No shortcuts to controlling covid-19

The Thinker by Rodin

Early in the Trump Administration, presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway coined the term “alternative facts”. The term that could have come out of George Orwell’s book 1984. By definition a fact is not disputable, but Ms. Conway made them so. Apparently, if actual facts won’t provide the answer you need, you invent another fact instead.

Since then the Trump Administration has been inventing all sorts of alternative facts, otherwise known as lies. And with the exception of a small group of die-hard Never Trumpers, Republicans have embraced Trump’s truthiness. It does solve a lot of messy problems, like having to admit reality is, well, real. Decide on your new reality and move forward. Problem solved!

But their world of alternative facts is crumbling. You can deny reality if you want, but at some point it cannot be denied. In canceling the Republican convention, Trump was acknowledging reality that getting covid-19 is in fact a lot worse than getting the sniffles; in fact it can kill you. Rather than tell Trump he was full of crap, Republicans simply decided they weren’t going to his convention. So to avoid humiliation not to mention all the covid-19 cases that would invariably result, Trump had to cave.

Obviously, most Republicans are perfectly fine with those other people getting covid-19, but not them in particular. After all they can stay in their gated communities and buy their kids private tutoring if needed. That’s true of most Republicans who control the party, but obviously not all of them. Many of them aren’t quite so moneyed.

Here’s a prediction that’s pretty easy to make: virtually no school district in the country will open for in-person classes this fall. All it takes is one kid in a school district to test positive to close the schools. In the unlikely event a school superintendent won’t; parents will make the choice for them. They won’t put their children in jeopardy and will keep them home.

So far, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is continuing to buck the trend, insisting that all Florida schools will reopen on time in a few weeks. But he will buckle like Trump did because actual facts will force him to do so. He looked so popular when the state’s infection rate was relatively low but obviously that has changed. He’s already more unpopular than Trump is in the state. Assuming he wants to win reelection in a couple of years, he’s got to pivot. He will, but it’s unclear whether voters will forgive his insistence that their kids were fair game in Trump’s world of alternative facts.

Like the Wicked Witch of the West, the Republican Party is melting. Reality is catching up with the party. Donald Trump is melting too, and bringing down much of the party with him. In many ways, this is a perfect political storm. As much as Republicans hoped to escape reality by inventing their own facts, reality won’t bend. The coronavirus will keep doing what it is doing and will kill people regardless.

False hopes like herd immunity and throwing caution to the wind won’t do much beside leaving many more of us dead or victims of the disease. Restarting the economy hasn’t saved us. In fact, it’s made things much worse, prolonging the disease, greatly enlarging its impact and slowing our recovery, putting us at a competitive disadvantage to other more enlightened countries.

It’s actually a lot worse than that. Effectively, no Americans can travel internationally until we contain the virus. Even traveling state-to-state is chancy. If you wanted to visit me in Massachusetts, after August 1 in most cases you would have to self quarantine for up to two weeks before or after coming or get a covid-19 test showing no exposure within 72 hours of arrival. If you don’t quarantine before coming, you must also produce a negative exposure test to get out of quarantine. There’s even a form you have to fill out. Violations can cost up to $500 a day.

It appears that the coronavirus won’t listen to all the truthiness out there. Let’s hope one result of all this mess is the end of truthiness and alternative facts, along with the Republican Party.

Trumping Trump

The Thinker by Rodin

It should be obvious that Donald Trump is pulling out all stops to ensure his reelection. We can’t expect him to leave office quietly, regardless of how much he is trounced in the election. He’s been laying a lot of the groundwork already, claiming with of course no evidence that millions of mailed in ballots will somehow be rigged. He claimed that millions of “illegals” voted in the 2016 election with of course no evidence too. In his post-truth world where any evidence that doesn’t agree with his point of view is “fake news”, he can’t be expected to see things objectively. As with his malignant narcissism, we can’t expect him too. He’s no more capable of discerning truth than his false claim that his inauguration had the largest crowds ever on the national mall.

He’s also a president that has no respect for norms and is busy pushing the envelope to the maximum extent. A wannabee dictator, he is running on “law and order” and if that means sending unmarked federal agents to Portland, Oregon to throw protestors into the back of unmarked vans, well, where’s the problem? His buddy Philippine president/dictator Rodrigo Duterte had no problems telling his forces to shoot suspected criminals, screw the legal process. Trump seems compelled to see what he can get away with, and many people are taking notes. We must not allow it.

Portland is just the first city to experience this unwanted policing. It appears these are agents from Custom and Border Protection. They don’t appear to be trying to round up “illegals” but to prohibit citizens from exercising their constitutional rights to protest. It is likely that these agents are not legally allowed to do what they are doing, but like Duterte it doesn’t bother Trump. He is haphazard about obeying courts that strike down his many actions. In short, Trump plays a game of dare me and sees if he will suffer any consequences. For the most part, he won’t. By not removing him in January, Republicans in the Senate effectively put him above the law, at least until he is out office.

We are clearly in uncharted constitutional waters and it’s likely to get worse before and after the election. Trump expects that he won’t be held accountable, so why not push all envelopes? While he’s president anyhow he’s immune from most criminal charges and lawsuits, so he has plenty of incentive to remain. And if you don’t have any scruples, all’s game.

How do we deal with all of this? The answers are largely unknown. It will probably require a lot of intelligent tactics by his opponents. One thing that may help is not to inflame things, which is what Trump wants. Putting unmarked “police” in Portland has already had the obvious consequence of enlarging protests. This gives Trump an excuse to add more police and to keep upping the ante. There is some logical limit as the number of these police is limited. Too much civil unrest though could give Trump the excuse to deploy active duty troops to “keep the peace”, which is not legal but again that’s wouldn’t stop him.

So protesters can help by reducing tensions. This is not forever. We are closing in on three months until the election. Some of their tactics so far are at least innovative: a “wall of moms” and a Naked Athena confronting police. The optics of his forces tear-gassing moms is very bad. Trump feeds on conflict, so the less of it that presents itself; the likelier he is to find other things to distract him. Trump needs plenty of distractions because without them it’s easier for us to focus on the 140,000 or so who have died due to his bungling of the coronavirus outbreak, or the double-digit unemployment.

Trump is destined to lose massively in November, and bring down much of the Republican Party with him. So the real question is whether he can still retain power somehow. Legally, it’s moot. At noon on January 20 unless he wins reelection he is no longer president. Whether President Biden is sworn in our not, Biden would be president. If Biden died unexpectedly, his chosen VP would be president. It would then fall to Nancy Pelosi, assuming she retains her title of Speaker of the House. So the only issue is whether Trump could pull off some sort of coup.

Thankfully, the answer is likely no. Anyone who acted for him will be in violation of the law, as their terms expires when his does. It is true that our military in general leans more to the right than the left, but a true occupation of government would require the military’s active consent. Given how huge the country is, it’s hard to see how it could be carried out. Occupy all fifty state capitals too? There is no reason to think the military would do anything other than what they’ve always done: follow the orders of the Commander in Chief.

But as I have noted before, we can assume it will get very ugly and Trump will pull out all stops. It’s possible a massive vote against him will force him to accept reality, but given his condition it’s unlikely. So it will amount to his followers abandoning him. His cabinet won’t want to serve an illegal administration and risk criminal charges. Republicans in Congress are likely to abandon him too. No one really likes Trump, so he will be abandoned.

That won’t mean he won’t press his hardcore supporters. White guys with guns are likely to make shows of force here and there and they likely can’t be brought down until Trump is out of office. It might take the armed forces to find and kill these insurrectionists, leaving Biden with the worst possible mess to try to clean up. The period between Election and Inauguration Days are likely to be the most politically fraught and dangerous in anyone’s living memory.

The country should survive it somehow, with lots of trauma. Hopefully enough of the rule of law will remain to hold accountable all those who encouraged and ordered these events. Unlike President Ford, President Biden should not use his pardon powers to clean things up. Instead, the fundamental weaknesses in our constitutional system need to be addressed through appropriate legislation that hopefully a Democratic congress will provide.

November is likely to fatally maim the Republican Party

The Thinker by Rodin

In January 2019 I wrote this post about how Trump was likely to kill the Republican Party. At the time, a Marist poll noted that 57% of voters surveyed said they would never vote for Trump, which if true pretty much doomed his reelection prospects. I said then it was likely to kill the party. Since then of course Donald Trump has been busy making sure to do his best to definitely kill the party.

Of course, it’s not entirely Trump. It’s also circumstances, specifically the covid-19. My hairdresser, who lost sixty percent of her customers due to covid-19, asked me if I thought I’d ever see a pandemic. And the truth was yes. We were overdue for one, and we’ve had a number of mini-pandemics recently to use as an example. There was the SARS outbreak (severe acute respiratory syndrome) of 2002-2004 that caused 8000 cases and 774 deaths, including four deaths in the United States. The last big pandemic was about a hundred years ago, the so-called Spanish Flu. It was badly named, as its origin was likely at an army base in Kansas. Fortunately, covid-19 is unlikely to be quite as lethal as that disease, which took an estimated seventeen to 50 millions lives worldwide. But its impact is going to be far more than the lives lost and the millions affected by it.

What would it take to destroy the Republican Party? The party is actually a loose conglomeration of capitalists, libertarians, racists and evangelicals, with skin tone being the main thing they have in common. Take away too many of these groups, and the party as a whole is unlikely to endure. The party’s symbol, the elephant, might offer a clue. Elephants are deeply familial creatures, deeply protective of their children and their tribes. Break those bonds and the party may crumble.

That of course is exactly what Republicans are doing to themselves and the rest of us. While a conglomeration of interests, the party is actually controlled by the capitalists. And its capitalists have no problem inflicting pain on those in the party that emphasize family and stability.

This is best evidenced by Trump and the party’s obsession to open schools, damn the costs and objections. Trump wants schools to open next month, five days a week, in person in the classroom, damn the torpedoes. He is threatening to cut federal funding to states that don’t comply, which he can’t do. In any event, federal funding accounts for less than ten percent of local school funding. So it’s a pretty empty threat. For it to be effective, he needs to convince governors to open the schools. In states like Florida, he is finding receptive governors.

If this prevails, the outcome is already obvious based on how the disease has progressed. Children will carry the disease home and spread it among the community. Most children will be passive carriers and probably won’t know they are carriers, but some will get it and die too. Much more likely to die are their teachers and others at the school and the children’s parents. Why is this being done? Because Donald Trump wants to get the economy roaring again because he believes that’s how he will win a daunting reelection. As a consequence, teachers feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. Some are writing their wills.

Parents will soon have to decide where their priorities lie. Do they send their kids to school where they might contract the disease, or pass it on to others, like them? Or do they keep them home and maybe try remote learning instead? Remote learning is at best a poor teaching experience, but given the unpleasant choice between risking their or their children’s lives to making Donald Trump happy, most are probably going to keep the kids home. They have to keep their family safe. Mass disobedience on this sort of scale cannot be enforced by truant officers.

It also breaks the compact between Republicans. If Republicans are going to put the family unit in such direct jeopardy, Republican with kids in the public schools finally have a deeply emotional rationale for bailing on the Republican Party. Their own party will have betrayed them. Come November, it will be in their own interest to vote out Republicans who can’t be bothered to protect their children. This may explain the 15-point lead that Joe Biden has amassed in the latest Quinnipiac Poll.

What would the Republican Party look like without most of its so-called value voters? Most likely it would look like a party on its last legs.

The November election is going to blow a devastating hole in the Republican Party. Democrats will retake the White House, Congress and probably a majority of governorships and possibly many state houses. Democrats need only two pickups to control the governorships. We’re going to see states we never thought would vote for Biden vote for him, like possibly Texas, but most likely Arizona, North Carolina and Georgia.

It all amounts to citizens needing a government that governs. Republicans only know how to drown government in a bathtub. It is likely that not just Trumpism that will die in this election, but Reaganism too. When we hear “I’m from the federal government, and I’m here to help” we’ll likely say, “Please”. Republicanism will prove a textbook case for why we need government.

If the party survives, let’s hope it looks a lot more like the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. If it doesn’t, it probably won’t survive.

Disney is going to screw the pooch

The Thinker by Rodin

Donald Trump deciding to hold an indoor rally in Tulsa was a bad idea. As I noted in my last post, Herman Cain likely contracted COVID-19 at the event, along with probably many others, which is likely singularly responsible for most of the recent rise in COVID-19 cases in Oklahoma.

After Trump’s recent event at Mount Rushmore, the girlfriend of his son Donald Trump Jr. reported testing positive for COVID-19, prompting the couple to drive back to New York.

After six months even Donald Trump is starting to realize the optics look bad. Yesterday, he was seen wearing a mask in his visit to Walter Reed Hospital. The Republican Party is considering moving their convention to an outdoor venue. They would be much wiser to act like the Democratic Party and hold it virtually. If they hold a convention, I bet half the invitees won’t attend.

So why the hell is Disney opening up Disney World on July 11? In the history of bad corporate decisions, if they follow through, this is likely to be seen in retrospect as one of the stupidest corporate decisions of all times. If Trump’s optics look bad, consider what Disney’s short term pursuit of profits is likely to do with their family-friendly, squeaking-wholesome brand. If I had any Disney stock, I’d be putting in a frantic sell order.

Yes, of course Disney is claiming that it’s all quite safe. Attendance will be limited. Everyone will be required to wear masks. There will be social distancing. Doubtless they will be sanitizing surfaces regularly. But this is not just any theme park. This is the biggest theme park in the world. It brings in people from around the world. There are too many people in too confined a space coming from and going to too many places for this not to become a new super spreader event. Unlike a one-time Trump rally in Tulsa this is a super spreader that is likely to keep on spreading, making moot a lot of the efforts elsewhere to control the disease. It is likely to ensure a continuing set of COVID-19 casualties in the months ahead.

Consider what happened in and around New Orleans during Mardi Gras this year. It resulted in a spike of cases in the city and the state, but because people came from all over the world for the event, attendees carried the virus back home. It likely did a lot to spread the disease and likely killed thousands. It’s hard to say for sure.

Who knows what the effect of reopening Disney World will be? Umm, anyone with a brain. This is a state that had over 15,300 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday. In any rational state, the Department of Public Health would lock the gates. It would be a no-brainer.

But Trump apologist “Governor” Ron Desantis, who is having a hard time even shutting the bars down, is running Florida. He wants to open the schools next month too, five days a week, damn the torpedoes, not to mention the students and teachers. St. Donald tells him it will all be fine.

Trump sent in the troops to quell protests in Washington D.C. If he wants to do some good, why not send in the troops to shut down Disney World or any other theme park that thinks it is safe to open up? This is a public health emergency. What Disney is going to do will be Mardi Gras on steroids. It’s going to spread the virus across the country and, if other countries lift their airline restrictions on our country, the rest of the world too.

This is just an appalling lapse of judgment on Disney’s part. Walt would be appalled, but more importantly perhaps its shareholders will be appalled when they discover the value of their brand is going to sink along with its share prices when this thing takes hold and the finger pointing starts.

This should go without saying, but don’t go to Disney World. If you have reservations, cancel them. If you have friends who have been there recently, shun them. Petition your governor to require Disney World attendees to go into a two-week quarantine if they are foolish enough to go there, or really any place in Florida.

This one company is likely to infect millions of us and kill tens of thousands more of us. Shut it down now, Disney, to protect your brand and what’s left of your good name.

Trump is doing everything wrong

The Thinker by Rodin

Our national horror show continues with no relief in sight before November 3rd, now thankfully less than four months away. That’s when I am certain Trump will lose reelection spectacularly. This is simply because he is doing absolutely everything to lose it, and to take as many Republicans down with him as possible too.

It’s hard to believe that any politician can be as inept and stupid as Donald Trump. But then he ran as an anti-politician. In that sense alone he has vastly exceeded expectations. He’s turning off almost all possible voter groups and will be left with only the hardest of his core group, a group that is fully vested in his nihilism and anarchy. You know, those few uninfected Boogaloo Bois.

It’s like he is taking secret orders from Vladimir Putin. It’s like he has a secure line to Vlad who tells him exactly what and how to mess things up next, which he quickly executes. I’ve never been big on conspiracy theories, but at this point Occam’s Razor definitely suggests he is compromised by Russian interests.

Recently he had his toady of an attorney general, Bill Barr, fire the head of the Southern District of New York office of the Department of Justice, the very man charged to oversee a variety of sensitive investigations into Trump and his businesses. I sometimes wonder what he’s got on one of our local representatives, Richard Neal. Neal is in charge of the House Ways and Means Committee, the most powerful committee in the House. Neal could examine and hold hearings on Trump’s tax returns, but Neal won’t take it up. It must be some great dirt on Neal, who has a viable challenger this year in local Holyoke mayor Alex B. Morse.

So while Trump is terrible at governing, he’s proven unusually adept at protecting his own interests. He’s created a government of toadies and sycophants that exist to further enrich him and help his interests. He’s managed to shutdown almost all investigations that could damage him, or at least postpone them until he is out of office.

It would not surprise me in the least to find out that after Biden’s inauguration he discreetly flees the country and we find our “president” exiled in Russia. The arm of the law will eventually catch up with him otherwise, and we all know that Trump won’t allow himself to be held accountable for anything if he can avoid it.

Meanwhile, The Donald is busy doing everything he can to destroy our country and lose the election, leaving no stone unturned. He’s either planning to lose or (because he is so tone deaf) he can’t figure out that he can’t win reelection by only doubling down for the craziest of his supporters. If the election were held today he’d lose the popular vote by ten percent at least. To the extent he has a strategy, it’s to try to deny people likely to vote against him the opportunity to do so, by trying to disallow mail in voting.

The most likely result of the election will be a huge electoral rout of Trump and Republicans in Congress, which will likely cascade down to the statehouses too. If any president can manage to bring back the overwhelmingly Democratic Congresses of the 1970s and 1980s, it will be Donald Trump.

He actively promotes death every day. He went to Tulsa, held a rally and people are getting sick in Oklahoma as a result. One of them includes former presidential candidate and pizza chain magnate Herman Cain, cheering without mask at his rally. His most recent rally at Mount Rushmore will doubtless claim more too. One is apparently the girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr. who recently tested positive for covid-19.

If Republicans are stupid enough to hold their convention in Jacksonville, that alone will wipe out a significant number of elite Republicans. Most likely though even Trump won’t be able to command his minions to attend. It looks like they are finding reasons not to go. Survival is a pretty powerful instinct. Even Florida, or at least the host city of Jacksonville, doesn’t want them anymore. Meanwhile, Florida’s hospitals are nearly overwhelmed with covid-19 cases. The situation in predominantly red states like Florida is only going to continue to get worse.

And now his most recent insane suggestion: send the kids back to school five days a week. He’s says he will to cut federal funding to school districts that don’t comply, although he doesn’t have the authority. He wants to turn our schools into super spreaders. Nothing like having our children infect their families, teachers and communities, making our already record-breaking covid-19 infections exponentially worse. Think of all the orphans in the making! That’s progress!

It’s all leading up to a great crescendo of awfulness timed to arrive around Election Day. We’re still in the first wave of this thing. We may never get to a second wave, but if we do it’s likely to arrive in the autumn on top of the seasonal flu. There’s plenty of room to make things worse. We have about three million confirmed cases, but that’s only one in 100 of us so far. But there will be many more awful things to hit: record rates of evictions, high unemployment, likely little more in the way of relief checks and when Wall Street realizes the underlying fundamentals, a second collapse of stock markets.

It’s just insane, which arguably makes Donald Trump insane. He may not be clinically insane, but his narcissistic personality disorder though effectively makes him insane. He will continue to act in what he thinks is his own interest no matter how many of us it kills. He has empathy only for himself. And he will relentlessly fight any actions to improve the situation.

Stay safe. Stay home. Use masks. Wash hands frequently. Pay attention to your local health officials. But plan to risk life and limb to vote on November 3rd, because this may be the only way to keep those of us who are still sane alive.

Ken and Karen’s futile adventures

The Thinker by Rodin

With so much news out there, it’s hard to pick a topic. So for today Ken and Karen will have to do.

Ken and Karen are stand-ins for various white Americans in the news. They try to use white privilege and guns to deal with the social change all around them. Ken and Karen were probably best epitomized recently by Mark and Patricia McCloskey of St. Louis. “Ken” was on his front porch hefting his semi-automatic rifle while his wife “Karen” next to him held her pistol with her finger on its trigger while protesters marched down the street on Sunday in front of their swanky home in a somewhat gated part of the city.

Ken and Karen hard at work
Ken and Karen hard at work

The protesters were part of the swelling and seemingly unstoppable Black Lives Matter movement, a local group called Expect US. They were on their way to the mayor’s house a few streets away. Parts of St. Louis are effectively long-standing gated communities, which is true of both the mayor’s and the McCloskey’s homes. The protesters were apparently loud, but not violent and got in through an open gate. They want the city’s mayor to resign over his handling of police violence in the city. While Ken and Karen brandished their weapons menacingly, the unarmed protestors passed by. Videos of the couple went viral. They became the latest face of white America’s discomfort with the social change underway. It’s just that most of us wouldn’t be so public about it. This Ken and Karen were sending a statement.

For me, the statement is about how clueless they are. Their cheese has been moved and they don’t understand it. If this change actually meant the collapse of civilization and you think that a few semiautomatic weapons are going to save you, you got bigger problems. If you think your guns are going to keep your little world safe from the Apocalypse, you are living in La-La Land.

Granted they have plenty of company. Millions of mostly white Americans are loading up on firearms and ammo assuming they will save them if all else fails. Some are also hoarding food and medicines, ready to ride out Doomsday with their gold and crypto currencies. They will join with their fellow neighbors when the time comes to take their country back and to reconstitute government into one they find acceptable, you know, one that leaves the whites with overwhelming power and money.

These Ken and Karen incidents are utterly predictable, so expect to see a lot more of them. They want things to remain as they were when they cannot and more importantly won’t. There are lots of us who cannot handle change, and they populate the Republican Party principally. At some level they know life as they knew it is coming to an end for them, and they need to adapt and seek a new stasis. And that’s going to happen in time. It’s inevitable as is this current time of change.

The thing is, the more they try to keep things the way they were, the worse it becomes for them. We can see their foolishness in many news stories. These Ken and Karen incidents though are minor compared to what these people are doing to themselves. They seem determined to have their cake and eat it too, no matter how much worse they make it for themselves. They might as well be hitting themselves on the heads with iron skillets.

Take COVID-19, for example. To those of us who understand science, the crushing rise in these cases in mostly red states comes as no surprise. I’d say I told you so, and I have many times in this blog, but they weren’t ready to listen. So their surrogates in power delayed shutting things down, and reopened the economy long before it was prudent to do so. Like our stupid president, they shun masks as unmanly.

Unmanly? If being a man means protecting life and property, there is hardly anything more manly than wearing a mask when outdoors. But if your idea of manhood is that you get to live life your way, damn the consequences to you or anyone else because of this bogus interpretation of freedom, you’ve got major problems upstairs. Also, it’s the height of selfishness. It’s like saying I have the right to trash my neighbor’s lawn because of freedom, or the right to drive drunk or not wear a seatbelt. Will they be advocating to not require drivers to be insured next? Taken to the extreme, this is not freedom; it’s anarchy.

And that’s kind of what they are getting in these states: driving systems like the health care system out of control. Naturally they will expect a ventilator to be available for them should they contract COVID-19, which many don’t believe is real. It likely won’t be in these states though. Someone else will be on it already, and there will be a long queue of patients with labored breathing hoping one frees up in time. And a lot of these Ken and Karens will be among the recently dearly departed.

Or you can be less stupid. I live in Massachusetts where the COVID-19 situation was very bad a few months ago, but less so in its western part where I live. We could have locked down sooner, but we did things reasonably well once we did. Now we live in the state with the least new COVID-19 infections. My county of 160,000 had only a handful of new cases last week, and no new deaths. Restaurants are reopening, but seating people mostly outside. We are wary and wear our masks. And we get tested. We’ll know when if it’s time to shut things down again, and won’t hesitate to do so. It’s ultimately less painful and expensive if you just do what the scientists tell you to do. It seems even red states like Florida and Texas are now figuring it out. The pain just had to reach an unacceptable threshold for them to see the light.

Society depends on the consent of the governed, and the nature of that consent is changing quickly. It must and will reshape itself until we arrive in a more equitable place. As John Donne noted, none of us are truly self sufficient. We all need each other. The McCloskey’s would have been much better served if they had joined the protests instead. In time, if they are still alive, they will wish they had.

The dangers of free stock trading

The Thinker by Rodin

I noted recently the crazy things being done to inflate the stock market. It’s good in a way that the Fed and Congress are trying to keep Americans from feeling the oppressive weight of our economic collapse. We may have gotten a $1200 one-time payment and perhaps some extra unemployment compensation. But the biggest beneficiaries of government largess are clearly businesses, generally the large types.

But it’s not just any businesses. Small businesses may have gotten some short-term loans, but those that are publicly traded are getting huge shots of adrenaline thanks to government. The government has decided that markets are apparently too big to fail, so it’s going to insulate investors from its risks.

When markets begin to notice the actual underlying economy, the Fed usually comes to the rescue and creates a whole lot of money used to buy assets. This happened again just yesterday when the markets started to slip. With the supply of these stocks reduced, the price will artificially go up. This mostly explains why the stock market has nearly fully recovered from February and March’s downturns.

Along the way a lot of rich people got a whole lot richer. America’s billionaires added an estimated $434 billion to their fortunes during the pandemic. A lot of rich people were like me and saw the crisis coming when the first COVID-19 case was diagnosed. So they sold high and bought when prices were deeply discounted in March. The Fed was so alarmed by falling stock prices they righted the situation for them by buying stocks at inflated prices.

Most of us don’t directly own stocks. If we do, they are in retirement accounts and not easy to manipulate. I don’t own any stocks directly. They are all mutual funds and EFTs. Why? It’s because I seek safety in market trends. Buying in a pool limits risks, even if it may flatten rewards. Part of this strategy also includes not getting too overleveraged in any type of asset. Previously I was 50-50 on bonds and stocks. Now I am 60-40 bonds and stocks. So I made some profit from all of this, but it was a modest one.

Not so for our more moneyed class. Confident that the Fed will come to their rescue if things turn south, they are willing to buy and sell stocks directly. They look for drops like last week’s five percent plunge as a buying opportunity. They know the Fed will respond.

But there is arguably a new factor at work: millions of new day traders most of who arguably don’t know what the hell they are doing. Brokerages have generally stopped charging a commission to sell stocks. So anyone can now buy and sell stocks at no charge from their local smartphone. You don’t even have to buy full shares anymore. These companies will also allow you to buy fractional shares. So if you want to own just $5 in Amazon stock, you can do that. Since it’s currently trading around $2600 a share, fractional shares allow anyone to buy in.

These stock brokerages still make money. They make it from the cash balances in your accounts. This money gets loaned out, and I doubt it is FDIC insured. Some pay a tiny interest rate on these balances, like .01% APR. You could do a lot better keeping this cash in FDIC-insured banks instead, and there are some like Ally Bank (that I use) that pay a respectable interest rate.

Some Americans, particularly those doing reasonably well, saw their $1200 stimulus check as a reason to dabble in day trading. This “play money” has become investment money and may also be contributing to the high valuation of stocks at the moment. It’s arguably led to some crazy things. Lots of people are investing in bankrupt companies like JC Penney and Hertz, pushing up these stock prices when they may be dissolved and the stock could become worthless. “Sexy” stock tracking symbols also seem to be disproportionately overvalued. Some investors see a sexy stock symbol and with no other analysis figure they should own some of it.

So I’m not too surprised given that the Fed won’t let markets collapse and that people can now easily buy and sell stocks with no fees that markets are doing so well. At some point though you have to wonder if this house of cards will collapse.

Last week’s drop shows that investors occasionally wake up and realize, “Gosh, these stocks I own are risky and way overvalued! COVID-19 is not going away and we are in a deep recession that seems to be here for the long term. I should sell!” And they do until the Fed comes to the rescue again.

But at their core many of these assets are minimally wildly overpriced and are arguably junk. I sure wouldn’t be buying in financially stressed companies like Carnival, Delta Airlines or Hertz right now. Maybe I would buy some Delta stock if I were looking twenty years down the road. It is the world’s largest airline carrier so if any airline is likely to survive the crisis, it will. Some are betting the same with Hertz: it’s one of the original car rental brands, and it’s everywhere so even though it’s in bankruptcy court, it has to survive somehow and eventually be profitable, right? The government won’t let it fail, right? Well, maybe. But it remains a risky investment because demand has collapsed and the company is wildly overleveraged.

Or it could be that our economy is being wholly upended and that includes our markets too. It makes sense that some companies, like Amazon and Walmart, are doing so well. They are relatively well positioned to prosper in a new economy where delivery to the home can be done profitably. Investing in companies should be based in part on their agility, as well as a healthy cash balance sheet.

Yet so many companies are overleveraged with debt and offer a business model equivalent to the milkman of a hundred years ago. Investing in these companies is risky. I wouldn’t do it, but our smartphones let us make micro mistakes like this every day, at no obvious short-term cost.

Abolish the police?

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s too early to say, but the death of George Floyd may actually lead to real policing reform in this country. The outcry has been enormous on all levels with protests in all U.S. states plus many foreign countries. It’s not one time protests either. This thing’s got legs. It’s causing brouhaha even here in Northampton, Massachusetts, about 85% white. Thousands have come out to demonstrate and our virtual city council meeting turned into a seven hour meeting as speaker after speaker called for defunding our police department, or at least redirecting some funds where it might do some good.

Defunding the police though sounds like abolishing the police. It definitely gets your attention, but for the most part those advocating for defunding really mean taking much of the police department’s budget and using it to address social issues instead. The basic issue is that police are first responders, and they are generally poor first responders on lots of the issues they encounter. They can’t do much to solve homelessness, but they can force homeless people to stop sleeping on park benches. Police operate on the assumption that using a hammer solves all problems, because that’s pretty much the only tool they have. The problem is made much worse because people who become cops are generally law-and-order types, who view life through an authoritarian prism. They are also disproportionately white.

So some remarketing is needed because defund the police in the end is likely only to play into the hands of Republicans, whose mantra is always rule of law, except, of course, for people like them. I’m not surprised that so many white people like me are having a hard time getting their minds around the scope of police violence. I can count on one hand the number of times I have been pulled over by a cop, and I’m 63 years old. For a lot of black people, it’s routine. Since my experiences with the police have always been good, it’s hard for me to believe that many of these many officers will behave so differently with people of a different skin tone.

The George Floyd murder though proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that police do murder people of color. It’s unclear why this particular murder may actually change things this time. But you know you are in trouble when, for the first time, two out of three white Americans agree that police use excessive force against people of color.

Clearly, your local police department will never go away. It’s not going to work if I am burgled if I am sent a social worker instead of a police officer trained to protect lives and property. Most policing though does not require a cop with a gun. The most effective policing likely requires police to be perceived as non-threatening and part of the community. That’s why true community policing tends to work well. Probably eighty percent of policing should be proactive rather than reactive. Generally, police with guns should only be called after police with nothing more dangerous on them than a billy club first assess the situation. We need a lot more Sheriff Andy Taylors on the street.

Those calling for police reform are for the most part right. Policing needs to change fundamentally, and many of those who do our policing need to find different professions. Laws that insulate cops from violent behavior need to be removed. Citizen tasks board need to look into police violence and have the power to remove officers. Clearly in many cases, police act as agents of oppression, forcing many mostly people of color to endure lives that are unendurable.

If police routinely treated white people like people of color, there is no question that we would get the kind of policing we need. We would not tolerate being pulled over disproportionately, roughed up or beaten by police. If we had incomes like most people of color, we would not tolerate substandard housing, lack of decent medical care and wages that rarely rise. We don’t see the bubble of privileges we’ve lived our lives in because it sounds like too wacky a conspiracy theory to believe is true. But it clearly exists, and for whatever reason, George Floyd’s death seems to have finally revealed a truth most of us whites have chosen not to see.

But we can’t wholly abolish the police. We need to remake the police and much of our society that is not serving the needs of the people. I strongly suspect that when the backlash to this is borne out in November, it will be clear to even Republicans that the status quo is no longer acceptable.

A time for courage and for antacids

The Thinker by Rodin

Five months from today we are likely to wake up and find that Joe Biden is our president elect. Donald Trump’s reelection seems increasingly unlikely, given that many polls now show Biden has a ten-point lead over Trump. Or maybe we won’t know. One factor in this election is that there may be a crush of absentee ballots that will take days to tabulate. But hopefully we are less than five months away before we can begin to return to some semblance of normalcy.

But can anything go back to normal after such a disruptive president as Donald Trump? Trump has been our gorilla in the china shop president, gleeful in breaking norms and rules. Given his advanced case of narcissism, as I speculated in an earlier post, he is unlikely to go quietly. In fact, he will go kicking and screaming, and will do his best to initiate a fascist state before then.

This week’s events alarmed most of us, which were preceded by last week’s alarming events with the death of George Floyd, unquestionably murdered by three officers of the Minneapolis police. You can watch all 8:46 seconds of it online, if you have the stomach for it. The murder caused predictable demonstrations followed by some looting and violence. Never one to miss an opportunity, Trump used the event to move us more dangerously close to fascism. He threatened to deploy active duty troops wherever needed, supposedly to restore order. There is a law called Posse Comitatus that prohibits just this, but of course Trump never seems to be concerned about his law breaking. He may use the Insurrection Act instead which other presidents have used, for example, to force integration in Alabama public schools but which most scholars agree is out of line for these events.

Chances are if it is even a fig leaf excuse, he will use it, which suggests dark days ahead. It was brought out on Monday when he ordered the Secret Service and Park Police to clear Lafayette Square of protestors who were peacefully demonstrating, all in order to stage a photo op in front of nearby St. John’s Church holding a Bible held upside down. To show what a man he was, the forces used tear gas, rubber bullets and a dangerously low helicopter hovering over protestors.

Clearly Trump hasn’t read the Bible, but even if he were a Christian he wouldn’t be the first Christian to ignore Jesus’s advice to turn the other cheek. In pursuit of the Christian evangelical voters, his forces also pushed out a pastor of the church. All this was made much worse because the order apparently given by our Attorney General supplicant Bill Barr and endorsed by our Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. Esper later seemed to walk remarks that active duty troops should be used to quell unrest.

The next day Trump engaged in another obscenity by staging himself next to a statue of Pope John Paul II, who must be turning in his grave in the Vatican. Meanwhile, protests continue. Even our little city of Northampton, Massachusetts had more than a thousand people protested in front of the police department. Our chief of police took a knee with protestors. A huge dance is underway nationally and there’s really no way to know how this will all turn out. For most of us with a lick of common sense, we know it’s likely to get much worse, not better.

Trump is feeling the heat, of course, but all he knows how to do is double down. None of this actually helps him get reelected, so it’s counterproductive. He and the Republican Party are hoping with enough voter suppression they will eke out a win somehow. Trump didn’t win in 2016 with his base; he just managed to convince enough other voters in a few swing states (just 80,000) to pull off his unlikely victory. To win he will have to persuade more than his base, but it’s clear he won’t bother. From the day of his election he’s believed that he can win reelection with just his base, which is slowly diminishing.

All this plus a COVID-19 pandemic. It has officially caused more than 100,000 deaths in the United States. Just his handling (or rather lack of handling) of that is enough to doom his reelection, but it only gets worse from here on. A country that has five percent of the population and 30% of its deaths is obviously doing things catastrophically wrong. A twenty percent unemployment rate won’t help either. As the deaths mount up, it will just shrink his base, which are disproportionately old and white. Many seniors seem to have woken up and Biden now leads among them, perhaps because the sense Trump would go after Social Security and Medicare if reelected.

But of course the election won’t matter if you can neatly create a dictatorship before then. Trump realizes he can’t stop the election and he is likely to lose it, but that doesn’t mean he can’t claim it was rigged and see if he can use the armed forces to ensure that he retains power. He seems to be doing all the things that wannabee dictators are doing, just ineptly. It remains to be seen whether the military would be true to the people or Trump. It sure looks like these demonstrations are being used by Trump to see what he can get away with.

In any event, if you’re not having trouble sleeping and you aren’t reaching for the antacids, you should be. There are some signs of hope, but it’s hard to know how much to read into them. George W. Bush, for example, spoke up for protestors without actually criticizing Donald Trump. Any Republicans left who are looking for cover for mildly rebuking Trump can site Bush. Barack Obama doesn’t seem to be staying on the sidelines either. We haven’t heard from our only other living ex-president, Bill Clinton, but hopefully he will pile on the criticism too.

None of this is likely to matter to Trump, but it is likely that whatever he attempts he may find himself hastily walking back. It may be that his ever-expanding line of privilege will finally make too many key Republicans turn against him. A bully’s power is actually very fragile. Republicans may be already sensing the electoral disaster likely to take many of them out now less than five months away. Some may be more scared of being voted out of office than hanging with a losing Trump.

As screwy as today’s events are, I know in my gut that the time between Trump’s defeat and the inauguration of his likely successor will be the most dangerous time for our country since the Civil War, or perhaps in our country’s entire history. It’s time to stock up on the antacids. It’s also time for many of us to show the backbone we haven’t, particularly many people of privilege, i.e. white and moneyed guys like me. This likely won’t be solved at the ballot box, or by liking someone’s tweets, but by uncomfortably personal, face-to-face, civic engagement likely happening tonight in a city near you.

The Fed is doing some very alarming stuff

The Thinker by Rodin

Should you care about the Federal Reserve? Sometimes called the Federal Reserve Bank (it’s not a real bank), but generally just “The Fed”, the Fed basically controls our money supply. It does this with virtually no oversight by those who ultimately hold the bag when it makes mistakes: us taxpayers.

I am most alarmed by what the Federal Reserve has been up to lately. It looks both completely sane and completely crazy. To start, the Fed cut interest rates banks can charge to borrow from each other, or the Fed itself, to zero. This happened in 2008 too and it’s their way of stimulating the economy. I noted in an earlier post that this seemed to be the last trick in their toolbox. Since both consumers and companies were already in hoc to the maximum, this wasn’t a viable way to stimulate growth anymore. But it was what they knew how to do, so they did it.

But the Fed has invented some new tricks they haven’t done before. The Fed has basically decided to bail out any business, at least those that are publicly traded. In the last recession, a lot of large businesses were too big to fail. Now it looks like most businesses in the United States that are publicly traded are too big to fail, in the eyes of the Fed.

Most of these businesses got in trouble because of the cheap money the Fed has promulgated since the previous recession. With no rules, businesses borrowed instead of investing and saving. Mostly they used borrowed money to buy back their own stock. When the stock price invariably went up due to supply and demand, its executives (whose pay is largely based on stock prices, which they get at a discount) sell them and profit. In short, the Fed’s policies of making money so cheap in many ways made this new depression so much worse.

During the Great Recession the Fed also bought a lot of corporate stock too, to show faith in the market. It helped stabilize things and turned the market around, although it took a very long time. Now the Fed is buying corporate debt in unlimited quantities. Basically a business tells the Fed gets to say how much their debt is worth as a share of their company, and the Fed will buy it, no questions asked. Essentially the Fed is paying inflated prices for very shaky corporate debt that no one else wants to buy.

In exchange, companies get some ready cash to help them tie things over. Maybe the Fed will recoup its investment and eventually even make a profit for us taxpayers. But this money was created and doled out with essentially no oversight. The Fed is not accountable to anyone. While there are certain things the Fed cannot do, anything not specifically prohibited is in theory legal.

If I were to load up my family’s portfolio with junk bonds, my spouse would likely divorce me. But when the Fed does the same, there’s no spouse to object, and no oversight to worry. You have to hope the Fed knows what it’s doing, and Donald Trump appointed many of them. God help us.

I don’t have much trust in the Fed. These tactics strike me as desperate. Moreover, they are letting the rich reap a huge windfall. Many of them were like me: smart enough to sell at peak market when we knew it wouldn’t last due to COVID-19. They bought more stock at low market, toward the middle of March. And now with the stock market reaching their pre-crash highs again — due to the Fed buying so much stock that supply and demand is inflating their prices artificially again, despite the ruined economy — they are cashing in again. It appears that the Fed is exacerbating income inequality in the name of keeping the economy from collapsing even more. The Fed is becoming a wealth distribution mechanism that seems to favor the rich.

A rational government should not tolerate this. The Fed is basically trying to keep American capitalism, as we have known it, going. It’s just that it looks like American capitalism is in its death throes. A model of capitalism that is inured from the consequences its actions like the environment costs it inflicts on the rest of us deserves to die. If it is to be replaced at all, it should be with a version of capitalism that works in the interests of the people, not against it.

In short, the Fed’s actions strike me overall as desperate and very chancy. It needs oversight and reigning in. Consumer advocates, and not Wall Street insiders should oversee it. It needs to be accountable.