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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

We’re Not a Failed State, We’re a Failed Society

The Daily Escape:

Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, CO – photo by exposurebydjk. These are the highest dunes in North America.

Wrongo has written quite a bit lately about America’s fracturing social cohesion, and increasing white grievance as the greatest threats to our democracy. Here’s Wrongo on social cohesion:

“In the past, we had a set of unwritten expectations that members of our society were expected to comply with, like voting, paying taxes, and displaying tolerance for others. Even those deminimus expectations are fraying today.”

The COVID pandemic has many here and abroad saying the US is a failed state. George Packer argued this recently in the Atlantic. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) says calling America a failed state is:

“…not only wrong, it’s irresponsible at best and dangerous at worst…. So stop saying that.

Ok DHS, the US isn’t a failed state, but we may be a failed society. We seem to have decided that while we have the means to succeed, we no longer want to try. From Duck of Minerva:

“Failed states lack the resources, equipment, and government capacity to provide public safety and public services. States like Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen fit this description. The governments of these countries can often barely project authority beyond the walls of their government buildings.”

This doesn’t describe America. We are the wealthiest, most powerful country on earth. We’re home to more Nobel laureates than any country. Our universities are the envy of the world. Our technology sector is the world’s most dynamic.

We’ve lost the will to use our vast strengths to make America a better place for its citizens. If America had the will, we would have blunted the COVID-19 threat, as have New Zealand, South Korea and Germany. Those countries all have far more social cohesion than the US.

And while it’s true that Trump has failed the country, our society no longer feels that we have responsibilities to each other, or to the nation. We have lost the willingness to make personal sacrifices for the good of the community.

Individualism is a crucial part of our national ethos, but it has morphed into selfishness precisely when we need to see ourselves as all in this together. The result is that we’ve shown that we’re incapable of mobilizing the capacity to address the worst threat to public safety of the 21st century.

COVID is the just the third major crisis in the 21st century.

The first was 9/11. Back then, rural America didn’t see New York City as filled with immigrants and liberals who deserved their fate, but as a place that had taken a hit for the rest of us. America’s reflex was to mourn, and mobilize to help. The ensuing Iraq War and partisan politics erased much of that sense of national unity, and fed a bitterness toward the political class that hasn’t faded.

The second crisis was the Great Recession. Starting out, Congress passed a bipartisan bailout bill that saved the financial system. Outgoing Bush administration officials largely cooperated with incoming Obama administration officials. The lasting economic pain of the Great Recession was felt only by people who had lost their jobs, homes, and retirement savings. Many have never recovered, and inequality has grown worse.

This second crisis drove a wedge between Americans: Between the upper and lower classes, between Republicans and Democrats, metropolitan and rural people, the native-born and immigrants, ordinary people and their leaders. Social bonds had been under growing strain for several decades, and now they began to tear. The lasting effect was increased polarization and discredited governmental authority.

Self-pity turned to anger. Anger at Muslims or Mexicans or gays or fancy-pants city folks (or all of them mashed together) offset by a group identity of white grievance. America’s tone changed to defiant anger and hostility.

This was the American landscape that the Coronavirus found: In the cities and suburbs, globally connected desk workers were dependent on the essentials, a class of precarious and invisible service workers. In rural America, it found hollowed-out towns in revolt against the cities. In Washington, Corona found a government that had lost its ability to rally, or work together for the common good.

In America’s president, Corona happily found Donald Trump, the perfect fit for this decaying society. When a corrupt minority rules a dissatisfied majority, there are consequences.

We have literally fallen on our asses. So much damage in a relatively short period of time. Our republic is much flimsier than we thought.

We need a second period of reconstruction in America. The first reconstruction failed because our society failed it. The second reconstruction must fix our failed society.

It will be long and difficult.

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More on What’s Next

The Daily Escape:

Sunrise, Mauna Kea, HI – 2020 photo by laramarie27

Here’s the COVID-19 tracking report as of April 12:

The rate of increase in infections and deaths appear to have plateaued, while deaths as a percentage of cases continues to rise. Testing hovers around 140,000 per day, still growing slower than the rate of new infections.

The next chart seems to indicate that opening the lockdown would be a mistake. The impression is that the rest of the country isn’t doing as badly as New York. Here is a comparison of cases in New York to cases in the rest of the US:

On the 12th, infections in the rest of the US started to grow faster than new infections in NY. The rate of new deaths in the rest of the US has also become a larger share of total US deaths. So far, there is little evidence to conclude that the administration should reverse the lockdown strategies of the states.

Today we continue with yesterday’s question, “what’s next?”

When parts of the US, and eventually all of it come out from physical and economic quarantine, we will attempt to return to “normal”. Normal will bring with it a level of economic devastation, bankruptcy, and household impoverishment that will almost certainly be beyond what politicians can now imagine.

To bridge across to a sustained level of economic activity, the Federal government and the Federal Reserve will have to add substantial stimulus beyond the $2 trillion so far, possibly an additional $5+ trillion, in new stimulus.

Most of those new funds will have to go to individuals and small businesses in the form of outright grants. Otherwise, small and medium size firms will not be able to reopen their doors after a prolonged shutdown.

Grants to individuals will be most important. Renters and homeowners will have no means to become current on back rent and mortgage payments. Without these funds, the impact within the financial sector will exceed that of the Great Recession, as rents and mortgages would go unpaid for months. Foreclosures and evictions would skyrocket.

Local and state governments that rely on tax revenue from sales taxes, income taxes, real estate and property taxes will be deeply affected as well.

Bipartisan talk in DC of a new effort to create $2 trillion in infrastructure funding makes sense as a source of jobs and needed economic revival. It will also jump start the downstream suppliers of steel, cement and heavy equipment.

The Federal government may have to take equity stakes in large companies like it did in the 2008 auto bailout. In a fashion, this will make the US look a lot more “socialist” than it did in 2019.

There will also be psychological fallout that will be difficult to anticipate. Axios thinks the Coronavirus may be a defining experience for Generation Z, shaping its outlook for decades to come, disrupting its entry to adulthood and altering its earning potential, trust in institutions and views on family and sex.

Pew Research says that nearly half of workers ages 16-24 held service jobs in bars, restaurants and hotels — many of which have now been shut down or greatly scaled back. And young workers with less experience are the first to be let go.

Nearly 25% of US workers, 38.1 million out of 157.5 million, are employed in industries most likely to feel an immediate impact from the COVID-19 lockdown. Among the most vulnerable are workers in retail trade (10% of all workers) and food services and drinking places (6%). In total, these two industries employ nearly 26 million Americans. More from Pew:

“Workers in these industries have lower-than-average earnings. Across all industries, the average weekly earnings in January 2020 were $975. By contrast, workers in food services and drinking places earned only $394 per week on average. Workers in the other high-risk industries had earnings ranging from around $500 to $600 per week.”

Hence the need for a financial bridge by the federal government.

Part of the new normal must be adequate inventory of medical supplies to deal with any future replay of the Coronavirus or another pandemic. The NYT reports that China today makes about 80% of the world’s antibiotics, along with the building blocks for a long list of drugs. That supply can be shut off at any time, for any reason. It is now painfully obvious that health care must be a primary national security concern, something our politicians were blind to just a few months ago.

Will these, and other necessary things change?

So far, we have a redux of 2008. The Fed and Treasury have decided to bailout speculative capital and big corporations, let small businesses fail, and let the working poor employed by small business to become even more impoverished.

Will there be a Marshall Plan for us?

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It’s the Economy Stupid. Or Is It?

The Daily Escape:

On Tuesday, Trump was in the Rose Garden for a “virtual town hall” on Fox News. The Boston Globe reported that he wants the country “open and raring to go” by Easter, which is less than three weeks away. “I think it’s possible, why not?” he said with a shrug.

Watching Trump do a press conference is like watching the kid who didn’t read the book give his book report.

The top health professionals have called ending social distancing by Easter far too quick. But, Trump compared the potential for Coronavirus fatalities to our annual flu casualties and, to automobile accidents. That led Charlie Pierce to say:

“I can speak with some authority on this. On December 9, I got hit by a car. It has been three months now. Nobody I came into contact with in the aftermath has been hit by a car.”

It’s important to remember that Trump is saying this while we still have no idea how many Americans have, or have had, the virus. It seems safe to say the number is vastly higher than the number of people who have tested positive (nearly 50,000). Here’s a terrifying tweet:

(James Gallagher is the BBC’s Health and science correspondent)

Trump’s “let’s get America back to work” plea comes at a time when we have no idea about the extent of the virus’s impact, or how large the tsunami of cases will be. Trump is sounding a bit like General Buck Turgidson in 1964’s “Dr. Strangelove“:

“I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops.”

There are operational issues involved in conducting a safe economic restart while the virus remains rampant in the country: It would require testing all who enter the workplace, every time they come to work. Where do those test kits come from when we can’t get enough for America’s hospitals? Who will read the tests and get the data back to the individual and the business? Can social distancing really be practiced at work? In offices?

Obviously there are conflicting opinions about how long to use severe Coronavirus mitigation and suppression measures when the economic consequences of that mitigation could be disastrous. The medical experts can tell us what the consequences of various courses of action are most likely to be in terms of illness and fatalities.

But the willingness to endure the likely costs of a particular course of action is a political, and possibly an ethical question. Last week, Wrongo asked:

“Is restoring our economy, and putting Americans back to work worth a million lives lost? Is it worth 300,000?”

Trump is right both to wrestle with this question, and to be concerned that Coronavirus could end his presidency. Here’s a chart that shows how long prior stock market crashes took to return to the pre-crash level:

This compares three prior crashes and the time it took to recover. Only the 1987 crash was a sharp “V” recovery, and that recovery took nearly two years. Both of the others took four years.

This most likely means Trump can’t run as a peace and prosperity president. He’ll simply be running as another Republican who ran up the debt with the crucial difference that Americans died on the home front on his watch, after trying to go back to work prematurely.

A few words about the attempted bailout. As Wrongo writes this, it’s likely that there may be a “deal” sometime late on Tuesday . The stock market has already closed up more than 2,000 points, or 11% on the hope of a deal.

The bailout deal should absolutely be as big as possible, but Mitch, Trump and the GOP have it wrong. We should be pointing our water hoses where the immediate fire is: Low – moderate income households and small businesses that have a week or two of cash reserves, and little access to credit markets.

While this is an emergency, it’s no excuse for another GOP round of opportunistic, potentially wasteful spending with little oversight. We have more important things to do than setting up a $500 billion Republican slush fund in an election year.

Trump will no doubt make an announcement that “America is again open for business”. But, that’s not really within his power. The economy is not usually like a faucet you can turn off and on.

It also means that Trump’s replacement will have a major job starting in 2021 trying to restore the stock market and the employment level to where they were pre-Coronavirus.

It is the highest duty of the US President to keep the country safe, and protect its people. Trump’s downplaying of what his science and security advisers have told him is doing exactly the opposite.

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We’re In Uncharted Territory

The Daily Escape:

Sunset, Factory Butte, UT – photo by goat_chop56

Blog reader David K. emailed:

“Now, what do we common folk do?  Start our “victory gardens” and shelter in place?  Volunteer to help our local farmers raise food? Hoard?  Wish I had a great idea, because I agree that our leaders don’t have a clue how to respond.”

That gave Wrongo pause. What do those of us who aren’t part of the “smart money” crowd supposed to do, particularly if what we’re facing is a worldwide depression? John Pavlovitz frames the existential issues quite clearly:

What happens if the stores run out of essentials for good?
What if you run out of money to stockpile them?
What if your neighbors stop sharing with you?
What if the government won’t help you?
What might you do then?

Politicians say we’re at war, but as Kunstler says: “At least in wartime, the bars stay open. That’s how you know this is a different thing altogether from whatever else you’ve seen in your lifetime.”

We’re attacked by a novel virus that’s created a completely novel social and economic situation. By definition, we aren’t prepared for an abrupt crash of both our social fabric, and our economic well-being.

Our politicians have no answers, despite most of them having been around for the 2007-2008 Great Recession. The Fed hasn’t done us any favors since then, either.

Last Saturday, Wrongo said that we’re crossing a threshold between what we know and an unseen future. Our traditional systems are no longer capable of keeping society and the economy on an even keel. Nobody really knows how deep and how harsh this will get, but the situation presents two questions:

  • How much disorder will we have to endure?
  • What does the world look like when this thing is over?

All this is happening in an election year, when the entire government and the political parties’ power structures are vulnerable, and could change. We are facing a new reality, for which no one has any answers.

Politics being what it is, the White House and the Congress are trying to work together to come up with solutions. On Monday, Trump gave another press conference on COVID-19. During his talk, the stock market dropped nearly 3,000 points. It was the market’s worst day since Black Monday in 1987.

The smart money was behind Trump in order to get its corporate tax cuts, but now, they’ve voted with their money. And Trump’s starting to look a little bit like Herbert Hoover.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) floated Democrat Andrew Yang’s idea of giving every American $1,000. He was joined in principle by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AK). We’ll see if this is just more Republican grandstanding, or if they actually back a real plan of support for working people.

With Trump, you can expect to see bailouts for several industries, including banks, airlines, casinos and cruise lines. Imagine: Casinos are asking for help from the guy who only knows how to bankrupt casinos.

Reuters reports that the US airline industry said that it needs $50 billion in grants and loans to survive the dramatic falloff in travel demand from the COVID-19 outbreak. This is just more socialism for America’s corporations.

Two thoughts: First, $50 billion is higher than the book value of all the airlines combined. Why should they have any of our money? Either Republicans are for free market capitalism, or they should just shut up. Most of these airlines have implemented stock buyback programs when they should have been building contingency funds instead.

Second, this $50 billion should be added to whatever Congress spends on small businesses that are forced to close due to quarantine, or on parents forced to stay home to take care of kids who aren’t going to school anymore. They’re the ones who are really hurting.

We’ve lived through a time of unprecedented affluence. We’ve told ourselves we deserved it all, that we were entitled to all that our country has provided.

But that’s most likely over, and it might not return in Wrongo’s lifetime.

We have to think about what must change if we are to have a functioning society and economy in the decades to come.

The list of all the things that we need to change is far too long to enumerate here. At a minimum, we need to reform capitalism, make health insurance universal and strengthen worker’s rights.

We have to do a better job of sharing the wealth. It we don’t do that voluntarily, our children’s children’s generation will come and fight us for what we have.

To protect our families and their future, we need to become even more active politically in order to make these and other changes happen.

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Biden’s Win and Trump’s Economic Stimulus

The Daily Escape:

This week’s Supermoon over Three Fingers, WA – March 2020 photo by Alpackie

Today we’ll talk superficially about two topics. First, a quick take on Tuesday’s Democratic primary, and second, about whatever it is Trump is cooking up with Republicans as an “economic stimulus” in this time of Coronavirus and stock market volatility.

Here’s Jameson Quinn with a pithy summary of the primary:

“Right now, the best-case scenario is that Joe Biden will be the next president of the USA; the worst-case is that Trump is the last one. That is to say, we will have a choice between a guy whose primary campaigns twice flamed out from self-inflicted errors and who, the day he takes office, will be the oldest president the country has ever had; and a narcissistic, mobbed-up reality television star whose platform is focused on his core base of racists, trolls, and racist trolls.”

But how do you really feel?

That said, Wrongo was always for Elizabeth Warren, but now, that door has closed. Wrongo like many others, overestimated the importance of competency and policy. Most people don’t read policy papers, and they knew that Biden had been Obama’s VP. That was enough to get them to vote for Biden.

People make their voting decisions based on things like personality, perceived connection to their tribe, perceived electability and an “X” factor, vague trust in a candidate’s judgment. Would Biden be a good president? Who really knows?

Moving on to Trump’s economic stimulus: It isn’t surprising that Trump promises some more corporate socialism and the stock market likes it. And it isn’t surprising that no one in the media notices that the Party of Obama Derangement Syndrome had zero concerns about debt/deficits once Orange became the new black.

But, rather than proposing tax cuts, good policy starts with identifying the problems:

  1. Sick people: They require costly medical care. Many can’t afford it, even if it’s available, and even if they have insurance.
  2. Unemployment: Unemployment will rise. Sick people without sick leave will lose their jobs. Businesses will have less revenue.
  3. Goods shortages: Much of our goods come from China, including medical supplies and drugs. Trade has already been disrupted, and it will get worse. Italy finds it needs thousands of ventilators, and China is supplying them.
  4. Childcare: Schools and daycare centers are closing, and working parents are in a jam. Worse, parents will be hospitalized with no care arranged for their kids.

Tax cuts won’t address these problems. Most sick people don’t have much income, so tax cuts won’t matter to them. Unemployed people won’t have income either. The idea that the government can wall off the economic impacts of a virus-caused recession is correct. Once the economic slowdown spreads, the right kinds of government programs could soften the blow.

Here’s Wrongo’s prescription for Trump and Congress:

  • No bailouts for any industry
  • Targeted financial help for hospitals and the health care sector
  • General financial relief paid directly to workers and families

America’s businesses and capitalists had a fantastic decade. Let them and their rich executives weather this economic downturn on their own.

Trump’s people floated the idea of a push back of the April 15 Tax Filing Deadline. This does nothing for people, and shows just how little the administration is prepared to do.

Trump’s suggestion of a payroll tax cut is also misplaced. It’s been tried in the past, including by Obama. But tax cuts are less effective than simply providing lump-sum payments to families below a certain income threshold.

Also, payroll taxes are the primary source of funding for Social Security and Medicare. So this opens the door to another GOP stealth attack on Social Security. Trump has already said he plans to cut Social Security if reelected.

Jason Furman, Obama’s head of the Council of Economic Advisers, proposed an immediate, one-time payment of $1,000 to every adult, plus $500 for every child. Such payments would help cover rent, food and other costs, without a large administrative burden of trying to determine who got sick, or who lost work due to the Coronavirus.

Furman’s proposal would add up to $350 billion. The right wing will say no financial stimuli for Joe Sixpack. Those things must be paid for.

But Trump thought it was fine to dig a $ trillion hole in the budget for an unnecessary tax cut during good economic times.

What we need now is urgent. It requires smart, humane, and energetic action.

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The Health Crisis Now Coincides With a Financial Crisis

The Daily Escape:

Sunrise, St. Augustine Beach, FL – March 2020 photo by Carl Gill

The WaPo reported that a Coronavirus-sparked oil war sent crude prices down on Sunday by 32.3%. That triggered a forced temporary halt of stock trading on Monday, when the S&P 500 index sank 7% shortly after the market’s opening.

This occurred on the 11thanniversary of the current bull market. But, as Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com, wrote:

“The uncertain economic impact of coronavirus continues to grip markets, with stocks, commodities and interest rates all dropping sharply. Markets hate uncertainty and there is a ton of it currently in play.”

There is no question that there will be more angry Americans now that a health crisis coincides with a financial crisis. Who they focus their anger on remains to be seen. Trump took credit for each rise in the stock market, so will he take ownership now that it’s tanking?

He’s not a broadly popular president, and this will make him less popular, so fewer people will believe him when he tries to lay the blame on others.

The oil price plunge was triggered when Russia announced on Friday that it would no longer stay within the OPEC+ quotas after April 1st. Saudi Arabia then said it would slash prices for its customers in April. In addition, they hinted at increasing production from the current level of 9.7 million barrels per day to 10 million barrels per day.

This is the start of an oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia over market share. But the real target for both may just be the US shale oil sector. US banks and other investors have been fueling the shale oil sector’s growth with hundreds of billions of dollars of loans over the years. And the shale oil producers keep ramping up production, despite it being largely unprofitable. They continue to burn through cash.

Brian Sullivan at CNBC warns us: The US oil industry valued its oil reserves, as collateral for its loans, at $60 a barrel. Today’s price is now about $30/barrel.

By sending some of these shale-oil companies into bankruptcy, Saudi Arabia and Russia are hoping that new money will refuse to support the US shale oil sector. Then production in the US will decline and take some oversupply out of the oil market.

Their timing is impeccable. Oil demand is down due in part to the Coronavirus. Chinese manufacturers are producing less and airlines in particular have less need for jet fuel. If OPEC and Russia increase production, and assuming US production still increases while demand globally is in steep decline, then global markets will be awash in oil.

And what does an oil glut do for Iran, already fighting a severe Coronavirus outbreak, and needing higher oil prices for their own economy?

But no worries! We can count on the competent leadership in the White House. And if that doesn’t make you comfortable, you might ask yourself, “Is this 1929 all over again?”

Maybe not, but if it is, who will be our FDR? In the 1930s and 1940s, FDR spent money on America’s democratic infrastructure. That money gave jobs to people. He created a social safety net, and allowed industry to again flourish.

But in the past 30 years, all the money has gone to our industrial infrastructure and to the rich, through tax cuts and subsidies. The easy money party has helped to pump up both stock prices and asset prices, giving us an ever-growing income and wealth gap.

What happens to the health of the people and to the health of economy between now and November is going to be a huge political concern. There’s always a tension between the best health policy, and the best economic policy.

Trump wants economic policy to win out, but the primary beneficiary of that is industry and the rich.

We should remember that when leaders are seen to be incompetent and/or ARE truly incompetent, they try to divert the voters’ attention. What Trump attempts to do in order to divert our attention, is worthy of discussion.

As of today, the fuse is lit. It’s an election year, and we know that Trump won’t go away quietly.

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Saturday Soother – Acquittal Edition

The Daily Escape:

View from the top of Mt. Baden Powell in the Los Angeles National Forest – February 2020 photo by David Dodd

(Sunday cartoons will appear on Monday)

Is the game of investigating Trump over? What are the arguments for continuing to pick at this wound? This is a political calculation only. It no longer matters who said what in Ukraine, regardless of the damage caused by Trump. That ship has sailed.

It’s time to focus on the 2020 election, particularly on the House and Senate races. Focusing on winning those elections, and particularly on holding the House while winning a majority in the Senate, requires that the Democratic Party deal with its current schism. The Party is messily divided between social liberals who are for reform of capitalism along with Medicare for All, and free college, and moderates who wish to tack back towards the middle of the road.

The question that Democrats have to deal with is which of these two poles can make it a majoritarian party in 2020 and beyond?

This dilemma faced the Republicans only a short time ago, when the Tea Party threatened to split the GOP in two. Those cracks remained evident until Trump came along and united them in a way that today makes them seem more like a cult than a political party.

In some ways, Democrats are like the American Whig party was in the early 1850’s, when it could no longer bridge the gap between the Whigs of the northern industrial states and the Whigs of the southern farming/slavery states. It was an irreconcilable dilemma, and in short order, the party simply ceased to exist, only to re-emerge as the Republican Party in 1856.

The Democrats have been trending this way since LBJ forced southern Democrats to vote for/against the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Later, the formation of the Democratic Leadership Council in 1985, founded in part by Bill Clinton, pushed the Democrats rightward.

The “Left Party” that is trying to emerge from the current shambles of the Democratic Party could be more properly defined as a reactionary movement. An attempt to return to the days of the New Deal and the rise of the middle class.

In that sense, Wrongo is a New Deal Reactionary. The New Deal was a good deal for most of us. We should want our New Deal back again.

The question on the table is: Which half of the divided Democratic Party should New Deal Reactionaries support? Is it the Sanders/Warren half, or the Biden/Bloomberg/Buttigieg half of the Party? If it’s Sanders, can we get a New Deal Revival, but no Recreational Socialism to go along with that?

Can the moderate/ConservaDems realistically be counted on to bring back the New Deal? We see that ConservaDems are willing to strap on their running shoes and do 3 miles in the morning, because “no pain no gain”. But somehow, once at work in the House or Senate, they claim that the hardship doesn’t make sense economically, so why even try?

The answers to these twin questions: Whether the Party can be re-united similar to the way Trump united the GOP, and which half of the Party should attempt that unification in November 2020, will determine the arc of our democracy for decades to come.

It was a terrible week, and now we need a break from “all acquittal, all the time”. That means it’s time for our Saturday Soother, a brief window when we can forget about the outside world and concentrate on breathing slowly and relaxing mind and body.

Let’s start by brewing up a vente cup of El Salvador Finca el Cerro Natural ($22.99/12oz.). The roaster, Virginia’s Red Rooster Coffee says it tastes of strawberry and tangerine zest with a viscous mouthfeel.

Now, grab a seat by the fire and listen to Anna Netrebko perform “Solveig’s Song” from Peer Gynt’s Suite No.2, live with the Prague Philharmonia conducted by Emmanuel Villaume in 2008:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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More About The Virtue of Exciting Candidates

The Daily Escape:

Mt. Assiniboine, Provincial Park, BC, CN – 2019 photo by Talhanazeer. Assiniboine is the pyramid-shaped mountain on the left.

When Wrongo thinks about the Democratic primary candidates, he feels a bit like when he was a breeder of Havanese dogs: “Don’t get too attached to any one of them–we’re only keeping one.”

At the end of the day, we’ll only have one candidate. The question is which is the keeper?

Yesterday we asked: which candidate excited you? Judging by crowd sizes in Iowa, Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg have generated excitement, while Biden has not:

“Mr. Biden has a lot to prove here. I’ve attended some of his town halls and rallies, and they’ve been lackluster, his speeches dull and meandering, and his crowds comparatively small. I’ve been to memorial services that are more exciting. I certainly hope mine is.”

That quote is from Robert Leonard, the news director for the Iowa radio stations KNIA and KRLS. More from Leonard:

“Who is going to get an enthusiastic turnout caucus night? Bernie Sanders will. His support is strong. We’ll see if he can increase it….

Elizabeth Warren has fallen in the polls, but she will have a big turnout caucus night. Her on-the-ground organizing is terrific and her supporters unwavering…..

Pete Buttigieg will also have a big turnout. Watching his several-blocks-long parade of supporters file into the Liberty and Justice Dinner last fall in Des Moines gave me goose bumps…..”

Leonard finishes with this:

“On caucus night, given the soft support I see, if the weather is bad Mr. Biden’s supporters might not come out. It might also depend on what’s on TV….For the other candidates, if their supporters walked outside, slipped on the ice and broke a leg, they still would crawl through snow and ice to caucus.”

He’s alluding to the x-factor, the charisma, the excitement that a candidate creates in voters, and claims that in Iowa at least, Sanders, Warren, and Mayor Pete are showing some of that.

The first thing that most of us want is relief from the Trump assault. In the general election, that starts with telling people the damage assessment, and a plan of repair. The nominee has to say that our government and democracy are in tatters and need to be stitched back together. Constitutional checks and balances have been nearly destroyed by the Republicans.

Maybe we need Medicare for all, free college tuition, and the rest of the progressive agenda, but first, we need to triage our democracy.

To win the presidency, we need to take back Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Are the voters in those three critical swing states ready to sign on to rebuild our social safety net, reform health insurance, and raise taxes on the rich and corporations? Hell yes.

Trump’s 2020 plan is to pump up the Dow while keeping unemployment at historic lows. He’s done that with a $1.5 trillion tax cut without any plan to pay for it. He’ll tout his new “trade deal” with China. He’ll mock and belittle the Democrats and their nominee. Meanwhile, Trump has no health plan at all!

Mitch McConnell’s plan is to make sure Trump is acquitted at all costs, to continue packing the courts, and blocking any meaningful legislation coming out of the House.

What’s the Democratic Party’s 2020 plan? The proposals by the progressive Democratic candidates have merit. Their goals are the right ones for the country and the planet. But, those plans will take several administrations to fully implement. Few voters fully understand the details of how to pay for Medicare for all. Moreover, they absolutely are worried about having their private health insurance taken away. That’s what most Americans have, so that has to be a big concern for Democrats in 2020.

Which of the current flock of Democratic candidates have what it takes to unite and lead the Party to a 2020 victory? Which nominee will have coattails to swing the Senate, hold the House and add to the Party’s roster of statehouses?

The 2020 election will turn on whether individual voters see the Democratic Party’s nominee as a heroic savior of the country, or less of a leader than the execrable Trump.

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College Enrollment is Down, Student Debt is Way Up

The Daily Escape:

Cathedral Rock at sunset, Sedona AZ – 2019 photo by microadventures

The Student Clearing House reports that the college student headcount of undergraduate and graduate students combined fell by 1.3% in the fall semester of 2019 over the same semester last year. That equals 231,000 fewer students compared to 2018.

This is the continuation of a long decline. The peak year was the fall semester of 2011, when 20.14 million students were enrolled. Since then, enrollment has dropped by 10.8%, or by 2.17 million students. Here’s a helpful graph by Wolf Richter:

The report covers 97% of enrollments at degree-granting post secondary institutions that are eligible to receive federal financial aid. It does not include international students, who account for just under 5% of total student enrollment in the US.

Women by far outnumbered men in total enrollment in the fall semester of 2019 with 10.63 million women enrolled, compared to 7.61 million men, meaning that overall there are now 40% more women in college than men.

Inside Higher Ed reports that community college enrollments declined by 3.4%. Four-year public institutions saw a drop of 0.9%. Four-year private institutions bucked the trend with an increase of 3.2%. However, the Student Clearing House said most of this increase was due to the conversion of large for-profit institutions to nonprofit status. Grand Canyon University, for example, successfully made the transition last year.

Wolf Richter says that the 10.8% decline in enrollment since 2011 comes even as student loan balances have surged 74% over the same period, from $940 billion to $1.64 trillion:

Looking at the two charts, it’s clear that over the last eight years, enrollment has declined in a straight line at about 1.35% per year. And over the same eight years, student loan debt has increased in a straight line at nearly $90 billion per year!

We’re seeing three trends: First, the decline in enrollments. Second the decline in men attending college. Third, the soaring costs of college leading to soaring student debt.

No one has the answers to all three, but the decline in enrollments may have a demographic element. We are approaching the tail end of the college-aged millennial generation. Higher education has been facing demographic headwinds for a decade. The post-millennial generation is simply smaller than the previous generation.

Meanwhile, a big part of the enrollment peak spike in 2009-2012 period was due to people choosing education to avoid unemployment during the Great Recession. And 25% of the enrollment decline is due to the for-profit diploma mills losing their government support after years of robbing their “students” blind.

The rapidly increasing costs of college are a burden that can also drive down enrollments. The numbers do not favor investing in a college degree as much as they used to. Back in the day, a good entry level job’s salary was about 4 times the annual tuition. Now it’s under 2 times. If you check out some of the terrible numbers for 20-year net Return on Investment (ROI) on payscale.com, it’s clear that many colleges and universities have negative or relatively small ROIs.

OTOH, there’s still a massive income gap between people with a college degree and those without one. And outside of a few small business owners, there’s no way around it. College is the only reliable way to get into the middle class, and stay there.

The college industrial complex knows that it has a stranglehold on your future, and it will try to suck as much money out of you as possible.

The solutions involve some of the things that Sanders, Warren and others are talking about. Wrongo is for making college free for all. He isn’t for debt forgiveness, but for granting interest-free loans to students. Those loans should be carried only by the federal government.

Cost containment is the biggest issue. Online education is now readily available, and saves on both tuition and room and board. The economy is stronger, so on-the-job training is returning, and a lot of specific how-to knowledge is now available online.

Except for the male-female imbalance, much of this is solvable.

Finally, higher education serves many purposes in our society. As a people, we need it for its practical value, but also for sharpening our ideals, nurturing our growth, advancing our knowledge, and our arts.

Despite a popular subculture of anti-intellectualism and doubt, we should still know that a people without ideals are lost.

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America Is OK With a Wealth Tax

The Daily Escape:

Navajo Trail, Bryce Canyon NP, UT – November 2019 photo by biochemistry_unicorn

Over the past year, progressives have made a wealth tax a central part of the policy discussions in the Democratic primary. Both Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have proposals to tax the wealth of billionaires to help pay for improvements to the social safety net and infrastructure.

Currently, the US mostly taxes individuals on the income earned from their jobs and investments. The wealth tax is different since it would tax assets like stocks, yachts, artworks, and vacation homes.

Critics of the wealth tax have made a variety of arguments against them. The most prominent that the US government couldn’t enforce them effectively. Consider this from Business Insider:

“Usually, progressives cast Europe as a model for the cradle-to-grave social benefits that nations like Norway provide because of steeper tax rates on richer citizens. But most…countries have ditched them [wealth taxes] over the last few decades.”

Twelve European countries had a wealth tax in 1990, but the number now stands at four: Spain, Switzerland, Norway, and Belgium, which just introduced a limited wealth tax of its own.

Emmanuel Saez, economist at the University of California, Berkeley, who has analyzed the Warren and Sanders wealth tax proposals, says the European wealth taxes failed because governments created many exemptions that undercut their ability to draw revenue:

“The wealth taxes in Europe have failed by and large….they didn’t raise that much revenue because of big exemptions for asset classes….”

Others argue that the super-rich already donate big amounts to charity. One of Saez’s co-authors, Gabriel Zucman, says that the annual giving of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett equates to ~3%–4% of their wealth, while the other top 20 billionaires’ giving equals ~0.3% of their wealth. Like a really tiny wealth tax. Here’s his chart:

Annual charitable giving of the top 20 richest Americans: $8.7 billion, equaling just three tenths of one percent of their wealth. For the top 400 richest Americans, their taxes paid = 1.5% of their wealth, while their charitable giving = 0.4% of their wealth.

But, the average American paid taxes equal to 5.5% of their wealth, while their charitable giving = 0.3% of their wealth. Joe Six-pack gave the same amount of his assets to charity as did the top 20 billionaires.

If Warren’s 6% wealth tax was enforced on the top 20 richest Americans above, they would pay $60 billion to support the social safety net.

Moreover, despite the nay-saying by the rich, surveys show that Warren’s 2% tax is broadly popular:

(This was an online survey of 2,672 adults conducted by the polling firm SurveyMonkey from Nov. 4 to Nov. 11)

The survey by the NYT and Survey Monkey shows that 75% of Democrats and more than half of Republicans say they approve of the idea of a 2% tax on wealth above $50 million. The proposal receives majority support among every major racial, educational and income group.

The majority of college-educated Republican men disapproved, with only 41.5% approving of it.

The NYT reports that the proposed wealth tax is even more popular than the Trump tax-cut enacted in 2017. Only 45% of Americans said the tax cut was a good move:

“The movement against the Trump tax cuts since then has been powered, oddly enough, by Republicans. They largely still back the law — by 76% over all, compared with 20% of Democrats — but that support has dropped six percentage points since April.”

The shift on the tax cut is highest among high-earning Republicans: Americans earning more than $150,000 a year are far more likely to favor a tax increase on the very wealthy than the Trump tax cuts.

America’s tax code is designed to allow massive fortunes to grow ever larger. Wealth is concentrating in a tiny segment of the population, as the middle class shrinks.

We see that even the most high-minded billionaires can’t even give money away faster than their piles of dough are growing. And when Democrats like Warren and Sanders suggest a way towards tax reform, the GOP and the conservative think-tanks condemn them as socialists who want to punish success.

Most Americans are fed up with a government and an economy that overwhelmingly benefit corporations and the rich at the expense of everyone else. A wealth tax can work if Congress doesn’t get rolled by lobbyists that demand loopholes for their clients.

Wrongo will have no trouble backing a candidate who supports a wealth tax. But, increasing the taxes on corporations and a financial transactions tax should come first.

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