The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

A century ago, in Kansas...

...the 1918-19 influenza pandemic began. Historian John M Barry studied the outbreak, summarizing his findings in a 2017 Smithsonian Magazine article that did nothing to help me feel more comfortable about our present circumstances:

At its worst, the epidemic in Philadelphia would kill 759 people...in one day. Priests drove horse-drawn carts down city streets, calling upon residents to bring out their dead; many were buried in mass graves. More than 12,000 Philadelphians died—nearly all of them in six weeks.

Across the country, public officials were lying. U.S. Surgeon General Rupert Blue said, “There is no cause for alarm if precautions are observed.” New York City’s public health director declared “other bronchial diseases and not the so-called Spanish influenza...[caused] the illness of the majority of persons who were reported ill with influenza.” The Los Angeles public health chief said, “If ordinary precautions are observed there is no cause for alarm.”

For an example of the press’s failure, consider Arkansas. Over a four-day period in October, the hospital at Camp Pike admitted 8,000 soldiers. Francis Blake, a member of the Army’s special pneumonia unit, described the scene: “Every corridor and there are miles of them with double rows of cots ...with influenza patients...There is only death and destruction.” Yet seven miles away in Little Rock, a headline in the Gazette pretended yawns: “Spanish influenza is plain la grippe—same old fever and chills.”

People knew this was not the same old thing, though. They knew because the numbers were staggering—in San Antonio, 53 percent of the population got sick with influenza. They knew because victims could die within hours of the first symptoms—horrific symptoms, not just aches and cyanosis but also a foamy blood coughed up from the lungs, and bleeding from the nose, ears and even eyes. And people knew because towns and cities ran out of coffins.

People could believe nothing they were being told, so they feared everything, particularly the unknown. How long would it last? How many would it kill? Who would it kill? With the truth buried, morale collapsed. Society itself began to disintegrate.

Time and time again, we see that public officials lying or minimizing imminent threats makes the results worse. Time and time again, they lie or minimize imminent threats.

Good thing Mike Pence is on the job today. It's not like he ever lied and minimized an imminent health threat, causing loss of life that his government could easily have prevented.

Trump and the Republican Party have left us dangerously unprepared for this

By "this," I don't mean the Covid-19 outbreak itself, though by cutting CDC pandemic funding 80%, ending epidemic prevention aid to 37 of 47 countries, or by appointing perhaps the worst possible administration official to lead the response effort, he has almost certainly increased the risk of infection to every person in the world.

No, I mean that we're dangerously unprepared for the recession the virus outbreak appears to be encouraging.

Economists have had a hunch we'd eventually get the stock-market correction we got this week, because we had ample evidence that stock values were not in line with fundamentals. However, the S&P 500 losing 10% in one week, wiping out more than a year of gains, has been the fastest correction in history, according to Bloomberg News. And at this writing the indices are still falling.

But the Republican Party passed massive tax cuts two years running, which has resulted in Federal budget deficits exceeding $1 trillion. Now many people are about to find out why a massive deficit in a strong economy reduces our options when the economy slows down.

In a strong economy, people feel wealthy, so they spend more money. We all know that. But people also have a higher tolerance for taxes when they feel rich. In individual states in the US that have constitutional balanced-budget requirements, boom times allow them to save money. In the US writ large, which has no such restrictions, boom times allow us to make investments in infrastructure, education, social programs, and all manner of things we have as a country failed to invest in for years.

Not so coincidentally, the years in which we've failed to invest are the same as the years the Republican Party has preached lower taxes, cutting social benefits, and getting the government so small "you can drown it in the bathtub." The goal is to consolidate wealth in a small minority that can then exert disproportionate control over an ever-more-impoverished majority. As I've said for 30 years, the Republican Party doesn't want to govern; they want to rule. And it's easier to rule peasants than burghers.

The last two years under Trump have made previous Republican wealth grabs look gentle. And they almost got away with it, too. They've kept the economy going just strongly enough, preventing the inevitable slowdown after 10 years of Obama-led growth, to make people feel good about the next election. If only they could have made it to November. Four more years of Trump would, they hoped and planned, allow them to lock in Republican policies for 40 more years.

Walking from the train this morning, I realized the Trump administration has acted like a cocaine addict regarding the economy. They forced lower taxes through Congress (or blocked raising them) since the last years of Obama, then came out of the bathroom with powder on their noses crowing about how low taxes have helped the economy.

At the first signs of a slowdown in 2018 and 2019, they did a couple more bumps to make it last longer, just a little longer. But the crash is upon us, and like a cokehead, it's going to be much worse because it's been too good too long.

So here we are. We've lost hundreds of billions in paper wealth this week, we've got the Spanish Flu exploding all over the world, people are scared, and the front-runners in both parties represent the extremes. A really good recession right now will go a long way to helping the kids understand, on a personal and visceral level, why we don't want extremists in power.

And because of our massive deficits, it will be hard to summon the political will to continue those deficits and start necessary spending efforts to keep people employed and the economy from screeching to a halt. The only arrows we have left in our quiver include printing more money or raising taxes in a recession, both of which will increase inflation, wipe out more paper wealth (but of debt holders, not of debtors, which is the point), and possibly make the retirements of Boomers more uncomfortable than their grandparents had it in the Depression. (Oh, and we Xers will get screwed regardless, but that's been the case our whole lives.)

You think we're smarter than Europe in the 1930s? We're about to really find out.

Odd day in the news

Some highlights:

Finally, looking at dating like a marketplace doesn't make a lot of sense in practice.

Dastardly Do-Right?

Via reader ML, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have stepped in it over protests on First Nations land in northern British Columbia:

Canadian federal police had “no legal authority” to make ID checks and searches on activists seeking to block a pipeline project on Indigenous territory, according to newly released correspondence from the force’s oversight body.

The nine-page letter written by Michelaine Lahaie, chair of the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP, offers scathing criticism of the police’s continued use of tactics against Indigenous people which she had previously warned against.

In recent weeks, demonstrations have sprung up across the country, blockading major railway lines and obstructing access to ports and government buildings.

On Thursday, Canada’s largest rail operator, CN Rail, obtained a court injunction giving it permission to remove a blockade in St-Lambert, a suburb of Montreal.

Al Jezeera has an overview of the issues:

Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs, who hold authority over their land, say they were not properly consulted on the 670km (416-mile) Coastal GasLink pipeline. The company says it reached agreements with 20 elected First Nations band councils. In December, the BC Supreme Court granted Coastal GasLink an injunction to continue work on the pipeline. 

Following the arrests of Wet'suwet'en land defenders about two weeks ago, tensions have mounted as solidarity actions have grown across the country, with many calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to solve the crisis.

"This is not a new resistance," said [lawyer Sylvia] McAdam, one of the founders of Idle No More, a movement born in 2012 in response to parliamentary bills that threatened Indigenous sovereignty and environmental protections.

"I think today we're reaching a boiling point where Indigenous people are so tired of the racism, they're tired of colonisation, they're tired of protecting and defending (rights and land)," she told Al Jazeera.

McAdam said Canada needs to reckon with its past and pay the debts it owes First Nations.

I'll be checking back on this story as it unfolds.

Friday afternoon reading backlog

I was going to lead off with a New Republic article about Michael Bloomberg, but they just put up a paywall yesterday and lost my subscription information. And their new "subscribe now" page doesn't work. But why would anyone need to test software before deploying it to production?

Anyway, that wasn't the only article that interested me today that I'll read later on:

Finally, it's going to be warmer than usual this weekend, so I'm going to add some Brews with my Choos.

Rot from the head

Both New Republic and the Post come to the same conclusion on the latest from both the Republican and Democratic sides. First, TNR looks at the president's "clemency binge:"

Those rewards send a powerful signal to Trump’s allies who are still caught up in the criminal justice system. There’s ample evidence that the president has dangled his clemency powers as a means to keep associates from testifying against him. Trump publicly floated the idea of pardoning Paul Manafort in 2018 while his former campaign chairman was under pressure to testify in the Russia investigation. One of Trump’s lawyers reportedly discussed a pardon for former national security adviser Michael Flynn with Flynn’s lawyers two years ago. The president even personally raised the possibility of pardoning Roger Stone, who is set to be sentenced for lying to Congress on Thursday, to his advisers in recent weeks. Tuesday’s pardons and commutations help normalize what is surely coming to his long-suffering loyalists after the 2020 election, if not sooner.

Trump himself will also personally benefit from the clemency spree. With the stroke of his pen, he all but negated thousands of man-hours spent by the Justice Department over the past three decades to convict defendants who stood accused of serious offenses: bribery and corruption, fraud and tax evasion, lying to investigators and deceiving the public, and more. Trump can’t reverse the financial and personal toll that those cases imposed on their targets. But he can delegitimize the federal government’s anti-corruption efforts and undermine the notion that it can hold the wealthiest and most powerful Americans accountable for their actions.

And Greg Sargent, on Elizabeth Warren ripping Michael Bloomberg a new one at last night's Democratic debate:

“I’d like to talk about who we’re running against: a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians,” Warren said, right at the outset. “No, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.”

“Democrats are not going to win if we have a nominee who has a history of hiding his tax returns, of harassing women and of supporting racist policies like redlining and stop-and-frisk,” Warren continued, adding: “Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.”

That, of course, is an indictment not just of Bloomberg (who has his own history of demeaning women) but also of Trump: The president is a disgusting misogynist and a racist in his own right, and he’s engaged in nonstop corrupt self-dealing, facilitated by concealed tax returns — and a corrupted system.

Because both things are true: Trump and Bloomberg represent the system protecting its own. And that has to stop.

So much corruption! We're going to do corruption like you've never seen it

President Trump's list of felons to whom he granted clemency yesterday seems to have a common element. First, Rod Blagojevich, possibly the most corrupt governor Illinois has ever had, which is saying something in a state that sent 4 of its last 8 to prison, and who seems less than contrite about his crimes:

“I had a unique opportunity to represent Congress and be (Illinois’) governor for six years and fight for things I truly believe is good for people,” he said, adding “the fight” now was against the “people that did this to me” and to regain the public’s trust.

“That if I were to give in to the pressure and give in to the shakedown that was done to me, that I would be violating my oath of office to fight for the Constitution and fight for the rule of law and keep my promises to (the public),” he said. “ ’Cause I didn’t do the things they said I did. And they lied on me.”

And the president also pardoned Michael Milken, who has his own glorious history of malfeasance:

Lest history be entirely rewritten, it’s worth considering what Judge Kimba M. Wood told Mr. Milken at his sentencing on Nov. 21, 1990, on charges including conspiracy and fraud:

“When a man of your power in the financial world, at the head of the most important department of one of the most important investment banking houses in this country, repeatedly conspires to violate, and violates, securities and tax laws in order to achieve more power and wealth for himself and his wealthy clients, and commits financial crimes that are particularly hard to detect, a significant prison term is required in order to deter others.”

[I]t’s not hard to fathom why Mr. Milken’s saga would resonate with Mr. Trump.

Like the president, Mr. Milken studied business at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania but was largely shunned by New York’s elite.

Mr. Milken’s early clients were corporate raiders who, like Mr. Trump, were disdained by establishment firms like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. Mr. Milken and his junk-bond-fueled takeovers were seen as disruptive forces, threats to a complacent status quo on Wall Street and in corporate America, just as Mr. Trump has upended Washington.

And of course Mr. Milken underwent years of distracting investigations and related bad publicity.

NPR interviewed NYU law professor Rachel Barkow this morning, who summed it up nicely. (I'll edit this post later today to add her comments when the transcript comes out.)

I really hope whoever gets the Democratic nomination hammers the president on this stuff. The corruption! Such corruption! It's the one thing Donald Trump does best.

I actually LOL'd when I saw this news alert

The President was busy this morning:

President Trump has commuted the 14-year prison sentence of former Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois, the Democrat who was convicted of trying to essentially sell President Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat for personal gain, as well as the financier, Michael R. Milken and Bernard B. Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner, the president announced on Tuesday.

The president’s decision came the same day that he pardoned Edward J. DeBartolo Jr., a former owner of the San Francisco 49ers who pleaded guilty in 1998 to concealing an extortion attempt and eventually surrendered control of his team.

Mr. DeBartolo, the scion of a prominent real estate development family who created one of the National Football League’s greatest dynasties, was prosecuted after agreeing to pay $400,000 in brand-new $100 bills to Edwin W. Edwards, the influential former governor of Louisiana, to secure a riverboat gambling license for his gambling consortium.

Like attracts like, I suppose. I wonder, will he now turn his attention to freeing the immigrants he's detained at our borders? Or the millions of low-level drug offenders clogging our prisons?

The best Attorney General we have

Bill Barr's beliefs about executive power have engendered a bit of pushback. Former Deputy Attorney General Donald Ayer says Barr should resign:

[P]erhaps the most outrageous and alarming ideas that Barr advances come in his attacks on the judiciary, which occupy fully a third of his speech. In his mind, it seems, the courts are the principal culprit in constraining the extraordinarily broad powers that the president is constitutionally entitled to exercise. His discussion ignores a pillar of our legal system since almost the very beginning—Chief Justice John Marshall’s magisterial pronouncement in the early days of our republic that “it is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.”

Barr yearns for a day when the president can bully everyone else in government, and leave them no ability to seek relief in court.

The benefit of the doubt that many were ready to extend to Barr a year ago—as among the best of a bad lot of nominees who had previously served in high office without disgrace—has now run out. He has told us in great detail who he is, what he believes, and where he would like to take us. For whatever twisted reasons, he believes that the president should be above the law, and he has as his foil in pursuit of that goal a president who, uniquely in our history, actually aspires to that status. And Barr has acted repeatedly on those beliefs in ways that are more damaging at every turn. Presently he is moving forward with active misuse of the criminal sanction, as one more tool of the president’s personal interests.

Bill Barr’s America is not a place that anyone, including Trump voters, should want to go. It is a banana republic where all are subject to the whims of a dictatorial president and his henchmen. To prevent that, we need a public uprising demanding that Bill Barr resign immediately, or failing that, be impeached.

And while Barr may represent the curdled cream of the kakistocracy now running the executive branch, Max Boot worries that no one cares enough:

I don’t see massive marches in the streets. I don’t see people flooding their members of Congress with calls and emails. I don’t see the outrage that is warranted — and necessary. I see passivity, resignation and acquiescence from a distracted electorate that has come to accept Trump’s aberrant behavior as the norm.

A recent Gallup poll found that Trump’s approval rating among Republicans — the supposed law-and-order party — is at a record-high 94 percent. His support in the country as a whole is only 43.4 percent in the FiveThirtyEight average, but he is still well positioned to win reelection, because most people seem to care a lot more about the strength of the stock market than about the strength of our democracy. This is how democracies die — not in darkness but in full view of a public that couldn’t care less.

On the other hand, we have an election in 260 days. I think the public had enough long ago, and contra Boot, want to turf these guys out through the ballot. If Trump wins re-election, however, let's see about those boots in the street.

Working from home is still working

While I do get to sign off a bit earlier today, I might not read all of these articles until tomorrow:

Finally, despite today's near-record low temperatures in Chicago, we expect a 12°C increase from earlier this morning until tomorrow afternoon. Hey, if this is the only day all winter that even flirts with -18°C, I'm happy.