What is Mr. Trump Accomplishing?

April 6, 2020

Trump insists on painting a rosy picture. He’s great. He’s solved every problem. We were the first to stop people coming from China. We have great tests. And medical professionals have all they need.  Things are so good that America will be going to church for Easter. And it would be a shame not to have sports to watch.

That’s a happy picture. The risk is that people will abandon fears and get together without worrying about social distance or washing their hands, avoiding groups or contact. Cabin fever isn’t fun. It takes character to stay at home and find ways of getting needed supplies without going into grocery and drug stores and other places that have what we might need.

When I have to leave my home in Albany, I see friends staying six feet apart, chatting, obviously enjoying each other, but without ever getting close. People give me a wide berth or I give them one. Yes, occasionally a friend or neighbor and I will talk across the lawn, hedge, or drive, but we stay much further apart than we ever would were it not for the virus. And by the way my neighbors are angels, offering to shop for us, given that the difference in our ages means they are probably less vulnerable to the virus than we are. For the most part, we’ve found ways of getting what we need without exposing ourselves to the virus. And I also want our neighbors to be able to do the same and avoid any place where they could pick it up.

We check with folks in New York City. They tell us that people there also give each other a wide berth when they need to leave the house. Some are lucky enough to have a yard, balcony or somewhere they and their families can get fresh air and stretch their legs without contact with others, risking their health or becoming carriers for anyone else. But otherwise, there too, they’re staying home. And yes, the kids can’t go to school and everyone’s working from home.

So thanks to Governor Cuomo for making clear what needs to happen and laying down rules to see that it does. We have our differences on some issues but he is doing his level best to take care of New Yorkers. It’s not about how great he is and how he’s thwarted the virus, but about what we all need to do.

Not Trump. At least until recently, he didn’t bother to keep a social distance in his daily prime-time campaign appearances. He boasted about his good health and how he didn’t need to follow the rules. And he doesn’t fret about the people who will follow his example.

So the question is whether it will make a difference? It could make a big one. His loyal followers could suffer the virus disproportionately. That will give the virus a second life wherever people ignored the rules, and then contact will bring it back all over the country. This time we won’t have the Chinese to blame. He’s turned the Governor down on respirators, refusing to accept the professionals’ understanding that the way to fight this disease is to kill it wherever it is, before it spreads and gets to the rest of us. Is he trying to play politics with who is vulnerable to the illness? Or is he leading his own supporters along with the rest of us into the hell of coronavirus pneumonia?

I realize that the president, and some representatives, do not want to recognize that where health is concerned, we are all in this together and no one is an island. But nature will make it clear. We have to help each other or perish together.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast by WAMC Northeast Report, on April 7, 2020.


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.


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.


Too Liberal?

February 10, 2020

People claim Elizabeth and Bernie are too liberal, that their projects would beggar the country, so we can’t select them.

There must be something wrong with programs that have existed in Europe for decades. There must be something wrong and beyond our resources, with liberal programs, even though many corporate leaders support them.

Health care? The money is obviously there. People have been buying insurance forever. Employers have been paying for it for decades. And what they wouldn’t buy, the public has been paying for through emergency rooms. Let me explain the real difference. If employers pay their share through the tax system, they won’t have to worry about so-called employee benefits every time they hire someone. Even though corporations would pay about the same, the shift from a payroll expense to a public program would take the cost out of the calculus whenever business thinks about hiring someone. Or thinks about giving people a real job instead of a gig. Public programs help the economy flow. Many corporations understand that. Competition can be built in with a public option, for example. And small business would function much more easily. But false conservatives, playing on the fears of the public, don’t want to admit that they’re behind the logical eight ball.

Business could rarely get going if they had to build their own physical and social services. In fact business always wants the public to give them whatever they need. They don’t even want to build ballparks on their own dimes! But if they had to find and get water to their businesses and workers, or build their own electrical systems off the grid, or cut and pave their own roads, it would cost more and few could get started. They’d be stuck next to waterfalls like the old mills. But that’s what the fear mongers call socialism. And if they had to build all the physical and social infrastructure they need, they’d spend as little as possible and sacrifice the health of their employees. I’m not making that up – it’s the history of company towns that virtually enslaved employees, paying them in what was called company scrip. Complain and you lost your job, your home, and went into the world penniless, homeless and likely without your family as well.

Social investments protect our jobs and our freedom. Americans who know their history know that’s the world that President Franklin Roosevelt rescued us from with the New Deal by the end of the great depression. Some rich folk hated him for it because it gave most of us a chance at decent lives instead of slavery to corporate masters. Now that corporations are finding ways to take it back through the gig economy, outsourcing and union busting, we need to recreate the New Deal that gave us Social Security, unemployment insurance, the right to organize and that eventually led to Medicare. Far from being unsustainable, Americans had their best years since Roosevelt and the New Deal. And corporations too know that they can live with it because public programs give them the flexibility they want to add employees without the added expense of so-called benefits.

Too liberal? Don’t make me laugh through my tears at the ruin of the American worker.

— This commentary is scheduled for broadcast by WAMC Northeast Report, on February 11, 2020.


Corruption Overwhelming America

August 20, 2019

This commentary was drafted in anger when I learned that pig farmers are refusing to allow inspections to look for the microbes that are killing people. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle exposed the filth of the meat-packing industry in 1906 and led directly to the Pure Food and Drug Act and the creation of the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration. Now they want to undo a century of relatively clean food by claiming regulation is bad – yes, particularly bad for filth in the food industry.

This country’s reputation for honesty and responsibility long gave us a huge market edge. American institutions check on errors and misbehavior. That drove our legal and corporate culture. Now we’re inviting the world to ditch its confidence in us, and inviting each other to be cynical about business and political claims, threatening our economic power and democratic system.

Everyone has a reason why you can’t check on them. China is more honest about their meat than our pig farmers. Police refuse to allow information to be made public about their behavior because the people might realize who is trustworthy and who isn’t. The President denies Congress’ authority to get information from him. Even George Washington turned papers over. Trump is the first President since Richard Nixon to refuse Congress his tax information, lest the American people get an honest look at his economic behavior, bankruptcies and unreliability.

Republicans lump everything under the title of regulation and, making no distinction, claim all regulation is bad. Regulation is a problem because they might have to take responsibility for the poisons they want to emit, the toxins and dangerous bugs in the food they want to sell us, and the financial shenanigans they use to fleece us of our money. No one has the right to poison or injure anyone else. That’s irresponsible at best, legally tortious and probably criminal.

The so-called Supreme Court authorizes corporations to force us into arbitration with arbitrators the corporations choose so that the arbitrators are only beholden to the corporations, and anyway, they have no power to cure corporate misbehavior. Heaven forbid corporations should have to own up for their sins. Why should they – no one else does.

We have fussed about the bribery rampant in other countries because it prevents law from working to produce decent and proper behavior that justifies reliance. Preventing investigations is almost as bad. We’re now allowing corporate and political America to behave like the Mafia where there is only accountability for hurting each other – the purpose of the organization is to fleece the public, impose protection rackets, and, where people object, kill. In this complex world it is increasingly difficult to protect yourself from dishonest business.

But the President does it – shouldn’t we follow his example? He failed to fire Mueller but he fires everyone else who might insist on honesty and accountability. Now he’s now moving federal agencies halfway across the country to encourage the staff to quit rather than relocate. What a step forward.

There’s a stench in the White House but who’s left to complain? Too many corporate officers can no longer be watched because Trump destroyed the civil service. Who’s to complain about what they do?

 


Vaccines

May 7, 2019

There’s been a lot of controversy about vaccines lately, so let’s talk about it. Lawyers put a lot of effort into dealing with medicine, science and history. You can’t fight about rights without being able to talk about the consequences. So let’s talk about the science of vaccines – in 1776!

That’s right. In the American Revolution, General George Washington quarantined his soldiers and gave them cow pox before sending them to the battle lines. It turned out that milk maids in Europe and elsewhere didn’t get smallpox. The practice was widely used in Asia and Africa. Lady Mary Wortley Montague, the wife of a British Ambassador to Turkey, is credited with introducing it to England in the early 18th century. Doctor Edward Jenner is credited with investigating, improving and publicizing it in the late eighteenth century.

Washington’s revolutionary soldiers did get sick but with a much less dangerous form of the disease. If you don’t know what smallpox is like you don’t want to know. The closest modern comparison that I can think of and that has been in the news is ebola. It’s ugly, painful and deadly. Washington protected his soldiers, and their resistance to smallpox helped him stave off the British.

Skip ahead a century and a half. The method of inoculation changed somewhat but I had the scar to prove it for decades. Vaccines were developed for other diseases. Those of us old enough to remember the world of the early 1950s will remember the little cardboard piggybanks of the March of Dimes in almost every store. The March of Dimes collected to wage a battle with polio. Polio terrified my generation. I remember scenes of children in what were called iron lungs – steel barrels with a hole for the children’s heads. That was a nightmare for me but one that lasted all day. I couldn’t stand the idea that I might have to be cooped up that way 24 hours a day. My dad taught in a Brooklyn high school and we packed the car on the last day of school and drove straight out of New York City to some place up state. We imagined that we would be safer there than in the city but in fact we knew someone on the shores of Lake Champlain, quite distant from New York City, who had come down with polio.

When Jonas Salk came up with the first polio vaccine, all of America seemed to breath a collective sigh of relief. The Sabin vaccine came out shortly after and it was better. But either vaccine decimated your chances of being paralyzed by polio. Most vaccines for other diseases became available after my wife and I became adults. But vaccines are a major reason for the decline of child mortality. Parents no longer expect to bury some of their children.

I eventually got both polio vaccines because the Peace Corps administered it to volunteers before sending us abroad. Actually, they inoculated us against everything they could. However you reacted to the needle prick, you appreciated that the Peace Corps was doing its best to protect us. They also assigned a U.S. Public Health doctor to take care of us: Dr. Robert Carey later spent sixteen years as dean of the medical school at the University of Virginia and he’s been a close friend ever since. The Peace Corps took care of us. It didn’t want any of us coming home in a coffin or a body bag.

Thank you, Dr. Salk and Dr. Sabin, and all those who have worked to develop the vaccines that have protected us; thank you America and thank you to the Peace Corps for seeing that we got them. I appreciated all the vaccines I’ve had.

— This commentary was recorded for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 7, 2019.


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