Screaming is not leading

Preventing crises is better than starring in them.


An Amazon search of “leadership” yields more than 60,000 titles. But talk is one thing. We’re in the shit now, and it feels pretty simple. Look around. Who’s being useful? Who’s making us safer? Who’s delivering? Who’s calming nerves? Those are true leaders.

Can you adopt the preventative measures?

February was only weeks ago on the calendar, but it is worlds away in every other sense. 

Now we all feel the pandemic, with its lockdowns, hand-washing, looming death, and Zoom. Everyone respects the hurricane when it’s bending trees and shaking roofs. But just last month, when preventative measures might have had epic effects, the pandemic mostly mattered to forecasters. 

Take Saturday, February 29. The cover of The New York Times featured things that feel slightly adjacent to the hurricane: the first big Trump-induced Wall Street sell-off, the South Carolina primaries, echoes of Obama on the campaign trail. That Saturday paper (like 1,000 other signals from experts) also featured a giant, art-laden, scary, well-reported, and, in retrospect, spot-on story by Andrew Jacobs and Sheri Fink, with foreshadowing from people like Johns Hopkins scholar Dr. Eric Toner, who said: “Even during mild flu pandemics, most of our I.C.U.s are filled to the brim with severely ill patients on mechanical ventilation. I hope and pray Covid-19 turns out to be a moderate pandemic, but if not, we’re in serious trouble.” 

Can you adopt the preventative measures?

A heroic leader would have ramped up production of masks and ventilators that day (or a decade earlier). Now, after feeling the hurricane, we are doing amazing things, the best we can on this schedule. We are re-organizing the economy on the fly, washing hands like surgeons, learning how many feet apart to walk, and which takeout containers host the virus the longest. 

By that Saturday in February, ten days had already passed since what is now being called “Game Zero.” That Champions’ League soccer game in Italy appears, in retrospect, to have been a “biological bomb” of coronavirus infection, touching off Italy’s ongoing crisis. Canceling games like that (which everyone would have hated in real time) would have been perfect preventative leadership. 

On Sunday, March 1, the NBA’s loudest governor, Mark Cuban, affixed his amateur-CDC-director hat and tweeted “very useful and understandable” information saying, “you should be OK” if you wash your hands and don’t touch your face.

That’s the day Rudy Gobert boarded a plane for Cleveland, New York, Boston, and Detroit. At some point Gobert developed symptoms. 

Day by day the nation began to learn that our preventive measures had been poor. A March 7 Times headline: “With test kits in short supply, health officials sound alarm.” 

In March, the NBA held 78 games with reported combined attendance of 1,386,398 and unreported combined revenue. Some of those games were in defiance of requests from elected officials to cancel large events. We might never know if “biological bombs” were detonated at any one of them, or many. 

By March 11, Cuban was not only actively deriving revenue from the thing public health officials decried the most—giant public gatherings. He was also retweeting a little congratulatory post about Mavs-branded hand sanitizer the same night Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 and Commissioner Adam Silver suspended the season.

The point is not to be one more voice berating many leaders who dropped many balls. The point is there will be more big, scary threats in the years to come. Let’s pick better leaders next time. When you lose, as the saying goes, don’t lose the lesson.

Can you adopt the preventative measures?

On Tuesday #MarkCubanforPresident was briefly trending on Twitter. This would make sense if we lived in a world where you had to be a loudmouth billionaire reality TV star (with some #metoo issues swirling) to run for president.

Let’s celebrate the leaders around whom tragedies happen a little less.

On March 4, Peter Goodman reported in The New York Times that, “desperate to limit the reach of the virus, governments have imposed quarantines, encouraged workers to stay home and generally frightened people into avoiding travel, restaurants, trade shows and other activities.”

Also on March 4, Hoopshype posted a podcast with Cuban, part of which was about being a billionaire:

I sold the company, bought a lifetime pass on American Airlines and my goal was just to travel and party like a rock star. And I got really good at it! I just wanted to have beers and drink with as many people as possible, and that’s exactly what I did. I just traveled and hung out. I got a place in Manhattan Beach in Los Angeles, took acting classes and met people. I just had fun, doing whatever I could to enjoy myself. … Even when I was dead-ass broke and sleeping on the floor, I was hanging out with my friends and just doing whatever. Well, those guys are still my same friends now. We’re older now, but we still do some of the same stupid sh** that we used to do back then.

Don’t get me wrong: Cuban has qualities that resonate and matter. He parties with players and movie stars. He’s a bundle of public passion and, compared to publicity-shy, 92-year-old Richard DeVos, say, he’s a breath of fresh air. It makes sense he’d be the NBA’s billionaire on Dancing with the Stars or Shark Tank. My favorite thing about him, honestly, is that in the many TikTok dancing videos he posts, his children look profoundly happy. 

Can you adopt the preventative measures? 

Not Cuban. Not often. Not accurately. He has been sounding off on anything and everything for a long time. Here’s his blog as one example. He has strong takes on all kinds of things, few of which age well. Here he advises readers to launch a business exploiting high-school basketball players like record labels once ripped off blues musicians. He went ballistic about all the money Google would lose on YouTube (and to his credit owned up to it). And with nothing more than journalism school and a career in the industry under my belt, I could make evidence-based arguments to disprove most of his half-court heaves of freshman-level media theory.

He has made a lot of money, but I’m not sure he has earned the right to lecture. Lamar Odom says he needed a teammate to hold him back after Cuban screamed curses at him for weeks, in public, and then kicked him in a way that Odom found racially charged. 

Michael McCann of Sports Illustrated:

Cuban, who has owned the Mavericks since 2000, has expressed that he knew nothing about the misconduct and that his entire focus as Mavs owner has been on basketball operations. Some have questioned how Cuban, who in 2011 authored a book titled “How to Win at the Sport of Business: If I Can Do It, You Can Do It” and who portrays himself as heavily involved in the management of his team, could not have known or at least suspected. In fact, one longtime Mavs employee told Wertheim and Luther, “Trust me, Mark knows everything that goes on. Of course Mark knew [about the instances of harassment and assault]. Everyone knew.”

Cuban’s name was trending because on Tuesday because of two tweets, which scolded elected officials. This is Cuban’s lane: Skip the homework, go straight to the lecture, and be loud. (Are there non-billionaires who, in 2020, still publish the phrase “hard dick”?) You can always apologize later and, if necessary, write a check.

Anyway, he was mad and bold. It caught a certain emotional wave. In the aftermath, he has been on CNBC town halls, in USA Today, and opining to Anderson Cooper.

But resist the urge to see him or others like him as your savior. Crisis emotions aren’t great guides to future needs. Rudy Giuliani walked on water for a while after 9/11, but, in reality, as he stood on the wreckage of the World Trade Center, he was close to wholesaling his reputation and connections to creeps. He’s a central figure in the gang of power brokers that prepared us so poorly.

If you believe only rich reality TV stars can be president, Cuban might appear like your preferred billionaire battlebot. But that’s a terrible pool to choose from. Martenzie Johnson reminds us that when Notre Dame burned, a collection of billionaires made high-profile promises to fund the repairs, but many were only in it for the press conference, and never actually wrote the checks. Can you imagine? That reminds me of research that “power causes brain damage,” specifically to your ability to empathize.

Can you adopt the preventative measures? 

Like Donald Trump, Mark Cuban’s views lurch around. He’s generally a Democrat, and loves taking everyman positions. But his strongest passions are elitist. A favorite: when he offered to “represent the American taxpayer” in negotiations over federal bailouts, with advice to “attack income inequality.”

When Elizabeth Warren was a Democratic front-runner with a plan to actually attack income inequality, Cuban lost his mind. In various tweetstorms he unironically assailed her as “filthy rich.”

His heart generally tracks his money, and his brain generally tracks his heart. Here is a chain of nine tweets, released to the public, worrying about tax bills for billionaires. 

It’s not unusual to love being authoritative more than building good systems. In “Superforecasting,” Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner write that, as recently as the middle of the last century, even doctors chafed at the lessons of medical research. There’s one story about randomized controlled experimentation coming to medicine. Doctors hated it, because it diminished the authority of doctors:

Physicians and the institutions they controlled didn’t want to let go of the idea that their judgment alone revealed the truth, so they kept doing what they did because they had always done it that way—and they were backed up by respected authority. They didn’t need scientific validation. They just knew. 

Can you adopt the preventative measures? 

Proud, successful people attuned to their own feelings … are hampered in assessing what is really likely to work. It takes great humility and curiosity. 

TrueHoop’s Dillon Shain dug into the charitable efforts of NBA governors during the Coronavirus crisis. In the wake of the canceled season, NBA Twitter turned against any team that didn’t pledge money toward arena workers who are out of work because of canceled games. That changed the calculus for the NBA’s billionaires: A manageable check to part time workers without benefits was all it cost to be seen as one of the good guys. Most participated. 

Some other standout contributions:

  • Hornets investor Anderson Warlick has a textile company, Parkdale Mills, which is aiming to make 10 million facemasks per week. 

  • Micky Arison has reportedly offered up his Carnival cruise ships at a reduced cost to house non-COVID patients.

  • Steve Ballmer, Gayle Benson, and Dan Gilbert have donated seven figures to various charities.

This makes me hopeful that the NBA, or some of its characters might come to support this effort, as described by “Range” author David Epstein in an email:

With respect to the new coronavirus, humanity is in the age of pre-vaccine medicine. That is why Arturo Casadevall, a massive history buff and chair of microbiology and immunology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, drew on his knowledge of 19th and early 20th century pandemics to propose the fastest possible stopgap therapy: in a Wall St. Journal op-ed and a subsequent journal article, Casadevall proposed using "convalescent serum" to treat COVID. That is, recovering patients have produced antibodies (that is why people get immunity after recovering), which can be transferred to others who are sick or who might become sick. It is, essentially, sharing immunity, and stemmed pandemics in the pre-vaccine days, including of measles, which is far more contagious than the new coronavirus. No other treatment can be mobilized as quickly, which is why earlier this week the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine called convalescent serum "especially promising," and why the FDA on Tuesday—after a call with Casadevall and others members of a team that now involves 20 institutions, plus logistical support from Amazon—authorized emergency use of the therapy, effective immediately, with a clinical trial to follow. The trouble, though, is that the authorization is hollow until the collaboration team receives emergency funding. Despite the need for urgency, many of the traditional funding mechanisms are working slowly as staff are working remotely while being bombarded with requests. The team expects funding to "catch up," but the longer that takes, the greater the potential delay in widespread action.

But then there are all these other characters. 

Josh Harris of the 76ers didn’t just stir up trouble for himself for trying to cut salaries in a pandemic, but has also long been buttering up the exact same White House that prepared the nation so abysmally. 

Big ships, including Arison’s, have gamed the system and avoided U.S. taxes by registering all their boats overseas. We are short of actions that benefit large numbers of people. Arison’s tax dollars could have been serving the priorities of this nation all along . The talks described in that tweet are part of a political machine designed to do the opposite, to take dollars away from schools, police, healthcare, and firefighters, and deliver them to Micky Arison’s next vacation. I once heard about a guy who had a full-time job keeping one of Arison’s vacation boats stocked, staffed, and pristine around the clock, just in case the billionaire felt like a sail. Months would pass with no one using it. I’m no accountant, but my thinking is that if Arison registered those boats in the U.S. and paid more in tax to make the U.S. stronger, it would cost him luxuries like this boat that he wasn’t using anyway. It’s as close to painless as nation-saving can get.

Chris Prentice and Lawrence Delevingne of Reuters write about a new report that bailouts are hotbeds of crooked dealing. 

The research, from scholars at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Stanford University, University of Cambridge and IESE Business School, found insider trading profitability jumped dramatically during the 2007-2009 global financial crisis and subsequent government bailout.

“Anytime the government picks winners and losers, there is a greater opportunity for insider trading by connected individuals,” said Daniel Taylor, an associate professor at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and one of the authors of the report.

I am ready to make a handshake bet that in the years to come we will find that right now, in this crisis, at least one of the NBA’s billionaires will be shown to have profited. Several of them are years into building just the right relationships, working the perfect back channels.

Coronavirus arrives in an America that already has a problem with death. Economist Anne Case and Nobel Prize winner Angus Deaton have a new book about economic policies and deaths of despair. Atul Gawande recently wrote about it in The New Yorker. American life expectancy is going down not because of a shortage of resources, but because of uniquely American policies that tilt things away from regular working people, Gawande writes:

Among advanced economies, this deterioration in pay and job stability is unique to the United States. … The problem isn’t that people are not the way they used to be. It’s that the economy and the structure of work are not the way they used to be. … The U.S. has also embraced automation and globalization with greater alacrity and fewer restrictions than other countries have. Displaced workers here get relatively little in the way of protection and support. And we’ve enabled capital to take a larger share of the economic gains.

That’s the capital people use to purchase NBA teams. In other words, making America work will mean working against the interests of billionaires. Of course we shouldn’t look to them to fix this.

One policy in particular causes trouble:

A more unexpected culprit identified by Case and Deaton is our complicated and costly health-care system… a perverse tax on hiring lower-skilled workers … Increases in health-care costs have devoured take-home pay for those below the median income. At the same time, the system practically begs employers to reduce the number of less skilled workers they hire, by outsourcing and automating their positions.

Then, Gawande writes, incredibly: “In Case and Deaton’s analysis, this makes American health care itself a prime cause of our rising death rates.”

Can you adopt the preventative measures? 

In short, those stadium workers don’t need an extra month’s pay for bobbing along the seafloor of the global economy at the beck and call of billionaires. They need stable jobs, health insurance, and a system designed to keep them safe. If you want world leaders who can prevent our next crisis; the NBA’s crew of billionaires is no place to hunt.

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