Month: May 2020

Corona politics: who counts?

Annie Glenn, John’s widow, died on Tuesday at age 100. Her obituary in the New York Times was part of a “Those We’ve Lost” series about people who died with COVID-19. With her and countless others in mind, I’ll wrap-up this excursion into coronavirus politics.

A Maggie Koerth article, “The Uncounted Dead” in FiveThirtyEight, tells the story of Bob Duffy, who died early in the pandemic and is not counted among the coronavirus dead. He was never tested. He had multiple risk factors. His doctor didn’t know then what we know now about Bob’s several contacts with infected folks.

Some day people who study how we count coronavirus deaths will see the same phenomenon we see in old U.S. Census records: accuracy varies. Accuracy is a matter of respect for the deceased and their families and good data will help fight the disease.

Many medical science issues around this pandemic involve public policy, and this creates understandable tensions and differences of opinion. But if who counts, and who does the counting become 2020 campaign issues, I think Jesus might say, “Let the dead count their own dead, but as for you, go test, isolate, trace and treat the living, to prevent more deaths.”

From a Mark Gresham article in artsatl.org, “Julian Hoke Harris’ works stand, or fall, as monuments to another era’s ideals.” Keeping Away Death, an aluminum bas-relief sculpture on the face of the Fulton County (Georgia) Department of Health and Wellness since 1959.

Corona politics: sans raison

I’ve been a holdout. I now agree with historians that the Age of Reason (1660-1780) is over.  Reason prevailed against the Know Nothing Party (1855-1860), the Ku Klux Klan (b. 1865), Soviet Communism (1912-1991), and Nazi Fascism (1919-1945). I’ve lived with hope that reason is still a key pillar of understanding. But reason has been overwhelmed by politics.

We now operate sans raison–without reason. Virtue and reason have been dismissed, replaced by expediency and chaos. Science no longer matters. It’s about optics, not substance. Truth is fungible, subject to “alternative facts.” Ethics asks only, “Will it sell?” The adjective in Adam Smith’s term “enlightened self-interest” has been dropped. The “common good” has become “what’s good for me.” “Come, let us reason together,” now is “I alone can fix it.”

I believe we’ve hit bottom, but that’s not all bad. In the Twelve-Steps, real change only happens when one decides this is the bottom and faces reality with utter honesty. Maybe we’ll have a rebirth of reason. Maybe we’ll create an Age of Civility over an Age of Chaos. Maybe we’ll choose an Age of Hope over an Age of Fantasy. The choice is ours and this motivates me to stay engaged.

Corona politics: diss-unity

We sometimes wax nostalgic about the “good old days” of national unity. We’ve had periods of unity in times of war, terrorism or tragedy, but otherwise we often disagree. We were born in a revolution of 13 leery, cobbled-together entities. The Founders crafted a governance system to work out disagreements that is world class, yet it couldn’t resolve slavery or avert a civil war. We are a work in progress.  Anyone receiving 55% of the vote is considered a decisive winner.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought heroic moments of unity. Regardless of how long the pandemic lasts, history will view it as a blip in time. But it seems like forever, causing impatience and restlessness. The pre-corona “fault lines” of our divisions have re-surfaced in predictable, partisan ways. Social rancor fuels rancor between politicians, which is echoed and internalized by the public. It’s a vicious cycle.

Last week a patient recuperating from major surgery walked with his wife in one of our suburban parks. They wore protective masks, as instructed by his physician. Of the 50 or so people in the park, only one other person wore a mask. They received an obscene gesture from a young man. Who knows what prompted this rudeness? The patient’s Auburn tee shirt, perhaps? Or was their health precaution viewed as politically incorrect?

We’ve seen reports of how masking or not masking has become a political statement. Corona politics can unite us, as when opposing political camps compromise on policy for the common good. Or, we can let corona politics further divide us by giving us new ways to diss those who disagree with us. If our disagreements degenerate into disrespect or diss-unity, we will have contracted a social virus potentially as tragic as the coronavirus itself.

From the Washington Post, “Mask or no mask? Face coverings become tool in partisan combat,” by Isaac Stanley-Becker

Corona politics: control

In a bleak 14th Century for laity, particularly women, Julian of Norwich exercised great freedom and power of the self-giving kind (the only kind that truly endures), attaching herself to the main institution of her day–the church, with all its wobbles and warts. She didn’t let the institution limit her thinking. She seized the day in all its deadly, pandemic bleakness.

I believe the Almighty is in charge, in a cosmic sense, of a world that is sometimes chaotic because the day-to-day operation is our responsibility. Both sides of the paradox are true: no one is in control; we are in control. No one, no king or president, is in control. We, as in “we the people of the United States,” are in control. This is the essence of democracy.

The U.S. cemetery in Normandy reminds us that we’re at our best when we serve causes beyond ourselves. Julian’s dedication to Christ was at its best as she lived out her conviction in her daily attitude and interaction that the unconditional love she experienced in him had been (and continues to be) universally imparted to everyone.

The opportunity and the responsibility to seize the day are ours. A May 16 editorial in the British medical journal Lancet reminds us that our national greatness has been our willingness to lead the world to a better place. I invite you read “Reviving the US CDC” and think about how we the people can regain control from the political chaos we now endure.

When no one is in control

I agree with Alan Moore (yesterday’s post) that conspiracy theories attempt to make sense of the chaos we experience. The Book of Job challenged the prevailing view that good people prosper and bad people suffer, perhaps inspiring Jesus to say, “it rains on the just and the unjust,” and inspiring Harold Kushner to write, When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person.

Moore said: “Nobody is in control. The world is rudderless.” I would remind him over tea how his fellow Brit, Leslie Weatherhead, made sense of World War II chaos by saying God is in charge, not in control–in the sense that a parent is in charge of the household but not in control of every decision and every occurrence therein.

I agree with Moore’s tenor (content) but not his tone (feeling), because it conveys a helplessness that denies our freedom to assert some control and to provide some direction for our community and world.

Mirabai Starr sees in Julian of Norwich hope in a despairing, pandemic-stricken world: “She had no problem admitting that human beings have a tendency to go astray. We rupture relationships…make unfortunate choices, and try to hide our faults. And yet, Julian insists, ‘All will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing shall be well.'”

This week I’ll share several reflections about corona politics, beginning with a Julian-inspired word of hope for our health crisis and political chaos.

From James Marston, “Who was Julian of Norwich–and why is there so much interest in her today?” (Eastern Daily Press, August 13, 2017)

Rob’s experience

A new Conversations across time page provides a context for today’s post, which is an email received Thursday from our son Rob.

After reading the news yesterday, I began to realize something. I’ve often spoken about not just the direct physiological effects of Dysautonomia and M.E. (myalgic encephalomyelitis), but also of the secondary effects (i.e., missed educational and vocational opportunities, loss of social life, difficulties w/relationships, difficulties having enough energy to go to the store, cook, depression and anxiety).

Now the entire world is coming to realize those very same secondary economic, educational, vocational, societal, and psychological effects. It has been interesting to watch. An ‘experiential gap’ between the healthy and the chronically ill has been bridged. I never thought that was possible on this scale.

Many are responding by dreaming up conspiracy theories to try and explain what has occurred. Alan Moore, author of, among other things, the graphic novels Watchmen and V for Vendetta, (which I recommend) said something that I think is quite relevant right now:

“The main thing that I learned about conspiracy theory, is that conspiracy theorists actually believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is actually chaotic. The truth is, that it is not The Illuminati, or The Jewish Banking Conspiracy or the Gray Alien Theory. The truth is far more frightening. Nobody is in control. The world is rudderless.”

The most worrisome reality to me is this: the COVID virus has far more patience that people do.

Tomorrow I’ll respond to the Alan Moore quote about chaos and control.

The corona economy: networking

She is one of the most important people in history but we don’t know her name, which is profoundly fitting. She had more important things to write about. We know her as Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) because she lived in a small cell attached to St. Julian’s Church in Norwich.

The pandemic enhances her value to us. She lived through multiple pandemics, or “plagues,” a word we understand more each day. One-fourth of Europe died in the plague of 1348-49. England’s Norwich lost three-fourths of its people. On May 8, 1373, Julian nearly died at age 30. She wrote about sixteen visions she saw that night.

From the cell to which she was “anchored,” she participated with St. Julian’s through a small opening to the sanctuary. She chose to spend her entire life social distancing, yet she counseled countless visitors and was a catalyst for community. From her solitude, she felt a deep unity with all the Universe. Julian can teach us something about networking, a key to beat this virus.

The emerging economy will be based on new ways of being together, separately. Julian spread community from her solitary cell. She gave us the word “gramercy,” from the French grand merci, or great thanks. The culture around her focused largely on sin, shame, guilt and fear, but she was “full of delight, freedom, intimacy and cosmic hope.” Her network was extensive, and it transcends time.

From Atlas Obscura, “The First Woman to Publish a Book in English Lived in One Room, Walled Off From Society,” by Sarah Laskow

The corona economy: distance

After years of reading medical journals, consulting with professionals and conversing with others with chronic illness, our son has found his best medicine in regular physical workouts, specifically weight-lifting. His gym has re-opened but he’s reluctant to return to a less-distant world. Last night he sent me this BBC story: “Coronavirus may never go away, World Health Organization warns.”

At a “virtual press conference” from Geneva, Dr. Mike Ryan gave this example: “HIV has not gone away–but we have come to terms with the virus.” I see two huge factors that will determine the depth and length of this recession: (1) the time it takes to find an effective treatment, and ultimately a vaccine; and (2) society’s ability to keep a safe distance.

I’m less confident about #2. Distancing is very difficult for those in the world’s largest economy–the USA. Some other cultures are more regimented and more willing to follow instructions. The White House itself is a microcosm of the U.S. debate about masks and remaining 6 feet apart.

When I saw the photo below, my first thought was, “Those guys are too close to each other.” (An example of how the virus has changed my way of thinking.)

What are the personal, social, economic and market implications of distancing? Which companies can best adapt to distancing? Tomorrow, I’ll conclude this theme with some help I found from the 14th Century.

From Market Insider, “Dow drops 517 points after Fed’s Powell warns of permanent economic damage without more stimulus”

The corona economy: stocks

Yesterday’s post highlighted growing global debt in the wake of the coronavirus. The strong bear market stock rally that began on March 24 has been driven by two major factors: (1) the federal government’s massive provision of liquidity through various programs; and (2) the market’s hope for a rapid virological breakthrough.

In a recession, many companies must borrow money. If they cannot find lenders, bankruptcies follow, as with J.Crew Group, Gold’s Gym and (Lord, have mercy!) True Religion. The federal government is buying corporate bonds. The mere announcement of this “backstopping” shored-up the price of these bonds and the stocks of public companies.

Yesterday, stocks sold off in the final hour. The market’s hope for a shallow recession and a fast economic rebound has been a big bet on a quick discovery of an effective COVID-19 treatment and vaccine. Some of those bets seemed to be moving off the table yesterday afternoon. Expect some turbulence on this long flight and keep your seatbelts fastened!

Yesterday, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun said: “I believe it’s three full years before we return to the traffic levels that we had just in 2019, and probably another two before we begin to return to the growth rates that we used to have. And I’m hopeful that somewhere between here and there, there’s a vaccine and the moment of high anxiety begins to really subside.”

Click here to watch the Dave Calhoun interview

The corona economy: debt

Global debt is rising among governments, businesses and households. Federal debt projections for this year are up from $1 trillion to $3.7 trillion.

On Sunday, a Federal Reserve official said he expects a slow recovery and urged Congress to do more. A longer recovery would mean more debt. Fortunately, we have historically low interest rates–for now.

The Heisenberg” is an off-beat yet often on-target financial writer. His May 10 “Simulation Game” article at Seeking Alpha was a classic description of deficit spending, saying the U.S. government can borrow dollars in the public market or it can print them:

Treasury and the Fed have constructed a simulation of the largest economy on the planet. Both personal and corporate incomes have been replaced, and while Treasury is indeed borrowing to perpetuate the illusion that the money ‘comes from’ somewhere, you should note that on almost all estimates, the Fed will end up monetizing the entirety of the stimulus – including a presumed $1 trillion+ fourth virus relief package later this year.

Tomorrow: How the federal government’s backstopping of the credit markets supports higher stock prices.

Silver Certificates” were issued from 1878 until 1965.