Thursday, October 29

Depression?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The US economy could be in for a bumpy ride. The world has endured the health consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic since late 2019, but the economic consequences may have only just begun. 

The pandemic quickly slowed GDP growth in the United States and the government hurried with $3 trillion in stimulus spending. That spending, combined with opening economies - premature in many cases - caused GDP growth to spike. 

Yet the pandemic is not over, and so valuable time and stimulus funds have been wasted. Sizable numbers of jurisdictions and citizens continue to resist simple measures to control the spread, including mask or social-distancing mandates. 

So the numbers of cases continue to climb in the United States, rivaling the records set only a few months ago. Researchers project the number of deaths from Covid-19 by Feb 1 could range from  300,000 with a universal mask mandate and as many as 500,000 with restrictions eased.  

 

The US economy is built on unsustainable debt, and recovery requires a multi-prong approach - with targeted economic stimulus along with social measures that include self-discipline, masks, social distancing and crowd avoidance. "Social norms and the behavior of peers such as friends, family members, and colleagues affect behaviors," explains a group of researchers for Applied Health Economics and Health Policy. "Herding behavior occurs when people consider a certain behavior to be good or bad based on the behavior of other people and mimic their observed behaviors."

Leadership is lacking. Of course, a vaccine will offer tremendous help, but as chaos and mixed messages continue, some behaviors will become entrenched among a sizable number of consumers as wariness and mistrust intensifies. Many consumers will save more and be less inclined to travel, dine out, join crowds in museums or concerts. Many will make do with older clothes, cars and homes. The Great Depression began in 1929 and it was not until 1933 that unemployment spiked to 24 percent. 

Source: 2019-2020 data, Trading Economics; 1929-1935 data, The Balance. This post was updated on October 30. 

Wednesday, October 21

Separation nightmare

 


 

 

 

 

 

The United States has yet to reunite 545 children with their parents, after the federal government separated them from migrant parents in 2017 and 2018, notes a court filing by the American Civil Liberties Union.

About 60 of those children were under the age of five, reports the New York Times. The ACLU also reports more than 350 children cannot be located.

In June 2018, the government reported that 2,700 children had been removed from parents after crossing into the United States. In January 2019, the Office of the Inspector General of the US Health and Human Services Department reported more children had been separated in 2017 from parents crossing the border, at both in unauthorized areas and legal ports of entry.  In June 2019, the government admitted that more than 1500 additional children had been separated.

The government did not keep records on  the families, including names and contact details, that would have allowed for reunification.  “After deporting hundreds of separated parents, the United States government declared them 'ineligible' for reunification, because they were no longer in the U.S.,” reports Justice in Motion.

Adding to the challenges, besides the pandemic, is the Trump administration's secrecy around the policy - discovered by lawyers and journalists months into its use - and rapid deportation for many parents 

As many as two-thirds of the parents may have since been deported, report Julia Ainsley and Jacob Soboroff for NBC News. Attorneys and investigators with private groups like the ACLU and Justice in Motion conduct searches to  locate parents and children, determining their conditions and “ensuring that those parents had a voice in their children’s futures.”

Many parents had headed to the United States, fleeing violence, persecution and poverty in their home countries. As a result, some of those who already have been deported are torn about their children returning to places that offer an uncertain, even treacherous future. By no means is that a defense for officials who oversaw and implemented the cruel policies.

“The family separation crisis is the direct result of the Trump administration policy choices, driven by the view that immigrants and asylum seekers deserve nothing but cruelty and punishment,” notes the ACLU.

The United States must compensate children and families for the anguish – and continue working on reunification, ensuring accuracy with DNA testing while providing safe conditions and social support, and pursuing accountability while punishing any officials or staff for going along with such separations. Citizenship is in order for children not reunited in a timely way.

The goal of such poorly conceived policies was to deter undocumented immigration. The reduction in numbers was minimal. The costs for the families and US global standing are immense. 



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source: Data for graph, US Customs and Border Protection; photo, Politico and ACLU.

Tuesday, October 13

Senior voters

 


 

 

 

 

 

Three policies have eroded support for Donald Trump among senior citizens:
 

Downplaying the risks of Covid-19

Risk for contracting Covid-19 increases with age and for those with underlying health conditions that are common among senior citizens, reports the Centers for Disease Control.  About 80 percent of all Covid-19 deaths in the United States have been among adults 65 years and older.

Yet Trump downplayed the pandemic. “I wanted to always play it down," the president said in a March interview with journalist Bob Woodward. "I still like playing it down, because I don't want to create a panic."

By September, while campaigning in Ohio, Trump noted: "It affects elderly people, elderly people with heart problems, if they have other problems, that's what it really affects, that's it. In some states thousands of people - nobody young - below the age of 18, like nobody -  they have a strong immune system - who knows?... Take your hat off to the young because they have a hell of an immune system. It affects virtually nobody.”

Suspending the payroll tax that supports Social Security payments

The payroll tax funds Social Security and Medicare, by deducting 6.2 percent from employee wages and likewise taxing employers 6.2 percent for a total of 12.4 percent.

In August, Trump signed an executive order deferring that tax for workers earning less than $4,000 biweekly from September through December – part of a multi-pronged effort to stimulate the economy stalled by the pandemic. The order targets more than 80 percent of the US workforce. The plan would be to collect that same tax in 2021 but the Trump dangled the possibility that those payments will never reach Social Security coffers: "If victorious on November 3rd, I plan to forgive these taxes and make permanent cuts to the payroll tax.”

Many major employers have declined to participate and continue to collect and pay the tax to the Internal Revenue Service. 

Support for the Social Security program runs strong among senior citizens and many understand that the payroll tax is linked to Social Security. “About 65 million Americans receive Social Security benefits. Among elderly Social Security beneficiaries, 50% of married couples and 70% of unmarried persons receive 50% or more of their income from Social Security,” reports the Social Security Administration.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is scrambling to send out a letter to 39 million Medicare beneficiaries, promising a $200 card for purchasing drugs. “The $200 cards — which would resemble credit cards, would need to be used at pharmacies and could be branded with a reference to Trump himself — would be paid for by tapping Medicare's trust fund,” reports Politico.

The card may not subdue concerns with the average Social Security monthly benefit for retired workers at $1514.
 


 

 

 

 

Calling for negative interest rates

The president has repeatedly called for negative rates, that is, creating an easy-money policy with banks essentially paying borrowers to take out loans.

The average rate is less than 1 percent, reports the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

“Setting interest rates below zero would in theory boost consumer spending and business investment by making it easy to get a loan,” reports Business Insider, yet the policy does not necessarily boost consumer spending and can restrict bank profitability and central bank agility for tackling future economic crises.

“The prospect of lower interest rates may put retirees in a bind: Contend with less growth on their ‘safe money’ or consider taking more equity risk,” reports CNBC.

The president may have irritated the wrong group of people. Exit polls in 2015 showed Trump won with 52 percent support from voters aged 65 and older. A CNN poll suggests that this year Trump will be lucky to crack that group by 40 percent. 

Source for graphs: Data on Covid-19 hospitalizations and deaths among senior citizens, CDC; voter turnout, US Census Bureau.

Monday, October 12

Fixation error

Donald Trump, now diagnosed with Covid-19, claims to have done a great job on protecting Americans from the pandemic and touts his partial ban on travel from China imposed in January of this year.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, during the first 2020 presidential candidate debate, blasted Trump for letting the Covid-19 pandemic get out of hand, resulting in more than 7.5 million cases and more than 200,000 dead. Trump retorted: “And if you were here, it wouldn’t be 200, it would be 2 million people because you were very late on the draw. You didn’t want me to ban China, which was heavily infected. You didn’t want me to ban Europe.”

Vice President Mike Pence repeated the claim during the vice-presidential candidate debate: Trump “suspended all travel from China, the second-largest economy in the world. Joe Biden opposed that decision, he said it was xenophobic and hysterical.”

 The evidence does not support such claims, and Trump’s approach to the pandemic is flawed due to “fixation error,” or the  tendency, as identified by the aviation and medical industries, to approach problem-solving by seeking and blaming a “single, ‘root’ cause.”  As one medical journal puts it, “Fixation errors occur when the practitioner concentrates solely upon a single aspect of a case to the detriment of other more relevant aspects.”

Let’s take a closer at the US ban on travel from China and the timing. The United States diagnosed its first Covid-19 case on January 20. 

Days later, by January 23, China cut off Wuhan, a city of 11 million people and the epicenter of the virus, from the rest of the country. 

The Trump administration imposed its restrictions for travelers from China on January 31, when the country then reported about 10,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases, with 114 more scattered in 22 other countries. 

Section 1 of Trump's executive order limited US entry of all aliens who were physically present within China, excluding Hong Kong and Macau, during the previous 14 days. Section 2 offered a long list of exceptions – US citizens and lawful residents and their family members, air and sea crew members, foreign government officials or “any alien whose entry would not pose a significant risk of introducing, transmitting, or spreading the virus, as determined by the CDC Director, or his designee.” 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dozens of countries banned travelers from China – including the United States, India and Japan – yet that measure alone did not guarantee success in containing the virus. The United States and India now rank first and second as countries with the most Covid-19 cases, more than 7 million cases and 6 million, respectively. 

On the other hand, Japan, ranking 45th, quickly contained the virus with masks and social distancing and has recorded 83,000 cases. Japan issued a targeted travel ban for foreign travelers from regions in China with high rates about six weeks later.  Japan plans to gradually lift overseas travel alerts starting this month, starting with nations with low infection rates, and negotiates with China on business travel. 

Then, there are Cambodia and Taiwan, ranking 186th and 173rd.  Cambodia initially declined to ban travelers from China, and instead targeted those from the United States and four European nations along with Iran while continuing to welcome Chinese visitors. Taiwan instituted a ban on foreign travel six weeks after the US ban.

More than nine months into the pandemic, China reports a total of 85,000 cases.  

Containing the virus requires more than travel bans. Governments that successfully contained the spread of Covid-19 - and since reopened their economies – relied on a multi-prong approach that includes honest, consistent messaging based on latest health research combined with physical distancing, crowd limits, regular testing  and masks in public places. 

Clearly, the travel ban on China was not enough – as the United States represents about 4 percent of the world’s population and more than 20 percent of Covid-19 cases. China represents about 20 percent of the world's population and less than 1 percent of  cases. 

"A systems approach to safety does not mean staff can simply deny responsibility and 'blame the system,'" argues Gaylene Heard. Instead, caregivers must take a big-picture approach in handling complex medical problems. 

Containing the virus requires more than travel bans. Governments that successfully contained the spread of Covid-19 - and since reopened their economies – relied on a multi-prong approach that includes honest, consistent messaging based on latest health research combined with physical distancing, crowd limits, regular testing  and masks in public places. 

Thursday, October 8

Domestic terrorism

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s get this straight – since March, a majority of Michiganders have supported Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s efforts to control the Covid-19 pandemic including mandatory masks and a stay-at-home order. She is viewed favorably by 51 percent of likely voters, suggests one recent survey, and in April, another poll suggested that 57 percent of state residents approved of her handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Even so, the federal government has charged six people with plotting to abduct or kill Whitmer. Seven others were charged with plotting to overturn the government in Lansing. “In early 2020, the FBI became aware through social media that a group of individuals were discussing the violent overthrow of certain government and law-enforcement components,” reports an affidavit unsealed today. “The group decided they needed to increase their numbers and encouraged each other to talk to their neighbors and spread their message.” As a result, informants became involved. A confidential informant became involved and secretly recorded sessions.

Timeline: 

Mar 23: Governor Whitmer issues stay-at home order

April 17: President Donald Trump sends out tweet "Liberate Michigan." 

May 5 and 14: Armed protests at state capitol in Lansing.

June 20, Grand Rapids, MI: Small group discuss plans for assaulting Michigan State Capitol, counter law enforcement, use “Molotov cocktails to destroy police vehicles.

June 25, Munith, MI: Tactical training exercise.

July 10-12, Cambria, WI: Combat drills.

July 18, Ohio: Meeting on attacking Michigan State Police facility and shooting governor’s vacation home.

July 27, Grand Rapids: Discuss getting a realtor to help them find the exact location of the governor’s vacation home.

July 28 telephone call: Narrows down target to vacation home.

Aug 9, Munith: Tactical training and group call that discussed assessing the governor’s primary home, kidnapping her. One said, "Have one person go to her house. Knock on the door and when she answers it just cap her….”

Aug 18, group call: Discuss surveillance of vacation home and escape from scene by boat on lake.

Aug 23, Lake Orion, MI: Meeting that discussed concern about infiltration by law enforcement and attendees brought personal documents.

Aug 29: Conducted surveillance of the vacation home (location will not be identified here) and checked on locations of nearest police.

Sept 12-13, Luther, MI: Meeting and practice to detonate IED and plan another nighttime surveillance of the vacation home; three cars drive by the home and record their observations; they inspect nearby bridge to place IED. During that drive, one of the accused notes: “I can see several states takin’ their f------ tyrants.” On return ride, they discuss killing the governor and destroying the vacation home. They plan a final practice session in late October. 

Sept 14, encrypted chat: The group decides the last week in October is too late for a final training exercise in order to complete the abduction before the November election.

Sept 17, encrypted chat: Discuss armed protest at state capitol in Lansing but caution is urged.

Oct 2, encrypted chat: One member of the group purchases a taser and the group plans to meet Oct 7 to pay for explosives and tactical gear.


The FBI and Michigan investigation and arrests came soon after US Senator Mike Lee of Utah sends out a tweet: “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”

Rank democracy threatens Republican power. Republicans are struggling with their policy ideas and control with minority rule. They control the Senate, gaining seats in 2018, even though Democrats led Republicans by more than 12 million votes in Senate races that year. In 2016, Donald Trump won the presidency even though Hillary Clinton won 3 million more votes. In turn, Senate Republicans’ refusal to review or vote on former President Barack Obama’s judicial nominations allowed Donald Trump to “pack the courts.”

Democrats must vote and produce landslide results to counter voter suppression efforts, gerrymandering, misinformation and outright cheating.  


Tuesday, October 6

Risk


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The advice from public health experts on Covid-19 is to wear mask and practice social distancing, avoiding crowds. 

Those who deliberately ignore these guidelines are not taking on risk solely for themselves. Instead, their actions also place everyone around them at risk without their choice. 

By now, Americans understand that many Republicans – those who take their lead from President Donald Trump and mock masks and insist on attending events and going about business as usual – are placing anyone around them at risk of contracting the virus. The United States has more than 7 million cases, more than any other country in the world, and reports more than 200,000 deaths.

Too many current leaders neglect their responsibility to protect public health. "Public health promotes and protects the health of people and the communities where they live, learn, work and play," reports the American Public Health Association. "While a doctor treats people who are sick, those of us working in public health try to prevent people from getting sick or injured in the first place. We also promote wellness by encouraging healthy behaviors."

The president has Covid-19, and his medical team resists criticizing his reticence to wear a mask or maintain social distancing. They did not reject a car ride to see supporters that could bring risk to his Secret Service agents. They do not lead on contact tracing for the White House staff exposed to the president or the other multiple staff exposed to the virus. Likewise, they refuse to disclose the president’s test schedule or results. 

Sean Conley, the US president’s physician who famously denied that the president was not “now” on oxygen immediately triggered curiosity from the media and public at large. Had he been at oxygen at all since testing positive for Covid-19?

“I was trying to reflect the upbeat attitude that the team, the president, the course of this illness has had. I didn’t want to give any information that might steer the course of illness another direction. And in doing so, it came off as we were trying to hide something – which wasn’t necessarily true.” The comment was an effort to extend blame, suggesting the entire team was might be responsible for the deceptive comments he alone made. 

Conley backtracked the following day, after the medical team reported the president was receiving the steroid dexamethasone, reported to help people with severe cases of Covid-19.  

Conley's denials and upbeat assessments harm not only the president but anyone near him. Conley and the rest of the White House report that the president has since been resting and symptom free, otherwise sharing few details, including the dates and results of his Covid-19 tests.

The president’s doctors should strive to protect public health, stressing guidelines from the World Health Organization that follow and do a public service by pointing out the president’s willful violations.

Those guidelines:
•    Regularly and thoroughly clean hands with alcohol-based rub or soap and water.
•    Practice social distancing by maintaining at least 3 feet of space between yourself and others.
•    Avoid crowded places.
•    Wear a fabric mask when physical distancing cannot be maintained.
•    Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth.
•    Follow good respiratory hygiene, covering mouth and nose with bent elbow or tissue when coughing or sneezing. Then dispose of used tissues and wash hands.
•    Stay home and self-isolate with symptoms such as cough, headache and mild fever, until you recover.
•    Seek medical attention for a fever, cough and difficulty breathing
•    Keep up to date on the latest information from trusted health authorities.

Wednesday, September 30

Fast talker


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first question in the first 2020 presidential debate focused on Donald Trump’s effort to place a third justice on the US Supreme Court – and the topic quickly turned to health care and Republican efforts to end the Affordable Care Act. 

The Affordable Care Act, aiming to increase preventive care and curb the rising costs of health care, imposed regulations on the industry. The Trump administration and a group of states have asked the US Supreme Court to strike down the Affordable Care with arguments scheduled for November 10, a week after the election. Trump hopes to have his nominee on the court by then.  “The case centers on Republicans’ move to use the 2017 tax overhaul to nix the law’s penalty for most Americans who don’t get health coverage,” reports Todd Ruger for Roll Call. “The Trump administration and the Republican-led states argue that move made the mandate to buy insurance unconstitutional.”

Ruger raises the possibility that the court will resist wiping out the entire law even if it finds that a small sliver is unconstitutional. Trump and the Republicans who oppose the law suggest the mandate is central to the Affordable Care Act – and that the entire law should be scrapped. 

As was emphasized during an early exchange in the first presidential debate, the administration has no substitute health plan waiting in the wings.

Moderator Chris Wallace: You have promised to repeal and replace Obamacare, but you have never in these four years come up with a comprehensive plan to replace Obamacare…
President Trump: Listen, listen … of course, we have…  I got rid of the individual mandate… excuse me, we got rid of the individual mandate, which was a big chunk of Obamacare…
Wallace: That is not a comprehensive plan.
Trump: That is absolutely a big thing…that was the worst part of Obamacare.
Wallace: I didn’t ask, sir…
Trump: Chris, that was the worst part of Obamacare.
Wallace: Let me ask my question.
Trump: Well, I’ll ask Joe. The individual mandate was the most unpopular aspect of Obamacare.
Wallace: Mr. President...
Trump: I got rid of it and we will protect people with per-existing conditions...
Wallace: Mr .President, I’m the moderator of this debate and I would like you to let me ask my question and then you can answer.
Trump: Go ahead.


That exchange of about 150 words lasted 35 seconds, about twice the pace of that for the average US speaker. The speed, tone and many interruptions reflect why the debate was so painful to follow.

Studies suggest that people judge individual intelligence based on one's voice and how fast one speaks - though "Not too fast, of course, or they won’t understand a word you’re saying," reports Ian Lee for Lifehack. "Nevertheless, faster speakers are perceived to be more confident..."  

Ending the Affordable Care Act without a suitable replacement during the Covid-19 pandemic would be unconscionable. The individual mandate – while ensuring that society could pay for affordable care and efforts to ensure all – was not the biggest or most notable aspect of the Affordable Care Act. A decision to discard the entire law due to the mandate would eliminate the many benefits associated with the Affordable Care Act over the past decade. 


 Those benefits apply to far more than the than the 23 million Americans who would otherwise be uninsured and would also hurt Americans who have employee-sponsored insurance, including: 

-    Allowing parents to keep adult children on family health plans until age 26.
-    Reducing health care costs for small businesses with a care tax credit
-    Expanding mental health treatment
-    Eliminating annual and lifetime coverage limits
-    Preventing denial of coverage due to pre-existing conditions
-    Limiting  administrative costs and profits of insurance companies to no more than 20 percent for plans sold to small employers and 15 percent for plans arranged by large employers. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Health care is a business in the United States and represents about 18 percent of the economy. Companies make money on patients, and the careers of thousands of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, insurers and many more workers in the health care field depend on the system, too.

All is not lost and analysts expect the US Supreme Court – even with an additional conservative justice to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg – to support the law.  “Constitutional litigation is not a game of gotcha against Congress, where litigants can ride a discrete constitutional flaw in a statute to take down the whole, otherwise constitutional statute,” wrote Justice Brett Kavanaugh in the majority opinion on another aspect of the case in 2015.

Source: Affordable Care Act benefits, The Balance.