Thursday, April 30, 2020

We Need Metrics

I've been impressed by Doug Ford's response to the coronavirus pandemic. But Martin Regg Cohn has me rethinking my evaluation. Ford's Achilles Heel -- like the Mighty Moron's south of the border  -- is testing:

He has not measured up. Ford has been unable to keep his promise to roll out mass testing — neither when it was needed desperately this month to save lives, nor when needed massively next month to safeguard an economic recovery.
Despite Ford’s public excuses and frequent pledges to catch up, Ontario still lags most of the country and much of the world in testing for the novel coronavirus. Overwhelmed by the spread into nursing homes, where the death toll has surged unconscionably high, we are finally targeting the elderly and caregivers for priority testing — the right decision, given the continuing shortage of testing materials.

Ontario's inability to test has led to tragic consequences:

Overwhelmed by the spread into nursing homes, where the death toll has surged unconscionably high, we are finally targeting the elderly and caregivers for priority testing — the right decision, given the continuing shortage of testing materials.

Before opening up our economy, we need metrics to judge our success. And we still lack those metrics.

Image: Klipfolio

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

We Can't Go Back To Normal

Susan Rice writes in The New York Times that the United States can't go back to normal:

The coronavirus has laid bare our domestic divisions, unequal economy, and glaring racial and socio-economic disparities as well as the fragility of our democracy. To recover from this crisis, it will not suffice to contain the carnage, reopen our economy and “get back to normal.” “Normal” is too costly and deadly for all Americans.
Now is the time to rebuild better — our economy, our health care and education systems, our democratic institutions — so that we cure the root causes of our collective disease. While one can hope we soon will be blessed with new leadership committed to national unity, human dignity, and respect for democracy, we cannot afford to wish and wait.

Donald Trump isn't the man to lead this effort:

Unfortunately, we are today condemned to be led by a president who has no conception of the national interest apart from his personal interest. Donald Trump is obsessed with his image and poll numbers and the Dow Jones average, but sadly none of the ambitious questions that inspired his predecessors — chiefly, how can we exit this crucible of death and hardship as a more decent America?

Rice suggests that, in the absence of leadership from Mr. Trump, that Congress can do two things:

The first is to preserve and protect our democracy by ensuring free and fair elections in November. Long before Covid-19, partisan gerrymandering, voter exclusion, dark money and foreign interference combined to erode the integrity of our electoral system. Now, amid this pandemic, we risk many Americans being prevented from voting because they cannot safely get to a polling station, as evidenced by the callously run Wisconsin elections this month.
Second, the United States has a rare opportunity to accelerate our recovery from the coronavirus while starting to restore an ethos of service to American culture. To reopen our states and towns safely, we need to hugely scale up testing and our capacity to trace the contacts of those infected to enable them to be isolated and cared for.

Rice is hitting on an old idea. Instead of being drafted into the armed forces, Americans could spend time in national service. The country

will require trained contact tracers who can interview, assess and support those quarantined, and potentially administer vaccines. Experts estimate the United States will need 100,000 to 300,000 contact tracers (costing approximately $3.6 billion per 100,000 workers annually) with skills that match those of most high school graduates. We can recruit this work force from public health personnel as well as the newly unemployed, college students, recent graduates, idled Peace Corps and AmeriCorps volunteers, and retirees.

In Canada, we also need to be thinking about what comes next. We can't go back to the way things were. The coronavirus has changed everything.

Image: Reddit

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

People Pay

                                    Cut Red Tape |           

The coronavirus has exposed many weaknesses in our society. One of the most glaring weaknesses is the failure of governments to regulate business. Consider the meatpacking business in Alberta. Alan Freeman writes:

Cases at the Cargill plant have grown exponentially, making it home to one of the largest single outbreaks in the country. As of Thursday, 480 workers had tested positive for COVID-19, including one worker who has died and another who is in critical condition. Another 140 cases in the wider community are linked to the plant, which has been closed, slashing Canada’s beef production.
Another serious outbreak is ravaging the employees at JBS, a beef plant in Brooks, Alta.,  where 124 cases of COVID-19 have been reported. A big pork plant in Quebec was forced to close for two weeks in late March because of an outbreak and facilities producing poultry have been struck as well in British Columbia. Like nursing homes and prisons, meat processing plants are ideal places for the virus to spread.

And, in Ontario, the provincial government had stopped inspecting long term care homes:

The Ontario government essentially has stopped doing its most comprehensive annual inspections of care homes, called Resident Quality Inspection (RQI). Those inspections require interviews with 40 people related to the home, and meeting standards of care related to issues like infection control, according to Jane Meadus, a staff lawyer for the Advocacy Group for the Elderly, a Toronto-based advocacy group.
Instead of doing these thorough unannounced inspections, the province essentially decided that if a home got any kind of inspection during the year, no matter how light, it would count as a full one. The CBC has discovered that there were only nine of these full inspections were done in 2019 on 626 homes. 

The dismantling of regulations has been part of neoliberalism's juggernaut to "cut red tape." To accomplish that goal, politicians established an alliance between business and government:

So in effect, the regulatory system has lost its way. Instead of protecting the vulnerable and assuring that minimum health and safety standards are maintained, it’s been part of a coordinated undermining of these very protections, whether at nursing homes or meatpacking plants. 
A cooperative approach with business is nice in principle. But regulators and operators should never be in bed together. The public interest must always trump private interests. 

When private interest trumps public interest, people pay -- with their lives.

Image: Government of  Alberta

Monday, April 27, 2020


A moron is someone who is unteachable -- or, put another way -- someone who cannot learn. The president of the United States is a moron. His first secretary of state confirmed it -- and he added the F-bomb for emphasis. Canada's Conservatives appear to be equally moronic.

Yesterday, the Conservative finance critic, Pierre Poilievre, held a press conference. Kerri Breen reports that:

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre took aim at the Liberals’ coronavirus stimulus programs on Sunday, saying that while his party supports compensating Canadians amid the pandemic, the measures are not working as intended.
Initiatives such as commercial rent relief and the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) discourage people from working — or businesses keeping their doors open — in order to meet eligibility requirements that are too strict, he said.
“These massive programs will be like a gigantic experiment in freakonomics because in many cases they are having the opposite of their intended effect,” he told reporters.

Where we live, all kinds of people really want to get back to work. Staying at home is not an option they cherish. But the expansion of benefits is something they see as only fair:

CERB, which pays out $2,000 a month to those who’ve lost their jobs, allows recipients to earn up to $1,000 per month under eligibility criteria that was expanded earlier this month.
The government’s business loan program — which Poilievre also criticized for shutting out some business owners — is another area where the Liberals have recently expanded eligibility criteria.
The rent relief plan, Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance, is open to businesses that have lost 70 per cent of their income — which Poilievre said was too high — or have shut their doors completely.
Imagine a program that forces workers to stop working and forces businesses to go out of business,” Poilievre said.

Clearly, Poilievre's economic model acknowledges moral hazard but not moral imperative. And, clearly, the man knows nothing about public health. Poilievre offers more evidence that Canadian Conservatives are unteachable.

Image: Duluth Reader

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Bringing The House Down

Tony Burman writes that Donald Trump is putting China in the driver's seat. It wasn't supposed to be this way:

It began in 1972 when then-president Richard Nixon, an avowed anti-communist, joined his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, in their historic journey to China ushering in a new relationship.
Triggered largely by the threat and ensuing collapse of the former Soviet Union, it led to some thinking that the 21stcentury might be shaped by a special U.S./China axis that would handle issues such as climate change, terrorism and the threat of nuclear weapons in a spirit of “engagement” and mutual respect.
Although this was probably always too idealistic a notion, it certainly came crashing to the ground once Trump’s “America First” ideology took hold in 2017 and relations with Beijing – particularly over trade — became raw and rancorous.
On the Beijing side, there was also a more assertive approach in its relationship with the United States. Its president, Xi Jinping, laid out a vision of a far more aggressive and influential government at home and abroad. And increasingly, Xi punished whistleblowers and arrested dissidents in an effort to consolidate his power.

When it came to pandemics, however, there was cooperation between the United States and China:

Dating back to 2002, when the SARS virus affected southern China, the administration of then-president George Bush worked closely with Beijing. This pattern of cooperation continued through the Bush administration and during the 2009 outbreak of a new virus, H1N1, when Barack Obama was president.

But that cooperation ended when Trump became president. And, if Joe Biden becomes president, his plate will be full:

He will inherit what seems certain to be the worst economy since the Great Depression and a country barely crawling out from the savage toll of the coronavirus pandemic. Millions of Americans will have lost their loved ones, their jobs and much of their income.
In addition, the next president will need to manage America’s most important foreign policy challenge — its relationship with China – at its most dangerous moment in modern history.
The most important goal of the next U.S. president may be to reassert enlightened and unselfish American leadership in a divided and demoralized world that has largely lost faith in it.
If he fails, will the most enduring legacy of this brutal pandemic be remembered as when the world seemed to change permanently?

One thing is certain: Donald Trump's singular talent is his ability to bring the house down around his ears.

Image: The Toronto Star

Saturday, April 25, 2020

A Madman

There are those who still confidently predict that Donald Trump will win re-election. But Frank  Bruni writes that Trump is self-destructing before our eyes:

As Katie Rogers and Annie Karni reported in The Times, the president feels isolated and embattled and is panicked that he’ll lose to Joe Biden in November. That state of mind, they wrote, prompted his executive order to halt the issuing of green cards, which is precisely the kind of base-coddling measure that he resorts to “when things feel out of control.”
He can read the polls as well as the rest of us can, and they show that while he stands there nightly in the White House briefing room and blows kisses at himself, Americans aren’t blowing kisses back.

Wait, you object, Trump defies the rules and gets away with it:

I know, I know: He’s Trump. He carries the secret weapon of his spectacular shamelessness, which means that he’ll resort to ploys and lies that even the most unscrupulous of his opponents wouldn’t attempt. He’ll destroy what he must so long as he gets to rule over the wreckage.
And the usual laws of nature don’t apply to him. He was caught on tape bragging about grabbing women by the crotch. Didn’t matter. He got nearly three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. Still he won. If he wasn’t exactly found guilty of elaborate coordination with the Russians, he was certainly shown to be open to it. Onward he rolled, and he kept rolling past his gross abuse of power in dealing with Ukraine and his richly deserved impeachment for it.
He’s Houdini, he’s Scheherazade, he’s all the escape artists of history and fiction rolled into one and swirled with golden-orange topping. He’s lucky beyond all imagining. But here’s the thing about luck: It runs out.

And his luck is running out. As the death toll from the virus reaches the death toll in the Vietnam War -- and as Trump suggests that the cure for the disease might be injecting Lysol into the veins of the sick -- Americans are increasingly coming to the understanding that they have a madman in the White House.

Image: Ben Wiseman New York Times

Friday, April 24, 2020

A Collection Of Angry Cranks

Derek Sloan -- a Conservative leadership candidate, who comes from a riding close to us -- has badmouthed Dr. Theresa Tam. Bruce Arthur writes:

Sloan charged that Tam “parroted” World Health Organization advice, and that the WHO “parroted” China’s statements. The email involved stopping the UN Migration Compact, which is a non-binding agreement; defunding the WHO; stopping abortion; and revoking Canada’s commitment to the Paris Accords. You know, for Earth Day.
A lot of that is garden-variety anti-globalist conservatism, which is ironically at least partly an American import. But the smear against Tam was truly ugly stuff: tarring a Chinese Canadian as a double agent.

But Sloan is not the only Conservative spreading this ugly smear:

The alt-right chop shop at The Rebel, run by the disgraced Ezra Levant, had already pushed it. On April 16 Levant started a petition to fire Tam, and wrote, in part, “whose side is she on, Canada’s or China’s WHO?” Sloan wasn’t even original. If anything, he was late.
Jason Kenney, the premier of Alberta, field-tested a version in a CBC Interview on April 13, when he said, “You know, this is the same Dr. Tam who was telling us that we shouldn’t close our borders to countries with high levels of infection, and who in January was repeating talking points out of the (People’s Republic of China) about no evidence of human-to-human transmission.”

Andrew Scheer has refused to disavow this smear. Dr. Tam has, not surprisingly, been graceful under pressure. She responded:

“My singular focus is to work with all of my colleagues to get this epidemic wave under control. I don’t let noise detract me from doing that, and that’s how I work.
“And I think as I took on this job, I know that the population is my patient, and this is how I look at the Canadian population … I only represent a very small aspect of the public health response in Canada, and I’m really proud that I’m part of it.”

The Conservative Party used to be an honourable party. Now it's a collection of ugly cranks.

Image: Meme Generator

Thursday, April 23, 2020

The End Of Oil

Nafeez Ahmed writes that the coronavirus may be the death knell of the fossil fuel business:

Policy-makers are still in denial as to how long this demand slump will last. But if it takes at least 18 months, and most likely several years, for a vaccine to be developed, this will keep demand far too low for the global fossil fuel industry as we know it to survive.
The pandemic has thus ground the global oil industry to a halt. Storage is about to breach saturation point. Oil service firms that supply the industry are shutting down. Petrol stations are being forced to close as fuel sales dry up, endangering transport networks and critical supply chains.

The writing was on the wall long before the pandemic hit. The EROI -- Energy Return On Investment -- has been falling for years. EROI refers to "how much energy is needed to extract energy from a particular resource. What’s left is known as surplus “net energy,” which we can use to support goods and services in the economy outside the energy system:"

In the early 20 century, the EROI of fossil fuels was sometimes as high as 100:1. But this has dramatically reduced. Between 1960 and 1980, the world average value EROI for fossil fuels declined by more than half, from about 35:1 to 15:1. It’s still declining.
This has acted as a background “brake” on the rate of economic growth for the world’s advanced industrial economies, which has simultaneously declined since the 1970s.

Now the demand for oil has cratered. Oil companies are losing mountains of money. Governments should not bail out the fossil fuel industry. They should build bridges between fossil fuel energy and green energy:

Amidst this unprecedented crisis, we face an unprecedented opportunity to speed the transition to new energy system that no longer breaches environmental boundaries in ways that make pandemics like this inevitable.
As Abhi Rajendran of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy has warned, a bailout cannot resolve the industry’s problems. Any support to the industry must be to hone it down it to protect immediate supply chains, and rehabilitate it to supply petrochemicals and other key industrial services in a post-carbon age.
Instead, urgent focus is required on building a new decentralized, renewable energy system, and transforming major industrial sectors to create a vibrant new sustainable infrastructure across agriculture and manufacturing.
As the traditional petrol supply infrastructure breaks down due to plummeting fuel sales, there are alternative bridge fuels that could be urgently scaled up. One potential source of clean biofuels for this purpose is Malaysia, where the government has created mandatory national regulation to support a transition to 100 per cent deforestation-free sustainable palm oil.

There is a way forward. What matters is whether or not we see it -- and whether or not we take it.

Image: New York Times

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Targeted Basic Income

It's happened by happenstance, not by careful long term planning. But Hugh Segal and Evelyn Forget write that the Canda Emergency Response Benefit opens the door to a Targeted Basic Income:

CERB offers Canada an opportunity to learn how to design better income supports for ordinary times. Some commentators have argued that a better approach would be to introduce a “crisis basic income” that sends an equal monthly cheque to all taxpayers, and claws back from higher-income earners part or all of the benefit when they complete their income tax. But that approach would deny necessary money to those who need a top-up to survive, as cheques would also be sent to those with no need. It’s both an expensive and insensitive solution.
We have both been on record for many years as supporting a more targeted version of a basic-income top-up, which would tie support to income (as seen with the CERB) and includes low-income working people and those traditionally dependent on provincial income assistance. Why? Because some low-income people do not complete income-tax forms – their earnings are beneath the filing threshold.

Targeting basic income would be efficient and it would enhance social cohesion:

The upfront costs of a targeted basic income are much lower than sending everyone a cheque. It’s also a more affordable plan, especially if we take into account the savings to other social programs such as EI, provincial income assistance and the additional burden that poverty places on other programs such as health care.
High-, middle- and low-income countries around the world have experimented, and continue to experiment, with basic income, and the results are surprisingly similar. There is no flight from work; almost all people who can work, do so; and those who have worked in the past, continue to work. The few who reduce their work hours are usually engaged in education and job training. Mental and physical health improves. In the Finnish experiment, while there was no discernible effect on employment, social trust was enhanced. People were more involved in their communities and more optimistic about their own prospects, and those of society.

The world has changed. And, when the pandemic cools, there's a good chance that a targeted basic income will be one of the changes left in its wake.

Image: Prospect Magazine

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Follow The Money

Stephen Moore -- who Donald Trump tried to install on the Federal Reserve Board -- calls the people who insist on opening up the economy despite the health risks "the Rosa Parks" of their generation. Paul Krugman writes:

Moore — whom Trump tried but failed to install as a member of the Federal Reserve Board — isn’t just a bad economist with a history of misogynistic outbursts. More to the point, he’s a quack, with a long history of misrepresenting or inventing facts to support his ideological agenda.
Among his greatest hits was a number-filled screed about the relationship between tax cuts and jobs — framed, as it happens, as an attack on yours truly — in which not a single number was remotely close to the truth.
On second thought, however, Moore fits right in. One thing the coronavirus has thrown into sharp relief is the centrality of quackery — confident pronouncements on technical subjects by people who have no idea what they’re talking about — to the whole enterprise of modern conservatism.

While times such as these bring out the best in some people -- witness those of us who keep repeating the mantra "we're all in this together -- they also bring out the worst in others:

We know, for example, that Trump’s call for an early end to the economic lockdown was inspired in part by the writings of Richard Epstein, a conservative legal scholar who decided that he understands epidemiology better than the epidemiologists and confidently predicted that Covid-19 would kill no more than 500 people. (It’s currently killing four times that many every day.)
Or consider how Fox News responded to the unwillingness of Dr. Anthony Fauci to do what it wanted, and support an early reopening of the economy. To provide an alternative view, the network turned to … Dr. Phil, whose expertise, if he has one, is in pop psychology.

So how does Krugman explain the emergence of all these quacks?

One answer is that a political movement that demands absolute loyalty considers quacks more reliable than genuine experts, even if those experts currently support the movement’s policies.
As I’ve noted in the past, there are quite a few serious economists who also happen to be conservative, but they have been largely frozen out by the G.O.P. in favor of people like Moore. Why? Because serious economists might turn out to have principles, rejecting outlandish policy claims or changing their views in the face of evidence. And we can’t have that.
Another answer is that the modern right is driven in large part by the grievances of white men who don’t feel that they’re getting the respect they believe they deserve, and Fox-fueled hostility to “elites” who claim to know more than guys in diners — which, on technical subjects like epidemiology, they do — is a key part of the movement.
Finally, there has historically been a strong association between right-wing extremism and grifting, including snake-oil and get-rich-quick schemes. Alex Jones may attract an audience by peddling conspiracy theories, but he makes money by selling nutritional supplements, which he is now claiming offer protection against the coronavirus.

The old adage remains true: Follow the money.

Image: the

Monday, April 20, 2020

All The Perfumes Of Arabia . . .

When historians write about the Trump Era, they will have to confront his impeachment. And they will no doubt conclude that Congress's failure to remove him from office was a catastrophic mistake. Barry Berke, the Special Counsel to  the House Judiciary Committee writes:

Mr. Trump was impeached because when confronted with an urgent crisis that threatened the security of our country — Russia’s hostile invasion of Ukraine — he put his personal and political interests over the interests of the country. He refused to protect the American people by releasing previously approved and desperately needed military aid for our vital ally unless that country agreed to help his re-election by announcing an investigation of his political rival Joe Biden.

Now, in the midst of the Coronavirus Holocaust, "the parallels are striking and, as with all recidivists, are particularly important for what they reveal about the president’s motives, intent and modus operandi."

In considering President Trump’s motives, there is little doubt that he warned that he might withhold desperately needed equipment from states whose governors did not express appreciation for his efforts, such as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, to force these vulnerable leaders to act in his political interests. Of course, that is exactly the same card he played in response to Ukraine’s request.
The reason the president has made blatantly false claims about the availability of testing, the unmet needs of states for ventilators and masks, and the potential of unproven cures is again to advance his political standing by embellishing the success of his efforts. The reason he dismissed early pronouncements of the dangers of the virus by the health experts in his administration, and denied their validity, is because he cared more about the stock market falling and potentially harming his re-election prospects.
There can be little doubt that the president acted knowingly and intentionally in putting his personal and political interests over the health and safety of the American people by delaying the measures recommended by his advisers. Reports over the past few days reveal that he was warned in late January and early February of the costs of not acting quickly by his most senior advisers, including his health and human services secretary, Alex Azar, and his principal trade adviser, Peter Navarro.
And last weekend, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the administration’s top infectious disease expert, appeared to confirm that he and his colleagues warned of the need for social distancing in mid-February, following a New York Times report detailing the delays. But President Trump nevertheless dismissed those warnings, and delayed announcing the need for social distancing and other actions recommended by his experts.

As the death toll rises in the United States, it's clear that Trump has a lot of blood on his hands. And those who refused to remove him -- when they could have -- also have blood on their hands. They will discover  -- like Lady Macbeth -- that they will never be able to wash that stain away.

Image: Tips From Chip

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Getting People To Do Difficult Things

The last two months have provided a crash course in how -- and how not -- to communicate with the public. Robin Sears writes:

With the exception of powerful communicators like B.C’s Bonnie Henry and the U.S.’s Anthony Fauci, too many public health officials hide behind jargon, incomprehensible statistics, and on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand presentations.
To be fair, crisis-driven public health truth telling is often painful, even heartbreaking. Those are real communication challenges for the most experienced and savvy. Made even tougher if you report to a minister or government that is committed to happy-talk over truth, as Dr. Fauci has had painfully to learn.

Public health officials have had their jobs made more difficult by the slow response to COVID-19:

It is irrefutable that every government in the world waited too long to respond to this crisis, although many were far worse than Canada in avoiding, delaying and denying. It’s not too early, nonetheless, for public officials to concede they were too slow. Leaders win support and credibility when they admit their fallibility and then roll out what they’re doing to correct a slow or inadequate decision.

But there is one example of someone who knows how to communicate in these difficult times -- New York governor Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo possesses:

authentic empathy and emotional honesty. His stern reproach to those who complained about his edict this week that everyone must wear a mask in public was powerful.
He pointed out that no one has a right to increase the risk of “infecting me or my family.” Asked to defend his decision to continue the lockdown until May 15, he said he’d be happy to take complainers to visit the families of New Yorkers who have lost a family member – a group that grows by hundreds every day.

If you want the public to do difficult things, you have to level with them.

Image: The Toronto Star

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Bumbling Conservatives

Andrew Scheer will not go down in history as the best and brightest of Conservative leaders -- nor will the people who want his job. Chantal Hebert writes:

It is totally possible to agree with the opposition rationale that no government — especially a minority one — should enjoy an open-ended pass from parliamentary scrutiny, but also to question whether what ails Conservative fortunes is really the party’s restricted capacity to hold the Liberals accountable face-to-face.
The NDP and the BQ have also lost a lot of visibility over the past few weeks, yet based on Léger’s polling, they both seem to be holding their own in voting intentions.
As matters currently stand, there is precious little appetite among the public for anything that smacks of partisan politics.

One of Scheer's biggest problems is that Ontario premier Doug Ford refuses to follow Scheer's lead:

The co-operation between a prime minister whose approval rating is currently on the rise and the Tory premier of Canada’s most-populous province makes it even harder for the federal Conservatives to credibly prosecute Trudeau’s management of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the contenders for Scheer's job keep shooting themselves in the foot:

Earlier this week, Sarnia-Lambton MP Marilyn Gladu called for an end to the social distancing measures that are keeping the Canadian economy on pause. Her rationale is that governments should focus on protecting elderly Canadians from COVID-19 and let everyone else get on with life.

And the Conservatives are still complaining about the SNC-Lavalin Affair:

Indeed, the most recent example of a tone-challenged official opposition performance goes back a little more than a month, on the very day the World Health Organization officially declared a pandemic.
On that occasion, Scheer and his caucus were happy enough to relinquish the lead on COVID-19 to the Bloc Québécois and the New Democrats, the better to focus on a dead-on-arrival attempt to resuscitate the SNC-Lavalin affair.

We are reminded every day of why Scheer and Co. lost the last election. They bumbled through it. And they continue to do so.

Image: National Observer

Friday, April 17, 2020

Like Dandelions

In the United States, there is a run on guns. Bob Hepburn writes:

Americans are leaving their homes and lining up at grocery stores in the desperate hope of buying not only food, but scarce toilet paper, given that so many others have panicked and horded enough rolls of toilet paper to last them until 2022.
However, in many U.S. communities you can also head out to your nearest gun store to pick up a new pistol, assault rifle or stock up on bullets. That’s because gun shops in those spots have been declared “essential services.” Also, the U.S. federal government has also issued a guidance deeming the firearms business “critical infrastructure,” which let it stay open.

The NRA is furious with New York governor Andrew Cuomo:

Even in these anxiety-ridden times, the NRA keeps driving ahead with its lethal agenda of more, not fewer, gun rights, launching lawsuits across the country aimed at overturning government moves to close gun shops.
Last week, the NRA sued New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for declaring gun shops non-essential, forcing them to close their doors.
“There isn’t a single person who has ever used a gun for self-defence who would consider it non-essential,” said Wayne LaPierre, head of the NRA. “This is clearly another assault by Gov. Cuomo on the NRA, on the rights of New Yorkers to defend themselves and their families, and on our Second Amendment freedoms.”

And, Hepburn warns, Canadians shouldn't feel smug. We have our own loonies:

Pro-gun lobby groups, such as the Canadian Coalition for Firearms Rights, the Canadian Sporting Arms and Ammunition Association and the National Firearms Association, talk about protecting “firearm rights” and work hard to oppose any move to restrict gun sales. Thankfully, in fact, there’s no such thing as “firearm rights” in Canada.

It's wise to remember that, in times such as these, the crazies sprout up -- like dandelions in the spring.

Image: The Toronto Star

Thursday, April 16, 2020

A New International Order

When Donald Trump declared that he was cutting funding for the World Health Organization, Richard Horton -- the editor of the Lancet -- called his decision "a crime against humanity." Others have also condemned Trump. Martin McKee writes:

Simon Coveney, the foreign minister of Ireland, a country with exceptionally close ties with the United States, described Trump’s decision to cut funds to WHO as an “indefensible decision, in midst of global pandemic. So many vulnerable populations rely on WHO – deliberately undermining funding and trust now is shocking.” Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister was slightly more restrained, tweeting that: “Blaming does not help. The virus knows no borders”. In the UK, however, where ministers are still hoping for a post-Brexit trade deal, a Downing Street spokesman rejected an invitation to join the condemnation, although they did voice support for the WHO.

World leaders -- as illustrated by the Brits -- have tiptoed around the Mercurial Moron. But there is good reason to call him out now:

The decision will clearly damage the WHO. First, there is the loss of funding. As the world’s richest country, the United States contributes 40% of the WHO’s core budget, although this only amounts to 20% of its total spending. The US also contributes the largest share to the remaining 80% of voluntary contributions.

The irony, of course, is that Trump is repeating the very actions that got him impeached. Congress has approved funding for WHO and Trump cannot impound it. Congress has the power of the purse, not Trump. So much for Susan Collins' claim that Trump had learned his lesson.

There is one lesson, however, that the world must take from this debacle. McKee writes:

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the weaknesses of individual leaders and international cooperation. In a world where Jair Bolsanaro can threaten the world by allowing the Amazon to burn, or Donald Trump can undermine those leading the response to a pandemic, the need for a new international order has never been more urgent.

It has to be a world order that excludes the United States. Admittedly, it's a tall order. But unless we re-organize the way the world works, Trump will not only bring down his own country. He'll bring down the planet.

Image: Common Dreams

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

When Home Is Dangerous

Six years ago, we moved my mother into a nursing home. It was a good home. It was expensive. But she refused to go, and we had to have her declared incompetent. Six months after we moved her, she died there. It was a sad story. But, as I have been reading the news from Quebec -- particularly the news out of Dorval -- I give thanks that she will not have to live there in this crisis.

My wife used to work in nursing homes -- and the weaknesses in the system have always been glaring. Bruce Arthur writes:

The weaknesses in the system have been apparent for over a decade. The SARS report in 2003 mandated nurses should work in one facility only, but many long-term care workers — as many as 50 per cent — work in multiple facilities. B.C. banned the practice on March 27, over two weeks ahead of Ontario and Alberta. Facilities heavily rely on personal support workers, or PSWs, who are not medically trained, and start at $15 an hour. You can say they should be paid more, which is true.
The system, though, often stretches those PSWs, and doesn’t include enough medical supervision and care. In the face of COVID-19 — which stresses actual hospitals — and with either limited personal protective equipment or limited training in how to use it, is it any wonder that someone making $15 per hour would, faced with the nightmare of a sudden sea of feverish and deathly ill residents, simply walk away?
“Think about how quickly the patients will go downhill, and they absolutely know that they aren’t equipped to look after them, and (if) the hospitals won’t take them, then they have to look after them in place with no skills at all,” says Joy Parsons-Nicota, who has 45 years of experience as a registered nurse, a nurse practitioner, and as a nurse-educator at the University of Ottawa, specializing in geriatrics, and who also recently spent three years working part-time at a Kingston long-term care home. “You wouldn’t treat animals like that. No pain medication, no IVs when they’re dehydrated.

The coronavirus has exposed a lot of our weaknesses. One of the ugliest is the way we deal with our elderly. We can no longer rationalize the way we have organized their last years.

Image: Business Insider

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Neoliberalism Is Imploding

Neoliberalism, the conventional wisdom that has driven the international consensus about government is under attack. Jim Harding writes:

The libertarian view that the individual must relentlessly fight against interference from the government has mushroomed since the 1970s. That government intrusion in our lives must be fervently resisted gained credence from still popular writers such as U.S. Russian refugee, Ayn Rand. By 2009, the combined annual sales of her four novels exceeded one million. Her famous book, Atlas Shrugged, written in 1957 during the Cold War, topped more than 7 million sales after the 2009 financial crash.
The contemporary libertarian view, especially in the U.S., is greatly rooted in opposition to communism. It encouraged the reframing of freedom from authoritarian governments to mean freedom from government authority. The constitutional pursuit of "liberty" in the name of achieving "happiness" was easily slanted this way. The Republican Tea party broadened the support. Bernie Sanders' call for a universal single-payer health-care system, along Canadian or European lines, was met with libertarian attacks that this would make America socialist -- even if such a system can be shown to extend health care to everyone and reduce overall costs.
The libertarian view easily fed into the spread of neoliberalism. Perpetual global economic growth for profit was the new end-game. The freedom to accumulate grew along with the big-box stores. Mass advertising stimulated demand; wants were transformed into perceived needs. China was willing to produce almost anything that Walmart could successfully sell.

Neoliberalism was always fundamentally flawed. But the movers and shakers in western societies conveniently overlooked those flaws:

With their simplistic formulas for fiscal austerity, neoliberal politicians offloaded debt from the government onto families. We were left free to pursue private childcare, if we could find and afford it, but were not free from scarcity, high costs and family anxiety.
The growing private, for-profit market of consumer choices steadily undercut communitarian norms. It accelerated the growth of narcissistic behavior. The growth in identity politics has added to our confusion.
The libertarian view of "rights" has been much more influential than we want to admit. Rights can't exist without responsibilities. We can't expect to have our rights respected if we don't take responsibility to protect the rights of others. This pandemic creates a very new context for the politics of difference and the politics of resentment.

The coronavirus has underscored those weaknesses. And we are relearning lessons which we forgot:

Rather than us being protected from this pandemic by being free from a government authority, our freedom to continue to eat, to have electricity and heat, and to access healthcare if we need it, is solidly based on socio-economic infrastructures being quickly reorganized by authority that flows both ways.
Academic and scientific freedom from authoritarian or largely ignorant politicians facilitates the freedom to execute a rational pandemic strategy. International cooperation accelerates creating a vaccine. Local capacity to do testing and contact tracing is going to be essential to enable any easing of social isolation that won't, in turn, risk the virus returning to the wider province or country. Responsible, informed authority will enhance human freedom and security.

When this is over, will we forget what we have so recently relearned?

Image: Pinterest

Monday, April 13, 2020

Not Likely

Lawrence Martin writes that Donald Trump is not likely to win re-election. What used to be his strong suit -- the economy -- has been shattered by the coronavirus:

The Trump Republicans are hopeful that when the lockdown is lifted, the economy will come roaring back. Not by the fall it won’t. The stock market might be back up but the unemployment and GDP numbers will be brutal. The Republicans never win with the economy in the tank.
They lost in 2008 when George W. Bush left behind a shattered economy. They lost in 1992 when his father was in power and the economy was downward bound. They lost in 1932 when Herbert Hoover faced the country during the Great Depression.

And, while the virus was  taking hold in his country, Trump slept -- like Rip Van Winkle:

The American media is probing deeply what happened in January and February. Revelations of Oval Office inertia keep on coming.
Time after time, he was warned of the seriousness of the virus, and time after time, other than placing limited restrictions on travel from China, he failed to respond. While other leaders are gaining popularity for their handling of the crisis, Mr. Trump is not.

Trump is desperately trying to re-write history. But the history is so fresh, people will not forget. Joe Biden may not be inspiring. But he's normal. And he possesses what Trump lacks in spades: character.

Politics is unpredictable. The unforeseen could upend the race. But Trump is facing what he abhors the most -- being branded a loser.

Image: Daily Kos

Friday, April 10, 2020

The Deadly Circus

Donald Trump continues to sink into the ooze. Some, including me, are amazed by his performance -- or lack of it. Martin Dunn -- who used to edit The New York Daily News -- remains nonplused:

Running one of the biggest and most important newspapers in America and New York made it impossible to avoid Donald J Trump.
His sex life, his money, his businesses – whether they succeeded or failed – his narcissistic branding of city landmarks and his investment in football teams and ice skating rinks made him constant fodder for gossip columnists, investigative teams and sports writers.
Whether planting complimentary stories or raging about unfavorable coverage, Trump ensured New York could not ignore him. Newspapers, magazines and TV stations were there to be used to enhance the Trump name.
He had no shame in using the media and we had no qualms about capitalizing on his headline-generating power. For decades the competition centered on which tabloid could out-Trump the other. In a city where business leaders are hailed as celebrities, Trump became the undisputed master manipulator – the man who understood that the only thing worse than being written about was not being written about.

And, in Washington, he operates from the same playbook:

Having masterminded coverage of him for more than a decade, I’m not laughing any more. The very things that brought him headlines are now the behavior that is costing America in ways unimaginable a few months ago.
The president’s nightly, often rambling, performances in front of the White House and world’s press have developed a sad, deep, morbid fascination. It is unconscionable that even in the depth of one of the world’s most deadly crises, Trump displays the same unfiltered – and frequently uneducated – outbursts that typified his relationship with his hometown press in the 1980s and 1990s.
Instead of being the authoritative, inspiring voice that the nation so desperately needs in its darkest hour, Trump shows much of the same bullying, self-satisfied characteristics he learned in his dealings with the media in New York. In fact, Trump was more comfortable and coherent discussing gossip items as he is trying to inspire a frightened country.
It’s frightening enough that, with few exceptions, he surrounds himself with fawning acolytes who massage his ego with an obsequiousness that would bring shame in North Korea. It’s shocking to witness that the vocabulary of the supposedly most powerful man in the world extends only as far as “incredible,” “great” and “amazing”, mostly in reference to himself. And it’s disgraceful to witness him publicly berate journalists and governors who he feels don’t treat him with due deference, as opposed to the respect with which his predecessors were treated. Alone those things make his press briefings excruciatingly embarrassing.
What is more unforgivable is watching a president playing loose and fast with facts; a man who lives in an echo chamber of soundbites and quips – whether appropriate or not – shamefully adding to confusion and fear with every mixed message he utters.

In New York, Trump was the ringmaster of his own three-ring circus. In Washington, that circus has become deadly.


Thursday, April 09, 2020

Stepping Up

In our present situation, we need medical equipment -- lots of it. Linda McQuaig suggests that we look to history to see what can be done:

In 1940, when British forces had to make an emergency evacuation by sea from Dunkirk, they left behind virtually the entire British fleet of military vehicles. Almost defenceless, Britain turned to Canada to help it replace the 75,000 military vehicles it had abandoned in France.
In a highly co-ordinated effort, Ottawa created — almost from scratch — a vast industrial base that produced 800,000 military transport vehicles and 50,000 tanks, not to mention tons of other military supplies throughout the war.

What is required is leadership  -- like the leadership of C. D. Howe, the "Minister Of Everything" -- and a government which established 28 Crown Corporations:

Central to Canada’s massive mobilization was the creation of 28 Crown corporations, with a workforce of 229,000, dedicated to manufacturing war products, according to University of Toronto’s Sandford Borins.
Borins notes that many of these Crown corporations were impressive. Victory Aircraft, for instance, proved highly effective at manufacturing complex, British-designed planes and provided the foundation for the postwar creation of the supersonic, state-of-the-art jet known as the Avro Arrow.
Another wartime Crown corporation, Research Enterprises, teamed up with the National Research Council of Canada to design and produce technologically advanced radar equipment, periscopes, rangefinders and radio sets.
After the war, however, Ottawa was quick to transfer all production capacity back to the private sector. It shut down or privatized all 28 wartime Crown corporations, no matter how promising.

In the last fifty years, crown corporations have been seen as backwaters of incompetence. Private enterprize has been touted as our salvation. Now, however, private enterprize gets in the way:

Indeed, we’ve become so locked into this pro-market mindset that, even in the face of today’s deadly pandemic, Ottawa seems paralyzed to take charge in order to ensure adequate supplies of vital materials.
Of course, many companies have signalled a willingness to produce materials for the pandemic. But, without a powerful government agency overseeing production and distribution, we’ve been left scrambling to buy scarce equipment in a chaotic private marketplace, bidding against U.S. states and governments all over the world.

Once again, it's time for government to step up -- and do what has to be done.

Image: The Toronto Star

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

The New World

At the moment, we are battling the coronavirus. It looks like that battle will last at least 18 months. But, when the battle is over, we will face a new world -- a world which will be riddled with the harvest of our past mistakes. Glen Pearson writes:

In his Sunday television program, Fareed Zakaria spoke about life in the next few years: “We are in the early stages of what is going to become a series of cascading events, reverberating throughout the world.  Economic paralysis is sure to follow … these problems demand global coordination.”
We can be forgiven for fixating on our own domestic travails, but what is about to hit the developing world will be far worse.  Venezuela, India, Brazil and a score of African nations will be ill-prepared for the economic chaos about to hit them and richer developed nations will be hard-pressed to find the resources to assist the world’s poorest when they are attempting to restart their own economies.  Regardless of the coronavirus effects on such poorer regions, the economic aftershock will have devastating consequences on them and millions could perish.
It should be clear by now that the global lack of public investment in both rich and poor nations has left us deeply vulnerable.  We have always known that pandemics were possible, as were escalating climate disasters, the loss of good jobs, decline in public services, and an increasingly ineffective politics, but little was done to avert any of these.  In some cases, they grew worse.

Instability will be the hallmark of this new world:

Increasingly unequal societies are also increasingly unstable.  And since we’ve been underfunding the public sectors for years, we shouldn’t be surprised that so many lie vulnerable to the corona crisis.  The governments that are suddenly there with crisis funding weren’t sufficiently diligent in the years preceding this pandemic.  While economies raged ahead on corporate partnerships and stock market records, the reality was that they were ironically cutting back on the very public services we now require and which have remained in a deficit predicament for years.  That lack of investment has now caught up with us, leaving governments embarrassed at their own lack of capacity to adapt.

And you can bet that the pressure to claw back the money that governments have spent during this crisis will be extreme:

One thing is certain: there will be massive pressure on governments and regulatory agencies to plow funds back into the financial sector as opposed to the public one.  We know all too well what happened when that transpired following the Great Recession of 2008 – the public cupboard was stripped bare in order that the private markets could be stocked.  And not much changed in the years following, leaving many to observe that little was learned in the process.
Should we go down that same route, then societies will go down as well.  If we pump up the financial sector in hopes of bringing the economy back to normal, we will only repeat the fallacies of the past.  Climate change will continue its destructive force.  The labour market will remain volatile.  Poverty will continue to be endemic, made obvious by more vulnerable citizens on the streets.  Public health and education will increasingly rise in cost.  Programs will be cut back or done away with altogether.

Unless the public educates itself on the nature of this crisis, we face our own destruction. At the beginning of the last century, H.G. Wells wrote, "Civilization is a race between education and disaster."

That statement is as true today as when Wells wrote it.


Tuesday, April 07, 2020

The Mighty Moron

For Donald Trump, everything is about trade. And trade is about war. The Trudeau government has had some experience with Trump on this file. Susan Delacourt writes:

Canada does have a playbook for trade disputes with the United States, and Justin Trudeau’s government hauled it out to deal with Donald Trump’s America-first hoarding of pandemic-fighting supplies.
Perhaps no one should have been surprised that the U.S. president’s penchant for turning global matters into trade wars includes, it seems, an international pandemic.

Faced with a familiar Trump tactic, the Trudeau government applied a now-familiar response:

Phone diplomacy — a massive flurry of phone calls between Canadians and their American contacts and counterparts.
Co-ordinated, federal-provincial communications, with the provinces often playing bad cop, while Ottawa plays good cop.
Extremely limited contact between Trump and Trudeau themselves, with the prime minister saying as little as possible to avoid inflaming the president.
All of those strategies were put into use after the 3M announcement last week. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland talked to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer; Global Affairs Minister François Philippe Champagne talked to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; and the newly named ambassador to the U.S., Kirsten Hillman, spent days talking to selected high-level officials in the Trump administration.

It worked for NAFTA. We'll have to see if it works this time. We know this morning that medical masks are headed to Canada.

But one thing is certain. Life can be difficult when you have to deal with The Mighty Moron.


Monday, April 06, 2020

Politics At Its Core

We like to think that, in times such as these, we suspend politics and move to another planet. But David Runciman writes that, in times like these, we get to see how politics really work:

In a democracy we tend to think of politics as a contest between different parties for our support. We focus on the who and the what of political life: who is after our votes, what they are offering us, who stands to benefit. We see elections as the way to settle these arguments. But the bigger questions in any democracy are always about the how: how will governments exercise the extraordinary powers we give them? And how will we respond when they do?
These are the questions that have always preoccupied political theorists. But now they are not so theoretical. As the current crisis shows, the primary fact that underpins political existence is that some people get to tell others what to do. At the heart of all modern politics is a trade-off between personal liberty and collective choice. This is the Faustian bargain identified by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the middle of the 17th century, when the country was being torn apart by a real civil war.

Hobbes' world was very dark. Life in his world was nasty, brutish and short. But Hobbes understood the true nature of power. Democracies tend to dress up brute force in a lot of platitudes:

The government is doing all it can to dress up its decisions in the language of commonsense advice. It says it is still trusting individuals to show sound judgment. But as the experience of other European countries shows, as the crisis deepens the stark realities become clearer. Just watch the footage of Italian mayors screaming at their constituents to stay at home. “Vote for me or the other lot get in” is routine democratic politics. “Do this or else” is raw democratic politics. At that point it doesn’t look so different from politics of any other kind.

But we are now being reminded of some hard truths:

National governments really matter, and it really matters which one you happen to find yourself under. Though the pandemic is a global phenomenon, and is being experienced similarly in many different places, the impact of the disease is greatly shaped by decisions taken by individual governments. Different views about when to act and how far to go still mean that no two nations are having the same experience. At the end of it all we may get to see who was right and what was wrong. But for now, we are at the mercy of our national leaders. That is something else Hobbes warned about: there is no avoiding the element of arbitrariness at the heart of all politics. It is the arbitrariness of individual political judgment.

In the end, the individual political judgment of our leaders can make the difference between life and death.

Image: You Tube

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Cadet Bone Spurs

Donald Trump now refers to himself as a "wartime president." That claim rings astonishingly hollow. Maureen Dowd writes:

Donald Trump is trying to build a campaign message around his image as a wartime president. But as a commander in chief, Cadet Bone Spurs is bringing up the rear.
“I would leave it up to the governors,” Trump said Friday, when asked about his government’s sclerotic response. Trouble is, when you leave it to the governors, you have scenes like we did in Florida with the open beaches — not to mention a swath in the middle of the country that, as of Friday night, still had not ordered residents to stay home.

He  had plenty of warning about what was coming:

The Los Angeles Times reported that two months before the virus spread through Wuhan, the Trump administration halted a $200 million early-warning program to train scientists in China and elsewhere to deal with a pandemic. The name of the program? “PREDICT.”
It is said that nature abhors a vacuum, but this virus loves it.

Trump himself is a vacuum. There is nothing at his core. But vacuums are attracted to other vacuums. And, so, Jared Kushner has been given another task -- even though he has delivered on none of his previous assignments:

At the Thursday briefing, the president brought out another wealthy, uninformed man-child who loves to play boss: Jared Kushner. Where’s our Mideast peace deal, dude? Surely Trump did not think giving Kushner a lead role would inspire confidence. This is the very same adviser who told his father-in-law early on that the virus was being overplayed by the press and also urged him to tout a Google website guiding people to testing sites that turned out to be, um, still under construction.
From the lectern, Kushner drilled down on his role as the annoying, spoiled kid in every teen movie ever made. “And the notion of the federal stockpile was, it’s supposed to be our stockpile,” he said. “It’s not supposed to be the states’ stockpiles that they then use.”
Our stockpile?
That’s the way the Trump-Kushner dynasty has approached this whole presidency, conflating what belongs to the people with what is theirs. Trump acts like he has the right to dole out “favors,” based on which governor is most assiduous about kissing up to him.

A family of grifters -- headed by Cadet Bone Spurs.


Saturday, April 04, 2020

A Crisis Of Character

Yesterday was a sobering day for Ontarians. The news was grim. Martin Regg Cohn writes:

On Friday, for the first time, Ontario’s top public health experts not only predicted how many people may die by month’s end. More importantly, they also estimated how many have been saved to date and will be spared in the days to come.
Yes, 1,600 are likely to die by April 30 on current trends. But if society can maintain vigilance and social distancing, the latest modelling suggests we would be saving — sparing — 4,400 lives that would otherwise be included in the grim tally of 6,000 total deaths projected in Ontario’s business-as-usual scenario.
In other words, and in precise numbers, we are on track to reduce the death toll by 73 per cent. That is a remarkable force multiplier and life saver, if only we stay the course. (Indeed, in a best-case scenario, we could reduce the death toll as low as 200 with even stronger measures, some of which were added Friday.)
It is also a powerful message of hope. But it also requires belief anchored in evidence and buttressed by resolve.

We're in a grim situation. But it could be grimmer. What -- or who -- will make the difference is us. That's the message from yesterday. We face a health and an economic crisis. But, most of all, we face a crisis of character.

Image: Google Sites

Friday, April 03, 2020

The Weakness In Globolization

The pandemic has exposed the weak link in the theory of globalization. The theory states that those nations which can easily produce certain products should produce them, while those countries which find it difficult to produce products should produce other things. Tom Walkom writes:

The theory behind globalization (or the liberal world order as Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland prefers to call it) sounds good. It is based on two principles.
First, nations should concentrate on producing goods and services for which they have a comparative advantage. Second, they should agree on a set of rules that allow them to freely trade these goods and services with one another.
At a basic level, this seems to make sense. It is more logical for Canada to buy bananas from abroad rather than try to grow them at home.

But times like these blow a hole in that theory:

Consider the crucial question of medical supplies. As Health Minister Patty Hajdu confirmed this week, Canada does not have enough personal protective equipment, such as masks and ventilators, on hand.
The federal government is scrambling to find as much as it can. It is hampered by the fact that, thanks to the logic of free trade, Canada does not manufacture such materials here. They must be imported from abroad.
Yet that is not easy. As a result of the pandemic, more than 50 nations, including all members of the European Union, have imposed restrictions on the export of medical supplies — to Canada or anywhere else.
China remains the world’s biggest producer of medical masks. But some recent purchasers, most notably the Dutch government, have questioned their quality.
A recent New York Times article paints the international medical mask market as a kind of Wild West, dominated by hustlers and profiteers determined to wring as much as they can from the pandemic.

The obvious answer is to produce what we need here. There is a vacant auto plant in Oshawa which could be retooled to do just that. But, so far, it remains empty.

Image: Fabulously Made