The Mess We’re In 

I really hate seeing friends arguing on social media whether Americans are suffering from a mismanaged pandemic, a media run amok, or a massive conspiracy to destroy our civil rights.

I think we’re suffering from a massive campaign to divide and depress us. Nations who oppose our power must be loving this.

But staying out of the fray is no real option. We need a narrative to understand what is happening.

I stand with the mismanaged pandemic faction.

 I suspect those willing to sacrifice others’ lives for their civil rights would be fighting another bogeyman if this pandemic hadn’t come along.

And I gladly admit it’s possible COVID-19 won’t live up to predictions that the deaths will total somewhere between the number our military suffered in World War II and the total population of Idaho. We’re working at keeping that number down.

But last week the incompetence of our administration was on parade.

President Trump has insisted that leadership in this crisis remain with the states. Instead of having one entity–with the powers granted under the Defense Production Act–negotiating with manufacturers, we have 50 states competing with one another and dozens of other countries.

 A study by ProPublica found that the cost of basic medical supplies has increased “up to 15 times”–that’s 1500%.

A reporter for CBS News got the admiral in charge to admit that the medical supplies other countries are sending us are not being distributed by FEMA, but being sold by corporations.

And there’s every chance these are the same supplies the U.S. shipped to these countries in February. China alone got 17.8 million tons then.

And a company that received $13.8 million of taxpayer money to develop a small ventilator refused to sell any here because it’s getting better prices overseas.

The headlines, however, went to Jared Kushner’s assertion that the government’s stockpile of medical supplies was not meant for the states. Do the Feds have a secret stash of U.S. citizens elsewhere?

Last week 873 Americans died of COVID-19. Our current total, 9,325, is only ¾ of the 12,469 deaths from the 2009 swine flu. Worldwide deaths are 68,150; swine flu estimates range from 151,700 to 575,400

There were three worldwide epidemics between 2009 and 2019: MERS, 2012; Ebola, 2013; and Zika, 2016. Together, they killed fewer than 12,500 people, including only one in the U.S.

Medical and government people around the world had learned from the swine flu. The U.S. joined other countries in fighting diseases in the country where they originated to prevent spread. A global health security team was added to the National Security Administration.  PREDICT was started to speed up and organize the hunt for diseases that spread from animals to humans. And a 2016 handbook detailed necessary procedures.

In spite of the four epidemics in the decade before he took office, President Trump dismantled these preparations.

He cut overseas staff of the Centers for Disease Control; the staff in China went from 47 people to 14. The global security team was dissolved in 2018  PREDICT was disbanded in Oct. 2019–just four months before COVID-19. And the handbook was meaningless without personnel.

And,11 days after the World Health Organization declared a health emergency, Trump released a budget cutting the Center for Disease Control’s budget by 16%.

The President is giving himself A+ grades, but the editorial board of the Boston Globe got it right. “The president has blood on his hands.”

Notes from a time when handwashing made headlines 

How long have we been ‘sheltering in place’ now?  Four months? Five? 

Less than three. 

Can’t be!

And it’s weeks. 

Three weeks. We’ve done the jigsaw puzzles, learned to play Set and Frozen Trouble, worked out a home-school schedule for the 8 year-old, set up an obstacle course outside, and given thanks for ‘screens’–our links to the outside world.

And I’ve spent some time wondering how people will remember this time. Will they smile while remembering the musicians of the Rotterdam Philharmonic performing together from homes scattered throughout the city? Or musicians such as Dave Matthews, Rob Thomas, and Garth Brooks broadcasting solo performances to entertain home-bound fans?

Will they remember how their hands stung from frequent washing?

And how schools wrestled with the problem of getting food to students at home?  Will they remember teachers planning to get activities on-line while fretting about the kids they know don’t have Internet access?

And kids restless with the loneliness of missing their friends?

Will ‘toilet paper’, ‘handwashing’, and ‘six feet’ become permanent additions to American humor? Or will they be considered grim reminders? (Time Magazine quotes the message board of an Austin restaurant: “Single man w/TP seeks single woman w/hand sanitizer for good clean fun.”)

Will we remember a time when sacrifice drew us together or when fear deepened the divisions among us?

A lot of Idahoans have complained that Gov. Little’s March 25 order to self-isolate was too little too late. Others complain that he has gone too far.

Theoretically, if we could stop all people with COVID-19 from interacting with others for two weeks, the disease would die out. Figures coming out of China indicate that’s working for them.

No one expects that will work here. To start with, 22 states do not have shelter-in-place orders (NYT, March 28).

Gov. Kay Ivey of Alabama called for non-essential businesses to close, but didn’t issue isolation orders because “we are not California.”  Alabama had 541 confirmed cases on Thursday and 762 by Sunday.

As a friend in Kuna posted, “I feel like the kid who has to stay in at recess because other kids have been bad.”

The problem is worse because we don’t know who is ill–and won’t until we can do a lot more testing.

The city of Vo, Iceland, tested all its residents and found that half the people with COVID-19 were unaware of it.

And, yes, some Idahoans with symptoms have to wait two weeks to get the results of their tests–14 days where not only hugs, but chatting with friends over coffee, is taboo. We’re not equipped to test everyone who might be a carrier.

Will this be remembered as a time when people called their neighbors to see if they needed anything?  When people supported stores that couldn’t open by purchasing gift cards? When the staff at the Y called their senior members to make sure they were all right?  When 20,000 Idahoans joined the Idaho Covid 19 Mutual Aid Group on Facebook?

Or will Americans be remembered as scalping toilet paper on Marketplace at $30 a roll?  As singling out Democrats, Chinese people, and New Yorkers as scapegoats? As calling upon “grandparents” to accept death in order to save the economy?

I long for a leadership that calls upon our best instincts and urges us to act on our humanity, not our fears. One that confers with a wide range of experts to pick a course that’s best for the country and sticks with it.

But, absent that, may we care for one another–and keep washing our hands.

A major fear means a major economic bust

Repeat after me, “Republicans cannot be trusted with the economy.”  

Again, “Republicans cannot be trusted with the economy.”  

No, I’m not saying the Trump Administration’s delay in getting people tested for coronavirus caused an economic downturn. 

As I wrote in August, “inflated assets and fear cause economy-wide downturns.”

I didn’t foresee that a virus would instigate that fear.  

For 45 years, Republicans have pumped more capital into the economy, creating surpluses that inflate the price of stocks and real estate. 

Market analysts regularly report on how a company’s assets compare with the price of its stock.  Major investors buy stocks they know are overpriced because they believe others will keep pushing the price higher–until the day they don’t.  

Any fear sets off price “adjustments” or–when the market is highly inflated–a “crash.” 

Then the government throws billions of dollars at the problem until the economy levels off. 

Democrats believe a healthy economy needs a balance among three assets–labor, buyers, and capital. If there aren’t enough buyers, support more public works and a stronger safety net. If there aren’t enough laborers, support training programs and let wages rise to draw more people into the workforce. 

President Eisenhower understood this. He battled a stagnant economy by initiating a coast-to-coast freeway system. More wages meant more buyers–and the economy grew in spite of a top income tax bracket of 90%.  

In contrast, the Trump Administration passed a major tax cut for the investor class when both workers and buyers were in short supply. The result was a minimum increase in production, major inflation in the price of investments, and a spiraling deficit unheard of in times of nearly full employment.  

Democrats want deficits low when employment’s high so there is room to increase spending when the economy needs a jolt. Both Clinton and Obama saw deficits decrease during their terms.  

As I wrote in my Aug. 27 column, “..the administration’s tax cuts and trade wars have left us with no weapons to battle a recession when it does happen.”  

One tactic generally useful in a downturn is lowering the interest rate to make expansion of capital cheaper. 

But a capital shortage isn’t the problem now. More investment is not going to make going to work or shopping safer. 

But the Trump Administration hoped it would save the stock market.   

So on March 3 the Federal Reserve Board lowered interest rates half a percentage point.

According to history Professor Heather Cox Richardson, “investors saw the cut as a sign things were worse than they thought. The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped almost 800 points.”    

The Fed tried again on March 15, slashing interest rates almost to zero and pledging to buy $700 billion in bonds. Richardson notes that the next day the Dow Jones dropped 2,997 points.

The government’s one other tool is to throw billions at the problem–and Congress is obliging. Congress.gov lists two laws and 33 bills introduced to deal with the current crisis.

Some appropriations aim to ease the very real coronavirus threat and others, to restore  confidence in the stock market.

The two laws passed deal with the real crisis. HR 6074 appropriated $8.3 billion to agencies responding to the outbreak. HR 6201 provides for “free coronavirus testing, expanding food assistance and unemployment benefits, and requiring employers to provide additional protections for health care workers.”    

But an email from Rep. Russ Fulcher touts a $1-trillion-plus Senate bill to aid small businesses, airlines and “other severely distressed sectors,” and money market funds. Also included would be direct payments to every adult citizen of at least $1,000. 

It’s basically a “love-the-Republicans-in-spite-of-this-mess” bill.  

Idahoans pressing on, but legislative hurdles persist

Coronavirus changed our world this week. Gatherings from children’s school concerts to national basketball finals were cancelled, toilet paper and hand sanitizers became precious commodities, and a deepening plunge in the stock market seemed a footnote compared to the tragedies we anticipate.

And, yet, people pressed on, doing what they felt needed done.  

On March 10 over 225,000 Idaho voters went to the polls to support their preferred presidential candidates. They passed 39 of the 41 school levies up for a vote, authorizing over $170 million in taxes including a whopping 10-year levy for more than $80 million for Pocatello-Chubbuck. Only Middleton and Swan Valley saw levies fail.  

And by the cutoff time last Friday, 219 candidates had filed for Idaho’s 105 legislative positions. 

Legislative races require a thick skin, hundreds of hours, and thousands of dollars, especially for challengers. Running is an act of bravery. 

Over 40 seats will see primaries among Republicans, but none will top Nampa’s six-way race for House Seat 13B.

Fifty-eight seats in 26 districts have both Democratic and Republican challengers.  Forty-seven seats have no Democratic contenders.    

And the legislature moved into high gear; more bills were enacted on March 9 and 10 than in the previous nine weeks.  With Idaho’s first coronavirus patient just across town and primary challenges just nine week away, members were motivated to adjourn.   

Some disputes were settled.          

The Senate State Affairs committee voted to let school districts continue to decide whether employees should carry guns. Members voted down SB 1384 which would have allowed employees with enhanced concealed carry permits to carry guns in schools. The majority felt that the permits were too easy to get, and untrained individuals with guns were dangerous.   

Some weren’t.   

The House Health and Welfare committee killed a bill to claim $8.5 million that counties previously paid for medical indigency and Catastrophic Health Care programs to help pay for Medicaid expansion. Members worried that changes to the law would mean some coronavirus victims would not get treatment. Within hours, however, a new bill was introduced that would take $12 million from the counties.  

And other disputes heated up.  

Both the House and Senate want to do something to relieve property taxes; the House favors freezing rates and requiring counties to cut their budgets; the Senate wants to increase the exemption for homeowners from $100,000 to $125,000. They’ve been engaging in parliamentary one-up-manship rather than compromise. 

And the House has recently killed four JFAC-approved budget bills.

Odds are that members rejected the Treasurer’s budget because Treasurer Julie Ellsworth has refused to move her department’s offices from the main floor of the Capitol Building so House members can have more office space. 

Budgets for the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, and higher education all exceeded the Governor’s recommendations.   

The higher education budget got additional criticism from those opposing inclusion and diversity programs at Boise State University.

According to Idaho Education News, Rep. Vito Barbieri said the House must “send the message that we do have a say on what is taught and we do have a say on who they are hiring, and for what purposes they are hiring.” (Barbieri has a Republican primary challenger, but no Democratic one this year.)  

Apparently, the paradigm of colleges and universities as diverse communities of  scholars is under challenge. Will Idahoans readily accept institutions of state-controlled indoctrination? 

Will we see four new budget bills drafted, pass through committees, and be accepted by a majority of members of both houses this week?

It’s possible–but we’ll see. 

Politics has its own March Madness 

March Madness isn’t restricted to basketball–clearly not in an election year..

Just over a week ago Democrats had six strong contenders for

president–four men and two women, four old and two young, four moderate and two progressive.

In a matter of days, four contenders dropped out. Now, many Democrats are trying to work up enthusiasm for Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders, even as they mourn what ‘might have been’ with Pete or Amy or Michael or Elizabeth.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus continues to spread, particularly in western Washington. Fortunately, Congress has rushed through fundin

g which includes $4 million for Idaho programs. Bring on the experts–please.  

 And the legislature is on a roller coaster going from wise to foolish and back again.

Wise. Tuesday House Democrats joined with moderate Republicans to defeat a bill which would have limited who may be charged with a misdemeanor for failing to report child abuse.

Where does such a bill come from? Has anyone complained that too many people are being charged?

Foolish. But Democrats couldn’t stop the House from passing HB

 525 blocking all state agencies from funding any services from Planned Parenthood–cancer tests, birth control, counselling, whatever. (Three gutsy Republicans did vote against the bill._  

Wise. Then Thursday the House passed a bill sponsored by Ilana Ruble requiring landlords to give tenants at least 30 days notice before raising the rent or not renewing a lease.

Foolish. The House defeated a second bill that would have required landlords to give tenants a list of charges made against their security deposit. Apparently, repairmen of all stripes may itemize for over half a dozen customers a day, but such transparency is too onerous for landlords.

And the House Education Committee came up with a double whammy.  Firs

t, it sent a letter to the Department of Education detailing the changes they want in curriculum standards, e.g. more ‘uplifting’ literature and more pros about fossil fuel consumption. I don’t think they’ll be happy until standards of the 1950s are revived.

Worse, the committee submitted–and the House passed– a bill to allow nonpublic colleges and universities to offer minimal teacher preparation programs. HB599 would force the Department of Education to grant teaching certifications to graduates of any nonpublic education program requiring a bachelor’s degree and ‘content and pedagogical’ training, whatever that entails.

Former legislatures have passed bills allowing charter schools to use non-certified teachers and college graduates with only six-weeks as a teacher’s aid to be treated as the equivalent of educators with master’s degr
ees. Now HB 599 will allow Ricks College to graduate certified teachers even if its program doesn’t measure up to that required of Boise State. (I don’t think NNU or the C of I have asked for changes.)
And the madness isn’t over.
 Next week the Senate will hold hearings on HB 487 which would require a ‘negotiated rulemaking process’ to set penalties for misuse of pesticides and ‘chemigation.’ Who is to negotiate is unclear, but the Marsing Agricultural Labor Sponsoring Committee sounds certain that workers aren’t being included.

“If this bill passes, we are shouting to our work force that we do not care about them as human beings.  We must do everything possible to make sure Idaho agriculture is safe for everyone involved.”

Now that we’re using faster-acting chemicals than ever, we’ll regulate them less?

 

 This is the final week of filing for legislative seats. By Saturday every incumbent will know if he or she will be challenged from the right or the left–and the pace of legislative voting will speed up.