Monday, November 2

Vote!

The election is one day away and soon the signs dotting the landscape will vanish. Here, a small sample from East Lansing...














Friday, October 30

Battle ground

Some jurisdictions have managed to contain the damage from the Covid-19 pandemic even as the United States leads the world in cases followed by India, Brazil and Russia.

"Taiwan has reached a record 200 days without any domestically transmitted cases of Covid-19, underlining its success in keeping the virus under control as cases rise across much of the world," reports the Guardian. Taiwan has strong ties to China and Wuhan, where the pandemic began, and yet authorities contained the spread with quarantines, masks, testing and contact tracing - and kept the numbers down. Taiwan did have experience with SARS in 2003 and continues to record new cases among arriving travelers.

If Taiwan were a US state, its population pof 24 million would rank as third largest, between Texas at 29 million and Florida at 21 million.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The inept handling of the Covid-19 pandemic at the US federal level is a concern for senior citizens, businesses, minorities, women and anyone with common sense. Failure to contain the disease's spread with simple measures - wearing masks and practicing social distancing along with testing and contact tracing - is posing lingering, dire economic consequences.  

The Trump administration has given up trying to control the spread. Mark Meadows, chief of staff, noted to a journalist: "We are not going to control the pandemic. We are going to control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigation areas..." 

But that is a costly, wasteful and deadly approach. As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. 

Donald Trump mocks doctors, the media and his rival for focusing on the issue. “That's all I hear. Turn on television, ‘COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID'....By the way, on Nov. 4 you won't hear about it anymore.’’

Joe Biden continues to focus on the pandemic: "We discussed importance of wearing masks, protecting yourself, protecting your neighbor and to save around 100,000 lives in the months ahead. This is not political. It's patriotic. Wearing a mask. Wear one, period."

Battleground states have been hit hard and on Nov 3 voters will weigh in on whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden is best suited for leading the country on the Covid-19 response and other pressing matters, including climate change and widening inequality.


Source: Worldometers; checklist, Freepik.

Child care

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 During the final 2020 presidential debate, Joe Biden blasted Donald Trump for family-separation policies and government’s inability to reunite hundreds of children with their parents after a failure to keep records and contact details. Trump responded that the facilities were clean: “Let me say this. They worked it out, we brought reporters and everything. They are so well taken care of. They're in facilities that were so clean…”

The US government spends hundreds of millions of dollars on caring for children who should not have been separated from family members. “In fiscal year 2019, the latest year for which complete data are available, ORR awarded grants totaling over $1.8 billion to organizations providing shelter and other services to these children,” reports the US Government Accountability Office. “The numbers of these referrals have fluctuated over time, but increased substantially from almost 14,000 in fiscal year 2012 to more than 69,000 in fiscal year 2019.”

The numbers decreased sharply with media reports about the cruel policies. As of June 2020, there were 1,123 children in the care of the Office of Refugee Settlement. The GAO conducted audits since May 2019 and as of July this year, the Office of Refugee Settlement operated more than 170 facilities in 22 states. 

Current grant announcements specify that facilities must be state licensed or eligible to receive a license with 75 days of the grant award. A review suggested that most did not include such licenses in their applications, and some facilities struggled to meet the 75-day deadline. The review also found in March 2018 that one grantee had placed a child in a home with foster parents under investigation for sexual abuse of another unaccompanied child. “In fiscal years 2018 and 2019, ORR awarded grants to approximately 14 facilities that were unable to serve children for 12 or more months because they remained unlicensed. In addition, ORR did not provide any documentation that staff conducted a review of past performance for the nearly 70 percent of applicants that previously held ORR grants. Without addressing these issues, ORR risks awarding grants to organizations that cannot obtain a state license or that have a history of poor performance.”

Of 23 licensing agencies that provide licensing, 14 found deficiencies in at least one of the facilities in their state during fiscal years 2018 or 2019 – some of which were significant. Problems included administrative issues to threats to children’s health and safety.

Federal standards for reporting and inspections are lacking. “HHS monitors these facilities to ensure they're keeping children safe, among other things. But it hasn't met its own targets for how frequently it visits facilities, and doesn't consistently share information with state agencies that license them,” reports GAO. “Our recommendations include that HHS develop plans to meet its monitoring goals and share information with state agencies.”

Awarding grants to facilities with a history of poor performance puts children at risk. Separating children from their parents without cause, such as criminal violations, is a waste of taxpayer money.

Meanwhile, apprehension on the US southern border are on the rise.  


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source: GAO and US Customs and Border Protection.

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.