Pathogens are inevitable—but the scale of disaster accompanying this pandemic was not. Ronald Klain, President Obama’s Ebola czar, joins Nick and Goldy to discuss why the extent of economic collapse and deaths we’ve seen from COVID-19 is borne of government unpreparedness and leadership failure, not fate.

Ronald Klain is a lawyer who served as the White House Ebola response coordinator for President Obama. He has held a wide variety of legal and policy positions in government, including his service as chief of staff to VPs Biden and Gore, chief of staff to the attorney general, associate counsel to the president, and chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee. He is currently an advisor to the Biden 2020 campaign.

Twitter: @RonaldKlain

Further reading:

Confronting the Pandemic Threat: https://democracyjournal.org/magazine/40/confronting-the-pandemic-threat/

We’re past ‘if’ on the coronavirus. We’re on to ‘how bad will it be?’: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-coronavirus-has-landed-in-the-us-heres-how-we-can-reduce-the-risk/2020/01/22/afebe9ee-3d53-11ea-baca-eb7ace0a3455_story.html

Trump says US has coronavirus ‘completely under control’ as Washington state confirms first case outside of Asia: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/trump-coronavirus-china-wuhan-disease-outbreak-airport-screening-travel-a9296926.html

Obama’s ebola czar on what strong federal response looks like: https://www.wired.com/story/ebola-czar-ron-klain-federal-coronavirus-response/

The huge cost of waiting to contain the pandemic: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/14/opinion/covid-social-distancing.html

Website: http://pitchforkeconomics.com/

Twitter: @PitchforkEcon

Instagram: @pitchforkeconomics

Nick’s twitter: @NickHanauer

 

Nick Hanauer:

The difference between Korea and the United States can be attributed to the difference between good governance and bad governance.

Ron Klain:

Leadership matters. There’s no question about it. When we look at what’s gone wrong in America, we should not blame the WHO. We should blame our leaders in Washington.

David Goldstein:

If we had been prepared for the pandemic, the damage it would have done to the country would have been much, much lower. Pathogens are inevitable, but pandemics are not.

Intro/Outro:

From the Offices of Civic Ventures in downtown Seattle, this is Pitchfork Economics with Nick Hanauer, one American capitalist’s desperate attempt to save us from ourselves.

Nick Hanauer:

I’m Nick Hanauer, founder of Civic Ventures.

David Goldstein:

I’m David Goldstein, senior fellow at Civic Ventures.

Nick Hanauer:

So, Goldie, today we’re going to talk to Ron Klain, who was President Obama’s Ebola czar and coordinated the response to Ebola. Pitchfork Economics, of course, is a podcast devoted to economics and not pandemic response.

David Goldstein:

Right.

Nick Hanauer:

But I thought it would be appropriate to have someone come talk to our listeners about what you can do with government if your main goal isn’t to give tax cuts to rich people.

David Goldstein:

I also think it’s appropriate, Nick, because this is an economics podcast, but we like to talk about having cause and effect, right? This is a big theme over the course of our podcasts.

Nick Hanauer:

Right.

David Goldstein:

Let’s understand what creates growth, which is a broad and prosperous middle class is the source of growth, not its consequence.

Nick Hanauer:

Right.

David Goldstein:

So we’ve been focusing a lot in the past few episodes on the economic impact of the pandemic, but, of course, the cause of that economic crisis, the cause of the pandemic recession, is the pandemic, and the pandemic had actual causes.

Nick Hanauer:

That’s right. I think what’s also true is that the economic pain that we’re going to endure largely is a consequence of thinking about the economy wrong.

David Goldstein:

Well, bad ideology.

Nick Hanauer:

Right?

David Goldstein:

Right. It’s the same neo-liberalism.

Nick Hanauer:

That’s right. I suspect that our guest will tell us that, for a few hundred million or a few billion dollars, we could have been infinitely better prepared for this pandemic, and if we had been prepared for the pandemic, the damage it would have done to the country economically and, of course, terms of public health would have been much, much lower. That’s the shame of it, is that the basic neoliberal proposition, that government is always the problem, that the market will fix every problem, I think what we’re doing now is living the reality of that and dying by it.

Nick Hanauer:

One of the reasons that we’re super excited to have Ron on is he wrote this terrific article for the journal Democracy in the spring of 2016 called Confronting the Pandemic Threat, which explains in vivid detail, first, that the pandemic was coming, that we knew it would come eventually, and what we must do as a country to prepare. You can Google that piece, Confronting the Pandemic Threat, or click on it in the show notes, but it will depress you to know that there were people who absolutely understood that the pandemic was coming and absolutely understood what we had to do to prepare so that it didn’t have this impact.

Nick Hanauer:

If there was ever a vivid illustration of why neoliberalism and how neoliberalism steered this country wrong, it is precisely this, this idea that the market will sort it all out and you don’t have to worry about it and government can’t do anything, and it will be really fun to have Ron on to explain that. Ron is at home, quarantining, like the rest of us, and recorded from his home. You can definitely hear some ambient noise in the background, so please bear with us.

Ron Klain:

My name is Ron Klain. I was the White House Ebola response coordinator in 2014 and 2015, under President Obama as we fought the West African Ebola epidemic. I’m now also the host of a podcast about the coronavirus epidemic called Epidemic, with Dr. Celine Gounder.

Nick Hanauer:

So, Ron, Pitchfork Economics is a podcast devoted mostly to economics, not to virology or pandemics or anything else, but it is principally a pushback against neoliberalism. Among the most important neoliberal principles is this notion that, in the interest of giving tax cuts to rich people, you should shrink government down to the size that you can drown it in a bathtub, to quote one of our favorite guys, and, clearly, the nation is in a spot now where the federal government’s capacity to respond to this crisis is almost nonexistent.

Nick Hanauer:

Under President Obama, you led the charge against a smaller but similar crisis and wrote this fantastic article in the magazine Democracy on what we should be doing to prepare for the pandemic. If we hadn’t run the country giving tax cuts to rich people and defunding the capacity of government to actually respond, what would we have done? Tell us what, if you had been in charge, what we would have done.

Ron Klain:

Well, Nick, I think it’s a great question, a great place to start, because it’s those things and then, I think, even more. But let’s start with the question what we could have done, and that really is prepare for this. I mean, let’s be clear. The threat of a pandemic like this was not unexpected. Indeed, it was quite widely predicted, predicted for many, many years and predicted quite specifically in the late part of the last decade.

Ron Klain:

People now have seen on the Internet, quite famously, a speech that President Obama gave in December of of 2014 at the National Institute of Health, where he said, “Hey, sometime in the future, maybe five years from now, we will see a flu-like pandemic sweep the world. Will we be ready for it?” He gave that speech in December of 2014. December of 2019 was five years later.

Ron Klain:

So there’s nothing about this that wasn’t really foreseeable. That’s why, at the end of the Obama administration, he created a pandemic preparedness office to get us ready for this inevitability. It’s why he invested in global health security, building more than 40 CDC-led pandemic listening stations, observation stations, around the world, including one in China. It’s why he negotiated an agreement with the Chinese government to get a US official inside the Chinese disease control agency. It’s why he invested in something called the PREDICT program to find diseases, emerging disease threats around the world, and so on and so on. I could go on for a long time, Nick. The point is that he launched an aggressive strategy to try to look out for and watch this disease when it came.

Ron Klain:

President Trump rolled all that back. He disbanded the pandemic office in the White House. He slashed the PREDICT program. He left our position in the Chinese disease control agency empty at the time this broke out. So we should have been getting ready. We were un-getting ready. That’s the first thing.

Ron Klain:

The second thing is then when this threat began to emerge in a concrete way in China in December of 2019 and even more in January of 2019, when the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency of international concern, that’s when this went further off the rails. Why? Because Trump made the cuts I talked about, but also because he had a philosophy of not believing that, really, government could solve problems. So he believes that his Twitter account solves problems. He just tried tell us all it would go away. A miracle would come. It would disappear in April, all of these crazy things he said in January and February, instead of doing what he should have done, which was to spin up the tools of the federal government to fight this thing, to get testing in place, to get medical gear to our first responders, to build up our hospital capacity, which brings me to the last two points I want to make at the outset here.

Ron Klain:

The first is that the virus was created in nature, spread however it got spread over to the United States. That is what it is, but the decisions from that point onward were decisions of public policy that vitiated the role of the federal government in fighting this thing. We are now fighting this virus as if it were 1786 and we never had a Constitution and we were relying on the Articles of Confederation. States have formed alliances. You have this map of state alliances in the Northeast and the West Coast and the Heartland and the South Central part of United States that really undo the Revolution of 1787 to create a federal constitution and a federal government. That’s a complete rollback in the whole concept of what our government supposed to be like.

Ron Klain:

Then, secondly, I think we will learn as this unfolds that in critical moments in February and March, the ideological bias in the White House against government led to Jared Kushner and his allies in the White House trying to promote private sector solutions when we needed public sector solutions. A just disdain for government, government officials, government agencies led to a series of wrong choices about testing and about equipment, about use of the Defense Production Act that really further exacerbated this disaster.

David Goldstein:

This raises an important point, because I know you’ve said publicly before that the pandemic itself shouldn’t be a political issue. How different is this from Ebola? Was that a political issue, or did we have a bipartisan Congress and a bipartisan consensus at the time?

Ron Klain:

Well, I think, Goldie, we need to distinguish between things that shouldn’t be political issues and things that unfortunately sometimes get politicized. We saw both on Ebola. On Ebola, on the one hand, we saw people stirring fear about the disease, I think motivated by politics. One of those people, perhaps the loudest voice, was a citizen in New York, a guy named Donald J. Trump, who, at that point in time, was a private citizen. He tweeted out horrific, horrible things and tried to stir and rally public fears about Ebola needlessly and improperly.

Ron Klain:

But I will say, by and large, we wound up with a bipartisan response to Ebola, in terms of getting Congress to pass on a bipartisan basis the funds we needed, working with both Democratic and Republican governors to get these funds distributed, and to do the preparations we needed to do on the home front to deal with cases of Ebola that were here. There wasn’t what you see right now, which is President Trump basically standing up there and saying, “If you want funding, you have to say I’m great.”

Ron Klain:

You saw an allocation of ventilators and equipment to States that were more Republican states than Democratic States, quite often. You saw the President do all these things, where he injected partisan politics into decisions about the administration of the pandemic response. That certainly was not what we saw in the Ebola response.

David Goldstein:

I’m actually going to skip to one of our favorite questions, and this is almost easier for you, because you’ve been there, the benevolent dictator question. If you were in charge of our pandemic preparedness and response, how might the government have acted differently?

Ron Klain:

Well, I think there are a couple of big differences here. I think it’s easy to say it. I’m proud to say I think we showed this in the Ebola response, so it’s not just like me talking off the top of my head, but I think this is what we did. I think there were three things we did differently then that I would do differently now.

Ron Klain:

The first is use every tool the government has to respond to this. President Obama went to Congress and got emergency funding so that we could use every tool at the federal government’s disposal. We intervened in the supply chain to get the stuff where it needed to go to. We sent troops to West Africa to fight Ebola, the first ever deployment of US troops to fight an epidemic. We put 10,000 civilians on the ground there. We used all the agencies of the federal government.

Ron Klain:

So I think you need to muster this kind of whole of government response, embracing the ability of government to make people’s lives better and using that power fully. We haven’t seen this here. President Trump seems to really try to parse it out very carefully. He refuses to use the Defense Production Act. He refuses to take responsibility, constantly saying, “We’re not the shipping agent in Washington. Testing isn’t our problem. Equipment isn’t our problem. We leave it up to the states.” So I think that’s one really big difference.

Ron Klain:

The second difference is you have to put science and medical expertise first. Now, President Obama asked me to coordinate the response. I’m not a doctor. I’m a scientist. But my job was to coordinate the response, the strategy for the response. The real theory behind the response came from medical experts, and my direction from the President was, “Let them make the decisions. Your job, Ron, is to go make it happen.” So we put science and expertise first. President Trump has a very complicated and hostile relationship with expertise, with science, and we’re seeing that play out here loud and clear, right?

Nick Hanauer:

That’s putting it mildly.

Ron Klain:

That’s the second big difference, I think, between how we did it, how it should be done now, and what’s happening. I think the third big difference is you need clear leadership and accountability, responsibility. There was no doubt, during the Ebola response, I was the coordinator. If it went well, great. If it went poorly, that was on me.

Ron Klain:

Here, we’ve seen this rotating cavalcade of leadership of the Trump administration. First, they had no one in charge. Then they said, “Well, we’ll have a task force. We’ll put Alex Azar, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, in charge.” Then they were like, “No, we actually need someone at the White House in charge. We’ll put Mike Pence in charge. No, actually, we’ll bring in Debbie Birx, Dr. Birx. We’ll put her in charge.” Then now Jared Kushner looks like he’s in charge now. So if you don’t have clear, consistent leadership, you really can’t get that done. That’s really a critical thing. So those are the three things we did do differently five years ago, I would be doing differently now.

David Goldstein:

Trump, who is the social media President, isn’t even doing the communications part right. You had written that during Ebola, you had a rule of thumb, PTFOTV, put Tony Fauci on TV. Why is Trump up there, telling people to drink bleach instead of letting the medical experts talk?

Ron Klain:

Yeah, I do think you see his narcissism at its very worst here. Now, of course, in a crisis, people need to hear from their President, and President Obama did address the country repeatedly during the Ebola outbreak and epidemic in West Africa. But we were always clear that the main messages about what we were doing to fight the epidemic overseas, to prepare for the epidemic here at home was to let the scientists not only do the thought leadership, but communicate directly with the American people. We never silenced them. We never censored them. We put them out front first people. Heard from Dr. Fauci. Back then, Tom Frieden was the head of the CDC. People heard from him directly and repeatedly.

Ron Klain:

So I think that is the way to build confidence of the public, whether it’s good news or bad news, whether it’s hope or pessimism, to hear just the facts from the scientific leaders, not this daily stream of consciousness craziness that’s coming from the President in the briefing room.

Nick Hanauer:

Ron, if you had to guess, I’ll trust you to be conservative and self-aware. If you guys had been in charge during the unfolding coronavirus pandemic, realistically, what would you have done differently?

Ron Klain:

Well, I think we would have done many things differently. I’d start with the fact that we would have said, “This is going to be a federally-led response, and we’re going to use the full powers of the White House to fight it.”

Nick Hanauer:

Yep.

Ron Klain:

That means we would have invoked the Defense Production Act. We would have produced test kits in January, in February, not making this a state problem for March. We would have gotten the state and local governments the stuff they needed to protect their healthcare workers. We’d see fewer sicknesses and deaths among our healthcare workers, and, of course, we would have gotten all the different equipment and capacity that the healthcare systems in these hard-hit areas needed.

Ron Klain:

I think we would have listened to the scientists and gone to the social distancing and mitigation measures sooner than President Trump did, who was busy denying the existence of this problem, basically all the wait until the middle of March-

Nick Hanauer:

Yeah.

Ron Klain:

… at which point it was obvious to everyone that it was. So I think we would have acted faster, we would have acted stronger, and we would have been unafraid and, indeed, would have taken the responsibility that the federal government had to lead. This patchwork of response we’re seeing now, this idea that, basically, the states are kind of on their own, that is both a reflection of Trump’s unwillingness to take responsibility. It’s a personal philosophy, but it also reflects, Nick, as you said at the outset, a broader view about the role of government, a view that the federal government shouldn’t use its powers like this, this very antiquated view that, basically, every state’s on its own.

Nick Hanauer:

Yeah. So how much would it cost the federal government per year, do you think, to be properly prepared for these sorts of challenges?

Ron Klain:

I think that’s a hard question to answer, in terms of a number. I think what I will say is that at every step along the way here, what we should have been doing in 2018, in 2019, and then as this thing ramped up and every step along the way, the more you do sooner, the less you spend later.

Nick Hanauer:

Yeah, for sure.

Ron Klain:

Right?

Nick Hanauer:

Yeah.

Ron Klain:

So, really, what we’re talking about are cuts in the hundreds of millions of dollars in 2018 and 2019 to preparation and surveillance. I mean, cuts that will look literally like rounding error on the rounding error of what we’re spending right now.

Nick Hanauer:

Right.

Ron Klain:

Then I think it would have taken, indeed, billions of dollars to ramp up testing, to ramp up medical gear, all those things. It would have been tens of billions of dollars, I think, if we’d done the right thing in January and February, once we knew this was coming. But those tens of billions of dollars, I don’t mean to make light of the sum of money that is, Nick.

Nick Hanauer:

Yeah.

Ron Klain:

Those tens of billions would have saved us hundreds of billions-

Nick Hanauer:

Trillions.

Ron Klain:

… maybe even trillions of dollars on the back end [crosstalk 00:20:11].

Nick Hanauer:

Right.

Ron Klain:

So, I mean, this is like every other problem in life-

Nick Hanauer:

Yeah.

Ron Klain:

… every other problem in business or government or whatever. You pay now or you pay more later, and we are, sadly, seeing the consequences of that right now.

Nick Hanauer:

Yeah. It’s sort of a shocking thing. Of course it’s easy, today, to say, “Well, if we had been in charge, we would have done so many different things, and it would all be fine.” I definitely believe that if we had been in charge, things would have been better, but probably not fine. The social distancing requirements that this crisis requires, those are tough calls that would have been hard to make for any President.

Ron Klain:

Right. There’s no question, this stuff is hard. No question about it.

Nick Hanauer:

Yeah.

Ron Klain:

I’ve never said it would all be fine if we were in charge.

Nick Hanauer:

No, no, no.

Ron Klain:

But what I do firmly believe is it would be a lot-

Nick Hanauer:

It would’ve been a lot better. Yeah.

Ron Klain:

Look, this isn’t also … I mean, we can really have a very concrete study in this, which is what happened in Korea. Okay? So let’s look at Korea.

Nick Hanauer:

They did it right.

Ron Klain:

Korea and the United States had their first case on the same day, January 20th, the very first case on the same day, and where’s Korea and where’s the United States? Well, Korea has lost a few hundred people. We’ve lost 50,000 people.

Ron Klain:

Now, do they have some magic in Korea that we don’t have? Do they have some technology in Korea that we don’t have some scientific … No, they have none of that, right? What they did was their federal government took strong control. They got testing first. They got contact tracing. They did the things that should have been done. Now, that doesn’t mean Korea isn’t suffering. Of course, it’s suffering, but it is suffering a lot less than we are suffering. I think that delta is a measurable delta between how the two countries handled it.

Nick Hanauer:

That’s right, and the difference between Korea and the United States can be attributed 100% to the difference between good governance and bad governance.

David Goldstein:

Right. We were somewhat better prepared in Washington State and certainly in the Seattle area, because we’ve made pandemic preparedness our number one emergency management concern for the past 15 years. So we at least were … We knew it was coming, and we were ready for it. We obviously didn’t have the testing or the equipment to deal with it, and so we’re struggling there. But you can see the difference in Washington State, where we were able to flatten the curve, because we were prepared and we had the political leadership that was willing to make the tough decisions weeks before much of the rest of the nation did.

David Goldstein:

I wonder, is this lack of national leadership … Are we going to suffer in reopening the economy, too? I mean, we’re told that to reopen the economy, we need massive testing and everybody needs to wear masks. Yet, even here in Washington, you can’t get a test, and you can’t buy a mask.

Ron Klain:

Yeah. So, first of all, I want to go back to what you said a second ago. I do think that, again, the proof that leadership matters is what we’re seeing in the states that were able to act quickly, like Washington State, like California. I mean, California’s our nation’s largest state, right? It’s on the Pacific Rim. Certainly, plenty of commerce and interaction with China, people coming from Asia. Again, hasn’t been speared completely. No one’s been spared completely. But, obviously, this has been much less of a crisis there than it been in other places. Why? Mayor Breed in San Francisco acted quickly and boldly and showed the way, right? Governor Newsom as well. Governor Inslee, of course, in Washington State, as you mentioned, Goldie.

Ron Klain:

So leadership matters. There’s no question about it. You can’t make this go away, but you certainly can have a big impact on the outcome. On reopening, we’re seeing this now again kind of in reverse, right? So we’re seeing the worst governors with the worst leadership make the worst decisions. That starts in Georgia, where Governor Brian Kemp has been such an extremist on this that even Donald Trump doesn’t agree with his reopening plan, right? I mean, he has announced that he’s going to reopen immediately tattoo parlors and massage therapists and all kinds of businesses, where it’s impossible to engage in social distancing and where, of course, this disease is going to reemerge and spread as a result.

Ron Klain:

We’re going to see, again, state-by-state decisions. Now, fortunately, some states have banded together in an effort to fill in for the missing federal government. So they’re going to make these decisions together on a regional basis, and that’s a second best alternative to kind of national decision-making. But credit to the governors for finding a second best alternative.

Nick Hanauer:

Yeah, I mean, what else are you going to do?

Ron Klain:

What else are you going to do, right?

David Goldstein:

It’s the new federalism.

Ron Klain:

It’s the new whatever it is, yes. But look, I think that the challenge here is while I think this regional approach will help, we are an interconnected country, right? I mean, people in Georgia, if the disease really resurges there, will get in their cars. They’ll drive other places, right? So I think this regional approach is the second best, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves. We are only as safe as the worst-handled place in the United States handles it, because Americans travel, and if it takes off again in some parts of the country, it will wind up in many other parts of the country.

David Goldstein:

It’s funny. We used to worry that we were only as safe as the worst-handled country. We used to worry about the rest of the world, and now we have to worry about certain states. It feels like we’ve gone backwards.

Ron Klain:

It does. We still have to worry about the rest of the world. I don’t want to take that off the table. I do think that we’re going to see this disease start to spread in Africa and South America, and, ultimately, again, if we don’t do what this country has done historically, which is be a leader in global health security and help those countries, then, eventually, it will come back from those countries to the US. But right now, the immediate threat is spread here in the US. That’s reasonable and fair for Americans to focus on that first, and we’ve got a big problem with that as these states make slapdash or unadvised decisions about reopening.

David Goldstein:

Part of our thesis in talking about this is that pathogens are inevitable, but pandemics are not. Was this pandemic inevitable?

Ron Klain:

That’s a really hard question to answer, and it does seem like this pandemic or some pandemic like this is inevitable, but it didn’t have to be this bad. We have to separate between the question of whether or not it was inevitable that we would see cases of COVID in the US. Yes, that was inevitable. It would have impacts on our health. Yes, that’s inevitable, and our economy. Yes, that’s inevitable. But it was not inevitable that we would see 50,000 and more Americans die, that we would see the highest unemployment rate that we’ll probably see since the Great Depression, that we will see so many small businesses shut down.

Ron Klain:

Those things, the extent to which this has gotten out of control, that was not inevitable. That was the result of bad decisions by the Trump administration and an unwillingness to use the full powers of the government to fight this disease.

Nick Hanauer:

Right. So, just closing out, Ron, what question have we not asked you or what would you like to share with our listeners that you have not yet shared? Because we’re not likely to have a pandemic expert with us soon again.

Ron Klain:

Yeah. Well, let me offer kind of two thoughts that you can take or leave or whatever, incorporate however you want to incorporate them. The first is we’re having this big conversation about reopening the economy. Okay? It’s the wrong conversation, in some critical respects. First of all, the economy isn’t closed. There are millions of people who are going to work every day, not just as doctors and nurses and first responders, but as grocery clerks, as people delivering our stuff. There’s people creating electricity and Internet and all these things, and we need to be thinking about those people right now, keeping them safe and remembering, when this is all over, that they were the people who kept us all alive going. They’re the least paid people in this country. They are the least protected people in this country. I hope we learn something about that, going forward.

Ron Klain:

Then as we ramp up economic activities, we turn the switch from lower to higher, we need to focus first on keeping our workers safe. It will do no good to put Open for Business signs in front of a lot of businesses if the workers who work there are getting sick, are not able to work, are potentially dying or getting customers sick. That’s not going to be good for business. It’s not good for anybody.

Nick Hanauer:

Right.

Ron Klain:

So as we ramp this up, we have to focus on worker safety. I think that’s a critical thing. So that’s my economic point. The other point I’d make, Nick, is I think we’re going to face a challenge in 2021 here that reflects the new reality of modern, interconnected life. I believe we will get a vaccine. I believe that the vaccine will become available. Will we be able to persuade people to take the vaccine? We live in this world where all kinds of crazy information is on the Internet, where bad information spreads quickly. We heard the President of the United States spreads some horrible information about drinking bleach and whatnot. There’s all kinds of craziness out there, and we’re going to have to find a way, in this environment, to communicate to people about the safety of the vaccine, about its importance, about people taking it if we’re all going to be protected. That’s going to be a big challenge for all kinds of elements of our society in 2021 and so on.

Nick Hanauer:

So you really think that, outside of a crazy fringe, people are going to have a problem with this vaccine?

Ron Klain:

Yeah. So the first poll taken on this showed that only 30% of Americans said they would take the vaccine.

David Goldstein:

Crazy.

Ron Klain:

Okay?

David Goldstein:

Are you kidding?

Ron Klain:

We know that, historically, we’ve had a flu vaccine for decades. Only 55% of Americans take the flu vaccine. Now, because this disease is so infectious, we’re going to have to get up to a vaccination rate of 80, 85, maybe even 90% for it to be a factor. That’s going to be a challenge of two kinds, right? First of all, it’s going to be a challenge of vaccine resistance in the face of all kinds of crazy information out there. Also, by the way, it’s a big problem for our healthcare system, too.

Nick Hanauer:

Yeah.

Ron Klain:

To get to 85, 90% of vaccination, we’re going to have to get to a lot of people don’t have access to the traditional healthcare system, who are going to have to get vaccinated. I mean, yes, we vaccinate kids every year in this country, but kids and adults are different things, right? Getting to all those adults, getting to immigrants, getting to homeless people, getting to people who don’t have access to the healthcare system, that is going to be a giant challenge.

Nick Hanauer:

Yeah.

David Goldstein:

I can see the battles now. Oh my God. We’re going to have to … I don’t know. I think we’re going to have to use the power of the state. You can’t go back to work. You can’t go back to school unless you get the vaccine.

Nick Hanauer:

Yeah. No, I think that’s right.

David Goldstein:

We need to force people.

Nick Hanauer:

Yeah. Well, Ron, thank you so much for joining us on our podcast.

Ron Klain:

Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.

Nick Hanauer:

I suspect that if there’s a new administration, your skills will be useful to them.

Ron Klain:

Well, I appreciate that. Thank you very much.

David Goldstein:

I hope that we never have to have this conversation with you again.

Ron Klain:

I do, too. I do, too, but if you do, I would be delighted to come back.

David Goldstein:

Thank you. Okay. Thank you so much. Great to talk to you.

Ron Klain:

Thank you. I appreciate it.

David Goldstein:

Okay. Take care. Bye-bye.

David Goldstein:

So, Nick, I’ve got two main takeaways from our conversation with Ron. One is that we are living through a failure in ideology, and the other, that we are living through a failure in leadership.

Nick Hanauer:

Yeah.

David Goldstein:

It’s easier to get to that leadership failure. We all know what’s going on in the White House. But it’s interesting when you go back to that 2016 Democracy journal article that Ron wrote. He had six recommendations. The first one was get the right structure in place at the White House before an outbreak.

Nick Hanauer:

Yes.

David Goldstein:

Clearly, we didn’t do that. His second one was create a new public health emergency management agency. Clearly, we didn’t do that. Third was build on the domestic preparedness investments made during the Ebola epidemic. We actually disinvested.

Nick Hanauer:

Yeah.

David Goldstein:

Fourth was finish the job on World Health Organization reform and build a multilateral response force. Well, rather than reforming the World Health Organization, Trump has decided to just defund it. Five was global system to evaluate new vaccines and treatments, and I guess our version of that is Trump getting on TV and telling people to drink bleach. The sixth was to fund a continuation of the global health security agenda that was established under the Obama administration, and, of course, that that was mostly defunded in advance of this pandemic.

Nick Hanauer:

Yeah. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

David Goldstein:

The second takeaway is the ideological one. We’ve talked about this. We talked about this a bit. This is exactly the same ideology that has been creating our economic crisis outside of the pandemic. It’s not just that, “Oh, leave it to the market. The market fixes everything.” It is “The government can’t do anything,” and if you believe the government can’t do anything, then you’ll have a government that won’t do anything to prepare for a pandemic. That’s exactly what we had. We have a government that doesn’t believe that government can actually fix this, and so we end up with a government that can’t fix it.

Nick Hanauer:

Here we are.

David Goldstein:

So neoliberalism is killing us.

Nick Hanauer:

So if there is a silver lining in all of this, it’s tarnished, but it might be, and that is that the good news is that there are people on planet Earth who actually know what the fuck they’re doing. I remain somewhat confident that the Trump crowd will be replaced in November by people who can walk and chew gum at the same time and folks like Ron will be back in charge, and people like Jared Kushner will be out. I take some solace in the knowledge that that is, if not likely, possible and that we will be back to making thoughtful, science-based decisions about what to do and how to do it. I personally am somewhat encouraged by getting to talk to people who understand these things and know what to do in the face of them.

David Goldstein:

Right, and the source of your optimism might be that both of us live in the functional Washington.

Nick Hanauer:

Yes.

David Goldstein:

If the President of the United States can’t listen to experts and provide moral and political leadership in a time of crisis, at least we know that the president of Washington State and the president of California can.

Nick Hanauer:

Yeah, correct.

David Goldstein:

On the next episode of Pitchfork Economics, we’ll be turning from the cause of this pandemic recession to what we need to do to recover from it, and we can sum that up in two words: no austerity.

Intro/Outro:

Pitchfork Economics is produced by Civic Ventures. If you like the show, make sure to subscribe, rate, and review us wherever you get your podcasts. Find us on Twitter and Facebook at Civic Action and Nick Hanauer. Follow our writing on Medium at Civic Skunk Works, and peek behind the podcast scenes on Instagram @PitchforkEconomics. As always, from our team at Civic Ventures, thanks for listening. See you next week.