Political Animal

Give Greece Back the Olympics

The great Australian journalist Murray Sayle famously said there were only two newspaper stories: “we name the guilty man” and “arrow points to defective part.” He missed a third: “Olympic host country unprepared for games to start.”

This year the unreadiness theme is public health. “Covid risks at the Tokyo Olympics aren’t being managed, experts say” Scientific American reported on July 13. Five days later, CNN reported the sequel: “Two South Africans test positive for Covid in Olympic village.” Then finally, on July 19: “A Coronavirus Cluster Overshadows the Run-up to the Games as a U.S. Gymnast Tests Positive.” No fewer than two dozen “athletes, coaches, referees and other officials” in Tokyo for the games have tested positive for Covid. Toyota, one of the principal corporate sponsors, has announced it won’t run any Olympic-themed advertisements during the games, presumably because any association with the foolish decision to damn the pandemic and go ahead with this year’s games threatens to become a serious public-relations liability.

Japan is a uniquely poor location to host the Olympics because only about 20 percent of its population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19. New cases are spreading so quickly that a state of emergency was declared for the duration of the games. Yes, you read that right—Japan declared its own Olympics to be a public-health emergency. Spectators will be barred from attending Olympic events in and around Tokyo. The games might as well take place on a sound stage in Burbank.

Let’s remember, though, that host countries are never ready to host the Olympics. Sometimes it’s because stadiums aren’t yet built. That was the news in “Host Brazil is unprepared for the 2016 Olympics.” Sometimes there’s an unavailability of hotel rooms. Hence, in 2014, “Sochi: Worst Olympics Travel Destination Ever?” Or maybe all other activities in the host city risk coming to a halt. Hence, in 2012, “Third of UK businesses unprepared for Olympics.”

It’s true that the Olympics always manage somehow to come off despite poor preparation. But that’s mostly because, after opening ceremonies, coverage of the athletic events—punctuated by mawkish feature stories about this star Albanian pentathlete who reads to his blind grandma, or that East Timor pole vaulter who bravely overcame an addiction to paint thinner—displace news stories about, say, the great mass of city-dwellers who can’t get to work that day because the traffic is so bad. It literally takes a bomb going off to draw the public’s attention away from Olympic events once they’ve begun.

Afterwards, though, like clockwork, come the stories about exactly how far revenues fell short of expenses, and, still later, about weeds poking through concrete in the now-abandoned Olympic village. (ABC News has a whole slide show of these white elephants.) Host countries end up wondering whether the whole thing was really worth the hefty bribes they paid to the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

A growing number of people say the international community should just pull the plug on the Olympic games. The Olympics, concludes David Goldblatt, author of a 2016 book about them, are “unreformable.” Here at the Washington Monthly, our editor-in-chief Paul Glastris has instead argued (hereherehere, and here) for the less drastic measure of repatriating them to Greece, whence they came, and where they remained more than a thousand years until the fourth or fifth century AD.

Glastris is Greek-American, with the outsized affection for the mother country common among even the most assimilated within that group (see Greek Americans: Struggle and Success, by Peter and Charles Moskos). I am not Greek-American, nor have I even visited the place. That absolves me of any sentimentality when I say that Glastris is right. The Olympics belong back in Greece.

You wouldn’t hold the Salzburg Music Festival in Akron, or the Rose Bowl in Burkina Faso. Why would you host the Olympics anywhere but where they began? To do otherwise smacks of cultural appropriation, as the kids say. (Set aside that three quarters of western civilization is already appropriated from Ancient Greece.) The Olympics are a Greek invention that express Greek ideals about the grace and beauty in physical prowess. These ideals are respected the world round, which is why nations from across the globe participate. They’d be no less inclined to participate if the Olympics stayed put in Greece.

The main argument, though, for returning the Olympics to Greece isn’t cultural, but practical. It’s financially wasteful to move this travelling show from country to country. The Olympics are nearly always poorly run, if only because hosting them entails acquiring particular skills concerning something the host city has never done before, or anyway not in recent memory. The competition to be chosen host country is an open invitation to financial corruption. And constructing the facilities in which to stage them is a near-tragic exercise in redundancy. How many former Olympic villages does the world need?

Obviously the Greeks would have to be consulted on the matter. Modern Greece is not a wealthy nation. It shouldn’t have to shoulder alone the cost of building the infrastructure (or updating the infrastructure that Athens built to host the Olympics in 2004). Perhaps the IOC could be persuaded to share some broadcast revenue; that would give the Greeks a strong incentive to run the thing right.

All participating nations should contribute, with perhaps the European Union contributing a bit more.

Christine Lagarde is on record supporting the idea of bringing the Olympics home to Greece. Maybe the European Central Bank could get the ball rolling. The Germans might grumble a bit—they’re still feeling grumpy about being asked to bail out Greece in the Eurozone crisis—but hosting the Olympics might give Greece some of the stable revenue flow it needs to avoid the next financial meltdown.

The first couple of times Greece hosts the Olympics will be rocky. Expect Sports Illustrated to be merciless. But by the third go-round the Greeks will likely get the hang of it. Practice makes perfect. Then the rest of us can end our quadrennial ritual of clucking about how unready this or that country was for the crush of people arriving on its shores. Instead, we can down a shot of ouzo, nibble on some spanakopita, and enjoy the games.

This story has been updated with even more bad news about the Covid situation in Japan.

A Short History of Democrats and Antitrust

Joe Biden is framing his antitrust agenda as a linchpin to long-term economic growth. That’s notable, because Democrats haven’t in modern memory developed a consensus strategy to achieve such growth.

“Fair competition is why capitalism has been the world’s greatest force for prosperity and growth,” Biden said July 9. Franklin Roosevelt’s antitrust enforcement, he said, “help[ed] set the course for sustained economic growth after World War Two.” After Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, Biden said, antitrust enforcement weakened, corporations accumulated “more and more power,” and we “lost the fundamental American idea that true capitalism depends on fair and open competition. The result was “less growth, weakened investment, fewer small businesses.”

We haven’t heard this sort of political rhetoric, at the highest levels, for some time. When you look back at Democratic presidential nomination acceptance speeches over the past 30 years—including Biden’s—you’ll find that discussions of economic growth never talked up antitrust enforcement. Indeed, the speeches didn’t articulate any consistent approach to economic growth.

In 1992, Bill Clinton suggested government needed to get out of the private sector’s way. He called for “a government that is leaner, not meaner, a government that expands opportunity, not bureaucracy, a government that understands that jobs must come from growth in a vibrant and vital system of free enterprise.”

The Democrats’ party platform that year—always seen by far fewer people—said an “expanding, entrepreneurial economy of high-skill, high-wage jobs is the most important family policy, urban policy, labor policy, minority policy and foreign policy America can have.”

More affirmatively, the platform said that “a national economic strategy to invest in people” was needed to encourage growth. Such a strategy, it said, would include government investment in research and development and a “national public works investment and infrastructure program.” But the platform also called for government restraint in the form of deficit reduction, because “[r]ising interest on that debt now swallows one tax dollar in seven.”

In 1996, after muscling through a controversial tax increase that cut the deficit and freed up the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates, Clinton hugged the balanced budget argument tighter, linking it to growth. (This was, you may recall, the same year Clinton announced in his State of the Union speech that “the era of big government is over.”)

At the 1996 party convention, Clinton didn’t emphasize the tax increases, preferring instead to propose a “targeted” and “responsible” tax cut. He warned that a bigger Republican tax cut would lead to bigger deficits and higher interest rates. After detailing all the ways higher rates harm individual consumers, he asked, “Do we really want to make that same mistake all over again? Do we really want to stop economic growth again? Do we really want to start piling up another mountain of debt?”

In 2008, Barack Obama, similar to Clinton, said that “the market should reward drive and innovation and generate growth” but then added a healthy dollop of liberalism: “businesses should live up to their responsibilities to create American jobs, look out for American workers, and play by the rules of the road.” Obama offered a similar pairing in 2012. “Our free enterprise system [is] the greatest engine of growth and prosperity that the world’s ever known,” he said. “But we also believe in something called citizenship … the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations.” In other words: The private sector generates growth, but government is needed to make sure the rewards of that growth are shared widely.

In Biden’s 2020 acceptance speech, he went a step further and argued that public infrastructure investment is a critical ingredient to growth. “We’ll build back better,” he said, “with modern roads, bridges, highways, broadband, ports and airports, as a new foundation for economic growth.”

Biden’s legislative agenda reflects that view. But in his antitrust remarks, Biden stressed that for “long-term” economic growth, we can’t depend simply on the market. The government must fix the market.

By elevating the importance of antitrust policies, Biden was returning the Democratic Party to its roots planted in the Progressive Era of the early 20th century. His antitrust speech lauded Teddy Roosevelt for battling the trusts and giving “the little guy a fighting chance.” But Biden’s rhetoric had more in common with Roosevelt’s 1912 rival for the progressive mantle, Woodrow Wilson.

In 1911 President William Howard Taft accused his former ally Roosevelt of getting snookered by the steel trust in approving the purchase of a competitor. Roosevelt’s answer was that “size in itself does not signify wrong-doing.” Only when a “huge corporation … has gained its position by unfair methods” should it be broken up and further regulated. In a 1912 campaign audio recording, Wilson laid into Roosevelt—running against both Taft and Wilson on the Bull Moose ticket—for saying that:

Mr. Roosevelt puts forth an admirable platform of what he would like to do for the people. But how is he going to do it? He proposes in his platform not to abolish monopoly, but to take it under the legal protection of the government and to regulate it. In other words, to take the very men into partnership who have been making it impossible to carry out these great programs by which all of us wish to help the people …

There are two programs. The Democratic program is this: to see to it that competition is so regulated that the big fellow cannot put the little fellow out of business, for he has been putting the little fellow out of business for the last half generation.

The program of the third party is to take these big fellows that have been putting the little fellow out of business, and regulate them, saying, “That is all right. You have put the other fellows out of business. But we are not going to put the little fellows back where you destroyed them. We’re going to adopt you and say, ‘run the business of the country, but run it in the way we tell you to run it.’”

As president, Wilson signed into law the Clayton Antitrust Act, which banned anti-competitive mergers and pricing, while also taking care that its provisions didn’t bar workers from unionizing and striking. He also created the Federal Trade Commission to enforce the Clayton Act, as it continues to do today.

In the run-up to the 1914 midterm elections, Wilson drew a clear contrast between the two parties: “while our opponents were ready to … merely regulate it … it is our purpose to destroy monopoly and maintain competition as the only efficient instrument of business liberty.” The Democrats lost House seats that year, but they gained three Senate seats and kept control of both chambers.

After that, Democratic Party platforms supported antitrust policies in every presidential election year until 1992 with Bill Clinton. But as Biden seeks to return to the Democratic past, he should be mindful that past Democratic presidents—even Wilson—were often pulled in the two opposite directions Wilson described, and struggled to tame corporate power.

Wilson biographer John Milton Cooper noted Wilson’s initial appointments to the FTC “hobbled its effectiveness,” and that the “need for cooperation between government and business during World War I would dampen the Wilson administration’s anti-trust ardor.”

Franklin Roosevelt began his presidency with a suspension of the Democrats’ prized antitrust law as part of the National Industrial Recovery Act, accepting the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s argument that corporations needed the power of price fixing in order the end the Great Depression. Roosevelt envisioned a grand partnership between government and big business. Populists and many Progressives were horrified. An apoplectic Senator Huey Longdecreed that “The Democratic Party dies tonight … We wrote the platform in which we said we would not emasculate the antitrust laws. … We are now guaranteeing that the antitrust law can be emasculated, that the clothing men can get together, and that the shoe men can get together, and raise the prices of the commodities of industry without anything whatever to take care of the population on the farms.”

Roosevelt’s record on antitrust was actually more mixed than that. Biden’s speech noted that FDR “ramped up antitrust enforcement eightfold in just two years, saving families billions in today’s dollars and helping to set the course for sustained economic growth after World War Two.” Perhaps Biden picked that up from a New York Times op-ed by former Democratic Senator Mark Pryor, published in March, that lauded one of FDR’s Justice Department antitrust division leaders, Robert Jackson (later chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials and a Supreme Court justice). “Jackson’s 14-month stint as head of the antitrust division in 1937 and ’38,” Pryor wrote, “was the most consequential in the agency’s history.”

As with Wilson, though, when war broke out, Roosevelt rekindled his relationship with big business, and many antitrust cases were suspended. A strategy that deemphasized antitrust and instead pursued government partnership with and regulation of corporate giants prevailed through the 1960s in what John Kenneth Galbraith described approvingly as “the new industrial state.”

John F. Kennedy’s and Lyndon Johnson’s presidencies did have some notable antitrust successes. The Kennedy administration won one Supreme Court case establishing that the Clayton Act applied to banks, and the Johnson administration won another preventing the combination of two local banks. But there was often less to these presidents’ determination to check business power than met the eye.

In 1962 Kennedy famously threatened a price-fixing investigation into U.S. Steel after it surprised him with an inflationary price increase. Kennedy was furious because he’d just got done persuading the Steelworkers to moderate their wage demands. “My father always told me that all businessmen were sons of bitches,” he said privately, “but I never believed it until now.” After Kennedy’s saber-rattling, U.S. Steel backed down and cancelled the increase.

But that victory didn’t last long. Steel prices soon went back up anyway, just more quietly and gradually. Kennedy and Johnson largely remained passive during a wave of corporate mergers that began in the previous decade.

Reagan and Bush curbed antitrust enforcement much more sharply (and without compensatory regulation on the “new industrial state” model). Democrats railed against a wave of mergers, but were circumspect about ways to stop it.

The Clinton and Obama presidencies continued the postwar Democratic tradition of a mixed approach to antitrust enforcement, though with differing approaches to finance and technology. The Clinton administration repealed FDR’s Glass-Steagall law, which had long separated commercial banking from investment banking, while Obama stepped up bank regulation with the Dodd-Frank law. But when it came to the rising power of the corporate Internet, it was Clinton’s Justice Department that swung hard, suing Microsoft for wielding monopoly power illegally to control web browsing. Antitrust advocates cringe that Obama’s FTC took a pass on Google despite evidence of monopolistic behavior.  Still, the rise of Big Tech is a major reason why Democrats have brought antitrust policy back to center stage, starting with the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016, which put antitrust policy back in the party platform for the first time since her husband’s campaign took it out.

Now Biden has returned antitrust to the prominence it held in Democratic Party politics a century ago. In his remarks, Biden cannily plucked examples where stronger antitrust enforcement could deliver real world benefits without the hassle of navigating Congress. For example, in pledging that the Federal Trade Commission would “ban or limit” non-compete clauses in employment contracts, Biden noted the rank absurdity of imposing them on workers “running the machines that lay down asphalt.  If, in fact, you get offered a job and … you’re in Arkansas doing it … you can’t take a job in west Texas to do it. What in the hell does that have to do with anything?” This was Biden at his best, framing his appeal in the common sense ticked-off language of the average, normal person.

Biden’s revival of antitrust isn’t just good policy; it’s also good politics. That’s because it can bridge ideological tensions between the party’s younger left flank and its older centrists. Antitrust has appeal to both factions. Talk of restoring competition may upset a handful of giant corporations, but not the wider swath of smaller businesses and entrepreneurs. Socialists may not love capitalism but it’s hard to see them getting too mad at moderate Democrats who draw real corporate blood in the name of repairing capitalism.

Yet intra-party tensions remain. During a recent Congressional Progressive Caucus conference call, a heated dispute broke out as Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren criticized the authors of aggressive antitrust legislation for hasty work, and Congressman David Cicilline accused Lofgren of shilling for Silicon Valley. If Biden is to succeed where his predecessors fell short, he will need to be mindful of his party’s history.

What Will It Take For Republicans To Get Vaccinated?

The biggest public health crisis in America is increasingly a partisan one: Democratic areas are largely getting vaccinated while Republican areas lag far behind. This is a particularly large problem as the Delta variant sweeps across the country, with the overwhelming majority of hospitalizations and 99% of deaths among the unvaccinated.

In terms of persuading the unvaccinated, there is a difference between vaccine hesitancy and vaccine refusal. The ranks of the “wait and see” vaccine hesitant are disproportionately Black and Latino though still by far a majority white and conservative. But the “wait and see” contingent is shrinking rapidly over time, and dissipating particularly quickly in the face of outreach campaigns and fear of the Delta variant.

It’s the vaccine refusal category that is most troubling. A full one-third of white conservatives say they will refuse to get the COVID vaccine–a superficially shocking result for culture that bills itself as one of personal responsibility and “pro-life” in the face of a deadly pandemic.

The partisan inflection of vaccination refusal has been reflected in bizarre laws passed in red states, from Florida criminalizing vaccine passports or using vaccination status for any reason to Tennessee even abandoning vaccination outreach to minors for any vaccines. The governors of South Carolina and Missouri are vowing to reject federal door-to-door outreach efforts in their states.

The reasons for conservative vaccine hesitancy are both simple and complex. Part of it is directly a result of partisan politics and the sociopathic self-interest of both Donald Trump and Fox News hosts. Trump thought that taking the pandemic seriously would hurt the economy and thus his re-election chances, so he minimized it at every turn. Fox News sees advantage in stoking fury at the supposed overreach of liberal do-gooders in government, and has a near seditious interest in seeing the Biden administration fail to meet its vaccination goals.

But it also has to do with increasing rejection of science and lower trust in expertise broadly among Republicans that corresponds with re-alignment on educational grounds. It’s partly grounded in conspiracy theories that refuse to concede that the virus is real or worse than the flu. And it is tied up in the culture of libertarian white supremacy in which a certain kind of conservative foolishly and arrogantly assumes that they’re too inherently fit, immune and close to nature to be harmed by the virus.

A callous blue-stater might respond with a certain wry social Darwinism about all of this. But these are fellow Americans who have been victimized by hucksters and con artists from Tucker Carlson to Donald Trump to their local pastors. Hospitals and frontline workers are becoming overwhelmed by unvaccinated Delta-variant COVID patients. Unvaccinated variant carriers are a petri dish for creating new and potentially even more damaging variants. And unfortunately, while the vaccinated are at far less risk of death and serious hospitalization than the unvaccinated, the Delta variant has shown itself disturbingly capable of breaking through the vaccine barrier and causing mild to moderate illness among even the vaccinated–with unknown long-term health implications. If the unvaccinated turn COVID into an endemic disease to which we never achieve herd immunity, it will affect us all for generations.

So what can be done? A recent much-pilloried article at National Review laid the blame (surprise!) on government officials and the media for making vaccine resisters feel “disrespected.” This is amusing from the “facts don’t care about your feelings” crowd, and it’s also obnoxious. How much farther must blue America bend over backward to coddle the sensitive emotions of people who insist that their supposedly superior genes and crossfit regimens will keep them from having to wear “face diapers” like those weak liberals, that they want President Bleach Injections unconstitutionally reinstalled in office, and that the main villain of the COVID pandemic is Anthony Fauci? They know that Donald Trump got the vaccine, and they don’t care, and it’s not as if they’re affected by the messaging coming from blue-state bureaucracies or from the New York Times.

What we do know is that the most trusted information sources for them tend to be word of mouth and their own physicians. Often, though, those physicians are also bound up in the same culture conflict as their patients. And clearly the advice of medical professionals is not alone enough to make the difference. Fox News’ constant vaccine denialism is far more influential.

If Fox News and Donald Trump were to make a concerted case to their followers and audiences to get the vaccine, it might make a big difference. But they’re not likely to do that because if they cared about their followers and audiences, well, they wouldn’t be Fox News and Donald Trump. They thrive off stoking white Christianist grievance, not responsible governance.

In the end, moving toward greater vaccine acceptance may simply be a matter of incentives. There is no good ethical reason not to simply pay people to get the vaccine. Culture talks, but so does money. Beyond that, the moves being made in many European countries to push for vaccine passports may be necessary. Certainly, many red states will act (and in some cases already have acted) to ban them. But if vaccine passports become routine in blue areas, they will push conservatives in those areas toward vaccination if they want to see sporting events or concerts and otherwise participate in civic life. And since blue counties account for 70% of GDP, broad corporate and institutional practices in those areas will filter down in various ways to the rest of the 30% of the country.

Unless we want to engage in a bloody and bitter divorce, we have to solve this problem together. And there’s no reason for the responsibly vaccinated to continue to have to put themselves and their kids at risk to mollycoddle conservative snowflakes who place their identitarian culture war and Fox News obsession over the value of life. We, too, deserve to be able to go back to living normal lives at concerts and restaurants unmasked without fear of infection by a conservative who never bothered to make any sacrifices. Whatever we have to do to get there, we should do.


DeSantis Didn’t Win the Pandemic, After All

Do we all remember this piece in Politico titled “How DeSantis Won the Pandemic?”

Ron DeSantis wants you to know how well he has done.

“We’ve had tremendous success,” the Republican governor of Florida said recently at a vaccine site in Sumterville in the central part of the state when I caught up with him while reporting for this week’s POLITICO Magazine Friday Cover, which we published early for Nightly readers.

“Really good numbers,” he said in front of the pharmacy in the back of a Jacksonville Walgreens.

Sure, it hedges a bit later:

Democrats across the state say this “victory lap” is not only unseemly but premature. They might be right. This past year, after all, has been wrenching. Approximately 2 million Floridians have tested positive for the coronavirus and more than 32,000 have died. The disbursement of unemployment benefits has been stingy and uneven. The vaccine rollout has been pockmarked by tales of lengthy waits, balky websites and numerous charges of socioeconomic inequities and political favoritism. And the pandemic of course is not over. Ominous variants lurk.

But after 12 months in which he was pilloried as a reckless executive driven more by ideology than science, dogged by images of crowded beaches and bars and derided as “DuhSantis,” “DeathSantis” and “DeSatan,” Florida has fared no worse, and in some ways better, than many other states — including its big-state peers.

But the cautious bit didn’t prevent the headline from flying far and wide across the country, contrasting Florida’s supposedly successful laissez-faire approach positively with the more cautious efforts in bluer states. In California a recall effort is underway against governor Gavin Newsom, fueled in part by conservative fury that the state didn’t take adopt more Florida-style response to the pandemic.

But now, just a few months later, who could have predicted?

1 in 5 new COVID cases last week came from Florida, health official says

Four states accounted for 40% of new cases last week, with one in five coming from Florida.

The other states with the highest number of new cases were Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Nevada.

It was not, of course, difficult to predict at all.

I’ve argued here before that failures of framing in the traditional media are now far less important than the disinformation being peddled on social media. The fact that the top posts on Facebook are consistently from right-wing disinformation channels matters a great deal more to public policy than whether Politico says something dumb and irresponsible. Biden reiterated the point yesterday, much to the amusing consternation of the rightwing disinformation racket itself and its enablers at Facebook.

But traditional media does still set narratives among more informed members of the electorate. How many times do reporters need to be played for fools by too-good-to-be-true rightwing narratives before a greater degree of skepticism starts to set in?

People’s lives are at stake. Republican elected officials and Fox News hosts aren’t going to tell their voters and audiences the truth about the stakes of this virus—thereby putting not only them but the rest of the world in danger of increased transmission and further variants. They’re willing to get their own supporters killed out of cowardice and for marginal, short-term political advantage.

The last thing responsible journalists should be doing is helping them along.