Coronavirus exposes the cracks in American greatness

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Today's Agenda

Dark days.

Photographer: JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images

RevolutionaryWarLand in Bad Decline

"America is the greatest country in the world" is a thing Americans often say. It's increasingly difficult to remember why.

I mean, sure, in some ways. The national parks are amazing. Nobody else has as many Trader Joe's. And name another country whose flag makes such intimidating pants. But this chart is not an indicator of a great, or even replacement-level, country:

Despite its obvious failure, America still has no national plan for containing the resurgent coronavirus pandemic. States, left to fend for themselves, keep playing catch-up. We may have to lock them down again, while many other countries — including Italy, not exactly known for efficient government — will still be getting out and about, writes Noah Smith. This is only the latest sign of a country slowly falling behind the rest of the developed world, Noah notes. America's systemic racism keeps festering, its infrastructure is crumbling, its gun violence is relentless, its social safety net is fraying, and its reputation as a land of opportunity for immigrants is a joke under President Donald Trump.

America still has two huge advantages over the rest of the world, in a bloated military and a global reserve currency. The former seems untouchable, but the latter keeps being tested. If it ever fails, then look out below for our living standards. It probably wouldn't happen overnight. But a second debt crisis could be an accelerant. The Fed has averted one so far. But the losses keep mounting, and Trump has weakened financial regulations meant to shore up the system, notes Bloomberg's editorial board.

For now, low borrowing costs mean America has plenty of cash to throw at the virus and its economic impact. But the government has been sloppy with the trillions, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office, one of the few watchdogs Trump hasn't hamstrung. Tim O'Brien and Nir Kaissar comb through the report and find far too little accountability for how the money is being spent. Our failure to stop the coronavirus means we'll need more stimulus. We must handle the next round better.

Local governments are where the cracking rubber meets the potholed road of a failing America. You'll find few better examples than New York's MTA, which runs the mass-transit system keeping the supposedly greatest city in the supposedly greatest country running. A Boschian hellscape glued together with rat feces and tourist tears in the best of times, it's now barely taking in revenue, notes Brian Chappatta. It will need a steady stream of federal money merely to survive, much less pay for infrastructure upgrades that were overdue a long time ago.

America's bizarre, inefficient health-care system is only worsening the pandemic and its economic effects. So naturally Trump is trying to exacerbate it by killing the Affordable Care Act, notes Max Nisen. The House is fighting back with a bill to strengthen the ACA and expand Medicare. The rest of Congress won't, but should, make this a veto-proof effort, to save lives and finances. That would only be the start of the work that must be done.

The System Keeps Thwarting Trump

Trump could avert a lot of this simply by governing better. It could even help him get re-elected, observes Jonathan Bernstein. But Trump's toolkit seems limited to race-baiting and brainstorming insults for Joe Biden.

One reason to hope for America, in fact, is that its system keeps defeating Trump's worst attacks, Bloomberg's editorial board writes. The game isn't over yet. But every major power grab he has tried so far, from firing FBI directors to firing prosecutors investigating his friends and family, has been defused.

And Trump himself keeps sparking popular backlashes that could lead to real progress. The Me Too movement was inspired by rage at his sexism. Black Lives Matter drew new energy from his racism. California, in the latest example, is about to lift an decades-old ban on affirmative action, writes Francis Wilkinson.

John Roberts Keeps Going His Own Way

One institution thwarting Trump's dreams lately has been the U.S. Supreme Court. Many conservatives have grudgingly kept supporting Trump mainly because they liked his high-court picks. They hoped their suffering would pay off in a reliably conservative court, particularly on abortion. But Chief Justice John Roberts keeps frustrating such hopes. Today, he joined the court's liberals to strike down a restrictive Louisiana abortion law. In the process, writes Noah Feldman, he signaled he has moved to the court's center and will deprive conservatives of a long-awaited victory over abortion rights.

Roberts did give Trump a small win, ruling he can fire the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau whenever he wants. This could mean a future President Biden could easily replace Trump's CFPB chief with a more consumer-friendly director. But Cass Sunstein writes the ruling is a blow to the independence of such agencies throughout the government.

The Not-So-New Cold War

America isn't struggling in a vacuum. It has a large and ascendant rival in China, which could spend the coming decades wrestling it for global domination. Hal Brands writes this new Cold War will require a reassessment of the old Cold War's "domino theory." It was discredited because we abused it so tragically, but it's not useless.

Or maybe we could just forget all this Cold War nonsense? China, for example, should join the successor to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, writes Wang Huiyao. This would involve market-friendly reforms that would help China's economy while addressing American complaints. It would also bolster world trade at a time we could really use some.

Telltale Charts

Saudi Aramco's bloated dividend was made for a different oil market in a different time, writes David Fickling.

Trump's pandemic mismanagement adds another layer of complexity to OPEC+'s production-cut agreement, writes Julian Lee. On the one hand, it could crush oil demand anew. On the other hand, it could also cut off new Texas supply.

Further Reading

You can't hope to keep the elderly locked away from an out-of-control coronavirus; it will find them eventually. — Justin Fox

Reopening schools will be strange, and we're not sure how well it will work, but we must try. — Faye Flam

The stock rally is running low on fuel. — Mohamed El-Erian

Facebook should bend to its critics. — Tae Kim and Alex Webb

Gilead set a decent price for its Covid-19 drug under difficult circumstances. — Max Nisen

We've got to stop leaning on the business case for corporate diversity. — Laura Morgan Roberts


Twitch suspended Trump's account.

Trump tweeted a video of a gun-toting St. Louis couple.

The J.K. Rowling backlash vexes Harry Potter game developers.


A mysterious rhythm is coming from another galaxy.

Meet the deepest hole in the world. (h/t Scott Kominers for the first two kickers)

Nothing beats the thrill of a bookstore.

The best TV shows of 2020 so far.

Note: Please send rhythms and complaints to Mark Gongloff at

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