Auto Ads by Adsense

Monday, August 16, 2021

Review: Premonition

 In the opening to Premonition, Michael Lewis claims that he wrote the book intending to find malfeasance behind Trump, but discovered that the bigger story was that Trump was just "a co-morbidity" at best. I think he way over-sold this conclusion.

The book focuses on Charity Dean, California's deputy head of Public Health. The reason she wasn't the head of the department was because she was white and blond, and Newsome apparently wanted a woman of color in charge because of concerns about racial justice. It's quite clear that in the world of politics, being the best person for the job isn't good enough, and Dean was continuously being asked to back-pedal her conclusions or make it look like her boss's work. My sympathies (and yours too) are of course with the technically competent person who's not allowed to do the right thing.

the state’s personnel management was bizarre. “There was something seriously awry,” Markovich said. “Everyone I called about Charity tells me she walks on water, and it was pretty clear that she was running the show but, like, wait a minute, she’s the assistant health officer? She’s not the head health officer? Where’s the head?” He asked around and learned that the head health officer was a woman named Sonia Angell, but he never met her. “It started to be impossible to miss,” said Markovich. “This is the biggest public-health crisis ever, and she’s nowhere to be found.” (Kindle Loc 3827)

But the rest of the story isn't really about how Trump wasn't part of the problem. It was quite clear that for instance, Bush actually thought about pandemics and at least asked someone to write up a plan. And in fact, the whole concept of social distancing was thought up by a white-house driven initiative, and the book includes a story about how that group overcame resistance within the CDC and got social distancing accepted as one of the tools for pandemic control, along with school closures and other measures. This was huge, and a clear example that government can come up with ideas.

The rest of the book takes potshots at the CDC for its inability to take risks and manage pandemics, which I might agree with, but again, the solution for that is to fix it and put risk-takers in charge. Instead, we get paragraphs like this:

He’d been born in Poland and moved to the United States as a child. He had memories of Poland as a communist regime, and of the total breakdown of the government’s ability to be useful to its citizens. What he saw in the local U.S. public-health offices remined him of public services in Poland, but before the collapse of communism. “Poland now is not like this,” said David, after seeing the inside of a U.S. public-health office. “Poland now is more functional. Eastern Europeans are tough and kind of not shocked by a failed state. But these are the symptoms of a failed state.” (Kindle Loc 3605)

 To be sure, the past couple of years have shown that US governments are incredibly deficient in many ways. But to get to this point took about 40 years of constant Republican propaganda about how "government isn't the solution, government is the problem." And even then, it was quite clear that states like California and Washington did manage to avoid the worst of it --- that was, until California's right-wing citizens got antsy about the social distancing. Make no mistake, I think the ridiculous lockdowns that shutdown beaches and public outdoor spaces were insane, but again, the solution there isn't fewer scientists in government!

The book ends with Charity Dean leaving her job in government to do a startup:

Once she’d become a public-health officer, she’d imagined an entire career in public service. Now she did not believe that the American government, at this moment in its history, would ever do what needed doing. Disease prevention was a public good, but the public wasn’t going to provide anything like enough of it. From the point of view of American culture, the trouble with disease prevention was that there was no money in it. She needed to find a way to make it pay. (Kindle loc 4206)

The saddest part of that is that if everyone competent in government thought like this, we'd be in a worst state. We need more institution building, not less, and as Obama once said, "Private companies can and should pick the customers they serve, but governments cannot!"

The book is as well written as any Michael Lewis book is, and has all sorts of great stories in it that makes it well worth your time. Just read it carefully, keeping in mind Lewis's agenda.


No comments: