Saturday, March 28, 2020

BTRTN: Will Business Leaders Follow Donald Trump… or de facto President Andrew Cuomo?

News outlets are beginning to overtly question the wisdom of broadcasting Donald Trump’s daily press briefings, as the accuracy of information and the medical wisdom of Trump’s commentary can be seriously eroding public safety. Want the facts? Tune into the guy who is actually behaving like a President of the United States should.  

The story of the hour is Donald Trump’s contention that he wants American business to “re-open” by Easter. The imagery of a sudden and miraculous rising is no doubt appealing to Trump right about now, but the last person to actually pull something like that off was the son of God, for chrissake.

The idea is that the “at-risk” population would remain in some form of isolation or self-quarantine, but that the majority of Americans would be expected to return to their jobs. Yep, board the bus and get within six inches of that wheezing millennial. You can’t just act like some sheltering-in-place wimp when the DJIA is still 20% off its peak.

This concept – like just about everything Donald Trump sneezes on – is acutely polarizing. The very fact that rates of infection in some U.S. hotspots show signs of slowing is heralded by scientists as evidence that the “lockdown” of people in their homes is working. Those same trends embolden Trump to feel that his “fantastic team” has completed their “amazing” work and that now it is time to get back to business. Why, Trump crows, there are parts of this country that haven’t felt the slightest impact from the global pandemic.  We are left to guess that he is referring to the East Wing of the White House.

It’s fair to say that most Democrats – who polling shows are overwhelming trusting the scientists rather than the President– will urge that the social isolation continue until the rate of contagion has reached an “acceptable” level. Today, U.S. cases are growing by 20-25% per day. China and South Korea loosened restrictions when they achieved 1% growth per day. The United States is far, far, far from achieving that rate.
Trump, egged on by The Wall Street Journal and major figures in finance, is now floating the notion that the “cure is worse than the disease,” and has even speculated that the death toll caused by economic carnage might actually exceed the number of fatalities that would result from the virus itself. The only tangible support he offered for this assertion was a mention of suicides, which he floated while waving his arms with that signature gesture that indicates he is making shit up as he goes along. 
The nightly drama on television screens across America is yet one more example of the polarization of the portrayal of reality itself. 

Trump is clearing enjoying his nightly performance from the White House press room, as he plays the role of someone who appears to be in charge of a comprehensively successful war against a mild cold. His act is a sort of helter-skelter in place, as he dumps the questions he cannot understand off to Mike Pence and others, while personally seizing any opportunity to take credit for the actions of others and to insult the media. He cannot say enough about what a great job he is doing, appearing to believe that no one could have possibly known that a global pandemic could happen. Lacking command of detail, he will comment on forecasts for medical supplies by saying that it is "a very big number." He announces that we already have all the testing kits and ventilators we will ever need -- soon we will even extras for Italy and Spain! Not a briefing goes by when he does not mention that he inherited a terrible situation from the Obama administration, a point easily disputed by simply reviewing the 44th President's handling of the Ebola crisis, and the pandemic planning infrastructure that was dismantled by Trump himself. Trump drops in sidebars that offer different perspectives from those of the doctors, citing his own very optimistic “hunches” and “instincts” as reason to believe that a vaccine for a different disease might be effective in fighting COVID-19.

In the other corner, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has eclipsed Joe Biden and every other Democrat to become the voice of reality, speaking surely and candidly with empathy and resolve, citing actual statistics and all their worrying implications. Cuomo has filled the aching void, acting as chief advocate for facts, science, and for listening to the medical community. It is unmistakable: in his command of fact, calm yet earnest and urgent manner, and constant visible presence, Andrew Cuomo is embodying the behaviors that Americans have come to expect from their President in a time of crisis. Where Trump stands stiffly in suit and tie behind a lectern, largely reading from a prepared text, and bloviating in generalities, Cuomo speaks extemporaneously in casual attire in a command center, exuding hands-on involvement.

Consider this gem of a quote from his press conference yesterday afternoon:

"I hope New York doesn’t ultimately need 30,000 ventilators. But I don't operate on opinion and hope. I operate on facts and data and science. All the projections say we will need 30,000-40,000 ventilators. So that is what we will strive to have."
Contrast this poised commentary with Trump on the exact same topic. Just hours later in his White House briefing, Donald Trump offhandedly dismissed Cuomo's assessment, declaring that there is a "great chance" that New York will not need the quantity Cuomo has alleged. "The New York City estimate is high," Trump asserts, apparently citing, well... opinion and hope.

The chasm in leadership style is in starkest relief on the matter of taking responsibility. Trump, questioned about the problems that led to inadequate early testing, blabbered that he “took no responsibility at all.” Cuomo, upon making the decision to order the closing of all non-essential business in the state, was blunt. “If someone wants to blame somebody, blame me. There is no one else responsible for this decision.”

Here’s the question of the day: when time comes for Americans and American corporations to respond to Donald Trump’s demand that workers return to work, who will they listen to? 

First, let’s be clear on one thing: if Donald Trump wants America to go back to work anytime soon, he is going to need New York City, the financial capital of the country and indeed the world, to fall in line. 

Somewhat oddly, in New York City, that means Andrew Cuomo. Bill de Blasio – who only months ago felt that his performance as Mayor of New York warranted a shot at the White House – has faded into a secondary role far in the shadow of New York’s triple-Alpha-rated governor. Where Donald Trump has decided to take on the role of champion of a healthy economy, Andrew Cuomo has clearly staked out the position that the health of the people takes priority. It is not that Cuomo is unconcerned about the economy. Rather, he believes that the health and safety of the population is the only long-term path to a resurgent economy. 

Thus, the makings of an epic confrontation. 

The bet has to be that Trump backs down, lest he watch as New York and its global financial institutions ignore his directive and follow the policies of Governor Cuomo.  Were Trump to attempt to force a confrontation with Cuomo, the loss of face that would result would effectively position Cuomo as the de facto President of the United States. 

This is not a tricky decision for the C.E.O.s of major corporations headquartered in New York. The cultures of America’s Fortune 500 companies are first and foremost based on data-driven metrics about productivity, profitability, performance, operational excellence, and even more subjective measures of workforce satisfaction. Rare is the mid-level manager whose Powerpoint recommendation has as its rationale “well, it’s my gut feeling,” or, “I think the company should just go with my intuition on this one.”

New York’s financial institutions certainly want a resurgent Dow Jones Industrial Average and have obviously applauded the bipartisan stimulus package. 

But they are also some of the biggest employers in the region. J.P. Morgan Chase, for example, employs 37,000 people in the New York area. The number-crunchers and quant-jocks at J.P. Morgan Chase understand things like “flattening curves” and “contagion,” and know that sending their entire work force back into New York’s subways prematurely would likely create a mini-Wuhan inside their own office towers, crippling the company’s operations for months. 

New York’s major financial entities are simply not going to wake up in a few weeks and issue an all-staff email saying “hey, Donald Trump says its fine for you all to come back to work!”

In fact, the first message that banks might have for Donald Trump is this: “Mr. President, do you really think our people are not working right now??” As we speak, most of those workers are sitting at home, glued to a computer screen and tethered to headphones, trying their damndest to do their jobs, laboring to figure out how to accomplish vital tasks remotely. For these people, “sheltering-in-place” means running around after a two-year-old whose daycare is closed while re-writing suddenly moot business plans on a iPhone with a 5g connection. A sector head addressing a dozen employees on a ZOOM call barely notices when her nine-year-old wanders into camera range. 

And the companies that employ them? Many top tier financial firms just laid out a bundle of money in technology to make sure that their executives could operate seamlessly from the den. Huge terminals were shipped by UPS to suburban homes and Upper East Side apartments. These companies no doubt view the coronavirus as a test bed for an inevitable long-term shift toward increasingly virtual workplaces, and would much rather prolong that experimentation than risk widespread illness in their own organizations. 

In the next few days, major CEOs will huddle with New York Governor Cuomo and guess what they will do? They will look at the numbers.

They will see that sheltering-in-place is working to blunt the impact of the virus, but the work is not yet done. 

They will see declines in the acceleration of infection rates, but not a reduction in the number of cases. 

They will see that demand for medical services still far exceeds supply. 

And they will reach the only conclusion that scientists – and those who listen to them – can  draw: Continue sheltering in place. Continue working remotely. Continue the plan that is working, until there is concrete evidence that it is safe to remove the “shelter-in-place” restrictions. 

They will defy Trump.

No, maybe not openly. Not with a big flash of defiance. Andrew Cuomo is too smart for that. He knows that Trump still controls the flow of Federal resources to New York City, and has been so craven in the past as to use his power to punish Blue states and the politicians who run them. Just last night Trump berated the governors of Michigan and Washington for not being sufficiently "appreciative" of Federal efforts. The clear quid pro quo: if you want me to turn on the spigot of Federal relief for your state, you better tell CNN that you think I am doing a great job.

Cuomo is shrewd, and he will make a PR point of pretending that everyone is on the same team.

But New York City will become the capital of United Science of America, and Andrew Cuomo will be its de facto President. 

He will explain that to order New York city’s workforce back pre-maturely will only ensure that a hefty percentage of those people become infected, and will in turn infect other employees, their families, and other New Yorkers they encounter en route.

He will not take that risk. And, by the way, Donald, he won’t take that risk with the health of New York City businesses, either. 

Which may well change the nature of the polarization in the United States.

Scientific America – yes, generally blue states, but much more importantly, urban centers, will suck it in and follow scientific protocols. These areas – the toughest to police and the hardest places to enforce social distancing – will face a long battle to contain the virus, but if they stay the course, they will ultimately achieve the types of contagion percentages we now see in South Korea and China.

But what about the great swath of America that continues to listen to Donald Trump? Some take the position that Trump’s America – Republican, Red State, rural, and geographically dispersed – has natural protection from a virus that thrives from population density. There is also significant data that shows that Republicans are far more likely to trust Donald Trump on the pandemic than doctors or local government. The Governors of those states will suck up to Trump, and will giddily second Trump's assertion that it is safe to go back to work. Lemmings en route to the cliff, these people will return to work en masse just as the conoravirus is making its way out of urban centers and into the heartland of America.

And yes, they will become sick. 

Slowly, surely, in the workplaces and the Wal-Marts, the bowling alleys, bars, and ballgames where people in Trump America are again allowed – indeed, encouraged -- to congregate, the virus will spread. Yes, there is less population density in rural America, but there are also wafer-thin healthcare and hospital services. The carnage to human life could be catastrophic.

These are the people who could and should be listening and learning now from the experiences in Seattle, New York, and San Francisco, and in preparing, could be dramatically reducing the impact of the virus. 

Are they? Or are they listening to Trump, reassured that his team has really got this thing solved. Nothing to worry about. President Trump wants me to go back to work? Count me in!

It is sadly all too easy to paint this scenario, all too easy to see how Trump’s core supporters will pay a very steep price indeed for their own ignorance, allegiance to state-run television news, and unwavering trust in a lazy, self-worshipping man who is more inclined to go with his hunches and his gut than with the hard work of science.

Me? I am listening to the de facto President of the United States of America… Andrew Cuomo.

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  1. Hard to imagine all the ways this crisis is stress testing our society.

    Dinner group (via Zoom) last night, and everyone had a story of disruption:
    * a hospital psychologist describing a COVID-19 patient sedated and on a ventilator, with his medical attendants talking to his COVID-19 positive wife at their home via a video chat app facilitated by a donated tablet.
    * a construction firm executive talking about the difficulties of on-again, off-again, shifts in whether the company's employees and subcontractors could work, and if they can't, how long the company can last.
    * a retired police officer, discussing watching people try to steal food from a grocery store by NOT scanning all items at the self-check out.
    * a DA's investigator mentioning that all of the probation officers for juveniles were no longer working, that people were being cited but not arrested for non-violent felonies.
    * a person off-work recuperating from knee surgery and getting physical therapy via Facetime,
    * a bookseller at an independent bookstore discussing the dilemma of obeying the "shelter in place" order or going to work to help support some cash flow that may allow the company to stay open.
    * hearing of a sister & family flying out of New York City to be in self-quarantine near here -- leaving work, school, all friends and familiar routines of life.

    Reading this morning that primary care physician practices are hitting financial rough spots because so few are going to the doctor.

    Everywhere I look, strings leading to disastrous consequences.

    I look forward to the April update of the Trumpometer.... people may not be "winning" quite so much.

    1. Re: Trumpometer...the jobs report in next Friday will not reflect the coronavirus impact because the data collection ended on March 8. Gas prices have gone down. Consumer confidence and Dow take hits, but not GDP yet either. So only 2 of the 5 measures. Bigger impact in May update.


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