Saturday, May 16, 2020

Essential Work

Even in the midst of this unprecedented pandemic, when so many citizens are on “lock down”, the government recognized that some work was essential and must go on. But now as the economy sinks deeper into recession, what becomes of this essential work and, more importantly these essential workers? Is essential work still essential when demand for that work dries up or there is no money to pay those essential workers?

These are the broad categories of essential industries the government identified:

Health Care
Law Enforcement, Public Safety and First Responders
Food and Agriculture
Public Works
Transportation and Logistics
Critical Manufacturing (all the supplies and equipment required to produce and support essential goods and services).
Financial Services
Community based government operations and essential services
Defense Industry

There are much longer lists of specific jobs under each of these industry categories. What really strikes me is that we have a lot of essential work to do all across this nation. These industries represent a huge chunk of our economy.

Funny thing though, the economy. Someone provides a product or service in exchange for money in order to purchase a product or service someone else is providing. They may purchase it directly or perhaps it comes as a result of the taxes they pay or someone else pays. But, sooner or later, someone pays for it. Even if the government prints more money and covers it by borrowing from some other country, someone pays for it…always. And when people (mostly all of those “non-essential” workers) cannot or will not work in order to provide certain products or services, either because of lock downs or just being afraid to go back to work or their employer cannot afford to pay them; the economy starts to break down. And when these same people cannot or will not purchase certain products or services, either because of lock downs or fear or because they don’t have enough money; the economy starts to break down even more.

As more people behave this way, the economic breakdown accelerates. It doesn’t take long before even some of the most essential workers lose their jobs. We’ve already seen layoffs and furloughs in the healthcare industry. A large portion of our “essential” energy industry is in the tank. Some transportation and logistics providers are laying off thousands of “essential workers” even as others are adding people, usually in lower paying jobs. State and local governments are going broke and will be forced to make cuts in “essential” services and “essential” workers. Fewer supplies and less equipment will be purchased and, as a result, many so-called critical manufacturers will be forced to eliminate “essential” workers. And so it goes.

We all agree there are essential jobs that must be done, even during a viral pandemic. But what about the so-called non-essential jobs? There are a lot of things the world can do without for some period of time…such as headhunters. But over time, even non-essential work adds value. All work that provides a product or service that people need, or even just want, is valuable… even if it’s not essential. And those “essential” workers ultimately need us non-essential workers to buy from and sell to.

We are now faced with tough questions. Is the risk worth the reward? What price are we willing to pay for safety? What level of risks are we prepared to accept for freedom and prosperity? Even if we come up with treatments for Covid-19, they won't be cures. And a vaccine will not provide universal protection. It will be a big step forward in reducing the risk, but it will not eliminate it. If, in fact, Covid-19 is more contagious and more deadly than the flu, once we go back to business as usual we could still see thousands of Covid-19 deaths annually, even within an immunized population,

Clearly, we can’t go back to “business as usual” today. But we do have to get back to some reasonable and sustainable level of business activity while managing the risks as best we can. Because from an economic perspective, all work is valuable and all workers should be valued….even those who are not “essential”.

Friday, May 1, 2020

God, Football and Hair

I live in Texas. As the saying goes everything is bigger in Texas. None are bigger than God, Football and Big Hair. The Governor is now allowing churches to open with only “recommended” guidelines. A few never closed and several are planning to open this Sunday or, at least, next Sunday…Mother’s Day. Mothers are also a big deal in Texas. From day one young Texans are taught to worship God and love their Mamas. More progressive churches (meaning liberal, watered-down preachin’ churches) are erring on the side of caution and pushing their openings back a few weeks, at least until Phase 2 of the Great Re-Opening is approved. If oil prices don’t rebound it will be their fault.

Sports, in particular football, have been totally disrupted by this pandemic. Where I live, some still think it’s all fake news, just a bad flu season the liberal media is using against Trump. Why didn’t we have spring football like always? And baseball and track. We didn’t even get to finish the state basketball tournament. Now they are saying we might not have a football season. No Friday Night Lights? No College Game Day? Just more proof this is all part of a Chinese master plan to bring down America.

And then there is hair. Women's hair is a big deal in Texas. It used to be literally big…”the bigger the hair, the closer to God” sort of big hair. That’s not a thing anymore. But the hair business is still a big deal in Texas, for men and women. But especially for women. And the Governor did not include hair salons in his Phase 1 re-opening. Not one of his better political decisions. However, not all has been lost. Our neighbors on the ugly side of the Red River did re-open their salons. How bad do Texas women want to “git there hair dun”? Bad enough to drive up to Oklahoma and let “those people” cut and style and color their hair. Places like Durant and Ardmore and Lawton are enjoying a financial windfall as Texas women flock up to the Sooner State.

Even though “the curve” in Texas has yet to flatten, the total numbers have remained well below original projections. We have plenty of room in our hospitals for the sick and more than enough space to bury the dead. So we will get on with our lives even it means driving up to Oklahoma to “gitcher hair dun”. And a lot Texans will argue that we should have never stopped living our lives in the first place. You just don’t mess with Texas…and your sure don’t mess with God, Football and Hair.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Mitigate This

Mitigation: the process or result of making something less severe, dangerous, painful, harsh, or damaging

Breaking News:

U.S. retail sales suffered a record drop in March as mandatory business closures to control the spread of the novel coronavirus outbreak depressed demand for a range of goods.

The outbreak set up consumer spending for its worst decline in decades.

Retail sales plunged 8.7% in March, the biggest decline since the government started tracking the series in 1992, after falling by a revised 0.4% in February, the Commerce Department said.

We are almost certainly in a Recession.

So what you’re telling me, Captain Obvious, is that when businesses are closed, when people are ordered to shelter-in-place, many of whom are now unemployed or expect to be so very soon; when a global pandemic occurs and we take drastic measures in response…what you’re telling me is that the economy implodes. Who could have imagined such a thing?

We are where we are and second guessing will do no good. We’ll never know how many would have died if we had taken less drastic measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. But we do know that more would have died. We are also starting to experience the consequences of those drastic measures. And make no mistake, those consequences will be deadly for many who would likely have survived the virus. We just don’t know how many and never will. The lives saved by shutting down the economy vs. the lives that will be lost from doing so….unknowable.

So we chose to mitigate the spread of the virus. Now we must decide how to mitigate the damage that mitigation has created. Whatever we do, it’s a no win situation. Start opening up the economy in early May and COVID-19 outbreaks are inevitable. Wait until June or July, there is still no guarantee that outbreaks will not occur and the economic damage may become irreversible. Taking half-measures to re-open the economy yet still contain the spread might be the worst of all options…or it might be the best. We don’t know.

What we do know is that we cannot wait months for a vaccine. That is not an option. Without a vaccine, whatever action we take comes with deadly risks. We are reaching a tipping point where we have to consider the long-term consequences of our actions. Just as viral spread is exponential, economic collapse expands exponentially. But there is no flattening curve and no herd immunity when it comes to the economy. Those who lose jobs and life savings do not develop antibodies that protect them and restore them to economic well-being. Many will fall and never get back on their feet.

Whatever we do will be politicized, especially in this election year. Politicians, being who they are, will choose the half-measures option. Open up enough of the economy to say they are “opening the economy”, but maintain enough restrictions to protect “the most vulnerable among us”. With the damage already done and without a vaccine, even those who have jobs will not fully return to normal activities or spending money. We may be able to stop the economic free fall, but recovery depends on that vaccine. Whether COVID-19 is really a monster or we have made it a monster, in today’s world it is a monster and that’s all that matters. Mitigation will only get us so far. Find the cure or learn to live with the monster.

Friday, April 3, 2020

After COVID-19

“Nature doesn't ask your permission; it doesn't care about your wishes, or whether you like its laws or not. You're obliged to accept it as it is, and consequently all its results as well.”- Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Covid-19 Pandemic is like nothing we have seen in our lifetime. In terms of global impact, certainly not since WWII or the Great Depression. Those two events not only had devastating impact when they occurred, but went on to change the way people lived afterwards. The Great Depression brought New Deal style government intervention into our economy in ways never seen before. It also helped shape a generation of people who valued hard work and saving for the future. WWII made America a truly great global power for the first time and ushered in an era of prosperity and growth for the middle class. From the ashes of WWII and with the looming threat of Communism, the United States became the world’s leading force for economic expansion and globalization. But this all came with a price and we’ve been paying it for the last 40 years, mostly by going deeper in debt. After giving the world the shirts off our backs, we’ve been borrowing money for decades in order to buy those shirts back, along with sneakers, televisions, smart phones and automobiles.

And now we are going through another life-changing event. We will get through it. There will be new and better ways to treat and comfort the sick. Ultimately there will be a vaccine. We will put this behind us. But it will be a long time, perhaps a generation or two before it is forgotten… or at least until the next crisis comes along. And in its aftermath, things will change.

Here is a list of ten things which I predict are likely to happen after this pandemic is over.

_1 We will certainly be better prepared for something like COVID-19 in the future. It may not be enough and we may face something totally different. But there will be massive investment in preparation for everything we can imagine and, perhaps even for things unimaginable.

_2 The Federal government will take a more active role in healthcare. Some version of national healthcare or Medicare for all will be a reality before the end of this decade.

_3 The inevitable decline of brick and mortar retail will accelerate. What was likely to happen over the next ten years will happen within five.

_4 There will be a significant increase in telecommuting. Many workers will have demonstrated that they can do their jobs just as well from home, if not all the time, at least most of the time or often enough so as not to be needed in the office every day. This in turn will have major implications for where and how people choose to live, how often they trade cars and all of the services that rely on the masses commuting to work every day (fuel, food, parking, auto repair, office space, etc .).

_5 Business travel may never go back to the way it was before COVID-19. More people will realize that many of those in-person meetings weren’t really all that necessary, certainly not worth the time and expense and that most of what needs to be accomplished can be done just as well via video conference.

_6 International travel will be more restrictive and closely monitored. Be prepared for longer lines, more questions and someone taking your temperature.

_7 Western industrialized nations will insist on having more control over critical supplies, equipment and information; especially that which is related to healthcare, technology, energy and national defense.

_8 Hand-washing, social distancing, crowd-avoidance...a lot of people will keep doing these things long after the pandemic has passed. How that translates to attendance at concerts, sporting events, conventions, etc. remains to be seen. But my guess is that it may be a few years before we return to hugging the person next to us.

_9 More people will start eating at home and eating healthy. When restaurants reopen there will be a surge of returning customers who just need to get out and eat at their favorite places. But many will have found that preparing meals at home can be a lot healthier and a whole lot more affordable.

_10 There will be major reforms in the way senior care facilities are managed. Most people, especially those who have had an elderly family member in one of these places, already knew that there are often issues with the quality of care. But now after COVID-19 and with an aging population, most of whom vote, there will be plenty of pressure to clean up this industry.

These items are just the tip of the iceberg. There will be many more. That’s why it’s called a life-changing event.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Going Over The Cliff

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic several nations have taken the approach that the best way to deal with this virus is to allow their people to develop immunity, the immunity of the herd. Isolate and protect the most vulnerable citizens, but otherwise allow business as usual for the most part. They have imposed some restrictions, but nothing along the lines of what we are seeing in the United States and the majority of European countries. Great Britain took this approach for a few weeks before reaching the Reality Cliff. After looking over the edge as members of their herd starting plunging to their death, Great Britain’s leadership revised their strategy and started shutting things down.

Interesting thing though about herds and new viruses. They tend to come together forming a train that is impossible to stop. Especially if the virus is highly contagious and there is no vaccine. Sweden and Denmark continue to pursue this more relaxed approach to managing COVID-19, counting on the herd to quickly develop immunity and eventually shutdown the virus. But they are also imposing certain restrictions and my guess is those will increase in the days and weeks ahead. However, they may also find that the unstoppable train of the infected herd is already on its way to the Reality Cliff. Hopefully, these smaller, relatively healthy countries with above average healthcare networks will find a way to overcome what is coming their way.

In the meantime, the rest of us will continue to play “flatten the curve”. We also have summer heat on the way which should help in some parts of the world. But who knows what will happen as winter takes hold in the Southern hemisphere. Hopefully a vaccine is available sooner rather than later. But if it really is 12-18 months away, we may find ourselves living and dying on the curve again next winter, a herd without immunity staring over a different cliff…the one called Economic Reality.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Just Like The Flu….Only Different

I am skeptical by nature. I am just not a trusting person. I don’t trust the media to report honestly and fairly without bias. That would be any media. Their main objective is to grab the audience and keep them coming back. I don’t trust politicians, because…well, they are professional politicians. Their main objective is to get elected and re-elected…over and over. So they will say and do whatever it takes to do that. I don’t automatically trust scientists (and that would include those in medicine) because if you listen closely they always hedge their bets. They are rarely totally wrong or totally right. Reality is usually somewhere in the middle between the media’s worst case scenario and the scientists’ best case scenario. So when I see the world turning out the lights and hiding under the bed over COVID-19, I wonder how we seem to always end up at the “worst case scenario” end of the spectrum. (Lest we forget, remember the Y2K scare?)

The CDC reports that between 3000 and 49,000 people in the United States die of flu-related complications every year. In the 1990’s it has been reported that we averaged losing 36,000 people per year to the flu. It doesn’t seem to have gone down much in the 2000s and 2010s. In the winter of 2017-2018 the CDC reported that some 80,000 people died as a result of the flu. The highest death toll in 40 years! They also tell us that flu vaccinations are at best 40-60% effective in keeping someone from getting the flu. Sounds to me like we’ve been playing Russian roulette with flu viruses for a long-time.

So why the panic this time? What makes COVID-19 different? First of all, it’s the unknown factor. We don’t know how contagious it is? We don’t know how long it survives in the air or on surfaces. The experts are telling us this virus is a tough little survivor that doesn’t die quickly, remaining virulent for hours in the air and for days on certain surfaces. We don’t know the mortality rate for COVID-19 because we don’t know how many people actually have it. And we don’t have enough test kits to find out. And, oh by the way, we do know that we don’t have a vaccine for it.

Secondly, the media is streaming 24/7 coverage of COVID-19 and we are lapping it up. Never have so many heard so much, yet know so little about something that might kill them. I don’t fault the media nor do I fault the audience. Inquiring minds want to know. I’m as bad as anyone. I am constantly checking for updates. So we all know that this thing is out there… and we don’t know how to stop it. Scary.

Third, like most things these days, it’s being politicized. Even in normal times, the opposition party will blame the President for anything that goes wrong or might go wrong or might have gone better if something else had been done. That’s politics. But these are not normal times and we’re in an election year. There is literally nothing that Trump can do or say that will not be immediately and harshly criticized by Democrats and most of the media. He is also his own worst enemy and has lost a lot of credibility by too often not telling the truth and…well…by just being Trump. So the COVID-19 fire is constantly being refueled by anti-Trump political rhetoric.

Next, our culture has changed. We are increasingly fearful and overly protective. Much has been written about “helicopter” parenting, safe-spaces and emotional triggers. Anxiety and depression are at all time highs among teenagers and college students. There is a reason why so many young people are ready to give up on our way of life and embrace socialism. It’s a cry for help. And it’s not totally unwarranted. But that’s a whole other discussion. The point here is that in this climate of fear and anxiety, something like COVID-19 is always going to land on our doorstep wrapped as the worst case scenario.

And finally, there is Risk Management and Liability. No company, organization or institution can afford not to take every precaution to protect people. Especially, if other companies, organizations or institutions are doing so. Want to get sued for millions of dollars and lose. Go ahead and have that sporting event, or conference, or concert, or pressure your employees to come to work when they don’t feel good. Then some COVID-19 related death is connected back to your actions. Good luck with that. We live in a highly litigious society. Nuclear verdicts (settlements of tens and hundreds of millions) are becoming commonplace. This is big business and certain law firms are always looking for new targets. Mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic is prime.

So are we over-reacting? Not really. All things considered, we are responding rationally to an irrational situation. It is what it is. We cannot undo the media overkill. There is no stopping the political warfare. We are a fearful and anxious nation that no longer hopes for the best but always expects the worst. And there are those among us who have found ways to monetize that fear and anxiety and we will all end up paying for it.

Then there is COVID-19 itself. It really is a thing. And it might just be really bad, a lot worse than the flu viruses that we already know about. Some of which are resistant to our annual vaccinations and kill 30,000 of us every year. Or maybe it’s not worse. But why take the chance? I think I’ll go wash my hands and just stay home.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Not Pets

“Animals are not pets – they are not your cheap burglar alarm, or something which allows you to go out for a walk. They are not ours as decorations or toys, they are living beings. A dog is a feeling, whole individual, with emotions and interests, not something you ‘have’ ‘. - Ingrid Newkirk, President of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).

Ok, I am on the record as a dog-lover. I love my dogs and, as much as dogs are capable of it, I think they love me. At least they act like they do. But they have a pretty great life, so it may just be an act on their part to make sure the food keeps coming, along with the ear-scratching, massages and belly-rubs. They also get to sleep in bed with my wife and I. So I am pretty sure they are onboard with being “pets”.

Ms. Newkirk goes on to say we should stop calling our pets “Pets”. Apparently words have deeper meanings, even to animals. How would you like being called a “pet”? Ms. Newkirk recommends that we call our furry friends ‘Companions’ rather than pets. Fair enough. But I think it’s even better if we call them by name. My dogs have names and they know them. They would be offended if I called them anything else.

Conservative pundits have had a good deal of fun at Ms. Newkirk’s expense saying this is taking political correctness to a silly extreme. That this is one more example of virtue-signaling progressives trying to make us feel guilty for just being human beings. Our mere existence is a threat to life on this planet and all creatures great and small.

I am inclined to give PETA and Ms. Newkirk a break. Animal rights activists have been fighting for the ethical treatment of animals since the 1800’s. And it has made a positive difference. The Brits were the first to enact legislation regarding the treatment of animals way back in 1876. In 1966, the United States finally got around to passing the The Animal Welfare Act and it has been updated and amended several times since then. We have established guidelines regarding the use of animals for medical research and testing. Most states and municipalities enforce animal cruelty statutes. And we spend billions of dollars on our pets. A lot of animals never had it so good.

Yet, we know that many animals never had it so bad. The industrialization of animal protein production is not something we want to think about. We like to think of cows grazing in green pastures, chickens running about trailed by fuzzy little chicks while the rooster sits on the fence and crows. Pigs wallowing in the mud and just being pigs. That’s pretty much what I saw as a child on my grandparent’s farm. Sure I remember animals being slaughtered and eaten. They were not romanticized and certainly not humanized. But they were respected and we gave thanks for the food they provided.

These days I try not to think too much about where that chicken breast, or hamburger or slice of bacon came from or what those animals went through in their short, single purpose existence. I rationalize it all by saying this is the only way to produce affordable food on the massive scale required to feed the world’s population. That millions of jobs and livelihoods depend on this industry. We are just doing what we have to do to survive. After all… animals are not pets.

“Here’s an assignment for my fellow Christians: Go to YouTube, search for any video of ‘slaughterhouse animal cruelty’, watch it, the whole thing, and ask yourself if that’s what God meant when He gave us dominion over animals.”
-Dr.Shenita Etwaroo”