Weekly Journal – #39 April 11 – 17, 2020

The Week of Saturday, April 11 through Friday, April 17, 2020 [#39]

The Week’s Most Notable:

This week marked the beginning of public protest on coronavirus mitigation, expressing the views of those in denial and/or defiance of public health restrictions.  To the casual observer, most of these gatherings to spray each other with protest seem to be candidates for the Darwin Award; that is, any problem they represent will be self-removing by COVID-19 infection. That may ultimately be true, but the glib putdown doesn’t capture the potential seriousness of their protests.

According to reports, there seem to be two approximate types of protester: Those saturated with the Trump-GOP freedom-Kool-Aid and those truly shaken by the economic crisis, many of them small business owners. They believe the prevalent travel, shopping, school, and distance restrictions are devastating the economy – and unnecessary. Most governors and epidemiologists would agree about the economy, but disagree about the necessity of restrictions. Ironically, many protesters cite lower-than-expected death rates as evidence of overreaction, missing the point that the death rates are lower because of the stringent restrictions. Even Trump recognized that if we did nothing there might be a million or more deaths, which would also destroy the economy.

For now, the protests are tiny, the cause all but absurd, and they do not represent the 60% to 80% who believe in the medical science and the need for social distancing. But what happens 4 to 6 months from now when the real pain of mass unemployment and a staggering economy produce hunger, bankruptcy, anger, and despair? By then there may be millions who want to protest and Trump will still be inciting riot. Much will depend on the ability of governors (and hopefully Congress) to cobble together a meaningful testing regime, fund enough relief, and manage expertise to weave their way out of the dual crises before a social explosion occurs.

Calls for coronavirus testing grew louder this week. From doctors to corporate execs, from non-right-wing media to congresspeople the phrase was “testing, testing, testing.” Recognition is growing that the way out of the “control the spread vs open the economy” bottleneck is to use testing – viral (who’s sick) and serum (who’s had it). The tests, combined with tracking infected people, make it possible to reopen the economy without unleashing more rounds of infection. It’s an approach several countries, notably Germany, have demonstrated. Unfortunately, Trump and Republican leaders, especially governors, quietly ignore testing; they don’t want the bad news testing often brings. Testing numbers in the U.S. are actually declining per capita. In the coming weeks, watch what dominates the narrative – an aggressive nationwide testing regime, or skip the testing and open up.

Saturday, April 11

[Coronavirus] U.S. Cases: 522,800; Deaths: 20,400 – Remember these figures do not include cases or deaths that were not tested or occurred outside of hospitals, i.e., the real numbers are higher.

[Coronavirus] First Time in U.S. History All 50 States Under Federal Emergency – Declaring a state under federal emergency makes them eligible for specific FEMA and other federal funds, so largely a no-brainer. On the other hand, 10 states still have not declared shelter-in-place (lockdown) orders.

Sunday, April 12

[Weather] Storms Rip South – From Mississippi to Tennessee at least 39 tornadoes killed 30 people, the deadliest outbreak in six years, and destroyed hundreds of homes. People were encouraged to take cover, but in most areas public shelters were closed due to the coronavirus.

[Coronavirus] Fauci Admits Earlier Lockdown Could Have Saved Lives – His highly qualified statement under pressure during one of the Trump rally/press conferences is being used as a benchmark against Trump’s declaration of a perfect response.

[Coronavirus] Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the Others Agree to Cut Oil Output – The price of oil dropped last week to $23 a barrel, far below break-even for all producers. The precipitous drop in demand (35%) caused by the coronavirus crisis created an instant glut of oil and a corresponding drop in prices. By limiting output close to 10%, they hope prices will rise back to a level of profitability — around $40 a barrel. Given the developing world depression, that is a big maybe.

[Coronavirus] Judge Rules Alabama Can’t Use Coronavirus to Ban Abortions – Alabama’s order branding abortions as “elective procedures” and therefore banned under coronavirus restrictions was struck down. Several other states have similar orders, all of which will be appealed.

[Coronavirus] South Dakota Smithfield Pork Plant Closes – The giant meat processing facility with more than 3,700 employees (90% immigrant) had 238 confirmed infections. By the end of the week there were more than 700 infections and it became the worst coronavirus location-outbreak in the U.S.  It also drew national attention because Gov. Kristi Noem refuses to declare the state under lockdown. This is but one of a growing pattern of outbreaks in meat processing plants, which is likely to affect supply in coming months.

Monday, April 13

[Election 2020] Wisconsin Election Results Released – The “coronavirus primary” that risked voters’ lives produced a stunning result: by more than 120,000 votes (10%) liberal Jill Karofsky defeated conservative Justice Daniel Kelly for his position on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.  Under the circumstances, where the Trump-GOP pulled out all the stops, including a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the result was stunning. And Biden handily defeated Sanders in the presidential primary.

[Election 2020] Sanders Endorses Biden – Standing side-by-side (virtually) Sanders and Biden made it clear that party unity to defeat Trump was now the paramount consideration.

[Coronavirus] Governors Unite in Regional Coronavirus Responses – After dealing with the incoherent or nonexistent federal response, governors in the West (CA, WA, OR) and the East (NY, NJ, CN, PA, DE, RI) joined forces regionally to develop  coordinated plans, especially to reopen their economies. More patches for the U.S. coronavirus response patchwork. [Update: Not to be outdone, governors from some midwestern states (MI, OH, WS, MN, IL, IN, KY) formed a similar regional group on Thursday.]

[SCOTUS] Supreme Court to Use Telephone for Oral Arguments – Because of the coronavirus, for the first time ever ten cases will be heard by telephone in May.

Tuesday, April 14

[Coronavirus] Trump Suspends Funding for WHO – As threatened, in the middle of a pandemic Trump makes his political point by withholding the U.S. contribution to the World Health Organization of more than $400 million per year, pending review. It’s another decision causing chaos in research and medical services that will result in loss of life.

[World Economy] IMF Report: World Economy in Depression-like Downturn – The global economy is expected to shrink about 3% this year with a potential rebound in 2021. The hit will be about $9 trillion loss of GDP over a two-year period.

[Coronavirus] Trump and Dr. Fauci at Cross Purposes – While Trump was voicing his “I have the ultimate authority” claim, Dr. Fauci reiterated that opening parts of the economy by May 1, even in selected states, was “overly optimistic.” In effect, Trump was insisting that only he confers upon states the power to close or reopen. Fauci was emphasizing that the decision to “reopen” was on a state-by-state basis and should be grounded in sound scientific/medical principles. By the end of the week Trump had verbally walked back the extent of his authority.

[Congress] Bipartisan Joint Committee on Taxation Finds Massive Giveaway to Rich in Coronavirus Relief – A tax provision snuck into the relief bill allows a pass-through tax deduction that will cost about $90 billion in 2020 alone. The JCT study found that 82% of the benefit will go to those earning more than $1 million, while those making less than $100,000 will get 3%. This highlights why oversight of the enormous coronavirus relief effort is so necessary.

Wednesday, April 15

[Election 2020] Democrats Complete Their Unusual Unity – Elizabeth Warren joined President Obama in endorsing Joe Biden. It’s expected both of them will be important surrogates for Biden’s campaign. Warren remains a potential vice-presidential nominee, which she said she would accept.

[Congress] Trump Threatens to Adjourn Congress – Although never done before, Trump might use the coronavirus crisis to invoke an obscure power if Congress fails to agree on a date for their next session. He’s claiming that during the ensuing recess he can make judicial and administrative appointments without Senate approval. This is a classic Trump distraction, immediately spiked by both McConnell and Schumer.

[Coronavirus] Anti-Lockdown Demonstrations Start Across the Country – The images of protesters in several states, notably in Michigan carrying guns, highlighted the growing (and well fertilized) movement to reject coronavirus related restrictions such as social distancing and commercial lockdown.

[Coronavirus] Business Execs Tell Trump More Testing Needed – Trump announced a business-oriented “Opening the Country” council, which was marked by a communications snafu:  many executives weren’t told they were on the council. However, the key takeaway was that executives made clear they didn’t think the economy could recover without a testing regime good enough to gain the trust of consumers.

Thursday, April 16

[Coronavirus] Trump Issues Guidelines for Reopening the Economy – Walking back earlier noises about a “reopening of the country on his command” Trump issued guidelines to be applied at the discretion of state governors. The CDC developed most of the guidelines and they are supported by Dr. Fauci. This approval is interesting since Trump’s guidelines were conspicuously missing a significant testing component. Trump also created a new task force (third or fourth such group), this time composed mostly of lawmakers, to consider returning to normal quickly, a concept most public health officials and Democrats reject. Later that evening and on Friday Trump indulged in a round of tweets denouncing almost everything he said earlier and explicitly encouraging public protest of coronavirus-related limitations. “LIBERATE Michigan!” This was the beginning of what appears to be a deliberate two-faced strategy.

[Coronavirus] Unemployment Claims Jump by 5.2 Million – This brings the number of claims for unemployment benefits to 22 million or about 14% of the workforce. The actual number is probably somewhat higher due to difficulties in registering claims.

[Environment] EPA Weakens Mercury-pollution Regulations – Consistent with other rollbacks of environmental protection, the Trump administration changed rules for calculating allowed release of mercury from oil and coal fired power plants. The coronavirus crisis provides cover.

Friday, April 17

[Coronavirus] U.S. Cases: 694,000; Deaths: 32,400; World Cases: 2.2 Million; Deaths: 150,000

[Coronavirus] Chinese Economy Shrinks 6.5% – The first quarter results were slightly worse than expected (6.2%) and represent a first approximation of the damage done by the coronavirus crisis. Similar figures are expected for other countries. Although China is engaged both in reopening and stimulating the economy, a positive growth rate still seems distant to Chinese economists.

[Coronavirus] Trump Announces $19 Billion Agricultural Bailout – The money comes largely from the $2.2 trillion Economic Relief Bill and is intended to shore up farm production and the food supply chain.

[Coronavirus] Nursing Homes Become Focus of Coronavirus Deaths – Although the carnage in the nation’s nursing homes and care facilities is weeks old, national attention by the media and politicians is just now noting that more than 6,900 coronavirus deaths are linked to such facilities. As one official put it, “They’re death pits.”

Coronavirus Crisis Notes

Turn for a moment to look at the dark side: There are aspects of the coronavirus pandemic and economic crisis that are seldom discussed, but need to be. For example, what happens when a major hurricane hits the Gulf or East Coast this summer or fall? This is almost certain to happen, in fact NOAA is predicting a more active hurricane season this year. What happens if Miami needs to be evacuated? (Coronavirus distancing is impossible.) What happens if another hurricane Sandy devastates part of the East Coast? (How can infrastructure be repaired, much less paid for?) Our current emergency organizations, such as FEMA, are not designed for compounded disasters on this scale. Nor is our federal budget organized to absorb massive disaster-related expenses.

At issue is preparing for inevitable but sporadic crises. There will be more pandemics, more floods, more hurricanes, more devastating tornado outbreaks, more droughts, more wildfires over the coming years. The climate crisis guarantees this. Yet one of the things we’re learning from the current crisis is that our current ability to respond is inadequate. For too long government (and we the people) have been willing to fudge (under-fund, under-plan) our ability to deal with crises. It’s like cheating on insurance; crossing our fingers that nothing will happen – only now it’s happening and will continue to happen more often. It’s like Trump doing away with the pandemic planning capacity of the CDC and the NSC in 2018 because it “cost too much.”

We need to rethink. For example: What kind of government, what agencies, what funding do we need to adequately respond to multiple concurrent crises that happen almost every year? If we don’t respond adequately, the result could be chaos, poverty, and death. Addressing questions like these, even partially, will be monumentally difficult, but we have to go there.

Election Notes

Biden his time. It was a good week for Joe Biden. With the endorsements of Obama, Sanders, and Warren the Democratic Party is for the most part united behind him. At this point, he can’t compete with Trump for media attention or the national narrative, but an argument can be made that he doesn’t need to. Let Trump enjoy the taste of his own shoe leather or, more seriously, let Trump continue to demonstrate he has no idea how to genuinely deal with the twin monsters of a pandemic and economic depression. Unless of course, the Trump-GOP-right wing plan is to incite chaos and Civil War, which is possible. Then everyone, including Biden, must come off the sidelines.

[The IUY Weekly Journal assumes readers are passingly familiar with names and events. For more details, check with internet search (Google it).]

Quote of the Week

The disparity between states has narrowed since April 13, when the SBA released the first detailed information on [Paycheck Protection Program] loans.  As a share of eligible payroll, New York’s loans jumped to 40% from 23% in those three days.  California’s share also increased. 

“Small Business Rescue Shows Not All States Are Created Equal” Bloomberg News, 4/17/20

 

 

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