Category Archives: US Politics

Cartographies of COVID-19: Our Unclear Path Forward

A pandemic is by its nature both local and global by definition–and begins from a local outbreak. But if the only way to gain orientation to a pandemic is by accurate local counts, the problem of balancing–or toggling between–the local and global has become staggeringly pronounced in the case of COVID-19, as if the point-based cartography that we use to track the disease has the better of us, and upper hand, with the absence of accurate local counts. The lack of clear data that came from Wuhan in the days that followed the outbreak of the virus revealed worrisome problems of transparency. The difficulty that the Chinese government had in getting a clear bearing on the zoonotic virus raised problems of even trying to map its rise, to which all data visualizations since seem to respond: as local officials were loathe to shoulder responsibility, the tally of infected in Hubei Province jumped, astoundingly, forcing the government to recognize the ease of its transmission among humans, was far more virulent than believed. But at this point, looking back in the mirror provides little sense of orientation to the multiplication of dispersed local outbreaks of coronavirus that we are increasingly challenged to map in relation to ourselves.

The sudden uptick of cases reveals a reticence in tallying the infected out of fears of reprisals for apparent incompetence, an institutional blame-shifting triggering mechanisms of concealment that has led American meat-packing plants to hide numbers of infected workers, and numbers of tests for infection to be far lower than official records suggest: the absence of ability to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2 led us to proliferate maps in hopes to grasp its rapid doubling, uncomfortable at the world they began to show, apprehensive at how to come to terms with the rapidity of local outbreaks of confirmed cases with sufficient granularity, and enough continuities, hoping to track contagion as hopes of containment were beginning to fade in the new aggregates that were increasingly evident.

New York Times

The warning of the virus’ spread was raised by Li Wenliang on December 30 from Wuhan, inter-agency shifting of blame and responsibility in Wuhan– a reflexive institutional blame-shifting by “throwing woks”–abruptly ceased with summons of Shanghai Mayor Ying Yong, he who lured Elon Musk to Shanghai, to restore order: as a new hospital was built, tallies of new cases of coronavirus in Hubei astronomically grew by nine from 1,638 to 14,840, shocking the world–a figure was in keeping with the nearly 1,400 people dead in the country, but suggesting a viral load of unprecedented proportions. Americans apprehensively watched the disease afflicting passengers of cruise liners as if it would arrive ashore, its virulence was in fact already of pandemic proportions: yet American disinformation here took over, as we were told to stick our heads in the sand, ostrich-like, as fears were overblown, and tried to keep calm. And then, the tables were turned, as the United States President described, or suggested, a national policy of intentional undercounts, and limited testing, lest the counts discovered tank his popularity–the stock market value of Trump, International, or, rather, Trump-in-Office, Trump-as-Chief-Executive, whose new season might be canceled due to low ratings. And although the virus began in China, how the United States increasingly came to be the outlier in the numbers of infection confirmed weekly suggested a national story of mismanagement, as the narrative we told ourselves of American exceptionalism before illness seemed to have boomeranged, with the three-day averages of confirmed infections skyrocketing, and setting us apart from the very nations we compare ourselves to, but whose health-care policy we increasingly realize we are distinct from.

Americans were soothed by deceptive common-sense talk. But the results of a lack of investment in public health are all too evident, if our maps are . Robert Redfield, a virologist who served as the public spokesperson of reassurance who had long sustained false theories about retroviruses causing HIV and AIDS, argued that even if the fourteen confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus were monitored and traced, “the virus more exploded . . beyond public health capacity,” he seemed to forget he had not developed that capacity. Virology is of course Dr. Redfield’s area of expertise, but he won his political post in no small part by being practiced in massaging truth statements for political ends. During AIDS outbreak, the last major plague in the United States, he had advocated unproven drugs billed as HIV vaccines and encouraged quarantine, abstinence, and stripping the medical licenses of HIV-infected medical workers, more than accelerating cures; Redfield took time to blame the Obama administration for implementing clinical tests, to please his patron. Bt he obscured the level of infections that in truth were not known, blinding the nation to a cartography of COVID by not advancing adequate levels of testing, that returned us to the simple equation of the dog days of AIDS, only able to make us yell, yet again, this time with Larry Kramer, stalwart resistor of the silencing of AIDS by the failure to use on-trial medicine–

–at the utter deception with which we met the pandemic. Dr. Redfield must have met his commission to radiate calm by assuring Americans in late February. As he assured us only fourteen cases had been diagnosed in the United States, the number meant little, as any virologist should kmow; while hindsight is a benefit that obscures us from the need to life life forwards, we suspect urban hotspots were already laden with infected individuals by March 1, a silent ticking bomb of urban outbreaks already infecting 28,000 as it spread broadly its “hotspots”–New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston and Chicago–all of massively different density, without tests being able to affirm the scale of its spread.

There was no map. And then, all of a sudden, the globalization of coronavirus hit home; any place in the world could be related to any other place, as rates of infection bloomed globally in geographically disjointed hotspots, spatially removed from one another, even as a standard for uniform testing lacked. And there was no sense of an art of dying, as the amazingly rapid contraction and worsening of illnesses left many without a script, and many more silent before a dizzying multiplication of statistics of mortality in the face of COVID-19, several weeks later.

Every other map of COVID-19’s spread seems an attempt to persuade the viewer of its accuracy and totality, in retrospect, even as we have no clear sense of the total figures of infection-or even of the paths infection takes. We are mystified by the geography and spatial dynamics of the virus’ travel, but realize the severe communicability of a virus whose load is stored in the naso-laryngeal passages, and can be communicated by airborne drops. Is distancing the best way we can constrain the geographic spread of infection? Can statistics demonstrate the success of curtailing its spread?

It was a hidden agenda in the maps of news agencies and to register the accurate levels of infection, promising the sorts of transparency that had been clouded in much of January. And while we watch the progress of the pandemic on screens, there is a sense of truth-telling, as a result, of revealing the scope of the virus’ actual spread that compensates for the lack of clarity we once had. But it is also increasingly difficult to orient ourselves to the GPS-enabled scales of its spread, for we still are looking at pretty limited and almost superficial data, in the sense we have trouble plotting it in a narrative context, or find a reaction more than shock. The virus is easy in ways to personify as a threat–it wants us outside; it comes from afar; it pervades public spaces and hospital grounds; it demands vigilant hand-washing and sanitizing–but the very numbest are elusive. While we try to track reported cases, hoping that these limited datasets will provide orientation, we have been lumping numbers of tests that might be apples and oranges, and have not found a consistent manner of testing. Deaths are difficult to attribute, for some, since there are different sites where the virus might settle in our bodies.

Even while not really following the pathways of its transmission, and the microscopic scale of the progress of the pathogen in bodies. And if we rely on or expect data visualizations will present information in readily graspable terms, we rarely come to question the logics that underly them, and the logics are limited given the poor levels of global testing for COVID-19. It is frustrating that our GPS maps, which we seem able to map the world, can map numbers of surrogates for viral spread, but we have yet to find a way to read the numbers in a clear narrative, but are floored by the apparently miasmatic spread of such a highly contagious disease that makes us feel, as historian of science Lorraine Daston put it, that we are in “ground zero of empiricism,” as if we are now all in the seventeenth century, not only in being vulnerable to a disease far less dangerous or deadly than Yersina pestis, but without explanatory and diagnostic tools.

This was, to be sure, a past plague come to life, requiring new garb of masks, face-shields, and protective gear for health workers–

–as the cloaks, leather gloves, staffs and masks that made up early modern protective gear returned to fashion, as if in a time warp, in new form.

We find a leveling between folk remedies and modern medicine, as we live collectively in what she calls a “ground-zero moment of empiricism”–if one in which we are deluged by data, but short in knowing what is data, as we are lacking in explanatory models. This is a bit unfair, as we still can profit from autopsies, and have been able to contain spread by hand-washing–but the images of a single magic bullet, or antiviral cure, are far, far away in time. But there is no longer any familiarity with an art of dying, although we found we encountered death with an unforeseen and unpleasant rapidity: we moved from hopes for awaiting immunity or antivirals to a basic need for some consolation of our mortality. There was no possibility of transcendence in a crisis of mortality of dimensions and scope that seem outside the modern era.

And it is ironic that distancing is the best mode to prevent infection–and many deaths may have been enabled by quicker decisions to adopt practices of distancing that could manage viral spread, Trump seemed not to notice that the very globalization he had resisted, and swung against with all his force to win votes, had facilitated the spread of a viral agent whose arrival was denied even as SARS-CoV-2 had already begun to flood the United States, in ways we only mapped in retrospect, as a global village that by March 1 had already grown satellites of viral loads in South Korea, the Middle East, Iran (Teheran), Europe (Milan; Gotheborg), South East Asia, and Hong Kong, as we anticipated its arrival with no health policy in place and no strategy for containing what was already on our shores. The global crossroads defied any choropleth, but we had only mapped the virus for some time in choropleths, as if believing by doing so we could not only map it by national boundaries to keep the virus at bay.

New York Times

But if we lacked a model of infection and communication of COVID-19, we lacked a sense of the geography by which to understand its spread–and to map it–and also, deeply problematically, an inter-agency coordination to assess and respond to the virus’ spread as we sought to contain it: and in the United States, the absence of any coordinating public health agency has left the country in something like free-fall, a cluelessness emblematic by a map cautioning American travelers to take enhanced protections while traveling in Italy or Japan, two major destinations of travel, and avoid all nonessential travel to China, but refrained from ceasing travel plans.

1. The most compelling language of the novel coronavirus is “false positives” and “false negatives,” that seem to betray the unsure nature of standards; the most haunting is the multiple sites COVID-19 can appear in the sites of the body we use to map most disease. While we associate the virus with our respiratory tracts, the virus can do damage to multiple organ systems, as well as create blotchiness of “covid toes” due to burst peripheral blood vessels; it can damage multiple organ systems simultaneously, including the kidneys, heart, lungs, brain, and linger in our intestinal tract where it can flourish and proliferate; the virus can reduce the ability of our blood to form clots, or disable our ability to form clots.  The ACE-2 receptor protein, a launching pad for viral infections, lies in our lungs and respiratory tract but in stomach, intestines, liver, kidneys, and brain. Increased sensitivities among those suffering from high blood pressure, cardiac disease, and diabetes reflect the nosological difficulties of classifying the virus as a cause of death or to grasp it as an illness, let alone to read data about the disease. If the virus lodges in the most delicate structures of the alveoli, which it causes to collapse as it infects their lining, it can take multiple pathways in the body, and as its pathway of infection may be multiple, medical response must be improvised with no playbook for clinical care.

All we know is that our medical staff desperately need protective gear. On top of that, it hardly helps that we are without a clear national policy, and find that the United States government has engaged in far less transparency that one could have ever expected.

We can only say its spread is accelerated dramatically by structures of globalization, and it stands to disrupt them. utterly Even as we map what seem total global knowledge of the disease, analogous to what we have come to expect from Global Positioning System, the multiple holes in our picture of the spread of the disease provide little sense of mastery over the pathways of communication, contraction, and infection we have come to expect from maps. These maps may even be especially disorienting in a world where expertise is often dismissed in the United States–not only by the U.S. President, but out of frustration at the inability to distance, diagnose, track or supervise the disease that is increasingly threatens to get the better hand. Have our visualizations been something of a losing battle, or a war of atrophy we will not win? Or do we even know what sorts of data to look at–indeed, what is information that can help us process a sense of what might be the geography of the contraction or the transmutability of the virus? Is the virus eluding our maps, as we try to make them? These sort of questions of making sense may be the process of science, but they trace, suddenly, a far steepder learning curve than we are used.

A dismissed biomedical researcher who ran efforts to develop a vaccine cautioned that we still lack that the failure a trusted, standard, and centralized plan for testing strategies must play a part in the coordinated plan “to take this nation through this response.” Dr. Bright, who was abruptly removed last month from his position as head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, bemoaned the limited statistics, alas, in large part as fear of providing too many tests–or fanning the flames of insecurity that testing might promote in the general public and in our financial markets, seem to have created the most dangerously deceptive scenario in which the United States seems to be committed to projecting confidence, even if it is the global epicenter of the pandemic.

Have we developed a language to orient ourselves to the scale of emergency in the spread of COVID-19? While we turn to images of natural disasters in describing the “epicenter” of the outbreak in Wuhan, this hardly conjures the species jump and under-the-radar communication of the virus that was not tracked for months before it emerged as a global threat. In tracking COVID-19 globally, or over a broad expanse of nations or states, we often ignored the pathways by which the novel coronavirus is spread in crowded spaces, where the single strand of RNA may hang in droplets that linger in the air, and are looking at the small scale maps to track a microscopic pathogen. But we are increasingly aware the spread of these strands, of the virus SARS-CoV-2, that infect populations along increasingly unequal fault lines that divide our cities, nations, health care systems, and crowding, or access to open space, are all poorly mapped in the choropleths into which we continue to smooth the datasets of infections and hospitalizations. While the problems are posed for national health services in each region, the devastation and danger of overloading public health systems and hospitals outweighs are local manifestations of a global crisis of the likes we have not confronted.

2. And the crowding of such numbers beyond the buffers that began with lead to a visual crowding by which we continue to be overwhelmed–and will have been overwhelmed for some time.

April, COIVID-19Iinfections Globally by Country/Clustrmaps May 12, 20202020

For although the global pandemic will clearly be with us for a long time, spatial narratives might be more likely to emerge in networks and in forms of vulnerability, in ways that might reveal a more pronounced set of narratives for how we can respond to a virus than the deep blues of even the limited and constrained datasets that we have, as we struggle against the blindness we have in containment and mitigation, and the frustration of the lack of anything like a vaccine. (This pandemic is almost a metastasis of the anti-vaxxers: confirmation that a vaccine cannot check a disease, it gives rise to concerns that vaccinations might have left us immunologically more vulnerable to its spread . . .and a sense that the hope of eradicating COVID-19 by the availability of a vaccination in four to five years will be widely resisted by anti-vaxxers and their acolytes, to whom the pandemic has given so much new steam. Yet as the virus interacts with the viral posting of anti-vaxxers resisting social distancing or collective policies of response, the stresses that exist in our society will only be amplified.) And if as late as February 24, only three laboratories in the United States did test for COVID-19–artificially lowering public numbers–even confirmed numbers through March and April were as a result tragically low. Could maps even help to track the disease without a testing apparatus in place?

Global Covid Infections/Datascraped by Avi Schiffman, May 11, 2020

The prestige of the data visualization has been a basis for reopening the nation. Yet if less than a tenth of the world’s population has yet to be exposed to the disease–and perhaps only 5% of the American population, in one estimate, if not lower–the virus is bound to be endemic to the global landscape for quite a considerable length of time. At the same time, one must wonder if the many fault lines that have created such peaks and valleys in the virus’ spread, if confirming its highly infectious nature, to be sure, are not removed from us in some degree by the smooth surfaces of the screens on which we watch and monitor, breath bated, with some terror, its spread, unsure of the accuracy or completeness of the data on which they are based but attentive to whatever they reveal. In many ways, these maps have created an even more precarious relation to the screen, and to the hopes that we find some sign of hope within their spread, or hope to grasp the ungraspable nature of COVID-19.

These datamaps suggest a purchase on a disease we don’t understand, and we don’t even have good numbers on contraction. Yet we are discussing “reopening” the United States, while we do not have anything approaching a vaccine, let alone the multiple vaccines that medical authorities desire before resuming social contact at pre-pandemic levels. How to process the data that we have, and how to view the maps not only by hovering, zooming in, or distancing the growing rates of infection, but tracking the virus in spaces, mapping levels of infection against adequacy of testing, mortalities against comorbidities, against with the chronic nature of the virus must be understood, as well as levels of hospitalization levels; and distinctions or mutations of the virus and against age ranges of afflicted–by, in other words, drilling beneath the datasets to make our maps’ smooth surfaces more legible, as horrifying as they are?

Can we use what we have to pose problems about the new nature of this contagion we don’t fully understand, but has been mapped in ways that seek to staunch fears of a decline in the stock market, as much as an emergency of public health, with up to one third of the population at risk of infection? The instinctive reaction of the Trump Health and Human Services to create public-private “community testing sites” for drive-thru or drive-up testing at Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid, Kroger and other pharmacies seems reflexive for a government wanting to minimize federal overhead, but a far less exact means, and a far less intuitively sensible basis to attract potentially infected individuals to sites of public congregation. The hope of Verily–a subsidiary of Alphabet, whose Project Baseline boasts the slogan, “We’ve Mapped the World, Now Let’s Map Human Health,” in a bizarrely boosterish rhetoric, aggregates medical for medical screening in California–

Select States for Project Baseline Testing/Verily

–and select states–was the primary response that Trump had promised of a network of drive-up testing sites that has never materialized, even as it expanded to a hundred sites in thirty states. After Walmart opened two sites, and Walmart 40, the difficult accuracy of creating multiple testing sites was prohibitive, the testing sites that were rolled out with the assistance of private entrepreneurs that Jared Kushner enlisted, that filled the absence of any coherent public health response–perhaps, terrifyingly, in concert with his brother’s health care company, Oscar, which also partnered with CVS and some of the same pharmaceutical services, focussing on drive-thru sites more than sustained medical care, focussing largely on calming retailers who feared the arrival of infected patients on their parking lots, more than on the efficacy of testing, which they didn’t understand. If only 40% of promised test kits were made available, the absence of providing staffers or selling, as in Massachusetts, self-testing kits–and failing to provide many in large cities like New Orleans, as if to keep the final tally of infected artificially low. Even if the Center for Disease Controls had never done clinical tests on hydrochloroquine, whose dangers on humans were not studied, and despite some benefits of the antiviral on cell cultures, none appeared in mice, the drug was promoted widely on social media as late as April, although its mention on Twitter grew, even as the government delayed any roll-out of testing sites.

The demand to calm the nation, a position dangerously close to concealment, delayed action on a wave of infection that President Trump had long sought to deny, claim to be overblown, or call Fake News. The lack of a public testing initiative, and rejection of the tests of other nations, forced the United States to adopt a disorganized go-it-aloneist approach, akin to isolationism, not benefiting from the potential ties to Chinese doctors’ response, or the testing kits that would have been available that the World Health Organization (WHO) had suspected since January, and made test kits for poorer countries that might be replicated in the United States–which chose to make its own tests to ensure the highest quality. When WHO had urged countries “test, test, test” for the coronavirus to contain its spread, the global health organization provided 1.5 million tests to 120 countries who lacked the ability to test by March 16; the United States went without the diagnostic tests developed in Berlin by la Charité, implemented in Germany. If the United States had submitted a test to WHO as well, the German test the health organization adopted was never used or ordered–and by mid-March processed a sixth the specimens as in Italy, with found over six times as many cases, and an eleventh as in South Korea, which found double the cases.

By April, the picture had improved, but not much.

COVID Tracking Project (Data)

And based on later data of the virus that spread to other American cities, the virus that had infected so many in New York seems to have spread to other American metropoles by May, as we were still awaiting broad testing.

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Filed under data visualization, disease maps, infectious diseases, public health, US Politics

Mega-Projects without Maps

President Donald Trump made the mega-project of a border wall the basis of his candidacy. The proposed innovation of a “wall” — a “great, great” border wall blocking the specter of cross-border transit–has offered a powerful image by which to pole-vault into Presidential politics whose power has left the nation arrested in shock. To promote the “wall” as a mega-project the nation, Trump has regularly invoked the notion of an invasion from the southwestern border, conjuring the image of a nation in dire need of protection–using this talking point not only to enter the 2016 Presidential election and on the campaign trail, but to hold his first news conference from the Oval office, and as grounds for a thirty-five day government shutdown to gain a $5 billion in public funding for the project. The ratcheting of collective attention to the imperative of the border wall has peaked as it became grounds to declare a National Emergency.

The inflation of the border wall at the cost of all other projects of infrastructure increasingly reveal both a personal fixation and public obstruction to national growth. From something like a virus, meme generator, and a battle cry, the wall that provides the latest punchy slogan for the 2020 re-election campaign–the oddly motivating cry, “Complete the Wall,” as if such a wall has been begun to be built–

–has given currency to the fiction of a “Trump wall” as a project whose urgency only masquerades its deep illegality. The absence of the wall may lead it to be fetishized as “beautiful” and “being designed right now,” Trump assures, as if to involve the nation in a fantasy, but is never mapped.

The fetishizing of such a misguided promise masks that the project, perhaps funded by stolen funds, including civil forfeiture conducted by Customs and Border Patrol at the border that offer $600 million, would mandate reprogramming billions, but fails to address the problem of massive migration and displacement. But in dignifying the border plans by discussing a border “wall,” the image helps magnify the mega-project Trump has recently elevated to the status of a National Emergency to secure funding of $3.6 billion, even its cost estimates haven’t been defined, but lie at least $15-25 billion without costs for land acquisition and future maintenance. And as if to avoid the misery of migrants who arrive in the Caravan from Central America, the wall is elevated as a mythical, beautiful construction, and played against violent scenes of sex trafficking, threats of the violence of criminal migrants, or stories of the cruelty of cross-border transit. The mega-project of the border “wall” deflects all of these, and seems a solution to the tide of migration that haunts a globalized world.

The state of state-funded mega-projects is a battleground for defining the future of the nation in both metaphorical and real terms, and it was bound to be opposed to projects of actually investing in national infrastructure. Trump has long attacked the mega-project of building High Speed Rail along California’s central valley. The project that symbolizes many of the visions of responsibility he has disavowed, and indeed the vision of building “new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways all across our land” by destabilizing the role of public funding in infrastructural improvements, but using local and state funds with private capital. While the High Speed Rail was based on promises of lowering emissions and government funding of infrastructural projects that were the fruit of public stimulus projects, it has come to symbolize public investment he seeks to shun, and a vision of the future that seemed destined to collide with the alternative mega-project of guarding the nation against the danger of outsiders outside its borders. Indeed, longtime anti-HSR Representative Kevin McCarthy introduced a ‘Build the Wall, Enforce the Law” Act to ensure the project–slated at $23.4 billion–as reflecting the popular desire “the American people want” to fulfill an alleged governmental responsibility of “maintaining strong borders” that “For too long, America has failed.” Yet despite the geographic fiction of this imperative, it lacks any map.

The project claimed to bring economic benefits and jobs become a target of Trump’s anger, leading him to announce on social media “We want that money now!” in a clear attempt to shift its past and future funding to his own designs on completing a massive border wall between US and Mexico, long promised as the guiding project of the Trump Presidency–even if the wall has not, in fact, begun to be built, “Complete the Wall” the likely slogan for Trump’s re-election bid in 2020. The disdain that California Governor Gavin Newsom showed in dismissing the so-called “border ’emergency'” as manufactured political theater, in which California’s National Guard wouldn’t participate only rose the

Trump is particularly eager to allocate further funds for the construction of the long-promised border “wall” that will be insurmountable by refugees or criminals. To achieve its building, he declared an actual national emergency, in hopes to free funds for its construction that the US Congress denied. He almost acted as if the funds were ready to be reassigned, and the funds to be returned diverted to his own mega-project of border construction–and to glorify the actually uncertain technology of such a “wall,” in contrast to the “boondoggle” of a state-of the art infrastructural project of High Speed Rail, long supported by his predecessor, but which has become something of an avatar of the Green New Deal, as an opportunity to promote his construction of a border “wall.”

In a few days, Trump tweeted out a counter-image of time-accelerated wall construction from his social media megaphone, accompanied by a triumphal score as form of alternate news. High speed video of the replacement of twenty miles of bollard fencing were scored as a triumphal achievement, as if a ready-to-assemble pieces on cleared terrain was only IKEA-style assembly–showing a picture of segments that replaced existing fencing as a project completed “ahead of schedule” unlike the damning time delays and overruns on the High-Speed Rail Project that stands uncompleted.

“We have just built this powerful Wall in New Mexico. Completed on January 30, 2019 – 47 days ahead of schedule! Many miles more now under construction!” (February 20, 2019)

The two mega-projects are quite distinct in functional and in the futures they promise to create. But both suggest the degree to which political problems are both increasingly interconnected with considerable complexity–weaving problems of globalization, from climate change to immigration to economic inequality–responded to by a “simple” solution of a truly monumental solution. The GIF of workmen posed on the side of the new border fencing promoted the momentum to a mega-project of utmost national need. The project is one marked by a stunning lack of national vision, but its simplicity has proved sufficient to substitute for one. Whereas the project of High-Speed Rail or a “Bullet Train” promised to create needed pathways for economic mobility, the super-project of connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles–essentially an urban plan, moving across the Central Valley, and promising to reduce carbon emissions in coming years–was both a target embodying all that Trump denied and degraded (needed emissions reductions; public transit; global warming) but a source for needed funds.

The difficulty of these mega-projects–which oddly unintentionally echo the fascist projects of the past, while claiming different visions of modernization–both turn on the use of public investments. The allocation of huge sums to infrastructural improvement are promised to assuage the political sense of insecurity that plague the world, and the promised resolution of global specters that they promise to allieve and the futures that they promise to secure. If the High-Speed Rail Project connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles provide a broad link within the state from the hub of a new Transit Center in downtown San Francisco to the world, from Sacramento to Los Angeles, the border “wall” is a barrier to protect America’s place in the world. The claims that the rail project was indeed “dead” that were made by Republican Kevin McCarthy–a long supporter of the President–to interpret Gov. Gavin Newsom’s very first State of the State speech in Sacramento incorrectly as a declaration of death of a project that he has long opposed. The notorious pro-MAGA Congressman from Bakersfield who has long enjoyed aggressively contentious sparring on social media–“We cannot allow Soros, Steyer, and Bloomberg to BUY this election! Get out and vote Republican November 6th. #MAGA”–and to make the securing of $25b for the US-Mexico “border wall” a national priority to burnish his pro-Trump credentials. His claims as “GOP Leader”–he refuses to be a Minority Leader–on the fundamental place of “a protected border” to a nation led him to promote bills funding the “wall” and support the National Emergency, delighted in tweeting gleefully the “Train to nowhere is finally stopped”–as if the plans for completion had been postponed.

McCarthy seemed to pounce on Newsom’s address with misplaced glee as he relished the prospect of ending a project to which he’s long been opposed, and is the model of public investment in economic infrastructure that Trump on which Trump seeks to shut the book, by privileging public-private partnerships and streamlining with less accountability or review, and the promise of revenue-making public works–while funds earmarked for disaster relief and stimulus seem redirected to a costly “border wall” claimed to be prioritized as a response to current national security crisis. The antipathy that McCarthy–long tied to oil money in Bakersfield, just outside Los Angeles, through whose district the rail would run–has framed his oppotiion to the high-speed rail project led him to try to frame it as a matter of national politics, as he styled himself as a “Republic Leader”–rather than “Minority Leader,” pronounced the Bullet Train “dead” with a finality that he must have trusted Trump would notice.

The collision between the needs for funds for the border wall–an apparatus of state that is needed, Trump insists, to preserve the policy he enacted of “zero-tolerance” immigration policy on the border, but that would serve to protect the nation from proliferating specters that haunt the nation. Collision with the projected High-Speed Rail Project first planned in 2016 by voter referendum, back in 2008, in the days of the arrival of promised Stimulus Package, seem almost the exact mirror image of mega-plan, designed to bundle inter-related problems (air pollution; congested freeways; climate change; petroleum dependence; economic inequality) at a single stroke, if from an almost diametric position. But as the right accuses the “far-left government” of California, suspiciously as if it were a Socialist state in Latin America, of pushing the rail project, and President Donald Trump grips to the conceit of a border wall, the individual faces of men and women recede to the background of each.

While touching on a range of political issues, the project that declared itself free of ideology became something of a political target to Trump as he machinated to find new resources for the “wall” that the U.S. Congress denied funds. The slightest hint that California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, Jerry Brown’s successor, would scale back or re-dimension Brown’s own pet project because it “would cost too much” prompted Trump to reclaim federal funds as “California has been forced to cancel the massive bullet train project”–code for an unneeded public expenditure–even as Trump tried to remap the southwestern border by a barrier constituents could rally around, as if designing a new aesthetics of our national space to bracketed a record 68.5 million of globally displaced people driven from their homes, according to UNHCR, at a rate of almost 45 million a day, including 25.4 million refugees.

AnCalifornia’s Attorney General–with those of fifteen other states–quickly sued Trump for declaring a National Emergency to secure needed funds for the “Border Wall.” Not missing a beat, Trump attacked the state for the right to do so after “the state . . . has wasted billions of dollars on their out of control Fast Train, with no hope of completion,” and whose “cost overruns are becoming world record setting.” Trump’s gleeful tweets about a “Failed Fast Train Project” may conceal what is really at stake–

–but the needed funds were surely in the front of Trump’s mind.

For as Trump seems to be “weighing every possible option” to build the wall’s so junk technology at the border, so that the “wall” has become an icon of “illegal immigration” and the danger of “entry” into the United States’ “open borders,” as if the President is able to exercise complete executive authority by closing the border at any time, the state audit revealing that construction delays and billions of dollars of cost overruns were due to budgetary mismanagement has been blamed on being a project of personal investment for ex-Gov. Jerry Brown, who spent public funds on an unbuilt system long promised to link San Francisco and Anaheim, and failing to link the state in the sort of mega-network Brown had proposed, and a true break of public trust. (If Ponytail suggested that a solution would be to build a “wall” in detachable sections that, post-Trump, might be submerged in the Atlantic and Pacific sea floor to offer anchor sites or artificial reefs for marine life to flourish where it doesn’t exist, the potential proliferation of mega-projects and maxi-projects as border walls world wide–


–have created a terrifying normalization of the border wall in a shockingly brief time, as a mega-project promising security at a time when global security is hard to come by, as if they were tools of normal governance.)

Can the projects and their costs even be compared? If the costs of the High Speed Rail project have ballooned–as the costs of the “Wall” seem constantly underestimated and bound to rise in cost overruns we have not even begun to predict–the notion that these are comparable construction projects, or analogous infrastructural improvements. Both mega-projects–however dissimilar in nature–don’t address political problems, but constellations of issues, from infrastructural needs, climate change, and fuel consumption to immigration, criminality, and drugs, promoting projects of mass appeal in different ways, that suggest targeted projects addressing constituencies, promising to address deep infrastuctural problems to very limited degrees–their purported boldness hindered by limited funds, and facing limited support to be enacted on the scale that their promoters celebrate.

While it’s uncertain that either could ever be completed in a realistic schedule that has been announced, the projects from opposite sides of the political spectrum seem something like mirror-images, ostensibly designed as investments but suggesting almost opposed ideas of government or the idea of investing in the public good. Bound to collide with one another, both advance promised changes in landscapes, projecting solutions to mega-problems they cannot fully address, and invite fantasies of the further promises they might meet. The rise of such mega-projects seem a sign both of the increased complexity of pressing problems of powerfully political origin, but their bundling of networks of pressing political problems in a single project claiming to resolve complex problems at a single stroke, is combined in quite toxic ways with oversimplification–by both promoters and their critics who attack them–in ways that threaten to remove them from the very complex networks of problems they attempted to address. The changed status of “mega-projects” in our political discourse make them a sort of pandering rooted in slogans and ultimatums, and removed from complex problems we deserve better to map.

Hot on the heels of Trump’s fuming at Congress that “with the wall, they want to be stingy,” matched by the veiled threat that “we have options that most people don’t really understand,” Trump found the time ripe to chasten California’s governor for “wasting billions of dollars”–and charge that the state in fact “owed” the federal government $3.5 billion. The handy figure could increase the $1.375 billion allocated in budget negotiations for fencing on the Rio Grande, and in a budgetary shuffle increase desired funding for Trump’s mega-project, to reach the robust sum of $4.875 billion–almost close to that original demand for $5b, a magic number of sorts, that could be itself arrived at by allocating emergency funds from the Department of Defense–or the declaration of a national emergency as if this were an actual crisis. (The addition of $3.6 billion from other military construction projects among the $6.1 billion from the Defense Department budget that he argued wasn’t going to be used for anything “too important”–and was officially discretionary, if earmarked for construction, repairs, and counter-narcotics programs–rationalized as the mega-project would block “illegal” drugs.) The result would double allocated funds–and create a mega-project worthy of the name, for which no clear map exists, although many have been offered. But a mega-project of this size perhaps, paradoxically, itself resists mapping . . .

Racing to ensure the possibility of declaring the national emergency to get his way on Thursday, the suggestion on television that Gov. Gavin Newsom could curtail a project of high speed rail in the state just the day previous came with a search to secure more than the $1.375b in border fencing as a victory, or exit the terms of the bill he had to sign to avoid extending a government shutdown, as he met contractors to discuss the design of the wall, and sums of money able to be tapped after he declared a national emergency, and use it as a basis to claim he remained an outsider, still not bound by Congress, still not polluted by deals cut in Washington, even after he’d occupied the Oval Office for over two years–even if he didn’t really have a believable map of how to build it? Or did the Commander-in-Chief, feeling cornered by Congress, see Newsom’s seeming concession as the chance to secure billions by budgetary re-allocation? The high-speed rail system was given the fearsome price-tag of $10b; repossessing $3.5 billion of funds from a cancelled project raised dizzying possibility of an under-the-table reallocation of federal funds no one knew were there.

Trump delights in playing fast and free with numbers that seem designed to disorient his audience. In truth, the costs of a border “wall”–whatever it might look like–remain far higher than we can calculate or imagine. Trump boasts he can build the “wall” for but $12b, yet that is a figure at which most scoff. Internal reports from the Office of Homeland Security place the figure at more like over $21.6 billion over three years, The most recent plan to secure another $6.5b by some sort of emergency funding seemed less of a reaction to stinginess than a charade of creative accounting,–a dizzying juggling of vast amounts of money that become meaningless before his own hyperbolic claims of “an invasion of our country,”–the new mantra used to justify its construction–“with drugs, with human traffickers, with all types of criminals and gangs.”

In the process of pulling out all the stops in his request for emergency funding and indulging his worst impulses, the moneys slated for California’s train suddenly seemed an attractive target for federal re-appropriation. High-speed rail seemed a project whose funds were easy to hijack and redirect to the border barrier Trump was scrambling with budget analysts and contractors to fund. And when California’s governor appeared to diminish the size of his project, Trump not only pounced, but to terminate the funds of just under a billion for the rail project–a $929 million federal grant–and to demand the return of $2.5b in past stimulus matching grants, arguing they were neither properly used or matched by the state, by “actively exploring every legal option” to take the funds, no doubt in order to add them to the President’s discretionary funds during the declared National Emergency, which seems more and more a pretext for building a wall for which the land has not been secured, let alone panels designed.

Staging a “state of emergency” is a classic form of justification advance by political theorist Karl Schmitt, a promoter of executive power and extra-legal articulation of a state’s power. The demand for the funds would not necessarily allow the completion of a “Border Wall,” but would compromise a project that is important to the state’s economy. The crisis he has manufactured has led Dan Richard, chairman of the High Speed Rail project or “bullet train” to resign, as a damning letter arrived from the very transportation agency which sent grants for the High-Speed Rail Project in 2009 and 2010 called California state out of compliance with the grant agreement and promised date of completion by 2022. As chairman, Richard, former PG&E executive and pioneer in extending public transit the BART transit in San Francisco, was an unpaid member but was involved in the project’s operational planning and oversaw the extension of almost one hundred and twenty miles. But his work came under heavy criticism after the state audit for having assigned contracts in haste that precipitated lawsuits–mostly from the improvident failure of securing land for building track. (Perhaps Newsom suggested a reduction of the scope of the project–“Let’s be real”–to bring the state in line with a Central Valley Project from Merced to Bakersfield, and a cornerstone for a future route from San Francisco to Los Angeles.) But the call “let’s level” about the elevated platforms built for the current project whose platforms are already built across much of the Central Valley–

–was heard by opponents as a cry of concession, consequent to the finding that an L.A.-San Francisco line could cost over $13 billion estimates that were expected.

But was the comparison between such mega-projects creating a false sense of similarity in the role of the state to redesign the future of the nation at a single stroke, impressing an executive desire on the landscape? The false geographies that each project create demand themselves to be better mapped. The aspirations for the High-Speed Rail Project were considerably easier to map, similar questions of a lack of state-owned lands on which to build and lack of agreement on the projects form created obstacles that a single executive not deeply familiar with the site or its inhabitants couldn’t have hoped to resolve.

The rail project was savagely satirized in the juxtaposition of newsmaps claiming to reveal hidden interests for property owners–as if to suggest its hidden agenda–by linking High-Speed Rail to the raging California wildfires, as if such a small-scale map could reveal the foolhardiness of the rail project. The manipulation of news maps as information was a teased that the fires would prompt landowners who wouldn’t sell land to the state to do so–

–but was presented as an excuse not to dig deeper into the project’s benefits. For real problems of congestion, a lack of public transit, and a need to create better infrastructure for jobs are all replaced by evils specters of other hidden interests, all rendered opaque by likening the geography of fires’ spread to the state’s problem in securing necessary lands on which to build the tracks, and raise the specter of special interests driving High-Speed Rail, in ways that might deeply damage the state as we know it.

1. Both mega-projects have been sold as worth their cost, and both–though one falsely–as “paying for themselves.” The border “wall” is so massive it has no clear price–conservatively, $70b (and an extra $150 million a year to maintain it), or anywhere from $27b to $40b, while Trump asserts only $12b. Where the funds will come from is anyone’s guess, as the promise is something of a conceit, and as Trump never produced a clear schema of costs, the whole question has been maddeningly and dizzyingly opaque. The train may cost as much–although the benefits are more tangible–though a possible $100 billion price-tag has raised many eyebrows. But the high-speed rail was long billed as a basis for modernization, which the border wall can hardly be claimed to be. Price-tags provide a poor basis for understanding the benefits and goals of both mega-projects–$21.6 billion for a wall and $10 billion are sums which we can barely imagine for organizations that symbolize ultimatums–protection and safety or economic modernization–that reduce the complexity of inter-related problems to a monumental solution, all too often removed from or reduced to a map.

The funding for High-Speed Rail was planned to be funded largely by the cap-and-trade program designed to lower California’s carbon emissions. Cap-and- trade was written off, at first, but has caught on as a practice of resistance in the Trump era–although it is rejected by the White House. The High Speed Rail project would stands as an alternative infrastructure to fight climate change. This made it all the easier to the seen as a sacrifice of federal funds, at a time when any budgetary expenditures were being scrutinized for potential pillaging. The vertiginous bombast that Trump summoned to seek to justify the declaration of a national emergency–the image of an invasion is pretty powerful, and for some hard to resist, and the threshold of evidence has been substantially lowered–allowed for the by now all too familiar juxtaposition of scale, numbers, and proportions that seemed guaranteed to confuse his audiences so that they got behind his argument. The very breadth of the high-speed rail project seemed a perfect target–its many maps suggesting a future that gave Trump special pleasure to deflate, no doubt, in ways that one can’t see as tied to a perverse pleasure in seeing infrastructural projects seem to crumble into thin air, felled by executive fiat.

Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times

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