Archive for the ‘Public Policy’ Category

The test of reality

June 23, 2020

For decades, the USA and other rich nations have had the luxury of dealing with self-created problems.’

Some were self-created (deregulation of finance, foreign intervention), some symbolic (the border wall, Confederate statues) and some imaginary (the Russiagate plot).

Now, however, we’re up against real things.  Pandemics don’t care about public opinion polls.  Climate change doesn’t care about the limits of the politically possible.

Some nations are demonstrating the resiliency needed to rise to these challenges.  Some aren’t.  In a few years, we’ll have the results of real-life experiments as to what works and what doesn’t.

My hope is that we Americans will learn from experience.  My fear is that we will be unable to endure the pain of facing reality and the consequences of what we have allowed our rulers to do.

COVID-19 is the quiz, climate change is the final exam by Jeff Masters for Yale Climate Connections.

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Unbundle the police, and license the police

June 19, 2020

What does the slogan, “defund the police,” actually mean?  It can mean anything from changing budget priorities to shutting down police departments.  There also is a middle ground, which I call “unbundle the police.”

In the USA, local and state governments have been defunding public education, road maintenance and many other functions of government, while largely leaving police budgets untouched, just as the national government has been defunding scientific research, the social safety net and the like while leaving the military budget untouched.

The moderate advocates of “defund the police” simply advocate a shift in priorities: Cut the police budget and shift funds to education, social work, infrastructure and other public needs.

But there are those who think that American police departments have become so dysfunctional and abusive that they simply should be shut down.  These are mainly activists who’ve been struggling for police reform for years, and been thwarted at every turn by the police brotherhood.

The “unbundle the police” approach is an alternative to abolishing the police.  Rather it means a downsizing of the duties of the police.

The police, along with the military, are the only public servants authorized to use deadly force in the performance of their duties.  But how many of the duties the police now perform require that power?

Maybe the best way to defund the police would be to stop paying police to do things that can be done by someone without a gun, a Taser and club.

Economist Alex Tabarrok, for example, asks why the police are in charge of road safety.

It’s an unacknowledged peculiarity that police are in charge of road safety. Why should the arm of the state that investigates murder, rape and robbery also give out traffic tickets?  Traffic stops are the most common reason for contact with the police.

I (allegedly) rolled through a stop sign in the neighborhood and was stopped.  It was uncomfortable–hands on the wheel, don’t make any sudden moves, be polite etc. and I am a white guy.  

Traffic stops can be much more uncomfortable for minorities, which makes the police uncomfortable.  Many of the police homicides, such as the killing of Philando Castile happened at ordinary traffic stops.  But why do we need armed men (mostly) to issue a traffic citation?

Don’t use a hammer if you don’t need to pound a nail. Road safety does not require a hammer.  The responsibility for handing out speeding tickets and citations should be handled by a unarmed agency.

Put the safety patrol in bright yellow cars and have them carry a bit of extra gasoline and jumper cables to help stranded motorists as part of their job—make road safety nice.  Highways England hires traffic officers for some of these tasks (although they are not yet authorized to issue speeding tickets).

Similarly, the police have no expertise in dealing with the mentally ill or with the homeless—jobs like that should be farmed out to other agencies.

Notice that we have lots of other safety issues that are not handled by the police.  Restaurant inspectors, for example, do over a million restaurant inspectors annually but they don’t investigate murder or drug charges and they are not armed.  Perhaps not coincidentally, restaurant inspectors are not often accused of inspector brutality, “Your honor, I swear I thought he was reaching for a knife….”.  [snip]

Defunding the police, whatever that means, is a political non-starter. But we can unbundle the police.

Source: Marginal REVOLUTION

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Police reforms that won’t change much

June 18, 2020

In size and scope, the Black Lives Matter protests against police killings are like nothing else in my adult lifetime.

Unjustified police killings are just an extreme example of the routine abuse experienced by poor and black people at the hands of police, which in turn is just of the ways in which poor and black Americans are abused.  Protesting police killings is just a start, but it’s a good place to start.

Public opinion polls show that a majority of Americans of all races are fed up with the way police treat poor and black people.  Yet, at the same time, only a minority want to get rid of policing all together.  The majority, including a majority of black people, just wants police to do their jobs.  But is this even possible?

Click to enlarge.  Source: 8can’twait

Click to enlarge. Source: Campaign Zero.

Very few people in any occupation want activities to be scrutinized by outsiders.  Physicians and lawyers hardly ever report malpractice by other physicians and lawyers.  We newspaper reporters do not react well to ombudsmen scrutinizing our writings.

We feel that nobody understands what we do except each other.  When we see one of our own kind make a big mistake, our reaction is, “There but for the grace of God go I!”  But the police are a special case.

The sociologist Max Weber defined the state as the institution that has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.  Two institutions are given the legal power to use deadly force—the military externally, the police internally.

Power corrupts.  The power to order people around, and the authorization to use deadly force, are a temptation that a lot of people cannot resist.  It stands to reason that police work will attract the wrong kind of person.

Statistics indicate that the rate of spousal abuse is four times as high among police officers as among the general public.  Maybe potential abusers are attracted to police work; maybe the strain of police work leads men to become abusers.  But it stands to reason that someone who is abusive at home will be abusive on the street.

Police typically consider themselves a warrior brotherhood.  They think they are misunderstood and abused by the voting public and their elected representatives, and do not feel compelled to obey.  In local politics, they are the nearest equivalent to the military-industrial complex and secret intelligence agencies—the so-called “deep state”—on the national scene.

The issue is not rules they should follow.  The issue is how to get them to follow rules.

This is not just a problem of African-Americans and other minorities.  Black Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white Americans.  But a non-Hispanic white American is 26 times more likely to be killed by police gunfire than a German is in Germany.  Police killings are numerous in Montana, West Virginia and Wyoming, where victims are almost always white.  The Black Lives Matter protest movement may be saving white lives as well as black lives.

I don’t want to make sweeping generalizations about police.  I don’t have either the personal experience or the research work to do that.  I am sure there are many police officers who quietly do their jobs without abusing anybody.  But the response of police departments to high-profile abuse cases, past and present, shows the strength of resistance to change.

In other words, changing the rules is not enough.

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This time it really is different

June 12, 2020

I didn’t see this coming.

I never expected the George Floyd protests to be so large and to have such an impact.

They haven’t won yet.  The tide could yet recede.  Rogue police departments are strongly entrenched.

But they’re closer to changing policing in the USA than I would have thought possible just a couple of months ago.

They demonstrate that positive change is possible, even when the two major U.S. political parties offer only a choice of evils.

The protests are remarkable for their size and scope, for the fact that they continue day after day and for the fact that the powers that be are afraid of them.

The protests are remarkable for the interracial character in all aspects, good and bad.  The first person arrested for setting fire to a Minneapolis police station was white.

I think that police abuse of power is a great evil, and I applaud those who are doing something about it.

Still, when you consider that the USA is failing to respond adequately to the coronavirus pandemic, to the economic recession and to catastrophic storms, floods and fires caused by climate change, it is surprising that police killings are the issue that sparked protests.  I write this as an observation, not a criticism.

I think the reason is the great change in white Americans’ attitude toward race and racism that has taken place in just the past five or ten years.  The writer Matthew Yglesias calls this The Great Awokening.

This change did not come out of nowhere.  Anti-racism activists in colleges, liberal churches and the major newspapers and broadcasters have been working to change the attitudes of white people toward race, and they have succeeded.

A majority of white Americans recognize that racism is a problem, and a majority of liberal white Democrats are more hard-line on racial issues than average black people are.

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Is green technology a mirage?

June 9, 2020

If a problem cannot be solved, it may not be a problem, but a fact.  [Attributed to Donald Rumsfeld]

It is possible to ignore reality, but it is not possible to ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.  [Attributed to Ayn Rand]

A new Michael Moore movie, “Planet of the Humans,” is an attack on the renewable energy movement.  Environmentalists by and large are outraged, and some demanded the movie be suppressed.

It actually was taken down from YouTube for 11 days, but it’s back up now.  If it is taken down again, you can view it on the Planet of the Humans Home page.

It runs for 100 minutes, which is a long time to watch something on a computer screen.  But it held my interest, and maybe it would hold yours, too.

In the first part of the movie, director Jeff Gibbs shows that solar panels and windmills are built through energy-intensive industrial processes and that they are made of materials such as high-grade quartz and rare earths that are scarce and non-renewable.

Solar panels and windmills wear out and have to be replaced.  In one scene, he visits Daggett, California, which pioneered in the development of solar and wind energy.  He sees a wasteland of dilapidated panels and windmills, because the pioneers couldn’t afford to keep them up.

And they don’t even fully replace fossil fuels.  Because of variability of sun and wind, backup electrical generators have to keep spinning, and the ones that aren’t hydroelectric use coal, gas and nuclear fuel.

In the second part, he looks at the environmental destruction caused by biomass energy.  There is no gain from freeing yourself from dependence on coal companies and embracing logging companies.

He makes a big point of pointing out the corporate ties of environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and of environmentalists such as Al Gore, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Richard Branson and even Bill McKibben.

He questions the whole premise, promoted by advocates such as Al Gore, that it is possible for middle-class Americans to enjoy our current material standard of living simply by adopting a new technology.

Fossil fuels made possible a world with an exponentially increasing population with the average individual using an ever-increasing amount of fuel and raw materials, Gibbs said.  Such a world isn’t sustainable, he said.

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Camden, N.J., police force was disbanded

June 8, 2020

George Floyd protest in Camden, NJ.  (Cherry Hill Courier-Post)

Some Black Lives Matter protestors are demanding that their local police departments be disbanded.  This actually was done in Camden, N.J., in 2013, with good results.

Camden, with a present population of just under 74,000, is just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. Despite its small size, it was famous for its high crime rate.

Its murder rate was five times as great as Philadelphia’s and 18 times as great as New York City’s.

Police in Camden took an average of one hour to respond to 911 calls, which is six times the national average.

The city paid out millions of dollars in damages to citizens whose convictions were overturned because of planted evidence, false reports and other forms of police misconduct,

Then the city dissolved its police force and invited Camden County to form a new force.

According to Jim Epstein, writing in Reason magazine, the new force was more effective because it wasn’t bound by the old union contract.

Civilians were hired to do the desk jobs, and all police officers were sent out to walk beats.  Advanced surveillance technology is pinpoint the location of any gunshot and the nearest police car.  Recruiters sought candidates with inter-personal skills, and training emphasized community-building tactics.

This may not be exactly what the Black Lives Matter protestors had in mind.  I think some of them were thinking more of replacing professional police with beefed-up neighborhood watch patrols or something like that.  But they probably would approve of the results.

Based on Epstein’s report, I think the biggest change is a change in thinking.  Too many police think of themselves as a warrior brotherhood.  They think like a military force whose goal is domination.

The new force, by all accounts, has a “protect and serve” mentality.  This makes all the difference.

Camden is still an extremely poor community.  Its murder and violent crime rates are still relatively high.  There are problems still to be worked out, the Cherry Hill Courier-Post reported; many have to do with the inexperience of many members of the new force.

And there would be problems in trying to duplicate their effort with populations and police departments as large as Minneapolis’s or Chicago’s.

Still, it shows that bad policing is not a given.  It is possible to do something about it.

There was no civil disorder in Camden as a result of Black Lives Matter demonstrations.  The police, in fact, participated.

LINKS

How Cops Are Beating Crime in America’s Poorest City by Jim Epstein for Reason.

Revisiting Camden by Alex Tabarrok for Marginal REVOLUTION.

As chaos engulfed Philadelphia, peace reigned across river in Camden by Phaedra Trehan for the Cherry Hill (NJ) Courier-Post.

Do We Need More Police or Better Police? by Daniel Bier for Freethinker.  Interesting research and analysis.  [Added Later]

Camden Is Not a Blueprint for Disbanding the Police by Rann Miller for Truthout.  [Added 6/17/2020]  Important.

Unsafe mass protests can spread the virus

June 7, 2020

[Update 6/21/2020] Evidently outdoor protests were not as dangerous as feared.

It Doesn’t Look As If the George Floyd Protests Are Causing a Coronavirus Spike by Fred Kaplan for Slate.

Of course outdoor gatherings of people wearing masks are different from indoor gatherings of people unmasked.

Nicholas A. Christakis, a Yale professor whose specialty is how human biology and health are affected by social networks, wrote a Twitter thread about how mass protests can promote the spread of the coronavirus.

While protestors have the right to risk their own lives, they are likely to spread the disease into their own communities if infected.

He said it is possible to mitigate risk by means of masks and social distancing.  He also called upon police to avoid the use of tear case and to not throw protesters together in crowded cells.

Certain fundamental Protestant and Pentecostal churches have held services in defiance of social distancing rules.  Some members have become infected and some have died.

People who gather in mass protests risk the same fate.  The virus is a blind force of nature.  It doesn’t care if your religion is true or your cause is just.  It will spread just the same to you and, through you, to the people you care about.

During the urban riots in late 1960s and early 1970s, we US Americans talked about “long, hot summers.”  Now we’re looking forward to a summer of public unrest and mass protests against the backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis and a bitterly-contested presidential election.  Interesting times!

LINKS

Suddenly Public Health Officials Say Social Justice Matters More Than Social Distance by Dan Diamond for POLITICO.

Nicholas A. Christakis Thread: “I want to go on record with obvious point…”

Nicholas A. Christakis Thread Reader.  A copy.

The Perils of Writing a Provocative Email at Yale by Conor Friedersdorf for The Atlantic.

A World Historical Tragedy by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative.

Greta Thunberg urges climate protests to move online because of coronavirus outbreaks by Justine Caima for The Verge.  [Added Later]

Thomas Piketty on corporate co-determination

June 5, 2020

I’ve written a good bit about Thomas Piketty’s new book.  Click on the Capital and Ideology tag to read my previous posts about it.  In this post, I’m going to discuss his ideas on corporate governance.

Great corporations typically begin with an individual who has a vision—a Steve Jobs, a Walt Disney, a George Eastman, a Henry Ford, a Soichiro Honda or a Jack Ma.

The drive and creativity of the individuals make the companies what they are.  Over time, though, the companies devolve into authoritarian bureaucracies, little junior watered-down versions of the Soviet Union.

Click to enlarge.  Source: Oxford Law Faculty

The goal of reform would be how to prevent corporate abuse without stifling enterprise and beneficial innovation.  Piketty’s solution is to adopt German-Scandinavian co-determination, under which corporations of a certain size have to allow employees to choose a certain number of corporate directors.

In Germany, according to Piketty,  all firms with more than 2,000 employees must reserve half the seats on their oversight committees to worker representatives.  All firms with 500 to 1,999 employees must reserve a third of their oversight committee seats to worker representatives.  There also are factory committees with union representatives who have a say one work rules and training.

However, in Germany, the oversight committees only supervise day-to-day operations of companies.  Policy is set by directorates, on which workers have no representation.

Other countries reserve one-third of seats for workers on companies of a certain size.  In Sweden, the threshold is 35 employees; in Norway, 50 employees; in Austria, 500 employees.

In April 2018, according to Wikipedia, U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin, Elizabeth Warren and Brian Schatz sponsored the Reward Work Act,  which would amend federal legislation to require all companies listed on national stock exchanges to have one-third board representation for workers.  Polls showed majority support among Americans for the measure.

In August 2018, Elizabeth Warren sponsored a new Accountable Capitalism Act that would require 40 percent of the board of directors be elected by employees in federal corporations with taxable incomes over $1 billion.

In Britain, the Bullock Report in 1977, during the Harold Wilson administration, called for co-determination in big businesses based on the formula 2x + y. In this, workers and stockholders would have equal representation on boards of directors, but there would be two government representatives to break a tie.  It never became reality.

In practice, even though workers have a voice, the final authority rests with the owners.  I think there still is a benefit to having worker representatives.

Employees usually know things about how companies operate that the top managers don’t.  This can be valuable in avoiding the Stupidity Paradox, in which layers of bureaucrats demand good news and truthful information doesn’t filter up.

It’s also good for employees, especially union representatives, to have access to the same information that top management has.  Of course all these desirable goals can be thwarted by a sufficiently cunning and authoritarian management.

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Piketty’s new book on economic inequality

May 26, 2020

The French economist Thomas Piketty made a big splash with Capital in the 21st Century (published 2013, translated into English 2014).  He showed why, all other things being equal, the rich will get richer and the rest of us will get less.

In different countries in different historical periods, the rate of return on income-producing property exceeded the rate of economic growth.  This was true whether the income-producing property was real estate, government bonds, corporate stocks or something else.

What this meant was that, in the absence of revolution, war or something else that wiped out the value of their assets, the rich would get richer and everybody else would be left behind.

Piketty’s new book, CAPITAL AND IDEOLOGY  (published 2019, translated 2020), is more ambitious and complicated.  He thinks it is an even better book that its predecessor and I agree.  It is a great work.

He looked at all the forms that economic inequality has taken in the past few centuries and all the different ways that inequality has been rationalized.  While his earlier book was based mainly on data from France, Great Britain and the United States, the new book tries to be global in scope.

He said it is important to understand not only the forms of economic inequality, but the reasons why people accept them.

His book covers several kinds of “inequality regimes”:

  • “Ternary” societies in which most wealth is controlled by hereditary kings and aristocrats and an established church or religious institution.
  • “Ownership” societies in which property ownership is regarded as a sacred right, superseding everything else.
  • Slave and colonial societies.
  • “Social democratic” societies, which limit the rights of property owners.
  • The hyper-capitalism of today, which is a backlash against social democracy and Communism.

The degree of inequality in any nation or society is not the result of impersonal economic law, he wrote; it is the result of choices that could have been different.  History does not consist of class struggles; it consists of a struggle of ideas and a struggle for justice.

To understand inequality, he wrote, it is necessary to understand the reasons for choices at various “switch points” of history—the French Revolution, the British constitutional crisis of 1911, privatization in Russia after the fall of Communism.

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Is the U.S. capable of fighting the virus?

May 10, 2020

The question nobody seems to be asking is whether the United States has the operational capability for “test, track, and isolate” regardless of the party in power.  I don’t see how an automatic “yes” answer is possible.

What we have instead is a series of natural experiments, with the states as “laboratories of democracy” as it were, as we would expect in a Federal system.

And that’s before we get to parties.  If Trump had ordered Cuomo to shut down New York two weeks earlier, what would the reaction have been?  If Obama (or whoever) had ordered Florida to shut down before Spring Break, what would the reaction have been?

I started calling the United States a “failed state” more as a polemic forcing device than a serious diagnosis, but the more I watch how “our democracy” is meeting the #COVID19 challenge, the more I think the term is appropriate.  

Fortunately, under the leadership of Joe Biden…. Oh, what’s the use?

Source: Lambert Strether for Naked Capitalism

LINKS

How Covid Will Play Out in America by Ian Welsh [Added 5/12/2020]

We Knew the Coronavirus Was Coming, Yet We Failed Five Critical Tests by Elizabeth Rosenthal for Kaiser Health News.  [Added 5/12/2020]

The economic consequences of the lockdown

May 7, 2020

Adam Tooze is one of the world’s outstanding economic historians.  He is the author of The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of Global Order, 1916-1931; The Wages of Destruction: the Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economyand Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World.

In the interview above, he talks about the impact of the coronavirus on the global economy.  The actual interview begins about four minutes in.

He points out that ending the lockdowns won’t automatically restart the economy.  Ford and General Motors closed their plants without any lockdown order.

Labor unions that represented their workers protested working under unsafe conditions.  Suppliers were unable to provide necessary components on schedule.  And the automobile sales collapsed.  So what was the point of staying open?

Tooze also says that the talk of being in a war economy is wrong.  In a war economy, the objective is to mobilize everyone to produce war materials.  In a pandemic economy, the objective is to limit production to what is absolutely necessary. People should be paid to stay home to help limit the spread of the virus.

He doesn’t predict a second Great Depression, but neither does he rule it out.

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Countries that are beating the coronavirus

May 5, 2020

Click to enlarge

Countries Beating COVID-19 on Endcoronavirus.org.

Tale of Two Cities Redux: Hong Kong to Ease Its COVID-19 Restrictions, While New York City Situation Remains Dire by Jeri-Lynn Scofield for Naked Capitalism.

How the U.S. mandated racial segregation

April 30, 2020

I am old enough to remember when black people were barred from living in the suburbs of American cities, including those in the North and West.

 I attributed this to the racism of middle-class white Americans.  Although backed up by the real estate industry and sometimes enforced by mob violence, I saw it as the total result of the racist attitudes of many, many separate individuals.

Most of my liberal white friends did the same.  It was not, so we thought, de jure segregation, imposed by government as in the South, but de facto segregation, the result of uncounted individual decisions.

Richard Rothstein, in THE COLOR OF LAW: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, showed this isn’t so.  Segregation was imposed by the government, including the federal government.

Much of this is a product of the  Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. As Rothstein depicted the New Dealers, a majority of them were unapologetic white racists, with a minority of white liberals mostly too timid (there were a few exceptions, such as Eleanor Roosevelt) to object.

He described in great detail how the New Deal excluded black people.  Even though such policies no longer exist, at least not in such blatant form,  their impact continues into the present day.

According to Rothstein, these policies were illegal.  They violated the 5th, 13th and 14th amendments to the Constitution.

Therefore, he wrote, the U.S. government owes compensation to the heirs of those whose rights were violated.  Just how you do this is a hard question, for which I don’t think Rothstein has a good answer.  This said, even though I was brought up to admire FDR, I can’t deny the justice of his indictment.

Rothstein’s focus is on housing policy.  President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal made home ownership a new reality for millions of Americans, but U.S. subsidies for homebuilders and home buyers were conditional on racial segregation.

The government, backed by the real estate industry, insisted on racially restrictive covenants, barring black people from better neighborhoods.  Black people could not get Federal Housing Administration loans to buy houses outside all-black neighborhoods.

The Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) was created in 1933 to rescue homeowners in danger of defaulting on their mortgages.  It purchased existing mortgages and refinanced them so that homeowners could afford the payments.

Payments also amortized the mortgages so that the homeowners built up equity in their homes.  If they sold their homes, they’d have something to keep.

In order to assess the risk. the HOLC hired real estate appraisers to assess risk of default of mortgages.  They created maps covering every city in the U.S., with the safest neighborhoods colored green and the riskiest colored red.  Any neighborhood with an African-American living in it was colored red, even if it was a middle-class family with a good credit rating.

Then in 1934, the Roosevelt administration created the Federal Housing Administration, which insured 80 percent of the amount of bank mortgages.  But for a homeowner to be eligible for a mortgage, the home had to be in a non-risky neighborhood.

Not only that.  The FHA would not insure any mortgage for a non-white homeowner in a white neighborhood.

During World War Two, the federal government subsidized public housing projects for war workers.  But the projects were racially segregated, with African-Americans getting proportionately few and less desirable places.

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The worst of all possible health care systems

April 29, 2020

Employer Provided Health Insurance Delenda Est by Scott Alexander, a psychiatrist who practices on the West Coast, for his blog, Slate Star Codex

Should we scapegoat China for the pandemic?

April 24, 2020

The Trump administration blames China for the coronavirus pandemic.  Administration sources say that if Xi Jinping had acted a week sooner than he did, some 95 percent of the infections in China could have been avoided.

Some go on to suggest that the Chinese government may lying about the pandemic.  They say it may have originated in a bio-lab and not in unsanitary live-animal meat markets as is generally believed.  And they say that Xi Jinping is lying about China’s success in bringing the pandemic under control.

Xi Jinping

I think there’s something to the first claim, but it’s a case of a pot calling a kettle black.  The world would have been better off if Donald Trump had acted six weeks sooner than he did.   People who live in a glass house throwing stones.

And while it’s possible that the Chinese government is lying, the U.S. government does’t have a good record for truth-telling.  Recall the claims that the Iraqi government had weapons of mass destruction, that the Syrian government used sarin gas against its people and that Iran was developing nuclear weapons.

I’m reminded of a comment made by the late Richard Feynman when somebody asked him whether it was possible that UFOs are piloted by extraterrestrials.  He replied that he wasn’t interested in what was possible, but in what was so.

Lots of things are possible, but claims require evidence—or at least the considered opinion of some qualified expert who doesn’t have a conflict of interest.

The states of Missouri and Mississippi are suing China in U.S. courts.  Presumably the lawsuit won’t get anywhere because of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which bars lawsuits against foreign countries.

There’s a good reason for such a law.  If the Americans could sue foreign countries in U.S. courts and get damages, presumably by seizing foreign assets in the United States, then foreigners could sue the USA in their own courts and seize American assets.

My first thought in writing this post was that ramping up the cold war with China was a terrible idea because the U.S. depends on China for 80 percent of essential drugs.

However, a Google search turned up an article in Reason magazine that show this dependence is greatly exaggerated.  Nobody knows for sure, but the likely figure is closer ti 13 percent from China.

It is true that we Americans are overly dependent on foreign countries overall for medical supplies and much else.  We should do what we can to reduce that dependence, but that will be a project that will take years—assuming we can do it at all.  Meanwhile we can’t afford any break in these fragile global supply chains.

The other problem with scapegoating China is that it is a distraction from American failure.  For example, many countries screen travelers arriving at their airports from foreign countries.  If the traveler has a temperature, he or she is placed in quarantine for 14 days.  But travelers arriving at the New York City airports are allowed to go their way without checking.

It’s not a good sign when governments put excuses for failure in place while the crisis is still ongoing.  It means nothing will be learned from experience.

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Trump’s guidelines benefit him no matter what

April 20, 2020

Doug Muder, on his The Weekly Sift  blog, pointed out that President Trump’s Opening Up America Again guidelines are different from what he says they are.  His handling of the guidelines enables him to say he was right no matter what happens.  Here’s some of what Muder wrote—

Thursday, the White House released the long-awaited guidelines Opening Up America Again.  It was rolled out in a quintessentially Trumpian way, one that will allow him to claim credit for any successes and blame someone else for any failures.  

This sleight-of-hand is achieved by a simple trick: What the document says is very different from what Trump says about it.

He says it’s a plan by which parts of the country can start relaxing stay-at-home orders almost immediately — even before his previously stated goal of May 1.  

But if you read the document (and how many MAGA-hatters will bother?) it lists a set of criteria not much different from those put forward by public-health experts all over the world — or by Joe Biden a week ago: a downward trend in cases, a rebuilt stockpile of medical equipment, extensive testing even of those with no symptoms, and exhaustive contact-tracing of those who test positive.

Since no state is anywhere near achieving those criteria, none can use these guidelines to justify opening up anytime in the near future.

You might expect all this open-up/stay-closed confusion to hinder both the economy and the fight against the virus — and you’d be right — but jobs and lives are not the point. The primary goal is to allow Trump to claim vindication no matter what happens.

  • If a state reopens its economy soon and everything works fine, then Trump takes credit for all the jobs gained, because he told them to reopen.  Even better, he overruled both Democrats and scientists, who were wrong when he was right.  The stable genius wins again!
  • If a state relaxes its lockdown rules, sees a spike in infections and deaths, and has to lock down again, it’s not Trump’s fault that the governor misapplied what was clearly written down in the guidelines.  Blame that loser, even if he’s been a loyal Trumpist like Ron DeSantis or Greg Abbott.
  • If a state doesn’t reopen soon, then any economic or psychological distress caused by the continued lockdown is also the governor’s fault, and Trump is the champion of the suffering people trapped in their homes.  Liberate Michigan!

It’s a neat trick.

LINKS

Trump’s Guidelines Aren’t What He Says They Are by Doug Muder for The Weekly Sift.  Read the whole thing to get the highlights of the Opening Up America Again plan..

“It’ll all be over by Christmas” by Charles Stross for Charlie’s Diary.  A Scottish science fiction writer on the hard facts.

Rochester, NY, and the 1918 influenza pandemic

April 8, 2020

Alex Zapesochny, publisher of the on-line Rochester Beacon, wrote an interesting article about how Rochester, N.Y., coped with the 1918 influenza epidemic.  He pointed out that our city did much better than its peers.

Source: Rochester Beacon

Source: Rochester Beacon

Zapesochny went on to explain how Rochester public officials and business leaders acted promptly, before the pandemic was upon them.

Shortly after being warned by the state that a possible influenza epidemic was coming, Rochester began preparing, even though it had only two unconfirmed cases at the time.

A separate ward to take care of potential patients was set up at Rochester General Hospital.

By Oct. 9, Rochester’s commissioner of public safety announced the closure of all schools, as well as theaters and skating rinks.

Next, the city and the Chamber of Commerce asked manufacturing and retail business to stagger hours to prevent overcrowding on trolley cars.

Soon after the city closed churches, bars and “ice cream parlors.”  

In the meantime, five makeshift hospitals were set up around Rochester to augment the capacity of local hospitals, which would otherwise have been overwhelmed by the 10,000 influenza cases that occurred in October 1918.

Toward the end of October, as the number of cases started falling, residents and workers pushed the health commissioner to quickly lift the restrictions, especially to help those whose livelihoods were being affected.  

Despite being sympathetic to their request, the health commissioner acted carefully again, waiting another week before finally lifting the restrictions.

In other words, local officials in 1918 were doing many of the same things we see being done in Rochester today.

And while each epidemic has its unique dynamics, the one thing 1918 clearly teaches us is that different approaches by local officials can yield very different results. 

LINK

A lifesaving lesson from 1918 by Alex Zapesochny for the Rochester Beacon.

The new lockdown-induced poverty

April 5, 2020

If you deny people the right to provide for themselves, you have a responsibility to provide for them.

Lockdowns are preventing millions from going out and earning a living.  The fact that their jobs may be deemed nonessential doesn’t lessen their need to pay for food, rent and utilities.  There are more serious problems in the world than boredom.

Click to enlarge

The U.S. government will provide some minimal relief—one-time-only checks to be mailed to households, extension of unemployment compensation benefits, etc.

But it doesn’t appear as if it will be enough to offset the coming lockdown-triggered recession.  I think a recession would have happened even without a pandemic, but the lockdown will bring it sooner and make it worse.

Deaths and infections from the coronavirus are doubling every few days.  The lockdown is necessary.  A lot of people are going to die in U.S. states who would have lived if their governors had ordered lockdowns sooner.

At the same time, I can understand why those governors hesitated.  The governors who’ve waited longest are, in general, the governors of the poorest states.

Usually, when huge numbers of people suddenly lose their jobs and are plunged into poverty, they take to the streets to protest and strike.

But under lockdown, it’s illegal to take to the streets.  Repressive governments suppress uprisings by, among other things, ordering curfews.  Because of the pandemic, these curfews are already in place.

If a government orders a lockdown, it has a duty to make it possible for everyone, no matter who, to observe the lockdown without fear of hunger or homelessness.

Leaders of some countries realize this.  Others don’t.  The ones that don’t can expect an explosion of mass defiance sooner or later.

LINKS

Somebody’s Screwing You and It Ain’t China by Caitlin Johnstone.

Location Data Says It All: Staying at Home During Coronavirus Is a Luxury by Jennifer Valention-DeVries, Denise Lu and Gabriel T.X. Dane for the New York Times.

Jobs Aren’t Being Destroyed This Fast Elsewhere – Why Is That? by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman for the New York Times.

New Inequalities and People-to-People Social Protection by Nora Lustig and Nancy Birdsall for Vox & CEPR Policy Portal.

Services Sector Falls Off Cliff: First Data Points from the Eurozone Where Lockdowns Started Earlier by Wolf Richter for Wolf Street.

‘I just want to go home’: the desperate millions hit by Modi’s brutal lockdown by Hannah Ellis-Peterson and Shaikh Azizur Rahman for The Guardian.

A hero of the pandemic

April 2, 2020

Dr. Sara Cody

Nassim Nicholas Taleb once observed that we all honor heroes who save the day in emergencies, but the greater heroes—usually unknown and unsung—are those who prevent an emergency from arising in the first place.

In the coronavirus pandemic, the heroes of foresight are the public officials who take action before the virus becomes established, instead of waiting for the crisis to develop.

With infections doubling every few days, a delay of a week would mean the number  would be at least five times greater, or probably much more, because hospitals would be overwhelmed.

Ron Unz, editor of the online Unz Review, pointed out that one such hero is Dr. Sara Cody, public health officer for Santa Clara County.   She and other public health officers in the San Francisco Bay area issued a “shelter in place” order on March 16, as soon as the virus made its first appearance.

Los Angeles County followed a few days later, and Gov. Gavin Newsome extended the order to the whole state a few days after that.  Public health officials warned him that if he failed to act, 25 million Californiana could have become infected, resulting in up to 1 million deaths.

There was no precedent for the first lockdown.  Somebody had to have the courage to go first.

LINK

The Government Employee Who May Have Saved a Million American Lives by Ron Unz for The Unz Review.

Neoliberalism’s failure in a time of pandemic

April 1, 2020

The United States is unprepared to deal with the coronavirus pandemic—short of hospital beds, short of test kits, short of ventilators and other medical supplies.

This is not merely because of the negligence of a few individuals.  It is the result of acceptance of the philosophy of neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism teaches that business corporations should be structured so as to keep costs as low as possible and revenues as high as possible, and that all institutions should be like business corporations.

It also teaches that accumulation of wealth by individuals and corporations is a good thing because private investment is the source of progress and economic growth.

What’s wrong with that? you may ask.

What’s wrong is what we see now—national needs neglected and the whole society put at risk.

Hospitals and other health care providers are told they must operate with maximum efficiency.  All resources must be fully utilized all the time—no empty beds, no unused equipment, no moments to relax for nurses and other staff.

This means there is no slack in the system.  It is hard to provide for the ebb and flow of illness and injury even in normal times.  In an emergency, such as this one, the health care system is overwhelmed.

Also, hospitals and other health care providers must obtain their supplies from the lowest priced source, even if that source is a sweatshop on the other side of the planet.

This means that the United States depends on China and other foreign countries for medical supplies.  If the leaders of these countries decide to limit shipments to the U.S. in order to guarantee supplies for their own people, what can we Americans do about it?

(more…)

The progressives surrender to the plutocracy 2

March 30, 2020

The progressives surrender to the plutocracy

March 30, 2020

Over the weekend Matt Stoller gave a blistering interview on the Jimmy Dore show blasting Bernie Sanders and other so-called progressive Democrats for voting for the so-called coronavirus economic stimulus bill.

In reality, it is a corporate bailout which gives only token assistance to ordinary Americans.  He went on to talk about the failure of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement to resist the plutocracy and the failure of the American political system as a whole.

The two of them had a lot to say that I haven’t seen or heard elsewhere.

The whole interview runs 42 minutes, which is long.  I strongly recommend you watch at least the first 10 or 15 minutes.  You may find Stoller’s impassioned, but well-informed, rant so compelling you will watch the whole thing.

Matt Stoller is a former analyst for the Senate budget committee, a fellow of something called the Open Markets Institute and author of a new book, GOLIATH: the 100-year war between monopoly power and democracy.  He has a deep understanding of economics and the legislative process.

Jimmy Dore is a stand-up comedian with no special expertise, but a willingness to make up his own mind about issues.  He ignores consensus opinion and points out obvious facts that the consensus opinion ignores.

Stoller is right to criticize the cult of personality that has grown up around Sanders.  I don’t think he gives Sanders enough credit for the movement he helped inspire, but I do think he is right to say that Sanders has been more interesting in gaining acceptance for himself and his ideas than wielding political power himself.

And I also think he is right about not pinning hopes on charismatic leaders.

Stollar thinks the Democratic Party is un-reformable as is the Republican Party.   But American election law is structured to discourage new political parties and, in any case, the greens, libertarians and other minor parties don’t have mass followings.

The only remaining option is to build a progressive movement, uniting grass-roots labor, community and civil rights groups, that will be so powerful that Democrats and Republicans will be forced to heed it.

But this could be the work of a generation, and the economic crisis, the climate crisis and the danger of nuclear war are already upon us.

So the outlook is grim.  But the future is unknowable and despair is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As always, I invite comments, but I hope readers will watch the video before commenting.  What Matt Stoller and Jimmy Dore had to say is more interesting than my words.

LINKS

The Jimmy Dore Show – YouTube.

BIG by Matt Stoller.  His blog.

Bailouts for the Rich, the Virus for the Rest of Us by Rob Urie for Counterpunch.

The Coronavirus Stimulus Bill Is a $2 Trillion Slush Fund for Washington Cronies by Marshall Auerbach for the Independent Media Institute (via Naked Capitalism)

Is universal basic income the answer?

March 27, 2020

Universal Basic Income as it’s usually presented is a solution to an economic problem that doesn’t yet exist.

The imaginary problem is what happens after automation and computer algorithms make a majority of American workers unnecessary and unemployable.

The real problem is that our present economic system rewards useless and harmful work more than it does necessary work and even allows much necessary work to go undone.

There are a great many unmet needs in society and a great many unemployed people available to meet them.  It ought to be simple to match them up, but it isn’t, not within our present economic and political setup.

The coronavirus pandemic is a great revealer of who’s necessary in our society and who isn’t.  Grocery store clerks risk their lives so that I can have food in my pantry.  Yet as a class they’re on the bottom rungs in pay and social status.

They should get the equivalent of combat pay and maybe a military-type medal in awards ceremonies after the crisis is over.

I do think a UBI could be useful in the present emergency.

Send a $1,000 check every month to every man, woman and child who are willing to pledge to socially isolate themselves.

Send $2,000 or $3,000 every month to those who are doing the necessary work to keep us alive and well—health care workers and emergency responders, farmers and agricultural workers, truck drivers, grocery and drug store clerks, public utility workers, etc.  Shut down everything that’s not necessary for life and health.

[Added Later.  My idea is that the income grants would be supplementary to what people already are earning or drawing from savings.  The specific amounts are just to illustrate the concept and could be more; I don’t think they could be much less.]

The problem is – the USA may not have the capacity to do something so seemingly simple.  I read somewhere that it may take months before the government can mail physical checks in its one-time-only economic stimulus plan.

Laissez-faire conservatives used to say that the only thing government could do competently is mail out checks.  Evidently it can’t even do that nowadays.

The best practical thing that could be done immediately is for the federal government to fully fund state unemployment insurance programs and Medicaid programs up to a reasonably generous cap.

For the long run, the country needs is a full employment program more than it needs a UBI.

See to it that every needful thing is done to prepare for pandemic and weather-related catastrophe.  See to it that every practical thing is done to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.  See to it that every needful thing is done to safeguard the lives and health of children, the elderly and the sick.

Pay all the people who do the needful work a decent wage.

If all these things were done, UBI would become an unimportant side issue.  Whether these things are possible within our current economic and political structure is a question I don’t have a good answer for.

LINK

The False Promise of Universal Basic Income by Alyssa Battistoni for Dissent Magazine.  [Hat tip to Steve B.]

Coronavirus: a tale of two states

March 26, 2020

Click to enlarge

Added 4/24/2020.  The Guardian reported that, as of Wednesday, Kentucky had 185 confirmed deaths from COVID-19 and Tennessee had only 161.  We don’t know the full story yet.

Stephanie Jolly of Lexington, Kentucky, created this chart and posted it on her Facebook page, where it quickly became viral.

It shows that Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) acted more quickly on the coronavirus emergency than did Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) and that the disease has not spread as fast in Kentucky as it has in Tennessee.

Added 3/27/2020:  But even though Kentuckians are better off than Tennesseans, thanks to Gov. Beshear’s prompt action, the number of new cases in Kentucky is still doubling every four days or so.

LINKS

Social Distancing to Fight Coronavirus: A Strategy That Is Working and Must Continue by Maura Caslyn, Emily Gee, Thomas Waldrop and Nicole Rapfogel for the Center for American Progress.

Graph comparing Ky. and Tenn. virus responses goes viral by David Mattingly for WAVE3 News in Lexington, Kentucky.

Two states, one Democrat, one Republican – two very different outcomes by Josh Wood for The Guardian.  [Added 4/24/2020]  The writer praises Kentucky, but also says that the higher number of confirmed cases in Tennessee may reflect that state’s larger population and also more testing—presumably in April, since the Jolly graph shows less testing in March.

Every state should do this

March 24, 2020

In a Move That Should Be Replicated Nationwide, Minnesota and Vermont Have Classified Grocery Clerks as Emergency Workers by Shane Ryan for Paste magazine.