Uncertainty in the Age of Pandemic

President Donald Trump leads a press briefing on the administration response to the coronavirus at the White House in Washington, D.C, March 9, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)Sometimes, a disruptor-in-chief is the last thing you want.

Capital just wants to be loved — to be in a steady, supportive relationship with a reliable partner.

Justin Trudeau is not that partner. Not as far as Teck Resources is concerned, anyway. In late February, the company walked away from a multibillion-dollar deal to develop an energy project in the fruitful Canadian oil sands. The problem, as the Wall Street Journal reports, was “political uncertainty about oil-and-gas development in the resource-rich country.”

Canada’s oil and gas is mostly in its west, but the political power is in the east, and the two do not see eye-to-eye. “The project has landed squarely at the nexus of a much broader national discussion on energy development, Indigenous reconciliation and, of course, climate change,” the CEO said in an announcement to investors. “We are stepping back to allow Canada to have this important discussion without a looming regulatory deadline for just one project.” That’s the nice Canadian way of saying, “Maybe we’ll be back when you clowns get your act together.” The company worried with good reason that any favorable decision about its project might prove short-lived, with Justin Trudeau’s center-left government too easily bullied into submission.

If you do not have some confidence in the regulatory environment, the tax environment, or the legal environment, it is difficult to make intelligent long-term investments.

Uncertainty is expensive.

The big uncertainty news on Wall Street is that stocks have hemorrhaged (as of the closing bell Monday) almost 20 percent of their value since February. The problem is the coronavirus — when Shanghai gets a cold, Wall Street sneezes. And when Wall Street sneezes, Washington gets nervous. My National Review colleague Michael Brendan Dougherty writes:

Some of Trump’s self-appointed surrogates in the media, such as Rush Limbaugh, declared fears of coronavirus were “being weaponized” by the media to scare Wall Street and hurt Trump’s re-election. The word “hoax” keeps popping up across social media among his defenders. Trump seemed to take a Wall Street First approach to the potential pandemic, sending White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow out onto television and instructing people to buy the dip.

As I write this, Sean Hannity is on the radio, sounding like a man on a pogo stick and engaging in some serious hand-waving over President Donald Trump’s performance, complaining that the Democrats are acting as though the president cooked up the virus in a lab with the Kremlin bio-terror team. That’s the word from the Oval Office: “Not my fault!” The buck doesn’t stop here anymore.

Captain Chaos has been on Twitter, sneering and snorting and hectoring, and firing his chief of staff for the third time, and, inexplicably, sharing a meme depicting himself as Nero fiddling while Rome burns. “Who knows what this means, but it sounds good to me!” he wrote.

Lots of people know, Mr. President — just not you.

When Trump ran for president in 2016, there was a great deal of bold talk about building a wall, getting control of the borders, and deporting — remember this? — every single illegal immigrant residing in these United States. (We would, the candidate promised, reimport the “terrific” ones.) None of that happened, of course, and the president did not even bother to organize the introduction of a bill, or even to suggest the rough outline of one, implementing his immigration priorities during the time when his party controlled both houses of Congress and might have enacted practically anything it wanted to. (What Republicans wanted to enact and did enact is what they always want to enact: an irresponsible tax cut.) Trump as a candidate presented this as a matter of economics (illegals stealing our jobs!) and crime (“rapists!”) and related concerns. He did not talk much about achieving meaningful border security as a matter of public health. As it turns out, that may be the most important aspect of the issue.

Sometimes, a disruptor-in-chief is the thing you want. Sometimes, a disruptor-in-chief is the last thing you want.

What will the U.S. government under the leadership of Donald Trump do in response to the coronavirus as the outbreak grows? Nobody knows. Donald Trump will be the last to know. Why would anybody bother telling him? Will the response be effective and competently administered? JFK and LAX are chaos on an ordinary Monday morning, our borders remain porous in spite of all the big talk, and our enforcement of compliance with visas is, in effect, nonexistent. We have cities full of people, many of them children, who haven’t been inoculated against ordinary diseases because they have fruity ideas about vaccines — ideas that have been spread by, among others, Donald Trump. And, of course, we were already running a $1 trillion deficit without a public-health emergency on our hands — because we refuse to prioritize and to say “No” when doing so is politically painful.

That is the kind of leadership we have. This is not uniquely the fault of Donald J. Trump of The Apprentice and Playboy Video Centerfold, who until this recent turnaround was boasting about the performance of the stock markets as a referendum on his leadership. But he is not exactly rising to the present challenge in a persuasive way, either.

And so what we have is uncertainty. That uncertainty has cost businesses and investors about $3.5 trillion in the past couple of weeks.

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