The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Covid-19 corporatism

A Tweet is making the rounds right now:

The Covid corporate bonus bailout costs about $18,000 per citizen.

So Congress is taking $18,000 from you, giving $16,800 to corporations and giving you back a check for $1,200.

My reply to the Facebook friend who posted the Tweet:

It's not that simple.

First, given the current political landscape, where a minority of 44% of the population have 53 Senate votes to the 66% of us who have 47, compromise—that is, weakening the recovery legislation—was inevitable.

Second, most of the money going to corporations will actually go to normal people. The legislation keeps people on salary and in health insurance instead of being laid off. (Don't get me started on the link between employment and health insurance. That stop-gap ploy to get around WWII salary caps outlived its usefulness by 1955. But it won't go away until we control the Senate.)

Third, I completely support the phase-out that means people like me won't get a single cent of the recovery money for the simple reason that other people need it more. So not everyone gets $1,200; only about 80% do.

Fourth, taxes don't work like that. On average, the recovery act might cost $18k per taxpayer (not per citizen—let's unpack that word choice later). But most people don't pay $18k in taxes. I don't know the exact proportions, but as a percentage of tax, though the $2.2 trn recovery package takes a lot of tax revenue, it's still only a proportion of what an individual pays.

Fifth, most of the corporations getting bailouts are small businesses. Anecdotes aren't evidence, but I will provide one anyway: A good friend of mine owns a used-book shop. She has no employees. She spends 60 hours a week in her shop. Her entire inventory is donated. The State of Illinois closed her business a week ago, and she doesn't know when she can reopen. She's getting a couple thousand bucks from the recovery legislation. You really want to claw that back because it's a corporation getting the money?

Sixth, I commend to the OP the story of Herbert Hoover's steadfast belief that the market would fix the problems revealed by the 1929 crash and subsequent depression. And then go read about the Capitol Hill Babysitting Co-op, which demonstrated better than any textbook why printing money in a liquidity crisis can save marriages.

Finally, my sincerest hope from this disaster is that people finally understand elections matter. What politicians say matters. What they do matters. When my lot were screaming to the heavens that the Republican Party were no longer able to govern, let alone be a responsible opposition party, 48% of the electorate said they didn't care what he said, only how he made them feel. And here we are.

I have a degree in history. That doesn't give me any special ability to fix these problems. But wow, does it help me understand their magnitude.

I just binge-watched the Netflix series Travelers, which postulates that the fate of humanity rests on the 21st century. I'm starting to agree.

Back when we sabotaged an empire

People who don't study history tend not to understand why our foreign allies and adversaries behave the ways they do. Case in point: the Soviet Union, of which the largest part lives on as the Russian Federation, ended in part because we forced them to spend down their economy just to keep up with us. They might still hate us a little for that.

One man who helped this effort, Gus Weiss, hit on the idea of sabotaging the technology that Soviet spies bought or stole from American and other Western companies. Via Bruce Schneier, Wired has a long-form description of Weiss and his plan:

This plan to feed defective technology, which Weiss says carried the operation designation “Kudo,” existed as part of a larger government mobilization in response to the Farewell intelligence across the national security community. “It was multilayered operation,” Galahad told me. According to Galahad, Weiss didn’t hold any formal leadership role in this effort; instead, “Gus did his work through his own contacts. He was a White House guy. He could get people to pay attention to his ideas. He had friends in the computer business. He had Casey’s ear.”

Galahad told me that Weiss zeroed in on the Soviet industrial sector; he wanted to gut punch the Soviet economy. Galahad recalled that Weiss was friendly with the analysts in the CIA’s Office of Soviet Research. “Let’s say the Italians were building a tractor factory for the Russians in the Ukraine—the guys in OSR would have had access to those blueprints. Gus shared his ideas and recommendations based on that intelligence to his friends at the DoD.”

Meanwhile, the government worked with private sector software companies to create doctored industrial products. They were then made available to the patent clerks and engineers in American technology and arms companies who’d been recruited by the KGB.

High up on the Soviet tech shopping list was software to regulate the pressure gauges and valves for the critical Siberian gas pipeline. According to Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes, the Soviets sought the software on the open market. American export controls prohibited its sale from the US. However, a small industrial software company located in Calgary called Cov-Can produced what the Soviets wanted. As Weiner writes, “The Soviets sent a Line X officer to steal the software. The CIA and the Canadians conspired to let them have it.”

The faulty software “weaved” its way through Soviet quality control. The pipeline software ran swimmingly for months, but then pressure in the pipeline gradually mounted. And one day—the date remains unclear, though most put it in June 1982—the software went haywire, the pressure soaring out of control. The pipeline ruptured, igniting a blast in the wilds of Siberia so massive that, according to Thomas C. Reed’s At the Abyss, “at the White House, we received warning from our infrared satellites of some bizarre event out in the middle of Soviet nowhere. NORAD feared a missile liftoff from a place where no rockets were known to be based. Or perhaps it was the detonation of a nuclear device. The Air Force chief of intelligence rated it at three kilotons.”

I wonder if Presidents Putin and Trump discussed this history during any of their recent unrecorded conversations?

Extraordinary measures in the UK

I'm trying to get my mind around a Conservative government announcing this a few minutes ago:

The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has announced the government will pay the wages of British workers to keep them in jobs as the coronavirus outbreak escalates.

In an unprecedented step, Sunak said the state would pay grants covering up to 80% of the salary of workers kept on by companies, up to a total of £2,500 per month, just above the median income.

“We are starting a great national effort to protect jobs,” he said. “It’s on all of us.”

Sunak said there would be no limit on the funding available to pay people’s wages.

The government is also deferring the next quarter of VAT payments, which is the equivalent of injecting another £30bn into the economy and is designed to help companies stay afloat.

(Another thing that I just learned: Sterling has dropped 12% against the dollar in the past week, hitting £1 = $1.1641 a few minutes ago.)

Closer to home:

And finally, Mother Jones asks "How do you know if you're living through the death of an empire?"

We now return to your pandemic, already in progress

Today's news:

President Trump claims he knew COVID-19 was a pandemic all along, even though he had a strangely ineffective way of showing it.

Finally, and not related even a little to COVID-19, Olga Khazan writes in the Atlantic about "the perks of being a weirdo."

How not to engage in crisis profiteering

Some dingleberry from Tennessee thought he'd make easy money by stocking up on hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes. Now he's got a garage full of things Amazon won't let him sell. And he's whining about it to the New York Times:

On March 1, the day after the first coronavirus death in the United States was announced, brothers Matt and Noah Colvin set out in a silver S.U.V. to pick up some hand sanitizer. Driving around Chattanooga, Tenn., they hit a Dollar Tree, then a Walmart, a Staples and a Home Depot. At each store, they cleaned out the shelves.

Over the next three days, Noah Colvin took a 1,300-mile road trip across Tennessee and into Kentucky, filling a U-Haul truck with thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer and thousands of packs of antibacterial wipes, mostly from “little hole-in-the-wall dollar stores in the backwoods,” his brother said. “The major metro areas were cleaned out.”

Matt Colvin stayed home near Chattanooga, preparing for pallets of even more wipes and sanitizer he had ordered, and starting to list them on Amazon. Mr. Colvin said he had posted 300 bottles of hand sanitizer and immediately sold them all for between $8 and $70 each, multiples higher than what he had bought them for. To him, “it was crazy money.” To many others, it was profiteering from a pandemic.

The next day, Amazon pulled his items and thousands of other listings for sanitizer, wipes and face masks. The company suspended some of the sellers behind the listings and warned many others that if they kept running up prices, they’d lose their accounts. EBay soon followed with even stricter measures, prohibiting any U.S. sales of masks or sanitizer.

Now, while millions of people across the country search in vain for hand sanitizer to protect themselves from the spread of the coronavirus, Mr. Colvin is sitting on 17,700 bottles of the stuff with little idea where to sell them.

Let me suggest other things he can sit on.

Closer to home, my own foraging yesterday turned up odd gaps in supply chains. The Trader Joe's in Evanston ran out of dairy and frozen food; the Whole Foods closer to my house had lots of dairy, but no frozen food or dried beans. They had tons of bulk rice, though, so I wonder what people are eating their beans with. Other friends reported Jewel stores having no produce, and Mariano's having no working escalators, which I suppose is less a problem for the public than it sounds.

Meanwhile, the Mayor of Chicago has just announced a cap on bar and restaurant patronage at the lesser of half the establishment's capacity or 100. Why they didn't do this yesterday, before massive crowds went out to St Patrick's Day celebrations, astounds me.

Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt

What an exciting 24 hours.

President Trump made a statement from the Oval Office last night about the COVID-19 pandemic that completely failed to reassure anyone, in part because it contained numerous errors and misstatements. By announcing a ban on travel from the Schengen area of 26 European countries that applies to non-US residents, he enraged our European allies while doing nothing to stop the spread of the virus for the simple reason that the virus has already spread to the US. Not to mention, having a US passport doesn't magically confer immunity on people.

But let's not question the virologist-in-chief at this moment, who has so far refused to heed his experts' advice to issue an emergency declaration until Jared Kushner signs off on it. And wouldn't you guess? Republicans in the Senate have balked at an emergency spending bill because it has the potential to demonstrate that government can help in a crisis, which is why they blocked prevention measures earlier.

A few minutes after trading started today, the New York Stock Exchange hit the brakes to hold the plunge in equities values to 8% for 15 minutes while traders pissed themselves. Trading seems to have stabilized as it resumed, but the markets have now fallen about 25% from their February records.

The National Basketball Association has suspended its season and the National College Athletic Association played the first few games of March Madness without audiences.

In Chicago, PepsiCo became the first company to close its headquarters building, and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange has halted in-person trading entirely. Following California's ban on assemblies of more than 250 persons, Illinois is considering a similar measure. (Scotland has banned groups of 500, and Ireland has cancelled St Patrick's Day events.) And local colleges have moved their spring classes online.

Finally, as a member of the Apollo Chorus of Chicago Board of Directors and as the co-chair of our annual benefit, I am in the position of having to make some of these decisions myself. In another post I'll talk about that. For now, I can say we've sent a few hundred emails around the organization in the past 24 hours because we have concerts scheduled for this weekend and a dress rehearsal scheduled for tonight.

And, of course, I'm working from home again, and I think I should vote today instead of Tuesday.

Updates as conditions warrant.

Rainy Monday readings

After yesterday's perfect spring weather (18°C and sunny), today's gloom and rain reminds us we live in Chicago.

Also, it's eerily quiet at work...so maybe I'll also work from home the rest of the week.

Meanwhile, these crossed my (virtual) desk for reading later on:

  • Two days before testifying at a House hearing called "Holding Wells-Fargo Accountable," two of the bank's board members resigned.
  • A young woman in India who received two hand transplants from a darker-skinned person has baffled doctors as the new hands have changed color to match her native skin.
  • The Washington Post helpfully describes what smoke point means and how cooks needn't fear it.
  • Lakefront towns in Northern Indiana have sued the National Park Service for contributing to beach erosion as the Lake Michigan-Huron system goes into its third straight month of record levels.
  • And finally, the New York Times examines how the Trump Campaign took over the Republican Party in 2016.

Now back to making an app send status emails...

Trump and the Republican Party have left us dangerously unprepared for this

By "this," I don't mean the Covid-19 outbreak itself, though by cutting CDC pandemic funding 80%, ending epidemic prevention aid to 37 of 47 countries, or by appointing perhaps the worst possible administration official to lead the response effort, he has almost certainly increased the risk of infection to every person in the world.

No, I mean that we're dangerously unprepared for the recession the virus outbreak appears to be encouraging.

Economists have had a hunch we'd eventually get the stock-market correction we got this week, because we had ample evidence that stock values were not in line with fundamentals. However, the S&P 500 losing 10% in one week, wiping out more than a year of gains, has been the fastest correction in history, according to Bloomberg News. And at this writing the indices are still falling.

But the Republican Party passed massive tax cuts two years running, which has resulted in Federal budget deficits exceeding $1 trillion. Now many people are about to find out why a massive deficit in a strong economy reduces our options when the economy slows down.

In a strong economy, people feel wealthy, so they spend more money. We all know that. But people also have a higher tolerance for taxes when they feel rich. In individual states in the US that have constitutional balanced-budget requirements, boom times allow them to save money. In the US writ large, which has no such restrictions, boom times allow us to make investments in infrastructure, education, social programs, and all manner of things we have as a country failed to invest in for years.

Not so coincidentally, the years in which we've failed to invest are the same as the years the Republican Party has preached lower taxes, cutting social benefits, and getting the government so small "you can drown it in the bathtub." The goal is to consolidate wealth in a small minority that can then exert disproportionate control over an ever-more-impoverished majority. As I've said for 30 years, the Republican Party doesn't want to govern; they want to rule. And it's easier to rule peasants than burghers.

The last two years under Trump have made previous Republican wealth grabs look gentle. And they almost got away with it, too. They've kept the economy going just strongly enough, preventing the inevitable slowdown after 10 years of Obama-led growth, to make people feel good about the next election. If only they could have made it to November. Four more years of Trump would, they hoped and planned, allow them to lock in Republican policies for 40 more years.

Walking from the train this morning, I realized the Trump administration has acted like a cocaine addict regarding the economy. They forced lower taxes through Congress (or blocked raising them) since the last years of Obama, then came out of the bathroom with powder on their noses crowing about how low taxes have helped the economy.

At the first signs of a slowdown in 2018 and 2019, they did a couple more bumps to make it last longer, just a little longer. But the crash is upon us, and like a cokehead, it's going to be much worse because it's been too good too long.

So here we are. We've lost hundreds of billions in paper wealth this week, we've got the Spanish Flu exploding all over the world, people are scared, and the front-runners in both parties represent the extremes. A really good recession right now will go a long way to helping the kids understand, on a personal and visceral level, why we don't want extremists in power.

And because of our massive deficits, it will be hard to summon the political will to continue those deficits and start necessary spending efforts to keep people employed and the economy from screeching to a halt. The only arrows we have left in our quiver include printing more money or raising taxes in a recession, both of which will increase inflation, wipe out more paper wealth (but of debt holders, not of debtors, which is the point), and possibly make the retirements of Boomers more uncomfortable than their grandparents had it in the Depression. (Oh, and we Xers will get screwed regardless, but that's been the case our whole lives.)

You think we're smarter than Europe in the 1930s? We're about to really find out.

Odd day in the news

Some highlights:

Finally, looking at dating like a marketplace doesn't make a lot of sense in practice.

Dastardly Do-Right?

Via reader ML, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have stepped in it over protests on First Nations land in northern British Columbia:

Canadian federal police had “no legal authority” to make ID checks and searches on activists seeking to block a pipeline project on Indigenous territory, according to newly released correspondence from the force’s oversight body.

The nine-page letter written by Michelaine Lahaie, chair of the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP, offers scathing criticism of the police’s continued use of tactics against Indigenous people which she had previously warned against.

In recent weeks, demonstrations have sprung up across the country, blockading major railway lines and obstructing access to ports and government buildings.

On Thursday, Canada’s largest rail operator, CN Rail, obtained a court injunction giving it permission to remove a blockade in St-Lambert, a suburb of Montreal.

Al Jezeera has an overview of the issues:

Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs, who hold authority over their land, say they were not properly consulted on the 670km (416-mile) Coastal GasLink pipeline. The company says it reached agreements with 20 elected First Nations band councils. In December, the BC Supreme Court granted Coastal GasLink an injunction to continue work on the pipeline. 

Following the arrests of Wet'suwet'en land defenders about two weeks ago, tensions have mounted as solidarity actions have grown across the country, with many calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to solve the crisis.

"This is not a new resistance," said [lawyer Sylvia] McAdam, one of the founders of Idle No More, a movement born in 2012 in response to parliamentary bills that threatened Indigenous sovereignty and environmental protections.

"I think today we're reaching a boiling point where Indigenous people are so tired of the racism, they're tired of colonisation, they're tired of protecting and defending (rights and land)," she told Al Jazeera.

McAdam said Canada needs to reckon with its past and pay the debts it owes First Nations.

I'll be checking back on this story as it unfolds.