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Close The Borders

Professor Darel Paul wakes me from my dogmatic slumber by tweeting:

Assume that President Trumps has three goals: protect the the health/lives of US citizens, minimize the damage to the US economy and win re-election. (Fortunately, achieving the first two will be great help to the third.) Note also, that there is nothing that businesses hate more than uncertainty. As long as the crisis rages, they will want to cut back. They would prefer a scenario in which things are very painful for two months and then finished. Nothing is worse than a somewhat painful period for an unknown length of time.

It is the interaction between business behavior and uncertainty which highlights the importance of Paul’s question. Even in a world in which COVID-19 turns out not that bad over the next few weeks, as long as it is bad enough, business can’t get back to normal. Even if we knew Orlando were mostly OK today, it is hard for people/businesses in Orlando to return to work as long as a bunch of travelers from Seattle could show up tomorrow. Given those facts, Trump’s optimal strategy is fairly obvious: Close the borders in April. Crush COVID within the US by June. Reopen the US for business on July 4th with a big party. Keep the borders closed till the election.

March: There is not much to be done in March beyond what Trump and every governor/mayor is doing. We need tests. We need masks. We need ventilators. We need to prepare for the unstoppable wave of very sick people. The die is cast. Trump should not be overly political, but he should keep a list of every bonehead decision made, by both Democrat and Republican officials. How could Governor Doug Ducey allow the Arizona Renaissance Festival to go on? Why did NYC Mayor Bill DeBalsio wait until day X to close the bars? Don’t make a big deal of those things now. Stay above the fray. Offer to help. Invoke federalism. Insist that you should not be making decisions for every school district in America.

April: Disaster strikes. This is now inevitable, no matter what Trump (or anyone else) does. Math plays no favorites. When things appear at their worst, have a televised address. (With no other speeches before this. Indeed, avoid the cameras for the two weeks prior.)

My fellow Americas. The wolf is at the door. Our mothers and fathers are dying in the hallways of our great hospitals. Our doctors and nurses are fighting the tide of death each day and night. Their bravery is that of our greatest battlefield heroes. Never, in our 200 years as a Nation, has the future looked so bleak.

This will be our finest hour.

I am taking personal command of the fight against COVID-19. The buck stops with me. I will, with your help, either conquer this threat or resign the Presidency.

Today I am ordering the closing of all US borders. We can no longer allow even a single infected person into our country. The borders will stay closed until we can be certain that only healthy people are allowed in.

And so on. Many more things will be done, of course. Wuhan and South Korea show how COVID-19 can be contained. We should follow their playbook. Test everyone all the time. Isolate the ill. Confine people to their homes. Federalize the National Guard. Recall our troops from Japan, South Korea and Germany. And so on.

Yet the border closing is the key political maneuver. It is consistent with Trump’s message. Only he would even consider it. Joe Biden is on record against it and will probably object when it happens. Make the election of 2020 all about whether a US president has the right to close the border — and about whether doing so was justified in the case of a global pandemic — and Trump wins.

May: Things get better on the health front, not least because the initial set of social distancing directives in March had a significant effect and because hospitals are ramping up their capacity and skills. Indeed, the reason for giving the speech in April is that, again because of math, you can be mostly certain that things will look better in May. But the economy is still frozen. How to fix that in a world where people can’t go out? UBI will probably be popular. Perhaps incentives to companies to maintain their current payrolls. But those are just delaying actions while the virus is brought under control.

June: Another televised address, either one to three months after the first one.

My fellow Americans. We are winning the war against COVID-19. The bravery of our doctors and nurses, the ingenuity of our scientists, the dedication of our public servants, the individual contributions of every citizen in every neighborhood have swung the battle in our favor. We are at the beginning of the end.

Today, I am declaring July 4th to be the re-opening of America for business. You will be able to leave your house, go out for a meal, take the family on a vacation. Life can start to return to normal.

Does this timing make sense? I don’t know. Yet regardless of the timeline, the key trick is for Trump to provide a focal point, a specific date, given a few months in advance, at which things can return to normal. The hardest part of coming out a recession is the coordination it requires. I won’t go out to eat if none of the restaurants are open. You won’t open your restaurant if no one is going out to eat. If the whole country knows that on, say, September 1, we are back in business, then all the restaurants and bars and hotels and amusement parts will open and all of us will go to them. It will be a giant national party.

Whether the “re-opening” — and we need a better phrase — happens in July or in September does not really matter. The key is that Trump gets to declare victory, in a clear fashion, to claim credit for a battle won, to cite some of the (un)popular decisions he made in leading the country. The economy will do nothing but zoom forward, from that day until the election. Trump wins in a walk.


Q: Closing the borders is irrelevant. Leave that part out and I agree with your plan.

A: Maybe. Israel, New Zealand and Poland and Slovakia are run by idiots? They have no good reason to close their borders? Perhaps. But if they can close their borders, then so can Trump.

Q: Closing borders is much harder than you think. What happens to US citizens abroad? Diplomats?

A: Maybe. But, again, if Israel et al can do it, then so can we. I will leave the details as an exercise for the reader, or perhaps another post. One obvious trick: Use some of the empty cruise ships to repatriate US citizens. They can be tested every day while the ship slowly sails home, arriving after two weeks at sea, thereby ensuring that no one is infected.

Q: You can close the borders, like Slovakia is doing, but it won’t effect the course of the epidemic. The same number of people will die either way.

A: Maybe. But recall that this plan achieves three goals, one of which is Trump’s re-election. In order to take charge of — and claim credit for — the win over COVID-19, Trump needs a signature decision, something that only he would/could do, something to which he can attribute the effort’s overall success. Closing the border is the obvious choice, consistent with his reputation, inconceivable to the Democrats, popular with US citizens.

Q: Your plan will fail. Nothing the US could plausibly do will stop COVID-19 from spreading across our population over the next 6 months. Herd immunity is our only hope.

A: Maybe. I am not a virologist. I don’t know if the US governing class has the competence or the cojones to do what South Korea is doing. I don’t know if Americans would put up with those policies. But, if the a 100 million US citizens are doomed to be infected with COVID-19, with one to two million of them dying, then Trump has no hope of winning the election. This plan may fail, but there is no better one.

Q: None of this has anything to do with Darel Paul’s tweet.

A: Untrue! Paul’s point is that, in a country as big as ours, there will be large cities and even states which are mostly unaffected by the first few months of the epidemic. But what happens after that? Everyone in Orlando is still susceptible, even if, come May 1, no one is infected. Since COVID-19 will still have an R_0 well above 2, it would only take a couple of travelers from Seattle to kick off a new round of the epidemic in Orlando, and any other US city or state. If we don’t absolutely crush the virus by May or so, then the state-by-state and city-by-city ravaging will continue to occur through November. Trump loses in the fall if he doesn’t completely win in the spring.