Nomadland Is Best Picture

The Daily Escape:

Desert Lilies, Desert Lily Preserve, Desert Center, CA – photo by Bob Wick for BLM

The film “Nomadland” won best film, best director, and best actress at this year’s Oscars. Wrongo and Ms. Right kept our tradition, and didn’t watch the Oscars, but we have seen the film twice.

If you haven’t seen it , the film is worth your time. It offers a sympathetic view of what’s happening to the American working class in what’s becoming a de-industrialized America. It shows the hollowing out of middle America, and the growing regional inequality that stems from the US economy being concentrated in fewer and fewer corporate hands, and often, in fewer places.

Our changing economy has left wide swaths of rural America in decay. The movie’s story centers on Fern, an older widow. She worked in the US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada until the Great Recession reduced demand for drywall, and thus the mine and the plant were closed.

Once the factory went, so did the town. It became so de-populated that it even lost its zip code. Now, Fern, (played by Frances McDormand), sleeps in an old, converted van and works a seasonal job with one of the few employers left in the area: An Amazon shipping center.

But the film isn’t about Amazon. It’s about coping with downward mobility. Fern travels the southwest mountains, working a variety of gig jobs: In addition to Amazon, she’s kitchen help in a Wall Drug. She works at a beet processing plant throwing cases of beets into a hopper. She helps run a small RV park.

The film avoids clichés about the formerly middle-class, mostly White Americans it depicts. None of them blame Black people or immigrants or the left-wing media for their problems. They simply no longer play by the norms of an economy that ruined their lives.

Ironically, these characters don’t follow the usual White working-class stereotypes. Unlike Trump voters interviewed by the media in diners across America, they don’t turn to racism or blind acceptance of patriotism because of their economic uncertainty. Fern and the rest of the characters in “Nomadland” demonstrate dignity, decency, and stoicism in the face of the structural forces grinding them down. They teach each other how to survive while living off grid. They help each other when the chips are down.

Eric Cortellessa at Washington Monthly offers great insight:

“Unlike JD Vance’s flawed Hillbilly Elegy…this film does not blame the victims for their own downward mobility. It doesn’t point to bad habits (drugs and laziness), bad morals (racism and Trumpism), or bad attitudes (toxic masculinity and perverted Christianity). Instead, it shows humble men and women who don’t scapegoat others and who manage to preserve their dignity and, to a large extent, their own personal freedom in the face of systemic forces that are exploiting them.”

Let’s point out that since 1985, the average Wall Street bonus has increased 1,217%, from $13,970 to $184,000 in 2020. If the minimum wage had increased at that rate, it would be $44.12, instead of $7.25. And $7.25 equates to $15,080/year, nowhere near enough to make a payment on the US median home that’s priced at $301,000. It’s not even enough for a tiny dump of a house, like the one Fern left in Empire NV, which probably cost one-third of the median price.

Jessica Bruder, the author of “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” that the movie is based on, wrote over the weekend about her exploration of this growing subculture. Bruder says a scene depicting Fern spending a night in her van when she hears “the knock” is chillingly accurate:

“No overnight parking! You can’t sleep here.”

The knock, Bruder explains, “is a visceral, even existential, threat,” one that nomads try to evade by hiding in plain sight: “Make yourself invisible. Internalize the idea that you’re unwelcome.”

Some places forbid overnight parking. Others outlaw living in a vehicle. Penalties can pile up fast. Unpaid, they can lead to the cruelest punishment of all: Your home gets towed. Failing to pay the impoundment fee means losing your home. Bruder says that people ask her what they can do for the nomads:

“Letting vehicle dwellers exist in peace would be a fine start. Individuals have the power to help. When you see someone living in a car, van, or RV, don’t call the police.”

Wrongo was struck by how the nomads helped each other. In our little New England town, people do the same, they try to help. The bystanders at George Floyd’s murder tried to help prevent Floyd’s death.

The only people who don’t seem to care about helping one another are corporate executives and Republican politicians. How did they get like that?

See the film.

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Limbaugh and Texas

The Daily Escape:

Observation Deck, Niagara Falls – Feb 9, 2021 photo via Darcy Bowers

A quick thought about the death of Rush Limbaugh, and a few thoughts about the Texas power outage.

Many on the right are angry because others are happy about Limbaugh’s death. But we’re under no obligation to tolerate what we perceive as evil. Make no mistake, Rush Limbaugh promoted evil, and Wrongo celebrates the passing of that evil. As Bette Davis said:

“I was told only to speak good of the dead. Joan Crawford is dead. Good!”

On to Texas, and their electric grid disaster. Texas governor Abbott tried to blame the disaster on the “green new deal” and renewable energy sources. That’s a ludicrous argument. No part of the “green new deal” has been passed in Texas, and while Texas is the Saudi Arabia of wind power, only about 33% of its outage came from offline wind power.

A few facts: America is divided into three grids: one covers the eastern USA, another the western states and the third is the Texas grid, which covers most of the state. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, (ERCOT), manages about 90% of the state’s power for 26 million customers.

The real reason for the sustained outage is that Texas Republicans made sure that Texas had its own electric grid. That was because they wanted to be outside the regulatory reach of the federal government, to set their own rules. So Texas doesn’t follow the maintenance protocols of the other two grids. The other grids have protocols for all power generation equipment in winter weather, including for wind turbines. Of course, Texas doesn’t follow them.

An expert told the Houston Chronicle:

“The ERCOT grid has collapsed in exactly the same manner as the old Soviet Union…It limped along on underinvestment and neglect until it finally broke under predictable circumstances.”

Texas mistakenly thought that by seceding from the power grid, they would provide the benefits of a market solution to delivering power to the state. What really happened is that a lack of capable governing allowed an important and life-sustaining system to rust.

In 2011, Texas faced a similar storm that froze natural gas wells and affected coal plants and wind turbines, leading to power outages across the state. And 10 years later, Texas power companies still have not made the necessary investments to keep plants online during extreme cold. From the Texas Tribune:

“Texas officials knew winter storms could leave the state’s power grid vulnerable, but they left the choice to prepare for harsh weather up to the power companies — many of which opted against the costly upgrades.”

Texas Republicans thought that squeezing more profits out of the power grid for wealthy energy interests was more important than protecting the grid. They were wrong, and Texas consumers are paying the price.

We’ve become the can’t do nation: Can’t stop the plague, even with great vaccines, can’t keep our Capitol safe, can’t keep the heat on in Texas. But once Ted Cruz gets back from his fact-finding mission in Cancun, Texas will fix this in no time.

Wrongo has been to Cancun. It’s good, but not destroy-your-reputation good.

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Our New Normal

The Daily Escape:

Abyss Pool, West Thumb Geyser, Yellowstone NP – 2020 photo by eTeT

The “New Normal” is here. Tuesday was the first day for school buses on the streets of Wrongtown, CT since March. Until the buses rolled, we could keep lying to ourselves about the pandemic. But now that school has started up for kids in K-12, the new normal is here. We’re soaking in it.

It’s a patchwork of online and in-person formats. Here in Wrongtown, we’re following a hybrid formula of kids physically in class for some days, and participating remotely on the rest. But confusion reigns. One parent asked on the town’s Facebook page whether her kid had to log on to the class website on the days when they were at home:

“He is in school on Thursdays and Fridays but do we need to log on every day Monday thru Wednesday considering those are the days he is home? Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.”

Or, this one:

“Hi does anyone know how to sign in to distant learning?”

Ok, the new normal hasn’t been completely reduced to practice, and with respect to getting our kids an education, we’ve still got lots of learning to do.

But other things also dominate our new reality. First, despite the happy talk about the economy, many jobs aren’t coming back. Temporary layoffs are now starting to look permanent. From Barron’s: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“Before the pandemic, a temporarily unemployed worker had a roughly 60% chance of finding a job in the next month. Lately, that probability has fallen to about 40%, while the chance for a permanently unemployed worker to find a job in a given month is about 20%.

The US workforce is becoming increasingly divided into two groups: Those who are confident in keeping their jobs, and those who are pessimistic that they will ever return to their old jobs. The question for them is how will they cover their expenses as federal jobless benefits decrease or expire.

And we’re still more than 11 million jobs down from where we were in February.

Even if there is some GDP and jobs growth in the September report (the last one before the election), it won’t be enough to bail out the unemployed. The pandemic disproportionately hit workers in the leisure and hospitality sector (restaurants, hotels and travel); employment in that sector is still down around 25%.

Trump and the Republicans didn’t create the problems faced by low-wage Americans, but they made them worse by not dealing promptly with the pandemic, and then, by stressing the economy over the pandemic, which allowed Covid to roar back. And what economic recovery we have is bypassing those who most need to recover!

Finally, our new COVID reality: About 30,000 Americans died of Covid-19 in August.  And the number of new coronavirus cases has plateaued. Between Labor Day fun, and school re-openings, there’s a pretty good chance that America’s virus situation is about to take another turn for the worse.

Hundreds of colleges that had planned on having their students on campus have reversed their stances and decided on a virtual semester. The NYT reports that colleges have seen 51,000 cases since schools opened.

Kevin Drum reports that from August 2nd to September 2nd, the US recorded 1.4 million new cases of COVID-19. And according to a new study, 19% of those cases (266,000) were caused by the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota.

The riders refused to mask up, just like the college kids. People are tired of wearing masks, and they are tired of being cooped up. Apparently, six months of compliance is all that Americans can do. They want normalcy, but there’s a new normal that’s already here.

Until we have a safe and effective vaccine, there is no alternative to wearing a mask and staying physically distant whenever possible. We’re nearing 200,000 deaths and the flu season is coming. Think for a minute about that possible vaccine:

  • It needs to be approved, and 600M doses have to be manufactured and distributed.
  • We need 600M doses because the best guess now is that people will need to get two shots.
  • And we’re not sure how much time is required between shots.

Only when all people mask up, will most companies hire again. Only then will most kids be physically in school. Only then will most people be able to pay their bills with money earned in a paycheck. Or we can wait for the vaccine.

We have just 54 days until the election.

People shouldn’t get distracted from surviving the new normal by BS from the Trump campaign about Nancy Pelosi’s salon visit, or Biden’s supposed cognitive issues.

The new normal is the only issue that matters.

Vote to turn that into a non-toxic normal. And get your friends to vote for a non-toxic person.

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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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