gray. Are you letting your hair go gray?
S23: If you nothing, I will be.
S10: I mean, your hair is gray now that you’re here because you are youthful in all respects.
S26: But, you know, my hair is going to go.
S1: I mean, I luckily just happenstance got my hair colored just like a few weeks ago. So it hasn’t happened yet. But then my hairdresser also cuts the hair of my kids. And so Paul gave Simon a haircut. And then I thought, oh, we should pay our hairdresser because, like, I’m trying to do that with everybody. So I was texting with her about that.
S7: And she said she was actually going out and giving a few haircuts to this moment of thinking. Mm hmm. But I don’t think we could do a whole like hair color, egg highlights job in my house. That’s not going to work. Yeah. So I guess the answer’s yes.
S27: Do you have a Sharpie?
S23: That’s a good idea. I have a lot of hats as whole areas. All the white ones.
S10: Your sense of smell vanishes because of Kevin, 19. You can de Sharpie yourself. All right. Slate plus. Bye bye.