Saturday, April 4, 2020

"Together Alone"

Sydney M. Williams

Essay from Essex
“Together Alone”
April 4, 2020

Together alone
Above and beneath
We are as close
As anyone can be
Now you are gone
Far away from me
As is once
Will always be
Together alone.”
                                                                                    Crowded House, 1993
                                                                                    New Zealand – Australian recording artists

The coronavirus has driven us to self-isolate, to socially distance ourselves. Man is a social animal, so what we are doing is contrary to the laws of nature, at least for most people. There have always been hermits, recluses, loners, but most of us thrive in the company of others. The idea is that if we stay apart, the virus will be unable to leap from the infected to the non-infected – a sound bit of advice. Our first day remaining on the property where we live was Sunday, March 22, later than others, but still two weeks ago.

Apart from having two newspapers delivered – I used to go out and get four papers – there has been little change in my morning routine. I rise around six or six-thirty, brush my teeth, shave and exercise. I then wash up, get dressed and prepare breakfast, which has become my biggest meal of the day. Having read (or mostly read) the papers, I log onto my computer, go over my e-mails, scan the news, including what aggregators have sent, print stories I want to save, jot down notes on subjects of interest, edit an essay in progress and/or start writing a new one. Afternoons are spent writing, reading and relaxing. Evenings are short, a light dinner with a movie, thanks to the marvels of Netflix, Amazon and Apple TV.

One change has been a delight. Essex Meadows is located on 100 acres, with a thousand acre preserve adjacent. I had been accustomed to walking alone, along trails through the woods and across fields and streams. It was a good place to think. The important – and most difficult for me – aspect of writing is to be clear in what one wants to say. “Clarity, clarity, clarity,” wrote E.B. White in The Elements of Style, “When you become hopelessly mired in a sentence, it is best to start fresh.” The daily walks still occur but are now accompanied by my wife. Like teenagers, we hold hands, but now to help hold one another up, though the sensuous feeling of intertwined fingers reminds us of long-ago days. We sometimes meet other residents, but most of the time we are alone, together alone. It is a nice feeling, as though we were walking through our own woods, watching our birds, looking at our turtles. We stop to sit, soaking up the sun’s rays, getting our Vitamin D, enjoying one another’s company after fifty-six years.

Back in our apartment, we return to our computers – me reading, researching or writing, Caroline reading her e-mails, Googling this and that and checking for sales. Later, after lunch, we’ll retire to our den, turn on the electric fireplace, read, write or watch the news or a movie…sometimes fall asleep. What we don’t do is go for a drive. We loved to wander the back roads, cross the Connecticut River on the East Haddam ferry, pass by the house in Durham where we lived fifty years ago, shop and, best of all, visit grandchildren in Lyme, Darien and Rye, N.Y.  

It is not that we cannot drive off the property, but it is strongly discouraged. There are about 240 residents at Essex Meadows. Most in their 80s, but they range from mid 70s to over a 100. Most are healthy, but age carries with it fewer immunities against a disease as contagious as coronavirus, so common sense says stay home, don’t go to stores where the virus might lie in wait, maintain social distancing and practice good hygiene. The staff that works here are special and devoted. But because they travel home every evening, they wear masks when at work, looking like the bandits I remember playing as a child, when we would put bandannas over our faces, and pretend we were rustlers. We had no cattle, so goats had to suffice.

Staying home is not all terrible. More time is spent with my wife. I read, continuing to divide my attention between fiction and non-fiction. The stay-at-home mandate has made us better understand what is important in life, and it makes one realize that what for us is an inconvenience is a way of life for those in less free countries. There are other benefits. My American Express bill is smaller, and I haven’t bought gas for three weeks. We have learned how to use Zoom. Recently, we visited all three families simultaneously, together alone. I had a Facetime call a few days ago with a doctor, something I never thought I would do. I think of how fortunate we are to live today, with modern medicine and all our technological conveniences, rather than as my parents and grandparents did. We conserve what we have, to make everything last longer and try to avoid waste. All positives. And, say what you will about China, but twenty rolls of toilet paper bought on Amazon last week were shipped to us yesterday from Shanghai!

But negatives come out on top. There is the loss of personal freedom, the missed lunches and dinners with friends, a cancelled trip to London and Scotland, and the dish washer runs more often. Vacuuming and cleaning bathrooms are chores I would rather not do. In this big world of ours, I sometimes wonder: Is anything else happening out there besides the battle against coronavirus? They say that no news is good news, but I am not so sure. As well, there is the uncertainty that comes from a virus we do not understand and against which there is no protection, other than the common-sensical remedies that we and others employ. But the biggest negative of being anchored to our homes is the inability to visit our children and grandchildren. Zoom is fine, but you cannot hug a grandchild in a video.

We are more fortunate than most. My wife and I have each other. Many of our friends are alone. Our furthest grandchildren are eighty miles away, at least when not in college. Friends have children scattered across the Country and in Europe and Asia. We are able to stock our larder and entertain ourselves. If feeling lethargic, with Netflix and Apple TV, we can be entertained. A son nearby brings things we need. We live in a place of caring people and educated, interesting neighbors. “Keep Calm and Carry On,” was a poster created by the British government in preparation for World War II. “And this, too, shall pass away,” were words Abraham Lincoln attributed to wise men advising an eastern monarch. So that is what we do: stay calm and carry on, together alone, with the knowledge that this, too, shall pass away. Each day that does pass away is one less day to wait, together alone.

Friday, April 3, 2020

"Pardon Me if I am Skeptical"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Pardon Me if I am Skeptical”
April 3, 2020

My life has been full of misfortunes, most of which never happened.”
                                                                                    Attributed to Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

Perhaps it is because with age has come cynicism regarding our political class and the press. I am not sure. What I do know is that I am confident in the innate ability of Americans to adapt to trying situations and, if left free, to change conditions for the better for themselves and their fellow man, be that through government or industry. But I am less enamored of our political leaders in Washington and the media.

The United States is the richest large country in the world. We have a healthcare system that attracts the world’s wealthiest individuals. While we may lag some Asian and European nations, we are more literate and better educated than most of the world. We value personal freedom more than any other people, having inherited a unique form of government from our forebearers. Yet, we have a history of gullibility. We believed the editors of Newsweek and Time when they ran articles in the 1970s titled, respectively, “The Cooling World” and “A New Ice Age?” We failed to understand the difference in time to a geologist and opportunistic reporters. We were frightened by Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s prophecy of doom in their 1968 book, The Population Bomb: “The battle to feed all humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death, in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” We were shocked by stories of disasters related to Y2K and of those about asteroids. More recently, entire industries have been built around scaring people about the alleged anthropomorphic causes of global warming: Teslas to wind farms to solar panels – all of which require government assistance to survive.   

The President has said that if we adhere to a system that keeps large segments of the economy closed, if we continue to social distance and practice common-sensical hygiene, we will limit deaths attributable to COVID-19 to 100,000 to 200,000 people. If we do not, expect deaths to reach 2.2 million. China, the fount of the pandemic, has reported 3,400 deaths since the virus was discovered in mid-November of last year. World-wide deaths approximate 40,000. I understand that China’s numbers are not to be trusted, but 100,000 deaths in the U.S. would equate to 400,000 deaths in China. Are they that blatant in their lies? Is their healthcare system that superior to ours? As a dictatorship, they are able to take more draconian measures than a democracy. That I understand, but still? And what about Italy? We are told that our experience should resemble theirs. They have reported almost three times the number of deaths as China, with 1/20th the population. Their reports are probably accurate, except in reporting deaths from COVID-19 they include those with other pre-existing conditions. Nevertheless, 95% of their deaths occurred in people over 60. Italy has a worse healthcare system, roughly half our per capita GDP and a population whose median age is seven years older than ours. As well, Italy has closer relations with China than does the U.S.  So why should we be told that our experience will resemble theirs? Why do reporters not ask? Why do they not try to determine how many deaths from Coronavirus involve those with pre-existing conditions?

The deliberate shutting down of the economy is unprecedented. J.P. Morgan suggests unemployment could reach 8.5%, Goldman Sachs says 15.5%, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis puts the number over 30%. No one knows. What we do know is that we had been headed into an election with the economy doing well and with record high employment and record low unemployment. Now we face an economic hailstorm. Much of mainstream media and most politicians continue to be paid, as are are the roughly thirty percent of people who can work from home. Healthcare workers, the heroes and heroines of this saga, are employed but face the scare of an unknown virus every day. Those laid off are mostly in lower-income jobs. Initial jobless claims reported yesterday were 6.6 million – 23X where they were two weeks ago. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), according to George Mason University Fellow Bruce Yandle, estimates that the activities most directly affected by the Coronavirus shutdowns account for 30 to 40 percent of GDP in advanced economies. “Social solidarity,” as Holman Jenkins wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, “can be a perishable flower.” While we have not reached the peak in COVID-19 infections or deaths, getting people back to work should be the foremost concern of all.

Commodities have been hit. Oil prices are down 60% and lumber prices lower by 42%. High-yield bonds have collapsed in price. As for equity markets, March came in and went out like a bear. By the 23rd, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) was down 27% for the month and 37% from the peak. With the goddess Hygieia hovering overhead, the Index recovered 17.9% from the bottom, but its quarterly decline of 23.2% was the worst since 2008. Volatility reached extreme levels. During March, there were nineteen days (out of twenty-one trading days) when the DJIA fell or rose more than 1.5%. The closest comparison would be October of 2009. The Index peaked on February 12 of this year, with the economy expanding. The decision to shut down the economy, to combat Coronavirus, was a deliberate act with unknown consequences. The effect of the market sell-off has hurt the well-off but has also impaired the retirement funds for millions of individuals.

And we cannot forget that COVID-19 is not the only disease killing us. Keep in mind, between 7,000 and 8,000 Americans die every day from multiple causes. Over 1,700 die every day from heart disease, 1600 from cancer and 690 from medical errors. An estimated 463 die every day from accidents and 100 every day from falls. A reader in Louisiana sent me questions raised by the Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama: “How many Americans suffering from other illnesses cannot see a doctor now? How many Americans will lose their jobs, their life savings, their retirement prospects, and their incalculable feeling of self-worth? How many will succumb to depression, drug or alcohol abuse, and suicide? How many will lose their homes, divorce their spouses, or suffer abuse? How many will never recover their careers? How many small businesses, including the vital ones of doctors, dentists, and veterinarians, will vanish from the community? How many young people will ‘fail to launch?’” All good questions, without good answers.

With some notable exceptions, politics retains its ugly veneer. Feuding persists between New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio. President Trump takes daily hits, but he has been, unusually so for him, generous in praise of others. Nancy Pelosi offered a non sequitur that Congress should roll back the limits on the deductibility of state and local taxes embedded in the 2017 tax bill. That limit negatively affects the wealthy in high-tax states, like California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey and Connecticut. It has no impact on the neediest. Her proposal is designed to help the wealthy.

Did the virus originate in the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Biological Weaponry Laboratory in Wuhan? In that case we have cause to be worried. Or, will this prove another case of unjustified fear where the cure is worse than the disease, where we, like lemmings, follow one another over a metaphorical cliff? My brain says the reaction has been too extreme. But like everyone else, and perhaps because of where I live – in a retirement community, with some who are vulnerable because of age and other ailments – I do as instructed: socially distance (except with my wife), practice commonsensical hygiene and have remained on campus for two weeks. Nevertheless, count me among the skeptics. I can hear members of both political parties whispering those immortal words – never let a crisis go to waste.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

"COVID-19 - More Thoughts"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“COVID-19 – More Thoughts”
March 29, 2020

“A person is a person through other persons;
you can’t be human in isolation; you are human only in relationships.”
                                                                                                Desmond Tutu (1931-)
                                                                                                South African Anglican Cleric
                                                                                                Winner Nobel Peace Prize, 1984

While COVID-19 has consumed the oxygen in the room, there are other, critical issues facing us as a nation and a people. Globally, China is jousting to become the hegemonic influence, in Asia, Africa, Europe and South America. Russia is determined to make Europe dependent on her for their energy. In Europe, as Muslim influence waxes, tolerance for Israel wanes. The Middle East remains an unstable cauldron of bitter enemies. Venezuela, once the most prosperous nation in Latin America, is a failed state. Domestically, infrastructure is crumbling. College costs have soared, causing the middle class to incur mountains of debt. Our nation’s debt load is an accident waiting to happen. Diversity of opinion is denied. Collective victimhood has replaced individual achievement. In the media and entertainment worlds, pessimism has defeated optimism. And, oh yes, there is an election on the horizon.

COVID-19 remains at the top of everyone’s list, not just because of the health scare it has created, but because of what it is doing to our economy – surging unemployment, collapsing businesses, bankruptcies and the isolation of the people, especially the elderly.

Sensationalism sells; it has been used by the press since time immemorial. Its offspring, panic, is used by unscrupulous politicians as an excuse to assume more power. The press is quick to lay blame but slow to accept accountability. Where were they on January 29 when the President formed the Coronavirus Task Force? Where were they on January 31 when he banned flights from China? We know where they were –clamoring for the President’s impeachment. Check the headlines for February 1. It wasn’t until February 5 that Congress first formed a committee to look into what is now a pandemic.

A couple of weeks ago, British Epidemiologist Neil Ferguson presented different models that displayed different scenarios of the spread of coronavirus. The most draconian of the models, based on an assumption the country would do nothing, predicted up to 500,000 coronavirus deaths in Britain and 2.2 million in the U.S. The press ran with the most severe of his predictions, and because they publicized only the most extreme outcome, they helped sow panic among the public, which justified a lock-down of the economy.

With the virus believed to be a faster moving organism than previously thought and with people self-isolating, social-distancing, wearing protective gloves and masks and practicing common sense hygiene, Dr. Ferguson now expects deaths in Britain, assuming current measures work as expected, to be “20,000 or less,” four percent of his worst-case scenario. Models, keep in mind, are only as good as the data inputted. “Models,” as Dr. Birx reminded us, “are models.” As well, the math can be subjective. When looking at deaths as a percent of inflicted, the numerator is not always accurate, and the denominator can vary. The numerator is affected by which deaths are counted as caused by coronavirus. In dying coronavirus patients, who also have other, terminal maladies, the cause of death is not always clear. In terms of the denominator, the number is generally based on known infections and does not include those who are asymptomatic, mildly symptomatic or who have had the disease and recovered. An increase in testing will help clarify the situation but excluding them inflates the death rate. On the other hand, if one includes in the denominator those who do not and never had the disease, the death rate may be understated.

In the meantime, the President must continue to address the pandemic. He reports to the people every weekday evening in his inimitable way. To which, much of the mainstream media responds in their inimical fashion, complaining he is doing too little or too much and that he ignores his medical experts, despite having both Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci by his side most days. The President must balance the reality of the virus where it is most virulent and how long it is expected to last, with its effect on people, the economy and its challenge to our healthcare system. He must coordinate public-private partnerships and invoke the Defense Production Act when necessary, to ensure the flow of needed medical supplies. He must assess the damage a prolonged lock-down has on jobs and the economy. It is too simplistic to say he must first address the pandemic then focus on jobs. He must do both. Like any President in a crisis situation, he must be forthright about what is happening, but he must be optimistic. Confidence is critical is situations like this. We all know politics plays a role – a relatively quick recovery aids the incumbent; a deep or prolonged recession helps the opposition. And we know mainstream media despises the President who disrupted a complacent and supercilious Washington bureaucracy.

This past week the Federal Reserve added new facilities to aid hard-hit businesses, and the President signed the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act). While the CARES Act included unnecessary pork, both were important in restoring some measure of confidence to equity markets. Thursday’s unemployment claims, which the previous week had been reported at 282,000, soared to 3.28 million, by far the highest on record. To lose over three million jobs, out of a workforce of 157 million, in one week is unprecedented. And that number will rise in the weeks ahead and markets are likely to remain jittery. The effect on the middle class, as well as the devastation for Blacks and Hispanics who had, until the last couple of weeks, enjoyed record employment numbers and wage increases, has been especially difficult. It is easy for pundits in comfortable offices and homes to dismiss the economic consequences as secondary to the health scare. It is not so easy for those laid off and without savings. The Administration will preserve as much of the economy as they can, but to heal the economy people will have to go back to work. The President’s optimism is critical to help restore the assurance we need to get us through this crisis.

The data suggests that the pandemic will worsen before it gets better. But scaremongers serve no purpose other than to alarm the people and make matters worse. Estimates suggest that death from COVID-19 occurs, on average, nineteen days after infestation. The Europe and UK travel bands were imposed on March 13 and 16 respectively. Stay-at-home edicts were broadly disseminated on March 20. If we can assume that stay-at-home mandates, social distancing and hygienic behavior have had a positive effect, then we might see a positive bend to the curve of instances and deaths around Passover, or at least in places that contacted the virus early; though no one knows what the future holds. The virus has attacked different parts of the country at different times and at different rates, so peaks in infections and deaths will vary, but it is possible that Easter may prove auspicious.

No one can dismiss the severity of COVID-19, but no one should underestimate the damage to the economy. As critical as it is to find a cure, it is equally important to begin to get people back to work. Both are critical. The United States needs to solve the COVID-19 crisis. But it cannot survive without millions of people working, generating the trillions of dollars needed to keep our country functioning. As well, as Bishop Tutu wrote, people cannot survive without human contact. We need one another.