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.

Labels: , , , , ,

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.

Labels: , , , , ,

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.

Labels: , , , ,

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.

Labels: , ,

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.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,

Sunday, March 15, 2020

"A Time to Build" by Yuval Levin

Sydney M. Williams

Burrowing into Books
“A Time to Build,” Yuval Levin
March 15, 2020

The family is our first and most important institution, not only from the perspective
of the history of humanity, but also (and more simply) in the life of every individual.”
                                                                                                            A Time to Build, 2020
                                                                                                            Yuval Levin (1977-)

Yuval Levin is the founder of “National Affairs,” a director of the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor of National Review. His belief is that we need to rebuild our institutions (“The durable forms of our common life”) – families, schools, universities, church, the military, civic organizations and legislatures – into the formative organizations they once were.”

The book (short at 204 pages) is divided into three parts – a description of the crisis, institutions in transition and a suggested path forward. “Everybody,” he writes in the introduction, “knows that Americans have long been losing faith in institutions.”  In losing faith, “…we have lost the words with which to speak about what we owe each other.” These institutions, which were once molds that formed who we were, have become platforms for those who use them for their own purposes. This is not the only problem confronting us, but it is the one, he writes, “…about which we tend to be most blind.”

Yuval Levin takes us through the political world where he claims problems are not so much ones of ideology, but of social psychology, “…unleashed and unmoored from institutional constraints.” Thirty pages of the book are devoted to campus culture where “…our degraded capacity for unity and solidarity is the result of a degraded capacity for accepting differencesThe trouble is not that we have forgotten how to agree but that we have forgotten how to disagree.” Abetted by administrations and faculty inculcated with a culture of moral activism that does not allow for dissent, colleges graduate students endowed with a sense of political correctness that was “...utterly unfamiliar in the world of work until the last few years.” Writing of the effect of social media, Mr. Levin notes: “In some important respects, this has been an age of isolation not despite but because of social media.” Social media affirms us, rather than shape us. Shopping on-line is convenient, but is there the same sense of loyalty one has to real stores and the people who work in them?

Of all our institutions, family is most important: “Family is the most primordial, and therefore the most foundational of the institutions that form society…It forms us by constraining us – moving us to ask: ‘As a parent, as a spouse ,is this what I should be doing.’” Yet, we are living through a collapse of traditional family forms. Marriage rates have fallen, People marry later and have fewer children. Forty percent of American children are born into one-parent households. “A diminished sense of the family as a formative and authoritative institution leaves us less prepared to approach other institutions with a disposition to be formed by them.” Because this definition of family does not include all forms – single parenthood, cohabitation, same-sex marriage, etc. – it suggests today’s popular culture prefers individual choice (inclusion) over form, its ability to be formative. Family, today, becomes a “…kind of platform, a way of being recognized.”

The rise of megastar pastors,” Mr. Levin writes in a section on religion in America, “has raised the prospect of a genuine celebrity culture within American Christianity.”  There is a downside. He quotes Christian author and journalist Andrew Couch about a fading sense of responsibility that traditional pastors once had to their flocks, and the loss of institutional structure that tended to protect congregants against abuses of power.

Mr. Levin believes that the renewal of institutions is critical to our moral health as a society, and it is hard to disagree: “They constrain and structure our activities; they embody our ideals in practice; they offer us an edifying path to belonging, social status and recognition; and they help to legitimize authority.”

He writes of how we transitioned from a WASP system of elites, who had closed their institutional doors to women and religious, racial and ethnic minorities, to a meritocratic system of elites. But, because this new elite “…does not think of itself as an aristocracy, it does not perceive itself to be in need of restraints.” In contrast, while WASPs were wrong to be exclusive, “…they were not wrong to impose a demanding code of conduct on those within their institutions.” 

Yuval Levin concludes his book with a modest request of the reader: “…act through institutions a bit more, not just atop or against or around them. And, in acting through them, to strengthen and reform them: not just to trust our institutions but to make them more trustworthy.” Doing so will allow “…a greater awareness of how integrity, trust, confidence, belonging and meaning are established in our lives.”

Mr. Levin’s call for rebuilding is devoutly to be wished. Can or will it happen? My heart wants to believe in the future he sees as possible, but my head has doubts. I pick up the paper, turn on the news and am overwhelmed with hashtags, political correctness and identity politics – of the cynicism embedded in most of today’s trend-setters. On Saturday I read an op-ed by Barton Swaim in the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal. The story was about Alma Deutscher, a fifteen-year old prodigy who writes and plays classical music. “I’ve always wanted to write beautiful music, music that comes out of the heart and speaks directly to the heart.” Yet, critics claim her music is unacceptable because it does not reflect the ugliness of the world in which we live. What a sad commentary on Western culture. The infestation of hatred toward our past, toward Western giants in art, history and literature has gone on so long and has dug so deep that I fear a way forward may prove more difficult than the remedies proposed by Mr. Levin. This is an important book. Yuval Levin has broached an important subject. I hope I am wrong.   

Labels: , ,

Saturday, March 14, 2020

"Corona Virus and the Economy"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Corona Virus and the Economy”
March 14, 2020

In general, positive Black Swans take time to show their effect,
 while negative ones happen very quickly—it is much easier and much faster to destroy than to build.”
                                                                        Nassim Nicholas Taleb (1960-)
                                                                        The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, 2007

What impact Covid-19 will have on the global economy no one now knows, but at least two things seem clear and will have consequences, both of which have been instrumental in keeping inflation at bay. First, the benefits of globalization and, second, the process of “just-in-time” inventory. Both bear risks.

The concept of free trade is a search for an ideal, not unlike King Arthur’s Knights’ quest for the Holy Grail. However, the reality of free trade can never be. Yet the closer we get the better all are served. Free trade is based on the concept of division of labor, popularized by Adam Smith, of labor costs, and by the availability of natural resources and of the means of shipping resources and finished goods. Theoretically, each nation should manufacture for consumption and export that which it can produce most cost-efficiently – whether the product is soybeans, oil or electronics – and import what it needs.

Easier said than done. Every country has arable land. Every country has workers skilled in multiple areas, not just in those for which they are best known. No country wants to be totally dependent on another. Exploitation and subservience are, though, unfortunately, natural conditions of man. As well, intellectual property is protected in some countries, but not in others. Rule of law does not apply evenly. Nevertheless, the goal of global trade is worthy. For one, it takes advantage of efficiencies, resources availability and labor costs. But, most important, trade requires that countries communicate and come together, and gathering is better than isolating.

Trade has reduced inflationary pressures on the price of consumables, by outsourcing manufacturing and assembly to countries with low labor costs. Medicines produced by American companies in India or China would have been more expensive if produced in New Jersey or Illinois. The same could be said of automotive parts and consumer electronic gadgets. While low prices for finished products have benefitted consumers, the losers include factory workers and lab technicians – and perhaps consumers if and when supply disruptions come. In July 2019, the U.S.–China Economic Security Review Commission invoked a Department of Commerce study that found that 97% of all antibiotics come from China. The Corona Virus, originating in Wuhan, has highlighted the disadvantage of dependency on China for something as vital as antibiotics.     

Just-in-time (JIT) inventory is a management tool that dates back to the 1970s, when it was perfected by Toyota as a means of meeting consumer demands with minimum delays. JIT means that manufacturers produce to demand, distributors carry less inventory and retailers stock less goods – all result in lower costs to consumers. With plentiful goods on store shelves, JIT has been adopted by most American consumers. We tend to not stockpile, as we know if we run out of something, like bottled water or paper towels, we simply replenish what we need. However, there are times when panic causes habits to change. The oil embargo in 1973 caused a temporary gasoline shortage. Long lines at gas stations, limited purchases and lower speed limits were a consequence. There was not a spate of road trips or the purchase of gas-guzzling SUVs. In reality, inventories, instead of being held by gasoline dealers, were held by consumers who never let their gas tanks go below half. With 125 million registered vehicles in 1973, that meant approximately 1.25 billion gallons of gasoline were squirreled away in the tanks of cars and trucks. Today, we are seeing a similar demand for products like bottled water, paper towels and toilet paper. Corona Virus has some unknown effects, but one of them does not appear to be diarrhea. Yet three grocery shelves in my area were empty of toilet tissue this morning. Why? Need has not changed. People are hoarding. It will end when consumers realize they have no need to store more toilet paper.

Richard Thaler (born in 1945) of the University of Chicago and who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2017 is considered the father of Behavioral Economics. But the fact is all economics relate to behavior. Economics was once considered the “Dismal Science,” a term coined by Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle, who had in mind Thomas Malthus’ theory that population growth would outstrip the ability to produce food, thus predicting a destiny of starvation and poverty. Malthus was wrong in that he underestimated man’s creativity. In truth, we react to carrots and sticks, to encouragement and fear – to real and emotional consequences. Advertisers understand this. And, just as the gas crisis ended as suddenly as it began, so will the current shortage of toilet paper. People’s needs have not changed, just their impulses.

For anyone who tries to stay on top of the news, it is impossible to determine how bad the Corona Virus will be. No one wants to underestimate its potential harm, in part because doctors know so little about it. Schools, colleges, sports arena are driven by concern for their students and patrons, but they are also conscious of liability, for we live in a time when and where tort lawyers loom large. Has it been politicized? Of course. We are in an election year, with a President popular with millions of followers, but despised by most of mainstream media. The economy has been Mr. Trump’s strongest suit. Should it falter, the advantage will accrue to his opponents. It is understandable that he does not want people to panic (and they should not), but they should be concerned, and they should be careful. Mr. Trump’s press conference on Friday was accompanied by a thousand-point rise in the DJIA, albeit from a distressed level. There is no reason to expect the rally to continue on Monday, but there is nothing to suggest it will fall off sharply.

The Corona Virus has temporarily altered views toward borders and global trade, but my guess is that the ultimate consequence is to cause people to consider more carefully the advantages and disadvantages of both. The same is true of inventories. Black Swan events are difficult, to predict and endure; but we have successfully faced formidable challenges in the past. We will face others, as well, in the future. In 1859, at the Wisconsin Fair in Milwaukee, Abraham Lincoln spoke to the crowd: “Let us hope, rather, that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.” Words to ponder as we stalk the aisles looking for the elusive roll of toilet paper.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Saturday, March 7, 2020

"Intemperance of the Left"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Intemperance of the Left”
March 7, 2020

If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.”
                                                                                    Barack Obama
                                                                                    June 13, 2008
                                                                                    Philadelphia town hall meeting

Just this past week, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) Spoke outside the Supreme Court to protestors, while the Court was hearing a case that would require doctors in Louisiana who operate at abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. Senator Schumer, standing on the courthouse steps and speaking to protestors, called out Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh by name, threatening them: “ I want to tell you, Gorsuch, I want to tell you, Kavanaugh, you have released the whirlwind, and you will pay the price. You won’t know what hit you if you go forward with these awful decisions.” When called out by others, including Chief Justice John Roberts, some Republican Senators and a few in the media, Senator Schumer claimed to regret his choice of words. Yet everything he says is predetermined and politically motivated. He is not stupid but has had no real-world experience. Since graduating from Harvard Law School in 1974, he has spent his entire career (forty-five years) in public service. He parses his words carefully.

This is not to absolve the Right, but vitriol among the sanctimonious left who feel a God-granted right to dictate to “deplorables” and others has become ubiquitous. Progressivism has become a religion in that it claims a moral code of wokeness, political correctness, identity politics, victimization and intolerance, the glue of shared values and mythologies. They clamor for diversity, as long as there is conformity in thought.

Nastiness and incivility have long been present on the political scene and always most venomous during political campaigns. There have always been fringe elements on both sides of the political divide who urge violence and recrimination against those with whom they disagree. However, incivility was generally limited to those on the political stage and to a few commentators whose bigotry is their success. Reporters and the general public were once more restrained in their observations. In our age of better educated citizens who have more free time to think about candidates and politics, unadulterated hatred should have given way to reflection and perspective. It hasn’t. Hatred, on the part of the left, has gone mainstream. Consider a few selections: White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her family were asked to leave the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Kentucky by the co-owner, because of her ties to the “inhumane and unethical” Trump Administration. Senior White House Policy Advisor Stephen Miller was accosted in a Washington, D.C. restaurant and called a “real-life fascist.” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielson was forced to leave another restaurant when fifteen protestors showed up shouting “Shame!” Such acts were encouraged by the establishment. In June 2018, Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA) told attendees at an event to continue publicly harassing members of President Trump’s Cabinet.

Why? The real reason has to do with the power that comes from political office and the patronage that is its fruit. Certainly, Mr. Trump is an outlier in terms of what we have come to expect in our political leaders. He has been divorced twice, dyes his hair an odd color of orange and speaks in an ill-educated manner. He is brash, coarse and insulting. He is a master at using ridicule to intimidate his opponents. But he does what he promises and has an intuitive sense for an America that has been yanked from the ties that had bound it to its democratic foundations, its history and its culture. He was disruptive at a time when America needed to be disrupted. Government has grown so big that bureaucrats in departments like Justice and the IRS have become impervious to control by elected officials, thus have impeded the democratic process.  

But the origins of this intemperance go back further than Mr. Trump. Christopher Caldwell of the Claremont Institute suggests in his book, The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties, that our partisan divide, in part, derives from two commissions created under the civil rights legislation of 1964 and 1965 – an expanded Civil Rights Commission and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The effect was to give more power to the Executive Branch, by relocating decisions – which had once been made by legislators responsible to voters – to unelected bureaucrats. Bureaucratic fiat and judicial decree have replaced legislation, legislation that reflected the collective opinions of opposing party members. For years, Democrats have had a “take no prisoner” attitude toward their Republican opponents. Ronald Reagan was called an “amiable dunce” by Democrat presidential advisor Clark Clifford. In July 1988, at the Democratic National Convention, Texas Treasurer Ann Richardson spoke derisively of Vice President George H. W. Bush: “Poor George, he can’t help it – he was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”  Bruce Bawer, writing recently in, claimed that Jon Stewart’s stint on the “Daily Show” (1999-2015) marked a sea-change from Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” (1962-1992). Carson’s show was humorous and pretty much free of political slant. He was never mean or underhanded. Stewart was blatantly left-wing. The 2000 Presidential election, decided by the Supreme Court, was a sore point among Democrats, one they have never forgotten, nor forgiven. Recriminations persisted. George W. Bush was “Dumbo” to some, “Uncurious George” to others, and “Bushitler” to those who hated him. Donald Trump has been called any number of names, from racist, to misogynist to xenophobic. Kathy Griffin held up his ‘severed head’ on television. Calls for his impeachment began before he assumed office. The New York Times Paul Krugman wrote that Trump fears “scary brown people.” Gail Collins, another columnist for the Times, titled an op-ed on Corona Virus, “Trumpvirus.”

The hatred that permeates our politics is pervasive and stems from a culture that separates people into victims and oppressors, one that encourages dependency for political gain. It is a culture that thrives on political correctness, that is “my way or the highway.” It is a culture born in our academies, rarely addressed by our families and thrives on Joseph Goebbels admonition: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” It makes use of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals – “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”

The question is can (and will) we find our way out of this briar patch. Two-parent households are increasingly rare, especially among lower income families. Church attendance is down. Civic organizations have seen their numbers wane. Schools and universities, claiming diversity, have become uniform in matters of politics. Members of Congress devote substantial portions of their time to fund raising for their next election and less time collaborating with those of the opposite party. Yet, in his recent book A Time to Build, Yuval Levin offers a ray of hope. Mr. Levin argues that it has been these institutions – family, church, civic organization, schools, universities and even Congress – that have gone from molding their constituents according to tried and normalized rules and restraints, to offering themselves as platforms to vent personal views. As to fixing the problem, he argues that first we must acknowledge it exists. Second, we must recognize the positive, character-building aspects of institutions. Only then can we focus on their reconstruction and shun their destructive forces. I hope Mr. Levin is right. We’ll see.

Labels: , , , , , ,