The Bookshelf: The U.S. Confronts a Future Health Crisis in Wheelan’s Political Satire
Imagine there's a virus living inside you. This virus is harmless. Most of the time. But then, something causes it to change and it could kill you unless you take one dose of a powerful drug. Now imagine there is a critical shortage of this drug. This is the scary scenario at the heart of the debut novel by Hanover resident and Dartmouth professor Charles Wheelan. It's called The Rationing, but this isn't a book about a disease. It's a political satire about how the United States government handles the unfolding public health crisis. Personalities clash. Political ambitions get in the way of productive discussion. Fake News opportunists muddy the waters and foreign countries take advantage of a vulnerable United States. Charles Wheelan joined NHPR's Peter Biello to talk about his new book.
Charles Wheelan’s Top 5 Reading Recommendations
Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut. “Is a strikingly prescient book about a future world that has become so productive that only a tiny proportion of people need to work. The rest are sustained comfortably but have no employment. (It's a dystopian vision of the Universal Basic Income!!)”
The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. “This remains the best book at exploring why conservatives and liberals tend to view the world differently.”
Richard Holbrooke: Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century by George Packer. “In terms of more recent books, I just finished this biography. Holbrooke was such a fascinating character and his career stretched from Vietnam to Afghanistan.”
Grant by Ron Chernow. “I’m about halfway through this right now. I don't know if they'll make a musical out of this one, as they did with Hamilton, but it is a terrific book that indirectly offers a lot of insight into the Civil War, Lincoln, and related history.”
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. “In terms of fiction, this is one of the most memorable books. It's a post-apocalyptic novel in which a band of dramatists wander the countryside performing Shakespeare. I found it to be oddly uplifting!”
The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
So this was a really fun book to read. I imagine it was it was pretty fun for you to write as well. What made you want to write a novel? Was it just for fun or did you feel like there was something that you needed to express that you couldn't express in your normal way? You normally write nonfiction about economics and politics.
It was all of the above. The setting began about seven years ago. I had a short sabbatical. I was living Chicago. I actually came to Hanover at the time, wrote about 40 pages of a novel that I decided was going nowhere, shut the computer and did not open it for another seven years. Fast forward to the fall of 2016, our family took what we now describe as a family gap year; six continents, nine months and three teenagers with an emphasis on the teenagers being the most difficult part. We set out to South America and what we discovered very quickly is that I wake up about an hour and a half before my wife and about five hours before all the teenagers. So I was sitting there in all of these interesting places with not a lot to do and I don't usually read in the morning. I opened my computer and the file that I had written seven years ago with the novel. I thought, you know, it's not as terrible as I remember it. So mostly because it put me in a good mood, because I love writing, and because I wanted to take another shot at fiction. And as you pointed out, I had lots of things to say. I just started working on it.
Well, what do you think was the primary thing you were trying to say? This is a book not necessarily about disease but about politics and the way the government works. What did you want to say about the way the government works?
It started as a book about disease, but in that intervening time it became, as you suggest, a book about governance. What I really wanted to say is governance is essential - good governance is not always beautiful, but people muddle through. There are actually some explicit passages in there about muddling through historically. Many of the characters, actually, the most important characters in the book, are not named. Generally, if you have a name in this book, you're the least important character. Like the president doesn't really have a name. He's just the president. The president, the secretary of state, the chief of staff; all the people who are doing the lion's share of the work are unnamed. And that's quite deliberate as well, because there are always folks like that. So this is in many ways an homage to imperfect governance, which is really all we can expect.
One of the questions I had about governance as I read this was whether or not democracy is the best possible system for addressing a crisis like this, because they not only have to figure out the best system or the best solution, but they also have to figure out which one is the most politically palatable. What is the one that they can explain when all the dust settles?
Yes, and there are many, many references to that sprinkled throughout the book. I think any reader will come away thinking that I'm a big proponent of democracy for all its flaws. A major plot point concerns interactions with the Chinese government. I mean, I don't think we're giving away too much to say that a virus hits the country. It's not cataclysmic but it's serious and for assorted reasons there's a shortage of a really important antibiotic. The Chinese government offers to supply the United States to fill the shortage with some strings attached and at that point it does become about a democratic system in the U.S. muddling through a non-democratic system in China. There's some other references to allies, India in particular. At the end of the day this is something that weighs in on the relative merits of democracy.
And one of the tricky questions here is weighing the value of thousands of lives lost now vs. the potential to lose several thousand more lives in the distant future.
Yes. The president has to make a very difficult decision during the book about whether he and his staff should accept the Chinese offer which has these strings attached but will cost Americans a great deal - for as long as the next century - on the environmental front, on the national security front. And absolutely it is about weighing the present versus the future. One of the themes of the book is it's always easiest to decide in favor of the present. People stand up and clap. And the people in the future aren't born yet. So yes, that's one of the themes as well. But we have to emphasize how much fun this book is, because it is a deviation from all of my nonfiction books even as it advances all those themes. In some ways more directly than some of the nonfiction stuff that I've written.
Yeah. I mean you've chosen to be funny about very serious subjects here. I'm wondering, why was humor the best way to approach this?
Well, the first thing is I never actually tried to be funny. It's just you're writing and the characters are kind of funny. There's the strategist in the book, who is kind of a Dick Morris type character, and if you create situations in which there's a lot of tension and you have some offbeat characters, the humor just kind of happens. I think I also have kind of a certain cynicism. The book begins with Bobo the chimpanzee, I won't give that away, but I think that's also kind of a cynical nod to the way we sometimes look at shiny objects in the new season, even as much more important things are lurking underneath. But yeah it wasn't deliberately engineered to be funny but there are many moments of comic relief.
In this novel your narrator is a scientist who is summoned to the White House because he happened to have written his PhD dissertation on an obscure subject - latent viruses like the one making people sick. And he sort of ends up being a fly on the wall for many of these important conversations between the fictional president and members of his cabinet. And in one of these conversations, these people are discussing which groups of people would be worthy of help - or politically palatable to receive help. If, for example, the antibiotic that they have a limited supply of has to be distributed by lottery; basically who's worthy of living and who's worthy of dying and how. How does the government decide? I was wondering if you had any real life inspiration for a conversation like this. Was there something that you saw on the news or a government decision that you heard of that provided inspiration for this?
Everything you mentioned is inspired by real world experiences, beginning with our narrator the naif who finds himself over his head. So he's written a PhD dissertation, we should point out it's not a very good one, and he doesn't actually know that much about the virus and is therefore now at the table with all of these political heavyweights, even as he doesn't really know as much about what's going on as he should. And that is based on my first job which was being a speechwriter for the governor of Maine at age 23, having a front row seat for the same kinds of political deliberations that we're reading about and thinking "you know I'm 23 I really have no idea what I'm doing here." So that sense of being over your head comes straight from my experience.
So did you see conversations unfold like this? Where people in government were having to make decisions about people's lives while also paying attention to the palatability of the decisions they were making?
We didn't have anything that I would say is quite so life threatening. But I did really only turn up the volume a little bit. We did have decisions that had massive impact on people's lives that were hard decisions. Back then we had lots of decisions around incarceration, because of course you're running all the state prisons. There was somebody who was threatening to burn an American flag. I don't think the Supreme Court had weighed in yet. That person had notified the governor's office, kind of challenging them, so we had to decide what we were going to do around that. So you do have a sense that amidst all the political jockeying, these are really really important discussions that you're having and I really just kind of took that to a new level.
Mm hmm. The main character has to make the rounds on the news talk programs once the panic starts because misinformation is getting out there. He has to explain what this virus is, debunk myths, tell people "No this is not a matter of terrorism - foreign or domestic. It's actually just a health crisis thing. Plain and simple." But as I read this, I kept thinking, wow you know, people are very susceptible to believing things that aren't true and many media institutions, not all but some, are more than happy to follow the narrative of the myth. Lending legitimacy to it in a way, in their attempt to debunk it rather than just ignore it completely. Is this something you were trying to draw attention to? Our human susceptibility to believing things that are simply not true?
Yes absolutely. The protagonist does a satellite radio tour which I have done to promote events where they put you in a room and you do 10 or 12 radio interviews back to back and somebody does actually hold up a sign to remind you what city you're speaking to.
You're talking to Chicago now you're talking to Dayton.
Yes, yes. And there's a joke in there. And many of these are very short interviews with radio hosts who have very strong preconceived notions whether the government should be blamed or whether the markets are the solution and whatever problem comes along, in this case the outbreak of this virus, is just more fuel for whatever preexisting belief they have now. I hope you notice that there was a little nod to public radio, which is the best among the bunch, and that the character actually points that out because it's a longer conversation. But when you have 80 seconds to make a very important point, much of that message can get lost. And our protagonist starts out very bad at getting across his point.
Yeah. And I should say that it's interesting to see from the other side what it's like for the interviewee to have to stick to those talking points because from the position of interviewer, I have been in the position where I've tried to get people to deviate from those talking points. So interesting to see just as a personal thing.
Yeah and I've been on both sides as well. I was a congressional candidate in 2002 and 2009. I was a journalist for The Economist. So I have literally been on both sides of those interviews as well and that is something that comes through in the book.
You were a congressional candidate.
I ran for Congress in 2009 in the special election to replace Rahm Emanuel right after he was appointed Obama's chief of staff. So yes I was out there. There were about 13 candidates in the Democratic primary. I was one of them. So yes, I have that firsthand sense of speaking to either the Rotary Club or the equivalent of Rotary Club and trying to make some point.
So in running for Congress did you learn anything that ended up being helpful in writing "The Rationing?"
I did. I had to that point been what we might describe as a policy wonk. So as somebody with a PhD in public policy, I could certainly explain all the merits of a carbon tax. But of course that doesn't work when you're a political candidate. So one of the most important characters in this book is the majority leader of the Senate who is a somewhat unpolished person without a college degree but someone whom the president leans on very heavily because he has remarkable mainstream political skills. And there are several junctures in the book where the president calls him aside and says "How are we going to sell this?" (this being whatever they're deciding to do) on Main Street or to a Rotary Club. And I have developed great appreciation for people who can take important ideas and explain them on Main Street. Even as I've developed great skepticism for people who can take bad ideas and sell them on Main Street. The key is you start with a good idea and sell it, not you start with a bad idea and propagandize it.
Your style as a candidate reminds me of how you described the secretary of state here in this book, who I think you described here as, you know, imagine your worst college professor but more boring. Was that how you described her?
Yes. Take away the charisma in her speech. She does try several times to run for political office, the extremely bright, one of the most impressive characters in the book, but doesn't have that political skill and there's a little vignette there where her announcement speech is turned into a college drinking game. It's so boring people watch it on YouTube and when she says wonky things you have to drink.
Now this story takes place about two decades from now, and a few times your narrator references how diplomats including the secretary of state have had to reverse damage done to the country's reputation by the Trump administration and his America First policies. So I wanted to ask you, what you believe is the biggest long term threat posed by those policies?
What happens later in the book is the country, the United States, has a shortage of this important vaccine for reasons that are unique to the United States. The rest of the world is not suffering the same shortage. So of course we need to go hat in hand to other countries that are likely to have a surplus, and of course the place you start is your most important longstanding allies. So you start with the United Kingdom and Canada and Europe and so on, and when you drop into this book 20 years from now, there are oblique sometimes less oblique references to the fact that the allies feel like they've been burned; that they've been disrespected for the last 20 years. And therefore when you turn around and ask them for a favor, they're certainly less inclined to offer up what we really need.
The president in this book is an independent. He ran on a platform of being a one term president. Can you talk a little bit about the decision to make him an independent.
Yes. this is clearly an area where I projected my real life went to fiction. I'm the founder of a group called Unite America which was trying to bridge the political divide in the 2018 elections. And in the years before that, we were trying to support the election of independents in the hope that the best way to overcome partisanship is to elect people who weren't partisan, who could somehow play a mediator role between the two sides. That turned out to be very, very hard to do; even harder to do in the current partisan environment, despite the fact that people complain about the partisanship. So yes, I clearly was projecting on the story this idea that maybe electing somebody outside the two parties might be an important healing element for our politics in this world 20 years from now.
And you in your novel, the parties have undergone a major shakeup. There's the Tea Party as a separate entity. There's the New Republicans. The Democrats seem split as well. And I wanted to ask you about that, because while the partisanship doesn't seem to be as pronounced in your novel as it is here, there are still personal rivalries among individual politicians, some of whom have their hearts in the right place and some of whom really don't. And that seemed to strike me as true.
Yes. I tried to project forward the current political inflection point. I do think the parties are in a place where something's going to have to happen, some kind of escape valve. And as you point out, 20 years now, I've projected out that the Republican Party splits in half into the Tea Party and the New Republicans, whereby the New Republicans are kind of the old low tax country club small government Republicans and the Tea Party takes more of the social issues and that allows them, they couldn't reconcile those two things so they split apart. The Democrats have not split, but they're still feeling the tension that we're feeling now between the more progressive wing of the party and the more centrist wing of the party. And therefore there's all kinds of inattention including between the president who was formerly a Democrat and the speaker of the House who, you know at important junctures, said some really important things. I think she's a very powerful voice in that discussion about who should get the vaccine given the shortage, but also she wants to run for president and she has ulterior motives.
To what extent do you think this book is a warning? And if so what is that warning?
It's both a warning and it's something - it's meant to be reassuring. It's a warning that at some point your bad governance will come back to haunt you. I mean, that's the point about burning the allies and not being able to turn and depend on them to get more vaccine. It's also a warning about the shortage itself. I mean there, I'm not going to go into it, but there are some reasons that the United States ends up with a shortage of this important drug which is called Dormagen and that you know bad governance has consequences and unfortunately when good governance is happening we just take it for granted. You assume that the building you're walking into isn't going to collapse because somebody inspected it, and your chicken isn't, you know, infected with E. coli. So yes, there's a warning about the importance of governance. But I think it is also optimistic, and as we've discussed, it talks about how democracy, ultimately, is imperfect but quite powerful. And that if you elect decent, not perfect people, then they can muddle through in ways that are good enough to get us through some really tough situations.