No Time to be Stingy

April 27, 2020

There’s no good time to be stingy about public health. It costs more, and kills our own.

The Center for Disease Control budget was stripped for years. Congress treated whatever we couldn’t enjoy tomorrow as a waste and political pariah. That’s also true of our infrastructure, needed improvements to the electrical grid and the internet system. All have the capacity to be deadly when left without repairs and upgrades.

Cuomo’s father had a Commissioner of Health on our son’s paper route. Our sons were in the same scout troop. But what I really liked about David Axelrod was that he made NY healthier. You could smell the difference when you traveled. NY had smoke free rooms, hotels, and buildings before it caught on elsewhere. I also knew the lawyer suing Cuomo over the cigarette rules. His clients apparently thought heaven should forbid anyone or any companies from having to change their behavior for the public good. But David made our lives better.

Stingy politicians who stripped public health agencies of money and authority caused many of our troubles. Public health agencies should have power to take poison out of the air and water — but no, we have to convince legislators first. Public health agencies ought to have power to protect forests that remove carbon from the air — but, no, that’s a big political issue because some people would have to change their behavior for the public good.

A big issue a few years ago was that some state coastal commissions wanted to block building on the dunes in order to minimize flood damage. But the Rehnquist Court said no. Some people might have to change their behavior for the public good.

How expensive is the new corona virus? We’re going into a major national depression because of it. All of us will pay, not by pulling green bills out of our pockets, but because green bills won’t be in our pockets, bank accounts or credit cards to pull out. This is going to be very expensive.

But pandemics will happen again because we live too close to natural habitats. They will happen again because a warming climate will nurse new pathogens. And they will happen again because manufacturers, agribusinesses, oil companies and other extractive industries don’t want to take account of nature, the environment or the implications of their behavior on our health. If what we mean by freedom is the freedom to sicken everyone because we are too busy making short term profits, then we have freedom to die – not with dignity, but freedom to die young, sick and quarantined from everyone we love.

It’s our choice – either we agree to live by healthy business and manufacturing rules or we die by unhealthy ones. And one extra step – all changes have winners and losers. We have to be willing to find or create jobs and educational opportunities like we did with the GI bill for those who are disadvantaged by the changes. Our shelter-in-place rules for dealing with the current virus has winners and losers. We are all in this together and we have to be willing to bring everyone along somehow. That’s not charity; it’s necessary and it’s just plain fair.

And let’s be clear, taking care of public health, taking care of each other, is crucial for all of us, for our economy, for our standing and our leverage in the world. Public health is part of national security. It’s not optional.

— This commentary is scheduled for broadcast by WAMC Northeast Report, on April 28, 2020.


Trump’s Malfeasance Goes Viral

April 20, 2020

I read the Times’ description of the Administration’s snafus through my tears because every snafu meant a large number of unnecessary deaths.

Warnings reached America in early January from Trump’s appointees, but he didn’t trust them. Warnings came from people who dedicated their lives to protecting the rest of us, who’d become experts and never gave a fig for what they could earn in private industry, because they were dedicated to protecting us, dedicated to the God’s honest truth, not to anyone’s political fortunes. So Trump labeled them the “deep state” and ignored them too.

Public health works by moving fast to contain and avoid disasters. It took a month for him to stop some travel from China. Then he took a victory lap while the virus spread. People kept trying to alert him, but he waited because it wouldn’t make his economic messaging look good. How many people had to lay down their lives for his political messaging?

National security, medical and public health experts, people in contact with doctors in China and elsewhere, watched the virus explode and kept urging action. But still he dallied, telling everyone this would blow over. God must have decided America needed some humility, so he sent us an idiot for a president.

Delay made everything harder and costlier. Sheltering in place got harder and longer because of how far the virus had been allowed to spread. Many have already died. Many couldn’t shelter in place – doctors, nurses and everyone who makes hospitals function; and others who do critically important jobs, as aides in nursing homes, people stocking grocery shelves, making deliveries or picking up garbage – all take risks daily. The poor are not in position to survive lengthy periods of unemployment. And they’ll be the first to die when his majesty decides we should go back to our places of work and play. He’s eliminated any good choices for the great mass of Americans. Working or staying home, many will die or lose their jobs and starve. Time and delay matter. Late steps don’t erase earlier failures – they leave us chasing an ever bigger problem.

The people most at risk are the very people he doesn’t want to help. Billions for corporate welfare but pennies for the poor. He’s turning on the mass of Americans, including many who thought he’d change things in their favor. Apparently, we’re all socialists now – Trump and Republicans are socialists for the rich, doing everything government can do for them, while Biden, Sanders, Warren and the Democrats are trying to provide for the rest of us, for those who need the help.

After 9/11, I explained to a Republican congressman that his rural constituents also suffered from the attack because friends and family had found jobs in the big city. The congressman’s response to me was “I didn’t think of that.” Pandemics are different. They spread; they don’t stop at state or community lines.

The Constitution doesn’t stop us from electing fools and misanthropes. It will always be up to us. I could say “God help us,” but God, for whatever reason, leaves it to us to help ourselves. This has been hard to write. It may have been hard to hear. But the best thing Trump could do for America is to resign.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast by WAMC Northeast Report, on April 21, 2020.


Choose Life

February 28, 2017

I want to focus on a serious issue that is being ignored in favor of all kinds of fake news and grandstanding. In college, I took a course on demography. That means we were looking at the explosion of population in parts of the world, which then leveled off, but at much higher levels than before. Everything we are struggling with in this twenty-first century is related to that explosion of population.

The most significant advances in our longevity were the result of public health advances, precisely the things that people don’t want to spend on right now, on our water and sewer systems. I remember my dad asking every owner of places where we stopped for the night whether the water was potable, meaning it was drinking water from which we would not get sick. That was new in his lifetime. And by the way, my dad grew up in Brooklyn, in New York City, using an outhouse. Sure many of us have used outhouses at one time or another but they are not the best protection for public health in large communities – septic systems take lots of space.

After water and sewer systems, penicillin probably made the biggest difference – it’s probably why I’m talking with you today but never met my sister who died at the age of three before the discovery of penicillin. Those advances added decades to our lives by comparison to very short advances from modern medicine and surgery.

And they are a large part of the problem of global warming. There are lots more of us burning things, driving cars, using electricity, getting what we need for business or pleasure from the furthest corners of the world. That takes energy. Energy has been produced by burning things. And so the world gets hotter, the oceans expand, tropical diseases proliferate, and life threatens to get nasty, brutish and short once again. And efforts to mitigate that will be overtaken if population continues to expand – worldwide it’s doubled in my lifetime.

So when I hear about advances in medical science, like the possible elimination of malaria, I think how wonderful for the likely victims, and then I wonder about the global impact. There is no free lunch. We can make lots of advances. But the world has its limits. More people will put more stress on the environment. And stress on the environment is already heading us toward the next major extinction – us, human beings, our children and grandchildren.

And so I think there is a trade-off between our health and our numbers. There is no human life after we are extinguished – only death and tears. So let’s be clear, I am very pro-life, but to be pro-life demands support for birth control, especially the kinds that prevent conception.

There is no so-called pro-life position that is not also a position about death. It seems to me that The Church and all houses of worship, must rethink their positions about death and destruction along with their positions about conception. The two are intertwined by laws well-beyond our ability to control. Yes the Bible says choose life, all our bibles say that in some form. But are we choosing life if we ignore the reality of death, destruction, and extinction?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Feb. 28, 2017.


Labor Economics

February 14, 2017

The White House isn’t explaining what’s happening to jobs. I once taught labor economics, an issue close to my heart. To some extent, labor is like any other commodity and that’s the problem. Jobs go wherever business can find all the things it needs – the land, transportation, materials, markets, reliable legal relations, at the right prices. And it keeps changing.

We talk about the rust belt as if we did something wrong. Actually we had about a century-long run on the best factory jobs in the country – a ribbon through this state after New York’s government built the Erie Canal and made New York City gateway to the west, turning every city along the Hudson, Mohawk, Erie Canal, and then the great Grand Central Railway into a powerhouse. This area long dominated clothing, technology, science, heavy industry and spawned radio and television networks. Each industry provided resources for newer ones.

But New York’s advantages couldn’t be permanent. For bigger plants with newer methods, business looked for virgin land. Other governments built ports, the Interstates and St. Lawrence Canal, while the aging infrastructure of older cities led firms elsewhere. It couldn’t be permanent. Economic fundamentals inevitably dominate jawboning and presidential rhetoric.

Workers get cast aside unceremoniously. One of my law students was also a human resources specialist at GE, missing class whenever GE announced layoffs. They had long since let the weakest workers go. Now she had to fire the best and it hurt. But big corporations aren’t sentimental.

What’s a city or region supposed to do? The market doesn’t automatically find the next big thing and put it where former employees can get jobs like those they lost. The market didn’t build America automatically. Government changed British rules. Government built a banking system with resources to fund business, and smooth their cash flow – if you read or saw Hamilton, that’s what he was about, government providing what companies couldn’t. Government built ports, canals, highways, and had the railroads built. Government provided public health facilities, water, sanitation, disease control – which became crucial for business. Government invested in schools, and President Lincoln laid the foundation for the modern state university system. President Wilson sparked the country’s first broadcasting system for the war effort. Almost everything in your hands today has government fingerprints on it – the research and development in fundamental physics that led to the lasers, transistors and chips that run almost everything today.

Yes, governments make mistakes. You think private industry doesn’t? Most businesses fail. But only government can provide the fundamentals, the things that all the businesses in the country, region or route need. Only governments are motivated to look beyond individual companies and work for the region.

Governments have been investing in new forms of power. If governments in coal producing states had the sense to invest in emerging industries instead of dying ones, the coal miners might face a much better transition to good jobs than anything presidential jawboning can produce. But government cannot do it if it is afraid to fail.

Governments need to be thinking about what the emerging industries are, what resources will support growth. Not individual businesses that any group of investors could build on their own, but the underlying fundamentals that make broad development possible. And we may only know which ideas work when we try them.

If government thinks small, we all shrink.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 14, 2017.


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