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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Saturday Soother – April 18, 2020

The Daily Escape:

Rainbow appears over NYC at 7pm, the time of change of shift for NYC’s health workers – April 13th 2020 photo by Steve Braband. Thanks to reader Shelley VK.

An argument by those who want to end the lockdown about those who think we should keep it is:  “You have shut down the economy because you think even one death is too many.”

That is a misrepresentation of what America’s governors have done. They really have said: “We reduced the economy and restricted daily activities because otherwise, as many as a million people might die.”

What is missed by the “live free or die” folks is that these actions were taken to reduce the risks to human life from the pandemic. They say, you shouldn’t ask us to stay locked down, because “life is full of risk anyway”.

To a degree, they are correct. Lockdowns only work for the privileged. They don’t work for everyone, because the level of income support and debt relief provided by the government is inadequate to the need. If landscapers are not essential in a state, they don’t work. But since they live paycheck to paycheck, they won’t be able to buy food. And when they see others working and earning, that’s got to be angering.

If we ask people for sacrifice and compliance, the country must at least secure their short term needs.

Since the government isn’t providing adequately for those needs, rebelliousness, non-compliance, and virus denialism are on the rise, as we saw in Thursday’s large demonstration in Michigan.

In Connecticut, Wrongo’s home state, the major issue every spring is passing the town budget. With a COVID-19 shutdown in effect, Governor Ned Lamont (D) issued an executive order suspending in-person voting for the next fiscal year’s budget. And there is no vote by mail option in CT.

His order has been met with livid anger on the right and left, conjuring up “no taxation without representation” and calls to “stand up for your rights”. People are saying if they can shop using social distance, why can’t they vote using social distance?

What angers many in town is that voters have rejected several budgets in recent years. The town then lowers the numbers, and it goes back to voters who eventually approve it. They could simply roll over last year’s approved budget, but instead, they’re going to pass a budget increase along with an increase in taxes, without ratification by voters.

The executive order seems wrong-headed, and it’s making people very angry. And so non-compliance will grow, as will denialism that the virus is a serious health problem.

All of this may help the virus flare up again soon.

In a comment, blog reader Terry McKenna brought up the concept of the “Tragedy of the Commons”, the idea that all individuals have a right to consume a resource even if it comes at the expense of other individuals. If demand overwhelms supply, every individual who consumes an additional unit directly harms all others who can no longer benefit from it.

Most Americans don’t think about how their actions impact others. Most are unwilling to even temporarily comply with limitations placed on them for the common good. With Operation Gridlock in Michigan, we’re seeing more proof that when human health and safety go up against the almighty dollar, humans will lose.

People should remember that finding a vaccine for the virus is not a sure thing. There’s also little reason to believe that once a vaccine is found, that it will be completely effective. The longer people are allowed to think that universal Coronavirus immunity is just around the corner, the angrier they will get when that isn’t the case.

Until we know if a vaccine is likely or not, the current political climate won’t be conducive to rational discussions about difficult decisions. The virus can’t spread itself, but it seems to have plenty of helpers.

On this spring Saturday, let’s forget about non-compliance and the Coronavirus for a few minutes. Let’s have a brief respite, and indulge in a Saturday Soother.

Start by inviting your besties to a Quarantini video conference. The term “Quarantini” was actually coined several years ago on the podcast “This podcast will kill you”, hosted by two disease ecologists/epidemiologists. Wrongo prefers Irish single malts, but pour whatever makes you happy. And make a toast: Confusion to our enemies!

Next, settle back and spend a few minutes watching and listening to a parody tribute to NY Governor Andrew Cuomo, from Randy Rainbow, “ANDY!”:

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

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Should America Be Reopening Now?

The Daily Escape:

Poppies, Antelope Valley, CA – 2020 photo by user_greg. Part of the annual spring “super bloom” in CA.

Given Trump’s decision to open the country to walking around while infected, it’s becoming clear that for the administration, the business of America is strictly business.

But this is wrong. In a pandemic, the business of America is not business; it’s public health. Absent public confidence that the virus is at least under control, many businesses and workers won’t be comfortable heading back to work, no matter what politicians say:

“More than eight in 10 voters, 81%, say Americans “should continue to social distance for as long as is needed to curb the spread of coronavirus, even if it means continued damage to the economy…. Democrats (89%) are more likely than Republicans (72%) to say Americans should continue the “social distancing” measures”

Looks like Trump holds a minority view. To see if there was any concrete basis for saying the US was in a position to reopen soon, Wrongo looked at the COVID-19 Tracking Project’s state-level numbers, and subtracted the terrible NY numbers from the rest. Here’s the result:

The conclusion is that NY isn’t all that terrible compared to the rest of the US. It has a decreasing share of America’s total infections and deaths. But the highlighted rate of increase in deaths in the rest of the US since April 12th should concern the White House.

In fact, the seven-day average for growth in new cases shows that cases in the rest of the US are growing faster. NY is growing at 5.27%, while the rest of US is growing at 5.83%.

And the news from the places without lockdowns isn’t good. Politico reports that hot spots have erupted in farm belt states where governors insist lockdowns aren’t needed:

“The only hospital in Grand Island, Neb., is full. The mayor…asked for a statewide stay-at-home order that the GOP governor insists isn’t needed. More than one-third of those tested for coronavirus in the surrounding county are positive — and there aren’t enough tests to go around.

Grand Island is the fourth-biggest city in a state President Donald Trump and his top health officials repeatedly [say is]…keeping the virus at bay without the strict lockdowns 42 other states have imposed.”

New cases in Nebraska and in Iowa, South Dakota and other parts of the heartland are starting to spike. This should be raising concerns about whether we’re controlling the disease. Here’s Nebraska’s Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts saying that voluntary social distancing is working: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“This is a program that depends on people exercising personal responsibility and their civic duty….This is about making that decision, not the heavy hand of government taking away your freedoms.”

All of a sudden, as if they saw the bat signal, Republicans want to do the “Live Free or Die” thing. From the Daily Beast:

“A protest movement is taking hold targeting states that have extended social-distancing rules, closed schools, and restricted access to large religious gatherings. And it’s being fed by loyalists and political allies of President Donald Trump.”

This seems to be “spontaneous” support for Trump’s effort to reopen the economy.

In Michigan, a demonstration called “Operation Gridlock” protested Governor Whitmer’s shelter-at-home orders. Michigan has the third-highest number of COVID-19 cases in America, and the lockdown lowered infections. But Republicans criticize the order. Several thousand cars blocked the Lansing streets to protest what they see as an infringement of their liberty.

A lot of calories are going into the open vs. lockdown debate. It’s all a waste of time. How will we get a healthy economy if we eliminate the lockdown before we have any chance of stopping the mass transmission of this disease?

People aren’t staying at home because governments told them to. They’re doing it because it’s not safe to be out there. They aren’t going to go to work willingly in crowded offices, or travel, or attend concerts unless the danger is visibly lessened. And the economy will not recover until people are willing to do these things.

It’s not about flipping a switch. Businesses reopening will happen in small steps, as public health officials and political leaders, especially mayors and governors (and businesses), work to establish the basic conditions for a return to economic activity.

The bottom line is that the people are in control. We had to be convinced to stay home, and now we’ll have to be convinced to go out.

You go first, should be the people’s mantra. Trump should go back to holding MAGA rallies immediately. He should put his life and those of his supporters, where his mouth is.

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Problems With The COVID-19 Data

The Daily Escape:

Sunrise in Monument Valley, UT – photo by therealmindzeye. Note the sun star!

Happy tax day! Here are the updated COVID-19 seven-day results as of 4/13:

  • The number of new cases has plateaued. The average rate of increase for the past seven days is 6.88% vs. 5.00% on 4/13. But, this is a function of how many tests are conducted.
  • The number of deaths is increasing more slowly, averaging 11.94% for the past seven days vs. 7.35% on 4/13.
  • More people were tested on 4/13 than on any day in the past seven days, but we still lag April 4th, which was the country’s high point in tests at 229,268.

We all hear the daily recitation of new cases, deaths and tests, but as Wrongo said last week, there are multiple issues with the data that politicians and public health officials are relying on for decision-making.

Cathy O’Neil, who writes at Bloomberg and blogs as the Mathbabe, has a column addressing reasons to doubt the COVID-19 data. Here are a few of her points: (emphasis and brackets by Wrongo)

“1. The number of infected is close to meaningless. Only people who get tested can be counted, and there still aren’t enough tests…anecdotal evidence suggests that people need to be ill enough to be hospitalized [to get tested]. About 10% of cases merit hospitalization, so the actual number of infected might be about ten times larger than what’s reported.

2. The tests aren’t accurate and the inaccuracies aren’t symmetric. In particular, they produce many more false negatives than false positives….Some research suggests that the false negative rate could exceed 30%.

3. The number of tests doesn’t equal the number of people tested. Because the tests are so inaccurate, some people get tested twice….This means that the share of the population tested compared to the number of people found to be infected paints a rosier picture than reality…another reason to believe that the actual number of infected is higher.

4. The numbers aren’t in sync. People sometimes die weeks after being hospitalized, and they get hospitalized a week or more after testing positive for the virus. So we shouldn’t expect the “number of deaths” curve to flatten until pretty long after the “number of cases” curve does.

5. The meaning of hospitalization is changing. Officials have recently presented flattening hospital admissions as a positive sign. But it takes a lot more to get somebody to the hospital these days. Hotlines are jammed, ambulances are scarce, standards for who gets hospitalized have drastically changed, and people are avoiding overwhelmed emergency rooms. So fewer hospitalizations doesn’t necessarily mean that the situation is getting better.

6. Deaths aren’t reported immediately or consistently. Various operational issues, such as paper filing and notifying next of kin, determine when a death actually gets registered. This might help explain why the most deaths tend to get reported on Tuesdays.

7. Deaths outside hospitals aren’t being reported. When people die at home or in nursing facilities, veteran homes, or prisons, they’re not always counted…..When France started reporting fatalities in nursing homes, their death count increased by 40%. Belgium reports nursing home deaths pretty well, and they’re finding 40% of deaths occur there.

8. The policy for attributing deaths isn’t consistent. Once somebody is gone, why waste a valuable test? So doctors might not mention Covid-19 as a contributing cause. It’s a judgment call, especially when someone was sick already. This might have a very large effect on the data in certain environments like rehab facilities and nursing homes.

9. Officials may have incentives to hide coronavirus cases. China, Indonesia and Iran have all come under scrutiny for their statistics…..So don’t assume that officials are above…manipulation.

10. What happens in one place, or on average, might not be applicable everywhere. Some small studies suggest that the Covid-19 mortality rate is about 1% of the infected population. But that doesn’t mean it will be the same in the US, or in New York City….As we’ve seen in recent days, such disparities are disproportionately affecting people of color.”

You should follow the Mathbabe. We all rely on the count, but as Cathy says, we may not know the true numbers for some time. Testing needs to be done systematically, particularly on asymptomatic people, once we decide to end the lockdowns.

For deaths, accurate numbers may never be available. It’s possible to estimate using the number of unexpected deaths compared to a year earlier. But even that’s not ideal, because lockdowns might suppress other kinds of deaths — traffic accidents, for example — since people are forced to stay at home.

Despite flaws in the data reporting, we’re all obsessed with learning how America is responding to the pandemic. And the daily updates on tests, cases, and deaths gives us a reasonable clue about what to expect, when things might get better, or how our leaders are doing with the response to the virus.

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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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Monday Wake Up Call – What’s Next Edition

The Daily Escape:

Chamisa plants near Abiquiu, NM – photo by zuzofthewolves

(Publishing of daily COVID-19 data is on hold while Wrongo tries to understand inconsistencies in the data)

Trump isn’t wrong to begin thinking about what comes next. At some point, we will again poke our heads out of our burrows, and feel the warmth of sunlight. We’ll attempt to resume the life we had before the virus struck. There are two risks in this: First, will we be back in the swing of things too soon? And second, what should we demand be different, given what the nation has experienced?

In Trump’s view the answer is simple. He wants most people back to work in time to have a robust economy come Election Day. He’s targeted May 1st as the start date for his governor buddies to begin revitalizing the economy.

Once again, the Trump administration is showing itself to be utterly incapable of dealing with this crisis.

He’s moving the country to re-open, despite warnings from public health officials and from most state governors. Here’s a germane comment on Wrongo’s Saturday’s column by long-time blog reader Terry McKenna:

“We really know so little. To begin with, we don’t know how the virus spreads. We are learning but that’s all. In the beginning, we guessed wrong that it was not spread by healthy (asymptomatic) persons. Doctors disagree over the size of the droplets that carry the virus. So we are almost like we were before we had the germ theory where all we can do it isolate.

Also “test” is a simplistic word. Which test? We need a test that tells a clinician that someone had the virus in his system, and a test with a fast result is essential. But a negative test means little, especially in a healthy (asymptomatic) person, because in the absence of a vaccine, that person could be infected next week or next month. So we need a test of antibodies – but even still, we don’t know how long immunity lasts.

And then we have the notion that the president can order the country back to work. Even if a business reopens, who will come? And yes, I know someone will, but imagine the NY Mets having their opening day May 15. Will anyone show up? And if they do, will we see a spike in sickness a few weeks later?

We need time for the science to do its work. We may get lucky, viruses do became less virulent over time (sometimes to re-emerge with vigor).”

A partial re-opening of those portions of the economy that are now shuttered is a risk both to the workers, and to the returning customers. Terry is right to ask if we’ll see a spike in sickness a few weeks later, and if we do, what will be Trump’s plan then?

Broadening out our view, many are starting to think about what needs to be different post-pandemic. As we emerge from this crisis, we have a rare opportunity to focus on change: Do we want a Star Trek, or Blade Runner future? A utopian, or a dystopian one?

As Viet Thanh Nguyen said in the NYT:

“Our real enemy is not the virus but our response to the virus — a response that has been degraded and deformed by the structural inequalities of our society.”

We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebuild for tomorrow. Or will we just prop up the economic and political process that has given us today’s problems? As an example, if we don’t want sick and contagious people trying to go to work, America must have paid sick leave.

During the lead up to passing the CARES Act, Democrats in Congress recognized this, but at the behest of business lobbies, the Act exempted 80% of all workers, including all those working at firms with over 500 employees AND those working at firms with under 50 employees!

Here’s an illuminating chart:

And in America, add $600 for four months for 20% of our workers. This is post-Reagan America. Assistance to the poor and working class is given grudgingly, and with strings attached. The rich and corporations are showered in subsidies since they are too virtuous and important to let fail. MAGA really means “Make Americans Grovel Again”.

What has to die after Covid-19 is the myth that America is the best country on earth. We’re not as healthy as we thought we were. The symptoms — racial and economic inequality, callousness and selfishness, have been covered up by our unquestioned acceptance of American Exceptionalism.

We’ve lost our right to that view, despite the many, many small acts of heroism every day by health workers and all the “essential” hourly workers who face becoming infected every day.

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – April 12, 2020

It was supposed to be all over by Easter. But this weekend, the time that we were supposed to get back to work, brings us 2000 COVID-19 deaths on a single day, and a mass grave on NYC’s Hart Island. One thing we’ve learned is that Trump isn’t a clairvoyant:

When you leave late, you get there late:

It takes a team:

Wearing a red hat doesn’t make America great. What DOES make our country great is the dedication and drive to serve that’s demonstrated by so many of us. The American spirit doesn’t require fondling the flag, or bloviating in front of the media. Our first responders and our service workers make us proud to be Americans.

Vote by mail should be the answer:

In Washington State when you vote by mail, you retain a paper copy. The state can call the voter and ask them what their vote was, if necessary. You get a few weeks to decide on the issues and which candidate you prefer.

It’s not socialism if it helps you. If your check was passed by Republicans, it’s a STIMULUS:

Real life has become a scary movie:

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Saturday Soother – Back to Work Edition, April 11, 2020

The Daily Escape:

Great Sand Dunes NP, CO – photo by AddisonTract

Welcome to the 85th Saturday in April, fellow disease vectors! Here are the updated COVID numbers (as of 4/9):

  • There’s good news today. New infections are down dramatically as is the rate of new deaths.
  • The percentage of deaths to total cases has stabilized, at least for the moment.
  • Daily testing increased by 159,130. That’s helpful, but the growth in new tests still lags the growth in new infections.

America and the world are fighting a two-front war, one with the COIVID-19 pandemic, and another with our self-imposed, slow-rolling financial meltdown. Many think, like Trump, that the damage to the economy is worse than the loss of 50,000-100,000 American lives.

The irony is that it is the US governors that have precipitated the economic crisis while trying to moderate the public health crisis. And it has been the Trump administration that is trying to moderate the economic crisis by attempting to prematurely end the Coronavirus crisis.

A tenth of the work force has applied for unemployment benefits, while millions more are not working. In addition, small businesses are going under. So the GOP is pressuring Trump to declare victory and re-open the economy, and he’s looking for a plan to get people back to work.

But it isn’t just a plan. Attorney General Barr strongly suggested in a FOX TV interview that states don’t have the right to shut down businesses and schools during a public health emergency, and hints that the Trump administration could take action against states that don’t rescind shelter-at-home orders next month:

“When this period of time, at the end of April, expires, I think we have to allow people to adapt more than we have, and not just tell people to go home and hide under their bed, but allow them to use other ways — social distancing and other means — to protect themselves,”

Apparently, Barr is focused on what happens after the CDC’s guidelines on social distancing expire at the end of April. This is a clear sign that, while Barr is willing to allow states to do what they are doing now, his and the administration’s patience will expire when the CDC’s guidelines expire.

The WaPo reports that Trump is about to announce the creation of a second Coronavirus task force aimed at combating the economic consequences of the virus:

“The task force is expected to be led by Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, and include Larry Kudlow, the president’s chief economic adviser, and Mnuchin, the treasury secretary, along with outside business leaders. Others expected to play a role are Kevin Hassett…and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner…”

One of the lynchpins of reopening the economy is supposed to be universal testing for the virus. But NPR reports the government is ending its funding for testing:

“…the federal government will end funding for coronavirus testing sites this Friday. In a few places those sites will close as a result.”

Reopening the economy without adequate testing is just like walking blindly in a minefield. And we know that testing remains generally unavailable.

The job of the administration should be to make the “5-minute” test kits cheap enough that every urgent care, every pharmacy, every clinic, can have two or three, and be running tests. Not just the current 10 -15 per state, but tens of thousands, so that widespread testing can be easily available.

Trump gave his game away yesterday when CNN’s Jim Acosta asked him:

“How can the administration discuss the possibility of reopening the country when the administration does not have an adequate nationwide testing system for this virus? Don’t you need a nationwide testing system for the virus before you reopen?”

TRUMP: “No.” pic.twitter.com/JokZYfy97T

What could go wrong? Plenty of things could go badly wrong.

If/when they do, Trump will blame the states, especially those with Democratic governors. Believe it or not, he will then campaign as the man who stopped the epidemic, and at least 40% of voters will say he accomplished it.

Let’s focus on relaxing for a few minutes with a new Saturday Soother. Wrongo hopes that you are staying healthy, productive, and in good spirits. If your income stream has been disrupted by the pandemic, Wrongo hopes you use the time constructively: Do something you’ve wanted to do for a long time.

Today we continue in the English pastoral idiom that we started last week.

Here is British composer Gerald Finzi’sIntroit for Solo Violin & Small Orchestra Op. 6”.  Played by the Northern Sinfonia with Lesley Hatfield on solo violin. It is conducted by Howard Griffiths. This is music that leads to private thoughts, something we all need right now:

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

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Monday Wake Up Call – April 6, 2020

The Daily Escape:

Texas bluebonnets, Round Rock, TX – 2018 photo by dried_fruit

Here are the latest national numbers (which will be out of date by the time you read them). From The COVID Tracking Project: (as of 4/4)

  • Number of daily cases: 305,755, up 33,767 or +12.4% vs. April 3
  • Rate of case increase: 12.4% vs. 13.75% on 4/3 and 15% average for the past week
  • Number of deaths: Total 8,314, up 1,352 vs. April 3
  • Rate of deaths increase 4/4 vs 4/3: 19.4% % vs. 20.4% on 4/3
  • Daily number of tests 4/4 vs. 4/3: 1,623,807, up 226,945 over 4/3
  • Rate of increase in tests: +16.2% vs. previous day

The rates of growth in cases and deaths have begun to slow. In the past week, they are in a decelerating trend, declining by about 1%/day. Testing is growing, which is a very good thing.

Just when you think you can’t get any more cynical about America’s response to the pandemic, we tumble to the fact that about a third of hospital emergency rooms are now staffed by doctors on the payrolls of two physician staffing companies, TeamHealth and Envision Health. They are owned by two Wall Street private equity firms. Envision Healthcare employs 69,000 healthcare workers nationwide while TeamHealth employs 20,000. Private equity firm Blackstone Group owns TeamHealth; Kravis Kohlberg Roberts (KKR) owns Envision. Private equity is the term for a large unregulated pool of money run by financiers who use that money to invest in, lend to, and/or buy companies and restructure them.

Wrongo began hearing that despite the urgent pleas from hospitals on the front lines of the COVOID-19 outbreak, nurses and doctors were being taken off schedules in nearby places once “elective” procedures were suspended, as they are at many hospitals and clinics. That means the associated revenues were lost, or at the very least, postponed.

Here’s a report from Yahoo Finance:

“KKR & Co.-backed Envision, which carries over $7 billion of debt amassed through one of the biggest leveraged buyouts in recent years, reported steep drops at its care facilities. In just two weeks, it suffered declines of 65% to 75% in business at its 168 open ambulatory surgical centers, compared to the same period last year, the company said in a private report to investors. About 90 centers are closed.”

Private equity has taken over more and more of hospital staffing, including emergency departments. The legal fig leaf that allows private equity firms like Blackstone and KKR to play doctor is that their deals are structured so that an individual MD or group of MDs is the nominal owner of the specialty practice, even though the business is stripped of its assets. The practices’ operating contracts are widely believed to strip the MDs of any say in management.

Care of the sick is not the mission of these companies; their mission is to make profits for the private equity firms and its investors. In 2018, Paladin Healthcare, an entity owned by private equity baron Joel Freedman, bought Philadelphia’s Hahnemann University Hospital. This hospital served the poor, and Freedman closed it down so he could use the land to build luxury apartments.

When the city recently asked to use the empty hospital as part of its solution for the Coronavirus pandemic, Freedman demanded $1M/month in rent. Overcharging patients and insurance companies for providing urgent and desperately needed emergency medical care is bad enough. But holding a city hostage?

In another example, STAT reports on another private equity firm: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“Alteon Health, which employs about 1,700 emergency medicine doctors and other physicians who staff hospital emergency rooms across the country, announced it would suspend paid time off, matching contributions to employees’ 401(K) retirement accounts, and discretionary bonuses in response to the pandemic…The company also said it would reduce some clinicians’ hours to the minimum required to maintain health insurance coverage, and that it would convert some salaried employees to hourly status for “maximum staffing flexibility.”

NY’s Governor Cuomo and others are pleading to have doctors come out of retirement, and here we have skilled doctors who have the training and are being asked to work fewer hours? All of the Republican talk about “choice” and “markets” in healthcare is just self-serving BS that benefits their buddies.

Time to wake up America!

Why do private equity firms continue to benefit from the “carried interest” tax loophole? Shouldn’t they shoulder their part of the financial grief the pandemic is causing to our country?

To help you wake up, here is John Lennon’s 1970 song, “Isolation”. It appeared on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. It has a whole new meaning in today’s context:

Sample Lyric:

We’re afraid of everyone,

Afraid of the sun.

Isolation

The sun will never disappear,

But the world may not have many years.

Isolation.

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

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Monday Wake Up Call – Leadership Edition, March 30, 2020

The Daily Escape:

Last light, Tombstone Territory Park, Yukon, AK – fall 2019 photo by tmsvdw

A few days ago, Wrongo heard someone say that we should be careful what we wished for from Trump. He was talking about Trump’s lack of leadership regarding the pandemic. His thought was that the last thing people should want was Trump in full command, and attempting a vigorous response. We’re already failing, and that wouldn’t make it better.

OTOH, it’s been terrible to learn how ill-prepared we are, and how passive-aggressive the administration has been about doing more. It’s past time to accept the excuse that these people are well-intended but awful managers. Take this bit of news from the WaPo:

“On Feb. 5, with fewer than a dozen confirmed novel coronavirus cases in the United States but tens of thousands around the globe, a shouting match broke out in the White House Situation Room between Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and an Office of Management and Budget official….Azar had asked OMB that morning for $2 billion to buy respirator masks and other supplies for a depleted federal stockpile of emergency medical equipment…”

Several weeks later, the request was cut to $500 million. Now, there’s $16 billion in the stimulus bill for the strategic stockpile, but that’s at least six weeks too late. The government has been overwhelmed by urgent requests for masks, respirators, gloves and gowns since the first US case of Covid-19 was confirmed. But on February 7th, Secretary of State Pompeo announced that we were sending:

“…nearly 17.8 tons of donated medical supplies to the Chinese people, including masks, gowns, gauze, respirators, and other vital materials.”

Yes, this was after there were already 12 confirmed cases in the US, and after the HHS request for $2 billion to buy the same things was denied.

Then there’s Trump’s strategy, “better be nice to me if you want any medical gear”. More from the WaPo:

“Anecdotally, there are wide differences….Democratic-leaning Massachusetts, which has had a serious outbreak in Boston, has received 17% of the protective gear it requested….Maine requested a half-million N95 specialized protective masks and received 25,558 — about 5% of what it sought. The shipment delivered to Colorado — 49,000 N95 masks, 115,000 surgical masks and other supplies — would be “enough for only one full day of statewide operations…”

But, when Trump’s guy is in charge, as in Florida, it’s a different story: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“Florida has been an exception in its dealings with the stockpile: The state submitted a request on March 11 for 430,000 surgical masks, 180,000 N95 respirators, 82,000 face shields and 238,000 gloves, among other supplies — and received a shipment with everything three days later…It received an identical shipment on March 23, according to the division, and is awaiting a third.”

So, three times what they asked for, while California, with Trump nemesis Democratic Governor Newsom in charge, actually got worse than nothing. KRON-TV in San Diego reports that Los Angeles received 170 broken ventilators from the national stockpile. Surely, a simple clerical error.

California also asked for 20 million N95 respirators, and has received 358,381.

Trump is actually doing what he’s been saying: “I am sending aid to states that like me, and withholding aid from states that don’t like me.” That’s Trump’s re-election strategy: Support the states he needs to win for an Electoral College victory.

Reward your friends, punish your enemies. Is that the kind of leadership America needs?

You know leadership when you see it. Sadly, even the UK’s Prime Minister Bozo Boris Johnson shows more leadership than America’s Bozo. After Johnson’s terrible start fighting the Coronavirus, one that rivaled Trump’s, things have turned around. There is consistent messaging: The government has adopted the slogan “Save lives”, “Protect the NHS” [the national health system], and “Stay home”. Simple and clear, something the entire country can rally around.

In the US? No message is simple, or clear. Most messages are conflicting or simply unworkable, like Trump’s suggestion of issuing an executive order quarantining the states of NY, NJ and CT, an unconstitutional and unenforceable idea. How about THAT for leadership.

Trump’s plan for re-election is: “If you aren’t dead, I saved you. Show some appreciation. I take no responsibility for those whose governors failed to save you“. Favoring those states he may need in 2020 is outrageous and criminal.

Two audio-visual aids today for your Monday Wake Up. First, a staggering animated chart showing the growth in Coronavirus cases world-wide during March, with a particular focus on the US:

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

Second, a hilarious YouTube video done to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Naturally, it’s called “Coronavirus Rhapsody“:

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

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – March 29, 2020

“To prevent the Black Death spreading in the 14th century, all ships thought to be infected were isolated for 40 days to prevent the spread of the disease. In fact, the word quarantine comes from the Italian quaranta giorni, meaning ’40 days’”.  via Ilargi

Some math. $2 trillion from Congress, and $4 trillion from the Federal Reserve so far is how much per family? 83.5 million families divided into $6 trillion = $71,856 per family of new national debt. Hard to know exactly, but households are likely to see only about $3,400 of that $71,856, assuming it is a two-person, two-kid family that makes under $150,000/year. Your mileage may vary.

This shows that our government has once again misdistributed the stimulus. Isn’t it always the case that in a crisis, our Crisis Capitalism government never misses a chance to give money to the corporations and the rich? Why is it so difficult to distribute the funds more equitably? Because they want to distribute as little as possible to the people.

Don’t you think that Trump should wait until every state has all the tests, medical gear and ventilators they need before he starts prognosticating on what date we can all return to normal lives?

As part of his deflecting of responsibility, Trump blames Obama for not stockpiling medical masks during his presidency. But Trump has been president for the past three years, he owns the stockpile. Clearly, he made no effort to add new medical masks in his time in office. He owns the shortage.

NY Governor Cuomo has shown miles more leadership ability than Trump in dealing with the crisis. He’s been blunt, factual, and realistic. In contrast, Trump has downplayed and lied about the pandemic. On to cartoons.

Anything you need in order to revive the bull:

Trump’s driving the Death Train:

The pandemic shows that our safety net is full of holes:

Hypocrisy begins with the GOP:

Our new reality:

Stay at home used to be for the timid:

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