Tag Archives: pandemic

Why Americans Are Dying By the Thousands Under Trump’s Leadership

Here are a few excerpts from WAPO regarding the federal response to the pandemic as we head into Election Day. https://wapo.st/3oJDI69 They speak for themselves.

“President Trump’s repeated assertions the United States is “rounding the turn” on the novel coronavirus have increasingly alarmed the government’s top health experts, who say the country is heading into a long and potentially deadly winter with an unprepared government unwilling to make tough choices.”

“Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s leading infectious-disease expert, said: … “All the stars are aligned in the wrong place as you go into the fall and winter season, with people congregating at home indoors. You could not possibly be positioned more poorly.”

“Fauci … said the country could surpass 100,000 new coronavirus cases a day and predicted rising deaths in the coming weeks. He spoke as the nation set a new daily record Friday with more than 98,000 cases. As hospitalizations increase, deaths are also ticking up, with more than 1,000 reported Wednesday and Thursday, bringing the total to more than 230,000 since the start of the pandemic….”

“Trump has rallied in states and cities experiencing record surges in infections and hospitalizations in a last-ditch effort to convince voters he has successfully managed the pandemic. He has held maskless rallies with thousands of supporters, often in violation of local health mandates. Even as new infections climb in 42 states, Trump has downplayed the virus or mocked those who take it seriously.”

“… he baselessly said that U.S. doctors record more deaths from covid-19, the disease the coronavirus causes, than other nations because they get more money.”

“By contrast, former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala D. Harris have consistently worn masks in public, and have held socially distanced events.”

Fauci … described a disjointed response as cases surge. Several current and former senior administration officials said the White House is almost entirely focused on a vaccine, even though experts warn it is unlikely to be a silver bullet that ends the pandemic immediately since it will take months under the best of circumstances to inoculate tens of millions of people to achieve herd immunity.”

“Fauci said … he has not spoken to Trump since early October…. He also lamented that Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist and Trump’s favored pandemic adviser, who advocates letting the virus spread among young healthy people and reopening the country without restrictions, is the only medical adviser the president regularly meets with. “I have real problems with that guy,” Fauci said of Atlas. “He’s a smart guy who’s talking about things that I believe he doesn’t have any real insight or knowledge or experience in. He keeps talking about things that when you dissect it out and parse it out, it doesn’t make any sense.”

[Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, attacked Fauci for speaking his mind, accusing him of being a member of the Washington Swamp and repeating Trump’s talking points that the president “always put the well-being of the American people first.” Believe what you will.]

“Some White House advisers … complain [Fauci] is too focused on his personal reputation and is “not on the team,” said one senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment. The doctor has become loathed among many Trump supporters, and Fauci has told others that he has experienced a surge in harassment and threats.”

[See https://wapo.st/3kUAOJK for a list of the 184 times Trump has downplayed the pandemic threat, a reality he confessed to on tape in the Woodward interviews].

“Several senior administration officials and outside advisers described a White House overwhelmed by the pandemic, with a feeling of helplessness over the inability to curb its spread without also throttling the economy or damaging the president’s reelection chances.”

“… the campaign trail message that life is returning to normal underscores how little the president and White House have focused on the pandemic beyond pushing for development and approvals of vaccines and treatments. With the clearance of a vaccine unlikely until year’s end, that raises questions about what happens after Election Day, during what is projected to be the worst stretch yet of the pandemic. The Trump administration will be in charge of managing the pandemic until at least Jan. 20, no matter who wins.”

“Trump’s former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, Scott Gottlieb said, “If we don’t plan now, we’ll lose the opportunity to prioritize [school]opening what should be most important to us, just as we lost that chance in the fall because we didn’t plan appropriately this summer.”

“And one of the ways to say the outbreak is over is [to say] it’s really irrelevant because it doesn’t make any difference. All you need to do is prevent people from dying and protect people in places like the nursing homes,” Fauci said. “And because of that, Debbie [Birx] almost never ever sees the president anymore. The only medical person who sees the president on a regular basis is Scott Atlas. It’s certainly not Debbie Birx.”

“Fauci said that many people who catch the virus recover “virologically” but will have chronic health problems. “The idea of this false narrative that if you don’t die, everything is hunky dory is just not the case,” he said. “But to say, ‘Let people get infected, it doesn’t matter, just make sure people don’t die’ — to me as a person who’s been practicing medicine for 50 years, it doesn’t make any sense at all.”

“A similar assessment was offered by Tom Bossert, the former homeland security adviser in the Trump administration. “It sounds alluring,” Bossert said. “It sounds so seductive. It’s not possible. Math makes it irresponsible to even try and say it.”

Supreme Court Gives Back of Hand to Voter Protection

CNN reported last week that the Supreme Court, without opinion or explanation, granted a request by Alabama to prevent voters from dropping off their ballots by handing them to an election official at the curbside. https://cnn.it/3osEjJB The decision in an unsigned 5-3 order, to which Justices Sotomayor, Kagan and Breyer dissented, addressed a permissive ruling by a federal District Court judge permitting, but not requiring, willing Alabama counties to allow curbside voting, as they have done in prior elections in 2016 and 2018. The District Court judge’s opinion was upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta.

The District Court judge reached the following conclusions issued in conjunction with a lengthy set of Findings of Fact & Conclusions of Law:

1. As applied during the COVID-19 pandemic to voters who are particularly susceptible to COVID-19, the requirement under Ala. Code §§ 17-11-7, 17-11-9, and 17-11-10 that absentee ballot affidavits be witnessed and signed by a notary public or two adult witnesses violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

    1. As applied during the COVID-19 pandemic to voters who are particularly susceptible to COVID-19 complications because they are either age 65 or older or disabled or have underlying medical conditions that make them susceptible to COVID-19 complications, the requirement under Ala. Code §§ 17-9-30(b), (d), and 17-11-9 that absentee voters provide a copy of their photo identification with their absentee ballot applications violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
    1. As applied during the COVID-19 pandemic to voters who are particularly susceptible to COVID-19 complications, the curbside voting ban violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
    1. As applied during the COVID-19 pandemic to voters with disabilities who cannot safely obtain a copy of their photo ID, the requirement under Ala. Code §§ 17-9-30(b), (d), and 17-11-9 that absentee voters provide a copy of their photo identification with their absentee ballot applications violates the ADA.
    1. As applied during the COVID-19 pandemic to voters with disabilities, the curbside voting ban violates the ADA.
    1. As applied during the COVID-19 pandemic, the requirement under Ala. Code §§ 17-11-7, 17-11-9, and 17-11-10 that absentee ballot affidavits be witnessed and signed by a notary public or two adult witnesses violates the Voting Rights Act.”

For the highly determined, the court papers may be read at: https://bit.ly/3opiLgI

The Court of Appeals reversed all of the District Court’s conclusions except for the curbside voting issue.

In a classic Trump Republican fashion, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall argued that “Some level of risk is inherent in life and in voting.” Stated differently, if voting in person ends up killing you (there are no mask requirements in Alabama), well, that’s life. The Alabama Secretary of State had earlier expressed concern about the security of ballots because voters “wouldn’t be able to physically put their ballot into the machines that read the ballot since they’re held indoors.” Apparently, the Alabama Secretary of State does not trust the poll workers that the counties employ for the purpose of assisting voters.

Justice Sotomayor’s dissent said, in part, “We should not substitute the District Court’s reasonable, record-based findings of fact with our own intuitions about the risks of traditional in-person voting during this pandemic or the ability of willing local officials to implement adequate curbside voting procedures.”

The Supreme Court’s decision is remarkable insofar as it permits a state to disallow voting practices that, at least in a pandemic, could reduce vulnerable voters’ exposure to sometimes deadly health risks, especially for older and health-vulnerable voters. The ultimate rationale for the state’s inexplicable overturning of prior practice was the Republican Attorney General’s view, in effect, that “life’s a bitch and then you die, so who cares?”

In truth, the state position is a form of voter suppression directed at a segment of the population more-likely-than-not to vote Democratic. These types of decisions, especially unexplained, are particularly problematic when considered against the anti-democratic decision of the Supreme Court in the landmark Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. 529 (2013) that gutted the pre-clearance requirements of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Those provisions compelled certain states to seek prior approval of the Justice Department for any new election or voting laws, because of those states’ prior history of voter suppression.

Shelby County involved one of the worst examples of judicial legislating ever seen, as evidenced by Chief Justice John Roberts’ explanation of the decision:

A statute’s “current burdens” must be justified by “current needs,” and any “disparate geographic coverage” must be “sufficiently related to the problem that it targets.” The coverage formula met that test in 1965, but no longer does so.

Coverage today is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices. The formula captures States by reference to literacy tests and low voter registration and turnout in the 1960s and early 1970s. But such tests have been banned nationwide for over 40 years. And voter registration and turnout numbers in the covered States have risen dramatically in the years since. Racial disparity in those numbers was compelling evidence justifying the preclearance remedy and the coverage formula. There is no longer such a disparity.

As reported in The Atlantic, https://bit.ly/34uqn9C,

The results have been predictable. Voter-identification laws, which experts suggest will make voting harder especially for poor people, people of color, and elderly people, have advanced in several states, and some voting laws that make it easier to register and cast ballots have been destroyed. For many of the jurisdictions formerly under preclearance, voting became rapidly more difficult after the Shelby County decision, particularly for poor and elderly black people and Latinos.

Decisions like the Alabama curbside voting case are the predictable consequence of the Supreme Court’s conservative majority inserting its judgment, without explanation, where only the legislature should go. At the risk of repetition, the current decision affirms the elimination, for partisan political purposes, of a health-based practice that was permitted in two prior elections.

This is what we have to look forward too as the Republican majority of Trump enablers in the Senate affirms yet another right-wing judge to the high court this very day. I don’t know what the solution to the Supreme Court dilemma is, but Joe Biden’s thoughtful and measured approach seems the right way to move forward, provided his commission acts swiftly. The issue has been exhaustively analyzed by many constitutional scholars so we’re not going into new territory here. The composition of the Court has changed before and the nation survived. It’s less clear today that the Republican approach to governance is survivable by anything resembling a democratic republic. Time is therefore of the essence once the Democrats take control of the government in January.

Amtrak to Suspend Train Service to Respond to Republican Document Requests

Republican Troubleshooters Demand 190 Years’ Worth of Records

It’s natural, I suppose, for people who have not spent time on Capitol Hill to wonder what those highly privileged people do up there all day – you know, on behalf of the public that elected them and, presumably, also for those who thought someone else would be better. We have been given some insight into that question as regards Republican representatives by an October 20 records request to William J. Flynn, President and Chief Executive Officer of Amtrak, technically the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, sent by four Republican Congressmen from the Republican Office of the House Subcommittee on Rail, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials.

There is a subcommittee, often many of them, for every committee in Congress (this one is among six under the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, or T & I as it is affectionately known in Washington circles). I’m sure your mind is now trying to wrap itself around what the entire organization chart for the entire Congress must look like. Please stop right there lest you suffer lasting mental harm.

This particular Subcommittee has some pretty impressive sounding responsibilities [https://bit.ly/3knpaqr]:

  •  “jurisdiction over the economic and safety regulation of railroads and the agencies that administer those regulations.  Economic regulation is administered by the five-member Surface Transportation Board (STB).  This independent agency also has the authority to address national emergencies as they affect the nation’s rail transportation system.”
  • “The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is responsible for administering and overseeing railroad safety laws, railroad infrastructure and development programs, performing research and developing technology, and has federal oversight of Amtrak.”
  • “Amtrak [established in 1970] is the nation’s major provider of intercity passenger rail service….The Subcommittee continues to oversee efforts to increase efficiency and improve service in Amtrak’s operations.”
  • “The Subcommittee also has jurisdiction over the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which is responsible for providing regulations and safety oversight of pipelines and pipeline facilities, as well as overseeing the transportation of hazardous materials.”
  • “Railroad retirement benefits and unemployment systems, as well as rail labor relations also fall under the jurisdiction of this Subcommittee.”

That’s enough responsibility and overseeing, you would think, to be a full-time job for the Subcommittee members.  But two members out of 15 Republicans on the Subcommittee, found time to produce the aforesaid letter to Amtrak. Those four are Ranking Member Rick Crawford (R-AR), fellow Subcommittee-man Scott Perry (R-PA) plus T&I full Committee members, Bob Gibbs (R-OH), and Lloyd Smucker (R-PA). The others? Who knows? Politics, as we will see, is a peculiar affair. Truth is, of course, the letter was written by Subcommittee staff and approved up the chain of command. That’s just how things work.

The letter concerns [drum roll] Joe Biden’s use of Amtrak charter trains for his recent campaigning in Pennsylvania and Ohio. The Republicans, ever watchful for profligate spending, claimed not to know what Biden paid for the trains and, through their questions suggested that something was rotten on the railroad tracks. Had they bothered to look first, they would have discovered that  “in its disclosures to the Federal Election Commission, the Biden campaign reported spending $265,000 on the train charter. Amtrak says that the starting rate for a charter is $30,000, and that no discount was given.” https://wapo.st/2ThtQCf But who wants to investigate when the opportunity to allege political scandal by an opponent arises? Not Republicans. Notify the media!

The asserted reasons for the Republicans’ deep concerns about Biden’s train charters are that [footnotes omitted],

  • “the Biden campaign’s use of Amtrak’s charter train redirected Amtrak’s scarce resources during a time of record losses, employee layoffs, and service cuts during the COVID-19 pandemic.”  
    • The premise here is that Joe Biden, a private citizen, somehow commandeered Amtrak’s charter train against Amtrak’s wishes and did so at a particularly bad time. The bad time, of course, was the result of Donald Trump’s failure to act against the virus, but never mind that.
  • “We are concerned that the apparent use of a struggling, resource-deprived, publicly-run service for political gain does not serve the best interests of Amtrak or the American taxpayers at this time.”
    • Here the premise is that Biden hurt Amtrak by paying it for services rendered in exchange for “political gain.”
  • “we question whether the Biden campaign’s use of Amtrak caused delays of freight trains at a time when supplies are crucial.”
    • Here the Republican Congressmen show profound regard for the nation’s PPE supplies that it believes, for no apparent reason, may have been delayed by Biden’s charter train.

The implication is that Biden somehow purloined the Amtrak trains for “political gain” when Amtrak would have been better off doing something else with its trains, despite the fact of collapsed demand for travel demand due to Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the Republican research,

According to Amtrak’s guidelines, charter trains are not a part of its “primary objective” of operating its “core train service safely, punctually, and efficiently.” Amtrak’s guidelines for operating charter trains include requirements that the use of Amtrak’s resources will not impact its regular operations, and that the train “must generate sufficient financial benefit for Amtrak to justify the Amtrak resources and assets.”

Moreover, the Republicans’ preliminary investigation revealed the following salacious information:

The Biden charter train included several Amtrak cars and made multiple stops for campaign events where guests were invited aboard the train. The Biden campaign distributed plastic identification cards to riders designed like actual Amtrak tickets. News reports suggested freight train interactions with the stopped charter train and the potential for delays at campaign stops.

The Republicans clearly believed they were on to a big one. “Abuse of train” is a matter to be taken very seriously, and Amtrak is committed to the policy that the truth must come out.

Now, I happen to have it on good authority that Amtrak is both short-staffed now (COVID-19 layoffs, you know) and struggling to get the trains to run on time (big surprise to past Amtrak users). So, I’m going to help out these Republicans who apparently don’t know how to conduct even a minimal investigation but who love to issue press releases. I’m going to suggest answers to the ten questions and offer them, hereby, to Amtrak and the Subcommittee free of charge. This will help enable Amtrak to answer the questions by November 2, as demanded (coincidentally, I’m sure, the day before the election), unless … well, let’s not spoil the surprise. See below and buckle up.

  1. The total cost to Amtrak, including in equipment, resources, and salaries, to operate the Biden campaign charter train.
    • Answer: “A fully-allocated cost analysis of a small set of charters would entail dozens, possibly hundreds, of hours of staff time. Since the Subcommittee has indicated its sensitivity to Amtrak’s resource use, we’re sure you won’t mind if we “hard pass” on this question,” but if you insist we address it, you may expect the answer around June 2021. We don’t mean to be disrespectful but note for the record and in our defense that many congressional subpoenas (you just sent a letter) have been flatly rejected out-of-hand by the administration. What’s good for the goose and all that…

2. The total cost paid to Amtrak for the Biden charter train     and whether the Biden campaign received any financial discount, reduced fares, special treatment, or special services for using Amtrak’s resources to campaign through Pennsylvania and Ohio.

    • Answer: This information was largely covered in the press already. You can find it here: https://wapo.st/3dPoYxv But, be advised, you’re not going to like the reporting on Republicans’ long-standing efforts to cut Amtrak’s budget and the historical data about other candidates who have used Amtrak trains in campaigns.

3. Whether the Biden campaign’s charter train delayed any Amtrak trains or disrupted any Amtrak services.

    • Answer: We’ll look into this when we can, but it’s doubtful. It’s often hard to identify exactly what “causes” a particular delay, but we will get back to you. Soon. Promise.

4. Whether the Biden campaign’s charter train received track preference over any freight trains or other trains.

    • Answer: That information is also difficult to identify since we normally don’t have to keep that data to run a railroad, but, as above, we’ll get back to you. Soon. Promise.

5. Whether riders on the Biden campaign charter train purchased tickets to board the train.

    • Answer: We think you should know the answer to this already. Biden chartered the train, so there would be no reason to sell tickets except possibly as a fund-raising activity, the conduct of which is not Amtrak’s business. Perhaps another federal agency or body of Congress can help you with this. We hope so because we take your need for information very seriously.

6. The number of Amtrak employees taken off their regular duties to staff the Biden campaign charter train, including any overtime hours worked.

    • Answer: We don’t understand the question. Working on charters are part of the “regular duties” of employees when charters are sold. Amtrak is in the passenger train business and charter trains are part of that business. Amtrak, as you know ,or have reason to know, was paid for the charters according to standard charges that cover all costs to the extent possible.

7. A copy of standard operating procedures or similar documents utilized by Amtrak and its employees in operating standard charter trains.

    • Answer: We believe you already possess this information since you cited our procedures in your letter. We respectfully decline to provide duplicate information. We’re sure you understand we are busy trying to run a railroad. If you don’t understand that, we can’t help you.

8. A copy of any documents, standard operating procedures, or guidelines Amtrak has for trains chartered for campaign and/or political events, particularly presidential campaigns.

    • Answer: We are initiating a company-wide search for these documents. Since the request was not time-limited, the hunt for historical versions of any current documents will likely take some time, so don’t expect anything before the election. We will get back to you. Soon. Promise.

9. A historical list of any time Amtrak trains have been previously chartered for campaign usage and the costs of those resources and costs paid by the individual candidate’s campaign.

    • Answer: Well, that’s a doozy, all right. We will certainly initiate a good faith search but estimate this will take the balance of 2020, 2021 and possibly 2022 since trains run by Amtrak and its predecessors for campaigns likely began in 1836 and have been used, according to reported sources, by at least Harrison, Carter, Ford, Bush (both) and Clinton. You did not specify whether you want the costs, whose estimates will necessarily be speculative, in current dollars or constant dollars. We await your clarification.

Meanwhile, be advised that good-faith compliance with the aforementioned requests will require Amtrak to suspend for the foreseeable future all passenger service in the Northeast United States until further notice, starting November 4, 2020. Have a nice day.

10.  A written response on how the Biden campaign charter train remained in compliance with Amtrak guidance and procedures on COVID-19.

    • Amtrak’s COVID-19 practices are set out on our website. You can find our website at www.amtrak.com. We assume the Subcommittee knows how to use a computer. Have a nice day

I believe my suggestions will do much to move this process along at the pace it deserves.

 

Trump’s Presidency in Memes — Round 2

The hits just keep coming so it seems only right to share what I have found on Twitter, where I spend far too much time, and Facebook. This time I will offer a few comments along the way. Just because I can. If Republicans can twist themselves into logical pretzels that would have bedazzled Escher (Google him if new to you — very interesting work) to justify reversing the decisions made to deny a hearing/vote on Merrick Garland for Supreme Court Justice, I can add my thoughts to these precious memes. Note for the record that I did not create any of them — I chanced upon them while searching for coherence on the cited sites. The are the work of people far more creative than I.

Most prominent among Trump’s failures is his decision to downplay the severity of the coronavirus the severity and deadliness of which he knew very early on. He decided to lie about it allegedly to “avoid panic” — making him the only president in modern history to not trust the people with the truth about a killer virus — with massively deadly consequences: 200,000 dead so far and many thousands more with permanent organ damage. And no end in sight.

While Trump’s crimes against humanity are the major story of the hour, we cannot overlook the loss of icon Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The photo on the right is from the Supreme Court the night the news of her passing spread in Washington. RIP fair lady.

Below is a random-ish collection of other memes I found. One note: I have not included a number of photos of Donald Trump inappopriately engaged with daughter Ivanka. I just can’t do that, although I think those photos speak volumes about the nature of the man who sits in the White House. For similar reasons, I did not reproduce the meme that includes the infamous quotations of his comments coming off the bus with Billy somebody about grabbing women. Everyone knows those words by heart, I suspect, so no need to repeat them here. Just remember — that was man now the sitting president of the United States.

One more note: the last shot of the Trump cabinet below had a label: “No misogyny found in our investigation” or something similar. Let your imagination run wild & add your own.

 

 

 

Let Them Eat Cake

Putting aside the apocryphal nature of the title phrase, it fits perfectly the current attitude of the Republican Party in the Senate where they are doing their best to mimic Ebenezer Scrooge by denying suffering workers a meaningful relief program. The situation is so bad that,

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said on Sunday he was not optimistic on reaching agreement soon on a deal for the next round of legislation to provide relief to Americans hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. [https://reut.rs/2EIOKpL]

The key problem should be the easiest to resolve:  whether to extend the $600 per week in extra federal unemployment benefits for Americans that has literally saved millions from total economic destruction. The benefit expired on July 31.

According to the Reuters report,

The Trump administration and some Senate Republicans have been pushing for a reduction in those extra federal benefits, saying they should be tied to wages. Other Senate Republicans have rejected any extension. [emphasis mine]

Treasury Secretary Mnuchin claims Trump supports the enhanced benefits but does not want people to make more when they are unemployed than they would if they had a job. Mnuchin reportedly said, ”we want to make sure there’s the right incentives.” Typically, Republican leaders are more worried about a few people getting an “undeserved benefit” than helping the overwhelming majority of people who are is increasingly desperate need of help.

Yale economists have studied the data on the alleged disincentive to work arising from unemployment benefits and concluded that “expanded jobless benefits did not reduce employment.” https://bit.ly/3gnWdIY At the risk of letting actual economics get in the way of Republican orthodoxy, the Republican Party would do itself and the country a favor if it stopped bowing down to Donald Trump’s uninformed view of work incentives for people with whom he has only enjoyed a master-servant relationship. The Republicans are focused on the wrong, and least significant aspect, of the problem.

In addition to the classically dense Republican view of economics, the most stunning element of this fiasco is that the Democrat-controlled House proposed relief legislation in May – MAY – but it has languished in the Republican-controlled Senate until last week (more than two months of no action) and Republicans remain divided on what should be in the next round.

Meanwhile, America burns while the Republicans fiddle.

It’s time to hold the Republicans’ feet to the fire they have stoked. The coronavirus rages largely out of control around the country and the economy is in a dead stall. Republicans own the disaster because they supported Donald Trump’s ignorance, incompetence and corruption. The time for political posturing is over. It’s time to act and help the people who elected this legislators and expect them to do their job.

Trump’s America – Food Lines in New York City

As I was walking home from an optician’s office today and passing Lincoln Center, I was jolted to see a line of people pulling grocery carts and/or carrying empty satchels. The line snaked down into the garage entry that goes underground on Ninth Avenue and came back up the other side, then went down Ninth to West 62nd and continued to the edge of Damrosch Park which is about halfway down the long block to Amsterdam Avenue. I suspected what was happening but decided, despite the 91-degree heat and my having started my walk at 79th and Broadway, to inquire. A security guard told me that the Food Bank for New York and some other companies were distributing free food to anyone who needed it.

The photo above and the one below capture the scene. It made me sick to my stomach to see this in New York City in 2020. This is where Donald Trump’s mismanagement/neglect and incompetence/stupidity has brought us. Food lines stretching for blocks. The security guard told me the lines had developed at 6 am and remained all day:

I returned to our apartment on West 59th, discussed the situation with my wife who, as usual, leapt into action pulling food items from the kitchen cabinets. We’ve been fortunate to have income during the pandemic and were well stocked with foods of various kinds. We filled our grocery cart two-wheeler (bought when we moved here and never used) and I walked it back to Lincoln Center. I was shocked to see the lines were gone, but there were still a few stragglers approaching the distribution site. I presented our offerings which were gratefully received by the young volunteers.

It’s pretty clear that people are now desperate for basic staples of life. Most of the people in the line were not young and, as I said, it was very hot and humid. This had to be a struggle for many of them.

This, then, shows us yet again the consequences of the utter failure of our national leadership – the Donald Trump administration – to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Americans in bread lines. COVID deaths exceeding 152,000 and climbing.

And what does the president do? He spends his time hawking products of companies whose leaders have praised him and promoting the use of drugs found by extensive medical studies to be ineffective and in many cases dangerous. He promotes the “opinions” of a quack doctor/minister who believes people in their sleep have sex with demons and insists that Trump’s pet drugs are the “cure” for COVID-19. And he dispatches federal law enforcement people to multiple American cities; personnel who wear no identification and use extreme violence to harass and arrest lawful protesters still enraged over the lack of action in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

This is Trump’s America. These are the acts of a tyrant and a fool. We are at the point of no return. Either Trump is put out of office through the electoral process in November or the United States is finished. Period.

Portland – What Do You See?

As I watch the videos and still photos of the chaos in Portland and read comments on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere, I am driven to ponder: how does what I see differ so much from what others see? And why?

To a large degree, we see what we expect to see. Powerful psychological forces, largely if not entirely unconscious, control what parts of a visual field actually register as “seen” in the conscious mind. You likely have experienced this a few times. You didn’t “notice” something that someone else did notice and thought was obvious. Maybe you went looking for something in a room and didn’t “see” something else; you were puzzled when this was pointed out.

So, some of us see the videos and photos of camouflaged, unidentified “soldiers” of an unidentified federal force beating, tear gassing, pepper spraying and generally assaulting protesters who have been on the streets of Portland in the vicinity of the federal courthouse for approaching two months. Two months! Two months and no apparent plan by Portland political leadership to address the concerns that led the protesters to the streets in the first place. Based on videos I have seen, it appears that Trump’s Storm Troopers have committed multiple crimes against Portland residents: unlawful search, assault with a deadly weapon, battery, false arrest (no probable cause) and kidnapping.

Others don’t see that at all. They see only rioters trying to destroy federal and private property, anarchists and enemies of America. Communists and/or fascists and/or socialists. OMG, antifa! So, they post video of fires being set and photos of people wearing what seem to be anti-American insignia or slogans.

As an interesting aside, I think, the president of the United States does not see “fine people … on both sides,” as he did when the neo-Nazis and white supremacists/KKK marched in Charlottesville with torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us.” Trump sees only enemies. He also sees opportunity – a chance to deflect attention away from his catastrophic failure of leadership regarding the coronavirus pandemic. Trump is likely quite happy that Portland is such a visible powder-keg – it’s tailor-made to draw media attention away from the pandemic and the as-yet-unaddressed issue of Russian bounties to the Taliban for killing American soldiers.

To some degree we all have an agenda, perhaps not the same as Trump’s, but an agenda nonetheless. That agenda moderates what we tend to focus on from the multitude of images, accusations and claims emerging from the tumult in Portland.

At this late stage, this alignment is not likely to change. The mayor of Portland probably realized that last night when he joined the crowd to talk with the protesters, many days late and dollars short. He got tear gassed for his effort and, of course, that garnered the biggest headlines.

Step back,  on either side, a moment from the emotional engagement that is triggered by Portland and ask the question: why would all those people, mainly young but now joined by large numbers of women (calling themselves Momtifa), some of whom are pregnant, why would they behave as they are? Does any rational person think those people in Portland are all just hooligans who have been waiting all this time for an excuse to engage in violent activity, risking arrest and serious personal injury? Why is there so much anger in this group that some of them try to physically engage police and try to burn down a courthouse?

It’s easy, and entirely simplistic and simple-minded, to call them a “mob” and other names that have become popular on right-wing talk shows. Don’t those of us who are also angry, on either side, have a responsibility to address the underlying issues rather than just reacting emotionally to the video of the moment? Does anyone really approve of the violence as a long-term viable strategy for effectuating change? If you don’t, then you know that something must be done to address the reasons for the anger that led to the violence.

So, what now? Trump is sending his federal strike force to other cities to beat, tear gas, pepper spray and assault other American citizens, again on the pretext that the (usually Democratic) leadership of those cities cannot sufficiently dominate the streets on their own. We are thus likely to see Portland-like images from these other cities, as the protesters, already frustrated by the customary excuses and inaction, boil over in rage against what seems like, and almost certainly is, a gross and unconstitutional abuse of federal power. I can’t predict the future any better, and perhaps worse, than anyone else, but it’s hard to see how this is going to accomplish anything good.

The main consequence of Trump’s approach is going to be feeding more red meat to the most ravenous segment of his political base that is at once racist and hungry for new “enemies” to hate. Trump actually may benefit politically with his base by keeping the pot boiling over in the “Democrat-run cities” but at what cost to those cities and the country? He continues gaslighting the nation about imminent cures for COVID-19 with his renewed “daily briefings” while promising to suppress violence in cities that “can’t take care of their own business.” In reality, this will just produce more violence.

What, then, is the answer? I believe it must lie in a program somewhat similar to the one announced a while back by Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the outpouring of protests across the country and the world, Cuomo told the cities/towns of New York State: get your act together, enlist the interested parties, sit down with a blank slate and redesign your public safety/public health services in a way that makes sense to you in the local affected community and submit your plan with a budget by April. OR, lose state funding. Cuomo’s approach respects local autonomy, creates strong incentives for joint action and has a definitive timeline for outcomes. Whether local political and other leaders have the skills needed to negotiate new arrangements remains to be seen, but this is a model that at least makes sense as a path forward.

I don’t have enough information about why exactly Portland has become the hotspot for protests, but it seems that the reform process has stalled there. It was good of the mayor to finally come out to engage the protesters, but photo ops among the tear gas are not a solution to what ails the police force in Portland or elsewhere. Recognizing the additional challenges that comes with the pandemic, we cannot have this be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Local governments must rise to the occasion or risk mass carnage inflicted by both angry citizens and federal storm troopers led by unhinged politicians looking to exploit the situation for personal political gain.

The longer the protests go on, the greater the frustration at the lack of progress and the greater the risk of more violence. Unlike prior cases, these protests seem unlikely to punch themselves out. It’s time – well past time – for political leadership to step in, displace the over-reaching of the president and start the process of real and powerful reform. The people are not going to accept the routine continuation of police brutality as the norm in American society.

Pandemic Influences on Higher Education Choices

My good friend and professional colleague, Kevin Mitchell, founded the Business Travel Coalition (http://www.businesstravelcoalition.com/) many years ago and publishes a subscription based daily newsletter of important reporting on the entire travel business. The newsletter, now called tVillage Intelligencer, is seen by thousands around the world.

Kevin is prolific writer and thinker and has published a thoughtful and, as always, well-crafted essay addressing the implications of the pandemic on the decisions being faced by many families and young people whether to go to college or pursue other options. I responded to the piece and, with Kevin’s permission, am republishing the exchange here (without the graphics; his original essay can be seen at  https://publicate.it/p/KqXmdg152169):

A Pandemic Consequence: The Questioning of Higher Education

No idle Memorial Day weekend exercise for some

This weekend as Americans think about and honor the more than one million patriots who gave their precious lives for the promise of America, there is even more on the minds of parents. The economic fallout of the COVID-19 (C19) pandemic is causing parents of children already in college, about to enter college or considering applying to think long and hard if such an expensive commitment is the best and only path for their children.Indeed, there is a counter-push against the American must-go-to-college mantra that is increasing in strength. I believe that like previous pandemics, C19 will accelerate many existing or latent economic and societal trends. The crisis is likely, for example, to push a lot of parents and their children to rethink the cost/benefit of a traditional college education compared with alternative paths.

Sadly, a lot of kids today go to college because all their friends do without considering whether that’s what they really want to do and if it is worth 4 years of their lives and a lot of expense, including lost wages, versus other options. For sure, some have a dream of becoming an architect, physicist, astronaut or the next Olympic track star. However, that’s different in that those young adults have strong personal life-purposes and visions. Still, for others, they want to explore new intellectual, social and cultural experiences that are important and valuable to them to better understand.

Higher education has been justifiably pedestalled as a highly valued tradition in Western and non-Western cultures for its numerous and far reaching societal benefits. My grandmother and grandfather, for example, immigrated from Ireland to America in the early 20th century and originally took jobs in Boston as a maid and policeman respectively. They were determined to put my mother and her sister through college to improve their lives. My mother graduated from Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia in 1940 when very few women of her parents’ means were able to attend college. Both went onto long careers in education touching many thousands of lives and living the American Dream. So, I am all-in for this important tradition of higher education and its linkage to upward social mobility.

Today, however, especially against the backdrop of a C19 economic crisis, where close to 40 million Americans have so far lost jobs in a highly unsure future-looking economy, many are beginning to challenge the assumption that college is the only path on which to responsibly put their children to achieve the American Dream and a productive, fulfilling life.

It’s not just the high cost. Also at issue is the perceived uneven quality of the education itself, the totality of today’s campus experience and the enabling public policy. Many point to the financing model of higher education as a root cause of the $1.6 trillion college tuition debt-bubble that is more likely to burst during this C19 economic malaise as parents making loan payments are increasingly under financial duress. And let’s not forget the superrich buying their kids’ entry to prestigious universities; not a good look for American society or higher education! In combination, these developments reinforce some parents’ weariness and instincts that it’s time for a revalidation of assumptions. This should worry U.S. institutions of higher learning that have already seen student enrollments decline every year since 2011.

It’s fair to ask if recent graduates are better prepared to work hard, take risks and achieve success than if they had chosen to take a different path, or waited for a while until they discovered their keen interests or passions to make the best possible decisions for themselves.

Perhaps with some irony, a pandemic is once again poised to insert itself in the trajectory of higher education – which has been forever short on innovation and long on cost increases. University education was democratized for the masses as an eventual consequence of the Bubonic Plague in the 14th century wherein prior to that time those of us with European roots had ancestors some 75% of whom were serfs largely confined to their lords’ fields and heavy-handed restrictions. However, while there is something very important about the pursuit of university study that should be understood, valued and safeguarded, there is reason for healthy skepticism as well.

I graduated from St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia in 1980 with a 4-year tuition debt of a mere $10K, which I easily paid off in 3 years. Was it worth it for me? Yes, because I learned that jobs in a big company without a degree were virtually non-existent. In my case, a bachelor’s degree in international relations apparently provided an employer with an indication of some competence and/or other positive attributes. I was offered a job by CIGNA Corp.

Beyond getting my foot in the door at CIGNA, did I secure new skills and knowledge from investing four years of my life and working full-time, year-round? Yes. Was it an even-trade for the benefit? Leaving aside that it represented the key to the CIGNA door, my answer is a resounding no. Very little of what I learned in class helped me in my career and I did not benefit from the interactions of living on campus with fellow students because I lived at home.

The university model should be fundamentally reformed. However, it should also be cherished and safeguarded while culturally celebrating the upward-mobility successes available to those in America who want to strike out with personal visions and work hard and achieve their goals without four-year college degrees. Options include self-education, job training, trade schools and technical certifications, as an example, for aircraft mechanics.

The classic American expression “self-made man” was coined in 1832 by U.S. Senator Henry Clay to acknowledge the inner promise and strength of individuals who work hard and succeed irrespective of the circumstances in which they find themselves. There are enough examples in America to fill a university library.

Born poor in Kentucky, and with a total of one year of school, self-educated Abraham Lincoln led our country through its most profound crisis ever during the American Civil War abolishing slavery and fundamentally modernizing the American economy. Lincoln pursued a path that diverged from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Penn, Haverford, Fordham and other institutions accepting students at that time.

Lincoln, instead, chose a version of distance-learning enabled by borrowed books to become a self-taught lawyer at age 25, state legislator, Member of Congress and President of the United States. With some irony, in 1862 Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Land-Grant Act enabling the creation of soon-to-become prestigious universities such as Cornell, MIT, Penn State, Rutgers, Ohio State, Texas A&M, West Virginia and the University of California.

Not such a bad path, role model or agent of change! 

Perhaps it would be counter-intuitive, but fruitful, for colleges and universities to celebrate and embrace alternative paths to four-year degrees and lifelong learning and reinvent themselves by taking a leadership role in a comprehensive national initiative to prepare future generations of Americans to be productive, highly successful citizens. Lincoln, the epitome of the self-made man, was able to appreciate accomplishment without the benefit of a college degree and, at the same time, to champion the strategic importance to our nation of expanding institutions of higher learning.As pandemics are wont to do, I am sure many Americans this Memorial Day weekend are using the reflective time to think over many long-held assumptions about important components of their lives from college, to work-life balances, to placing their parents in nursing homes.

My response:

I read with great interest your essay on the questioning of higher education as a partial result of the economic disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic. I have been mulling this subject for a long time, inspired by some much earlier published pieces in which (1) a successful entrepreneur (one of your “self-made men”) argued that college was useless, that his son would have to make his way as an innovator, just like dad, or fail, without wasting time in college; (2) arguments were presented that the cost-benefit analysis, comparing future earning differentials for college graduates v. non-college people showed conclusively that, as you have suggested, it’s “not worth it.”

Having been blessed with a scholarship-financed liberal arts education at an Ivy League college, also with associated debt to repay, I must dissent.

You are no doubt correct that the economic destruction wrought by the pandemic will force many to rethink their ability to pay for a college education. This is but one of the many tragedies to emerge from the pandemic. But that, I suggest, is a separate issue from whether a college education is so valuable that, if the opportunity exists, it should almost always be chosen. The value is properly determined not simply by traditional “cost benefit” analysis but by a broader range of intangible considerations.

For example, an on-campus college education presents the opportunity for young people to engage with a range of intellectual and other mind-expanding stimuli in an atmosphere that, if properly run, expands understanding of how the world works. It forces students to confront different points of view and to think more deeply about hard questions about which they previously just assumed the answers. They have the opportunity to confront and understand complexity. Ultimately, they learn to think, often about subjects they had no original interest in and would never have been touched by in the absence of the “cloistered” college experience.

Viewed this way, college is not just a trade school, a place where you learn how to do something. It’s a place where you come to understand what you can and should be doing and then you move on to more advanced studies or enter the world and take up the rest through direct experience.

I do not suggest, however, that college is right or necessary for everyone. But it is right for most young people who life paths are still being sorted at the time college is an option .It is not just the ticket to superior employment – it is the essential prerequisite to the fully examined life.

I believe we are seeing now in our society the consequences of having a large population of adults who did not have this experience. The polls refer to them as the “non-college educated white people.” They tend to support Donald Trump, to revere destructive rhetoric, support anti-immigrant and anti-diversity policies, to “hate” the “other,” defined as people not like them. Their thought processes embrace ideas like “fake news” and are unable to distinguish truth from ideology. They don’t think deeply about anything because they’ve never been required to do so. They see themselves as victims and engage in much magical thinking, including attraction to conspiracy theories.

Obviously, not all non-college educated people are like that but I believe the shockingly large segment of the American population that the above does describe is in significant part a function of the lack of higher education and the exposure to “other” ideas and “other” people that such education most often provides.

It would be ideal, of course, if the United States offered both paths, so that those people who only want to learn a trade and pursue the resulting life can do so. In the past the country did have trade schools but the shifting of manufacturing to foreign sources caused job opportunities in many trades to dry up, leading to the closure of many related educational opportunities. The demand now is for computer science and related skills and while there are schools devoted largely to teaching those things, the emerging students will likely lead more rewarding lives, all aspects considered, if they also have some learning experiences in literature, history and the like.

You and I are probably not as far apart as might appear with respect to the above. Where we more seriously diverge, I suspect, is regarding the notion of the “self-made man,” for which you cite Abraham Lincoln as a stellar example of what can happen to individuals with the “inner promise and strength … who work hard and succeed irrespective of the circumstances in which they find themselves.” Lincoln certainly stands out in the pantheon of such people, but I suggest that the chances today of more “Lincolns,” or even more Steve Jobs emerging and doing great works, as opposed to simply making themselves rich with some new technology they imagined, is slimmer than ever.

That is not just a consequence of the greater complexity of today’s knowledge-demands; the system has been rigged to suppress many of the potential innovators. I wrote about this in my blog post entitled, The Larger Meaning of “Hidden Figures” https://bit.ly/2TGx172, the gist of which was expressed thus,

 As bad as slavery, Jim Crow and segregation were for the direct victims, and most of us cannot comprehend how it was to be the constant target of such practices every  day of our lives with no hope of change, the larger lesson from this movie is, I believe, the staggering cost to everyone, in the United States and everywhere, of the lost  contributions and achievements of which these practices deprived us.  And still do.

In the millions of people directly suppressed by these practices, it is a certainty that there were multitudes of people who would, in other circumstances, have become  great scientists, inventors, artists, musicians, athletes, caregivers, writers, teachers and on and on. All of us have lost forever the benefits of the achievements of those  people who never had a chance to develop into their individual potentials as human beings. The frightened people of no vision who perpetuated these practices from    America’s earliest days even to today in some places have deprived the country and the world of an immeasurable gift.

One of the most surprising aspects of that blog post, written in in early 2017, is that visitors to the blog to this day seek it out more than anything else I have written. From where I sit, there may still be some chances for so-called “self-made men” to emerge but the odds are heavily against them. And, I must say, that the term “self-made,” in my opinion, grossly understates the contribution that others made to all such people, including Abraham Lincoln properly understood.

In conclusion, having staked that position, I now declare that I agree strongly with you regarding the need for reform in our education system. Those reforms should certainly include opportunities for future “tradesmen” to learn and proceed with an honorable path through life. They should, I think, also provide for a viable economic path to and through higher education so that everyone who wants to study anything serious should be able to do so without assuming overwhelming debt that take decades to repay and have all manner of deleterious impacts on individuals, families and society at large. I readily confess I don’t know how to get to that idyllic state, but the price we pay as a society of failing at this may well be our undoing, not just as a nation-state but as a civilization.

COVID-19 & New American Mantra: I Only Care About Me

It was Memorial Day. What is that, exactly? It’s a day to remember and honor Americans who died while serving in the U.S. military, especially those who died in combat. Whether or not you approve or disapprove of a particular war, or indeed all wars, it is, in concept and intention, a somber occasion. It’s a time for reflection and showing respect.

The United States has adopted some strange ways of recognizing this occasion, although the phenomenon is not unique to Memorial Day. Most people get the day off from work. Some watch the televised memorials over the weekend; some watch the president and other dignitaries pay their respects officially by, for example, placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery.

Many others see the day only as a holiday occasion and this year, in particular, there was greater emphasis on the “re-opening” of the country following the various lockdowns driven by the coronavirus epidemic. I have no idea what the ratio was of celebrants to serious observers, but if the scene on Alabama’s beaches is any guide, a very large number of Americans saw this day as simply an excuse to abandon caution and head out for a good time. Multiple videos showed massive crowding at swimming pools in Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri and the Ace Speedway in North Carolina, among others. Masks and social distancing were largely absent. St. Louis County officials called the scenes an “international example of bad judgment.” https://wapo.st/3gqBjcD

To be clear, I don’t care much what any individual chooses to do regarding protecting himself or throwing caution to the winds in pursuit of belief that he has a constitutional right to do what he pleases. Freedom, American values and all of that, are what each individual decides they mean for herself.

However, the line is drawn when an individual’s choices infringe on the rights and values of others, including the right to be protected from dangerous behavior. This is why we have speed limits, stop signs, protection of minors from certain types of work and many other restrictions on what we might individually be inclined to do. This is not hard to understand. True, there are violations of the speed limit, seat belt laws and the others every day by someone somewhere, often many someones. According to Rhino Lawyers, on average the police issue 112,000 driving citations a day! https://bit.ly/3gndAKd Some of these are for inadvertent mistakes and many are for deliberate decisions to, for example, disobey speed limits. And, of course, most violators of the rules of the road are not brought to justice. Sometimes, these behaviors lead to tragedies, resulting in deaths, disabilities, lawsuits and so on.

We are in the middle of a global health pandemic with similar deadly consequences, so far, in the United States for 100,000 individuals (exactly 99,498 as I write) and roughly as many families. Globally, the deaths exceed 348,000 out of more than 5.5 million cases. It is highly likely that the reported numbers understate the actual case and death toll. https://bit.ly/2ZL3soy No end is in sight. There is no “remedy” or “cure” that can be administered reliably to the stricken. All ages and demographics are affected, some more than others, but no sector is immune. There is no vaccine and none in the offing any time soon. Many more will fall ill and many more will die before this is “over,” if it ever is. Like the flu, COVID-19 may be with us forever.

Returning then to individual behavior, I repeat that if an individual wants to risk his life on the chance that he won’t be infected, so be it. Do whatever you want with your own life, provided that doing so does not place others involuntarily at risk.

Consider these statements from people interviewed at a packed Alabama beach yesterday, where there was no active enforcement of the policy that groups should consist only of same-family members:

“I’m just here to have fun and meet everybody and be cool, you know.”

Recent college graduate: “I don’t want to die but if [death] is what God has in store for my life, that’s ok.”

“If we get it, we get it…. We’re just going to handle it as a family and just get over it because that’s what a family does.”

“People die from the flu also.”

“I get it, I get it. The survival rate is so high…. we’re all going to get sick from something eventually.”

“If he’s not wearing a mask, I’m not wearing a mask; if he’s not worried, I’m not worried,” young male referencing Donald Trump.

“When it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go.”

[https://cnn.it/3d4HG3c]

Such fatalism is fine for individuals who have no contact with other people but most of these people likely have plenty of social contacts. Their “decision” to risk sickness, permanent injury and even death at the hands of the coronavirus thus exposes many others to the same risk whether they want to take it or not.

This is a degree of selfishness, openly and proudly displayed, that should be of profound concern to everyone. These people are living by the “principle” that says, “I only care about me and no one else. My rights and privileges, my freedoms to do whatever I want are more important than the welfare of anyone else that I may come in contact with, including children, elderly people with compromised immune systems or co-morbidities. I am all that matters. Me, Me, Me.”

This comes not just from the very young or the older young restless/reckless who often think they are invulnerable and whose cerebral cortexes, science informs us, are not fully developed and often make bad decisions. People of all ages and with families were interviewed on the Alabama beach. These are our “fellow Americans,” for whose “freedoms,” many men and women gave their lives in foreign wars. I doubt that if we could ask the fallen warriors whether this is what they meant to sacrifice for, most all would say, “no, we did not act selflessly just so others could be so selfish and indifferent to the welfare of others.”

But this is the contemporary reality of life in the United States. It’s not happening in just one place and it’s not just the product of needing to re-open the economy. This is blatant selfish behavior. These people include some of the angry, usually white, people who have carried guns into some state capitols, without being challenged, to demand re-opening. Like the people at the beaches and pools this weekend, they refuse to wear masks or engage in social distancing to protect others. While shouting and waving flags and signs about their “rights,” these selfish people make clear that don’t give a damn about anyone but themselves. Other people’s rights to be free of disease and to avoid contact with high-risk people and behaviors mean nothing to them.

Having witnessed the ravages of this disease up close and personal, my patience with these people has been consumed. The tank is empty. I am fearful of my reaction if I continue to encounter unmasked people on the streets of New York when we dare to venture out. They were everywhere this Memorial Day weekend when we walked for the first time in two months. The Governor of New York has observed that wearing a mask is simply the “right thing to do.” Still, many are unmoved. They just don’t care.

As tempting as it is to wish they all get infected, that would just expose even more people, including health care workers, to the consequences of their reckless and morally bankrupt insensitivity and that would be wrong. So, I try not to be vengeful. It is hard. This kind of indifference to the fate of other people seems un-American. It seems inhuman. No one can claim valid religious conviction to justify this, though many do so. There is no true religion anywhere that says, “do for yourself and to hell with everyone else.” That, however, is where we are.

 

 

Some Lessons Learned from the Pandemic

In listening to another press briefing by New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, I have noticed that he has consistently emphasized that much of what is being experienced, and governments’ responses, has never been faced in modern times. His related point is that if we want to avoid repeating the results of the past few months, we must learn from these experiences and change the way we do things going forward. We should not, he argues, just seek to restore everything from the past but build a new and better future based on the lessons learned during the pandemic. The possibilities are probably limitless but a few of them leap out at me.

Reliance on Foreign Supply

One big one is that as a society, we have come to rely on foreign sources, often but not solely from China, for many critical supplies, including medical supplies that are essential to addressing pandemic-driven illness. Cuomo correctly notes that the United States was ill-prepared to face an emergency of this nature, even though health experts have been predicting for years that a serious pandemic was virtually certain to occur.

How did we come to this situation? At the root of it, I suggest, is the “consumer mentality” of our evolved culture. Recognizing how broadly I am generalizing, it seems true that Americans generally lust for more and more “stuff” and the cheaper the price, the better. To accommodate this demand, our “free market” system of commerce turns to markets where labor and other factors permit the mass production of almost everything we lust for at prices below what they could be produced for domestically, remarkably even after the cost of transportation is accounted for. If you examine the origin labels on most of what you buy, you will see that most of it comes from China, South Korea, Vietnam and other countries in the Far East that are as far from here as you can physically get (except possibly for Australia).

Faced with these challenges from “foreign competition,” many American companies have closed their U.S. facilities and “shipped production overseas.” These decisions are supported, and sometimes even promoted, by the U.S. tax code, with the result that domestic jobs in hundreds of industries have been decimated and entire communities and even whole cities have been laid to waste. Youngstown, Ohio is one I am familiar with but there are many others all over the country.

These outcomes have not changed the demand for ever cheaper goods and have permitted companies like Amazon to dominate the supply chain for an astounding array of goods and services. If we are to believe the “reviews” on Amazon and elsewhere, much of what is produced in China and delivered in the U.S. is of low quality, but it’s “cheap” and it sells. What doesn’t sell is down-streamed through a largely invisible chain of distribution and re-distribution that sees a lot of this “stuff” for sale in so-called “dollar stores” and even second-hand shops.

If the only products we were considering were consumer electronics and such, the American lust for more and cheaper stuff would be somewhat less concerning, unless you ask someone who lives in a community devastated by the “foreign competition” that sucked local jobs dry and left the workers with nothing productive or remunerative to do.

Now comes the pandemic and we discover to our deep sorrow that we don’t have enough medical supplies to provide care of the swelling numbers of patients, many more of whom are going to die without it. Getting more supplies is now a global issue, as competition for scarce supplies erupts among countries and, we now learn, even between the states and our own federal government. The result is higher prices for everyone and still there is often a shortage requiring ordinary citizens to, for example, sew masks to try to protect healthcare workers on the front lines of patient care. If you’ve tried to buy your own masks from a foreign supplier, you may have learned, as I did, that much of the foreign supply is poorly made and often useless. And, of course, mask prices are now through the roof because government health policies are rigorously promoting/requiring mask use.

Another issue is that the federal government has allowed more than 100 coronavirus tests into the marketplace without full review. Many of these tests are sub-standard or worse. https://wapo.st/3c7V4TC

The lesson is clear, although the solutions are complicated and will, as with all major changes, take time. The United States should never again allow itself to be dependent on any foreign country for critical medical supplies. There will, of course, be a price to be paid for achieving this. Some things likely will cost more to produce here than in the “labor mills” of China. Americans will not willingly submit to the mass-production practices, and attendant low wages and poor working conditions, that dominate Chinese and other Far East manufacturing processes. So be it. Related to this is the question of foreign ownership of American companies, a readily available backdoor to foreign control of American business. We have to learn and change or face these problems all over again.

Tying Access to Health Insurance to Employment

Most Americans of working age buy health insurance provided/purchased through their employer. Putting aside ongoing issues of price/quality and coverage of options, not to mention extraordinary complexity of what is and is not covered, the real problem with this system is that when you lose your job, you lose your insurance as well. In normal circumstances, you have the option of paying for interim coverage through the COBRA program but there is no employer contribution, so the premiums are extremely high. There is also a time limit. COBRA can be a life-saver but it is economically challenging to put it mildly and highly disruptive.

The root problem is the connection between employment and insurance. There is no reason I know that this connection is immutable. Other systems exist in developed countries and seem to produce adequate or even superior protection for insureds. I am not an expert in all this, but it seems clear from the public dialogue about this that many people are invested in the current system, including the insurance companies. Many people are also opposed to greater direct government involvement on the grounds that it is “socialism.” The result is that the public discussion has partisan and irrational components that prevent a rational consideration of alternatives.

Of course, there is the issue of Obamacare that was intended to, among other things, give people the option of obtaining healthcare independent of an employer. In the gig economy that’s vital because so many people are independent contractors. When everyone’s health is tied together, as it is in a pandemic, we should be very concerned about people without health insurance and sick leave, but the Trump administration is working very hard to destroy Obamacare without proposing a replacement. Trump has, of course, denied that he is trying to end Obamacare and in particular has denied that he wants to eliminate insurance coverage of pre-existing conditions. Trump is lying about that. The Department of Justice is actively pressing litigation that would do precisely what Trump says he is not trying to do.

It is, however, clear that viable alternatives to the present system, whether it is Obamacare or something else, do exist and should be evaluated in a calmer, more rational way. I don’t know how to get there, but our society as a whole is paying a dear price for its failure to address this issue. The pandemic that has, as of this writing, led to nearly 40 million unemployed persons, has pushed evaluation of this issue to the top of the list of “must do” tasks as the United States tries to figure out what its future will be.