What are we even talking about?

Joel Cawley
10 min readOct 6, 2020


Immediately after the first 2020 Presidential Debate, most of the country talked about what a horrorshow that became. Trump, of course, was swaggering around talking about how much fun it was to urinate all over the very notion of democratic engagement. Any and all attempts by Biden and the moderator to actually talk about real policies, even the real world, were drowned out by the squawks of the delusional, hallucinating baboon sharing the stage with those two adults. It also now appears he may well have known he had Covid19 that whole time which makes many of his comments even more ridiculous.

Trump’s behavior is both familiar and horrifying. Indeed, being a commentator and consultant with in-depth knowledge of business and economics is decidedly odd at the moment. On the one hand we face the largest, most complex and most uncertain combination of crises perhaps in our entire history. Those of us with the right background and knowledge ought to be engaged in vigorous, even contentious, debates about how best to navigate these waters. But, this is a Trump election cycle, so instead we discuss imaginary plane loads of fictitious Antifa Super Soldiers.

Admittedly, the Coronavirus has taken much of what we pundits think we know along with the major lessons we’ve learned from all of our experience and tossed it out the window. There’s no precedent for what’s happening, and all our intuitions need to come with a giant asterisk indicating that what were once “Scientific Wild Ass Guesses” are now just “Wild Ass Guesses.” We all have to temper our knowledge with the humility of recognizing the massive unknowns that will probably be studied by our successors for decades, if not centuries.

The important unknowns start with the impact of the virus on public health. As of this writing, we know we’ve had over 6 million confirmed cases and 200,000 confirmed deaths. Some large jurisdictions like Florida and Texas are almost certainly, and deliberately, under-reporting so it’s probably larger than that, but let’s just use those numbers to start. There are many important unknowns hiding under those two numbers but let’s highlight two for discussion purposes. First, “confirmed” cases are much less than “total” cases. There are lots of mild cases that go unreported, so we know we’ve had more than “just” 6 million people who’ve been infected. Second, “death” isn’t the only important outcome to care about. Some number of people recover, but with long term damage to their lungs, heart, and often nervous systems. Professional athletes so affected will obviously need to find other careers, but even those with less demanding occupations may find their jobs too physically strenuous for their “post-Covid” bodies.

We don’t know how many of those folks there are. Yet. One early report from Sweden suggests that the total infected fatality rate (IFR) may be as low as 0.6%. That’s considerably better than most estimates, which have all hovered around an IFR of 1%. However, that same report claimed that 15% of those infected ended up with long term health problems that are sufficient to limit future activities and employment. That’s the only data point I’ve seen for that crucial number and is certainly not confirmed. But, again, let’s use it for discussion purposes. Here’s what that implies: If the IFR rate is correct then our 200,000 deaths suggest we’ve had 33 million infected in total. That’s slightly more than 5 times our confirmed cases and, based on various studies in the US seems high but within reason. However, If the long-term health impact numbers are right, then it suggests we may already have as many as 5 million people whose lives have been irrevocably altered by long term health problems. In a war, those folks would be counted as “casualties” not ignored as simply unimportant.

Here’s the other ugly little implication. While few have stated it directly, the semi-official current US strategy towards the virus is “herd immunity.” To achieve that objective, we’d need something like 60–70% of the population to have been infected. If our 33 million estimate for our currently infected total is correct, that’s roughly 10% of the US population, suggesting we’d still need 6–7x more people get infected. That further implies 1.2–1.4 million fatalities and 30–35 million casualties. Those are truly staggering numbers for what has become the entire Republican strategy.

But we can’t really talk about any of that. Instead we need to clarify that ingesting bleach or taking quack drugs isn’t healthy. We also need to deal with those who blithely assert “life isn’t everything” as they suggest seniors and those with health problems simply accept their deaths as “heroes.” I doubt any of those folks thinks Trump should accept getting the virus as an opportunity for his own “heroic” death. And, we have a good chunk of the population that doesn’t understand why they need to alter their behavior and apparel just to avoid subjecting millions to the agonizing torture of suffocation and death from the virus.

Among the many deep unknowns is just what this virus will mean for our healthcare system. That sector was already an economic cancer that had metastasized from consuming a healthy 8–10% of our economic resources to one that was consuming an economically deadly 18%. The management imperatives driving the sector had already begun sacrificing the actual health of our population for the personal wealth of its executives and stockholders. Every business and worker in the country is having their economic well-being burned at the altar of those interests. The early impacts from the virus are unclear but all of them are bad.

But we can’t talk about any of that. Instead of dealing with our public health nightmare on the basis of affordably achieving public health, we must first navigate the byzantine efforts of the GOP to eliminate healthcare for as many people as possible. The economic structures they demand virtually assure the eventual loss of healthcare services for most rural communities and the personal bankruptcy of almost every American who gets seriously ill. They’ve also convinced a large percent of America that reproductive care, specifically women’s reproductive care, is NOT related to health and must be addressed through religious beliefs instead of medicine. And, we must deal with the relentless assault on logic that seeks to conclude that when Congress eliminated the individual mandate they really intended to eliminate the entire Affordable Care Act. They didn’t do that, because they didn’t have the votes to do so, but our newly stacked Supreme Court will soon be given the chance to override that awkward democratic legislative reality.

Then we have the police forces that have declared war on America. At least, any part of America they deem unacceptable to their sensibilities. In other words, black and brown America. They’ve decided, in fact been indoctrinated, that they are at war and their first imperative must be to kill. They have a nation-wide training program built around a philosophy they literally call “killology.” The first lesson the philosophy teaches is “kill first.” They used to keep the racial part quiet, but under Trump, that’s now out in the open. Indeed, white vigilantes are now welcomed to the cause. Florida’s Governor recently brought forth legislation to empower any citizen to kill any person (of color) whenever they so choose as long as you use either a gun or a vehicle. That’s their version of a “pro-choice” agenda. Kill whoever you choose, using the weapon of your choice. As long as you’re white.

But we can’t talk about that particular sickness either. Instead, our Attorney General is declaring people protesting escalating police violence to be radical left-wing terrorists that are overwhelming besieged law enforcement through brigades of those Soros funded Antifa Super Soldiers. They’ve declared graffiti painting as “violence” that justifies tear gas, abduction, and outright assault on civilians. They’ve begun welcoming right wing militia groups to patrol cities and assault anyone they choose to target. When an impressionable 17 year old kills two people destroying both their lives and his own they revel at the event and celebrate his actions as “heroic.” That word seems to come up a lot when certain ideological beliefs confront awkward realities.

Meanwhile, in Denver, where I live, the mountains, which normally loom over the city, have been absent for much of the summer. Too much smoke. There were days the whole city smelled like a BBQ joint, our eyes were red and burning and those with any respiratory issues needed to stay inside and avoid exercise. No, that’s not because of weed, nor is it the result of radical protestors setting fire to the city. And, no, for the record we are not overrun by left-wing anarchists.

It’s from the forest fires blanketing the west coast of our nation. The size and scope of those fires can be traced back to climate change. Commentators who aren’t directly familiar with the area will often simply highlight drought as the problem. However, that drought has also weakened the natural resistance of our pine trees leaving them vulnerable to a beetle that has laid waste to millions of acres of wilderness. Stand on one of our iconic overlooks and notice all the dead trees. That’s beetle damage, caused by drought, which is caused by climate change — and, it’s also fuel for fires. By some estimates, over 80% of the trees consumed in the Creek Fire in Oregon had already been killed by the beetles. The fire and smoke are the prominent icing on the cake of our already dying forests.

But, we can’t talk about that. Instead we have to discuss whether state governments should do more raking of those forests while pointing out that 95%+ of the forests in question are under federal land management. If it isn’t raking, we’re back to those ubiquitous imaginary Antifa arsonists. Meanwhile the real anarchists setting fire to our communities are the climate deniers. Climate change is an existential crisis for humanity that’s deeply complex. We have vitally important debates we need to have about the exact strategy to tackle the problem. Done right, it has the potential to trigger one of the greatest periods of profoundly healthy economic development in history. Instead we’re debating bogeyman stories normally reserved for children’s bed times.

Then we have the rising dangers posed by President Xi in China. In some ways he’s their equivalent of Trump. A man with seemingly few moral compunctions and a willingness to exercise China’s rising power in ways that defy any sort of international standard for human rights. In our system, Trump’s worst abuses have been stymied by the courts. Xi faces no such opposition, which is probably why Trump admires him so much. For reasons spelled out in my book, The Fifth Paradigm, China is likely be as dominant a power in the 21st century as the US was in the 20th. Developing the right engagement strategy for this difficult and critically important player on the world stage is incredibly important.

But, we can’t talk about that either. Instead we have to talk about calling Covid19 the “China virus” and the fact that our tariffs on China are actually paid by US businesses and consumers. Then we have to debate whether Chinese super spies are using TikTok dance videos recorded by US teenagers to track movements of our Pacific Fleet. Or, something like that. On the other hand, maybe they’re secretly capturing US consumer data that inscrutable Chinese villains are using for their unnamed villainous purposes instead of just buying that data from any of the dozens of US companies that would be quite happy to sell it to them as they have been for years.

We’re right on the heels of what could end up being considered the most successful socioeconomic intervention in our history. Ensuring every member of America’s workforce was able to receive a living, minimum wage through the use of the $600/week unemployment supplement has been a stellar success. It wasn’t perfect and revealed many deep flaws in our existing systems and tools, but it worked! In fact, there’s a deeply important economic lesson this has proven. When all working Americans get paid a living wage the economic lift that provides is powerful enough to compensate for the unprecedented shut down of the economy caused by a pandemic. I don’t think even the most wildly optimistic proponents of fixing our wage problems realized just how powerful a stimulus that could provide.

We should be having a vigorous dialogue on how we ensure all that value continues both immediately and once the pandemic is under control. Instead, we’re abandoning something that’s been proven to work. Basically, because it’s been proven to work better than imposing suffering which doesn’t work but is demanded by certain ideologues. They believe people will only work if they face starvation and homelessness. Literally all the data proves otherwise, but the one thing an ideologue simply cannot tolerate is proof that their beliefs are failures.

We can’t debate that topic either because anything good for America, anything that contributes to our collective well-being, is deemed a “radical-leftist-socialist” evil. That content free phrase has become an expletive that brings all rational discourse to an immediate halt to be substituted with the rants of trolls and bots of unknown origins. The immediacy of the response is a direct result of the intellectual bankruptcy of our current socioeconomic belief system, known in academic circles as “neoliberalism.”

Neoliberalism has dominated the political discourse of both parties for the last forty years. Obama and Biden believed it and used it as their governing philosophy every bit as much as the Bushes and Clintons. Trump has no beliefs, but the toadies who surround him are full card-carrying neoliberals. The problem is that essentially every belief and policy with neoliberal roots has proven wrong, economically destructive and socially disastrous. It’s an unambiguous failure and desperately in need of replacement.

But we can’t talk about that either because to do so we must tacitly acknowledge the intellectual failures of the Obama and Biden administration and any such criticism is automatically assumed to benefit the far greater evil of Trump. Furthermore, many of Biden’s own supporters are terrified to confront the deep failures of our current socioeconomic system. It triggers the amorphous fears that unraveled the Sanders and Warren campaigns. What all these organizations failed to grasp is the need for leaders to build trust before confronting people with the terrors of deep, systemic change. Technocratic plans simply don’t operate at the primal levels of fear that must be overcome before deep change is possible. None of that is open for current discussion either.

Instead we get a baboon prancing around the presidential debate stage urinating on everything in reach while loudly squawking Fox News crazy talk about imaginary threats… All while apparently spreading Covid19 all over the Capitol.

I don’t have any interest in talking about any of that, so let’s all just go vote. But, afterwards, we really do have a lot we need to talk about.



Joel Cawley

After 20 years as IBM VP of Corp Strategy Mr. Cawley retired in 2016 and now spends his time consulting and writing on business, economics and politics.