Chaos causes more chaos

The Thinker by Rodin

For those of you pining for anarchy, look around. Happy yet?

You should be ecstatic. For the rest of us, it’s feeling a lot like hell. Yesterday’s job report showed a 14.5% unemployment rate and more than twenty million newly unemployed people. The real unemployment rate is likely above twenty percent. Meanwhile, civil society is getting increasingly uncivil. Although less than thirty percent of us want to stop social distancing, those thirty percent are making a huge ruckus. They want to go back to the way things were, as if that were suddenly possible. Who cares if it kills grandma? Real freedom means being able to eat a Big Mac at 2 AM.

A few dozen of these idiots were protesting locally in Northampton, Massachusetts on the Coolidge Bridge, which spans the Connecticut River. The good news is that Massachusetts’s idiots are not quite a stupid at Duval County Florida idiots; some of who are rubbing shoulders on Jacksonville area beaches. About half of our protesters were wearing masks and at least attempting to keep a social distance. I hope they got it out of their system and returned to staying at home. We’ve managed to plateau COVID-19 infections here locally. It wouldn’t take too many of these protests to push the rate up again. And these idiots would be some of the most likely to contract the disease, and show Darwinism in action.

We spend billions of dollars a year supposedly to mitigate the risks for pandemics like we are experiencing. This crisis has revealed how poorly these agencies are doing their jobs. The Centers for Disease Control apparently has a set of guidelines for more safely opening up local economies. But they won’t see the light of day because the Trump administration won’t let them publish them. The part of our government that is supposed to function, the Executive Branch, is being held hostage by a constantly vacillating “president”. Voters elected Donald Trump because he was going to bring change to Washington.

Well good news there! Trump has brought change to Washington. He’s changed our government from one that often worked in the interests of the people to one wholly captive to his constant changes of mind, mood swings, tweets and general obnoxiousness. He has no idea what he is doing because he has spent his career running things chaotically. And his narcissism makes him impervious to criticism.

He’s a seventy-something Calvin (from Calvin & Hobbes), still in his terrible twos. I was all for his White House COVID-19 task force shutting down. They weren’t doing anything useful anyhow, because doing something requires a plan. Trump is incapable of adhering to any plan and will change his mind on a dime if he thinks it will improve his reelection prospects. The result of course is chaos. A chaotic mind with power is bound to cause a lot of chaos.

So of course we’re not doing the sensible stuff other countries have done to get them out of their COVID-19 quagmires. The USA has 5% of the world’s population and as of today 32% of its reported cases, and the number of reported cases vastly undercounts the likely number of cases. We also have 28% of the deaths, also probably vastly understated.

The testing that we are actually doing is a tiny fraction of the testing needed to determine whether it is safe to reopen local economies. There is no coordination or marshaling of resources so the pandemic can be fought logically. Trump finds it convenient to push responsibility onto the governors. It’s easier to do this than think and plan, things he is utterly incapable of doing. And of course, it allows him to blame others. Meanwhile his son-in-law Jared Kushner has been trying to deal with the issue by getting unpaid interns to dial around for masks and personal protective equipment. They have no experience in this and have proven ineffective, but neither does Jared Kushner.

We do have this entity called the Defense Logistics Agency whose mission is to adroitly find, marshal and distribute supplies just for things like this. It has 26,000 people trained to do exactly this who could be put to work. Logistics though is anathema to this administration. Logistics implies thought, order and planning. It’s quite likely that no one in the White House even knows the DLA exists. If Trump wanted to help his reelection prospects, he could put a general in charge of the effort then shut up about COVID-19 and let the professionals do their work. But of course he can’t. He will vacillate on anything. The DLA’s role in this crisis is ancillary at best.

Trump likes to say that nobody knows more about X than he does. The truth is just about anyone, even you, know more about X than he does. I suspect any of you reading this could do a better job of managing the procurement of nasal swabs than Trump or Jared Kushner. In fact, when Trump says nobody knows more than me about X, it’s a sure sign his narcissism is acting up again and he feels the need to cover for his deficiencies. Nobody knows more about nuclear proliferation than Donald Trump, someone who hardly ever reads. Yet some of his supporters actually believe this stuff. The truth is, Trump is dumb as dirt. By applauding this idiot his supporters are revealing they should be considered dumb as dirt too.

Trump’s one skill is simple carnival barking. He knows how to throw up a show. He knows how to entertain. He knows how to project what he wants to project. He gives his supporters what they want: validation, outrage and entertainment. Unfortunately for the rest of us, we need competence and true governance, something he is incapable of.

The result is the chaos all around us: twenty million unemployed and a country rapidly devolving into third world status. If that’s what you voted for, congratulations. Trump is doing a great job.

November’s election should be a blowout for Democrats

The Thinker by Rodin

Like most 2016 election prognosticators, I blew it. I accepted conventional wisdom that Hillary Clinton would win. It sure looked that way from the polls. I blew it but most of us did as well. We didn’t understand the extent of Russian election interference; or the impact of former FBI Director James Comey’s announcement that the FBI would be taking another look through her emails; and the misogyny factor which was hard to quantify, but was real enough. I also discounted how badly an unpopular candidate (Clinton) would fare, along with general desire of voters to switch things up after eight years. I also assumed most voters could see through the fraud that Trump was. Maybe many of them did, just didn’t care.

So my suggesting that Democrats will do very well on November 3 should be taken with a ton of salt. One reason is because it’s unclear whether an election could be held and if held, held fairly. There hasn’t been a fair national election in a very long time, simply because of rampant voter suppression in many red states. So I can’t assume this election will be any different; in fact it’s likely to be worse than 2016.

Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden thinks Trump will try to find a way to delay the election. I don’t think so; this would take an act of Congress and with power split in Congress I can’t see it happening. It’s not hard to imagine it taking place in the midst of a next COVID-19 wave.

Southern states will probably try to imitate Wisconsin and do away with mail-in voting as much as possible. The strategy didn’t work so well in Wisconsin’s latest election, which put a liberal justice on the state’s supreme court by about a ten-point margin. If there is another wave of the virus around election time, seniors are the most likely to stay home, as they have the most to lose. It’s likely to be counterproductive.

Still, it’s not hard to predict that Joe Biden should have a winning night, and will sweep in a large wave of Democrats with him. Here are some of my reasons for thinking this:

  • The COVID-19 epidemic is unlikely to get better. It’s likely to plateau at some point, but we can’t expect it to go away completely over the next few months. We’ll most likely see a resurgence in the summer or fall. Epidemiologists suggest that will be worse than this initial wave, and include a wave of flu-related deaths as well.
  • There has been virtually nothing the Trump administration has done to adapt to the pandemic. There is still nothing resembling mass testing. Whatever is done is done chaotically and way too late. Trump could not have done a worse job managing this, and as the death rate grows he can’t talk his way out of his bumbling incompetence.
  • The economy will still be in tatters, with the unemployment rate likely in the teens at best. The state of the economy is generally the best predictor about whether an incumbent gets reelected. But it won’t be just Trump who owns the economy, it will be all those in charge, mostly Republicans. House Democrats can point to legislation they introduced that is much more generous to working people. Voters will understand clearly who is on their side.
  • The factors that worked for Trump in 2016 will probably work against him this time. Misogyny and racism aren’t likely to be a factor in the presidential race, unless it’s against Biden’s VP pick.
  • Our conservative Supreme Court seems itching to overturn the Affordable Care Act, which will come at the worst possible time if it happens: just before an election. It’s possible it will do the same with overturning Roe v. Wade, a decision that is still widely supported by a majority of Americans.
  • In 2016, there were a lot of non-identified secret Trump voters; too embarrassed I think to tell pollsters they were going to vote for him. I think it will be just the opposite this time. Trump voters won’t admit they won’t vote for him, as that would be embarrassing to admit. But it’s in their best interest to vote against him. Mostly they will vote for whoever is likelier to improve their economic situation, which should still be pretty dire toward the end of the year.
  • The polls are already not looking good. At worst Biden has about a six-point lead nationally, but he’s polling ahead of Trump in key swing states like Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin that he must win. It looks likely that Trump will lose Arizona, possibly moving it into the purple state category.
  • We’ve going through a significant emotional event. As best I can tell this was coined by the sociologist Morris Massey. The basic thesis is to truly change behavior; it has to have a huge emotional impact. Twenty percent unemployment, worrying about losing your housing, bread lines, being unable to pay your doctor bills and watching people you know die unnecessarily from a virus should more than qualify. It worked during the Great Depression, and we may be in its redux by the time November rolls around.
  • The general trend since 2016 is that Democrats have been on a winning streak, and Republicans have been playing a rather poor defensive game. Where they have won, it’s mostly been through cheating, such as the Georgia governor’s race.
  • Seniors are turning against Trump, and they’ve been his most loyal voting block. They can identify with Middle Class Joe Biden. He looks nice and white, has a winning smile and seems relatable. Also, crazy and erratic tempers are no longer in.
  • Demographics: boomers like me are starting to die off, and COVID-19 will accelerate the trend. In any event, those of us who are retired certainly don’t want our safety net collapsed, but Trump seems to be doing everything possible to collapse it. There’s got to be a lot of buyer’s remorse out there.

Of course wishing won’t make it so, so to preclude the possibility activists like me will be working hard to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Republicans will still probably outspend Democrats, but there aren’t that many persuadable voters out there. Trump has no record of accomplishments to run on. The carnage of his self-dealing and mal-administration is obvious and inescapable. Likely there will be many wild moments during the campaign, but I don’t see how Trump or Republicans can turn this around.

I expect a Democrat in the White House in January, and a Democratic Congress as well.

It’s not just #FloridaMorons, it’s about 40% of us with a death wish

The Thinker by Rodin

Few things get me hopping mad, but this article did:

Local news aired photos and videos of Florida’s shoreline dotted with people, closer than six feet apart, spurring #FloridaMorons to trend on Twitter after Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) gave the go-ahead for local beachfront governments to decide whether to reopen their beaches during a news briefing Friday. Duval and St. Johns counties have reopened their beaches, while Miami-Dade County officials said they are considering following suit.

While it made me mad, it didn’t particularly surprise me. Florida was late to the game to shut things down, so I shouldn’t be surprised they are taking the first to take steps to open things up. Texas plans to ease restrictions this week too. Protestors in many states are clamoring to open things up in their states. Chilling at home with Netflix is proving too challenging.

Most people are finding the coronavirus inconvenient. I know we are. But I sure don’t want to open everything up, not without some credible data that shows us that the risks of doing so are minimal.

At best, these governors seem to think that because it appears they hit their death peak, that’s enough and it will be all downhill from now on. At worst of course there are a whole lot of Republicans who are all for sacrificing grandma, or really anyone, to bring back the America they knew before all this began.

Curiously, none of these people advocating this seem to be willing to put their own lives at significant risk. They could perhaps volunteer as the visitors’ desk at their local hospital sans mask, or take food to shut-ins, or volunteer to sit behind the cash register at the pharmacy counter at their local CVS. They want others to do these things, probably for at or near the minimum wage.

And of course a lot of these Republicans think coronavirus is a big hoax, as if all those COVID-19 deaths happening inside and outside our country aren’t happening, despite refrigerator trucks outside of hospitals with corpses and mass graves being dug at an island off the Bronx. Then there are the usual conspiracy theories run amok: it was created in a lab and it’s part of a secret plot by Democrats to destroy our freedoms. As if freedoms were not connected to our shared social responsibilities.

Science of course doesn’t matter to them. All those virologists and epidemiologists that get advanced degrees to study this stuff can be discounted if it goes against their prejudices and inclinations. Unlike during the 1918 Spanish flu, we not only know what causes this, but what we can do about it. During the Spanish flu, Philadelphia held a parade and it made the flu rampant in the city. It’s not hard at all to predict those Jacksonville, Florida beaches that were opened up yesterday, where plenty of people weren’t social distancing, will soon cause a spike in local COVID-19 cases.

Of course all this staying at home and social distancing is inconvenient and painful sometimes. For many people, there is no income coming in except a $1200 government handout, the sort of handout many of these people would have been against just a couple of months ago. Of course, it’s okay if it helps people like them, just not those others.

Many are wondering how long it will be before they get evicted for not paying rent, which about a third of renters aren’t or can’t pay. People in general have been living on the margins for decades, their increased productivity propping up stock prices, but never their bottom line. No wonder that 40% of households don’t have $1000 saved for an emergency. So some of them have to believe that it’s all a hoax because they have to go to work to make money to keep themselves from hunger and/or homelessness.

Republicans though specialize in cognitive dissonance; so of course so many of them can’t wrap their heads around the idea that this is just the way it is and what we are doing is the least painful way to get through this. Absent widespread testing (only 1% of Americans have been tested) and good empirical data, we simply don’t know. So opening up things will just make things worse.

But it probably won’t work anyhow. My mayor can declare that all the parks are reopened and we don’t need to wear masks or worry about social distancing, but I’ll still stay mostly homebound, and use gloves and a mask anyhow. Sensible people will. We know the risks are real and potentially deadly not just to people we don’t know, but to us. And because we won’t go out when things are uncertain, we won’t spend like we did, so the economic hit is likely to continue.

Polls say that’s 60% of us are sensible people, which means four out of 10 of us don’t get it. That’s roughly the percentage of people supporting Trump. All that disinformation has been crammed into their brains; they can’t see beyond it. To make it much worse of course our “president” has been promoting quack cures and encouraging people in certain states to “liberate” their states. Umm, inciting insurrection is a federal crime.

All this likely means that instead of flattening the curve, it’s likely to rise, last longer and kill a lot of people who’d otherwise survive. There are only a few ways out of this thing that will work. The sensible way is to do a lot of widespread and compulsory testing and contact tracing, until we have a vaccine that will inoculate us against the virus. But we don’t have the tests we need, we have at best a half hearted infrastructure for carrying it out, and we mostly lack quick and affordable tests to determine who has it or has been exposed to it.

Or we can drag this thing out interminably and allow millions to die unnecessarily because, apparently, many of us are too stupid to follow the advice of the people trained to deal with this stuff.

I’d care less if it took out only these foolish and ignorant people. They’re going to cause a bumper crop of Darwin Award nominees this year. But many of the rest of us still doing the sensible things will get this virus anyhow, in spite of our best efforts, because people like them will put so much more of it into our environment.

Ignorance kills. As much as Trump and many Americans want there to be an easy way out, there isn’t one.

On Easter, praise Jesus for the Internet!

The Thinker by Rodin

As you sit at home twiddling your thumbs, imagine how much worse all this social isolation would be without the Internet. There’s not much you can count on these days, but if you at least have a high-speed Internet connection, social isolation and boredom shouldn’t be among them.

It is likely that the Internet will only become more vital in the months and years ahead. That’s because contrary to what you might hope, most of aren’t going anywhere. Those of us who can work from home are going to keep doing so, and many will never return to the office.

“The office” may be one of the casualties of this crisis. If you make it into the office at all, it will probably be to a cubicle of the day. The new normal for white collar people will be what many of us were doing before all this started: working from home. We’ll be using VPNs (virtual private networks) to securely work remotely.

Our social life will evolve to what is already happening: Zoom meetings. This platform seems to be emerging as the go-to online meeting platform. Here on our hill of 55+ people, our association paid for a Zoom account. It sounds silly since we all live in the same neighborhood, but it’s a very socially active neighborhood. Many of these meetings are now virtual. Meeting in person in groups is probably at least a year away.

The ramifications of all this are still being sorted out. We can see one of them today: your Easter service if you are attending one is virtual. Our country was moving in a more secular direction already; this COVID-19 crisis will do more to accelerate it. After a while you may forget why you went to church at all. You can save a lot of money if you don’t have to tithe to your church, and since it can’t provide much in the way of spiritual services, what use is it?

It looks though that in our crazy, upside down world you can at least count on the Internet. Not that it isn’t under stress. Where I live, the only provider is Comcast. With everyone home all the time, and with neighborhoods sharing bandwidth over the same coaxial cable, latency issues are happening from time to time. Sometimes when we stream we get the dreaded hourglass. I’ve looked into this. We were getting 35 megabits per second, but are paying for “up to” 800 megabits per second. Sometimes Comcast can’t do better than 4% of the speed we are paying for.

It will be a wake up call to some that the Internet is not now just a nice-to-have thing, but an absolute necessity, and that we pay way too much for it. For a couple of years I have been trying to persuade our city to create a municipal network to compete with Comcast. The effort has been going great. We were all set to select a vendor to study the viability and costs of the network, then COVID-19 struck. It’s on hold, but I’m betting when our mayor and city council have a chance to catch their breaths, they will prioritize it over a lot of other things going on; indeed, it may be crucial to our city’s recovery from this. Ten years from now, if you are not getting Internet from your local government, you may be thinking you are living in the dark ages. In short, I don’t think Comcast stock is a good buy for the long term.

Most haven’t studied the history of the Internet, so we tend to take it for granted. While there is nothing miraculous about the Internet, the story of how it was created is indeed amazing. It’s the story of the success of long term investment, the sort of thing we rarely do in government anymore. Basically, we threw money at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the 1960s (then known as ARPA) to try to get military installations and educational institutions to be able to communicate electronically.

The genius behind it was a core group of radical thinkers (something you don’t associate with our Defense Department) that the network should be super reliable. By creating a public packet-switching network using open protocols, we created a super fault-tolerant network. If it breaks down at all, it’s in local neighborhoods like mine where the pipes provided by a single provider aren’t sufficient to meet the demand of the traffic that streams across it.

Imagine how socially isolated you would actually be if there were no Internet. You would be limited to telephone calls, probably from a landline. Since you could not afford long distance, it would be mostly to people on your local exchanges: one at a time, no conference calls. Imagine searching for work without the Internet. You would not be able to go out and knock on employers’ doors in the midst of a pandemic. You would be limited to local want ads in the paper, but even so what jobs that are available would largely be work from home jobs while the pandemic rages. Without the Internet, finding jobs at all is pretty much impossible.

The Internet provides a robust platform for information and knowledge exchange about pretty much anything, any time, and on demand. It just works. The Internet made much of my career possible and continues to provide me with income even in retirement. Now I help clients with their IT problems over the Internet, and have since 2006. I never leave home to work; it’s all done virtually. Most of my clients are from overseas. Without the Internet I would have never had their business. Yesterday, I was charging a client $60/hour to work on a site they are upgrading. Going to the office means going upstairs. That’s my office now and since I retired in 2014 it’s been my only office.

We’ll get through this in time. It’s going to be painful to get through it too. But if you think you are in pain now, imagine what life would be without the Internet. If nothing else, it can keep you fending off boredom pretty much indefinitely. If you are wise, you can use the Internet in this downtime to train for that next career, and emerge a winner in what is likely to be a new, more socially isolating age.

Things should never go back to the way they were, if we’re smart

The Thinker by Rodin

I suspect that in retrospect March 2020 won’t be remembered so much for the COVID-19 crisis, but as the catalyst for finally remaking our society into one that works for the people again.

It’s all pretty crazy and hellish right now, but it’s made crazier and more hellish because we’re trying to deal with COVID-19 and our economic crisis by using old rules that no longer work.

Take our Federal Reserve, for example. In reality, the Fed doesn’t have a whole lot of tools left in its toolbox. Its most effective remaining tool is that it prints the money. By effectively throwing out unlimited sums of money, it’s trying to keep our economy from collapsing altogether by underwriting our banks and businesses. It seems to be buying us some time, for example, by keeping banks flush with cash when in times before the Federal Reserve (the Great Depression) there would be a run on banks. But dropping the federal funds rate to 0% isn’t going to help at all. It did in 2008, but won’t anymore. Both businesses and consumers are already in hoc up to their eyeballs. We already can’t afford the debt we got. It’s hard to see how acquiring more of it will help the economy.

In just a few weeks our real unemployment rate is now likely over ten percent. Much of our economy has ground to a halt. It may prove to be ephemeral, which I first thought, but with some weeks to look at what’s going on, I no longer think so.

COVID-19 has thrown nearly the perfect monkey wrench into our economy, which had been hanging by a thread because it was based everyone spending beyond their means. Most companies made it worse. Instead of hoarding cash when times were good to get, they used borrowed money to buy back their own stock, which executives then sold to increase their personal wealth and their companies more fragile. Most people just get by, or have fallen behind, a victim of wages that rarely increase. Mostly, our productivity went into shareholders’ pockets instead. If they couldn’t afford the debt they had before the crisis, they won’t be able to now that it’s here.

All this was made considerably worse by our administration’s counterproductive approach to dealing with a pandemic. The $2.2T relief bill passed by Congress and signed into law won’t be nearly enough. A one time payment of $1200 per person and $500 per child won’t get us through this crisis. At best it will pay a month of rent or a house payment, plus a few other expenses. Expanded unemployment benefits will be a lot more meaningful to most people, if they can get them. It’s hard to apply for unemployment when so many others are doing the same thing. Until the U.S. Treasury bails out states’ unemployment funds, the funds in these accounts won’t last long.

Most likely COVID-19 will keep us at home for months, and when we are allowed to open businesses again, it will be tentatively. The doctors that Donald Trump refuses to listen to expect a resurgence of the virus later in the year unless we maintain strict social distancing. A vaccine is likely at least a year away, so things couldn’t go back to normal until those of us who don’t have it are inoculated against the virus. So most likely we can expect a year or more of doing what we are doing now, with systems under strain if not collapsing all around us.

But the economy really can’t come roaring back, not unless it works a lot differently. Those who get jobs back will be lucky to get what they had before and a wage similar to what they had before. Government cash will help, but it won’t be nearly enough, which will leave people more impoverished in general, and more financially fragile. Without laws requiring debt forbearance, or debt forgiveness, growth looks unlikely.

Which means the only way out is through political change, which hopefully will come in November. People generally vote in their own self interest, so there should be plenty of motivation. Then there’s Donald Trump doing the best to kill off his own supporters. Even if they are smart enough not to follow his advice, a lot of his supporters are poor white people, mostly in rural areas with health care networks that are already fraying at the seams. COVID-19 mostly hasn’t hit rural America yet, but it will, and it will make New York City look like a walk in the park.

These problems won’t solve themselves by a lack of government. You can see now what the lack of government has done: left us largely unprepared for a pandemic. Meaningful change happens through a government that acts in the people’s interests and works to proactively prevent exactly what we are going through now.

It won’t get better though if we keep doing things the way we have always done things. That’s why the Fed’s actions feel so toothless, at best postponing the inevitable. The Fed can’t innovate its way out of our crisis because it has a limited set of tools, and it’s used pretty much all of them. The Trump administration simply doesn’t have the imagination to do what needs to be done. It hopes for short term miracles, which is why Trump is promoting Hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19. People have died, are dying and will die for Trump’s bogus medical cures.

We the living who get through this by doing sensible things like staying at home and washing our hands regularly have an opportunity in 2021 to remake America into a country that meets our needs again. We could start to use money not to bail out companies, but instead to create a clean and green infrastructure. Then perhaps we can expect to see a real light at the end of our tunnel.

Welcome to hell, Republicans

The Thinker by Rodin

Here in Massachusetts, our blue-leaning state has elected a Republican governor twice. His name is Charlie Baker. He’s the kind of Republican I remember from my youth, before most of them went insane. Governor Baker is pragmatic and works across the aisle. In some ways he is more Democratic than Governor Andrew Cuomo next door in New York, supposedly a Democrat. He refused to vote for Trump and his main focus seems to be to just do things sensibly. Baker may be the only pragmatic Republican left in the country.

Baker has been busy with COVID-19 issues, of course, as have most governors. Governors, well, govern. They deal with the world as it is and no matter how messy aim to make it work better for their people. No wonder then that our blue-leaning state has put him twice in the governorship; we appreciate people who have these skills regardless of party. To get things done he has to figure out how to do it adroitly. Right now it’s a combination of bully pulpit, stretching what he can do under the law a bit and hunkering down with aids and our legislature to more intelligently allocate our state’s resources.

Trump though is ruling, not governing. Rulers don’t govern; they just tell other people what to do and don’t care about how if affects people. Trump is tone deaf to the needs of most Americans and listens only to those who give him money or keep him in power. He has no central strategy, no real plans. He ping pongs from moment to moment, hoping to find the words that strokes his ego. He really doesn’t care about governing; he just wants to rule. He’ll do it his way, or not at all.

It never occurs to Trump to try to work together with people unlike him to try to achieve his goals. He never learned the art of flattery; instead he expects everyone to flatter him. He’s quite comfortable short shifting New York state in its supply of ventilators because Governor Cuomo hasn’t flattered him sufficiently. He wants people to grovel and kiss his ring like he’s the pope. And he’s filled his administration with lackeys that know only how to chase after his constantly changing desires, rather than people who try to exercise the levers of government to achieve what people actually need. He not only expects tone deafness; he requires it.

So it’s no surprise that we were caught with our pants down on this COVID-19 crisis. It’s no surprise that it took months to start doing just a few of the things intelligent people do to mitigate these things. He has no experience in governing and has used none of his time in office to try to acquire these skills. Bullies never learn the art of negotiation. They just practice fear and intimidation because it’s all they know how to do.

With the exception of a few Republican governors like Charlie Baker, most Republican governors out there seemed more enamored with ruling rather than governing too. Take Ron DeSantis, Florida’s governor, who only recently decided to keep people home, allowing his state to contribute disproportionately to the spread of COVID-19. Now his solution seems to be to not allow New Yorkers to drive into the state. He is also bizarrely exempting churches from his social distancing rules, arguing that religious services are essential services.

By ruling rather than governing, he’s going to kill a lot more citizens of his state proportionately than most other states. By following the Republican Party playbook rather than by applying the resources of government to meet the needs of the moment, like Trump, he is seeking short term popularity and adherence to party dogma against the needs of his state.

It’s not a stretch to say that Republicanism is killing people in these states and all over our country. It’s a philosophy that says business is always right, and that government has no legitimate role to play beyond enabling extreme capitalism and promoting cronyism. Unsurprisingly, this is leaving states and the federal government without the tools and the institutional memory to adroitly handle the challenges we all face. It may kill millions of us.

Governing requires pragmatic people with a long term vision who not only need to adroitly shift resources to meet the challenges of the moment, but to imagine beyond their term of office and leave their jurisdictions better prepared for these events than when they have arrived. It’s called being a fiduciary. With the exception of a few Republican governors, they, our president and the Republican parts of our Congress have only proved to be miserable failures.

They swallowed Reagan’s KoolAid: that government is the problem. A government though that governs in response to the needs of the people is exactly what government is supposed to do. What we have now is a largely wholesale lack of governing.

Welcome to hell, Republicans. And if looking for someone to blame, look in the mirror.

God won’t save you from COVID-19, but science might

The Thinker by Rodin

Everyone’s feeling out of kilter these days. Most of us are feeling somewhat scared too.

It’s reasonable to expect that in the weeks ahead we will feel more scared, as the COVID-19 crisis gets much, much worse. When people we know, particularly family and celebrities, are felled by the disease we’re going to be looking for escape from this hell. For some it will be from a bottle of booze. For many perhaps it will come by praying to God that you or people you know will be spared.

There is nothing wrong with either prayer or meditation. Both have proven mental health benefits. It helps us feel connected to the larger world and helps many find solace in difficult times. Whether God saves you or not you’ll never know for sure, but science can probably save you, if you pay attention to what scientists and medical professionals are telling you to do and follow their advice. If God has a higher power at work, it’s the power of science.

What we are experiencing in 2020 is hardly new to mankind. Aside from the many wars mankind has endured over the years, natural disasters and pestilence have been periodic killers too. It’s been a while though since we’ve seen a pandemic, so it’s new and very frightening. In my 63 years, I don’t think we’ve had a proper pandemic here in the United States. Still, what we are going through now is hardly unplowed territory. Since the early 1980s we have been dealing with HIV and its AIDS disease. We’ve made progress but most of the progress has come through boring things like monogamy and practicing safe sex.

The religious among us seem to be in two camps on COVID-19. Some see it with the frame they gave to AIDS and HIV: God is punishing us for all our rampant sinning. Then there are others, like Jerry Falwell Jr., who swallowed the Republican KoolAid and reopened Liberty University after Spring Break. I’m guessing he figured his students were too godly to get COVID-19.

Falwell should be practicing penance at the moment, but if he’s not his students are. Some are likely to pay with their lives. For many younger people, catching the disease is no walk in the park. It will kill them. Heck, it killed the guy who first discovered the disease and tried to get the Chinese government to do something about it. Instead, he was punished. He was 33 years old.

I was on a cruise this month. Fortunately, no one was infected on the cruise. Two weeks later we show no signs of the disease, but while on the cruise we were meticulous about regularly washing our hands. The cruise line was meticulous about squirting our hands with sanitizer when we went to eat too. Before the cruise we spent a night at a Rodeway Inn in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Eating their free breakfast in the morning, someone on the P.A. system was saying the way to fight the disease was to stop listening to the liberal news media.

He should have listened. There’s no more cruising going in and out of Fort Lauderdale and won’t be for a long time. He’s probably one of much of the hotel staff that’s been laid off because of the disease, made much worse because their Republican governor Ron DeSantis put profits over public health, doing much to spread the disease as spring breakers brought it back home. Florida still lags other states in keeping its populace at home. Maybe he’s figuring that God will save them.

God’s not coming to his rescue. He didn’t come to Jerry Falwell Jr.’s rescue and he won’t be coming to your rescue either. I can say it’s because God doesn’t exist, which is likely, but I can’t prove it. What I can say is that with if God exists, its a removed and impersonal god, that shows no interest in your life in particular. It didn’t keep people from getting the plague either. Even back then though the smarter ones inferred that it had a lot to do with people being clustered closely together. Today, others like my friend Tom are using the same strategy: flee to the country and hope to ride it out there. You can also do what health care professionals are telling us to do. That’s what we’re doing.

It’s human to be scared by all of this. For most of us it will be one of the major events in our lives, and a shared world trauma. Some of us cope with stress better than others. Religion is supposed to give us ways of coping with this kind of stress in particular. If so, I don’t see much evidence that it’s working. Part of the stress of the religious is their cognitive dissonance. They know what their religion is telling them is crap, but they can’t admit it to themselves.

The successful people are going to acknowledge that it is crap and move on. This is not to say that religion is necessarily bad, but certain flavors of it can be quite toxic, and a lot of religious Americans are in this camp. Most are evangelicals. If we are at the first stages of Armageddon, it’s going to be sending many more of these Christians to early graves. Of course, a lot of us less religious folk will be felled by it too. But fewer of us will because we will largely heed the advice scientists like Dr. Fauci are giving us.

To me, following their advice is something of a balm because it’s likely to actually work. It may also be my nature, but although concerned I am markedly happier than most of the people around me. It comes not through choosing ignorance, but learning what works to keep from getting infected and then doing it scrupulously. I’ve learned there are ways to be less afraid of COVID-19 and things you can still do an enjoy to give you pleasure and meaning.

Here’s some of what I’m doing. You might want to see if these strategies work for you too:

  • I stay mostly indoors
  • I keep surfaces I touch clean with appropriate disinfectants
  • When I go out shopping, I am careful. I bring sanitary wipes, stay calm, and keep a social distance. Since I am age 60+, I take advantage of special shopping hours for us more at-risk people.
  • I mostly succeed in not touching my face
  • Some face touching will happen anyhow. So I try to wash my face with soap and water once a day too. Keeping it clean means if I touch it I probably won’t get infected if I then touch my mouth or a mucus membrane.
  • I wash my hands periodically throughout the day, with soap and water, at least for twenty seconds, being very thorough to clean all surfaces
  • I try to get outside once a day and take a walk. Walking is quite safe if you maintain a social distance. There are parks and trails nearby. Seeing people makes me feel connected to them. The fresh air and sunshine feels good too. Hearing the birds and feeling wind on my face makes me feel alive.
  • When the weather permits, I open up the windows and enjoy the fresh air. There’s no coronavirus in the air unless someone coughs on you. Outdoor air is likely healthier than indoor air anyhow.
  • I keep busy doing stuff: consulting when it is available, indulge in my hobbies and try not to obsessively watch the news. Watching Star Trek Picard was a great distraction.
  • After going shopping, I wipe surfaces and things I touched, including groceries I brought in if possible. I leave stuff that’s not too perishable in the garage for a few days. And I wash my hands.
  • I count on layers of protection. The most likely way of acquiring the disease is from touching your face and then touching your mouth or nose. I keep both hands and face clean.
  • Realize this is not forever.
  • Chat with friends and family virtually. Be positive but realistic. Encourage them that by doing sensible things they are likely to be survivors.

In one way we are lucky: our finances won’t be stretched by this crisis, so that’s a huge relief. Most of you won’t be so lucky, but you will get some relief from the government. Hopefully it will let you ride the financial impacts for a while without feeling like you are in a financial crisis too.

By doing these things, you are also being virtuous. In addition to hopefully putting yourself in a healthier space, you are also helping society. You are helping to cut the transmission of the disease so others can survive it. You are making things less stressed for our overtaxed healthcare workers. Your actions may be boring, and make you feel lonely, but it’s vital. Staying at home helps not only you, but everyone.

Keep praying to God if that gives you comfort. We know what kills people now when pandemics occur. In the past, we didn’t know so we attributed it to the supernatural. Trust that God revealed science for a reason, and that it wants you to place your trust in our scientists. One to 3 percent of us who get the disease won’t survive it, but most of us will, but only if we stop doing the stupid stuff.

Stay safe and stay positive. This won’t last forever.

Coping by moping

The Thinker by Rodin

In the week since I last wrote, life has been wholly upended for most Americans. But in many ways, life is unchanged for us. There’s just the two of us (four if you include two cats). Being retired, we are minimally impacted by COVID-19.

For us, the biggest financial impact is our stock portfolio. It’s down $180K at the moment, or about 19% from its peak on February 19. It will probably go lower, but the good news is that we don’t draw it down much, just $1900 a month and that comes from selling bond funds. So the stocks inside it wait for a more prosperous time when share prices recover.

Those with money that survive it will be the winners. On Monday we met virtually with our financial adviser. We actually bought some stocks on the theory that they are historically cheap and over time will recover. It amounted to 5% of the portfolio so it wasn’t that risky. Since no one can time the market (although I got lucky), those with money buy incrementally when values go down precipitously should eventually reap nice profits. I think that’s what our financial adviser is doing. Since he is paid as a percent of our portfolio, if he’s right, then he too will be enriched some years hence. Meanwhile, a steady pension and social security provide the bulk of our income. I can’t see those going away.

The government may give all Americans money to get through it. If so, we are unlikely to spend it. Since we don’t need it I hope there is some means testing. I’d rather it go to those who do need it, which is most of us.

In truth, being retired already, things haven’t changed that much for us. Mainly there is a lot more washing of hands and cleaning of surfaces than there used to be. We shop minimally and go through an informal protocol of bringing sanitary wipes with us when we shop to wipe surfaces like shopping cart handles. When we get home we wash hands and clean things we touched. So far it’s working. Eight days ago we got off a cruise ship and flew home, and there are no signs of COVID-19 here. Some items were in short supply at the store, or not available. But so far coping hasn’t been hard. Coping is accomplished mostly through moping. I do have some consulting work that generally keeps me busy. It hasn’t dried up at all, for which I should be grateful. Thankfully, it’s all work that can be done remotely.

We have plenty of incentive to be sanitary, because the one thing we can’t count on now is our health care system, at least if we come down with something serious. We might get some advice from doctors over the phone. But if we need hospitalization, as this thing gets worse it’s unlikely that we will get it.

I got my hair cut yesterday. It was our last opportunity as our hairdresser is going on hiatus starting Monday. It was all done carefully, but there was some risk. It’s likely that my hair will get quite long before it is cut again.

As this drags on, we will miss things like going out to dinner and travel. There is no place to go, and it certainly won’t be on a cruise ship. Unless we want to take in a mountain vista nearby, we might as well stay home. All this of course will just feed the recession sure to come, which looks like it could easily topple over into a depression.

This would be a good time to spend some money to stimulate the economy, but that too has risks. I wouldn’t mind a bathroom on our upper level, but not at the cost of having construction workers in my house for weeks on end bringing in who knows what with them. I bought a new car last year and we really don’t need to replace my wife’s car. The house is well furnished, so there is no need to replace anything.

The YMCA is closed indefinitely so exercising with weights won’t be happening for a while. What exercise equipment we have at home is cardiovascular. My principle form of exercise is walking, and that’s at least still okay. When I go walking I see plenty of neighbors, so at some level it’s like nothing is happening. Generally they are keeping their social distance, but I see couples not doing so. The park across the street from us is closed, but that hasn’t kept people from parking in the part that isn’t closed and walking around it. There were a few hundred people in the park yesterday. Occasionally I do see questionable behavior. A group of kids on bikes on the local path were probably breaking protocol. I just don’t think they care and figure they won’t get it.

What I do know is that this is just ramping up. Its economic consequences are already evident and will get much, much worse. A month from now the threat won’t be so much not being able to find toilet paper, but from having a supply chain under strain. As grocery clerks and pharmacists get sick, things will get much more dicey. I’m already seeing cops parking along the sides of the road in places they normally wouldn’t, I think mainly to signal to the community that big brother is nearby. I expect in time we will see them guarding grocery stores and pharmacies. We may think this is the new normal.

I do believe all this is temporary and things will rebound nicely when it is over. But it’s likely to last longer than thought. Complacency may set it, bringing a resurgence of the virus. Clearly, it’s going to have huge ripples. When it’s over, society is likely to be reorganized in pretty fundamental ways. We probably will see this time as a period of great change where things we took for granted, like an abundance of local retailers, largely come to an end.

The wizards of Wall Street are no wizards

The Thinker by Rodin

During our recent cruise, we at least got grainy MSNBC satellite TV. When I watched it, I watched the stock market yo-yo back and forth pretty much every day: the DJIA down a thousand one day, and it would often recover it the next day. The general trend though was down, a lot.

In a way, it was good to be on one of the last cruises because I was mostly insulated from this madness unless I sought it out. (Our cruise turned out fine. No passengers developed COVID-19 symptoms, but berthing in Fort Lauderdale we learned that the half dozen ships in port weren’t going anywhere for a month. I felt sorry for the staff, many of who were likely facing unemployment and a one-way ticket home.)

Today though takes the cake, with the DJIA having its worst day since the crash of 1987, down more than 3000 points in just one day. It all feels so predictable by now. I’m just wondering why the wizards of Wall Street are so late to this party. All the signs were there for those with clear eyes. I’m no Wall Street wizard, but I saw it coming. And I took some steps before the crash to mitigate our risk.

Today’s crash was because Wall Street suddenly discovered that the Federal Reserve had essentially used up all its ammunition, which means in effect that there is no steady hand on our financial system anymore. On Sunday, it dropped the Federal Funds Rate to 0%. Soon predictably it will probably go negative, charging banks to temporarily give them money to insulate them from even graver financial calamity. It probably won’t calm markets.

These same wizards of course were cheering companies that bought back their own stock with borrowed money. It gave the market a sugar rush and made stock prices worth way more than they were actually worth. Now many of these same companies, in debt to the max, are discovering the downside: they don’t have a whole lot of liquidity to ride out an economic downturn. In short, expect a lot of these companies, including some of the biggest of the blue chips, to go into bankruptcy.

The coronavirus is going to cause a recession, if not a depression. The virus though is just the trigger that revealed the larger problem, which has been sinking markets. Margins are gone. Businesses are in hoc up to their eyeballs, as are most consumers. Layoffs have already started and are inevitable. When public gatherings of fifty or more are not allowed, restaurants and many public-facing businesses like theaters close down for the interim. This takes money out of the economy and with predictable results. People living on the margins won’t be able to pay rent, or afford to see a doctor, and there are plenty of them thanks to a gig economy that Wall Street just loved but which added immensely to our overall financial fragility.

Stock market declines show that people are sobering up. Donald Trump of course is making things much, much worse by his lack of leadership and counterproductive strategies. He’s also making it worse for himself by continuing to shake hands with people. Most of his supporters still haven’t figured out what a fraud the guy is and are doing really stupid stuff like licking toilet seats to “prove” coronavirus is a myth. Sadly, it is likely that in a few weeks they need to only go to their local hospital’s morgue to see how wrong they are, if they are not victims themselves.

Children are out of school, day care centers will probably just pass on the virus, so parents predictably will stay home with their kids and fret. For many of them, this will collapse their house of cards. Social distancing should help reduce the number of cases, but it’s likely that there will be far more patients in need of critical care than our hospitals can handle. Our wonderful private health care system will prove unable to handle the coming crush of cases, which will kill lots of people needlessly as well as probably feed a mostly downward economic spiral.

It’s Republican government that will prove bankrupt once again, as it did in 2008, in 1987 and of course during the Great Depression. We never learn. The fall in the stock market proves these stocks were wildly overvalued and did not factor in the risks that are now obviously manifest. Having come off a cruise ship on Saturday and now home, I got to experience it first hand at our local supermarket where the meat counter and frozen food aisles were mostly empty. So far people seem to be soldiering on, but there is the pervasive undercurrent of social disorder. Things could get ugly not just medically, but civilly. We may be seeing the partial collapse of civilized behavior.

So we’re doing what we did before: hunkering down. We can’t count on our medical establishment, so we have to look out for ourselves. We wash our hands regularly. We take calculated risks going to the store. We wipe surfaces. We reflexively do social distancing. We also try to handle things soberly, mindful of the risks but realizing that we’ll likely survive this; it’s not really the big one. Lots of people won’t though, mostly the elderly and infirmed, and we are approaching our elderly years.

We can’t stop all pandemics and likely we could not stop this one either. But it could have been managed much better. Similarly, the collapse on Wall Street was entirely predictable. We just chose not to keep in place the regulations we needed to cushion this fall. And in search of short-term profits we refused to provide sick leave for workers, raise wages, invest in our public health or do the sensible stuff that government is supposed to do. It’s all so pointless and unnecessary.

We can control only what we can control. We can hunker down. Our pensions should provide a steady income in good times and bad. Moving to bonds at peak market insulated our losses. We are fortunate. We will also likely thrive in this challenging time because we didn’t do the stupid stuff. Unlike Wall Street, we acted logically as best we could best on a sober assessment of the world as it actually is. It was smart of us to do it, but it didn’t have to be this way for the rest of us. As a society we chose to ignore the obvious risks right in front of us.

Expect a recession

The Thinker by Rodin

A recession is coming. It’s probably already here; we just can’t prove it yet.

The trigger was the emergence of the coronavirus and the resulting COVID-19 disease in late 2019 in China, but if it hadn’t happened it would have likely happened later in the year anyhow. As predicted it’s spreading all over the globe. People are already starting to hunker down. In some places it’s getting hard to find bottled water, toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

This is an overreaction. You don’t need bottled water unless the public water supply system goes out, which it won’t. And even if somehow the water is unclean, you can boil it. Fear of course makes people overly cautious, but it’s currently way overblown. It’s the fear that is driving down the stock market and making people buy too much toilet paper.

The world economy is now built on specialization and trade, so when China’s manufacturing sector takes an indefinite hit, it’s going to have large worldwide ripples. It’s already happening, but if you need proof you just have to look at Chinese ports, where little is going out or coming in. When items like rolled sheet metal don’t make it to manufacturing markets, value-added products can’t get produced. That will cause layoffs. But fear in general will cause people to be cautious with their money. The Fed can cut its discount rate by half a percent, but it won’t do much to solve the underlying problem.

Coronavirus was perhaps half the reason I sold twenty percent of my stocks and moved them into bonds on February 14, at just about peak market. Even then, it wasn’t too hard to see how this was likely to go. With the wholly inept response by the Trump Administration, it was clear that an intelligent response to the health crisis wasn’t going to be forthcoming. We could have been much better prepared than we were, but instead Trump cut the Center for Disease Control’s budget. Voters won’t forgive incompetence when it kills their family, friends and neighbors.

It’s also becoming clearer that this virus will not only put us into recession but turn into a pandemic. It’s pretty much there already. It’s not hard to catch and there is no vaccine available. Potentially 40-70% of us could contract it. For most of us, a bout of the flu will be much worse, but since it will spread so easily and has about a two percent mortality rate, it’s going to take a lot of lives.

There are 330 million Americans. It’s realistic that 10% of us will contract the virus this year, and there may be more next year. At a two percent mortality rate, it’s likely to kill about 660,000 of us this year, principally the aged and infirmed. This is just a ballpark figure, but it’s likely to be the biggest public health crisis since the 1918 Spanish Flu. I live in a 55+ community, with most of my neighbors probably 75+. If it gets me, it’s unlikely to kill me, but it’s likely to kill a few of my neighbors. Most neighborhoods will see at least a few casualties from this virus.

So of course we are going on a cruise. It’s hard to get out of as it’s paid for, but the cruise line won’t let in people cruise who fail a health check or who have traveled through certain countries recently. It’s unlikely to affect our cruise beyond perhaps being denied ports of call. But it’s still worrisome. 660 people on the cruise ship Diamond Princess out of Japan contracted the virus and 7 died, in part because Japan wouldn’t let them off the ship into proper quarantine facilities.

I’m not panicking. Prevention is mostly being vigilant, which means washing hands frequently. Still, cruise ships are great places to pass it on, as the Diamond Princess learned, because of the centralized air conditioning which can push the virus through the whole ship. In general, being in close quarters is not a good idea, and you can’t avoid that on a cruise ship.

Speaking of which, the travel industry will slump. Actually, it will go into a depression. And that will affect a large supply chain of its own, which will feed a downward economic spiral.

What can you do? Don’t overreact, but also take sensible precautions. Wash your hands regularly, particularly after touching foreign surfaces, with soap, for 20 seconds or more. A vaccine is probably at least a year away. This means you could easily get the virus anyhow, just realize that it probably won’t kill you, but it will be widespread.

With luck you can avoid it until there is a vaccine, but even when it’s available it will go to the elderly and infirmed first. One in 50 odds of dying is very good odds. Unfortunately, the way our society is ordered will make it worse here. So many workers have no sick leave, so they will come to work and spread it further. It’s the downside of a gig economy and our poor labor standards. Those who can will work from home. Those who can’t will bear much of the risk and be the principle carriers.

It also probably means that Trump will be a one-term president. He is managing this as ineptly as we feared. It won’t take too many MAGAers to die before their friends notice. It will help people put their prejudices aside and force them to understand the value of science again. At least I hope it will. It should.