I’m not a military historian, I don’t own a gun, I don’t have a background in any armed service, I only got 1/3 of the way through Mike Shaara’s book. I finished the kindle preview of The Sleepwalkers. I’m a computer programmer.

The trouble with history is that while historians repeat each other, history never repeats itself. Not, at any rate, exactly. (When Mark Twain declared ‘History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes,’ he went about as far as he could go.)
– James Eayrs, 1971. (Twain’s line is probably misattributed)

I’m not giving odds for any of these events except that some of them have happened. This article isn’t based on a model, just on my inexpert reading of history and the current situation. Treat this as sci-fi. Disclaimer finished.

The Western States Pact

I woke up today to news about the Western States Pact, a group that sounds like a secession alliance but isn’t, or at least isn’t yet. Some eastern states, most recently Massachusetts, have formed a similar group. Under normal circumstances this would make total sense, but these aren’t normal circumstances and the president has for no reason been insisting this is his call.

I’ve been thinking more about how chains of unlikely events get us past the ‘probabilistic doldrums’ and allow large changes to happen. Here is a list of events that, in various order, get us to a point where shots are fired between federal- and state-aligned troops. I don’t think our society has the capacity to engage in full-scale internal war, but even a skirmish will have political consequences that alter the status quo of federalism we’ve had for ~100 years.

I think Andrew Cuomo is very aware of this possiblity. His public speaking doesn’t cross any lines. He had an interview with his brother which seemed, entirely in my opinion, staged, where he said ‘no’ 16 times (count em) to the question of would he run for president, echoing WT Sherman. When interviewed this week about the eastern states group, he was careful to not answer questions about whether there’s presidential authority here.

To my ear, he’s avoiding a fight because it will lead to consequences – either the feds withholding resources from the states or something worse.

Events to watch for

These are grouped but otherwise in no particular order.

States’ rights and separation of powers

  • States close their borders to other states that aren’t quarantining, the feds get involved, and the states refuse to budge, saying it’s a life or death issue
  • States unify against the federal govt, either commercially (buying consortiums) or worse, in some way that smacks of control of territory
  • The federal govt tries to remove a governor or state legislature for resisting an order, either via twitter (bad) or tanks (very bad)
  • Any player ignores the power of the courts
  • States interfering in immigration policy on their borders for humanitarian or quarantine reasons
  • Using taxes, witholding aid, or other means to punish states for disobedience. May have already happened pre-crisis: the SALT deduction was capped at $10k in 2017, and while the house voted to temporarily repeal this in December, I’m not sure what came of this bill
  • Regional alliances (already happened). Worse if the president doesn’t read the writing on the wall and insists that the federal government can override 6+ governors in an area where the constitution favors the states.

Supply chain and local capacity

  • States or feds seizing equipment from each other without coordination (may have already happened if you believe these random local news reports about feds taking MA’s masks)
  • States doing blockade-running to maintain their supply chain. (May have already happened with the Patriots jet bringing masks to Boston)
  • States investing in local production capacity to maintain supply chain (rather than relying on cross-state networks to fill gaps in international supply chains; subtle difference)
  • States develop institutions to gap-fill non-performing federal institutions (leads to jurisdictional squabbles)
  • States demand $ compensation from feds for emergency actions states took on their own. Could be lawsuits, legislative, mass tax withholding, protests. Throwing of tea into harbors.


  • Leaders of other countries or international institutions taking sides in arguments between states & the federal government (serious if on scientific issues, very serious if on political issues)
  • High-profile firings for loyalty reasons rather than performance, resignations for moral reasons (both have been happening for years now). In particular, firing of key technocrats who poll high in public trust
  • Rioting over important policy questions (esp reopening timeline or $ aid), especially if used as a proxy war between state & feds via side-taking, especially if armed forces are used to dispel riots, especially if other armed forces are sent in to defend. Farfetched? It’s happened: Orval Faubus (yes real person) used his executive power to mobilize his state’s National Guard. The president saw his Guard units and raised him the 101st Airborne (after the mayor of Little Rock asked the president to assist). The Guard units were federalized. Faubus still won reelection for governor. The president’s orders to the guard began: “Our mission is to enforce the orders of the federal courts”. Checks and balances are a good thing.

Military stuff

  • Breakdowns in civil-military relations, or command and control. Desertion, insubordination. This is more impactful at higher levels. Statements by retired generals feature in here as well.
  • Shuffling of basing assignments, especially of leadership staff, to move armed forces away from communities where they have local ties. Censorship of communication between rebased personell & their families / friends back home
  • States refusing entry to federal agents or soldiers
  • States enlisting armed forces from their local population who are not subject to federal chain of command
  • Actual shots fired

Communication and leadership

At all levels there seems (from my vantage on the outside) to be zero coordation between different levels of leadership, especially when it comes to sharing equipment or limited supplies. I think we’re getting better. NY area hospitals have some kind of command center now, and the states are coordinating. But when leaders unncessarily blindside their team, and the team fails to execute, it’s usually the leader’s fault. I mean this at all levels.

I think american leaders haven’t personally experienced a scarcity situation in their lifetime – for some, not within the living memory of their family.

There’s an entire field of moral behavior that comes from sharing scarce resources rationally which we forgot how to do at a national scale. We can’t ration; we’ve been relying on market forces to do this for us, and in places where market forces have been suppressed (health care, for example, where pricing information is tightly held by hospitals and insurers), that caused quality to suffer even before covid.

Hopefully we’ll learn how to be fair, and to make hard decisions with many stakeholders in public, and we’ll get out of this mostly in one piece.

People who can prevent disaster

  • Not Nancy Pelosi or Mitt Romney, or at least not by themselves – they shot their shot
  • Not Elon Musk or Bill Gates; at best they can be technocrats and mobilize resources, but they can’t solve the politics
  • Not Joe Biden, unless we want to turn into Venezuela
  • Not state governors: they’re behaving as they are because they think they have to, for some combination of the sake of their states, the national balance of power, and their personal political careers. They’ve set their thing in motion and can’t stop on a dime.
  • Maybe Mike Pence: he’s the only person in the executive branch who’s hard to fire. I suspect he’s already doing everything he can do. Like everyone close to this crisis, his primary goal is to not get frozen out of the room because at that point he can no longer help at all.
  • Maybe the legislature, acting with uncharacteristic foresight and a single voice. Senate republicans think impeachment would be the end of their party. I think it guarantees them a victory in November with (almost) anyone they choose to run.
  • The press. Who have as a body decided that enough is enough, and they’re going to bring their full selves to work, no more swallowing bullshit. They’re willing now to sacrifice their long-term likability in order to bend public opinion to reality. Will the rolls of 2020’s victims include journalistic detachment? That’s tomorrow’s problem.