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Memorial Day 2020

Memorial Day 2020

I wasn’t always like this. I wasn’t always obsessed with the daily news. I don’t really like being like this. For decades, I paid only casual attention to our national politics, because there didn’t seem to be all that much to be concerned about. I think most Americans were like that. And maybe that was the problem.

But this country wasn’t always like this either. For me, things shifted in a fundamental way after 9/11, when the Bush/Cheney administration instigated a war with a country that had nothing to do with the attack, based on lies about WMD. I thought then that it couldn’t get much worse than that, but how wrong I was! Now we have an administration that lies about everything.

Today we have at least 100,000 Americans dead from Covid-19. That’s more Americans than died in wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined. But this time there is no external enemy, even if Trump tries to fabricate one by blaming China. The enemy is Us–the dark side of our national fetish of individual freedom at the expense of what the Constitution called “the general Welfare”, made worse by our country’s enduring racism. It is literally killing this country.

How does a national catastrophe like this become a litmus test for political loyalties? It begins with denial–the assertion of our governing administration that the virus wasn’t a threat, that it would miraculously go away, that it was all under control, that it could be kept out of the country, that we were well prepared with no shortage of vital equipment, that it would be over by Easter or Memorial Day or the 4th of July, that we can go back to living normally as if it never happened and wasn’t still spreading across the country.

It takes a president who subverts and contradicts his public health experts on every possible occasion, exaggerates and lies about testing for the virus, and shrugs off any responsibility for the federal government to create and carry out a national plan and procure and distribute supplies and equipment and funds to beleaguered states on the front lines of the pandemic. A president and his acolytes who want to keep the numbers down because they look bad.

It takes a network of paranoid paramilitary groups and online conspiracy mongers backed by very rich and powerful people like Betsy DeVos to threaten armed insurrection because social distancing somehow imperils gun rights.

And it takes a President and his subservient party who see the pandemic in blue-state-vs.-red-state terms and who just really don’t care about the segments of society that are bearing the brunt of the casualties. It’s a lot easier not to give a damn if you think that the virus is only killing people in states that aren’t going to vote for you anyway. Or in states that will vote for you, that it’s just confined to places like meat-packing plants where the workers being sickened are mostly immigrants or black people, not “regular folks” as a Wisconsin supreme court judge put it. Or in prisons, because nobody cares about them, and they’re mostly black or brown people anyway.

Oh yeah, the old folks. That’s a little trickier, but let’s get real. They’re in God’s waiting room already and a drag on the economy. If they’re in nursing homes, they’re probably not voting anyway. If they die, maybe their kids will be upset for a while, but they’ll inherit what’s left of the money before it’s all spent to keep the olds alive, so they’ll get over it. And the dead will all be in a better place.

Besides, what’s important is being able to do anything you damn well please. It’s all about freedom. Never mind the harm you’re doing to other people through your negligence and self-indulgence. It’s fine! We got this! It’s done!

So sure, hit the beaches and link up the party boats on the Lake of the Ozarks and party like it’s 2016 and pretend to give an occasional thought to the fallen in wars fought by this most belligerent country on earth.

But while we’re at it, let’s take a moment to remember the tens of thousands of lives lost unnecessarily to Covid-19 because of our government’s inaction and willful neglect, and the tens of thousands who will die in the coming year. And try to remember a country that used to be better than this.

“We’re all in this together” is just another lie.

 

 

Our Season of Dread

Michigan

Do you feel it too? A free-floating sense of dread? Maybe it’s the 2+ months of self-isolation. Maybe it’s the feeling that despite that and all my other efforts to avoid infection, I’m probably going to get it anyway at some point, because our government–both federal and state–is incapable of devising a coherent and effective response to Covid-19, and at my age if I do get it there’s a good chance that it will kill me. Or maybe it’s my outrage at watching all the lies and excuses and evasions and deceptions coming out of the White House every day.

But I sense that something more fundamental is happening. The pandemic has simply made inescapable the reality of what this country has become: an enormous Potemkin village whose prosperous and glamorous façade has concealed the rot and corruption and increasingly precarious existence of most Americans who are one paycheck away from desperation. And all the while, amidst the carnage, we are watching our national institutions being deliberately ripped to shreds.

The Trump response to Covid-19 has gone from denial, to blame, to self-pity, to self-praise, to now questioning if 78,000 (as of this writing) Americans have really died of the disease. What he has NOT done is fashion a coordinated federal response to marshal resources to meet the public health challenge and counteract its effect on the economy. All of that he has left to others and disclaimed responsibility for the result.

The federal relief bills made sure that large corporations and banks would be well taken care of, while directing relief funding away from smaller businesses in favor of publicly traded ones. We now have 33 million Americans who have lost their jobs, but Wall Street is bouncing back. In Texas, food banks are seeing lines of cars miles long to get food that people can’t afford to buy, while farmers across the country are dumping millions of gallons of milk and plowing crops into the ground to rot because they have no way to get the food where it is needed.

Republican governors are eagerly lifting stay-home orders and allowing businesses to reopen, thereby making it more difficult for laid-off workers to claim unemployment benefits. In Florida, the state’s unemployment system, which was intentionally designed to make it as hard as possible to get benefits, crashed under the weight of the applications. Of the more than 1 million claims that actually got through to date less than half have received a check.

Federal assistance to state and local governments under Trump has been distributed not on the basis of where it’s most needed, but on whether the local officials are sufficiently obsequious in their gratitude. This week Trump tweeted that he might condition aid to states on whether they eliminate “sanctuary cities, payroll taxes, and perhaps capital-gains taxes…also lawsuit indemnification & business deductions for restaurants.” This is what petty tyrants do.

The Center for Disease Control was once considered the premier public heath agency in the world, but it has been bizarrely invisible during the Covid-19 pandemic response and gave its last public briefing on March 9. In an interview with Bloomberg News, director Robert Redfield was asked who decided to discontinue them and responded that he didn’t know. “I just know that our regular briefing was discontinued.” The CDC has been reduced to offering “suggestions” or non-compulsory advice to meat-processing plants throughout the Midwest and South that have become major hotspots for Covid-19. On February 25, Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, warned of a serious outbreak in the U.S. and called for major changes to prepare. She has not spoken out in public since then. This week the White House quashed CDC guidelines for reopening restaurants, child care facilities and other establishments, as well as public transit, and told CDC officials that “it would never see the light of day.” A White House spokesperson said the guidance was “too prescriptive” and amounted to “countermessaging”.  Something clearly has happened to muzzle the once-great CDC.

The rest of the world has moved on without the US in responding to the pandemic. China was among 40 countries participating in a major international conference convened by the European Commission on May 4 focused on ensuring that vaccines, treatments and diagnostics would be affordable and accessible. The US was absent. As former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd recently wrote in Foreign Affairs: “The world has watched in horror as an American president acts not as the leader of the free world but as a quack apothecary recommending unproven “treatments.” It has seen what “America First” means in practice: don’t look to the United States for help in a genuine global crisis, because it can’t even look after itself. Once there was the United States of the Berlin airlift. Now there is the image of the USS Theodore Roosevelt crippled by the virus, reports of the administration trying to take exclusive control of a vaccine being developed in Germany, and federal intervention to stop the commercial sale of personal protective equipment to Canada. The world has been turned on its head.

This reflects a profound shift to a crabbed and myopic view of American responsibilities in international affairs, which we now see everywhere, from the abrupt abandonment of Kurdish allies in Syria to casting doubt on US commitment to NATO and other allies (with the notable exceptions of Israel and Saudi Arabia).

The destruction of norms and institutions goes far beyond that. Among the most sinister is the transformation of the US Department of Justice from the country’s senior law enforcement agency with independence from the White House to a virtual law firm for the Trump Organization. While this has been unfolding for quite some time, probably the most stunning act was the DoJ decision on May 7 to drop charges against Michel Flynn to which he has plead guilty and confessed in writing more than once. This clearly was AG Barr’s doing, as he personally signed the request while the lead prosecutor withdrew from the case.  The overall game here is to discredit and ultimately bury the entire Russia investigation (and try to replace it with an ersatz Ukraine scandal in time for the presidential election). To this end, on May 7 the Trump administration asked the Supreme Court to block an appeals court ruling that requires the Justice Department to give Congress certain secret grand jury material from Robert S. Mueller III’s special counsel investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Should SCOTUS decide to protect Trump from congressional oversight in the runup to the 2020 election (which is what this is all about) Trump’s triumph over the rule of law will be virtually complete.

Another case now before the Supreme Court is even more crucial to the principle that a president is accountable to the rule of law. Trump v. Vance concerns a subpoena issued by the New York state district attorney to President Trump’s accountants demanding the release of tax returns and other financial documents to a grand jury. Trump’s astonishing argument is that he has “temporary absolute immunity,” meaning he cannot be criminally investigated for anything or by anyone while in office. His lawyers are even using the Covid-19 crisis to support this position, arguing that “the nation requires the president’s undivided attention.” There is ample precedent against the Trump position, including US v. Nixon and Clinton v. Jones, but nothing is certain with this court. Kavanaugh has written articles in support of “absolute immunity” (which is probably why he was nominated to the Court), and the conservative majority on the Roberts court has been highly deferential to Republican issues. This is the court, after all, that decided that corporate money is “free speech” (Citizens United), gutted the Voting Rights Act (Shelby County v. Holder), and declared that nothing could be done about partisan gerrymandering so it was perfectly fine (Rucho et al v. Common Cause et al).

The demolition goes on everywhere you look and began immediately after Trump’s inauguration. Politico reported in March 2017 that a supervisor at the Energy Department’s international climate office had told staff not to use the phrases “climate change,” “emissions reduction” or “Paris Agreement” in written memos, briefings or other written communications. The New York Times tallied up almost 100 environmental regulations that the Trump administration either has already killed or is in the process of reversing. These deal with air pollution, drilling and mining, infrastructure, animal protection, toxic substances, water pollution, and other issues. The EPA has been gutted and hundreds of its scientists have left. Amidst the Covid-19 crisis, as millions of Americans have lost their jobs and therefore their health insurance coverage, the Trump administration is pushing forward on another suit now before the Supreme Court that, if successful, would eliminate Obamacare while putting nothing in its place.

Then there is the US Postal Service, which Trump is now trying to kill. The Post Office has long been a target for conservative ideologues who want to privatize it and tried to cripple it financially by imposing a requirement to prepay pensions for workers decades into the future. Now Trump has decided to hold the USPS hostage, apparently mostly because it has a large contract to deliver packages for Amazon, whose owner Jeff Bezos also owns the Washington Post, which is frequently sharply critical of Trump. Eliminating the USPS would also throw a monkey wrench in plans, pushed by the Democrats and opposed by most Republicans, to greatly expand vote-by-mail in this year’s election. Trump just named Louis DeJoy, a North Carolina businessman who is currently in charge of fundraising for the Republican National Convention in Charlotte, to serve as the new postmaster general–another in a long line of Trump appointees whose mission is to take a wrecking ball to the agency they lead. It might be also noted in the context of unprecedented job loss, that the USPS is a major employer with nearly 500,000 workers, some 40 percent of whom are minorities.

Using the pandemic as an excuse, Trump is again pushing to eliminate the “payroll tax”, which is Republican code for defunding Social Security. The list goes on and on.

If a foreign adversary had contrived to put a puppet in the White House to cripple the US, could they possibly have conceived of success as unimaginable as what Trump has actually done?

So we continue to cower at home, eager to go out and dreading what will happen if we do. What began as a public health crisis has become, like everything else, another front in our seemingly endless cold Civil War. The critical battle will take place on November 3. If we lose, we will not recognize the country that emerges from the rubble.

 

Odd Numbers: How Many Missing Covid- 19 Deaths?

Covid cases

New York Times, 5/5/2020

I’m a bit of a data geek, and since I’ve been stuck at home I have been poring over the published statistics on Covid-19. One thing that particularly struck me as strange was the surprisingly low number of Covid-19 deaths per confirmed case in Texas and Florida, compared with other states with large numbers of cases. What might explain that?

There are two measures of the deadliness of a disease. The disease mortality rate is the number of deaths divided by the actual number of infections. The observed case-fatality ratio is the number of deaths attributed to the disease divided by the number of confirmed cases (times 100, to express as percentage).

To compute the former, you need to know the true number (or at least a credible estimate) of infections, and that is still unknown. So at this point epidemiologists can only make informed guesses about the disease mortality rate. It is generally believed that the true number of Covid-19 infections is far larger than the number of officially confirmed cases.

So we are left with the observed case-fatality ratio, for which we have actual numbers provided by state health departments gathered from data provided by hospitals and other health officials. Here’s what these numbers show (based on data published in the New York Times as of 5/4) for states with the highest numbers of cases:

  • New York           7.6  (i.e., 7.6% of confirmed Covid-19 cases ended in death)
  • New Jersey         6.1
  • Massachusetts   7.4
  • Illinois                 4.1
  • California           4.1
  • Pennsylvania     5.4
  • Michigan            9.4
  • Florida                3.7
  • Louisiana           6.7
  • Connecticut       8.5
  • Texas                   2.7

What would account for these rather large variations? Why would Covid-19 patients in Michigan be dying at more than 3 times the rate in Texas?

But there are problems with these numbers too.

The number of confirmed cases (the denominator in the ratio) depends to a large extent on how widely the population is being tested. The more you test, the more cases you will find–particularly cases that produce few or no symptoms. Testing in the US so far has been woefully inadequate in general, but there are wide differences in the rate of testing between states. Among states with large numbers of cases, New York has tested the most (as of 5/4) at 5.0% of the population. Massachusetts is at 4.5%, Louisiana at 3.8%, and New Jersey at 3.1%. At the lower end are Texas, which has tested only 1.3% of its population, California and Pennsylvania at 1.8%, and Florida at 1.9%.

One might think that we could be pretty sure that at least the number of deaths (the numerator in the ratio) would be accurate. After all, there is a body which can be counted and for which a death certificate must be issued listing cause of death. But the statistics depend precisely on what is listed as cause of death (COD), and as with the living, the dead are often not tested to see if the virus was present. If the COD is entered as, say, pneumonia or heart failure, that death will not show up in the Covid-19 figures.

Apparently, this has been a significant problem. New York reviewed causes of deaths that were not initially reported as Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic, and subsequently added more than 5,000 to the state’s official death toll from the disease. The Washington Post reported that the US recorded an estimated 37,100 excess deaths in the early stages of the pandemic in March and the first two weeks of April, nearly 13,500 more than were attributed to Covid-19 for that same period. The New York Times just published another analysis of “excess deaths” based on CDC data, but the data for most states only goes through early April and for some (like Texas) only through March. The Washington Post also reported that in Alabama one out of ten patients that died with Covid-19 were not listed as dying of Covid-19. How widely this is still happening is unclear.

Could some of this misreporting be deliberate? The Tampa Bay Times reported that Florida state officials “have stopped releasing the list of coronavirus deaths being compiled by Florida’s medical examiners, which has at times shown a higher death toll than the state’s published count. The list had previously been released in real time by the state Medical Examiners Commission. But earlier this month, after the Tampa Bay Times reported that the medical examiners’ death count was 10 percent higher than the figure released by the Florida Department of Health,” state officials began withholding this information.

Why would some officials want to low-ball the death count? Perhaps, like Trump, they are anxious to re-open their states and localities for business, and bigger death numbers make things look bad. Of course, there might be other more benign explanations.

But back to the observed case-fatality ratio, are there other things that might explain the rather wide differences between the states? There could be differences in the prevalence of underlying conditions or “co-morbidities” such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, COPD, etc. There could be differences in degree of access to health care and insurance coverage. If certain states are harder hit, it may be more difficult to get admitted to a hospital there. It could be a function of where a state is on the Covid-19 timeline. Deaths typically lag behind a surge in Covid-19 cases, and some states in the middle of the country did not see cases emerge until weeks after states on the east and west coasts.

So in the light of all of these factors, why would the Covid-19 death toll in Texas be so much lower? It can’t be because health coverage in Texas is so great. In fact, according the Census Bureau, Texas has the highest percentage of uninsured residents in the entire country at 17.7%, which is worse than Mississippi. (Florida isn’t far behind at 13%.) Texans have a lower life expectancy (78.8 years) than New Yorkers (81.0 years) and residents of other northeastern states hit hardest by Covid-19. The median age in Texas is among the youngest (34.8 years), but not that much lower than neighboring Louisiana (37.2 years), which has much higher reported mortality from Covid-19. But then again Florida also has a low case-fatality ratio and a much older population (median 42.2 years). Perhaps the most plausible benign explanation is that Texas got hit later than other states, and is not as far along on the curve. With Texas among the states most eager to end social distancing restrictions, the numbers could soon change drastically.

Would more extensive testing make a difference in this measure of mortality? Perhaps, though if the number of confirmed cases increased as a result, it would actually lower the observed case-fatality ratio, unless there were also a comprehensive review of causes of death during the pandemic that raised the fatality number as well. But just looking at states with similar levels of testing and similar case numbers such as Illinois, California, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, it’s difficult to explain why Texas and Florida show much lower numbers of Covid-19 deaths.

It’s probably important to note that there are also major differences in the case-fatality ratios of different countries. Among the countries with major outbreaks, Belgium, the UK, and France have ratios of around 15%, which is much higher than the US as a whole at 5.8%. Again, it’s difficult to account for the differences, and harder to know if the numbers are actually counting the same things in the same way.

As I write this, the official US death toll from Covid-19 has just passed 71,000. The true number is almost certainly significantly higher. Let us hope that the real numbers are not being fudged to make the political optics better.

 

Conservatives Wanted to Kill the Federal Government. They Succeeded.

map with portraits

You’re welcome, America!

 

If nothing else, the Covid-19 crisis has made glaringly plain just how hollow America’s claims to being the “best country in the world” have become. We now have a federal government that has gone from outright denial and misinformation to floundering incompetence, directed by a president who still won’t declare a national stay-at-home order to slow a pandemic that by best-case estimates will kill more Americans that died in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined. If the “best case” doesn’t happen, it could well kill more Americans than World War II.

So we get a daily spectacle on TV of desperate hospital personnel wearing garbage bags for protection and pleading for masks so they don’t have to keep reusing the few they have and risking their own lives. Of refrigerator trucks lined up at hospital to load bodies of the dead because morgues and mortuaries are full. Of New York Governor Cuomo telling us frankly that his state’s hospitals will be overwhelmed in a week or so. And of Trump and Pence giving us lies and happy talk that there are plenty of medical supplies and equipment and testing kits out there, even though the evidence is plain as day that if they do exist, they’re not getting to where they’re needed.

US inability to respond to this crisis effectively didn’t just happen by accident. It is the logical result of decades of conservative efforts to shrink the federal government until it “can be drowned in a bathtub” and denigrate government in general while promoting privatization and assumption of government functions by for-profit enterprises. And here we are with an federal government that sees its role as a “back-up” for overwhelmed state and local authorities and is reduced to begging companies like Ford and GM to retool to make medical equipment that isn’t being produced in the US anymore. And delivering such material obtained in China at government expense to private companies who then sell it at inflated prices to the top bidder, because they “don’t want to disrupt the supply chain.”

We have been left with a federal government leadership that ignored warnings about possible pandemics and failed to prepare mobilization plans or to stockpile adequate emergency equipment or hospital capacity to deal with such a crisis because spending on that wouldn’t be cost-effective, and believed the private capitalist market would immediately spring in to action to handle a crisis far better than government. Turns out it doesn’t quite work that way.

It is obvious that a consolidated procurement agency for now-scarce medical equipment is needed in order to avoid the price-gouging and competitive bidding for these items by all the states individually (and indeed by governments around the world), but that is anathema to the ideology of this regime so it doesn’t happen. Instead we have the government spending public money to fly critical medical supplies from China and delivering it to private for-profit brokers who then control where it goes according to who is willing to pay the most. The opportunities for corruption are truly mindblowing.

Current business practices are based on just-in-time supply chains, which collapse when entire economies are shut down and transportation is disrupted. In such emergencies, government intervention is critical to mobilize what is still functional and distribute supplies rationally where needed, but if you don’t believe government should to that, then chaos ensues, as we now see.

Conservative ideology also is the reason why the US, unlike every other advanced country in the world, lacks a universal healthcare system. As we all know, there remain large gaps in our patchwork coverage which leave millions of Americans without health coverage in the best of times. This administration and the entire Republican party has labored ceaselessly to peel back Obamacare and right now is pursuing a case to the Supreme Court that, if successful, will destroy the ACA completely, depriving the millions of people now covered by its protection. That would be bad enough in normal times, but when people are being laid off suddenly in unprecedented numbers during a deadly pandemic, this is a recipe for an even greater disaster. Because, for most people, health insurance is contingent on their employment, when there are massive layoffs, as is happening now, the number of people who find themselves suddenly without coverage is skyrocketing, meaning that many will face a deadly disease without any assurance of medical care. But universal health care would be socialism!

But perhaps most insidious is the decades-long propaganda campaign by conservatives to convince Americans that government itself is, at best, incompetent and, at worst, intent on destroying their freedom. From Ronald Reagan to Newt Gingrich to the Tea Party to Donald Trump, that is the message they have ceaselessly hammered into the national consciousness, and it has stuck to the point that even progressive Democrats have had to tack rightward to adjust. The strategy of Republicans in or out of power has always been to starve federal agencies they didn’t like (which was virtually all of them that didn’t involve the military or law enforcement) of funds, thereby making it harder and harder to fulfill their functions successfully. Then along came Trump who took this to its logical extreme by appointing as heads of federal agencies people whose agenda was to subvert the very mission of the agencies they led. The purpose was to undermine confidence in government itself by insuring that it could not do the job people expected it to do. And now we see the result.

The question is what lessons the American public will draw from this growing disaster. Will 100,000 or 200,000 or 500,000 deaths convince Americans that Trump bears major responsibility for the needless magnitude of the carnage and vote him out of office? Or will they buy his message and allow him to consolidate power and become the tyrant he aspires to be? History suggests that it could go either way. In 1932 America chose Franklin Roosevelt, while Germany went for Adolf Hitler. Which country are we in 2020?

 

 

The Malign Neglect of Ron DeSantis

I-95 backup

Back-up at Florida-Georgia line after governor ordered roadblocks for incoming traffic.

As I am writing this, Florida officially has 5,472 confirmed Covid-19 cases. When the new numbers come out this afternoon, the number will be close to 6,000 or maybe higher. Miami-Dade County alone has 1,632 confirmed cases, and Broward County (Ft. Lauderdale) has 1,152. The positive hit rate for the testing that has been done is just under 10% of everyone who has been tested so far. Florida now ranks 4th in the number of cases, and is on track to surpass California in a day or so. We are the new coronavirus hot spot. 

But Governor Ron DeSantis has yet to order a state-wide shutdown of businesses and school closures or stay-at-home order. Today his big announcement was a safer-at-home advisory for the four big counties in South Florida from Palm Beach to the Keys that have ALREADY had even more stringent measures in place for more than 10 days. In other words, this is nothing but an empty gesture to make it appear that he’s doing something.

Local governments in South Florida and other big cities like Tampa and Orlando have had to make the hard–and often unpopular–decisions to close businesses and keep people at home.  The city of Miami Beach shut down hotels, bars, and restaurants week before last at the height of the Spring Break crowd. Miami-Dade and Broward also closed all beaches and parks, marinas, etc. as well as all non-essential businesses. All non-residents were ordered to leave the Keys last week, and US-1 is blocked for all non-residents.

But DeSantis still hasn’t ordered all other beaches throughout the state to close down, leaving many on the Gulf coast and northern Florida crowded with drunk college kids there to party on Spring Break–leading to shocking images shown all over the country on news media.

DeSantis’s most decisive–and stupifyingly incomprehensible–order was to proclaim that anyone arriving in Florida from the New York area would have to put themselves into quarantine for 2 weeks. Of course, this is completely unenforceable. His next move was to impose roadblocks at the state line on I-95 and I-10 on incoming traffic. This was so state troopers could issue (essentially non-enforceable) orders to people arriving from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Louisiana. The roadblocks, of course, backed up traffic for miles on these major arteries.

DeSantis’s thoroughly Trumpian logic would be that the contagion is being brought in by  outsiders, even though the state already ranks near the top in terms of active Covid-19 cases and the disease is mostly being spread by community transmission. The political motivations aren’t hard to see here. DeSantis is telling his voting base that the problem is just with those wicked people from the Northeast or in South Florida (which is regarded by most people in the rest of the state as virtually a foreign country), and that they can just go on about their business while those sources of contagion are isolated. Of course, this is utter nonsense, but South Florida votes heavily Democratic and the fact that the local economy there is being devastated by shut-downs won’t hurt DeSantis’s popularity. And he can look as if he’s taking action.

Meanwhile, several large cruise ships with Covid-19 cases aboard are stuck dead in the water because they are not allowed to dock at Florida ports. The Zaandam, owned by the Holland-America Line (a subsidiary of Carnival Cruise Lines, headquartered in Miami) now has 4 dead people on board, and roughly 20% of the 1000 passengers and crew have symptoms or have been diagnosed with Covid-19. DeSantis told Fox News on March 30 that he does not want to have the ship disembark in Florida. “We cannot afford to have people who are not even Floridians dumped into South Florida using up those valuable resources…We view this as a big big problem and we do not want to see people dumped in Southern Florida right now.” Apparently, he’s perfectly willing to have more passengers and crew die on board without medical help.

DeSantis just blocked a well-respected reporter from the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times from entry into his daily virus press conference in Tallahassee. Evidently, he didn’t like the criticism he was getting from those publications.

It’s also worth noting that DeSantis, like his predecessor now-Senator Rick Scott, has blocked the extension of Medicaid to low income Floridians under Obamacare. So if they get sick, basically they’re on their own.

It may not be too long before DeSantis’s insouciance about anti-pandemic measures outside of the big metropolitan areas starts to backfire as the virus spreads to his small-town, evangelical, and elderly base. Some churches are still holding large services even in places where gatherings have been limited to 10 or fewer. They evidently think they will be protected by the power of prayer.

But will DeSantis pay a political price for his irresponsibility? Perhaps not. When you’re in a cult, you just believe.

 

Trump’s Payroll Tax Scam

Payroll tax tweet

Trump is doubling down on eliminating the payroll tax (which funds Social Security) this year. Or maybe longer, as he has hinted.

This is a stupid idea for several reasons and is actually a stealth attack on Social Security, the crippling of which has been a conservative Republican goal for decades.

First, the payroll tax is collected only if you are earning wages. If you can’t work and aren’t getting paid, then you won’t be paying the tax anyway. Therefore it is of NO help to people who lose their pay because of the virus.

It would also eliminate employer’s share of the payroll tax, which is roughly equal to the employee’s share. Trump’s proposal would eliminate the tax on all workers, not just those who have lost their income (who, as previously noted, wouldn’t be paying it anyway.) Therefore, it would be a huge windfall for corporations, but would do little or nothing for workers directly affected by the virus. But it might–temporarily–stem the fall of the stock market, which until now has been Trump’s biggest boast.

The only rational argument for this measure is that it would be a stimulus to the economy, but it is an extremely blunt and untargeted instrument for that. There are many other ways to do this, if it becomes necessary, without the collateral damage to Social Security.

This isn’t the first time that Trump has floated this idea. He proposed it in 2017 as part of his tax “reform”–the one that has already swelled the deficit by more than $1 trillion. It was a bad idea then, and thankfully went nowhere.

Trumpsters are trying their usual “Obama-did-it” argument, and as usual it’s not exactly true. In 2010, in the midst of the Great Recession and still very high unemployment, Obama made a deal with Congress to cut the employee portion of the tax from 6.2% to 4.2% temporarily. The employer contribution was unchanged. The amount of the reduction was reimbursed to Social Security from general revenue, and the full tax was restored two years later. The deal was heavily criticized at the time as it set a precedent for fooling with Social Security funding to deal with a general economic crisis, but the Obama administration accepted this as a Faustian bargain in order to get a larger stimulus for the ailing economy.  That is not what we are facing now, and what Trump proposes is to eliminate the tax–and thereby its revenue stream for Social Security–entirely.

Conservatives have been trying to kill Social Security for decades. They know it’s an extremely popular program, so they can’t attack it directly. Their strategy has been to hack away at it piecemeal, most importantly by undermining its financial basis and thereby creating doubts in the minds of younger Americans who are still working that they will ever get benefits when they retire. One way to do this is to eliminate the dedicated revenue stream provided by the payroll tax to Social Security, which then would have to be funded from general tax revenue, which is much easier to manipulate politically. 

That’s exactly what this is–a sneak attack to eliminate up to $1 trillion in Social Security funding, which will then be used as an argument for cutting benefits.

Call your congressman and senator and tell them that you don’t like this!

The Fox and Hedgehog Primary

fox and hedgehog

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

That aphorism, attributed to the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, has been cited by scholars since Erasmus to classify people according to how they think. It’s an amusing exercise, but the problem is that no one can agree on what it actually means, and when applied to specifics it dissolves into ambiguity. Sort of like this Democratic primary.

Democratic voters are hedgehogs* when it comes to the Big Thing for this election: We want to get rid of Trump. But when it comes to how to do that, we become foxes, scurrying after a hundred different theories on who can win.

As for the remaining candidates, presentationally Bernie is more hedgehog–prickly and, to some, oddly adorable–while Joe is definitely more foxy. But strategically, it’s the opposite. Bernie doesn’t just want to get rid of Trump, he wants to start a revolution in American political and economic life, while Joe really only wants a restoration of the Obama regime. No wonder people are conflicted and confused.

Count me among them. Now that my preferred candidate, Elizabeth Warren, has dropped out, I’m trying to decide who to vote for in the Florida primary and am not really happy with either of the choices. I realize that my vote is almost totally symbolic and is likely to matter to no one but me, but the decision still feels morally important.

My problem is that I believe the country desperately needs the kind of progressive reforms that Warren articulated so clearly, but I don’t believe that Bernie will be able to make them happen. Give Bernie full credit for bringing these issues to the forefront of the campaign, but I see him primarily as an effective critic and movement leader, rather than an effective politician who can get his program enacted if he gets elected.

Conversely, Biden seems to have no program at all, other than restoring what Obama did and Trump destroyed. There are worse things than that, of course. Joe is running on a smile and a shoeshine and Obama’s reflected charisma. He’s likable, and that counts for a lot in politics, but I find him uninspiring and often cringe-worthy. Then there’s the fake Ukraine scandal, which the Party of Trump is clearly gearing up to deploy again, which indicates that they think it will have an impact. Who knows?

So who can get elected in November? No one really knows. As far as the polls go, for what they’re worth, it seems pretty much a toss-up on who could beat Trump. Bernie’s vaunted army of enthusiastic younger voters hasn’t really turned up at the polls, which seriously weakens his theory of how to win. A lot of down-ballot Democrats are afraid of having him on the ballot. On the other hand, African-American voters turned out in big numbers for Biden, and their support and turnout is absolutely critical for Democrats to win. That looks like a point for Biden.

Ultimately it comes down to who, overall, do you think would be the better president, given the cards that we have dealt ourselves. Unless something major happens in the next eleven days, that means I’m probably going to mark my ballot for Biden.

I guess that makes me a hedgehog.

* For Americans unfamiliar with hedgehogs, they are supercute European relatives of the porcupine. 

Elián and Bernie

elian gonzalez

Sometime seemingly small events have major consequences.

On November 21, 1999, a divorced young mother named Elizabeth Brotons Rodríguez fled Cuba in a small boat, along with her almost 6-year-old son Elián Gonzalez and twelve other people. The boat’s engine failed, and it drifted in the Gulf Stream for days, until it was sighted by an American fishing boat. By then, 10 of those on the boat had died, including Elizabeth, but Elián survived. INS released Elián to his paternal great-uncle, Lázaro González, in Miami. He and other relatives in Miami’s Cuban community were determined to keep him in the US. Thus began a protracted custody battle between Elián’s father, back in Cuba, and his Miami relatives, who enlisted the support of the South Florida Cuban community and their political connections in Florida and Washington, DC.

The courts eventually ruled in favor of Elián’s father, but the decision was bitterly denounced in Miami. Bill Clinton’s Attorney General, Janet Reno, ordered Elián’s return and set a deadline of April 13, 2000, but the Miami relatives defied the order. The standoff got increasingly heated, and on April 20 Reno ordered Elián’s removal by force from his great-uncle’s home.  Before dawn on April 22, a large armed team of Border Patrol agents forcibly entered the house and, in an indelibly ugly scene, snatched Elián away. He was then returned to his father in Cuba.

That likely cost Al Gore Florida’s electoral votes in November 2000, and made George W. Bush the President of the United States.

It’s hard to overstate the anger Elián’s forced repatriation engendered in Miami.  It clearly set back decades of Democratic efforts to claw back support in the Cuban-American community. One may legitimately believe that returning Elián to his father was the right thing to do, but the political consequences are hard to dispute.

In 1996, Bill Clinton got 57.2% of the vote in Miami-Dade County. In 2000, Al Gore got only 52.5%. You might recall that Bush was leading Gore by a mere 537 votes in Florida when the Supreme Court stopped the recount, thereby awarding Florida’s electoral votes to Bush.

Flash forward 20 years to Bernie Sanders’ February 23 interview on 60 Minutes, in which he said: “We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba, but, you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad, you know? When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?”

You might argue, based on a close reading of his statement, that Bernie was not defending Castro, but it’s safe to say very few Cuban-Americans (or Venezualan-Americans) will hear it that way. The message they’re hearing is that Bernie Sanders thinks Castro’s Cuba really isn’t so bad.

The reaction in South Florida was swift and sharply negative. It has been all over the local TV news. Miami Herald columnist Fabiola Santiago (who, as she points out, is a registered Democrat) published a scathing response entitled “I Went to School in Cuba under Castro. Here’s What It’s Like, Bernie Sanders“. In the Spanish-language El Nuevo Herald, Andrés Oppenheimer wrote: “La afirmación de Sanders sobre Cuba es tan estúpida como decir que la Rusia de Stalin produjo grandes bailarines a pesar de sus asesinatos masivos, o que la Alemania nazi construyó las mejores carreteras del país y redujo la tasa de criminalidad, a pesar de sus campos de concentración.” (“Sanders’ statement about Cuba is just as stupid as saying that Stalin’s Russia produced great dancers despite his massive killings, or that Nazi Germany built the best highways and reduced the crime rate, in spite of its concentration camps.”)

Oppenheimer ends his column thus: “En resumen, los demócratas pueden despedirse del crucial estado de la Florida, y tal vez de otros, si eligen a Sanders como su candidato. Sería un suicidio político, y un regalo para Trump, el peor presidente de la historia reciente de Estados Unidos.” (“In summary, Democrats can say goodbye to the crucial state of Florida, and perhaps others, if they select Sanders as their candidate. It would be political suicide, and a gift to Trump, the worst president in the recent history of the United States.”) These are not the words of Trump supporters, and I don’t believe this is going away. The attack ads write themselves.

The Miami-Dade Democratic Party was so alarmed that they immediately issued a statement strongly denouncing the Castro regime.

If Bernie Sanders becomes the Democrat’s candidate, I think Oppenheimer is right: We can kiss Florida’s 29 electoral votes goodbye. Florida is the most important tossup state and has more electoral weight than any state except California and Texas, both of which are essentially decided. The mythical “Blue Wall” no longer exists, and Democrats cannot afford to concede Florida. Recent statewide elections here have been decided by the thinnest of margins, which means that if Democrats lose even a small percentage of Latino votes or if turnout drops off, then Florida will surely go to Trump.

The Democratic nomination is still a long way from decided, and no one really knows who can beat Trump. But Bernie’s dumbass remarks have made it all but certain that he would not win Florida in November if he’s the candidate.

Remember Elián Gonzalez!

 

 

Department of Injustice

barr and trump

Generations of Americans have known from bitter experience what it’s like when the law isn’t there to protect you, but rather is used to suppress you. Throughout most of US history,  for African-Americans the idea of equal protection under the law was an ironic joke that simply didn’t apply to them. Even during the last half century, when things at last began to improve, arbitrary and capricious law enforcement has remained one of the most powerful weapons deployed to prevent black people from full and equal participation in American society. The same applies to Latinos, Asians, and–above all–native Americans.

For the most part, white people in this country have had no similar experiences. A relative few were persecuted unjustly during the Red Scare after WWI and again during McCarthy’s commie hunts in the early 50s. Perhaps the closest analog has been the use of the law in targeting gays, but even there it was possible for most people to avoid running afoul of the law by staying in the closet or on the downlow.

Now, I think some white people are beginning to feel a chill of fear that for the first time in their lifetimes, the law could be used systematically as an instrument of oppression against them–this time not based on race, but for political opposition. Or not even for that, but simply for disloyalty and lèse majesté against Donald Trump.

I don’t mean to imply that what is happening now in any way approaches the systematic denial of rights and outright terrorism applied for centuries to African-Americans and other people of color. Yet.

But watching William Barr’s Department of Justice act in obedience to Trump’s explicit or implicit direction, just how sure do you feel now that those anti-Trump Facebook posts, or tweets, or blogs that you’ve been putting out there on the Internet will never be used against you? It has happened in many countries of the world. Why should the US be immune?

What is happening now at main DOJ remains only partially visible to the public, but we can see enough to be legitimately alarmed. Trump is telling Barr–directly or indirectly–what he wants done on cases that involve his supporters or his purported enemies, and Barr shows every indication that he is complying. Trump tweets and Barr hops to it. Indeed, Trump is now openly calling himself the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.

Last spring, at Trump’s insistence, Barr launched an investigation into the origins of the Mueller probe, designed explicitly to expose it as a Democrat-led plot against Trump. Investigations have been directed against key FBI officials like James Comey and Andrew McCabe, as well as others. Barr’s very public “rebuke” that Trump’s tweets make it difficult to do his job, appears to be merely a complaint that the tweets reveal precisely what he’s doing and why.  He has shown no reluctance to carry out directives to recommend reduced sentences for convicted Trumpians like Roger Stone and Michael Flynn.

As of September 2019, there were no less than 10 federal investigations dealing with Trump’s businesses and political activities.  It’s now unclear if these are still active or have become dormant or simply ended. Barr, of course, is in a position to kill any of them or transfer them to another venue where they are less likely ever to come to fruition. There are now some disturbing signs that this may be happening. On February 17, DOJ sent out a memo stating that decisions on all “matters relating to Ukraine, including the opening of any new investigations or the expansion of existing ones” would be transferred from the famously independent Southern District of New York to the rival Eastern District in Brooklyn. The memo adds that “any widening or expansion of existing matters should require prior consultation” with the Deputy Attorney General in main DOJ or the US Attorney in Brooklyn.

Among these matters “relating to Ukraine” are the activities of Rudy Giuliani and his associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who are currently under indictment. What this means exactly is uncertain, but it is very unusual and quite suspicious, especially in light of everything else happening at DOJ.

There is an obvious pattern here, even more blatant since the Senate voted not to convict Trump, who has retaliated against everyone who testified to Congress–and even people who didn’t. On February 19, Trump forced the resignation of the Pentagon policy official, John Rood, whose certification of Ukraine freed the military aid that Trump had withheld. At the same time, he is reveling in his power of the pardon, which he wields in a grossly symbolic way: a racist Arizona sheriff, a war criminal, a Wall Street mogul convicted of tax evasion and securities fraud, a corrupt New York City police commissioner, a corrupt former Democratic governor, a Texas construction firm owner who donated $200,000 to Trump election campaign and is pals with Don Jr., a former Bush aide convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, a software executive who hacked into a rival’s computer, etc. The message here is that none of this stuff is really wrong. And of course, they all had connections in TrumpWorld. And they’re mostly rich and white.

The simple lesson is that if you oppose Trump he will go after you, but if you remain loyal and silent he might let you out of jail. So far, he has not pardoned any of his erstwhile henchmen convicted as a result of the Mueller probe, but it’s a pretty good bet that at least some will get sprung after November 3, if not before.

Trump has removed the pardon process from the office in DOJ that had reviewed cases, and put it in the hands of a group in the White House led by Jared Kushner and Pam Bondi. As the Washington Post pointed out, “as attorney general of Florida, Bondi once took an illegal $25,000 contribution from Trump’s foundation for her PAC and then dropped an investigation into Trump University.”

Trump has always used the legal system to try to crush small contractors and others who he stiffed in his businesses and who couldn’t afford the legal fees to oppose him in litigation. Why would anyone expect him to act differently when he has the awesome power of federal law enforcement in his pocket?

The fact that more than 2,000 former justice department officials have called for Barr to resign should be more than enough to convince us of the seriousness of the problem. These are not people inclined to hysteria or to making gratuitous accusations.

Are you in good hands?

In Search of the Unicorn (or the Perfect Candidate)

unicorn

Feeling stressed out about who to support in the Democratic primary? Join the club.

Let’s face it: There is no perfect candidate. They all have drawbacks. No one really knows who can beat Trump. But we have to choose.

So here’s my advice, for what it’s worth: Vote for the one who best represents your values and the kind of country you want to live in. Your individual primary vote is not going to determine the outcome in November, especially if we all set aside our preferences and vote for whoever gets the Democratic nomination. But it will help set the course for the Democratic party and perhaps the country as a whole.

Having said that, I intend to vote for Elizabeth Warren in the Florida primary, not because I think she’s likely to win, but because I like what she stands for. Of all the candidates, I think she has the clearest vision of what’s wrong with this country and what it will take to fix it. She knows the nuts and bolts of our dysfunctional federal government better than anyone else, and actually has specific ideas about how to renovate it, not just slogans. What she’s proposing is radical only because it stands out from the intellectual desert of present-day politics.

The main thing holding her back is just being a woman in a misogynist culture. She lacks the physical and vocal gravitas that we seem to want in our politicians, which she compensates for by sheer determination. Her wonkiness appeals to people like me, but may be a drawback to many others. She’s genuine and approachable, but maybe doesn’t seem really fun. I think she may remind people of their fifth-grade teacher who wouldn’t let them go out to recess until they’d finished their lessons. But better than anyone else in the race, perhaps even Sanders, she understands the threat that toxic, unfettered capitalism represents to our democracy and our future.

I have written previously about my reservations about Bernie Sanders, so I won’t rehearse all that again. He seems to have momentum right now, though his “wins” in Iowa and New Hampshire weren’t all that impressive. If he doesn’t become the clear front-runner by the end of March, we may be heading for a disastrously contentious convention. His “outsider” status could turn out to be both an asset and a liability, and the volatility of his supporters could blow up the convention if they decide the party establishment has cheated him. I give him full credit for focusing attention on economic and social inequality, but I don’t see that he has much of a program for doing something about it.

I was as surprised as anyone by Pete Buttigieg‘s showing in Iowa and New Hampshire. It’s thrilling to have a viable gay presidential candidate, especially one who is so clearly intelligent and talks in paragraphs, though I sometimes lose the substantive thread in the elegance of his language. I’m still a bit mystified by his appeal to older voters, but it certainly has something to do with how utterly mainstream he appears–except for, well, you know… I’m bothered by his rather limited experience and his youth as well as some pretty recent missteps as mayor, and the general fuzziness of his platform. But he clearly has star potential. I just don’t think this year is going to be it for him.

I’m not feeling Amy Klobuchar. Her main talking point is that she has passed more bills than any Democrat in the Senate. Okay, but what are the bills? In the current congress, she is a sponsor or co-sponsor of 80-something bills, resolutions, or amendments. Not one of the bills has passed the senate, let alone become law. She has gotten a few resolutions adopted, but they are for anodyne things like “National Stalking Awareness Month”. Bills that she sponsored that got passed and signed in previous congresses mostly seem to be related to crime prevention or victim rights–things that Republicans tend to like. One was to create a position for a human trafficking coordinator for the US Department of Transportation. As worthy as those bills may be, they are, shall we say, unexciting and pretty non-controversial. As for as the rest of her message, to me it boils down to “don’t rock the boat”.

Then there’s Joe Biden. Sigh. Who knows, maybe South Carolina will revive his campaign, but he seems to be mainly running on nostalgia for pre-Nixon politics and the shadow of Barack Obama. Certainly he’s decent and likable, but to me lately he just seems old and tired. His trump card (pardon the pun) was his supposed electability, but if he doesn’t have that, it’s hard to see what’s left.

Finally, there’s Michael Bloomberg, the elephant in the room. I know a lot of people are looking at him as the plutocrat ex machina sent to save us from Trump by throwing his unimaginable piles of money into the race. But that’s exactly my problem with him. He has already burned through more than $300,000,000 for TV and internet ads, and he can maintain that rate indefinitely. Is the solution to our most fundamental problem–economic and social inequality–to elect a man who is so inconceivably rich that he literally can’t spend his money fast enough? I personally find it offensive. Maybe he’s the best one to slug it out with Trump, but for it all to come down to a contest between two billionaires (or maybe a real one and a pretend one) just seems a grotesque encapsulation of our failing democracy.

Would we be making a Faustian bargain? I hope that’s not the only choice left.