Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Blogrolling In Our Time

Somehow when I started up this new blog, I missed adding Big Bad Bald Bastard under "Still Brilliant After All These Years."  So I'm rectifying that now.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Trump Pivots -- And I Imagine the Inevitable Campaign Ad

Remember the Iraq War?  Remember how George W. Bush took us into a war with no plan, screwed up that country completely, and then lost interest?

Now we have Donald Trump, who, having "dealt" with the coronavirus crisis by first trying to "keep the numbers down" by doing nothing, then insisting his administration was doing a great job, has now decided, in the aftermath of the Great Bleach Injection Fracas of 2020, to "pivot" over to an economic message.  He can't control the narrative about the infection and death toll of COVID-19 in this country (which as I write this stands at around 986,000 confirmed infections and over 55,000 deaths), so like an unruly child who breaks everything in the gift shop before being hustled out by his mother, he's leaving the wreckage for the states to clean up and "pivoting" to the economy.

This from Axios:
Driving the news: The Coronavirus Task Force — and the doctors who've become household names, Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci — "will continue but take a back seat to the forward-looking, 'what's next' message," a White House official told Axios.

What we're hearing: "Expect to see a pivot from the White House in the days ahead, focusing on the economy and a more hopeful, forward-looking message," one of these officials said.

Trump will host businesses who've been harmed by the coronavirus, and he'll highlight the governors who are reopening their economies in line with the Trump administration's guidelines. That group pointedly does not include Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp.

Some governors are gingerly trying to reopen their states as public health experts warn of a second wave of infections.

What's next: The White House briefings will eventually scale back and come to an end. But in the meantime, Trump's team plans to build his calendar around events that highlight a "safe" reopening of the economy.

The team for weeks has deliberated what a plan to stimulate an economic rebound should look like, one official said, concluding that "POTUS is strongest when he's focusing on things we can win — like bringing back the economy — rather than giving updates on the virus."
And it just might work for him.

Imagine the ad:  The sun is shining.  A man in an apron sweeps the sidewalk by his restaurant's outdoor tables.  He smiles at the camera and says, "We're back -- and better than ever."  A smiling bus boy wipes a table.  A man in a chef's coat chops vegetables on a pristine counter. He looks up and says "We're back -- and better than ever." Cut to a glimpse inside a sports bar, where every table is full.  The tables are placed discreetly apart, but they are full of smiling white people cheering a football game while drinking beer and chowing down on enormous hamburgers and fries.  Cut to a shopping mall, where two attractive women push strollers laden with bags from mall stores.  Two of them look at the camera and say "We're back -- and better than ever."  Cut to a baseball game where the crowd chants "We're back -- and better than ever."  A paunchy white guy is grilling enormous steaks on a grill.  He raises his grill fork, waves it around his suburban domain and says "We're back -- and better than ever."  You get the picture, right?  

Cut to Trump reciting figures that reinforce the idea that he did a great job with the pandemic, to him signing relief bills, to the West Point commencement appearance he's going to do, and so on.  The voiceover in all this is something along the lines of "This country endured a catastrophic pandemic that  the previous administration left us woefully unprepared for.  Yet despite the wreckage left to him by Barack Obama, President Donald Trump steered us through this unprecedented challenge -- and through his strong, powerful leadership, brought us safely to the other side.  And now we're back.  America is back.  We're back, and we're better than ever. And nothing can stop us now."

Cut to a big crowd of white people with Trump standing triumphantly on front of them.  They yell "We're back -- and better than ever" while holding Trump signs.  Trump grins with his trademark "thumbs up."

I can see this ad as clearly as if it were already running.  Perhaps I can see it because it's right out of the Ronald Reagan "Morning in America" playbook. 

Trump's stock in trade is fear and loathing, but a nation wearied by fear may not respond to ads about the Great Brown People Horde that Steven Miller might want.  Buried underneath all of Trump's ridiculous speculation about miracle cures and how he just wants to get this virus crisis behind him, is a marketer's knowledge that people want hope.  They will cling to whatever hope they might be.  I'm quite certain that there are people on ventilators in hospitals all across the country who will never leave the hospital except in a body bag, but because there is a 20% chance that they might get off the ventilator, they'll take it.  We want to hope.  We want to think things will get "back to normal", even those of us who know that whatever comes out of this will at best be a kind of weird, not-quite-there alternate universe version of normal, have trouble coping with the idea that this may just be how we have to live from now on, with spot shortages and masks and no hugs.

Unless the reopenings that are occurring fail because curbside no-contact is not a viable business model, or because we see a renewed spike in cases, or if there is a second wave of the virus in the fall, it is going to be hard to run against "We're back -- and better than ever." (Actually, it's probably going to be "We're back -- bigger and better than ever," given Trump's preoccupation with size.)  

Joe Biden is an inherently cheery, folksy guy and HIS ads, under normal circumstances, would write themselves.  But how does Biden run against Morning in America Redux? Dark visions of the time we live in right now may not resonate in the fall. People will not want to remember.  We are a nation of spoiled whiny-ass titty babies.  The people demonstrating in the street demanding access to hair salons and tattoo parlors show who and what we are.  Jimmy Carter failed against Morning in America.  Walter Mondale failed against Morning in America, even though it wasn't morning for poor people and minorities, and the evisceration of the working class was well underway.  Does Team Joe have the savvy to be able to counteract the old Reagan playbook?  Color me skeptical.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Can this country be saved? (Should it?)

When I was a kid, my bathroom reading was a column in the Ladies Home Journal called "Can This Marriage Be Saved?"  I don't know why, as a kid not even ten years old, this column fascinated me.  Maybe it was the endless screaming matches between my own parents giving me a hope that maybe the magazine people could finally get things to quiet down.  (The screaming between my parents eventually stopped in April 1967 when my father decided he'd had enough, but then my mother's screaming became directed at my sister and me, so I'm not sure what we gained.)

Today, we wake up every morning in a country where neighbors are posting on NextDoor where you can find toilet paper and where people are lined up at 3 AM to buy cheap surplus chicken from  processing plants that are either closing or are in danger of closing because of COVID-19 outbreaks. We live in a country where you can be guilt-tripped because you aren't getting no-contact takeout food, which you aren't getting because you've realized that restaurant food has never been about the food, but about the companionship of enjoying it with friends.  It's a country where your hair salon has a GoFundMe to try and pay the rent so that at some indeterminate time in the future it can reopen, where you write checks for your hair stylist, the woman who waxes your eyebrows, your petsitting service, and the woman in your city who for years has been feeding kids in her low-income neighborhood and now finds herself an indispensable resource for a need that seems bottomless. It's a country where hedge funds gobbled up loans that we were told were meant for small businesses, where a pittance of $1200 for every adult in the country was deemed to be sufficient to carry over  people who had to close their restaurant, their beauty salon, their massage therapy practice, and the people who worked for them.

Some of us have been screaming for two decades about the mindless, knee-jerk patriotism that rose after 9/11/01.  It never really went away, as a party in power for much of that time sold us off piecemeal to billionaires who believe themselves ordained by God to have all the wealth in the world.  Meanwhile, the opposition party stubbornly remained locked in a bygone era, trapped in a 1990s "centrism" that was never in the center and was less a sea change than a function of the most charismatic politician since JFK.  That "America Fuck Yeah" patriotism had no resemblance to the country we actually lived in -- the one where a college education, unless you were a brilliant STEM grad from a top college who'd had an internship at Google, maybe got you a job at Starbucks if you were lucky.  It was one where undocumented workers who were required because Americans don't do backbreaking work for pennies an hour, were being exploited by their agribusiness employers for pittance wages. It was one where even tech workers were having to train their own lower-wage replacements, whether here or in India, before being let go.  Black men were being summarily executed in the street, or in their cars, because someone of the same race was seen in the same neighborhood, or because they'd committed some petty crime that for a white person would have meant pretrial intervention and probation.  The middle class was being systematically eviscerated, while the billionaire-owned GOP pointed their attention down the ladder and said "Look!  Look at that [black person/immigrant/Muslim/Jew/whoever]!!  HE's your problem.  HE's the one taking what is rightfully yours!"

And the middle class bought it -- enough of them to put Donald Trump in the White House.

Yesterday I spoke with a friend who I haven't talked with since November.  One of the reasons for that is that every time I talk with her, she insists on rehashing the entire sad story of the 2016 election, and what "we" have to do now -- as if I'm arguing with her.  The amount of energy she expends on what was absolutely a travesty is toxic -- and wasteful.  After I finally was able to get a word in edgewise, I asked her "What is this doing for you?  What is this doing for anyone?  What is this doing for anything?"  Eventually I got her to ask the question, "So what do we do?  How do we fix this?"

It's so much easier to stay stuck in 2016, to rehash the injustices done to Hillary Clinton -- a candidate who, if her husband was the most charismatic politician of the tech era, was probably the least charismatic, and certainly the most tone-deaf one -- than be a cynic like me and face the inexorable fact:  That if we were ever "America the Great", we certainly aren't anymore.  The myth has been held together with spit and glue ever since Ronald Reagan's first act in office was to fire all the air traffic controllers.  The public has been bought with $300 "tax rebates" while billionaires got millions in permanent tax cuts; and poisoned by right-leaning corporate media.

And now here we are, in what George Packer accurately called in The Atlantic this week, a failed state:

The crisis demanded a response that was swift, rational, and collective. The United States reacted instead like Pakistan or Belarus—like a country with shoddy infrastructure and a dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering. The administration squandered two irretrievable months to prepare. From the president came willful blindness, scapegoating, boasts, and lies. From his mouthpieces, conspiracy theories and miracle cures. A few senators and corporate executives acted quickly—not to prevent the coming disaster, but to profit from it. When a government doctor tried to warn the public of the danger, the White House took the mic and politicized the message.
Every morning in the endless month of March, Americans woke up to find themselves citizens of a failed state. With no national plan—no coherent instructions at all—families, schools, and offices were left to decide on their own whether to shut down and take shelter. When test kits, masks, gowns, and ventilators were found to be in desperately short supply, governors pleaded for them from the White House, which stalled, then called on private enterprise, which couldn’t deliver. States and cities were forced into bidding wars that left them prey to price gouging and corporate profiteering. Civilians took out their sewing machines to try to keep ill-equipped hospital workers healthy and their patients alive. Russia, Taiwan, and the United Nations sent humanitarian aid to the world’s richest power—a beggar nation in utter chaos.
 When the Trumpublican Party passed massive tax cuts for corporation and billionaires in 2019 along with some smoke and mirrors designed to make the masses think they too were getting tax cuts, pundits and economists warned that these unnecessary tax cuts would give little room for stimulative spending in the event of a recession.  And here we are, but it is an election year so politicians of ALL stripes decided it was necessary to throw a pittance of hush money at the masses.  And right on cue, there was Steve Rattner, on the supposedly "liberal" MSNBC this morning, already talking about the "spending cuts" that will be necessary when this is over.

We all know what "spending cuts" means:  It means eliminating or gutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.  "But they can't do that.  They'd never be re-elected" you might say.  Oh, it won't happen this year, at least not before whatever passes for an "election" in November.  But you can bet your life that the minute that election is over (and you may rest assured that the GOP WILL prevail, by hook or by crook, most likely the latter), the knives will be out.

Perhaps this is why SARS-CoV-19 has been allowed to run rampant -- to cull the herd enough that there will be little opposition to finally fulfilling the GOP dream.

(Side note:  I have not even addressed the influence of Russia and Vladimir Putin's string pulling on the current occupant of the White House.  Some things are best left to the professionals.  For that, I refer you to Greg Olear, who knows of what he speaks.)

Thursday, April 2, 2020

The short memory of an inattentive American public

Frida Ghitis, in The Atlantic:

Give the president his due: Trump is a genius. He is a master manipulator, a political alchemist capable of transmuting calamitous errors into political gold. Even as he continues to lie and deceive, the president has seized control of the narrative, taking possession of the national microphone to saturate the public with his self-serving version of events.

And it’s working.

All the fact-checkers, scientists, journalists, doctors, nurses, mayors, and governors may be telling a different story. But Trump takes to the White House podium day after day, crafting a narrative, offering the same staccato sentences over and over—“We’ve done a great job”—taking credit for each positive development, conjuring nonexistent progress, blaming others for every failure, demanding that those around him sing his praises before the cameras, and extorting praise from governors in exchange for federal aid. He repeats this until the extent of his failures, however well documented, fades from the minds of a large segment of Americans, desperate to feel protected in the face of a mysterious and frightening threat.


This is what happens when Americans listen with only half an ear to what's on the 20-minutes of network news.

News junkies like me see his press conferences delivered in their entirety, in real time, followed by an analysis of every lie he tells.  But the network news programs that people may watch over dinner are simple stenographers.  When that's what they hear, that's what they believe.

I always cite the example of my friend whose kids were never allowed to play in their own backyard unless she was out there with them. Every morning, she would have "Good Morning America" on, and in those days of the aftermath of the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping, every morning they led with a story of a missing [white] child.  So she was convinced that in her suburban neighborhood of one-acre lots and 1970s bi-levels, on a dead-end street, where you never saw a soul outdoors, her kids were certain to be kidnapped if they played unattended, even for five minutes. Whatever gets "out there" first, is the truth.

Remember the Swift Boat Liars -- Jerome Corsi's guys who made ads in 2004 that painted John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, as a traitor?  They got "out there" first, and people who weren't news junkies believed it.  Some of that was because Kerry didn't fight back at all, assuming wrongly that "the American people are too smart to believe that".  But it was also because the Swift Boat Liars got "out there" first.

Trump is getting "out there" first.  Americans have short memories.  He comes out and cites numbers -- big numbers -- and people assume that he's on top of things.  They may know in their hearts what he is, but these are even scarier times than the 9/11/01 aftermath.  And they WANT to believe him. They NEED to believe him.  Because the truth, that the president is a man without a soul, without empathy, without curiosity, without knowledge or any desire to obtain it, a man hopelessly unfit for the office he holds, is just too terrifying to contemplate.

If this is somehow over by the November election, our short memories will kick in.  Trump will get out there on a campaign slogan of "Where Was Biden?" -- as if Biden were the president who dropped the ball and not  him.  And he will win.  Because Americans have shown themselves again and again to be unwilling to face uncomfortable truths.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

What will American society look like when this is over?

"I can't wait till life gets back to normal."

How many times have YOU heard or said that lately?  I know I have both.

I've been wondering of late what life is going to look like after this virus runs its course, after there's a vaccine and its re-emergence every year becomes like the flu.  In order to do that, we have to look at how life has changed and how we're adjusting.

Service businesses. I get my hair cut every five weeks.  I have a short haircut, which needs shaping regularly or it will look like a thinning mop.  The salon I go to is closed, I'm due for a haircut next Tuesday, and it's not going to happen.  And I have no idea when it will.  I'm trimming and tweezing my eyebrows myself and hoping I don't botch it.  I had a pedicure before the stay-at-home order, and won't have another one for a long time.  What little vanity I had has fallen by the wayside.  I think about people who regularly get their nails done, get their hair professionally colored, get facials and Botox and fillers and hair highlights and all the other things we do to pretty ourselves up and how we are all going to have to live with being somewhat unkempt.  There was a time when this "beauty industry" didn't exist.  Look at photos of your great-grandmother.  She didn't create a smoky eye and have lash extensions, and yet she managed to live a life, and even look pretty.  Will this teach us to relax about all this?  Then there are the petsitters and child care workers and handymen and the many other small service businesses that have been largely sidelined.  Will they still be there when we need them after this is over?

Corporate office parks.  People whose work takes place sitting at a computer are working from home these days.  I know from experience that especially large companies hate the idea of remote work.  The move towards "open concept office space" that was sold as "fostering collaboration" really does little of that, but is a great way for managers to do surveillance of employees to make sure they're busy. When your people are working at home, unless you are using keystroke loggers, there's a level of trust required that most companies historically have not had.  The assumption is that people will goof off.  But what if they aren't goofing off?  What if they're working more effectively, taking less sick time, perhaps even giving you the time they used to spend in traffic?  When Zoom allows you to have face-to-face meetings online, do you really need to sit in the same room with a pot of coffee and a tray of pastry?  Suppose companies DO decide that remote work is viable during all this.  What happens to all those corporate office parks with their on-site gyms and dry cleaners and cafeterias and huge lawns to maintain?  Do we need them?  Can a smaller facility for OCCASIONAL face-to-face meetings suffice?  Is there a better use we can put that land to, like, perhaps, replacing some of the farmland and forests that we've been clear-cutting for stick-built firetrap apartment buildings?

Restaurants.  Oh, the poor restaurants. It's estimated that up to 75% of this country's restaurants may never reopen.  We've been restaurant-crazy ever since we became foodies with the advent of the Food Network in 1993.  Today, mayonnaise with stuff mixed in is an aioli, everyone knows what a chiffonade is, and thanks to YouTube, everyone is a chef.  Here in Durham, NC, the foodie capital of the south, our downtown renaissance has been largely fueled by a thriving and dynamic restaurant scene and local celebrity chef culture, to the point that saying you have no idea who Ashley Christensen is, is met with the kind of horrified reaction one would get by saying one has spent one's entire previous life in northern New Jersey.  Many restaurants are doing what they can to switch over, at least temporarily, to a takeout-and-delivery model, but not every restaurant can do that, and even so, many people are leery of food of unknown origin and treatment.  It's one thing to simply block out the thought of a line cook who may not have washed his hands, but quite another when a deadly virus is at the front of everyone's mind.

The first casualty has been the Chinese restaurants and takeout joints.  If we are adept at nothing else, Americans are great at ethnic scapegoating, and the family-owned Chinese restaurants that neighborhoods all over the country rely on to deliver tasty, inexpensive Americanized versions of Chinese food in copious portions, were the first to suffer the consequences of American hysteria over a virus that originated in China.  Ordering a quart of wonton soup and a plate of mei fun has never seemed so revolutionary.

With restaurant dining now being just another manifestation of eating at home, many people are not bothering.  Will we go back when this is over?  Probably -- assuming there are restaurants to go to. Restaurants, like hair salons and other mom 'n' pop service businesses, operate close to the edge at all times, and most cannot absorb being out of business for an extended time.   Even good cooks are going to be tired of their own cooking in another few months, but will there be alternatives other than mediocre chain restaurants?

Low-wage workers.  Health care workers are on the front lines of this pandemic, but there is a group of people who are very quietly going about their business, making sure that we have what we need.  They are the people for whom the GOP has nothing but contempt, and the Democrats have long forgotten, enthralled as they have been with technocrats and big donors.  It's the low-wage workers -- the supermarket cashiers and stock clerks and night crews.  It's the restaurant cooks and packagers, the food delivery drivers and Amazon warehouse workers.  These folks are going to work, exchanging money with and handing receipts to people whose COVID-19 status is unknown.  They are keeping us stay-at-homes supplied with what we need (except toilet paper, there's still a shortage as I write this), and they're doing it in most cases for minimum wage or little more.  Last week I was at an Aldi, watching a woman not much taller than I am, putting bottles of ketchup on a shelf.  I said to her, "Thank you for your service."  Now military families may be outraged at that, but with military service, and certainly with health-care work, there is a certain amount of assumed risk.  Supermarket workers aren't usually required as part of their jobs to be exposed to deadly viruses on a daily basis.

These people, not corporate executives (especially the ones Trump is allowing to do commercials at his daily pressers), are clearly the ones keeping what little of the economy remains functional going.  And yet, the GOP is worried that some laid-off low-wage workers might get a few bucks more on unemployment for a few months than their wages.

When this is over, I hope we remember what they are trying to do every single day to keep us stocked with groceries, medications, and paper goods.  And that we fight for better wages for them.

Great Big Stuff.  I linked here to the eponymous song from "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels"  deliberately, which you'll understand about 1:25 into the video.  But for the rest of us, what will our housebound ways mean for the consumer society?  We're not driving, so we don't really need to buy a new car right now.  Designer clothes?  Why, when we're all at home.  And you know what?  Being comfortable and walking around the house barefoot is a lot nicer than teetering around in stiletto heels.  Our dishes are perfectly functional, we're watching movies on TV without 20 bucks worth of soda and popcorn, and we're somehow managing to thrive even with the malls closed.  The only Great Big Stuff anyone seems to want these days is a 30-pack of toilet paper from Costco.  Will we go back to our consumerist ways when this is over?  Or will we decide that we LIKE having fewer cars on the roads, less traffic, lower credit card payments every month because we are charging less consumption.

Medical Conspiracy Theories.  So where are the anti-vaxxers now?  Where are the snake oil salesmen -- the Dr. Axes and the herbalists and the people claiming that something you pull out of the soil in its native form is by definition always better than anything that actual scientists come up with.  These people have been pretty silent these days, while everyone is listening to the great Anthony Fauci explain in language even an idiot can understand what clinical trials are, how a Phase I trial is primarily about safety with efficacy only as a secondary endpoint and why often later trial phases are necessary.  He's educating people about how fast tracking works, how vaccines and treatments will work, and why taking chloroquine in fish tank cleaner is not the same as taking it in a tolerated-dose-tested tablet.

And then there are the health care workers in the trenches -- the doctors and nurses and aides and PAs and NPs and everyone out there who is reporting to work in what is essentially a war zone, abandoned by an incompetent and narcissistic president who STILL refuses to acknowledge what his dithering has done.  These are the people that too many Americans have lumped in with what they call the Great Medical Establishment Conspiracy -- money-grubbing crooks who do nothing but steal money from people, unlike the Great and Virtuous Herbalists and other quacks who also sell stuff online, but for some reason they have of late had more credibility than actual scientists -- on both the right AND the left.  Health care workers do miracles every day -- and now they are likely to be asked to take on the responsibility of determining whose life is saving and whose is not -- because there are not going to be enough ventilators and respirators to go around, thanks to Trump and his "pro-life" GOP.

I hope that we will be kind to all these people and stop the nonsense when this is over.  Yes, let's hold price-gouging pharma companies' feet to the fire.  But let's stop this assumption that science and medicine know nothing.

For more on the post-COVID-19 medical landscape, listen to Dr. Zubin Damania:

Universal health care.  So....how's that "we can't afford universal health care, let's just tinker around the edges of the ACA" working for us?  Seriously.  How's that employer-based health insurance working for people at a time when unemployment claims number in the millions?  COBRA?  Really?  MY COBRA was almost $700/month.  When too many Americans wouldn't be able to scrape together $400 for an emergency, how do they pay that?  Those with families can have COBRA premiums of $1500-$2500/month.  How are they supposed to pay that?  And those without income for a sizable part of the year and who have a subsidized ACA plan may find themselves having to pay back that subsidy at the end of the year BECAUSE of their lack of income.

You can hate Bernie Sanders all you want to for staying in the race long after it's been established that the clueless and out-of-touch Joe Biden will be the one to run against Trump in November.  But if he stays in to keep the Democrats' feet to the fire on universal health care in the face of this pandemic, he'll be doing a public service.  Because the insurance model of health care delivery falls apart in the face of a pandemic like this.

And finally.....

Big Government and the I Got Mine And Fuck You society.  As I write this, Florida's extreme right-wing, Trumpazoid governor, Ron DeSantis is refusing to issue a stay-at-home order until Trump's task force tells him what to do.  Other governors are complaining that they are having to compete with other states for personal protective equipment for their states' health care workers -- like medieval street rabble scrambling for the few potatoes falling off the royal cart.  Viruses don't care about states' rights, or what the Heritage Foundation thinks about big federal government.  There really ARE things that are a national problem. When unemployment is going to be at 30% nationwide, relocating for a job is not even an option.  Every part of our vulture capitalist financial system is up for questioning now and if ANYTHING good comes out of this, it's going to be a long-belated end to the trickle-down idea of capitalism that Ronald Reagan foisted on us in the 1980s, and which the GOP has been using to screw over working people ever since.  It's going to be an end to the idea of "I don't want to pay for your health care."  Because guess what?  We are ALL going to be paying for each other's health care with this, one way or another.

We are NOT rugged individuals carving out the way west with our bare hands.  We are NOT Pa Wilder, building the Little House in the Big Woods and the Little House on the Prairie.   Yes, we are individuals, but we are also living in and part of a larger community.  Right now we are taking care of each other by staying away from as many people as possible so we don't infect them.  We go grocery shopping for our 85-year-old neighbor and our immunosuppressed friend.  We create Zoom meetings to keep in touch while we're at home.  We call people to make sure they're OK.  We take care of each other.

And when this is over, let's continue to do that.  Because it has become clear that I Got Mine And Fuck You is not a sustainable or civilized model to live in.