Picking up the candy hearts

By Rich Tucker

Adulting remains difficult. But it’s more important than ever right now.

First published at TheHill.com

By Memorial Day it was, finally, time to pick up the candy hearts.

During my son’s freshman year at Vanderbilt University, I sent him a letter or a package every few weeks. Not so much to cheer him up; he loved the university and enjoyed being there. More to cheer myself up, and remind myself that I still mattered to his life.

Around the first of March I spotted two-week old Valentine candy hearts on super-duper sale at a CVS. No doubt they were 95 percent off by that point. Who wants hearts that say “I Love You” when it’s already March, the Roman month of war? I dashed off a letter to my son, packed it in with the candy, and sent it off to Nashville.

Then they closed his school.

On March 9 Vanderbilt had a report of exposure to coronavirus. The administration planned to shut down for a week or so, but my wife correctly predicted there would be no further classes on campus this Spring. She booked my son on a flight out the next day. He hadn’t gone back to Nashville since.

Zoom replaced office hours, online learning replaced lecture halls. The candy hearts sat, unopened, on his desk.

In late May, the school announced its next step. Students should return at prearranged times to clear out of their dorm rooms. That’s how we ended up driving to Nashville on Memorial Day weekend.

It was eerily quiet when we arrived at his dorm. When we’d moved him in back in August, campus had been a madhouse. Teams of students unpacking cars and helping freshmen move in. Thousands of sad parents milling around. Now, we were about the only people on campus. We parked, illegally, in the roundabout by his dorm and headed in.

A gallon of milk from the fridge quickly went down the drain. A bag of apples ended up in the front seat for the drive home.

I unzipped the suitcase we’d brought, and realized there was a smaller suitcase inside. When I unzipped that one, I found a third. Because I didn’t want to get stuck in an Abbot and Costello routine, I didn’t open that third suitcase to find more and more and more suitcases. I just set it aside.

My son didn’t have much stuff. His clothing fit in the large suitcase, his schoolwork and books into the second one. His bedding went into the dirty clothes hamper. Some posters, a small keyboard, toiletries. Boom. Within an hour we’d packed everything from the room neatly into our car.

“Ready to roll?” I asked.

“Sure, but it’s warmer than I thought. I shouldn’t have worn a long sleeve shirt,” he answered. We were both sweating from the trips up and down from the fifth floor.

“Well, you have about 100 short sleeve shirts in the trunk,” I noted. It took just minutes to pull one out of the suitcase and we headed toward home.

The drive back is a metaphor. 

For hours and hours, we rolled through the country with no problems. The sun was shining. I listened to podcasts, he tapped into music on his phone. It could have been 2019, except that we also spent some time plotting our family’s future in this changing world.

Suddenly, after seven hours on the road, as I was preparing to have him drive again, came a challenge. A downpour of biblical proportions. I slowed but didn’t stop.

Gripping the wheel and concentrating on the stripes in the middle of the road, I steered carefully for more than hour, able to see just well enough to keep us, like our nation, moving forward. While I kept a white-knuckle grip on the wheel, I noted that my son was playing on his DS, apparently oblivious to the storm.

And I realized: this is the difficulty of being an adult.

“Adulting” means, simply, that there are people depending on you. You cannot afford to let them down even when it’s all too easy to do so. I suddenly had a memory. I was a child, riding home through a snowstorm on New York Route 17, an interstate-like highway. That trip meant hours of high-stress driving for my father. As a child, though, I had no idea the pressure he was under. Now I understand.

Also on my mind is the fact that, just a week before this trip, I’d lost my job. I’m laid off from a trade association because of Covid-19. It was nothing I’d done, they told me. They just needed to make some cuts in this new economic environment. I have no idea when or whether I’ll land another gig. That makes for some white knuckles as well as gnawed fingernails.

What will the world look like after Covid-19? The thought is as scary to me as a downpour on I-81. However, we cannot avoid the coming crisis. We can only steer through it as best we can, keeping our eyes on the road and hoping for the best.

My family is depending on me, just as your family is depending on you. As Americans, we’ll all get through this together.

As for us, well, we ate my son’s candy hearts on the drive back. When I dropped them in the mail, I’d never expected to see them again. Today, the world of Valentine’s Day 2020 no longer exists.

Our family is luckier than most. My son had a normal high school graduation, and more than half of a normal freshman year. He can expect to see the Vandy campus again in good times.

As for the rest of us: yes, there’s a downpour. But we need to keep our eyes on the road and keep moving forward. Adulting remains difficult. But it’s more important than ever right now.

Fund States to Ensure America Recovers from Coronavirus, Then Help Them Fund Themselves

By John Caves

In the struggle against Covid-19, the states have possession of the field. State governments led by both parties have made, and will continue to make, the toughest decisions about how to contain the virus.

(An earlier version of this piece was first published at InsideSources.com)

As the war against Covid-19 rages in empty streets and crowded hospitals, a battle over the authority and resources to wage it has broken out in the halls of government between the federal government and the states.

President Donald Trump opened the engagement by claiming “total” authority to reopen states, only to retreat under heavy fire from both parties. He then attempted a flanking movement by egging on protests against state governments, followed by a bait-and-switch by encouraging and then undermining the governor of Georgia’s own decision to reopen.

Mr. Trump was soon reinforced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who responded to a funding request from the National Governors Association by advising states “to use the bankruptcy route.” Drawing fire in turn, Mr. McConnell gave ground, saying there “probably will be another state and local funding bill” soon.

The outcome of the political battle is yet to be seen. But in the struggle against Covid-19, the states have possession of the field. State governments led by both parties have made, and will continue to make, the toughest decisions about how to contain the virus. They took initiative on social distancing when the federal government was slow to act. And they can shield their residents from certain misguided federal impulses, such as premature reopening or ill-judged medical advice.

This is possible because the states’ reserved powers under the Constitution enable them to function as an unofficial fourth branch of government at the national level. In this way, they don’t only make the Union more resilient in a crisis, but help to guarantee its long-term liberty and vitality through separation of powers.

The states’ tenacious response to the coronavirus has a big price tag, however. Emergency expenditures have depleted state budgets just as the revenues supporting next year’s budgets have dried up. Whereas the federal government largely funds itself with relatively stable (for now) income tax and debt, states rely mainly on sales taxes and have limited capacity to borrow. Sales taxes and related levies on goods and services have been battered by Covid-19: people are buying less, and prices of taxable commodities such as oil have collapsed.

State governments cannot carry out their vital role if they are bankrupt. If America is to emerge resurgent from this pandemic, it must get its states back on their feet.

The first step is for Congress to reconsider its resistance to the National Governors Association request for $500 billion for the states, with no strings attached. The two governors who sent the request — Republican Larry Hogan of Maryland and Democrat Andrew Cuomo of New York — have worked hard against Covid-19. They should be taken seriously when they say the absence of such funds will hamper “public health, the economic recovery, and — in turn — our collective effort to get people back to work.”

But in the long run there will need to be a different fiscal cure. While it is right for the federal government to mobilize resources in times of crisis, it is unhealthy for states to rely heavily on Washington for funding in normal times. The expectation it engenders could incentivize states to habitually spend far beyond their means, the object of Senator McConnell’s ill-timed but somewhat justified concern. More importantly, overreliance could enable a dictatorial-minded president to assert “total authority” by threatening to withhold cash, and we would lose one more restraint on power.

Our states are already worryingly dependent on federal money: it amounts to roughly a quarter of state revenues, much of that tied to healthcare. Let Covid-19 be the impetus to rebalance this. One way is to reduce the federal income tax rate to give states an opportunity, if they choose, to increase theirs. At the same time, give states more responsibility for entitlement programs such as Medicaid that are now run at the federal level but overlap with the role of state governments.

The states would have more work to do, but more of their own resources with which to do it. The federal government could focus on things only it can do such as defense and diplomacy, including working with other countries to contain epidemics before they reach our shores.

There will be a conflicting impulse to give the federal government sweeping power over public health, which we now know entails control over many aspects of life. This impulse relies on an assumption that the federal government is always wise and virtuous. It is not. States are not either; some will make poor decisions in response to Covid-19. But, as a whole, they constantly learn best-practices from each other and find solutions that fit regional needs.

More centralization would be dangerous. Our Union has already concentrated a lot of power in Washington over the past century. As a result, every presidential election now feels like a one-shot, winner-take-all struggle for the only prize that matters: the one at the top.

I suspect that’s contributing to the corrosive polarization we all lament. Instead, let’s heal our country by reinvigorating our states.

Younger Generations Will Build A Better Future

By Rich Tucker

When this virus passes, the United States will quickly look very different. The very pace of change will be an opportunity. It’s time to embrace that change.

(First published at TheHill.com)

It’s impossible to say what the United States will look like when the Covid-19 quarantine is lifted, although there is no doubt some businesses and even entire industries will be swept away. Certainly the social distancing habit is likely to stick around for some time, if not forever.

However, there are many ways that the U.S. can bounce back in the months and years ahead. To do so we must unlock the potential of rising generations and make an opportunity out of this crisis.

The first thing to do is reduce overly burdensome regulation.

As the country geared up to fight the virus, governments tried to speed the response by waiving many regulations. But these changes came too late. For example, Andy Kessler in The Wall Street Journal reports that a doctor from Johns Hopkins tried to get a Covid-19 test approved in January. “And we lost precious time when one of the original scientists submitted an application and was told that he had to submit it also by paper mail with a CD-ROM with the files burned on it,” Dr. Marty Makary explained.

The federal government isn’t ready for the digital age, but rising generations of Americans can change that. At Facebook, “new hires and even summer interns could, within a week of starting, see their features distributed to a billion users. That’s the speed of software in 2020,” Kessler writes. As another author puts it, “the faster things change, the younger and younger the best and most competent models get.” That’s Joseph Henrich in his book “The Secret of Our Success.” We need new generations to deliver that speed throughout the economy.

It’s important to note the main way that the current recession is different from the recession caused by the mortgage meltdown in 2008. In that crisis, Wall Street was the cause of the disruption. When the market started to drop, millions of Baby Boomers lost millions in their 401(k) accounts. Some, no doubt, shelved plans to retire.

This time, the banks are part of the solution, not part of the problem. The market has rebounded. It is down from February’s records, but (as of mid-April) the S&P 500 is still about 25% higher than it was at the end of 2016. So Boomers may still feel flush. Meanwhile, the older generation has been working from home for weeks now.

A good number of workers in their late 60s and 70s are going to decide they don’t want to go back into an office every day when this is all over. They will retire, switch to part time or work from home. This could present leadership opportunities for younger workers.

These generations are ready for more, and ready to work. “My whole generation learned relentless work was the way to cope with the rolling crisis, with the mood of imminent collapse and economic insecurity that was the elevator music of our entire youth,” writes Laurie Penny in Wired. But that effort hasn’t paid off yet.

“Millennials and Gen Z are disillusioned,” Deloitte Global’s 2019 Global Millennial Survey found. “Many are not particularly satisfied with their lives, financial situations, jobs, government and business leaders, social media, or the way their data is used.” The aftermath of Covid-19 could give these generations openings to show real leadership and finally be rewarded for their hard work.

They’ve earned it. A crisis can define a generation, and even elevate it. “The experience of World War II in their development window may have forged America’s Greatest Generation, permanently elevating their national commitment and public spirit,” Henrich writes in his evolution book. And yet today’s generations may be even more self-sacrificing than that one was.

“As loudly as their contributions resound in history, two-thirds of them were drafted,” Lt. Col. John Nagl (Ret.) notes in his book “Knife Fights.” He adds, “This new greatest generation has fought longer if not harder than its grandparents did, and all have been volunteers.”

Nagl was writing about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we can add the battle against Covid-19 in there as well. Younger people were at little risk from the virus, yet volunteered to stay home to bend the curve and help their elders.

When this virus passes, the United States will quickly look very different. The very pace of change will be an opportunity. It’s time to embrace that change. As those younger generations rise, we can be assured the United States is in great hands.