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.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

"All the Ways We Say Goodbye," Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, Karen White

Sydney M. Williams
30 Bokum Road – Apartment 314
Essex, CT 06426

Burrowing into Books
“All the Ways We Say Goodbye”
Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, Karen White
March 28, 2020

After I’d had my little nap, I realized that we already
said everything we needed to say to each other, and our goodbyes.”
                                                                                               All the Ways we Say Goodbye, 2020

 This is the third novel by these three collaborating New York Times best-selling authors. Each is a master of historical romance. They diligently research and write well. Good fiction – and these women are exemplary – adds to one’s knowledge by humanizing historical events.

As with their preceding novels, this has three story lines, each written by a separate author. The story begins in April 1964 when we meet Babs (Barbara) Langford, age 38, at her home, Langford Hall in Ashprington, on England’s southeast coast. Her husband Kit (Christopher), whom she married in 1945 when he returned from the war, died a few months before the story begins; her children are off at school. The families (hers and Kit’s) were close, so she has known Langford Hall since childhood. (Readers might recognize the name Langford. Robert Langford, Babs father-in-law, was a writer of spy novels who survived the sinking of the Lusitania and appeared in the authors’ second novel, The Glass Ocean.) While Babs knows little of her husband’s World War II service, she knew he worked with the French underground.

She receives a letter from an American, Andrew (Drew) Bowdoin, a young Boston lawyer seeking information about his father who had been with the OSS in France and who had known and liked Kit. Drew’s father, who is sick, had been discharged under a cloud; he had been accused of stealing a well-known – and valuable – talisman. The son wants to clear his father’s name before he dies. So, Babs agrees to meet him at the Ritz Hotel in Paris. She brings with her a letter that for nineteen years she had kept from her husband, a letter addressed, “My Darling Kit” and that ended “…and know that I will always love you. Always, La Fleur.” The odyssey to Paris, she reasons, might benefit her as well. Who was La Fleur?

We are then taken back fifty years, to September 1914. The Great War had begun in August. Paris was not occupied but was threatened. We meet Auriélie le Courcelles in her mother’s apartment at the Paris Ritz. Her mother, a wealthy Jewish American, Wilhelmina (Minnie) Gold, had married the Comte de Courcelles in 1895. They had since separated, with Minnie living in an apartment at the Ritz and her father, Sigismund, in his ancestral home, Château de Courcelles, in northern France near the Belgium border. In a moment of spontaneity, Auriélie snatches the talisman (a piece of cloth that had been dipped in the blood of Joan of Arc and now encased in jewels) and drives her fiancé Jean-Marie d’Aubigny, to the front. According to an ancient myth, the talisman, if in the hands of Demoiselle de Courcelles, will lead France to victory. Instead of returning to Paris, Auriélie makes her way through war-torn France to her father’s ancestral home near Picardy. The castle has stood unconquered since the 14th Century. It was now occupied by a German unit led by Major Hoffmeister. Included in his entourage is a young Prussian officer, Lieutenant Maximillian von Sternburg, whom Auriélie had met at her grandmother’s apartment before the war began; Max plays a key role in the story.

We next leap to occupied Paris in 1942. Daisy (Margarite) Villon is the daughter of Auriélie. As her mother had died during the Spanish influenza (but not before returning the talisman to her grandmother’s apartment), Daisy was raised at the Ritz by Grandmère. While much of the book is told through Babs, Daisy is, in many respects, the principal character, from conception in 1915 to death in 1964. Before the start of the story, Daisy married Pierre Villon, with whom she had two children, Madeline and Olivier. Pierre is an obsequious, minor government functionary who becomes a Nazi collaborator. Daisy, meanwhile, meets M. LeGrande, a British spy operating under a pseudonym, and begins to run errands for the Resistance. Her disgust with Pierre, in assisting the German occupiers and facilitating the deportation of French Jews to Germany, drives her into the arms of LeGrande. Despite her heroism and fame as a resistance fighter, Daisy had always lived in the shadow of her grandmother and under the specter of her mother hovering nearby. LeGrande reassures her with words that echo in the final chapter about Babs: “You’re Daisy, astonishing and irreplaceable. A formidable woman.”

Without giving away the story, we learn how these lives are woven together. We learn about paths people choose, and what happens when honor collides with the need to survive. We see abject poverty in occupied French villages in 1914 and the compassion of one German officer. We feel the fear of Parisians in 1942 and laud the dedication of the resistance. We also learn of the bravery of that same German officer we had met twenty-eight years earlier. The constant in the story is the Paris Ritz, the luxurious hotel built in 1898 on a foundation of stability and permanence, capable of containing the chaos outside. We meet characters, like the ever-present but mysterious Precious Dubose and Prunella Schuyler who, like Robert Langford, survived the torpedoing of the Lusitania. We read of war-time romances, when no one could be sure if they would live through the night – and how they all had, at some point, to say goodbye. The story is unwound in its final pages, as Babs and Drew discover truths about the past and each other.

While I am more interested in the historical aspects of these novels than the romance, I admit that the latter adds color to the former. Human traits and emotions are timeless. While I could never imagine my grandparents (or even my parents) romantically involved, I know they had to have been. My children and grandchildren, I am sure, feel the same about us. Aurélie’s love for Max von Sternburg provides an unexpected dimension to the German occupation of France during the Great War. And the married Daisy’s love affair with LeGrande in 1942 speaks to the complications of German occupied Paris, of the deviousness of collaborators and the bravery of the resistance. Fallible humans adapt to situations for which they cannot prepare – unforeseen crises beyond their, and our, imaginations.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

"COVID-19 - Perspective is Needed"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“COVID-19 – Perspective is Needed”
March 22, 2020

In an era of stress and anxiety, when the present seems unstable and the future unlikely,
the natural response is to retreat and withdraw from reality, taking recourse either in
fantasies of the future or in modified visions of a half-imagined past.”
                                                                                                            Alan Moore (1953-)
                                                                                                            British Author
                                                                                                            Watchman, 1987

Among the many comments I received on my essay of four days ago – “COVID-19 Pandemic – Random Thoughts” – was one from a woman in Australia that gave me a start. She referred to my last sentence: “We cannot and should not let fear and panic catapult us into a recession or worse – where Constitutional rights are abrogated.” She wrote that she fears this is where we are headed and “that something about this doesn’t add up.” She’s right; the response to the pandemic seems more onerous than the virus itself. Since last Thursday, a number of states, including New York, California, Illinois, New Jersey and Connecticut have issued measures aimed at keeping residents in their homes. While those measures are not strictly enforced, the New York Times reported on their front page yesterday: “By the end of the weekend, at least 1 in 5 Americans will be under orders to stay home.” Over 3,300 National Guardsmen have been deployed across 28 states in COVID-19 support roles. An overreaction?

Perspective is needed. For example, comparisons have been made to other pandemics, and the favorite of those who deal in hyperbole is the Spanish flu. It lasted two years and was the deadliest since the Black Death killed a third of the population in mid-Fourteenth Century Europe. While the origin of the Spanish flu is disputed, most authorities believe it began in a UK staging and hospital camp in Étaples, on France’s northern coast near Le Touquet, in late 1917. Allies chose not to publicize the pandemic, for fear of alarming folks at home. It finally died out in late 1919. By then an estimated 500 million people had been infected (a quarter of the world’s population), with 50 million dead – more than combined military and civilian deaths due to the War. Estimated U.S. deaths were 675,000, almost six times the 117,000 U.S. soldiers killed in the War. A comparable number of deaths in the U.S. today would be more than two million. But apart from its infectious nature, the comparisons make little sense. Then, news of the disease was hushed up. Today we have daily White House briefings. Then, the disease spread through crowded Army camps, hospitals and troop ships. Today, we have “social distancing.” Modern medicine, in 1919, was a thing of the future. Penicillin was not developed until the start of the Second World War. Today, public-private partnerships have been deployed seeking tests, curative drugs, immunizations and vaccines. One has only to look at old photographs to recognize that hygiene was not the same then as today.

We must also maintain a perspective regarding the economic costs of shutting down a major part of the economy. If people are kept in their homes for two weeks, the economy might be able to withstand it, with federal assistance. But if it goes on much longer, the effects would be catastrophic. There are some who claim that government will pick up the slack, in terms of either direct payments to consumers or no-interest loans to businesses. They will have to, but what people ignore is that government generates no income. Government spends. It is dependent on individuals and the private sector to pay its bills. Government is always most flush when the economy is most robust. Anything that impedes economic growth is a cost. Of course, some impediments are necessary, like taxes and some regulations, but they should be kept to a minimum. Stocks, a barometer of the nation’s health, have declined 35% from their February peak, down 20% in the past week alone. Morgan Stanley predicts a 14% decline in Second Quarter GDP because of the shutdown of businesses and declining trade. That would wipe out about $700 billion in GDP, mostly coming at the expense of workers who had been laid off. Jobless claims are expected to reach a million. While no one can put a price on human life, are these costs justifiable? After all, poverty and depression also kill.

Schools have been closed and college students sent home. Consider the effect on working mothers and on students whose families cannot afford the costs of on-line learning. Will colleges, at $35,000 a semester, offer refunds to students and their parents? 

Death needs to be put in perspective. We are a country of 330 million people. According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control), in 2017 there were 2,813,503 registered deaths in the United States – or 5.35 deaths every minute – each a tragedy to family and friends, but unknown to most of us. Perspective forces us to recall that the 2018-2019 flu season infected 16.5 million people and killed 34,000 in the U.S., yet restaurants stayed open and people went to work. The H1N1 (swine flu) of 2011 killed about 12,500 people, yet people were not asked to stay home, and the National Guard was not called out. The sensible advice we have been urged to adopt – scrubbing our hands, using Kleenex and disinfectants, practicing social distancing, wearing surgical gloves or masks when out and staying home when fever or colds are present – will help contain the virus. With the exceptions of streets in San Francisco, we are a sanitary people. For those my age and health, the risk of death from a fall is greater than dying from Coronavirus. But COVID-19 has grabbed the headlines and therefore the attention of politicians who have injected fear into the people.

As skeptics, we recognize there are those who benefit from this pandemic crisis, or who look upon it as an opportunity: Internet retailers like Amazon benefit; opportunists include trial lawyers who see the potential for class action suits in deaths from Coronavirus in nursing home, universities, etc.; news people who seek more viewers and readers by sensationalizing the news; and politicians who use the crisis to garner more power, (or to condemn the President for acting too swiftly or acting irresponsibly).

There will be those who will say I make light of a serious situation, and they may prove to be right. We cannot prove a negative. But, while I see COVID-19 as a threat, perspective is needed. We should always be alert to the fact that liberty, which takes sacrifice to achieve and diligence to maintain, can be easily lost. George Washington, when asked what sets the American apart, replied “…he will die on his feet before he will live on his knees.” In today’s world of plenty, defending liberty, is only understood by a few – those in the military and those who have served the nation in combat. Most of us assume liberty is the natural condition of man. We don’t have an appreciation for its rarity and the cost it entails. We don’t know what it is like to live under a totalitarian regime, where the rules, which we now tolerate because they are temporary, are permanent. How many of us would be willing to give our lives and fortunes, so that future generations would be free? I fear not many today could answer in the affirmative

Another reader from New York sent an excerpt from a weekly commentary by Australia’s Rabbi Aron Moss. I do not know the man, but I like his words. He wrote of the fact that we never know what the future holds. “It is not that we have lost our sense of certainty. We have lost our ILLUSION of certainty.” Nobody, including experts, knows what comes next, whether it is the market, the economy or the path of COVID-19. In the Rabbi’s case, he was arguing for a belief in “Hashem,” or God. He was urging calm, as he said panic and fear are also contagious, which they are. My wish is that we stay calm, keep optimistic, and that we employ perspective as we analyze the past, consider the present and look to the future.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Burrowing into Books - "The Prime Minister," by Anthony Trollope

Sydney M. Williams

Burrowing into Books
“The Prime Minister,” Anthony Trollope
March 21, 2020

After all, the making of new laws is too often but an unfortunate necessity laid on us by
 the impatience of the people. A lengthened period of quiet and, therefore, good government
 with a minimum of new laws would be the greatest benefit the country could receive.”
The Duke of St. Bungay advising his friend, the Prime Minister
                                                            The Prime Minister, 1876
                                                            Anthony Trollope (1815-1882)

A nice thing about reading Trollope is the renewal of old acquaintances: characters who have a habit of re-appearing. For example, in The Prime Minister we meet again Frank Gresham who first appeared in Dr. Thorne, written eighteen years earlier and Lady Glencora who first appeared in 1864 in The Small House at Allington. Perhaps because of his mother, the novelist Frances Trollope, the son created women of independence, spirit and beauty. His observations on people and particularly clergy and politicians are as relevant today as when written 150 years ago. This is the penultimate novel in the six-volume Palliser series, which deals primarily with Parliament. The last in the series is The Duke’s Children, published in 1880, two years before his death at sixty-seven.

The story follows two lines, first that of Plantagenet Palliser and his wife Lady Glencora, or the Duke of Omnium as he had become toward the end of Phineas Redux, written three years earlier. Palliser is elected a coalition Prime Minister. We follow his trials and tribulations. In the second story line we meet Ferdinand Lopez, a man of unknown parentage and questionable repute, who marries Emily Wharton, the beautiful daughter of Abel Wharton. Against her father’s and her family’s wishes, she marries him. It is hinted that Lopez might be Jewish, and anti-Semitism was prevalent in England at the time. “But,” as Nicholas Shrimpton writes in the Introduction, “it was foreigners in general, rather than Jews in particular, that Englishman of Trollope’s generation were accustomed to regard as lesser breeds.” The story lines merge.

Included in the duchy Palliser inherited is Gatherum Castle, a monstrous country house where forty or fifty guests can be entertained for several days – a perfect place for the Duchess to exercise her political schemes, not all of which go well. But a dukedom, while appealing to his wife, carried responsibilities Palliser never wanted. As a Duke, he was no longer eligible for Parliament, where he had been happily ensconced as Chancellor of the Exchequer. But he was able to be Prime Minister. His friend, the older Duke of St. Bungay (quoted in the rubric), tells him of the characteristics necessary for a successful premiership: “One wants in a Prime Minister a good many things, but not very great things. He should be clever, but not be a genius; he should be conscientious, but by no means straitlaced; he should be cautious but never timid, bold but never venturesome; he should have a good digestion, genial manners, and, above all, a thick skin.”

Britain was at her most imperious in the 1870s. At its height (in the second half of the 19th Century), it ruled 24% of the world’s land mass and comprised 23% of the world’s population. It controlled the Seven Seas. England’s Prime Minister was a powerful man. “To be Prime Minister in England,” the Duchess of Omnium tells her friend Mrs. Finn, “is as much as to be an Emperor in France, and much more than being President in America.” In the ensuing 150 years, while the British Empire was eviscerated, men have not changed, nor have the political forces that drive them. Omnium speaks, sounding a refrain familiar to us today: “The idea that political virtue is all on one side is both mischievous and absurd. We allow ourselves to talk in that way because indignation, scorn, and sometimes, I fear, vituperation are the fuels with which the necessary heat of debate is maintained.” A later observation from the Prime Minister has a ring of truth: “Political enemies are often the best friends in the world; and, I can assure you from my own experience that political friends are often the bitterest enemies.”

Plantagenet was a good man, perhaps overly sensitive, but a gentleman and a realist. When leaving the premiership, he tells his wife: “The play has been played, and the curtain has fallen, and the lights are being put out, and the poor weary actors may go home to bed.” He served his pledge, delivering three years of quiet, good government. As the story ends, the Duke will be followed as Prime Minister by Mr. Gresham, a character based on William Gladstone, a long-time leader of the Liberal Party.

What made the book so controversial at the time of its publication was the story of Ferdinand Lopez and Emily Wharton. In most of his novels, female characters choose the safer of two suitors. Not so in this one. Emily, failing to recognize his offensive and dishonest character and ignoring her father’s warnings, chooses Lopez over her long-time suitor and friend of her family, Arthur Fletcher. Trollope notes that Lopez was tall, good-looking and well spoken. He gave the illusion he was wealthy. He worked in the City, but what he did was a mystery. In fact, we discover, he speculated in commodities, especially guano. But he kept specifics from his fiancée and his future father-in-law. Trollope writes: “Ferdinand Lopez was not an honest man or a good man. He was a self-seeking, intriguing adventurer, who did not know honesty from dishonesty when he saw them together.”

The reader learns of the injustices of 19th Century English marriages, when women became subservient to their husbands. A 21st Century reader wonders – did Trollope, sensitive to women because of his mother’s success, deliberately create the despicable Lopez to highlight this iniquitous inequity?

Emily soon realizes the mistake she made, that her husband was more interested in her wealth than in her: “…she began to perceive that her father was to be regarded as a milch cow, and that she was to be the dairymaid.” But she feels honor-bound to suffer the consequences of her ill-considered decision. Divorce, at that time, was rare. In her own mind, she had made her bed; it was her obligation to lie in it. However, through tragedy, the story ends on an uplifted note.

Authors like Trollope expected their readers to be well-read. Throughout the novel are references to the Bible, to Greek and Roman mythology and classics, and to Shakespeare. The expectation was that the reader would be familiar with Matthew, Aesop, Plutarch and Lady Macbeth. Fortunately, explanatory notes, in the Oxford World’s Classics version I read, were easily accessible. While fewer novels were published in the 1870s than today, authors still competed for readers. English authors like Dickens, Eliot and Carroll were writing during the decade of the 1870s. So were Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev in Russia and Twain, Henry James and Alcott in the U.S. But there were, then, fewer distractions and alternatives; so educated people – literacy rates in England in the 1870s were 75% – spent more time reading. Now, Coronavirus has given us the opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with some of literatures greatest fictional characters. A good place to start is Trollope.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

"The COVID-19 Pandemic - Some Random Thoughts"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“The COVID-19 Pandemic – Random Thoughts”
March 18, 2020

Fear cannot be banished, but it can be calm and without panic;
it can be mitigated by reason and evaluation.”
                                                                                                Vannevar Bush (1890-1975)
                                                                                                Scientist, Educator, Inventor

Sensible advice has been offered by many: Scrub your hands, socially distant yourself; isolate yourself if sick. Nevertheless, manifestations of fear and panic are all around us. Restaurants, bars and casinos have closed in the part of the Country where I live. Colleges have sent students home. Schools have been closed, while grocery stores cannot keep up with demand for toilet paper, hand-wipes, latex gloves, disinfectants and many other household and food products. ‘Social distancing’ is nowhere to be seen when it comes to filling one’s larder or closet. Yet, with the exception of products directly related to coronavirus, like hand-wipes and latex gloves, final demand for items like toilet paper and frozen foods will grow in terms of population expansion, or about 0.5 percent. (In Connecticut, population growth will probably decline about 0.2 percent, as it did in 2019.) Understocked shelves will become overstocked.

Any man’s death diminishes me,” John Donne wrote, and all deaths are, indeed, to be regretted. But perspective should be maintained. The question we all struggle with: Is the fear we exhibit rational? We don’t know, but containment and mitigation seem to be working, at least in China and South Korea. According to their numbers, since last November China has had 190,000 individuals infected with COVID-19 (out of a population of 1.39 billion). Just under 7,500 have died, implying a mortality rate of 3.9 percent. Keep in mind, numbers from China are suspect and between 30,000 and 40,000 people die every day in their Country. South Korea’s statistics are likely more accurate. Their first case was noted on January 20. As of March 16, two hundred and twenty thousand people had been tested in South Korea, out of a population of 51.4 million, 8,320 cases had been confirmed and 81 had died, or just under one percent. Health officials in Seoul claimed on March 9 that their Country had passed the peak of the contagion. They credit their “trace, test and treat” system, where an individual can drive to a testing site and have samples taken from the back of one’s throat and nose. A few hours later, the individual will get a call if the test is positive or a text if it is negative.

The world was slow to take note of the seriousness of the crisis. China, a Communist dictatorship, delayed informing the outside world for a month and a half. More than three weeks after China did, and with the contagion already having infected half a dozen countries, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared, on January 23, that the coronavirus did not constitute a public emergency of international concern. (It would be March 11 before they declared it a pandemic.) Early on, the President was ahead of the curve. He formed a White House task force for coronavirus on January 29, led by Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alexander Azar, and he shut down flights from China on January 31. On February 27, he placed Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the Task Force. Contrary to some reports, the White House did not “gut” the National Security Council’s counter pandemic effort. But he was slow in promoting tests for the virus and urging the search for a vaccine. He was not alone. The press was more interested in impeachment than in informing their readers and viewers of the virus China had exported, which was beginning to contaminate the world.

Throughout most of February and early March, the U.S., President Trump appeared to minimize the health impact of COVID-19, while he emphasized the need for calm. It was not surprising, and he was not alone. As a businessman, he knew what fear and panic do to an economy – creating artificial shortages, while negatively impacting economic growth. Keep in mind, every day the U.S. economy generates roughly $60 billion in national income. Shutting down commerce will have serious consequences for individuals, many of whom will be laid off, even if temporarily. Government will step in to help – the House passed an $850 billion stimulus bill yesterday – but we should not forget that we are already carrying the largest amount of debt, relative to GDP, since World War II. Adding another trillion is important now, but even low-cost debt must be repaid. When (not if) interest rates move back up, the pain is going to be severe – for governments, corporations and consumers. Neither should we forget that an economic system that preserves uneconomic businesses for “humanitarian” purposes is neither compassionate nor financially viable.

The closing of restaurants, gyms, casinos, schools, colleges and churches is critical and will limit the spread of the virus. While there is much that is unknown about COVID-19, it is known to have a high R0 (R naught), a mathematical determination of its contagion properties. Questions remain: Will healthcare be rationed? Will further restrictions be imposed? However, we cannot ignore its effect on the economy, the education of our youth and the social and spiritual well-being of us all. While we cannot return to normal, we must be alert to unintended consequences.

As well, we should be wary of hyperbole, of those who see a crisis as something for personal advantage. Last Sunday, Goldman Sachs, according to Zero Hedge journalist Tyler Durden, spoke to 1500 clients and told them 50% of Americans will contract the virus and that mortality rates could reach two percent. Perhaps they will be right, but that would contrast with less than one tenth of one percent of South Koreans and Chinese who have contracted the disease. In Italy, the 30,000 cases thus far represent about 0.05% of their population. In the U.S., the disease will become more widespread before it abates, but one wonders if Goldman was pandering to hedge funds that were short the market. If they were, they had happy clients on Monday, when the market dropped thirteen percent. It is only to be expected that Democrat Presidential candidates will use the virus against Mr. Trump. (Republicans would do the same were roles reversed.) We should also note the pandemic has brought a cease-fire – probably temporary – in the partisanship that has marked our politics. Both Governor Gavin Newsom of California and Andrew Cuomo of New York have praised the President for his response to the crisis. (A cynic might say they were looking for federal funds). However, Governor Cuomo complained on Monday that “the federal government has been behind on this crisis from day one.” Still, praise is praise.

In a recent column, Peggy Noonan wrote that telling people not to panic is bad advice. I disagree. People should be told to be wary, especially around the elderly and the vulnerable: to wash their hands regularly and vigorously, to avoid unnecessary personal contact, to sneeze or cough into a Kleenex or handkerchief, to use handwipes and surgical gloves when in stores, and to stay home, especially when a fever or cold persists. But we should not panic. “Panic,” as Stephen King once wrote, “is highly contagious, especially when nothing is known, and everything is in flux,” as it is now. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “…panic is the terror of ignorance, surrendered to the imagination.” “Fear,” as Vannevar Bush is quoted in the rubric above, “cannot be banished,” but it can be rationalized. During the depths of the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt said, in a fireside chat, when so many were fearful: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Our hospitals and healthcare are second to none. Containment and mitigation will conquer COVID-19, so long as we comply with basic rules of hygiene and common sense. We cannot and should not, let fear and panic catapult us into a recession or worse – a situation where Constitutional rights are abrogated.