All posts by BklynGuy

Masks

OK, I wasn’t smiling. But it illustrates the concept….

When the coronavirus first emerged as an issue in February, I contemplated whether it would be useful to wear a mask.  Some people in New York City were wearing them, and the prices and availability on Amazon suggested supply issues.  It didn’t seem worth the bother.

In March, as the emergency heated up, my wife asked me about getting masks.  Our leadership at the time said that masks weren’t necessary for most of us, and we should refrain from using or acquiring them to save them for health care workers who really needed them.  Most of the masks were (and are) made in China, and the supply chain had been disrupted.  Overall, it didn’t seem worth the trouble, and as the drug stores all had signs advising ‘No Masks Available,’ I let it be.

On closer examination, the blue masks that were commonly worn by health care workers and now making a broader appearance aren’t meant to protect the wearer from the environment.  The original use case for the masks, which is also true for Covid, is that it contains the wearer’s emissions, which may carry the virus even though the wearer has no symptoms.  Health care workers commonly work with people whose immune systems are compromised, so they wear the masks to protect their patients from whatever microbes they may be carrying.

If you want to protect yourself from the virus with a mask, you need N95 or better, and if you’re a guy, you need to be clean-shaven.  When I got tested for Covid a couple of months ago, the doctor performing the test appeared in a bunny suit with a full face covering, which is probably as good as one can do while still being in the same room.

My wife had been following events in Korea, and since I was reluctant to run out and buy masks, she made up her own, following instructions on YouTube, from paper towels, adhesive tape, and elastic strapping.  Apparently, the Korean government had donated much of the country’s mask supply to China, so Koreans needing masks had to improvise.  My wife’s masks were comfortable and didn’t look overly dorky; I still carry a couple in my bag in case the mask I’m wearing gets soggy or otherwise troublesome.

In my travels on the Internet, I came across the Origin Maine Defender mask (no longer available), a gaiter made of stretchy synthetic fabric into which one can insert additional filter media (I used a paper towel).  I wore them for work: they were a bit uncomfortable and got soggy if I was exerting myself and sweating.  But thin gaiters aren’t really very good at containing one’s emissions, so I can’t recommend that alternative.

Later in the spring, we got a few dozen bandanas in different colors.  I gave some to my son, who wore them as bandanas.  My wife and I wear them folded up, with elastic strapping to hold them in place.  They’re colorful (my wife and I like to wear matching colors when we’re out together), comfortable, more effective than the Defender gaiter, and cheap.

New York rules (I’m reluctant to call them ‘laws’ because they’re rooted in executive orders from Uncle Andy, and not passed by the state legislature) require masks on public transit, in places of business (except while actually eating at a restaurant), and outdoors when social distancing can’t be maintained.  I’ll wear a mask while walking on the street, but take if off to ride a bike.

I doubt the mask actually does anything.  My wife and I tested negative a couple of months ago, and we haven’t felt any better or worse since then.  Beyond that, of all the thousands of Covid tests performed in New York State over the past month, less than 1% came back positive.  However, if indulging a little public paranoia will help us get back to normal, I’m all for it.

Meanwhile, the supply chains have gotten back to normal, and cheap Chinese blue masks are once again available.  As an employer, I’m required to have masks available for my employees, so I have a couple of boxes in the office.  But I’ve never worn one myself.

Tyranny with your Dinner?

Out in the wider world, things are slowly getting back to normal, almost:

  • Buses are back to the normal routine of getting on the front end of the bus and paying the fare, but the white line beyond which passengers are not permitted to stand when the bus is in motion has been relocated to keep passengers from standing too close to the driver.
  • Museums are reopening, but one must make a reservation before visiting.
  • Blink, the gym I used to frequent before the emergency, has reopened.  But the showers are closed, and one is encouraged to make a reservation.  I can resume my membership, or keep it suspended until the end of October.  I think I’ll wait.

Meanwhile, a proper meal inside a restaurant is still prohibited in New York City.  There’s outdoor dining, which is OK while the weather is nice, if one doesn’t get caught in a public protest (‘shame on you for flaunting your dining privilege!’), but will likely not be so wonderful come November.  One can also cheat a bit, and go outside the city (Hoboken is a few minutes from Greenwich Village on the PATH train), but that’s a so-so substitute.

Uncle Andy (Governor Cuomo) and Uncle Bill (Mayor DeBlasio) were maundering earlier this month about how resuming indoor dining would be ‘too risky.’  After raging at President Trump and insisting that they would make decisions driven by science and data, they fumbled about uselessly.  Governor Cuomo feared that indoor dining would bring about a resurgence of Covid… unless, perhaps, we allocated 4,000 police officers to mind people’s behavior in restaurants.  (In fairness, this is the same Uncle Andy who predicted dire consequences without 30,000 ventilators for the anticipated Covid victims of New York State.)  While I first came across this item on a conservative news feed, I checked a couple of more mainstream news sources to make sure it was real.

The Labor Day weekend felt close to normal.  My wife and I had lunch in Little Italy: there were fewer people in the streets than in past years, but it was comfortably busy.  We could get a seat on the subway returning home, but not a socially distant seat like in past weeks. 

A couple of days ago, Uncle Andy relented and put forth a plan for indoor dining in New York City, to take effect 30 September.  Restaurants would be limited to 25% capacity, with tables at least six feet apart, no seating at the bar, temperature checks at the door, and masks required to be worn when not seated.

But the worst part, to my view, is that one member of each party must identify himself for contact tracing.  If someone visits the same restaurant and later turns up positive, the Covid police will show up at my door demanding to know who I’ve been hanging out with for the past month.

The icky part is that restaurants with indoor and outdoor dining spaces (October is still mostly nice for outdoor dining in New York City) will probably collect contract tracing information from everyone, not just the indoor diners.  Choosing to eat outdoors to avoid contact tracing probably won’t work.

Oh, yes: New York City will provide ‘a team of 400 enforcement personnel’ to ensure compliance.  Not quite 4,000 cops, but it’s still onerous and stupid.

The saddest part is the response from the restaurant community reported on the New York State Web page.  The Restaurant Association and the owners of various restaurants are unanimous in praising and thanking Uncle Andy for his wise leadership.  Alas, he has them all by the throat.

Voting… Somehow

I’ve come to believe that voting ought to be a little bit difficult.

Voting shouldn’t be an ordeal or an all-day project, but for me, voting has always meant taking time on Election Day itself to go somewhere off the beaten path, wait in line, possibly as much as an hour, and vote.  In my work, some of the controls of the machinery are designed to be purposefully difficult to operate because they would be dangerous if used without specific intent.  To me, voting is a similar endeavor: it’s serious, and not to be done lightly.

New York mailed absentee ballot applications a few weeks before this year’s primaries, with helpful instructions: you couldn’t simply vote absentee because you were afraid of Covid, but if you wrote it up as a ‘health issue’ you were good to go.  In the spring, I had not yet returned to the office, but I had been going out for a walk every day, joining my wife for grocery shopping, and heading out to job sites: a trip to the polls didn’t seem particularly frightening.

I ultimately didn’t vote.  Biden had already won the Democratic Presidential nomination, and none of the candidates in the other races were different enough from their opponents to make a vote worthwhile.  Not making a decision is, itself, a decision.

New York took a reasonable approach in sending out absentee ballot applications before the election, and giving voters an alternative to voting in person.  It represented a minor change from established law and procedure, but was appropriate under the circumstances.  However, while the Presidential race was effectively already decided by the time New York held its election, some of the other races were undecided for weeks until all the absentee ballots could be counted or their disposition resolved.

Now that we know what happened, would this be the right thing for the general election?

In one respect, it may not matter: New York is a thoroughly blue state and will go for Biden no matter what.  But the New York experience suggests that mandating national vote-by-mail, as the Democrats are proposing, is a spectacularly bad idea.

  • First, it’s an unwarranted intrusion by the Federal government on a function that is the responsibility of state and local governments.  It’s the responsibility of the states, with their knowledge of local conditions, to decide the best method for their citizens to vote.
  • Contrary to the insistence of the news media, vote-by-mail fraud does happen: in fact, the results of a local election in New Jersey were thrown out by the courts just last week.  The potential for election fraud with mail voting has historically been recognized by both parties, until the Democrats decided a couple of years ago that such a thing just didn’t happen.  For my part, it appears the Democrats are more interested in grabbing power than in good governance: I wouldn’t put it past them to try to finagle the election.
  • But the real problem with a vast shift to mail-in voting is human error and the Postal Service.  When you vote in person, the election staffer is checking the paperwork and walking you through a process so simple as to be essentially foolproof.  If you make an innocent mistake with your mail-in ballot, like forgetting to sign the accompanying paperwork, you’ve lost your vote.  (Some places will give you the opportunity to rectify such errors, but that takes time.)  And even in the best of circumstances, lost or delayed mail, or mail without postmarks, could result in more people losing their votes than the margin of a close race.  The Postal Service is an imperfect organization, and even throwing $25 billion at it, two and a half months before the general election, isn’t likely to help.

At this point, alas, all I can do is hope for the best, and hope and pray for a calm and fair election.  If the election goes badly—no matter who wins—it will be a worse emergency than Covid.

On to August

It’s been a while since I’ve last posted.  I wrote some drafts after George Floyd, but realized that I really shouldn’t write about race relations: whatever I might post could be used against me, to no practical gain.  The only thing that I think I can safely say is this:  When I was a kid growing up in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s, I was sure that sometime in the future, say, 2020, we would be past fussing over race, and look at black and white as no different from blond or brunette, or tall or short.

That clearly hasn’t happened.

*          *          *

No, we haven’t gotten sick: my wife, my son, and I are still very much alive and well.

A couple of weeks ago, though, I felt icky.  I was really achy, and excused myself from work ‘in an abundance of caution,’ although I could have toughed it out.  I went back to bed, slept a couple of hours, and felt partway better by lunchtime, and well enough in the afternoon to take my daily walk (2-3 miles, although sometimes longer).

There was no fever, no shortness of breath, no coughing: none of the things we were told to look out for in March.  But the symptoms of Covid have broadened to the point where anything beyond a broken bone is suspect.

I was not to go out into the field for work until I was tested.  I went for a test the next day.

“Was it as horrible as you imagined?” the doctor asked after sticking the swab up both nostrils.

“It was about 80% as horrible as I imagined.”  I think I’d prefer a blood test.

My wife went for the test at the same time.  She has been following what’s happened in Korea in response to Covid, and was wondering why there wasn’t a blood test, as is apparently standard there.  She was also frustrated that we had to wait a week and a half for the result.

The tests came back negative.

Next time, unless I wake up barfing up a lung, I think I’ll tough it out, even though the rules expressly forbid that.

*          *          *

We’ve gotten through all four phases of Uncle Andy’s Four-Phase Plan in New York City.  Some things, like mass entertainments, were never in the plan, perhaps to be resumed when the public perception of the danger, rather than the danger itself, had passed.

Other things got tossed over the side, including:

  • Gyms:  I’ve worked around this by ditching the subway and taking a Citi Bike most of the way to and from the office (as far as I can get in 45 minutes) and walking the rest.  I’ve managed to resist what in some quarters has been called the ‘quarantine fifteen.’  The gym owners in New York State have filed a class-action lawsuit against the state; we’ll see how they prevail against Uncle Andy.
  • Indoor dining:  This may seem a bit of an extravagance, but ‘dining’ in this context also refers to places like McDonald’s.  You can get a bite there, but sitting in the air-conditioned dining room to eat it is not an option.  Restaurants have set up temporary seating areas in the sidewalks and curb lanes, and it’s really nice if the weather holds, but November is coming.
  • Movie theaters:  Perhaps it’s just as well, as there haven’t been any movies that I’ve really wanted to see in years.  (In the 1990s, there were a couple of worthwhile movies every month.)  But it’s a downer not to be able to duck out of the heat of the day for a bit.
  • Museums:  I don’t wake up in the morning thinking, ‘let’s go to the museum today.’  But it’s a pleasant, contemplative alternative for an afternoon’s leisure.  I do miss it.  The Metropolitan Museum is planning to reopen on 29 August… if Uncle Andy says it’s OK, which seems unlikely.

At least one can escape the heat by going shopping, although my wife has remarked that Macy’s hasn’t updated their stock in the month or so since they’ve reopened.  I guess springtime clothing will still work in the late summer and early fall.

At the Epicenter

New York City is the epicenter of coronavirus death. 

I don’t want your pity.  The reality is that the vast majority of us haven’t even gotten sick.  We’re carrying on, as best as anyone can.

I also wish you wouldn’t gloat.  Not because it hurts my feelings, but because we don’t fully understand what’s happening, and while you’re not suffering now, your turn may come next week, next month, or next winter.  For my part, I believe the explosion of Covid in the city means that we are taking our pain now, and any future outbreaks will be less severe.

New York City has been a big, densely packed, dirty city for over 150 years.  Its character as such is independent of the politics of whoever may be Mayor or Governor.  While we can fault our leadership for what they might or might not do, the essential character of New York City, and consequent risk of disease, is a fact of life and not the politicians’ fault.

Much has been written about the subway as a vector for the coronavirus.  Uncle Andy, last week, ordered the subways closed late at night for cleaning.  While that may make some people feel good, it won’t change much.  The trains and stations were cleaned periodically even before Covid, and an enhanced cleaning regime, in itself, doesn’t require the system to be shut down.  The only difference the nighttime shutdown makes is that the homeless will be chased off the trains for a few hours every night.  But while the subway almost certainly had a role in spreading the virus through the city, blaming the spread of the virus, and the death toll, on the subway seems a bit simplistic.

Over the last week, I’ve pulled together data from various places:

PopulationCasesper 1000Deathsper 1000
NYC and vicinity:
NYC8,399,000174,70920.8019,5402.33
Westchester/NY968,81530,70831.701,3051.35
Nassau/NY1,356,56437,59327.712,3401.72
Suffolk/NY1,487,90135,89224.121,5471.04
Hudson/NJ672,39115,76923.458451.26
Essex/NJ (Newark)798,97514,52118.171,2821.60
Other US cities:
Detroit672,6629,38613.951,0851.61
DC702,4555,0167.142510.36
Orleans/LA (New Orleans)391,0066,54816.754411.13
Philadelphia1,584,06415,1379.566380.40
Allegheny/PA (Pittsburgh)1,216,0451,3451.111020.08
Cook/IL (Chicago)5,150,23343,7158.491,6730.32
Los Angeles/CA10,040,00026,2172.611,2560.13
King/WA (Seattle)2,252,7826,5452.914630.21
NY/NJ vs other states
New York State19,453,561330,40716.9826,2431.35
New Jersey State8,882,190135,84015.298,9601.01
Other 48 + DC299,903,772817,4012.7341,9630.14
Europe
London UK8,982,00018,0002.005,2310.58
Ile de France (Paris) FR12,210,00023,7571.956,1160.50
Madrid ES6,642,00062,9899.488,4201.27
Stockholm SE974,0738,5368.761,288 (1)1.32
Coronavirus in Various Places

Note 1: Estimated.  I don’t have a death toll for Stockholm by itself, but Stockholm has less than 10% of the population of Sweden, and about a third of the reported coronavirus cases.  I’ll overestimate a bit and presume that it has 40% of Sweden’s reported 3,220 coronavirus deaths.

These figures were captured at various times last week, and not all on the same day. 

For the moment, let’s focus on the death tolls: the number of reported cases depends on the availability of testing, which is more a function of politics than biology.  But dead is dead, even though politics figures here, too: about 1/4 of New York City’s dead are ‘probable’ as opposed to ‘confirmed’ Covid cases.  Nevertheless, we have to start somewhere.

The next highest city after NYC, in terms of Covid death rate, is Detroit.  But Detroit has no subway, and having suffered a great loss of population, is nowhere near as dense.  The places with comparable death rates are all in the suburbs of NYC.  Is the virus somehow wafting out of the city itself?  Do commuter trains have a role to play?

Looking at other American cities, there doesn’t seem to be much correlation.  Philadelphia, DC, Chicago, and Los Angeles all have subway systems, but have lower death rates.  In fairness, their subways are not as extensive as New York’s.  Meanwhile, New Orleans has no subway, but a higher death rate.

And all the European cities have extensive subway systems, but lower death rates, even Stockholm, which has refrained from the lockdowns in effect pretty much everywhere else.

Meanwhile, I’m also compelled to wonder about the wisdom of locking everything down.  It was OK as emergency measure before we knew quite what would happen.  But as a policy, I suspect that it only nibbles around the edges in terms of limiting the spread of the virus.

When this emergency passes, we need to calmly analyze and identify the factors that led to the rapid spread of Covid in NYC and other hot spots around the country and around the world.  And while it’s easy to blame the politicians or the subway, I suspect the reality will be a bit different.

Uncle Andy’s Four-Phase Plan

Earlier this week, Governor Andrew Cuomo released a four-phase plan by which businesses in New York State would reopen as the coronavirus threat passed:

  • Phase 1: Manufacturing, construction, curbside pickup for retail;
  • Phase 2: Retail, professional services, real estate;
  • Phase 3: Hotels and restaurants;
  • Phase 4: Schools, arts, recreation, and entertainment.

The state has been divided into ten regions for the purpose, with reopening in each region, and advancement through the phases, consistent on meeting a set of metrics.  Most of the metrics relate to hospital usage, which makes sense, although some of the thresholds seem arbitrary.  The threshold is a minimum 30% available hospital beds and intensive care beds, which most of the state passes, but if the threshold were 20%, the entire state would pass.

The one metric that worries me is the need for contact tracers.  The virus was spreading for a month and a half before it was determined to be an emergency: contact tracing now seems pointless and silly. 

Nevertheless, under the plan, there need to be a minimum of 30 contact tracers for every 100,000 residents: New York City will need over 2500.  Organizing and training a force of that size will be at least a three-month project.  Are we to remain on lockdown until then?

More worrisome is the authority to be vested in these contact tracers.  Will they have the authority to compel people to be tested?  To separate people from their families for isolation (as is happening in California)?  To compel answers to, ‘Are you now or have you ever been…’ or ‘Tell us about your friends and associates…’?

The only thing that such an effort would appear to accomplish is practice for a new Stasi whose authority, in the name of public health, would extend beyond biological viruses to embrace improper thoughts and improper speech.  That may be unconstitutional, but what the hey: it’s an emergency.

When I first read about the plan, I expected that we might be reopening in a few weeks.  I thought my work life would get back to normal in 4-6 weeks, and my wife and I would be able to enjoy dinner out in maybe 6-8 weeks.  Live baseball this summer, alas, would be a lost cause.  But if New York City will not come off ‘pause’ until we have 2500 contract tracers on staff, fully trained and ready to go, it will be a much longer wait.

I sure hope Uncle Andy reconsiders. And it’s disgusting, but right now, that’s all I can do.

*          *          *

Since the 1960s, when young men ran off to escape the military draft, the notion of running off to Canada to elude whatever turmoil the US was suffering has been with us.  It’s crossed my mind a couple of times, never very seriously, the last time in 2004 when President Bush was re-elected.

Now, in the name of public health, our liberties are basically gone.  Yes, there’s still freedom of speech, but only over the Internet, open to government monitoring.  Yes, there’s still freedom of religion–you can believe whatever you want—but all the churches are closed.

Alas, escaping to Canada won’t help.  They’re just as bad as we are.

Asbestos and Corona

Asbestos is a fibrous mineral, found in nature, which was for many years used for fireproofing and other thermal insulation.  It’s still one of the best thermal insulators known.  But asbestos fibers, when inhaled, lead to cancer and other lung diseases.  Asbestos has been the subject of vast litigation, and there is an industry built around the removal or abatement of asbestos.

The incidence of disease and death from asbestos has a random character.  In the time before the danger of asbestos was widely recognized, some people worked around asbestos their entire lives with no ill effect; others fell deathly ill over the course of a summer internship at the asbestos plant.  Most cases, though, involved repeated exposure over time.

Today, the discipline and procedures of asbestos abatement are built around the premise that the danger of asbestos is not random.  The probability of disease on exposure to asbestos above the ‘safe level’ is presumed to be unity, i.e. the stuff is presumed to be lethal.  Workers tasked with asbestos abatement must wear protective clothing and masks, and special arrangements are made to ventilate the work area and prevent asbestos fibers from escaping outside.

In an industrial environment, these rules make sense.  Employers are required to provide a safe work environment, providing training and protection against hazards in the workplace.  It would not be OK for an employer to pass the risk of illness of an incomplete protective regime to his employees, even with their informed consent.

But this character of randomness associated with asbestos applies to other agents in the environment, including tobacco and (this season’s favorite!) viral exposure.

Last week, 60 Minutes ran a segment on the military’s response to coronavirus.  The military had to develop policies and procedures on the spot as the threat emerged, without data on how deadly the virus might be or its propagation.  The result was a regime similar to asbestos abatement: the virus is presumed to be deadly wherever it might appear, and anyone not known to be safe is presumed to carry it.  Social distancing (‘tactical dispersion’) and hygiene procedures are ruthless.

And for the military, these rules make sense.  The first mission of the military is to be ready to carry out whatever other missions may be necessary, and being inconvenienced is part of military life.

But is this approach the right one for the rest of us?

What we are starting to know now from data is what many of us suspected in February: Covid-19 is similar to the seasonal flu.  It spreads almost as broadly as the seasonal flu, and while it is more serious than the seasonal flu, it’s not so deadly as to merit panic.

*          *          *

Prospect Park on a Saturday Afternoon

Yesterday, my wife and I bought lunch in a local pizzeria and enjoyed it al fresco in Prospect Park.  We took off our masks to eat and watched the people go by.  It was a glorious day: the first real spring day this season.  The park seemed busier than a normal Saturday: with everything else closed, what else was there?  We took a long walk, and when I got home, I realized I had a little sunburn.  It felt good.

Families hung out together in the park, but otherwise people were reasonably distancing themselves.  But I’m compelled to wonder: if you pass within eight feet of, say, 1,000 people, are you really safer than sitting six feet from four or five people in a subway car?

Were we taking our lives in our hands enjoying a sunny day in the park?  Even knowing about the virus, I find that really hard to believe.

Let’s End This

One of the reasons I don’t write more regularly is that I don’t like to repeat myself.  Too much of what I read on current affairs is people banging the same drum about systemic racism, or taxation being theft, or whatever.

But I’ll repeat myself a bit here.

We need to end this emergency soon.

The virus is a force of nature at this point: the government cannot protect us from it.  The one thing that the government might be able to do is forestall a disaster such as happened in China, Italy, and Spain, where so many people got sick at once as to overwhelm the health care system.  It doesn’t take that many people for that to happen: if 1% of a community got sick and descended on its hospitals all at once, the result would be worse than anything seen so far.

That, fortunately, hasn’t happened, although for a handful of New York City hospitals, it got close.  The number of new cases is starting to level off, and the number of hospitalizations is dropping, never having gotten close to the available space.  The Navy hospital ship Comfort, having arrived in New York City at the end of March to supplement available hospital space, is leaving, having treated a grand total of 179.

About a week ago, Governor Cuomo extended the emergency two weeks, to 15 May.  And if current trends hold, that’s a good place to start.  I don’t expect all the restrictions to be lifted at once, and even if they were, the public would likely still avoid large gatherings like sporting events. But I’m hoping that a month from now, I can take my wife to dinner.

Every state is different, and under our republic, decisions like this are made on the state level.  New York has suffered, and is recovering, but for other states, the worst may be yet to come.  And for some states, ‘the worst’ may not be that severe to begin with.

43 of the 50 states implemented some form of stay-at-home order in response to the coronavirus.  At the time, we weren’t sure what would happen.  We didn’t have, as I sometimes like to say at work, the dimensions of the problem.

Meanwhile, there are the seven states, and Sweden, that didn’t force everyone to stay at home.  Most of the states in question are sparsely populated, but Sweden isn’t that sparse, and has some major cities.  Even though they didn’t have Uncle Andy’s guidance, they didn’t get whomped like New York City. 

Our understanding now is still incomplete, but way better than what we had a month ago.  To those who say, ‘the science should determine when it’s safe to reopen,’ I’m compelled to point out that any decision of this nature is an exercise in risks and statistics.  (Statistics is a science, too!)  Even deciding to wait for a vaccine is a statistical exercise, one that should properly consider the secondary effects of prolonging the emergency for another year.

So now is a good time to think about lifting the restrictions we’ve been under for the past month, based on the facts on the ground.  Mid-May is a good place to start for New York; other places might take longer, and some may be ready to restart, taking baby steps at first, now.

Let’s get our dignity back, and get back to work.

Life Goes On

The father of a friend and colleague passed away from the effects of Covid-19 about two weeks ago.  I’m sorry for my friend and what he has suffered.

I was working with him on site last week, and I felt it best not to talk about the coronavirus or the current emergency.  My friend had his professional demeanor back, but it clearly wasn’t the time.

I’ve remarked in these pages (in brief) that the danger of the coronavirus, while real, has been overblown and used for political purposes.  But am I wrong to believe that?  Is it cruel and heartless, given that people are dying? 

The virus, at this point, is a force of nature.  It doesn’t care what we think or say about it.  We can’t control it.  We can only try to conduct ourselves to moderate its effects.

But we need to be mindful that our efforts to moderate the virus have their own effects.   While they may not be as lethal as the coronavirus, they bring their own pain and suffering.  And to say those effects don’t matter ‘because people are dying’ is the worst kind of virtue signalling.

Death hurts.  But life must go on.

*          *          *

Washington Square Park

Last Sunday, my wife and I went to Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, wearing masks made from matching bandanas.

There were fewer people in the park than a normal springtime Sunday, and people were reasonably distancing themselves, but it felt, for once, normal.  A couple of musicians were playing.  We sat on a bench, listened to the music, and contemplated the scene.  It felt good.

Musicians in Washington Square Park

Are We There Yet?

Back on St. Patrick’s Day, when the emergency was clanging down on us (it must be really dire to close the bars for St. Patrick’s Day!), I took the semi-wild guess that the emergency would last between six and eight weeks.  Now that we’re about halfway through, I’m contemplating how the emergency might end.

Three scenarios come to mind.  But before I examine them, I’ll share some basic assumptions:

  • Whatever the virus’s origins, it is now a force of nature, and will not take instructions from us.
  • Its spread cannot be stopped, only moderated.
  • In the long term, it will become part of the biological landscape.  It cannot be mopped up and sent back to China.

With that in mind:

Scenario One: Flatten the Curve and Be Done with It

If we take the premise that this business of shutting everything down was merely to ‘flatten the curve’ and prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed, then in another 3-5 weeks, the number of new cases should be small enough that we can start easing the restrictions.

We can let most businesses open, including (perhaps especially!) restaurants, although large public gatherings like sporting events and rock concerts will still have to wait.  I’d hope for at least Minor League Baseball (with its smaller venues) this summer.

We can expect testing of sample populations to get a better handle on how the virus has already spread.  However, the decision would necessarily be a judgement call, and entail some measure of risk.  Also, while the testing and setting of guidelines may be Federal endeavors, the restrictions we have now are set on the state level, and will have to be released the same way.  That’s how we’re set up in our republic.

The virus will indeed spread more readily when restrictions are eased: there will be an increase in the number of new cases, and some people will die as a result, who wouldn’t have died under the other scenarios (at least not from Covid).  But because many more people will have already been exposed, the increase will be more modest.

Scenario Two: Test Everyone

If we deem the risk of more new cases to be unacceptable, the next approach would be to test the entire population so that the virus can be tracked absolutely.  This would be a vast enterprise and would take at least 3-4 months.

I’m also not clear on what would happen.  Since I haven’t been seriously ill since the beginning of 2018, if I were tested, I’d expect one of two results:

  • I’m negative.  Would that mean that I’d remain under the quasi-lockdown while others got back to work?  Given the choice, I’d prefer to go forth in the world and take my chances.
  • I have antibodies, which means that I’ve been exposed, but haven’t gotten sick:  I had a brief but nasty bout with flu-like symptoms early in February.  I skipped a couple of gym sessions but otherwise held together.  Maybe that was Covid?  I don’t know.  In any case, if I’ve been exposed, the authorities would then presumably chase through my associates to see how I might have been exposed, or whom I might have exposed.

And what happens if I have antibodies and my wife is negative (or vice versa)?  Will one of us have to move out of the house so the other can be isolated?

The coronavirus is not Ebola.  It spreads rapidly, to the point where contact tracing—especially after the fact—is pointless and silly.  Attempting to trace anyway is also an invasion of our civil liberties.  And doing so sets the precedent for the next emergency (viral or otherwise).

After all, never let a crisis go to waste.

Scenario Three: Vaccinate

If we’re not willing to accept the risk of simply going back to business, and trying to track everyone’s status with the virus isn’t practical, then the third alternative is to wait for a vaccine.  In the very best case, a vaccine might be ready late this year or early next year.

But, given the choice, would I get vaccinated?  My wife and I don’t get flu shots, and from what I know now about coronavirus and Covid, I’d be genuinely reluctant to get a shot of a hastily-thrown-together brew of God knows what.  Then again, if the choice were to get the shot or stay locked up at home, that might be different.

I’ve reviewed the stay-at-home orders put forth by various communities, and they all, so far, admit going out for exercise while maintaining social distancing from others.  A new and improved version, to encourage vaccination, might reconsider this proviso, requiring the unvaccinated and unexposed to stay at home.

If it came to that, and we all decided to get the shot, the emergency would likely be over sometime next year.

But I don’t think we have a year.

I came across an interesting datum the other day.  Since the coronavirus crisis began, ridership on the New York subways is down 92%.  Crime in the subways is down… wait for it… by only 3%.  The people who earn their living through crime are presumably mostly young and healthy, still need to earn a living, and aren’t deterred by Uncle Andy telling them to stay home.

We’re only a little way into this emergency, and people aren’t desperate… yet.  But that will change after a couple of months.  Moreover, other people who aren’t desperate at that point will come to resent the government for continuing what appear to be unnecessary restrictions, and may want to take matters into their own hands.

If the emergency continues for more than a couple of months from now, I expect that there will be violence, first in the relatively small-scale crimes of the desperate, but getting worse.

A colleague sent me a meme about ending the emergency by Independence Day, 4 July.  That seems a practical threshold, as much for the meaning of Independence Day as for the time span between now and then.  If we are not back to enjoying our essential freedoms by Independence Day, we should presume that it will be a long, long wait.

In case you haven’t figured it out, I hope to God we end up following the first scenario.  We need our freedom and our dignity far more than we need some incremental (and more than likely illusory) safety.

Social Distancing

Social Distancing

The rule seems simple enough: stay at least six feet away from other people.

But nothing is ever as easy as it seems:

  • I thought social distancing applies only to people who aren’t members of your own household.  If my life had turned out differently, and I had six children who still lived with me, my wife, my kids, and I could all go out together.  As it stands, I go out for a walk with my wife pretty much every afternoon, walking hand in hand as often as not.  Am I doing something wrong?
  • I’m still not clear as to whether ‘six feet’ means six feet on center (what you’d get if drew lines on the sidewalk six feet apart and had people stand on them) or six feet extremity to extremity.  The graphic (above) that’s appeared in my apartment building suggests that it’s six feet on center, but walking down the street, it’s easier to assess extremity to extremity (is any part of another person closer than six feet to me?).
  • If you’re on the sidewalk in motion, and someone approaches in the opposite direction, what do you do?  I will try to maneuver to keep as much space as practical, slowing down or speeding up if a stretch of sidewalk is particularly narrow.  But it seems excessive to cross into the street to avoid a momentary violation of the six-foot threshold.  It seems really excessive to stick out a tape measure and poke others in the ribs.

I’m asking having seen videos of the horrors of ‘people in public spaces not social distancing’ which typically show people in a park, walking and enjoying a sunny day, for the most part keeping reasonable distances, with some couples or small groups staying together.  Are the people who photograph and post these videos genuinely concerned for the public health, or resentful that somewhere, somehow, people might be enjoying themselves?

And what about couples who aren’t married and aren’t living together?  The executive order states, ‘Non-essential gatherings of individuals of any size for any reason (e.g. parties, celebrations or other social events) are canceled or postponed at this time,’ which would seem to include dates.  But who is Uncle Andy to stand in the path of true love?

In another time, I wouldn’t give rules like this a second thought.  But in another time, we wouldn’t have rules like this at all.

Dr. Bob, years ago, said that ‘rules are made for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men.’  I’ll take the rules in that spirit.  I’ll endeavor to keep my distance, but won’t yell at people for violating my Sacred Bubble.  I’ll wait for the next elevator (or maybe take the stairs) but won’t wait for the next subway train.  And I had a girlfriend but not a wife, I would be more than happy to go on a date (such as one can with the restaurants and theatres closed) with said girlfriend, Uncle Andy’s admonitions notwithstanding.

19 Days Later

Every day, I gird myself to watch the news.  I stopped needing to look at the Johns Hopkins dashboard when the United States topped the list.  We’re number one: there isn’t much more to say.  There now more dead in New York City than China will admit to in the whole country.

But while the news media is still in the mode of ‘get ready to die next week,’ the reality is a bit different.  Most of us are alive and well, and not coughing.

More than anything, it’s weird:

  • The supply chains have recovered from the initial jolt, and the stores are pretty-well stocked again, except maybe for disinfectants and hand sanitizer.  But there’s a line to get in the local Trader Joe’s that stretches (with everyone observing six-foot social distancing) down the block and sometimes around the corner.  It’s usually a 40-60-minute wait.  Some of the other local stores also have queues waiting outside.
  • Buses creep me out.  The driver pulls up and you get on in the middle of the bus, through what’s usually the exit door.  The MTA has given up on collecting fares, so the ride is free, and the front of the bus is roped off.  Signage in the bus reminds us that ‘buses are for essential travel only.’  I’d skip the buses entirely, but the creepiness doesn’t bother my wife, and I go out with her to do shopping a couple of times a week.
  • The subway trains now run every 20 minutes (the usual schedule for the middle of the night) 24 hours a day.  Ridership is still very light: one can almost, but not quite, maintain the six-foot spread on the train.  I find myself walking out of the home or office, checking when the next train will show up, and then walking one or two stations to catch it so that I’m not standing on the platform, waiting.
  • And yes, I do have to ride the train.  My business has been deemed ‘essential,’ and I still have to perform on-site testing.  I don’t really have to go to the office, but it’s convenient to the field sites, and I’m usually more productive there than at home.  (I’m also sure that I’m annoying my wife when I have video conferences and go running off at the mouth, but so far, she seems to understand.)  Life at the office has gotten especially weird:
    • There’s no heat or hot water in the building.
    • In normal times, there are a galaxy of choices for lunch.  No more:
      • Most of my usual choices have closed for the duration.
      • The Chopt salad place near my office closed, but there’s another one nearby.  However, you can’t go there and order a salad: you have to use their app or Web site.  I did it once and saw why: the store itself is roped off: you go to the vestibule, state your name, and the staffer hands over the bag.  There isn’t even a credit card machine: you have to have paid in advance.  Alas, it isn’t the same as when the guy is tossing the salad in front of you and you can tweak up your salad (‘a little more dressing’) on the spot.
      • One of the essential charms of McDonald’s is the fountain sodas, big and icy.  But when I went to the McDonald’s near my office, I was told, ‘no soda.’  I have cans of soda in my office, but it isn’t the same.  Perhaps one of the other McDonald’s near my office still has a working soda fountain.
      • The Chick-Fil-A near my office, two weeks ago, had markers taped on the floor to remind everyone of the need to keep six feet apart.  A week ago, the markers were removed, but there were hardly any customers: Governor Cuomo had halted work at ‘non-essential’ construction sites, and that was much of their market.  The next day, they were closed.
    • After I bring my lunch back to the office and eat it, I have to take the wrappings out and pitch them in a litter basket in the street: the lady who usually comes to the office to empty the baskets and occasionally vacuum is gone for the duration, too.
    • Even an afternoon snack has become a production.  Most of the Dunkins near my office are closed.  Needing a snack, I went to nearby drugstore for a candy bar.  But the racks of sweets near the cashiers have been removed: I guess single candy bars are not hygienic.
  • At the beginning of March, New York State banned single-use plastic bags to carry goods purchased at most retail stores.  But they’ve made a comeback.  I’m told that San Francisco, which banned plastic bags in favor of reusable bags over a decade ago, has reversed themselves: reusable bags are now forbidden.

In recent days, we’re being told that we’ve turned a corner, and the number of new cases is abating.  On the other hand, there are others telling us that the emergency will last all summer.  On St. Patrick’s Day, when all the restaurants and bars were closed, I estimated the emergency would last 6-8 weeks.  We’re now about halfway through that, and it seems about right, today.

Next week is anyone’s guess.

Coronavirus

I’ll get the stupid stuff out of the way first:

  • No, you can’t get the virus from drinking Mexican beer.  But it’s OK to ask that question, once: stranger things have happened.
  • I’ve heard so much about the coronavirus that I’m sick of it, in and of itself, so I’ve started to call it the Dos Equis virus.
  • When we have a Pacífico virus, then I’ll start worrying.
  • ‘Covid-19’ is a stupid name:
    • When I first heard it, I thought of ‘Product 19,’ a Kellogg’s breakfast cereal with a full day’s vitamins in one serving.  We had it in my house when I was a kid: it was a dreary part of dreary school mornings.
    • ‘Covid’ sounds like a brand of motor oil: ‘Covid-19 keeps your engine clean.’

And the less-stupid stuff:

  • I remember the Hong Kong flu and the Sydney flu, so I really can’t get upset with someone calling this year’s disease the ‘Wuhan flu’ or ‘China flu.’
  • When the virus started making the news, my wife said she didn’t want to go to Chinatown for dim sum, formerly one of our favorite weekend lunches.  I tried to talk her into going, but I didn’t really feel like dim sum either.  It isn’t racism, just the power of an unpleasant association.
  • I still go to the local Chinese takeout place.
  • Last week, when the gyms were still open, I had had a bellyful of bad news watching the morning news programs, so I switched to the other side of the gym, where the TVs were tuned to ESPN and the sports channels.  At the end of last week, I wondered what they would do now that sporting events around the US and around the world had been cancelled.  At this point, the gyms are all closed, so it doesn’t matter.

Trying to be a little more serious:

  • I always imagine that when some emergency happens, I’ll be able to settle down and work in peace, or maybe turn my attention to something I’ve wanted to do and never had the time.  But that never happened.  Past emergencies (snowstorms, hurricanes) have lasted less than a week, and I was overtaken by the need to find out about, and fuss over, the emergency.  I need to get past that, this time.
  • I’m feeling OK as I write this, except for the lingering tension of worrying what might happen.  At this point, that seems worse than the actual virus.
  • Last week, I regularly visited the Johns Hopkins coronavirus dashboard.  Now I avoid it.  I look maybe twice a day, and I’m trying to drop it entirely.  It just adds to the tension.

*          *          *

Last Sunday, my wife and I went to a restaurant for lunch.  She had particularly wanted to go on Sunday for the live music.  The guitarist was there, but we were the only customers.  He played, and we talked and laughed and sang.  I got a little bit drunk.  I think we needed that.

And then, about a half-hour later, I got a phone call from work.  I steeled myself to deliver a competent answer.  Life is never easy.

*          *          *

Yesterday afternoon, my wife and I did some shopping.  We went to the Korean supermarket on 32nd Street and a nearby drugstore.  There are no paper goods, hand sanitizer, or disinfectants to be had, but everything else is pretty much there.

One of the Korean restaurants now limited to takeout was offering a ‘Care Package:’ for $149 (roughly the same as their menu price) they would pack up a Korean barbecue dinner (with raw meat to be grilled at the destination) and the essential garnishes and side dishes.

Samwon Garden Care Package

I was in good spirits, until I opened my email and got correspondence about Governor Handy Andy’s latest restrictions.  After decreeing that 50% of employees had to work from home, then 75%, he has gone all the way: all non-essential businesses shall be closed.  Public transit will remain in operation, but is to be avoided:

Individuals should limit use of public transportation to when absolutely necessary and should limit potential exposure by spacing out at least six feet from other riders;

The program has a cutesy name: New York State on PAUSE (Policies Assure Uniform Safety for Everyone).  I get annoyed with cute names for serious business, as well as laws named after little girls.

My particular business, as I read the rules, is deemed essential, so I can go in to work, although I should probably take my bicycle instead of the subway.  Nevertheless, I’m working from home when I can: after being overjoyed at consistently being able to get a seat on the subway, even during the rush hour, now I’m a bit creeped out.

I get the idea: with the number of cases skyrocketing, it’s more important to try to maintain isolation.  Still, the news is a punch in the gut.  (I could plumb the numbers further: I’m an engineer: it’s what I do.  But not today.)

And yet, I wonder: we’ve been told that we should be welcoming of all people, that referring to Covid as a ‘Chinese virus’ is racist, and that diversity is our strength.  Yet the current set of rules seem to pit us all against each other, warning that any stranger within six feet is a potential disease carrier and bringer of illness and death.

For my part, I find myself being overly nice (or at least nicer than usual) to the people I have to interact with in my travels: we are, after all, all in this together.

The Kevlar Bubble

 “Deficits don’t matter,” we were told in the 1980s, as the Reagan Administration started running what seemed at the time to be huge budget deficits ($200 billion!) to defeat the Russians.  We had seen much smaller deficits associated with price inflation in the 1970s (‘too much money chasing the same goods’), but were told not to worry.

Remarkably, it seemed to work.  The Russians were defeated (although, in fairness, the Reagan defense buildup had relatively little to do with it), the economy generally prospered, and prices for consumer goods remained stable.  The Federal deficit moderated, and even came close to running a surplus in the late 1990s.

But since the turn of the century, the government has been running larger and larger deficits.  Under the Bush (43) administration, deficits ran around a half-trillion dollars per year, and the Obama administration introduced the trillion-dollar deficit.  President Trump campaigned that he would not only eliminate the deficit, but would retire the entire debt in eight years.  (In fairness, that was one campaign promise I didn’t take very seriously.)  In fact, deficits under Trump have gone back into trillion-dollar territory.

And yet price inflation has been moderate.  Yes, the government figures understate the case.  But while today’s Federal deficits, as a percentage of GDP, are at least twice what they were in the 1970s, real price inflation has been less severe.  What happened?

One of the most basic equations of economics is:

MV=PQ

where:

  • M is the quantity of money in the system
  • V is the velocity with which money changes hands
  • P is a price index
  • Q is the value of goods and services transacted (in some unit of measure unaffected by transient price changes)

So, since about 2000, M has gone way, way up; Q has stagnated, rising very slowly; P has gone up moderately.  V, in consequence, has dropped like a rock.  Money doesn’t change hands like it used to.  It disappears out of the economy almost as fast as it’s created.  How does that happen?

For starters, every year, there are roughly $700 billion in imports that have no corresponding export.  Once one of those dollars leaves the country, it isn’t coming back.  That, in itself, will make a big dent in the effects of a trillion-dollar Federal budget deficit.

Perhaps a bigger factor is the inequality that has overtaken the American economy since 2000.  Another place the money can go to have no further effect for ordinary people is into the pockets of the very, very rich. The rich have relatively little need for consumer goods (how many Lamborghinis can one drive at once?) but will seek to invest their new-found gains to at least preserve their value.  So the stock market rises, independent of the productive values of the corporations on it, and real estate goes up, which causes some incidental problems for ordinary people who want to live in places like New York and San Francisco, but nothing major.

Yes, it’s a bubble.  Bubbles usually pop when people realize that the object of the bubble isn’t returning value and they want their money back.  But the essential difference this time is that the money won’t stop.  As long as there are huge new debts, the money has to go somewhere.  This bubble is made of Kevlar, and so far, is puncture-proof.

About 30 years ago, I read The Great Depression of 1990 by Ravi Batra.  At the time, its essential premise seemed ludicrous: that the very rich would suck all the money out of the economy and impoverish the rest of us.  Yet that’s exactly what’s happening now.  The vast Federal deficits, nominally intended to help the people, are in fact helping the very rich become even richer.

Yet it works, for now.  The Federal government borrows money that doesn’t exist; the money passes through ordinary people, but doesn’t really circulate very much before it ends up in the hands of a big bank and its owners, who effectively sequester it so it can’t do any further damage in terms of price inflation, or the money simply leaves the country, never to return.

It’s a delicate balance.  If you cut budget deficits, suddenly banks and big corporations would have to work for a living, and the stock market would plummet.  If people became more prosperous and traded among themselves, rather than buying imports, money wouldn’t be flushed out, and prices would rise.  And if, as some of the Democratic candidates for President imagine, you mobilize millions of people and pay them union wages to go out and fix climate change, they will find that their new paychecks won’t actually buy very much.

A while back, I entertained in these pages the notion that the economy we experienced was a simulation of sorts that had become divorced from the economy of the stock market and the Federal government.  No, it’s not quite a simulation, but it’s pretty close.

It Would Be Simpler If We Would All Just Die

Time magazine recently designated Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenage wokescold, their Person of the Year for 2019.  It really isn’t surprising: the title seems to have always been based on notoriety rather than merit: past designees have included Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Watching Greta’s speech at the United Nations, I could barely get through twenty seconds without bursting out in laughter.  Perhaps she meant to be deadly serious, but it came across as overwrought and silly.

I’ve always been a bit skeptical about global warming, or climate change, or whatever they’re calling it this week.  The basic premise—that human activity is putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than natural systems can take out—is beyond controversy.

But I’m skeptical about the effects.  I can’t observe climate around the world, but I am aware of long-term trends where I live.  I’m writing this on Christmas week, in New York City.  The temperature outside is 48 degrees Fahrenheit, a little warmer than it has been in the past few days.  Last week was right around freezing.  About 15-20 years ago, it was warmer, with milder winters and several days each summer with high temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  But in more recent years, the weather has become more like I remember it, with over-100-degree days being genuinely rare, every winter bringing snow and at least a week or two of temperatures close to zero, and mid- to late-December being right around freezing, like it is this month.

Nevertheless, it’s always fair to check one’s premises, and when my professional society made a presentation on the subject available, I checked it out.  You can review it for yourself here.

My essential question for Greta Thunberg and all those who go around screaming about the ‘climate emergency’ is: what do you propose to do about it?  Part of my skepticism is that climate change seems to be a pretext for Draconian government control of our lives.

The presentation had some useful insights, but they were very grim.

  • Exxon, in the early 1980s, had endeavored to project future levels of carbon dioxide and global temperatures.  Their projections have turned out to be accurate, nearly 40 years later.  This answers another of my points of skepticism: there were many predictions in the 1980s that low-lying Pacific islands would be underwater today, but that hasn’t happened.  But here is a prediction from the 1980s, by an entity with a business interest in accurate results (what will be the future market for their product?), that is coming to pass.
  • Carbon emissions and global GDP (is it really a ‘domestic’ product when one is considering the entire world?) have moved in lock step for the last 50 years.
  • Even on the level of households, there is a strong relationship between energy consumption and income.
  • To meet the goals of the Paris climate accords, the world will have to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 7.6% per year in the short term.
  • Doing so will mean that global GDP will have to necessarily shrink.

My wife and I could reasonably reduce our household’s emissions by 7.6%.  This would mean (as a quick approximation) not only using 7.6% less energy at home, but traveling 7.6% fewer miles and eating 7.6% less.  But if we must do it again and again over successive years, we will ultimately be starving in the dark!

And we’re doing pretty well in the world: for many, even a slight reduction in consumption would be a real hardship.  Some countries and peoples simply can’t reduce consumption; others won’t.

It would be simpler if we would all just die.

In the recent Democratic debate, the candidates all insisted they would do something about climate change, although exactly what was still very fuzzy.  But what will they do, if elected?  What can they do?

Remediating the effects of climate change will be a vast project: it will entail implementing new sources of energy, building infrastructure to hold off flooding, and possibly relocating whole populations.  Can our government do those things competently and even-handedly? 

And if not, as seems likely, what would they do instead?

What Makes News Fake

I try to get a varied news diet.  I watch NBC Nightly News, read the newspaper, scan mostly conservative news feeds.  For a liberal perspective, I find audiobooks most effective: most of the day-to-day liberal media presumes that one already understands their premises, and the audiobook format discourages me from skipping over the parts I might not agree with.

I normally don’t watch the cable news channels, except when I’m at the gym.  I watch CNN or MSNBC with the sound turned off, sometimes with captions, while sweating on the treadmill.

Since I started going to the gym in 2015, it seemed that the ‘news’ on CNN and MSNBC wasn’t quite real.  NBC, in fairness, wasn’t—and isn’t–that different.  This was before Donald Trump emerged as a serious candidate for President, but has only gotten more severe since then.

Journalism is, or ought to be, like mining.  One digs out nuggets of truth, and presents them to the world.  A customer of a coal, gold, or diamond mine would be unhappy if they received something other than coal, gold, or diamonds, and the customer for journalism should have the same expectations.

But mining is, well, iffy.  One can dig and find nothing.  Real journalism is iffy, too.  It can also be difficult and expensive.  Real journalism runs the risk of getting sued or arrested for saying the wrong things about the wrong people.

Given that most of the media is run by multinational corporations worried about liability and their bottom lines, how can the iffiness be removed from journalism, so that one can deliver a consistent product with no risk of liability?

Just like gold and silver have been replaced by fiat money, so truth in journalism is being replaced by ‘truthiness:’ it’s delivered like news, feels like news, but it’s not quite the same.

President Trump, shortly after he was inaugurated, called the phenomenon ‘fake news,’ which seems a reasonable name for it.  But what makes fake news different from real journalism?

  • It’s all about the narrative:  There’s nothing wrong with narratives in and of themselves.  They’re how we go from data points, like reports of incidents, to understanding.  But in real journalism, the facts drive the narrative.  In fake news, the narrative drives the facts.   The narrative determines what facts should be emphasized and which should be disregarded.  You can marshal enough facts to support the narrative that the United States was built on slavery, but the preponderance of historical evidence suggests otherwise.
  • Is it news or is it opinion?   There isn’t an absolute boundary, and reportage is always colored to a degree by the reporter’s perspective, but it used to be clear what was news and what was opinion.  Today reporting and opinions are allowed to mix.
  • Or just tell us what to think about it:  I noted back in 2014 of an NBC news item that we were told was ‘scary’ before any of the facts were presented.  It seemed an outlier then, but not so much now.
  • Lose your sense of proportion:  If a politician who has said nasty things about President Trump says something else nasty, it isn’t really news: it’s something we’ve basically heard before.  But one can advance the narrative by presenting it as a fresh revelation.  Just keep banging the drum: as my mother used to say, “it’s repetition that teaches.”
  • And now for a commercial break:  One of my jaw-dropping experiences on the treadmill came a couple of years ago while watching CNN, when a commercial for Tom Steyer’s ‘Need to Impeach’ initiative appeared.  The viewpoint of the commercial was so consistent with the content of the news program that, other than the request for a donation (to do what?), it was hard to tell them apart.  I accept that politicians running for office will run commercials presenting their own viewpoints and positions, but this bordered on propaganda.

It’s a troubling trend.  I’ll leave it at that.

The Democrats, So Far

I haven’t written for a while.  I wanted to write something in response to the shootings in early August: not so much the shootings themselves, but the media response to them. I was afraid that someone might come to the wrong conclusion about me.  But the world is changing, and not in a good way, and if I just shut up, I’ll still get trampled.  Maybe not right now, but sometime close enough to worry about.

Since then, I’ve been watching the Democratic Presidential debates.  It’s still too early to critically assess the candidates against each other, so it’s more a game of perceptions.  Some are wokescolds, some come across as genuinely Presidential, some are just annoying, and one seems like a crazy cat lady.

But I couldn’t vote for any of them.  Stripped of the rhetoric and the variations of individual candidates, they all have the same formula:

The American people are suffering and fearful.  Under my leadership, the Federal government will relieve your suffering and assuage your fears.  Under my leadership, the Federal government will bring help.

And if you don’t need or want help, too bad: you’ll get it anyway.

To be fair, it isn’t that Trump doesn’t pitch to fear and suffering: it’s what politicians do.  But Trump proposes to address the woes of his constituents by doing that which the government should have been doing in the first place, and not trying to fix things by regulation.

As I write these words, my mother’s pithy summary of the Republican philosophy rings in my head:

“I’ve got mine, so bugger you.”  (And yes, she actually said “bugger.”)

And if all the Democrats wanted were higher taxes, I might concede her point.

But I believe my mother would be horrified by what we’ve become.  No: she already knew: she said it herself, 15 or so years ago:

“We’re a spent people.”

A spent people, in need of help from the government, don’t care about liberty.

But liberty is what the Democrats propose to sacrifice in the name of helping the people, although for the most part they won’t say that out loud.  They do talk about gun control, but that would only be the beginning.

Plastic Bags

A while back, I was at the Trader Joe’s, buying groceries.  I had brought a reusable bag.

“Oh, aren’t you saving the planet!” the cashier said.

No, I’m just trying not to be wasteful.

She enthusiastically told me that the store had stopped providing plastic bags, and that it was wonderful ‘for the planet.’  The store now had only paper bags for carrying things home, unless you wanted to buy a reusable bag.

I’m skeptical:

  • Paper bags are bigger and heavier, and require more energy (i.e. fossil fuels) to produce and transport than plastic bags.
  • Plastic bags are more readily reusable.  They come in handy anytime one has extra items to carry.  Paper bags are good for covering school textbooks, but my need for that went away quite some time ago.
  • Paper bags can be a home for bugs.  When I moved out to my first apartment, I had a bug problem.  I sprayed under the kitchen sink, but the bugs migrated to the stack of paper bags I stuck between the wall and the refrigerator.

Beyond that, plastic bags don’t get soggy in the rain.  The one real environmental downside to plastic bags that I’m aware of is that if they are not disposed of properly or recycled, they can become litter and foul waterways.

But it really isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a big deal.  I’m not going to stop shopping in a store, or go out of my way to visit a store, because of bags.  If a store wants to provide only paper bags, or indeed only plastic bags, that should be their choice.

Alas, not anymore, not in New York.

Starting next March, it will be illegal for stores to pass out single-use plastic bags for carrying things home.  Smaller bags for meat or deli items will still be legal.  It will also be legal for restaurants to use plastic bags for takeout items.  As for paper bags, each county has the option of applying a five-cent fee for each bag, the proceeds to go to a state environmental fund.

Better living through government, I guess.  Thank you, Emperor Cuomo.

We’ll still go to the Trader Joe’s: they have good stuff at reasonable prices.  But my wife is on the lookout for plastic bags from stores that still have them.

When the ban goes into effect next year, I’ll still be able to get bags from the Chinese takeout.  But while I do enjoy Chinese takeout, I don’t enjoy it that much.

What about a lifetime buy?  How many bags would my wife and I need for the rest of our lives?  If I posit 200 bags a year for 40 years (I’ll be 97 then, and probably beyond caring about bags), that’s 8,000 bags.  Amazon sells a case of 1,000 bags for under $20.  For under $200, I could buy myself peace of mind on the plastic bag front.

In fairness, that’s still a bit silly, as buying bags in bulk will still be legal: how would the Chinese takeout get their bags?  Then again, I’m sure that this year’s initiative is just a start, and Emperor Cuomo or his successors will come up with cleverer ideas.

To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

The Border Emergency

Four years ago, I wrote:

One can construct a sensible immigration policy around the notion that the borders should be open. Such a policy would necessarily include restrictions on receiving public benefits, and effective enforcement against the relative handful that are genuinely criminal or otherwise dangerous.

Alternately, one can construct a sensible immigration policy around the notion of closed borders. Such a policy would include physical border security, and an immigration bureaucracy that actually works, so that our closed borders do not interfere with legitimate travel and tourism.

The horrifying thing is that we’ve done neither, and are continuing to do neither.

I’ll amplify a bit: our laws and regulations are based on the premise that the border is secure.  It’s against the law to simply walk in without presenting yourself and your stuff to the designated officials at the border.  Yet the border itself is not secure, and most of our leadership—both Democratic and Republican—seems OK with that.

Four years later, nothing has changed, despite our being more than halfway through the term of a President who made border security his signature issue.

President Trump asserts that there is an emergency at our southern border which requires him to reallocate funding from other purposes to build a wall and take other measures to secure the border.  Meanwhile, the rest of our leadership denies there is an emergency, and further asserts that Trump is bonkers for saying otherwise.

Is there an actual emergency?  I don’t know first-hand: I don’t live there.  And whatever may be happening there, one could argue that it’s hardly an ‘emergency’ because the same conditions have prevailed for years.

But reports from the people who live at the border suggest, if not an emergency, a continuing, serious problem.  And the government’s figures show that, after reaching a low in early 2017 (perhaps in the belief that Trump might, actually, enforce the border?) illegal border crossings have surged back to where they were a few years ago.

Whatever may be happening at the border, the real emergency is in Washington.

We have a President who has, like all Presidents, a duty to faithfully execute the law.  The law, in this case, operates on the premise that the border is secure, and there is therefore an executive responsibility to secure the border.  And President Trump is simply following through on that responsibility.

The emergency is that the rest of our leadership believes that enforcing the border is stupid or immoral or… something, and seeks to thwart the President from carrying out his duty.

If you really believe the borders should be open or that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) should be abolished, then make the effort and change the law.  If it’s really a moral issue, it’s a worthwhile project, although you won’t get results next week.

Until then, the law is what it is, and our President is bound to faithfully execute it.

After the ‘Shutdown’

I’ve been overtaken by the tail end of a project that has taken much of my time for the last several months.  My staff and I had to work nights and weekends, and through the holidays, to frantically get everything hooked up and operational, and finished the last part Friday morning.  We’ll have to do cleanup over the next few weeks, but that hopefully won’t be quite so manic.

*          *          *

The soap opera that was the government shutdown is over, for now.  President Trump will not get funding from Congress for a wall or other border security measures, for now.  It would be within the President’s power to allocate funds for the purpose by executive order, and he isn’t doing that, for now.

I respect the President for trying to force this issue, and I respect him for recognizing that he wasn’t getting anywhere.  What’s galling is that the Democratic leaders, Senator Schumer and House Speaker Pelosi, were in favor of better border security a few years ago, but are against it now that President Trump wants it.

It was a defeat for the President, of course, but not a ‘humiliation,’ as it was reported in the Daily News and other media yesterday.  Remember that Trump is not a politician by education or temperament.  He’s much more willing to take risks than a ‘normal’ politician, because he’s learned that, yes, risks sometimes go bad, and defeat stings, but you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try again.  He does not humiliate easily.

But what happens next month?

A proper way forward will require the parties to address each other with respect.  It’s hard to assess the dimensions of Trump’s respect—or lack thereof—for Schumer and Pelosi.  He’s given to making offhand tweets, but I’m not sure that means anything one way or the other.  I’m sure, however, that he recognizes the power they hold over the situation, and while he may not respect the people, he respects their positions.

On the other hand, the Democratic leadership seems to see Trump as somewhere between contemptible and beneath even contempt.  It’s not just that they voted for the other candidate in 2016: Trump is not their President.  If he can’t be removed from office (not that that won’t be a coming attraction), he can be effectively neutered by refusing to acknowledge him as President.

It’s a simple strategy, and demonstrably effective, for now.  All they have to do is stay the course.

For 2020, it will either work extremely well or extremely poorly.

Brett Kavanaugh

Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings to be the second appointee by President Trump to the Supreme Court were derailed by the accusation by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford that Kavanaugh held her down and tried to force himself upon her in the early 1980s, when they were high school students.

Let’s break the “he said, she said” deadlock and grant that events unfolded as accused.  How did the two of them get together?  They were at a party; they were friends; they knew each other.  They apparently rather liked each other, to the point where they wanted to be alone with each other.  But when Kavanaugh asserted himself, she resisted, and ultimately, he thought better of it and backed off.

If this had happened last week or last month, or even ten years ago, I’d agree this is a serious concern: I don’t want a Supreme Court justice who runs around attacking women.  But what about an accusation from two-thirds of a lifetime ago, when the participants were both teenagers, with their brains not yet fully cooked?  Moreover, Kavanaugh, as a serving Federal judge rising through the ranks, has repeatedly been background-checked by the FBI, and nothing of this nature came up.

While it may have been a sexual assault under the legal definition, more practically it was a case of botched consent.  (If there had genuinely been an assault, the proper course of action, even in the early 1980s, would be to call the police.  But that didn’t happen.)  Today, one is supposed to ask and receive permission every step of the way, giving a romantic encounter all the charm of an ICBM launch.  But this was another time.

We’re told that we need to believe the survivors of sexual assault.  OK: I’ll believe her.  We have an event that happened two-thirds of a lifetime ago, which, at the time, would have been deemed a youthful indiscretion.

Since then, repeated background checking over Kavanaugh’s adult life found nothing of concern.  The inescapable conclusion is that Kavanaugh grew up, became a responsible citizen, husband, and father, and the events of his adolescence shouldn’t be held against him.

What’s chilling is that the tale of Christine and Brett is hardly unusual.  Very few people are so pure of heart that nothing could be dredged from their past.  If this is the standard to which future Supreme Court justices and others subject to advice and consent will be held, we’re going to have trouble finding people who can meet that standard.

Then again, this could all be a put-up job.

Andrew Cuomo

Last Thursday we had the primary election in New York for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and some other offices.  It’s the first time that I can recall in my life that an election in the United States was moved from Tuesday.

But then, this past Tuesday was 11 September, the modern date that will live in infamy.  For me, it’s the day we learned our leadership is either stupid or evil, and to this day we’re afraid to find out which. Living well—or at least carrying on with aplomb—is the best revenge against terrorism, or stupid or evil governments.  Don’t let the bastards get you down.

Alas, I’m apparently in the minority.  11 September is supposed to be a day of moaning and interminable suffering, and not for normal things like elections.

Andrew Cuomo, son of Mario, won the primary and will be running for a third term in November.  His opponent this week was Cynthia Nixon, the actress who played Miranda Hobbes in Sex and the City. I knew it was a lost cause, but I voted for Cynthia, even though I disagree with most of her positions.  Then again, if a live turnip had been running for Governor, I would have voted for it.

It bothers me when a politician is himself the son of a politician.  (I’m sure we’ll have daughters of politicians running for office someday, and I’ll have the same objection.)  It says that talent is so thin on the ground that we have to look to the children of past leaders.  I thought hereditary government was something we fought a Revolution to get rid of.

Worse than that were his campaign commercials.  Cuomo’s campaign invective against President Trump rubbed me the wrong way.  It isn’t that I agree or disagree with his positions: I watched Cuomo’s campaign commercials and realized: I don’t like this person.  I want him to go away.

In contrast, in President Bush, we had someone who more clearly became President in 2000 as a result of electoral finagling, and who led us into a pointless war.  But other than John Kerry, whose entire platform running for President in 2004 was ‘I am not Bush,’ nobody felt the need to rail against Bush or make him the bogeyman.

Alas, Andrew Cuomo isn’t going away, and I expect that he’ll run for President in 2020.

Thwarting from Within

Lester Holt was almost breathless on Wednesday’s NBC Nightly News.  An anonymous senior White House official had written an op-ed published in the New York Times that day about how the President’s staffers were working to thwart his out-of-control initiatives.  The item was presented as an ‘unprecedented warning’ on the President’s condition.  This was followed by an unflattering snippet of President Trump denouncing the op-ed, looking especially boorish.  (But what did you expect him to say?)  Chuck Todd, NBC’s political director, seemed, on a quick listen, to go along with the message that the President is deranged.  But he actually said that the report itself was suspect, and that was the real cause for concern.

The op-ed itself is understated, compared to the overblown report on NBC.  While I wonder about the motivations of its author in writing for publication while asserting that he supports the President’s achievements, my more immediate impression was that the op-ed was dated: although it was written more recently, it reflected the situation early in the Trump administration, when the new President hadn’t yet gotten his bearings.  Donald Trump had never held any sort of elected office before becoming President, so it’s entirely reasonable to expect some learning curve.  But he—and we—got past that.

So why are we reading about circumstances from a year ago—which we could surmise from news reports at the time—now?

And why is NBC (and doubtless other media outlets) pushing the narrative that the President is going off the rails?

Yes, Virginia, there is a Deep State.

Are You a Citizen?

It seems an obvious question: so obvious, in fact, that I hadn’t really noticed its absence in all the times I’ve had to complete a Census.  In fact, on researching the issue further, it wasn’t really absent: in 1970 through 2000, the question was on the long-form questionnaire.  But the last time all participants were required to identify whether they were citizens in the United States Census was in 1950.

President Trump is planning to bring the question back for 2020, to howls of protest.  Nineteen state Attorneys General are contemplating suing the Federal government if the question is added.  The question, we’re told, would discourage immigrants, legal and illegal, from participating in the Census, leading to an undercount that would deprive states with large immigrant populations of representation in Congress (and, by extension, the Electoral College) and Federal aid of various stripes.

The Census is intended to be “an Enumeration” to establish “the whole Number of free Persons,” which includes (since slavery was abolished over 150 years ago, we’re all ‘free’) citizens and immigrants, regardless of their status.  Fair enough.

But not asking about citizenship is just one of many ways in which our leadership has made policy decisions in deference to people’s fears.  Some might be afraid to answer the Census if we ask about citizenship, so we won’t ask.  Indeed, the primary argument of the latest group of gun control advocates seems to be to emotion: guns are scary, and dangerous to our precious children.

Deferring to fear is not good public policy.  For years, we’ve been reluctant to address North Korea.  We’d make a deal with them; they’d do what they wanted anyway; we’d call them nasty names, but then ultimately make another deal.  President Trump has broken the cycle.  It’s a bit scary, to be sure, but it seems to be working.

Asking Census participants whether they are citizens is eminently reasonable.  The question should be asked.

Or is it that illegal immigrants—although they cannot vote—have become a part of the political power base of states like New York and California, and the leadership of those states doesn’t want to lose power?

Illness/Shooting/Rights

It’s the first honest-to-God weekend that I’ve had in a while.  I had work through the weekend over most of January and February, and before that was sick with what felt like the flu.

I woke up New Year’s Day with a mystery rash, on top of otherwise feeling rotten.  (No, not drunk.  I had gone to bed around 8 p.m., and woke up briefly around midnight to watch the ball drop on television.)  Feeling a little panicked, I went to the hospital.

Did you have chicken pox?” the doctor asked.

“Yeah… when I was six,” I answered.

The rash was apparently shingles, left over from 50 years ago.  The doctor prescribed some pills that, as far as I could tell, did exactly nothing.  The rash faded, very slowly, and I got better under my own power, drinking lots of orange juice, and tea instead of coffee.

Six weeks later, I got a note from my insurance company: the hospital had charged about $3000 for my little jaunt, of which I will have to pay $1000.

*          *          *

More recently, a troubled young man shot up a high school in Florida, killing 17.  Another nut with a gun: it’s the kind of event that seems to be happening more frequently, and the usual response from the media and politicians is for more gun control.

I have to disagree.

I’ll grant that, among the things that government can do, gun control is relatively simple.  But what about controlling the nut: the troubled young man behind the trigger?

School shootings appear to be almost exclusively limited to the United States, in the past 20 years or so.  Somehow, other places in the world seem to do an adequate job of nut control.  We did, too, in the past.  What changed?

To be sure, nut control, unlike gun control, can’t be done by fiat. It’s the responsibility of parents, siblings, teachers, friends, and anyone encountering a troubled young person in need of help.

But there’s more than that.  I’m coming to believe that something—likely more than one something—in our way of bringing up young people is causing young men to become nihilist exterminators.

Why not young women?  (All the school shootings I’m aware of have been perpetrated by males.)

That may be a clue.

*          *          *

My son, who has a more liberal outlook than I do, was mumbling something the other day about the National Rifle Association (NRA).  In the wake of the Florida shooting, the NRA has been denounced as an agent of the gun manufacturers, who are simply interested in selling more product.

Perhaps they are.  They are certainly lobbyists, seeking to influence the government to advance their agenda.

But their agenda is the Second Amendment, which states plainly, ‘the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.’  The Founders included the Second Amendment for some very good reasons, and it’s not something to cast aside lightly.

I live in New York City and I don’t own a gun: I don’t feel a practical need for one, and it’s too much trouble (so much for ‘shall not be infringed’) to acquire and keep a gun in my home.  But I reserve the right to arm myself, should I find it necessary, and if I can’t do so legally, I’ll move.

For that reason, I’m considering joining the NRA, even though I normally don’t think much of lobbyists.  The next time my son mumbles something about the NRA, I could show him my membership card and say, “Do you mean… me?”

And as far as the Second Amendment, I’d rather see an honest debate about repealing it than yet another measure nibbling around the edges.  If you believe that guns are a public health menace and should be banned on those grounds, and that the Second Amendment’s time has passed, stand up and say so.

Exercise in Futility

It’s been rather a while since I last wrote something here.  I’ve been frantically busy at work.  Until this year, I had exactly one instance where I had to pull an all-nighter (actually a bit more than that, as my all-nighters typically start around 7:00 am) in the service of my career.  This summer, I had four.  Such, it seems, is the way of the world….

*          *          *

Exercise Your Right to Vote

Recently, message boards have been installed in the subway stations that indicate when the next train is arriving.   On the whole, it’s a good thing.  But yesterday morning, I looked up and was reminded to ‘exercise my right to vote.’  It bothered me.  If a friend reminds me to vote, it’s OK; if the League of Women Voters reminds me to vote, they’re doing their job.  But when the people who run the subway feel the need to remind me to vote, I have to wonder what the racket is.

Alas, voting seems an exercise in futility.  This year, NYC elects a mayor.  The incumbent, Bill de Blasio, is almost certain to be re-elected, not so much for his stellar achievements, but because of a dearth of opposition.  The Republican candidate, Nicole Malliotakis, doesn’t seem to have much of a platform other than that she isn’t de Blasio.

I don’t like de Blasio: he’s an echo of the leftist mayors of the past who ran the city into the ground in the 1970s and 1980s.  On the other hand, other than his influence-peddling scandals, I can’t see that he has actually done anything terribly wrong.  The wheels have not fallen off the city; crime is still at historic lows; we still have something that vaguely resembles prosperity.

But that’s hardly a ringing endorsement.

The other major item this year is a referendum to hold a state Constitutional Convention.  The US constitution is short (20 pages, give or take), concise, and to the point.  The New York State constitution runs to about 300 pages, and includes all sorts of things that should properly be in the domain of the state legislature.  As a result, the actual state legislature is reduced to nibbling around the edges, and a legislature with nothing useful to do is truly the devil’s workshop.

One of the provisions of the State Constitution is that, every 20 years, there should be a referendum on whether to hold a Constitutional Convention.  Such a convention could propose amendments which then would go before the voters.

There are many who are opposed to a convention.  Civil servants, for example, don’t want anyone to change the provision that civil service pensions are sacrosanct: they can be increased at will (which the politicians will do when they’re feeling flush), but never decreased. And even if you believe that the State Constitution needs a kick in the pants, the Convention will likely not be much help, as it will be filled with the current political class, with a vested interest in the status quo.

Still, hope springs eternal.  I made the effort and got to the polls in a driving rain.  I voted for Nicole and for a constitutional convention, even though I know they’re both losing propositions.  I got an ‘I voted’ sticker, something that has appeared in NYC voting places in the last few years:
I Voted

I have to wonder what the point of the sticker is: my fascination with stickers started to wane… when I was six.

Presidents Don’t Matter

In August 2013, or so we were told at the time, the Syrian government launched a chemical attack against one of its own towns, killing by various estimates between 300 and 1700 people.  The Syrian government vehemently denied that it had done such a thing, and a UN investigation was ultimately inconclusive.

At the time, our Dear Leader, President Obama, felt the need to intervene and positively stop such attacks in the future.  But there was not the political will to invade Syria, so instead he moaned about how someone could take this problem off his hands.  The Russians were happy to oblige.

A week and a half ago, or so we were told at the time, the Syrian government launched a chemical attack against one of its own towns, killing under 100 people.  The Syrian government vehemently denied it had done such a thing.

At the time, President Trump felt the need to send a message that such behavior would not be tolerated.  He sent a bouquet of cruise missiles to destroy the airbase from which the attack was launched.  The matter was over and done with within 72 hours.  And the media started to regard Trump as an actual President, rather than a blithering idiot.

If the attack really took place as described in the media, then President Trump’s response was appropriate.  We don’t need to invade Syria, but we do need to keep our word that some things are unacceptable.

I want to believe that.  I really do.  My life would be much calmer that way.  My problem is that some things just don’t fit:

  • Why would the Syrian government do such a thing? They had supposedly cooperated with the US and the Russians to rid themselves of chemical weapons.  Using them now would throw all that away, and anger Russia, their new patron.
  • What’s the point of a chemical attack that kills under 100 people, many of them children? It won’t accomplish any rational military objective, and will only make everyone mad.

The compelling alternative is that the attack earlier this month was a put-up job, staged to frame the Syrian government.  There are others besides the Syrian government who would have far more to gain from an alleged Syrian chemical attack.

And if that’s the case, then either President Trump knows it’s a put-up job, or he doesn’t.

  • If he knows that the attack is fake, then he has not only failed to ‘drain the swamp’ as promised, he has neatly ensconced himself as Head Alligator. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and surprisingly quickly.
  • If he doesn’t, and he was misled by our intelligence agencies, then the conspiracy theorists are right: there really is an entrenched, unelected shadow government that has the real power, and the elected officials are just window dressing.

In either case, the bottom line is that this episode has demonstrated that Presidents don’t matter.   If Hillary Clinton had won the election, I don’t see how things would have happened differently.

But beyond that, it’s been several years now, and I’m still perplexed by our official animus against Syrian President Bashar Assad.  It isn’t just chemical weapons: we’ve tolerated various stripes of tyrants against their own people in the past, because they were our allies against a larger adversary.  Saddam Hussein, a genuine evil dictator, was our bestest friend for years because he stood against the Russians.  As the leader of a secular Arab state, Assad should be a natural ally.  But he isn’t.

That, alas, is a question for another day.

No Repeal

I railed against Obamacare (officially the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) in these pages when it was enacted in 2010.

On the other hand, it really hasn’t had much of a practical impact on me and my family.  For just about all my adult life, I’ve had health insurance one way or another.  Going without is not an option: a trip to the hospital for almost anything costs tens of thousands of dollars.  Many of the features of Obamacare (equal premiums for men and women, no exclusion of pre-existing conditions, etc.) were already the law in New York.  I didn’t have a health insurance plan that I was particularly attached to, so it didn’t bother me when the insurance company changed my plan at renewal time to something compliant with the new regulations.

In fact, the only thing I really noticed was that there was a little bit of a lull in premium increases for a couple of years (and even a cut at one point, on changing plans), and then the premiums resumed their skyward march (between about 7% and 22% every year).

In one of my posts, I anticipated that health care might end up swallowing even more of the nation’s GDP than the 17% or so in 2010, but that hasn’t happened: health care as a percentage of GDP has remained steady since Obamacare was enacted.

Nevertheless, although my objections are more philosophical than practical, I still consider Obamacare the worst public policy decision of our time.  For years, the Republicans railed against it, and swore they would repeal it, given the chance.

Last week, they tried, and failed.  A bill was drawn up, then withdrawn as there were not the votes to pass it.

And now, all sides are engaged in pointless posturing.  The Democrats are crowing that they saved Obamacare from the jaws of the Republicans; President Trump is blaming everyone but himself.

But the plan to ‘repeal’ Obamacare was fouled up from the beginning:

  • House Speaker Paul Ryan went to great lengths to discuss the process by which Obamacare would be undone, but there was little discussion about what the Republicans would do. (Not coming across anything in the press, I finally had to turn to Wikipedia for a coherent explanation.)
  • As a result, the opposition was able to seize the narrative: they’re trying to take your health care away from you!
  • The most salient feature of the American Health Care Act was that it dropped the requirements for individuals to carry insurance, and for large employers to make it available to their employees. But many if not most of the people for whom this is an issue have the means and the inclination to secure their own health insurance (whether on their own or through their employers), and would do so even in the absence of a mandate.
  • The most toxic features of Obamacare, including the requirements to issue insurance regardless of pre-existing conditions and to allow children to remain on their parents’ policies until halfway to middle age, are the most politically popular, and were taken off the table by President Trump before any of the negotiations started.

Ultimately, it’s on the Republicans to present a compelling alternative to Obamacare, rather than nibbling around the edges.  Sadly, I’m not sure that’s possible.

When countries have implemented ‘socialized medicine,’ there have always been limits.  Whether they are designed into the program to begin with, or are worked out in implementation, there are necessarily limits, because the resources of even a prosperous nation are finite.  But under Obamacare, everyone has the right to health insurance that can, in theory, provide infinite benefits.  (After all, one’s health is priceless!)  This theory hasn’t been tested yet, but that will come in time.  And while Obamacare does admit administrative limitation of benefits, that hasn’t happened yet.

Consequently, the Republicans are in a position where they must compete with the theoretically infinite benefits of Obamacare.  They can’t argue that Obamacare is unsustainable, not only because the problems haven’t emerged, but because the whole Federal government, on its present course, is unsustainable.  They’re constrained to keep the elements of Obamacare most in need of change because those elements are politically popular.  And ultimately, they can’t practically propose to really repeal Obamacare, and they’re stuck with uselessly fussing with it.

At this point, we’ll have to wait until the whole enterprise keels over to try again.

President Trump’s First Week

A week ago Friday, I stopped to watch President Trump’s inaugural address.  Halfway through, I was almost expecting machine guns to open up and blow him to bits.  How dare he say things like this, when we’re all supposed to be caught up in the moment:

But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.

This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.

But, in fact, he’s right.  We are a troubled nation, and the first step in fixing the troubles is acknowledging that they exist.

The next day, I dug up Obama’s address from 2009, and replayed Trump’s version.  There were telling similarities: both Presidents were representing themselves as a break from the past and a new direction.  But Obama was polite and circumspect, like a politician, while Trump was blunt and forceful, like a new CEO brought in to resurrect a failing corporation.

*          *          *

Enough with the posturing, already.

Many fewer people showed up to witness Trump’s inauguration in 2017 than Obama’s in 2009.  The weather was worse this year; Trump is another white guy; many in the northeast United States, within 200-300 miles of Washington, supported the other candidate.  Perhaps some people even imagined that machine guns might open up in the middle of the inaugural address.

But then the new Administration waded into the issue to challenge what seemed an obvious truth.  It doesn’t accomplish anything and just makes them look petty.

Similarly, the President of Mexico, perhaps riled by some of President Trump’s statements, cancelled his planned visit.  Trump responded:

The President of Mexico and myself have agreed to cancel our planned meeting scheduled for next week. Unless Mexico is going to treat the United States fairly, with respect, such a meeting would be fruitless, and I want to go a different route.

No, you didn’t mutually agree: he cancelled.  If he hadn’t, the meeting would still be happening.  Don’t pretend otherwise.

*          *          *

Yesterday’s Daily News featured a graphic of the Statue of Liberty weeping in response to President Trump’s executive orders on immigration.  “Trump needs to read the inscription on the statue,” someone remarked at the restaurant where my wife and I were having lunch.

Well, maybe.

A century ago, the ‘huddled masses’ and ‘wretched refuse’ came to America under their own power.  They saved their money and paid for their own passage.  They knew there were hardships and dangers, and that they would have to adapt to their new land, not the other way around.

It would be one thing if people organized a charitable endeavor to bring refugees into the United States.  The government’s role in this would be issuing visas for entry and nothing more.  Congress could authorize some quantity of refugee visas to be paid for by the taxpayers, but that would be it.  The charities running the operation would be responsible for transportation, providing a place for the refugees to stay when they arrived, and acclimating them to life in the United States.

But that isn’t what’s happening.  The government is funding, at taxpayer expense, the arrival of these refugees.  There are religious organizations, functioning as government contractors, doing the work.

We didn’t do this a century ago.   Why do we feel the need to do it now?  What national interest does it serve?

Alas, I didn’t get the memo.

Russian Hacking?

“CIA believes Russia helped Donald Trump win the White House,” read the headline in the Daily News back in December.  How did they accomplish this extraordinary feat? I wondered.  Hacked voting machines in Pennsylvania?  Mass hypnosis in Oklahoma?  Itching powder in Hillary’s bedroom?

Alas, nothing quite so dramatic:

Officials briefed on the matter told the Washington Post the assessment found that several individuals with close ties to Moscow provided anti-secrecy site WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails in order to boost Trump and harm Hillary Clinton’s chances.

OK, they may have a point.  We don’t know how WikiLeaks gets the documents that it publishes, and, although WikiLeaks denies it, it’s entirely possible that the trove of e-mails published in the runup to the elections came from Russia.

But in that case, whose fault is it?  The Russians, for pursuing their national interests, or Hillary, for maintaining a private e-mail server that was eminently hackable?  And the Democratic party, for not doing proper IT security?

It’s particularly interesting that nobody has suggested that the WikiLeaks e-mails are bogus.  WikiLeaks had to be stopped—so said our President—not because they were fanciful storytellers, but because their documents were real.

So the Russians influenced our election… by making available information that the government would rather we didn’t know?  Given that the information was acquired as a consequence of the carelessness and hubris of our leadership, how is this a bad thing?  Sorry, guys: the exclusionary rule (that information gained in violation of Fourth Amendment rules cannot be used in a criminal trial) doesn’t apply.  Hillary Clinton is not on criminal trial.  (Or does someone imagine that she is?)

For the moment, let’s grant the report as written.  It’s entirely plausible that (a) Russia forwarded hacked e-mails to WikiLeaks, and (b) did so to favor Trump in the election.  But does that mean that (c) in the absence of such action, Hillary would have won?

I doubt it.

In the weeks before the election, WikiLeaks e-mail reports made the rounds of the alternative media, but didn’t get very much play in the mainstream media.  As far as Hillary herself, the e-mails didn’t really deliver any new revelations as much as confirmation of what we had already surmised.  It’s a preposterous stretch to go from ‘Russians delivered hacked e-mails to WikiLeaks’ to believing that ‘Trump won the election thanks to Russian hacking.’

In the following week, we learned:

  • The President knew about ‘Russian hacking’ several weeks before the election, but our leadership claimed that they didn’t act because they didn’t want to appear to be favoring Hillary. But there were rumblings in the news at the time, and if the President wanted to do something, prudence would dictate that he would have to do so quietly, without calling a press conference.
  • The Republicans suffered hacking attempts from the same actors, at about the same time. But the GOP is apparently better at IT security, and the hacking attempts were not successful.

I had expected this issue to go away after Trump was confirmed in the Electoral College vote on 19 December.  But it’s still with us, and today Congress will vote to ratify the Electoral College results and confirm Trump as President-elect.

Our current leadership has been briefed on this issue, and seems to believe it, even though no specifics have come out in the press.  (I guess all the specifics are deep dark secrets.)  Trump is scheduled to be briefed today, and even though he’s given to running off at the mouth on Twitter, I don’t expect that to happen this time.

We shall see….

Reaping the Whirlwind

Madam President

Shortly before the election, Newsweek went to press with an issue commemorating Hillary Clinton’s victory.  They made a business decision and took a calculated risk, and they lost.  But some of the inside front cover copy caught my attention:

…But as the tone of the election went darker and more bizarre by the day, President-Elect Hillary Clinton “went high” when her opponent and his supporters went ever lower….

Well, maybe.  Much of Hillary Clinton’s campaigning was built around the notion that she is not Donald Trump.  But, in any event, she didn’t have to run a negative campaign.  The media ran it for her.

It’s normal in politics to favor one candidate over another, and it’s normal (and appropriate) to point out a candidate’s shortcomings.  Ultimately, the voters assess the good and the bad about the candidates, and make their decision.

Donald Trump has made many insensitive remarks, some of them borderline racist.   But there is a big difference between making a racist remark and being an actual racist.  We all know people who are given to running off at the mouth and saying stupid things, but we know that they don’t mean anything by it.  (Alternately, there are some who would say that racism is America’s original sin and that we’re all racists.  But even then, there is a big difference between a mere sinner and a Ku Klux Klansman.)

The media seemed to overlook this essential difference.  Perhaps it’s that in the modern world, no story is worth telling if it can’t be told in five seconds.  Perhaps it helped to sell newspapers.

And Trump refused to play the game.  He could have walked back his statements and gotten all mumbly, and shown himself to be Just Another Useless Politician.

The media came to tell us that Trump is not just a man who runs off at the mouth, he’s a racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic bigot.

It’s normal in politics for a candidate to call his opponent nasty names.  But among politicians, there are limits: after all, you might need a favor from your opponent, or his party, in the future.  This is the first time I’ve seen the news media vilify a candidate on their own power.

In fairness, there have been radio announcers and other public figures who lost their jobs over making insensitive remarks.  It’s totally OK, when assessing candidates for office, to make a similar judgement and hold a candidate’s remarks against him.  It’s OK for a newspaper to run an editorial endorsing whatever candidate the newspaper prefers, under whatever criteria they care to use.  What isn’t OK is for a newspaper or TV network to let their editorial viewpoints color their non-editorial reporting of events.

Perhaps it makes for exciting television.  But it can backfire, not just for the news media, but for the rest of us: what happens if the ‘evil’ candidate wins?

*          *          *

In other news, South Korea has been overtaken by political protests: people are very angry at their President, who is resisting calls to resign.  It seems that Madam President in Seoul, among other things, has been sharing government secrets with a female personal advisor who has no security clearance.

And we’ve hardly heard a peep about it in the US.  I wonder why….

Popping the Bubble

Fire Hydrant

Perhaps.  But you could say the same thing about Hillary Clinton.

Last night, I was watching election returns in a restaurant with some friends in the Upper East Side.  It was a little before 9:00: early returns put Trump and Clinton about even.  We had just paid the check.

“Do I want to see the 9:00 projections?  No, I don’t.” I told the group, and left.

I headed down Second Avenue, got a Citibike, rode it across the Queensborough Bridge to Long Island City, and got a G train home.  The ride cleared my head.

But I’ve had a bellyful of this election, and I didn’t want any more.  When I got home, I finished some paperwork—studiously avoiding anything that even smelled like a news report—took a shower, and went to bed.

And now it’s 5:09 Wednesday morning, and I still don’t know who won.

But having lived through a few Presidential elections, I can tell when my preferred candidate is about to lose.  It’s not that I think Trump is a great guy.  But we need a new direction in this country, and Clinton, as far as I can tell, will continue the policies of her predecessor and keep us limping along for another few years.

I actually bought a copy of Stronger Together, the Clinton campaign book, to try and understand where she was coming from.  While the description of our problems in the first chapter is spot-on, the solutions she proposes are either vague, ineffective, or will make the problem worse.  I realized just last night that the vague policy prescriptions are a feature, not a bug: if you don’t put forward specific policies, people won’t be able to object to them.

Yesterday, I discussed the vote at some length with my son.  He voted for Clinton.  His reactions to events were almost the opposite of mine: Clinton’s private e-mail server, which hit me like a punch in the gut (she’s disrespecting her office and the American people!), seemed a bit of abstract technological trivia to him.  And Trump’s offhand remarks, which struck me as the mark of a man given to running off at the mouth, hit my son like a punch in the gut (how dare Trump even consider messing with a woman’s right to choose?).

In any case, it’s time to pop the bubble.

Trump won!

My sense of ‘a candidate about to lose’ was off this year.

There may be hope for us, after all….

The Seeds of Its Own Destruction

Twenty-five years ago, when the Soviet Union imploded, I remarked that ‘Communism carried the seeds of its own destruction:’ the Communists worked really hard at educating their own people (when in the past education had been limited to the very wealthy and to royalty), and after a couple of generations, the newly educated people realized that they didn’t want to be Communist.  The Reagan Republicans were so proud that they had defeated Communism, and while they doubtless accelerated events, the writing was on the wall before they started.

As I’ve been watching a lackluster economy muddle through the last few years, I’m starting to wonder if capitalism doesn’t carry the seeds of its own destruction, as well.  I always understood capitalism as somewhat of a competitive sport, and competition brings the need for optimization: why do X when Y is easier/better/cheaper/faster?  If you don’t optimize, your competitors will.

But what if optimization leads to destruction?

The other day, my wife was watching a speech by Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal and the first outside investor in Facebook.  (The introduction and the graphics are in Korean, but the speech and the Q&A session afterward are in English.)

And about five minutes in, I heard something that was jaw-dropping:

People mistakenly think that ‘capitalism’ and ‘competition’ are somehow synonyms.  I think they are antonyms.

On one level, of course, Thiel is right.  The most profitable businesses are those that don’t have to compete.  The ideal case is a monopoly, but running an enterprise subject to heavy government regulation (which has the effect of making competition impossible) or being a member of a cartel (so that you don’t have to compete on price) is almost as good.  Once an enterprise gets to a certain size, it can lobby the government to enact regulations to ‘protect the public’ (that sounds good!) but more practically serve to entrench the enterprise and preclude competition.

Moreover, competition is, well, wasteful.  It means that companies must do things that won’t always succeed, and will sometimes lose.  If we could optimize away the need for competition, the waste could be turned into profit.

While that may be a charming thought, competition is what keeps capitalism dynamic.  Capitalism without competition is… something else.  It may be corporatism, or fascism, or even feudalism.  Capitalism without competition is the fat, dumb, and happy getting fatter, dumber, and happier, and the rest of us getting screwed over.

And there is the nub: in optimizing past the need for competition, capitalism has defeated itself.  It no longer does the things we expect capitalism to do: it doesn’t provide opportunities on a broad scale; it doesn’t inspire us to do better and try harder.  Unless you have connections or are spectacularly lucky, post-competitive capitalism has nothing to offer you.

Is This What the End Looks Like?

About a week ago, a fluorescent desk lamp in the office failed.  No problem, I thought: the bulb must have burned out.  I was ordering office supplies anyway, so I threw in a couple of replacement bulbs for this particular lamp.

The next day, the bulbs arrived, and my assistant changed out the bulb.  It didn’t work.  Further investigation revealed that the little electronic module in the base had burned out.

Oh, crap.

It is now illegal in New York City to throw electronics in the trash.  On the other hand, light fixtures can be tossed.  So what was this thing sitting disassembled on my desk?

I deemed it a light fixture, bound up the cord neatly, and threw it in the wastebasket.

If I disappear all of a sudden, now you know: I was hauled off by the trash police.

This morning, I passed Staples on my way to work.  This particular Staples opened not too many years ago.  Whenever I’ve been there, it’s always as quiet as a library.  I’ve never seen it busy.  But as I had bought the lamp in question from them a few years ago, I thought I could pop in and get a new one.

“Desk lamps?  We don’t carry then anymore.  You’ll have to order them through the Web site,” not one but two staffers told me.

So here I am, in midtown Manhattan, presumably the focal point of the entire known universe, and I am unable to buy a simple desk lamp.  In another time, not that long ago, there would have been a half-dozen commercial office supply shops within spitting distance, any one of which could supply a desk lamp.  But now there is just Staples, and they no longer carry them.

Fluorescent desk lamps used to be somewhat clunky things, with the tubes in a steel enclosure topped with a red button to turn the lamp on and a black button to turn it off.  I remember them from my youth and my first experiences in the working world.  They were clunky but pretty much indestructible.  Surely someone must still make them, right?

A peek at Amazon turned up something similar to what I remember.   But the customer comments told a sad story: a couple of years ago, the manufacturer changed the internals of the lamp, replacing them with cheap Chinese junk.

You really can’t go home again.

*          *          *

Recently, Samsung had the distressing position of having to recall millions of their latest Note 7 phone because its battery had a tendency to explode.  But Samsung’s woes are far from over.  This afternoon brought another tale of things falling apart.  The Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a warning about Samsung washing machines, recommending that people use only the gentle cycle to wash some items because the machines had a tendency to shake themselves to bits.

C’mon, people: it isn’t rocket science: it’s a bloody washing machine.

*          *          *

And just as I was wrapping up my thoughts about Samsung washing machines, my laptop screen went dark.  I rushed to plug it in, and my text was still OK, but the screen was flickering terribly.  A restart brought everything back to normal, but that was another unpleasant surprise.

But then again, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised.  My laptop, after all, is more cheap Chinese junk.

The Genius of ISIS

A week ago Saturday, at about 9:30 am, a pipe bomb went off in Seaside, New Jersey, along the route of a charity race.  Nobody was there because the race had been delayed (ironically enough, by a suspicious package): if things had gone as planned, the consequences would have been more severe.

That night, at around 8:00 pm, an explosive device went off in a dumpster on West 23rd Street, injuring 29.  Another device, in a pressure cooker, was found by police a few blocks away.

Mayor DeBlasio was quick to note that the 23rd Street explosion had ‘no evidence at this point of a terror connection.’   After it happened, given recent events in San Bernadino and Orlando, and the guy who tried to set off an SUV bomb in Times Square a few years ago, I imagined the perpetrators of these events as people who were born in the United States, grew up here, and then turned to radical Islam.

I was close.  The alleged perpetrator of both the Seaside and New York events arrived in the US as a refugee from Afghanistan as a child, became a naturalized citizen, went to high school in New Jersey, and worked as a fry cook at his father’s fried chicken place.

So what happened?  Therein lies the genius of ISIS: they don’t actually have to do anything, in terms of actually committing violence, to be effective.  This isn’t to say that ISIS isn’t doing anything, or that we don’t have be mindful of the possibility that they might do something, but that’s not the real problem.  All ISIS has to do to be effective, and encourage others to commit violence on their behalf, is present a compelling alternative to the vapid cultural neutrality of our time.

Consider the case of a young Muslim male growing up in this country.  His parents tell him that he has to keep his religion under wraps when dealing with others.  Even if there isn’t overt discrimination, those who might otherwise be his friends would be weirded out.  And many Christian and Jewish parents, I’m sure, tell their children the same thing.

As he grows up and sees the world around him, it doesn’t fit with his upbringing.  It isn’t so much a matter whether it fits with Islam or not.  Our secular culture encourages us to indulge in whatever physical pleasures come to hand, and reminds us that morality is a quaint anachronism.

And then what?  Well, find some more physical pleasures.

And if you’re still unhappy?  Then there must be something wrong with you.  We have pills for that.

And then our young man finds out about ISIS, and it’s a revelation.  There are rules; there is right and wrong; there is honor in doing the right thing.  ISIS is bold, strong, compelling, and dangerous.  And if you fail, you will have died with honor, with 72 virgins waiting for you.

Indeed, it’s a compelling alternative even if you aren’t a Muslim.

So what do we do about it?

The icky part is that the government can’t fix it.  The best they can do is to turn the country into a police state, watching everything we do and say and read.  And if they could monitor our thoughts, they’d do that too.

For my part, I don’t want to live in a police state, even if they can effectively protect me from terrorists and terrorist wannabes. Imagine the most officious, overbearing boss you can, and then imagine him in charge of your entire life, and if you disagree with him, he can kill you or throw you in prison to rot. I’d rather take my chances with terrorists.

The government can also address the threat of terrorism by going to war, i.e. ‘taking the fight to the enemy.’  We’ve been at it for 15 years now, having accomplished, well, zilch.

This isn’t to say that government doesn’t have a role in fighting terrorism at all.  The government should be looking out for threats from abroad, as well as such domestic threats as can be discerned while respecting our Constitutional rights.  A few years ago, people asked ‘should terrorism be dealt with as a law enforcement matter?’ with the notion that those who answered in the affirmative were really soft on terrorists and the real answer was to use the military.  But having seen how that worked out, I’m not so sure.

But the real answer, the more difficult answer, is that we—all of us—need to build a society in which the nihilism of ISIS is not a compelling alternative for a young person looking to make something of his life.  And the government, by itself, can’t do that.

Ten Reasons

I’ve become disgusted with the Daily News of late.  The newspaper has become a fount of left-wing propaganda, and they seem to believe that there is a special place in Hell set aside for Donald Trump.  The other day, Trump surrendered to the reality that running around and deporting all 11,424,767 illegal immigrants is probably not a practical course of action.  The News ran an editorial calling him out for flip-flopping on what had been his signature issue.

I’ve gotten to the point where I’m ready to stop reading the News, and it was in that frame of mind that I read the headline on last Friday’s paper:

Here's what I have to lose...

I was hoping for some cogent analysis of what was wrong with Trump: was there something I was missing?

Well, maybe.

The article is basically list of the things that the author believes he would be giving up by supporting Trump.  The top ten:

  1. My dignity.
  2. My self-respect.
  3. My standing among family and friends, black or white, and anyone who has ever held me in high regard.
  4. My future.
  5. My children’s future.
  6. Their children’s future.
  7. My mind.
  8. My soul.
  9. All rational thought.
  10. My lunch.

While it would be fun to ridicule this list, that isn’t my point.  The items that the author believes that he will lose by supporting Trump all relate to his feelings, and only very indirectly, if at all, to the candidate’s policy positions.  The author has come to believe that Trump is a dangerous bigot, and there is probably nothing that Trump could do or say to change his mind.

In fairness, it’s probably true that Trump’s candidacy, by going beyond the bounds of politically correct discourse, has encouraged the genuine bigots who are out there: they believe they’ve found a friend.  But that can’t be helped: if not for Trump, the bigots might have latched onto Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush.

*          *          *

Yesterday’s News put forward the notion that ISIS would rather see Trump become President, because they believe that a President Trump wouldn’t know what to do with them.

OK, this one I will ridicule:

  • ISIS is, supposedly, the enemy. Why would we seriously believe their opinions on the American political process?  There is such a thing as disinformation.
  • Our ‘strong and competent’ leadership has been running around and chasing their tails for three years or so now, with very little to show for it.
  • The solution to ISIS is, in fact, simple. We created ISIS when we wanted to go after the Syrian government, but there was no political appetite for direct military action.  So we armed ‘the moderate rebels’ instead.  We need to stop doing things like that.

Running Off at the Mouth

It’s a common occurrence during a political campaign: the candidate says something that’s a little off-message, or represents a contradiction to his past record, and is called out for it.  And the candidate goes mumbly, acknowledges his mistake, and goes forward with his message a little more muted.

Donald Trump is different.  He runs off at the mouth on a regular basis, gets called out for it, and regrets nothing.  And it seems crazy.

But I don’t believe that Trump is approaching the campaign as a politician running for office.  He’s approaching it as something like a business deal, although a little different in the need for public involvement.  To this end:

  • There’s no such thing as bad publicity, as long as they spell your name right. During the primaries, Trump would say this or that and get free press coverage, which accomplished far more than he could through even an aggressive advertising campaign.  He was able to effectively bring his name and his ideas across the country, and present himself as a compelling alternative to the more ordinary sort of Republicans.
  • Manage your counterparty’s expectations. In negotiating a deal, besides resolving the actual terms of a deal to one’s best advantage, the smart negotiator endeavors to manage the counterparty’s expectations, so that the one’s interests are preserved and the deal will be executed smoothly.  In Trump’s case, the terms of the deal are fixed: he’s running for President.  But if he gets mealy-mouthed every time he gets called out, it will hamper his ability to be President if he should be elected.  So he regrets nothing.
  • Be prepared to walk away. In business, there is such a thing as a bad deal.  You negotiate with someone, and for whatever reason, you can’t secure a deal that advances your interests.  When that happens, there is no dishonor in abandoning the effort and walking away.  But a politician running for office is normally overtaken with the desire to win at any cost.  He will almost literally sell his soul and say whatever he believes he needs to say.  While Trump prides himself on being a winner, he isn’t going to change himself into a conventional politician: he doesn’t have the temperament for it.  And he has enough self-respect (some would say ego) not to try.

So I can’t get upset with Trump for running off at the mouth: it’s part of who he is, what he learned from a lifetime in business and not politics.  While I personally think it’s admirable, I expect that not everyone will agree.  Fortunately, there’s a ready remedy: vote for someone else.

Demicans

There are lots of ways to organize a world, and many of them work, at least in the short run:

  • There can be such a thing as a benevolent dictator. But they usually don’t last: they either get corrupted by power, or their successors have other plans.
  • When I traveled to Chile a few years ago, I had the sense of it as a country that had gone through the wrenching transformations we are facing now, and come out the other end. But Chile had been under a military dictatorship for over two decades.
  • Soviet Communism had a pretty good run: for a time, they were our only real rival on the world stage. But Soviet Communism carried the seeds of its own destruction, in their belief in educating—really educating—the populace.  After a couple of generations, people realized that they didn’t want to be Communists any more.

But all of that is beside the point now: our leadership knows the one, the only, and the proper and correct way forward.  They’ve been to college, studied real hard, and unearthed the Awesome Nugget of Eternal Truth.  The news media knows and understands the Awesome Nugget as well, but knowing which side their bread is buttered on, won’t explain it out loud.

And so, whether Democratic or Republican, our leaders subscribe to the same basic tenets:

  • Big government: Since the United States is the world’s most powerful nation, it stands to reason that we should have the most powerful government.
  • Big surveillance: And our big government has its first responsibility to protect us from the evil terrorists.
  • America the global hegemon: And of course, we have the absolute right, if not duty, to throw our weight around the world.  All in the name of freedom, of course, and protecting ourselves from the terrorists.
  • Entitlements forever: It isn’t just that Social Security is the third rail of American politics: contemplating cuts to entitlements would be an admission that we aren’t the nation we used to be.
  • Free trade: The market works most efficiently when it is unconstrained by artificial rules like borders.  So let’s not have any.
  • Open borders: And while we’re having open borders for things, why not people too?  Immigrants do wonderful things for our country: we should be glad to have as many as want to arrive here.  (Having not studied the Awesome Nugget myself, I’m not sure how that’s supposed to work, but I’m sure that’s my own shortcoming.)
  • Fiat money: Money is an abstraction, and deficits don’t matter, if we have a big enough rug under which they can be swept.  Fiscal responsibility is a quaint virtue from another time, like waiting until you get married to move in together.  Tying ourselves to a known scarce commodity (like gold or silver) is a relic of the past, and unnecessarily limits our ability to implement our plans.
  • Too big to fail: Our big government lives in symbiosis with big business.  Just as it would be disastrous if government itself were to fail, it would be almost as bad for a Citibank or a General Motors to fail.   The effects would not be confined to that one firm, and would spread through the economy, to catastrophic effect.  So we won’t let that happen.
  • The Constitution as a dead letter: We can’t say this one out loud: after all, the President’s oath of office still calls for him to ‘preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.’  But the Constitution is really a quaint anachronism, not suitable for a modern superpower.
  • Climate Change: Whether it’s real or not doesn’t matter: without an overarching ‘emergency,’ how else could we advance the rest of our agenda?

Now an individual politician, running for office, might rail against a couple of these points: whatever works to get him elected.  Once in office, however, he will follow the program.

This, then, is the Demican party platform.  You may think of other elements, but I think I’ve covered the basics.

Now, in fact, the two ‘radical’ candidates for President, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, have in fact accepted most of these tenets as gospel.  Each has only really challenged a couple of them.

What makes them dangerous is that, having amassed a following by challenging the Demicans, they might actually follow through if elected.

Ghostbusters 2016

Yesterday, my wife and I went to see the new Ghostbusters movie.  I’ve grown accustomed to present-day remakes and ‘reboots’ being a disappointment, but in that respect, the new version did well.  The characters fit the story, and the story flowed well.  I was entertained.  To its credit, the movie contemplates aspects of the Ghostbusters story that the original skipped, like the characters’ pasts, and the development of the tools.

To be sure, the movie turns, like most modern remakes, on overwrought computer-enhanced visuals rather than dialogue.  It has its funny moments, but lacks the sparkle and wit of the original.  I waited in vain for someone to say something like, “When someone asks if you’re a god, you say ‘YES!’!”  The scenes set in the subway were a bit lame, as well: I used to work for the outfit, and know how things are supposed to work.  But on the whole, I was enjoying myself, so these are minor quibbles.

What’s more distressing is in the details, where we see how the world has changed in the last 30 years.  It isn’t that the Ghostbusters are women this time around: it’s that they don’t know to call themselves ‘Ghostbusters’ until someone on television calls them that.  The original Ghostbusters entered the trade to ‘get rich,’ i.e. to make a productive living: the new ones don’t worry about that.  And the relationship between the Ghostbusters and the government is different: in the original, the Ghostbusters are left alone until an EPA bureaucrat decides they may be harming the environment; in the new version, they’re called before the Mayor before anything really happens, and are told to go about their business, even though they will be denounced as a fraud.

It’s a pleasant entertainment for a Saturday afternoon, but, alas, you can’t go home again.

Gender, Reconsidered

I’ve had a ‘well, maybe’ moment.

Look Past Pink and Blue

The graphic above is part of a publicity campaign from the city government.  While I’ve been railing against the notion of equal access to restrooms, it has, in fact, been the law in New York City since 2002.  It hasn’t been a problem: in fact, it’s been such a total absence of a problem that I didn’t even know that we had such a law until this graphic crossed my desk.

So I must withdraw my objection that allowing equal access to restrooms is a license for perverts.  It hasn’t happened, at least not to an extent that would suggest a problem.  I stand corrected.

Being able to go to the bathroom should not be a civil rights issue.

And yet, I wonder about the animus against the binary notion of male and female.  ‘Look past pink and blue,’ the ad says.  But for more than 99% of us, our reality is that we are pink or blue, female or male, one or the other, not both, and not neither.  And even for the transgendered, the notion of ‘pink or blue’ persists: a person is transgendered if his perception of himself as male or female does not match his equipment.  ‘Charlie,’ in the graphic above, seeks to present himself as male, whatever his origins.  If I met him on the street or at work, and didn’t know the back story, I ’d think of him as a dude, and not consider the matter further.

What is so horrible about pink and blue?

Gender

When I was very little, I learned the concept of what I now know as ‘gender:’ people are male and female, boys and girls, men and women.  I was really young when I learned this concept, so young that I can’t remember not knowing it.  And along with gender, I learned some other concepts, which I never really thought about until much later:

  • Essentiality: A person must have a gender.
  • Binary states: One is male or female: there is no other alternative.
  • Mutual exclusivity: A person must be male or female. One cannot be both at the same time.
  • Immutability: One cannot change one’s gender.  (One can impersonate the other gender, but it isn’t the same thing.)

I learned all of this just by observing the world around me.  So far as I know, my parents never had to explain this to me, nor did I have to explain it to my son when he was little.

So now we’re facing the onslaught of people who believe that requiring men and women to use different bathrooms is somehow evil: you’re denying people their basic human right to a comfortable place to pee!  We’re told that we have to look out for the transsexuals, who need to go to a bathroom that does not correspond to their physical gender.

Since this is ludicrous on its face, it’s actually pointless to argue logically against it.  Ayn Rand said, ‘Don’t bother to examine a folly—ask yourself what it accomplishes.’  Nevertheless, to establish that the issue in question is a folly, it is necessary to argue against it:

  • Yes, there are some (very few) transgendered people who have issues with using one restroom or another. But there are many more maladjusted but otherwise normal men who enjoy peeping at women’s private parts.
  • There are also many more non-transgendered people who have no question about which restroom to use, but are nevertheless uncomfortable with public restrooms. I used to be one of them, and I got over it as I got older.  It isn’t the responsibility of the world at large to furnish me a comfortable place to pee wherever and whenever I need it.

And what does this accomplish?

  • It raises what seems on its surface to be an affectation to a ‘protected class,’ where to even identify it is to be discriminatory.
  • It’s another way to get people who disagree to shut up for fear of offending someone. (Remember that liability makes cowards of us all.)
  • It’s another effort to erase the distinction between men and women. But this difference has been part of our nature since the beginning, and has been integrated into every human society to date.  It seems pointless at best and dangerous at worst to try and eliminate it.

None of this means that men and women shouldn’t have civil equality.  Men and women should have the same rights before the law and in commercial transactions, including receiving the same pay for the same work (this last has, in fact, been the law in the US for over 50 years).

But underneath it all, men and women are different.  That difference is to be respected, admired, cherished, and enjoyed.  To deny, disparage, or deprecate it is to deny reality.

Feeling the Bern

Every Sunday night for the last three weeks, I’ve reminded myself that Tuesday is Primary Day and I have to vote.  And for the previous two Mondays (but not today), I’ve corrected myself that the New York primary election is on the 19th.

On one level, I shouldn’t care.  I’ve written in these pages previously that all of the candidates are, to put it politely, useless.  And I could reasonably say that I don’t have time: my duties this week have me leaving the house at 0530; I have to catch up with paperwork after hours; the polling place is in a really awkward spot, not near a subway station.

Beyond that, I’m a registered Democrat.  My parents were, and up until maybe 2000, I would consider the candidates for an office and often decide that while the Republican candidate’s views were closer to my own, the Democrat seemed to be less of an arrogant asshole.  I’ve thought about changing, but to vote in the Republican primaries this year, I would have had to change my party registration by last October.  And it wasn’t clear back then that the Republican primaries would be as interesting as they turned out to be.

Still, it’s Election Day, and I have a choice.  And our country is troubled: I have to make the effort, pointless though it may be.

And my choice, for tomorrow, is Bernie Sanders.

I actually disagree with Sanders on many of his policy decisions.  While I believe that there may be room for the rich to pay more in taxes, I don’t believe that we can tax enough to finance some of Sanders’s more grandiose schemes.

But if Bernie Sanders is elected President, with a Republican Congress, the result will be gridlock.  And that is, in fact, a good thing: it means that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats will be able to make things worse.  Gridlock worked for the deficit: after years of trillion-dollar deficits, the figure has dropped to less than half that.

In contrast, Hillary Clinton is just another Demican (Republicrat?).  The Republicans will rail against her, as they do against Obama, but in the end will go along to get along. (And I’ll skip, for today, all the other reasons I don’t believe Hillary Clinton is unsuitable to be President.)

Our country needs a change.  Unfortunately, the change we really need will be necessarily painful and disruptive, especially in the short term.  And the government—even if it were an absolute dictatorship—can’t fix our problems by fiat.  Until we can face reality, then, the next best alternative is a government that does nothing, so that at least it can’t make things worse.

And so tonight, I’m feeling the Bern.

(Or is it that I just had too much to eat?)

 

Mixed Bag

“Donald Trump is not a gentleman,” remarked my wife the other day.  She’s right, but then again, neither is Ted Cruz.  The two of the got embroiled in what seemed a bar fight over pictures of the candidates’ wives.  (I’m not going to fill in the details here: if the whole soggy saga gets lost to posterity, it can only be an improvement!)  At this point, I may end up voting for Bernie Sanders as the only candidate who (a) acts like a responsible adult, and (b) isn’t dead on the vine.

  • One might vote for Hillary Clinton because she’s a woman, or because she presents herself as the logical continuation of the Obama administration. But Clinton, sadly, embodies everything that we love to hate about male politicians, and many people, myself included, believe that Obama is the worst President in modern times.  Moreover, she across as stale and tired in her speeches.  Even if I were on the fence and willing to consider her as a candidate, she needs to present herself as someone who actually wants the job.
  • John Kasich probably has the best head for figures of any of the candidates, and is the most likely to actually fix our problems. Alas, unless he can get people’s attention, his candidacy will go nowhere.  But that seems to be the plan.  I can almost imagine some Republican Party guy making the pitch: “We want you to run for President.  But realize that you won’t be the nominee: we just want you to be there to take momentum away from any oddballs that might show up.”  I’d have told the Party guy to fuck off, but that’s just me.

*          *          *

I initially had nothing useful to say about last Tuesday’s terrorist attacks in Brussels.  But as news reports came out that the perpetrators were already known to the intelligence services, but that the Belgians were somehow unable to stop them, I began to wonder.  Apparently, what we’re supposed to do is let the potential terrorists into our midst, then maintain a police state to monitor what they’re doing and jump on them just as they’re about to attack.  Wouldn’t it be far simpler and cheaper not to let the potential terrorists into the country in the first place?

*          *          *

And for that reason, I can’t get upset with President Obama for not aborting his trip to Cuba to address the Brussels attacks.  When he woke up in the morning, the attacks were already a fait accompli.  It wasn’t like 11 September, when the United States was actually under attack while President Bush continued his visit to a Texas kindergarten.  (On that day it would have been so simple to say, “I’m very sorry, but something has happened that requires my immediate attention.  I have to go.”)  But this time, the deed was done: the Belgians have emergency services that can clean up the mess: all that’s left for our President is to utter the usual rot about how we stand with the victims.

What was creepy about the Cuba visit, however, was the President’s decision to have himself and his entourage photographed in the shadow of the Che Guevara mural in Revolution Square.  The Cubans had planned something different, but the President had everyone move so that Che was in the background.

For many years, I though the Cuban embargo was pointless and stupid, but it’s probably not practical for us to simply admit that.  But that isn’t what I think is happening now.  We’re reopening relations with Cuba not because we acknowledge that the embargo hasn’t accomplished anything useful, but because Cuba and the United States are converging.

“But Cuba is a totalitarian surveillance state!” I hear you cry.

And what are we becoming?

The Vast Two-Winged Conspiracy

I didn’t want to write another Donald Trump piece, but recent events have been too compelling.

Last Friday, a Trump rally in Chicago had to be cancelled because it was overrun with protestors and became a civil disturbance.  Yesterday, the Daily News issued yet another editorial remarking that ‘Trump must be stopped.’

It’s the nature of politics that one is ‘for’ one’s preferred candidate, and ‘against’ the other guy.  But there is a big difference between ‘I’m against X,’ and ‘X must be stopped.’  To say that someone ‘must be stopped’ is to call for some extra-political force to smite one’s opponent.  That isn’t politics: it is, at best, a bar fight.

So now, in addition to the Republican establishment calling for ‘Trump to be stopped,’ we now have left-wing agitators trying to stop Trump, literally.  The convergence is unsettling.  It’s not just a left- or right-wing conspiracy anymore: it’s a two-winged, capable-of-flying-around-on-its-own-power conspiracy.

But I still don’t understand what’s actually evil about Trump.  I can understand why one may not like him, or might want someone else to be President, but that’s not the same as saying Trump is evil.

It seems to be the vogue to compare Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler, or at least to raise the thought before abruptly backing off.  But let’s do the comparison:

Adolf Hitler was a pathetic loser in real life until he discovered politics.  Donald Trump has had his ups and downs, but, on balance, has been a big, big winner.

Hitler targeted the Jews because it was convenient, and advanced his agenda, even though Jewish people had nothing to do with Germany’s troubles at the time.  Trump is identifying the Mexicans and Muslims as our adversaries because they either really are our adversaries, or there is a reasonable association.

In fairness to the Mexicans, the actual movement of individual Mexicans across the southern border has been going on for over a century, and, on the grand scale of things, isn’t a major national security problem.  But that doesn’t mean the border shouldn’t be secured, as more dangerous things and people than impoverished Mexicans can cross a porous border.  And since Mexico would necessarily be on the other side of a fortified border, it’s a reasonable simplification to say that Mexico is the problem.

As far as the Muslims, imagine that the couple alleged to be responsible for last December’s San Bernadino attack were overly pious Christians, taking up assault rifles against people for not going to church every Sunday and for listening to rock music.  The notion of Christians shooting up a workplace in the name of their religion is ludicrous, in part because Christian scripture doesn’t admit such behavior.

But Islamic scripture is different.

Moreover, throughout our history, we have chosen to restrict immigration when we deemed it in the national interest.  We don’t have the moral obligation to bring the refugees of the world to our shores, and, in particular, don’t have the obligation to provide such refugees government help.  When ‘The New Colossus’ (‘…give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…’) was set into the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, we were not a welfare state.  The bargain was that we would let you in, and you would then have the opportunity to work for a living.

In another time, we wouldn’t have to be concerned that an Islamic terrorist might slip through as a refugee.  A century ago, we expected that immigrants would assimilate to American culture.  They could hang on to their cuisine and many of their traditions, but they were expected to drive on the right side of the road and respect our laws and our Constitution.  And if someone wanted to resort to violence, others would try to talk him out of it, and if that failed, report the matter to the authorities.

But individuals have to take part in this process.  Alas, we’ve become afraid to call someone out for fear of offending him, or appearing to be Islamophobic or whatever.  While it is possible to leave this matter to the government, in order to try to protect us, the government will necessarily have to turn into a police state.

Or the government can do the simpler, less intrusive thing, and not admit Muslims as refugees.

Yes, Trump is petulant, and he’s thin-skinned.  But so is our Dear Leader.

Yes, Trump is an elitist.  But so are all the other candidates: he’s just more open about it.

Yes, Trump is a fraud and a liar.  But Trump is unlike the other candidates in that he has had to suffer the consequences of his actions.  He’s been sued and gone bankrupt… and recovered.

No, Trump will not ‘make America great again.’  No President can, single-handedly.

The bottom line: Trump is a rotten candidate for President, just like all the others.  But he isn’t evil.

And if you believe that Trump ‘must be stopped,’ check your premises.  You’ll find something is seriously wrong.

They’re All Frauds

My life would probably be easier if I simply disregarded Presidential politics.  Even though I’ve come to believe that Democrats are mostly useless, I haven’t changed my party registration, so my choices in the upcoming primary are Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.  I don’t like either of them, but pressed to a choice, I’d vote for Sanders: Clinton has demonstrated such disdain for the American people that she has disqualified herself.  But I suspect that’s a lost cause.

And New York has traditionally been a Democratic state, to the point where Presidential candidates haven’t bothered visiting in years, except to attend fund-raisers.  Then again, Trump is a New Yorker.  So unless Trump is the Republican candidate, New York will almost certainly go to Clinton.  And nothing I could do, even if I had ten thousand like-minded friends, would change that.

So if I put this all out of my mind, I can make my life much easier.  I’ll worry about it in November.  And even then, what I think about the candidates won’t matter.

Alas, the temptation to talk about politics is irresistible.  Some brief observations:

  • My opinion of Trump has gone down in the past weeks.  It isn’t so much his past (which I’ve known about) as his attitude.  He’s petulant, and a sore loser.  He also gets demerits for referring to one of his opponents as ‘little Marco.’
  • If Trump becomes President, I’m not sure how he would be able to satisfy people’s expectations that he would ‘make America great again.’  The government cannot create prosperity: the best it can do is create an environment in which people can be prosperous for themselves.
  • Nevertheless, I’d rather have Trump than Clinton.
  • And on the subject of Clinton, many support her on the grounds that she will continue the policy directions of President Obama. That, in itself, makes sense.  What’s strange is that President Obama has been the worst President that I can ever remember, and his policy directions have been, on average, breathtakingly bad.
  • I don’t take seriously this month’s polls about ‘Republican candidate X vs. Democratic candidate Y.’  We’re still learning about the candidates, particularly the Republicans.
  • For all we hear about Rubio’s modest upbringing, he has become curiously rich, not through his own productive effort, but through miraculous real estate transactions.
  • I want to like Cruz and Rubio: it’s encouraging to see young talent.  But both are supporters of more war (why, oh why, did we feel the need to get involved with Syria to begin with?) and enthusiastic supporters of the surveillance state.
  • John Kasich gave the best performance in last Thursday’s debate: he came across as the only adult among the candidates.  But he needs to make a more compelling presentation of himself in order to have a chance.

The essential problem is that all of the candidates are frauds.  Some are more fraudulent than others, but they’re all pretty much useless.

  • The United States is not an exceptional nation because like to think of ourselves as exceptional, or because we were somehow blessed by God.  We are an exceptional nation because we were founded on exceptional ideas.  We have strayed from those ideas, and are suffering the consequences.
  • We were able to field the world’s most powerful military because we had the most powerful productive economy at home to support it.  A productive economy includes things like manufacturing, agriculture, and transportation.  It does not include trading in third-hand, second-rate mortgages, health care as an industry, or consultancies to establish and maintain regulatory compliance.
  • To return to our core values will be difficult and painful.  As we’ve moved away from genuinely productive activities, we’ve filled in the void with non-productive activities that nevertheless transact trillions of dollars and hire millions of people.

The last President to level with us was Jimmy Carter.  He failed, not because he picked bad policy directions, but because he was politically inept.  Every President since then has tried to blow up the American people with happy talk, while the underlying rot continues.

And none of the current candidates are any different.

The Ninny State

Mayor DeBlasio: Stay Indoors!

Yes, it was cold last weekend.

When I was a kid, we had a name for that.  We called it, ‘winter,’ and expected that every year would bring a week’s worth of really cold weather requiring one to bundle up, think warm thoughts, and, yes, not go outside without a good reason.  There were also snowstorms, and the one or two oddly warm days that made one believe that beach season was only a week away.  We accepted it all as normal, and somehow got through it without guidance from our political leaders.

So I’d like to believe that anyone with half a brain can figure that it’s cold and it’s best to stay inside without a pronouncement from our Dear Local Leader, Mayor DeBlasio.

Does he really think his citizenry is that stupid?

But then again…

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Variations of the above image, with straight and gay couples, have been plastered everywhere in the city.  They are on subway stations, trains, buses, and advertising wraparounds of the free newspapers that one picks up on the way to the subway.

Perhaps I’m an old fudd, but I’ve always believed (even when I was a young fudd) that sex is best enjoyed in the context of a committed relationship.  I have to question the wisdom of the city government encouraging people to swing from the chandeliers (as long as they play sure!) when it apparently believes those same people don’t have the sense to get out of the cold.

And then again…

A while back, I went to the Department of Health offices to get a copy of my birth certificate.  It’s an ordinary enough government office, and the process is simple enough: get the form, fill it out while waiting on line, hand in the form with $10 (may have changed of late) and your ID, and walk out with the document.

But in addition to the stacks of forms, the Department of Health office was also stocked with fishbowls full of condoms.  I had to wonder: were some people overtaken with desire that they had to do each other on the spot?  And should the government be encouraging such activity?

Supermarkets

When my wife and I moved into our current apartment in 2003, there were three nearby supermarkets.

The Key Food on Court Street closed a few weeks after we moved there.  It was replaced by a drugstore.  At the time, we didn’t think much about it.

A couple of years ago, the Met Food on Smith Street closed.  It wasn’t the nearest supermarket, but it was close enough, and near a subway station, so it was convenient, and they had good meat.  It now appears that the building will be demolished and replaced with overpriced apartments.

That left the Pathmark, a bigger, almost suburban supermarket in an industrial space by the Gowanus Canal, with a parking lot out front.  But Pathmark is an A&P brand: A&P went bust last year, and the store closed just before Thanksgiving.  (‘A&P,’ short for ‘The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company,’ was one of my earliest childhood memories.  Oh, well….)

One used to be able to take for granted that living in the city meant being no more than 10 minutes’ walk, at the absolute limit, from a functional supermarket.  But not anymore.

Now, there are still plenty of places to buy food:

  • There are a couple of gourmet grocery stores on Court Street, with good produce and really expensive meat.
  • There is a Trader Joe’s on Atlantic Avenue, in a former temple-of-capitalism bank building. Trader Joe’s turns on the notion that if one carefully selects the merchandise, one can have a functional grocery store in a relatively small space.  And it works: about 90% of the foodstuffs we buy come from there.  But the place is maniacally crowded on Sundays and the day before a holiday (or snowstorm).
  • There is a Fairway in Red Hook, about 15 minutes away on the bus. They include a full selection of packaged goods, as well as a full gourmet grocery selection.  But they’re expensive and a bit awkward to get to.
  • And there is the nearest old-school supermarket, the Key Food on Atlantic Avenue. I was in high school when the place opened in the 1970s.  It’s cramped and a bit decrepit.  While it’s a serviceable supermarket, it’s a hike from our apartment.

While we’re not at risk of going hungry, there is no longer one place that we can readily visit that has meats and vegetables and pasta sauce and diet Coke and dish soap and toilet paper, all under one roof, at reasonable prices

While Trader Joe’s has most of the foodstuffs covered, they’re wanting in the packaged goods department.  Some of the drugstores sell detergent and other household items, and cases of soda, but it’s a bit hit-or-miss.

I found that Amazon, of all places, has many of the packaged goods, in larger sizes than the grocery stores (e.g. 27-roll packages of toilet paper), but at competitive prices with free (postal service/UPS) delivery.  It boggles the mind that, someone in a far-off warehouse can box six cans of pasta sauce, and post them to my house, for about the same price (actually a little cheaper!) that I would pay in a supermarket.

The only non-perishables that Amazon doesn’t do well are beverages: bottled water and soda.  I could pay for Prime Fresh, but the extra $200/year over Amazon Prime isn’t worth it.  (Prime Fresh also has groceries—including perishables—for overnight or later-the-same-day delivery.  But having tried them before they raised the price, they’re only so-so at meats and produce.)  But I’ve found other sources for those items, as well.

It used to be so simple, and now it’s gotten so weird.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump burst on the political scene last summer, declaring himself a candidate for President and telling us that he would get Mexico to build a fence on our southern border, because:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.

On one level, it was ludicrous: Mexico (i.e. the Mexican government) doesn’t send anyone to the US, except a handful of diplomatic personnel.  The influx of Mexicans represents ordinary people, both good and bad.  (In fact, net migration from Mexico has almost zeroed out in recent years: the US economy has been so rotten that many Mexicans have found better opportunities at home.)  And it strains the imagination to conceive of the means by which Trump would force Mexico to pay for the wall.

But it resonated with many people, including me, because it seems clear that our current leadership is not serious about securing the border, and one of the essential attributes of a place that wants to call itself a ‘country’ is that it has a functioning border.

And Trump has gone on, since then, gaining popularity to the point where he is the leading contender for the Republican Presidential nomination.  It’s been interesting:

  • There was a minor dustup a few months ago when Trump did not did not rebuke a questioner for asserting that President Obama is a Muslim. In fairness, Trump, as a Republican, is a member of the opposition, and doesn’t have a duty to correct what may be a mistaken impression of our President.  But beyond that, a person’s religion is not just the sort of building he visits to pray, or the day he does it: it’s a set of values in one’s soul.  Our Dear Leader has made any number of speeches extolling Islam and deprecating Christianity: judge for yourself.
  • Shortly after, while we were considering admitting Syrian refugees, Trump proposed that we halt all legal admission of Muslims (even for business or tourism!) to the US. That would be, perhaps, a step too far, but far better than admitting tens or hundreds of thousands of refugees.  Contrary to our Dear Leader’s assertions of ‘who we are as a people,’ historically we have restricted entry to the US, either generally or selectively, when we believed that such was in our national interest.  And we have no moral obligation to take refugees from war-torn areas, even where we are one of the belligerents: war is supposed to be a temporary condition, and peace is supposed to return… eventually.  (Alas, our Dear Leader is taking refugees by executive order, and the Republicans, to their eternal discredit, agreed to fund the effort.)
  • In the earlier debates, Trump and Ted Cruz seemed to be, if not allies, at least sharing common views. But more recently, now that Cruz is doing better in the polls, Trump has questioned whether Cruz, born in Canada to a US citizen mother, is eligible to be President.

It is this last point that seems most telling about Trump.  Underneath it all, there are no principles: he does and says whatever advances his interests at the moment.  Cruz was an ally, until he started doing better in the polls and became a threat, and then he wasn’t.

Trump is also one of the croniest of the crony capitalists, having made much of his money by playing local governments to get tax abatements and the like for his projects.  And some of his remarks as a real estate developer give pause.  He remarked that Fifth Avenue in Midtown should be given over to luxury retail, and stores addressing a more modest audience should be elsewhere.  (Alas, I can’t put my hand on the exact quote.)  Fifth Avenue (a stone’s throw from my office) is successful as a commercial venue because it has something for everyone.  It isn’t Rodeo Drive, and I hope it never will be.  There are parts of Manhattan that are given over to luxury retail.  I don’t go there: they’re boring.

Still, Trump is willing to name the elephant in the room that nobody else will dare discuss, and the policy directions that he has discussed so far are at least pointed in the right direction.  And it is for that reason that he is the candidate that, right now, I dislike the least.

Alas, even if he should be elected, I’m sure that, in short order, he’ll turn into just another politician.

Still, one can at least hope.

Song of the Year 2015

The end of the year is closing in, and once again, it’s time to consider my Song of the Year for 2015.  But first…

I didn’t write a post on the subject last year, but if you must know, my Song of the Year for 2014 was:

Word Crimes, Weird Al Yankovic

After initially watching the videos on YouTube and being disappointed by the music, I later bought a copy of Mandatory Fun in a moment of desperation.  But listening to the music while doing something is not the same as watching a YouTube video.  The music started to grow on me.  ‘Word Crimes’ is energetic and rails against sloppy English, one of the persistent annoyances in my life.

And then a really strange thing happened: I started noticing the original songs on which the Weird Al parodies are based.  It seemed that the Weird Al version was correct, tight and clean, and the original was a sloppy imitation.  What does it mean when Weird Al and his group are better musicians than the original artists?

Anyway, on to this year:

Penalty Box: Almost There, but So Wrong

Writing’s on the Wall, Sam Smith (Theme from Spectre)

I’ve written about this song before.  The music is beautiful, but the lyrics are full of doubt rather than confidence, and are delivered in a whiny countertenor.  It isn’t what you want in a James Bond theme, unless your intent is to defrock Bond as a hero.

Runners Up, in No Particular Order

What Are the Chances, Duran Duran

Paper Gods, this year’s album, was a disappointment, but not a total wasteland.  ‘What Are the Chances’ is one of the best contemplative Duran Duran songs ever.  It’s beautiful, but for me, the Song of the Year has to be more energetic.

Danceophobia, Duran Duran

Also from Paper Gods, this song is more energetic.  While it has many of the flourishes that make Duran Duran songs so cool, it’s lacking in substance.  (And if you’re burning with curiosity, the real word for ‘fear of dancing’ is ‘chorophobia.’)

Confident, Demi Lovato

I was watching the American Music Awards with my wife a few weeks ago.  The music was listless, dreary, annoying.  And then this came on.  It’s energetic, exciting, and brassy (not much brass in popular music these days!).

And the Winner

Who Can You Trust, Ivy Levan (Theme from Spy)

My wife and I missed Spy when it came out in theaters earlier this year, but watched it as an in-flight movie.  The movie itself is silly and fun, in a way that too many current movies aren’t, without being inane.  The theme song is expressive and powerful and everything that a real James Bond theme song should be.

The Scripted Emergency

A week and a half ago Wednesday, three men with rifles shot up a conference room in a center for the developmentally disabled (try saying that ten times fast!) in San Bernadino, California, killing 14 and injuring about 20.  I found out about it at the gym that day: I was annoyed because I wanted to watch Judge Judy while on the treadmill, but all the major networks had been pre-empted.

The reporting came across as less of a news event and more of a manufactured pageant: the announcers regurgitating the same three sentences’ worth of facts while we saw the same shots of the outside of a building and distressed people.  It was, in brief, a scripted emergency.

Later the story changed: there were not three assailants but two: a native-born American citizen and his Pakistani/Saudi wife, conveniently shot dead by police.  One of the shooters just quietly disappeared from the narrative.  And on Friday, the news media were invited to rummage around the couple’s home, with all sorts of documents left behind by the FBI, barely two days after the event.

The story has been leading the network news programs ever since, even though there still isn’t much to tell.  The event has been labeled ‘terrorism,’ as if that declaring the event as such is somehow momentous.

Yes, the event is what we, today, call terrorism.  From what we know about the motives of the killers, we now know that it was an event of Islamic terrorism.  But this type of terrorism only has power to terrify if the people are told about it.  Does this event merit wall-to-wall coverage, when all we really know fits in a couple of paragraphs?

The news media are as much terrorists as the shooters themselves.

Sunday night, President Obama, our Dear Leader, addressed the nation, telling us nothing we didn’t already know.  He ducked out of the Kennedy Center awards to make a 13-minute Oval Office appearance, and then returned to the festivities.  He wants people who are on terror watch lists (‘no-fly lists’) to be denied the right to buy guns.

It’s a charming thought, but it wouldn’t have stopped the San Bernadino shooters, who had squeaky-clean records until last Wednesday.  And it flies in the face of our Fifth Amendment (no person shall be denied life, liberty, or property without due process): the process by which one is added to the terror watch list is a deep dark secret, with no way of finding out about it until you try to fly somewhere.  For all I know, I may be earning myself a spot on the list by writing and posting this essay.

The Dear Leader also wants us to embrace the hundreds of thousands of Islamic refugees that he proposes to bring from the Middle East.  What they are seeking refuge from is not entirely clear, given that the vast majority are Muslims.  We have no moral justification (a story for another day) to bring then here, and even though they may not be associated with ISIS or al-Qaeda or any of those groups, I can’t see how they can bring anything but trouble.

I don’t really know how a young American-born man and his Middle Eastern wife embarked on a path of terrorism.  I’m not sure it really matters.

But it’s clear to me that the government and the media are doing far more to advance the cause of Islamic terrorism than the terrorists themselves.

They should stop.