Pandemic journal (# 25): Pandemic Showing Weaknesses of Free Market Capitalism                 

This is the conclusion posed by Dirk Philipsen, Associate Research Professor of economic history at the Sanford School of Public Policy and Senior Fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University.[1]

Free market capitalism, he says, “rewards competing, positioning, and elbowing, so these have become the most desirable qualifications people can have. [On the other hand, this system] does not value “empathy, solidarity, or concern for the public good, . . . social stability, health, or happiness. As a result, . . . the market system has depleted and ravaged the public sphere — public health, public education, public access to a healthy environment — in favor of private gain.”

This system also “fails to recognize the obvious: every private accomplishment is possible only on the basis of a thriving commons — a stable society and a healthy environment.”

In addition,. many “successful” corporations in the U.S. version of free market capitalism seek and obtain government bailouts, tax  breaks and subsidies. One example, during this pandemic, is the recent adoption of the CARES Act to provide stimulus to the economy. Yet more than $5 billion was disbursed, under this Act, to 20 large hospitals that had more than $108 billion of cash on hand and whose lobbyists helped the Department of Health and Human Services devise formulas for such disbursements.that did not include hospitals existing financial resources.[2]

Here are two other recent examples of such exploitation by the wealthy.  “A package of $170 billion in federal tax breaks . . .will go overwhelmingly to many of the country’s richest people and biggest companies. A program to rescue small businesses initially directed hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to publicly traded companies while many smaller firms were frozen out.”[3]

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[1] Philpsen, Private gain must no longer be allowed to elbow out the public good, The Week  (May 25, 2020).

[2] Drucker, Silver-Greenberg & Kliff, Wealthiest Hospitals Got Billions in Bailout for Struggling Health Providers, N.Y. Times (May 25, 2020).

[3] Ibid; .Drucker, The Tax-Break Bonanza Inside the Economic Rescue Package, N.Y. Times (April 24, 2020).

Pandemic Journal (# 24): What We Are Learning in the Pandemic

Peggy Noonan, a Wall Street Journal columnist, offers her thoughts on what we are learning in the coronavirus pandemic. Here are her main points along with reactions thereto.

Noonan’s Observations[1]

She says we have learned a lot. “How intertwined and interconnected our economy is, how provisional, how this thing depended on that. And how whisperingly thin were everybody’s profit margins. The well-being of the West Side block depends on human traffic, which depends on restaurants and bars, which depend on the theater being open. It was a George Bailey economy: every man on that transport died. Harry wasn’t there to save them, because you weren’t there to save Harry.” [2] “Every economy is, in the end, and if you’re interested in economics you knew this, but not the way you know it after the business catastrophe of 2020.”

“But the biggest things I suspect we learned were internal. No matter what you do for a living, when you weren’t busy introspection knocked on the door and settled in. Two different men, professionals, both blinked with surprise as they reported, unasked, that they can’t believe they have their college-age kids home again and they’re all together and they have dinner every night and play board games. They were so grateful. They had no idea this was possible, that it would make them so happy. That it had been missing.”

“People have suffered. They’ve been afraid. The ground on which they stand has shifted. Many have been reviewing their lives, thinking not only of ‘what’s important’ or ‘what makes me happy’ but ‘what was I designed to do?’ They’ve been conducting a kind of internal life review, reflecting on the decision that seemed small and turned out to be crucial, wondering about paths not taken, recognizing strokes of luck. They’ve been thinking about their religious faith or lack of it, about their relationships. Phone calls have been longer, love more easily expressed, its lack more admitted.”

“It has been a dramatic time. We have stopped and thought about our lives, and our society’s arrangements. We have applauded together, for the first time, those whose jobs kept our towns up and operating, from nurses to truckers. We’ve rethought not only what is ‘essential’ but who is important. All this will change you as a nation.”

“Here is what I am certain of. We will emerge a plainer people in a plainer country, and maybe a deeper one. Something big inside us shifted.”

“[Y]ou can almost hear people thinking eh, our time is finite, our money limited—maybe that’s not gray[hair]. it’s silver. . . . I like the simplicity of this.”

“The world has admired and imitated America’s crisp chic, but I see an altering of the national style. For reasons economic and existential a new simplicity is coming, glitz leaving.”

“We’re getting pared down. We’re paring ourselves down.”

‘The pioneer genes shall prevail, and women will focus on the essentials: nurturing their children in the arc of safety (homes and schools) providing food (driving to breadlines and food banks) and making do with what is already in the closet. Everything old will be suddenly new again.”

“America is about to become a plainer place. Maybe a deeper one, too. Maybe that’s good.”

Reflections

Do you agree with any of these observations?

Some of her reflections concern individuals and every-day life. I certainly hope that “America is about to become a ‘plainer place’ and ‘a deeper one.’”

Economically we certainly should have learned “how intertwined and interconnected our economy is, how provisional, how this thing depended on that. And how whisperingly thin were everybody’s profit margins.”

Noonan, however, fails to mention the big economic lessons of the pandemic for me and many others: the immense economic inequality in the U.S.; the many ways of racial injustice in the U.S.; and our horrendous health-care system. All of these problems require government action.

That, in turn, raises my concern over the future impact of the many, young, conservative federal judges who recently have been confirmed by the U.S. Senate, some in the midst of the pandemic, pursuant to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s agenda.[3]

More generally, the need for government action emphasizes my belief that many aspects of the U.S. system of government are obsolete: the Electoral College; every state having two senators with equal voting rights regardless of the state’s population; the U.S. Senate’s filibuster rule; the horribly complicated system of voting and its manipulation to suppress voting, including President Trump’s recent rantings against voting by mail.[4]

The Trump Administration’s inconsistent and wavering foreign  policies before and during the pandemic raise the question of what will become of the international system of institutions, treaties and laws that the U.S. helped to create after World War II to foster and preserve peace and human rights. In my opinion, we should be leading the world in reforming and modernizing this system, not tearing at its roots.[5]

All of these larger issues raise the issue of what can one individual do about them.

My answer. Carefully review candidates for office and vote for those who promise to work on these problems. Provide financial support to political parties and candidates as well as organizations that are supporting these reform measures. Advocate for individuals, organizations and policies involved in this effort.  (I choose to do my advocacy with this blog.)

Noonan appropriately mentions many people expressing gratitude for simple things in the midst of the pandemic. I  have gratitude for my wife, sons, their families and I being in good health and for my wife and I are not living in a senior-citizen retirement home. I am grateful for being retired with good savings and thus not worrying about keeping my job or finding a new one or about how I will be able to pay for food or the mortgage.[6]

I also am grateful for friends and family and have made efforts to reconnect with them.[7]

Like Noonan, I hope that people are “reviewing their lives, thinking not only of ‘what’s important’ or ‘what makes me happy’ but ‘what was I designed to do?’ They’ve been conducting a kind of internal life review, reflecting on the decision that seemed small and turned out to be crucial, wondering about paths not taken, recognizing strokes of luck.”

For a Christian, this means discerning your calling for a particular time and place and recognizing that your calling may change over time. This includes forgiving others for their wrongs as well as praying for forgiveness for your own misdeeds.[8]

I trust that I will continue learning about the world during this pandemic. Another of the many subjects I have learned something about are prior pandemics, especially the Flu Pandemic of 1918. [9]

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[1] Noonan, A Plainer People in a Plainer Time, W.S.J. (May 22, 2020).

[2] Noonan apparently refers to brothers George and Harry Bailey, characters in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” George was a wealthy banker who suffers various difficulties, including not being present to save his brother from drowning. As  a result, George contemplates suicide before being rescued by his guardian angel and friends. (It’s a Wonderful Life, Wikipedia.)

[3] E.g., Hulse, McConnell Has a Request for Veteran Federal Judges: Pleases Quit, N.Y. Times (Mar. 16, 2020; Hulse, Trump Picks McConnell Protégé for Influential Appeals Court Seat, N.Y. Times (April 3, 2020).

[4] See, e.g., these entries in dwkcommentareis.com: Search: filibusterU.S. Needs More Democratization (Feb. 14, 2020); Responses to Ezra Klein’s Democratization Thesis (Feb. 15, 2020); Open Letter to U.S. Senate from 70 former Senators (Feb. 29, 2020); Pandemic Journal (# 10): Wisconsin’s  Primary Election (April 10, 2020) (and comments thereto).

[5] E.g., Douthat, The End of the New World Order, N.Y. Times (May 23, 2020).

[6] See, e.g., these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Gratitude I (Mar. 15, 2012);  Gratitude II (April 11, 2012); Gratitude III (April 12, 2014); Another Perspective on Gratitude; (Nov. 23, 2015); Other Thoughts About Gratitude. (Nov. 26, 2015).

[7] Pandemic Journal (# 8): Reconnecting with Family and Friends (April 8, 2020).

[8] See, e.g., these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: The Roads Not Taken (April 27, 2011); My General Thoughts on Vocation (Feb. 6, 2014); Other Scriptural Passages About Vocation (Feb. 17, 2014); My Vocations (Feb. 23, 2014); Why I do Not Want to Die at 75 (Sept. 25, 2014); What Is Your Call Story? (Feb. 28, 2019); My Call Stories (Mar. 4, 2019). See also List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: RELIGION; A Christian-Muslim Conversation About Forgiveness (May 15, 2017).

[9] See, e.g., the following posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Pandemic Journal (# 3): 1918 Flu (Mar. 27, 2020); Pandemic Journal (# 22): Other Reflections on the Flu Pandemic of 1918-1920 (May 17, 2020).

 

 

 

Pandemic Journal (#23): Different Opinion on Class Conflicts Over Pandemic 

Previous posts have reported that  according to Fareed Zakaria, Peggy Noonan and Ross Douthat, two classes of U.S. society have different opinions about how the U.S. should respond to the coronavirus pandemic: the Managerial Overclass or the Remote Class favors maintaining the lockdown until the virus has been controlled while the Underclass or the Exposed Class favors abandoning those policies and reopening as soon as soon as possible.[1]

Another New York Times columnist, Michelle Goldberg, disagrees. She believes that the conflict over policies regarding the pandemic are better explained by political party affiliations.[2]

Her dissent cites a recent public opinion poll in which “74 percent of respondents agreed that the “U.S. should keep trying to slow the spread of the coronavirus, even if that means keeping many businesses closed.” Agreement was slightly higher — 79 percent — among respondents who’d been laid off or furloughed.”[3]

Another basis for her opinion was research at the University of Chicago that found that “when it comes to judging policies on the coronavirus, ‘politics is the overwhelming force dividing Americans,’ and that ‘how households have been economically impacted by the Covid crisis so far’ plays only a minimal role.”[4]

More specifically, the Chicago survey showed that roughly 77 percent of Democrats favored lockdown measures remaining in place as long as needed compared with roughly 45 percent of Republicans. On the other hand, roughly 30 percent of the Republicans wanted such measures to remain no longer than a few more weeks versus roughly 4 parent of Democrats. The report adds, “the data reveals no strong association between having lost income due to COVID-19, or fear of losing one’s job, and views about the right length of the lockdown. Among survey respondents, 41 percent indicate having been negatively impacted financially by the COVID-19 crisis. Yet, all else being equal, these respondents were not more likely to favor a quick reopening.”

Goldberg also says, “Donald Trump and his allies have polarized the response to the coronavirus, turning defiance of public health directives into a mark of right-wing identity. Because a significant chunk of Trump’s base is made up of whites without a college degree, there are naturally many such people among the lockdown protesters.”

On the other hand, “The push for a faster reopening, even in places where coronavirus cases are growing, has significant elite support. And many of those who face exposure as they’re ordered back to work are rightly angry and terrified.”

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[1] Pandemic Journal (# 19): Class Conflicts in Responses to Pandemic (May 15, 2020); Pandemic Journal (# 21): Concurring Opinion on Class Conflicts Over Pandemic (May 16, 2020); Comment: Endorsement of Pandemic Pragmatists (May 16, 2020).

[2]  Goldberg, The Phony Coronavirus Class War, N.Y. Times (May 18, 2020).

[3] Washington Post-Ipsos coronavirus employment survey, May 4, Wash. Post (May 20, 2020).

[4]  Bertrand, Briscese, Grignani & Nassar, Wave 2: When and How the U.S. Should Reopen Is a Matter of Politics, Trust in Institutions and Media, Survey Says, ChicagoBooth.edu (May 5, 2020).

 

A Conservative’s Critique of Trump  

Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist for the New York Times, writes a most damning critique of Donald Trump as president.[1]

The coronavirus pandemic, Douthat says, provided Trump with the opportunity to consolidate political power. “Here was a foreign threat, an invisible enemy that required a robust government response, a danger that arguably vindicated certain nationalist and populist ideas, a situation in which the normal rules of politics could be suspended for public safety’s sake.” This “was exactly the scenario that people alarmed by his ascent most feared — a case of History granting a president temperamentally inclined to authoritarianism a genuine state of exception in which to enact his fantasies of one-man rule.”

“But Trump didn’t want the gift. It’s not just that our president was too ineffective to consolidate power, that any potential authoritarianism was undermined by his administration’s incompetence. . . . Trump clearly lacks both the facility and the interest level required to find opportunity in crisis. In this case, . . . he showed no sense of the pandemic as anything save an inconvenience to be ignored, a problem to be wished away, an impediment to his lifestyle of golf and tweets and occasional stream-of-consciousness stemwinders. And when reality made ignoring it impossible, his only genuinely political impulse — the only impulse that related to real power and its uses — was to push the crucial forms of responsibility down a level, to the nation’s governors, and wash his presidential hands.”

“In this the coronavirus has clarified, once and for all, the distinctiveness of Trump’s demagogy. Great men and bad men alike seek attention as a means of getting power, but our president is interested in power only as a means of getting attention. Which is why, tellingly, his most important virus-related power grab to date has been the airtime grab of his daily news conferences — a temporary coup against the cable television schedule, a ruthless imposition (at least until the reviews turned bad) of presidential reality TV.”

The more important aspects of his character are a “fear of claiming any power that might lead to responsibility and someday blame, a showman’s preference for performance over rule, a media addict’s preference for bluster over deeds.”

The “great crisis of his presidency has revealed the vast gulf that separates him . . . from almost every statesman ever considered uniquely dangerous or uniquely skilled.”

“In the fourth year of this presidency the black comedy has finally given way to tragedy. But not because Trump suddenly discovered how to use his authority for dictatorial or democracy-defying purpose. Rather, because in this dark spring America needed a president capable of exercising power and found that it had only a television star, a shirker and a clown.”

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[1] Douthat, Donald Trump Doesn’t Want Authority, N.Y. Times (May 19, 2020).

 

Pandemic Journal (# 21): Concurring Opinion on Class Conflicts Over Pandemic         

Pandemic Journal # 19 set forth Fareed Zakaria’s analysis of the U.S. class conflict over responses to the coronavirus pandemic. This analysis is shared by Bret Stephens, a conservative columnist for the New York Times.[1]

Stephens’ terms for the two classes are “Remote”  and “Exposed.” “The Remote are, disproportionately, knowledge workers, mostly well educated, generally well paid. Their professional networks, and many of their personal ones, too, are with people who also work remotely” or roughly 37 percent of American workers. The other two-thirds, the Exposed, “include everyone — shop owner, waiter, cabdriver, sales associate, factory worker, nanny, flight attendant, and so on — for whom physical presence is a job requirement. They are, typically, less well educated, less well paid.”

“For the Remote, the lockdowns of the past two months have been stressful. For the Exposed, they have been catastrophic. For the Remote, another few weeks of lockdown is an irritant. For the Exposed, whose jobs are disappearing by the millions every week, it is a terror. For the Remote, Covid-19 is the grave new risk. For the exposed, it’s one of several. For the Remote, an image on the news of cars forming long lines at food banks is disconcerting. For the Exposed, that image is — or may very soon be — the rear bumper in front of you.”

Says Stephens, “The 2020 election will hinge on who decisively wins the vote of the Exposed.” Although the Democrats’ emphasis on containing the virus seems to have more support than the “open up” strategy, Stephens expresses some skepticism. One  assumption of the containment argument is “that Covid-19 is containable and will eventually be curable. If it isn’t, what are the lockdowns really achieving, other than delaying the march toward herd immunity while imposing ruinous costs on those least able to afford them?” Another assumption of the containment argument is “that the lockdowns are the economic equivalent of a medically induced coma. But what if they’re really a form of politically induced necrosis, killing jobs and businesses that will never come back?” The third assumption of the containment strategy is “that the balance of public sympathy will rest with the comparatively small numbers of acute Covid-19 sufferers. But what happens when their numbers are dwarfed by those suffering from awful personal hardship?”

Yes, many Democrats believe that they will win the November election because of “Trump’s catastrophic failures in managing the crisis. But Trump’s political stock-in-trade is resentment, above all toward those who mistake their good luck for superior merit, or confuse virtue signaling with wise policy, or who impose policies on others without fully feeling the effects themselves.”

Stephens finds this analysis presciently discussed in a February 2016 Wall Street Journal column by Peggy Noonan, who  “made the distinction between two classes of people: the ‘protected’ — that is, the well-off, the connected, the comfortably insulated — and the ‘unprotected’ — everyone else.” She added, “The protected make public policy. The unprotected live in it. The unprotected are starting to push back, powerfully.” This larger point, said Stephens, was that Trump was going to win the 2016 election, which was “unfathomable to so many people at the time (including me).” [2]

Conclusion

I am a Democrat who fervently wants Trump to lose the November election. Yet, Stephens, Zakaria and Noonan make persuasive points that need to influence Democratic strategy in the upcoming election.

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[1] Stephens, In this Election, It’s the Remote Against the Exposed, N.Y. Times (May 15, 2020).

[2] Noonan, Trump and the Rise of the Unprotected, W.S.J. (Feb. 25, 2016).

 

Pandemic Journal (# 19): Class Conflict in Responses to Coronavirus Pandemic       

Fareed Zakaria, a noted political commentator, sees class conflict in different responses to the coronavirus pandemic.[1]

He starts by noting that today many “wonder why partisanship has become so strong in the United States that people will not listen to experts, even at the risk of their own health.” This observation, however, obscures a broader distrust.

That broader distrust, says Zakaria, is illuminated by a book, The New Class War, by Michael Lind, an author and professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of PUblic Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

In the U.S. today, according to Lind, there is an “overclass” that dominates “government, the economy, and the culture.” The members of this overclass “tend to be urban, college-educated professionals, often with a postgraduate degree. That makes them quite distinct from much of the rest of the country. Only 36 percent of Americans have a bachelor’s degree, and only 13 percent have a master’s or more. And yet, the top echelons everywhere are filled with this ‘credentialed overclass.’”

“For many non-college-educated people, especially those living in rural areas, there is a deep alienation from this new elite. They see the overclass as enacting policies that are presented as good for the whole country but really mostly benefit people from the ruling class, whose lives have gotten better over the past few decades while the rest are left behind. In this view, trade and immigration help college-educated professionals who work for multinational companies but hurt blue-collar workers. So when they hear from ‘experts’ about the inevitability of globalization and technological change and the need to accept it, they resist. It does not resonate with their lived experience.”

This especially is true now during the pandemic, writes Zakaria. ‘Imagine you are an American who works with his hands — a truck driver, a construction worker, an oil rig mechanic — and you have just lost your job because of the lockdowns, as have more than 36 million people. You turn on the television and hear medical experts, academics, technocrats and journalists explain that we must keep the economy closed — in other words, keep you unemployed — because public health is important. All these people making the case have jobs, have maintained their standards of living and in fact are now in greater demand. They feel as though they are doing important work. You, on the other hand, have lost your job. You feel a sense of worthlessness, and you’re terrified about your family’s day-to-day survival. Is it so hard to understand why people like this might be skeptical of the experts?”

This class divide is also seen in the differing “job flexibilities” of U.S. employees. “Of the top 25 percent of income earners, more than 60 percent can stay home and still do their jobs. Of the bottom 25 percent, fewer than 10 percent can do the same.” The latter know that “it is a luxury to be able to work from home.”

Therefore, Zakaria concludes “we need to hear many voices as we make these difficult decisions [about responding to the pandemic], and that those making the decisions need to have empathy for all Americans — those whose lives are at risk, but also those whose lives have been turned upside down in other ways by this horrible disease.”

Conclusion

The Michael Lind book was also cited before the pandemic by Ross Douthat, the New York Times columnist, as seeing the current polarization as “the consolidation of economic power by a ‘managerial’ upper class’” and the resulting weakening of “any institution — from churches and families to union shops and local industries — that might grant real power to groups outside the gilded city, the Silicon Valley bubble, the Ivy League gate.” This phenomenon coupled with libertarianism of Regan and Thatcher promoted “economic and social permissiveness . . . [and] a new class divide, between thriving meritocratic hubs and a declining and demoralized heartland, . . . [that] explains both the frequency of populist irruptions and their consistent futility.”[2]

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[1]  Zakaria, Experts have jobs. They need to understand those who don’t, Wash. Post (May 14, 2020).

[2] Douthat, The Many Polarizations of America, N.Y. Times (Jan. 28, 2020);  Responses to Ezra Klein’s Democratization Thesis, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 15, 2020).