Paying for the Virus

March 31, 2020

In his discussion of the financial consequences of the pandemic to New York, Gov. Cuomo has not mentioned that New York isn’t permitted to borrow the money it needs. The reason is a New York State constitutional prohibition. Many states prohibit borrowing except for capital expenses. When states were permitted to borrow for current expenses, they ran up large debts and the practice needed to be stopped. So, many state constitutions barred the practice. New York requires a law to be submitted to the voters for specific purposes. The Governor does not have the time to satisfy New York’s constitutional rules. For the moment, he’s stuck.

The same prohibition does not apply to the federal government. Economists understand that fiscal stimulus is an important tool for dealing with economic downturns. But clearly the feds have misused it, giving large tax cuts to the wealthiest people and corporations, cuts not used in any way to stimulate the economy but that did significantly increase the national debt. That was the kind of misbehavior that led states to take the power away.

This, however, is an example of a time where deficit spending is completely appropriate. Dealing with the virus is expensive. The feds have provided some relief though politics has affected who got what. But there is an additional problem – with a large part of the workforce ordered to stay home and businesses shuttered, there is a very large downturn in tax payments flowing to government. The federal government can borrow to fill that gap and it can provide relief to the states. But most states can’t help themselves. The result, as usual, is that this becomes another way for Republicans to force everyone to cut what they spend on services – in this case, because the big budget item is education, the feds are forcing states like New York to cut funding on schools. Whoopie – isn’t that great planning for the future.

The Federal Reserve is trying to stimulate the economy but chairman Powell has been very clear that the Fed cannot solve our problems because the financial system is not the main problem, not even close. There are supply side, demand side and income problems. The Federal Reserve’s tools provide little help on the income side. It’s a little too simple to say that the Federal Reserve has no fiscal powers because it can lend to the federal government, but it can’t force the federal government to borrow, or to put that in its budget. So unless Congress and the Administration decide that there is a need to help the states meet the costs of running their school systems and other necessary services, the states are stuck doing what Republicans always want them to do – cut their services to the people. If they do that, then rich folk won’t have to bribe their kids ways into college because only the rich will have kids sufficiently educated to go to college, and all the disparities in America will get even bigger.

Grabbing all the goodies for fewer and fewer people seems to be the dream of those who finance Republican campaigns, but I can’t see why any of the rest of us would accept it – unless Trump pulls the wool so far over people’s eyes that the people don’t understand that he and his Republican friends are using the epidemic to make most of us even worse off than we were before.

This commentary was scheduled for broadcast by WAMC Northeast Report, on March 31, 2020.

Extremism on Voting Rights

March 29, 2020

NPR Reporter, Miles Parks, reported that, In Alabama, voters can use the corona virus as an excuse to get an absentee ballot. But it needs to be signed by two other people or a notary public. As Parks commented, that’s a challenge at a time “when social distancing is being encouraged.” So he asked Republican Secretary of State, John Merrill, whether “Voters were hoping for a loosening of those rules or an expansion of mail voting due to fears about the virus.”  Merrill responded that “we don’t hear that except from liberal extremists.” So apparently it is “extremist” to want the ballot to be available to everyone. That’s not surprising for a public official in a state that was born in slavery, fought to continue it and has never gotten used to the idea that people with dark skin are humans who deserve to be able to exercise the right to vote. That is extremism in Alabama. There are good people in Alabama and some of them are friends. But for a State Secretary of State to treat advocates for voting rights as “extremist” tells us instead that he is the extremist, more appropriately quarantined to Antarctica where the climate matches the temperature of his heart.

I’d suggest getting in touch with your Alabama friends and give Merrill a flood of angry messages over whatever media. Extremists? He should be living with the penguins as long as his blood is one degree above freezing.

Worth Fussing About in this Pandemic

March 24, 2020

I don’t want to talk about topic no. 1. I thought talking about politics might provide comic relief. But what’s funny about that? Politics is deadly serious, precisely because people’s lives depend on how elected officials take care of the rest of us, or whether they’re focused only on optics.

Doctors and nurses are being forced to make tragic choices about priorities for medical equipment and facilities in short supply. In this kind of situation there’s always a risk of decisions being corrupted by unexamined prejudices, and that needs to be avoided. But I know that if I get the coronavirus, my treatment will depend on how overwhelmed the facilities are. The usual question is how many lives can be saved. Wherever that would put me on line is reasonable.

But this country, which constantly boasts about being the best, deserves criticism for losing a full two months by comparison to many other countries dealing with the virus. That delay meant we’ll face many more cases and lose many more people than we should have. We refused the World Health Organization’s offer of a test used across much of the globe, while the White House boaster-in-chief treated the pandemic as a hoax. That, and the fact that our health care system still doesn’t take care of everyone, even when everyone’s health depends on everyone else’s, justifies deep disappointment.

Trump repeatedly minimized and mocked the pandemic, describing it as a Democratic “hoax.” It took Fox News host Tucker Carlson to go to a party at Mar-O-Lago and tell Trump this was a serious pandemic before Trump paid attention. It took Sen. Schumer to tell Trump to activate the Defense Production Act when the man in the White House hadn’t bothered.

Now of course he’s playing catch-up, bragging constantly while the governors, mayors, and the professionals at the National Institutes of Health and the Center for Disease Control are doing the real work, as he well knows.

But let me pull back from the current details. For years we eliminated “surplus” hospital beds, everything not in regular use. This president continued, cutting “extras,” like those at the CDC whose jobs were to plan ahead to prevent epidemics, or the office at the Security Council meant to coordinate responses to global pandemics. With such efficiencies, nothing’s left when we need it now.

This country has long been so focused on efficiency and not crossing so-called bridges before we get there, that we refuse to plan ahead, and wait for problems to become crises. We’ve turned the notion of freedom into a justification for selfishness instead of an opportunity to push politicians to behave like statesmen pursuing the public interest. We’ve reached a point where civil servants, people who have spent their lives and careers on our behalf, can be maligned as the “deep state,” instead of thanking them for their service. We’ve lost a notion of the public interest and a notion that teamwork has been a great virtue of American economic and political culture. We need a balance of teamwork and independence. The combination defines the moral fiber that we have been losing and paying dearly for.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, on March 24, 2020.

Trump’s war on the people by destroying the institutions that protect us

March 19, 2020

A friend sent me a link to this article in The Atlantic with a note that “This explains a lot.” Indeed it explains how dangerous Trump is. The digital version calls it “The President is Winning His War on American Institutions. In the print edition it will be called “How to Destroy a Government.” Both titles are accurate. He certainly is destroying good government and all its institutions and moral underpinnings.

Coronavirus Action Needed for Iran

March 17, 2020

Just received this from friends who, like us, served in the US Peace Corps in Iran in the days of the Shah. Our friends note that both President Bush and President Obama provided sanctions relief to deal with earthquakes in Iran. The letter was written by Brad Hanson, lightly edited and then forwarded to us by Paul Barker. Both Brad and Paul spent their careers working with international organizations, and all of us are active in the Peace Corps Iran Association, of which my wife is president:

Coronavirus Action Needed for Iran

As you cope with the coronavirus pandemic in your own daily life, take a moment to act to help relieve the suffering of Iranians from the virus.

If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the interconnectedness of all mankind, expressed nine centuries ago by the great Iranian poet, Sa’adi Shirazi, in his “Bani Adam” or “Children of Adam” poem:

بنی‌آدم اعضای یکدیگرند
که در آفرينش ز یک گوهرند

چو عضوى به‌درد آورَد روزگار
دگر عضوها را نمانَد قرار

تو کز محنت دیگران بی‌غمی
نشاید که نامت نهند آدمی

Rhyming translations by M. Aryanpoor:
Human beings are members of a whole,
In creation of one essence and soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain,
Other members uneasy will remain.
If you’ve no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human you cannot retain.

Iran is the epicenter of the corona virus in the Middle East, with the most cases of any country in that region, and among the top four countries of the world in numbers of confirmed cases.  As of 8 AM EDT, March 17, Iran had 16,169 confirmed cases and 988 deaths.

Some observers believe the true number is much higher.

The Iranian government underrated the initial outbreak, covered it up, did not share accurate information with its public, and made other mistakes in dealing with the pandemic – as did many governments around the world.  But now it is treating the outbreak most seriously, closing schools and universities, suspending Friday prayers, and mobilizing its already beleaguered health system to stem the spread of the virus and care for its victims.  Supplies of medicines, protective masks, medical equipment – already strained before the pandemic – are in very short supply and very difficult to obtain from abroad.

In combatting the virus, Iran confronts an obstacle most countries around the world do not – heavy US sanctions against the sale of its oil, against its banks, against its participation in the international trading and financial system.

Humanitarian assistance — food and medicine — are supposed to be exempt from US sanctions.  The US Department of Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control on February 27 issued an amendment to the license under sanctions regulations against Iran’s Central Bank to make it easier to engage with it on transactions involving humanitarian assistance.  However, the US secondary sanctions against companies, banks, and countries engaging in trade and financial transactions with Iran has made many banks and companies reluctant to engage in any transactions with Iran, including humanitarian, lest they somehow violate US sanctions.  And the sanctions against the sale of oil have greatly diminished the Iranian government’s resources for funding its health system, dealing with the increasing unemployment from the disease, etc.

Thus, it’s imperative the US lift its sanctions against Iran for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic given the humanitarian emergency.

There are two precedents for doing this, albeit in response to much smaller humanitarian emergencies.  President George W. Bush in February 2003, in response to the horrific Bam earthquake, relaxed US sanctions to facilitate humanitarian assistance and even authorized US military cargo planes to transport it and some 200 US civilian disaster responders to Bam.  President Barack Obama in August 2012, in reaction to another earthquake, relaxed sanctions to facilitate humanitarian assistance, including from NGOs.

Lifting or relaxing sanctions to truly facilitate humanitarian assistance might also have some diplomatic benefits.  It might be portrayed as a good will, humanitarian gesture by the US Government making eventual negotiations on the nuclear agreement and other issues a little bit easier.

Iranian FM Zarif has written the UN Secretary General asking the economic sanctions be lifted on humanitarian grounds.

The Iranian government has also asked for a $5 billion loan from an arm of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, its first request in sixty years.  The IMF announced in early March a $50 billion package of financial assistance under its Rapid Financing Instrument to governments struggling to combat the coronavirus.  To get the IMF loan, the US Government, as the dominant member of the World Bank, would have to approve.  There would be ample safeguards written into the IMF’s terms to ensure that the loan would be used for measures related to combatting the virus.  And the bulk of the loan is likely to be spent with European pharmaceutical and other companies to procure the necessary medical equipment and supplies.

It’s also important to advocate for US approval of Iran’s request to the IMF for a $5 billion rapid financial relief package is also the right thing to do.

Most importantly, these two actions are the humanitarian thing to do in this time of pandemic crisis, to show that Americans are “bani adam.”

Although a few Members of Congress in recent days have called for lifting or relaxing sanctions against Iran to facilitate its ability to combat the coronavirus, we are not aware of any specific legislation introduced in Congress.  That could change, especially if enough Members of Congress hear from us.

We urge readers:

Contact your Members of Congress, both in the House and the SenateIf you do not know your Representative’s phone number, you can call 202-224-3121 and ask for your Representative by name.

Ask them to advocate with the Administration for lifting or relaxing US sanctions against Iran for the duration of the pandemic and to consider sponsoring legislation or joint resolutions in Congress.  Ask them also to advocate with the Administration, the Treasury Department, the State Department for US support for Iran’s requested IMF emergency financial relief package for combatting the coronavirus.

Write letters to the editor, engage with the electronic media in interviews, and use social media to get across the same messages.

Show the world and Iran that we Americans are caring “bani adam.” [“children of Adam”]

For further information:

Negar Mortazavi: Bush and Obama eased sanctions on Iran during humanitarian crises, why isn’t Trump?

And this from Code Pink:

And from NIAC:

Coronavirus FAQ – Updated 3/10/20

NIAC Sends Letter to Treasury Encouraging Steps to Ensure U.S. Sanctions Do Not Hinder Iran’s Ability to Address Coronavirus

NIAC Welcomes U.S. Treasury Reversal to Exempt Certain Humanitarian Trade with Iran as it Combats Coronavirus

And regarding Iran’s IMF assistance request::

The Pandemic

March 17, 2020

We’ve all been affected by this pandemic. People are telecomputing, taking bicycles to work instead of busses, and avoiding meetings to see and greet each other and work together. Things have been canceled that I was very much looking forward to. Virtually every step we take invites a calculation of how to do it safely. I found myself in Boston recently at a funeral for a nephew with people I really care about, everybody calculating whom to hug and whom to elbow bump. Many of us have been making frantic trips to the grocery and the drug store for needed supplies we think may go out of stock or just trying to buy things before the virus spreads any more widely.

I understand that the U.S. refused an offer of a test for the virus from the World Health Organization that has been used in a number of countries, and I gather others are annoyed that we apparently offered to buy a company that was preparing another test to make available worldwide. We used to be the leaders of the free world but the free world is a bit put out with us now. Unfortunately, there no longer seems to be a good solution to the health care crisis.

I completely understand the logic behind closing the schools. Children often become carriers of disease. They gather in large numbers in school where they pick it up and bring it out to parents and others. Shutting down schools like shutting down theaters can help slow the spread of disease.

But few of us are hermits or live on subsistence farms that can operate without contact with the outside world. Closing the schools leaves teenagers to their own devices, leaves homeless children on the streets, and leaves health care workers with no good places to leave their children.

It’s easy to think that we can take care of ourselves if only we keep everyone else off the street. But we aren’t islands. With schools closed lots of children will be on the streets unsupervised. Many parents will have to work anyway. Even if cities figure out how to care for the children of essential workers with a new system instead of the schools, aggravating an economic disaster on top of a health care disaster creates problems of its own. We need the groceries and drug stores and many other essential services. How many will our governments classify as essential and how quickly can they get it done?

We also need to take care of everyone else so their illness doesn’t threaten us. This illustrates why it’s mutually important that everyone have a right to health care and access to it. And it’s an example of why childcare and senior care have become fundamental. None of us are islands unconnected to the rest of society. My dentist just rescheduled for a month later. What do I do for exercise? Cabin fever isn’t fun.

By the way, this epidemic has not been infecting the poor and saving the rich. It turns out that the rich depend on the poor but are just as likely to infect them as the reverse. The only way to fight this epidemic is to defend and protect each other. None of us is an island alone by ourselves.

I wish you and yours all come out of this well.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast by WAMC Northeast Report, on March 17, 2020.



Trump’s negligence in the coronavirus epidemic

March 10, 2020

Presidents are obligated to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” They are supposed to manage, administer and appoint people to carry out the tasks of government. Trump interprets that as his right to fire experts and replace them with yes-men devoted only to him. He’s reinstated the long disgraced spoils system in an era when everything is much more difficult and complex.

General and then President Ulysses Grant advocated and signed a merit system for federal employees when he was president in 1871. The federal Civil Service system was finally passed and reestablished under President Chester Arthur in 1883. It was designed to make sure that we have people competent to the tasks in front of them.

Trump is not a doctor or a scientific researcher. The medicine and science of protecting us from disease are the jobs of experts at the Center for Disease Control. As we would not ask our neighbor to diagnose and cure appendicitis or cancer, so we should have and listen to the experts at the CDC. But Trump muzzled and contradicted its experts, drastically cut CDC funding by three-quarters of a billion dollars, cut programs designed to prevent epidemics, and eliminated an office designed to deal with global pandemics, only to discover that we are in the middle of an emergency and try to restore some of the money when it’s already too late.

Unfortunately his handling of the coronavirus epidemic is evidence of Trump’s incompetence. It is also a disaster. Lots of people will die. Some people may think they are wealthy and immune and may survive. But as John Donne told us:

No man is an island entire of itself …

any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Minimum wage workers with minimal or no health insurance won’t get adequate medical care in time to protect the community. But their illness diminishes all of us. They are our food service workers; staff our groceries and drug stores; care for our parents in nursing homes and take care of our children in schools and day care; and do many of the other chores we daily depend on. In an epidemic everyone matters but who will take care of them? It horrified many of us that Trump ignored the hurricane damage to Puerto Rico. But there aren’t 1,000 miles of water between people infected with corona virus and the rest of us.

Neither Trump nor anyone else should be allowed to cut the budgets and eliminate the people who protect our health, try to blame them and their departments for failing to protect us, and then try to show how devoted they are to us by rushing to add dollars back after trouble has already broken out. It’s too late, too foolish, too demoralizing and too sickening. The time, damage and lives lost to incompetence cannot be restored.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast by WAMC Northeast Report, on March 10, 2020.

A House Divided Cannot Stand

March 3, 2020

Trump’s base thinks they can make America great by kicking out people they don’t like, people with different heritage, faith or color. Yet the evidence is that there are more and better jobs available in communities with more recent immigrants. A larger economy creates jobs and opportunities. It needs more goods and services. By contrast the effort to get rid of people is what economists call a deadweight loss. Deadweight because it is costly but produces nothing. We accomplish more working together than working against each other.

America’s great accomplishments have all come from making it easier to work together. Even before the Constitution, the states gave each other’s citizens all the “privileges and immunities” they gave their own. Sadly, they left most African-Americans in slavery, but they created a common economy to take advantage of America’s size and scale. The Constitution tightened and enlarged those promises. A single economy gave us the resources to do what a great nation must do and do well.

Before we could adopt what were called internal improvements like roads and canals, we had to learn that jealousy beggars us all. Projects wouldn’t pass without spreading the benefits to the vast majority of us. The Washington Administration designed the first American financial system. The Jefferson Administration purchased the Louisiana territory from the French and built what they called “the national road,” connecting the seaboard with the Ohio River valley. Steps like that laid the foundation for America to connect the oceans and stave off the European powers that still kept land and garrisons to our north, west and south.

The Civil War threatened everything but for the fact that Lincoln kept the British from intervening on behalf of Confederate cotton, and he kept the Union together.

American power solidified after the Civil War made ours one country, ended slavery, and Lincoln signed, in 1862 alone, the transcontinental Railroad Act, the Homestead Act and the act that built the great land grant universities, which together laid the agricultural, commercial, industrial and intellectual basis for America as the dominant twentieth century power.

We can’t have a great nation by fighting among ourselves. We can’t maintain national infrastructure by jealously keeping others from the benefits. We can’t maintain a great educational system by fighting over whom to keep out. We can’t continue to grow and prosper by jealously excluding each other from important national institutions. As Lincoln told us, “A house divided cannot stand.”

Armed ethnic, religious and racial animosities threaten American power and success. We’re all threatened by domestic terrorists who target people because of the color of their skin, the words and language they use to pray, or where they came from.

America’s strength has always been Americans’ ability to work together. Our major institutions understood the importance of cross-cultural cooperation. The U.S. Army worked to unify soldiers with different heritage, faith or color and who spoke different languages so that all could work as a team. Corporations unified their workforces, capped with ceremonies in which new Americans stepped out of what were labeled melting pots. Major sports leagues learned to take advantage of talent regardless of where it came from. Schools taught each new wave of Americans about democracy and gave them the skills to participate in our government and our economy.

It’s time that all Americans get with the program for the greater good of all of us – including any orange-Americans.

—This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 3, 2020.



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